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The Fine Art of Falling

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The rain clears up a little as Ed makes his merry way along the sidewalk—which is called something else here; is it ‘pavement’?  Fucked if he remembers; Roy bought him some Separated by a Common Language book, which was almost but not quite interesting enough to skim beyond the chapter headings of.  Whatever it’s called, he’s using it to saunter past locals and tourists alike with their heads down and their collars up.  The ducks and swans are mostly unperturbed, although the pigeons seem to be clustering under the trees to avoid at least a little of the wet.

He takes twelve pictures of Big Ben, and then the gloomy sky stops spitting long enough for him to cross Westminster Bridge as slowly as he can bear to walk, snapping more shots for Roy as he goes—the Eye, the Jubilee Bridge across the water, the tacky souvenir stands dripping rain.  Somebody goes by on a unicycle.  There’s a big, open grassy spot near a hospital off to the right that looks so familiar it must have been a set on one of Roy’s BBC favorites.

His hotel’s just on the other side of the big white building with the Eye out front; he can’t check in until two, but they’ve got a bewildering touch-screen reservation confirmation machine in the lobby, and then the guy at the desk cheerfully stashes his bags in a side room so that he can wander while he waits.

He takes his laptop across the street behind the place to a little slice-out-of-the-wall restaurant promisingly titled ‘Ned’s Noodle Bar’—although they have a grand total of zero chairs available, so he settles down on the driest step out front and inhales egg noodles with Thai sauce while he looks through his slides again.  It’s not like he expects the presentation to have changed, or anything; and it’s not like he hasn’t given variations on this talk a thousand times; and it’s not like he doesn’t know the data back, forth, inside-out, upside-down, and in Pig Latin anyway.  Roy insisted that he leave himself a full, twenty-four hour day between landing in this country and delivering the first of his lectures so that the time zones won’t fuck him so bad, and he’s not nervous about it—or any of the others, or even any of the panels.  It’s just… habit, maybe?  A weird kind of compulsion to try to make the experience as perfect as possible for anyone dumb enough to come listen to him stutter his way through it?

It’s not that the minor celebrity thing—well, “celebrity” comes with heavy air-quotes: in the scientific community, he’s a fucking rockstar; and to the average person on the street, he is… another average person on the street—disagrees with him.  It just… doesn’t… quite… fit.  It’s like a coat tailored for somebody else, but it’s the only thing he’s got to wear, so here he is—presentable, but shifting uncertainly when the shoulders pull, and subtly tugging on the places where the fabric cuts in all wrong.

He fiddles with one of the transitions, sort of aimlessly, and then flicks through all the slides again.  Sure enough, they’re exactly how they were on the plane.  No gremlins in his hard-drive just yet; that’s always good to know.

Momentarily, he realizes that his noodles have vanished into the ether—because he definitely did not empty the entire carton and clean the sides; he will not be held responsible for that—and packs up his computer again.  It’s time for some serious tourism.  He’s going to do it.  He’s going to go on the goddamn glorified ferris wheel, and he’s stupid-excited, and… there’s probably no hope for him at this point.

Actually getting onto the Eye turns out to be a significantly more involved endeavor than he expected.  There’s a line to buy a ticket, and then they try to convince you to go watch some stupid ten-minute movie about the very thing you’re about to do, and then you wait in line again to get on board, and then they reiterate some safety crap about eight more times, and then, when you think you’re finally about to get shunted into a little glass capsule, they put a hand out and make you wait for the next one while a family of twenty-eight crowds into the one before you.

Right when Ed’s just about done lamenting the state of humanity and the universe and so on, the ticket-taker beckons him forward and waves him on through the steel-framed door into the giant glass egg.

He finds himself instantaneously glued to the far end of the ovoid, practically pressing his nose to the glass.  The river laps lackadaisically at the pier below them; they’re moving so slowly that you can barely tell it’s happening at all.  He doesn’t want to be That Guy, but he takes out his phone, balances the edge on the silver railing, and turns it on to video.

“All right,” he mutters before any of his fellow passengers have come close enough to hear him.  “You better blow me for this, Mustang.”

Holding the phone steady for the whole half-hour ride and trying to take pictures with his other hand is a bit of a challenge, but Ed wouldn’t trade it back if there was money on the line.

Izumi had been right, as Izumi tended to be: Ed was onto something.  Ed, as Ed tended to do, had managed to stumble onto a something that was both enormous and extremely controversial.

Friday night found him pacing back and forth in Roy’s living room, gesticulating wildly as he explained the something in question.

“…so really, RNA-seq has the potential to stop certain types of cancer cells from propagating if we could figure out how to inhibit the proteins that are promoting the duplication of cells with the mistranscribed RNA, and I think I’m onto an algorithm that’ll line all of those fuckers up like dominos, and…” He paused for breath and noticed Roy’s soft-eyed smile.  “Why are you looking like that?  I’m talking about cancer vaccines, Roy.  I’m talking about maybe getting stalked in the streets and jumped in dark fucking alleys because other people are going to want to commercialize this, and pharma is going to kill to make a profit off of saving all those lives.”

“I’m sorry,” Roy said from his rather enticing sprawl on the couch, grinning now and not looking sorry in the fucking least.  “That’s wonderful—well, not the stalking and getting jumped—”

“Al said it,” Ed said.  “And he’s paranoid-slash-overprotective, so he’s probably exaggerating.  It’s not like pharma actually hires big, beefy goons who dress in black and go around beating up competing research scientists.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Roy said, and the arch of his eyebrow was still amused, and Ed was going to punch his smug face in a second.  “And your research sounds incredible.  I’m not laughing at you; I promise—it’s just that I haven’t understood a single thing you’ve said for the past half-hour, but I wasn’t bored for a second, because you’re so passionate about it that I don’t even need to understand.  Just listening to you is glorious.  And your hair does a truly wonderful little flip thing when you turn at the end of the room to pace in the other direction.”

Ed tried to remember whether he’d even attempted to put all of this into layman’s terms before he dove into the middle of it.  Probably not.  The only person who was usually privy to his brain-thunderstorms was Al.  “Oh.  Sorry.”

Roy swung himself up off the couch, crossed to Ed, and settled both hands on the sides of his neck.  “Don’t be sorry.  It’s an absolute privilege to be this close to your genius.  I don’t have the faintest concept of the specifics of that genius, but I caught enough here and there to be in awe of you all over again.”

Ed felt a flush creeping up his skin.  The start of it seemed to be localized right under Roy’s hands, as if it hadn’t been agonizingly clear enough that it was his damn fault.  “Well—jeez.  I’m just—figuring stuff out.  There’s nothing really genius-y about it.”

“I’m fairly sure that’s what genius is,” Roy said.  “Identifying a solution that’s always been possible but has never been defined.”

Ed frowned up at him, but not aggressively, because those hands felt really nice, and scaring him off would be a poor choice.  “I’m pretty freakin’ dumb, though.”

