Confidantes, but never friends
Were we ever friends?
— "Hold Me Tight Or Don'T" – Fall Out Boy –
Winter sucked to start with, but it sucked a whole hell of a lot more when Al was on the other side of a desert. The only thing better than spending a couple of months in constant automail pain while everyone else was going around buying things and loudly proclaiming how happy they were was going through the whole song and dance with heartache rolled into the mix.
Well… fine. Ed wanted Al to be out in Xing, having a great time, watching fireworks every other night—apparently he’d finally found “the mythical land where everyone had as much of a ‘Can I blow this up?’ fetish as Ed”, if his letters were to be believed. Ed wanted Al to be wherever he’d be happiest, learning the coolest stuff, meeting tons of people, petting lots of cats, eating “weird things with mushrooms and this green thing that was slimy but in a good way? Sort of?” and whatever else it was that people did out there. He just wanted Al to have the time of his life—of his normal life. Of a life with hands and toes and fingertips and a nose that was susceptible to the cold.
He assumed Al’s nose was, at least. If there was anything remotely hereditary about it, Al’s had to be, because Ed’s was freezing.
Not that he could really feel it past the throbbing misery radiating outward from his right shoulder and upward from his left thigh. He’d been curled up on the couch with a hot water bottle strapped down to each source of agony—bound there with some of the neckties that Al had left behind because they hadn’t fit in his luggage, which Ed had reclaimed for just such occasions as this—and interred underneath a pile of blankets for almost an hour now, and he still didn’t feel warm. Stupid Central City. Stupid winter. Stupid snow. Stupid usage limits on the heating ventilation system in the stupid building. Stupid cheap apartments with their thin walls, and their badly-fitted doors, and their absolutely no fireplaces whatsoever, which were the only kind he could afford while he was slogging through what passed for a life these days, which involved adjunct teaching at the university and consulting for Roy Mustang’s merry band of minor miscreants on the side.
Maybe he was coming down sick. That would be just his damn luck. Well… even fine-er. He was just going to have to have the best winter ever, regardless of all of the obstacles to that objective, such as… pretty much everything.
Screw it. Ed had gone up against pretty much everything a million times before, and he usually came out on top by force of will alone. Something as petty as a season couldn’t beat him.
It could, however, apparently make him wail quietly to an empty room at the prospect of hauling himself off of the couch when the phone rang.
He had… four rings left to convince himself to get up. Or wait—was it only three more? Shit. He couldn’t remember. He had to go now, or he might miss one of Al’s very rare opportunities to shovel loose Xingese change into a pay phone and hope against hope that the solitary straggling phone line stretched across the endless dunes was operational all the way down—
The water bottle that Ed had tie-strapped to his leg miraculously stayed more or less in place as he dragged his multiple blanket capes up off of the cushions with him and over to the end table where the phone was trilling way too loud.
“All right,” he said to it as the dragging brought him close, “all right—” He tried to stretch his grimace into a grin as he picked up the phone so that Al would hear a smile in his voice. “Hello?”
“Edward,” Roy said.
Ed’s brain screeched to a halt, and he had to scramble for a long couple of seconds while he grasped around for other words under all of the things that he’d been preparing to shout at Al before the line went out. “Uh—hi.”
“I’m terribly sorry to call so late,” Roy said. Bullshit he was. Also, pertinently—
“It’s eight o’clock,” Ed said.
“Is that not late?” Roy asked. “I always thought it was a bit uncouth to call after seven or so.”
Ed’s brain was still reeling from how hard he’d packed all of the Al-intended conversation back into it, and the fact that Roy had just said uncouth in a sentence really wasn’t helping. “Uh… I dunno. They made me turn in my Etiquette Professionals membership card after I knocked my fork off the table with my elbow one too many times. Which is fine, because it was forged anyway.”
“But a very convincing fake,” Roy said, in that trademark tone that was so dry you couldn’t even tell whether he was being sarcastic or sincere or a little bit of both.
“Right,” Ed said, since that was pretty nice and noncommittal. Hopefully Roy wasn’t calling about urgent business—he didn’t sound especially beleaguered, but sometimes that was actually a bad sign, because it meant he was flailing like hell trying to keep it all together so that you couldn’t tell how overwhelmed he felt. “What’s up?”
“Ah,” Roy said. That was a bad sign. If he had to prepare himself with an interjection, it meant he didn’t want to say whatever he was about to. “Would you… by any chance be available tomorrow morning? Could I buy you a cup of coffee, perhaps?”
Ed eyed the wall with all of the suspicion that he would have directed at Roy if phones hadn’t been so useless for that sort of thing. “Maybe. What do you want?”
“I just told you what I want,” Roy said, with an absolutely incongruous touch of cheer. “For you to let me buy you—”
“Mustang,” Ed said.
Roy half-sighed, softly. “All right. I—ah. I… need a favor.”
Ed sat on that one for a long second, but the wall didn’t exactly quail under his scrutiny, even though with any luck Roy was squirming.
“What kind of favor?” he asked when he felt like he’d waited a suitable interval for some high-quality writhing on Roy’s part.
“Oh, God,” Roy said, very faintly. “I… my mother has a Christmas party every year—it comes with the territory, you know; she thinks the pun is remarkably clever, so…”
“So what?” Ed said. “You need a designated driver? Is Havoc going out of town with Rebecca or something?”
“Ah,” Roy said, with that particular delicateness that meant he was cringing his way through every word of this, which was delightful and bewildering in equal measure, “no. I need a date.”
Ed stared at the wall. It didn’t offer him anything for the disbelief either. This apartment was crap.
