The knock at the door makes Roy startle, and then it makes him pause. He isn’t expecting anyone.
It’s funny, how slowly and in how much agony some habits die. A part of his brain jolts in terror, because all that’s out there is the snow—
But the rest of him knows that that’s not true anymore. There’s snow, yes—more than Central’s accustomed to, though not enough to stop it in its tracks—but there’s a city out there, too. There are people, and other lives, and a planet that keeps on turning.
He sets down the paper, stands, winces at the way his knees crack just this side of loud enough to rouse the dead, and crosses the threshold out of the living room. He softens his steps as they hit the tile in the front hall, and stays close against the wall: he won’t cast a shadow, and he won’t make a sound. Just to the side of the door, there’s a second tiny peephole—a custom design he dreamt up one sleepless night and built over the course of several others. A series of small opposing mirrors snaking through the wall gives him the same view as the regular vantage, but without the risk of someone being able to look back through, wait for him to fill the space, and know just where to aim to put a bullet through his brain.
One of those is more than enough for a lifetime, after all.
He bends, and his spine hurts, and aging is the worst and best-earned punishment ever levied on a world full of sinners like himself—
It’s Ed, bundled up tight, with a scarf drawn up over his nose and both arms wrapped around himself, bouncing on the balls of his feet, but even just the top half of his face makes his figure more than unmistakable. A glimpse of his hair alone could do that.
Roy straightens—augh—and opens the door.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Hovenstad for another half a week?” he asks.
Ed scoffs, muffled slightly by the scarf, and barrels in, shouldering past him. “Fucking delighted to see you, too.”
Roy finds himself—grinning. It still feels strange. “I thought that was so obvious that it was implied. I wasn’t going to insult your intelligence by intoning it.”
“Nice try,” Ed says. He lifts the strap of his bag up and off of his shoulder and hangs it on one of the hooks. Unwinding the scarf seems to take eons—but Roy’s more fluent in the variance of the passage of time these days than he used to be, and he recognizes that it must only feel slow because he’s so damned eager to see Ed’s face.
It also doesn’t help that his immediate instinct is to step forward and start brushing half-melted snowflakes off of the shoulders of Ed’s coat, which puts his hands directly in the way of the whole process.
“Dare I ask why you’ve graced my foyer so early?” he asks.
Ed’s nose appears just in time for an emphatic snort. Then Ed swipes one knit-gloved hand beneath it to wipe away some snot, or perhaps an icicle of it.
Roy loves him.
“Finished up,” Ed says. “Saw everything I needed to. Got tired of the fucking snow, so naturally I came back right in time for the annual ‘fuck you, Ed’ blizzard to hit down here.”
Roy winces. That explains the hint of a limp. It’s a relief, in one way—Roy’s brain is still accustomed to assessing Ed the instant that he comes through the door, wherever precisely that door is, and searching for signs of injuries incurred on the most recent escapade—and a terrible shame in another. This is a wound Ed’s worn his whole life, and will for the rest of it. This will never heal.
Roy darts his hands, which even these days are still defter than most, in between Ed’s be-gloved fumbling to peel the scarf aside enough to start unbuttoning the wool coat. “Let’s get you warmed up, then.”
“Is that a come-on?” Ed asks. Before Roy can cock an eyebrow and load a smirk, Ed adds, “Because it’s a shitty one, even for you,” which quells the triumph a bit. Ed nips the fingertips of his gloves one by one to pull them off while Roy hangs up the coat. “Y’got coffee?”
“Not for you,” Roy says. “At least not this late.”
“Bastard,” Ed says, without so much as a milliliter of venom in the word. “Still trying to micromanage my fucking life. What time is it?”
“Ten minutes to midnight,” Roy says.
“Oh,” Ed says. He moves over to his hanging bag and shoves the gloves into a pocket, then starts digging inside. “Shit. All right, I’ll give you that one. But don’t get used to it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Roy says mildly. He sidles into the kitchen to put the kettle on. “Tea?”
“You sound like Al,” Ed says.
Roy lights the stove. “Rarely have I heard a higher compliment leave your mouth headed in my direction.”
Ed snickers from around the corner. “Do you have fruity shit?”
Roy feels another smile spreading across his face, which rather spoils the deadpan he was going for. “What sort of connoisseur of the finer things in life would I be if I didn’t have fruity-shit tea?”
“That sounded less like Al,” Ed says. “Hey—” His voice approaches, and then his footsteps do. “The other reason I left early was ’cause I wanted to get here by the solstice.”
Roy looks up from filling the kettle, with the intention of making an inquiring noise, and sees that Ed’s standing in the doorway with a brown-paper-wrapped parcel in his hands.
He is more than just a vision there—swathed in an off-white sweater and a cranberry-colored scarf, with snowmelt darkening his hair and a tinge of pink in his nose and his cheeks. He’s more than just a godsend; more than just a revelation. He’s absolution incarnate, and Roy doesn’t deserve a single atom of his being.
“A whole ten minutes to spare,” he says to the wonder wandering into his kitchen. “If nothing else, your timing has improved.”