“No, you’re not,” Roy said, and his palms lifted from Ed’s skin, but then his fingers were guiding Ed’s hair back, so that was okay.  “You’re young and vibrant and enthusiastic and uncertain, which are all entirely valid things to be as you’re sorting out your own existence.”

Ed swallowed.  The pad of Roy’s thumb chased the lump down his throat, which made everything tingle right down to Ed’s fingertips.  “I just—I think I sort of tripped over my life’s work.  But there’s still so much to do, and there’s still so much shit I don’t know, and there’s so much time left to fuck it up before I’ve even started.”

Roy kissed his forehead.  “I thought half the fun of science was fucking up and discovering something new on accident.”

“It is,” Ed said.  “Except when it’s important.  And then it’s not.”

Roy kissed the bridge of his nose, then the tip.  “Darling,” he said, “relax.”

Ed wrinkled his nose and wrapped his hands around Roy’s wrists, more to give them something to do other than hanging at his sides than anything else, although that had the distinct side benefit of requiring him to touch the hottest guy on Earth.  “Been trying.  Just can’t.”

Roy kissed his mouth this time, lingeringly.  “I know a remedy or two for that.  I’m prescribing you some ice cream, a long and thorough cuddle session, and a good night’s sleep.”

“I’d like to see your medical degree,” Ed said.

“Absolutely,” Roy said.  “It’s in the bedroom.”  He offered up another of his patented giant cheesy winks.  “If you know what I mean.”

“Jesus,” Ed said.

“Close,” Roy said, “but it’s R—”

“Is this ice cream you’re promising the fabled coffee almond fudge?” Ed asked.

Roy wrapped an arm around him and started towing him towards the kitchen.  “Come and find out.”

Apparently, there was pretty much no existential and/or scientific crisis that ice cream, cuddling, and passing out curled up with Roy Mustang couldn’t at least ameliorate.

Waking up to mid-morning light and the subtle shift of the sheets as Roy nestled in a little closer to his back didn’t hurt either.

“Good morning, beautiful,” Roy said softly, and Ed’s heart sort of flipped over and turned to goo.  “What do you want for breakfast?”

“Sex,” Ed said.  His brain before coffee and the awakening of his Society Filter was an interesting place.  “Failing that, bacon.”

Roy kissed his shoulder.  “How about both?  Perhaps not simultaneously.  Grease burns are terrible.  Especially in sensitive areas.”

“Don’t tell me why you know that,” Ed said.  “One at a time’s good.”

“Mm,” Roy said.  He kissed each shoulder-blade in turn and then lifted Ed’s loose hair off of the back of his neck to kiss that, too.  “Don’t move.  I’ll bring it up.”

“Wait,” Ed said as Roy slid to the edge of the bed.

And—just like that, Roy paused, and looked at him, and smiled.

“S’just I forgot,” Ed said.  “In the… ’cause science.  I brought you something.”

By the time he’d succeeded in crawling off of the bed on his side, Roy was waiting with the bathrobe held out, which… was awesome, since Ed couldn’t stand to sleep with a shirt on, which tended to make for cold-ass mornings.  Well.  Cold-torso mornings.  Cold ass, too, sometimes.

“It’s with my stuff,” Ed said, and Roy took his hand and led the way down the stairs.  “It’s not, like, a winning lotto ticket or anything, so get your hopes down, okay?”

“The best gift in the vast universe is waking up next to you,” Roy said.  “Everything else is icing on the cake.”

It was way too early for this sappy shit.  Ed kind of wanted to cry and also kind of wanted to throw things and also kind of wanted to grab a handful of Roy’s shirt and try to lick his brain through the roof of his mouth, but none of those things would be especially safe while they were on the staircase, so he refrained.

“Now I want cake,” Ed said, in defense of his title as Mood Killer of the Century.

Roy had a knack—or, as most people would probably call it, a weird and extremely consistent propensity—for smiling beatifically when Ed said shit like that.  “I’m sure that can be arranged.”

They reached the foyer, where Ed had dumped his backpack on arrival.  From its long-lost-paper-laden depths, he retrieved the white box he’d tossed in yesterday morning, which he held out to Roy.

Roy opened the top, peered in, and raised his eyebrows.

“It’s a French press,” Ed said.  “The timer’s busted to shit, so Marta said we couldn’t sell it, so I asked if I could have it, so you won’t have to go coffee-less anymore.  You can set the microwave timer instead; it’s just supposed to give the coffee time to steep or whatever.  I’ve only used ’em a couple times, but they work pretty well.”  He excavated the part of the present that he’d actually worked for and held that out, too.  “I comped you some grounds so we can try it if you want.”

Roy slipped into the kitchen, set both items on the countertop, and ghosted back to catch Ed up in his arms and spin them around so suddenly that Ed couldn’t help freezing up at the surprise.

“I think the only appropriate way to thank you is with French kissing,” Roy said.  “C’est seulement logique, n’est-ce pas?”

“No,” Ed said.  Roy had lived in Italy, too, after all, and now— “No fuckin’ way.  How many fucking romance languages do you speak?”

Roy grinned at him, because Roy was a bastard; and then Roy kissed him again, long and slow and deep, because Roy was a sexy bastard.

“As many as you want to hear,” he said.

“Fuck,” Ed said.

The thing was, as much as activities—and, ahem, activities—with Roy were fucking fantastic (including the fantastic fucking), the best part of the whole crashing-his-place-on-weekends drill was the laziness.  Roy was a serious fucking pro at laziness.  He could spend hours at a time doing nothing whatsoever, and somehow he even made it kind of fun.

Ed had been firing on all cylinders and running after golden rings just out of reach since before he turned ten.  Sure, he took weekends “off”—meaning that he usually spent them cooped up in lab or at home, reading every science journal he could follow on the internet for free until Al enlisted his help to clean the apartment.  There was always laundry to do; and groceries to search for coupons for; and Al would go through the receipts they’d stuck up under the industrial magnet on the fridge to make sure their budget for the month was going to be sustainable, and Ed couldn’t let him do that by himself either, so… stuff.  There was always stuff, and stuff needed someone to do it, and Ed had always found himself getting jittery, in the past, if there wasn’t something laid out on his agenda that needed his attention.

Roy, though, had turned not doing jack-fucking-shit into an actual art form.  He was a maestro of absolute indolence, and it was really pretty impressive to watch.

Making breakfast was all good and well, but then there was a full hour whiled away just lying on the couch in aimless conversation before either of them even moved to take a shower; and then Roy made half of the bed before getting bored and suggesting that they see if anything was on TV; and when nothing was they put on old Doctor Who and tried out the French press; and then it was about lunchtime; and then an entire afternoon somehow passed while they accomplished nothing more than a raid of Roy’s extraordinarily outdated board games cabinet.

Weirdly, doing nothing whatsoever, but in Roy’s company, was about the best way Ed had ever found to spend a Saturday.

He woke at fuck-knows-o’-clock to the soft creak and the balance shift of movement on the mattress.  Clouds had gathered to spit a little rain at them when they’d been window-shopping downtown, and apparently the cover had stuck around; the city lights reflected back and lit the room with a faint, sickly orange glow.

