I don't wanna talk to you anymore
I'm afraid of what I might say
I bite my tongue every time you come around
'Cause blood in my mouth beats blood on the ground
– "Blood on the Ground" – Incubus —
Everything was different—but as far as Ed could tell, the only thing that had changed was the paint.
And that was the only part of it that he’d expected. Just before he’d left, Central Command’s Busybody Homemakers Unit—they probably had some kind of an official name, but Ed didn’t figure they deserved one—had decreed that Roy’s whole office was embarrassingly outdated and overused, and the blinds needed to be replaced, and the couch needed to be steam-cleaned, and every single wall needed a new coat of paint. The order had come on official stationery, which was a sure sign that there wasn’t any fighting it. Apparently the Powers that Were in the Busybody Homemaker Unit had picked the contractor and the date without ever consulting the people who actually had to work inside their new pet project.
Roy had been toying with the business card that had come stapled to the missive, turning it end over end and tapping each corner against his desktop, when he’d called Ed in and handed him a manila folder. Ed had torn his susceptible eyes away from Roy’s unreasonably interesting fingertips and looked at the destination on the train ticket paper-clipped to the front of the folder.
“Alibri?” he’d managed, trying to seed his disbelief with the appropriate amount of scathing sarcasm. He had trouble with that balance sometimes, and with Roy you had to nail it, or he’d obliterate you with some effortless smartass remark. “What the hell could possibly be going on in Alibri that’s important enough for heatstroke? You know it’s hot as balls out there this time of year, right?”
“I’ve never taken the necessary temperature measurements to compare,” Roy said, perfectly calmly, gazing at the wall—which looked pretty acceptable, paint-wise, to Ed, but maybe he wasn’t the right person to ask. “But I did spend quite a lot of time in East City, don’t forget. Look on the bright side, Fullmetal; you won’t have to choke on paint fumes here with the rest of us. In fact, I suspect they may be so noxious that we all end up with migraine headaches and have to go home early.”
“Better a migraine than a hole in the head, sir,” Hawkeye said, pointedly adjusting her gun belt as she walked past the doorway.
Roy was trying not to grin like a dweeb. “Just making sure you were paying attention, Lieutenant.”
“Always, sir,” Hawkeye said.
“I’m going to bring you back a salt lick,” Ed said.
“I look forward to it,” Roy said. “If you can, find one I can have fixed to the corner of my desk for easy access.” His eyes went serious for a fraction of a second. “You’ll be passing through New Optain, which might be helpful for that other report.”
That had explained at least part of the stupid goose chase—Hakuro had been stationed in New Optain for ages, and one of Ed’s unofficial projects was working on a conceptual map of connections between that rat bastard and a bunch of the other cockroaches who had somehow maintained their vise-grip on power even after Bradley fell from grace.
By now, Ed was also well-aware that if Roy didn’t periodically send his quasi-famous State Alchemist major out on little quests, it looked like he was both wasting the resource and failing to support Ed’s research career. They might reassign Fullmetal to somebody else if both of them didn’t tread pretty carefully.
Ed always tried to make sure to try to be a little extra crotchety and obnoxious—riding the line of insubordination, of course—every time a potential alternative C.O. was present or might hear about it. If none of them wanted to touch him with a ten-foot pole, it was much more likely they wouldn’t try to snatch him away from the esteemed General Mustang.
Plus Ed kind of liked the idea of people wondering whether Roy secretly had the patience of a saint. Which, incidentally, he did—albeit in a slow-burn secret-plot kind of way, more than anything else—but it was fun to mess around with their expectations regardless.
The point was, Ed had taken a week-long, immensely horrible trip to Alibri shortly after he’d concluded that conversation with Roy.
He returned to very nice, neat, newly-painted walls and a gut-wrenching conviction that that conversation had never happened at all.
But it had, hadn’t it? It had; he remembered it; he’d had an itch on his temple in front of his ear, but on the right side—he’d had to shift the folder into the automail hand so that he could reach across himself and scratch it—
He wouldn’t have made that up. It had happened.
Which begged the question of what the fuck else had happened since he’d left, and the even more pertinent follow-up: who the hell were these people if they weren’t the ones he’d said See you later to a week ago?
“Good morning, Major,” Breda said the second Ed stepped through the door. “You’re back early, aren’t you? How was the trip?”
Ed stopped. He looked behind him. There was not another major standing in the hallway—there wasn’t anyone, in fact, let alone anyone who’d recently returned from a trip a day ahead of schedule, which made this extremely confusing.
“Uh,” he said. “F… fine. Thanks.”
If this was a joke, he would have expected all of the guys to bust out into big cheesy grins and start ribbing him immediately about the fact that he’d bought the ruse—and responded to being addressed by his rank, which was even more unprecedented than him being a gullible dumbass in this badger den.
“Good morning, Major,” Hawkeye said next, and Ed turned to stare at her instead. She always called him Edward. He liked that. It helped remind him that he was a person. “General Mustang isn’t in yet. We’re hoping he’ll make it before his nine o’clock meeting, but…”
Trailing off wasn’t like her. Neither was gazing at the wall in a vaguely distressed sort of way. Neither was not giving Roy a metric ton of crap for even thinking about being late to a meeting. Ed was betting she could tell when he dreamed about it, and she probably made sure that Act Two consisted of nightmares about sentient sniper rifles.
“Oh,” Ed said, stupidly. “Okay. Well… I have… reports… and shit.”
Everyone stared at him. Fuery winced. Falman fiddled with his pen. Havoc gnawed harder on his toothpick, and Breda and Hawkeye exchanged a glance.
“Language, please, Major,” Hawkeye said.
Ed’s turn to stare again. At least that was nice and equitable.
“Uh,” he said. “Sorry.”
No one had ever said that to him here.
Had he fallen through the Gate without noticing and wound up in some kind of alternate universe where everything and everyone he knew was fractionally but fundamentally different from what he’d left behind? That was the only thing that made sense. He couldn’t possibly…
Well—hell. He couldn’t possibly have imagined every single goddamn thing that had come before.
He shuffled over to his usual chair and dropped into it, listening to his heart beating in his ears. By the sound of it, he definitely wasn’t dead, so at least that was something, but with that avenue excluded—what the shit was going on here?
He’d written most of the report on the train back, partly just to distract himself from the way his ass had been going numb on the seat, but he’d come up with a couple of addenda to make last night. Lately he’d been trying not to dwell on the fact that he’d become the sort of person who thought about work when he wasn’t at work and didn’t have to be working, but Al had said it was a good sign that he cared about what Roy was trying to do.
There—Al. Al hadn’t changed. Al had been Al last night and this morning, North-Star-stable, as bright and smiley and sweet and covered in cat fur as ever. Whatever bizarre affliction had overwhelmed Central Command hadn’t affected him.
So what the fuck?
The door opened—or, more accurately, was flung open, by none other than General Roy Mustang, career schemer and natural-born nerd.
Except that today he looked—
Good. Really good. Unreasonably good. Roy was always sort of a walking, constantly-talking exercise in restraint, for Ed, because he was so damn easy on the eyes and so damn hard on the temper, but today he looked like a million fucking cens. Today he looked like the kind of man a fashion designer would tackle to the street and kidnap and drag away so that they’d have the unrivaled privilege of dressing him in their clothes. Today he looked like sex on legs, and they were good legs, and were his boots a little higher? His cheekbones were. Had they been that pronounced before? Had they been that pronounced ever? And somehow his eyes didn’t have the dark circles underneath them today, and they were ever so slightly better-defined, and were his eyelashes longer?
Ed was hallucinating. That was it. That was the explanation. That summed up all of this.
No big deal. Wasn’t the first time. He’d just wait it o—
“Ah, Fullmetal,” Roy said, smirking broadly, and the paper-in-flame curl of his voice made the hair on the back of Ed’s neck stand up. “So charitable of you to join us again. I trust you had a lovely little sojourn? Maybe met a lovely little lady on your way?”
It took Ed three-quarters of a second to realize that his mouth had fallen open.
Roy—knew. Didn’t he? Ed had just—assumed. Sure, it’d never been said in so many words, at least not out loud, but Roy had long since made it his personal mission to know everything about everyone, so Ed had just sort of figured that Roy couldn’t not know, and—
Holy hell. Whatever terrible place this was that he’d dropped into, he didn’t like it at all.
“Uh,” he said. “Not… really, but—I have the report, if you—”
“No time,” Roy said, breezing past him. “I have an extremely important phone call, you understand—”
“And your meeting at nine, sir,” Hawkeye said.
Roy stopped in his tracks, and his eyes widened. He was—his fucking eyelashes—
But Ed couldn’t ask or point that out without belying that he was way too much of an expert on Roy’s eyelashes to begin with, which… had just started to feel a whole lot less safe.
“Is that today?” Roy asked. “Damn it, Lieutenant, I can’t… I don’t…” He waved a hand in a way that was every bit as spectacularly unrevealing as the rest of this shit. “Eugh. All right. Fine. I’ll make it quick.”
“Yes, sir,” Hawkeye said, eyes on her clipboard.
Ed watched in frozen, abject horror as Roy sighed loudly, kicked one toe at the carpet, and then sauntered on into his office and shut the door. Momentarily, there were some indistinct sounds, followed by a much more distinct, “Well, hello, Veronica—how are you, sweetheart?”
“What,” Ed said, faintly, “the fuck.”
“Language, Major,” Hawkeye said.
He stared at her. If he wasn’t mistaken, she cringed a tiny bit.
Hours passed. Roy swanned out to his meeting and then swanned back, waved away Ed’s near-complete report, closed his door, and immediately got right back on the phone. Everybody else was more or less silent, which was uncanny as well as inexplicable. Fuery eventually asked for Ed’s help plotting a couple of things on a city power grid, which was apparently relevant to Investigations because there had been reports of suspicious power outages. Ed wasn’t quite sure what qualified one power outage as more suspicious than any other, but at least it was something to do that didn’t involve staring incredulously at Roy’s closed door.
By four o’clock, Ed had about fucking had it. He’d read through his report three times; he’d made coffee twice; he’d gone up to the records room with Falman and rooted around for two entire hours trying to find some documentation for an analysis-thing; he’d read through a separate analysis-thing Breda was working on and made semi-helpful red marks in the margins; he’d helped Hawkeye alphabetize an unreasonably large set of files—
Mustang’s dumb ass was still on the phone. Ed couldn’t tell if this was the same call or not; he’d gone numb around the eardrums about an hour previously, and it didn’t matter either way. One or both or all eight of these calls had been to girls, and Roy wasn’t talking in code—Ed knew his code by now. This was just… small-talk. For hours. And some of it was—
Well, hell. Some of it was—dirty. Some of it was so borderline pornographic that Ed hadn’t believed that he was hearing it until he glanced over at Hawkeye, and she was making a face like she’d been chugging unsweetened, out-of-season lemonade.
And by four, he was done. He was finished with this. Whatever weirdo shit was going on here, Edward Elric had had enough of it, and Roy was going to be the one getting a fucking earful in another second.
He grabbed up his mission report in his left hand and took the glove off of the right so that he could bang the metal knuckles even more meaningfully on Roy’s door.
“Hold on, love,” Roy said from within; followed by: “Can it wait? I’m very bus—”
“Like fuck you are,” Ed said.
“Language,” Hawkeye said wearily.
Ed shoved the door open and stalked in, squaring his shoulders and baring his teeth.
“Look,” Ed said.
“Sorry,” Roy said into the phone, giving Ed a reprimanding look that had ceased to have an effect when Ed was twelve and a half. “Can you hold on for just a second? I have a pest proble—”
“Hang up the phone,” Ed said. “You’ve been on all goddamn day, and you asked me for this report before I left, and I have it, and I’m going to make you read it if it’s the last damn thing I—”
“Calm down, Major,” Roy said, holding one hand over the mouthpiece of the phone, and that—
He hadn’t called Ed that—or at least not sincerely—in…
What was his game today? Whatever it was, it was a stupid, obnoxious, shitty game that was preventing everybody else from getting any work done, and Ed wasn’t about to stand here and play it without even knowing the rules.
It made him sick to his stomach when Roy messed with his head. It hadn’t happened in so long that he’d almost forgotten the bile-bitter churn of it—the way his guts twisted, and his ribs contracted, and the acid started creeping up his throat.
Roy should have been better than that. None of this messing around; no ha, ha, gotcha—they were all on the same damn side, more definitively than they’d ever been, and Ed busted his ass daily making sure he had Roy’s back. If this was the only goddamn thanks he got—
“No,” he said, “I will not fucking calm fucking down—what the hell is your problem? What’s wrong with—everybody, actually? What—”
“The only thing that’s a problem here,” Roy said, mildly, “is your piss-poor attitude, Fullmetal.”
This couldn’t be happening. Roy was just too smart to think that Ed was that stupid.
Ed stared at the unfathomable bastard behind the desk—which was getting progressively more difficult, because his vision was starting to blur at the corners as his blood pressure skyrocketed, and his left hand had started to… it wasn’t even shaking; it was more than that. Different. It felt disconnected from him, like the first day with automail—unthinking, instinctive manipulation of it made it move, but it didn’t go quite where he expected; it wasn’t as precise as he wanted it to be; he couldn’t rely on it; it wasn’t responding right.
“Fuck you,” he forced out, which was the single most civil thing he could think of to say. “You asked me for a report, and I brought you one, and—”
Roy rolled his eyes so caustically that it felt like being kicked in the chest—Ed would know—and adjusted his palm over the mouthpiece of the phone. “Yes, you’re a model subordinate, etcetera and so on. I’m so terribly proud; that promotion you’ve been angling for is nearly in your grasp. Is it handwritten? Your report. Did you write it out by hand?”
Ed stared at him. These days, every one of his reports was confidential as all fucking get-out, composed mostly on trains and in hotel rooms while burning the midnight oil. It would’ve been stupid as hell to create two copies of documents this sensitive, setting aside the colossal waste of Ed’s energy. Besides, his penmanship was borderline legible these days, so it didn’t matter as much.
And Roy knew that. Roy knew all of it.
He had to know it.
“Do you want me,” Ed said, slowly, with the dredged-up vestiges of the last shreds of patience he’d scraped from the bottom of his deepest reserves, “to fucking type it?”
Roy smiled at him. It was possibly the weirdest expression Ed had ever seen on the bastard’s face—despite that being a long damn list, most of the others didn’t combine a weird sort of strain with a devil-may-care sunniness.
“That,” Roy said, “would be lovely. Fine suggestion, Major Elric.”
Ed listened to his pulse beat in his brain. This was it. This was the day he murdered Roy Mustang. He’d weathered all the tumults and tidal waves of hormones and youth, put his head down and suffered one indignity after another, gritted his teeth and dug his heels in and prioritized, fixing his eyes on the prize with everything he had in him—
And now, after all that, after everything they’d been through, he was going to kill Roy in cold blood.
“Major Elric,” Fuery called, faintly, “I’ll help you type it.”
“There,” Roy said. “Look at that impeccable teamwork. Isn’t that what military life is all about? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? Subordinates typing things up for you when you can’t be bothered?”
There were words in Ed’s throat—tight, hot, knotted words that swelled and stung and rankled. Words like broken glass with acid edges.
This isn’t funny. This isn’t fucking funny, Roy. I did not come this far and lose this much to have you—you, of all fucking people—sit there and rub my fucking face in how much you tricked me into caring. I don’t know how you got the rest of them in on this, if it was a bribe or a threat or one of your fucking mind-game traps, but I’m not doing this. I’m not. I’m better than that. And if this is who you really are underneath all the shit you made me love you for, I’m better than you.
“Something like that,” he said.
He turned on his heel, crossed the threshold, and pulled the door shut behind him. He set the battered manila folder down on the tabletop and pushed it just hard enough to slide it over to Fuery.
“Thanks, Sergeant,” he said.
“Not at all, sir,” Fuery said. His smile looked half-weary and half-relieved. Ed didn’t know which part of it to believe anymore. Ed didn’t know much of anything. “Happy to help.”
Ed dropped back into his chair, drew out the Hakuro report, and looked at the cover of the folder. This couldn’t be—this had to be some kind of—
He had written this thing. He had sat his ass down, on a number of occasions, and written this thing.
He’d written it for Roy.
He’d written it for a Roy who had existed right up until today.
“Appreciate it, Sergeant,” he said.
“Hey, Al,” Ed called once he’d banged back in through their front door. If he talked while he was doing the door-slamming thing, Al could never hear him, and he had to start over. He’d learned to time it exactly right. “Is it possible to be so sleep-deprived that you hallucinate vividly for eight hours straight?”
There was a substantial pause, and then Al padded to the doorway of their kitchen in his kitty slippers, folding his arms. “That’s not… the single most terrifying thing you’ve ever opened a conversation with, but it’s definitely on the list.”
“Where on the list?” Ed asked. “High?”
“High,” Al said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Ed said. “That’s the part I’m so pissed off about. Everyone’s acting—everything just went—weird.”
Al frowned until it turned into a pout, which was adorable. It was really nice that his cheeks had enough meat on them these days to puff up, too; even after the hell-day Ed had had, that almost put a smile on his face.
“I hate to break it to you,” Al said, “but everyone we know is a little weird. We’re a little weird. Demographically speaking, we’re probably a lot weird. Anyway—can you be a little more specific?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. He kicked his boots off, tromped the rest of the way in, joined Al in the kitchen, and dropped into one of the chairs. “Roy’s being an asshole, and everyone else is just… going along with it. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Al settled opposite him, crossed his legs at the knee, and jogged one kitty-clad foot. “What happened?”
“Something,” Ed said. “I dunno what the fuck it was, unless they’re all so high on the new wall paint that they’ve forgotten their own damn personalities.”
“Did something go wrong?” Al asked.
Ed leaned his head back as far as he dared. It hurt his neck, but that was a small price to pay for melodrama. “Other than the entire trajectory of my life?”
“I meant politically,” Al said. “Did something happen while you were away that would make Roy upset? Maybe he’s just been in a nasty mood for a couple of days now, and everyone’s trying to tread carefully around him while he works through it.”
Ed wrinkled his nose. “I fuckin’ wish. He’s not sitting there steaming or something. He’s sitting there doodling all over his desk blotter and talking on the phone with women.” Ed set his jaw, looked at the ceiling, and tried to will his face to stay cool and un-pinkened. “Half the time, kind of—explicitly.”
Al was staring. Was it because Ed was flushing a little, or because of what he’d said? First Roy and the whole damn team, and now this—people were like a giant invisible question mark lying in wait in the middle of your path, so that the instant you tried to pick up speed and go careening on towards your destination, they’d clothesline you in the throat and knock you onto your ass, and you ended up so winded that you couldn’t wheeze in enough air to curse their impregnable humanity.
“That is a bit odd,” Al said. “You sure it wasn’t—”
“It wasn’t code,” Ed said.
Al paused again. “Why were you listening so close?”
“Never mind,” Ed said. “Maybe—you know, you’re probably right. He’d probably just got a bug up his ass about something, and he’s—blowing off steam or whatever. I bet it’s fine. Hey, I’m starving from bein’ mad all day; can we eat?”
Al gave him a look. Al wasn’t fooled by the lousy segue, because Al was never fooled by any of Ed’s crap, but he was too decent a person to press the issue when Ed had clumsily signaled that he wanted to let it go.
And people wondered why Ed talked about Al like he was some kind of minor deity. Which he was, the ninety percent of the time that he wasn’t exhibiting a capacity for diabolical ingenuity that should’ve sent people like Roy running scared.
Ed needed to stop thinking about people like Roy. Apparently, there weren’t any people like Roy, because Roy wasn’t even a person like Roy—at least not anymore.
Was that really it? Had something changed?
Or had Ed just—made it up from the start? Had things changed in his memories, moving backwards? Had he built something in his head after the fact—something that he wanted, deep down? Something that some part of him was begging the universe to breathe life into specifically because it was so damn impossible?
Had he dreamed up a Roy Mustang that he could fall in fucking love with just to give himself someone to go for?
That didn’t seem reasonable; surely he couldn’t have imagined a whole cast of characters, filling in all-new personality traits for people that he knew—Lieutenant Hawkeye’s subtle, archly merciless sense of humor; Breda’s brashness; the pull of the shadows of old demons at the corners of Fuery’s eyes—
He wasn’t that creative.
The human brain was a remarkably powerful machine. It could produce all kinds of things; it could double back and drill down and design puzzles and equations and mazes so complicated that other brains got lost. It could turn that capacity inward, too. A really talented brain could just as deftly fool itself.
Maybe it was all in his head. Sometimes—
Sometimes it was hard to tell, was all. Sometimes it was hard to tell which slivers of recollected thought were his memories, and which ones belonged to the Gate.
He wondered, on mornings after the dreams drew in around him with sharp white and shadowed hands, whether he’d crossed through it one too many times. Whether it had left him a little gift or two on purpose—the kind that took several years to open. The kind that waited. The kind that covered your eyes from behind. You weren’t meant to do that—be there. You sure as hell weren’t meant to flit back and forth.
