Ed straggles over to his hotel a little after six, just to drape himself across the bed for a couple minutes in the hopes of fortifying himself before he forges back out for food. He hasn’t really gotten a chance to eat anything since he and Hohenheim had scones at eleven thirty or whenever it was—with blackcurrant jam and something called clotted cream, which sounds fucking disgusting but is actually pretty great. It didn’t exactly make for a heavy meal, though, so he’s ready to eat… anything. He’d chance the headboard if he felt like he could move. His shoulder’s taken up a deep, persistent throbbing pattern to make sure that he stays awake.
Hohenheim went back to Oxford after their perambulatory chat, which left Ed time to run to a meeting with a couple of faculty from half a dozen institutions. They liaised at the British Library and just sort of hung around talking shit—and a bit of science—which made it by far the most enjoyable engagement Ed’s had on this trip so far. Exhausting as hell, though.
His phone’s vibrating.
He rolls over onto his back and drags it out of his pocket. He’s been trying not to bother Roy, who’s probably knee-deep in case files and wild-eyed with stress; or Al, who’s probably going to be monitoring Winry’s blood pressure every thirty seconds until she threatens to rename the cat something seriously profane. But maybe one of them is bothering him. Maybe Winry already needs cat name suggestions. Maybe—
Ed’s heart starts to bang—so hard his whole chest shudders.
Maybe it’s nothing. That’s what Roy always tells him to say to himself—maybe it’s nothing at all. The world isn’t always a terrible place, or it wouldn’t have Al in it; sometimes surprises aren’t bad—not as bad as what he’s thinking, anyway. Maybe Roy’s phone broke. Maybe he lost his voice. Maybe he’s buried in a ‘Bachelor’ marathon, and Riza can’t get him to peel his ass off the couch, so she needs Ed to pretend he’ll withhold sex to scare the bastard out of his trance.
Ed swipes his thumb properly on the second try. “Hello?”
“Edward,” Riza says. “Don’t panic.”
“Too late,” he chokes out. It can’t be—if it was really bad—she wouldn’t be speaking calmly; he’d be able to hear that she’d been crying if Roy’s—if something— “What h—”
“Roy collapsed in court,” she says.
He listens to the slow drumbeat of his own pulse. He must be breathing. Right?
“I shouldn’t have said it that way,” she says. “He—fainted, in the middle of the jury selection. And clocked himself on the table on the way down and split his chin open. He then refused to leave and proceeded to finish his questions while holding a paper towel to his face, which I think impressed everyone, so it may honestly have improved our prospects for this case.”
Presumably the ceiling is not actually spinning, since this wasn’t advertised as a secret disco/acid-trip hotel. “He’s—I mean, he’s—okay? Where—”
“They stitched him up at the ER,” Riza says. “I’m sure he’ll mostly be lamenting the blight on his precious face.” She’s probably right. “He’s upstairs now pretending like he’s sleeping instead of trying to hear me, but I think I’m too far into the kitchen.”
Ed swallows, breathes, swallows again. “Is—they checked him out while he was there, right? Ran a couple tests? Do they know…?”
Riza sighs softly. “Everything seems normal. He’s trying to convince me he just forgot to eat, and it was too warm in the courtroom.” She’s silent for a second, which is a bad fucking sign. “I don’t think he has been eating properly, but it’s nothing to do with forgetfulness. I don’t suppose he’s sleeping much, either. It’s—the trial.”
Ed lays his hand over his eyes, which is better than letting the disco ceiling make him dizzy. “He said—it wasn’t that bad. Sort of a routine insurance thing. Why’s he…?”
This silence tells a long fucking story, but he doesn’t know the plot.
“What?” Ed asks.
“On second thought,” Riza says quietly, “I’m not surprised he didn’t mention it. He should have. I know why he didn’t, but he should have.”
Ed pinches the bridge of his nose to give himself something to focus on. His pulse is light, light, light and swift—fluttering in his throat, trilling up the back side of his sternum.
“Tell me,” he says. “Please.”
She wouldn’t leave him dangling from the edge of a fucking cliff like this—not if she feels strongly that Roy should have shared this with him, whatever the fuck it is.
But as the latest installment of the silence stretches out on the scratchy line, he starts to wonder if maybe this time, it’s just too m—
“Bradley’s going on trial,” she says, “for war crimes.”
Even just that fucking name casts a huge shadow.
“Roy’s been called as a witness,” Riza says.
Ed opens his mouth to ask the question, but the word doesn’t come.
“He was involved,” Riza says. “I don’t know how much.”
Something cold and bitter bubbles up Ed’s throat. “I need to talk to him.”
“I know,” Riza says. “Hold on.”
Ed doesn’t dare to look at the fucking ceiling; it’s probably whirling like a pinwheel. He keeps his hand over his eyes, like the weight of it is pinning him here—to the bed, to the world, to reality. Like maybe if he lies really fucking still, this will un-happen, and everything will be oka—
“He’s asleep,” Riza says at half-volume. “But I’m supposed to wake him up at intervals in case he has a concussion. I can probably have him on Skype in an hour.”
Ed doesn’t know how he’s supposed to last that long. “Sure. Sounds—good.” He swallows; it sticks. “I—thank you, by the way. For looking after him. For—all of it.”
“Of course,” she says.
“All right,” he says. “About an hour?”
“Okay.” He breathes—once, twice, three times. That’s something. “Thanks. Um—’bye. Take care, okay?”
“You, too,” she says.
He taps to end the call and drops the phone onto the bed beside him.
—thuds. Hard and quick; relentless, desperate.
He can’t even fucking tell at this point whether the tightening of his guts—everything’s seizing up, squeezing in, clenching like it’s trying to brace itself for something—has any hunger left in it at all. Logically he knows he should fucking eat something. He’s got an hour. He could… He’ll just—go outside. He’ll just lift himself up off of this bed and onto his feet, and he’ll go outside. If he sees something at one of the nearby places that doesn’t make him want to retch, then he’ll buy it. Simple.
He probably should have predicted that even the getting up part is way more complicated than he bargained for.
He slides to the edge of the mattress, puts his feet down, tries to test them with a portion of his weight, waits a second to see if the gooeyness in his knees is planning to solidify (it’s not), and then cautiously stands. Everything seems more or less stable—or, at least, he doesn’t fall flat on his fucking ass right out of the gate, so that’s something.
He takes a couple of deep breaths, curling and uncurling his hands. The throb of his shoulder seems sort of distant, but he knows that if he ignores it, it’ll get worse just to spite him. Probably it’s chug-some-Advil time. It’ll hit him faster if he takes it on an empty stomach, too. It’s not like he needs that liver anyway.
He fumbles his phone back into his pocket, then gingerly kneels down by his laptop bag to go rooting for painkillers. They’re exactly where Roy said they’d be—a dozen fucking packets; the man is a miracle.
Some kind of criminal?
Fuck. Ed’s vision actually swims for a second under the cresting fucking tidal wave of fear. Surely this doesn’t—surely it’s all just—
Not as bad as it sounds?
If it was either of those fucking things, Roy would have told him.
Ed keeps reaching for pieces of a universe he recognizes, and they keep just—splitting. Splitting, and crumbling, and slipping away.
He wants to talk to Al.
He needs to eat something.
What would he even say if he got Al on the line? He doesn’t know anything yet. He doesn’t know anything at all—except for the rushing background roar of the blood in his ears; the force of it making his fingers tremble. He doesn’t know anything except the voice echoing up to his head from the center of him.
You knew it. You knew it from the start. You knew “too good to be true” is a law in your life, not just some stupid platitude. You knew that someday, somehow, something was going to go horribly fucking wrong.
And it’s his own damn fault, isn’t it? How could he not have seen it? Roy must have known about this—for weeks, maybe more. How could Ed not have sensed or noticed or intuited a fucking thing?
Is he really paying that little fucking attention to the human being he proclaims to love?
Roy’s a good actor, obviously—he wouldn’t be able to fake composure in a court of law otherwise; he wouldn’t have a job if he didn’t know how to lie, and how to spin different aspects of the truth.
But this is on a different level than just No, honey, I’m fine bullshit. This has been hollowing him out from the inside, for fuck knows how long.
And Ed didn’t have the slightest goddamn idea.
What’s wrong with him? What’s missing in him as a person—as a significant other, as one consciousness professing devotion to another—that he doesn’t see this shit? Is there some kind of communicative frequency most people are tuned into that’s just fucking absent in the way his brain’s wired up? Are there supposed to be flashing neon signs about this kind of shit, and he’s just always looking in the other damn direction?
He pats at his pockets to make sure he’s got both his phone and his wallet, then has to pull the latter out anyway to make sure it still contains the keycard to this room. When he’s verified with his own two eyes that he won’t lock his dumb ass out, he drags his reluctant feet to the door, and then down the hall, and then down the stairs, and then out into the city again—not far. Just to the fucking Subway at the end of the street that backs against the hotel.
He’s not so different from Hohenheim after all—is he?
He’s every bit as fucking self-absorbed. He’s just subtler about it. He’s just a fucking parasite, leaching the love right out of everybody dumb enough to give a shit about him and feeding it into his own personal crap. He never gives back. He just digs his teeth in and hangs on until somebody finally shakes him hard enough to knock him loose.
Somebody should step on him next time. Splatter his guts out; end the cycle; finally, finally crush him dead.
What is this even about? What could possibly—Roy’s not a criminal. He’s not a fucking killer. Is he? What even constitutes a war crime? How much input did he even have into whatever the fuck this Bradley asshole did?
