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The Second Law of Thermodynamics

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He’s not breathing.  He recognizes that in a kind of abstract way, like, Oh, blue sky, green grass, no oxygen coming in to feed the brain that got me here.  He steps over to the podium and starts detaching his computer from the projector cable, looking down when he’s unsuccessful for some reason.  He’s vaguely startled to find that the problem is that his hands are shaking violently.

“Are you on Facebook?” he asks Andy.  At the hesitant nod—no surprise, really; the air in this whole corner of the room has gone fucked up and stale and taut like the prelude to a thunderstorm—he tries hard to smile.  “Add me.  I wanna keep up with you; you’re gonna do amazing things.”

“All right,” Andy says faintly.  “Will do, then.”

“Edward,” his father says again.

“I heard you,” Ed says, and his voice comes out tight and strained and—angry.  Twenty-fucking-years-of-hurt angry, and is it really any wonder?  Is it really his fault?

But he can hear Al in the back of his head so clear it’s staggering as he winds up his power cord and shoves it back into his bag.

Give him a chance.  At least give him a chance.  You’d give anyone a chance; you’d give any stranger a chance; it might be another twenty years before either of us sees him again—he might not live that long.  Just hear him out.  Please, Brother; for me, just hear him out, and then you can hate him again if you have it in you; you can hate him all you want, and I won’t ever open my mouth to complain.

He crouches down to slide his laptop into the bag, straps it in, and pauses there, kneeling, to close his eyes and take a deep breath.  He’s gotten through worse.  He’s better than this.

He stands up, lifts the strap of the laptop bag over his shoulder, shakes hands with the provost one more time, thanks them for the opportunity and the hospitality and blah-de-blah, collects the scone and the tea that Andy brought him, and turns to face his father.

“Hi,” he says.  God, that sounds fucking stupid—fucking idiotic, fucking wrong.  “Didn’t know you were here.”

He could go on—Didn’t know you were anywhere.  Didn’t know you were alive.  Didn’t know what to tell all those people over all these years who said ‘What about your dad?’ and waited for an answer.  Didn’t know who I was; didn’t know how to let go of all of the mixed-up shit inside me; didn’t know how to say ‘He left a long time ago’ in a way that carried all that pain but didn’t ask for pity—didn’t know how to say ‘I’ve spent two decades trying to re-learn how to trust’—

But what the fuck would Hohenheim care?

Hohenheim adjusts his glasses—they look like the same ones they were when Ed was four, was six, was eight; it’s been so long since he cut up the photographs and tried not to let tears fall on Mom’s face that he doesn’t know for sure—and smiles without irony.  Ed wants to punch his fucking teeth out, cut knuckles and Al’s disapproval be damned.

“I’ve been following some of the press about you,” Hohenheim says.  “I’m teaching at Oxford, at the moment, and one of my students mentioned going to see you in London, so I looked around on the web until I found a schedule.”

Ed’s lab had put the whole thing up on their site, with the heading Edward Elric UK Tour, like he was a cool band instead of a moderately famous nerd.  They’d included a picture from his silly sendoff party, and of course they’d picked the one where Laila had just shoved the plush red telephone booth hat onto his head, and he looked like he was doing everything in his power to keep from laughing—which had been true.

Ed swallows a few things he wants to say—What do you teach, Abandoning Your Family 101?, for starters; maybe How can you look me in the fucking eyes and talk to me like it hasn’t been twenty years since I’ve heard your voice? as a main course; maybe How dare you pretend like you give a shit when you’re the one who taught me how to hate myself for loving someone for a nice, poignant dessert.

Al still believes that he’s better than that.

Al will want to know things; Al will want to hear about this; Al will be wilty and disappointed if Ed walks out and amputates this encounter before it starts—he’ll try to tamp it down, and he’ll say he doesn’t blame Ed for it, but he’ll be sad.  He cares about Hohenheim.  He didn’t learn the same acid-bitter lessons Ed did from the silence and the fear.

Besides—Ed knows himself, at least mostly; he knows he’s incapable of leaving well enough alone; he knows he picks at scabs until they bleed more freely than the wound ever did.  He knows that if he turns his back and walks away, he’ll always wonder, and the what-ifs of it will stalk him down every avenue he ever tracks again.  Someone will say What about your dad?, and then what?  Well, I ran into him five-thousand miles from home, alone and tired with my heart pounding halfway out of my chest, and instead of even trying to get closure, I just sorta… left.

Is that worth adding to the long list of things he hates himself for?

He’s worth more.  Whatever the lowlife piece of shit bastard in front of him thought once, thinks now—he’s worth more than that.

He swallows, and swallows, and says, “Do you have time to catch up?”

Hohenheim looks delighted, and Ed feels like he’s betrayed some fundamental part of his own being—like he’s pushed his nine-year-old self to the ground and kicked him in the stomach while he was lying there in the mud.  Like he’s broken all the promises he made to himself not to need this man’s fucking approbation, not to give a shit whether the bastard lived or died, because he hadn’t given a shit about them.

Except here Ed is, giving a shit.  Here he is, following goddamn motherfucking Hohenheim out of this celebration of the achievements that he had to strive for without a fucking safety net because this man turned that same back on him and walked out of another door and never spared a thought for what his children might become.

For a whiplash-second, he’s five years old again, tottering down the hall with a book in his arms, looking way up at those same broad shoulders, that same fucking ponytail—Daddy, Daddy, look—Daddy, hey, I wanna show you sumfin’—Daddy, listen, please

Ed was discovering that there were certain things you did with somebody you were dating-in-a-maybe-hopefully-long-term-kind-of-way that felt extremely… personal.  Al would probably say intimate, but you could get intimate with some fucking stranger in the bathroom of a bar for a grand total of twenty minutes and then never see them again, and that wasn’t the same.  That was worlds apart from shit like making your mom’s soup in someone’s kitchen, and then turning the movie off when they fell asleep in your lap still clutching the Kleenex box to their chest.  Shit like dragging their half-asleep, stumbling ass upstairs so they could collapse in their bed, then cleaning up said kitchen, then going upstairs with your data set and working on it as quietly as possible while they snuggled up with your thigh and snored a little bit.  Shit like waking up the next morning at the ass-crack of dawn, extricating yourself from their octopus-arms, shushing them and instructing them to go back to sleep, realizing you had their snot in your hair, and using their shower—including their soap, which just so happened to make you smell maddeningly like them all day long.

As the weeks went by, the list got longer.  Grocery shopping was personal.  So was throwing your laundry in with theirs and doing it all at once, ’cause, y’know, you were there, and the machine at your place cost two bucks.  So was emptying their dishwasher and learning where in the cabinets all of their crap went.  So was buying new shampoo because you knew you were about to use the last of theirs.  And, increasingly, so was waking up in their bed every weekend morning and feeling like you belonged there.

It was starting to scare him, how easy it was to melt the edges of himself right into somebody else’s life—how porous and flimsy the boundaries were, how much of him bled through and stopped being wholly his—how mine became ours—how not-scared he was with Roy’s hand in his, Roy’s smile nearby, Roy’s heartbeat resonating in his ears.  It should have felt ominous.  It should have felt like prison.  It should have felt like a breath held waiting for the other shoe to fall.  And he was still wary, in concept; thinking concretely of forever left him reeling and afraid—but then Roy would laugh at some stupid thing he’d said, so low and rich and loving, and he’d just…


The scary thing then was that it seemed like Roy still loved the pieces.

He should have been lacing up his good boots to run before it all went bad, but he always ended up in Roy’s foyer, kicking them off and diving into a pair of open arms.

It was gonna go to shit, someday, wasn’t it?  It had to.  Entropy.

But maybe, maybe, not just yet.

“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” Roy asked when the first week of November unfurled an explosive gamut of reddened leaves.

“I guess so,” Ed said.  “I mean, Winry’s grandma always does the whole… turkey thing and whatever, so we usually go over there.  It’s just the four of us, though.  None of us really have any spare relatives hanging around.”

Roy played with Ed’s hair for another moment, gazing over into the fire he’d set up in the fireplace even though it wasn’t really that cold.  Not that Ed was complaining; his feet tended to defy science, logic, and climate all at once by insisting on frigidity all the time, regardless of the ambient temperature.

“Would you like to go to Gracia’s?” Roy asked.  “I’m sure your family would be more than welcome to come; it’s very nearly an open house, and the woman is a miraculous cook.”

It was really cheating to ask Ed any question while there were fingers in his hair.  “Mmn… I mean, if she’ll take Al’n the Rockbells, too, then… sure, I guess.  I’ll ask ’em.”

Roy kissed his forehead.  “No pressure.  Just let me know.”

How did he always know exactly what to say?  Was there some kind of cheatsheet instructional guide that Santa left when you turned thirty?

Maybe that was it.  And maybe Ed was fucked for that, too, because he hadn’t believed in Santa since he was four.

Al was one-hundred percent in favor as soon as Ed managed to describe the situation, which he’d pretty much predicted.  Winry was going to be a harder sell, and he wasn’t really sure where to start.

A completely confusing text message was as good a place as any, right?

hey win you and granny want to have thanksgiving with roy’s late best friend’s wife and daughter? apparently they’re really nice and you’re invited and Al said he’s game but i know we sort of used to do a thing so if you want to do that instead no prob we’ll be there

That was nice and succinct.

Winry had a tendency to make him wait for everything, which definitely included texts, even though she was probably texting Al the whole time about what a moron he was or something.  Three hours later, she deigned to reply:

Sure, sounds fun!  Tell me what we need to bring.  But in ADVANCE, Edward.  Give us a whole week if you can so we can go shopping, okay?

Belatedly, it occurred to Ed that he and Winry tended to try to kill each other a full fifty percent more often during the holiday season, and he was about to trap them both inside a well-meaning stranger’s home.

Well, this was going to be a disaster.  Too late to back out now.

As he and Roy and Al and Winry and Granny stepped up to the painfully adorable little cottage-house’s front door, he could hear a tumult of happy voices from within.  One of them rose above it, calling, “Thank you, sweetie!”—and that fell like a fucking grenade into the pit of Ed’s stomach, shredding through the lining, ripping up his insides, because that was a mom’s voice.

Roy must’ve noticed the way his back stiffened, because there was one gentle hand settling on his shoulder, and the other one was pushing the doorbell.

“Coming!” the mom voice said.

The door opened, and a woman with beautiful green eyes and short brown hair was framed in the doorway, beaming at them, wiping her hands on a flour-speckled green apron with ruffles along the edge, and Ed heard Al’s breath catch, too.

“Aha,” the woman—Gracia; it couldn’t possibly be anyone else—said.  “Le roi est arrivé!”

“Hardly,” Roy said, stepping in, wrapping her into a hug, and kissing her cheek.

“Don’t!” she said, laughing and pushing at his shoulder.  “I’m covered in flour—”

“Excellent,” Roy said, handing her the wine bottle he’d selected after, like, an entire half-hour under the judgmental eyes of the guy at the wine store.  “It’ll look like I made something.  Which I didn’t.”

“We did!” Winry said, beelining in before Ed even had a chance to move.  “I hope nobody’s allergic to walnuts, because they are killer in these rolls—family recipe.  And the sweet potatoes have maple syrup.  You must be Mrs. Hughes; sorry—I’m Winry Rockbell, and this is my grandmother, and this is Al, and—”

“Ed,” Roy said, looking right at him with so much fucking bright-eyed affection that Ed could feel the heat rising in his cheeks.

“Oh, look at you,” Gracia said warmly, and Ed wasn’t sure what that meant, but she was sort of beckoning, and he crept over the threshold expecting a handshake only to find himself in a tight, floury hug.  He felt sick, and sad, and heavenly; she hugged like a mom, and she smelled like a mom, and she felt like a mom, and it was doing fucked-up things to his stupid head.  “It’s so nice to meet you, dear; I swear Roy talks of nothing else.  Elicia’s going to be over the moon.  Come in, come in—my mother brought some bizarre hors d’oeuvres that she’s trying to convince everyone are traditional in France, and Riza made some that look much more edible—”

“The kitchen’s just off to your left,” Roy was saying to Winry, Pinako, and Al and their laden arms when a tiny purple rocket hit him at full-speed.

Uncle Roy!”

The rocket resolved into Roy’s selfie buddy—that was, Elicia Hughes, dressed in a tiered purple skirt, torn-up black tights, and purple socks with white skulls-and-crossbones all over them.

Ed kinda liked her style.

“Hello, Princess,” Roy said, lifting her up and spinning her around a full three-hundred and sixty degrees before setting her back down on the floor.  “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too!” Elicia said brightly.  Then her gaze lighted on the cluster of strangers just inside the doorway, at which her eyes widened, and her mouth shut.

Usually Ed let Al break the ice with this sort of thing, since Al was an emotional wunderkind and somehow always managed to do it without anyone getting frostbitten, but this was Roy’s sorta-family, and Ed owed it to Roy to be a fucking man about meeting them.

He raised his hand to wave at Elicia and gave her the biggest grin he could muster.

“Hey,” he said.  “I’m Ed.  I’m—”  The word boyfriend crawled back down his throat, little claw-toed feet digging into the flesh of his esophagus.  “…with Roy.”

That was technically the same thing, wasn’t it?

Elicia’s shyness evaporated, the better to be replaced with overpowering glee.

“You’re even handsomer than he said!” she burst out, and then she clapped both hands over her mouth—her nails were a sparkly purple to match her skirt.  A sound escaped the confines of her fingers which sounded a lot like “Eep.”

Funny how embarrassment was such a two-way street—Ed’s face was on fire.  They were doing, like, a dueling blush thing in the middle of the entryway.

Roy’s arm slung itself around Ed’s shoulders and hauled him into a hug.  “Well, I didn’t want you to steal him from me,” he said, kissing the top of Ed’s head, which did not help with the blushing thing, especially since an elderly couple had just come in from what looked like the living room to watch the unannounced improv show.  “I figured you were less likely to whisk him away if you didn’t know how gorgeous he really was.”

“Always the strategist,” Gracia said, hiding a grin.  “Oh, goodness—” This to Pinako.  “Let me take that—can I get you something to drink?”

Elicia seemed to be incapable of not smiling at Roy, although she made a strong effort at scowling at him.  “I wouldn’t steal your boyfriend, Uncle Roy,” she said.  “Or at least not one that you like this much.”

Ed was due to spontaneously combust any second now.  Your internal temperature—well, internal-external-epidermis temperature—could only skyrocket so high before you just went up in flames.  It was basic thermodynamics.  He was doomed.

“How much do you talk about me?” Ed asked, giving Roy the best accusatory glare he could manage given the circumstances.

“A bit,” Roy said airily, tugging gently on his ponytail and then releasing him to ghost off towards the kitchen.  “Gracia, darling, don’t strain your back; let me—”

Everyone was flocking that way or into the living room, except for Elicia, who blinked up at Ed.

“You wanna help me set the table?” she asked.

She looked like she’d be brandishing a fistful of steak knives for emphasis if she had them; given how she’d flung herself at Roy, it was probably a good thing she didn’t.

“Sure thing,” Ed said.  “You’re gonna have to tell me where everything goes, though.  The fanciest we ever get at my house is the kind of takeout that comes in reusable containers.”

“We aren’t, like, Queen-of-England-posh or anything,” Elicia said, practically skipping as she led him back over to the dining room.  Ed would’ve bet a million dollars (which, for the record, he definitely didn’t have) that she’d absorbed that turn of phrase from Roy.  “But my mom’s always saying ‘We’ve got all this nice stuff, it’s a shame if we don’t use it.’”

Ed started setting forks next to the plates in the same position as the one in Elicia’s example place setting.  Spatial relativity was easy—memorizing this shit and developing the instincts to act “mannerly” or whatever was the part that always tripped him up and sent him careening face-first into a chasm of social failure.

“My mom used to do the same thing,” he said, rather than thinking about what kind of abysses might lie under this innocent- and fairly festive-looking table.  “Once or twice every summer, we’d take all her nice china out into the backyard and put a blanket down and have a picnic with it.”

Elicia smiled at him.  “Your mom sounds really cool.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He straightened a fork and smiled back at her.  It was what Al would’ve called his wistful face; he could feel it.  “She was.”

Elicia handed him half of the spoons so that they could divide the table up between them.  It was just the clink of silverware against the cloth-muffled tabletop for a moment, then two; Gracia laughed in the other room.

Elicia took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks, and folded a dark orange napkin up into a really nifty sort of cornucopia-looking shape.  She laid it in the center of the closest plate.

“Is your mom dead?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah,” Ed said.

“So’s my dad,” Elicia said.

“I know,” Ed said.  “Roy told me.”

Elicia focused intently on the next napkin.  “Can you keep a secret?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Ed said.  “Do people still do that?”

Elicia smiled a little.  “Yeah.  But pinky-swears are lame.”

“Got it,” Ed said.  He started on the butter knives.  “Secret’s safe with me.”

Elicia arranged this napkin and picked up the next one.  She rubbed the hem of it between her fingertip and her thumb for a long moment, staring down at it, before she very slowly started to fold it up.

“It sucks,” she said, and her voice wavered just a little.  “Not—having a dad.  Not having my dad.  ’Cause I don’t remember him that well, but I remember he was pretty great, and my mom just—you can’t even talk to her about it, sometimes.  I feel like—like maybe she thinks she’s not doing a good enough job at being a mom just ’cause I miss him, but it’s not that, it’s just… And Uncle Roy’ll tell me about him if I catch him in the right mood and stuff, but he—it feels like it’s sort of… heavy… for him… sometimes… and I don’t wanna do that to him, but I just—I just wanna know what he was like; I just wish he was here, you know?  So—so I’d get to do all those—dad things.  I miss them.  I miss stuff I never even had.  You know?”

Ed pressed his lips together tight and tried to smile.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I know.”

“Well,” Elicia said, in a forced-cheer kind of voice that sounded like it had come straight out of Al’s Tact and Other Things You Couldn’t Bludgeon into Ed’s Brain If You Used a Cudgel Handbook.  “You know.  You just—go on, right?  ’Cause that’s what life is.  And anyway, Uncle Roy promised he’s gonna take me to the father-daughter dance this year, and he helps us out all the time, and…” She blushed again.  “Guess I don’t really need to tell you that he’s pretty cool.”

“You kidding?” Ed said, grinning.  “He’s a total nerd.  That’s what’s so great about him.”

Roy’s voice emanated from just outside the doorway.  “Are you talking about me?”

“See?” Ed said, jerking a thumb towards the door without looking, knowing for a fact that Roy would be sauntering in.  “He even comes when I call.  It’s his true name.  Summons him instantly.”

He peeked, and Roy was leaning against the doorway with his arms folded.  He raised an amused eyebrow for good measure.  Bastard looked like a million bucks.  “What’s my true name?” he asked.

“‘Total Nerd’,” Ed and Elicia said in unison.

The amusement faded fast.

“Hey,” Elicia said, beaming at Ed again.  “You like whipped cream?”

“Is the sky blue because of air density and the scattering of the visible spectrum of light?” Ed asked.

Elicia blinked.

“Yo,” Ed said.  “You show me the whipped cream, and I’ll undo all the crap your teachers did trying to make science less cool.”

“Please don’t burn down the kitchen,” Roy said.

Ed remembered in the nick of time that there was a twelve-year-old two feet away and gave Roy a hard glare instead of the middle finger.

Elicia had been nominated to help finish up the pies—as in, pies, plural; multiple pies, pumpkin and apple and pecan—so that they could occupy the extremely futuristic-looking oven while the primary eating went on.  Ed went to help, even though he wasn’t sure he should be allowed in the kitchen; the smell of the turkey alone was making his mouth water so much it was getting difficult to talk without unleashing a tidal wave of drool.

Roy ghosted in with an empty tray with crumbs on it, and a full tray with God-knew-what on it.  “Riza’s deadpanning out there,” he reported to Gracia, who was slicing up the apples while Ed and Elicia measured everything out for the pumpkin one.  “Evidently your mother’s appetizers are ‘balanced for palates too sophisticated for the States,’ and she’s sure no one would like hers in Paris.  She’s really on tonight.  Would you like me to do that so you can go enjoy it?  It’s your holiday, too.”

“I get a great deal more holidays than you do over the course of a year,” Gracia said.  “There are a few perks to teaching.”

Roy deposited the tray of hor(rible)s d’oeuvres in one of the few empty spaces on the little kitchen table and went to rinse the other in the sink.  “You just don’t trust me with the secrets to the award-winning apple pie.”

“You caught me,” Gracia said.  “I think award-winning is a bit generous, though—that was sort of a sad excuse for a state fair.  Did I ever tell you Maes framed the ribbon?”

“Color me shocked and amazed,” Roy said.  “I imagine it made an appearance at several special occasions.”

“I told him he should just get a T-shirt printed and be done with it,” Gracia said.

“Or a tattoo,” Roy said.

“Forehead, forearm, or middle of the chest?” Gracia asked.

Ed had been trying really hard not to stare, so he’d been focusing über-intently on getting exactly half a teaspoon of nutmeg, but when he glanced up, Elicia had gone totally still to watch.

She was right.  This sucked.  Ed didn’t have much, yeah, but his memories of his mother were clear enough that he could call them up whenever he liked and romp around in them for hours.  And when in doubt, there was Al; and when in greater doubt, there was Pinako, who had lost enough people over the years that she never held back sharing who they’d been.

“Why not all three?” Roy said.  “You know, for emphasis.”

“Just in case someone missed the forehead,” Gracia said, “he could pull up his sleeve.  And if they somehow failed to get the message, he could tear his shirt apart.”

“The Incredible Hughes,” Roy said.

They smiled at each other for a long moment, bittersweet and gentle, and then Roy hefted the tray into the drying rack.

“So about that pie,” he said.  “How about if I just stand in the corner and watch the magic taking place?”

Gracia grinned and pointed at the door.  “Beat it, Mustang.”

“Before you beat me like an egg?” Roy asked.

Gracia raised a whisk.

Roy backed out the doorway with his hands up.  “Someday,” he said.  “Someday, I’ll steal your secrets.”

Elicia turned hastily back to the pie filling.  She glanced at Ed sideways and caught his eye.

“See what I mean?” she muttered, almost so far under her breath that he didn’t hear it at all.

He winced, and tried for a sympathetic smile, and nodded.

Dinner was an interesting affair.

Evidently the Hugheses were semi-religious—it seemed like maybe Gracia’s side of the family was; Ed wasn’t sure about the late and greatly-missed Maes Hughes—judging by the fact that there was a quick heads-down moment for a prayer thanking God for the food and the health and the happiness and the ever-expanding family to share it all with.  Al had taught Ed a long, long time ago that if you replaced “Lord” with “parts of the unkind, unrelenting universe that sometimes just go right”, it was pretty easy for even the staunchest of atheists to appreciate the sentiment.

And then there was so much food.

Winry and Pinako got into a really intense conversation with Riza about copyright law, followed by one about nonprofits and taxes; and then Winry found out Elicia had had crappy science teachers (naturally, she didn’t believe the “don’t like science” thing any more than Ed had) and started asking her about what she did want to do someday, which turned into a conversation about fluffy animals, which turned into a conversation about why science is important to veterinarians.  Somehow it ended with Roy saying they should all go to the aquarium, which Ed was one hundred and sixty percent in favor of.

Then somehow they got on the topic of Riza pouring the dregs of her tea into the plants at work; and Roy thinking that was “enforced cannibalism”; and then Al wanted to know whether it was really cannibalism if it was a different type of plant, since the human concept of cannibalism really only applied to the same species; and then Elicia said brightly, “Well, this is appetizing!”, and Roy looked scandalized, and Riza looked so amused that Ed laughed until he couldn’t breathe.

Ed had been starting to worry—in a distant, don’t offend anyone with your basic existence or you won’t get invited back Elric kind of way—that Gracia’s parents didn’t like him.  Gracia’s dad in particular kept… looking… at him, like he was growing fucking mushrooms out of his nostrils.

Or like he and his wife had known Roy for a while, and they liked Roy, and they hadn’t wanted him to hook up with some smart-mouthed, mannerless punk of a kid who couldn’t stop splashing gravy on his own fucking lap.  Hopefully Gracia had been planning to bleach these napkins anyway.

Except that just as Ed was starting to fiddle with the corners of his gravy-forsaken napkin in a despairing kind of way, rather than just in an absently-fidgeting one, Gracia smiled at him and then at her dad and said, “Papa, why don’t you ask Edward about his research?  Il récherche le cancer, Papa.”

The guy had huge glasses and a slow, shy sort of smile.  “Ah, oui?  Eh…” He cleared his throat and glanced back at Gracia like he needed her approval—or maybe her support—and then blinked slowly at Ed.  “What… is it you are working on?  I was… I did… you say—R&D, I think, at Sanofi.  Many years.”

So Ed ended up having a really fucking amazing conversation—partly in French, with Gracia translating as much as possible—about his recent work and got some really excellent insight as to how pharma would probably want to use it.

Just as it was getting good, though, just as he was getting really worked up, and his neurons were firing so fast he could barely speak the words in time to get his thoughts out in the right order, he started trying to diagram on the table with his fingertip and managed to fling cranberry sauce all over his own shirt.

At least it was only his this time; usually he caught Al in the blast radius, and he didn’t figure Roy would’ve appreciated that.

“Oh, holy f—” At the last instant, his internal censor kicked in, and he shifted gears so fast his brain almost stalled out.  “—udge… on… a sundae.  Uh.”

A helpless, mortified glance around the table confirmed his suspicion that Winry was rolling her eyes.  If there hadn’t been so many cool people that he really wanted to get to like him all around her, he would’ve treated her to a nice view of the contours of his tongue.

Al jumped up out of his chair.  “Brother, if you rinse it out now, the stain won’t set—here, come on, I’ll help you—”

Roy touched Ed’s arm as he was struggling to extricate himself from his own damn chair.  “Are you all right?  You look—” His eyebrows did an incredible dip thing, and his mouth twisted a little, and… when had the subtleties of facial expressions gotten so hot?  “—a bit… dazed.”

“S’all right,” Ed managed, keeping his voice low to match Roy’s.  “Same s—” Elicia.  “—stuff, different day, y’know.”

Before Roy could say anything else, Al had seized Ed’s arm and was dragging him off down the hall.

“Are you doing okay?” Al asked, herding him into the bathroom, shutting the door, and tugging meaningfully on his shirt.  “It’s a lot of people.”