He hadn’t worked up the guts yet to ask Al whether his image of the world had been flickering a little bit since they brought his corporeal pieces back. Partly that was just cowardice. Partly Ed didn’t want to find out that in the end, after all of the struggling and striving and scrapes with death, he’d fucked up the single most important thing he’d ever done.
He’d been thinking of asking Roy, but now he didn’t want to ask Roy anything.
And—fuck it. This wasn’t so bad. If Roy continued to be an asshole piece of shit, Ed would just… leave. Yeah. He’d just quit the military, hoard his savings, and find something else to do—something better. He could be a free agent. Alchemists could find work anywhere, or make their own, or accidentally break things to create some, or… lots of stuff. Lots of options. Lots of choices.
That was sort of groundbreaking in and of itself, for his life, wasn’t it? The concept that he had a choice. The prospect that he might actually be able to decide his own future, based on qualifications like what he wanted, or what sounded good, or what might be fun—not strictly based on scrounging for the resources to survive; not founded on practicality with one eye on a far more distant prize.
To hell with it—maybe he’d quit just for fun. Maybe he’d quit just to force Roy to realize that assholes never prospered; maybe he’d quit so Roy would have to come back to him begging, once he figured out exactly what he’d pushed away. Maybe he’d quit for the goddamn novelty of it. Maybe he’d quit out of sheer spite. He hadn’t done anything purely malicious in a long time, anyway. It was funny how tired you got when the teenage years started waning, and anger started to sound like too much goddamn work.
Unless Roy was deliberately pushing your buttons, that was. All of them. At once. It probably wasn’t the first time someone had been surprised as hell at how much dexterity Roy Mustang could muster with just two hands.
But that was fine. All of it was fine. Ed could take him. Ed could take anybody, and he’d been fucking up Roy’s balance since he was a dumbass kid; he could practically do it in his sleep by now.
Well—theoretically. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get any sleep at all tonight. He was starting to doubt the premise immensely as the night deepened, and he settled in bed with a book, and Al shuffled around and then went quiet over in his bedroom on the opposite side of the wall.
The instant Ed finally started drifting—or close to it, anyway; instants tended to blur into one another at that stage, which was sort of the point; but immediately after his body conceded that it was comfortable, and his brain stopped whirring and slowed its computations to a manageable rate and a negligible volume—the phone rang.
He startled hard enough that he tweaked his back. He’d been meaning to ask Winry about that; she’d been muttering about scoliosis from the weight distribution for years, but he had no idea what he was supposed to do about it.
Like hell was he getting up, though, whether he’d woken up or not. Those were two distinct levels of inconvenience, and he wasn’t in any damn hurry to elevate whatever rude-ass motherfucker had just called their home at some godawful hour to a higher tier of importance.
After the third ring, Al knocked on the wall. “Brother?” His voice was all bleary and cute. Ed winced. “You ’xpectin’ anybody?”
Sometimes, despite himself, wallowing gleefully in the flash of guilt, Ed cherished moments like this, when Al was suddenly jarred out of his precious sleep. They were the only ones when the accent came out. Ed had tried for years to obliterate the last few traces of his own, but all you had to do to drag it out of him was fire up his temper in one of a thousand ways, or get him ranting about science. Letters would drop out of his sentences left and right, replacing themselves with a number of tormented vowels stretched to the limits of their sonorous capacity, and he’d only even notice several moments later. By the time he tried to rein it in, he’d long since pinpointed his place of origin.
Al had just about smothered his completely, though. Al was good at stuff like that.
“Nah,” Ed said in answer to the original question, however cutely it’d come out. “You?”
“Well, fuck ’em,” Ed said. “Let it ring. If it’s important, they’ll call again.”
“’Kay,” Al said. “G’night, Brother.”
Ed tapped the knuckles of his left hand gently against the wall. “G’night, kid.”
He waited—and stewed, and agonized, and tried to coax his brain back into quietude—but the phone stayed silent until he eventually sunk down into sleep.
When he stepped into the office the next morning—at eight, because he wasn’t a shitheel, unlike some superior officers who waved their titles and a lot of even less-appropriate stuff around in this room—everybody looked up at the intrusion, and there was an instant where an unmistakable trepidation shuddered through the place. Whether it was because of him, or because they thought he might be Mustang, or because they thought he might be someone else than that, he had no idea, and they wrangled it back under control so fast that he couldn’t call it out. They outnumbered him, and that was how majority rule fucking worked: the one who was crazy was the guy pointing out that the rest of them were.
But maybe… just maybe, without Mustang here, breathing heavily down their necks and even heavier into the phone, Ed could at least make some headway.
He’d dreamed about the Gate last night. He usually did, and at least this had been one of the gentler ones. He’d dreamed that he’d been wandering through it, and the white just went on forever, but every time he turned, there was a door—the door to this office, marked with Roy’s name and the same old number it’d always had.
Every time he opened it, there were different people there. It was never anybody he knew or even recognized, although someone had told him once—or he’d just Known it, the way he Knew a lot of things he shouldn’t; the way he Knew a lot of things he pushed away and shoved down and tried his hardest not to—that the brain couldn’t make up faces out of nothing, so every person you saw in your dreams was someone that you’d seen before. Your memories would store up a selection of them while you walked down the street, or something, and stick them into a file folder like the indexes at the library, and then pull one up at random when your dream called for another human being.
But that was the thing, wasn’t it?
That was a dream.
This was real.
These people weren’t strangers. They were his fucking friends.
Or they had been, before he’d left.
He sat down next to Fuery, who was already tapping away at that stupid Alibri report again, bless his heart.
It had used to be the case that Fuery was the easiest target for stuff like this—the first one to crack; the softest one to lean on; the second most likely to slip up, after Havoc. But Aerugo had changed him. Aerugo had changed him a lot. Aerugo had burned out the soft parts, and scorched the inside of him so deeply that his foundations didn’t crack anymore. Aerugo had sawed away the fragile pieces of him, one by one, and left only the core of the Kain Fuery they’d known before. This one was stone, straight through. Cinders and solid rock.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” Ed said to Havoc, “did I do something wrong?”
Havoc’s face went distraught, distressed, desperate—and then… blank.
“What’cha mean, Major?” he asked.
Not Boss. The real rank; the real term of respect; the real…
Fuck. Ed couldn’t have made that nickname up, too; he couldn’t have.
“Okay,” Ed said. It wasn’t, obviously, but that was such a neutral thing to say that sometimes it helped usher the conversation along whether or not it had any meaning at the time. “If he’s mad at me for something… I mean, that’s fine. I probably did something, at some point, so I probably deserve it. But you guys don’t have to go along with it.”
He earned some blinking all around the table, but—
But it was impossible to know for sure whether it was startled because he was on to something, or confused because he was speaking what sounded to them like total nonsense.
He was slipping, wasn’t he? He was slipping towards the whiteness, and the void was ready and waiting to swallow him whole.
“You okay, Major Elric?” Breda asked, slowly, and Ed had to pause in analyzing the twist of Havoc’s mouth in order to turn and look at him instead. “Sorry if it’s not my place. Just… you looked a little peaky when you got back yesterday. Was Alibri kinda rough?”
Ed wanted to say You don’t know the half of it, but that was something you said to people that you knew.
“Major Elric,” Hawkeye said, and Ed turned to her next, trying not to betray the way his heart was pounding like it wanted to be loosed from his ribcage and released into the wild. “With all due respect—perhaps you’re overreacting? General Mustang’s behavior yesterday was…” She paused for half a breath, which froze the last unaltered ounce or two of his beleaguered blood, and looked with something like puzzlement towards the wall. “…not… out of the ordinary.” She whipped the clipboard out from where it had been tucked beneath her arm, flipped to a new page, and started scribbling. Her face said urgency, but her voice stayed absolutely calm, and— “I’m sure we could find another assignment for you if you’d like a bit more time away from the office, however, seeing as—”
The door swung open, and Roy sauntered through. He looked too-good again—artificial-good, too clean, too clearly-defined, but Ed couldn’t put a finger on precisely what had changed. The bastard had also somehow found a way to make the cavalry skirt billow behind him as he walked.
“Good morning,” he said. “I trust everyone had as lovely an evening as I did?”
Ed wanted to punch him in the perfect fucking face. With the right hand first, for better damage distribution; and then the left, because it was more satisfying.
“Mine was quite adequate,” Falman said, hands folded on top of the table. “Thank you, sir.”
For a split-second, Fuery looked pained, and then he said, “Me, too.”
“How about you, Major Elric?” Roy asked.
Ed had been staring at the usual suspects after their incomprehensible reactions to the question, and hearing his title still made him want to jump halfway out of his skin and wriggle the rest of the distance to slough it off.
“Uh,” he said. “F… ine. Why?”
The silence made it evident that he’d answered wrong.
He couldn’t have invented the dynamic he’d used to have here, with them, with this place—he couldn’t have imagined the atmosphere; it was too detailed and too complete inside his head. Too specific. His guts wouldn’t be dropping like this; it wouldn’t be so absolutely foreign; it wouldn’t feel like turning himself inside out and bleeding from the seams—
“I just like to make sure my beloved staff are living happy lives,” Roy said, flashing him a smile.
Ed felt his face doing a thing. It was a terrifying thing, most likely—some ungodly amalgam of disgust and incredulity, with a side-dish of bewilderment and a touch of unwilling fascination drizzled on the top.
“I tried to call you last night,” Roy said.
“That was you?” Ed asked. “I was asleep, you a—” There was a reasonably good chance that Hawkeye had implemented a swear jar after yesterday; Ed was pretty sure that his salary could support either his foul mouth or Al’s university education, but definitely not both. “…you… know,” he managed, more than a little lamely, but at least it wasn’t a curse.
“Terribly sorry,” Roy said breezily. “Would it kill you to pick up the phone? It could have been an emergency, you know.”
“It was midnight,” Ed said, which was a conservative estimate, actually. “Were you drunk?”
Hawkeye had been relaxing, but when he dropped that one, her shoulders tensed up all over again. Shit.
Laughed. Way harder than it deserved; way louder than he should have; outright and uproariously.
Then he clapped Ed on the shoulder, somewhat harder than respectful boundaries would have permitted—the right shoulder, no less; it wasn’t like Ed could even feel it, other than as an uncomfortable tug on the scar tissue around the automail and a weak but jarring shove at his whole torso.
In other words, it was a pain in the ass, but it was nothing like an answer. Roy sauntered off into his office without explaining any further, so—what? What the hell had he called about?
It couldn’t possibly have been because he’d had a hankering for a chat, and he honestly thought the wee hours of the morning were the best time to come clean about having given Ed—and the rest of his peons—an unreasonable amount of crap all day.
Had he found it funny because Ed had hit the nail on the head? He didn’t look hungover, or at least not by any metric Ed recognized—he wasn’t recoiling from the light or cringing away from loud noises, and his eyes hadn’t been especially red, and nauseous people didn’t normally walk that fast.
It couldn’t have been because he’d—wanted something. Something else. Something like a booty call dessert after the main course; something like—
That was fucking ridiculous, and Ed wasn’t even going to finish thinking it. And it was disgusting, because he wouldn’t want to—not… now, anyway. Not with this… person. This Roy. This fucked-up facsimile who might somehow have been the real thing all along—
Well, fuck that. He wasn’t going to sink to Roy’s level or rise to the taunts or let the bullshit bury him. He was better than that.
Maybe if he could get one of them alone—separate them from the herd; draw them out into another atmosphere and then go in with the pointed questions…
But who to target? Havoc had held up pretty well earlier, though he might not be so bulletproof on his own, with the playing field changed around him. On the other hand, despite being so straightforward that instruction manuals were frequently jealous, Falman hated lying, and they’d weirdly kind of bonded that time up at Briggs, so there was some potential there—
Fuery was too good at conflict resolution these days, and Breda was too damn smart.
So was Hawkeye. But she fucking cared—about Ed, personally, on a really meaningful level. She also sometimes derived great pleasure from taking the piss out of Roy.
Maybe it’d just come down to which of them he could talk to first.
“Sergeant Fuery,” Roy called from the inner sanctum, “there seems to be a problem with the phone.”
The entire assembled company breathed a soft sigh of relief. Ed would have joined them if he hadn’t been so busy completing his mental elimination of Fuery as a candidate for his stratagem.
“Yes, sir,” Fuery said. “Let me take a look, sir.”
Hawkeye’s lips parted, and Ed could hear her—he could hear her voice; he could hear every single inflection of every single syllable of Take your time, Sergeant.
But she shut her mouth again before she ever spoke the words.
He watched her for another second, but she looked down at her clipboard and frowned, and he sensed that maybe it was better to leave it alone.
In the meantime, he had to think about his own options for surviving this day: if Roy wasn’t on the damn phone for eight hours at a stretch, what was he going to be doing? If the answer was breathing down their necks and giving them all shit about their private lives, this was going to end in bloodshed and tears, and very likely a court martial, and all of those things would be upsetting for Al later on. Ed just couldn’t risk it. Not until he figured out what the hell was going on here, anyway.
What if it was him? What if he somehow found some way to confirm that the office he thought he remembered was really just some sort of sick, elaborate game his brain had cooked up to torment him? What if it had always been like this, and he’d somehow muddled through it, and the joke was on him? What the hell was he going to do then, knowing that this pitiful country’s only chance at salvation was slipping between the fingers of someone who had actually called a woman “Sugar-Booger” on the phone yesterday? Was there any hope for any of them—in particular, this poor team of people he remembered as a cadre of professionals, not a beat-down, wincing collection of cowed, uncertain yes-men?
Well—yes-people. As it were. Yes-humans. Yes-inferior-officers.
He was just going to have to work on it. Maybe he could rescue them all; maybe if he extricated them from Roy’s weirdo, not-exactly-evil-but-definitely-fucked-up influence, they’d return to their normal personalities; maybe…
Maybe he really had taken one too many jaunts through the unrelenting screaming whiteness of the Gate.
Maybe he was the one who needed saving.
In the meantime, though, he had shit to do.
He shifted forward in his chair so that he could plant his feet properly on the floor, and then he bent to an empty piece of paper and started on a list.
It had a couple of things on it—a couple of damned important things—but several of them he couldn’t describe outright anyway, so it wasn’t very long. Which was good, because he then had to haul Fuery’s typewriter over to himself, tear off the half-finished page of his own Alibri report, and type the list on the machine so that it’d be remotely readable to someone who wasn’t used to his scribblings.
When that was done—and it was pretty amazing, really, how fast you could type, even with one hand made of metal, when you were half pissed-off and half spitefully determined—he tore this page off, too.
“Second Lieutenant Falman,” he said, “can you help me find some stuff in the records room?”
Falman blinked at him—and then sneaked a glance at Hawkeye, and she nodded just slightly, and that—
Well, duly noted, as Roy would’ve said. As another Roy would’ve said. A better Roy. This one probably would’ve said, “Sounds good, Sweetie-Beetle,” and then Ed would’ve decked him, and then the military police would’ve come and locked him up downstairs, and Al would have been a mess about all of it.
“Absolutely, Major Elric,” Falman said, standing up. “What would you like me to look for?”
“All of this c—stuff,” Ed said. He handed over the typed version of the list, and Falman started to skim it. “I know it’s a lot. I’m gonna look, too; I just know you’re really good with this sort of thing.”
Falman’s gaze flicked up to him and then back down to the list. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Cool,” Ed said. “You okay to go now?”
Another glance at Hawkeye. She totally knew Ed was onto it now, but she had to give Falman a tiny shrug anyway to release him.
“Certainly, sir,” Falman said.
“Awesome,” Ed said.
At least there wasn’t a not-superior-officer-worthy-language version of the swear jar yet.
He tried to act normal as he led the way up to the records rooms, but he wasn’t sure what abnormal Falman thought Ed’s normal was supposed to look like. This was exactly why he didn’t play politics; trying to think speculative circles around other people made his head hurt.
“So,” he said after forty or so seconds of excruciatingly awkward silence. It was too early for there to be a whole hell of a lot of people meandering around in the halls, although he’d spotted a few he didn’t recognize here and there. Was that a bad sign? Did he normally recognize people? Suddenly he couldn’t fucking remember. “How’ve… you been?”
“Very well,” Falman said. “Thank you, sir.”
Ed had to swallow down the urge to cringe. “Good to hear. Um. How’d the… painting thing go?”
“They were very efficient,” Falman said. He paused. “Initially I was surprised by their projection that the work would take a week, but they did quite a lot of measurements before they actually painted. So many that it set them back on their schedule, as it happens, and they ended up staying overnight the final day to make sure that they’d finished everything before the week was out. I think we all found their dedication to be admirable.”
Something about that sounded… fishy?
But Ed’s brain had stuck a little bit on the fact that he couldn’t honestly remember whether it was weird or not for him to feel like he didn’t recognize any of the people here. Maybe there’d been a lot of staff turnover in the last week. Maybe he just wasn’t usually out in the halls so soon after eight. Maybe there were just so many damn people going about their business in Central Command that it was statistically unlikely that he’d run into somebody he knew.
Maybe life was the opposite of a dream, and it filled in faces you hadn’t seen before.
It took just about all of his willpower to suppress a supremely weird impulse to shudder, so he said something immensely stupid like “Glad it worked out okay” in answer to Falman’s comment.
Falman made a noncommittal noise, which probably meant it had been the wrong thing to say, but too late now. They were practically to the records rooms anyway; and then…
And then somehow he had to try to grill a person that he liked about something that he wasn’t sure had happened while digging for files that might not exist. No big.
He let them both putter around the room, sorting through semi-alphabetical shelves in search of some of the deliberately-vaguely-worded items on his list. He hoped it didn’t look like he was trying to punish Falman for something. It wasn’t like he wanted to be here either, and he’d meant what he said; and if he was actually some kind of asshole higher-up, he would’ve sent Falman all alone and then blamed him if the shit he brought back hadn’t been exactly right. It was just that this did really need to get done; the information really was important; and Falman really was the best candidate to help him with a task like this. That was all.
The opportunity to corner him and interrogate him a little about the batshit alter-world issue had factored in, sure, since Ed usually just did this sort of thing by himself instead of tormenting others trying to get them to follow the logical leaps his brain liked to make, but… still.
Somehow, he always forgot how miserable it could be trying to find useful stuff in here. All of the shelves were crammed full of newspaper clippings and manila folders stuffed with old records; most of the personnel stuff was kept under lock and key, but the wildly unpredictable miscellany of these glorified closets was sort of what he’d been counting on. He expected to be able to find some bits and pieces here that implied and then verified a lot of the other stuff that was above his pay grade. Damning personnel files disappeared from Central HQ. Equally damning newspapers shoved in between evidence boxes from unsolved Investigations cases usually didn’t.
Ed waited until he’d made some good headway down his list—and until Falman had called out to him to ask him if a few things close to his bizarre bullet point items would be sufficient—before he glanced at the open door and then gingerly closed the bear trap.
“Hey, Second Lieutenant,” he said, running the fingertips of his left hand along a series of ratty journal bindings without even seeing their titles. “Can I trust you to be real honest with me about something?”
To Falman’s credit, even though he could’ve gotten away with a lot given how many rows of shelves stood between them, he didn’t even hesitate. “Of course, sir.”
The sir part was disconcerting, because it meant that something was still definitely up, but it didn’t affect Ed’s response: “Thanks. I mean that.”
He took a breath—and regretted it, because it meant he was choking in dust, which he had to cough back out and pound himself on the chest to get rid of.
When he’d gotten the wheezing under control, he licked his lips—and regretted that, too, also on account of the dust, although at least it didn’t physically prevent him from speaking.
“So,” he said. “Am I—losing it, or did something change?”
The single moment of silence said a lot, and Ed thought maybe Falman would just… pretend he hadn’t heard, fake finding another file, maybe ask for clarification, or—
“You haven’t lost anything,” Falman said, slowly. “Nothing has changed except the walls.”
A little flower of hope wilted in Ed’s brain. “The stupid paint’s… not even that… I mean, you can barely tell.”
“True,” Falman said. Something heavy slithered through the dust as he drew another object off a shelf; Ed heard whatever books or boxes or items had been on both sides of it clunk together as they fell inward. “They do change the atmosphere of the office a bit, though. The walls.”
Significant. Also, incomprehensible.
“Yeah,” he said. “Well—thanks.”
“You’re very welcome, sir,” Falman said.
Ed was getting real damn tired of that.
He’d put two solid hours into his stupid report before the next time that he surfaced and started paying attention to what his almost-familiar coworkers were up to. Maybe that was another way to survive this place: put his head down, close his ears, and get his damn work done.
What was he going to do, though, if this didn’t turn out to be some sort of complicated ruse, and he really did have to leave? Where the hell was he going to go?