Ed doesn’t know much of fucking anything about that whole stage of Roy’s life—he doesn’t know much about any stage of Roy’s life, but this one’s a fucking black box full of secrets. He just never wanted to pry. Roy’s own memories are always tormenting him; digging it up to try to get the scoop on his demons would’ve been a huge fucking dick move, right? It was none of his goddamn business unless Roy wanted to share it. The past is in the past; it’s over and done with and gone.
Except when it isn’t.
Except right now.
The upshot of Subway—other than the near-instantaneousness of acquisition—is that waiting for his stomach to settle isn’t going to compromise the taste, since it’ll just be a slightly soggier combination of processed pieces if he lets it sit around.
He totes his little plastic bag back up to the hotel room, trying as hard as he can fucking manage to think about anything fucking else. He needs some tea. He needs a sedative—no, a tranquilizer. He needs a nap. He needs a break. He needs to be somebody else—somebody who gets this stuff right; somebody who’s figured out how to function. Somebody who won’t get the rug yanked out from underneath them every time they dare to think they’re starting to get settled. Somebody who doesn’t get their ass kicked by the fucking universe as a matter of course every time things almost make sense.
He puts his sandwich-like-item on the nightstand, plugs in his laptop cord, opens the computer, and sits up against the headboard. He’s still got twenty minutes until the end of the designated hour since Riza’s call.
He sets the computer aside and gets up and goes to put the room’s complimentary kettle on. What kind of tea are they even offering? Are they going to charge him for every bag he uses up, or is it like Kleenex or something? He could use a Kleenex. He could use a lobotomy. Could they just excise his fucking overactive amygdala and be done with it? No more fucking anxiety. No more shots of adrenaline at three in the morning over nothing; no more heartbeat slinging around his whole body like he’s on goddamn cocaine.
The decaf options provided by this hospitable purple hell include a mint and a chamomile. The flower shit is probably better for this purpose, even though both of the little packages wax embarrassingly poetic about their soothing undertones and whatever shit. His hands are shaking so much it takes him three tries to open the goddamn fucking packet. Maybe he shouldn’t even try to deal with boiling water right now.
Maybe this is a job for science. You could totally develop a tea that would just release a flood of fucking endorphins in the brain—and maybe even mess with the dopamine receptors so that it wouldn’t just be a rush of ecstasy on top of the anxiety and shit. It’d probably permeate the bloodstream pretty fast—especially if you hadn’t eaten anything but a scone and some gnarly-cream since the morning. It might very well fucking work.
Not that it’d be legal, but that’s a problem for lawyers, not for science.
God. Lawyers. One in particular. What the fuck? What the fuck? Why wouldn’t Roy just—warn him?
He starts the kettle and manages to get the teabag into the little paper cup with the hotel logo on it. The cup is just as purple as everything else. This place is fucking weird.
He goes back to the bed, sits down on the edge, logs into Skype, and turns his laptop volume all the way up.
Roy’s not on yet.
He looks over at his sandwich. He looks over at the kettle. He looks down at the screen.
He should be tired, from the way his heart keeps racing—like he’s been running; like it’s a strain. The pain in his shoulder’s keeping pace; the tempo’s vicious. Fuck this shit; fuck all this shit; couldn’t—
Couldn’t Riza have woken Roy up right then?
That’s a shitty thought; that’s uncharitable; God, Roy’s probably hurting; he was probably slouched in a crappy plastic chair in the ER for hours on end, holding scratchy paper napkins against his chin. He probably feels like shit. He needs that sleep.
Ed’s an asshole.
It’s no damn wonder shit like this always goes so wrong. He’s been forgetting—how to be careful; how to stay humble; how close to hold the cards against his chest. He let his guard down. He rested on all these bullshit laurels and started to get lazy, and cocky, and soft.
He deserves this.
That’s the word.
The computer makes a bubbly bounce noise so loud that he startles enough to smack his shoulder against the headboard, and that—
Is fucking agony, but—
Not enough to stop him from reaching out one shaky hand and clicking the button for a video call.
Funny how nothing and everything changed when he finally wrangled his way into that doctorate.
Looking in the mirror was the same. Trading stupid quips with Roy was the same. Draping himself across Al’s couch and having existential crises was, regrettably, really no different either.
But, as it turned out, some head honcho from the department called him nine days after he’d defended—which he remembered in exquisite detail because it was a Monday, and the phone rang while he and Roy were trying to kick the week off with a pre-work quickie which had been intended for the shower but ended up on the floor.
Roy lifted his mouth from Ed’s throat long enough to ask, “Expecting anyone?”
Ed said something to the effect of “Mmnngh”, which was as close as he could get to “No” with Roy’s dick pressed to his, the weight of Roy’s hips perfect-heavy-hot—
“Could be important,” Roy said, and he was awfully fucking spry for someone who purported to be thirty-five, although the way his hand swept across his lower back as he shifted wasn’t idle—or Ed didn’t think so; Roy’d been doing that a hell of a lot lately. “Local area code. Here.”
Which was how Ed got offered his dream job while lying on Roy Mustang’s bedroom carpet, buck naked and splashed with lube.
He was supposed to move into his lab space in the middle of August—which required him to have people for a lab, which required him to interview students and potential postdocs and maybe a lab manager, which required him to put out a call for applications, which required him to get a website together, which required him to lock down the space, which required him to figure out the furniture, which—
“Funemfuckingployment,” he said, dropping onto the couch the night after he had moved all of the tables around and then almost fallen asleep with his head in the fume hood.
Roy obligingly lifted up the papers in his lap so that Ed could settle there instead, which—
“I think you’re legally employed,” Roy said. “The contract’s been filed.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Only they didn’t say I had to be a fucking moving man.”
“You’re a man who’s moved me quite a bit,” Roy said.
Ed would have punched him—or a least screamed an expletive—if he hadn’t been so beat. “Eugh.”
Roy laughed softly. “Sorry. Even for me, that was a bit much.”
Ed reached up and touched his jaw, then his cheek, then the circles under his beautiful fucking eyes. “You all right?”
The way the corners of Roy’s eyes crinkled when he smiled was fucking criminal, and it still made Ed’s heart skip a fucking beat. “Of course.”
“That’s a cop-out answer,” Ed said—but gently, because… because. “What’re you working on?”
The sigh was more honest than the laugh had been. “I… believe it or not, my commanding officer from Afghanistan is… well, he needs legal help, apparently.”
Roy’s grip on the pen was still loose, but his jaw had tightened, and Ed would’ve known anyway. Having to think back to the war stuff, to deployment, to all of the shit that happened there, to all of the shit that cornered him in the darkest places in his own mind—nothing fucked Roy up quite like that. Nothing pulled at his edges until they came jagged; nothing else ever seemed to touch him, but there was a part of him…
There was a part of him that hadn’t made it home. And it had weight, it had gravity, it had power—it had the power to pull him back.
This was the place where walking got delicate. Eggshells—explosives underneath the sand, and heat waves streaming towards the sky.
Ed nudged his knuckles at Roy’s cheekbone in a way that was supposed to be encouraging, although it might’ve just been dumb. He could never really tell; so far he’d been really lucky, and Roy just seemed to be physically incapable of disdaining his idiotic attempts at affectionate gestures, but he couldn’t help feeling like it was just a matter of time—like eventually he’d do something stupid enough that it’d cross some narrow little line, and Roy would bat his hand away, and that’d be that. Floodgates or some shit.
“No kidding,” he said for now, as levelly as he could. “What’s going on?”
Roy smiled at him—faintly, and then it faded. He raised the folder he’d been reading. The man fucking loved a good manila folder; the house was full of them. “Accusations of embezzlement. I don’t…” He frowned at something invisible in the middle distance, and Ed lowered his hand, laying it on Roy’s shoulder instead. “I don’t think he’d do it. I—maybe it’s naïve, but I trust him. I believed that he was virtually faultless, once—I’m certainly not young enough for that anymore, but I do believe in him.” He rubbed his eyes with his free hand and then set the folder aside on the end table. “Bradley was good to me. Time to be good back, I suppose. In the meantime—” He ran his fingers through Ed’s bangs, sweeping them back, smoothing them out, and fuck, that was heavenly— “I think the both of us would probably benefit from a good night’s sleep, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. It was about the best he could do when all he really wanted was to start purring. “Yeah, I… yeah.”
Roy laughed—gently, always so fucking gently, like he knew that was actually worse; like he knew it ground Ed’s hard-won walls down to rubble faster than any forcefulness ever could have done—and leaned down to kiss Ed’s forehead. “All right,” he said.
But he wasn’t. He wasn’t, and Ed could tell, but it was like his hands and his tongue were fucking tied.
Ed had always thought that the worst thing ever was starting the quarter as an overworked, underfunded, frazzled, sleepless grad student and trying to muddle his way through classes so that he could stagger back to the lab afterward.
Turned out the worst thing was starting the quarter as an overworked, underfunded, frazzled, sleepless professor, because you were expected to know what the fuck you were doing in the midst of all the goddamn chaos.
The truth was, teaching a bunch of freaking classes and cramming lab and—when you could manage it—life into the gaps was just as much of a scheduling nightmare as TAing them had been; on top of which the professor was expected to know ridiculous shit like what the class was about, what reading went where on the syllabus, what the homework looked like, what the TAs should emphasize because it’d be on the final or whatever…
It was so much power—in a weird, ivory-tower-bound, academic kind of way, obviously—that it left him feeling kind of like he was drifting. Too many choices. Too many options. Too much shit to do; where the hell was he supposed to start?
There wasn’t much choice but to do the usual damn thing—attack it from as many angles as he could handle, with all the force he could muster, and hope to any benevolent deity-ish item listening that this time he might win.
