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“There’s a really long list,” Ed said, “so I wouldn’t say this lightly, but I’ve done some thinking, and I can tell you, with some confidence, that—”

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever had?” Winry asked cheerfully.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “That.”

“Too flippin’ bad,” Winry said, even more cheerfully.  “You’re stuck with me, and it, for at least another hour.”

At times like this, Ed hated her almost as much as he loved her—there was about an iota of emotional distinction in between.  The worst part was that he couldn’t kill her, because he was the one who would suffer the most if she was gone.  Quasi-sister-best-friends were about the best and the worst thing ever invented, and even after twenty years of trying to cope with the dichotomy, he was still never sure what to do when she dragged him into shit like…

Well, like frat house Halloween parties they hadn’t even really been invited to, which were overflowing with lousy store-bought costumes and cheap drinks being distributed illegally to underclassmen at such a precipitous rate that you kind of had to admire the efficiency, if nothing else.

Winry was dressed as a witch—but the fancy kind, with a sparkly orange chiffon-or-something band around her hat and a matching sash around the waist of her short black dress; not the kind with warts and jaundiced eyes and a cauldron and a creaky cackle halfway up her throat—and Ed was dressed as a cat, because she’d come up with this brilliant plan less than a day ago, and there hadn’t been time to rummage for a better plan.

He was a black cat, too.  As if he didn’t already know what the universe thought about the thing he had that was supposed to pass for luck.

This was going to end in vomit and tears.  He didn’t know who would be providing what, but he’d had a premonition.  That was what happened when you were a fancy witch’s familiar, after all.

Winry, despite numerous worshipful readings of the entire Harry Potter series cover to cover, had apparently experienced no such divinitory revelation.  The long and abbreviated of it was: Ed was fucked, but only metaphorically; never literally.  What else was new?

Winry dragged him by his elbow through a small crowd who seemed to think that they were dancing, despite the fact that mostly they appeared to be shouting at each other and trying not to spill their drinks, and onward into the kitchen.  An intimidatingly fit frat boy who apparently believed that orange bodypaint counted as a costume was leaning against the counter, upon which an unreasonably large number of bottles had gathered to ruin Ed’s night and possibly his life.

“Yo,” the guy said, looking directly at Winry’s cleavage.  “You guys already pay the cover?”

Ed wasn’t sure if it was legal for a campus-sponsored frat to charge for entry, but they’d each given the dude at the door ten bucks anyway.

So had Ling, who had been with them at the time—but then he’d disappeared before Ed had even finished shoving his wallet back into his pocket.  Where the hell had that idiot ended up, anyway?

“Yup,” Winry said, subtly tilting her body forward to give Jack-Off-O’-Lantern more to look at.  “Do you guys have cider?”

“Sure,” the guy said.  “Is that what you want?”

Ed could almost hear Winry gritting her teeth even though she was outwardly flashing a winning smile.  “If you’ve got it!” could apparently carry a distinct undertone of No, I only asked because I think the jack-o’-lantern face you painted lopsided on your chest there is such a feat of artistry, and I wanted to stare at it some more if you knew someone’s sarcastic tendencies well enough.

“Cool,” the guy said.  He rummaged through the amoebatic collection of glass and aluminum and plastic and turned up a brown bottle with a colorful label, which he uncapped with a bottle opener that he’d clipped to the waistband of his green basketball shorts.

Ed didn’t think it would help to try to explain to him that pumpkins didn’t generally have any greenery underneath the part you carved.  Even people who thought their Halloween costumes through didn’t tend to appreciate logical critique when it came to this kind of shit.

The guy handed Winry the bottle and then managed to tear his gaze away from Winry’s boobs long enough to look at Ed.  “How ’bout you?”

“Oh,” Ed said.  “I’m okay; I don’t n—”

“He’ll have cider, too,” Winry said.

“What?” Ed said.

“Okay,” the guy said.

There was a cold bottle in Ed’s hand, and Winry was chirping a thank-you and then hauling him onward by his elbow again, and this was, without a doubt, the worst idea in the history of well-intentioned human failures.

And then it got even worse—after a few spare minutes of wandering awkwardly and sipping at their ciders, Winry squeaked something about being pretty sure she’d just spotted Catherine and promptly abandoned Ed at the foot of an unsettlingly shadowy staircase, which presumably led upward to bedrooms where people Ed wouldn’t want to know were getting nasty as fast as was possible after guzzling too much crappy beer.

Ed made some headway with his cider, which at least didn’t taste awful, although he couldn’t help looking down into it like it might apologize under scrutiny.  Alcohol was insidious, and they were still technically underage, and surely there were legions of cops out wandering the streets, just fucking waiting to bust stupid parties like this one and throw kids like him in the local slammer and fuck up his permanent record once and for all, and—

“Fancy meeting you here,” a terribly familiar voice said.

Black cats walking under ladders on Friday the thirteenth had nothing on Edward Elric.

No way around it.  He turned.

“Hey,” he said.  “How’re you?”

Roy grinned.  He was wearing stupid plastic vampire teeth and a stupid cape and a stupid silk vest, with his hair slicked back and a little bit of eyeliner smudged on in a way that should have been horrible.

He looked like a million bucks.

Ed hated him.

“Very well, thank you,” Roy said.  “You?”

He was smarmy and too-smart and way too pretty, and he was the only person Ed had ever met who could say shit like that and somehow make it work.

“Good,” Ed said.

“You don’t look especially ‘good’,” Roy said.  “You look a bit like you’d rather be anywhere else on the planet.”

“Nah,” Ed said.  “This is all right.  At least I have a good shot at blending into the wall.”

Fuck.  Roy was stepping closer, and then leaning against the wall in question right next to Ed.  This was his wall, damn it—and, more importantly, his hiding place.  Wasn’t it obvious?  What a presumptuous bastard.

“I’m afraid to say,” Roy said, in that particular tone that people employed when they were using I’m afraid to mean I’m delighted, “that it is going to be very difficult for someone like you to pass unnoticed.”

The world was an amazing place.  When you thought lousy shit about yourself, it hurt in a slow way—a low, ongoing, background ache like a bruise turning colors as the blood vessels mended.

But when someone else articulated something you’d been thinking, it stung, harsh and hot and immediate, like high-fiving fiberglass.

“Guess so,” Ed said, glaring at the wall opposite, which really needed a romantic night in with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser or twelve.  If Mr. Clean was Ed’s type, he would’ve offered to chaperone.  “Not a whole lot of awkward, friendless über-geeks with a limp at these things, are there?  Guess we’re not usually the demographic they send the handwritten invites to.”

He hadn’t intended to get quite that honest.  He snuck a glance at the label on the cider—it tasted much less like ass than most of the other offerings, so Winry’d been onto something there, but that was dangerous in its own way; if you didn’t hate every sip, you were far more likely to drink a greater volume than you intended.

“What?” Roy was saying, so blankly that it was a little bit hilarious in a stupid sort of way.  “No, I meant—”

“It’s fine,” Ed said.

“It’s not fine,” Roy said, and Ed glanced at him, and the little concerned look that Roy was doing was even more stupid-hilarious because of the fangs.  “I meant that you’re a stunning blond with a mouth-watering shoulder-to-hip ratio, and no one on the sighted side of macular degeneration is going to be able to ignore you even if you stand in the corner and face the wall.”

Ed’s brain was having trouble with that.

He skipped to the end part, which had mostly made sense.

“Is that an option?” he said.  “The standing in the corner thing.”

“Trust me,” Roy said.  “If you emphasize your ass any more, they’ll convict you of murder.”

Back to trouble.

“They were the only black jeans I had that weren’t in the wash,” Ed said, recognizing as he did that he was staring at individual puzzle pieces and trying to guess at the picture from a scattering of isolated colors.  That was never a good plan.  He tried to rewind despite the foaming currents of his cider-brain so that he could pan out to look at the places where the edges fit together.  “Wait.  Are you—” With Roy loitering next to him like this, he had to half-turn to stare properly.  One of his cat ears brushed the wall.  “Are you hitting on me?”

“That depends,” Roy said, sipping demurely from a red cup.  “Would you be amenable to it if I was?”

“You’re either hitting on me, or you’re not,” Ed said.  “There’s no fucking quantum physics if-then statement bullshit about it.”

Roy was grinning like an asshole and trying to use the rim of the cup to hide it.  “That’s a very limited worldview, coming from a scientist of your stature.”

“You’re going to have a very limited lifespan if you keep running your fuckin’ mouth,” Ed said.

Roy—

—laughed.

Loud and long with his fucking fake vampire teeth.

Somehow, every time Ed thought that he’d hit rock bottom and broken all the shovels, a power drill materialized in his hands.




His impulse was to say it had started with the first day of chem, but the blog had preceded that.  And even then—his shitty relationship to the world and the universe and the concept of love and romance and relationships had started long before any of this.  If you didn’t want to go all the way back to the moment that he was conceived in vivo, a more sensible place to start was just about a year ago, when the whole Russell thing had swelled and warmed and brightened—and then imploded, almost in silence, because apparently Ed’s personal life was destined to be a neutron star.

For this particular part of the ongoing disaster, however, the first day of class made the most sense as a point of origin.  That was when the game had grown feet, after which its plotty legs had begun to thicken, and now it was following him around and growling at intervals.

He felt like… not a fraud, exactly, but like he was doing something wrong.  Like somebody was going to see him, know immediately that he felt isolated and confused, and call him out.  Hey, you!  Transfer student!  Go back to your small-town community college and stay there this time, you hack!

Unfortunately, there was nothing for it but to fake it until he made it.  He and Winry didn’t have any classes in common, although they did—blessedly, glory hallelujah and so forth—have a few that they could walk towards together.

The point was, he’d crept into Chem 102, tried not to freeze like a deer in the fucking headlights at the sheer size of the lecture hall, and sat down three rows up from the front, in the seat on the edge of the aisle.  That way, he’d look attentive and invested and all that shit, but not like he was trying too hard; and if he had to go to the bathroom or run out screaming on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he wouldn’t have to climb over anybody else’s knees to get to the stairs.  It seemed like the most practical position for providing solutions to problems that he hadn’t even had yet.

There was a small chance that he was overthinking things a bit.  He just didn’t want to look like a fucking idiot on his first fucking day of class at a real university.  They could probably kick you out for that, and someone else would snap up his scholarship in a second, and—

And two people sat down in front of him, chatting idly about the too-bright sun and then about the impossibility of guessing how a lecture hall desk was going to unfold from the side of the chair just by the look of it.  The girl was wearing bright pink dangly earrings shaped like stars, and the guy had a checkered shirt on.  Ed didn’t normally notice things like that, but the shirt was black and red, and Winry would have liked the earrings, and he was trying really hard not to think about the odds of impending doom.