There was a real temptation to listen to nothing but the high, buzzing whine in his head, like the sound an electrified fence made when you stood too close.  Ed tried to pay attention to what he was actually feeling, which…

“I think I’m compartmentalizing okay,” he said.  Al was still waiting for the shirt.  Had buttons always been this complicated?  Shit.  He was jittery as hell, whatever he said.  He hadn’t even noticed.  “I mean, I’m—focusing on individual conversations.  Y’know?  I’m a little… edgy… I guess.”

Al helped him pull the shirt off of his shoulders and then gestured to the edge of the little bathtub.  “Sit and close your eyes for a second.”

You didn’t really argue with Al when he was trying to help you not have a giant overstimulation meltdown in front of a bunch of people you wanted to impress.  Whether or not you thought you could handle it.  Especially since Al was always right about that sort of thing—hell, the word “always” started with “Al”, after all.

Ed focused on the cold porcelain under his ass and pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.  It was kind of nice being in the dark for a second.  Al turned the water in the sink on kind of low; Ed could just barely hear him scrubbing.  Was he using the hand-soap, or what?  Gracia probably had either, like, nice, kinda-classy floral soap, maybe the foaming kind; or generic Dial shit that she bought in Costco-sized barrels and just kept pouring into the old dispensers.  Maybe the first one for the guest bathroom and the other for the day-to-day spaces.  Maybe Elicia always washed her hands in here on the way out the door so her skin would smell nice for a while at school.  Maybe—

“Ed,” Al said.  “You’re breathing faster; you okay?”

“Yeah,” Ed said, which wasn’t entirely true, but… well.  “Racing thoughts for a second there.  I’m cool.”

“Actually, you’re a giant nerd,” Al said.  “Which is exactly the way we like you.  Did you get enough to eat?”

Ed laughed, and maybe it came out a little strained, so maybe Al was right to keep talking to him very quietly.  “Did you see how much food there was?”

“That doesn’t really answer the question, Brother.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I did.  I mean, I left room for pie, ’cause I’m not an idiot, but I ate a lot.”

“Your priorities are a thing to behold,” Al said.

“My pieorities, you mean.”

Al snorted and then choked on a laugh and then tried to pretend he’d just been coughing in a very serious, no-nonsense kind of way.  “Oh, jeez, Brother.  You should be locked up.”

Ed ground his hands against his eyes a little.  “Can I request to be locked up in the back of a pie shop?  Or maybe right here.  I bet Gracia would feed me.”

“And Roy could visit,” Al said.  “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Hey, look at that,” Ed said.  “I just figured out my new post-graduation plan.”

Al laughed quietly, like Ed hadn’t said anything weird, so it took him a moment to realize that he’d basically just projected being with Roy as a fact of his existence for the foreseeable future.

Funny, the shit that your brain sent to your mouth when you were too wired for gatekeeping.

Al turned the water off, and there were a couple indistinct noises, and then there were footsteps towards Ed, and then there was a large concentration of Al-warm by his shoulder, not-quite-touching.

“Your shirt survived,” Al said.  “It’s a little wet, but you can probably wear it.  Are you ready to go back out there, or do you want a little more time?”

Ed’s voice didn’t wait for his brain to catch up.  “Just another minute.”

“Okay,” Al said.  He breathed a couple times.  “Would it help for me to hug you?”

Sometimes it made it worse; sometimes any contact was creepy-crawly on his skin, but right now— “Yeah.”

Al’s arm settled around his shoulders slowly, and the weight was sort of grounding.  So that was good.

Al rested his chin on Ed’s bare shoulder after another second or two—gently, of course; it had never seemed especially logical that Ed had been the clumsiest kid on Earth straight out of the womb, whereas Al had been born with a caliber of natural grace and bodily awareness that would make ballerinas seethe with envy—and then squeezed Ed a little tighter.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Just about,” Ed said, which was sort of ambitious and non-committal at the same time.  His specialty.  “Get on back out there and make sure Winry hasn’t thrown utensils at anybody.  I’m just gonna pee while I’m here.”

“There should be an award,” Al said, “for delicate phrasing.  Or perhaps a degree.  I think a degree would be nice.  You could put the diploma up on your wall.  Okay.  Up.  C’mon.”  He took Ed’s elbow and tugged.  “You can keep your eyes closed.  Gimme your arm.”

“No, ’m all right,” Ed said.  He winched an eye open, and he didn’t feel completely blinded by the shininess of the clean tile, so that was a start.  He tested the other one.  Bright, but not unbearable.  “Thanks, Al.”

“Sure thing,” Al said.  He put Ed’s right hand into the appropriate sleeve and started drawing the shirt up over his shoulders.  “You got it?”

And it was funny, because Ed had taught Al how to dress himself.  Ed had taught Al how to wipe your tears on your dirty sleeve and hold your head up and keep on moving.  Ed had taught him that he was never going to have to be alone, because they were brothers, and that was bigger than just blood and love and best friends.  Their DNA was more similar to each other’s by a significant margin than it was to anybody else’s on the planet.  Ed had taught him algebra, and how to read, and how to make instant oatmeal without any flavoring still taste good, and that where there’s life, there’s hope.

It was funny, because Al taught him half that stuff back every single day.

Ed shrugged his rather damp-fronted shirt back on and focused on the buttons.  “Yeah.  I got it, Al.”

Al punched his arm very, very gently.  “If you want to leave, just tell me, and I’ll find a reason that’ll get Roy back out the door.  Like… imminent projectile vomiting.”

“I don’t figure he’s gonna want to put you in his car at that point,” Ed said.

“…cat emergency.”

“He knows we don’t have a cat.”

“…imaginary cat emergency.”  Al frowned.  “Or… the police just called, and somebody broke in to steal our research, although luckily we’re going to find out that it was a mistake, and they stole research next door.  Or I just remembered that I left the stove on, and our place is gonna burn down and/or give us carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Almost tenable,” Ed said.  “I don’t think he knows that you check the burner, like, sixteen times before you’ll leave.”

“Point is,” Al said, “I’ll think of something, if you need me to.  So just let me know.  Okay?”

Ed punched him in the arm back, equally gently—a gesture which had, without fanfare or commentary of any kind, taken the place of the head-pat when Al got too tall to reach easily.  “Okay.  Thanks, Al.”

Al slipped out and closed the door quietly after him, and Ed scrubbed both hands down his face.

He glared at himself in the mirror for a second—what a fucking nerd.  He couldn’t even get through one freaking social event without needing his baby brother to come stroke his hair and promise it’d be all right.  Roy really didn’t know what he was getting into, did he?  Except when Roy did get glimpses of this stuff, he never freaked about about it, and he never told Ed to quit it, and he just… stayed.  Mostly.  So far.

Ed finished reassembling his shirt and tried to blot out a little bit of the leftover water with one of the towels.  Fucking figured he’d been wearing white.  Mom had never gotten them white shirts; this was why.  Well, on the upside, it looked like Al had probably conquered the cranberry sauce, and there was a big-ass damp spot, but he wasn’t quite in wet T-shirt contest territory yet, and Gracia was probably too nice to kick him out of this house for being just sort of a failure.  He fixed his collar, kind of; took his damn time peeing, Al; washed up; gripped the edge of the sink counter for a second; flipped the light off; and stepped back out into the hall.

He didn’t even make it to the dining room—Elicia was out in the hallway, pressing herself against the wall next to the doorway into the kitchen.  He couldn’t really see her face in the shadow, but the finger that she put to her lips was pretty unambiguous, so he settled in next to her and tried to be quiet while he worked out what the hell was going on.

It didn’t take a genius once he heard Roy say “Do you trust me to load your dishwasher in a way that will not adversely affect your blood pressure, or would you like me to rinse?”

“You have more words in your head than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracia said.  “You rinse.  Nothing to do with blood pressure; everything to do with Tetris high scores.”

“Aha,” Roy said.  “I know what I’ll be practicing this weekend.”

“It’s going to take you more than a weekend to threaten my Tetris dominion,” Gracia said.  “Maes used to have to pry me away from the handheld one he bought me that year—do you remember?”

“I remember,” Roy said.

There was a silence—well, talk-silence.  The water ran, and silverware clinked on dishes, and Elicia drew a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” Gracia said, and the pain in her voice—it was an incredible thing, like an earthquake, like an iceberg, filtering through just slightly, but somehow you could sense how much bigger it was below— “I don’t mean to keep… bringing him up, but I—it’s just—”

“Holidays that revolve around food and family were always his favorite,” Roy said softly.  “That’s when it’s the worst.”

Gracia’s breath caught and then stuttered back out, and Ed winced hard—he shouldn’t’ve stayed; he shouldn’t be hearing this, but he didn’t want to leave Elicia alone, either, which left him stranded in a hugely awkward no-good-options purgatory of his own making.

“What if it’s not enough?” Gracia was asking, and the water stopped, and the clinking stopped, and Roy was murmuring something, and there was a clothing-sounding rustle, but Ed didn’t dare to peek to see if he was hugging her.  “What if I’m not enough?  I mean, I know it’s bullshit—sorry—all of that ‘the only real family is a heteronormative nuclear family with a dog’ crap, but—I can’t—I can’t do or be everything all the time; I can’t; and what if something she needs slips through the cracks, and—and you sign up to do this with someone, and some days I just—I don’t know—”

“Hey,” Roy said softly.  “Listen.  Are you perfect?  No, you’re not.  You don’t have to be; no one should.  What you are is amazing.  What you are is an inspiration.  And your daughter is bright and beautiful and ready to take on the whole world, and that is in large part because she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is loved, unconditionally, by someone as incredible as her mom.  It would have been different, if it hadn’t just been you, but it couldn’t have been better.  She couldn’t be better than she is.  She’s wonderful, because you taught her so much of what’s wonderful about you.”

Gracia was crying in earnest, and Elicia was about to join her.  Ed slung an arm around her trembly little shoulders.  Looked like he wasn’t leaving any time soon.

“I j-just—” Gracia’s voice hitched, again and again and again.  “I j-just d-don’t want my b-baby girl to g-grow up and f-f-fall in love and th-then—I just d-don’t want her to f-feel like this; I never want her to h-hurt like this in her life, but she’s going to g-go out there, and the whole f-fucking world is IEDs, Roy, and there’s nothing I c-can d-do—”

“It’s not,” Roy said.  “It’s not, and you’re proof of that.  Look at yourself.  Look at what you’ve built.  It’s not just her, either; think of all the lives you’ve made that much better by being in them.”

“I h-had it all figured out.  I was done; I was set; I was… it was such a stupid fairy tale; it was so good; I should have… known.  I should’ve known.  I had my whole life together, and it was perfect, and he was so happy, Roy—”

“I know.”

“He w-would have been s-s-so happy today—”

“I know.”

“And s-some days I can a-almost get through without feeling like there’s this p-part of me that’s dead, but… some days…”

Roy’s voice was barely any louder than a whisper.  “Some days you can’t.”

“S-some days it’s s-selfish—do you have those?  Sometimes it’s b-because everything’s too h-heavy, and too d-dark, and he p-promised me he’d help me carry it, and he’d light it for me, and he’s g-gone—”

“I know.”

“But s-sometimes it’s s-so much—purer than that; sometimes—I’d do a-anything in the world just to hear him laugh again—”

“I know,” Roy said again, softer still.  “I know, I know.”

There was a moment of silence again, and then Gracia took a breath and cleared her throat.  “I s-suppose we should finish this.”

“Probably,” Roy said.  The water came back on; steel met ceramic again.  “I don’t mean to… well, yes, I do; I’m prying.  Have you ever thought about—maybe—”

“Finding someone else?” Gracia asked.

“‘Finding’ makes it sound easy,” Roy said.  “Like you’re picking up pennies on the sidewalk.  ‘Oh, found one.  How nice.’”

“Tell me about it,” Gracia said.  “A-and—I—considered it.  It made me feel like a traitor at first, even thinking of it; sick to my stomach like you wouldn’t believe—”

“All he would have wanted was for you to be happy,” Roy said.

“I know; I know… I thought about that.  A lot.  I thought about how helpful it would be to have another source of income, how much more balanced her life might be—the practical stuff first.  That felt less… ‘disrespectful’ isn’t the word I want; I felt like I was cheapening everything we’d ever… well.  In any case.  I went out for coffee with a few people after Elicia started the first grade.  So—what, two years after Maes died?  I don’t know if it was too late, or too soon, but it just—nothing… clicked.  I sat there and compared them, the whole time.  You’re not as funny as he was; you’re not as smart; you’re not as romantic.  It wasn’t—fair.  Not to them, not to him, not to myself.  And… men at that age, if they even want a family?  They want their own.  They want to make one; they don’t want to try to fit themselves into a gap in one that already exists.  And I wasn’t going to do that to her.  I wasn’t going to make her some stranger’s second-best, and I wasn’t going to let her think for a second that she wasn’t enough to make my life complete all on her own.”  She sighed.  “And let’s be honest, Roy—single mothers working part-time are not exactly the sexiest demographic on the dating scene.”

“If you’re trying to get me to say you’re not attractive,” Roy said, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

In that moment, with Elicia covering her mouth and trying to sniffle too quietly to be heard, it hit Ed like a ton of fucking bricks in a burlap bag swung at his head—like a makeshift mace making contact with his fragile skull.

Roy could’ve done it.  He could’ve been the guy.  He already fit; he already belonged here; they were already devoted to him.  He would’ve been a great dad for Elicia—he would’ve been a great parent for anybody, probably.  Gracia could’ve made him really happy.  They probably would’ve been great together—all sneaky and sweet, just caring so much it rolled off of them in constant waves, twice as strong with both of them behind it.

Except… he didn’t.  They didn’t, Ed should’ve thought; it wasn’t like it was only ever up to Roy.  They didn’t, and instead the four of them were there—on opposite sides of a wall, split up into a pair of confidants and a set of eavesdroppers.

Ed hadn’t felt like a kid in a long time.  He’d been working too hard for too long not to know that whatever the calendar said, whatever showed in the mirror, whatever people thought, whatever sparks and flashes of frivolity and fear emerged in him sometimes—he’d been an adult for years.

Right then, though, he did.  Right then, realizing Gracia hadn’t been much older than he was when she got hitched and had the seriously awesome future-adolescent next to him—when she settled down and dropped her guard because she had everything she wanted, and checked off all the boxes on that secret list engraved into her brain.  She hadn’t ben much older than him when she got… What?  Some measly phone call?  Someone at the door?  When all of it came crashing down; when everything collapsed; when someone pulled the rug out from under and took the floorboards and the whole foundation, too—

There were a lot of kinds of pain that he hadn’t tried out just yet.

“If I was fishing for compliments,” Gracia was saying, “you’d know it.”  She sighed.  “Although—I have to be honest; I miss that about him, too.  He built me up so much I believed it.  I trusted him that much—the things he said, the things he promised me.  I was beautiful to him, because he said so every minute of the day, and I didn’t much care if anyone else agreed, because he was the only one whose eye mattered anyway.”

“The world got a lot darker when he left it,” Roy said.  “The sheer force of his personality generated photons, I think.  In addition to which, while we were over there, he figured out how to use the lenses of his glasses to reflect light directly into people’s eyes.  It’s a lucky thing I’m not blind from getting conscripted as his guinea pig.”

“Color me completely unsurprised,” Gracia said.

The water ran for a second or two, and then it shut off.

“I hope you know how much I admire you,” Roy said quietly.  “I wasn’t—there for you, afterwards.  And I regret that more than I can tell you, because there aren’t… words for it, but—”

“Roy,” Gracia said.  “Don’t.”

The way the shock shivered through Roy’s voice was extraordinary.  “I—beg—your pardon?”

“Don’t say that,” Gracia said.  “Don’t hold onto that.  Don’t think that.  For heaven’s sake, you stupid man—”

He sounded almost faint now.  “I resent that.”

Gracia snorted.  “Tough cookies; it’s true.  You came back from fifteen months in a war zone more like a pile of dust than a person.  You lost him, too—and others; I don’t know how many others; people I never even knew.  You walked through the valley of the shadow of death in a way most people can’t even imagine, and most of you didn’t come back, Roy.  You were an echo of yourself.  And you tried anyway—you tried to help us when you could.  Why in the world would I hold it against you that you couldn’t give us the moon and the stars when you were barely sustaining the last little spark that you had left?”

“Still—” Roy said.

“Still nothing,” Gracia said.  “You came back, Roy.  You came back, and you remade yourself from scraps and shattered pieces, and you did everything you could for us.  That was enough for me—it always has been.  Let it be enough for you.”

“You know me,” Roy said, and Ed could hear a hint of the roguish grin.  “Never satisfied with anything less than perfection.”

“I’ve always said that was going to be the death of you.”  There was a creak, and a click.  The dishwasher door?  “Or at least the reason you were going to end up taking medication for your blood pressure by thirty-five.”

“Only five more months for you to end up right,” Roy said.  “I’ll let you know what the doctor says if I ever actually get in to see one.”

“I take it back,” Gracia said.  “That’s going to be the death of you.”

“Ed’s going to have his doctorate in June,” Roy said, and Ed’s face was suddenly on fire.  Apparently there was some truth to that whole thing about your ears burning when someone talked about you, or at least when they did it while you were in earshot.  “Admittedly, not a medical degree, but…”

There was silence for a moment, and then Roy said, “What?”, and then Gracia started laughing.

“The look you get,” she said.  “When you talk about him—”

“What?  What do I look like?”

“Like you’re happy,” Gracia said.  “And confused about it.  And in love.”

“I am all of those things,” Roy said, and Ed might just have dropped dead on the spot if Elicia hadn’t elbowed him in the ribs at that moment to ground him back on planet Earth.  His heart was banging like a fucking death metal drummer anyway, and his palms were clammy, and—what the hell was wrong with him?  Normal people were stoked about shit like this.  And part of him was, but… all the same.  All the same, it felt like falling in the dark.  “Go ahead and gloat; I deserve it.”

“I’m not gloating,” Gracia said.  “I’m glad.”  A note of mischief crept into her voice.  “Not least because I won’t have to volunteer a shoulder for any more jilted debutantes to cry on.”

“Hey,” Roy said.  “There was no jilting.  I do not jilt.”

“Not anymore, apparently,” Gracia said cheerfully.

“Don’t count chickens,” Roy said.  “He’s only just beginning to discover how delightfully insufferable I can be.”

“You have never in your life been insufferable,” Gracia said.  “It’s a privilege to suffer you at the worst of times.”

“You’re a terrible flatterer,” Roy said.  “In addition to which, I am obligated to point out that you don’t know the half of it.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Gracia said.

Maybe that was why they’d never gotten together.

It occurred to Ed that, morally speaking—if one subscribed to the concept of a moral standard, which was in itself something of a leap of philosophical and psychological faith, as far as Ed was concerned, given the implications of the evolutionary imperative on societal mores—this had probably gone on about sixteen times longer than it should have.  He caught Elicia’s arm gently and drew her a couple steps backwards down the hall, then started walking as loudly as he could.

“You think we can have pie yet?” he asked her.

Her eyes lit up.  Smart girl.  “Let’s ask my mom,” she said, loud enough to be audible but without any of the overstated fakeness he would have expected from a kid deliberately trying to be heard.  She poked her head into the kitchen and beckoned him after.  “Hey, Mom?”

Gracia presented her daughter with a cake knife.  “Would you like to do the honors, hon?”

Gracia didn’t appear to suspect a thing.  So other than the anchor weight of guilt dragging at the pit of Ed’s stomach, it looked like they’d carried it off without a hitch.

Roy got the car door for Pinako.

“Sonny,” she said, climbing in, “I’m sorry to say you’re a little too young for me.”

“Oh, barf,” Ed said before he could stop himself.

“Please excuse me,” Roy was saying through the suavest of his grins.  “I think it’s going to take me several minutes to collect the pieces of my broken heart.”

Pinako fixed her laser-eyes on Ed and pointed a finger at Roy.  “You should keep that one.”

“So I hear,” Ed said.  “But he’s gonna be in deep shit if he doesn’t stop flirting with my grandma in front of my face.”

“She started it,” Roy said.

“You’re damn right,” Pinako said.

Ed threw himself into the passenger seat of the Mustang and slammed the door.

“Sorry,” Roy said as he settled in to drive.  He probably would’ve gotten Winry’s door, too, but Al beat him to it.

“Nah, it’s all right,” Ed said.  “If you don’t play nice with evil witches, you end up in the plot of a Disney movie, so this is probably for the best.”

“Watch it, shortstuff,” Pinako said.

You watch it, you half-sized hag,” Ed said.  Not the pithiest comeback of his life, but considering how fully he had fallen victim to the thrall of the tryptophan, it wasn’t bad.

“Ah,” Roy said, quickly before Pinako could articulate anything more cutting than a growl, “how’s the temperature back there?  Would you like me to turn the heat on?”

“Well, Roy,” Pinako said, and Ed somehow resisted the urge to slam his head down on the dashboard—but only barely.  “I think you already have.”

“Granny,” Winry said, “could you… not?”

“You kids are no damn fun at all,” Pinako said.

“I wish I had any cause at all to argue with that,” Al said wistfully.  “But… no.  No, we’re really not.”

It was a good thing Roy was pretty fly at driving with distractions.  The discussion of how tragically unexciting Ed, Al, and Winry all were compared to ‘real kids’ went on in the backseat, and Roy turned to smile at Ed at the next stoplight.

“Would you like to stay over?” he asked.

“Well, yeah,” Ed said, and it was true, and wasn’t that fucking weird?  Just… wanting to spend every extra second of your stupid life with someone in particular?  “Except I have to get up at the ass-crack of dawn tomorrow to go peddle caffeine and shit.  I’m not gonna wake you up that early on one of your days off.”

Roy was smiling—out at the road in front of them this time, but his voice was all soft and light and sweet with it.  “I’d rather have an abbreviated night with you than a long one alone.  If you have a process, though, I’d hate t—”

Ed was blushing.  Son of a bitch.  He tilted his head down and turned his face towards the window; if Winry saw this shit, he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he lived to be a thousand and five.  “Well—I mean, we’re talking, like, four in the morning, Roy.  You don’t get enough sleep as it is.”

“That’s a bit rich, Brother,” Al piped up, “coming from you.”

“Can it,” Ed said.

“It’s up to you,” Roy said, still so… airily.  Like it was okay; like this stuff didn’t matter, even though it obviously did.  Every conversation mattered; every single sentence contributed to this… thing, to this relationship, to them, to the huge stack of tally marks in the pros column and the startlingly meager collection in the cons.  “I honestly don’t mind.”

Ed tried to weigh it, but the hesitation was sort of for show, because his heart knew what it wanted.  Fucking thing always knew what it wanted—just not what was good for it.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll just… run in and grab my stuff when we drop these guys off.”

Roy grinned, and he looked so damn contented and so fucking beautiful that he really should have belonged to somebody who deserved him.

Inside of half an hour, they were curled up in Roy’s bed, which… like, he’d really meant it.  He hadn’t even tried to cop a feel or anything, unless petting Ed’s hair a lot counted—which Ed figured it didn’t, because that was pleasurable as fuck, but it wasn’t especially sexual most of the time.  It probably could be, in the right circumstances.  He probably need to stop thinking about it.

Point was, Roy had invited him over for the express purpose of cuddling for a while and then scrounging up a couple hours of sleep, and that was… really something.  Roy was really something.

“Are you all right?” Roy murmured after a very long, truly transcendent interval of hair-stroking.  “You’ve been a bit quiet since dinner.”  He paused.  “Was it too many people?”

“Well, yeah,” Ed said, “but Al helped me recalibrate before I totally malfunctioned and just, like, did the reactor core meltdown thing all over Gracia’s nice, clean floor.  It’s okay.  I mean, I can do stuff like that; I just start to get jittery as shit if it goes on too long, or it gets too loud, or whatever.  Sensory overload.”

He swallowed.  Time to be the fucking man he always claimed he was.

“Mostly it’s…” He breathed.  “I… overheard a lot of the conversation you were having with Gracia over the dishes.  No, I eavesdropped on a lot of the conversation; fuck ‘overheard’.  It—Elicia was in the hallway listening, and… like, of course it was fucked up to listen, but it felt like it would’ve been fucked up to leave her there on her own, too, so… yeah.  She just—she’s so fucking desperate to hear more stuff about her dad, and it kind of… I kind of get that.  So I—I mean, I’m sorry.  For that.  I really am.  I probably should’ve just tried to get her to go do something else, but I sort of got wrapped up, and… I kind of feel like shit, so… I’m sorry.”

Roy’s hand had paused over the crown of his head.

Here it came.  Here it fucking came; here was the start of the fucking end; here was the slide to the edge and the long way down and the sharp rocks at the bottom—

It was only a matter of time, with people.  It was only a matter of time and volume—the volume of your bullshit that they could take.  After you reached critical mass, game over, no extra fucking lives, no takebacks, no second chances.  Relationships didn’t have a fucking restart button, and life was too short for people to put up with the same crap more than once.


What the actual fuck—Roy’s fingernails scratched very gently at his scalp again.

“I’m trying to remember whether I said anything particularly embarrassing,” Roy said.

All of the muscle in Ed’s body seemed to fail at once, and he just sort of froze there.

Roy shifted back enough to look at him, as much as that was possible in the half-light.  “Ed?”

“You’re not pissed off,” Ed said, slowly, because it still could’ve been a trick.

Roy blinked.  “Should I be?”

“Probably,” Ed said.  “I totally fucking violated your privacy.”

“I don’t know if I would put it like that,” Roy said.  “It was a conversation held at a normal volume in a house full of people.  If we’d been intent on not being heard, we should have stepped outside.”

“No, no, no,” Ed said.  “Separate room, lowered voices, personal shit—that is private.  That’s social contract stuff.  If that doesn’t get respected, the whole structure of society collapses, and we all turn into cannibals and die.”

“At once?” Roy asked.

Ed hit his arm, but with about as little force as humanly possible.  “You know what I mean!”

Roy kissed his forehead.  “I do.  But it really doesn’t bother me.  I don’t feel the need to keep any secrets from you, so what difference does it make?”

Ed tried to think of a slightly pithier way to say How in the everloving fuck did I luck into your gorgeous ass and how do I not fuck it up.  When inspiration didn’t come, he supplemented with the next best thing he could conjure:

“You know Elicia doesn’t really care what you guys are doing, right?” he asked.  “And whether it’s something cool or expensive or whatever?  She just really wants to spend time with you.”