These people were his friends. Or they had been. He didn’t know what the fuck he was going to do without them. He didn’t know who he’d be.
Fuery was still tinkering away at the phone—theoretically, at least; all Ed could hear through the closed door was distant shuffling noises, and occasionally a deep sigh from Roy—and everyone else was working so quietly that the place bordered on eerie right now. Great for focusing, sure; but the silence was giving Ed the creeps.
“Hey, Second Lieutenant Breda,” he said—keeping his voice low, thanks to an obnoxious instinct that was desperate to preserve the whole library vibe they had going on. “Any chance I can talk you into taking a look at this for me?”
Breda blinked at him. “Sure thing, sir.”
Goddamnit. He was going to have nightmares about shadowy figures chasing him down dark alleys yelling Sir after him for the rest of his flipping life.
“Thanks,” he said.
He slid the first five pages—which was as much as he’d filled in and polished to the point that it was ready for review—of the Hakuro report across the table.
Breda looked down at the cover of it. His face didn’t change, but he swallowed, and then he propped an elbow up on the table and leaned his chin on his hand, glancing up at Ed.
Dead neutral. What the hell were they feeding people around here?
“Anything in particular you want me to look for, sir?” he asked.
“I dunno,” Ed said. “Logic. Inconsistencies. Anywhere you think I’m kinda taking a leap of faith that we couldn’t count on.” Al had said something once about how you had to grow honesty out of honesty and be the brave one first if you wanted anyone to trust you with the truth. “Spelling.”
Breda raised an eyebrow and tapped his pen against the first page. “Right.”
“Seriously,” Ed said. “I get—letters get mixed up sometimes. I swear those little fuckers move when you’re not looking.”
“Language, Major,” Hawkeye said softly, and he almost jumped out of his skin.
“Sorry,” he said. “Uh—anyway. Just—y’know. Mark stuff. If you don’t mind.”
“No problem,” Breda said, flipping through with his thumb. “It’s just funny, I guess. I figured somebody who reads as much as you would know every word there is.”
“Just because I read ’em doesn’t mean I know how to spell ’em,” Ed said.
“I hate that,” Havoc said. “People always say ‘Well, schools aren’t that great out in the East, are they?’ when you tell ’em stuff like that.”
“Right?” Ed said. “Like, they hear the slightest hint of an accent and start to think you’re dumb just ’cause you say a vowel a little bit different.”
“Yeah!” Havoc said, leaning forward, and his eyes were bright, and this part—this felt right; this felt more like reality than any of the strange, slippery half-world he’d inhabited since he walked in yesterday— “I mean, obviously you did a whole hell of a lot for Eastern boys just by being here, but the best thing—what I thought was the best thing—was that the second anybody met you, they knew you were smart enough to bulldoze ’em with your brain as fast as look at them. People knew the instant you opened your mouth that you were so smart they should be scared. And that—I mean, I dunno if it changed things. But it sure as hell didn’t hurt.”
Ed had never been much for effusive compliments and whatever. He’d never put a whole lot of stock in what people said, because talk was cheap, and frequently false, and it was what people did that mattered anyway.
But that warmed his heart up a little bit despite him.
“Well—thanks,” he said.
Havoc grinned, sitting back, looking faintly chagrined but much less faintly pleased. “Sure thing, B—Major.”
There it was.
There it was.
Ed feigned fascination with the pencil that he’d left next to his report, twirling it around his left thumb, and kept his smile plastered on. Time for the next test. “Hey, didn’t you have a date lined up last week? How’d that go?”
“Oh,” Havoc said, which told Ed just about everything he needed to know—the word itself and the tone made it clear that it’d been a shitshow, that was; and the confirmation meant that it had happened. It meant that his memories from before he’d left were still, at least factually speaking, valid and verified. Whether or not the people around him had all shifted subtly over into bizarre, almost-recognizable mirror images of themselves, the sequence of events leading up to him leaving had remained intact. “Well… it… could’ve gone better. There were… stuff happened. It wasn’t… I mean, maybe it was my fault. Y’know, I was telling Heymans, right after—that sort of stuff doesn’t happen to everybody, y’know, stuff like the waiter spilling wine all over her nice dress, and then you honestly just trying to help wipe it off, but it looks like you’re copping a feel of her boobs, which are great, yeah, but holy shit, you’re not that kind of guy, and she slaps you, a—”
“Language, Lieutenant,” Hawkeye said.
When he glanced at her, her eyes told a much longer story, and he folded his shoulders up small and shut his mouth tight.
“Right,” he said. “Sorry. Sorry. I’ll just…” He ducked back to the folder in front of him again and made a point of reading.
“Do you need any more help with that report, Major Elric?” Hawkeye asked—but she barely spared him a second of eye contact as she asked it, because she was scribbling away on her clipboard again. “Perhaps I can be of some assi—”
Quick, smart booted footsteps from within Roy’s office, and then the door swung open, and he swept through it and—
The cavalry skirt actually swirled around his calves. Ed had to wonder whether the laws of physics had gone on the same goddamn vacation as the people he’d been working with a week ago.
He also had two wonder what the fuck was wrong with him, looking intently at Roy’s calves at a time like this. Even if they were—nice. Very nice. As far as he could tell with all the lousy blue wool in the way.
“Lieutenant,” Roy said, “I’m going to need you to stand in for me for my eleven o’clock.”
She blinked, hand still hovering over the clipboard with her pen, like perhaps if she stayed very still, he wouldn’t be able to see her, and she’d be able to get back to what she’d been doing. “…yes, sir. May I—inquire as to why, sir?”
“Oh,” Roy said. He paused. “Because I’m… sick.”
There was a silence.
Roy lifted a hand, curled it into a fist, and coughed into it weakly.
“Highly contagious,” he said.
Hawkeye glanced down at the clipboard, then back up at him, and her jaw worked for a long second before she said, “Clearly, sir.”
They looked at each other, and for a fraction of a moment—
For a sliver of a breath, Roy Mustang was not a phone-monopolizing, daylight-squandering, endlessly-jabbering idiot.
In that instant, he was himself—ferocious intellect and unfathomably deep conviction and a flare of mischief and a trace of exhaustion that sometimes cooled the smoldering determination.
A very loud snapping sound alerted Ed to the fact that he’d been gripping his pencil hard enough to break it in half.
It also alerted everyone else, including R—well. Including not-Roy, because Roy was gone again, like he’d never been. Like Ed had imagined it; like he’d superimposed the image of the world he wanted on top of the one that he really had, just like he’d done with everything fucking else—
“Are you all right, Fullmetal?” Roy asked, eyebrows arched, grin widening beneath them. “I hope you haven’t caught my cold.”
Ed opened his mouth to say Pretty sure the only thing I could catch from you is gonorrhea.
He closed his mouth.
He swallowed that.
He smiled, tightly, and ducked back to his report.
“I’ll be on my way, then,” Hawkeye said, sounding less than delighted about the prospect.
“Wonderful,” Roy said brightly. “With any luck, Sergeant Fuery will have sorted out the telephone situation by the time you get back.”
“That would be a magnificent stroke of luck,” Hawkeye said. “I’ll give them your regards, sir.”
“Thank you very much, Lieutenant.”
Ed watched out of the corner of his eye as she tucked her clipboard under her arm, drew a deep breath, let it out slowly, and started for the door.
She shot him a look right before she reached it, and she was definitely trying to tell him something, but—
The door shut behind her.
Ed alchemized the pencil back together just so that he’d have an excuse to smack both hands down on the tabletop, but it didn’t help as much as he’d hoped as far as releasing the pent-up spite-rage.
Head down, ears open, hands loose, hopes somewhere low-ish to the middle. That was the way to get through anything.
The files he and Falman had pulled were every bit as helpful as he’d low-ish-to-middle dared to anticipate—they corroborated a lot of his hunches; there were bits and pieces strewn all over the news that he could gather into a pretty damn convincing collection of… well, maybe it was a stretch to call anything in newsprint fact, but when the press thought the information was harmless, they were much less inclined to lie. That was the trick here: finding the nascent secrets, at the beginnings of the stories, before they’d been important enough to protect. Before they’d been dangerous enough to bury, or to bury human beings just to hide.
“Could anyone else go for a cup of coffee?” Roy asked from the doorway to his office, and Ed looked up despite himself. Was that a normal-Roy statement? Maybe it was in the eyes, not the words—maybe that was where Ed had gone wrong. Maybe the phone thing was part of the smokescreen; maybe it was always easier to tell from his face than from what he was saying.
But Roy was good at lying with his eyes, too. After Maria Ross—
It wasn’t like Ed hadn’t known he was a killer by then. But that was different. That had seemed so fucking preventable; there had been no orders; there had been a choice—
Then again, maybe it was all the same. Maybe it was all the same, and it haunted Roy from every shadow the way the white grin followed Ed through every dream. Maybe it was all the same, and there was blood running over Roy’s hands that no one else could see, but no matter how many times he tried to wipe them clean, they left silhouetted handprints on the phone and the desktop and the pages of the reports.
Maybe it’d pushed him too far, finally. Maybe Ed wasn’t the one losing it. Maybe Roy was—maybe Roy had. Maybe the rest of the team was just playing along, trying not to make a point of it, because they didn’t know what else to do.
“Major Elric?” Roy said.
Ed swallowed once, and then again. If he’d hunkered down over his report a little—well, shit. He was entitled to some guardedness when his whole world was crumbling around his ears. “What?”
“Heavens,” Roy said. “Is that any way to speak to your superior officer?”
“Obviously,” Ed said. “It’s a way, and I’m speakin’ it, so by defini—”
“Can I trouble you to go make us all some coffee?” Roy asked.
Ed stared at him.
It wasn’t like there was anything inherently degrading about it. It wasn’t like he thought that a lower-ranked officer should be doing this menial task stuff; it wasn’t like he thought he was better than anybody else in this room—for or at or because of anything.
But there was something in the way Roy had said it. Something—barbed. Condescension, expectation, something—
Cold. But entirely controlled.
Roy knew what he was doing. He knew who he was. Roy Mustang hadn’t slid over the edge while Ed was trying very hard not to blow things up in Alibri and make them both look bad—Roy Mustang wasn’t even on the cliff; Roy Mustang couldn’t even see the precipice; Roy Mustang—
Was smiling at Ed, and to anyone who didn’t know him, it would have looked serene instead of unspeakably fucking smug.
Ed’s blood had always run too hot—he’d wondered for years where he’d inherited it from; Mom had been a saint, and his fuckoff dad had been a runner. Somehow Ed had been born without a flight response. He was a fighter every time, and he’d worked damn hard over the years, forcing himself to learn to start tempering his temper, but at times like this—
When someone—someone like Roy, someone he busted his ass for on a daily basis, someone he respected—was treating him like shit—
Oh, damn. Oh, damn. He could feel his skin heating; feel his guts roiling; feel the red mist cinching in around the edges of his vision, and his pulse was beating in his brain so hard that he couldn’t hear himself counting backwards from ten.
Too much. Too big. Too late. The anger burning in the center of his chest flared up and engulfed him, and the banner of better judgment fell.
“You fuckin’ bet, sir,” he said. “Can I spit-shine your fuckin’ boots afterward?”
“If you’d like to avoid a disciplinary hearing,” Roy said, without so much as a downward twitch to the corners of that smile, “that would be an acceptable way to begin apologizing for your childishness.”
Ed breathed—in, out, in again. He shifted forward, put his feet on the floor, pushed his chair back, planted both hands on the table, stood, turned, and walked out of the room before he could stab his newly-repaired pencil into the meat of Roy Mustang’s throat.
Just before the door fell shut behind him, he heard Roy say, “Anybody else?”
It took long enough to storm over to the breakroom and stand there, fuming, while the coffee percolated that the wait filed the edge off of the fury. Putting writing implements through Roy’s eye would not solve any of his current problems.
All right, it would solve one of them: that would probably shut the bastard the hell up in a hurry. Presuming that wailing and screaming and sobs of pain counted as shutting up. As far as Ed knew, it sort of depended on your definition of the phrase in that case. His definition was loose. Like Roy.
By the time he’d returned with one of the three carafes that someone had helpfully scrawled MUSTANG on in permanent marker in some bygone age, everyone had their mugs out, and Roy was sprawled in Ed’s chair.
Ed set his jaw to clamp his mouth shut, and then he set his shoulders to fortify himself. He could do this. He’d dealt with so, so, so much worse.
Because he’d been fucking determined not to give Roy one more single goddamn thing to hold over his head—figuratively, at least, so far—he’d stolen one of the little baskets and crammed it full of sugar packets and those tiny foil-topped creamer tubs. If anybody wanted anything more than that, they were just going to have to fetch it their damn selves.
He realized when he set it down that he hadn’t brought spoons, or any of those little sticks. Well—fuck it. They could just—use their index fingers. That was what he did.
He put the coffee pot down next to the basket. If the bottom of the carafe burned the tabletop, he’d fix it later. Alchemy was good for stuff like that.
“Here you go,” he said. “Knock yourselves out.”
“That’s more like it,” Roy said, slinging himself upright—bastard was so graceful sometimes it made Ed grind his teeth until his head rang—and sauntering over with his cup outstretched. Ed was not, was not, under any circumstances, going to serve h…
Ed was totally going to serve him, because there was a stark, frigid, absolutely terrible warning gleam in those too-dark eyes, and no matter what was going on here, Ed didn’t want to fuck with the likes of that. He’d been accused of recklessness, but he wasn’t stupid. Playing with fire was one thing; nobody in their right mind threw themselves onto an actively-burning funeral pyre.
“Wonderful,” Roy said, raising his mug in a mock toast once Ed had filled it. “Service with a smile. Now, if you’ll all excuse me… Sergeant, tell me you’ve got good news about the line. Please, I’m begging you; I’m already so behind…”
“Hey, thanks, Major,” Breda said, taking the carafe to pour his own, which at least was something like a relief. “This report, by the way—this is… well, it pretty much illustrates exactly what Lieutenant Havoc was rambling on about, about you being so damn brilliant nobody’s ever going to know what to do with you.”
“Thanks,” Ed said. “I… think.”
He hesitated a second to see if something else was coming—a Just kidding! or the meaningful-smirk equivalent; or maybe a glance towards Havoc to see if that had sounded sincere enough to be believable. They were clearly just… buttering him up or something. Breda never talked like that. Even if he—
“Really,” Breda said, and his eyebrows had risen, but it could’ve been in reaction to the fact that Ed was standing there staring at him like a cretin. “It’s good. It’s really good.” He pushed the papers back across the table. “Just wanted to say so. Makes me glad you’re here.” He sipped from his mug, paused, looked into it, and tipped it slightly Ed’s way. “So does this. You make damn good coffee, Major.”
Al only drank it when the bean-to-water ratio was perfect. His tastebuds were so sensitive after all those years spent waiting at the Gate that anything bitter or spicy or strong had sent him into mouth-clutching conniptions for a month or two, so Ed had just… learned how to make coffee that wouldn’t hurt him. That was what you did in situations like that—you adapted.
Maybe that was what he needed to do here, too.
“Thanks,” he said. He picked up the sheets and shuffled them back in with the rest of the report. “And thanks for reading it.”
“Just doing my job, sir,” Breda said.
Ed stared at him.
Breda’s expression was… weird. But not noticeably weirder than everything fucking else that had happened today, and Ed wasn’t sure he had the emotional resources left to analyze it at this point.
“Is the kissing my ass part ‘your job’, too?” he managed.
This expression was much more recognizable, and much more distinctly amused. “No comment, sir.”
“Right,” Ed said. Better not to shove his hand any further into that badger den, probably. Besides, he really wanted to see what Breda had written in some of the margins on this damn thing.
The report was pretty goddamn important of its own merit, but since yesterday it had taken on another significance—that was, as further evidence that things had been different before, and the differences didn’t exist solely in his warped and tortured brain. A different Roy Mustang had asked for this. A different Roy Mustang had worked with Ed for months upon months to help him hone his existing instincts into a much more political canniness; a different Roy Mustang had seen and seized on Ed’s potential to help him read between the terrifying lines that the Amestrian war machine kept spitting out. A different Roy Mustang had outlined what he was looking for. And Ed had been working for weeks on end to deliver it—to a different Roy Mustang, that was. To a Roy Mustang who fucking deserved it.
He wouldn’t have worn himself ragged digging through files and records and piles of “Oh, we were supposed to get rid of that” detritus at the libraries; he wouldn’t have lain in his stupid bed half the stupid nights of the week staring at the ceiling and imagining it riddled with little patterns indicating how all the players might interconnect. He wouldn’t have scrawled notes on the backs of his train tickets and paper napkins and every scrap of paper he could find that would contain a drifting thought.
He just wouldn’t have. He wasn’t that fucking noble. He wouldn’t have done that for anyone he didn’t owe something—anyone he didn’t want to repay. Anyone he didn’t want to give to, and give back to, and show some damn respect.
It wasn’t possible that some fragment of Envy had survived, was it? It couldn’t be that; none of the rest of them would have backed him up like this. Hawkeye would’ve put several cartridges of bullets through him, and the nice new paint on the walls would’ve parted for a couple dozen holes. It couldn’t be that. But what in the hell—
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, because he’d already poured all of the time and energy into this thing, and it was great, and even Breda liked the look of it, and he was going to shove it down Roy’s lousy fucking throat if he had to. Maybe the Roy they had right now for whatever fucking reason it was wasn’t worth the paper this stuff was printed on, but like hell was Ed going to let all of that effort go to waste.
So that decided that.
He gave it another look just to make sure that he’d integrated all of the new material reasonably smoothly, and that there weren’t any glaring errors—the spelling thing might’ve been a lost cause, but Roy ought to be used to it by now—and then set it aside in favor of finishing typing up his stupid fucking Alibri report. If Roy wanted it typed, he’d get it typed. Darkly. Both in spirit, and with deep-inked letters, because Ed was going to hit the keys as hard as he could without breaking them.
Maybe he’d add in some segments of his own damn code—one that he could use to insert a few side comments about what he thought of a certain relevant C.O.
…actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. A real Roy—a Roy who would be fucking smart enough to see a power structure on the verge of collapse, stage a coup, poise to pin it on Olivier Armstrong if it failed, and off-handedly save the whole damn world in the process—would be able to read it. A real Roy would come back afterwards and give back as good as he’d gotten.
The bad news was, even at rage-typo and less-rage-correction speeds, transcribing the report didn’t take nearly as long as he’d been hoping—Fuery had made a remarkable amount of headway on it before he’d even started, which he supposed might be one of the benefits of not taking your anger out on the typewriter with every chance you got.
The even worse news was that he finished up just a little before lunchtime, which left him with a trifecta of dangerous feelings—that was, boredom, hunger, and frustration—that were starting to coalesce into a single emotional hurricane.
He tore the last page of the Alibri report off of the typewriter platen, settled it under the rest of the stack, aligned them all, and then stapled them neatly in the top-left corner.
He considered rereading it and blacking out any places where the ink had smudged because he’d banged the keys a touch too violently.
And then he remembered that he didn’t give a fuck.
He set the Alibri report on top of the Hakuro report, shuffled them until there was a minimum of page-corners sticking out the sides—because even useless, obnoxious piles of shit didn’t deserve unnecessary paper-cuts, at least according to Ed’s understanding of the world—and stood up. He strode over to Roy’s door, drew a deep breath to fortify himself against the preemptive prickles of annoyance, and then knocked.
Knocking was pretty damn polite to start with, by his standards. He hoped Roy would appr—
“Busy,” Roy called. “Can it wait?”
“Depends,” Ed called back. “Busy with what?”
“Extremely important… things,” Roy said. “So important and confidential that I c—” Ed opened the door. “Excuse you.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, stepping in. He tried to ignore Fuery in his peripheral vision; whatever was going on with the wall would only distract him, and puppy eyes from one of the world’s undisputed masters would make matters worse. “Excuse me. Sorry or whatever. This is important, too.” He made the mistake of glancing down at Roy’s desk. “Possibly even more important than your caricature doodle of—”
“Never mind who it’s of,” Roy said. “What in the world is so urgent that you interrupted your C.O. without permission to enter?”
Ed stared at him.
That didn’t help.
So Ed shook it off, took a deep breath again, and held out the Alibri report.
“Typed it,” he said. “With some help from the Sergeant, I mean.”
“Lovely,” Roy said, taking it.
The bottom sheet didn’t even graze the desk blotter before the whole thing landed in the little wire-frame In Box on the corner of the desk.
Ed ground his teeth and mustered his will. He had to get through this—and he could; he knew he could; he’d gotten through so much more and so much worse—
“This,” he said, holding out the second report, “is the one you asked me about a while ago, on H—”
“I don’t have time,” Roy said.
Ed tried staring again. Maybe he just hadn’t done it hard enough the first time. Maybe he hadn’t widened his eyes to a sufficient disbelief diameter, and if he hit the metrics just right—
“You asked me for it,” he said.