“Hang on,” the girl was saying as she dug her laptop out of her bag.  She flipped it open, banged heedlessly on the keys at random to wake it up, and then tapped her password in.  “I gotta see if he’s updated.”

“You are obsessed,” the guy said.

No,” the girl said.  “He just brightens my day, okay?  I keep telling you; if you start following it, you’ll totally understand.”

“Oh, come on,” the guy said.  “This guy is clearly trying to fill some kind of void in his life by getting validation from a bunch of horny internet strangers—”

“It’s not dirty,” the girl said.  “…most of the time.”

“Even if it wasn’t,” the guy said.  “Which it is—he gets off to randomers coming by and squealing about his probably-made-up sexploits, and all of you weirdos daydream about him night and day to fill the voids in your lives, and none of you are thinking critically ab—”

“He posted!” the girl cried.

They both leaned in so close and so quickly that they almost knocked heads.

“It is so dirty,” the guy said.

“You totally love it,” the girl said.

“Maybe a little,” the guy said.

The girl leaned back, sighing beatifically.  “Don’t spoil it.  I’m gonna sit down and read it all the way through later, when I have time to appreciate it.”

“Gross,” the guy said, but he was sitting back awfully reluctantly for someone who was judging so hard.

Speaking of judging so hard, Ed doodled a little more fervently in the top margin of his notebook so that he wouldn’t look like he was just as guilty.

But not before he saw the title of the blog page the girl was minimizing:

Campus Casanova.

Huh.




Class was terrifying.  The material wasn’t terrifying; the material was pretty consistent with the stuff he’d taught himself outside of AP classes in high school, because he knew there was more to it, and chem was fucking rad.  But people were terrifying—students, TAs, fancy-pants professors with so many degrees after their names that it looked like somebody had vomited alphabet soup on their credentials.  That part scared the fuck out of him.  There were just so damn many people ready and waiting to point to him as the odd man out; he didn’t know where anything was; he didn’t know who anyone was; his only friend was a humanities major whose path he’d only cross when she forcibly organized it in advance; he hadn’t even met his roommate yet; he didn’t know if it was cooler to take notes on your laptop than on paper… although at least with that last one, he now had a little bit of data to demonstrate that there were people doing both.  He’d read that you remembered it better when you wrote by hand, so even though his chicken scratches were sometimes illegible to the point of uselessness after the fact, he was striving to keep up.

Al—who had examined his class schedule, made a color-coded chart, photocopied it, and then placed the copy in the clear plastic pocket on the front of Ed’s planner and also programmed it into his phone—texted moments after Ed, dizzy with snippets of gleaned knowledge along with the torrents of terror, started to walk out of the lecture hall.

Hey, Brother!  Hope your first class went great!  Please respond so I know you’re alive!  I hope you’re having fun!  Love, Al

Fucking nerd couldn’t be talked out of signing his text messages.  Ed adored every atom of his dorky being.

Ed had to shift a bunch of stuff around to get his backpack onto his shoulder and his phone into his hand as he headed for the exit.  He had ten minutes—well, probably nine and a half now—until his next class, and it was only a couple of buildings down, but he wanted to be able to pick a strategic seat again.

Hey Al, it was ok, I am alive (obviously).  not sure if its fun but maybe it’ll be fun later once i get used to it.  love you too you nerd

The instant that he tapped to send it, a pair of hands seized his shoulders on either side, and a voice said “Whoa!”

Ed startled about eighty percent of the way out of his skin and lost at least half a decade of his life, but when his soul snapped back into his corporeal form, he looked up and discovered…

An obscenely hot guy with dark hair and dark eyes and an asshole smirk, who looked to be part-Asian and all-Satan.

“That’s a doorframe,” the guy said, releasing his grasp on Ed’s shoulders so that he could gesture to it gracefully.

“No shit,” Ed said, stepping through.

Oh.  Oh, God.  He had to watch his fucking trashy-ass mouth around here; he kept forgetting that these people weren’t his community college cohorts, who knew him and put up with him talking like a whole row of portajohns.

Except that the guy started laughing like Ed had said something hilarious—which, if you experienced acute schadenfreude at the expense of stupid transfer students, was probably a hundred percent true.  The corners of his eyes crinkled up, and they glimmered or whatever, and all of that disgusting shit that happened to good-looking people naturally all the time unfolded right in front of Ed’s face.

“You were about to bash into it,” the guy said, trailing him.  There were stairs.  Ed had to focus on those, and not on wanting to murder this guy.  The world would be safer without this asshole, though; he probably stopped traffic on the regular.  “You have a very nice nose; it’d be a pity to break it on the first day of class.”

Ed whirled so fast he almost fell down the aforementioned stairs, which would have been nice and fitting, if nothing else.  “I—what?”

“See you Thursday,” the guy said, skipping deftly down past him, messenger bag bouncing blithely against his ass, not that Ed was watching, or anything; and not that it was really, really nice.

Class was terrifying, and people were terrifying, and apparently doorframes were out to get him, and this whole college thing had clearly been a terrible fucking mistake.




His next class went a little better: none of the doorframes attacked, and no self-righteous and obnoxiously gorgeous people had to swoop in and save him from himself, at the very least.

He was starting to freak out a little bit, though—only a little bit, so far, but… There was just so fucking much.  Sure, it wasn’t like he’d exactly skated through the whole community college gig and phoned it in for shits and giggles—not that anyone had ever accused him of going to his professors and literally asking for extra work, or anything; that would be ridiculous; of course he’d never done that—but this was a whole different ballgame on a brand new field.  This was the big leagues.  This was serious.

And if he psyched himself out on the first day, he was going to screw himself over before he’d ever gone to bat, wasn’t he?

…it was time to retire that metaphor.  At least to the dugout.  Before it started doping or anything.

Ed dragged the ongoing existential crisis trapped in his meatsuit into the little coffee shop where Winry had suggested that they meet up, filled a little wax-paper cup with some of the hopefully-free water from the canister on the counter, dragged his meatsuit back outside, set the cup down carefully on the last empty table on the terrace, and dropped into one of the accompanying chairs.

Odds were good that he was going to be fine once he got past this part.  He usually was.  But change was hard, and Al wasn’t here, and nothing about this place felt even remotely like home yet, and he was surrounded by strangers who were way better at projecting competence than he was.  Also, the doorways were sentient and mean-spirited.  And he already had homework and shit.

While he swilled the water aimlessly, he checked his phone to see if Winry had texted to explain why her ass was late to a meeting time she’d set.  There wasn’t any word yet, which probably meant she’d gotten distracted chatting up a cute guy after class, which left him…

Bored, with at least five minutes to kill—not enough time to start anything important, but just the right amount for a spot of nasty curiosity.

He swiped into his phone, opened a new browser window—private browsing; he wasn’t a total fucking idiot; he was a small-scale loser and a nerd, and that was an important distinction—and Googled the two fateful words he’d seen across the top of that girl’s screen.

There were some weird results, which he’d sort of expected, but just a couple lines down—

He tapped the link, and it opened a version of the same page he’d seen over her shoulder—hacked up and stripped down for mobile viewing, sure, but unmistakable all the same.

There was a little picture of a hand—presumably the writer’s hand, although honestly it could have been anyone’s; the writer could have been fucking Hannibal Lecter, and it could have been a hand he’d borrowed, posed, and then carved up for a gourmet lunch—wrapped around a pale blue cup of gently-steaming tea, held above what looked hazily like a bed with a book open on it.  If that wasn’t the most overbearing, contrived, deliberately picturesque-romantic-bullshit thing Ed had ever seen, then… Well, he had a few other options for what was, but it was definitely in the single digits on the list.

Mobile view had kind of squished the browser, by the looks of it; the next thing that settled on his screen as he scrolled was a series of links: the first said About This Blog; the second said About the Author; the third said Categorization and/or Vandalism; the fourth said Tap That, which… okay…; and the last one said Archive.  Ed hesitated with his fingertip centimeters from the screen, and then he selected the first one.  Might as well know what he was getting into before he was knee-deep in it.  Not that he didn’t already have an idea from the stupid picture, but…

The page loaded, with the aforementioned stupid picture replaced by some text.  At least this thing was relatively readable; the purported sex machine running it had opted for a parchment-looking theme, and the font was normal and shit.  Ed had grudgingly awarded some points for that right off the bat; unfortunately he remembered an era that had involved a lot of neon on black backgrounds, and flashing hearts, and sparkle text, and…

At least that time was over.  If nothing else went right in this century, they’d always have that.

Hopefully, he would be equally over this blog in a matter of minutes, instead of vaguely kind of intrigued.

Names and descriptions have been altered, the page he’d landed on read; and occasionally embellished beyond recognition, in the interests of protecting the innocent.  The feelings, however, are all and always real.

If you need me to tag for anything I’m not warning for already, please do just let me know!  The only thing I cannot tag for is purple prose, because then anyone who blocked it would be seeing an empty blog.

As your eponymous tour guide of the murky swamp commonly known as sex and relationships, at least as they pertain to my own tragic excuse for an existence, I think it’s worth noting that I identify as pansexual, and the experiences written of within will reflect as much; and that I absolutely and unequivocally believe that there is no such thing as sex without consent.

Also, safe sex is great sex!  I have a primer if you need it, and there’s a link on the Tags page.

Kisses, with tongue (but only if you’re into that),

—Casanova

Well, that confirmed two things that Ed had already suspected: first, that the guy in class had been onto something about attention and validation and sexcapades or whatever shit; and second, that the writer of this thing was pretentious as all fucking get-out, but he knew it.

Ed thumbed his way to the next link, which delivered a few more lines of… whatever this was:

The humble author is a humble pursuant of a humble doctorate degree at a humble university.  When he’s not diverting himself with dalliances and then narrating them for your edification, he spends an unreasonable amount of time accidentally burning himself with things in the lab that he probably wasn’t supposed to touch.  But attractively.  They are attractive burns.

Evidently he also considers referring to himself in the third person a worthwhile hobby, which begs the question of why anyone sleeps with him at all.

He is not in the business of revealing his location, but he is always open to specific questions of other natures, so please feel free to fire away.

(That was almost all of his favorite F-words.)

Holy shit, this guy was something else.

Ed tried the next page.  There was a big wall of text with bullet points; a quick skim confirmed that it had to do with how the guy was organizing this whole thing so that you could pinpoint what parts of it you wanted to read.

So maybe Ed kind of, sort of, secretly wanted to get to the Tap That page and see what the fuck that was about.  He didn’t feel he could be blamed for that—even if the rest of it was garbage, it had to be admitted that the asshole behind this whole production knew how to market, and he understood the concept of clickbait.