Roy held him just a little closer, and you could hear the smile.  “I want her to have nice things.”

“She doesn’t care about things,” Ed said.  “She’s too smart for that.  She wants to have nice people in her life.  As much as possible.”  He hesitated, turned it over, swallowed, and took the leap.  “And she really wants to talk about her dad with somebody.  She just wants to know who he was.  ’Cause obviously there’s going to be an empty space either way, but if everybody talks around it, it’s that much emptier, right?”

Not that Ed would know anything about that.

Roy stroked Ed’s hair in what seemed like a thoughtful kind of way.  It was hard to tell when all Ed could see from here was the underside of his chin.  Which was every bit as freakishly attractive as the rest of him, of course, but sort of unrevealing as to the inner working of his emotions and all.

“I didn’t realize she felt that way,” he said.  “Now that you mention it, though, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it.”

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Ed said.  “She knows that.”

“She is definitively his daughter,” Roy said.  “More incisive than anyone has any right to be, but reasonable about it to the very end.  And she masks it all with effervescence.  It’s extraordinary.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “She’s pretty cool.”

Roy brushed his lips over Ed’s forehead again.  “What would also be cool would be you not actually perishing from sleep-deprivation when you get up tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good,” Ed said.

Weirdly, everything Roy said had a tendency to.

Chapter Text

They start out across the campus.  Ed has no idea where Hohenheim thinks they’re going; he himself doesn’t know shit about the layout of this place, so he’s just sort of… walking.  Trying not to let his knees give out.

Silence, as they go.  Hohenheim looks undeterred, unintimidated, untouchable—like he doesn’t find this painfully fucking awkward; like he still doesn’t fucking care.  Like this is just a little jaunt with his firstborn, and the two fucking decades of abandonment are irrelevant, or uninteresting.  Like they never happened at all.  Like the two of them have the kind of relationship where you can just wander with somebody without conversing, because you’re comfortable, and it’s fine.

Ed’s gripping the strap of his laptop bag so hard his hand aches.

Hohenheim gestures to a little coffee shop tucked into one of the buildings, with its own door and a couple of outdoor tables.  “Would you like anything?  It looks like you’ve got breakfast already.  Would you mind if I went in and got a coffee?  We could sit for a while.”

Has he always articulated commands as a barrage of questions?  For the first time in his fucking life, Ed wishes he remembered this man better.  It’d give him an advantage now to know what kind of psychological bullshit Hohenheim used back in the day—what his tactics had been, what they might be now—but he hadn’t been tuned into that stuff when he was a kid.  He’d just taken it, like a pet.  Like a little dog that didn’t know any better, that only wanted to be loved, that didn’t understand that sometimes punishment was an end of its own, unrelated to whether or not there was a crime—

“Sure,” he says.  He’s probably going to drop this scone on the ground in another second if he doesn’t set it down anyway; he’s losing his grasp on the little bag.

They go over and find a table and two metal chairs that aren’t damp from yesterday’s rain.  Ed sits down.  He puts his hard-won food on the tabletop and hangs his laptop bag from the back of the chair so that it’s not sitting on the pavement.

“I’ll be right back,” Hohenheim says, and Ed wants to hit him, wants to hurl things, wants to—

Maybe he can’t do this.  Maybe he doesn’t have it in him.  Maybe this is too much, too big; maybe the baggage is just too fucking heavy to carry this far from home, this far from safety, this far from everything he’s built up around himself to make him feel whole—

His breath is coming faster, and his heart feels like it’s flitting—like it’s flickering, like a candle flame, like it’s not strong enough to sustain him.  What if he says the wrong thing?  What if Hohenheim wants to be his best fucking friend now and send postcards and talk on the phone every day?  What if Hohenheim always hated him, and that’s the reason that the fucker left their whole family?  What if Ed’s just not good enough—never was, never has been, never will be, no matter how many fucking Nobel Prizes—no matter what he fucking does—

What if this fucking asshole leaves again?

Fuck this.  Fuck this; God, he has to slow down.  He tries to time out his breaths, counting slow.  One-two-three-fuck

He realizes he has his right hand clenched in his hair.  Shit.  Focus.  Calm down.  Think about Al, think about Roy.  Think about Al with a kitten; think about Roy at the park coveting other people’s dogs.  Think about the bed at home.  Think about that noise Roy makes deep in the center of his chest when he’s just waking up but doesn’t want to.  Think about the blissed-out look in Al’s eyes when Winry grabs his hand and starts hauling him off to something.  Think about what an amazing fucking dad Al is going to be someday; think about how good it can go, the family thing; think about how it can go right; think about how there’s hope in the world, and sometimes it takes the form of specific human beings, and how that’s great.  Breathe slow.  Breathe deep.  It’s okay.  It’s okay, or it’s going to be.  He can do this.  He’s good enough.  He’s always been good enough.  He’s good enough for the people who matter, and he makes them happy, and anybody who doesn’t understand the importance of that can go fuck themselves with a spiked iron mace.

He’s okay.

He closes his eyes for a second and focuses intently on unfolding one finger at a time.  Thumb first—straighten the joint.  Unbend his index finger.  Then his favorite one.  Then the ring finger.  Funny how it doesn’t seem to have another name, right?  Like that’s its only significance.  Kind of fucked up.  But at least now he can slide his pinky free, too, and then he can put his hand down on the cold metal table, and that’s all right.  That’s solid.  That helps, a little.

He wraps his fingers around his cup of tea instead and takes a sip.  It’s not hot enough to burn his tongue, which is the most important thing; he doesn’t really taste it.  His mouth went all dry.  How fucking annoying.

He fishes his phone out and swipes over to the shitty little bubble-wrap app he downloaded for free ages ago, and he starts popping poorly-animated bubbles aimlessly.  He doesn’t even need the sound on anymore.  It’s just—good.  He tries to pop little lines to make letters to spell out ROY before the timer runs down and refreshes his canvas.

“Young people,” Hohenheim’s voice says, coming closer, and this is like a fucking nightmare—he has had this dream, and his hand freezes around the phone, gripping it way too tight.  “Always glued to their little screens.”

Ed thinks Fuck you and your fucking shit, you asshole so loud it’s a miracle Hohenheim doesn’t hear it.  Slowly, slowly, he forces himself to lift his gaze.

Hohenheim is holding a red coffee cup with a white lid.  He sits down.  He smiles broadly.

“Well, then,” he says.  “I know a bit about your professional life now, and what you study, of course, but will you tell me about you?”

Ed swallows.  He shoves his phone back into his pocket, crosses his legs, and folds his arms across his chest.  It’s a protective stance, but who fucking cares?  He kind of needs the protection right now.  He kind of needs the reassurance.

“What do you want to know?” he manages.

Hohenheim’s smile only brightens, the fucker.  “Anything,” he says.  “I’ve missed you boys tremendously.”

The rage stabs down into the pit of Ed’s stomach so hard he can’t believe his kidneys don’t start bleeding.  “No shit.”

Hohenheim blinks at him.  He doesn’t get it.  He honestly fucking doesn’t get it.  “Of course.”  He clears his throat and then sips his coffee, and Ed just—sits there.  Speechless, wordless, paralyzed, knotted in the web of horrible thoughts and dredged-up feelings and fucking fury.  “Why don’t you tell me about your personal life?  You told that one young lady who asked that you aren’t single.”  The smile is back.  “Tell me about her.”

Ed fights it all down.  Al would want him to.

“Him,” he says.  The fun never fucking stops; now he gets to brace himself for the goddamn homophobia.  “His name is Roy.  He’s a lawyer.  He’s really great.”

Words are weird, aren’t they?  They’re fundamentally insufficient for capturing the essence of something, but they’re the only tools he’s got.  He can’t draw, or paint, and his pictures usually turn out like crap.


“Here,” he says.  Back to the phone, and he bristles automatically in anticipation of more fucking judgment, but Hohenheim doesn’t say anything while he thumbs through his photos.  “His sort-of-adopted niece took this.”

Elicia’s got an eye for it, and she took a couple classes over the last couple of years, which only made her even more mind-blowingly amazing.  Her preferred subjects are animals and inanimate objects, but she does incredible portraits, too.  This one’s of Roy at a party over the summer, with his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and the first couple buttons down from his collar undone, and there’s a wineglass in his hand, and you can see by the crinkling of his eyes and the curl of his grin that he’s just about to laugh.  It’s incredible.  It says all the shit that Ed couldn’t speak with sixteen dictionaries.

He holds it out to Hohenheim feeling like he’s offering a vein to a rattlesnake.

Hohenheim adjusts his glasses and looks at the picture for a long, long moment.  Then he smiles.

“He looks like a charming sort of fellow,” he says.

This cannot be fucking real.  It just can’t.

“How long have you been together?” Hohenheim asks.

Ed withdraws the phone and eyes his—eyes Hohenheim for a second.

“Five years,” he says.  “I dunno if you remember our friend Winry—Pinako’s granddaughter—but she’n Al just got married, so… yeah.”

“So you both found happiness,” Hohenheim says, and he looks genuinely delighted, and that’s fucked up, is the thing.  Because he doesn’t fucking deserve to.  He doesn’t fucking deserve to be happy for them after casting them aside, and Ed doesn’t want any fucking part in it.  “That’s wonderful.  That’s wonderful news.”

Ed shoves the phone back into his pocket and looks away—at the building across the courtyard; at the kids sitting on the steps.  It’s funny how at every single stage of your life, you think I didn’t know what I had back then about the one before it.

“Yeah,” he says.  “It was real nice.”  He can’t stop himself—can’t help himself; can’t help any of it.  “He wanted to invite you, but Pinako said she’d sent mail to the last address she had for you, and it’d gotten returned to the sender.  I dunno if he Googled you or not.  He’s really good at finding people on the internet, but he might’ve been trying to respect your privacy or something.  Unless you’re not using the same name anymore.  I didn’t ask.”  Because if you’d been there, I probably would’ve lost my shit trying to pick between supporting my brother and walking the fuck out.

“I tried to go back to the house,” Hohenheim says, sounding half-offended and half-earnest, and Ed fights hard against the impulse to look at him simply because that’s how conversations are supposed to work.  “Years ago, I went by, but… another family lived there.”

“We couldn’t afford it,” Ed says.  The girl sitting on the steps looks spectacularly uninterested in the fact that the guy next to her seems to be hitting on her.  If he gets aggressive, Ed’s going over there.  “And then they found out we were minors, and we got evicted.  So we lived with Winry and Granny until… college, basically, and then we got our own place after.”

“I know,” Hohenheim says, and Ed’s eyes snap back to that asshole face without his permission.  Hohenheim is polishing his glasses with a little white cloth and then holding the lenses up to the light.  “I tried to figure out where you’d gone, but the trail of forwarding addresses stopped, and the post office couldn’t really help me.”

The anger beats hard and loud in Ed’s brain, in his wrists, in his fingertips—faster and faster the longer he sits there, watching the fucking deadbeat who drew his whole fucking childhood in negative space.

“Pinako kept her landline,” he says.  “We ended up on half those creepy-ass property listing sites whether we liked it or not.  We were on fucking Facebook—I shut mine down for a while, but Al left his searchable, because he thought maybe you’d try.  For fuck’s sake, you found my lab site—how fucking hard was that?  My email’s on it.  So’s my fucking desk phone.”  He can hear his voice getting louder; he can feel his hands starting to shake.  “I don’t care how you justify it to yourself, but don’t you fucking give me some fucking bullshit about it being our fault you didn’t say a fucking word to either of us in twenty fucking years.  You had chances.  You had resources.  You could have.  But you didn’t.  Maybe you weren’t man enough to be a fucking dad, but at least do me the fucking courtesy of owning up long enough to admit that you didn’t even try.”

Hohenheim pauses, frowns, and slides his glasses on.  His eyes narrow.  Thirty years old, and in the face of his fuckoff failure of a dad’s disapproval, Ed feels like such a fucking kid, and that’s not fair.  That’s not right at all.

“You don’t have to be vulgar,” Hohenheim says, and the condescension stings.  There’s humiliation in it, too—a swelling tide of heat just underneath Ed’s skin, climbing his chest, his throat— “I’ve been trying to live my own life, too, you have to understand.  I just wanted you to know I’ve thought about the both of you very often.”

“Okay,” Ed grits out.  “Then I just want you to know that sometimes it’s not the thought that counts.  You left.  You fucked us over bad.  And you could’ve found us again, at any goddamn point, if you’d put any real effort in.  But you didn’t.  Don’t you dare try to play that shit off as our fault for moving around to survive.  I’m not gonna sit here and take that shit.”

Hohenheim is staring at him like he’s an unfriendly alien.  “I—”

“Let’s talk about something else,” Ed says.  It’s what Al would want.  If he stands up and walks away and doesn’t look back—if he doles out a dose of Hohenheim’s own damn medicine—Al’ll be so disappointed it’ll crush him.  “So what do you teach at Oxford?”

The thing that was so weird was that none of it was weird at all.  Well—it was when he was anticipating it, obviously, but then in the actual execution, everything was so fucking normal it was like gliding through a goddamn dream.  A good one, even.  Puppies and rainbows and shit.

He brought Roy to Christmas at Granny Pinako’s, which entailed a three-hour drive with Al, who had been cataloguing—literally cataloguing—the pets he wanted to adopt; and Winry, who insisted on commenting on the merits and drawbacks of virtually ever other vehicle on the road.  Ed thought it was a miracle that they survived.  It also probably had a lot to do with Roy putting a hand on his thigh or his shoulder every time he started to tense up.

Without any prompting whatsoever, Roy had gotten Pinako a super-fancy keychain-sized combo-tool, and Winry a book about economics and inspiration and startups, and Al a one-a-day kitten calendar, and even a toy for the dog, and all of the humans also got really fluffy scarves.  Ed was practically nesting in his when Roy handed him a box—which was ridiculous, because, like, wasn’t showing up to your stupid boyfriend’s family’s Christmas-morning-thing sacrifice enough?

“I don’t need anything,” Ed said, followed shortly by, “And how the hell do you wrap gifts so well?”

“Secrets,” Roy said.  “And magic.  And working retail in my late teens.  It’s not going to bite you; open it.”

Ed struggled with the ribbon.  Then with the paper.  Then with the tape on the box.  Then with the box itself.  Then with the tissue paper.  Then…

“Towels,” he said slowly.  Either there was something he was missing here, or Roy thought… he didn’t dry off very well after showering?  Had anyone ever gotten dumped before for being too damp?

“Not just towels,” Roy said, settling in close against his hip to reach around him on both sides, rather than just taking the box out of his lap, which was—cozy, actually.  Really cozy.  Ed was blushing.  Shit.  “They’re…” Roy’s hands lifted out the first fold of terrycloth, and Ed saw lots of white squiggles on black.  “…math-towels.  Which are like bath-towels, except—”

“Holy shit,” Ed said, grabbing Roy’s wrists so that he’d hold it still.  “Oh, my God, it is math.  Al, get your ass over here; you gotta see this—”

“Math-towels!” Al cried, bouncing onto the couch and fitting in on Ed’s other side.  “That’s fantastic!”

“I felt that something incredibly nerdy but undeniably practical was best,” Roy said, and he was such a damn cheater, because he’d put himself in a perfect position to squeeze Ed in his arms, which was barf-cute and making Ed blush twice as hard.  “Plus, you know…” He lowered his voice and leaned in to Ed’s ear.  “…it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if you were thinking about me while you were in the shower.”

“I did not hear that,” Al said.  “I did not hear that.  Oh, Lord.  Roy, you’re wonderful, and I am extremely happy that you seem to enjoy putting up with Brother, but please, please practice whispering.”

“Sorry,” Roy said through a huge, huge grin that did not look sorry at all.

Ed elbowed him, but not hard enough to get him to move.  “I got something for you.  Dunno where it went.”

Christmas was hard.  Christmas was kind of shitty, actually, because there was only so much money to be had, and you could only stretch it so far, and the potential pitfalls of credit cards were the stuff of fucking grownup nightmares, and sometimes you had to spring for a new car battery right at the start of December.

But he’d scraped, like a lot, and somehow managed to get Winry more earrings (she must have had enough metal to forge a sword from by now) and Al a cat sweater and Granny a ton of coffee beans (which was all she ever asked for).

Roy was hard, though.  Roy was hard to buy for, because he had so many things.  Also because he was all perfect and shit, which made for a lot of pressure—and while academic deadline pressure turned Ed’s brain into a frigging creative crucible, emotional pressure tended to short-circuit him faster than you could say It’s just a present, Brother.

What the hell was he supposed to get for someone like Roy?

It was kind of a fucking trip.  He’d tried think of something clever for Ling’s birthday their first year, but Ling liked food so damn much that Ed had just ended up taking them out for seriously posh sushi, and then they’d had, like, three hours of sex back in the dorm, and wasabi still sort of had aphrodisiac-ish qualities for him.  Greg had been such a gift freak that Ed, who was poor as shit, ended up brainstorming with Al—and happened on the solution of buying a ton of little things and wrapping them all individually, since the act of receiving was more important than the significance of the objects anyway.  And then…



This was the first gift-giving holiday that really mattered.

“Okay,” Ed said.  “Um.”  He managed to extricate himself from the center of the Al-and-Roy sandwich—which was really too bad, since it was about the best place in the entire universe to be—and went to retrieve the little red bag he’d just spotted by the fireplace.

His whole fucking life had changed when he discovered that you could buy a fat pack of gift bags for about the same price as a roll of wrapping paper, although the tissue paper was a racket.  He considered it a tax on the time he saved just shoving shit into the bag and then crumpling the tissue on top.  Even better was the fact that you could reuse the damn things, as long as you more or less remembered which ones you’d given to people before.

He returned to the glorious sandwich, wriggled back into his still-warm spot, and plopped the bag in Roy’s lap.  Which was his other favorite place on the planet.  “Um.  Here.”

Roy’s eyes were so bright Ed could barely look at him.  He leaned his head against Ed’s.  “Thank you.”

“You haven’t even opened it yet,” Ed said.

“I don’t have to know what it is to be grateful that you thought of me,” Roy said.

Ed wrinkled his nose.  “That makes about zero logical sense.”

Roy grinned at him.  “I don’t believe I ever claimed to be logical.”

Ed nudged his shoulder.  “Just open it and get it over with.”

“Edward,” Roy said.  Ed eyed him sideways, because if he insisted on saying that in front of Ed’s entire family, this was going to get kind of uncomfortable, because Ed’s pants were going to get kind of uncomfortable, at which point Al would probably want to move to Mexico and change his name.  “Every last second I get to spend with you is a gift.  This—” He lifted the bag.  “—is spoiling me rotten.”

“You shouldn’t say that before you’ve even seen it,” Ed said.  “I might’ve gotten you coal.”

Roy’s eyes fucking smoldered.  Ed had made a mistake. Ed had made a terrible mistake.

“I have been naughty,” Roy said, voice dropping to a purr.  “And I intend to get wor—”

“Roy,” Al said, loudly through his clenched teeth, “why don’t you open that so we can go have lunch?”

“Terribly sorry,” Roy said, still with that flagrantly unrepentant beaming grin.  If he was this transparent in the courthouse, it was a fucking wonder that he had a job.  “Let me just…”

The one downside to gift bags was that they really killed the suspense.  Pretty much once you lifted out the first ball of tissue, you could always tell what it was.

“Rosé does ceramics and stuff,” Ed said, trying not to be nervous, because—well, shit, Al was right; it was just a gift.  And if Roy hated it, Valentine’s Day was in two months, and he could make up for it then.  “And this was so… weird… that I figured I ought to commission somebody I knew so they wouldn’t have a heart attack.  She’s really good, right?”

Roy lifted the mug out in both hands and cradled it for a long moment.  It was hard to tell if he liked it.  Maybe Ed’d get real lucky and just sort of cease to exist before Roy Mustang realized what a total fucking nerd he was dating.

“Do you know what that is?” Al asked Roy, starting to grin and pushing his shoulder against Ed’s.

“It’s extremely unique,” Roy said slowly, running a fingertip along the carved geometric lines and then around the admittedly kinda awkward ring for the handle.  “It’s—a molecule?”

“It’s oxytocin,” Al said.

“Oh, my God, Ed,” Winry said in a voice like a bullhorn.  “If you were taller, I’d think you were a tree, ’cause that is the sappiest thing I have ever seen.”

The blood was already beating in Ed’s head way too fast, and he was paralyzed for a second trying to decide whether to yell back or focus all of his energy on bracing himself for…


Who had the most shocked expression on his face that Ed had ever seen—which was also the most straightforward expression that had ever landed there, as far as Ed could tell, which he supposed counted for something.

Striking him dumb was also an accomplishment for the history books, probably, but at the seconds kept on ticking by, it was starting to get really unnerving.

“Um,” Ed said.  Roy was moving the pad of his thumb slowly over the trail of amino acids.  “She said… Rose said she used a glaze that should’ve made it dishwasher safe, so…”

“I couldn’t risk that,” Roy said.  His voice sort of stuck a little, and he cleared his throat, and then—fucking finally—he lifted his eyes to Ed’s.

Then he started smiling like he couldn’t hold it in.

“This is so you,” he said.  “This is so absolutely you, and I love it; thank you, thank you—”

Then Ed had a faceful of Roy, followed by a mouthful of his his tongue, and the hand that wasn’t holding tightly to the mug was delving into Ed’s hair and twisting gently so that his scalp tingled, and the lightning traveled right the fuck on down his spine—

“Hey!” Winry said.  “No Frenching in front of the dog!”

“Or on top of me, please,” Al said.

Roy drew back, grinning a fraction more sheepishly than the several times before.  “I’m sorry.  I was—overcome.”

Ed opened his mouth to say something about who’d be coming and then shut it again.

Winry slowly removed her spread hands from in front of an utterly unperturbed Den’s eyes while Roy gathered the tissue paper around the mug.

“Right,” Pinako said.  “Hope you kids are hungry.”

“Do I qualify as a kid for the purposes of this question?” Roy asked.

Pinako’s eyes didn’t glimmer as she smiled.  “Depends how much you’re planning on eating,” she said.

It was funny, the things that hung around in houses—the stuff that lingered.  Maes Hughes had been in every last floorboard and scrap of wallpaper in Gracia’s home, and Ed could tell from the half-wince of startlement that Roy had realized what this silence and its absences implied.

Roy was way younger than Winry’s dad would’ve been.

“Quantity isn’t as important, though,” Pinako said, waving off Winry’s help and levering herself out of her armchair.  “Just make sure you get your fill fast, before those two eat it all.”

She didn’t really have to point to make it clear who that meant, but she did it anyway.

“Hey!” Ed said, in perfect unison with Al’s, “I beg your pardon.”

“Are you uncomfortable?” Ed asked when they crammed themselves into his old fucking twin bed that night.  “I bet we have a cot.  We could get the cot.  Or I could remove enough tools to fill a small warehouse from one of Winry’s old workbenches, and then I could sleep on that.  Or—”

“Edward,” Roy said, mouth against his ear, breath against his throat, “there is nowhere in the vast reaches of the universe that I would rather be than here, with you, right this second, encroaching on your personal space.”

“I don’t think I really have personal space anymore where you’re concerned,” Ed said.  “Encroach away.”  It was sort of cozy, being all wrapped up in Roy, and way less fucked-up-weird than he’d expected when he’d dared to contemplate the prospect of sharing his childhood bed with his thirty-five-year-old boyfriend.  “…but you’re su—”

“I am,” Roy murmured.

“Okay,” Ed said.  Family events—and it had become an event, in the end, when a couple of Pinako’s late husband’s relatives had come by to coo over Winry and reminisce about the good old days and eat a lot of ham—tended to leave him totally wound up and completely exhausted at once.  It had taken him a long time to settle down after Thanksgiving, too, although the carb coma had helped with that.  Roy had passed out almost immediately, with his face tucked in against Ed’s shoulder and an arm slung across him, breathing softly, and that had been… nice.  Really nice.  Kind of funny how Roy’s bed was, like, two and a half times the size of this one, and somehow they’d ended up just as close.

Some nights were destined for sleepy snuggles, though, and some were not.  Tonight Ed couldn’t quite shift around to a position that didn’t make his shoulder ache or leave him with an elbow at a funky angle.

“Sorry,” he said after about the fifth toss of his body and subsequent creak of protest from the springs.  “Never noticed how crap this mattress was.”

Roy snaked an arm around him and drew him in, mouth hot and wet and gorgeous against the shell of his ear.  “Would you like some help relaxing?”

“Jesus,” Ed said, wriggling partway out of his grip—although most of the wriggling was to cover the fact that very abstract thought kind of turned him on, and his face was on fire.  “Are you planning on getting me off in my fucking childhood bed on Jesus’s birthday?”

Roy had a particular laugh for when he was sort of surprised to hear himself laughing.  “Of course it sounds terrible when you put it like that.”

“Mmm,” Ed said, somewhat despite himself, rolling back in towards Roy, because it was cold out there.  “Maybe I like terrible.”

“‘Maybe’?” Roy breathed, fingertips dragging down his side.  “I confess I was hoping for a slightly more enthusiastic response than ‘maybe’.  One of your patented ‘fuck yeah’s, for instance.”

“How about you seduce me instead of arguing semantics?” Ed asked, tipping his hips up into the butterfly-light touch of Roy’s hand.

Roy’s mouth skated along his jaw, and goosebumps rushed down every damn centimeter of Ed’s skin.  “Is that what you want?”

“Wouldn’t—” Ed’s breath caught.  He cleared his throat.  “Wouldn’t—suggest it—if it wasn’t.”

“Still,” Roy said softly, rolling over, propping himself up over Ed on his elbows, an absolute fucking monument of fucking monochrome gorgeousness in the dark— “If you ever don’t want to—”

Ed tugged on the collar of Roy’s pajama T-shirt to cut him off.  “I dunno if you fully understand how incredibly fucking hot you are.”

“Be that as it may,” Roy said, though his grin was huge and self-satisfied and stupidly adorable, “if you ever don’t w—”

“I know,” Ed said, blinking up at him.  And he did, was the thing.  Instinctively, in the pit of his stomach, so firmly it was foundational.  Like he’d been born knowing.  Like he’d known for a couple lifetimes before this one, if you were into that sort of thing.  “If I ever need to say ‘Keep it in your pants until tomorrow, Mustang’, I will.  And I know you’ll listen.”  Roy’s hair was like ink swept out in sharp, graceful lines, and the gleam of his eyes was mesmerizing.  “But that ain’t what I’m sayin’ now.”