Roy was sitting up, drawing the blankets with him as he pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face in them, shoulders heaving.  He was breathing so fast and so rough-edged it made Ed’s lungs hurt—sympathy pain, how about that?

“Hey,” he whispered, propping himself up on his elbow without moving any closer.  “Roy.”

Roy’s breath caught, unstuck, and shuddered.  He swallowed, audibly, but didn’t raise his head.  “H-hey.”

The primary thing Ed had learned over the course of the last couple incidents—he fucking hated that word for this; like Roy’s fucking pain was a traffic violation or some shit; like it was a clinical fucking footnote to be cited in somebody’s statistic—was to wait until Roy settled a little and reached out before touching him.  It seemed to make it worse to touch him too early—he tensed up even more and tried to pull away, and then he got even guiltier, and that was just shitty from start to finish.

Still.  Even knowing that, even with a few different nights’ experience—this felt like walking through a dark hall waiting for the tripwire.

Ed cleared his throat.  “You want me to get you some water?”

The shaking had slowed a little, but Roy had lifted one hand and clenched it into his own hair.  He shook his head without releasing it; his knuckles had gone white.  “No.  No, thank you.  I’m all right.”

The temptation to say Obviously not was very small, and Ed quashed it.  “Do you need anything?  S’there anything I can get you?”

Roy shook his head again, grinding his face into the arm he still had folded over his knees.  The hand in his hair loosened, slowly, shaking, and then dropped to the bed, and then extended—

Ed wanted to fucking leap on it, but he wasn’t stupid; he met Roy’s fingers halfway, and he did it slowly, and carefully.  Roy jumped at the first brush of contact, but then he curled his fingers around Ed’s and gripped them tightly.  That was permission for Ed to crawl in closer, as long as he didn’t let go of Roy’s hand, and then wrap the free arm around him and lean in against his shoulder.

Ed bumped his head very gently against the side of Roy’s and didn’t raise his voice above a whisper.  “You okay?”

Roy drew a tremulous breath, released it, and lifted his face just enough for Ed to see the glimmer of one eye.

“Nearly,” he said.

Ed put both arms around him—Roy’s hand still twined with his—and pressed a kiss to Roy’s ear, since that was the easiest part of him to access.

“I’m sorry,” Roy said, muffled by his own forearm, of course.

“None of that crap,” Ed said.  “You help me carry my shit, I’ll help you carry yours.  Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?”

“I’m not sure,” Roy said.  Both eyes were visible now, just barely.  “I don’t know that I’ve ever… Maes used to… but I had a lot less shit back then.”

“I’m not sure either,” Ed said, “but it makes a lot of sense.  Trust me.”

Roy leaned in.  “You know I do.”

Sunday morning dawned—or, rather, several-hours-past-dawned—to a small puddle of Ed’s own drool under his cheek, and an empty bed beside him.  Blearily, his brain geared up for alarm before it realized that pancake-ish smells were drifting steadily up the stairs.

He sat up, rubbed his eyes, tried to wipe the drool off of his chin, succeeded only in smearing it, slipped out of the bed, hitched his boxers up, and darted into the bathroom.  Roy’s robe lived in there, and jacking it before braving the cold outside the room was a priority; and while he was there, he scrubbed the worst of the saliva trails off of his face.  He was just going to have to leave the remainder of the damning evidence on the pillow and hope it dried clear enough on the white sheets that Roy wouldn’t notice.

By the time he straggled downstairs and into the kitchen, Roy was spatula-ing the pancakes out of the frying pan and onto plates.

“You have excellent timing,” he said.

Ed went over to pick up a pancake between two fingers.  They were hot, but, like, eatable-hot.  They’d cooled to an only-a-little-bit-of-roof-of-the-mouth-scalding level at this point.  “Would you believe I’ve never heard that before in my life?”

Instead of telling him to learn some manners or that he’d burn himself or that he was a mouthy little prick etcetera, Roy held the plate under his mouth while he took a bite to catch the crumbs.

Fuck, Ed loved him so much it felt like his heart couldn’t hold it.

“Yes,” Roy said.

In what would probably be a vain effort to distract from the fact that his cheeks were going pink, Ed glanced over towards the table, where a plastic bottle proudly bore the name of Ocean Spray.

“I see we’re at the next stage of cranberry juice obsession,” he said.

“It’s not an obsession,” Roy said.  “You’ve never had a UTI, have you?”

“No,” Ed said.  Roy handed him his plate, and he grinned broadly and then took it over with him while he went to go examine the label on the bottle.

“I could tell,” Roy said.  “If you had, you’d be chugging that stuff.”

Ed bit into another pancake.  There was a hell of a lot of sugar in this supposed miracle liquid.  “Can you put it in coffee?  What the hell good is it?”

“You could,” Roy said.  “I imagine you might have to exorcise the results.  I’m trying to save you from the possibility of not-insignificant pain and a multiple-day course of antibiotics, my dear.”

“My hero,” Ed said, and then his eyes drifted over to the contents of the manila folder splayed out further down the tabletop.

The world narrowed to a tiny point of cold, cold light, and all he could hear was a roar like a fucking hurricane just past his ears, and the slam-bang-pound-rush of his heart breaking into a gallop and then staggering and then skittering too fucking fast for him to breathe

“Ed?” Roy’s voice asked.  Something touched his shoulder.  “Ed, sweetheart—”

Words rattled out of him.  “Who the fuck is that?”

He couldn’t find his hands to point, but Roy couldn’t have thought he meant anything except the little mugshot photograph stapled to a page.

“I—that’s—his name is Soph—Sophocles, that is—Kimblee.  He’s been getting into some trouble with the authorities lately over property disputes, and he called last we… Ed, look at me, please—you’re scaring me; what’s wrong?”

He had to get this out.  He had to.

“Don’t represent him,” he made himself say.  “Don’t go anywhere fucking near him; don’t even—don’t—don’t even let him know who you are; don’t—just stay the fuck away from that—from him, just—”

A pale hand flitted into his tiny field of vision, stacked the papers briskly, and slapped the folder shut.

Ed heard himself drag in a full breath, and then another, and then he shook awake and found himself leaning on the table, and his knees were like fucking jelly, and his head spun—

“Edward,” Roy said softly, so softly, soft hands on Ed’s shoulders and his face; everything so nice.  Always with the nice, with him.  Always with the careful.  “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Ed said.  That was a pathetic attempt at a shitty lie; Roy deserved better.  He swallowed once, twice; it stuck; it rankled.  “I—don’t—I can’t—talk about it.  Just—don’t—get near him.  Please?”

He dropped into the waiting chair, near where he’d left his breakfast in what seemed like a parallel universe he’d never meld back into ever again.  If he was here—if he was in town, fucking stuff up, trying to get bailed out of whatever shit he’d stirred up—if he was already close enough to be scraping at the edges of Ed’s cautious little life away from his fucking gaslighting torments and sick fucking games—

Couldn’t think about it.  Couldn’t give it any traction; couldn’t lend it any weight.  Ed had clamped down on worse thoughts and shut them out, hadn’t he?  He’d gritted his teeth through the night when the morphine ran out and bitten back the screams when the nerve flared and held his tongue while he waded through bullshit the likes of which would bring most people to their knees—

He’d think about it later.  Not now.