At least tapping on Tap That got the first colossal disappointment out of the way: apparently it was just… a little contact form sort of thing.  A box where you could type a question without having an account on this site.  How damn boring was that?  Ed had been—

Uh.  Ed had not been anything.  Ed had absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly not been hoping that the rather evocative phrase would lead to something like, you know, for instance, just hypothetically speaking, maybe some saucy pictures or some shit.  Just something suggestive—little bit of skin, little bit of leg, some inside of the wrist, maybe inside of the thigh, maybe a meaningful glimpse of a happy trail, or—

“Hey, nerd,” a voice said from way too fucking close, which brought Ed extremely close to the brink of instantaneous cardiac arrest.

He fumbled to shove his phone into his pocket, trying to press the button to kill the screen as he went, just in case.

“Hey, nerd, yourself,” he said.  Not exactly his most original comeback—but on the upside, it was embarrassing enough of its own merit to provide plausible cover for the faint flush he felt percolating in his cheeks, his neck, his throat, and probably the tips of his ears.  “How was class?”

“Great!” Winry said, which Ed believed, because Winry was one of those people who made her own life better by force.  She leaned against the table but didn’t sit down.  “You want coffee?”

“Do bears shit in the woods?” Ed asked, rummaging for his wallet.  “Here—I think it’s three bucks or something, but leave a tip.”

“You don’t have to tip when it’s just drip coffee,” Winry said, taking the cash.

“Yes, you do,” he said.

“They just pour it out,” she said.  “Sometimes they don’t even do that; they just put it in a carafe and make you dispense it yourself.”

“Well, they have to make it first,” he said.  “Plus you’re taking time away from orders that they would get tips on, so it’s like—a compensatory tip for the tips they could’ve made.”

Winry stared at him.

He stared back.

“This is why you’re single,” she said.

“Oh, like hell,” he said.  “Baristas would throw themselves at me and tear my clothes off if they heard that.  I’m single ’cause I’m a socially-backwards loser-freak who’s a million times more focused on physical chemistry than the kind you have with people.”

Winry opened her mouth, wrinkled her nose, and shut her mouth again.

“Jeez,” she said once that small facial feature pageant had concluded.  “You’re right.  I wanted to add something, but I think you covered all of it.”

“Thanks,” Ed said.  “Or something.”

“Sure or something,” Winry said.  She waved the dollar bills she’d taken from him.  “Well, you definitely earned the Rockbell coffee delivery service.”

“I’ll get it next time,” he said.

“Damn right you will,” Winry said.

She sauntered off towards the doors to the café, and he briefly considered fishing his phone out again.  There’d be time to read a post—maybe two—off of that horrifically fascinating blog.  Even if there wasn’t a line at the counter, Winry usually ordered lattes, which took a little while to describe, and then even longer to make.  She’d almost gotten into a fistfight in a Starbucks over it once—they’d gone to their local branch the first day that the pumpkin spice lattes were being advertised again, and she ordered one with her eyes all bright and her smile all big, and when she went to collect it from the barista and chirped out her gratitude, a dude at the condiments counter snorted and said “Basic bitch” just loud enough for her to hear.

Ed wasn’t quite sure whether the store had actually gone silent, or if that was his memory being melodramatic retroactively.  He was pretty sure his heart had almost stopped, although there had been a rushing in his ears that had sounded like his blood; it was just that he was so fucking angry he could barely see.

The world had shuddered back into focus a bit as Winry stepped right up into the guy’s personal space and looked him directly in the eyes.  She smiled.  She said, sweetly, “Would you like it in your face or on your crotch first?”

The guy blinked at her, tried for a lascivious smirk, and said, “What, hon?”

Winry raised her cup in one hand and curled the other into the collar of the guy’s shirt, and her smile tilted cold and sharp and absolutely terrifying.

“My drink,” she said.  “Do you want it on your face or your crotch first?  I’d promise to aim for your dick, but I get the impression it’s a pretty small target.”

The guy’s eyes went huge, and his face contorted, and Ed’s instincts kicked in—belated, yes, but piqued as shit.  He grabbed Winry’s elbow and hauled as hard as he dared without using enough force to spill her drink, since that would just make all of this worse.  “Hey, c’mon,” he said.  “You and I both know ‘The asshat provoked me’ won’t hold up in court, Win.”

Winry shook the guy once—not too hard, although witnesses were unreliable about that sort of thing—and then let go, stepping back.

“You fuck with a girl about what drink makes her happy ever again,” Winry said, “and I will find you, and you will get scalding milk in places you don’t want it to go.  Clear?”

Ed didn’t wait for an answer from today’s seaworthy—and sputtering—model of douchecanoe before dragging Winry out of the coffee shop.  They had to flee the scene of the almost-crime before one of the city’s numerous harried cops happened by and deigned to get involved.  He’d seen it happen.  Winry’s puppy eyes and I’m a good small-town girl voice had failed in the past—only once or twice in two decades of acquaintance, sure, but Ed wasn’t feeling lucky that day.  Or any day.  Or ever.  To be fair, that was probably a different problem.

When they made it out onto the sidewalk, Winry shrugged his arm off, good-naturedly enough.  She sipped her latte.

“That was stupid,” she said, completely calm.  “Next time I’ll wear my Uggs, so ‘basic’ can kick him in the face.”  She held the latte out to Ed.  “You want to taste victory?”

“No, thanks,” Ed said.  “Next time get a victory americano.”

She had a point about all of it: for one thing, the pumpkin spice syrup smelled really good and apparently tasted it.  Ed would definitely have tried one by now if it wasn’t for all the miserable milk involved.

In any case, the takeaway was… lattes.  Lattes, and a latte of trouble.  Lattes, and latte-r-day saints like Winry Rockbell fighting the good fight.  Lattes, and the canonized gift to humanity in question waiting for one inside the café right at this very minute, which was freeing Ed up to contemplate life, the universe, the temptation of that terrible blog, and the inexhaustible list of reasons for his singleness.  Singledom.  Singleosity.

Instead of indulging the urge to peruse some vicarious vice, he pointedly took out his new and neatly-folded campus map and took a look at the environs around his current location—eventually he would memorize this damn thing, and then he wouldn’t be capable of getting lost, and no one would know that he was, collegiately speaking, a n00b.

Momentarily, Winry returned bearing gifts of caffeine.  Although Ed supposed it wasn’t really a gift, since he’d paid for it, but at least she’d brought back his change this time.

“Thanks,” he said.  “Did y—”

“Three sugars and not even a whisper of a dairy product,” Winry said, settling across from him.

“You’re the best,” Ed said.

“I know,” Winry said.  “Did you get your work study stuff yet?”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “I start Saturday.”  He built the grimace up really slow from a neutral expression.  Had more effect that way.  “Food service.”

No,” Winry said.  “Really?  Sorry.”  She adjusted the little paper sleeve on her latte and beamed.  “They put me at the reception desk in the little English library.”

“Oh, my God,” Ed said.  If there were any other phrases in the language sufficient for that kind of injustice, he hadn’t heard them yet.

“Yeah,” Winry said.  “If it’s any consolation, this is probably the last time in my life that a humanities major is going to help me get a good job.”

“Touché,” Ed said.

Winry raised her cup and held it out.  “Well, freakin’ cheers to us for making it this far,” she said.  “If all else fails, we’re more stubborn than the systems trying to keep us down.”

“Cheers to that,” Ed said, reaching out to toast.




Class made for an extremely effective distraction from one’s personal life, but you could only run for so long, and hiding never quite worked out.  Ed managed to keep himself occupied for most of the walk back to the dorms by recapping in his head, but when he saw the remarkably unattractive concrete building rearing up ahead, it occurred to him that his roommate had probably turned up by now.

Ed wasn’t exactly a stranger to the concept of living practically on top of somebody else—he and Al had shared some close quarters over the years—but this was different.

The school had given him a pretty decent stipend to live on: decent enough, at least, to cover the cost of rent in the dorms, which had sounded like he was paying for some penthouse luxury shit right up until the minute he walked in a couple days ago and realized that they were leasing him a cement-walled shoebox and the privilege of sharing it with a stranger.  If it had been Al, then—obviously no problem, but he didn’t have the slightest idea who his co-shoeboxer would be; they hadn’t even sent him a name or anything.  His guess was that the mystery roommate had done this whole college gig before and didn’t live especially far away, since the guy hadn’t made an appearance last night, so either he was skipping the first day of class entirely—which probably guaranteed that Ed wouldn’t like him—or he was confident in his ability to drop his crap off in the morning, bounce to his classes, and then return to unpack.

There was a distinct possibility that Ed needed to spend substantially less time speculating about the inner lives of others and more of it dealing with his own shit.  His own shit was legion.  It deserved his undivided attention.

He texted Al as he hit the stairs—he should have taken the elevator; his shoebox was on the eighth floor, but there were strangers waiting for it.  Besides, eight floors was just enough miserable cardio to qualify as a skip-the-gym pass, although it was hell on his left hip.  It was hell on his left everything.  He regretted it instantly, but by the time he’d opened the door to the stairwell, it was too late.

It did help him think about something other than the likelihood that he was standing on the edge of a chasm of roommate rivalry, waiting for a brisk wind to tip him into the abyss.

Survived the first day and Winry did too, he wrote.  hoorah or some shit haha.  you doing ok?  lmk how your day went

Then it was only a couple dozen painful stairs between him and… the door.  Which he stood outside for a second regulating his breath so that he wouldn’t come in panting and sweating like some kind of… person who took the stairs.

Then he put his key in the lock, and turned, and—

“Ah!” a voice said, way too brightly for the situation, as far as Ed could tell.  “Hello!”

He blinked a couple times and managed to focus on the bed opposite his, which had been empty this morning—it was now occupied by a set of dark yellow linens, as well as an Asian guy sitting cross-legged, and an Asian girl sitting next to him with her knees up and one arm slung across them.

“Um,” Ed said.  “Hi.”

“Ed, right?” the guy said.

Ed blinked a little more.  Which didn’t help, but it sort of made him feel better.  “Yeah, how…”

“I went through all your stuff,” the guy said.

So much for blinking: Ed stared.  It didn’t help either.

“Just kidding!” the guy said.  “I asked the R.A.”  He jumped up and came forward to hold his hand out as Ed tried to decide whether closing the door was a good idea if he was locking himself in here with this… with this.  “I’m Ling Yao, and this is Lan Fan.”

Ed shook.  At least the guy had a good grip.  The handshake was a dying art and all that shit.  “Hi,” he said again; and then, to the girl on the bed, “Hey,” for some variety.

“I love your hair!” Ling said before Ed could come up with any more brilliant overtures.  Ling didn’t seem to notice Ed’s struggle with language, let alone mind it; he was busy pulling a tie out of his own hair and shaking it free.  “Long hair club!”  He turned towards the bed and gestured furiously.  “Come on!”

“Do I have to be in the club?” Lan Fan asked.

“Of course you do,” Ling said, completely seriously.

“You should at least have to opt into membership,” Lan Fan said.  “Or there should be prizes.”

“You have long hair,” Ling said.  “That’s the name of the club.”