“In your old room, with your brother next door, on Christmas?” Roy asked, sounding positively delighted.  “How scandalous.”

“Yeah,” Ed said, arching up against him.  “And I wanna be invited back next year, so I guess you better find a way to keep me quiet so nobody hears.”

With any luck—not that he had any, or had ever had any; but for the sake of argument, assuming some had materialized out of the ether at a convenient time—Al had wandered off to Winry’s room to have a deep conversation about the meaning of Christmas and/or the importance of cats on one’s emotional ecosystem.  That was Ed’s hope, anyway.  Because it’d been too late to stop this the second it started, and he wasn’t sure there was a fucking gag on the planet that could’ve kept him silent during sex acts with Roy.

Speaking of Roy, the heat of his eyes was making Ed so damn weak it was getting difficult to keep his hips raised.

“That sounds delicious,” Roy said, eyes shining, grin curling, voice low and resonant and oh-so slightly rough.

It was always like this.  Ed had expected it to wear off, or wear down, but it just… hadn’t.  Not yet, and he was starting to hope that maybe…

There was just something about Roy, Roy in bed, Roy in his element, with the unholily suave sexiness at the forefront, but with all of the drowningly-deep compassion unmistakable behind it.  Roy played Ed like a fucking flute, all breath and fingertips—like his ribs were harp strings, like his spine was a horsehair violin bow drawn just a little too tight—like if you touched him properly, he was so much more than the sum of his components.  Like the goddamn symphony had been in him all along, and all it needed was the perfect application of pressure set to just the right rhythm, and his whole body would sing

Roy’s mouth sealed over his, and Roy’s hands skimmed down his sides to catch his hips, thumbs circling in a way that might have been meant to be soothing, but it just kindled more and more heat under Ed’s skin, and now he was trembling with it—

“Mm,” Roy murmured into the kiss, parting from him just enough to speak; Ed couldn’t help that his mouth wanted to follow, and when he ran his tongue over his lip it swept Roy’s too.  “I do love a challenge.”  Roy forced Ed’s hips down, pinning them hard to the mattress, and Ed gasped despite himself, and the bedsprings squeaked.  Roy settled his knee between Ed’s thighs and started brushing it so, so fucking lightly against his groin—and then harder, and then harder still, until he was flat-out fucking grinding it, and a sweat had broken out all down Ed’s back, and it felt like there was a live snake in his fucking spine— “And I love the way you look at times like this, when you’re not thinking about it, and you’re not trying to protect yourself from the whole universe at once.”

“The universe and I have a shitty f-fucking track record,” Ed managed, fisting one hand in the sheets and clamping the other down on Roy’s shoulder, trying to crush his hips against the gorgeous press of Roy’s knee, trying to get more— “Don’t t-trust the fucking universe any f-further than I could throw it.”

Roy leaned in, lips and tongue and teeth flirting with the ridges of Ed’s esophagus, tracing slowly down his exposed throat towards his collarbones.  “But you trust me?”

“Tried not to,” Ed said.  Something about the way his breath was hitching out of his chest without his permission; something about the feverish throb of blood through every single fucking vein—he wasn’t really in control of himself anymore, and that tended to make him honest.  “Couldn’t help it.”

Roy breathed softly against his skin.  “I think you are the single most exquisite person I have ever met.”

Ed swallowed a low, long, shaky groan as Roy’s right hand spread on his stomach and dragged meaningfully down, only to stop short right above the waistband of his boxers, which he had rarely hated for their intrusion more than he did in this moment.  “Th-thought we were having filthy un-Christmassy carnal relations where my brother could h-hear.”

That got him a quiet laugh, damp breath against his jaw, which felt like fucking heaven, and then Roy’s clever fingers toying with his boxers in an obnoxiously fucking leisurely sort of way.  “Can’t I sweet-talk you at the same time?  Usually I can’t get you to stay still for it.”

Ed tried to contort his body upward to put the important parts of it into Roy’s right hand, but Roy’s left was still clenched around his hipbone, and it pushed him instantly back down to the bed.  It was a toss-up whether the whimper that left Ed’s mouth was motivated more by the abstract thought of Roy just—overpowering him; or by the amazing fucking friction against Roy’s knee on his way down.  Maybe it was half and half.  Ed kind of didn’t fucking care right this second.

“Schmoopy,” he choked out.  “Schmoopy as shit, Mustang.”

“Mm,” Roy said, mouth tracking down his chest now, oh, God; how come that little fucking sound in his mouth just set fire to Ed’s every last fucking nerve?  “So sorry.  Shall I make it up to you?”

Ed writhed, and Roy moved up and nipped gentle-sharp at the soft skin on the side of his neck just under his ear, and holy fucking hell.  “God, you f-fucking—better—”

“Well,” Roy said.

Ed was drawing breath to say Well fucking what? when Roy’s tongue flicked across his nipple, and then the breath turned into some kind of horrible groan-gasp thing

But just before he put any volume behind it, Roy’s left hand departed from his hip and slapped down over his mouth.



Ed tried to say Shit around the swell of strangling heat in his throat, but any sound that came from the half-formed tangle disappeared into Roy’s palm.

Weirdly fucking hot.  Weirdly fucking hot.

Equally hot, but less weird, was the slow, deliberate way Roy pulled outward on the elastic of the waistband of his boxers and then dragged them down almost to his knees—they needed a little bit of help sliding over his ass, and Roy’s crooked finger against Ed’s skin to guide them made his whole body jerk high off of the mattress, and Roy’s mouth was still ghosting wetly all over his chest

With his boxers disposed of—or, really, trapping his legs right where they were, which was also weirdly fucking hot, and Ed’s brain was starting to melt a little bit, and his heartbeat was getting deafening—Roy laid just the pad of his index finger against the underside of Ed’s dick and stroked it upward slowly.

Ed tried to say You fucking sadist and managed only a few muffled sounds through Roy’s hand, which—

Without a fraction of his permission, his voice fucking whined.

“Shh,” Roy whispered.  His eyes were glittering; they were far enough from any major cities around here—far enough even from most of town—that the only illumination outside was starlight, but it was stronger than you’d expect.  Around the edge of the blinds it was painting a strip of bright white across Roy’s face where he was situated halfway down Ed’s body, one gorgeous arm raised to hold that fucking hand over his mouth; one stretched the other way and flirting with his aching erection.  The blankets were sliding down off of his shoulders, and the cold air was pouring in to bathe Ed’s chest, and the contrast with the nest of warmth below his waist was killing him.  “Thin walls,” Roy murmured.  “What would Al say?”

Ed wanted to say Probably that he’s really fuckin’ glad he gave me the Talk so early, but the point of this game was not saying anything, which… fuck.

Maybe Roy could tell he was trying to play by the rules, or maybe it was just impatience, but right then a very familiar set of fingers wrapped slowly and tightly around the base of his cock, and Ed’s eyes just about rolled back into his head.  He dug both hands into the sheets and clenched them as tight as he could; if he started flailing, he was liable to put an elbow in Roy’s eye socket, and that would probably spell an untimely end to this beautiful torment.

He swallowed down another noise—he didn’t even know what it would’ve manifested as; some of the shit that came out of his mouth when his blood was running this hot freaked him out, honestly—and jimmied his hips against Roy’s hand, trying to get some fucking motion.

Roy leaned down to kiss at his collarbones again, and Ed’s chest was heaving against his.  When Roy made a low sound that rumbled deep from his diaphragm, it rattled right through both of them, and God

Slowly, slowly, agonizingly slowly, Roy started to pump his hand faster—holy fuck, with a little bit of spit or lube or something, this would have been perfect; he would have been gone—he’d transcend this corporeal existence and dissolve up into a higher plane—and even now, the slightly-too-harsh friction of it was a magnet for every last fragment of heat in his whole body, for every spark in his guts and every tingle that his nerves could muster—

Roy was mouthing at his collarbones like they were worthy of worship, and Ed’s breath kept coming hard and fast against that heavy palm; it was too damn warm in here, too damn warm where Roy’s skin slithered over his; too cold where they were two beings separated, not one aligned by purpose and desire—

And then Roy was climbing halfway off the bed—what the actual f…

…so that he could keep his hand pressed over Ed’s mouth and simultaneously reach to take Ed’s dick down into his own—all the fucking way to his fucking throat without any more warning than the whisper of the sheets and the creak of the mattress as he moved—

And the noise in Ed’s throat didn’t quite sound like a scream and didn’t quite sound like a sob, but fuck if it wasn’t pretty close to both.

He was pressing his own lips together tightly now, and he’d tried, honestly, but he couldn’t stop his hips from jerking, and Roy’s other hand was fastened to his thigh to hold him more or less in place, and the man could do things with his tongue that ought to be illegal, and how the fuck could he already know exactly how much suction made Ed’s blood boil in the best and worst and greatest fucking way?

Ed’s brain was already whiting out, and there was a supernova in his chest, and Roy just kept on stoking at the fire in the pit of his stomach with that goddamn fucking incredible mouth, and—


Maybe he kind of screeched a little when he came.

Nobody could prove a fucking thing.

Holy fuck (pretty much literally, given that Roy was a fucking sex god), he hoped Al wasn’t next door with the pillow held over his head, determinedly thinking pure thoughts about cats and sunflowers and all that shit.

Fortunately, the glorious beauty of orgasm-haze made it tricky to hold onto negative thoughts, and that one slipped through his fingers and disappeared.  Roy—licking his lips suggestively all the fucking way, the bastard—finally withdrew his hand from over Ed’s mouth, the better to fix his boxers for him, crawl back up the bed, and settle beside him again, one arm slung over Ed’s chest.  He nudged his nose at Ed’s cheek.

Oh, God, that was a nuzzle.  They’d moved on to nuzzling.  Ed’s life was over; his street cred was a thing of the fucking past.

But—y’know.  Orgasm-haze.  He didn’t really miss it, and the soft-light kisses Roy kept ghosting over the line of his jaw could make up for a hell of a lot more than that.

“Feeling a little better?” Roy asked.

“How,” Ed said, albeit perhaps with more sort of rasping and heavy breathing than actual speech.  “How… are you… fucking possible.”

Roy smoothed his bangs back from his forehead so gently that that shouldn’t have been possible either.  “I’ve been rather profoundly inspired of late.”

Barf.  “You know they can arrest you for too much fucking cuteness, right?”

“Not in this state, they can’t,” Roy said, grinning at him.

Lawyers, man.

Ed rolled partway over and buried his face in Roy’s chest.  “Gimme a second to find all my cartilage, and I’ll return the favor.”

Roy finger-combed slowly through the tangles in his hair.  “You don’t have to do that.  All I wanted was to help you relax, and I seem to have been successful.”

Ed ground his forehead against Roy’s collarbones a little bit.  “Yeah, but…”

“But what?” Roy asked softly, kissing the top of his head.  “I’m not keeping a tally, Ed.  I promise.  I just wanted to help you get to sleep.”

The head-scratching alone probably could have accomplished that, but Ed wasn’t about to admit to that—firstly because it made him sound like a fucking cat; and secondly because he wasn’t about to pass up stellar blowjobs just because they weren’t necessary.

“Okay,” he said, and he could almost mean it—could almost believe that Roy believed that people didn’t always keep score.  He tried to retract a little from the snuggle nest, but it was tough going.  “Did you wanna brush your teeth, or…?”

It was the sort of thing Roy usually felt strongly about, but he made a noncommittal noise.  “At risk of oral sex-induced cavities, I… really don’t want to get up.”

Ed wriggled in a tiny bit closer still.  “Don’t blame you.”

Roy drew back just far enough to kiss the tip of his nose, which he wrinkled in protest, which made Roy laugh softly, and…

God.  Christmas hadn’t felt like Christmas since he was nine years old, but this felt so good he barely missed the magic.

Roy hopped out of bed at seven thirty the next morning, because Roy was a raving madman who did not understand the importance of sleeping the fuck in on the rare occasion that you had a holiday at your disposal.

He seemed to regret the hopping, though, presumably because the floor was fucking freezing—always had been—and then he went over and practically dove into his Harvard hoodie, which was… adorable.  There wasn’t any other word for it; when he pulled the hood down, it’d fluffed up his hair, and his eyes were still all hazy and smudgy from sleep, and he curled his toes on the cold floorboards and shoved his hands into the pocket, and the whole thing was fucking cute.

“I’m going to go make breakfast,” he said.

“Rad,” Ed said.  “I’m going back to sleep.”

Roy ice-foot-tiptoed over and kissed his forehead, which was smooshy-gross and totally great.  “As long as you like.  I’ll keep some warm for you.  I just wanted to do something nice for your grandmother to thank her.”

Ed sensed another long series of Definitely keep this one elbow-nudges and slow winks from Pinako in his future.  “Nngh.  ’Kay.”

He held out a full six minutes—which he felt was fairly admirable—before the guilt overcame him, and he hauled his weary ass out of the bed, and then to the bathroom, and then downstairs to go help Roy.

“I thought you were going to get some sleep,” Roy said.

“And let you come down here and impress my family without me?” Ed managed through the rather obfuscating grogginess.  “Nice try, Mustang.  What can I help with?”

He was on batter-mixing duty first, followed by fruit-slicing, and then he heard a familiar set of claws clicking on the hardwood, and he wiped the juice off his hands to crouch down and rub at Den’s head, paying special attention to that one spot behind her ears that she just freakin’ loved.

“Hey, dog,” he said.

Roy knelt down beside him, and Den instantly started licking at Roy’s hands.  Ed sympathized; they were awfully nice specimens.  “Can she have bacon?” Roy asked.

Ed scratched under her chin.  “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

Roy grinned.  Den’s tongue lolled.  She wasn’t used to concentrated attention from people she didn’t normally get to see.  “Let me rephrase that—is your grandmother likely to know and/or be irritated if I sneak her some?”

The back door creaked shut.  Granny’d probably been up for ages, out there feeding chickens and crap.  Ed didn’t know how she’d been doing it this long; a couple short years of burning his candle in three or four places, and he already wanted to hibernate for a century or so.

“She’s an old dog,” Granny said.  “Genuine pleasures in life are few and far between and hard to come by.  In plainer terms, I don’t give a damn what you feed her as long as it’s not chocolate.  Or grapes.”

“That we can do,” Roy said, standing up—his knees cracked, speaking of old things—and washing his hands before he snatched a half-piece of bacon out of the frying pan and held it out to Den.

They were totally her favorite people on the planet today.  Winry was gonna be pissed.

“Good Lord,” Pinako said, coming into the kitchen proper.  “Ed, you mind telling me how exactly the likes of you found someone who got raised a gentleman?”

Ed scowled.

“I’m not sure about that,” Roy said.  “I tend to think that etiquette is far less important than a commitment to improving the world one day at a time, and I’ve never met anyone more dedicated to the human condition than Edward.”

Again with the full-name thing.  So now Ed was scowling and also sort of weak in the knees.

Pinako rolled her eyes.  “All right, all right, young love, blah-de-blah.  Trust me, I’ve seen it all before.”  She shot Ed a grin.  “And I’m glad certain sluggers kept swinging even after they’d struck out bad a couple times.”

There was a batting for the other team joke here that Ed was definitely not going to make.

Pinako waved a hand.  “I’ll go wake Snoozing Beauty.  And my granddaughter, too.  Put a waffle aside for me?”

“Of course,” Roy said, the smooth bastard.

Den was looking at him like he was the moon and the stars and the source of all amazement, though, and something deep in Ed’s chest was reluctant to disagree.

This holiday-season-with-a-significant-other thing was fucking bizarre.

It wasn’t that holidays hadn’t overlapped with some of the others, but they hadn’t done any of the usual holiday crap together, was all.  Ling had flown home over the school break, and the time zones were kind of a bitch, so other than some salacious emails typed one-handed in the middle of the night, it was pretty much like any other normal Christmas from the days of singledom past.  Greg had showered him with gifts in private and then fucked off to some family reunion in Hawaii, the duration of which he spent texting Ed about how much he hated the family in question and how horny he was, which was only amusing insofar as the way his grasp of spelling and grammar devolved into nonsense as he got progressively drunker on hotel cocktails.  Soph had… fallen neatly into the long arid stretch between March and June, and he’d sort of turned his nose up at Saint Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo for being arbitrary pressure valves for a culture bleached of all inherent meaning, which Ed was reasonably sure was his way of saying he thought they were stupid and insignificant.

And Ed didn’t want to think about—that.  Him.  The way the heat closed in with clammy fingers, how the humidity clawed down his throat while his heart stuck in the bottom, beating hard so that he couldn’t choke in any oxygen; the sick-hot way the bile seeped up around it, and curling up with his face in his knees and trying to breathe just helped suffocate him in his own body heat, and half the time he couldn’t tell if the wet prickles were sweat or fucking tears, and…

And he wasn’t going there.  Not now.

Not while he was at the Hugheses’ for the first New Year’s party he’d ever been to that didn’t just involve drunk kids in an apartment watching bad TV.

It was just—weird.  It was weird that Roy was wrapping him right into old traditions—and Al and Winry, too, whenever they wanted; they seemed to be welcome everywhere.  It was weird that Roy just seemed to want Ed to leave his fingerprints on everything that had once belonged to Roy alone.

And it was weirder still how easy it was to run his hands across the contours of Roy’s life and… cherish it.

It was weird that nothing had gone wrong.

…yet, that was.  Nothing had gone wrong yet.

He knew better than to expect much more than that.

But there was a second—right at twelve o’clock, with Roy’s hands in his hair and Roy’s mouth over his, with champagne bubbles on the back of his tongue and a stupid pair of novelty glasses pushed up on his head, with the joy inside him searing-bright and inescapable—where he didn’t know anything at all.

Two weeks later, when they were lying on Roy’s bed lolling around in the sunbeams after some mind-blowing morning sex, Roy pushed Ed’s bangs off of his forehead and kissed slowly all the way along his hairline, which was disgusting.  So disgusting that Ed was paralyzed with disgust and couldn’t bring himself to move disgustedly away.  Horrifyingly gross.  It was incredible.

“Al told me that your birthday is the third,” Roy said, and Ed’s blood thickened into pulp in his veins, and he was a coagulated monster, and he froze for real this time.  “He alluded to why you don’t celebrate it.  I just wanted to be sure.  I don’t… I mean, I respect that, and I’m more than happy to treat it any way you like, but… I wouldn’t begrudge a chance to celebrate you for everything you are.”

“Barf,” Ed croaked out.  “Greeting card.”

“Guilty as charged,” Roy said.  “And—Edward—” Damn it.  That was such a fucking silver bullet it wasn’t even funny anymore.  “—your birthday is your day, and I will happily accept whatever way you prefer to observe that—including by not observing it at all—but I just thought… it might be best to give you a chance to change your mind.  Even if it’s just—you know, a nice dinner; just you, and me, and your brother and Winry, if you wanted.  Maybe a movie here after.”

Ed was looking intently at the ceiling, but he could feel Roy’s eyes raking over his face, trying to find a trace of a hint in all the stillness.  Ed’s heart was still banging in his ears so loud Roy should’ve been able to hear it and know from that.

“I’m sorry,” Roy said softly then, and he meant it; you could hear it in every syllable.  “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot; I just didn’t… I didn’t want there to be any chance of you winding up disappointed if I didn’t ask at all.”  His fingertips pushed the little wispy hairs back off of Ed’s forehead—carefully, so carefully, he was always so…

“It’s nice of you to ask,” Ed dredged up from the quagmire in his chest.  It sort of stuck and wobbled a little in his mouth; goo-words would do that for you.  He tried to clear his throat.  “It’s—just—we could tell.  Over Christmas that year.  We could tell she was feeling bad and trying to put on a brave face, but we all sort of—pretended.  Because it was obvious that was what she wanted.  But she kept getting worse, and I remember, I remember being about to turn ten, I remember sitting in the kitchen with some kid-homework thinking about whether I should ask her to help me make cookies to bring in to class for my birthday, even though I didn’t really like most of the people I went to school with, and for a second when she didn’t think I was watching, she stopped and leaned against the counter and let it show, and—her hands were shaking so hard I couldn’t believe she’d been holding shit a second ago, and—her face, just—”

He laid his right forearm over his eyes.  Not because he was going to cry or some shit; this was old pain, dull-edged pain; this was a reality in the core of him, and it hurt, but it was a baseline-hurt.  It was a hurt that was a fact of his existence and had been for fifteen years running, and it didn’t draw tears anymore.  He was too used to it for that.

More because he didn’t want to see what Roy’s expression looked like just now.  And because he was tired—he was so fucking tired.  His life was supposed to be all fresh and new and barely-starting and bursting with opportunities and shit, and all he wanted was some rest.

“Anyway, she… I mean, she went in to the doctor that week, but she must’ve been trying not to ruin my birthday, because she didn’t tell us until the week after that, and—I mean, it’s weird, you know, you think… Kids don’t understand that shit.  Kids don’t get mortality.  But we did.  Because kids sense stuff.  They pick stuff up; they absorb shit constantly, and they internalize it.  So the fact that she was dying wasn’t really new.  We knew that, at some level, anyway.  Deep down.  It just had a name now.  And all of a sudden our Mom had a fucking expiration date like a carton of fucking milk, and—and even that wasn’t real, wasn’t good enough, was all these—maybes and other people with this disease and… I mean, my mom was a fighter, but she was rational, too.  I think the math itself is from my dad, but the logic came from her.  ’Specially ’cause my dad’s such a deadbeat fuckoff good-for-nothing and all that shit, but… anyway.  She was smart.  She was practical.  And I think all three of us knew right off the bat that she was sure as hell going to try to stay as long as she could, but she didn’t think for a minute that she could beat statistics.  And…”

By May she was shriveling in the hospital, and then we fucking blinked, and she was gone.

“…that’s… what February… is, to me, I guess.  And—I mean, I dunno.  Probably she wouldn’t want me to—I guess—‘waste’ my birthday or whatever shit, but—I always—feel—like—if I try to ignore it and pretend like I’m happy or whatever shit, that’s a disservice to her, too, you know?”

“I know,” Roy said, so, so softly, and Ed remembered the dog tags coiled up on the nightstand by the clock.

Ed tilted his head further back into the blankets they’d kicked around into a disordered pile, shifting his arm away and daring a glance.  “But, like—you’re lying if you say Valentine’s Day isn’t your favorite holiday.  You’re lying.  I know you better than that by now.”

“There is a distinct possibility that I enjoy that particular Hallmark ploy in spite of its many flaws,” Roy said with a slow slant of a grin.

Ed reached over and slung an arm around his neck, wriggling in against his body, which was warm and gorgeous and so familiar now it was surreal to think they’d once been strangers—that there’d been a time, just four months back, when he’d never known the smell of Roy’s skin.

“Plus, like,” he said, “she’d… want me to be happy.  Right?  She would.”

“From the way everyone who knew her speaks about her,” Roy said, smoothing Ed’s hair back and then drawing winding little trails down his side with one fingertip, “I can’t imagine anything else.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  The light touch started to tickle a little when it passed his ribs, and he started to writhe.  “Roy.”

“Sorry,” Roy said, beaming but sincere, and wrapped the whole hand around Ed’s hip instead.  “Can I make it up to you with food?”

Ed felt a little bit of the tension seep right the fuck out of his shoulders as he rolled his eyes.  “Why’d you say that as a question?”

Chapter Text

It’s probably a good thing he’s so damn tired, because it’s preventing his brain from trying to process multiple things at once.  When he’s on the panel thing about the future of science at the conference at Imperial College, London (everything is London College and College London; he needs a separate frigging guidebook just for the universities in this city) at four that afternoon, for instance, he doesn’t have enough spare mental energy to be thinking about the lunch he had with goddamn fucking Hohenheim a couple hours ago.  Once he focuses on what’s being said—especially given the variety of accents around him, which forces him to listen extra-close—that’s the only thing whirring around like one of those little robotic helicopters in his head.

It’s sort of nice—the panel.  Less formal than the usual Hi I’m here to point at a screen and tell you all how smart I think I am shit, and more interesting because there’s more debate involved.  One of the guys here thinks pharma is going to take over the world, so Ed and this chick with curly hair and really angular glasses pretty much double-team him mercilessly, and generally it’s pretty great fun.

As it winds down, though, and then finishes, the announcer thanks them all, and then the whole group is sort of filtering out the door, and there’s more hand-shaking, and that’s not enough intellectual stimulation to keep the other thoughts at bay.

Hohenheim wants to meet up with him again on Saturday.  Ed didn’t know what to do faced with the sudden fucking question—he froze up and failed at excuses and gave the bastard his fucking phone number, like a fucking idiot, and now—

He’s so fucking stupid.  He’s so fucking stupid for doing this to himself.  The only thing that’s gotten him through all the intervening years has been slamming the fucking door on that whole part of his life and refusing to give a shit about that deadbeat bastard and his stupid didn’t-need-them existence.

Too late.  He panicked and reacted, and now he has to cope with the consequences.

“It was really lovely to meet you,” the woman he kept siding with during the panel is saying, apparently to him, as they meander out of the lecture hall.  “I’d heard a lot.”

“About what an asshole I am?” Ed asks, forcing a grin to make sure she knows he’s mostly-joking.  “Or about how fast I talk when I get excited?”

She raises an eyebrow and smiles thinly.  “Bit more about the Nobel Prize research, but the enthusiasm may’ve come up, now that you mention it.”

He likes her even more now.

“Here,” she says, and she hands him her card, which is kind of cool, because so many people are over the whole paper business card thing, but he’s always had a soft spot for them.  Well—not always-always.  Just always-since-Roy.  “Let me know if you’d ever like to talk gene banks, yeah?”

“Damn right I will,” he says, and then somehow they all end up going to dinner, and the pharma-for-the-win guy is slightly less of a douche outside of an auditorium but still seems to think he’s hotter shit than the surface of Venus, and…

And somehow it’s almost ten by the time Ed’s on the hollow-rattling Tube train home.

It’s also the first time he’s been alone in hours, and he’s just… wiped.  Wiped out, wiped clean, scrubbed through, and what’s left over feels wobbly and weak.

He takes out his phone and summons his precious international roaming so that he can send a text to Al and Roy:

Can you guys both be on skype in like half an hour? <3

That’s, what, two thirty in the afternoon over there?  And it’s Thursday, so—Roy’s at work, obviously, but Riza will probably look the other way just this once; and Al only teaches in the mornings, right?