It couldn’t touch him (such light, light fucking fingertips, always so faint, like the ripple of the goosebumps on his skin was the goal, like pleasure was secondary and listening to his breath stutter came first; always so light until the nails dug in) if he didn’t let it.

Roy was holding tightly onto both his hands, kneeling on the floor, staring up at him in something like… terror.

“Ed,” he said, and one hand lifted to tuck Ed’s loose hair back behind his ear and then settle on his cheek—and his instinct was to writhe away, but he stilled his tensing muscles, and he fought it.  “Can you tell me?  I just want to help; can—”

Ed shook his head, shook it harder, crushed some rubble in his throat.  “C-can’t.  Just—can’t.  Not—I’ll—someday.  Okay?”  He could do this.  Roy’s hand was so warm; the soft pad of his thumb was stroking back and forth across Ed’s cheekbone; Ed laid his hand over it, and that was good.  This was good.  He was safe; he knew where he was, and he was safe here.  “It’s—nothing.  Never mind.  Okay?  Let’s—for fuck’s sake, the pancakes are getting cold, and I wasn’t even close to done makin’ fun of your cranberry juice, and—”

Roy met his eyes, held them, and smiled very slowly, very gently.  “Okay,” he said.  He got to his feet, and Ed didn’t miss the little wince or the way one hand strayed to the small of his back.  Thirty-five.  Thirty-five and perfect, and he wanted Ed, of all the people on the whole damn planet; Ed was the one he curled up with every weekend night.  “Let me get you some syrup for those; I can’t believe you got started without it.”

“Your pancakes are fucking awesome,” Ed said as Roy squeezed his hand one more time and went for the fridge.  “It doesn’t hurt, obviously, but they don’t really need it to be great.”

Roy smiled.  “As you may have noticed, flattery will get you everywhere in a tearing hurry.”

“Tearing your clothes off, I hope,” Ed said.  “You’re pretty great without syrup, too.”

Roy grinned at him this time, and he just about managed a grin right back.

“Oh, dear,” Al said when he was only two-thirds finished swanning across the front room to collapse on the couch.  “What happened?”

Ed tried to make the landing as dramatic as possible even though Al had totally ruined the suspense.  Then he had to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to say to encapsulate this.

He settled on: “I… dunno.  I think I’m cracking up.”

Al padded over in the cat-face slippers Ed had bought him two Christmases ago and sat down in the little patch of cushion next to Ed’s waist, the better to pat his back.  “How do you mean?”

“You remember,” Ed said, slowly, carefully, because Al did, was the thing; Al remembered every stupid part of him and every stupid thing he ever said, “how I said I—I had one of those—kinda—breakdown—things—the other night, at Roy’s, ’cause… I just can’t even—deal with—the idea that this could go bad like all the others, ’cause it could, and…?  Anyway.  It was fucked-up.  I scared the fucking crap out of him.  And—today—just—”

Al kneaded with a thumb at the horrible knot under Ed’s shoulder-blade, ignoring his semi-articulated noises of protest.

“…quit i… ahh, okay, that was good—but—fuck, ow—Al, it’s—Kimblee.”

Al’s hand froze.  Ed twisted around to peek up at him, and his eyes were huge, and his expression was… about a perfect summary of how Ed felt—disgusted and horrified and edgy and resigned.

“I guess there’s some legal shit,” Ed said, because that face deserved an answer, or as much of one as he had to give.  “And—yeah.  Small fucking world.  I—I sort of—flipped my fucking lid again, and—I asked Roy to stay the fuck away from him, and he said he would, and… yeah.”

Slowly, Al’s knuckles started digging into the myriad miseries of Ed’s back again, and to anyone else, his gaze might have seemed sort of vague and distracted, but Ed saw it flick briefly to the deadbolt on the door.

“We’re going to have to be careful,” Al said.

Ed buried his face in the couch cushion again.  “We always are.”

“That’s because we learn quick,” Al said.  “If only it helped once in a while.”

“Preach,” Ed said into the cushion.

Al patted his head, which was fucking obnoxious, but also kind of nice.  Al was weird like that.  “Let’s… talk about something else.  For instance, the fact that you’ve been zombie-fied and skittish for a while now, and Roy’s making it a little better, but… Have you considered that this was a long time coming?”

Ed shifted again, as slowly and menacingly as he was able, to narrow his eyes at Al.  “Exactly what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Al gave him the don’t get mad at me because you’re mad at yourself Brother pout, which was a really bad sign, because it meant he was about to elucidate some way Ed was mad at himself that he hadn’t even discovered yet.  “Have you ever entertained the possibility that you’re overextended and stressed, and you hardly remember to eat and never leave time to sleep, and it’s finally catching up with you?  When you take better care of yourself, you’re—stabler.  It’s true.  And it makes sense.”

“I’m plenty stable,” Ed said, and it took every last fucking iota of his willpower not to wince.

Al patted his head again and then sat back a little, looking like he was weighing his words.  “Maybe—maybe you should think about cutting down your hours at Has Beans.”

A chain link fence sprouted out of solid concrete in Ed’s head.  Searchlights panned across the pavement.

…maybe Al was right about the commitments getting to him a little, but come on.  His life, his rules.

“I crunched the numbers the other night,” he said.  “We c—”

“When was that?” Al asked.

“I dunno,” Ed said.  “One in the morning or some shit.”

“When you had to be up for work in three hours.”

“The point is,” Ed said, through a scowl now, “that we can’t afford for me to quit.”

“I didn’t say ‘quit’,” Al said.  “I said ‘reduce’.  Well—not verba… Brother, you start working before five, and you don’t get home until eight at night, and half the time you don’t even sleep well—”

“I sleep like a baby,” Ed said.  It had been a major tactical error to let Al start this conversation when he was lying on his front; having to twist his neck around to argue was killing him.  “How the hell do you know how I sleep?”

“Because I hear you banging into things in the kitchen at ungodly hours when you give up trying,” Al said.

Ed’s stomach sank like a fucking boulder into a fucking swamp, which was even more impressive given that he was horizontal.  Al cherished sleep—treasured it, adored it; he loved dozing and dreaming and pillows and fuzzy blankets and teddy bears and stretching like a cat—and the very abstract thought of ruining his precious nighttimes was devastating.

“I’m sorry,” Ed said, which felt ludicrously inadequate, but at least it was a start.  “Al, I’m—I mean, maybe I could—I could sleep on the couch; it’d be quieter if I got u—”

Al shot him a look so severe his voice gave out.  “Don’t you dare guilt-spiral on me while I’m trying to talk sense into you, Edward Elric.  Listen.  Just—I was thinking.  If Winry moved in, we could split the rent three ways, and then you could work half as much at the shop, and we’d still break even.”