“I ask for a lot of things,” Roy said. “Did I give you a deadline?”
“You said ‘As soon as you think it’s done,’” Ed said. “And it’s fucking done, s—”
“Watch your language,” Roy said, folding his hands into the steeple-thing, elbows on the desk, eyelids low. “Until I can count making more time appear out of thin air among my admittedly numerous talents, there’s nothing I can do, Major. Just—read it through again.”
“I’ve read it through four times,” Ed said, which was a slight exaggeration, but also fuck that. “And Second Lieutenant Breda read it, and you asked for it. I’ve been workin’ on it nights and weekends for fuckin’ weeks, and I’m not going to sit down and read it again just because you’re too fucking lazy—”
“Major,” Roy said, and there it was—he was up out of the chair, hands spread on the desktop like he was about to use the leverage to vault right over the desk and punch Ed’s lights out, and that—
That was the best thrill out there, in its way. Riling up a man who could obliterate you literally with a snap of his fingers—
That was rich, and Ed’s blood pumped so fast, so feverishly—his skin tingled with the sheer anticipation; if a day came when adrenaline didn’t get him high faster than any chemical on the market—
“Tough shit,” Ed said, leaning forward and holding it out. Roy was going to read this fucking thing if Ed had to shove his head down and smash his perfect nose onto the fucking page. “You said to bring it to you. Here it fuckin’ is.”
“I don’t,” Roy bit out, “have t—”
“Fine,” Ed said, flipping past the innocuous-looking cover pages. “You want me to read it to you? No problem. I’ll even do the fuckin’ voices, if you want.” He cleared his throat. “Chapter one—once upon a time, there was a happy little general—”
“Major Elric,” Roy said, “I will see you escorted out of this office by the scruff of your miserable neck if y—”
Ed raised his voice. “One day, the government stationed him in a nice little city called Ne—”
“Elric,” Roy said, leaning forward, and his hands were twitching, and had Fuery just gasped? “If you don’t shut your mouth in the next three seconds, I will wring your damn neck mys—”
Ed was shouting over him now, and it felt so fucking good—so fucking light, so heady, so liberating— “And this little general’s name was Ha—”
Roy had the fastest hands of anyone Ed had ever met—Al included. Ed had done subtle observational math to estimate the respective velocities. Roy had everybody beat by a longshot.
Those hands snapped towards him—he jerked back, but not fast enough; Roy’s fingers curled into the front of his uniform jacket, clenching into fists, and hauled him forward, and his brain skittered at the prospect of what mi—
Roy’s mouth sealed over his.
Kissing him—hard and hot and greedy; desperate and wet; with a clashing, heavy hint of teeth; with a force like a freight train—
And it was—
It wasn’t like he hadn’t considered it—whether or not that was something it would’ve taken torture to get him to admit. It wasn’t like he hadn’t spent more time than he really wanted to consider lying in bed, glaring at the ceiling, biting down hard on the inside of his cheek, wondering if—
Wondering if Roy’s mouth would taste as good as it looked. Wondering if he’d be every bit as deft with it as he was with those goddamn hands. Wondering if the way it curved, and twisted, and shifted into so many subtly different shapes to reflect Roy’s stupid feelings over the course of a day was indicative of its talent in other arenas; wondering if Roy would keep a kiss sweet and chaste at first and then segue into wicked exploration with his stupid, stupid tongue—
That last part—
Was not true. That last part was not true, and Ed was glad, because Roy had come on and pressed in firm and furious right from the start, and it killed Ed’s breath in his lungs and froze his heartbeat for an endless second—
Roy drew back as suddenly as he’d dived in. Ed was reeling—gasping for breath now that his body remembered that oxygen tended to facilitate vital functions; his heart scrambled to catch up to where it had left off after skipping some half a dozen beats—
Roy planted one hand on the desktop, leaning on it, drew a breath, and said “Thank you” in a voice that barely even sounded strained. He was looking at the desk blotter, grabbing up a pen—and then fumbling it in his fingertips, so that it tumbled free and dropped onto the desk again. “As I was saying,” he said, and the levelness of his voice was fascinatingly incongruous as he carefully picked up the pen again, “I simply don’t have the time for any of your nonsense today, Major.” He reached out to snatch the report from Ed’s unfeeling fingers, laid it on the desk, flipped it over, and started scribbling on the back of the last page. “Lieutenant Hawkeye will be back any minute—”
He’d started out with two words all in slightly wavering capitals, which he showed to Ed by turning the sheet towards him for a fraction of a second—but a fraction of a second was all it took.
Ed could hear his heartbeat in his head again, for an entirely different reason this time.
He glanced over at Fuery, who was staring slack-jawed at them—but that wasn’t even the important thing. Fuery was standing right up by the wall, holding a radio headset and wearing the pack that went with it, pressing the little microphone up against the brand-new paint.
Like he was looking for something.
Like he was going around the whole room, waving that thing at the walls, waiting for microphone feedback, because Roy had been suspicious about the painters, and they’d finished the work overnight, and they’d bugged the fucking office, and Roy—
Ed’s breath choked out of him as a faint wheeze.
He was such a fucking idiot; how could—
“—sure she’ll have extremely detailed notes for me,” Roy was saying as he scrawled out a longer message underneath the first. “And then I have a pile of forms, and if Sergeant Fuery manages to sort this ridiculous phone connection issue out, I’m extremely behind on all of my calls.” He splayed one gorgeous hand on the report and swiveled the paper around again without so much as a fraction of a pause. “I’m sure you can find something to do with your time other than harassing me with your reports.”
Ed was reading what he’d written out—
8:00 tonight 872 Riverglen Ave?
Riverglen was one of the long streets near Central Command, just a little ways down past the park—it featured neither rivers nor glens, as far as Ed had been able to tell, though it did boast a relatively upscale selection of residences that went on for a few miles at least. Ed and Al had checked out one of them early on in the apartment hunt, but everything in that suburb was out of their price range, and Ed had figured it was too far from the university for Al’s emaciated muscles besides.
Had he just—
—kissed Ed in his fucking office and explained everything all at once and then invited Ed back to his house?
The world was collapsing from so many directions simultaneously that Ed had no idea which part of his existence to shore up first.
“If you’d like to schedule a meeting to review that,” Roy said, pushing the report across the desk towards him a little and raising an eyebrow, “check with the lieutenant about my itinerary next week once she gets back.” He tapped one fingertip against the second part of the message, raising both eyebrows. “Are we clear?”
Ed swallowed, which freed up enough throat space for breathing, which made it possible to speak.
“Crystal,” he said.
Roy smiled—thinly, and wryly, with just a little of it pushing at the corners of his eyes.
That looked more like him than he had in fucking days.
“Lovely,” he said. “Dismissed.”
Ed swallowed again, for the same reasons as the first time. “Th—thank you, sir.”
He tried not to notice Fuery staring openly at him as he grabbed his report, turned on his right heel, stepped out of the room, and hauled the door shut behind him.
Shit. Fuck. Everybody else had seen that, too, hadn’t they?
Well, the one upshot of the whole damn place being under surveillance was that nobody could give him shit about it without blowing the entire thing.
Speaking of things that Ed wanted to bl—
No. Nope. No damn way. He was not going to think that, now or ever.
Not even once.
Not as he sat down at the typewriter again with his stupid report in his hands, upside-down and bearing an address that was probably Roy’s fucking home.
He had some vague recollections of several meaningless tasks, but the afternoon mostly disappeared into a void of thinking too much, and thinking about how he was thinking too much, and trying to think about something else.
There was also an interlude where Fuery fell off of a stepladder, but he claimed he was fine, and that the floor was fine, and that the radio he’d landed on was fine. Ed highly doubted that it was physically possible for all three of those things to be true, but arguing with someone who was nursing a bunch of weird-shaped bruises pretty literally added insult to injury, so Ed just helped him up and left it alone.
Besides—he’d darted into Roy’s office on instinct at the huge crash noise, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to look the bastard in the eyes yet. He’d been… thinking, after all. Thinking about Roy’s mouth, and his hands, and his artfully-tousled hair, and his too-long eyelashes, and his hands, and dwelling for far too many seconds on the fact that the fly of the uniform had to be standard-issue, which meant that his pants and Roy’s would open exactly the same.
But it didn’t—
Roy had kissed him to shut him up. That probably made him number one-thousand-ninety-two on the list of people Roy had done that to over the course of his lifetime; that club was very likely not exclusive in the least. It had been an act of desperation—a last resort; an impulse; an instinct; a snap decision. It had been a necessity, not a desire.
It wasn’t like Roy had wanted it.
Not that Ed had either.
Not that he did, every damn time he let himself consider it.
Which was—fine. It was fine. It wasn’t like Roy was inviting him over so they could get down to some goddamn hanky-panky; Roy just wasn’t sure exactly how much of the situation Ed had sorted out, and he was empathetic enough to go to some extra trouble to make it clear. Plus Ed owed him one hell of a fucking apology, which he couldn’t not be aware of, so it all worked out all right.
But it wasn’t about—that. It wasn’t about him liking the idea of ushering Ed into his inner sanctum, where they could suck on each other’s lips behind closed doors for as long as they pleased, and Ed could do some very disciplined research into his hypothesis about uniform fastenings.
Which was fine.
It was a stupid thing to think he was entitled to anyway, even for a second—attention, physical attention, from somebody like Roy. And what the hell would he do even in the impossible event that he grasped on to some of this nebulous wishful-thinking shit? It wasn’t like he could sustain some kind of relationship with anyone, let alone… He just couldn’t. He couldn’t impose himself on someone else’s life like that. He was a garbage fire personified, complete with molten metal, and the worst idea in the entire world when you’d finally paid off most of your debts was to overturn a flaming dumpster on a human being you cared about.
So that was that.
He’d just go over and grovel for forgiveness—maybe not literally on his knees, because that might make it too damn tempting altogether to reach for Roy’s fly after all—and get the down-low on the bullshit, and then he’d get home in time for bed.
Which was nice, for a change.
872 was a hell of a lot further down than he’d expected, and the bakery had been remarkably slow at boxing things up for a place that purportedly did this to make money, but even so he was only a couple minutes late by the time he rang the doorbell.
It was a nice house—relatively small, compared to most of the other ones on this street, but even with only the streetlamps for mood lighting, it looked sort of charming. Roy needed to mow his damn lawn, though, or his neighbors were going to complain about his yard lowering their property value and whatever crap.
Ed wondered if Roy was the type to mow his lawn in the middle of the day, in the heat of the afternoon, and realize too late how warm it was, and peel his shirt off and drape it over the banister on this cutesy little porch, and bend to the mower again with the gleaming sweat underlining every shift of muscle in his back—
Ed heard footsteps in the foyer and very, very intently focused on some cold-shower thoughts.
The door opened. Roy kept one hand in his pocket, which meant it had the glove on it, as the other moved the door. When he saw Ed, though, he smiled, and the warm yellow light from inside kissed the curve of his jaw, and—
“Good evening,” he said, because apparently people like Roy actually said shit like that. “Please, come in.”
Ed swallowed, managed, “Thanks,” and then stepped over the threshold. That was the hardest part, right?
He wanted to look around—catalogue everything; take detailed mental notes of what Roy Mustang’s hiding places looked like on the inside. Even the exterior had been a little unexpected, so the part of him that thrived on the bright silver thread of curiosity woven through his lifetime craved nothing more than a thorough survey of this place.
But that would be rude.
Besides, he had a stupid gift in both hands.
Accordingly, the instant Roy had shut the door behind them and turned to him, he held the box out in front of him like a shield and shoved it in the bastard’s direction. “Here.”
“What’s this?” Roy asked, as he looked down through the clear plastic window on the top of the box.
Ed blinked at him, real slow. Maybe Roy had fallen off the step-ladder, too, and hit his head, and he had a concussion, and his eyes were acting up. “It’s a pie.”
“Forgive me,” Roy said. “Somehow I forgot who I was talking to.” He cleared his throat, drew himself up to his full height, and squared his shoulders—which was, for the record, unfair for a myriad variety of reasons. “For what purpose have you brought me a pie, Ed?”
“Back home,” Ed said, “it’s sort of a tradition that if you—” He swallowed fuck up like a total moron. “—do something… stupid that inconveniences somebody, you bring ’em a pie to apologize. Or apielogize, I guess.”
Roy—laughed. Deep and rich and warm and sweet, and oh… shit.
“I quite like that,” Roy said, “but there’s a fundamental flaw in your premise.”
Ed’s eyes narrowed despite his intentions to stay very calm and unaffected and whatever else grown-ass, mature adults were presumably supposed to do in a situation like this. “Oh, yeah? What?”
“You didn’t do anything stupid,” Roy said.
Ed stared at him again. The concussion theory was fast gaining traction here.
“Where were you?” he asked. “I said—all kinds of shit I shouldn’t’ve, and I practically sent the whole Hakuro thing fuckin’ sky-high just because I didn’t—”
Trust you. Listen to logic. Convince myself that anything could ever have gone right enough in my life for you to be somebody I could believe in.
“—pay attention to any of the clues you guys were givin’ me,” he said.
Which wasn’t entirely true: he’d paid attention, all right; he just hadn’t carved his way to the heart of it in time.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Roy said, starting through a doorway to the left. Uncertainly, but with a vague conviction that it would be more awkward to stand in the entryway and shout the rest of the conversation than it would be to trail someone into a room they hadn’t expressly invited him into, Ed followed a few steps behind, which brought them both into Roy Mustang’s kitchen. Bastard was putting the pie down on the counter and unboxing it, which… admittedly was more or less the purpose of a pie, but Ed had sort of been hoping he could just hand it over and then fuck off before they had to make this into a thing.
Because it wasn’t a thing. There wasn’t any thing here, hovering between them, crackling softly in the silence, and the edge of the electricity didn’t taste so much like alchemy that he just kept reaching for it, hoping for one more jolt of it singing up his spine.
“I’d intended to have something prepared for when you were originally meant to get back,” Roy was saying as he detached the cardboard sides from one another with more deliberate caution than it probably deserved. “But I’ve been so behind on the actual work—trying to catch up nights after ostentatiously wasting eight hours in the office is a bit more than I bargained for—that I didn’t have it ready for you early. And after all of that, it was just so late by the time that I made it to a pay phone that first night that you were back—”
“I should’ve picked up,” Ed said.
Roy’s fingers hesitated, and he glanced over his shoulder, and he was smiling, and there were little fine lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. “It’s not your fault, Ed.”
“You look—different,” Ed said before he could stop himself. And then that sounded stupid, which was par for the course, but he was tired, and… maybe gesturing uselessly towards Roy’s face would help. “I mean, you did, the last couple days. Now you look more like… you.”
If nothing else, at least he had a record-breaking quantity of insufferably stupid shit to say tonight. Surely there was some sort of a prize for that.
But Roy paused in freeing the pie, turned more fully, and leaned back against the counter. He folded his arms across his chest, crossed his legs at the ankles, and… grinned.
“You noticed,” he said.
Ed blinked. He swallowed. He blinked again. “Oh. I—guess. Yeah.”
Maybe a medal.
Roy’s grin widened, which at least offered a little bit of consolation, because it was hard to look at him doing the suave thing and not feel a flutter of appreciation for the sheer incomparable aesthetics of his stupid face.
“The power of makeup strikes again,” Roy said.
The flutter metamorphosed into a lurch. “What?”
“Makeup,” Roy said. “It seemed to me that if someone was searching for social-climber playboy Mustang so intently that they’d rig my office up with microphones, the least I could do was look the part.”
It was funny—in a sick sort of way. Ed had been doubting his own brain, his own memories, and all this time—
It was just that Roy Mustang was a consummate fucking actor, and he pulled out all the stops, and his supporting cast was right there with him up until the instant that the curtain fell.
“How’d you know?” Ed managed to ask, which was several steps up from Your eyelashes were so fucking beautiful I got distracted, although honestly they’re still pretty nice. “That they’d bugged you, I mean. It seemed like you weren’t… maybe you doubted them from the start.”
“That’s most of it,” Roy said. “Only one other office was apparently due for renovations, and the company wasn’t Central Command’s normal contractor, both of which were rather considerable red flags. So I did some digging, and there were a few possibilities for personal connections that gave me pause, so I got in the way as much as I could by staying late and being a pest for the majority of their work time. When they insisted on staying overnight at their last opportunity, that doubled the probability that my suspicions had been correct, so the next morning I briefed the team in writing and then started feeding the mics some misinformation about your mission location and so on and so forth.” He smiled, and this was the one without any humor again. “It came right back to me three hours later in a meeting.” The smile transitioned to a grimace. “Which meant I had to go back and doctor some of the records of your trip so that they would agree with the lie, but that’s all water under the bridge.”
“Well, shit,” Ed said, which was better than You’re kind of fucking amazing, you know that? “I should’ve… I mean, I was almost there, but I didn’t… y’know. Ninety percent of the way doesn’t count.” He choked down a few more things he couldn’t say—here, now, ever. “I—sorry. I was—I didn’t have to be such a pain in the ass about it. Y’know.”
“You?” Roy said, and this grin was a thousand times worse than the last one—this one was bright and genuine and more than a little bit amused. “I don’t think you even registered as a pain in the ass on the scale I was setting. There’s nothing for you to be sorry for.”
Roy pressed his lips together, looking at the floor, and Ed was thinking about his lips; and then his fingers curled into his sleeves where his arms were still folded, and then Ed was thinking about his hands—
“I’ve been meaning…” Roy said. “I’ve been trying to find a place in this conversation—and, honestly, I’ve been… procrastinating. I’ve been meaning to say that I’m sorry. For—” He shifted, shuffled his feet, looked towards the window, glanced at Ed, and then apparently decided that the window was safer.
And it was fascinating. Ed couldn’t remember the last time—if there’d ever been one—that he’d seen Roy fucking Mustang uncomfortable; he couldn’t remember the last time that anything had unsettled Roy enough to leave him fumbling for words.
“For earlier,” Roy said. “For what I did. It was inappropriate and invasive, and I never should have touched you without your permission, and I am—deeply and sincerely sorry for doing so. I hope it… won’t… interfere with our… with anything, really. I hope you’ll still feel that you can trust me.”
Ed stared at him. At least he was getting a lot of practice at that tonight.
And the thing was—
It wasn’t that he couldn’t trust Roy. Of course he could fucking trust Roy—nine out of ten times, at least; as a kid he would’ve put it at fifty-fifty, but there had been a hell of a lot more shit going on back then, and they hadn’t known each other anywhere near as well.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t trust Roy.
It was that he couldn’t trust himself with Roy. About Roy. About any of this.
Having a stupid, childish crush that made your blood run quick and hot and rush to your cheeks every time he looked at you sideways or turned that city-leveling smolder on you was one thing. It was a small thing, and an understandable thing, and a manageable thing; and you knew it was hopeless, and that made it safe.
But when stupid, childish crushes stuck around long enough that they took root in your ribcage and wrapped your heart in spike-thorned strangling vines—
When stupid, childish crushes settled in the center of your chest and stayed there, burning low but bright and staggeringly reliable, for years—
Then they had power.
Then they had the power to fuel you, and the power to inflame, and the power to destroy.
Roy had to know a thing or two about that.
“It’s fine,” Ed said, keeping his voice light and level by force of will alone. “You don’t have to… I mean, honestly, I should be thanking you.”
Roy blinked. Even without the added makeup-magic, his eyelashes were wonderful. Ed wanted to know what they’d feel like. They looked so damn soft.
“I beg your pardon?” Roy asked, so at least the interlude masquerading as a heedless cad hadn’t tarnished his dweebiness.
“Well,” Ed said, bolstering himself with a breath, “now I know that… I mean, in comparison to, y’know—you—Ling is a lousy kisser. So I can—give him crap for it. Which is great. So—thanks. I guess.” He paused, and swallowed, and the spit went down easy, but the half-formed words stacking up in the back of his throat didn’t follow suit. “I mean, I dunno exactly how I’m going to explain to him that I know that, but—I’ll leave you out of it.”
Roy looked at him.
Ed looked back.
“Edward,” Roy said.
Ed fucking hated it when he said that. Ed hated it, because it sounded so—
Meaningful. Important. Intimate, particular, thoughtful, pointed, desiring—
And he knew, for a fact, that all of that was in his head.
There was nothing in the known world quite as goddamn frustrating as realizing that your brain was being deliberately obtuse and not being able to stop it.
“The pie’s blueberry,” he said. “They didn’t have a whole lot left, and I always feel like a traitor to Winry and Gracia both if I get apple pie from anybody else. Plus I figure if you spill it on your uniform, nobody’d be able to see the stain.”
“That’s very practical,” Roy said. “Edward—”
“Y’know,” Ed said, “I should go. It’s late, and you probably have work you still gotta catch up on, and Al’ll be going to bed s—”
“Ed,” Roy said, “I can’t believe you kissed the Emperor of Xing, and you didn’t even tell me.”