“My timing was always perfect,” Ed says. “I was usually late to meetings with you on purpose. Once or twice I tried to play chicken with your deadlines just to see if you’d cancel ’em.”
“I know,” Roy says. “Which is why I never did.”
“I guess this is why Winry says we ‘deserve each other’,” Ed says, and Roy’s heart, humiliatingly, performs a maneuver that can only be characterized as skipping. Ed saunters a little nearer, and Roy’s heart jetés and pirouettes in turn, and then Ed’s shoving the package at him. “Here.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Roy says, but it’s impossible not to accept it with the way Ed’s pushing it into his hands.
“Maybe,” Ed says. “But I did. And now I can’t put it back. So you might as well open it.”
“Your infallible brute-force logic strikes again,” Roy says.
“Thanks or whatever,” Ed says, voice faux-cheerful as his eyes stay fixed on the object he’s dropped into Roy’s arms.
“I hope,” Roy says, “that it goes without saying that you, alone, are a significantly greater gift than anything I could possibly have asked for or expe—”
“Just fuckin’ open it,” Ed says.
Roy starts picking at the knot in the string. It’s not especially tight; whether that’s because the automail couldn’t gain traction he doesn’t suppose he’ll ever know for sure. “Does Alphonse tell you that you are remarkably persistent for someone who has demonstrated on multiple occasions that his mind is indeed capable of following more than a single track?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “But he doesn’t waste twenty words on it like you just did. He just says I’m bossy.”
“Efficient,” Roy says.
“Less talking shit,” Ed says; “more unwrapping.”
“But I’m much better at the first,” Roy says, struggling with a bit where two pieces of tape overlapped on the paper and turned it into an impenetrable adhesive wall.
“Funny thing about stuff you’re not good at,” Ed says. “The more you focus on it and work at it, the better you get.”
It is not necessary or helpful to point out that the process of improvement is substantially more difficult for ordinary human beings than it is for Edward Elric, who swans off to other universes, acclimates to their customs, learns no less than three of their languages, masters their physics well enough to turn it into an esteemed career, and then tumbles back and immediately invents the field of alchemical engineering and starts disseminating it across the country.
Besides, Roy has finally bested a weak point in the barricade of the wrapping, and the paper gives way, and at long last he manages to extract—
What looks like a cross between an oversized book and a large portfolio, with a wealth of mismatched, unevenly-edged pages protruding from between the leather covers. It appears to be tied together in three spots along the spine, rather than bound, and as he shifts the wrapping to open it, the first page is scrawled with no more or less than the words—
Miscellanea – something like an autobiography I guess
Despite the fact that the atrocious penmanship is, of course, so familiar now that it only rarely poses a challenge to readability, Roy’s brain doesn’t seem to want to process the import of the lines. He turns the page and finds himself with a copy of a report that is dated almost ten years ago, with Ed’s name scratched in at the top. It looks exactly like the one that he received at the time, except that arrows spew out from the text all over, leading to a veritable explosion of marginalia in spotty blue ink. Even the quickest skim confirms that the annotations tell a very different story than the typewritten text.
The next page looks like an early-stage diagram of the alchemically-augmented waterwheel Ed was working on last year—again, blanketed in commentary in a second color.
The next page is a handwritten recipe for apple tarts which calls for Eastern apples, amended with the caveat that imports aren’t the same.
“You get so soppy about missing me,” Ed says as Roy keeps leafing through, and inconceivable marvels continue to surface in no apparent order, “that I figured I should make you something you could snuggle with when I’m gone. Happy birthday.”
Roy’s guard is down, and his will is weak, and his heart is overflowing, which puts him at a tremendous disadvantage—it’s only by the skin of his teeth and the barest remnants of his instincts that he resists the impulse to flinch or to freeze.
“How do you even know that?” he asks.
“I can’t tell you,” Ed says, “without implicating one or more individuals who can gain slightly illicit access to the personnel files when I start calling in favors. There’s rocket stuff in there. I think it’s towards the end. I figured leaving it totally random would make it more fun, ’cause you can just start from anywhere and never know what’ll crop up.”
The clumsy distraction of the segue is not lost on Roy, but the significance of it isn’t either: Ed speaks of Germany so sparingly, and with such a devastating combination of bitten-back agony and half-buried despair, that the already incalculable value of the object in Roy’s hands just doubled at least.
Roy looks him in the eyes—as best as two can ever meet one; as best as his could ever meet Ed’s in any condition.
“Thank you,” he says. “I don’t believe I have ever received a more exquisite gift.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ed says, but he doesn’t duck fast enough to hide either the faint blush or the tickled grin. “How about my damn tea?”
“Oh, shit,” Roy says before he can stop himself—Ed is, evidently, rubbing off on him, and not in the good way. He hastens to the table to set the book down gently—sweeping one palm across the tabletop just in case of an elusive damp spot; the last thing he will ever do is mar this masterpiece, and sometimes his damaged depth perception plays tricks—and then returns to the stove.