Ed glared back.  “Okay.  Where would she sleep?  And if you say ‘my bed is big enough for two people’, I’m gonna beat you over the head and then re-teach you geometry.”

Al glowered.  “She could have my bed, and we could get a futon.”

Ed levered himself up far enough on one elbow to scrub at his face with the other hand.  “God.  Whatever.  I don’t know.”

“I don’t either,” Al said, more softly now.  “But I know you can’t go on like this.”

Ed laid his head back down on his forearms.  Al rubbed gently at his back.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I know.”

Monday morning, Roy caught Ed’s hand, very gently, when they both reached out for Ed to pass the change.  He held it—cupping it from underneath; Ed still had the coins in his palm—and met Ed’s eyes for a very long moment.

There was so much in that single fucking second of eye contact that Ed felt bowled over.  Predominantly it was a sort of Are we okay?  Are you okay? kind of message, but it was so much… bigger… than that.  It always was, with Roy, wasn’t it?  It was always so freaking important and so freaking real.  He mattered, to Roy.  All the time.  A lot.

So he mustered the strongest smile that he could manage and flipped his hand to tip the change into Roy’s, gripping his fingers for a second en route.

“Text me later,” he said.  “Regale me with your paperwork woes or whatever.”

Roy grinned.  “You know me too well.”

Ed didn’t figure that was possible.

Tuesday morning, Roy looked kind of… groggy.  Hot-groggy, of course, but the basic grogginess couldn’t be denied.

“Your coffee is free,” Ed said as Roy opened his mouth to order, not that ordering was necessary anymore.  “You look like you need more than twenty ounces.  Maybe an ocean.  Are you okay?”

Roy attempted a cheery smile that came off largely unconvincing.  “Just a little under the weather.  Nothing some caffeine and a lot of whining can’t fix.”  He paused.  “Well—a little bit of whining.  I have a whining cap.”

Ed felt his eyebrows rising.  “Oh, yeah?”

“It’s based on elapsed time,” Roy said, “rather than a fixed number of sentences, so loud sighing counts against me.”

“Yeah, but how loud?” Ed asked.  “Does she have your office bugged, or does she have to be able to hear it through the wall?”

“She’s got Sheska listening in,” Roy said.  “It’s a conspiracy.”

Ed handed him the coffee cup and comped it on the register.  “It always is.”

“Don’t say that,” Roy said, summoning up a wink.  “They’ll hear you.”

Wednesday morning, the grogginess had moved in to stay, and the guest of honor at the housewarming party was a generous helping of death warmed over.  Roy shuffled up to the counter rubbing at his eyes.

“Holy cr—” Ed remembered in the nick of time that he was at work.  “…crow.  Holy crow.  Go back to bed; you look terrible.”  Oh.  Oops.  “I mean—sick-terrible, not bad-terrible.  You always look great.  Just—less-great.  Right now.”  News flash: Edward Elric was a long-time sufferer of chronic foot-in-mouth disease.  “Fu… dgesickles.”

Roy cracked a smile.  “Would you believe this is the best I’ve felt since I got up?”

“You shouldn’t’ve,” Ed said.  “You should go home and go back to sleep.  You’ll make it worse if you try to work all day—I bet that’s what happened yesterday, isn’t it?”

“There’s a possibility,” Roy said mildly.  He was really pale, and his voice was all nasally, and he wasn’t holding his shoulders sharp or his back straight.  It was kind of uncanny.

“So go home,” Ed said.  “Don’t make yourself sicker.”

“I just need coffee,” Roy said.  “The rest isn’t so bad.”

He didn’t have a tie on today.  If there was another red-flag, alarm-bell warning sign anywhere near as significant for Roy’s health and awareness, Ed didn’t know what the hell it could be.

“I’m comping you this one, too,” Ed said, lowering his voice so the other regulars wouldn’t get all jealous, and so Russell wouldn’t emerge from the woodwork and bitch about it.  “But you gotta promise me you’ll pack up and go home and take a nap if you don’t feel better in a couple hours, okay?”

Roy cleared his throat, paused to turn away from the counter and cough into his sleeve—deep, loud, and racking—straightened, and tried for a smile.  “There’s… quite a lot to do this we—”

“Promise,” Ed said, holding the coffee cup out of reach.

Roy eyed it, then him, then produced a shaky grin.  “I promise.”

Ed handed it over.  “You’re no good to me dead.  Or passed out in a pool of your own phlegm.”

Roy grimaced.  “Suddenly I’m glad I slept too late for breakfast.”

Ed pointed at him.  “That’s a big, flashing neon sign from your body saying ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself.’  You fill your pockets up with Kleenex before you left the house?”

Roy looked like he would have looked embarrassed if he hadn’t been so busy looking ill and zombie-ish.  “I… did not.  Presumably if I grovel, Riza will take pity on me and trust me with a few.”

“Hop to it,” Ed said, and Roy started to sigh, and Ed’s heart did a funny, fucked-up kind of flipping thing.  He reached out—he wasn’t sure what for—before Roy could move away.  “No, but—seriously—just—would you take care of yourself?  Please?”

Roy brushed the tips of his fingers over the back of Ed’s hand, lighter than the beat of butterfly wings.

“I will,” he said.  “Thank you.”

Ed watched him go, walking marginally less zig-zaggy this time.

“You are disgustingly sappy,” Russell said—although he was just smart enough to say it from a safe distance this time; last time Ed had spilled fresh whipped cream all over both of them, which was zero percent as sexy as it sounded.

Attempting to ignore the useless wordvomit emanating from Russell, Ed focused on wondering if it was legal to hire kidnappers to abduct somebody and return them to their home if it was for their own good.  Pity the only person who’d be able to guide him on that was the one it’d be affecting.

…on second thought, there wasn’t really a question about the legality or lack thereof.

Ed sighed and turned to wipe down the espresso machine.  “Shut the fuck up, Tringham,” he said.

Just after noon, as he was settling in with a pile of dead trees to get the data-analysis party started, his phone buzzed.

Then it buzzed again, and again, which meant it was a call, not a text, but Al knew he was in lab, which meant—


He slapped the papers down on the benchtop and fumbled the phone out of his pocket; his heartbeat was deafening and uneven and probably unhealthy; let it not be—let it not—

It was a number that looked vaguely familiar, but not for what he’d feared.


All the same—

The second you underestimated, the second you got complacent—that was when the shit hit the fan, and you turned around, and you were fucked

His thumb missed the swipe bar twice before he got the damn thing to work, and he raised the phone to his ear, swallowed the grit in his throat, and choked out, “Hello?”

“Ed?” a woman’s voice he knew asked calmly.  “This is Riza Hawkeye.”

The flood of relief coursed through him so fast and so ferociously that it left him shaking.  He barely kept his grip on the fucking phone.  God, was anybody around here watching him?  He’d look crazy.  Maybe he was.

“Hey,” he said.  He cleared his throat and coughed into his fist in the hopes of evening out his voice, and then he tried again: “What’s up?”