He’d taken progressively fewer shifts at Has Beans over the course of the summer until he was pretty much considered a ghost over there—Rosé and Marta missed him; Russell continued to be an asshole; he still went in to get coffee beans a lot, and tried to swing by at off-hours when he could to catch up with the ladies. No surprise, though, that as his class schedule heated up, all of the unnecessary connections in his life started to disintegrate in the crucible. He just didn’t have time for friends; he barely had time for Al, and Al was like oxygen, and…
He barely saw Roy, either. With all of this lesson plan shit and lab establishment shit (and grant-researching, and paper-writing, and “networking”, and keeping-up-with-the-latest stuff in as many fields as he could stand so that he didn’t fall woefully behind—), he was hardly ever home except to sleep, although he really, really tried to make it back for dinner whenever he could.
Roy was tired. Roy was tired and getting tireder; he was sleeping like crap; there was a tightness to his eyes that Ed had never seen before, and a similar one in his jaw—not quite clenched, but it was like he was holding it there. It was like he was holding himself together. He’d wake up almost every night; whether it was the dreams or just general brain static, Ed didn’t know, because he wouldn’t talk about it. It was just “Fine, fine, sorry” in the thick dark of two in the morning; and the next day, over hasty cereal and coffee and clumsy kisses in the doorway, it was “Don’t worry about me, love”, and then a gentle push out the door.
Ed tried to remember to text him as much as humanly possible—just little shit, just hi and how’s stupid tuesday treating you and you want me to pick up dinner maybe? Just little outreach touches to try to demonstrate how much he fucking cared, because sometimes, these days, Roy got so quiet and so distant when the noise of the day calmed down, and they settled on the couch or in bed or whatever shit, that Ed didn’t know…
Sometimes it was like Roy had left himself and vanished off to somewhere else, and Ed wasn’t sure how to find him. You couldn’t turn to the love of your fucking life and say I think I’m losing you to the demons in your head, but I don’t know how to fight them, and I don’t know if you can keep doing it alone.
He dragged his ass out of bed early on a Saturday a couple weeks into the quarter, scrubbing at his face. When he lowered his hands, Roy was watching him, smiling slightly, eyes half-lidded and so fucking warm.
“’Morning,” Roy murmured.
“Hey, sexy,” Ed said. His whole fucking chest felt like it was swelling; he sat down on the edge of the mattress again and leaned in and buried his hands in Roy’s hair and kissed him for… a while. A long time.
Roy’s fingers curled into the hair at the nape of his neck. When they drew back, his eyes opened so fucking slow, and then they fixed on Ed’s face like he was the only goddamn thing in the goddamn universe—
“Are you heading in to the lab?” Roy asked softly.
Ed’s heart clenched so hard and so fast it took his fucking breath away, which was clichéd as hell and also fucking painful. “Well—I was, I—”
Roy laid a fingertip against his lips. “It’s all right. I was just thinking… why don’t I try to get some work done today, too, and then perhaps we can both leave a little early on Friday and go out for dinner?”
Ed’s whole chest was full, full of Roy, full of fucking adoration and gratitude…
And guilt. Because he didn’t deserve this; he’d never done a damn thing to earn someone so fucking perfect and so fucking—nice.
He smiled, and kissed Roy’s finger, and smiled a little more at the way Roy wriggled, trying not to laugh. Roy had the best morning hair ever. Roy had the best… everything.
“That sounds great,” he said. “I’ll take off at four or something—sound okay?”
“Sounds beautiful,” Roy said, and he looked like he just meant it, and Ed was such a piece of shit for taking him away from someone more deserving.
“Okay,” Ed said. He leaned in for another kiss, and Roy shifted up to meet him, and… fuck. Maybe it was selfish, but he just… he couldn’t have given it up for the world right then. “’M g’na take a shower,” he mumbled against Roy’s mouth.
“Mm,” Roy murmured back.
It was hard, too, because he’d never had anything this precious since… Al. And Al was sacred; Al was a fact; Al wouldn’t… he couldn’t fuck that up.
He touched his forehead to Roy’s and then darted off to get his clothes and wind today down as fast as he was fucking able.
Sunday was gorgeous—Sundays always were, with Roy; Sundays were sun-dappled sheets and long-ass showers and curling up on the couch to drink the coffee real, real slow. Sundays, they lived the kind of life he’d always imagined other people having but never quite dared to dream of for himself, because if he thought about it—if he thought about it concretely and gave the wisp of fantasy a breath of life—the universe was going to tear it down and wrench it out of his greedy fucking hands.
Sometimes being with Roy made him feel like he’d teleported into a different world—a better one, a kinder one. A cosmos that didn’t hate him. Where the laws were different, and Murphy wasn’t king, and sometimes things just stayed up instead of crashing back down to Earth after they started arcing skyward.
“Hey,” Ed said after Roy had read out all of the updates on a funny legal stories blog he liked, and he himself had improvised lay summaries of a couple super-technical articles in Cell. “Are you… okay?”
He had his head in Roy’s lap, so that he could flick through the magazine, and Roy could scroll on his laptop on the couch arm with one hand and stroke his fingers through Ed’s hair with the other. The solitary downside was that it was about a billion times harder to catalogue the nuances of Roy’s expression from this angle—and nu-fucking-anced it was.
“Yes,” Roy said, but he said it so fucking slowly that it wasn’t exactly the most convincing thing Ed had heard in his life. Or even in the last few minutes. “It’s… Bradley’s managed to get himself much more mired in all of it than I realized when I took it on—it’s becoming one of those sorts of things that expands to fill the amount of time that you allot to it. And that’s good, because every hour is paid for; but it’s also… well. I couldn’t have said ‘no’. I owe him too much for that; we go too far back, and he meant a great deal to me then.” He smiled, similarly unconvincingly; his eyes stayed hazy, and distant, and… sad. “Even past all that, it—dredges up a lot of memories I spend a lot of time suppressing, so it’s a lot more than it seems on the surface.”
“I know,” Ed said. “I mean—I know that about you, and also I… get that. I understand that; I’ve been there.”
“Not my favorite haunt,” Roy said.
“Yeah,” Ed said.
Roy brushed his bangs back from his forehead, smiling a little more strongly. “It’s all right. I’ve gotten through worse, and I’m not too old and wretched and decrepit yet.”
“Only a little,” Ed said.
Roy winked. “I believe you’re the one who’s little, my dear.”
Ed gaped at him. “That’s not what I—” Roy started laughing, so Ed hit his arm—but not with much of any force at all. “You bastard!”
Roy leaned down and kissed him, and Ed tried—and pathetically failed—to hold a grudge.
Figured, then, that Monday crept up behind him, nailed him in the back of the kneecaps, clubbed him over the head while he was falling, and kicked him while he was down. Mondays were good for that.
It wasn’t anything life-ruining, and he was trying to remember that and keep his cool, but—well, shit. His favorite postdoc candidate had picked Harvard over him, which she said wasn’t personal, but how could it not be, when it was a decision based on interviews with him and discussions of research and shit? And then the brand-new minus-80 freezer fritzed out and practically exploded and then locked itself shut with his samples in it; and then his extremely shy but totally brilliant grad student/de facto lab manager had to run out in a flood of tears to go jump on a plane home to Brazil because her father had just had a heart attack, and she was such a mess, and he felt terrible for her, and he felt even more terrible for being weirdly sort of jealous that her dad mattered to her so much. And then he found out that the department had been advertising the NIH grant submission deadline wrong, and it was actually due at the end of this week, and yeah, he’d started, but he’d been counting on having those days, and also on having someone else to run the place while he slaved away on it, and also on having fucking samples that would come out of his fucking freezer—
He dropped into one of his brand-spankin’-new rolling chairs and kicked his feet at the floor (fucking things were designed for fucking tall-ass giant people; it was a conspiracy; always had been) to propel himself over to the far wall of the lab. He positioned himself directly under the clock, leaned back, pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, and counted out three full minutes in time with the ticking of the second-hand.
Then he got up, took a deep breath, shook as much of the sludgy negative energy as he could out of his body, squared his shoulders, and strolled over to the facilities office for the building to see if they had any idea why his freezer was possessed.
They didn’t. Although they could have a maintenance guy come look at it. One of them laughed weakly when he suggested an exorcist instead. They were all looking at him like they expected him to… freak out, or something. Like he was going to try to get them in trouble for the fact that his fucking freezer was malfunctioning, which really had nothing to do with them at all except that it was technically shared equipment, so they were supposed to manage the maintenance crap.
“What?” he asked after a second or two of the general staring and stuff.
“You’re so… chill,” a girl who looked too young to be working legally—not that Ed could talk—said in something not unlike awe.
“Oh,” he said. Was that really a novelty around here? He supposed—thinking of the frantic research mania of most of the students and faculty he knew—that maybe it was. “Thanks, I guess.”
The girl blushed.
“We’ll let you know when the rep can come out,” an older woman told him.
“Sounds good,” Ed said. “You know where to find me, right?”
“Better believe it,” the woman said.
There wasn’t much to be done except to bury himself in the grant work in the meantime, so he started shoveling. It was eerily fucking quiet, having a lab space all to yourself—and sure, there’d been times he’d been in Izumi’s lab alone, after everyone else had gone home or when he’d popped in at some ungodly hour or if everybody else had lunch plans like real people, but that was… not quite the same. Their equipment made noises; their computers whirred; other people walked through, whatever. It wasn’t a silence as profound as this—just him, and the clacking of his laptop keys, and the ticking of the clock on the wall. Just him, and his own damn thoughts.
It was sort of a relief, actually, when you started thinking about it that way. It was so hard to be alone in the world they lived in; it was so hard to build yourself a Fortress of fucking Solitude to listen to the play of your own brainwaves sometimes. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, having to drop everything and focus on the echoes of his half-formed ideas, trying to twist them into something cogent—something whole. Trying to origami-fold their asses into a recognizable shape.