Ed’s stomach bottomed out. His heart was hammering in his head, insistently, like Winry halfway through a really bad all-nighter. His fingertips—the ones that could register sensation, anyway—felt tingly-numb.
“It was only the once,” he said. “And he wasn’t the Emperor yet. And—just—I guess it probably wouldn’t be fair, anyway, to make judgments based on it, ’cause it was really quick, and—”
“Ah,” Roy said, in that knowing way he had that had always made Ed avidly imagine throttling him back in the day.
“No,” Ed managed. “I mean—it wasn’t a big—thing. It was just—when we were wanderin’ around in the forest before the Promised Day, y’know, we weren’t… we didn’t know what was gonna happen, and Greed gave Ling a minute, and I guess he didn’t know when the next minute he might get was, and—y’know. It just—it was real fast and kinda—messy, and… that was it.”
It had been somewhat more than just that. It had started in one of those odd, cold-edged moments of perfect understanding between him and Greed—the ones that always felt like balancing a knife blade on your tongue. Ed had liked Greed, kind of a lot—more than he ever meant to; there was something about the fact that Greed never bullshitted about what he wanted or whether he was going to try to get it that was bizarrely endearing once you got used to him asking for your food while he was eating his own and hitting semi-sleazily on everything that moved. And there was something fragile and crystalline and diamond-facet sharp—something uncertain but unshakable—about the unexpected moments where they saw exactly eye-to-eye.
It had started out as one of those. It was one night after making camp—they’d been sitting on a fallen tree, a safe distance apart, because Greed had grabbed for Ed’s ass two days prior (“out of desperation,” apparently, since it’d been a couple days since they’d seen a populated town), and looking out over a valley underneath them. Tiny yellow lights had dotted the village below, like honey drops, or grains of sugar on a pie crust, or half a thousand little yellow tears. And Greed had said, “Hey, kid—are you the type to make plans for after this thing?”
And Ed had said, “Very funny.”
And Greed had smiled, and it was so much smaller and sweeter and sadder and kinder than the over-the-top, stretch-the-face grin that Ed was used to that it made him pause.
“Me neither,” he’d said. “Seems like tempting fate. I already got a second chance I didn’t earn—how many assholes can say that?”
Ed had raised his hand.
The laugh had been different from the normal one, too. There was something unusual in it—something gentle. Something… hesitant. Maybe even something s—
“All right,” Greed had said, smacking his own temple with the heel of one hand. “All right, all right, all—will it shut you up? Pinky swear. Will it?”
And then it wasn’t Greed—it was Ling, and his eyes were different, and his face was different, and his shoulders dropped like he’d just let out a sigh. He dragged in a deep breath, shook his head, blinked, and said, “Edward, my dear friend, the darkness really suits you.”
“Why?” Ed asked. “Because it’s dark, and you can’t see my stupi—”
“Because the sun has to compete with you,” Ling said, “and it is always going to lose.”
Ed had stared, dumbstruck and open-mouthed, and Ling had grabbed a fistful of his collar and hauled him in, and it had been—
Dry, at first; weirdly sort of—rubbery? Mouths were strange. And then it was wet—and on instinct, he’d closed his eyes, which had been a good choice; and held his breath, which hadn’t—
And he’d pulled back, gasping, and sputtered, “What the fuck?”, and Ling had looked at him, intently, and then carefully smoothed down the collar of his shirt.
“It’s traditional,” Ling had said.
“Bullshit, it’s traditional,” Ed had said.
“I intend to be the Emperor,” Ling had said. “At that point, tradition will be whatever I say it is.”
“Sure,” Ed had said, “but you ain’t a fuckin’ emperor yet.”
Ling had laughed, bright and breezy, but his eyes stayed so afraid—
And then Greed had swooped back in within an instant, and Ed had shifted back just in case his hands were inclined towards roving, and Greed’s tongue had swept out across his upper lip.
“Damn,” he said. “Not bad.”
“Speak for yourself,” Ed had said.
Back in the real world—or the realest one that he had access to, at least—he eyed Roy across the kitchen and tried to make a shrug look natural.
“Anyway,” he said, “not something you could use as some kind of diplomatic ace in the hole, is the point.”
“It would be dishonest to claim the thought hadn’t crossed my mind,” Roy said. “But more than that—even if it wasn’t the start of anything, kissing heads of state is a hell of an accomplishment. It’s a shame you don’t advertise it.”
Ed stared. “Shit, Mustang, are you—is this your way of sayin’ that you kiss and tell?”
Roy paused, and then he scuffed one foot against the floor again, watching it progress with an exaggerated fake interest.
“I don’t have to,” he said, “when I kiss in the middle of the office.”
Ed stared again.
Then he stared some more.
“I cannot,” he said, “fucking believe you.”
The wince started slow, but it spread across Roy’s face like a raincloud, bigger and deeper and darker the further it went. “I—know. I’m sorry. For all the facetiousness, I mean that; I d—”
“No,” Ed said. “I can’t fucking believe you’re so lazy you’d fucking kiss me to avoid having to explain shit, and do it in the middle of the office to avoid having to tell anybody.”
Roy gazed at him for a minute, and the wince had vanished into the Roy-face-ether, replaced with… nothing. Absolutely nothing. The man was a fucking marvel when he wanted to be.
And a pain in the ass whether he wanted or not.
“I am,” Roy said, “if nothing else, a maestro of multitasking.”
“A fucking professional procrastinator,” Ed said.
There it was—the light in his eyes. That was how you knew you had him; when he wanted to laugh, you could see it right at the corners of his eyes if you looked close enough.
“A magnificent malingerer,” Roy said. “Did you want some of this pie?”
“I got it for you,” Ed said.
Roy stood up straight for the first time in several minutes, looked intently down at the pie, looked at Ed, and raised an eyebrow.
“Do you really expect me to eat an entire pie by myself?” he asked.
“I’ve done it,” Ed said. “And that place makes pretty good stuff.”
“If it’s pretty good,” Roy said, trying one drawer—and then another—and then a third—and then withdrawing a cake knife, “you should stay and have a piece.”
Ed watched him cut into it. Apparently Roy sliced pie like Roy did just about everything else that had to do with his hands: deftly and swiftly and confidently, with such remarkable precision that you couldn’t help being slightly mesmerized.
“I’m fine,” Ed got out. “I don’t… you should invite somebody over or something. Friends, or—” Your six-thousand gorgeous lovers. “—something.”
Roy tipped a perfect piece onto a little ceramic plate and held it out, eyebrows arched again. “Don’t you like blueberry pie?”
It was oozing syrup. Ed had sort-of-kind-of scarfed about half of what would ordinarily have qualified as dinner so that he’d be able to hoof it to the bakery and then over here by eight. The crust was all buttery and flaky-looking. His will was weak after an entire day of putting up with retrospectively-comprehensible bullshit.
He gave it one last shot: “I got it for you.”
“You did,” Roy said. “Which I appreciate more than I think I can put into words, especially considering the circumstances. But I’m very concerned that eating dessert alone is a sign of addiction, so it’s probably best all around if you join me.”
The first step towards him was the hardest—the successive ones came a little easier, and then Ed had momentum, and then Roy stretched his arm out a little so that Ed didn’t have to reach as far to take the plate, and then he was offering a fork, and then…
Somehow they were sitting at Roy Mustang’s kitchen table eating pie.
What a fucking day.
The worst part was, the pie was great. Or maybe that was a good part. Maybe it was both, since it meant Ed couldn’t convincingly fake an unexpected allergy and bolt out of here before this conversation veered back towards topics he didn’t know how to navigate but couldn’t dodge, and his face gave that away every single ti—
“So,” Roy said. “How about the others?”
Ed tried to stop his eyes from narrowing, but there was really no way around it when Roy got all faux-bemused like that. Even waiting—even actively bracing himself—he was an embarrassment to the very concept of the poker face. “What others?”
“The other people you’ve kissed,” Roy said.
Was there an emergency siren somewhere in the city, or were Ed’s ears ringing?
“Any other monarchical highlights?” Roy asked. He flashed the rogue grin, and somehow he didn’t even have purple goo in his teeth, and Ed hated him. “Is it conceited to ask how I compare?”
“Yes,” Ed said.
Roy looked insufferably smug. He was going to get the second of half of his slice of pie smeared all over his face in another minute. “Yes to which?”
“It’s conceited,” Ed said. “No fuckin’ surprise.” He worked the spit around in his mouth. Presumably, his was full of purple goo, because he was an ordinary mortal. He was just lucky there wasn’t any on his shirt yet. At least that he’d noticed. “And there—aren’t. Others, I mean. There aren’t others. Weren’t others. Whatever.”
He poked at his pie. Poked was probably a kind word for it; he was crushing the nearest bit of crust and squeezing all of the juice out of it, and massacring the filling. It was a blueberry bloodbath, more or less, but it was a hell of a lot better than looking at Roy.
“Oh,” the bastard said, so softly it almost snagged Ed’s attention despite him. “I didn’t… I wasn’t aware of that. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to be… I wasn’t passing any judgment.”
Ed skewered one of the few remaining fragments of pie crust that he hadn’t obliterated yet. “S’fine.”
“At this rate,” Roy said, “I should have brought you a pie.”
Ed couldn’t help looking up at him at that—but just quickly, one little assessing glance, and then back to the safety of the slow and meticulous destruction of his dessert. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not,” Roy said. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to lighten the mood, but I shouldn’t have assumed… well, hell. I shouldn’t have done it in the first place, and the rest of this is all digging deeper at the bottom of the hole.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his legs at the knee and probably would have borne more than a passing resemblance to a goddamn demigod if Ed had been willing to look at him dead-on. “What’s your favorite flavor?”
“You don’t have to get me a fucking apology pie,” Ed said.
“How about apology ice cream?” Roy said. “That could be the city-slicker adaptation of the tradition.”
“No,” Ed said.
“Now I’m suspicious,” Roy said. “I’ve never known you to turn down free food.”
Ed pushed the pie plate a little ways away across the table and stared at the stove, which was also better than looking at Roy. Roy did weird and unhelpful and probably unhealthy things to Ed’s head and his guts and his circulatory system. “It only tastes good when you earned it. And I didn’t, ’cause you didn’t do anything wrong. Can we just—drop it?”
The half-second of silence told a long story just out of range of his his hearing.
“Of course,” Roy said. There was another extremely expansive half-second of quiet, and then the tines of Roy’s fork clinked against the plate. “I…”
“We gotta do something,” Ed said.
This silence was, if nothing else, vastly different from the previous two—not in length, but bewilderment-nothing was miles away from meaningful-nothing.
“Certainly,” Roy said, slowly. “What w—”
“About the walls,” Ed said.
“Ah,” Roy said, sounding much more like himself. “Yes—of course. Part of the intention of having Sergeant Fuery try to determine the structure of it was to have a target, but I’m not sure what to do to them. I can hardly go in there myself with a sledgehammer.”
“You could,” Ed said. Bastard had tricked him into looking, but at least some of the tension had diffused from the air in between them. “We’d just have to find a way to make it plausible, is all. Could you play like one of your phone girlfriends jilted you or something?”
“That version of me would destroy the phone,” Roy said. “Not the walls.”
“That version of you sucks,” Ed said.
Roy smiled faintly, and his eyebrows rose, and the sidelong glance he gave Ed was like—
Like a fucking scythe to the kneecaps, was what it was, and even when you knew the ground was coming, when you went down that hard—
“He is very useful for killing time,” Roy said. “And for killing expectations.”
And making out with subordinates, apparently, but Ed would throw himself out the window on the far wall of the kitchen before he said that.
“He got pretty pissy,” he said instead. “Could we get him to light the room on fire?”
“In addition to sophisticated monitoring equipment,” Roy said, “the room also contains almost a full decade’s worth of personnel files.”
“We could make copies,” Ed said.
“Are you volunteering?” Roy asked.
“We could not make copies, ever,” Ed said, “and count your stupid files as collateral damage.”
“I have the first report you ever wrote for me in there,” Roy said.
“And you’re trying to convince me incinerating the whole room isn’t a good idea?” Ed asked.
“I need that report intact,” Roy said. “How else am I supposed to trot it out at your wedding during the fond humiliation bit?”
Ed went right the fuck back to staring at him.
“You know,” Roy said, gesturing unhelpfully with his fork. “It’s usually partway through dinner, or during cake—everyone’s had a little too much to drink, and two bridesmaids and one groomsman have turned you down even though you’re a spectacular dancer, and you realize your only recourse is telling embarrassing childhood stories to try to get some kind of weak revenge on the person who forced you to come to this thing and watch them be happier than you are…”
“The fuck, Roy,” Ed said.
“Sorry,” Roy said. Had he ever said that to Ed before, let alone about sixteen times in a row all of a sudden? “It’s been… a long day.”
“I’m not having a fucking wedding,” Ed said.
“That’s fine,” Roy said. He was looking at the ceiling now, nibbling idly on the tines of his fork, and he was unreasonably beautiful even with those deep circles under his eyes, and Ed despised every last fucking unattainable inch of him. “Elopement is much less expensive, and I’ve always felt that there’s something about the extravagance of a full wedding that’s really missing the point of committing to a life tog—”
“You think anybody in their right mind would fucking marry me?” Ed said.
Roy looked at him, sharply, and the fork went still.
How did they keep ending up talking about this stupid shit no matter how intently Ed tried to avoid it?
Roy blinked three times—slowly, with his mouth pulling further and further down—before he said, “You really… think that. Don’t you?”
Ed looked down at the rest of his pie, but the thought of eating it now made him feel sort of stomach-churn-woozy. “Fuck off. Unlike some people, I don’t say shit unless I really think it.”
“Ed,” Roy said, and his voice was so—honeyed that Ed couldn’t help but look again. He’d put one elbow on the table, and he was tilting his head to rest against it, and— “Someone is going to make you so happy someday that you won’t believe we ever had this conversation. And you’ll make them so happy in return that you won’t have to.”
Sometimes it broke Ed’s heart a little that Roy thought so damn much of him.
Sometimes—usually on the tail of one of those behind-the-mask glimpses, before he’d had a chance to second-guess—he wondered if maybe that went two ways.
“If you’re so damn psychic,” he said, “why can’t you tell us where the mics are?”
Roy smiled thinly. “Fair. But Edw—”
“No,” Ed said. “We have to figure this out first. No more procrastinating with our personal life crap.”
Roy sighed, feelingly, and said something that sounded a lot like “Riza would be so proud” most of the way under his breath before he sat back and squared his shoulders. “All right. Ideas for how to damage the walls without destroying the office?”
“Localized earthquake,” Ed said.
“Difficult to time,” Roy said.
“I meant with alchemy,” Ed said, “obviously.”
“Difficult to target,” Roy said, and then he held up a hand before Ed could sass back, which made it a billion times worse, but— “In addition to which, even if we affected the whole wing of the building, it would be suspicious enough that they would ask around, and they have access to the seismic data.”
“We could have Hayate pee on the wall,” Ed said.
Roy looked like he was thinking it over, but— “Unfortunately I think it’s widely known how well-trained he is.”
“I’ll pee on the wall,” Ed said.
“Whatever we do,” Roy said, and at least the fucker was visibly trying not to laugh now, “we should stop short of giving them grounds to have you transferred to another command.”
“Fine,” Ed said. “What are your ideas?”
He put his fork down.
He drummed his fingers on the tabletop.
“Well,” he said.
Ed waited a full five seconds before saying, “‘Well’, what?”
“Usually my solution is either ‘fire’ or ‘subterfuge’,” Roy said. “I’m working on it.”
“You ever combined ’em?” Ed asked. “Wait—don’t—I know the answer to that, partly, ’cause I’ve seen it, and I don’t want to know the rest of the answer, ’cause we’ll get sidetracked. So—c’mon. Don’t they pay you to use your brain?”
“They ought not,” Roy said, “after what they’ve heard this week.” He noticed the way Ed had wrinkled his nose, because of course he did. “What’s wrong?”
“You just said ‘ought’,” Ed said.
The vague puzzlement in Roy’s expression was disastrously cute. “That’s… true.”
“Never mind,” Ed said. “I’m not gonna let you turn me into a procrastinator too. We’re gonna focus. We’re focusing. Can we set fire to just the one wall we think is the worst? Or could we just—what about the opposite? Are there any pipes in the ceiling we could blow? Soak the place?”
Roy drummed his fingers again, slowly—in sequence, evenly, one at a time, like he was in charge of some kind of organized fingertip percussion, and…
And thinking about Roy’s fingertips right now would not help Ed with the staying focused thing.
“I’m not sure,” Roy said. “I don’t think there’s anything volatile enough in the ventilation shafts—” Speaking of words Roy should not have been saying. “—but staging an accident that’s out of our control is a promising avenue.”
He employed the other hand for cradling his chin, elbow propped up on the table, and tapped those fingertips against his lips as he gazed into open space, and that was even fucking worse. Roy Mustang’s very existence should have been illegal at the rate that he was going; how did anybody ever get anything done when Roy was out there in the world, being like this?
“If we could start an electrical fire—I wonder if we could convincingly get some sparks out of you knocking my desk lamp to the floor hard enough to sever the cord, or… I don’t suppose I could convince you to take up smoking and drop a cigarette into some strategically-crumpled reports.”
“I worked hard for these lungs,” Ed said.
Roy smiled wanly. “You did. I’m sorry.”
“Stop saying that,” Ed said.
“Back to work,” Ed said, before Roy could add anything stupid. “We’re—I feel like we’re making progress. The electrical fire thing is good. What else could we fuck up? Or—or what if I nicked Havoc’s lighter just for fun, and I was playing with it just to annoy you, and—”
The drumming intensified. “But how would it get out of hand fast enough to damage an entire wall while the world’s supposed expert on flammability is sitting two feet away?” Roy asked. “Damn, this whole widespread destruction business is harder than I ever gave you credit for.”
“Thanks,” Ed said. “Or something.”
“You’re very welcome,” Roy said, with that weird combination of wryness and sincerity that always made Ed’s head spin in a lurchy, half-exhilarating, half-nauseating kind of way. “Well, I got us into this mess; I’ll think of a way to get us out.”
“You didn’t, though,” Ed said. “Get us into it.”
This time, Roy smiled softly right at him, which was tremendously unfair. “My office is my responsibility,” he said. “I’ll take care of it. I may need to recruit your help with the execution of it, however.”
“Cool with me,” Ed said. He stood up, since it seemed like the most logical thing when Roy was clearly trying to push him out the door. “I’ve always secretly wanted to trash your office.”
“I don’t believe that’s a secret,” Roy said.
“Oh,” Ed said, starting for the door. “Too bad.” About three steps into the hall put him practically at the door, which summoned a wisp of recollection. “I have your stupid report, by the way. On Hakuro. Not that it’s stupid, just—well. Anyway. I didn’t want to risk it getting pie on it, but I’ll bring it for you tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Roy said. The light in here did funny things to him—funny, unconscionable things that made him just look so damn—
Nothing. So damn nothing. Because Ed wasn’t going to torture himself with that shit any more than he had to.
“Don’t have to thank me,” Ed said. “I’m gettin’ paid.”
At least that turned the awful, sweet little smile into a grimace double-time. “‘You’re welcome’ would have sufficed.”
“I don’t do ‘sufficed’,” Ed said. “I do ‘overkill’ at best.”
“I’d noticed,” Roy said.
“Well,” Ed said, kicking his foot at the fringe of the mat, “guess I’ll… g’night.”
“Goodnight, Ed,” Roy said. “Thank you—for the pie, specifically. And for coming by.”
“Sure,” Ed said. He opened the door, and stepped out, and—
“One more thing,” Roy said. He paused, and the way the light gleamed in his eyes with the cool of the night at Ed’s back was just… almost too much. Almost more than anyone could reasonably be expected to survive. “A request.”
Ed shifted his weight to his back foot. He wasn’t sure why, but he’d learned a long time ago to trust that instinct. It’d saved his ass more times than he could count by now. “What?”
Roy leaned on the doorframe, which was evidently a thing that real people did when they were real people like Roy.
“May I kiss you again?” he asked. “This morning wasn’t my best work. I’d hate to leave you with the wrong impression.”
Sometimes it was better not to get what you wanted. Sometimes it was better that you never got it.
“Nah,” Ed said. “I don’t—figure—that’s a good idea. Long-term.”
Roy smiled. It was the sad one: the small, tired one, and his eyes stayed dark—a starless midnight sky.
“I understand,” he said.
Ed’s heart executed a swift, terrible twist-flip-shudder, but he forced himself to smile back.
“You sure?” he asked.
Roy waited until he’d turned on his heel and started down the walk before— “I’m never sure, with you. I prefer it that way.”
Ed glanced back.
Roy was settled where he’d leant against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, just… watching. Not a single movement to follow, or reach out, or pursue. Just—there. Like he was waiting for something.