“Then I’m going to cut it,” Lan Fan said.

Ling gasped.  “Just to get out of my club?  You’re terrible.”

“No,” Lan Fan said, “I’m Lan Fan.”

Ling clapped a hand over his heart, pulling an even more elaborate face this time.  “I can’t believe you would dad-joke me in front of my new roommate.”  He pointed with his free hand, turning mournfully to Ed.  “There is no mercy in that woman.”

“Don’t worry,” Lan Fan said, getting up.  “I’m not gonna sleep here.”

“Um,” Ed said.  “Okay.”

There had been a moment where he’d wondered if he was getting two roommates for the price of one—or the un-price of one, since roommates weren’t something he ever wanted unless they were Al.  Al was like a combination of a parent, a maid, and a best friend in addition to being a brother, so sharing with him was pretty much like winning the roommate lottery.  It wasn’t really Ling’s fault that he was going to have to follow that act.

Ling patted Ed’s shoulder in what he seemed to think was a friendly way.  Ed thought it was more of a hi hello that’s my personal space you just shoved your extremity in way, but he wasn’t sure if he could say that without starting a feud, so he settled with tensing up and setting his jaw until he could get a better read on this guy.  Punching someone partway into your first-ever conversation with them usually didn’t result in long-lasting relationships, as he had learned the hard way a long time ago—even if it was frequently the most efficient way to solve the problem immediately at hand.

“So!” Ling was saying as Ed contemplated whether it would offend anyone if he took a few very subtle steps back.  “Tell us about you!”

“Uh,” Ed said.  Variations on that theme seemed to fill about forty percent of his vocabulary right now.  “I’m… majoring in chem, I think.  Maybe biochem.”

“So you’re suicidal,” Ling said.

“What?” Ed said.

“I mean, it’s not EECS,” Lan Fan said.  “I think this is just, like… mid-range masochism.”

“What?” Ed said.

“No, no,” Ling said.  “I talked to someone in advising about that once, because it took two weeks to get the appointment set up, so I wasted three hours of his time with every inane question I could think of.”  Maybe they’d get along better than Ed had thought.  “The hard sciences are called ‘hard’ for a reason.  That’s where a lot of the burnout is.  And the acid burns.”

“They make good battle scars,” Ed said.

“Badass,” Lan Fan said.

“That is a good incentive,” Ling said.  “So where are you from?”

Ed gestured with one thumb over his shoulder even though his spatial awareness was going to be at a minimum until he finished memorizing that map.  “Oh, uh… little town about two hours south.”  The Al Voice in his head was suggesting that the best way to worm his way out of an interrogation was turning the social obligations—in this case, having to pretend to care about conversational balance—into a weapon in their own right.  “What about you guys?”

“Business,” Ling and Lan Fan said in unison.

Ed went back to blinking.  Not because it had worked before, or anything, but at least it was better than saying ‘what’ for the third time in as many minutes.

“Major, that is,” Ling said cheerfully.  “We’re from San Diego!  Well, originally we’re from Taiwan.”

“Cool,” Ed said.

Fuck.  People were impossible; talking to people was impossible.

“Hey!” Ling said, reaching for him again.  Resisting the impulse to flinch drained the dregs of Ed’s willpower after the hell of a day he’d had.  “We were just about to go out and grab something to eat—come with us!”

Ed’s immediate desire was to say Holy shit, no; I am peopled out for today and probably this entire week and maybe next month, at this rate.  But you couldn’t just… say things like that.  He’d landed on a knife’s edge here: he knew, intuitively, that if he went out and spent some of his dwindling supply of hard-earned money on dinner, and tried to be personable and pleasant for a couple hours, he was going to stretch himself to a point where his better judgment wore straight through, and he couldn’t control himself anymore.

On the other hand, he couldn’t just say No to a request phrased like that, in this situation.

But the trick was—the trick that Al had taught him, which had saved his ass again and again over the years—the trick was that if you were fast enough, and clever enough, you could put a positive spin on a No and get away with murder.

Well.  Maybe not actual murder.  He hadn’t had to try that one.  But you could wriggle free of sticky invitations like you had Teflon skin, sometimes.

“That’d be awesome,” Ed said, picking the words carefully, but delivering them quick enough that he was hoping it sounded natural, “but I gotta hit the books, or I’m going to start out already behind.  You guys free this weekend sometime?  Saturday night, maybe?”

“Perfect!” Ling said, although as far as Ed was concerned, it was decidedly not.  Sometimes it was better to procrastinate on the inevitable than to embrace it when you were already exhausted, though.  Al had taught him that, too.  “We can talk about that later, then.  For now, I think I’m lingering on the brink of starvation, so—”

“You are the single most melodramatic person I have ever met,” Lan Fan said, crossing between them—Ed stumbled two awkward steps back to give her space—so that she could open the door.

“Am I?” Ling said, offering her a sweeping bow as he stepped through the door she was holding for him.  “How many people do you know?  How many people do you really know?  Can we really know anyone, in a world of feigned feelings, when everyone’s minds are full of secrets?  Can we even know ourselves?”

“You’re really not helping your case,” Lan Fan said.  “’Bye, Ed.”

“Have fun,” Ed said helplessly.

“Life is a modern art installation full of funhouse mirrors,” Ling was saying as Lan Fan towed him down the hall.  “All we can ever see is distorted reflections of our own misshapen concepts of our internal lives, and project them onto others who have no choice but to do the same—”

The door shut, heavily, and blocked the sound of the remainder of that sentence.

Thank fucking Christ.

Ed’s willpower held for several hours, which he thought was kind of impressive after a first-day that combined an epic infodump with a pretty significant amount of sensory overload.  And emotional overload.  And anxiety overload.  His heart was beating normally again, though, and a timely text from Al with a not-so-subtle reminder to eat something sent him forging out to the little café on the corner that accepted meal points as payment.

They had some prepackaged shit that looked more or less edible; he knew he wouldn’t really taste it if he was doing homework anyway.  Once he got into the zone, the functions required to sustain himself just sort of… faded into insignificance, if not absolute obscurity.  Winry had once tried for five full minutes to get his attention, furiously given up, and later ranted to him that he’d probably work through a major earthquake and not notice until a ceiling beam fell on his head, and he died.  He’d pointed out that he probably wouldn’t notice that, either, because it would most likely kill him instantly, and she’d screamed.

In the end, he made some really good headway with his readings, reflected that Ling had been gone a long damn time considering the circumstances, realized that he would be an idiot to complain about solitude when it was going to be extremely difficult to come by for the foreseeable future, and then very tentatively forged out to the communal bathroom and its imposing row of shower stalls.

To say that he was less than thrilled at the prospect of showering in his flip-flops in a room that people could walk into at any time—whether or not the stall doors locked securely—would be understating the situation.  He really, really, really did not want to have to get into it explaining the whole thing to a bunch of semi-strangers who happened to live on the same floor.  He’d probably eventually have to ’fess up to Ling, and that sounded bad enough; who the fuck knew how that was going to go?  It really changed things, with some people.  It made a lot of people uncomfortable.

And that made him feel like shit.  Angry shit, sure, but the shittiness was the baseline; the anger rode on top, like wildfire on a wooded ridge.  It was fucking devastating to have to accept that your simple existence made some people so uncomfortable that they would treat you like crap just to reduce their heebie-jeebies.  Hell, it was fucking devastating knowing that you gave people the heebie-jeebies just by being alive.  You were supposed to have to be creepy or nasty or weird in order to do that.  You were supposed to have to do something wrong.

At least he’d had one stroke of luck today, though: there was nobody else in the damn showers to glance at his feet and freak out.  Maybe if he was really, really quick, nobody would walk in; he could stand at the back corner of the stall, provided that the spray reached that far, and no one would be the wiser.

He’d gotten good at fast showers, though, because he’d never wanted to use all the hot water and risk Al having to take a cold shower and getting sick or something.  There were also a few unexpected advantages to having slightly less surface area than the average person, although he probably made up for it with all of the damn hair.

He dried off as much as he could inside the stall and managed, with some extremely awkward shuffling and hopping as he tried to avoid the damp walls, to put on his pajama pants.  That wasn’t quite safe, because he couldn’t leave them dragging on the floor without the bottoms getting soaked, but it was a hell of an improvement.  It was a miracle nobody’d walked in—he’d have to take fucking note of what time it was when he got back to the room and make sure to shower at this exact minute every goddamn day.

He brushed his teeth as fast as he could without triggering any mental reprimands from the Responsible Al Voice in his head, and then he hightailed it back to his and Ling’s room with his towel over his shoulder.  He’d done it.  He’d made it.  Ling still wasn’t even back yet.  He had more than enough time to put on the rest of his pajamas, and then his socks, and hang up his towel semi-nice, and then settle down in bed to warm it up with his ass and his laptop while he waited to get tired.

Had he really just pulled that off?  Maybe he was dreaming.

If he was, then… that sort of changed the way consequences worked, didn’t it?

If he was dreaming, no one would care if he opened up another private browsing window—just in case he was dreaming less than he thought—and made his way back to that blog.

Evidently the self-aggrandizing schmuck behind it had been busy, because there was a new post, different from the one Ed had seen on that girl’s screen earlier.  There was a little box where someone, under the security of the moniker Anonymous, had apparently sent a note from the disappointingly unprovocative page Ed had seen earlier.

hi i’m in a long term relationship but i keep finding myself looking at other people and just wondering what it would be like.  nothing serious but i honestly think it would help me to sample another dish or two wink wink.  i think it’d confirm that what i have is good if that makes sense.  what do u think casanova?

Speaking of taste, the taste in Ed’s mouth—

He wasn’t going to dignify that shitty metaphor with another second’s thought, but—

But it stung just knowing there were people out there who thought of their significant other like a luncheon that you could take or leave.

Casanova had written… quite a bit, by the looks of it.

Listen: I don’t know a lot of things for sure, but I do know one thing.

You should not cheat.  Ever.

It’s not about taking the edge off of your appetite.  It’s not about satisfying a craving for something on the side that kind of crops up even though your favorite food is the one you have all of the time.  It’s not about the excitement of the danger because there’s a possibility of getting caught.

It’s about you, prioritizing your fleeting little daydream feelings over the feelings of someone who cares about and supports you.

If you will pardon my French, FUCK THAT.

If you can’t continue a healthy relationship without getting something on the side, end the relationship.  Do it respectfully.  Have the grace and the class and the maturity to start a hard conversation with “I really care about you, and that’s why I think we need to take a break, because I’m having all of these ideas about other people, and the last thing I want to do is hurt you.  It isn’t your fault.”

Because that’s what it is.  There are no excuses.  You can daydream all you want – although if you don’t even try to put a damper on it, I do tend to feel that that’s rather classless – but the act of cheating requires conscious decision after conscious decision after conscious decision, and there are never circumstances under which that is excusable.  It doesn’t happen by accident.  It happens because you deliberately prioritize your momentary sexual desires ahead of the commitment agreement and emotional investment that you have built one day at a time with another human being.