Must be right on both counts, because Al texts back Sure thing!, and Roy texts back Of course. <3

Ed sags back against the crappy seat and watches the end-of-the-car door from his car and the one ahead jitter around so that the little windows almost overlap.  There’s a really dumb shampoo pitch on the strip of cardboard advertisements in the slot above the seats.

Has it really been less than twenty-four hours since he had Roy’s gorgeous face across his laptop screen?  Has it really been half of that since he pulled out that picture to show Hohenheim?  Al’s absence beats in his blood constantly, but he had to make his peace with that when they were undergrads—when there were some hundred miles between them for weeks at a time; when he’d have to hold whole imaginary conversations in his head because he just couldn’t do it alone.  He’s used to that.  It doesn’t even hurt anymore.

Roy’s still new, in the scheme of his life.  Roy hasn’t scabbed and scarred over.  Missing Roy—missing Roy now, when he’s freaked out and lonely and anxious as shit and surrounded by strangers and fumbling to keep track of himself—that hurts like hell.  Roy’d be grounding him through all of this.  Roy’d be making him make sense.

He scrubs both hands down his face and then regrets it, because he’s touched both the seats and the steel bars, which must be swarming with bacteria and shit.

If he doesn’t die of E. coli before he gets back to the hotel, though, it’s time to suck it the fuck up.  He’s thirty goddamn years old, and he’s only here in the first place because he won the most prestigious award possible for achievements in the fucking sciences.  He can handle a week on his own damn terms, whether or not his fucking piece of shit dad shows up to every single talk and needles him about their nonexistent past.  He has built himself a seriously great fucking life in spite of all his faults and all his failures.  He proved—to Hohenheim, to the universe, to the rich kids licking all the cream off of their silver spoons, to everybody who shook their heads, to everyone who doubted, to himself—that it’s fucking possible.  He made it happen.  And everything he’s fought to get and have and be proud of is still gonna be there when he gets home.  All he has to do is hold his shit together until then.  That’s not so bad.

He takes a couple more deep breaths, and then they’re chugging to a stop, and the labels on the curved tile walls say Westminster.

He hauls himself out of the seat, shoulders on his laptop bag, regrets it, shoulders it onto the other shoulder, steadies himself against one of those godforsaken poles, and climbs out of the car.  Then he hauls himself up about ten-thousand-forty-five-hundred stairs, slogs across the bridge with a thousand lights wavering on the water below, and then—wonder of wonders; maybe there is a charitable higher power up there—he can actually see the walls of the hotel.

Eight minutes and a crotchety elevator later, he’s collapsing on his bed.  Then he’s gritting his teeth, cursing under his breath, and un-collapsing long enough to stretch over to the nightstand and plug in his laptop’s power cord.

Fucking finally, he flips the lid of his laptop open and taps at the Enter key to wake up the screen.  This rising-bubble-of-heat feeling in his chest—this is what all those old-ass fucking poets called yearning, isn’t it?  He fucking yearns to see the two most important people in his entire life right now, even if there’s a little five-thousand-mile stretch of dirt and ocean that’s technically in the way.

Roy’s already online when he signs in, and the video chat request pops up almost before Ed’s started to grin.

It’s good that Ed already knows for a fact that there’s a Himalayas-sized range of paperwork on the table behind Roy’s desk, and that it’s not just his eyes blurring everything around the man’s face into an fuzzy pale haze.  Roy’s wearing a white shirt and a red tie and about the softest smile that Ed has ever seen.  The sunlight slanting in puts a gleam in his hair, and Ed doesn’t care what anybody says; the lengthening slivers of white at his temples are damn sexy, make no mistake.

“Hello, gorgeous,” Roy says.

If an American Nobel laureate’s heart explodes in a British hotel room, does it turn into an international incident right off the bat?

“Hey,” Ed says.

He can’t help himself—he reaches out and holds his palm towards the screen, as close as he can get without it slipping under the camera’s line of sight.

Most people would probably call him cheesy or stupid or lame—or skip words completely and just roll their eyes.

Instantly Roy spreads his hand and flattens it so that it overlaps with Ed’s there on the screen.

Fuck.  Sappy is contagious.  Is this shit terminal?  He’s doomed.

“Did Al say he could make it?” Roy asks.

Right on cue, Al’s avatar pops up, and Ed has to drop his hand to go invite him, but—well, probably it’s just his damn imagination and the little LCDs, but he could swear his palm was warmer for a second there.

“Hi, Brother!” Al says, delighted at first, and then— “Whoa.  That’s not just normal tiredness, Brother—what happened?  Are you okay?”

Maybe the universe doesn’t hate Ed quite as much as he’s always thought.  That, or miracles can happen.  It’s got to be something actively benevolent, because it’s just too perfectly convenient—the fact that someone as feelings-challenged and fucked up and inarticulate as Ed somehow lucked into two of the warmest and most emotionally intuitive people on the whole fucking planet Earth.

He draws a breath.

“I ran into Hohenheim,” he says.


Al’s eyes are huge.  He licks his lips, and his eyes dart sideways, and then he says, “Dad?”

Ed swallows He doesn’t deserve that word, and you know it, Al, because life’s too short to fight about the same damn shit.  “Yeah.  He’s teaching at Oxford, but he came down for my lecture today.  Here, look.”  His phone’s on the nightstand; he choked his pride down for long enough this morning to snap a shot of fucking Hohenheim adjusting his glasses with a sheepish little photo-smile.  He flicks over to it and holds it out to the laptop camera so Al can see.  “He had to go back because he’s got advising stuff tomorrow, but he wants to do shit this weekend, I guess.”

Al’s still watching his phone as he draws it away.  Roy’s just—watching.  He’s got his fingers knitted together like he does sometimes when he’s thinking hard, elbows on the table, head down so that his folded hands are covering his mouth.

“Ed,” Al says, slowly, with a sort of delicacy to his voice, “you don’t have to spend time with him.”

Ed must have some London fog in his ears.  “…what?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Al says.  “I mean… I know how you feel about him.  And that’s okay—that’s all okay; everything you feel is completely valid, and… if you don’t want to see him, don’t.  Don’t do it on my behalf—it doesn’t matter what I’d want to do; I’m not there.  This isn’t my trip, and your life’s not mine, and that’s okay.  You don’t have to pretend to like him because of me.  If it’s bothering you—and it is; I can tell, so don’t try lying—then just… don’t.”

This time Ed’s voice is so weak he can’t even count it as a question.  “…what.”

“You don’t owe him forgiveness,” Al says.  “You don’t even really owe him basic civil courtesy, although I guess that’s probably a good idea in any case so that you don’t get arrested and deported if things start to escalate, but—you’re right.  Did I ever tell you that?  You’re right about him.  He left us, and that was extremely hurtful to us—to you especially; I’m not sure if that’s more just because of who we are, or if it has something to do with our ages and where we were developmentally—and you are well within your rights to tell him to go screw himself and still count yourself a perfectly decent human being.  You don’t have to be nice to him, Brother.  You don’t have to look at him ever again, if you don’t want to.  He gave up all his rights to get to know you when he deliberately walked out of your life; you’re under no obligation to let him back in.”

Ed can hear the blood beating through his ears.  Ears are really fucking weird if you think about it; they’re so fragile and so delicate and so important to so many seemingly-unconnected things—like balance.

The tide of the rush in his ears is overpowering that balance with a hellish fury right now; he might as well be weightless and drifting right the fuck off of this bed—

“Well—” he hears his voice attempt, slightly hoarsely; and then “But—”

“Brother,” Al says, “you’ve sacrificed a lot of precious time in your life hating him for not being there.  But even if he’d given us something—even if he’d helped at all—you wouldn’t have to pay him back.  You’re your own person now.  That’s the beautiful thing.  You never needed him.  I think that’s why you hate him, or part of it—you had to work so hard to get by, and he could have made it easier, but… you got by anyway, Ed.  You’re twice the man he’ll ever be for loving without compromise, so who the heck cares what he thinks of you?  If you want to see him, and maybe talk to him, and maybe give him a chance to try to patch things up, then—fine.  And if you don’t, I don’t blame you.  No one should.  Please don’t let the idea of him do any more damage to you; he’s done enough.  He doesn’t ‘deserve’ another opportunity to leave you feeling worthless.  You’re not, Ed.  You’re the most amazing person I know.”

It’s been a long, long, seriously fucked up day, and Ed may be crying a little bit.


A little.

Just, like, three tears.  Sum total.  Three.

“Oh, Brother,” Al says as Ed tilts his head up in an attempt to make gravity put those goddamn piece of shit traitor eye secretions back where they belong.  “Sometimes you’re so cute I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I second that,” Roy says softly.

“Fuck the both of you,” Ed says, straining to reach the nightstand and grab a fucking tissue without tipping his laptop off of the bed.

“Perhaps not at once,” Roy says, and Al makes a face, and Ed manages sort of a wet half-laugh-ish monstrosity of a noise, and at least that helps a little.

“The thing is,” Al says, “I can love him for being our flesh and blood while still acknowledging that he was a terrible father to us and a terrible spouse to Mom.  Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive in my head.  But you have every last reason to stay the heck away from him if that’s what’s healthiest for you, Ed.  That’s the whole point—as our father, what he should’ve done is taught us who we are, what’s good for us, how to live, you know.  But we taught ourselves.  And you know better than anyone who you are and what works for you, so if that’s not him, then… screw him.  Tell him to go screw himself.  You don’t have to do the ‘right’ thing by other people’s standards.  He certainly didn’t.  And you don’t have to do it because you think it’d make me happy, Brother.  You make me happy.  The life you helped me to create for myself does.  You and I don’t need him, so don’t play nice at your own expense, Ed.  Okay?”

“Yeah,” Ed says with as much of his voice as he can muster.  “Yeah, okay.”

“Oh,” Al says.  “Oh, gosh.  This is going to be simultaneously the best and worst segue of my life.  Oh… gosh.  Um.”  He looks so damned delighted that Ed’s tear ducts screech to a screaming halt and instantaneously cease all saline production.  Al is actually holding his hands over his mouth, which is doing nothing to hide his grin.  “I wanted to tell you both in person, but—well—I also wanted you to be the first to know, so—really, this is kind of perfect, I guess.”

Ed looks over at the little square of Roy’s screen at the same time that Roy looks over at him.

“You two are disgusting, by the way,” Al says.

“Says the one exploding with rainbows all of a sudden,” Ed says.  “So what the fuck is it?”

Al’s beaming fit to break his face in half, which would be an insupportable tragedy given the wonders of the face in question.  “Guess!”

“You’re getting another cat,” Ed says.

The grin vanishes immediately into a pit of sardonic non-amusement.  “No.”

“You’re getting two cats,” Roy says.

Al rolls his eyes.

“Okay,” Ed says.  “I’m out of ideas.”

“Maybe it’s a dog,” Roy says.  “Are you getting a dog?”

“Don’t you dare get a dog,” Ed says.  “Roy’ll think he’s allowed to have one.  Shit, Al; did you get a dog?  Fuck.  Not a word out of your goddamn mouth, Mustang.”

Roy mimes zipping his lips.  Then he mimes stroking a fuzzy animal with an expression of pure bliss.  Ed glares.

“Holy moly,” Al says.  “No, it’s not a dog.  And you’re terrible guessers.”

“I have a suspicion,” Roy says, “but I’ve been forbidden to speak.”

“And not a moment too fucking soon,” Ed says.  “C’mon, Al, just tell me.”

“Gosh,” Al says.  “Okay, okay… um.”  His face lights up like ten-thousand five-hundred-watt bulbs all over again—like Times Square on fucking New Year’s, like a fucking solar flare—and he slowly lowers his hands, twisting them around each other all the while.  “Just—well—Winry’s pregnant!”

The hands go right back over his mouth, which just makes his eyes look all the brighter.

“Holy crap!” Ed says before he can stop himself; it feels like a cannonball coming up his throat.  “Al—are you serious?  For real?  Already?  Damn, we’ve got good genes.”

“Oh, my gosh, Brother,” Al says.

“Well, come on,” Ed says.  “I have to think about this from an evolutionary and anatomical perspective, ’cause otherwise I’ll think about my baby brother and my best friend gettin’ it on during their honeymoon and shit, and then I’ll lose my fucking mind.”

Al is covering his whole face with his hands this time.  “Brother, you are so lame.  So lame.  Lamer than lame.”

“What Ed is trying to say,” Roy cuts in smoothly, “is congratulations to you both, Alphonse.  That’s wonderful news; we’re so happy for you.”

Ed grins.  “Well, duh.”

Al sniffs, but you can tell he’s trying not to laugh.  “Thank you, Roy.  The rest of us greatly appreciate all of your ultimately futile efforts to civilize my brother.”

“Excuse you,” Ed says.

“‘Civilize’ is a bit harsh,” Roy says.  “I think I may have succeeded at domestication.”

“Good luck getting laid ever again,” Ed says.

Now who has to think about their brother getting it on?” Al asks.

“You don’t,” Ed says.  “Because it’s never happening again.”  He jerks his thumb towards Roy’s screen.  “At least not with this asshole.”

This time Roy mimes getting some kind of sharp object through the heart.  He even goes to the trouble of pretending to fall out of his chair, which is some pretty good commitment, Ed has to admit.

“Oh, dear,” Al says.  “We were going to ask both of you to be the godfathers, but I’m afraid that will be a bit difficult if Roy’s dead.”

That—can’t be right.  That’s too out-there.  Al’s just—trying to make him cry again.  Does not compute; can’t be possible.

Roy sits up in a hurry.  “Alphonse, are you serious?”

“Of course,” Al says.  “I mean, it’s a little… I don’t know, archaic?  And we’re not especially religious, obviously, but—it seems like such a nice thing.  And this family is so small as it is, we thought maybe this would knit us even closer.”

“Jesus,” Ed says.  “Al—”

Nope.  No more crying today.  Not even if his brother is perfect and beautiful and amazing and loving and sweet and is going to be such an amazing fucking dad that he’ll reset the balance their shitty-ass excuse for a father tipped to shit and then some—

He takes a breath, and another breath, and then smiles.  “You’re okay, though?  You and Win are both okay?  She’s all healthy and stuff?”

“And stuff,” Al says, grinning back.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can tell that Roy’s watching him like there’s something he wants to say, but wild horses couldn’t drag it the fuck out of him, so Ed’s just going to have to wait it out.

And that’s okay, really.  Everything’s okay, because Al’s happy, in spite of all the shit they went through, in the wake of everything they’ve done, and they have awesome lives, and Al’s going to have a little family, and his and Winry’s perfect-evil kid is going to have disassembled all of their kitchen appliances by the age of four, and not even the prospect of Hohenheim having Ed’s fucking phone number can dampen that.

“This is nice,” Al said as they settled into their posh-ass table at the posh-ass restaurant that probably had posh-ass designs on Ed just for not being half posh-assed enough to be here.  “It’s nice to take a break.”  He turned to Ed with his single most innocent angel-face on.  “Do you know what a ‘break’ is, Brother?  You see, for ordinary people, when they work like mad during ninety percent of their waking hours—”

“I know what ‘break’ means,” Ed said.  “It’s what I’m gonna do to your face in a second if you keep makin’ fun of me on my birthday.”

Al pouted and went to take a sip of water, which was right when Winry very airily said, “I guess we should probably leave it up to Roy to dole out the customary birthday spankings.”

And then Al spat water all over the table and Roy’s shirt.

Ed wasn’t sure what to be more mortified about, although Al looked like he’d picked in a hurry, and his eyes were making their bread plates look friggin’ tiny.

“I’m so sorry—” he gasped out around the hand he’d pressed over his mouth.

Roy was wearing his trying-not-to-laugh-his-ass-off face—which Al might’ve understandably been mistaking for impending rage, since the differences were actually kinda subtle, all told.  It gave way to a slightly helpless grin, though, as Roy started dabbing gingerly with his napkin at the spray across his face.  “It’s really all right.”

“It’s not,” Al said in a hushed voice.  “They’re going to kick us out.  Aren’t they?  They are.”

“Let ’em try,” Winry said, twirling her knife with a sunny grin.

“Our money spends whether or not it’s damp,” Roy said.  “Besides, now I’ve been decorated with saliva by multiple members of the highly-esteemed Elric family.  I feel honored, to tell the truth.”

Al made a choking noise.  Ed realized that he had both of his hands over his mouth and slowly lowered them.  He could feel that his face was an unprecedented shade—stoplight-, sunburst-, cherry-cough-drop-red.  Infrared, radiating heat, vibrating out of the visible spectrum.  He tried to clear his throat and… failed.

With typical demoniac cheer, Winry reached over and patted Roy’s plate dry with her napkin, then applied it to the task of mopping at the table.  “Yeah,” she said, “if being in business has taught me anything, it’s that money is power, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably has money.”

“Well-put,” Roy said.  He ran a hand through his hair, which he’d slicked back, which… was putting Ed in the uncomfortable position of wanting to jump him in the middle of the restaurant and also sort of being terrified that someone else was going to try it while he had his back turned.  There were little tiny half-curl parts coming free along the hairline—Ed hadn’t even known those existed; they always got folded into the general fluff under his bangs when he wore it down.  It changed the shape of his face just slightly—changed the angles, changed him from a ten-out-of-ten to an eleven-and-a-half-oh-God, and it wasn’t like Ed wasn’t already having trouble sitting here without breaking into a panicked fucking sweat.  “How is work, by the way?  It sounded over Christmas like you were ready to be done with the whole thing.”

“Yeah,” Winry said.  “I think I’m gonna start my own business.  These guys—their priorities are all wrong.  Also, they’re crap at their jobs.  So I figure I’ll probably do better on my own, really.”

Things had always been simple like that for Winry.  A plus B equals C, so I am going to do D, and there is no question of whether D is feasible or not: I cordially invite the universe to try to stop me.

Funny thing was, Ed’s strategy tended to be similar right up until the last part.  The universe just didn’t seem to hate Win as much as it hated Ed.  But then, if you looked at it in an overall exchange of energy sort of way, he deserved it.  He had debts to pay.  Karmic deficit or whatever.  So it sort of worked out.

It just sucked, was all.  For him, anyway.  He was honestly happy Winry was getting out of that stupid job; it’d been making her miserable for a while now.  Judging by Al’s little smile, he probably had something to do with her confidence in the decision to give it the boot at long last—Ed was willing to bet he’d been trying to coax her into blazing her own trail for almost as long as she’d been lamenting the one she was following.

Maybe Al’d help her, too.  He had an awful lot of experience with the biochemical and medical sides of the whole issue; maybe they could go in together, and once he finished up his degree, he could be full-time, and the two of them could be an unstoppable team in the field, and…

Ed was getting sort of ahead of himself.

But it was a nice thought, at any rate.

“…focus lately on low-cost prosthetics, too,” Winry was saying, “you know, for developing countries and stuff—I know a couple engineers who are really excited about the possibilities there—and that’s a demand without a supply.  If you play your cards right and work smart, you don’t have to make a huge profit margin on every single unit.  They just don’t understand the importance of people.”

Roy’s thin smile told a lot of stories all on its own.  “Corporations rarely do.”

Winry sighed.  “Yeah.  But the thing is—I need a place to run it out of, too, right?  Can’t have a company in your basement when you live in a tiny little loft, and Granny’s just too far away from civilization—I’m not talking crap, by the way; that’s exactly the way she puts it.  She did it on purpose because she likes it that way.  But—yeah.  You know.”  She waved her hands vaguely.  “Logistics.”

“The great inspiration-killer,” Roy said.

Winry scowled.  “Unless you’re an Elric,” she said.

“Huh?” Ed said, synchronized nicely with Al’s “Pardon?”

“You guys bulldoze logistics,” Winry said.  “And the inspiration never fades.”

Ed blinked at her.  She blinked back, then blinked at Al, who was also blinking at her.  Ed glanced at Roy, who was gazing at him adoringly, chin propped on one hand.

“Elbows off the table,” Ed said.

“It’s widely considered acceptable until the appetizer arrives,” Roy said, smile going positively placid.  What a douche.

Fortunately, a waiter appeared out of the undifferentiated mood-lighting ether around their table, bearing a basket of bread, right before Ed pushed Roy’s arm off of the tabletop himself.

As tended to be the case on the average Tuesday evening after an ungodly-morning-plus-marathon-classes-and-stint-in-lab kind of a day, Ed was teetering on the verge of starvation, so the bread took a much higher priority than Roy’s table etiquette.

“Isn’t your lease up soon?” Al asked Winry in a dangerously neutral voice.

Not on his birthday.  God, not on his birthday—he’d raised Al better than that, hadn’t he?  Sure, it was just another piece of crap day in the piece of crap year; sure, he’d never given it any fanfare before, but—come the fuck on

“Yeah,” Winry said.  “Dunno if I’ll stay.  My neighbors are a bunch of boring old people; they whine to the landlord if I make a single peep of noise after ten.”

Roy, looking disconcerted, reached out to touch Ed’s arm.  “Dear, I think I’m a boring old person.”

“S’all right,” Ed managed.  “You’re good arm candy anyway.”

Surely Al wouldn’t put Ed on the goddamn fucking spot and try to manipulate Roy into letting him move in—surely he wouldn’t risk ruining the whole dinner with the awkwardness—not on Ed’s birthday

Would he?

“I was thinking,” Al said.

Ed couldn’t stop ripping the bread into little tiny shredded pieces, staring at them as he went.  Crumbs were raining on his bread plate.  He could feel Roy’s eyes on him—querying, concerned, all that shit he couldn’t cope with; all that shit that was going to shatter the second Al tried to force his hand—

“That we could help you look for a better spot,” Al said.

…the fuck.

“I mean, we collected a lot of materials about our options last time we moved,” Al was going on, “and there were some pretty nice ones that just weren’t… secluded… enough… for what we wanted, right?  And maybe Roy could take a look at the terms of your lease this time before you get roped into anything weird—sorry, Roy; you’re part of the family now.”

“I’d be delighted,” Roy said, with another of those thousand smiles in place.

This smile was small and—not quite fragile, but… delicate, maybe.  His eyes slid over to Ed, and it broadened just a little bit, and Ed’s heart sort of did a weird flip-floppy thing.

Somehow they managed to talk about science after that, which was good—safe, as far as Ed’s brain was concerned.  He was still trying not to say anything too specific about his thesis work in public, though, because you never knew when there was a pharma R&D agent or a spy from somebody else’s lab just around the corner, listening in, and that’d be the end of it.  If someone stole this away from him, it’d get poisoned and gutted and destroyed.  Also, he’d be out of a thesis topic with four months to go, which would be sort of crappy, too.

Fortunately, when the food came, they all focused primarily on how great it was, and there was a lot of commentary on that and a lot of passing forks around and all kinds of bacterially unsound practices that Ed didn’t really mind because of whose bacteria it was.  Roy had been spot-on with this idea, as he tended to be with infuriating reliability.  It was just nice—all of them out like this, just for fun, dressing up and doing something kinda fancy-schmancy on a weeknight, shattering the monotony of the whole stupid week.  It was nice to get to see Winry and Roy sometime other than a weekend, too; it was nice feeling like this was normal.  It was nice feeling like he was normal—like he was the kind of person with the kind of life that allowed you to do normal things like go out to dinner with your boyfriend and the two most important people in the world.  It was nice just sitting there, in the posh-ass restaurant, with Al’s spit-and-water spray still drying on Roy’s shirt—not that Roy wouldn’t have looked like a million fucking bucks in a burlap sack, so that didn’t really matter, but it did sort of give the whole thing character—and forcing himself to let go of all of the other shit in his head.  For these couple hours, he could have it; somewhere down the line his brain had decided and followed through.  For these couple hours, he had his perfect brother and his best friend and his ridiculously amazing boyfriend on all the points of the compass ahead of him, and he was just going to think about extremely good steak and how weird it was that Al was obsessed with green beans and how shiny Winry’s hair was in the mood light and how damn good Roy’s mouth looked against the rim of a wineglass.

Honestly, he couldn’t have picked a better birthday present than that.

Roy dropped Winry back at her place first.  Al walked her up to the door of her complex, and Ed looked studiously away while they played tonsil hockey for, like, ten freakin’ minutes and stuff.  Roy wouldn’t stop grinning at his pain, because apparently Roy was a sadist when it came to other people’s brothers and adopted siblings having love lives together, which was exponentially—rather than additively—more awkward.

Ed supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised—only children like Roy couldn’t be expected to understand all the special kinds of agony that came of trying to let your fellow blood-babies turn into people separate from you.

Also, it wasn’t really that bad, because the most fitting revenge was to return the favor—which Ed did with gusto when Roy parked the car in front of their place.  Al muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “Quid pro quo, I see” before adding “I’ll be inside!” at a more audible volume and leaping out of the car like the backseat was a bed of fucking coals.

Eventually Ed managed to pry his face away from Roy’s and say something like “See you tomorrow,” which got a little muddled between the sleepiness and the makeout-mouth numbness, but Roy got the point.  He also brushed Ed’s hair back and smiled like it was the first time they’d ever parted lovers—like it was all still fucking brand-sparkly-new and totally blowing his mind.

“Goodnight, beautiful,” he said.  “Happy birthday.”

Ed went scarlet so fast it should’ve burned Roy’s hand.  “Eugh,” he said.  “Thanks.  I guess.  G’night.”

Roy didn’t drive away until he waved from the doorway, and that…


“Hey,” he said to Al, who had dropped onto the couch and abandoned his snappy tie.  “Thanks for… Well, I thought you were going to invite Winry to stay here and imply that Roy should let me move in so heavily that he’d agree to keep the conversation alive.”

“It wouldn’t have been right to manipulate his choices,” Al said.  “Or yours, or Winry’s, for that matter.  That’s between you and him.  I did want his advice on Winry’s situation, though; even if it’s not his specialty, he knows a heck of a lot more legalese than the rest of us, and that puts him at an advantage where binding contracts are concerned.”  He grinned up at Ed, which would’ve been a welcome change if the grin in question wasn’t slightly demonic and all.  “And I did want to plant the idea in his head.  I figure at least that makes it clear that we’re not immovably attached to this place, and that it’s something you’d be willing to talk about when you’re ready to.  You know.  Just… opening the door.”