“See you tomorrow,” Ed said. “Thanks for sharing the pie like a jerk who can’t accept an apology.”
“At your service,” Roy said.
“Like hell,” Ed said.
Ed made a break for it before they ended up shouting at each other across the slightly-overgrown lawn.
And that was—
Fine. Good, even. Right. Exactly how it should’ve been. Roy staying still, staying poised, in a position of power; and Ed walking away before anybody had to cut themselves open on the edges of what could have been.
“Wait,” Al said when he’d finally dragged the whole story out of an Ed who had honestly just wanted to collapse on the couch and pretend not to exist for a while. “You brought him a Ruby’s pie? And he tried to share it with you?”
“I know,” Ed said. “Maybe he burned off his tastebuds years ago with Flame Alchemy or something.”
Al paused. “And then he wanted to kiss you again?”
“For the sake of his stupid reputation,” Ed said. “Like—who am I even gonna tell? Other than you, obviously. And you aren’t about to write an editorial about it for the Central Times or something.”
Al was quiet for long enough that Ed lifted the arm that he’d laid over his eyes, so that he could see if maybe Al had choked on his own spit or something.
No choking was apparent. Al was just… looking at him. In a really Al kind of way.
“Brother,” Al said, “I love you more than anyone else on the entire face of this very well-populated planet, but sometimes you drive me to the sheerest precipice of absolute despair.”
“What?” Ed said.
“That didn’t seem suspicious to you?” Al asked. “Your C.O. who kissed you impulsively specifically asking if he could do it again, in his doorway, as he said goodbye, after sharing a dessert?”
Ed scowled at him. He wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but he had a killer sixth sense for knowing when someone was poking fun at him, and he could practically see Al’s finger extended. “This whole fucking week has been suspicious. It’s less weird than anything else he did today.”
“Ed,” Al said, “he’s in love with you.”
The world stopped turning so suddenly that its angular momentum hurled Ed violently into a roaring void.
Which was vaguely familiar. At least the Gate was good for something.
“He is fucking not,” the remnants of Ed’s psyche choked out.
“Oh, come on,” Al said. “You think it’s a coincidence that he needed a method to shut you up, and he happened to use his own mouth? I mean, heck, Brother, this is a man who can take the oxygen out of a room with his eyes shut. He’s got hands. I’ve heard him be louder than you. And he’s smart enough to think of all kinds of things he could’ve said to stop you in your tracks. But he didn’t. His first thought was to kiss you. That’s textbook.”
“It’s romance novel,” Ed said. “There’s—there’re all kinds of—alternate explanations. He was probably just—curious. Vaguely. Y’know. Lots of weird shit bubbles up in your brain when you’re arguing with somebody, because getting mad messes with your higher functions, and—”
Al’s arched eyebrow spoke many volumes. “‘Vaguely curious’?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “That’s what Ling was.”
Al’s mortified expression spoke several more. “Oh. Oh, no. Not even… Brother, not even you could…”
“What?” Ed said. “That’s what happened. Or it was—I mean, in his case, it was more of a desperation thing than anything else. We were talkin’ about how we were probably gonna die, Al. You know how people are always saying ‘One more for the road’? That’s all it was. I mean, no offense to Darius and Heinkel, but they’re even less his type than I am, so he really only had the one option, so—”
Al buried his face in both hands and started shaking his head slowly.
“What?” Ed said. “Jeez, Al, you’re… reading way too much into… well, whatever. That’s not even the point. We were talking about Roy, and how he’s definitely not—definitely not—y’know—and—”
“Brother,” Al said, raising his head from his hands like it was a trial, “you are truly remarkable.”
That sounded like a compliment, but Ed got the sense it was the kind that usually left a knuckle imprint on your cheek. “Not really, but thanks, I guess. You just—Al, listen, there is no evidence to support that hypothesis. None.”
“You just gave me all of the evidence I could ever possibly need,” Al said.
“You can’t draw conclusions based on data collected at a single time point,” Ed said. “That’s bad science.”
“Yes,” Al said. “So is ignoring the facts.”
“Today was an anomaly,” Ed said.
“Brother,” Al said. “What kind of a behavioral anomaly could compel an otherwise rational adult to insist on sharing blueberry pie from Ruby’s?”
“I told you,” Ed said. “Maybe he doesn’t have tastebuds.”
“Now who doesn’t have evidence?” Al asked.
“All I’m saying is that there are other explanations,” Ed said. “There has to be an explanation other than—yours.”
“Okay,” Al said. “Then let’s test it.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?” Ed asked.
“I don’t trust you to collect unbiased data,” Al said. “You’re too invested in disproving my theory.”
“That’s because it’s wrong,” Ed said.
“Going into an experiment with a track record for confirmation bias,” Al said, “is bad science.”
It was Ed’s turn to scrub at his face with both hands. Which kind of hurt on the right side, but it was worth it for the effect.
“Fine,” he said. “Once we deal with the stupid wall thing tomorrow, I’ll just—ask him.”
Al’s distraught and horrified expression returned in full force. “You can’t do that!”
“Why the hell not?” Ed asked. “It’s the most direct route t—”
“It’s not romantic!” Al said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for ten minutes,” Ed said.
“No,” Al said. “I mean—and you know Roy. If you put him on his guard like that, he’ll never tell you the truth. Especially since you turned him down at the door tonight; he thinks you aren’t interested, so he’ll try to protect himself and prevent any awkwardness by denying everything.”
“He’s right that I’m not interested,” Ed said.
Al laughed so hard it was a miracle he didn’t give himself a hernia.
“I’m not,” Ed said when Al had mostly caught his breath, since anything before that would have been lost to the howling anyway. “I mean—attracted, maybe. I think anybody’s who’s… even… a little bit into—y’know, guys—would be attracted to that asshole, but—I’m not interested. That means something different. I’m not… there’s nothing there. Nothing would happen. There’s nothing to be interested in.”
Al was wiping tears away—what an overdramatic little shit; it hadn’t been that funny—and paused long enough to give him another one of those looks.
“I think you’re also doing bad science there,” he said, “but that’s a different problem. We need to solve the first one first.”
Ed made a face at him. “There’s nothing—”
“What you’re going to do,” Al said, “is another experiment. You’re going to give Roy an opportunity which will prove either your hypothesis or mine. And just asking him, as established, totally doesn’t count. I’ll grade you on unbiased methodology later, so you’d better think about it.”
“No,” Ed said. “No way.”
“Yes way,” Al said. “It’s for science.”
“I hate you,” Ed said.
Al beamed at him. “No, you don’t.”
“I almost do,” Ed said. “Sometimes. Like now. Definitely like now.”
Al beamed wider. “This is exactly why you need to get laid, Brother.”
Ed was going to kill him as soon as the world stopped collapsing and all that shit.
It’d been stupid to bail before making a specific plan with Roy when they had the chance to talk freely. Could he blame that on Roy? Roy had been the distracting one, after all; in addition to which he was, at least theoretically speaking, the authority figure in the situation. Wasn’t Roy’s whole job to be the one who made the plans, be they specific or otherwise? Clearly it was on him that they had a clear goal in mind but pretty much zero steps laid out for the particulars of it. That was a C.O. job. Ed was off the hook.
He was also sitting in his chair, frowning down at his report while he tried to think of a plan anyway. Roy’s plans mostly tended to involve thinking in circles around people who underestimated him—the whole heedless destruction gig was much more Ed’s area than Roy’s. Did that mean he was responsible? Was that in the job description somewhere? He’d skimmed all the fine print when he enlisted, and that’d been almost ten fucking years now; he couldn’t remember if there was something in it about… being obligated to intervene in a situation where your expertise was required or something. That couldn’t be mandatory, could it? And if it was, there had to be provisions in there somewhere about productive expertise, because otherwise people who were pros at sleeping, like Al, would technically have to do that all the time, and…
And he probably hadn’t had quite enough coffee, had he?
Maybe that was a good thing. Sometimes your brain made strange connections when it wasn’t quite awake. Sometimes—
Sometimes your C.O. strolled in fifteen minutes after eight, looking like a breath of fresh air incarnate, and the mesmerizingly long eyelashes were back, and—
And Ed’s heart was obviously not banging double-time, because that might imply that Al was on to something, and he would not be providing any support whatsoever for that ridiculous notion. Not today.
Roy was going to saunter through and disappear into the office in another second; Ed had to act fast—
He kicked his chair back and hopped up out of it. It was a good thing there weren’t any bugs that could give you a visual, or he would have had to salute, and then he would have had to chop off his own hands—he could almost hear Winry’s howl of anguish from here—and boil them clean in some acid or something.
But he was upright with his shoulders squared and saying “Sir?” No way around that one; no denying it.
There was also no denying how quickly Roy turned on his heel, and how wide his eyes were when they fixed on Ed, and that his mouth had fallen open just a bit. Like he—
Liked it. Liked it a lot. Was sort of—into it. In a… more-than-just-professional-satisfaction kind of way.
Al was going to get a hernia for real this time.
“Yes, Major?” Roy said, managing to sound remarkably calm for someone who looked like he’d just been slapped in the face. But in a good way. Was there a good way? Ed had—heard—things, but—
Not the time.
“The report you wanted, sir,” he said, snatching up the Hakuro one and extending it. His hand shook—the right one. How fucking embarrassing, but there wasn’t time for that either. “And… I was wondering about your meeting schedule today. Do you have a couple minutes to discuss… that—situation I—” He couldn’t say last night; they’d know he and Roy had been colluding away from the office, which—given what they’d heard so far, and what they would have had to have gathered was the current relationship between them—would’ve been suspicious as hell. “The one—”
“I’m extremely busy today,” Roy said, but at least he snatched the report out of Ed’s hand, and at least his eyes were so much gentler now that it barely even ruffled Ed’s extremely sensitive annoyance instinct. “Or, at least, I will be, provided that Sergeant Fuery has succeeded with my telephone. I’d like all of you to take notes, by the way, on what an emblematic subordinate Fullmetal has turned into overnight. Put ‘deferential’ at the top of the list of traits you should emulate in order to improve.”
Ed stared at Roy, who stared back. The corners of Roy’s mouth quirked, so Ed ducked before he did likewise, and they both started laughing.
At least he hadn’t fucked it up. Or not irreparably. At least he hadn’t lost the ability to share a look and laugh with that stupid asshole. Roy wasn’t the type to hold it against him—right? Roy wasn’t the type to make things… weird, or take it out on him, or treat him different—just because he’d said what he’d said in the doorway, instead of—
“The telephone issue is ongoing, sir,” Fuery said, adjusting his glasses and pulling a face that didn’t really match his tone. With the voice part, though, he had the deferential thing down pat. Scary, kind of. Where’d he learned that? It hadn’t been in here, that was for sure. “I can take another look at it today, if you’d like, but it’s more complicated than I thought at first.”
Roy sighed, loudly and at length. “That would be appreciated, Sergeant. In an hour or two, perhaps, if you don’t mind.” There was the sauntering, and the vanishing into the office, and the swinging the door— “I have a lot of extremely time-sensitive material to get through first.”
Hawkeye’s facial expression was so hilarious that Ed actually had to hold his metal hand over his mouth so that he wouldn’t react.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said. “I think I need some coffee.”
“You need some help?” Ed asked. “I’m pro at it now.”
One of her eyebrows arched, but she paused at the door, which sort of had to mean she was waiting for him. “If you’d like, Major.”
He didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the coffee—and she still made it better than him anyway, presumably because she paid more attention while she was doing it—but he kind of wanted to get a second alone with her, theoretically out of range of Eavesdropper Hell.
She held the door for him, and he thanked her—not for the benefit of the eavesdroppers; just because it was a nice thing of her to do, and he’d been raised well enough to care about that—and then she eyed him sideways as they started down the hall towards that stupid break room and its stupid coffee maker.
“Anything in particular that’s on your mind?” she asked.
She was so damn smart. Everybody knew Roy was smart—well, everybody who hadn’t planted a mic in his office or wasn’t getting fed the playboy persona every time he was in public—but Hawkeye was a different kind of brilliant. Roy understood what people wanted. Hawkeye understood what they felt.
“Um,” Ed said. “I—yeah. Actually. I just… dunno if it’s something…” He tilted his head to one side and then the other, glancing around them, to indicate the open hallway. “I should waste time talking about at work.”
“If it’s bothering you,” Hawkeye said, “then it could become a distraction, and it might benefit you—here and everywhere—if you can clear the air.”
She stepped into the break room ahead of him, and her hands weren’t ranging towards the pistols, but they hung loose at her sides, which was basically the same thing.
The place was empty, which was a start, but after what had been done to the damn office—
Who the hell knew where they could speak freely, right?
“Just,” he managed, reaching up for the giant tin of coffee grounds that had Mustang written on it in what looked like her penmanship, “he—” She’d know who. “—said and… did some things that… sorry. It’s really not your fucking problem. I just—you know him so well, I thought maybe—”
“I’d be happy to help,” she said, very softly, taking the canister out of his hands.
He looked at her for a second.
She understood what people felt.
She had to know.
“Does he—” Somehow, it was about a million times harder to say to her than it ever had been to Al, even though he respected them both so much it staggered him. Maybe it was because Al’d known him so long and seen so much worse from him; maybe it was because Al was stuck with him no matter what Al thought when the truth came out in so many words. Maybe it was because Al had been disappointed in him but had never disapproved.
And she might.
No time like the present to muster up some guts, though. He was committed now, and he had to see this through.
He gestured in the direction of the office to make it obvious he was still referring to Roy. “Does he—even—like—” He gestured downward this time, at himself. At a guy. “—y’know?”
Then she set the coffee container down on the countertop.
And then she smiled.
And the eyebrow was arching again, but it didn’t undermine the sincerity.
“He likes everything,” she said. “And he likes you quite a lot.”
Maybe she didn’t know. Or maybe she didn’t know enough.
But even just that made a difference. It was a pain-in-the-ass difference, sure, because it would give Al all kinds of new material, but when the status quo was crap, any kind of change was positive.
“You sure?” he said, just in case.
Her eyebrow alone answered that question.
“Okay,” he said. “Um—thanks.”
“Of course,” she said, and then she turned to the coffee, and to be fair he really needed some right about now.
He managed to pass another hour helping Havoc and Breda out with a stack of old police reports that had to get sorted by severity and location and then catalogued according to category. Any that looked like they involved questionable alchemy, Ed was supposed to read over, in order to somehow determine if there was anything more that should be done. Most of these cases were old enough—and closed enough, with the perps either locked up or long gone or both—that he wasn’t sure what the hell they expected anybody to do about any of them. By and large, it seemed like an exercise in turning Ed’s stomach for no good damn reason, because some of them were messed up. The alchemy ones especially, which was great, since he had to focus on those all the harder.
What was it in them—alchemists? What was it in them that was so damn twisted that they always wound up in basements and cellars and alleyways with blood all over their fucking hands?
These were people like him—he had to remember that; he always had to remember that. These were people who had felt the power coursing through them and opened their arms to it the same way he had. These were people who had looked into that pale blue light for the first time and realized that they were home.
And all of them—every single last damn one—had torn something to pieces with the privilege.
It was impossible to live in a military-run country like this one without hearing the platitude over and over and over again—power corrupted; the more of it you had, the faster it poisoned you, and the further you’d go for more. That was the due of any alchemist who forgot their place in the universe. That was what they amounted to—corruption. Rot. A cautionary tale with a trail of corpses sprawling out behind.
And—sure, this was one of the less-pleasant part of his job, but it was one of the most important, too. He couldn’t afford to take his eyes off of this. None of them could afford to forget—where they’d come from; who they were; what they were capable of.
But did he have to deal with this kind of gut-churning, bile-raising shit right now?
There had to be something else—
Well. There was. And he knew exactly what.
“Hey,” he said. “Excuse me for a minute, guys.”
Maybe Breda’s and Havoc’s reports weren’t a whole lot brighter, because they didn’t even look up. “Sure thing,” Breda said, at the same moment Havoc went, “Uh-huh.”
He hadn’t planned this out in much of any detail, but having the impetus to do something was usually half of the battle, for Ed; the plan tended to make itself up as he went along when he had a clear enough goal in mind.
Goals were easy. It was people that were tough.
He pushed his chair back slowly and stood up slower, glancing around the room as fast as he could without making himself dizzy enough to fall over. His gaze flicked over all of the furniture, all of the files, and then—
He started for Roy’s office and snatched up the big cardboard box labeled SHRED en route.
He knocked with his elbow, but when he used the metal one, it sounded almost exactly the same as flesh-and-blood knuckles, so it didn’t matter much.
“Come in,” Roy said.
He looked at the doorknob in a disapproving sort of way for a second, and then he shifted the box under his left arm to free up his right hand for opening the stupid door. Goal. Plan. Right.
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” he said as he stepped in, which was insincere as hell but sounded nice.
Roy made a show of shuffling papers around on his desk, the asshat. “It’s all right,” he said. “What do you need?”
Ed was ready to be done with that shit. He was ready to be done with fake-Roy. He was ready to be done with the lofty tone and the subtle disrespect; he was ready to be done with no eye contact and no smiles—with no amusement whatsoever. The amusement was what made Roy so fucking human. The amusement was what made him great, what made him warm, what made him—
Wonderful. Which Ed would not be repeating to Al, but that didn’t make it any less true.
“I was thinking,” Ed said.
Roy’s eyebrows rose. “That’s nice.”
Ed opened his mouth to say Shut up—and then choked the words down, swallowed them, cleared his throat, and said, “About this,” and held up the box instead.
“I’m delighted to know,” Roy said, “that my distinguished prodigy major, widely renowned as an unprecedented genius, is spending his paid time contemplating the ‘to shred’ box.”
“I meant,” Ed said, “that I was thinking that—I mean, if you just… set fire to it, that’d be way more efficient than us sitting there cutting it all up by hand.”
Roy stared at him.
Ed stared back.
Ed jerked his head towards the wall that Fuery had been testing yesterday.
Roy’s face changed, barely perceptibly, but if you knew what you were looking for—
Soundlessly, he pulled open the first drawer on the right side of his desk. “Suggesting,” he said, “that I use my hard-won alchemical expertise to dispose of documents—”
“It’s so much more efficient!” Ed said. Damn, it was hard to focus when Roy was putting one glove on—sliding his fingers in and tugging it into place and flexing his hand to settle it, and Ed had only felt that fabric on his skin a scattering of times, but he’d imagined it more than—
“Efficiency has nothing to do with it,” Roy said. “It’s about respect, and the honor of my office, and the solemnity of—”
“Gimme your glove,” Ed said. “I’ll do it.”
“I will do no such thing,” Roy said. “You will do no such—”
“Just give it,” Ed said, dropping the box—and deliberately flipping it so that the papers in it would spill everywhere, fluttering loud enough for a good mic to pick up on their way down to the carpet. “Whoops—just—here, c’mon—”
“Absolutely not,” Roy said, sharply, but in the next second his mouth told a different story as he dodged away from Ed’s first grab for his arm. “This is absurd, Fullmetal; go back to your—”
“It’d take me hours to cut this shit up,” Ed said. “Hours the taxpayers are funding, I might add, and if you just—lend it to me—”
“Major Elric,” Roy said, kicking his desk on purpose—or Ed hoped it was on purpose; otherwise it’d probably hurt; “how dare you—”
“Are you really suggesting I should sit there for two fuckin’ hours and cut up paper?” Ed asked. “Is that really better for your office and this whole damn institution than you taking three goddamn seconds to snap your fingers and—”
He could hear the rest of the crew clustering around the doorway now and tried to wave them away, but it was probably impossible for them to distinguish the waving-away motions from the ones involved in play-attacking Roy across his desk.
“Get back!” Roy said, and he was smart enough to look right at them and do a thing with his eyebrows, and at least one of them—Ed would’ve bet his life it was Hawkeye—got the hint, and there was some scrambling, and then—
“Just give it!” Ed said. “If it’s so beneath your stupid digni—”
“Fullmetal!” Roy shoved half of the files—and the lamp—off of his desk and snapped his fingers, and—
Fucking hell. He was incredible. Ed had known that since the first time he’d seen it, obviously; anyone who’d ever watched Roy light the whole world on fire and then extinguish it before they’d finished gasping for the paltry remnants of the oxygen that he’d left behind—
But Ed hadn’t realized just how immense it was until the Promised Day, with the dead, white army (in his dreams, sometimes, they lingered at the Gate; they reached for him, red-streaked pale with mouths gaping wide—) and then… Envy. Ed hadn’t understood it, not really, until he’d seen the power and the precision side-by-side.
On this fine morning, Roy Mustang lit several of the papers on the floor—but only ones Ed had dumped out of the box; only unimportant ones—and sent the flame searing up the wall, and the new paint seethed and cracked and blackened—
And Ed tried to catch his breath and find his feet—but before he’d even stumbled back from Roy’s desk, the papers on the floor had disintegrated into ash, and vast ember-edged gaps spread all over the wall, joining one another until their coalescing shapes formed one giant hole—
And the beams of the frame showed through, and Ed could see—wires.