And if you do that?  How dare you.  How fucking dare you.

If you must go seek other meals; if you must free your reproductive organs, whatever their configuration, and let them explore in the wild; if you must range far and wide and dally diversely—

End your relationship first.

(Before anybody flips out here, I think perhaps I should specify – I’m not talking about open relationships.  If you’re in an open or polyamorous relationship with good communication, have at it!  Do your thing!  Best wishes!  But that’s not the impression I got from this ask.  What I’m talking about is cheating.  You all know the difference.)

It’s not a small thing.  It is never a small thing.  If you do that to someone, you are damaging their ability to trust – most likely on a permanent basis.  You are leaving scars on a person who has been good to you, and those scars will stay there for the rest of their life, to be kissed or torn open by everyone else they ever try to be close to.

How dare you.

tl;dr don’t cheat, ever.  Don’t.

…okay, now back to our normally scheduled programming of amusing anecdotes about my sex life, haha.  Just had to get that out.

That was…

…not what Ed had expected at fucking all.

And it mattered, was the thing.  It mattered a lot, because he’d been anticipating a roguish, caddish, cavalier approach to the emotional aspect of the whole shebang—pun not exactly intended—if this guy’s game was writing about relationships for entertainment.  You’d think that someone whose primary goal was chasing tail and then editorializing about it for petty internet fame would take a pretty blasé stance on the whole fidelity deal, but…

But apparently Casanova had some substance.  Or at least some history.

Ed scrolled a little further.  The next post was dated from this morning, and it looked a little more like what he’d been figuring on.

My dear readers… I suppose you might be waiting for an update on the passionate pas de deux with Petra.

How shall I put this?

I should, perhaps, have nicknamed her Pompeii.  Within the span of a single week, my friends, it smoldered, and ignited, and the volcano blew, and then the whole city smothered underneath the ash.  Quite poetic.  Arguably I may have deserved it, although I tried to be very upfront.  I always do.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you may recall, our prior fateful dinner outing ended after some very involved necking on her doorstep was interrupted by a roommate noticing our handsiness out the window and gasping audibly.  Perhaps I should have known it was doomed at that point; rarely does the universe offer such unequivocal portents, no?

But I am very bad at listening to the universe, just as I am very bad at listening to advice.

I took her to an Indian restaurant two blocks down from campus for our second date, although I tried to shoehorn it into the conversation several times that I wasn’t looking for anything especially serious.  I also made a point of confirming that she didn’t have any plans later on, and managed to mention that my neighbors on the floor below were off visiting family this weekend.  I can, in fact, be subtle when I want to, but I’d been getting the sense from her that maybe we weren’t quite on the same page about the genre of the book, so I attempted to make it as painfully obvious as possible without branding the words ‘SEX WITHOUT STRINGS, PLEASE’ on my forehead.

I have a great forehead.  No sense ruining it.  Even Sharpie would be a bit of a blight.  Have to be careful about that sort of thing if you want to remain eligible and fancy-free.

In any case, allow me to offer you a pro-tip: if you take someone out for Indian, ask them beforehand how well they handle spice.

Or, in Petra’s case, don’t handle it.

AWKWARD.

At the very least, I suppose I helped to keep her hydrated, since she went through her water, and then my water, and then round two of each after we got a waiter’s attention for refills.  Another pro-tip: when you realize you’ve fouled up that badly, start apologizing fast and profusely.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a little damage control can go a long way: making the effort really does count for a lot of people.  I convinced Petra to order a mango lassi, which – as any of you who have ever had one and are now salivating avidly will know – really can’t go wrong.

…unless your date is lactose intolerant, I suppose.  All right, perhaps it can go wrong, but only under extenuating circumstances, and the point is that in this case, nothing more or less than an extra drink salvaged dinner in a hurry.

Another pro-tip, pun intended: don’t go out to eat unless you can leave a generous gratuity.  This has nothing to do with your date and everything to do with being a decent human being, and not having servers spit in your food should you come back to the restaurant, no matter how loud or disruptive your date may have been.  If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to go out.  (I’ve been there.  It’s hard.)  But you can get takeout!  Bring it back and dim the lights or whip out the candles; nothing wrong with that.

In any case: mango lassi.  Which snatched dinner from the brink of oh-my-God-too-spicy-my-mouth-is-aflame oblivion, and which also had side benefits that carried on into the rest of the evening.  Namely, when we were strolling out, and I caught her arm and swept her around a corner and under the overhang of a bakery to kiss her, it tasted like mango – bright and tangy and sweet and smooth.

Feel free to use that love-life hack.  It’s a good one.  I’ll be using it again, so no one will be able to tell whether you learned it from me, or whether you actually ARE me.  It’s bulletproof.

Slightly less Kevlar-ready was my brilliant plan for a starlit stroll home.  For one thing, I’d tried to eat as fast as decorum allowed so that she wouldn’t have to sit there with her nose running into her curry any longer than strictly necessary, which had botched my timeline a bit, so the sun hadn’t even gone down yet.  For another, the weather was still conspiring to screw me, but not in the good way, so it was still well over eighty and slightly humid, which is the worst possible combination of climate factors when it comes to trying to instigate the horizontal tango.

…I could go on with the bad euphemisms, but I’ll spare you.

Eventually we straggled home, and I will take credit for one thing: I am a good improviser, and I am difficult to daunt.

What’s better than cold weather for encouraging close contact?  Well – nothing.  But taking a shower to “freshen up” when you’ve just been trekking through the miserable late summer heat is not a bad consolation prize.  Just don’t go too overboard with the cold-water part of it, or you’ll kill your own libido.  On the upside, what in the world, I ask you, is better than a beautiful woman smelling like your shampoo?

I mean – I have great shampoo anyway.  (You need to.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to smell excellent, because when you ghost past someone who’s attracted to you, they’ll get a whiff of it and lose a little bit of their mind, and you can take that little bit with you and run.)  But there’s something uniquely tantalizing about smelling things familiar to you and your skin on somebody else’s.

There are, I regret to report, significantly sexier things than turning on several area fans in addition to cranking up your faulty air conditioning as high as it will go, but sometimes, my friends, we must make do.

Petra, bless her heart, finally started taking down all the memos I’d been sending in bold red ink, and then she started making the most of them, and I absolutely wish an experience like it for everyone in the course of their lives.

My dear readers, she walked out of the bathroom with one of my towels held up around her chest, sauntered forward, flipped her hair over her shoulder, made eye contact, dropped the towel to the floor, and said, lasciviously, “Oops.”

A lesser man might have passed out.

I was close.

But the most important thing I learned in kindergarten was that if you eat the M&Ms now, you can only have two; but if you wait five minutes, you can have ten.  And I really, really love M&Ms, if you get my meaning.

Fortunately, the impulse to gasp makes for a good start to a deep breath, and if you let said breath out gradually and very slowly and deliberately start to smile, you pay your partner a compliment and look like a million bucks at the same time.  Trust me here.

I’d been sitting on the bed, which is generally a good place to stretch out and look artful and attractive in just your pajama pants “while you let your hair dry” or whatever flimsy excuse you prefer, so I got up – slowly and deliberately; this is your skeleton key here – and sauntered over to her.  I paused, and looked at her eyelashes and her hair and the freckles across the bridge of her nose first – in detail, meaningfully, and meaning it.  She’s gorgeous.  Most people are, if you really look.

Then I looked down.  Slowly and deliberately.  And reached out as if I was about to touch her hipbone, and then paused with my fingertips a few centimeters away, and…

Leaned down and reached for her towel.

“Oh, dear,” I said.  “You dropped this.”

“Clumsy of me,” she said.

“Here,” I said, picking it up.  “Let me get that.”

She raised her eyebrows, and I took one end of the towel in one hand and slung the other end around her back and caught it in my free hand – which already brought us breathtakingly, gut-wrenchingly, heat-sharingly close.

And then I drew it in just until it touched her shoulder blades, and pulled her in a little closer with it.

There was kissing.  With tongue.  Cover your children’s eyes and think pure thoughts, etcetera.

Props are hot – unless you’re in live theater, in which case props are sentient and trying to kill you – so I kept the towel in the game for another minute and used it to tow her with me as I stepped back towards the bed and sat down on the edge.  Having a good bed is always a plus, have I mentioned?  GET A GOOD BED.

She climbed up with me and straddled my lap, which was perhaps the most transcendent thing that’s happened to me in… well, at least a week.  Maybe two.  I get around.  But it was incredible.  She knew she had the kind of assets you could die of dehydration drooling over, and she wasn’t afraid to settle them just low enough that the graze of her body against my dick, with just the thin fabric of my now-twice-damned pajamas in between, nearly killed me again.  I think I may have left the mortal plane momentarily and drawn one long breath in a better place.

Then she planted both hands on my chest and pushed me backwards, and instinctively I let go of the towel and dropped back onto the bed.

“Oops,” she said.

“We’re a very clumsy pair today,” I said.

If this sounds like porno dialogue, you win a prize; and also you need to spend less time watching and more time participating in your own.  It’s much more fun.  Plus there’s no peanut gallery with one hand in their pants and one in the Kleenex box complaining about the quality of your script, so you can enjoy getting as cheesy as you like.

I digress.

Petra climbed up over me, and her hair was hanging around her face and framing it so beautifully I honestly couldn’t help myself; I had to reach up and start touching it – smoothing it back, running my fingers through and twirling little sections of it.  It was still wet from the shower, which was actually delightful, because it was dripping chilly water on my chest at unexpected intervals, and sensational contrast drives me wild faster than almost anything else in the universe.  What a joy it is to be alive.

In addition to which – being tender during sex costs you nothing and pays you back tenfold a lot of the time.  There is nothing wrong with letting someone know that you’re not just in this for the feelings; you think they’re attractive and are enjoying just looking at them long before anything overtly physical takes place.  People are wonderful!  And all of us are scared and shy and insecure about one thing or another, and reassuring someone that you’re happy to be here will never, ever be a bad idea.  What do you stand to lose?

I digress again.

She had me pinned to the mattress with both hands on my shoulders and was slowly grinding her glorious ass against my extremely obvious and tragically neglected erection, and if you don’t know where this is headed, you must be very new around here, so welcome.

Another piece of advice: run your hands lightly all over the person that you’re with and/or getting some from.  Touch them.  Feels amazing for you; feels amazing for them; makes them feel worshiped and appreciated and powerful and very hot.  They are all of those things in this moment.  Don’t be afraid to let them know it, because you are all of those things too.

Before you burn me in effigy, I think it should be said that I don’t just dole out advice like some kind of self-proclaimed and extremely twisted lesser deity; I follow all of this advice.  I do!  Because it works!