“He’s perfectly fucking capable of opening doors,” Ed said.  “Trust me.  There’s more empirical evidence every fucking day, with all the doors he holds for people.”

“You know what I mean,” Al said, trying not to grin even wider.

“Yeah,” Ed said, collapsing onto the couch next to him, maybe a-little-bit-too-close by normal people’s standards, but when you’d grown up like they had… personal space was sort of not a thing.  “Just… I mean, I know you’re trying to help, Al, but… please just don’t… scare him away.  You know?”

“Brother,” Al said, nudging him, “I don’t think a convicted axe murderer could convince him to stop dating you.”

Ed frowned at the ceiling, and not because it was probably about to mildew on their unsuspecting asses again.  “Should I be worried that that was your first thought?”

Al laughed, although not in an especially homicidal sort of way.  “I was trying to speak in a language that you would understand.”

Ed glared at him.  “Hyperbole and melodrama and implied violence and shit is ‘a language I understand’?”

“Maybe,” Al said.

“You are such a traitor,” Ed said.

Gently, Al bumped his shoulder against Ed’s left.  “I know.  Hey, Winry and I got you something.”

“Oh, great,” Ed said.  “You’re already buying joint gifts.  Why don’t you just fucking marry her?”

“I probably will,” Al said, so calmly the world tilted wildly off its axis for a second.  “But proposing six months in is a bit hasty.  Anyway…” He fished a box out from underneath the couch, for fuck’s sake—wrapped and everything.  “Here.”

Ed eyed him suspiciously and then tore the careful wrapping into pathetic little confetti bits, prying the box open to find…

Flannel pajama bottoms with a pattern of little fish in various stages of evolving legs, and a soft oversized T-shirt with the entire phylogenetic tree of life across the front.

“We had to get them done custom, obviously,” Al said, calm as ever.  “Also, if you’re ever having trouble sleeping, the shirt glows in the dark, so at least you’ll have something to do.”

“Oh, my God,” Ed said.

“There are some wool socks at the bottom,” Al said.  “It seemed like you’ve been cold lately.”

“Oh, my God,” Ed said.

The socks had a dinosaur face design so that the wearer’s toes were the T-Rex’s mouth.

“Just remember,” Al said.  “You’re only as old as you want to be.”

“That’s bullshit,” Ed said.

“I’m trying to give you things to say to Roy on his next birthday,” Al said.  “Let’s see.  The soul and the spirit don’t age.  Life only gains value as it goes on.  Quantifying the existence of a human being is pointless and arbitrary; the only true measure of a life is in the joy it spreads to others.”

“Then I’ve got a shitty life,” Ed said.  “I suck the joy right out of people like a fucking vampire bat.”

“You do not,” Al said.

Ed leaned his head over the back of the couch to stare at the ceiling.  “Do so.  Joy mosquito.”

“Shut up, Brother,” Al said, shoulder-nudging him harder this time.  “And happy darned birthday.”

Ed slung an arm around him, and only partly to prevent any further nudging.  “Thanks, Al.”  He put his chin on Al’s shoulder, which… well, that one was mostly a nudge-block.  “I mean it.  This was nice.”

“I keep telling you,” Al said, butting his forehead against Ed’s temple a little bit.  “You deserve to be happy, you dumb butt.”

What did you just call me?” Ed said.

“I’m going to bed now,” Al said, wriggling out of his grip with a speed and dexterity that Ed kind of had to admire even if it did confirm his suspicions that Al was some part snake.  “G’night!”

“I got you something,” Roy said the moment they were done trying to eat each other’s faces in the foyer that Friday night.

“No,” Ed said.

He’d meant to say more, but… fuck, dude, kissing Roy did weird things to a man’s brain—melted it like that Day-Glo plastic-cheese they put on nachos, for a start.

Roy blinked at him, fighting down a grin.  “No?”

“Why do people keep getting me shit?” Ed asked.  There, that was marginally closer to recognizable meanings and stuff.  “I don’t need shit.  I need sleep.  Or more caffeine, I’m not sure.  Both?  Both.”

“If I had the power to add more hours to the day,” Roy said, cupping Ed’s face in a way that was highly distracting for a variety of reasons, not least because of the things it did to that lump of cardiac muscle crap in his chest, “I would already have used it to get more time with you.”

“Oh, barf,” Ed said, but hopefully Roy read the truth on the backs of his eyes.

“I’m sure your barf is cute, too,” Roy said, and kissed his forehead, and fuck Ed’s fucking life; how were you supposed to feel like this and survive?  How were you supposed to hold it in?

“Keep it up,” he choked out around the swell of it in his throat, “and you’ll get to find out.”

“Sounds good,” Roy said.  “Meanwhile—”

He led the way to the living room, where he had also gone to the completely unnecessary trouble of using overpriced wrapping supplies to conceal the identity of the thing that was a surprise anyway.  Ed glowered at him and then obliterated all the shiny paper getting in the way.

Roy had gotten him—

Roy had gotten him—

Roy had gotten him a beautiful black coat with dark red silk lining and a plain but staggeringly soft red scarf to match.

Ed wasn’t entirely sure he was still breathing.  The coat felt like wool.  It was thick and soft and utterly pristine, and he could tell just by looking that it was going to fit—better than fit; it was going to look like it’d been made for him, and better still, the geometry of its lines was going to make him look badass and also tall.

…er.  Taller.  But holy fuck, did that count.

“I hate you,” Ed heard himself say faintly.  “I’m going to spill coffee all over this inside of, like, two days, and then I’ll be miserable forever.  I’m going to start caring about clothes and want to spend all my money on them.  I’m never going to be able to get you anything this nice; why’d y—”

Roy pushed him up against the back of the couch and kissed him soundly, which was awesome except for the fact that it forced him to shut up, and he’d just gotten a pretty good rant going there.

“You never have to get me anything,” Roy said, and he was doing the Sincerity Eyes.  “You are the only thing in the wide world that I want.  I like taking care of you—yes, I know you can take care of yourself.  I know you’ve done it for years; I know you’re perfectly capable.  That’s exactly why I like it, actually.”  He drew the scarf out of Ed’s frozen hands and wrapped it around his neck, smoothing it down over his collarbones.  Shit, it was so nice— “Indulge me?”

“You are the single suavest fucking person I have ever met in my fucking life,” Ed said, and it was true, and he was proving it by losing the ability to fucking breathe the second Roy flattened a hand on his chest.

“Oh?” Roy asked, grinning, leaning in to graze his mouth along Ed’s throat right over the edge of the scarf, and there it fucking was—the man was pure sex straight through.  Good sex.  No fucking cold sheets and sticky skin and walk-of-shame shit; just the endorphin high and the prism colors on the backs of Ed’s eyelids—just the gorgeous, gorgeous high, and a long stint of soft-voiced cuddling afterward, and it shouldn’t have been possible to love someone this much—

“Yeah,” Ed managed with the last of his oxygen.  Roy was about four seconds from climbing up on top of him, and Ed knew his new coat was going to end up on the floor somehow, and you had to take care of nice clothes, and he pushed at Roy’s shoulder a little, and…

Roy just…

Drew back.

Just like that, fully clear of Ed’s arm.  He didn’t look mad, either—not even disappointed; just sort of… receptive.  Maybe a little bit confused, but…

But Ed had been winding him up, and you weren’t supposed to call a time-out in the middle; you weren’t supposed to change your mind all of a sudden like hitting the fucking escape key.  People didn’t work like that.  When you got somebody’s hopes up, you weren’t supposed to let them down; when you promised someone that you were going to give them something, you were supposed to follow through.


Maybe Roy just—had more control of himself than anyone Ed had ever been with.  Maybe that was part of the general suaveness—maybe it was one of the qualifications for ultimate suavity; maybe you had to be able to rein yourself in at the drop of a hat if you wanted.

Or maybe Roy… didn’t want.  Didn’t want him.  Not that much, or he would’ve kept going, right?  He wouldn’t have been able to help himself.  He wouldn’t have stopped, because he couldn’t have resisted, if he really

The bottom dropped out of receptive-and-a-little-confused, and Roy’s expression fell right into immensely concerned.

“Sweetheart,” he said, in the low-gentle voice, fingertips hovering just below Ed’s jaw, “what happened?  You—something happened just now.  Talk to me.  Can you talk to me?”

“I dunno,” Ed said.  He was—slipping.  He was fucking slipping again, right off the edge of—fucking nowhere, into fucking nothing, and— “I just—you’re just—” There was a jumble of words rattling around in his ribcage, and a cluster of them foaming up in his mouth, and he couldn’t find the right ones no matter how much he searched in Roy’s bottomless eyes.  “Too… important.  I think.  Just—I just—care so much, and—” This was more coherence than he could usually count on at this point.  “It’s—I just—I keep thinking you’ll realize you can do better than all my bullshit, and—then—being scared about that makes me do even more of the bullshit stuff, and then—”

“It’s not bullshit,” Roy said, catching both his hands and meeting his eyes, which was really sort of an impressive feat of manual dexterity and fine motor skills if you thought about it.  “I’m not ‘putting up’ with anything; there’s nothing wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Ed pulled a shaky breath in and let it out again.  “Constantly having to convince me that you don’t mind putting up with my bullshit counts as putting up with my bullshit.”

“It’s not—” Roy stopped himself, sighed, and smiled faintly.  Then he shifted over to nestle in against Ed’s side on the couch, looping both arms around him but leaving them loose enough that Ed could still see his face.  “Sweetheart, what it comes down to is… I’m not here because I’m trying to get something from you.  I’m here because I just like being with you—all the time, whether or not you think you’re conducting yourself in some entirely reasonable way that mysteriously qualifies as ‘bullshit’—”

“It is,” Ed said.

“Who told you that?” Roy asked softly.  “Who taught you to believe that your emotions are something to be ashamed of?”

Ed shut his mouth.

Roy kissed his forehead and held him, and held him, and looked into the middle distance for a little while.

“I’m here,” he said, “because being with you makes every moment of my life up until this one seem worth it, and every moment from here on out seem that much more possible.  Loving you makes me feel stronger.  That’s all it is, I think, at the very heart of it.  And even past that—I like you.  Do you know what I mean?  You see those couples sometimes—you know the ones, where perhaps they’ve got some magnificent foundation you can’t dream of, but they don’t even seem to be able to have a conversation about ketchup without sniping at each other?  I like you, Edward.  I like every conversation that we have; I like the way you pick words; I like the things you do with your eyebrows while you’re picking them.  I like the way you talk, and the things you say, and how remarkably passionate you are about everything you do and everyone you care for.  Even if we were both immovably heterosexual, I think I’d still be desperate to be your friend.  You make me laugh more than just about anyone I’ve ever known—and mostly on purpose at that.  I think that’s far more important than a lot of people realize.”

“Jeez,” Ed said with the paltry remains of his voice.  He was trying to bury his face in Roy’s shoulder, but the angle was all wrong.  “Well, I—freaking like you, too, so—yeah.”

Roy smiled, and then the smile faded slowly, and then he was quiet again, and his hand started stroking Ed’s bangs back, over and over.  It didn’t seem like he really knew he was doing it.

“I know,” he said slowly, “what it’s like to be afraid of intimacy.  Not even afraid; that word’s too… simple.  To have—reservations.  To be waiting for the other shoe to fall, every single second; to expect it to go sour, because there’s something sour in you, and that’s what you’re due, isn’t it?  People are going to hurt you; that’s what people do.  People want to take something from you and then knock you down and leave.”

Shit.  Shit.

“I don’t—” The words were tangling up in Ed’s fucking throat again, like they always did— “I don’t think you’re—I don’t think that about you; it’s just—”

“I know,” Roy said softly, grazing a knuckle down his cheek and giving him a tiny smile to reinforce it, like he always had to do, because Ed was just such a self-deprecating, perpetually-dissolving piece of shit.  “And I know it’s not conscious, or deliberate, or anything like that.  I…” He paused, and a little line impressed itself between his eyebrows as he tried not to frown.  “I had my share of significant others who treated me like a chew toy.  And after I came back, after… Maes’s death and all the things I’d… seen and done and lost, it… The world was different.  And I was surrounded by—stifled by, suffocated by—people who didn’t, and couldn’t, and wouldn’t even try to understand.  Humanity disgusted me in a way I can’t… describe.  It used to make me nauseous every day just thinking that he’d died for the likes of the people I ran into on the street—for a world with so much stupid, petty hatred and egoism and insufferable vanity; for all the money-grubbing; for all the little cruelties that we forgive in ourselves.  It took me a long time to work past that—and it was work, I assure you; it was labor.  But in the wake of that, I didn’t remember how to trust anyone.  I couldn’t let it go; I couldn’t let anything go; I couldn’t believe in anything, and I couldn’t be happy anywhere.  I kept trying people—and that’s what it was; trying them out, trying them on.  I tried to lose myself in all the drama and the dalliances, because I thought that I could leave myself behind, but I was always… waiting.  For them to mess up; for it to go south; for me and my bullshit to drive them away—and they did, and it did, and I did.  Because they got tired of reassuring me—because I was high-maintenance and low-return, because I was needy in ways they couldn’t even comprehend.  Because I was so scarred-up and so alone, and the more times it happened, the deeper I drew back into myself trying to stay safe.”

He half-turned, and half-smiled, and touched the pad of his thumb to Ed’s mouth.

“So I know,” he said.  “I know what it’s like, and I know how it feels, and I know that I am never giving up on you.  I will never get tired of proving this.  It’s not bullshit, Ed.  It’s damage.  And that’s okay, because we’re going to fix it—together, you and me, however long it takes.”

Ed’s pulse was pounding in his brain again, resonating everywhere.  “But—I mean… well, fuck, Mustang; what the hell am I doing for you that those people never did?  I mean, I’m just…”

Roy smiled.

“You look at me,” he said, “like I’m not hopeless.”

Ed managed not to say Huh?  This wasn’t a Huh? kind of conversation, though to be fair conversations with him tended to end up that way no matter what he did.  “Well… you’re not.  I mean, you’re obnoxiously hot and smart and funny and nerdy as hell, and stupid and sweet all the time, and sometimes you get all vulnerable, but it’s like—it’s like you had all this dumbass, sappy love and shit just welling up in you forever, and you were just sitting there waiting for somebody to dump it on, and…”


Well, then.

Roy kissed the tip of his nose.  “The defense rests.”

“Who the fuck ever called you hopeless?” Ed asked.  “You want me to deck ’em for you?  I’ve got a killer right hook, which confuses the hell out of people because I favor the left.  It fucks up my shoulder for, like, a week, but as long as your list is pretty short, I could kick all their asses and then take a break.”

Before he could explain the whole boxing-PT phase, Roy was dragging him into a hug that was almost too tight—but mindful of the arm in question, like Roy always, always was.

“Edward,” he said, “I adore you more than there are words for—every last damn minute, even at your worst.  And I know it’s hard, I know, but… just stay.  That’s all.  Just stay, and give us a chance to be like this.”

There was a magnet in Roy’s chest and another one in Ed’s face, probably.  “Like what?  What are we?”

“Anything but hopeless,” Roy said.  “So far from it.  So wonderfully alive.”

Actually that sounded…

…more or less about right.

“Okay,” Ed said.  “You keep up the whole warm-hug-on-cue shit, and I’ll stay.”

“You have yourself a deal,” Roy said.

Ed closed his eyes.  He hadn’t been kidding; he would’ve scaled Everest for some more of this shit.  Being curled up next to Roy with one of those arms around you was about the best and most comforting thing he could think of.

Roy adjusted the scarf for him.  Ed made a noise that might or might not have been more than just marginally catlike.

“So that’s the birthday sorted,” Roy said.  “What do you say to Valentine’s Day in a week?”

“I say ‘fuckin’ Hallmark shit’,” Ed mumbled.  “And ‘if you dress up as Cupid, I’m gonna drop dead’.”

“I’d look stunning,” Roy said.

“That’s why,” Ed said.

“I’m happy to do whatever suits your fancy,” Roy said, brushing his hair back again, “but I was thinking that since we had an exciting dinner out so recently, maybe it might be nicer to have a romantic night in.”

“You have such a nice house,” Ed said.  “’D be a shame to burn it down with mood lighting.”

“Are you implying that you think I’d end up setting fire to my own house if I lit candles?” Roy asked.

“Rose petals are real fuckin’ flammable,” Ed said.  “Don’t ask me how I know.”

“I’m not sure I want to know how you know.”

“Now you’re gettin’ it.”

“Mm,” Roy breathed into his hair, which should’ve felt weird and sort of bacterially invasive but actually was great.  “We could also go see a movie.”

“Or,” Ed said, “we could stay in and have pasta and then a ton of sex.”

The breath against his hair caught and then quickened just a touch.  “Or… that.”  Roy cleared his throat.  “Shall we plan for that?  What kind of pasta do you want?”

This was a much more critical decision than it appeared at first glance: Ed had to balance potential deliciousness with the probability of a carb coma that would inhibit the sex part.

“Maybe not pasta,” he said, rather nobly.  “Steak?  And potatoes?”  Potatoes were almost as good as pasta, and, when consumed responsibly, marginally less debilitating to your energy levels over time.  Not that Ed ever ate responsibly, but it was a nice thought.  “Is red meat an aphrodisiac?” he asked, which was another critical consideration to account for when trying to plan the perfect sappy holiday with your perfect sappy boyfriend.  “I mean, you’d think it would make sense, but…”

“I’m not sure,” Roy said, voice all rumbly in that way that made Ed’s skin heat up all over in two seconds flat.  When they were really close together, he always lowered it, and it always emanated from somewhere deep in the center of his chest, and… and Jesus.  “I believe oysters are.”

“How do you even cook oysters?” Ed asked.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Roy said.

“Shit,” Ed said.  “Okay.  Well—chocolate is, right?  So as long as we make sure to have dessert, it shouldn’t matter.”

Roy was grinning broadly; he could hear it.  “That is an absolutely brilliant solution.”

“Thanks,” Ed said.  “I try.”

“Then again,” Roy said, nuzzling at his ear and breathing on it moistly, “we don’t usually seem to need the help.”

Ed wriggled in a likely-vain attempt to conceal the shiver coursing down his spine.  “Good point.”

“Mm,” Roy said, and as far as onomatopoeia went, Ed couldn’t help but agree with everything that one implied.

“Oh, fuck you,” Ed said when Roy showed up at the door on Saturday—Valentine’s fucking Day at last, hoorah—with an overflowing bouquet.  Goddamn motherfucking roses, no less, redder than Ed’s Converse and fuller than his stupid heart.

“That is the hope,”Roy said cheerfully.  “I really, truly tried to resist—I just couldn’t help myself.”

“You suck,” Ed said.  He sort of had to take them, though, didn’t he?  Fucking thing was heavy.

“Happy to do that, too,” Roy said.  “If it’s any help, I brought a consolation prize.”

The next thing deposited into Ed’s hand was also rather heavy—well, exactly a pound, actually—but smaller, and packaged in brightly-decorated gold-foil.

“You did not,” Ed said.

“I hope you like it,” Roy said.  “I meant to ask, but I ended up betting on the fact that I’ve never met any coffee aficionado who didn’t like Kona, so…”

“You bastard,” Ed said.  “It’s the best.  Come in, c’mon, I gotta get a fucking vase for these dead plants.  It looks like a fucking florist’s in here.”

It did.  Al had been working on Winry’s arrangement for, like, three hours.  It was a masterpiece, yeah, but their place was turning into a revolving door for flowers or some shit, and there were leaves all over the floor.

“This is why he can’t get a cat,” Ed said.  They had to have vases in here somewhere.  Or big beakers.  That’d work.  He’d probably jacked one of those from lab on accident at least once; it was the sort of thing he would find a way to do.  “Don’t they get sick if they eat flowers and shit?”

“You’re mean,” Al said, intently focused on his plant-y magnum opus.  “Which is why the vases are on the top shelf.”

“I hate you,” Ed said.

Al arranged a baby daisy very calmly.  “No, you don’t.”

“I almost did,” Ed said.  “For a second there.”

“Allow me,” Roy said, grazing a hand across the small of Ed’s back and stepping past him to start opening the cabinets Ed couldn’t reach.  “Al, that looks amazing, by the way.”

Al flashed a grin at him.  “Thanks.”

“So do you,” Roy said to Ed.

“Cool,” Ed said.  “I’m almost as attractive as Al’s flowers.  Great.”

On second thought, he probably shouldn’t make Roy laugh at the same time that he was making Roy move glassware; that could end bad.

Dinner was beyond amazeballs and super-fantastic and rad as hell.  It put Ed into such a state of gustatory bliss that he wasn’t really thinking straight when Roy said “Have you ever seen ‘Wanted’?”

“Ha,” Ed managed from his magnificent sprawl on the couch.  “You might’ve noticed here and there that I don’t get out a whole lot.”

“Duly noted,” Roy said.  “Want to give it a try?”

“Sure,” Ed said.

An hour later, he was sitting up straight on the end of the couch and shouting at the screen.

Judging by Roy’s half-stifled expression of devilish glee—

“You planned this,” Ed said the second that he’d caught his breath. “You fucking knew the fucking half-assed, shitty physics—you knew—”

“Full disclosure,” Roy said, fighting valiantly with a laugh, “I almost walked out of the theater myself when I saw this, and you are absolutely gorgeous when you’re getting feisty—”

Feisty?”  Ed was up off the couch and waving his hands before he could stop.  “This isn’t fucking feisty, you conniving bastard; this is righteously angry at an unconscionable crime against the entire noble history of the physical sciences, and don’t you laugh at me, Roy Mustang; this is your fucking fault!”

Roy fell off of the couch and lay there on the floor, gasping for more breath to laugh with.

Ed dropped down to his knees to start fake-punching him in the arm.  “You asshole!  You freaking asshole!  Do you know how many Bill Nye episodes I’m going to have to watch on YouTube to undo all of this fucking psychological trauma?  Do you?”

“I’m sorry,” Roy choked out, and his face was so flushed, and his eyes were so bright, and his grin was so wide— “I am; I’m sorry; it’s just—” The laughter faded out into the softest, sweetest fucking goddamn sigh Ed had ever heard in his entire life, and he could swear his heart stopped just for a second.  “You,” Roy said, lifting one hand, guiding his hair back with a fingertip and then running it down along his cheek, “are so damn beautiful like this I can’t help wanting more.  I do believe I may be addicted.  Do you think there’s a twelve-step program for this?”

Ed’s face was igniting with terrifying speed.  “Shut up, Roy.”

“Good idea,” Roy said, wrapping his hand around the back of Ed’s neck and drawing him down into a kiss.

“Fucking bullshit fucking fake-physics shit,” Ed muttered against Roy’s mouth when they paused for breath.

“I have never met anyone who can concentrate expletives as impressively as you do,” Roy said.

Ed stared at him.  Which was pleasant, this close, but not especially illuminating.  “What?”

Roy’s grin was a weapon.  “You swear well.”

“Oh,” Ed said.  “Well, it’s fucking true.  I can’t believe people signed off on this shit—funded this shit.”  He leveled his best glare.  “And I can’t believe you made me watch it, you friggin’ bastard.”

“I really am sorry,” Roy said, grin undimmed.  “And a bit triumphant.  I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

Ed fought down the impulse to explode with excitement so that he could keep scowling.  “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Roy said, and drew him into another kiss, and then another, and…

And in the end—on the living room carpet, with Roy’s mouth on his throat and Roy’s hand in his hair, with the dim light shining on the gleam of sweat on Roy’s forehead and in the hollow of his collarbones, with a brightness like possession pouring through his every vein—Ed came with the words I love you on the back of his tongue, but he just didn’t have the guts to scream them out.

Roy knew.  Didn’t he?  He knew; he didn’t have to hear it.  He understood.  Right?

Ed tried to spell it with the kisses as his breath stopped hitching slowly, and reality seeped in.  They were on the floor, and it was cold, and they’d just done unspeakable things to the carpet, and Roy was just… smiling at him.  Like he was the whole damn point of the whole damn world.

“Did you see that little box in the fridge?” he asked.

Ed had been mostly focused on the prospect of cooking the steak before he got so hungry that he ate it raw, but that sounded vaguely familiar.  “…maybe.”

Roy kissed the tip of his nose.  “Chocolate-covered strawberries.”

Ed’s heart was beating it out in fucking Morse code.  Roy had to feel it; he had to know.

“You are something else, Mustang,” he said.

Roy got up and offered him both hands.  “Only for you.”

It sure as hell sounded like he knew.

Chapter Text

Al has to go do some sort of mysterious Al Stuff a couple minutes later—that, or he knows that Roy wants to say something that’s only for Ed’s ears, and the Al Stuff is completely invented as an extension of Al’s enormous capacity for tact.

Ed has always found the tact thing totally baffling, but he does kind of want to figure out what the hell Roy’s biting his tongue on right now.

To the man’s already rather high credit, he doesn’t make Ed wait.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asks.  “The way you’ve always talked about your father, it’s like he’s… dead.  To have him show up out of the blue—”

Ed doesn’t really want to relive it right now.  “Yeah, well.  It—shook me pretty hard, but I—I mean, what else am I supposed to do but roll with the punches, right?”

Roy smiles at him—a soft, sad little thing that stabs straight into Ed’s heart, without any sharp edges to ease its passage.  “Your brother’s right.”

“I know,” Ed says.  “I don’t think Al’s ever been wrong in his life.  He’s such a jerk like that.”

Roy draws a deep breath and lets it out slowly.  “Did you ever… regre—”

“No,” Ed says.

Roy blinks.  “I—well.  But you could have—”

“No,” Ed says.

“But if—”

“No,” Ed says.  He swallows, keeping a hard look trained on Roy so the stupid-perfect bastard won’t start babbling again.  “You—you’re—it.  Okay?  You’re it.  So—I mean, I never… I’ve never felt like I was missing out on anything.  Not a goddamn thing.  There is nothing more that I want.  There’s no way I feel—I dunno, unfulfilled or whatever shit.  Not at all.  Ever.  About anything.  I’m not jealous Al’s gonna have a kid.  Honestly, the thought of cleaning up baby barf and changing diapers and all that shit doesn’t appeal to me too much, and if it ever does, I can borrow his baby and give it back after we get bored.”  He pauses long enough for the rest of his brain to catch up and slam on the brakes.  “I—mean—if you want—”

“Not especially,” Roy says.  The smile’s different now—broadening, brightening, until it looks like it’s gonna break his face.

That’s the one Ed likes seeing there.