It was the kind of challenge he lived for, in some ways. Not so bad. Not so bad at all.
The week went on much in the same vein, but by Tuesday night, the silence was getting to him—wearing away at his edges, picking with little needle-fingers at his constitution, slowly but steadily dragging him into a tar pit of misery and self-doubt. It was a stupid thing—he didn’t want to talk to anyone, but he just sort of… needed his existence acknowledged, or some shit. Needed other human beings’ reactions to feel like he was really alive. This whole drifting-professor-ghost shit was not as cool as he would have expected. He’d had a class to teach early Tuesday morning, and he’d felt the simple weight of the students’ attention warming up his soul, but by the time he crawled off campus, that’d been a long fucking time ago.
Roy wasn’t in yet when he got home, which was a little unsettling—weird hours were one thing, but they meant more when somebody started at a consistent time like Roy did, because at this point he’d been at work forever.
Ed texted him a dumb little hope everything’s going okay, gonna get food <3 and popped out to the Thai place half a mile down the road, because he was in serious danger of starvation, which was not helping his stupid-ass mood. The lights were on in the hall and the kitchen by the time he got back—he kicked his shoes off, which was a bit of a balancing act to do without dropping the takeout all over the floor, and stepped in right as Roy was reaching up to take plates down from the cabinet.
Roy set them down on the counter, turned, and smiled at him, and even tired—even bone-fucking-weary, even with shadows under his eyes that could’ve bred whole rooms full of darkness—he was just so damn gorgeous, and…
And Ed hoped he knew. Ed hoped Roy knew all of it, because there weren’t words for most of the things boiling and bursting and building up in his heart.
“Hey, you,” Ed said, and it mostly came out stable. “I’d ask how your day went, but I think I’ve got an idea.”
Roy gave him a grimace-smile. “I wish it wasn’t the case, but I think I could say the same for you, dear heart.”
Ed set the bag full of styrofoam containers on the counter and started unwrapping—then he stopped, and turned, and put his arms around Roy instead.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’ll be fine,” Roy said softly. “You?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Had worse.”
They probably got about two hours—cumulatively, not all at once—of sleep that night. Maybe two between the pair of them; it was hard to calculate shit like that at four in the morning, feeling gummy-eyed and cotton-mouthed and sticky-skinned and generally disgusting.
It must’ve been worse than Roy had said, because the dreams were waking him up every fucking hour, and he’d sit there shaking for another five, ten, fifteen minutes before he reached out for Ed’s arm, and then he’d spend another ten fucking minutes apologizing, and then he’d still be shivering when they curled up, and he’d bury his face in Ed’s hair and breathe softly for a while, and Ed would have to wait another five or ten minutes after that before his own fucking heart slowed down, and…
And he’d get maybe half an hour before Roy’s hands were on him, pushing him out of the way of something, shoving him down into the mattress for protection from a threat Ed couldn’t see or even start to understand—something that made Roy Mustang, who was proud and suave and sexy as fuck, sit bolt upright in terror in the middle of the fucking night, something that almost brought him to fucking tears a couple times a week—
It’d just been two on Monday—or two Ed woke up to, anyway; maybe he’d just been so fucking beat, and Roy’d been so fucking quiet…
As he lay there listening to Roy’s breathing slowly evening out, he couldn’t stop the vulture-thought circling, fucking slowly, over and over, around the circumference of his skull.
How much had he missed?
How much of Roy’s pain had he walked past, and slept through, and looked away from because he was so fucking preoccupied with his own damn shit?
That wasn’t fair. That wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, and Roy supported him so fucking fully—
Roy just—took care of him. All of the goddamn time, Roy was touching him and holding him and stroking his hair back and pitching in and giving him advice and promising him that shit would be okay. Roy had carried half the fucking boxes of shit into his lab; Roy had sat there puzzling over the centrifuge trying to figure out how to start it for him; Roy had fed him and soothed him and tucked him into bed every time he came home wrecked and ranting.
Roy was so much fucking better than he deserved.
Roy deserved so much fucking better than him.
He traced his fingertips feather-lightly down the curve of Roy’s arm where it was draped across his chest. This man was just so fucking beautiful, inside and out, all over; everything he did, everything he said…
Ed wasn’t worthy of all that. And it was an insult to Roy to keep pretending—wasn’t it?
Surely he resented it.
Surely he was tired, underneath—tired of faking it, tired of all the shit, tired of putting up with Ed.
Surely that was festering in him by now. Some part of him must have hated Ed for trapping them in this thing, for worming his way into every crack and crevice of Roy’s life, for occupying all this damn space in his sanctuary. Some part of him had to be disgusted with his recently-acquired parasite.
Ed drew his fingertips over the ridges of Roy’s knuckles, down the length of every finger and then up again, one by one. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t—equivalent.
Roy had to see that. Did he think he was too old to start over and find someone who was good enough? That was some bullshit; Roy could’ve snapped his fingers and brought any fine, young thing he wanted to their knees. Did he feel invested? Beholden? Obligated?
Ed closed his eyes against the hazy gray half-light of five in the fucking morning, which had been getting progressively less familiar until this week. He had to stop torturing himself with this train of thought, whether or not he could practically hear the whistle in the distance; whether or not he could smell the smoke. It wasn’t doing him or Roy any good to speculate. They just had to—talk about it. Right? Like civilized fucking adults. Just—talk. About how everything the world unraveled eventually. About how the center could not hold and shit. About how Ed felt like his grasp on his life and reality and the good things in the universe was slipping, and all of it was going to disintegrate underneath his hands. About—
He tilted his head back and took a deep breath. Roy sort of snuffled against his shoulder, which was heartbreakingly fucking cute.
It could wait. It’d have to. He’d be fine.
He’d always been fine. He didn’t have a choice.
“I’m so sorry,” was the first thing Roy said after the alarm went off, and Ed had to swallow twice to make sure this was sleep-deprivation nausea and not the kind likely to make him barf on his boyfriend.
“Nah,” he said. He kept the kiss short and sweet just in case; there weren’t a whole lot of things that could make a wakeup call this crappy any worse, but vomiting in your lover’s mouth was probably one of them. “Shit happens. It’s okay.”
Roy smiled at him, and if Ed looked half as worse for the wear as he did, they were gonna make a pretty pair of fucking zombies out there on the street. Roy touched his cheek and then leaned their foreheads together.
“It isn’t,” he said, “but thank you.”
Ed covered Roy’s hand with his for a second and then slipped out from the embrace before his willpower broke, and he just dropped back into the fucking bed and went back to sleep. “Don’t thank me ’til after you find out if I’ve used all the hot water.”
Slogging through a class as a student participant was one thing—the sludge-wading was a whole different fucking matter when you had to lead the thing.
Either everybody saw how fucking exhausted he was, and nobody dared to raise their hand and ask him to slow down or speak coherent English for fear that he’d explode; or by some miracle he was making a passable amount of sense. Whatever the case, the hours between him and getting to pass out in that bed again crawled by, sluggish as all hell but steady enough.
Roy texted right about lunchtime—Going to be late again tonight. Could you put my light blue shirt in the wash when you get home? Afraid dinner may be on you again too. Sorry, sweetheart. <3
Laundry and dinner Ed could handle; he sent back of course, done deal. no sorries <3 and hunkered down to his grant again.
Ironically enough, the National Institutes of Health seemed to want him dead, or at least have an insatiable craving for his blood, sweat, tears, and any other liquid misery he could muster. Maybe they had, like, a huge flock of lawyers they had to keep employed by making them write pages and pages and pages of incomprehensible small print. Ed supposed that if that had ended up being Roy’s job, he’d be in favor of it; somebody had to keep those people’s families fed and housed and clothed and…
And holy fucking shit, this was never-ending, and he still had to re-label all of his diagrams and edit that last one in Photoshop because the colors had gotten all washed out, and he wanted to circle the tumor node anyway, and…
When he looked up, scrubbing at his gritty-ass fucking blob-eyes with the knuckles of both hands, it was five thirty.
“Fuckballs,” he said aloud to the empty lab.
There were some advantages to working completely alone, one of which was that nobody judged you if your knee-jerk curse words didn’t make any goddamn sense.
There were also disadvantages, including but not limited to the fact that a grand total of zero good Samaritans came to your aid if you started running around like decapitated poultry trying to call the Italian place and make an order while saving all your work and packing all your shit, which resulted in answers like “Must be by the centrifuge” to the question “Alfredo or marinara?”
Wasn’t this shit supposed to happen on Mondays, not Wednesdays?
Somehow he straggled out to the car—at which point he couldn’t remember whether he’d locked the fucking laboratory door or not, and you just never knew when someone might want to shortcut the good shit and steal your results; and it would be one thing if his stupidity got his own shit jacked, but his grad student’s work was in there, too—
He trekked back. He had indeed locked the fucking door to the fucking lab. He trekked back-forward to the parking garage and dropped into the front seat of his car and spent a few seconds taking a couple of deep fucking breaths before he put the keys into the ignition.
The dashboard lit up.
He was almost out of gas.
“Fuck this day,” he said, which got him about as much response here as it would have in the lab.
There was a station on campus; he sputtered in pretty much in the nick of fucking time. His windshield was a mess, but the way today was going, if he tried to scrub it, it’d start to rain, and he didn’t have a fucking umbrella, and his laptop bag wasn’t especially waterproof, and…
And he was going to be fine. He was going to be fucking fine.
He was going to be late to get his goddamn takeout, but they were just going to have to deal with it; it wasn’t like they could give his food away to somebody else if he hadn’t paid for it yet.
…except, as he found out, it was. And they could.
And they had.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl at the counter kept saying, and she looked like she was going to burst into tears, which Ed sympathized with pretty damn deeply right about now.