The point is that I was dragging my palms up the absolutely exquisite curve between Petra’s hips and her ribcage on both sides, and then I switched to dapple-light fingertips when I reached her ribs, and then… My dear readers, poet laureates could not generate sufficient words to describe her breasts.  They are beautiful and phenomenal and almost enough to coax a career agnostic out of doubt.

That said, it should also be noted, in so many words, that breasts do not make a woman, in either sense of that sentence: they neither define nor entail womanhood; and they are also not a mark of it.  Many women without them are nonetheless absolutely, indisputably, beautifully women.  Many people who are not, in fact, women at all may have them.

All of which… does not stop Petra’s from being agonizingly gorgeous.  They are.  Holy mother of God.

On second thought, perhaps we shouldn’t bring Mary into this.

…can I say it?

…I have to say it.

UNLESS SHE’S DOWN FOR A THREESOME, BECAUSE I SURE AM.

All right, I’ll see you all in hell.  You’ll know me by the designated seat they labeled for me in neon.

I’m going to pretend that never happened.  I know it’s written right there, which rather lights plausible deniability on fire and pitches it out the window and then stomps on it when it lands, but nonetheless… moving right along.

Touch your partner.  Kiss everywhere.  Trace their collarbones with the tip of your tongue and then breathe, very gently, on the trail and then drag your hands down their sides so you can feel it as they shiver.  Laughing softly is optional, although I personally tend to find laughter during sex unreasonably arousing.  There may be a small note on my throne in hell about that.  A little inscription on the right foot of it, near the floor, perhaps.  If you stick your tongue out at me, it lights up with the hellfire perpetually burning inside the structure of the chair.

…sorry, it’s either very late or very early, depending on your point of view, but I wanted to get this out before the details started to lose their distinction.

She was still leaning over me – knees on either side of my waist and hands on my shoulders, with her hair everywhere, and is there anything in the world more transcendent than running your fingers through thick, long hair in a situation like that?  Absolutely beautiful.  So damn satisfying.  There’s something primal in it, for me – something that ignites a particular flare in the pit of my stomach, which tells my brain, very clearly, You are in the right place.

“There are a couple of ways we could do this,” she said.

And I half sat up at the same second that I drew a little on her hair so that she’d meet me halfway for another kiss – longer, harder, deeper—

And I said “If we pace ourselves, we could do it every one of those ways.”

And she started laughing, so I shifted just enough to get the leverage to flip us over, and her hair bounced all over the bed in this knee-jellying chestnut cascade, and I said, “Where would you like to start?”

Possibly the only thing more satisfying than burying your hands in someone’s hair during sex is when they gasp out loud, regardless of where your hands are.

I set mine on her wonderful hips and held them to the bed while I kissed my way down her chest, which I took my sweet time with.  And then I skipped over the obvious target in favor of leaving very long, very wet, very lingering kisses first on the tops of her thighs, and then on the insides of them, moving incrementally upwards, so painstakingly slowly that her breath started to catch, and I flicked my tongue just ever so lightly towards

There was a key in the door.

In the lock on the door, that was.

There was a key in the lock, and the lock was on the door, and that meant Ling was about to walk right the fuck in on Ed blushing like a fucking twelve-year-old Catholic schoolchild over a naughty fucking blog—

His first instinct was to slam his laptop shut.

He realized in the nick of time that said first instinct was a stupid-ass instinct, at which point his second instinct was to shove his left hand in between the lid of his laptop and the base so that it wouldn’t close as he first-instinctively slammed it.

Fucking ow.

He whipped it open again, brain reeling, cheeks aflame, and managed, this time, to smack the hotkey to close just the browser window with the damning evidence; and even though it took two tries with his hands fumbling amidst the panic, apparently the lock was a bitch to open, because it granted him a truly magnanimous three spare seconds to scoot his ass down in bed as far as it would go, so that he was lying with the laptop on his chest where the screen would mostly hide his face.

The door opened just a crack.  He made a point of glancing up just enough that his eyes might show over the top of the computer.

“Oh,” Ling said, filling the crack, starting to beam, and widening the crack substantially.  “Didn’t want to wake you!  That would have been terrible roommate etiquette on our very first day.”

“It’s all good,” Ed said, and he almost sounded normal and calm and convincing and shit.  Apparently he was better at this lying-to-people-he-liked thing than he had been the last time he tried to get away with something at the age of six.  Al could always tell, so as soon as he’d gotten verbal and self-righteous—which had happened at about the same time—Ed had been fucked.  “How, uh—how was dinner?”

It was supremely tempting to add And how was ‘dessert’? with some heavy air-quotes, given that there was no way Ling and Lan Fan had just been dining out for three and a half hours solid.  It was remotely possible that they’d found some place that offered thirteen-course meals, but unless college was real different for Ling than for Ed, probably they couldn’t afford that anyway.

“It was great!” Ling said, which naturally didn’t give Ed much of any indication either way.  “I’ll regale you with the whole story another time—” Somehow, that didn’t actually clear it up.  Ed got the unsettling impression that Ling was the kind of guy who would try to corner you and tell you all the gory details of his sex life.  “I think I’ll join you in a minute.”

It took Ed a full three-quarters of a frozen second to realize that Ling meant that he was going to join Ed, conceptually, by also going to sleep, rather than that he thought roommate privileges extended to climbing into a stranger’s bed and snuggling up.  Ed wasn’t a snuggler even when he did fucking know people, unless those people were Al, and that didn’t count.  That wasn’t even snuggling, per se—it was more like… sharing body heat.  They already shared a considerable portion of their DNA; it wasn’t like a little coopted warmth was going to make any difference.

“Okay,” Ed said, because this was the sort of conversation where you had to say something even though there was nothing of substance to say.  “Cool.”

Ling beamed.

Then he paused.

“You sleep with your hair wet?” he asked.

Ed blinked.  His hair was wet, and he was in bed, so he’d sort of assumed it was self-explanatory.  Or at least that it followed.  “Uh… guess so, yeah.”

“And it doesn’t turn into a nest?” Ling asked.

“Uh,” Ed said, yet again.  “Guess… not?”

“Wow,” Ling said in wide-eyed awe.  “You want to be the co-VP of the Long Hair Club?”

“Depends,” Ed said.  “Are there responsibilities and shit?  Do I have to set up meetings?”

“Not sure yet,” Ling said.  “I’ll have to decide what the club actually entails.”  His eyes lit up.  “Or… enponytails.”

“Holy shit,” Ed said.  “Nice.”

Ling’s shoulders sagged, and he released a deep breath.  “Oh, thank God.  You don’t hate puns.”

“I hate weak puns,” Ed said.  “Good ones are cool.  And you get bonus points when they’re on the fly.”

“Are you the president of the Pun Club?” Ling asked.  “Damn, your application must’ve been good.”

“Not sure about that,” Ed said.  “But I guess it worked.”

“And thank goodness for that!” Ling said, snatching up a bright green leather dop kit that he’d set on one of the shelves on his side of the room.  “All right, gotta brush my teeth and pee before I die.  Not at the same time.  Be right back.”

“Cool,” Ed said again.  It seemed like the only appropriate response to updates on the minutiae of the life of someone like Ling.  On the downside, it made him sound like a stupid frat boy who knew a grand total of three other words.

Ling slipped out into the hall—as much as one could slip when that door weighed about a metric ton—and Ed settled down.

This wasn’t so bad so far.  His roommate was weird, but good-weird; and no one had seen him showering and pointed and screamed; and classes were intense but not completely overwhelming; and even after two chances to get caught, nobody had noticed him demonstrating enough desperate thirst to read a sketchy-ass blog and vicariously experience someone else’s romantic successes.  All things considered, he was kind of coming out ahead so far, right?

Right.  He had the bull by the horns here; he just had to keep his grip.




“We need to do something drastic,” Winry said—during coffee, on a Thursday, two weeks in.

Ed had been raised properly—by Al, partly, and by Winry’s grandmother, and by himself; cumulatively he’d done okay—so he swallowed his last sip before he asked the requisite question: “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“We’re losers,” Winry said.

Wow,” Ed said.  “Okay, thanks.  Appreciate it.  Glad we had this talk.”

“No,” Winry said.  “Not like we were in high school, when we were losers because we were such big nerds, and Al and I were such teacher’s pets, and you were a weird half-teacher’s-pet, half-troublemaker hybrid.  We’re losers now because we don’t do anything.”

“We’re going to college,” Ed said.  “We’re always in class.  I’m always in lab on top of class.  And then we both work on top of it, which—by the way—is stupid and sucks, and I need you to hook me up with somebody at the library so I can grovel for a new job.  And then there’s fucking homework.  What more do you want us to do?”

“We need to have social lives,” Winry said.

“Jesus,” Ed said.  “Tell me your secret.”

“What?” Winry said.  It was her turn, after all.

“Tell me how you’ve retroactively genetically modified yourself to eliminate the need for sleep,” Ed said.

“Oh, har, har,” Winry said.  “I mean—jeez, I love you, Ed, but I also want to have, like… friends.  Friends who aren’t like my nerdy brother.”

“You have such a gift,” Ed said, “for buttering me up when you want something.”

“Don’t you want to have a ton of friends?” Winry asked.  “Don’t you want to be popular, and have people blowing up your phone all the time asking you to go get coffee with them?”

“No,” Ed said.  “I’ll take the coffee to go, though.”

Winry made a face.  “I always forget that you’re such a misanthrope.”

“You should feel privileged,” Ed said.  “The list of people I tolerate is, like, ten names long, and you’re on it.”

“Truly,” Winry said, so deadpan that all of the dishware in the nearest dining hall’s kitchen probably shuddered at the morbidity; “I am hashtag-blessed.”

“Hashtag-sarcasm,” Ed said.

“Me?” Winry said.  “Unthinkable.”

“Okay,” Ed said.  “I’m going to play devil’s advocate here.  What do you propose we do to become super-popular awesome people with a million friends who throw free coffee at us?”

“I don’t know,” Winry said.  “That’s part of what I need your help with—the methodology.  We should go to parties, though.  One of us needs to get cozy with a sorority girl or a frat guy or something.  They have all the parties over there, but I dunno if they’re invite-only, or what.”

“I make friends everywhere I go,” Ed said, rivaling Winry’s murdered-skillet tone, if he did say so himself.  “So that should be a piece of cake.”

“Good point,” Winry said.  “Why don’t I handle that phase of the plan?”

“Great idea,” Ed said, which was funny if you looked at it right, since it’d been his idea the entire time.  “So what part of this harebrained scheme-thing do you even need me for?”

Winry sipped, very seriously, and then looked at him, even more seriously.

“You need to get a boyfriend,” she said.

It was a damn good thing Ed hadn’t actively been drinking, because he choked on his own breath enough to guarantee he would’ve spat coffee right in Winry’s face.  Java had a lot of semi-magical properties, but Ed didn’t think exfoliation was one of them.