“Okay, then,” Ed says.  “You got yourself a goddamn deal.”

Roy props an elbow on his desk and his chin on his hand.  “How many more days until I get to kiss you for that?”

Ed wrinkles his nose.  “Six.”

“Damn,” Roy says.

If only science had gone far enough to allow you to reach through the screen, grab someone’s tie, drag them in towards you, and suck on their tongue.  Admittedly, there are some pretty sensitive robots out there that you can operate from a distance to do things like open-heart surgery, but robot-proxy makeouts wouldn’t quite fit the bill right now.

Ed also wishes his screen resolution was high enough for him to count Roy’s eyelashes.  “Okay,” he says.  “Be honest, though.  Do you want to get a dog?  ’Cause… that’s sort of like a kid, except lower-maintenance, and you don’t have to put them through school.”

Roy smiles.  “Edward,” he says, “I just want you.”

Ed sort of wants to get that tattooed on the inside of his wrist in Roy’s handwriting so he can look at it any time he wants.  That, or Mine mine mine.  Maybe one on each arm.

“Okay,” he says.

They sit there and gaze at each other like a couple of teenagers, lost in each other’s eyes for a minute.

“Hey,” Ed says.  “I meant to ask.  How’s the trial shit so far?”

Roy grimaces and waves a hand.  “Same old, same old, I’m afraid—everyone is giving me far too much information, none of it relevant to the questions I’m trying to find answers for.”

Ed wrinkles his nose.  “Figures, I guess.”

Roy smiles wryly.  Ed would say it’s a good look on him, but everything is a good look on him—every last goddamn thing.  “Quite.”

“Can’t be too bad,” Ed says.  “You’re not freaking out yet.”

Roy puts his elbow back on the desktop and rests his chin on his hand again, one eyebrow arcing.  “You have correctly included the operative word ‘yet’ in that sentence.”

Ed snorts.  Roy grins.

Then Roy reaches towards the screen with a few fingertips and leaves them close to the camera, just sort of—hovering.  Right there, five-thousand miles out of reach.

“It’s late where you are,” Roy says.  “And I know you’ve got a hell of a day planned again.  You should get some sleep.”

“You have correctly included the operative word ‘should’ in that sentence,” Ed says.

Roy laughs, and it’s funny—how loving somebody else really does make you that much stronger.

March rolled around—wobbly and reluctant like a wrongly-weighted bowling ball, bringing with it a series of progressively more torrential downpours and the end of Winry’s lease.

Her new place was pretty cool, though, all things considered.  The view from the loft-thing she’d had had justified some of the existential pain of living there, but the space she and Ed and Al and Roy had vetted on the third of their Sunday searches made up for its lack of scenery with high, bright ceilings and a little workroom-nook-sort-of-a-half-basement where she could bang around as much as she wanted without disturbing anyone.  Roy had skimmed her rental contract and reported back on a minimal amount of loopholes and shenanigans, so she’d signed it, and Al had gazed at her like even her signature was something staggeringly magical, and Ed had rolled his eyes, and they’d set a move-in day.

Naturally, it was raining fit to flood the whole fucking state, but apparently that was what Costco-sized rolls of saran wrap were for.  Ed was fairly sure Winry was going to regret this very sorely when she realized she was going to have to free all of her fifteen-thousand boxes from the plastic before she could unpack their contents, but it’d been her idea, so that was her own goddamn fault.

Also, the next person who tried to mummify him in leftover saran wrap was going to get a roll of it so far up the ass they’d be spitting cellophane, but that was a different problem.

Roy had insisted on helping with the move.  Ed had made tons of convincing arguments against it—highlights of which included I mean, I’m sort of familially obligated to ruin my Saturday lugging her shit, but you really deserve a break and No, really, do you realize how many of her fucking boxes are literally just scrap metal and tools?—but evidently the great, judicious lawyer in their midst was not especially perturbed by the presence of a little thing called logic.

Ed managed not to say I told you so when Roy ended up sprawled on the living room couch that night, trying not to aggravate the damage to his back.

Even if he had advised against it, he still felt bad—Roy wouldn’t have been running around in the fucking deluge throwing out his body parts if it hadn’t been for Ed, really; and if it hadn’t been for Ed’s insistence on helping Winry whenever he could, because she was family even if she was also an evil witch; and if he hadn’t been dumb enough to let her and Al plan this whole thing on a Saturday, which was sort of a Roy Day by dint of constant habit.  So he’d made tea, and was gently sort of digging his elbow into the worst knot under Roy’s shoulder-blade, and Roy was making some borderline-pornographic noises into the couch cushion, and Ed’s whole fucking body was still tingling from how slowly and reverently Roy had peeled his soaking wet clothes off and kissed his damp skin all over, so all in all it was sort of… nice.  For a rainy-ass, wasted Saturday, anyway.  And Winry had given them a huge thank-you Tupperware full of cookies that she’d made as a farewell to her old oven, so that wasn’t bad, either.

“Oh, God,” Roy choked out, voice so low and rough-edged with half-suppressed sensation that Ed’s guts tightened all at once.  “Right—there—God—”

“Knock it off,” Ed said after he’d cleared his throat three times.  “You keep on like that, I’m gonna have to jump you, and then you’re really gonna fuck up your back.”

Roy laughed, albeit breathlessly.  “I can’t tell if you’re calling me sexy or telling me I’m old.”

“Multitasking,” Ed said.

Roy turned his head enough to unleash a wicked grin.  “I can think of a couple things I’d like to do to you all at once.”

Blood rushed to Ed’s face.  Was this seriously never going to stop?  “Fuck’s sake, Roy.”

The grin broadened, and then it softened, and then it was Roy’s usual soppy smile, and Ed’s heart was goop.  “Can I ask you something?”

Jesus.  In the unabridged history of mankind, had that sentence ever been a segue into something good?

“You can ask,” Ed said slowly.  “Can’t promise I’ll know the answer, though.”

Roy was sitting up.  Shit.  Conversations that required good posture—conversations that needed eye contact and dignity—were the ones Ed was the fucking worst at, and now his blood was starting to run cooler and too-fast, slick like soapsuds over glass, off of Teflon

“Hey,” Roy said softly, touching his cheek.  “Stay with me.”  Ed laid his hand over Roy’s against his skin, and that… helped, actually—it grounded him, kind of.  “There’s no wrong answer, and it doesn’t have to be yes or no, and I swear to you I won’t be offended if you don’t w—”

Some part of Ed’s heart broke off and jackknifed the rest of the way up his throat.  “Are you gonna ask me to move in?”

Roy blinked, blinked more, and smiled gently.  “Well—no.  I’m going to ask if you want to.  And I know a thing or two about independence, Ed; I really—it really won’t bother me if you’d rather not.”

Ed focused hard on the individual pieces of his thoughts, which sometimes helped to keep the stupid fucking feelings locked away.  “I… mean… I… dunno.  ’Cause I guess—’cause being with you is really great, and I like the idea of more of that, and—and coming home to you every day would be pretty—fucking awesome, actually, but—I mean, I’ve got the place with Al, and all.  And I’m a shitty roommate, okay?  I get up at godawful-o’-clock every day, and I suck at sleeping, so I always end up banging around the kitchen at, like, three in the morning, and then my alarm goes off before five, and—also I’m crap at cleaning, ’cause I always get distracted and forget, and—I mean, I dunno if I can do that to you.  Al’s stuck with me; I raised his ass.  But you—I mean—”  His brain was sort of… spinning.  Half-kaleidoscope, half-Frisbee, and any second he was going to hit the ground.  “Plus… you don’t have a coffee machine.”

Roy’s eyes were so fucking deep.  Like—what the hell, man.

“That can be fixed,” he said.  “None of the rest of it sounds bad to me.”

“You say that now,” Ed said.  “Try dealing with my fucked-up insomnia for a week, and then we’ll talk.”

“Would you like to?” Roy asked.  “We could treat it like a trial run—no expectations, no penalties.  See how it goes.”

The thing was, if your balance wavered once, you tipped right the fuck into those fucking eyes, and then you were gone.

“Okay,” Ed said.  “I guess we could—try.”

And then they lit up so bright you forgot to be scared of the dark.

“Beautiful,” Roy said.

Ed was going to assume that that referred to the situation, obviously.  “Yeah, except that Al’s gonna be smug as all hell, since he was telling me, like, three months ago that we should shack up.”

Roy’s eyebrow quirked.  “Were those the exact words he used?”

“Yeah,” Ed said, as flatly as possible.  “You know Al.  He was like, ‘Bro, you and your boy Mustang should shack up pronto, you feel me?’”

Roy was trying so hard not to laugh that he looked like he was in pain.  “That’s—an extremely accurate impression of Alphonse.  It’s incredible.  I thought he was really in the room for a moment there.”

Ed made a valiant effort to glare at him.  “Point is, he’s gonna give me the knowing look, and it’s all your fault.”

“I’m sorry,” Roy said, smile turning so overwhelmingly winsome that Ed’s internal organs ricocheted around his body and mashed themselves into pulp again.  “I mean that.  I’ll make it up to you all week long—how does that sound?”

And Ed couldn’t help looking around himself—couldn’t help assessing the whole room, with the sooty fireplace and the almost-too-well-loved couch and the old books and the coffee-cup rings on the tabletop and the ten-million alphabetized DVDs—and asking himself, quietly, Could this be ‘home’?

There was a balance in him.

And it was tilting.

And he was scared as shit, yeah, but gravity was something that you couldn’t fight for long.

It took Ed three tries and a lot of stammering to explain why he needed one of their suitcases.  When he finally succeeded, Al looked like he was about to slide across the kitchen floor on his knees and burst into song.

“Shut up,” Ed said.

“I didn’t say anything,” Al said.

“If you don’t-say-anything any louder,” Ed said, “I’m gonna kick your ass from here to Granny’s.”

“You’re so cute,” Al said.

“Shut up,” Ed said.

Somehow, he ended up on Roy’s doorstep with his backpack and a huge-ass rolling suitcase that they’d gotten on sale at KMart the first time they’d moved.  Ed remembered because the sales lady asked if he was sure it wasn’t too big for him, and Ed had been so emotionally wrecked that his entire being had frozen halfway to tantrum-mode, and whatever facial expression he’d ended up with had scared the crap out of her, and she’d said, “Where are your parents?”, and… yeah.

He blinked up at Roy.  Roy also looked like he was about to start singing as a release valve for all the joy and whatever overflowing from his heart.  If Ed’s life suddenly turned into a musical, heads were gonna roll.

“Hey,” he said, as tonelessly as possible just in case.  “Um.”

Roy leaned down—in, in—and splayed one hand over the curve where Ed’s neck met his shoulder and kissed him, and Ed could probably have put up with one or two musical numbers for a little more of that.

“Do you want closet space?” Roy asked after, drawing him into the entryway.  “Or drawers?  I could clear a drawer; I moved a couple things—”

“I’m pretty adaptable,” Ed said, which was an understatement for the ages.  “Just—Roy?”

When he got that kid-in-a-candy-store look in his eyes—the pure bliss look and the helpless smile—Roy Mustang was fucking irresistible, and the really terrible thing was that he didn’t even know it.  When he was doing the suave thing, he sure as hell fucking knew it.  But when he was like this?  The world around him was translucent, and he wasn’t even thinking about what other people thought, because he was just too happy—and that was exactly what made it so goddamn fucking gorgeous.

“Yes, dear?” Roy asked.

Ed took a breath.  He’d been planning this in the car, but that didn’t make it easy.  “Just… I—know—I’ve got a lot of—hangups—and shit.  And—I mean, it’s not your fault.  It’s never your fault.  It just—is.”  He swallowed past the desiccated, lumpy things in his throat.  “I—want to give you the best of me.  I do.  But—I just—some days I feel like it’s gone, like—I gave it away to all of the others first, right?  I gave them all the hope and resilience and excitement and shit, and—and they got bored of me, and they threw it away, and I don’t know where to… find any more of it.  And… and I feel like that’s not fair to you—I know it’s not—and I’m trying, but—sometimes I just can’t help… waiting for the fucking wrecking ball to hit me in the face.  And I know that makes me kind of fucking insufferable and annoying and whiny as shit and pathetic and sad all the time—”

“Ed,” Roy started, but if he didn’t just forge through this, he’d never get to the end of it.

“No, it does,” he said.  “And—I get that.  And if—I mean, so far it seems like you can handle that, and that’s amazing, and—so—I just want you to know why.  I just—I feel like if this’d happened a couple years ago, before a lot of the other shit, I’d—be different.  And it’d be easier.  And I’d be easier to deal with.  But it’s like—you know.  Learned response or… something.  Fool me once.  Once bitten.  Some idiom bullshit.  So—just—if I’m… having to… fight… through it, I just want you to know it’s not you.  It’s—them.  It’s the shadow of them.  And it’s the marks and shit that they left on me.  Not you.”

Roy smiled, sincerely, and carded his fingers through Ed’s bangs, and smiled a little more.

“I know,” he said.  “Trust me, sweetheart—I don’t mind a challenge.  And if you’re the reward at the end, I’m delighted to do whatever it takes.”

Ed wrinkled his nose.  “You ever thought about writing romance novels on the side for extra cash?”

Roy knew.  He knew by now.  He was practically a mind-reader, and figuring out the feelings behind people’s faces was part of his job.

Roy knew that Ed always said shit like that when he was on the brink of crumpling like wet newspaper, because he needed the reassurance so fucking bad it felt like a slug from a canteen in Death Valley.

Roy grinned.  Fucking Roy.  Fucking perfect-ass fucking Roy.

“Frequently,” he said.  “I wouldn’t even need a penname; ‘Roy Mustang’ would make salacious novels fly off of the shelves.”

Ed took a breath and grinned back.  “Hell, I’d read ’em.”

“I’ll work some science in,” Roy said.  “Just for you.  Maybe it should be a romance novel set on the space station—what do you think?”

“I think you’re just my kind of crazy,” Ed said.  “And that I’m fucking starving.  You wanna eat before I unpack my shit?”

“You bet your lovely ass I do,” Roy said.

Sunday morning was no big deal.  Sundays he usually woke up right in the fucking center of a ray of sunshine with Roy nuzzling at the back of his neck; that was staggeringly, beautifully, awesomely normal now.

But Sunday night was… new.  Brand-fucking-spanking-what-the-goddamn-hell-new.  And Ed was trying not to be on his guard, trying to relax and let it be the new normal, but…

Doing his damnedest and coming up short was sort of his specialty, wasn’t it?

Dinner was fine.  Laying around in the living room with books and stuff, half-working to get a jump on Monday, was fine.  Getting sort of sleepy with his head on Roy’s lap and Roy’s fingers in his hair and the book held out in front of him and his focus slowly going fuzzy was fine—was great, was doable, was nice.  And it wasn’t even that getting ready for bed and whatever with Roy was weird—not anymore; they’d had more than enough weekends for Ed to get way past the Oh shit oh shit don’t dribble any toothpaste or he’ll think you’re an idiot stage.

It was just that weekends were sort of… sacred.  Sort of separate.  And setting your alarm on a weeknight to start a regular day at the regular time, but with somebody, felt…



Like the start of something big and inescapable and real.

Not bad, necessarily.  Just… weighty.

So setting his phone alarm for four forty-five was a whole different ballgame from every night before.  Or at least a different inning.  Or a different… bat?


He laid his phone on the nightstand and rolled over and looked at Roy.

Who was still smiling at him like he was goddamn motherfucking heaven incarnate.

“You sure about this?” Ed asked.  “I mean, obviously you can just go back to sleep after I get up, but that’s gonna be about the worst sound you’ve ever heard in a couple of hours.”

Stupid Roy and his stupid smile.  He could probably melt steel with that thing.

“I’m sure,” Roy said.

Ed took a breath, looked at the ceiling, risked retina-deliquescence with another glance at the smile, and then reached over to turn off the light.  “Maybe I should’ve gotten that in writing.”

“Mm,” Roy said.  He had to know by now what that noise did to Ed’s guts, i.e. turned everything to gelatin like a fifties housewife with a new fucking Jell-O mold.  “Here.”

Next thing Ed knew, he was getting dragged into the prime spooning position, except that Roy had drawn back just enough to start tracing words onto his back with one fingertip.

I,” Roy read as he drew out loopy lines, and Ed shivered despite himself, “Roy Mustang, swear on my mother’s grave and my father’s ashes that I do sincerely want to give living with the highly-esteemed Edward Elric a full trial run; and that I hereby relinquish my right to complain about how damn early it is when his alarm goes off; and that I will express no regrets about this decision, because I am far too high on love hormones to be terribly concerned with the details.

“Gross,” Ed said, eloquently he thought.

Roy kissed the back of his neck.  “I try.”

Ed rolled over—mindful of his elbows; putting one in Roy’s eye socket and starting this test-week thing out with a black eye was not the best show of good faith he could think of—to smush his face into Roy’s collarbones in proper hug position instead.  “Look, just—”

“Bit dark in here,” Roy said.  “What am I looking at?”

“Your own dumb ass,” Ed fake-growled, “which I am gonna serve to you if you don’t shut up a second.  I was going to say—just—sorry.”

“No need,” Roy said softly.  “There never is.”

“Yeah, okay, you say that,” Ed said, “and I mean, I feel like a broken fucking record, but—this isn’t—what you signed up for.  Is it?”

“Yes,” Roy said.

No,” Ed said.  He couldn’t quite tell if the heat rising in his face was because Roy was a moron, or because Roy was the cutest, sweetest fucking moron he’d ever met in his life.  “Because—I mean—this—emotional roller-coaster—thing—that I’ve been doing.  It’s gotten—worse.  Like, way worse.  I don’t know why; I just feel like—I feel like I’m… unraveling.  And I don’t know what started it, but it couldn’t have been you, so it’s stupid and unfair that I always end up dumping it all on you, and—and you’re great about it, and… sorry.  And—thank you.  And—you know.”

Roy kissed the bridge of his nose.  “No reason to be sorry.  You’re welcome.  And I know.”

“Okay, then,” Ed said.

“Okay,” Roy said, and Ed could hear his smile in the dark.

Which made it a good target for kissing, all things considered.

“G’night,” Ed said.

“Goodnight, sweetheart,” Roy said.

“Eugh,” Ed said, and if they both knew what it meant, then that was all right.

The bed shifted, and the motion jarred Ed out of a dream about a crazed pharma VP chasing him down empty streets trying to stab him with a giant hypodermic and take his paper away.

The first thing he saw was the clock—two-oh-five, awesome—and the second thing he saw was a Roy-shaped shadow moving to the edge of the bed.

“Hey,” he managed with his sleepy mumble of a voice.  “You okay?”

Roy was breathing at the not-okay-yet tempo.  Ed couldn’t see well enough to tell how tight his shoulders were, or if his fists were clenched, or any of the good giveaways.

Wait it out.  It didn’t help to panic; he had to wait it out.

The sheets slithered, and then there was a soft clinking noise—Roy picking up the dog-tags on the nightstand?

“I’m sorry,” Roy said after another moment of almost-silence.  His voice was nearly steady again.  “Now we’re really going to be tired tomorrow, aren’t we?”

“If only I worked somewhere I had an endless supply of caffeine,” Ed said.

Roy half-laughed weakly.  “I can’t believe you’re still sensitive to it.”

“It’s okay,” Ed said.  “Even if that fails, I have to open with fucking Russell, and the fires of my undying hatred will carry me through.”

Clinking again, and then Roy settling back on the mattress.  “How does he get his hair to do that, anyway?  Can he still see?”

“Douchebag magic,” Ed said.  “And I dunno.  He doesn’t seem to burn himself any more often than the rest of us, so maybe that’s douchebag magic, too.”

Roy took a shuddering deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Mysteries of the universe, I suppose.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He reached out and fumbled around on the cool sheet until he found Roy’s hand to grip it.  “You okay?”

“Mostly,” Roy said.  “Yes.”

Ed squeezed his hand a little harder.  “Well, which one is it, smarty-pants?”

“It’s ‘mostly’,” Roy said.  “But—well.  See?  Your wake-up call isn’t the problem anyway; I am.”

“You’re not a problem,” Ed said.  “You’re my fucking boyfriend, and you’re perfect, so shut up.”

“Yes, sir,” Roy said.

“That doesn’t sound like shutting up to me.”

“Sorry,” Roy said.  “I’m very insubordinate.”

“We can punish you later,” Ed said.  “For now, go back to sleep.”

“All right,” Roy said.

Ed didn’t release his hand.  “Good.”

The familiar hell of a persistent car horn soundbyte roused Ed to the beautiful hour of holy-fucking-shit-no-o’-clock.

“Oh, God,” Roy said into the pillow.  “You do this every day?”

“What else’m I supposed to do?” Ed asked, straining to reach the nightstand without leaving the nest of warmth.  The shitty thing about a phone alarm was that slamming your hand down blindly didn’t do anything except endanger your phone; you had to try to find the small motor skills to swipe your fingertip within the first five seconds of being awake.

The prospect of crawling back in and snuggling up to Roy and just… pretending that it wouldn’t matter was supremely tempting.  But if he let himself do that—if the first rock started sliding—the whole damn mountain would go down, and nobody would survive the fucking avalanche of his life giving way.  He wasn’t there yet.  He wouldn’t be there for a long time.  He’d slow down someday when he could afford to stop moving; he couldn’t yet.  There was still too goddamn much at stake.

“Nrgh,” Roy said, or something close.  “You could try sleeping.”

Holy hell, the air out there was cold.  Ed set his jaw and ground his teeth and put his bare feet down on the floor.  “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“Maybe you should practice a little bit before then,” Roy said.  “Just to make sure you’re ready when the time comes.”

Ed managed to direct his stumble over to the suitcase he’d half-unpacked, gotten bored of, and eventually sort of nudged over towards the wall, which yielded up enough suitable clothing to make what matchy people called ‘an ensemble’.  “How about you try it first and let me know?”

Whatever Roy said next got lost in the pillow, but it didn’t sound like For the love of God, don’t take a shower, so Ed figured that was fair game.

When he reemerged, though, instead of cozied up with the pillow and snoring peacefully, Roy was… mysteriously absent.

Well.  Less-mysteriously when Ed scented the unmistakable tang of good coffee wafting up the stairs.

He rediscovered Roy in the kitchen, wearing a fluffy white bathrobe over his pajamas and incredible bedhead above them, filling a travel mug from the French press.

Ed blinked.  Words were still practically impossible this early.  “Fuck’s… sake,” he managed.  “Why didn’t you go back to sleep?”

Roy spooned sugar in, tightened the lid, brought it over, and kissed Ed right on top of his head, soaking wet hair and all.

“Because you’re beautiful,” he said, “and every life has a limited number of mornings.”

“Bullshit,” Ed said.  “But I guess the second part’s true.”  He took the coffee and basked in Roy’s bleary smile for a second.  “You gonna go back to bed now?”

“For as long as humanly possible,” Roy said.

“Good,” Ed said, and stretched up—not very far, mind—to kiss him.  His crap was all still in his backpack, and his backpack was still hanging by the door.  “I’ll see you later, okay?”

“I’ll count the hours,” Roy said.

The man was so soppy it was a wonder he hadn’t been inducted into a wet towel society by now.

As it turned out, he was also bad at counting.

“What are you doing here?” Ed asked at seven fifty.  “You’ve got a perfectly good coffee production device at home, d—” On second though, better not to call Roy ‘dumbass’ in front of other customers, regardless of whether or not he’d be offended.  “…silly.”

“I wanted to see you,” Roy said.  His sunny expression had an ever-so-slightly crazed edge to it—something in the eyes, and the tilt of the otherwise-placid little smile.  Bastard should’ve been sleeping.  “Not sure I’ll be up to this every day, but…”

Ed comped his coffee and held the cup out to him.  “Here.  Go.  If you get in trouble with Riza for napping on the job, I take no responsibility.”

Roy grinned.  “I spend half the day dreaming of you at my desk anyway,” he said.  “Whether I’m asleep or awake at the time should hardly make a difference.”

“Tell it to the judge,” Ed said.

“I’ll probably have to,” Roy said.  He took the cup and then tipped it towards Ed in acknowledgment.  “Thank you, sweetheart.”

Just like that, Ed’s face was on fire.  If somebody didn’t call 911 in a hurry, this whole place was going down.  “Get out of here,” he said.

Roy was grinning a little wider when he sauntered out the door.

By the end of the week, Ed had learned three things about Roy: firstly, that he was the laziest shit in the extended history of lazy shits on weeknights and could not be pried away from his trash TV with a crowbar; second, that the only exception to these immovable couch potato tendencies were the first forty minutes after he got home if the day had been stressful, at which point he disappeared into the tiny home gym in the basement and reemerged soaked in sweat and looking much better-adjusted; and third, that he sang in the shower.

And—if Ed was being honest—a fourth thing, which was that Roy was one of the easiest people to live with that he’d ever met, at least so far.  There was no bitching about how you were ‘supposed’ to load the dishwasher, or where Ed left his shoes, or whether he fogged up the bathroom mirror, or… anything.  There was no guilt-tripping when he came back from lab stupid-late and starving without having texted a heads up—just a huge hug and a deep kiss and a “Fried rice okay?”  No Where are you? phone calls every couple hours; no Who were you with? when he got in; no interrogations at all.  No passive-aggressive Gee, baby, those dishes are getting kinda old bullshit; just Do you mind helping me with these, sweetheart?, and Ed got the sense that if he said he was just too fucking tired, Roy would shrug and smile and love him anyway.

Ed stopped by his and Al’s place on the way back from lab on Saturday.  Al looked up with a terribly mild expression when Ed kicked his shoes off in the hall.

“Wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again,” he said.

“Shut the fuck up,” Ed said.  “You called me yesterday.”

“I said ‘see you’,” Al said.  “Not ‘hear the melodious tones of you cursing your experiment to a thousand fiery fates’.”

Ed shifted his weight.

“You’re thinking about moving in semi-permanently,” Al said.  “Don’t look like that; I suggested it; of course I don’t mind.”

It felt like a brick of helplessness had just slammed into Ed’s skull, and he was reeling like a motherfucker.  “I’d still—pay rent.”

Al pulled his legs up onto the couch and tucked his feet underneath himself.  He was wearing the red socks with the little brown cats on them.  “I was thinking,” he said, “that if you move in with Roy, maybe I should move in with Winry.”

“What about this place?” Ed asked before he could stop himself.

