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The Order of the Universe

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Ed isn’t going to stare.  Acknowledgement without undue attention usually rankles the least.

But damn it, he does want to know.  Curiosity got him into this; he should have learned how to fight it by now.  Curiosity has gotten him into an awful lot of shit.  Like this PhD, actually, but at least that’s been… partly… mostly… sort of… a good thing.

On the upside, he’s pretty sure that he can get away with sneaking a couple of glances.  The sun is extremely bright, Roy’s glasses are extremely dark, and he might actually be asleep—he isn’t snoring, but he hasn’t moved in a while.  There are also a lot of other excuses if Ed gets caught, like the fact that apparently Roy’s exercise regimen keeping up with a hyperactive husky has really, really paid off.  He’s wearing horrible swim trunks with a flame pattern on them, which look like something that even Guy Fieri would drop off at a thrift store, and a pair of sunglasses that flatter his face perfectly.

Ed has heard, obviously, that individual human beings are just a giant mess of contradictions, but Roy illustrates that more succinctly than pretty much anyone he’s ever met.  Roy is like one of those circulating air machines that they use to pick the lottery numbers—there are dozens and dozens of different people in the tube, all of them batting around and ricocheting off the walls, and you never know which one you’ll get at any given moment.

For instance: a few short nights ago, they were texting about fucking in Roy’s bathtub.  Ed was weirdly sort of… enjoying… that.  It kind of makes his throat and his cheeks go hot just to admit it, even to himself, but true is true even when it’s grossly inconvenient.  It was sort of fun.  They were flirting; Roy’s hot; they were making stupid jokes; they were on the same team trying to cobble together something salacious enough to make Roy’s hovering friend cross himself and say a couple Hail Marys.  And—importantly—they were on opposite sides of the damn city, so none of it was really real.  They were playing, not making promises.

It was pretty fucking different from any of the conversations that they’d had before, though, and Ed had been bracing himself for the sky-high likelihood that something would have changed to reflect that.  He’d been wondering if Roy would want to take him up on all of those theoreticals after all.  The man would be well within his fucking rights, after how much he’d paid.  Ed could buy a car with that kind of fucking money.

Well.  Most of a car.  Something with an engine.  Definitely a used moped.  Probably.  He hadn’t waited around to daydream or do the research; he’d just held one hand over his eyes and dropped the whole total right into one of the bills that he’d argued down with the hospital as far as he could.

The point was that Roy had, all things considered, sounded interested in the prospect of actually fucking Ed in a bathtub, and Ed had been coming around on that idea all fucking week.

Except then he’d showed up on Roy’s doorstep about a half an hour ago.  And Roy had handed over a cold can of Mountain Dew, shuddered like he’d been freed of a demon, and immediately dragged Ed out onto the back patio to sunbathe shirtless, with no mention of any of what had happened in those texts.

So here they are.

Sonja is, as usual, enjoying herself regardless of the weird tension: she’s bounding around in the yard, which admittedly must be close to canine paradise.  Past the pool and the deck and the barbecue and the pretty patio furniture that looks like it was swiped from a storefront, there’s a very contrived rock waterfall with a koi pond at the bottom, and then a lot of grass ringed by drought-hardy plants, and then… trees.  Just… trees.  For a while.  Is that a rich person thing?  Fences are ugly, so you insulate yourself from your neighbors with enough trees to block all of the sounds coming from their side of the property line?  Ed’s not sure how well that would work, acoustically, but it sounds frighteningly plausible.

At least he and Roy are stretched out on surprisingly comfortable reclining deck chairs underneath the canvas-covered and ivy-laden pergola over the patio, so they’re in the shade.  That means several good things—firstly, that Ed’s arm isn’t white-hot with accumulated light; secondly, that he’s less likely to get sunburned; thirdly, that he could probably take a nap behind the sunglasses that Roy handed to him, and Roy wouldn’t even notice.  He drank half of the Mountain Dew—he’s not gonna waste it, whether or not Roy’s convinced that it’ll kill him or something—but his caffeine tolerance is so high that he could definitely sleep right now anyway.

He shouldn’t, though.  He’s on the clock.  Just… at the weirdest semi-side-job ever.