Ed’s just smiling at him. And shivering a bit. And circling his right shoulder, and then the smile gives way to a wince, and Roy’s drawn to him so swiftly—the tide towards the moon. Even when the light’s on the other side of the planet, he feels it pulling him, inexorable and shining and sublime.
He presses both thumbs gently in at the edge of the automail port, then runs the heel of the left up along the scar tissue and over to knead cautiously at the back side, too.
“Come sit,” he says, but he doesn’t tug or nudge or shepherd. Ed takes poorly to being led, even now; fortunately, Roy has always been a master of suggestion. “I’ll get you a blanket. And a second one for your feet.”
Ed’s weight shifts towards the table, and once he’s made the first step of his own volition, it’s safe to guide him with one hand still on his shoulder, and the other settled affectionately against the small of his back.
Roy supposes all of Ed’s back is, relatively speaking, rather small. On a night he feels less blessed and more reckless, he’ll say so.
“That’s more like it,” Ed’s saying as he settles in one of the chairs, though the corner of his mouth pulls with the pain again at the way that sitting jars the metal. “I was getting pretty disappointed about the service around here. At the rate you were going, I wasn’t gonna tip.”
“Tragic,” Roy says, slipping out to dart into the living room and snatch up the first few warmth-supplying objects he lays eye on. He doesn’t want to leave Ed alone any longer than is physically required; every second they’re apart feels like tempting fate to spirit him away.
This time, he’s lucky, and the miracle of a mirage persists: Ed’s still sprawled in one of the kitchen chairs like a weary young god when Roy returns.
Wrapping the fuzziest and wooliest of the house’s blankets around him is privilege enough. The way he clutches the mug of tea in both hands, cradling it with his head tipped forward and his eyes sliding halfway shut, with the steam misting up around his face, is more than Roy has merited in longer than he cares to recall.
“All right,” Ed says after a few moments of apparent rapture. The spell shatters instantly, and he sets the mug down on the table and looks up clear-eyed, with the faintest hint of a… smirk. “C’mere, asshole.”
Inevitably, Roy obliges. “You have such a way with words, my dear.”
“I get that a lot,” Ed says, reaching up to grab an unceremonious fistful of Roy’s shirtfront, which he uses as leverage to drag Roy down close enough to share a wisp of his breath. His eyes are always devastating this close.
“Didn’t you want to drink some of that?” Roy asks, because he is, despite his innumerable talents and irresistible charms, something of an imbecile at times.
“S’too hot right now anyway,” Ed breathes, and the smirk curling the corners of his mouth makes it impossible for Roy to remember how to do likewise. “Sorta like you.”
Somehow Roy manages to drag in enough air for part of a laugh. Hovering within two inches of Ed’s mouth is perhaps the single most tantalizing position known to man, but he has promised himself—promised both of them, and himself aloud, in a mantra that matches his own heartbeat—that he will never push Ed towards anything.
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” he says.
“Figured,” Ed says. He leans up—and then stops, grinning, with his lips centimeters away from Roy’s. “Also figured I should wait to say ‘hello’ properly until I’d warmed my mouth up, so it wouldn’t be like kissing a frozen fish.”
“I can assure you,” Roy says, despite the way the blood is whisking through his veins so swiftly that he may collapse on the spot, “with some confidence, that it would not.”
Ed grins wider, and if the world ends tomorrow, Roy won’t mind. “How the hell do you know? You been kissin’ lots of fish while I was gone?”
“As you rightfully pointed out,” Roy says, “I missed you quite a lot. Sometimes when the loneliness grows overbearing, I just go to the market and ask the fishmongers if they have any particularly attractive trout, and—”
Ed starts laughing, and then Ed starts kissing him, and somehow Roy hears the chime of the clock in the hallway striking midnight through the whirlwind of transcendence at hand.
“Happy birthday,” Ed says when he’s drawn back—but not far, and his clenched fingers hold Roy’s shirt hostage, and captivity has never been so kind.
“Don’t you mean ‘happy bastard-day’?” Roy asks.
“Oh, shit,” Ed says, and his eyes go huge and round and harvest-moon-beautiful. “I’m gonna use that forever.”
Roy won’t comment, and he won’t take it as a promise, and he won’t let his hopes soar too far skyward, and he won’t take any of it for granted, not once—
But damn, if forever doesn’t sound just about right.
“Perhaps if you’re very, very good,” he says, “for your birthday, I’ll get you a stepstoo—”
Ed demonstrates an extremely well-practiced bit of multitasking as he tries to stifle a laugh, chokes on it, and smacks Roy’s arm with the flat of his right hand.
“Bastard!” he says, with feeling this time.
But the fact that he didn’t hit particularly hard rather belies him.
As does the way he throws both arms around Roy’s waist and leans in to press his cheek to Roy’s chest.
“Must’ve lost it once and for all,” he says, “because I missed you, too.”
“Enough to start courting frozen fish?” Roy asks.
Surely Ed’s laugh could save entire worlds. It’s just about singlehandedly salvaged Roy’s.
“Y’know,” Ed says, “just about.”