“Roy is probably going to text you momentarily,” she said, “while he’s in the car, to let you know I sent him home on pain of death.”

Sounded a bit counterproductive, the whole If you don’t go home and get better, I’ll kill you! thing.  Also sounded exactly like something Ed would say.

“Just wanted to give you a heads up,” Riza said.  “He’s pure stoic endurance when he’s refusing to give in to being sick, but the moment he accepts it, he turns into a pathetic lump.”

Well, don’t mince words, Ed thought, but he wasn’t quite sure yet that he wouldn’t go in front of a firing squad for sassing this woman too much.  “Right.  Uh.  Is it my sacred…” He elided the word ‘boyfriend’ at the last second just in case some fucking busybody was listening in.  “…duty to go babysit?”

“There isn’t any obligation,” Riza said, rather delicately, Ed thought, “but he’s going to pull out all the stops to try to guilt-trip you.  And it would be wonderful if you had a chance to stop by and check in on him sometime today just to make sure he hasn’t buried himself in a mountain of used tissues, never to be seen again.”

“That would be a fittingly melodramatic end,” Ed said.

Riza made a faint breath-through-the-nose noise that might, by her standards, have qualified as a laugh.  “Quite.”

“I’ll go over there,” Ed said, nudging his papers into a slightly less chaotic stack.  His hand was still shaking.  “Dig him out of the detritus.  Make some soup.”

“That would be very kind of you,” Riza said.  “Just don’t let him take advantage.”

“I’d like to see him try,” Ed said.  He wouldn’t, but it sure sounded snappy.

“Excellent,” Riza said.  “Thank you.”

“You bet,” he said.

He was also betting that this whole nursemaid-to-the-sick-boyfriend bit was easier said than done.

But he’d never find out if he didn’t give it a whirl, as was always true of… well, anything, really.

His phone buzzed again as soon as he shoved it in his pocket, so he dragged it back out.

Riza sent me home for exceeding my whining quota.  Or because I spewed snot on some case files.  Perhaps it was both. :(

The woman was psychic.

don’t text while you drive, Ed sent.  be there in like an hour. <3

To make good of the promise, he packed up his data, double-checked that everything he was postponing wouldn’t blow sky-high before tomorrow, stuck a note on Izumi’s door comprising several lines of brilliant poetry (personal crap to do sorry thanks have my cell. —e.e.), and booked it to the parking lot.  He had to swing by home and then the grocery store and then get over to Roy’s—an hour would be cutting it just a little close, but he’d been known to glare at clocks until they slowed their shit down sometimes.

He got a text from Roy while he was in the spices aisle, holding his basket at a stupidly awkward angle—not that there was any other way to hold one of those fucking things—and skimming the labels on the different brands of cayenne powder to see which ones had the right stamps of approval.

Did Riza tell you I was texting in the car?  How could she possibly know that for -sure-?  I object.  You don’t have to come; I’d hate to spew snot on you.  I’d never forgive myself.

suck it up mustang, Ed sent back.  i’m halfway there.  you’re going to have to peel yourself out of the sick nest to let me in though.

He just sort of gazed glazedly at the labels for another second, because he knew that was all it would take before the phone vibrated again.

I’ll leave the door unlocked.  If anyone enters with burglarizing intentions, they’ll be subject to a barrage of phlegmy facial tissues, which presumably qualifies as biological warfare… You really shouldn’t come inside the quarantine zone; I’m sure I’m contagious.  I just wanted to whine without a quota. <3

tough shit, Ed sent.  be there soon. <3

For all of the unrestricted whining, Roy had evidently succeeded in oozing down the stairs to unlock the door, since it opened at a touch as Ed tried to manhandle all of his bags inside.

“You alive?” he called up as he dragged everything into the kitchen.

“Possibly,” a faint impression of Roy’s voice called back.

“Cool,” Ed said.  “Schrödinger’s Mustang.  I’m down.  Based on the possibility you’re alive, I’m making soup for you.”

There was some rustling upstairs, followed by a thump, followed by a very piteous “Oww,” followed by Roy staggering down the stairs in his pajamas, holding a blanket around his shoulders with one hand and carrying a jumbo-sized Kleenex box in the other hand.

“Holy hell,” Ed said, putting the bags on the counter and crossing the room.

“Don’t,” Roy said, waving the Kleenex-laden hand.  “I’m a germ factory; I don’t want to get you s—”

Ed grabbed the collar of his pajama shirt, hauled him down, and kissed him.  Then Ed let go and felt his forehead.

“I’d rather get sick for a week than not touch you when you’re suffering,” Ed said.  “You’re running a little bit of a fever.  Have you taken any aspirin or anything?”

Roy’s smile was small, and wobbly, and grateful, and heart-rending in the best kind of way.  “I had some at work for the headache from all the sniffling.”

“C’mere,” Ed said, towing him over to the kitchen table.  “Sit.  I’m gonna get you some tea first, and then soup.  You’ll pee forever, but at least you’ll be hydrated.”

With Roy sat—well, slumped, really—at the head of the table, Ed braved the rows and rows of tea boxes in the pantry.  He was pretty sure he’d seen echinacea and a couple mint ones.

“Is it chicken noodle?” Roy asked, sounding marginally more lively.

“Sorta,” Ed said.  Echinacea it was; by some miracle, he managed to withdraw a teabag from the box without upsetting the order of the whole arrangement.  “Cajun chicken noodle.  It was always my mom’s thing when we were sick.”  He filled Roy’s electric kettle from the sink and turned it on, then went mug-hunting in the ridiculously high-set cabinets.  “She was actually from Louisiana originally; her family came out here when she was in high school, I guess, and then just… stayed.  And then she met my dad, for all the fucking good he was.”  There was a mug he could reach without any undignified tiptoe stretching, so he snagged it.  It said nothing more or less than Tea, Earl Grey, hot.  “Anyway, when we were sick, she always used to make the chicken soup this way, ’cause the spiciness clears your sinuses a little, too.  After she died, Al and I found a little notebook she had where she’d jotted down a couple of her recipes, and this was one of them, so Al’n I both make it for each other when we need it.”

The part of Roy’s face that was visible around where he’d buried most of it in his folded arms had a weird sort of expression, but Ed was having the kind of day by now where you just ignored the weird shit and hoped it went away instead of analyzing it too much.

“This is gonna take a little while,” he said, unpacking his arsenal.  “Once your tea’s done, you should go sit on the couch with the TV on or something.”

Roy extracted his face from his sleeve just enough to rub at his eyes.  “I can’t imagine there’s anything on but soap operas and informercials.”

“The two modern pinnacles of accidental self-parody,” Ed said.  “C’mon, you have a billion DVDs.  Just pick something you can fall asleep to; I’ll put it on.”

So it was that Roy curled up on the couch with a box of tissues and a mug of echinacea tea and gradually dozed off to ‘Fellowship of the Ring’.  Apparently the man found fucking Nazgûl chases soothing or some shit.  Ed was completely baffled, and completely in love with him.