“I like your forest,” he says, so that he can say something.  The silence hasn’t been prickly or especially awkward, but Roy seems to love the sound of his own voice, so it’s definitely… strange.  “You could go camping in your own yard.”

That puts a ghost of a smile on Roy’s face, at least.  “It’s nice, isn’t it?  I grew up in an apartment over an intersection, so just the idea that I could own all of that was very charming.”  He slings himself up to his feet and stretches both arms over his head, then holds his hands to his lower back and winces a little.  “It is what it looks like, by the way.”

Ed goes still.  He hadn’t thought—

Well.  Roy is definitively not a himbo.  Roy is a lot of things that are vastly terrifying, but that’s not one of them.  “I—sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Roy says.

Ed’s heart drops like a brick in a bag.  “No, I—am.  I didn’t—it’s not—”

Roy shoves the sunglasses up onto the top of his head—which pushes his hair back in that way that makes him even more unbearably hot.  He must be doing that so that Ed can see his eyes when he smiles, which is… ridiculous.  Is what it is.  “Don’t be.  I was stationed in Iraq for four months.  I’d realized too late that I was in over my head, and I’d managed to wrangle my way into support work, mostly—that’s how I got into mechanical engineering.”  He flexes his back.  He has a really nice back.  The little twisted-star-shaped divot of pink scar tissue doesn’t change that.  “I managed to intercept a bullet that was intended for a superior officer—who was a jackass intent on outing me and others, and really deserved it; but that’s beside the point—and then they slapped some medals on me and sent me home.  Paid for the rest of my education.  I was lucky.  Here we are.”

Ed stays very, very still in the probably-vain hope that it will deter the rest of his vital systems from starting to panic.  What a stupid, stupid way to fuck this up.  “I didn’t mean to—pry.  Or put you on the spot.  I…”

“It’s really all right,” Roy says, and the smile is more convincing this time, especially since it’s accompanied by some characteristically over-the-top eyebrow stuff.  “It’s not a secret.”

Ed’s brain has apparently had enough of nice things, and doesn’t want any of them ever again.  “It’s not on your LinkedIn.”

Roy pauses.  He blinks.  He has pretty eyes, too.  “It’s… a slightly less-than-public piece of knowledge.”

Ed attempts, tentatively, at a grin.  “Y’know, it’s funny—that almost sounded like a really fancy way of trying not to say ‘secret’.”

“The Mountain Dew is going to your head,” Roy says.  He takes the glasses off, tosses them down on his vacated chair, and rakes a hand through his hair.  He’s… really… hot.  Really hot.  Maybe this is an extraordinarily long and slow-moving episode of a prank show.  If they don’t cut Ed in on the ad money, he’s going to sue.  “Is your automail chlorine-safe if we wipe it down afterwards?”

Ed has to clench his jaw for a second to stop himself from shivering at that mental image.  Just the thought of Roy kneeling down in front of him and slowly rubbing a towel over the metal—maybe Roy would brace one hand on the outside of Ed’s thigh, maybe the terrycloth would graze over his skin as Roy was working his way up towards the port, maybe—

“Yeah,” he says.  “It’s fine.  Winry wrecked my phone once by pushing me into a pool just to prove it.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Roy says, very calmly, “unless you deserved it.  Do you want to?”

Ed blinks at him.  “…deserve… it?”

Roy points.  Which makes it worse.  “Go in the pool.”  Before Ed can wither and die of shame, though, Roy is already turning around, hands on his godawful gorgeous hips, and flip-flop-smack-stepping his way over to a huge plastic cabinet set up against the wall of the house.  “I’m pretty sure that I have some sort of a volleyball net thing.”

Ed doesn’t really want to go in the pool, but he also doesn’t want to sit out here and slowly bake like a half-metal casserole, and he does want to see Roy all wet.

A part of Ed’s brain starts howling at the rest of him—he should be at home; he should be in lab; he should be working; he should be producing something.  He shouldn’t be out there in some hot rich guy’s beautiful backyard, watching the dog run in circles and woof at a butterfly, rolling the words around on his tongue to ask what distinguishes a volleyball-net-thing from a regular volleyball net.  He shouldn’t.  He should be building something, creating something, grinding away at a problem.  He should be making something of himself.  He should be trying; he should be striving; he should be toiling.  He shouldn’t be having fun.