“I fucking what?” he said.

“Well,” Winry said, “as a newly-minted gay—”

“I'm not fucking currency,” Ed said.

“Of course not,” Winry said.  “Ideally, you're fucking guys.”

Thank goodness he still hadn’t taken a sip, since he choked on his own spit this time.  “Jesus, Win!  You know wh—it's not like it happened yesterday.  I just… didn't…”

“Notice?” Winry asked brightly.

Ed set his jaw.  “Say anything,” he said.

“The point is,” Winry said, loudly—uncomfortably loudly, in fact, if you were the kind of person who had been born with a spare sliver of shame buried somewhere in your being; “you’ve never been out in the community before.”

“You say ‘the community’ like every single non-heterosexual in the geographical region meets up in convention centers periodically to share tips on getting some,” Ed said, to cover the fact that he was irrationally fucking terrified of the thought that other people might be listening.  If you couldn’t stop it, own it, right?  If duck and cover wasn’t an option, pick up the flag and wave it so vigorously that nobody would realize you’d prefer to be hiding under a table somewhere.

“For all I know,” Winry said, “you do.  Although I figure that if that was true, you’d be better at it.”

Ed winced so hard his cheeks hurt.  “Ouch, Win.  I’m gonna tell Al you said that.  He’ll give you the silent treatment for three hours.”

“I’d estimate it at more like two and a half,” Winry said calmly, swirling her cup around.  “That wasn’t supposed to be insulting; I just meant—you’re inexperienced, but this is the best time to change that.  Right?”

“I guess,” Ed said slowly.  It wasn’t like the thought hadn’t crossed his mind—this was most likely the largest population of peers that he would have access to at any point for the rest of his life, and the densest concentration of individuals with an amenable combination of interest and intellect.  If he was ever going to find anybody—

Well.  That particular if was a different problem.  A different problem, if you were of the—

“Plus then we could just work ourselves into his existing group of acquaintances,” Winry said sunnily, “and all of our problems would be solved.”

Ed stared at her.

She sipped her latte, demurely, and raised her eyebrows.

Ed cleared his throat and articulated very distinctly.  “Did you just tell me to whore myself out and land some popular guy so that we can steal his friends?”

“Of course it sounds bad when you say it like that,” Winry said.  “I happen to think it’s genius.”

Ed drained his cup in desperation.  “I think you and I have different definitions of that word, Win.”




On the one hand, it was probably a good thing that he had to cut their coffee date a little short—if it had gone on much longer, he was pretty concerned Winry was going to pick out a dude walking by that she liked the looks of and shove Ed right at him, bruises be damned.  On the other hand, he had to do it because was going to office hours for his chem TA.

Probably he shouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest when he’d walked into lab section last week and seen the obnoxious-hot guy from the first day lounging behind the desk at the head of the room.  That was just his fucking luck, wasn’t it?

The guy’s eyes had widened just a touch and then crinkled just a little as he smiled.

“Hello again,” he’d said.

Ed had forced out as civil a “Hi” as he was capable of and then beelined towards an open seat.

“Watch the chair,” the guy had said.  “They’re almost as tricky as the doors sometimes.”

The worst part of it all was that Ed couldn’t escape—for one thing, he’d signed up for this lab section because it was the only one that actually fit into his schedule, so even if it wouldn’t have been unbearably humiliating to beg the registrar to help him switch, he couldn’t.  For another thing, he’d have to forsake his own surname if he ever backed down from a challenge, no matter how stupid and smug-faced and clever-eyed the challenge in question might be.

For a third and even more horrible thing—as if he needed a nice, round trifecta when one lousy discouragement would have been enough—even though the first meeting was a soft-ball, Ed got the unshakeable sense that this guy was actually a really good teacher, so switching TAs probably would have been to his disadvantage overall.  He couldn’t afford to bring any disadvantages onto himself—life routinely dealt him enough of those without his help.

In the end, he’d found out, in that inaugural section meeting, that the guy’s name was Roy, and that Edward Elric was apparently just sort of attracted to assholes.

Which was great.  It was fantastic.  Ed couldn’t think of anything in the universe fucking better than thirsting after likely-hetero guys who ate snotty little virgins like him for breakfast.  Scrambled, probably.  Or spread on toast.  Not that Ed recommended spreading snot on toast, but—

Anyway.  It was fine.  Everything was fine.  He totally had a handle on this whole college thing and would definitely not be letting his stupid brain and even stupider dick get the best of him and ruin all of it.

He was just going to walk into dumbass Roy’s dumbass office hours, ask his questions in a very calm voice like a real adult, pay attention to the answers, and then leave.  Easy as pi.  Even he couldn’t fuck that up.

He was teetering on the brink of failing step one when he turned up—which was typical, he supposed, but it wasn’t his fault that Roy was one of those pretentious-ass TAs who preferred holding office hours in a coffee shop to having them in a shared office or a classroom or whatever the other options were at this particular school.  Probably it was because Roy liked to drape himself artistically over a café chair and sit there looking pensive and intellectual and stupid-gorgeous in his spare time anyway, so it was more convenient to host office hours here and multitask.  Which one would think would make him relatively easy to find, but apparently he’d gone off into a dramatically-lit corner somewhere or something, and—

“Ed,” the increasingly-familiar voice said from behind him after Ed had half-swiveled on his right heel trying to scan the premises for the elusive bastard.  “How are you?”

Ed spun around, which probably managed to make him look even stupider.  “Oh—hey—um—good.  You?”

Roy smiled.  He was, as predicted, doing a Renaissance-art-worthy half-sprawl in one of the chairs, with a neat little stack of papers next to his laptop on the table.

“I’m very well, thank you,” he said.  At least, if nothing else could be said for the bastard, his mama had more or less raised him right.  Or someone had.  “Are you here for office hours, or for a little caffeine?”

“Does caffeine even come in small quantities?” Ed asked, hovering awkwardly near the table while Roy just… sat there.  Smiling at him.  Ed took back the previous nice thought he’d had about this asshole and slammed the door behind it.  “Nah, I wanted to—I mean, if you’ve got a second, I was hoping maybe you could look through my problem set.  Just to make sure I’m on the right track.”

“Of course,” Roy said, quelling what might have been a momentary flash of surprise.  He closed his laptop, set it atop the papers, shifted the whole pile aside, and folded his hands on the newly-cleared stretch of table, summoning up another beatific expression from what seemed to be an endless supply.  “Forgive my surprise; the office hours attendance tends to be low verging on nonexistent until after the first midterm.”

Ed didn’t believe that for a fucking second—people would probably line up like a midnight movie premiere queue just to get a couple seconds of face-time with this jerk and his genetic lottery spoils—but Ed did the vague acknowledgement nod as he sat down instead of calling it out.  There wasn’t really any way to argue that wouldn’t either jeopardize his grade or require him to compliment Roy’s stupid face right here, while making eye contact, which sounded like a fate substantially worse than death.

“I just don’t want to get behind,” he said, attempting to make himself slightly less conspicuous in the chair and to draw his folder of Most Relevant Papers out of his backpack at the same time, which was an adventure in coordination.  Sitting was enough fucking fun all by itself; adding in other motor skills at the same time—

Well.  He managed.  That was the important thing.  It could have been a lot worse.

Roy held both hands out for the paper as Ed extracted the relevant page, so he passed it over, despite the way his stomach started squirming at the thought—remote, unreasonable, but excruciatingly compelling—that he might have fucked it up.

“I’m sure you’re doing wonderfully,” Roy said.  An ordinary adverb in a fairly simple sentence had never, in Ed’s life, sounded quite so pretentious.  There wasn’t time to comment before Roy’s eyes started flicking back and forth as he skimmed Ed’s scribbles.

At least they were less scribbly than usual; he’d re-copied this from the original draft to try to make it easier to read.  His writing had been shit ever since he’d been forced to switch over to the left hand, and no amount of practice seemed to help very much.

Roy paused about halfway down the page—or close to it; Ed knew how fast Al read, but other people were a little harder to gauge—and glanced up at him.

“Were you being sincere?” he asked.

Fucking asshole.  What a fucking vocabulary.  Who the hell could generate words like that on the fly?

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He wasn’t quite sure what part of their extremely brief excuse for a conversation Roy was referring to, but he hadn’t lied about anything that he could remember, so it was a safe response.

Roy held up the sheet with his scribbles all over it.  Was it illegible?  Or was it all wrong?  Bastard’s face wasn’t giving away a single hint about where he was going with this.

“How long did this take you?” Roy asked.

The sudden intensity of his eyes made Ed’s skin crawl, and his stomach was doing—a thing.  Some kind of thing.  A thing a little bit like shame-churning, and a little bit like magmatic heat.

“I dunno,” he said.  “An hour, maybe?”

Roy’s face stayed blanker than a block of marble, except for the singular sharpness of that unsettling dark-eyed gaze.  “Did you look up the answers online?”

“What?” Ed said.  “No.  You can do that?  Why would you?  What’s the fucking point of doing homework if you don’t—” His voice stuck abruptly when he realized what he’d said.  “Oh, my God—sorry.  Sorry.  Didn’t mean to—my bad.”

“Swear?” Roy asked, and there was a sliver of a grin for a half of a second before he went all unreadable again.  “I’ve got well over ninety-nine problems, and that’s not even close to making the list.  You mean to tell me you did all of this in one hour without any help at all?”

Ed was… colossally uncomfortable.  That was a phrase for it.  Unnerved as hell, and edgy as hell because of it.  Why all the questions?  What had he done that was weird?  He was used to at least recognizing when he did weird shit; this was—what had he done wrong?

“Yeah,” he said, slowly.  “Is that… okay?  I mean, I kind of thought that was—the whole point.”

Roy offered him the paper back.  One eyebrow arched neatly.

“You do not,” Roy said, “need to worry about getting behind.”

Narrowly, Ed resisted the urge to snatch the paper out of Roy’s hand.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If this is any kind of precedent,” Roy said, “you have an extraordinary gift for chemistry.  I suspect you’ll do just fine.”

Ed watched closely, but Roy’s face didn’t change—no hint of an incoming Psych! or any satisfaction at having successfully trolled a stupid undergrad.

Was it possible he meant it?  Did big-shot, self-important, drop-dead-gorgeous asshole grad students dole out real compliments around here?  Was that a thing?

“Okay,” Ed said slowly.

There was a pause.  Roy’s eyebrow dropped and then darted up again, which should’ve looked extremely stupid.  Why did attractive people make everything look good?  Wasn’t it enough for them just to go around being prettier than everybody else all the goddamn time?

“I mean it,” Roy said.  “If this is any indication of your affinity and your threshold for effort, you’re going to be setting every curve.”

Ed frowned.  “You can’t tell that from one homework assignment.”

Roy shrugged, fluidly.  There was an intimation of a shimmy in it, the merciless motherfucker.  “Perhaps not.  But I’ve spent longer than I’d like to admit making snap judgments of students at this point, and so far my track record is rather exemplary.”