In the meantime, Ed assembled the magic panacea soup and left it to boil for a while, trying not to bang any of the pots against each other or the stove range so he wouldn’t disturb Roy’s Tolkien-enhanced slumber.  He cleaned up while the chicken was cooking and then put the pasta on, and it all timed out just about right.

There were maybe half a dozen things he could actually cook.  He still stood by the I dunno, throw some shit from the fridge in with the ramen and see what happens school of cuisine, but when it came to Mom’s specialities, you sort of had to go all-out, and he was almost kind of good at it—when he focused, anyway.  When he didn’t… well, the point was, he’d learned the lesson by now.  The lesson involved awkward conversations with firemen and swearing to Al that he’d pay attention next time.

Frodo et al. had just made it to Rivendell when Ed went over and touched Roy’s shoulder, at which the resident invalid stirred and blinked extremely hazy eyes.  The instant they found Ed, he smiled softly, like it was a fucking involuntary muscle response, and maybe Ed was catching some of whatever it was, because his throat went sort of tight.

“Hey,” he said through it.  “Try this.”

He ended up having to put the bowl down on the coffee table to help Roy sit up straight, and then he just sort of gave in and sat with him, so that Roy could lean on his shoulder for balance.  When they were nice and stable and not too likely to spill soup all over themselves, he picked up the bowl again.

“Mom used to do, like, bow-tie pasta and penne and a bunch of other kinds,” he said, shifting the spoon around to distribute everything a little better, “and they were all supposed to be, like, clothes or instruments or something—like they were all parts of this sort of New Orleans jazz thing she had going, and she’d tell a whole story while she was feeding it to you—but… I only had macaroni.  Which is because Al is obsessed with different kinds of cheese right now and keeps experimenting.  Anyway.”  He held it out to Roy.  “Be careful.  It’s pretty hot.”

“So are you,” Roy said, and his smolder-gaze was a bit subdued by the general malaise, but Ed still couldn’t believe he was flirting when he felt like this.

Ed held his breath as Roy raised the spoon.

Roy blew on it, sipped at it, put it in his mouth, returned it to the bowl, and…

Startled, blinked, and coughed into the back of his hand.

Damn,” he said.

Ed saw that his own right hand had started worrying at the edge of the blanket without his permission and forced it to let go.  “Is it okay?”

“It’s amazing,” Roy said.  “But you weren’t kidding about the heat.”  He stirred with the spoon.  “Are those shrimp?”

“Cajun as fuck,” Ed said.

“As long as you didn’t put in any alligator,” Roy said.

“Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it,” Ed said.  “I would, if you could find a good gator steak anywhere in this state.”

Roy stared at him.

Ed grinned.

Roy sipped at the soup, coughed again, shook his head, and smiled.

“You’re something else,” he said.  He leaned over and kissed Ed’s forehead.  “Thank you.  For this, and for being here.”

“Being sick blows,” Ed said.  “The only thing that blows more is being sick and alone.”

“Funny,” Roy said, blowing on the next spoonful of soup.  “I was getting rather sick of being alone.”

Ed had a funky sort of premonition that he didn’t just mean today.

He settled in a little closer, and Roy did an admirable number on the soup, and even Gandalf falling in Moria wasn’t quite so bad like this.

Ed crawls out of the extremely purple bed in his extremely purple hotel room and almost regrets last night’s decision to wake himself up at one-thirty in the morning (local time) to Skype with Roy for twenty minutes.  He managed to keep his voice low enough that nobody from the adjoining rooms tried to get through his door with a hatchet to kill him, and it was a hell of a lot easier to get back to sleep after having heard Roy’s voice for a little while, but… Jesus, if he doesn’t feel like he’s been hit by a truck and then backed over.  Twice.

A shower in the extremely purple bathroom alleviates that condition somewhat, and then he puts the little electric kettle on in order to fortify himself with the strongest tea they provided before he braves the morning.  He made the very, very unfortunate discovery yesterday afternoon that the British hate coffee and everything it stands for, and they refuse to produce it in any remotely palatable way.  Roy received a slew of texts of horror and outrage upon Ed’s revelation that even Starbucks hasn’t enforced its famous standards in this country, and everything labeled ‘coffee’ in this entire nation is apparently burnt-bean-flavored tap water.  It was a tragedy of epic-poem proportions.  Roy suggested resorting to tea; Ed’s soul wept; the tea was pretty damn good, actually; it was all very sad.

To give the Brits a little credit, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as mediocre tea around here.  Ed sugars his up, chugs it, and laments the gentleness of the caffeine infusion.  Roy has succeeded over the years in convincing him that tea kind of gets the job done, but coffee gets it done fast, which is much more efficient given how little time there tends to be of a morning before the obligations start pouring in.

Then again, Ed’s nerves are already kind of piqued, so maybe a brutal caffeine rush wouldn’t be the best thing to throw on top.

It’s a hop, skip, and a jump—or, if you want to be literal, a twenty-minute span of purgatory crammed into a Tube car at a peak commuting hour—on the Northern line from his hotel to Goodge Street, which is rising on his list of favorite station names, although Elephant & Castle is going to be difficult to displace.  He’s also getting fond of Russell Square—maybe he’ll stop there sometime this week just to take a picture, so that he can add the words “is a” in between and send it to a certain stupid-haired douchebag who is presumably still alive and crashed out surrounded by hookahs somewhere.

The professor who had invited him to talk at UCL had, when sending him the directions, indicated that someone would meet him out by the main gates—which would be proving slightly less ambiguous if there weren’t about six billion gated areas on Gower Street.  Ed eventually finds one with a pretty telling three-letter label, and sure enough, there’s a kid standing a little ways inside who spots him and hurries over, beaming fit to pop out all of the piercings in their eyebrows.

Ed sort of has to go with ‘their’—the kid has a really androgynous kind of face and is wearing really androgynous kind of clothes, all of which is complimented by the androgynous dyed-black hair in a sort of poof-wave off to the left side.  There are studs and safety pins all over the outfit, which is predominantly black except for a bright green pin that says please use “they” and a neon-rainbow belt.

All of which he’s barely had time to register before his hand is being pumped up and down fast enough that he thinks he might momentarily lose feeling in his elbow.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Elric,” the kid says.  “Andy McMahon—I’m on the cancer biology course here; it’s amazing to see you in person—would you like a spot of breakfast?  Was the trip all right?”

“Ed’s fine,” Ed says, trying to catch up.  “Uh—probably better if I don’t eat until after the talk; I get nervous.”

Andy is staring at him, eyes shining.

“So where are we headed?” Ed asks.  The whole adulation-from-young-scientists thing somehow always manages to be simultaneously inspiring and gut-wrenchingly awkward.

“Right this way,” Andy says, waving a hand and leading him towards the main hall.  “Still about an hour before your talk, yeah?  I can give you a bit of a tour.”

On the way to the lecture hall, Ed finds out that Andy started out studying history but took a class on genetics to fill a hole in their schedule and absolutely fell in love.  When Ed mentions that it seems like many of the people who ended up in science ‘on accident’ bring a passion and humility to the table that the career scientists sometimes don’t, Andy looks like they might just cry.