Al opened his mouth to say It’s just a building, Brother—if someone ever told Ed he didn’t know that kid better than anybody else on the planet, Winry included, he’d shove Al’s baby book up their ass—and then shut it again.

“Well,” Al said instead, “it can… it can be a safe haven for somebody else now.  Don’t you think?”

That was a nice enough idea, but it didn’t make the prospect of leaping out into the great void of the unknown any less fucking terrifying.

“How about this,” Al said.  “Let’s pay rent for another full month.  We can give Mr. Subramanian notification that we’re thinking of leaving, so he can start showing it to other people—which does mean you’re going to have to pry yourself away from Roy long enough for us to clean the heck out of this place, I’m afraid—but then if something happens during the month that makes us change our minds, we can always stick around instead.”

It was funny how different love could be—how different it could feel.  Roy was like a fucking bonfire in every single part of his soul—a constant warmth in his chest and a heat in the pit of his stomach; tongues of flame in his fingertips and darting back and forth between his ribs; a brightness.  And Al was the whole… Earth.  The whole planet, every grain of dirt and mile of bedrock; Al was blades of grass in the summer and every last breathtaking sunset clouds and curvature had ever made.

“I got one question,” Ed said.

Al smiled.  Fucking spring mornings and dewdrops on flowers and shit.

Ed grinned at him.  “Winry’s place take cats?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Al said.

April arrived, with a minimal quantity of the promised showers in tow.  Well—a minimal amount of the sky kind.  Roy’s shower was like some kind of bathroom fixture revelation; the stream and the pressure were always perfect, and it heated up instantaneously.  Pretty much literally a walking wet dream—or a standing one, or…

Also, as they discovered fairly quickly, it was big enough for two.

Ed wasn’t really sure what this long-term thing was supposed to feel like—he and Ling had lasted a while, whether or not the end of it was more like a grim sort of mutual clinging than holding onto each other, but they hadn’t… settled down.  And the boundaries had been blurry from the start.  And it was different, choosing someone, choosing to stay, rather than feeling—what?  Desperate and obligated?  Like nobody else was ever going to want him, so he’d better take what he could get?

Was that really what the others amounted to?


Being with Roy was sort of—changing things.  Slowly, but he could track the progression when he thought about it hard enough.  Roy always seemed genuinely happy to see him.  Roy never complained about how much he ate, or how little he slept—they slept, although Roy claimed to have a knack for passing out again immediately after walking back up the stairs once he’d seen Ed off at the door—or what he wore, or how he conducted himself in public, or the weird way he had to deal with the dishes starting with the smallest things and working his way up, or… anything.  Roy told him every single fucking day—Ed was tallying for the first two weeks, just out of a data-gathering kind of curiosity, but then he gave up, because it wasn’t stopping—that he was beautiful, or cute, or gorgeous, or something sappy and gross and weirdly sort of validating.  Roy kept smiling at him while his back was turned and then just smiling wider when Ed felt the gaze on him and turned to look.

Roy wanted him to be here—Roy wanted him.  Not just for, y’know, a good time in the sack or arm candy on the street or as a pawn and a puppet and a manipulable ego-feeder or whatever other shit.  Not to use him; not to drain him; not to bleed him fucking dry and let the husk of him crumple in the dust.  Roy—loved him.  A lot.  Roy made him feel like maybe he deserved it.  Like maybe he was worthy of the worship, somehow.  Like he mattered.  Like he was a good thing.  Like he was important.  Like Roy needed him just as much as he needed Roy; like it was a two-way street without any fucking ninja-potholes or tire spikes or speed traps or ruts that’d fuck your tire alignment in a second.  Like this was going to… work.  Maybe.

And in the meantime, all his thesis shit was heating up so fast he couldn’t touch it or look at it straight on.  At Izumi’s suggestion, he dedicated a pretty good chunk of time to a sort of side-study focusing on the RNA-seq component of his real project, and he recruited Val to put together a short paper about it, and they offered it to one of the smaller magazines and instantly got a bite.  His CV had been a little barren since he’d married this stupid obsession-project thing, so it was a relief to be cramming some Look at me, I’m a capable scientist crap into it again.

The thing was, defending was almost just a formality.  Yeah, there was a possibility of failure, but after six years of this shit, he knew it inside-out, backwards, upside-down, and in Braille.  Brilliant as they definitely were, none of his committee members had been dedicating their entire lives to this particular problem for half a decade now, which meant none of them understood it as well as he did, which meant that he’d pretty much already succeeded at the point of the whole PhD exercise.  It was just a matter of proving it.  Which really just meant that the greatest threat to his success was getting so fucking tongue-tied that he ceased to function at the most critical moment.

He’d done a couple conferences here and there, though, and presented a couple papers, and unfurled and argued about a couple of posters, too.  Usually once he started in on the science part, it just felt… safe.  Numbers didn’t lie, and his experiments didn’t, and his conclusions were unassailably logical, so what the fuck was there to worry about?  Science wasn’t like people.  Science wasn’t fallible, or variable, or conditional, or arbitrary.  Science made fucking sense.  And once he dropped into it—once the words started coming out, and he started pointing to the diagrams, and he started getting excited again, excited about sharing knowledge with other people, which was the best thing on Earth—usually he floated like a motherfucking butterfly on a warm breeze instead of sinking like a stone.  It wasn’t even hard.  He was just the mouthpiece, was the thing—he was just voicing what the tests he’d executed on an existing fact had told him.  He was just articulating what the universe wanted him to know.

Overarching point was, he was preoccupied as shit.

And then, in the middle of staring thoughtfully into the centrifuge-center abyss, he bolt-from-the-blue remembered something Roy had said on their first fucking date seven months ago.

Specifically, that he was turning thirty-five in April.

April being the month that it currently was.

Such that it was possible Ed had already missed his fucking birthday, and holy shit

Ed texted Roy gotta run some errands xx—which was the best-worst habit he had picked up from anyone, ever; he felt so cutesy-cute typing it that he wanted to puke up his own intestines—and then booked it to Winry’s and Al’s place the second he could justify escaping from Experiment Hell.

By the time he got there, he had a text from Roy, which read How much longer ’til the weekend?  I swear I saw the word ‘sex’ in that sentence. <3

Ed could not be blamed for his behavior.  The whole lovey-dovey thing was highly contagious.  two more days sorry.  but if you’re good on saturday i’ll put some sex in YOUR sentence if you get my drift

Then he knocked on his baby brother’s door.

Winry answered.  The kitten—whose name was Benjamin Oscar Orpheus Pistachio for reasons Ed had tried and failed to determine—was perched on her shoulder, swaying slightly and chewing on a few strands of her hair.

“Hey, Boop,” Winry said to the cat.  At least that either explained the disaster of a name, or sort of remedied it.  “Look what your friends dragged in.”

“Har, har,” Ed said.  “Al there?”

Winry scowled.  “Well, sorry I exist, you jerk.”  She turned before he could backpedal and shouted over her cat-free shoulder.  “Hey, Al!”

“Coming, dear,” Al’s voice wafted back.

“Christ,” Ed said.  “You guys gonna get married already, or what?”

“That’s pretty rich,” Winry said, “coming from you.”

Before Ed could explain why his occasional brushes with the schmoopy side of things were totally different from Al’s ongoing quest to be Winry’s house-husband or whatever, the perfect brother in question sauntered over from the direction of the tiny little room they’d turned into an office.  His face lit up, and Ed felt all warm and fucking fuzzy inside, and it was criminal, really, that the lot of them had started out so promisingly jaded as children and then turned into a bunch of fucking romantics over time.

“Hi, Brother!” Al said.  “How are you?”

“Okay,” Ed said, which was a bit generous but mostly true.

“Yeah, right,” Al said.  He reached past Winry to grab Ed’s sleeve, like he’d vanish otherwise, and tugged on it.  “Come on.  Can I get you anything to drink?”

“You got vodka?” Ed asked.

Al glared, hauled him over the threshold, and shut the door behind him.  “No, we do not have vodka.”  He maintained his grip on Ed’s sleeve while he reached out to pet Boop’s head with the other hand.  The gesture settled him instantly.  “Do you want cocoa instead?”

“Nah,” Ed said.  “I’m okay.  Just—I need your help.  Both of you, probably.  I fucked up.”

“It is Wednesday,” Winry said.

Ed made a face at her.  She made one back.

Al sighed fake-discontentedly.  “I’m sure you didn’t really.  What happened?”

“I just remembered it’s Roy’s birthday this month,” Ed said.  “Only I don’t even know when, and I don’t know what to get, and—and tonight I gotta find his driver’s license or something, and—I mean, shit, what the hell do I do if it’s already passed?”

“Grovel,” Winry said.  “Weep.  I dunno, is Roy into that kind of thing?”

“You two are terrible,” Al said.  “He’s not the type to be mad about it, Brother.  Especially if he never even told you; how were you supposed to know?”

“Boyfriends have to know stuff,” Ed said.  “And—I mean, shit, I should’ve asked.  What kind of shitty-ass boyfriend doesn’t even ask, Al?”

“Well,” Winry said, “you, obviously.”

“Brother,” Al said before the despair completely swallowed Ed’s soul, “you are not a… bad boyfriend just because a specific piece of personal data didn’t occur to you to investigate.  And it’s okay.  Even if his birthday already passed, it can’t have been by much, so it barely even matters.  Here, come on.”  He hauled on Ed’s sleeve a little more, towing him over to the couch and sitting him down, then crossed back to Winry, plucked Boop off of her shoulder, and brought the kitten over to deposit the warm furball in Ed’s lap.  “All we need to do is brainstorm something small but meaningful that you can put together in a couple days and then give to him.  It’s fine.  And he’ll just say that getting to live with you is a gift already, and you don’t need to bring him anything.”

Ed eyed him.  That was probably exactly what Roy would say, word-for-word, which was sort of unsettling.

Al sighed.  “What?  It’s his M.O.  I have been paying attention.  So let’s think about it.  What could you get him that would be personal and cute without being too expensive?”

Ed scratched behind the kitten’s ears.  It purred loudly.  Fucking adorable.

It was also getting fucking adorable fur all over his jeans, but that was a different problem.

“I dunno,” he said.  “I could—do you have any cutesy-ass pictures of us?  I guess I could get one framed for his desk or—that’s stupid, isn’t it?  And fucking egotistical.”

No,” Al said.  “That’s a great idea.  I have a few from Christmas, and you could text Gracia and see if she has any from Thanksgiving.  He’d love that.  If we can’t find one of both of you, even just a nice picture of you by yourself, not making faces for once, would totally fit the bill.”

“I don’t ‘make faces’,” Ed said.

He realized too late that he’d started scowling deeply as he said it and tried to get the whole thing under control while Al slowly, slowly raised an eyebrow.

“Shut up,” he said.  “Lemme see what pictures you have.”

Ed would’ve hated it that Al was always right, except that it was incredibly fucking helpful most of the time.

In a stroke of suspiciously good luck, Roy’s birthday was April twenty-seventh—which was a Monday, which meant that Ed could cajole him into taking it off work, and get Rosé to cover his shift at Has Beans, and stay home to make pancakes and bacon and eggs and suggestive-joke-ready sausage while Roy slept in.  And he’d gotten a couple photos framed at one of those yuppie-ass craft stores—one picture that Al had turned up out of nowhere, which was weirdly flattering, where he was looking up from a book and gazing absently out the window at their old place, with sunset lighting making his hair look like it was on fire; and one that Granny had taken of him and Roy laughing at the breakfast table over Christmas; and one of all of them at Gracia’s, where Elicia was talking animatedly about something, and he and Roy looked totally engrossed; and one that Elicia had snapped at the aquarium, where Roy had one fingertip pressed to the glass of one of the exhibits to point at something and was obviously waxing poetic about it, but Ed was looking at him like he was the only real wonder in the whole damn place.

And Al had been right.  When Roy tore the tissue paper off, he sorted through the frames slowly, one-by-one, and looked for a long second like he was going to cry.

Then he fisted a hand in Ed’s hair and kissed him for about forever instead, which Ed sort of thought was preferable all around.  But either way, he was chalking up a tally mark in the Flawless Victory column, and it felt seriously fucking good.

There was even time for sloppy, lazy, coffee-flavored morning sex before he had to go to lab—and even that wasn’t much of a downer.  First off, he was way less sleep-deprived than usual; and second, knowing that he was coming home to goddamn Roy at the end of every day made everything suck just a little less.

Unfortunately, May sucked a lot.

Like, a metric-fucking-shit-ton-lot.  With some extra suck on top.  And sucky-ass fucking sprinkles.

In a logical, rational, observing-from-a-disassociating-distance kind of way, at the intervals in which he was capable of detached consideration, Ed knew that he was working himself fucking ragged.  But in the minute-to-minute scheme of things, he didn’t really have a choice.  The shit had to get done, and the fact that there was so much shit in need of doing that there was barely time to replace the contents of his entire bloodstream with pure caffeine some days—

The worst thing was, he usually tried to go to sleep when Roy did—he tried—but then he’d wake up an hour or two later with his mind racing like a scared hamster on a squeaky fucking wheel, and he’d slip out of bed and go downstairs and turn the light on in the kitchen and muddle his way through a little more data just to get his brain to shut up.

The world would start to get sort of—fuzzy, after noon or so every day.  Either he was hearing things, or people were really just… saying his name and then vanishing into the ether, and he wasn’t sure which was worse.  He felt nauseous a lot.  And dizzy sometimes.  He was spilling fucking boiling water or hot coffee on himself almost every day at the stupid shop, and the band-aids on his hands would just get wet all the time, and the constant sing of pain in his neck and his shoulder sometimes upped the tempo and the volume until it was screaming, and he couldn’t even see straight.

On weekends—weekends, beautiful weekends—Roy had a tendency to catch him trying to get up.  Roy, bless his fucking heart, would flail an arm out, grab Ed’s wrist, pull him back into the bed, and octopus-cuddle him and scratch his scalp until he dropped back into a blackout sort of sleep.  Roy would make him breakfast at lunchtime and then bundle him into the bathtub and pour in, like, lavender-smelling shit and comb his hair out so slow and wash it strand by fucking strand.  He’d say shit—little things, stupid little things.  You’re so beautiful.  You’re so dedicated.  It’s all right if you slow down just a little bit, sweetheart; it really is.  You do need to take care of yourself, after all—and that’s not a bad thing.  That’s not going to ruin your research or invalidate your work ethic.  Human beings need rest, I’m afraid.  I bought you some snacks and things to take in to lab with you; will you promise me you’ll try to remember to eat them?

Well—maybe he said all that.  Probably.  It sounded like stuff he’d say, but Ed was usually drifting on the threefold boundary between daydream and real dream and reality at that point, so it was hard to tell.

But it was okay.  The shit had to get done, and most of it was getting done; he was just sort of fumbling his way through it in a blurry, numb-fingered kind of way, and mostly it was turning out all right.  He just had to get through to June.  June fifth.  On June fifth, he was defending, and in a matter of a couple hours of pointing at slides and wordvomiting towards his thesis committee, this whole unending nightmare would be over.  Just—done.  All done.  Six years of work vanishing into the summer-blue sky.  Dust in the wind and shit.

He wasn’t letting himself think about what came after that just yet.  He wasn’t sure if he’d survive an existential crisis about the future on top of the ongoing existential crisis about the present, so it was safer not to try.

He couldn’t say there was a hardest thing, because all of this shit was nigh-on impossible, but he’d been tackling impossible since he was six, and fuck anybody who tried to stop him.  But he barely got to see Al, between the work shifts and the disappearing hours in lab.  He barely even got to see Roy, who he fucking lived with now—maybe an hour at night if he was lucky; forty-five minutes or so of him scarfing down real food and rambling incoherently about his experiments and waving his hands a lot.  Roy would sit across the table nodding and responding with that intense investment that made Ed feel so fucking valued, but with this deep consternation just underneath the surface—something troubled, something almost scared.

When Ed paused in the fevered maelstrom of that fucking month long enough to think about it, he hated himself for not asking Roy what was wrong—for not prying it out from the little cracks in the façade like… crabmeat or some shit.  For not even being able to muster the energy to come out with a Hey, you seem a little bit off lately; you wanna talk about it?

Maybe it was partly the fact that even on the rare occasions that he had a couple hours to spare, he was just too beat-down-tired to be much of a fucking boyfriend.  Or much of a boyfriend fucking, for what that was worth; they hadn’t had sex in, like… since Roy’s birthday, really.  Except Roy didn’t complain about that—didn’t even hint that he might be unhappy about it; never did the whole meaningful-suggestive-touch-deep-sigh guilt-trip thing.  Just tucked Ed into that gorgeous fucking bed whenever he’d sit still long enough to pin down, and kept feeding him, and kissed him so softly, like he was something precious.

Ed kept saying I’m almost there, I’m sorry, it’s almost over, like that mattered—like that made any of it okay.  And Roy still just… kissed him, and stroked his hair back, and looked into his sleepless-wild eyes, and smiled.  You’re a force of nature, you know that?  You’re incredible.  I don’t know how you do it.

Ed didn’t really know, either.  He just knew it had to get done.

With one week to go—May twenty-ninth, the Friday before the Friday to end all Fridays—he texted Roy during an honest attempt to take a breather and eat some trail mix.  It had M&Ms in it.  Trail mix that didn’t have M&Ms always felt like a betrayal; Roy had either noticed that about him, or magically sensed the sentiment.

hey is it ok with you if i grab dinner with Al?

He was the worst boyfriend in the storied history of monogamous interpersonal relationships, and no amount of Of course <3s could change that, but he felt like he was going to split into sixteen jagged-edged pieces if he didn’t get an Al hug pretty soon.

Fortunately, there were a lot of Al hugs waiting for him that night.  Also, hamburgers.

In addition to supernatural hugging powers, Al had a knack for helping Ed to see lights at the end of sewer tunnels and silver linings on hurricanes.  He was going to be fine.  Izumi Curtis—who was not in any way, shape or form a slouch in the world of bioscience research—thought he was a goddamn prodigy and kept telling him so.  That counted.  So did his chockfull CV and his inability to give up on anything, ever.  He had come a long goddamn way, and he’d done a hell of a lot.  That was the hard thing—the marathon.  This was just the last five-hundred-yard stretch of it, and even if he crawled over the finish line and collapsed and vomited, it still counted.  He’d get his stupid PhD, and life would go on, and he would be okay.

He came back to Roy’s place that night feeling stabler than he had in weeks, and all of the words of gratitude that he wanted to express were fighting each other in his throat as he let himself in.  Where could he even start on You made all of this possible, you fucking saint?

There was a light on in the kitchen, and Roy had a streak of secret-yuppie energy-conscious greenness in him, so the odds of Roy being present to utilize the light were fairly high.

Sure enough, he was sitting at the table, with one of those legal notebooks—stereotype in the flesh—and a slew of folders set out before him, and a pen in his hand.  He glanced up as Ed walked in and smiled.  He looked… tired.  Really tired.

Ed’s stomach dropped right the fuck out.  How much had he missed?  How much of Roy’s life had just slipped past him, totally unheeded, while he was laser-focusing on his own shit?

“Hey, you,” Roy said.  He stood from the chair, winced, and twisted to stretch his back.  “Oh, hell—sorry, rewind.”  He started to cross the room with his arms out, and Ed met him halfway and just about fucking dove into them.  “That was supposed to be ‘Hello, gorgeous,’” Roy said.  “‘Your agile, supple young lover wants to know if you had a good time at dinner.’”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He had his cheekbone pressed to Roy’s collarbone, and it probably should’ve hurt, but it didn’t.  “It was nice.  Missed you, though.”

He was discovering that it was possible to miss someone every minute of the fucking day that you weren’t with them.  With Al, that was just sort of a fact, and always had been; he hadn’t realized it could apply to other people until… now.  Until Roy.

The being-in-love part was one thing; that had happened before.  It was just that he wasn’t sure he’d ever liked somebody’s company this much on top of it.

Roy was kissing the top of Ed’s head, rather meaningfully, which made Ed like his company a little bit less.

And then Roy went quiet, and his hug tightened before he drew back.  He kept his hands on Ed’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes, and Ed’s heart jumped right up into his throat and lodged there, shivering.

“Can I ask you something?” Roy said softly.

Golly gosh darn, that question was never the start of anything bad, was it?


But Ed owed this man a hell of a lot more than just meeting his eyes and saying, “Sure.”  That much he could do.

The pads of Roy’s thumbs stroked at the sides of Ed’s neck, and he looked away for a second, then looked Ed’s face up and down, then drew a deep breath.

“Just say ‘no’ if you need to,” he said.  “It’s just—they’re… raising the rent for our office, and dry spells aren’t that unusual, but Sheska’s mother’s in the hospital, and…”

“Shit,” Ed said.  “I’m sorry.”

And what?  And what, Roy?  God, please—

He had no idea what he was pleading for.  Something.  Anything.  Roy to stop looking so fucking wrecked all of a sudden, like he’d been holding it back and back and back to keep Ed safe, but the whole careful barrier was crumbling down—

How much had he missed?

“It’s not your fault,” Roy said, brushing his hair back—so gently, always so fucking gently.  “I… it’s just that—there was a mistrial, the first time, and Soph Kimblee called us again, and… I trust you, I do; I just—can you tell me?  About him, or what he did, or…”

“Roy,” Ed said, and his voice came out sounding like the last fucking croak of an anemic fucking frog.

He focused on Roy’s eyes somehow, and—holy fucking shit, the pain there—

“I’m sorry,” Roy said, and the syllables sort of—shuddered.  He’d never talked like this before, ever.

…no.  That wasn’t true.  He sounded a little like this—small and fucked up and sad and broken as all hell—when he woke up at three in the morning from a fucking PTSD dream.

That was what Ed was doing to him.

“I shouldn’t have asked,” Roy said.  “I’m sorry; forget it.  Never mind.”  He was pulling Ed back into another hug, and Ed felt—what?  Numb and trembly and twisted up inside and sick, straight through.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry; I’m just… tired, stressed; it’s all right.  It’ll be all right.”

“No,” Ed said, froggily.  “No, I’ll tell you.  Just—” He fisted both hands in Roy’s shirt and pulled them both over to the table and sat them down facing each other, and then he tried to remember how to breathe right.  “You’re—gonna have to be patient.  ’Cause it’s—fucked up.  And it’s all fucked up in my head.”

“Forget it,” Roy said, with a hell of a lot more urgency this time.  “Ed—I don’t—want—to dredge it up, if it’s this difficult for you—let’s just not.  Don’t put yourself through that.  It’s fine; it’s all right.”

“You should know,” Ed said, looking at the table.  Woodgrain.  “If… especially if… he’s here.  Around.  You should know.”

Roy took both of his hands and held them almost too tight.

“If you’re sure,” he said.

The thing was, Ed had never had to tell this story to anyone.  Al had been there, obviously—and Winry had seen parts of it, but he’d never let her in on just how bad it had gotten towards the end.  He hadn’t been sure how she’d take it, and a part of him had been… what?  Afraid that she wouldn’t respect him anymore?

Yeah.  Probably.

Al had backed him up, even though he seemed to have some reservations about the whole thing, and they’d given her a highly abridged version of the truth, and she’d been supportive and whatever, and that had been that.

But what that meant was that he’d never… articulated it… at all.

He looked down at Roy’s hands curled so tight around his—thumbs moving slowly, almost reverently, over the fucking grimy-ass band-aids he’d slapped on over the kinda gnarly burn this morning.  There were a couple lines deepening in Roy’s forehead like he wanted to say something about that, too, but knew he couldn’t derail this, or they’d never get to the fucking station.

“Long story short,” Ed said, “we… dated.”  Well.  “Maybe that’s—not the right word.  I dunno if we ever actually went on a date.  We were—together—though.  For a while.”

He could feel Roy’s eyes searching his face for the rest of it.  “Ah.”

If he kept tightening his grip on Roy’s hands, he was either going to break one of the burn blisters open or cut off the circulation to Roy’s fingers, and neither of those things sounded like a great plan.

“Just—it—was shit.  In the end.  It turned out to be shit, and he turned out to be—fucked up.  Really fucked up.”  Ed closed his eyes and took another, deeper breath, then two, then three.  “Okay, just—bear with me?”

“Of course,” Roy said softly.

So Ed told him.  Ed told him the whole sordid fucking story from the start.

Ed’s decided he kind of likes London.  He likes its tree-lined sidewalks (pavements) and its wrought-iron fences and its gloomy skies and its tacky tourist shops.  He likes its breathtakingly historic monuments and its chain fast-food restaurants; he likes its antiquity and its ambition.  He likes the skyscrapers and the greengrocers and the stupid, stupid souvenirs.  He likes the red buses and the gray (grey) rain.

He doesn’t have much on his agenda for Friday morning, so he whiles the hours away in the British Museum—just… wandering.  Totally fucking aimlessly.  He makes sure to hit the Rosetta Stone and shit, because he’s not a moron, but holy hell, how come nobody ever talks about Mesopotamia?  This is about the sickest shit he’s ever seen—and then the Parthenon Marbles, which are a nice little hotpot of controversy all on their own; and the Egypt section goes on for miles

You could live and die in here and still have barely touched the full extent of knowledge caged and breathing softly within these walls.

He was thinking of going to the British Library after this, before he heads off to the late-afternoon lecture-dinner thing they scheduled him for, but he doesn’t think his brain can contort enough to fit any more sheer fucking wonder into his skull today.

So instead he goes to Harrod’s, where he almost drowns in outrageous capitalist decadence within the first five minutes, and it’s mindless and soulless and way too shiny and seriously great.

He buys Roy a criminally overpriced apron that says Snog the cook, and he gets Al an even more overpriced china teapot set covered in kittens and hearts and Harrod’s logos.

And that’s the thing, about a city this ancient, and this simultaneously blazingly new—a city that’s been reinventing itself since long before the language he speaks was extant even in its most archetypal form.

It spans the whole spectrum—it holds the whole breadth of humanity.  Everything they have been; everything they aspire to; everything they are—all at once, in every drop of rain and every gasp of air.  You can feel it, like the overtures of lightning, just the faintest little tingle underneath your skin.

In the scope of all of human history, a couple hours with his deadbeat fuckoff dad isn’t even an infinitesimal glimmer in the vastness of the starlit sky.

And that’s… nice, kind of.  Reassuring, in a way.

It feels good—hoping.  Hope feels good.