And then he remembers.

Seven hundred and fifty bucks in his bank account for an hour of taking photos—for three hours tops, if you include the drive and playing Overwatch on the couch afterward, which was fun even though Ed fucking sucks at console games because his right hand can’t get traction on plastic controllers.  Roy carried him round after round and didn’t even complain about it.

And then a grand—one thousand dollars—for a couple of saucy text messages that he sent while he was loopy, lying in bed and gnawing on his lip and thinking about ways to prevent himself from getting boring.

He’s making more money here, faster, doing shit that’s fun—or at least not especially difficult—than he ever has in his life.  He’s making faster strides towards the important goals this way than he did in five years of shitty jobs and four years of graduate study, scraping for fellowships and conference awards and free food at happy hours that he doesn’t even like.

He’s happier here than he’s ever been at a ‘happy hour’.

He likes Roy.

So—fuck it.

Fuck all of that.

Roy makes him feel… lighter.  Just a little, but it’s there.  He’s so unsettled and unbalanced, and so vastly out of his depth peeking into a life like this, that the rest of reality starts to fade.  He can almost forget.  The lead coat of the guilt doesn’t seem to weigh quite as much; the preoccupation with someone who’s preoccupied with him, regardless of the particulars, feels… good.  Nice.  Happier than happy hour.

Maybe he’s allowed to have fun, every once in a while.

Maybe he’s allowed to enjoy this for as long as it lasts.

“Hey,” he says, swinging himself up out of the chair and pretending not to hear the way that his foot clinks on the fancy mosaic tiles that rim the glimmering pool.  “You wanna see something cool?”

Roy’s full attention is on him immediately, and that—

Well, shit.  That feels good, too.

So he one-sidedly clinks his way over to the diving board, climbs up, saunters to the end of it, and takes a deep breath.  He bends his knees twice to test the give of it under his weight; it’s springy enough that he can handily pull this off.

He brings his heels together, glances sideways for one last quick confirmation that this end of the pool is marked as eight feet deep, and then leans into the jump so that he’ll get decent air.

He’s a little out of practice, but he manages to get two and a half tight somersaults in before he hits the surface of the water and, obviously, generates a splash of unprecedented proportions.

Roy is applauding when Ed comes up and shoves his wet hair out of his eyes.  Roy looks sincere about it, too, if the giant grin is anything to go by.  Apparently Sonja either thinks that the standing-by-default ovation is for her, or just wants to know what the fuss is about, because she comes tearing over and skids a little bit on the tiles, which makes them both reach towards her instinctively, which…

Ed really was standing on this goober’s doorstep a little while ago wondering if he was going to get murdered and dumped in a ditch.  He has to admit that it is still possible, if Roy’s playing an extremely convincing long game; but lately the scales are tipping much more in favor of the likelihood that sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes things work out… well.

Another shoe will fall one of these days; Ed knows that much.  But he can probably handle it if Roy gets bored of him, or finds a hotter boytoy, or the whole ploy with his friend Maes falls through, or Ed fucks up and says or does something worse than staring a little at a bullet wound scar.  He likes Roy more than he ever meant to—enough that it freaks him out a little bit; enough that he wonders about himself.  It’ll hurt.  He’ll be disappointed.

But it won’t be the end of the world.

He clink-climbs up the ladder at the side of the pool and goes to help Roy wrangle a really stupid brightly-colored net with weights on either side out of the storage cabinet.  Sonja repeatedly tries to bite the rope of the net; by the time they manage to rig it up so that it hangs across the middle of the pool, all the water has evaporated off of Ed’s right arm again.

Roy digs a big, striped plastic beach ball out of the cabinet, too, and tosses it in the air a few times before he raises an eyebrow at Ed.

“Sonja’s on my team,” Ed says.