And all at once, the fire went out.
Ed found himself rushing towards the wall before he’d thought to glance at Roy first; too late now—he was reaching up and yanking on the first black wire he saw; at least his instincts had made him raise the right hand—
The wire came loose, but the bowing arc of its shape, right up until he ripped it free, had led his eyes up towards—
A box. A little box lined with—or perhaps made entirely of—dense black mesh that looked an awful damn lot like a microphone that could feed back to a recorder somewhere else.
A few other wires sprouted from it, but Ed wasn’t thinking anymore—or not of strategy, at any rate. He was thinking about how fucking pissed he was about all the time they’d wasted, of all the hours Roy had spent catching up at home instead of sleeping, of the team struggling to suppress their personalities and think of things they were allowed to say—
Of himself. Believing, too damn easily, that the ruse was real, because he deserved to be that miserable here.
He stretched up, climbing partway into the gutted wall, to curl all five metal fingers around the mic and haul back and yank it free—
And then crush it, as thoroughly as he could, between his fingers and his palm.
And then Roy was at his side, and there was a much-too-intriguing hand on his left shoulder.
“That’s it,” Roy said, in that same cold, clipped voice that sounded so little like him, but he was peering into what remained of the wall. “That is it. I’m transferring you to Colonel Tenebrin’s command, effective the instant I can get the paperwork filed.”
Roy squeezed Ed’s shoulder, gently, and held his free hand out for the mic.
Ed turned his hand over to drop it into Roy’s waiting palm. “I—yes, sir.”
Roy drew them both back away from the wall and then leaned in close—closer than he had to; closer than was necessary; close enough that his lips grazed the shell of Ed’s ear as he whispered into it—
“I’ve got a meeting with all of them in an hour. I’ll keep an eye on him and see if he reacts.”
He probably thought he was being nice—providing clear physical and verbal reassurance so that they wouldn’t run up against any more of those bitter misunderstandings from the days before—
But it wasn’t nice. It was hot as fucking hell, which was the not-nicest thing Ed could imagine right now. Whether or not that was intentional, it was a colossal pain in the ass—and also a colossal heat in his face, spreading outward from where it had burst brightest in his cheeks to sizzle underneath the rest of his skin.
That wasn’t even starting on the heat in his guts at the feather-light movement of Roy’s mouth against his ear. It would almost have been kinder if the bastard had dispensed with the foreplay and just fucking bit it; that would’ve hurt so damn good—
What the hell was he thinking?
Nope. No. Not today. Not now; not ever; not in this lifetime; not in this universe.
He fought to get his stupid flush under control, stumbling one step back from Roy, swallowing hard, and nodding intently to show that he’d heard. Because what Roy had said was the important thing, obviously, not how he’d said it. Roy probably hadn’t even realized what kind of an effect he was going to have—hell, Ed had turned him down, after all; presumably he thought there wasn’t anything there at all, or that Ed was straight or something, and—
Holy hell. Ed had turned down Roy Mustang. Was that a first in the recorded history of the world, or at least the occasionally intertwining histories of dating and of obnoxiously hot C.O.s?
Not that Roy was—
Not that Al had—
Roy’s eyebrows rose, and then they swooped down a little, and he tilted his head and made an Are you all right? kind of face. Which was also probably intended to be nice, but which just made the riotous churning in Ed’s stomach even worse. This would’ve been a good time for Roy to act like an asshole and say some stupid shit so that Ed could focus on wanting to throttle him. Any second now would’ve been great.
Roy produced absolutely no assholery.
As a last-ditch effort, Ed focused very closely on Roy’s eyebrows instead of… anything else. They were—nice, especially this week, but not as nice as his hands or his mouth or his eyes themselves, which made them relatively safe.
“I understand, sir,” he forced out. “Um—I’m—sorry, sir. But the shredding did get done.”
“You are an embarrassment to the Amestrian military,” Roy said. He had to cough into his hand to cover a laugh when Ed punched the air. “I expect you to clean this up immediately.”
“Okay,” Ed said. “That’s fair.” He picked up the stuff Roy had shoved off of the desk—which included the Hakuro report—and righted it on the desktop, and then he turned to the rest of the team, who had gathered in a fascinated half-circle around the doorway again. “Anybody got a dustpan?”
“Sure, Major,” Fuery said. “Would you like some help?”
Ed considered the sea of cinders all over the floor, complete now with several charred chunks of plaster and shards of wood from the wall.
“Definitely,” he said.
When Roy returned from the meeting, he swept in, released a breath, and closed the door behind him securely.
Then he grinned.
At least the universe had retained enough balance to fuck Ed and un-fuck him at the same time.
“I believe we’re clear,” Roy said.
“You believe?” Hawkeye said. “Or you know?”
“Tenebrin’s got the poker face of a four-year-old,” Roy said, “but he’s in with everyone who could possibly care what we talk about in here. They had more than enough time to warn him that he was about to inherit a major who occasionally sees fit to set fire to his C.O.’s office wall.”
“Technically,” Ed said, “you set fire to it.”
“Conceded,” Roy said.
Breda tapped his pencil on the desk and chewed on his lip at the same time, which was some pretty impressive multitasking, it had to be admitted. “You sure, Chief?”
“No,” Roy said. “Although I think it’s too late now.”
Breda did not look amused.
Ed, though, felt like his spine had turned to jelly, and the rest of his bones were tapioca. It was just such a fucking relief.
He knew he shouldn’t linger after the workday officially ended. He knew he shouldn’t tempt fate; he knew gluttons for punishment always got what they asked for and forfeited their right to complain. He knew he was rowing himself right up shit creek and then hurling the paddle overboard.
But he stayed anyway.
“So,” he said from the doorway to Roy’s office. “Are they gonna send in another questionable contractor to fix it up again?”
Roy smiled faintly. “To be honest,” he said, and just—relief— “I’m hoping no one will notice. The only people who know are us and whoever rigged the bugs, and they can’t say anything without explaining how they know. As long as they don’t blow their own cover in the next day, I’m going to try to fix it myself this weekend.”
Ed stared at him. “You… are?”
Roy blinked back. “Is that a problem?”
“I dunno,” Ed said. “You ever installed insulation before?”
Roy paused. “Ah—n—”
“You ever even used a level?” Ed asked.
Roy grimaced. “Well—”
“Do you want me to help?” Ed asked.
Shit. Fuck. He’d really said that. He’d really said that, out loud, audibly, too clear for misinterpretation, and now he couldn’t take it back.
Roy smiled—utterly serenely—and said, “I’d like that, if you have the time.”
“Well, gee,” Ed said. “Let me check my busy-ass schedule.” He mimed extracting a little notebook from his trouser pocket, pretended to flip some pages, and peered down at his hand. “Weekend, you said? I think I can squeeze ‘help the city boy build shit’ in between ‘tea with my brother’ and ‘lie around on the couch staring at the ceiling for an hour or two’.”
Roy’s smile broadened, and deepened, and… gained character. There should’ve been another neat little word for that, but Ed couldn’t think worth a damn any time that bastard started grinning. It just made him look so much younger, and realer, and so much more fun—
“I’d hate to cut into your designated time to spend communing with the ceiling,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the best part of the day.”
“Sometimes,” Ed said. “But on days where there’s a good chance I’m gonna get to watch you bash your own thumb with a hammer—”
Roy laughed. “I was going to say lunch is on me, but if I end up injuring myself for your amusement, perhaps you should pay.”
“If I agree to that,” Ed said, “you’re gonna hurt yourself on purpose.”
“I’m not that cheap,” Roy said.
“You remember exactly how much money I owe you for that phone call, don’t you?” Ed asked.
Roy paused. His eyes narrowed a little. He started to do an overstated little pout thing, and oh… hell. Oh, hell, that was unfair.
“That’s different,” he said.
“Uh huh,” Ed said. “So—what, like, eleven here tomorrow okay?”
“Perfect,” Roy said.
“Well?” Al said the instant Ed stepped through the door.
“No comment,” Ed said.
“You’re the worst,” Al said.
“I know,” Ed said, trying to get his boots off without touching them so that he wouldn’t have to wash his hands for as long before he could dig in to dinner.
“I can’t believe you would go to the trouble of proving me right,” Al said, “and then refuse to tell me about it. What kind of brother are you?”
“The hungry kind,” Ed said. “What’d you make? Smells good.”
“No food until you tell me what happened,” Al said, and he went to far as to stand in front of the stove with his arms out.
Ed could probably take him—Al wasn’t quite back to full strength or muscle mass just yet—but the little shit was so damn fast that he might be able to get Ed’s feet out from under him before brute force ever came into play.
“It’ll get cold,” he said instead. “How about—okay, fine. How about—if I promise to tell you while we eat?”
“Deal,” Al said.
On the upside, Al didn’t laugh to the verge of injuring himself again.
On the downside, he did say, “So… you’re going to be alone, in the office, with no one else around, sweating together with all those tools—are you going to let him nail you?”
“Dead,” Ed said.
“I don’t think he’ll be that bad,” Al said.
“No,” Ed said. “You. Dead. To me. Forever. Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“Brother,” Al said, “I have almost as large a body of evidence indicating that I’m alive—pun intended, by the way—as I do that you and Roy are on the cusp of meeting in the middle at long last.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Ed asked.
“There’s a betting pool,” Al said. “I’m not going to tell you who’s in it. But if you let me go check, I can tell you whether whoever it is deserves the money, or whether you should wait to go out for another week.”
It was a pity, really. Ed had enjoyed about a day of feeling like the world was not falling in around his ears.
“…the fuck?” he managed.
“There was this time,” Al said. “One of those times we were all at the pub, you know—Winry was in town—and we were all sitting around, and you and Roy went to go get the drinks and started arguing about something, and you were all up in each other’s faces, and Breda said ‘Bets on whether they’re gonna kill each other or wind up dating first,’ and Riza said ‘Dating’ in a heartbeat, and then everybody started throwing money in.”
Ed raked a hand through his hair, which didn’t help. He rubbed his eyes—one at a time, with the left hand—which didn’t either. He even tried a really big sigh, but Al had just said what he’d said, and the worst part was that it kind of made sense.
“Who’s gonna win?” he asked. “If something happens—y’know—soon, or whatever. Like this weekend. I bet it’s Lieutenant Hawkeye; she was telling me… well. Shit. Who’s gonna win if it’s in the next couple of days?”
“Brother,” Al said, smiling at him, “you are. That’s the important thing.”
“Easy for you to say,” Ed said. “You seen those bills they send for your tuition? Holy shit.”
Al smacked himself in the forehead hard enough that Ed was worried about his skull.
He knew better. He really did.
But there was a chance Al was going to get money out of it, right? Or maybe Hawkeye. Either way—he had to think about the big picture. He had to think about how he might be benefiting people that he really cared about here.
He had to think about… pretty much anything other than his current view of Roy standing in the middle of the office with a gut-wrenchingly adorable vaguely puzzled expression, in casual slacks and a white T-shirt, which displayed more of his arms than Ed had ever seen before.
Wait—except for that time in the hospital, with the funny mint-greeny shirts that didn’t have sleeves at all. Not that he’d noticed Roy’s biceps. Not that he’d noticed Roy’s elbows. Not that he’d catalogued the forearm details he couldn’t ordinarily make out when the shirtsleeeves were only folded up halfway.
“Hey,” he said, because somebody had to say something. Had the secretary at the front desk even recognized Roy in this getup? Had she fainted? They all knew Ed by his hair in any combination of weird clothes that he could disinter from his closet, but Roy was a different story; the uniform was practically grafted to his skin at this point.
“Good morning,” Roy said, still gazing at the wall. He had a hammer in his hand. He was holding it way too high—close to the head, where he wouldn’t get any leverage or any force.
Ed looked at the neat stack of two-by-fours behind Roy, and the less-neat mass of pale fiberglass insulation, and the bucket of plaster, and the bucket of paint. “So…”
“I found a book at the library,” Roy said, “but it is very different to be reading about how to do something, and to be standing in front of it and contemplating action.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Ed said. “You wanna hand me that before you hurt yourself?”
“After the week I have had trying to be as ostentatiously despicable as possible,” Roy said, “I would really like to use it.”
Funny, how sometimes, when you least expected it, people could make a whole lot of sense.
“That’s fair,” Ed said. He stepped over to the wall and ducked his head into one of the biggest gaps to examine the damage a little closer up. His left-hand fingers were much more susceptible to splinters, but they was also much more sensitive to consistency, so he used the first one to prod—carefully—at the two support beams that had taken the brunt of the Flame Alchemist’s handiwork. He extracted himself and pointed at the beam on the right. “That one’s toast. Have at it.”
Roy’s eyes lit up. Fucking bastard had to go around wearing T-shirts and making dumb jokes and being cute on top of all the rest of it—
“Hang on,” Ed said. He steeled himself, reached out, and tugged on the head of the hammer to draw it upward through Roy’s hands until he had a safer grip on it. He didn’t have to brush his hands awkwardly against Roy’s if he just kept objects in the way, right? “There you go.”
“Thank you,” Roy said.
Ed moved back—well clear. He had no idea what to expect, but he hadn’t been born yesterday, and at least a few of Al’s variations on Being cautious once in a while literally would not kill you, Brother had eventually sunk in. “Sure thing.”
Roy drew a breath.
Then he stepped forward, shifting his weight and drawing back the hammer as he went, which launched him into an unbelievably graceful, well-supported, powerful swing—
Which shattered the target beam into a profusion of tiny wooden shards—and larger wooden shards—and a big hunk or two—
All of which rained down on the carpet, several of which soared far enough to rebound off of the metal palm that Ed had raised to shield his face before they did.
“Damn,” he said, lowering his hand cautiously in case Roy felt so vindicated that he tried again with the other beam, just for fun. “Nice form.”
“Stickball was the pastime of choice where Riza’s father lived,” Roy said, stepping back and twirling the hammer once—completely showily, for the record—before he let it hang at his side. “The two of us practiced alone until we were so good that we could wipe the floor with anyone who ever dared to challenge us.” He circled his shoulder, which was also showy, although in a different way, and one that made a rogue blood vessel in Ed’s throat start to throb. “It’s been a while.”
“We should get a game together out on the parade grounds sometime,” Ed said. “Say it’s team bonding or some shit. You and Lieutenant Hawkeye could clean up.”
“We could drop hints about a betting pool in advance,” Roy said, grinning slowly. “Hire someone to bet on us for a cut of the profits, come out of it with a lot of money to spend on coffee…”
The bets on them shacking up were probably Roy’s fault—albeit indirectly—if that was his first damn thought. “I’m in. If they’ll let me. Usually when I play with kids, they say the automail’s unfair.” Roy was raising his eyebrows, but Ed didn’t really want to go into the long and complicated debate on that particular topic, so he turned to the wall again. “All right. You wanna do this shit, or you wanna do this shit?”
Roy paused, considering the crumbling plaster, which was now stuck full of little slivers of cedar on the inside. “Would you like the honest answer, or the gamesome, vivacious young commander one?”
“‘Young’ my ass,” Ed said.
Roy blinked at him in a colossally offended kind of way. “I beg your pardon. Give it another five years, and you’ll regret that so much you’ll come crawling up to my doorstep with a heartfelt apology letter signed in blood.”
“No way,” Ed said.
“Perfumed stationery,” Roy said.
“I’ll die first,” Ed said.
“I hope not,” Roy said, lightly, but then he was slinging the hammer up over his shoulder and pushing his hair back, which was supremely distracting. “In any case,” he said, “to say that I want to would be stretching the truth to a tensile stress that would make taffy rather jealous.”
Ed hated him. Ed hated that he was such a sweet, stupid, secret fucking nerd—
“Okay,” Ed said. “Done deal.”
He crouched, clapped, and planted his open palms on the wood-strewn carpet.
The thing—the beautiful thing, the liberating thing—about alchemy without a circle was that you could feel the frictions of the universe moving through you. If you could feel them, you could guide them; and if you could guide them, you could make anything.
Well… anything you understood, anyway. Maybe it should have been embarrassing in retrospect, but that was a lot of the reason Ed had read so widely and voraciously and indiscriminately—he’d been trying to learn as much as he could about everything he could get his head around so that he’d be able to build it later, if he needed to. He’d poured as much into his brain as he could get it to absorb; the more crap he had in there, the better the chances of him reaching for something he needed and finding it at his fingertips.
He had sort of expected to have ten of those, though—the fingertips. Ten soft ones. He’d sort of expected to be drawing the arrays out, sketching the sigils, marking the lines, rather than just… sensing them. That part freaked him out a little bit, sometimes. If you weren’t careful, array-less alchemy started to verge on spiritual.
He remembered enough about this—about walls, about construction, about the component pieces and where they fit and how they worked together; enough about the concept and enough about the minutiae of what went where—for the knowledge to shudder awake inside his head and start swirling up into a little hurricane of curves and carved-out lines. Alchemy wasn’t so different from any other kind of translation; it was a language of its own, and once you started to think in it—
Then you were gold.
He’d noticed that not every alchemist’s transmutations lit up the same, but he hadn’t had time yet to study that properly. His burned a stark bright blue, now and always. The wooden beams Roy had left on the floor beside them crackled with it; Izumi would’ve cuffed him upside the head for not placing those by hand first instead of taking the easy way out and redistributing them alchemically until they’d slotted into place. She’d always sworn that things lost structural integrity when you rebuilt them with alchemy too many times, but he hadn’t had a chance to test that, either. He believed it, though. It was true of him.
He filled in all the pieces, watching through his eyelashes as everything came together—the light left spots on your eyelids for hours if you looked at it too directly, and in an enclosed space like this—
Fortunately, he was a much more efficient contractor than the ones that the eavesdropping asshole who had started all of this had hired for the job, and in a matter of seconds, they had a very solid-looking wall instead of a couple of singed, gaping holes.
Ed sat back on his heels and took a deep breath. Complicated stuff could leave your head spinning if you didn’t pace yourself, and detail work had always been harder for him than stuff like, say, pulling a bunch of rock columns up out of a cobblestone street. Shapes and movement came easy to him; always had. But bearing some dozen different symbols in mind to try to guide a number of dissimilarly-composed pieces into their respective places without ever losing his grasp on the concept was another game entirely, and if he wasn’t careful, it could leave him winded.
He also usually had the advantage of fight adrenaline in some of those other situations. A good old chemical high never hurt.
“Can I tell you something?” Roy said—and mostly he was looking thoughtfully at the nice, clean, new wall, but his eyes darted sideways towards Ed, which was a bad sign that this was serious.
Well. As serious as you could get while one of you was crouching on the floor surrounded by plaster dust, and the other was wearing such normal, casual clothes that he practically looked naked.
“I know what happens when I try to stop you from telling me something you wanna say,” Ed said. “So go ahead.”
Roy smiled, just slightly—but ‘slightly’ counted.
“Thank you,” he said. “I was going to say… there was a long period of my life when I thought I could never appreciate alchemy again—not after what I’d done with it, and what I’d seen others do. But you ended that the instant I saw you transmute that awful spear out of the floor in front of Bradley. Double-handed, I suppose, rather than single-handed, but—even in a moment as fraught as that one, it was unmistakable how much you enjoyed it. Even after what it did to you, every time I have ever seen you use alchemy, it has been an act of love. Alphonse, too. The both of you are creators—makers of things, not destroyers. And you balanced the scales for me in a way I never thought I’d live to see.”
He was such an asshole about getting all heavy and sincere when Ed was just trying to fix walls and crap.
“And then I got you tangled up in some bullshit that ended with you losing your eyesight for a while,” Ed said. “You’re welcome.”
This smile was better, though—broader. Closer to a grin. “I’m confident that I would have found a way to get tangled up all on my own even if you hadn’t assisted. I have a talent for that.”
“For nosiness, you mean?” Ed asked.
“Precisely,” Roy said.
Ed was—belatedly, most likely—starting to wonder if he looked like an idiot crouching there amidst all the detritus. On top of the rest of the mess, Roy had bought way more insulation than the project had needed, and leftover bits of it were strewn around all over the place.
But he sensed that that was something that hadn’t been easy for Roy to say—probably something that hadn’t been easy for Roy to admit even to himself, let alone to look at head-on long enough to formulate a couple of sentences. Bravery like that deserved to be acknowledged, even if Ed couldn’t offer a reward. No matter what kind of weird stuff was scattered on the floor around him.
“Well,” he managed, “I guess—I mean, I’m glad. It’s—important to stay balanced, especially with what it can become, but… you gotta remember where you started, too. Remember why you started. I think we all have a good reason at the start.”