“It’s really okay,” he said. “Is there… like, anything?”
Her eyes welled. “The—the kitchen just closed—”
Of course it had. “What happened to the other order, for the people that got mine?”
“Theirs was—huge catering,” the girl said, lip wobbling now. He wanted to pat her shoulder or some shit. “It was—eight bags, nine, I… I think—”
He tried at a weary laugh, which probably sounded more or less like a creaky-ass couch getting kicked. “Got it. Well. It’s fine. No problem. I think we’ve got some sh—stuff, stuff—at home.”
Despite the couch sounds, she looked profoundly relieved. “I—I’m just—we’re so sorry, sir, we—”
He waved his hand. “Man, don’t call me ‘sir’. That makes me sound a million years old.” He put his hand out. “I’m Ed. And we’ll come back sometime; you guys are great.”
She shook his hand gingerly, eyes huge. “I… Samanta. Thank—you.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said. He mustered a grin. “I worked in a coffee shop for years—trust me. I got you.”
So at least there was that.
They did have some shit at home. They had exactly one package of frozen tortellini, exactly one foil-wrapped object Sharpie-labeled “chicken”, and exactly one slightly wilty head of broccoli. There was some butter and some cheese that didn’t look moldy (although it was always so hard to tell with white cheddar, which was secretly part of the reason Ed had always preferred the day-glo orange kind), and Roy was one of those people with an alphabetized spice cabinet, so… so. Time to improvise. Time to be a dinner hero.
And hopefully finish his fucking grant application while shit baked and boiled and whatever it was supposed to do.
Ed made echinacea tea while he got started, partly because he was starting to come unhinged enough that muttering “echinacea” to himself repeatedly seemed like fun. Also it was probably supposed to be calming; most of those drink-this-flower teas usually were. He clicked his way back into his stupid app only to find that it had deleted all of his attachments for some reason, at which point he hissed at the screen (…unhinged) and then took a huge gulp of tea, which—
Was way too fucking hot, and it took all of the quavering remnants of his willpower to hold it in his mouth instead of spewing it all over his laptop screen—
He swallowed, feeling scalded straight fucking through; fire-swallowing was supposed to be a voluntary circus act, right? Then again, his whole life felt like a big-top farce sometimes—fuck’s sake, that hurt—
After chugging some cold water, it felt like he could breathe again, and then the pasta water was boiling over; and then the chicken looked a little overdone on the outside, but when he cut one piece open to test it (after burning his hand on the tray because there was a hole in the oven mitt, and the universe could really fucking quit now, because he got the point), it was still shiny fucking pink in the middle, so back in it went; and meanwhile he wasn’t sure whether he should sauté the broccoli or what, and what was sautéing? Did you just sort of put it in oil and swirl it around in the pan, or was that technically stir fry?
Well, whatever the fuck it was, Roy was going to want to Bobby Flay him alive if he didn’t have something on the table, so he splashed some olive oil in the pan after he’d gotten the pasta going, and then stirred the pasta while he waited for the oil to heat up, which was always a fun-slash-dangerous experiment given that you couldn’t tell when the oil was hot, except by flicking water at it or putting in something that made it start spitting at you like that the dinosaur with the neck frill (dilophosaurus?), although he’d read that there was no paleontological evidence that it’d actually done that shit outside of “Jurassic Park”. He figured he could put some cheese in with that, too—the broccoli, not the dinosaur—once he got it going. Cheese made everything better. Which was weird. Well, he was weird, or at least had a weird relationship with dairy products, but it wasn’t his fault cheese was like milk’s firmer, nicer, eight-thousand-times more delicious cousin.
…right, testing oil.
…right, tending the pasta.
…right, broccoli; right, he probably needed a utensil for this; holy hot damn, oil burns hurt like a bitch—
Wait, the chicken—
How long did tortellini need, anyway? You couldn’t really throw a tortellini at the wall to see if it was done, could you? Well, you could, but it might not help. Were they like ravioli, where if you kept them in too long, they exploded, and then you had a pot of boiling water and ravioli filling and a brother who was trying very hard not to laugh at you but wasn’t quite up to the task?
Fuck all of this cooking shit, anyway. If they’d had any bread, he would’ve just made them some damn sandwiches. He couldn’t fuck that up. Unless he tried to toast them, in which case he could, and could also get the opportunity to introduce himself to some irritated firemen.
Damn it. Damn everything. The grant page had probably logged him out by now.
When he heard a key in the door, a cry of “Help” jumped to his lips completely unbidden. He frowned at himself—well, physically, at the stove; functionally, at himself—and half-turned to call, “Hey, you” over his shoulder instead.
“Something smells remarkably nice,” Roy said. Keys jingled, and then something thumped softly on the floor in the hallway; probably that was Roy’s briefcase, shortly to be followed by his shoes. Roy had a thing about removing his shoes and his suit jacket the second he got inside the door; it seemed like a psychological stripping-off-the-day thing, which Ed could definitely understand. Sockfeet—make that the world’s best sockfeet—padded in, and then the world’s best hands were flirting with Ed’s waist, and the world’s best mouth was grazing down the side of his neck. “The food’s appetizing, too.”
“Shut up,” Ed said, and no matter how goddamn tired he was, it was a struggle not to let his toes curl with the sheer fucking delight of feeling so damn lo—
Ed twisted out of Roy’s embrace—which pinned him against the stove, which set his animal fucking instinct flaring into panic—and looked up up into the world’s best eyes while his throat malfunctioned, and his heart clenched hard.
“Your shirt,” he said.
“Your fucking shirt,” Ed said, and his heart skittered, scrambled, spasmed in the center of his chest, like a fucking monster trying to escape—like the bloody embodiment of his own fucking cowardice, because he wanted to; he wanted to run— “You asked me to do one f-fucking thing, after all the shit you do for me, after everything, after who you are, and I fucking forgot about your fucking shirt.”
Something clouded in Roy’s eyes, and his hands fell away from where they’d been hovering at Ed’s sides, and he swallowed—once, twice. He forced a smile, and his eyes were so fucking tired that Ed’s stomach turned.
“It’s just a shirt,” Roy said. It was a soft voice—quiet, calm. Disafuckingpointed.
“It’s not,” Ed said, and the heat in his chest felt fucking unbearable; the bile and the self-loathing rose at once, streaming up and rattling his fucking brain— “It’s that you asked for something—and the one time you fucking needed something from me—”
Roy’s eyebrows shifted; he drew a breath and let it out, half as a sigh—half as an exasperated fucking sigh. “Ed, it’s fine.”
Ed couldn’t physically hold all this steam inside himself; he’d fucking explode. “It’s not; I wanted—”
“I don’t mind,” Roy said, louder, and Ed’s guts twined up into a seething knot of prickling, churning, choking misery— “I was hoping to have it for the meeting tomorrow, but it’s just a damn shirt, Ed; I know you’re preoccu—”
Ed’s heart clenched. So did his fists. “You’re never too fucking preoccupied for me!”
Roy stepped back—oh, God; oh, God—and closed his eyes and lifted one hand to massage at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t—it’s not—a game, Ed; it doesn’t matter; I—”
The words were fucking magma bursting out of him: “It matters to me!”
The mask shattered, and Roy’s eyes snapped open, and he was so tired; he was so tired of this— “It’s just a fucking shirt, Ed!”
“It’s your fucking shirt!” Ed was shouting outright now, because his whole body had tightened like a wire curling in an open flame; because his heart had lodged high in his throat; because he had to speak louder to make Roy understand— “And I can’t come through on one fucking favor, because it’s always about fucking me, it’s always about my shit, my problems, my fucking—I don’t even know what’s going on with you! I don’t even fucking ask!”
Roy’s eyes had widened incredulously, but his eyebrows drew in tight. “What the hell are you—”
“I don’t fucking support you!” Ed’s shoulder sparked with pain; he didn’t have time for this shit, but he couldn’t seem to get his fingers to loosen enough to relieve the tension up his arm. “I don’t—I don’t give you goddamn fucking anything; I’m like some fucking parasite—”
“Edward,” Roy said, and there was a sharp note in it now—sharp enough to pierce right through Ed’s ribcage, right through his lungs, right out to the other fucking side. “How dare you—”
“Fuck that,” Ed said, but his voice was giving out, the fucking traitor; it was shaking hard and failing him— “And fuck you, Mustang; you know—you know I’m right, you know—you know it isn’t even, it isn’t fair; you fucking give and give and love and love, and all I ever do is burn your fucking dinner and forget your fucking shirts—”
Roy started a syllable, gave up, and made a scoffing noise. “You haven’t—”
“I just can’t!” Ed said. “Okay? I fucking can’t, I can’t be what you—need, what you deserve; I can’t be worth—”
“Edward,” Roy said, sharper still—silver steel twisting in the meat of Ed’s torso, blood pouring hot down from the wound. “You don’t get to decide who I do or do not love, or what’s important to me, or what I get angry ab—”
“You should be angry!” Ed howled at him.
“Well, I’m not!” Roy yelled back.
“Obviously you are, or you wouldn’t be f-f—” His voice tried to break; he steamrolled through it— “—fucking screaming at me!”
“You started—” Roy closed his eyes, clenched his fingers, and hissed softly through his teeth. He took a deep breath and let it out again. “I’m not. I’m not screaming; I’m not angry; it’s just a fucking shirt—”
Ed’s chest was empty—it was hollow; it was vacant; it was a void; all of him had gone so fucking light he couldn’t believe he wasn’t floating. His heartbeat skimmed through him—dragonfly on water shit; he couldn’t feel a goddamn thing. He was looking down at the kitchen floor. He couldn’t feel anything—nothing past the swelling, resonating, reverberating fear; the gut-sick, bone-deep terror of staying in this fucking room, meeting Roy’s fucking eyes, when he just wanted to vomit up his own fucking being and stop being such a worthless piece of shit—
“I gotta go,” he said.