Roy grins at him again.  Money must buy happiness after all: it’s the only thing that Ed can think of.  He’d be happy if the bills were paid off, and Al’s tuition wasn’t looming, and they could just casually walk into a pharmacy without him having to grit his teeth and calculate how much they’ve put on the credit card this month.  They could buy those strawberry crêpes at the farmer’s market every single weekend.  Al could mess up macarons as many times as he wanted.  Ed could get Winry new headphones every time she twists the cords too much, and she wouldn’t have to keep desperately wrapping them in electrical tape to keep the wires in place.

It’s not that he can’t buy things, when he really wants to, or when he has to.  It’s just that they… linger.  They twist into individual threads of guilt and sink into his conscience until his brain is underneath a net like the one that they’ve just stretched out across the pool.

He can buy things, most of the time.

But they cost more than the price tag.

“Wonderful,” Roy is saying.  “Then you can have the honor of scrubbing her down later to get the chlorine out of all of that fur.”

“Good point,” Ed says.  “She can be on your team.”

Roy grins again.  “How about a team-agnostic cheerleader?  That plays better to her strengths.”

Ed shrugs acquiescence, and Roy goes to give Sonja the familiar instructions to sit and stay, followed by some thorough ear rubs, and he tosses the ball to Ed.

Then Roy runs the last few steps up to the pool and does a huge, shameless fucking cannonball that splashes Sonja anyway.  That makes her disobey the sitting order, since she’s up on her feet to howl at Roy fervently until he surfaces again—which he does like fucking Ariel at the start of the movie, flinging his hair back and spraying droplets and generally being a total fucking tease.

Ed throws the beach ball at his head.

Quasi-volleyball is, as Ed had expected, fairly difficult with one-man teams and a whole lot of water in the way, but it ends up being so damn fun anyway that he feels like he’s been conned.  At least Roy had the foresight to set up the net where Ed’s feet touched the bottom on the shallower side, and Roy’s did on the marginally-less-shallow side, so Ed isn’t quite as exhausted as he could have been, but…

But he still collapses dramatically across the deck chair as soon as he’s dragged himself out of the pool.  It only seems fair after Roy’s Little Mermaid bit anyway.

Roy is making some indistinct noises near the cabinet, but then he comes back and sits down on the chair next to Ed again.  “There’s more Mountain Dew in the fridge,” he says.  “I had to buy a twelve pack.  It was terrible.  Shall I throw in another hundred bucks for the fact that you won?”

“Please don’t tell me,” Ed says, mostly to the fancy tiles, “that you actually kept score.”

“I always keep score,” Roy says, very calmly, which is chilling in ways that Ed doesn’t even have the words for.  “We have to assign some sort of order to the universe, or it’ll just consume us and rip us all to shreds.  Don’t you think?”

Ed rolls onto his left side enough to look up at Roy incredulously.

Roy smiles at him and reaches out—close, so close, waytoofuckingclose—

And very gently guides a lock of wet hair back behind Ed’s ear.

Ed’s breath sticks in his throat.  It feels like every single drop of blood in his body sticks in his veins in solidarity.  It is, truly, a miracle of thermodynamics: he’s frozen solid directly in the path of the searing hot sunlight.  Everything in him has slammed on the brakes.

It’s not that he—

Wants that.


“Numbers make a lot more sense than anything else, most of the time,” Roy says, still in that agonizingly casual, idly conversational voice.  He takes up the turquoise beach towel that he set on the chair beside himself and starts wiping at the water on Ed’s right arm.

“You’re preachin’ to the choir on that one,” Ed gets out.  Roy is—drying his arm.  Roy is—

Roy makes a hell of a fuckton of a lot less sense than numbers; that much Ed knows for sure.

Ed sits up.

Roy pauses, which is either a godsend or a cataclysm, and then offers him the towel.

Before Ed can take it, Sonja comes barreling over and attempts to get it between her teeth like her tug-of-war rope toy, and then Ed’s laughing, and out of the corner of his eye—

But it’s not him that Roy’s smiling for, or at, or about, obviously.  It’s the dog that he loves with his whole extremely stupid heart.  It’s the slowly-fading, simmering warmth of the late afternoon sun; it’s the life that he has and the house that he owns and the endless little comforts that he can pack right into them.  It’s the rest of this.  Ed just happens to be here.

That’s the order of the universe.  He knows that much for sure.