Which—again.  Inspiring, and awkward as shit.

Ed has to admit he kind of loves it.

When they actually arrive at the lecture hall, Ed discovers that it’s more of a giant colossal theater of doom than it is a hall, which grinds his last stable nerve down to a quivering core of mounting panic.

He can do this.  He’s going to be fine.  He can do this; deep breaths; he’s pointed at these slides so many times, he can shut his whole brain off and do this on autopilot; he’ll be fine.

There are, like, sixteen other hands he has to shake as Andy ushers him in and then plops down in the front row and pulls out a notebook.  Most of the seats are already full, and people keep streaming in even as he tries to keep his mind on the numerous important introductions—he’s forgotten the provost’s name already, but fuck it; it’ll be on Wikipedia; later he can check discreetly on his phone.  He can handle this.  It’s really not any different than lecturing to undergrads—these people want to be here, so they’ll probably be way more respectful, really.

There’s a surreal moment where his stomach bottoms out as they all realize that the tech support guy forgot to bring a US-UK power adapter, but then he wonders… and when he opens up one of the front pockets of his laptop bag, he finds that Roy put one in for him, brand-new and still packaged tightly.  It takes three of them to fight it out of the impregnable clamshell plastic, and sharing a laugh about it with a bunch of hoity-toity Brits in nice suits quiets the screaming terror in Ed’s head a little bit.

By the time they’ve gotten his laptop to mirror properly onto the huge projector screen, he’s heard at least three people gasp “Look, it’s him,” which is rather unsettling, and the whole enormous room is buzzing with low-voiced conversations and anticipation.

The clock strikes ten, and then ten oh-two, and Ed is profoundly glad that Andy’s impromptu tour included a stop at a restroom with delightfully typical university graffiti, because otherwise it’d probably be just his luck to be feeling the tea right this second.  He takes a deep breath.  The currently-nameless provost guy introduces him.  He takes an even deeper breath.  The room riots with applause.  And then…

Then it’s just him, stranded at the front of an incomprehensibly large lecture space, blinded by the lights, with two-dozen slides about science.

He can do this.

“Good morning,” he says, suddenly hyper-conscious of his own voice.  As if the vowel-flattening Americanness wasn’t enough, public speaking is the only thing—other than tongue-strangling rage—that makes him slip a little into the Louisiana drawl he inherited from Mom.  There’s something about that specific kind of adrenaline that spikes right into his vocal chords and stabs through all of the careful covering up he did way back in the day, as a child just self-aware enough to know that difference means ridicule.  “Just to warn you, none of this is anything you couldn’t find on the internet if you wanted—assuming that my brother hasn’t hacked into my lab site and changed everything as an early April Fool’s joke again, which I’ll be the first to admit makes the whole research section much more interesting.  Anyway, I’m going to try to finish up fast and leave a lot of time for questions, but if you’re bored out of your skull, feel free to take a nap until then.  Just don’t snore if you can help it; think about your neighbors.”

Andy laughs heartily, and they’re not alone, and Ed’s heart feels like a badly-oiled machine going into overdrive, but he’s sinking into the part of himself that knows how to play this game.

“Right,” he says.  “I figure you all probably know who I am, but just in case—Edward Elric.  I’ve got letters and crap after my name, but those don’t really matter, and I’m about to tell you why.”

The combination of sleep-deprivation, jet-lag, and epinephrine like a shot of heroin sends him blazing through the whole slide deck like he was born to this.  He garners a couple murmurs and some muttering here and there; the crowd energy is electric the whole way through, and when he finishes and asks for questions, hands fly up everywhere.

There are a couple about the science, which are fun; and then the curveballs start coming.

Andy’s hand goes up, and Ed points at them: “What’s your biggest inspiration?”

“My brother,” Ed says instantly.  “He’s believed in me since he was old enough to have complex thoughts, even when I didn’t deserve it—especially when I didn’t deserve it.  I called him at four in the morning one time a couple years ago, ’cause I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t have a damn clue what time it was—and he just picked up the phone and said ‘Science?’, and then I looked at the clock and started trying to apologize, and he said ‘Shut up and let me get a pen.’”

He shifts his weight.  It’s hard to say this without it sounding cheesy.

“And… I mean, I’m in this field, and I did this work, not because I wanted a prize, or recognition, or a pay raise, or any of that shit—sorry, my filter just… sorry—but because… of… what he and I went through as kids because cancer took our mom away.  And I just thought… y’know—fuck that.  Fuck that.  We can do better.  Humanity can do better.  We’ve got these stupid overdeveloped brains for a reason, and I’m gonna use mine for all it’s worth, and maybe we can get to a place where people like my mom don’t have to waste away in fucking hospital beds while their kids watch—people who are still so young, and they’ve still got so much they want to do.  I’m older now than my mom was when she died.  How fucked up is that?  She got dealt the wrong hand, and there was nothing she could do about it.  If she could’ve fought it, she would.  If she’d had any chance, any hope in hell of winning, she would have, because she was a warrior underneath all the nice Mom crap.  She was steel under that.  But cancer ate her from the inside, and no amount of love or money or hope or risk could’ve saved her.  And I wanted to change that.”  He drags in a breath, pulls at the end of his ponytail, and manages a sigh.  Andy is gazing at him starry-eyed, and Ed kind of wants to adopt that little spot of gothic sunshine.  “So… I did.  Remember that, kids—any obstacle in your life can be overcome with enough sheer freakin’ stubbornness.”

Next he calls on a girl a couple rows back.

“Are you single?” she asks.

“No,” he says.

There is a completely bizarre collective Aww, and then some scattered laughter at how floored he looks.

“Is there something in the water here, or what?” he asks.  “Y’all’re scaring me.”

Somebody else has a science question, and then they’re pretty much out of time, and then he has to shake hands with eight more university officials and twelve professors.  Three of those drag him into a really involved discussion of his last paper, and he doesn’t notice how much time is passing until Andy appears out of nowhere, holding out a little wax-paper bag and a steaming paper cup.

“Breakfast,” they say, beaming again.  “Didn’t know how you took your tea, so there’s sugar and creamer in with the scone, and—”

“You are a friggin’ angel,” Ed says, taking all of the offerings.  “Can I put you in my suitcase and take you back with me?”

Andy laughs as Ed starts dumping all the sugar packets into his tea—he’s actually kind of serious, though.  He needs to find out how many years are left in the kid’s degree; maybe he can fund them as a postdoc after th—

“Edward,” a voice says.

No amount of intervening years would change the way that voice rams right into the marrow of Ed’s bones—the way it scrapes against his soul like the sick screech of metal on metal; the way it freezes his whole skeleton at once; the way he’s eight years old again, and devastated, and he and Al are pressing their ears against the bedroom door and listening to their mother cry.  She always tried to hide it, but they always knew; they always knew—

He looks up, and his father’s face has barely changed at all.