He could feel Roy staring at him, but he couldn’t look. “Ed—”
The adrenaline was fucking smothering him; his fucking veins were too full; they were strangling him; he couldn’t—he felt hot and then cold and then fragmented—
“I gotta—go,” he said again, and the words felt like spars of fucking driftwood in a shipwreck in a storm—like he was clinging, slipping, buffeted; his eyes were burning, and the wind was roaring in his ears—
He sensed more than he saw Roy reaching for him, and he ducked out under the extended arm and stumbled to the table—grabbed his laptop, clutched it to his chest—his keys were still in his pocket, fuck shoes, fuck speech; he could barely breathe around the jagged-fingered creatures clawing up his throat—
He was out the door; he was down the little walkway; he was in the car; he was looking stupidly at the laptop on the passenger seat, and then he was turning the keys and shifting into reverse and backing out of the driveway; he remembered the headlights just in time to illuminate Roy’s silhouette in one flash before he swerved out onto the street—
Driving was okay, though. Driving he could do. Driving was just—foot to the pedal and eyes on the road; red lights, green lights, simple commands. Muscle memory. Minimal brain work.
He should’ve put his laptop’s seatbelt on. Statistically significant numbers of laptops probably died on the road because of negligent caretakers who didn’t buckle them in. His laptop could become a terrible example. His laptop could die, and then where would he and his NIH grant and also his embarrassingly large collection of downloaded Nature PDFs be?
…well, the PDFs were also on his external hard drive.
His external hard drive was in Roy’s house. Which he had just walked out of. Because for some fucking reason, he’d felt compelled to take the best thing that had ever happened to him except for Al and dash it to fucking pieces on the kitchen floor.
He gazed blearily up at the stoplight. He blinked. The red vanished, and the green flared, and he smoothed one hand down over the curve of the steering wheel and tried to figure out…
The person behind him whaled on their fucking horn.
He started almost straight out of his fucking skin and jammed his foot on the gas, which almost gave him whiplash and probably guaranteed years of chiropractor visits for his poor laptop, too, and—
He’d really just—
He’d really fucked it up. Just like that. After all the worrying and all the work and…
After a whole fucking year of sheer fucking bliss, he’d just—
In five minutes flat.
Where the hell was he going, anyway? He’d just—started driving; he hadn’t even thought about where he was driving to; he…
Judging by the landmarks, autopilot had taken him halfway to the university out of sheer fucking force of habit. He couldn’t sleep in his lab, though. Crawling in there and curling up under a desk was too fucking pathetic even for him—and besides, he’d only met one of the night janitors so far; any of the others would probably report him to security as a vagrant or some shit.
And even if he’d had a king-sized bed in his office, there was only one person he wanted to see right now.
He hung a U at the next probably-legal place and fucking booked it to his destination.
The clock in the car said it was nine forty-five when he pulled up; he had no fucking idea anymore where swathes of that time had gone. He got out, went around to the passenger side to grab his laptop, hugged it to himself, and locked the car. Then he headed up the driveway in his fucking socks and knocked.
The door opened, and Al’s expectant smile broke in half the instant his eyes found Ed’s. He breathed, stared, breathed again, and then Al—sweet, sweet little Al; cuddler of kittens, doler of doubt benefits; mincer of oaths—curled his lip into a snarl predators would cower back from, and he said:
“What did that fucker do?”
Words felt like fucking knives—gleaming, sharp-edged, full of potential to produce and create, but right now so fucking cruel.
Right now, lodged in all Ed’s fucking weak spots and twisting slow.
“It wasn’t—” he attempted. “He didn’t—”
Win wandered up behind Al with a fat textbook in her arms and her eyebrows raised. “Okay, then, what’d you do?”
“Winry,” Al said, flatly, without ever taking his eyes off Ed, and it wasn’t really fair to reprimand her, but all the same—
“All right, all right, sorry,” she said. She came up closer behind Al’s shoulder, at which point she started to frown. “Ed, you look like shit. Get in here, dummy.” She stared at his laptop as he stumbled over the threshold; Al put an arm around him to guide him in further and then pulled the door shut behind him. “Is that all you brought?” she asked. “Really?”
“It’s okay,” Al said, in his Soothing Voice, and probably that should’ve felt condescending, but instead it felt like the rain of fucking heaven—like nectar, like a balm. “That’s fine. I’ll get you some pajamas, okay? When was the last time you ate, Brother?”
“I forget,” he said, which was the truth. Winry snorted, and he tried to glare at her, although it probably wasn’t too impressive. “Lunch, probably. Maybe. I dunno.”
“What was ‘lunch’?” Winry asked. “A bag of Cheetos and a cookie?”
It was slowly coming back—accessing today’s memories was like swimming through fog. “I put leftovers in the ‘science only’ microwave. I l-live on the edge.”
“You’re going to give yourself the Black Death that way,” Winry said. She folded the textbook under one arm and grabbed his wrist with the other. “C’mon. Dinnertime. What do you want? Wait, stupid question; you’re going to want whatever I give you.”
“Okay,” Ed said, allowing her to drag him into the kitchen and set him down in one of the chairs and start bustling around him, because what else was he supposed to do…?
“I’ll be right back, Brother,” Al said.
“Okay,” Ed said again, helpless, feeling powerfully like he was four years old again, feeling vaguely dizzy, feeling…
Bereft. Was that the word?
“Here,” Winry said. Something fwumped down on his shoulders—a blanket.
“I’m not in shock,” he said, although his instinct was to tug it in a little bit around himself.
Winry made a contemplative noise. “You sure about that?” Before he could respond, she thunked a glass of water down on the table in front of him. “Drink. Clear your head. I’ll make you hot chocolate.”
Ed’s attention drew like a fucking magnet to Al coming in from the hall with a pile of folded clothing in his arms. He laid it on one of the chairs and then settled on the one nearest to Ed, scooting in a little closer.
“Brother,” he said softly, “what happened?”
Ed tried to reach up to scrub a hand over his face and realized he still had the laptop in his arms. He set it on the table next to the water; Winry leaned against the edge of the counter while the electric kettle warmed up.
“I dunno,” Ed said. “I mean, I do, I just—I dunno when it all—went—fucked up. Just—I mean, it’s me; it’s… I couldn’t make enough time to get through to him and try to figure out why this case is eating him alive, and he asked me to do one fucking thing for him after everything he does for me, and… and he said we weren’t fighting, but we were, and we should’ve been, and—”
“I’ll talk to him,” Al said quietly, looking down at his crossed arms.
“No,” Ed said, shakily, “you won’t. I fucked this up—me. You’ve cleaned up enough of my goddamn interpersonal messes over the years, Al; this isn’t your fault, and I’m not your responsib—”
“Ed,” Al said, gaze lifting to lock with his. “I want to. I want to help. I want you to let me help. You’ve been working your butt off so I didn’t have to since we were ten years old. And I hope you didn’t think for a darned minute that I wasn’t going to notice that you’re depositing money into my bank account at random intervals.”
Ed had known he was going to notice—Al was the kind of person who actually balanced his checkbook, which no one else in the entire universe ever seemed to have done in their lives—but he’d figured it would take longer than five weeks.
“I haven’t spent any of it, by the way,” Al said. “I’m saving it for a new car for you.”
“Bank of Alphonse,” Winry said brightly. “Even more secure than the Swiss.”
“And he doesn’t think I’m a fucking peasant for not speaking French,” Ed said.
Winry smiled, putting a dish of something that looked like thick, glorious lasagna in the microwave, and Ed realized he was starving and probably shaking and basically a fucking wreck, and…
And hadn’t he gotten past all this shit? Wasn’t that the point of being an adult—the point of living? Weren’t you supposed to hit some kind of a threshold, and all the bullshit fell away, and things just—worked? You figured it out? Shit made sense?
How the hell were you supposed to keep dragging your weary-ass fucking body through another fucking day of another fucking week of another fucking era of your stupid life if it just never got easier?
Al stood when the kettle boiled and reached up—with far too little trouble altogether—to get Ed a mug from high in the cabinet. He opened a packet of powdered cocoa and poured everything in, and then he found a mason jar of marshmallows (who even put things in mason jars for real, rather than just as a sort of hipster fashion statement thing?) and dumped at least a dozen on the top.
He stirred thoroughly, set the mug in front of Ed, and leaned against the table, face completely still. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I dunno,” Ed said, which was the honest fucking truth. “I just… Get up in the morning tomorrow and keep going, I guess.”
If he drank any of his magnificent sugar-sludge-water this soon, he’d burn his whole fucking mouth again, so despite wanting very little more than to drown himself in it, he refrained.
Al heaved a soft sigh and nodded slowly. “When you’re ready, though, promise me you’ll talk to him.”
Ed’s stomach lurched. “About fucking what?”
Al looked him in the eyes. “About how one disagreement does not invalidate a year of happiness. About how well you two suit each other no matter what was said in stress and anger. About how good you are together, and how much love there is between you, and how absolutely beautiful that is to finally have in your life, Ed.”
Ed buried his face in his hands.
“Oops,” Al said.
“Don’t worry,” Winry said. “I got this. Ed, look—food.”
The smell was torment enough; she grabbed the dish up in a potholder and slung it down on the table in front of him, then brandished a fork.
“Listen,” she said, waving it until he took it. “Whatever happens, you’re Ed—our Ed. You always have a home, and we always have your back. Okay?”
Easy for her to say—she hadn’t had to live with his dumb ass for an extended period since they all got to college.