Arrogant asshole.  Arrogant, judgey, presumptuous, unfairly easy-on-the-eyes asshole.  What the hell did he know, anyway?

Nothing.  Not Ed.  Not Ed’s so-called potential; not Ed’s brain; not Ed’s dreams; not Ed’s life.  And Ed wasn’t in the business of letting people into those.  If you didn’t show somebody the soft stuff, they couldn’t target it when they inevitably got it in their heads to stab you in the back.  The less you shared the better, probably.  The less you let people you hadn’t grown up trusting anywhere near your heart—

Well, he wasn’t going to make that fucking mistake again.

Maybe he could play another angle, though.  Maybe he could wring a little wisdom out of Roy, if that was the right word for it—if he’d been here a while, the guy had to have a lot of experience, even if he was looking at it from a different side.

“Okay,” Ed said again.  People tended not even to hear that word; it had magic conciliatory powers.  Some people said it as a response to ‘thank you’, and everyone just glossed right past it, which Ed had always found a little bit bizarre.  “So—I mean—if you’ve got another minute—”

Roy swept both hands out elegantly—and didn’t smack any passersby in the process, which would have happened to Ed a thousand times out of a thousand if he’d tried to gesture like that—to indicate the café on a whole, presumably.  “The hour is yours.”

“Right,” Ed said.  “Just—what should I do?  While I’m here, I mean.  To up my chances of getting a job or getting into grad school or… I guess those are my only two choices, aren’t they?”

“Strictly speaking,” Roy said, “you could be unemployed, or you land an unpaid internship, neither of which quite counts—”

Ed hated his guts, and also his face.  Especially the face.  Condescending and beautiful was the personality-appearance combination from hell.

“—but that’s a bit beside the point.”  Roy sat back and folded his arms, which also made him look like a magazine cover that someone had carefully cut out and imbued with life.  Evidently every single possible human position did.  “It depends somewhat on what you’re eventually looking for—and I know that’s a very difficult question to answer this early on.  My best recommendation is to try for a research opportunity of one sort or another. A PhD is essentially several years of research at a stretch, interspersed with a few tests, more teaching than you ever imagined they’d ask for, and a bit of weeping into your tea.”  He flashed a hundred-watt grin, and Ed’s guts did the single stupidest twist-up-and-tremble thing ever recorded.  “And some impromptu undergraduate advising, apparently.”  Roy settled again, and the world stopped careening in such dizzying circles that it felt liable to bobble right off of its access and hurl them all into the void.  “I’m not quite sure what industry is like, which is why I locked myself up in the ivory tower here so that I wouldn’t have to find out.”  He leaned forward, setting his folded arm on the table, and met Ed’s eyes, which… burned.  Just a little.  Like a candle flame dancing ever so slightly too close to the skin.  “But none of it’s set in stone.  That’s the most important thing—nothing that you choose in life can’t be made into the foundation for something else.  There is always another door to open, and just because it looks nothing like the ones you’ve seen before won’t ever mean it’s locked to you.”

That was… staggeringly touchy-feely, to say the least.

“Okay,” Ed said yet again, warring with the impulse to lean back and put some distance in between them again.  He was always a little—paranoid, was probably what Winry would say.  He was careful, these days, was all.  He was careful when he was with a guy he knew he was attracted to—careful not to get too close.  He had stupid instincts, and straight guys freaked out if they thought another dude was hitting on them, whether or not it was rooted in a largely harmless impulse to move in just centimeters nearer than platonic interest would permit.

It wasn’t like he was some kind of creeper or something, but he just didn’t want to seem like he was… taking advantage.  That was all.  It would’ve been the same way if he was into girls, right?  He would’ve tried to make sure he was never pushing any kind of an agenda on accident, no matter how hot they were.

It wasn’t exactly that he wanted to push an agenda on Roy—although he would not have been fool enough to reject any opportunity to push Roy.  Down onto a bed, for instance.  Or a couch.  Or the backseat of a car.  Or a decently cushy bit of carpet.  Or a relatively bugless stretch of grass.  Anywhere moderately horizontal sounded pretty appetizing right about now.

But Roy was probably into women, like the vast statistical majority of the male population, and any and all desires to reach out across this stupid little table and find out whether his hair was as soft as it looked from here would have to stay safely buried in the depths of Ed’s collection of idiotic fantasies.

That was fine.  There were a shit-ton of stifled thoughts and smothered hopes percolating down there.  They could all keep each other warm.

“Thanks,” Ed said, trying to keep his voice as unassumingly level as possible with his insides writhing like a pit of snakes.  “I figured you probably had a good perspective, since you’ve been in these shoes before.”

Roy was still smiling in what looked to be a neutral kind of way, so maybe a shred of luck had been on Ed’s side, and he’d swallowed all the smoke from that firestorm.

“If you’re open to one more piece of advice,” Roy said, which instantly made Ed skeptical, because Ed was by and large a crap excuse for a human being, “I’d recommend keeping some time for yourself.  It’s easy to over-schedule.  And it’s easy to burn out.  Check the boxes that make you happy.  Don’t try to get them all.”

That was some bullshit if Ed had ever heard it.  He had stuff he had to do—period, end of story, end of book.  He had to pack a lot of it into every last day if he wanted to be able to accomplish anything, and he had to prioritize based on what was best for everybody he was accountable to.  Sometimes life left you with a lot of debts to pay, and Edward fucking Elric did not default.

He should’ve just let it go.  He should’ve said Okay for the umpteenth time in this weirdo conversation, let it end, taken his homework, and made his merry way on to his next class to cram some study time in while he waited for it to start.

Instead he said, “Checking all the boxes does make me happy.”

To be fair, one of the hallmarks of the noble Elric name was being a contrary little shit for its own sake at the best of times.

“Besides,” he said, maybe a touch hastily, when Roy’s eyes went a bit wide, “I mean—most of it’s stuff I have to do.  I can’t skip classes—I’m paying for those.  I can’t skip lab, obviously.  I can’t skip work.  I can’t ditch my friend; she’s, like, the only one I’ve got.  Doesn’t leave me a whole hell of a lot of time for… whatever.”

Roy knitted his fingers together, propped his elbows on the table, and set his chin on his folded hands.  Ed hadn’t realized that people actually did that.  Maybe Roy’s life was, in fact, a very long and excruciatingly boring movie or some shit.  That would explain a lot.

“You should find some way to unwind,” he said, and if that wasn’t supposed to sound ever-so-slightly sexual, Ed would be damned, but—

But Roy’s expression didn’t shift a whit from that same enigmatic little vaguely-invested smile.

“Funny word,” Ed said, “‘should’.”

“Conceded,” Roy said, which was funny, because it sounded like conceited, which…

Well, maybe he wasn’t—so bad.

Which, in its own way, made him worse—because if he acted like an asshole all the time, Ed would be perfectly content admiring him from a safe distance, appreciating the aesthetics while keeping him quarantined on the off-limits list.

But if he seemed nice

Shit.  That was where the trouble gained a toothhold, and the blood started to run.

“Anyway,” Ed said, which almost made sense in the context of the conversation at this point, “I should… get out of your hair.”  Your gorgeous, shiny, silky-looking hair, and how the hell you get it to fall in your eyes like that without actually blocking your vision is a marvel and a mystery for the ages.  He gestured to the shunned papers and laptop.  “I know you’ve got other shit to do.”

“It’s really all right,” Roy said, parting his hands and then extending one towards the front counter.  “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Ed couldn’t tell if that was a suggestion, or an offer.  And if it was the latter, then—could Roy do that?  Was he even allowed to buy stuff for students that he had to teach?  It definitely had to be in the contract somewhere that you couldn’t accept gifts, but…

Didn’t matter anyway, though.

“No, thanks,” Ed said, because he’d been raised more or less right, too.  “I’m not a big tea fan.  Works too slow.”

For the first time since Ed had sat down, Roy’s face was extraordinarily effusive: he’d suddenly equipped it with all the requisite trademarks of overstated surprise.

Blasphemy,” he said.  “Tea is the elixir of—”

Despite the hazards, Ed stood up—partly because he actually needed to get out of there before this spiraled any further out of the realm of things he understood… and partly because it was a nice and dramatic way to make the point.  “No, that’s coffee.”

“Heretic,” Roy said.

“Nerd,” Ed said.

“Takes one to know one,” Roy said.

“Boy,” Ed said.  “Thanks for the throwback—I haven’t heard that since I was in the second grade.”

Roy grinned.  “It’s called ‘a classic’.”

“It’s called ‘lame’,” Ed said.

Roy was still grinning.  And Ed’s heart was climbing up his throat, swelling all the while.

This was not good.  This was not good, and this was not safe, and it felt too—

Too everything.  Too bright and too terrifying and too easy.  Far too comfortable and far too dangerous at once.

“I gotta go,” Ed said.

“All right,” Roy said, all mild neutrality again.

“Thanks for looking at…” Ed gestured uselessly towards his backpack—or, really, to the homework shoved into it.  “Really appreciate the help.”

“Not at all,” Roy said.

Ed shifted the bag against his side.  Was there simply no graceful way to exit a conversation, or was this one of those problems that he was the only person who had?

“Have a good day,” he said.  “See you in class.”

“You, too,” Roy said, and it was Ed’s own fault that he couldn’t tell which part it applied to—maybe both?

Nothing for it except to turn on his heel and walk out like he wasn’t some kind of social landmine waiting to ruin every conversation another person let him into.

He ran through that experience a little in his head as he hiked up towards the building his next class was in.  Precisely what the hell had just happened?

And—well, shit.  Were there check-boxes somewhere that would make a difference?  Was there something out there you could reel in and check off that finally made it all feel settled, and solid, and right?

Yeah.  Of course there were.  Obviously it was all that simple.  You could just snag one specific part of a life, and the rest of it totally fell into place.  No problem.  Easy-peasy lemon juice, as Al liked to say when he was loopy on a few too many meds.  That was why so many people were so normal and contented and well-adjusted and all that shit.  That was why everywhere you went, people who knew the trick were shining like beacons in the night, and all you had to do was find your box, and you were golden for the rest of time.

Cute lie, though.  Probably helped, sometimes.  Probably sounded like siren song on the bad nights.  Probably made the world look a little more Technicolor and a little less bleak.

Not that somebody like Roy would’ve needed any of those consolations, if the outward aspect of unshakeable confidence was any indication of what he was like underneath.

Better to leave it.  Better to walk away and let it be and try not to let the way that other people’s lives went hurt any more than it had to.  Better not to give himself a chance to be so bone-deep, gut-twistingly jealous that choking it down felt like chugging poison half the time.

He was fine.  He was always fine.  He had a class to go to and work tonight, and he wanted to call Al after that, and it was all—fine.  It was fine.