“Which somehow makes it both better,” Roy said, “and worse, when we see where some of our colleagues have ended up.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. But they had an advantage, didn’t they? So to speak, anyway—not what would normally qualify as an edge, except if you were going for the wordplay, because it was sharper and paler and colder than broken glass in snow. “You… been working at all with the…?” He held both hands up and wiggled his fingers to indicate alchemy without a circle, which would, for a less-accomplished idiot, have charted on the list of dumbest things he’d ever done. “It seems like something that’d come pretty natural to you.”
“Does it?” Roy asked, setting his hands on his hips, which was so obnoxiously fucking attractive that it probably violated some decency laws. “I have to say—that’s a rather extraordinary compliment, coming from you. You make it look like you were born to it. No, more than that—you make it look like alchemy was designed for you, from the very beginning, not the other way around.”
He was trying to distract Ed by one-upping with flattery, and Ed wasn’t about to have it, so he just sat there, stared, and blinked while he waited for Roy to realize that he had to answer.
“All right,” Roy said after only fifteen seconds. He was pretty weak for the blank gaze tactic, apparently, although probably everyone was, compared to Al. “I—haven’t. Not much. It…” He waved his right hand around unhelpfully, but the way his mouth flattened out said a lot of what the gesture didn’t. “A few of the times I tried it shortly after Marcoh had restored my sight, it… things would—flicker. It went dark for several seconds at a stretch, once, and… that scared me off of it a bit. And I was dreaming more—about the white place with the doors. I have enough horrors to dream of without inviting new ones, so I thought perhaps it was best to stop tempting fate.”
Everything Ed had been meaning to say had slipped out of his brain and scattered on the floor. “You—” His voice tried to quit, but he barreled on anyway. “You, too?”
That was a prying question—a personal one, far too deep, crueler and worse than the kind that were merely invasive.
But Roy half-smiled. Then he folded his arms and half-shrugged, like maybe if he never completed a movement, none of this would be so real.
“I don’t know how you’ve dealt with it for so long,” he said. “It’s… heavy. It’s immense.”
“Yeah?” Ed said. “Well, so’m I, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so no big freakin’ deal.”
There it was—that smile had enough pieces to it to look whole. “Ah, yes; of course.”
“Anyway,” Ed said, “I was only asking ’cause by all rights, you should clean up this mess. But I guess you’ve cleaned up a lot of mine over the years, so just this once, I can do it.”
“How staggeringly generous,” Roy said.
“Thanks,” Ed said. “Okay, hang on.”
He took a breath, tried not to think about what had just been said, touched his palms together, let the energy circulate through him and sing along his veins—
And clapped both hands to the rubble-ridden carpet.
He’d known what he wanted to do before he started, which helped him keep his head straight—sculpting and detail work hadn’t come to him easily, but he’d put a lot of time in over the years, because you couldn’t adorn your shit with spikes and gargoyles if you didn’t have a firm grasp on how to craft them. Sloppy alchemy in situations like that ended in lopsided horns and uneven faces with super wonky fangs, and then Al howled with laughter, and you had to go upstairs and slam a door or two before you could convince yourself to try again.
It had gotten easier with time and practice, like a lot of things did. And once you had it down, and you knew how to guide materials of all different consistencies into a single smooth flow, melding them and twisting them and bending them into precise little shapes, you could make just about anything you wanted.
Such as, for instance, a good-sized wall-plaster-and-ash bust of Major Armstrong, with a draping wreath-necklace-thing made of tiny pink insulation-roses.
Ed clambered up to his feet, trying to ignore the way the right one was tingling fiercely because he’d been sitting on it for so long, and held his artwork out to Roy.
“Here you go,” he said. “Worst paperweight in HQ. Guarantee it. No one will ever want to come into your office again.”
“This is a masterpiece,” Roy said, taking it. “I think we have to give it to Alex. He’ll cry.”
“I almost drowned the last time he was happy about something,” Ed said. “So you should keep it.”
“I reserve the right to give it to him if he walks in, and a waterfall starts,” Roy said, setting it down gently on the corner of his desk and then adjusting it. “I can’t keep something like this separated from its subject.” He paused. “This is—I mean it, Ed; this is extremely well-made.”
“Well, I figure it’s how he would’ve done it,” Ed said. “So once I thought of it, I tried to imitate his style, sort of.”
Roy looked at him, and those damn eyes were doing the crinkly thing, and Ed wanted to step back. Ed wanted to step back, and then take off running, and keep on trucking until he hit another country, and he never had to deal with this again.
There was too much to lose. There was just too much at stake—not only for him, for Roy; there was so much riding on Roy’s image, and his focus, and his success—
It would never work. It would never work out. It would never fit right. It would never—
“Alchemical parody,” Roy said, smiling again. He reached out and ran a fingertip over one of the tiny roses. Ed’s guts churned, and his will trembled. “I do believe you’ve invented an entirely new genre. Though I don’t suppose that comes as a surprise, knowing you.”
Ed folded his arms across his chest—which was kind of uncomfortable when he did it too tightly, like now, because the grooves of the automail pressed into the underside of his other forearm—and looked at the little statue, and then at Roy.
“You really don’t have to say shit like that,” he said.
“I suppose not,” Roy said. “But it’s true.” He gestured to the ridiculous product of Ed’s unprecedentedly efficient cleanup. “That’s brilliant. And it’s unusual. And I think you take that for granted, because you’re used to being brilliant and unusual, but I don’t—none of the rest of us do. So I think it’s worth saying, even if you don’t always hear it.”
Ed stared at him.
Roy stared back.
He probably even fucking meant it—didn’t he? After the week they’d had… Roy lied, sure, but he lied because it was necessary, or because it made something better or easier or simpler at the time. He didn’t do it for fun. He didn’t do it to take advantage. Ed got the sense, sometimes, that he hated it—hated all the masks and personas; hated how good he was at passing them over his own face and disappearing into the character he had to be that day to get by. When Roy had the chance to be real—when he felt safe with someone; when he knew that he could trust the other person in the room—he took it. And sometimes, on those occasions, he got too fucking honest in a damn hurry, because they were so few and far between, and he was starving for his real self.
Like the other night.
Ed knew a thing or two about hiding. He knew a thing or two about not saying stuff because it was dangerous, and a thing or two about suppressing himself so that he wouldn’t burden others with the truth.
“Okay,” he said, since Al would have wanted him to say Thank you, but that was a little too much. “But—I mean—you know you’re pretty damn brilliant and unusual yourself, right?”
Roy looked startled and indescribably pleased.
“Whatever,” Ed said, hastily and helplessly. “You know what I mean. Just—”
“I’m sorry,” Roy said. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Particularly after you saved my city-boy ass repeatedly today.”
“It’s a nice ass,” Ed said before he’d even realized he was thinking it. “You oughta take care of it.”
This time, Roy looked even more startled and even more pleased.
“That—” Ed’s linguistic powers had failed him a thousand times previously, but he really needed them right now; couldn’t a conversational miracle happen for him just this once? “That didn’t—come out—the way I—”
“I won’t hold it against you,” Roy said. “We can make a pact that nothing that was said today leaves this room, if you’d like. I gave myself a few reasons to be interested in an arrangement like that, too, don’t forget.”
Ed hadn’t. He didn’t figure that he ever would.
This was the Roy—
That he wanted.
This was the Roy who wandered through the dark halls of his dreams at night, slinging fire into every corner to dispel the shadows before they summoned teeth. This was the Roy whose voice and soft-edged eyes and fingertips waited for him when he let his guard down; when the weight began to crush him; when he couldn’t breathe for bearing too much, too many of the things he’d done—
This was the Roy who understood.
This was the Roy who forgave him.
Nobody had ever gotten anything worth having without bleeding for it first.
The first step towards the outer office felt unsteady, but the next one came easier, and then he was in the doorway, and then he was one pace past it, and that was where he turned. He squared his shoulders and looked Roy straight in the stupid, stupid, wonderful face.
“Ask me again,” he said, and his voice didn’t even shake.
Roy blinked. Even bewildered, he still looked good. Most people, when they were baffled like that, looked like they’d been struck in the face with a cold fish, but not Roy Mustang. What a colossal piece of shit.
Figuratively-colossal, that was.
“I beg your pardon?” Roy said.
Bastard. He knew—didn’t he? He knew, and he just wanted Ed to have to say it.
Worst part was, that was fair.
“What you asked me the other night,” Ed said. “At—the door. Ask me again.” He swallowed the thick knot climbing up the walls of his esophagus, armed with what felt like half a dozen grappling hooks. “Please?”
Roy’s eyes went very wide.
And then they went very warm.
“Ah,” he said. “Let me just see if I can remember what it was I said…”
Ed ground his teeth but held his ground. “Need some help?”
“No, no,” Roy said, softly, and then he was sauntering forward, hands loose at his sides, and Ed’s spine tightened—again, again, his instinct was to run—
Maybe that said more about him than it did about Roy.
Maybe he’d run from a lot of good things on instinct—so fast he’d never found out how good they could have been.
Maybe he was just so used to life being one damn fight after another that he didn’t know what else to do.
He could change that, though. He could change that starting right now—right this second.
He could plant his feet right here and choose to stay.
More immediately, he could swallow, hard; and raise his chin; and meet Roy’s lousy, gorgeous, smoldering eyes.
Roy raised one hand slowly, and just the tips of his fingers grazed Ed’s shirt on their upward arc before they settled, feather-lightly, against his cheek.
“May I kiss you?” Roy asked. “The last one wasn’t my best work.”
Ed’s eyes were malfunctioning. They kept—fluttering. And doing a weird fuzzy-haze thing when he tried to focus on Roy’s face. What a crock of shit.
“You say that like you’re some kinda expert,” he managed.
“Perhaps I am,” Roy said, and—there it was. The smirk that could level cities; light forests; doom millions in an instant, or maybe save them— “Would you like to find out?”
Ed choked down another inhibition. The longer he kept at it, the smaller they felt.
“You know damn well I would,” he said.
Roy leaned in—Roy leaned in so close that Ed’s stuttering breaths pulled in Roy’s air; so close that Roy’s skin was warming his—
And murmured, “Well, then.”
This time, his mouth moved towards Ed’s so slow—gradual, leisurely; they shared breath for another long few seconds, and Roy’s gaze kept flicking down to Ed’s lips and then up to his eyes, and then Roy’s eyelashes dipped, and his fingers slid back into Ed’s hair—
And then their lips met, and Roy had tilted his head just slightly, and he was stroking his fingertips around the curve of Ed’s ear. Ed heard a breath leave him as a sigh, and the whole rest of his body relaxed with his lungs—all the tension abandoned him, and his left hand rose without his permission and fixed itself in the front of Roy’s shirt.
This one was—
Worlds apart from the last. It was soft—cautious, gentle; Roy’s lips parted, and they toyed with Ed’s bottom one for what had to be a quarter of a fucking minute before Roy’s tongue followed—
Shit. Ed was secretly a sap, wasn’t he? Shit, fuck—his knee felt like goo; tingles chased each other up and down his spine—
Roy shifted, and his other arm wrapped itself around Ed’s back—but he didn’t pull; he just… drew. Suggested. Offered.
Ed wanted to open his eyes, because this couldn’t be real; but that had to be the rudest damn thing it was possible to do when someone was kissing you like this—
Roy’s mouth just kept—moving, slow and smooth and gentle, wet against his, and another shift of Roy’s body brought him close enough that Ed could feel the heat emanating from his chest, and whoever’s heartbeat was in his ears was getting to be deafening.
Why was tasting somebody else’s tongue strangely enjoyable? It should’ve felt fucking weird. It felt fucking weird when dogs licked your nose and got dog spit in your nostrils; why—?
Maybe this was why Al sometimes looked over, shook his head slowly, and said things about Ed being such a diehard romantic that the dime-store novelists burned with envy.
Ed was currently burning with something else.
It was fucking uncanny how easily their mouths moved in concert; it was fucking uncanny how right it felt—nothing had seemed natural or normal to Ed in so many damn years that it scared him when things just worked.
Roy worked. Roy was working him; Roy was working his tongue against Ed’s, then working his teeth against Ed’s bottom lip, and that sparked the most startlingly delicious sort of gentle-stunning pain—
And if maybe half a gasp slung straight from the bottom of Ed’s deprived lungs and up and out of him—
Well, who the hell could blame him, at a time like this?
It’d been the wrong thing, apparently; or at least not the right one, because Roy made a soft sound in response—which was great at first, because it resonated through both of them, and Ed could practically fucking feel the vibration of Roy’s voice in his own ribcage—and then slowly drew back.
Ed was an idiot, sure, but he wasn’t stupid. He seized the opportunity to haul in a couple of deep breaths and try to funnel some oxygen back towards his brain while he had the chance. They were—going to have to talk, probably. He was going to have to talk. Forming sentences was likely to be required. He needed all the damn help he could get. Vertigo had never brought him conversational inspiration before, and he knew better than to believe in miracles.
He’d opened his eyes on instinct, and Roy did the same, and then they were standing there, staring at each other, with a devastatingly ambiguous two-inch gap between their mouths. Roy’s looked all—slick and red and… tempting. Like a whole new reason to go to hell.
Roy’s hand was still tangled up in Ed’s hair, which felt fucking transcendent. They were still breathing in each other’s air, which was not helping with the tingly-dizzy thing Ed was battling right now.
“Well,” Roy said. If he wasn’t a touch fucking breathless himself, Ed would eat his hat. Not that Ed had a hat. He’d get one. Al had a few, because he liked that sort of thing, but Ed didn’t pay enough attention to them to have a particular one in mind. “How… You look—thoughtful.”
Ed probably looked dazed. He’d been down this road enough times to connect this feeling with what had to be on his face.
“Okay,” he said. It was less-stupid than a lot of the things that had been bouncing around in the echo-chamber in his head, so he’d take it.
Roy smiled—but only just slightly. Tentative. Was that the word? Trepidatious. That was what Al would say. Like there was something standing in the way of the rest of the expression Roy wanted to make—like there was something he was waiting for.
“May I ask what you’re thinking?” Roy said.
Ed licked his lips, which was either accidentally brilliant, or a terrible mistake, because Roy’s eyes zeroed in on it instantly.
“I’m thinkin’ I should get overtime for this shit,” Ed said.
More of the smile sliced through.
That was what it reminded Ed of—those… geode things. They sold them to kids these days just to let them blow off steam by hammering at them to break them apart, but—that was Roy’s smiles, wasn’t it? They started out as just a little sliver, and mostly all you could see was the crags and crannies of an ordinary rock, but if you cracked them open—
Gleaming, gorgeous, prismatic crystal underneath.
“I think that might draw more attention from payroll than I’m comfortable with,” Roy said. “Can I take you to dinner instead?”
Ed’s heart beat. Which was, on the surface, a good thing. It just felt a hell of a lot less good when it was beating way too fast in the back of his throat, rather than sedately, in his chest, like it was supposed to.
“Like a date?” he asked.
“That’s entirely up to you,” Roy said.
Ed eyed him. “Do you want it to be a date?”
Roy blinked back. Stone again. “Do you?”
“I asked first,” Ed said.
Roy huffed out a half-breath somewhere in the neighborhood of a sigh.
“So you did,” he said. He paused. He noticed his hand still twined into Ed’s hair, with the heel resting just behind Ed’s ear. “I,” Roy said, still looking intently at his own hand, like he’d lost track of it—with which, admittedly, Ed kind of sympathized, but he had a much better excuse; “would be… very… amenable. To that idea. If it appealed to you, that is.”
Ed’s throat-dwelling heart continued to throb. “Was there a ‘yes’ buried in there somewhere?”
Roy’s gaze slid over to meet his again, and another fragment of a smile slanted his mouth. “Very possibly.”
It occurred to Ed—late, way too late—that if his heart was banging heard enough that he could hardly hear anything over the racket, Roy, whose palm was pressed against his face, could almost definitely feel the damn thing.
Which made it… sort of pointless to hedge about this any further, didn’t it?
“All right,” he said. Roy had offered up a little bit of vulnerability just now. Equivalent exchange and all that. “I’d… very possibly be interested if you picked someplace good.”
It’d sounded stupid out loud, but he knew he’d done something right, because that split the grin right open.
Plus Roy’s thumb started stroking at the hinge of his jaw underneath his ear, and that sure as hell didn’t hurt.
“Do you have anywhere in mind?” Roy asked.
“Someplace with food,” Ed said.
“That,” Roy said, “I think I can arrange.”
They were both sort of searching each other’s faces at the same time—trying not to look desperate, at least in Ed’s case; or overly pleased, or too excited, or a little bit terrified and a little bit thrilled. This whole thing felt a lot like the aftermath of mild electrocution—the part where your skin was still tingling, and it didn’t hurt anymore, but everything felt jangled and ruffled and raw. The part where some portion of you was holding its breath waiting for another shock you really hoped wasn’t coming.
“That’s good,” Ed said. “It’d be just like you to find someplace that’d seat people but not serve ’em.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” Roy said. “But perhaps a challenge for another time. Can I pick you up at six thirty?”
Ed swallowed. Which was bizarrely nerve-wracking when Roy’s hand was so close that the bastard could probably feel it. “Sure. Yeah.” He swallowed again. “Shit. Maybe—you should pick me up the next block over or something. Or else Al’s gonna be insufferably fuckin’ smug.”
“Oh, dear,” Roy said. His hand slid down along the curve of Ed’s neck and settled on his shoulder instead. “Well, you might have noticed that I have a fair amount of experience with covert operations, so—”
“Fuck off,” Ed said. “I don’t mean—I mean, if you need—or—want—to—keep it on the down-low, so nobody—” There it was. There was the dunk into cold water, face-first, and when you came up gasping, your hair was soaked, and it ran in little rivers down every centimeter of your skin. “I mean, shit, you could—this could be really—”
“It could do and be a lot of things,” Roy said, squeezing Ed’s shoulder once, tightly, before letting his hand fall. “But it might not. And I intend to put off worrying about that until I’ve escorted you to a very nice place where they serve very nice food, and then most likely to another nice place for dessert.”
Ed was… gazing at him. There was no other word for it. The game was over. Any attempt to resist the magnetic draw and tragic attraction of Roy Mustang was doomed; the battle he’d been waging for a long, long time was lost.
But maybe it had been for a long time by now.
And maybe that wasn’t necessarily… bad.
“Dessert, huh?” he managed. “I mean… in that case…”
“All you can eat,” Roy said.
“Now that sounds like a challenge,” Ed said.
“It is,” Roy said. He extended his left hand. “Deal?”
Ed eyed it, and then him, and then… took it. And shook.
“Six thirty?” he said.
“If that works for you,” Roy said.
They hadn’t let go of each other’s hands. Roy’s grip was firm but not too intense; there was something weirdly comforting about how big and how warm his hand was.
Not that Ed’s hands weren’t big, or… any… fuck.
He let go and shoved both into his pockets before anyone could comment, including his stupid brain.
“If Al doesn’t accidentally strangle me in his excitement,” he said, “should be good.”
That slow-burn grin was going to be the death of him, wasn’t it? But maybe—just maybe—it wasn’t such a bad way to go.
“Hopefully dinner will revive you,” Roy said.
“Weirder shit’s happened,” Ed said.
“True,” Roy said.
They both paused.
And then they both looked at the floor.
And then Ed said, “What the hell are you gonna do with all of the leftover wood and shit?”, because someone had to.
“I’m going to shove it into the supply closet,” Roy said. “As I do with all of the non-damning but nonetheless rather awkward evidence I need to dispose of. Can I enlist your help?”
“Jeez,” Ed said. “This whole thing is really cutting into my staring-at-the-ceiling time at home.”
“Shame,” Roy said.
“You’re tellin’ me,” Ed said.
It took them almost twenty minutes—not including the thirty seconds required for Ed to transmute the lock open—to manhandle all of the remaining materials into the supply closet. In the process, Ed discovered that Roy apparently had not been kidding about the evidence thing, because there was so much random shit shoved onto the shelves next to the cleaning stuff and the office supplies that there really wasn’t any other explanation. He had no idea why the janitors hadn’t cried foul yet, although the fact that some of the abandoned items were half-empty bottles of expensive-looking booze probably had something to do with it.
Most of the reason it took so damn long was that Ed was having trouble concentrating on the task of shoving two-by-fours into back corners next to the mops. Roy kept brushing his hand against Ed’s shoulder-blade, or the small of his back, or—when he least expected it, which made him practically jump out of his fucking skin—his ass. Which was distracting.
After the fourth or fifth of those occasions, Ed punished the bastard by shoving him up against the nearest shelf and attempting to kiss him into submission—which had seemed like a better plan in his head than it probably was, but most of his plans followed that pattern, and he’d made it this far. Besides, Roy didn’t seem to mind.
And when they drew apart, Roy was grinning, bright and broad and genuine, like the whole world was softer than it had been when they’d started out.
It was—different. All the little things were different. Everything he did; everything about him; everything about the way Ed felt looking at his stupid, stupid, impossibly appealing face.
Everything was different.
But maybe—just maybe—different was going to work out to be a lot like good.