But Al was smiling at him, too, in a heartbroken kind of way, and it was the least he could do to swallow enough of his objections to force out, “Okay.”
If there were any two people on the planet who could right all of the shit he’d toppled over in his own stupid life, he was looking at them.
And that was something to be thankful for.
Roy looks like shit.
Ed’s heart clenches up so tight, so small, it must be dragging every fucking capillary in towards it—it feels like he’s imploding.
The circles under Roy’s eyes weren’t this deep two days ago, the last time Ed saw him through this screen—were they? Ed would have noticed. That he would have fucking noticed; and even if he hadn’t, Al would’ve said something; it must…
But it doesn’t change that much.
It doesn’t change the fact that there’s been a psychological shitstorm behind Roy’s eyes this entire time, and Ed was so absorbed in his own damn shit that didn’t have a motherfucking clue.
Roy’s got a five-o’-clock shadow half-obscured by a fat wad of gauze taped to his cheek and the underside of his jaw, which must be obnoxiously uncomfortable. He’s tucked into bed, wearing what looks like his all-time-favorite flannel pajamas, and it fucking hurts not to be there, no matter what the hell is going on.
Ed swallows until his throat clears enough to speak through. It takes a couple tries.
“That’s a good look for you,” he says.
The corners of Roy’s mouth shift up about a centimeter.
And then they flatten out.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“That you didn’t tell me?” Ed asks. “Or that I found out?”
“Both,” Roy says.
At least he’s being honest about that.
Ed pulls in a breath and holds it, wringing it for oxygen, while he tries to grasp at the flimsy little thoughts twirling through his brain like falling flakes of ash.
Bottom line, really, is that nobody’s ever gained anything by not getting to the fucking point.
“So,” he says. “How bad is it?”
Roy doesn’t pretend to think Ed’s asking about the gash on his jaw—although he wants to know about that, too. It looks like Roy’s okay—his eyes are clear; he’s lucid so far; Riza would’ve dragged him right back to the hospital by the scruff of his neck if she had any doubts about his general soundness of mind and body.
What Roy does is lift a hand, push his unusually lank-looking bangs back off of his forehead, draw a breath, let it out, and look Ed in the eyes as much as the mirrored screens allow.
“I’m flying out to D.C. next week,” he says. “Tuesday afternoon. I’m supposed to appear in court on Wednesday.”
Fucking figures. That’s exactly when Ed’s supposed to get back.
Roy knows it. And by his expression, he also knows that he hasn’t even begun to answer the question.
He swallows, then cringes, then runs his tongue over his lips.
Ed’s heart keeps pounding, and his shoulder throbs with it, and he doesn’t quite dare speak.
“In April of 2007,” Roy says—softly, softly, with a faint hint of a tremor underneath, “Bradley was heading our base in the Paktika province—ours was one of many; Paktika had been a hotbed since the beginning of the war. The Taliban had a strong presence and sometimes strong support. The Army extended the standard tour of duty on the eleventh of the month, up until which I’d been six weeks away from going back to Fort Lewis. A week after that, Bradley sent us in to a village based on reports that they were harboring militants in a meeting hall, with orders to smoke them out.”
To say that Ed doesn’t like where this is going would be a grievous fucking insult to everyone involved.
Roy looks away for a second—probably not so much at the wall as straight through it, straight through time. Straight through thirteen fucking years.
Is this the thing that wakes him in the middle of the night?
Or is it another incident altogether?
Fifteen months in combat probably spoiled him for choice.
Ed timed Roy’s heart-rate once while they were huddled together on the couch—sixty-five beats per minute. But that’s resting. How fast is it going now? How many times has his heart squeezed and released by the time he parts his lips again to say—
“He and I had both been there on a few occasions—rapport with the locals was supposed to be one of our primary goals, in large part as a means of getting intelligence, although I suppose there was a bit of magnanimous intention in it somewhere. I was fairly sure from those experiences—and the conversations in particular—that they wouldn’t be harboring insurgents anywhere in that town.”
He looks at Ed.
He looks away.
“Bradley ordered us to go in and rig all of the surrounding streets with explosives,” he says, “and set the hall on fire to flush them out.” His eyes dart to the screen, and then away again; he has never, in the five fucking years that Ed has known him, looked so… small. Brittle. Broken. “At that point, we were supposed to hold a vantage point from the roof of one of the nearby buildings to make sure no one slipped away.”
It sounds like a fucking movie. Like a stupid, overblown, fucking contrived fake plot constructed specifically to stir up trepidation in some theoretical audience—
“And?” Ed asks, and his voice comes out weak as shit—thready. Almost cracked.
“It wasn’t the fucking Taliban,” Roy says. He meets Ed’s eyes again, and Ed’s guts drop out, and the void they leave in him is so, so fucking cold. “It was a wedding.”
This can’t be happening—this can’t have happened.
Ed feels his breath scraping up and down his throat—once, twice, three times. This is a vivid fucking dream. This is a nasty nightmare cooked up by the sickest, darkest parts of his subconscious; this is not real—
“Twelve civilians,” Roy says. “Two were children—a boy who was six, and a little girl who was four.” His voice starts to shake. “They made it out of the building,” he says. “The two kids—their clothes were on fire; they were screaming so loud it—”
He closes his eyes. He breathes in, and out, and then he lays one hand over his mouth and blinks up at the ceiling for a couple of seconds.
Ed barely fucking recognizes him right now.
“They hit one of the charges,” Roy says. “The ones that we’d set to stop anyone from escaping. Blew out the whole front wall of the shop across the street. The rubble flew so far it triggered a second one.”
Roy wraps his arms around himself and looks down at the keyboard, or maybe his knees, or the bedsheet—or maybe nothing at all. Maybe he’s not even seeing anything; maybe he’s not even there. Not really.
“We knew,” he says. “Of course we fucking knew; I mean—we did what we were told, but Bradley had to have known, and we all knew—we all felt it; we—”
He stops. He swallows. He picks with the nail of his index finger at the edge of the gauze on his face.
“The trial started yesterday,” he says. “He’s been accused of… there’s a list. There’s a list of other incidents. That’s what they call them; they say ‘incidents’ like it changes—”
He pushes his hand back through his hair again.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.
—doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what to think; his head is a fucking whirlwind—a screaming dervish of what should have been fucking impossibilities, dragging at the things he thought he knew right up until this solitary conversation cracked the core right out of his whole fucking world.
“Could you—” he starts, and the words fucking splinter into silence. He clears his throat, swallows, tries again. “Could you end up in prison for this?”
He really did just speak that fucking sentence.
Please, please, please let this be a fucking dream—
“Possibly,” Roy says, and the tremulous line of his mouth shifts into something odd and almost a little bit—amused. “I’m not the one on trial, so I couldn’t be convicted, but it’s… not outside the realm of possibility that once I testify, they’ll try me next.” He hesitates, and then it’s definitely a smile—but it’s the cruelest, coldest, darkest one Ed thinks he’s ever fucking seen. “But I don’t think they would. I’m very good at convincing people to like me.”
You’re good at lying, you mean, jumps unbidden into Ed’s fucking traitor of a brain. You’re good at playing people. You’re good at manipulating them.
He doesn’t mean that.
He doesn’t really think that’s true; it’s just—
Just about fucking anything could be.
Ed fights to wrangle words out of his mouth that aren’t just fucking—what? Accusations?
“So—” he says. “You—”
Roy’s watching him—too smart; too damn smart by half; Roy just knows.
“I was responsible?” he asks, voice low and toneless. Calm. Fucking collected. “I watched them die?” He pushes his hand back through his hair again, and his face contorts for a second before he smoothes it out. “Yes. And yes.” He looks at Ed. He’s like some fucking stranger—like somebody off the street. What the hell happened to Roy? Schmoopy, stupid, sweet fucking Roy—who the hell is this dead-eyed fucking mercenary who let another man tell him to murder—? “What else would you like to know?”
All this time.
All this time, he’s had that blood on his hands.
Every impression of his fingertips; every graze of his palms—every time they twined their hands together; every time they fucking touched—
Ed asks the only thing he can think of. “Why didn’t you—tell me?”
“Because I knew you would look at me,” Roy says, “the way you’re looking at me now.”
The thundering roll of Ed’s heartbeat in his ears drowns out even the howl of the hurricane. This can’t—as if he—
“I don’t blame you,” Roy says. He’s too calm. He’s too fucking calm. Like he was waiting, all this time—almost like he fucking practiced, because he was expecting it; because he knew— “That’s the way I look at myself.”
“You should have said something.” Ed hears the shudder in his voice, but honestly it’s a surprise he can muster any volume at all. “You should have fucking—you should have—”
Fucking LCD screens have never done Roy Mustang justice. No combination of colored pixels can capture him in all of his complexity—the way he moves; the subtleties of the motion of his hands and the nuances of the expressions of his face. An approximation just isn’t enough. Elicia sometimes encapsulates the spirit, but it’s never accurate. Representation is flat, and it always falls short.
And all the same—Roy’s never looked older or fucking wearier than he does right now.
Like the fight’s gone out of him.
Like there’s just no fucking point.
“All I ever wanted,” he says, quietly, but Ed’s listening so hard despite the torrent in his brain that it might as well be a fucking shout, “was to be worthy of loving you. That’s it. Once I found you, I knew that was… the most important thing I could do with my life, at this point. The most important thing I could become. Someone who loved you. That was all I wanted to be.” He presses the knuckles of his right hand in against his eye. “And it was—stupid, insufferably stupid, I suppose, but I always… I liked to think that maybe, if I did that well enough, the rest of this—the rest of me—could just be memories that belonged to someone else.”
Of course it’s Ed’s fault—somehow, backwards, in a roundabout kind of way. It always is.
That’s not fair. That’s not fair. No, he didn’t fucking ask; no, he didn’t fucking reach out and create the opportunity for Roy to speak about it; apparently, he didn’t even establish the fucking foundation of mutual respect or whatever psychoanalytical bullshit it is that would’ve been required for Roy to feel safe enough to open up, but—
“You should’ve told me,” he says, sounding faint to his own fucking ears. “You know everything about me, and I still—”
Fuck. Jesus fucking Christ.
Everything in him just keeps—falling. With a sick jerk like a broken elevator, over and over and over again—
“I don’t even know where you grew up,” he says. “I don’t know how you met Riza. I don’t know fucking anything about you; I don’t—you dole out these bits and fucking pieces, sometimes, but I don’t know what they come from; I don’t know where you come from, and—”
“It’s all just shit like this,” Roy says. “It’s just heaps of shit like this, Ed; it’s nothing you would want to know, and I don’t need sympathy, or pity, and—you’ve had it so much worse; you’ve gotten through things I can’t even imagine; I—”
“It’s not a fucking contest,” Ed says. It feels like the words scald his throat on the way up. “You should have told me. About—something, God, just—anything, some part of you, this part—”
Those kids would be nineteen and seventeen now. Maybe they’d be in school. Maybe they’d want to be doctors, or teachers, or musicians—maybe they’d be moody-ass teenagers complaining about what was for dinner, bumming around with their friends, procrastinating on their homework, demanding that their parents leave them alone. Crying into their pillows over stupid-ass crushes. Tasting really good coffee for the first time.
How is it possible that someone who’s supported Ed so fucking unconditionally could have taken that away?
How can Roy Mustang be a fucking murderer?
And it’s not—not quite—the same as killing in cold blood. It’s not quite like waking up one morning and specifically deciding to end the existence of another human being.
But it’s not that different.
Ed’s head is pounding. His fucking shoulder, too; his heart—way too fucking fast; way too fucking jittery. It’s like he’s coming loose—like the threads that tether him to reality are fraying; like they’re thinning and then snapping one at a fucking time, and he’s drifting further from anything concretely comprehensible with every one that goes—
He doesn’t even know what he’s fucking feeling.
It’s like there’s fucking fury in him, but—distantly. Behind two feet of glass. He can press his open hand against the surface and almost feel the heat, but…
Mostly he feels—
And there’s all this fucking hurt underneath it, as the icy surface of the window starts to crack—and a worse kind of fucking anger at himself for trying to… what? Repossess this shit? Make it about him, when it’s anything but? Twist something so fucking separate from his being into another stupid footnote in his endless self-indulgent piece of shit sob story?
His head feels too fucking heavy to hold up anymore; he drops it into one hand and and just—
“Ed,” Roy says, and his voice is the same. His voice is still soft and sweet and fucking loving, and it still pulls some part of Ed’s psyche gently towards it; it still starts to warm him at the fucking core—
Everything they’ve ever had is fucking tarnished.
Every fucking moment has this dreck-black shadow strewn across it now, forever.
“I trusted you,” Ed hears himself say. “With everything I have ever fucking had. With everything I am.”
“I know,” Roy says.
And then, as he’s staring at the inside of his palm, the question that’s been ricocheting around his skull rattles its way loose: “Is that what you dream about?”
Roy’s silent for a second. Ed can feel the flit of his pulse in his own skin where his thumb’s pressed against his forehead.
“Does it matter?” Roy asks softly.
Does it? Does it change anything? If that’s what’s been tormenting him one, two, sometimes three nights a week—does it ameliorate any of what was done? If that little girl is the one he’s been trying to save over and over and over, every fucking time he wakes up in the dark—does that change the sentence? Does repentance—does suffering in the name of regret—somehow lessen the severity of the original crime?
“I don’t know,” Ed says. Words taste like rusted nails—bent and bloody as he spits them out. “I don’t fucking know. I just—”
“I’m sorry,” Roy says.
That phrase is for ordinary things—ordinary problems, ordinary mistakes. Missteps. Miscalculations. Hitting someone on accident while you’re gesticulating. Spilling your drink on somebody’s shirt.
And it can be bigger—just like love gets thrown around everywhere, but you can fucking hear the way the Earth trembles when it really hits home. It can be for when you genuinely hurt somebody. It can be for trying to offer someone a tiny bit of refuge in the wake of a tremendous loss.
But it’s not big enough for this.
Ed’s brain churns like a fucking steam engine—like a whole damn factory, machinery moving so fast the individual parts begin to blur, and the black smoke billows in the sky.
There is no changing this.
This is a fact—this is a crystallized, completed moment that has already become a piece of history. It cannot be undone; it cannot be erased; it cannot be unmade.
Roy killed innocent people.
But the thing is—
Events don’t exist in a vacuum. Events don’t occur on their own. They appear at the end of a chain—at the end of dozens of tiny, interwoven chains; as a knot in a weave too complicated for the human brain to process, most of the time. Infinite factors converge on every single action, and every reaction is the inevitable next link down the line.
Roy killed innocent people in a warzone, after almost a year of living in an environment Ed can’t begin to imagine.
What’s it even like?
He vaguely remembers some of the media coverage, but he was young, and he had his own and Al’s survival to account for; he couldn’t have spared the time to watch the news even if he’d wanted another reason to feel like the walls were closing in.
He doesn’t know.
He can’t conceptualize.
The pressure from the inside—from superiors, commanders; from every other soldier; the cramped, compressing angles of the edges of the mold; the slowly-building agony of trying to fit the shape of the American warrior carrying the flag. The drag of the weapons; the weight of the world bound up in the folds of the fatigues. The schedule. The demands.
And the spreading poison of the possibility of death at every turn.
He doesn’t know how many people died while Roy watched—well before it was those two kids at the wedding. He doesn’t know if Roy saw Hughes die; he doesn’t know any of the smothered truth of what happened there, what happened to Roy when he was younger than Ed is now—when Roy was still figuring out what the fuck it meant to be alive, riding the Bowie knife’s edge between survival and a last glance down the barrel of the wrong fucking gun—
Are they even the only ones—those kids? Were there others before? How many?
People keep telling Ed that he’s one of the smartest people on the fucking planet—which is bullshit anyway; having the dumb fucking luck to get born in a place where he had access to enough resources to make shit happen has very little to do with brainpower. He grabbed enough fucking squares in Bingo to win. Yeah, he worked hard. Yeah, he racked his own damn intellect for everything it’d cough up and turned it upside-down to shake out its pockets. He made it happen. But he couldn’t have done jackshit if he hadn’t had the means, and that has nothing to do with how fucking smart he was or is or ought to be.
But in any goddamn case—
He’s got a pretty hefty IQ battering ram to work with, all things considered.
And he can’t even begin to understand what Roy went through.
It’s not as fucking simple as He killed them.
Except it is, too; it’s true; there’s no amount of shiny-ass fucking medals or courtroom equivocation that can change it.
In an inhuman situation, Roy did an inhuman thing.
None of the rest of the things he’s done—none of the love, none of the laughter, none of the fucking beauty of who he is and how much stronger he’s made Ed’s soul—are any less real for that.
That’s the part…
Because what the fuck would it mean to accept it?
But he can’t—
But it’s Roy—
There aren’t any words for this. Even someone who could bend those bastards to his will couldn’t find any to encapsulate something that’s just this—
In so, so, so fucking many different ways.
Ed sounds like a broken record—and he feels like one, too. Fucking flimsy plastic shards with jagged edges and no tune.
“You should have told me,” he says.
All he can see is the white sheets and the purple pillowcase and his own fucking knee and the corner of the laptop screen. Everything’s getting fucking blurry as his vision wavers—dark encroaching at the sides like a tunnel caving in.
“I know,” Roy says. “I’m sorry.”
Ed’s head is full of fucking granite. He needs both hands to hold it just to keep it still attached. “You keep f-fucking saying that—”
“It keeps being true,” Roy says. There’s a note of urgency seeping into his voice now, but Ed can’t look at him; just fucking can’t. “I told—others. Before I met you. I know it doesn’t… change anything; I know it doesn’t make a difference. But I told people I was trying to love, and I lost them, and I just—” His voice thins until it’s close to fucking breaking. “I just—couldn’t, Ed. I couldn’t risk it. Not you.”
Two hands aren’t enough. Not enough to bear the weight of his own fucking cranium; not enough to build something that’ll last.
“Everything,” Ed forces past the tightness in his throat—the short, sharp breaths and the suffocating heat that prickles everywhere beneath his skin. “I told you fucking—everything, Roy, every last fucking secret; every fucking failure; everything I had—”
“I know,” Roy says, and this time his voice fucking cracks right down the middle. “I know, Ed, and I love you for it; I have always loved you for it—you are so fucking brave for being so entirely who you are, and I don’t think you’ve ever even realized—”
Ed curls his fingers in against his face; his nails scrape at his forehead, his browbones. “Shut up.”
“I love you,” Roy says, and his voice just—shatters, crumbles, like a fucking dam, and the water rushes through, and Roy fucking Mustang is in tears, and Ed can’t even look at him. “Please, Ed, don’t—I know it wasn’t—fair, I know—I know I’m weak, Ed; I’m a fucking coward, but please d-don’t fucking l-leave me—m-most days you’re the only th-thing that makes sense; loving you is the only th-th-thing that makes sense—Ed, please—”
But not just words; not just speech suddenly aborted.
Ed’s own fucking ragged breaths are the only ones he can hear.
He grinds the heels of his hands in against his eyes for another second and makes himself look up.
The Skype window’s blank. There’s an error message; his vision’s too hazy to make it out.
He blinks, breathes, tilts his head back and stares at the ceiling, blinks again.
No fucking kidding.