“O… kay,” he said. “What, is your list of names so long that you need help calling down ’em all, and you knew I wouldn’t have anything else to do on a Friday night? Jeez. I mean, it’s true, but it’s still sort of tacky to assume that, and—”
“Ed,” Roy said, sounding sort of pained, which was interesting; and also very, very bad. “I need you to be my date.”
Ed’s brain tried avidly to process that.
It did not succeed.
“What?” he managed.
This sigh was full-fledged and significantly more tragic. “I’m sorry. I am. I just—I’m turning thirty-five, and she’s going to be insufferable, and the only way to put her off the scent is if—”
“Are you drunk?” Ed asked.
“Unfortunately, no,” Roy said.
“Am I drunk?” Ed asked.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Roy said, “but I can’t be s—”
“Why not Captain Hawkeye?” Ed asked.
“My mother’s known Riza almost as long as I have,” Roy said. “She wouldn’t believe it for a second. You’re the only one she hasn’t met.”
And here Ed had spent that one, stupid, shining moment almost capable of imagining that he might be Roy Mustang’s first choice, rather than his last resort.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
“My undying gratitude,” Roy said. “My eternal debt. As many free dinners as you can stand to sit through with me.” He paused. “An open bar.”
Maybe that was what this winter was missing: liquor and free food. Possibly sometimes both at once.
“When is it?” he asked.
“Next Saturday,” Roy said. “Ah—also my library. You’re welcome to come over and use my library any time you like. I’ll have you a key made. I have a fireplace.”
Well, hell. It wasn’t like Ed had anything else to do.
“Fine,” he said. “I’m in.”
What was the worst that could happen?
He ended up going for coffee with Roy anyway, for two reasons—first, as previously elucidated, he had fuck-all else on the agenda, and he’d learned by now that fixing his brain on other activities helped keep the loneliness at bay; second, Roy had good taste in coffee and deep pockets. He didn’t skimp when it came to the quality of his caffeine, and hot drinks were the only thing other than down-filled blankets that made winter semi-tolerable.
Even though Roy had suggested a place pretty close to Ed’s apartment—whether that was because he remembered that the automail would be a pain in the ass for strolling the city, or if it was just a coincidence, Ed didn’t know; with Roy, it was fifty-fifty whether it was staggering subterfuge or dumb luck—the bastard somehow got there first.
The gleam on the window drew Ed’s eyes up from his own feet—more particularly, from the snow threatening to seep through the eyelets holding the laces of his boots, because snow was evil—and then the stark contours of Roy’s monochrome profile caught his attention the instant that the window had reeled him in. Roy had underscored his obnoxious face with a blue scarf in a shade just dark enough to look sophisticated and just bright enough to make him unmissable in a crowd. How did he do that?
The bottom line was, Roy Mustang, sitting at a little table just inside the café window, with a pale ceramic coffee mug raised partway to his lips, looked like a million cens without even trying.
Ed wasn’t naïve enough anymore to think that things were easy for Roy—that things were easy for anybody. The real magic of the constantly-recombining universe was that everyone in it had a cross to bear. Most people’s were invisible, but that didn’t mean they weren’t heavy as hell.
But things had to be easier when you were gorgeous and articulate and famous and brilliant, and you charmed the pants off of unsuspecting people all around you just by breathing.
Ed squared his shoulders—which hurt—and forged on in. At least Roy had picked a cute spot, both in the city and within the place. The café was a homey little number with wood-paneled walls and well-worn tables, although unfortunately they’d strung up tinsel and red ribbons and set out a bunch of fake snow, like there wasn’t enough of that crap outside.
Even a half a mile had aggravated the automail more than Ed had been counting on. This was bullshit; he was going to be a wreck in class next week if the weather didn’t let up. He dragged his tormented body over to Roy’s table and dropped it into the empty chair.
“Hi,” he said.
Roy glanced up, smiled over the rim of his cup, ruined Ed’s life, and said, “Good morning,” in just about that order. Then he added, “That’s for you,” nodding contentedly to a full mug of coffee on Ed’s side of the tabletop.
Ed peeled his left glove off and touched the side of the ceramic. Still pretty hot. “What were you gonna do if I was late?”
“Drink it,” Roy said. “And buy you another one.”
Ed eyed him. “You have an answer for everything?”
“Of course not,” Roy said. “But I don’t suppose I have to tell you how far desperate improvisation can take you even when you don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. I hope that’s enough sugars?”
They’d done this enough times over the years—to share information related to Ed’s odd jobs for Investigations, primarily—that they both knew Roy made Ed’s coffee exactly right.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Ed said. He leaned forward, propping his elbow up on the table so that he could set his chin on his hand—all of which was a little more challenging when he was wearing so many layers, but despite how comparatively toasty it was in here, he didn’t feel inclined to start shedding them yet. “So what are the requirements?”
Roy blinked. “For… suga—”
“For me being your fake boyfriend,” Ed said. The flicker in Roy’s eye was either amusement or a flash of gratitude that Ed had, miraculously, learned how to keep his voice down in public over the years. “I want to do this properly so I get unlimited access to your library here. Do I need to be high society, or what?”
Roy smiled thinly. “I don’t think she’d believe that. And in any case, I don’t want to put you to more trouble than strictly necessary. You can be yourself.”
“I’m a pain in the ass,” Ed said. “And I’m an even bigger pain in the ass when I’m in a bad mood because of the weather, and then you throw in an open bar.”
Roy paused. “I suppose you could be a… slightly more restrained version of yourself?”
“Okay,” Ed said. “Dress code?”
“It’s nothing too formal,” Roy said. “And I don’t want you to have to go out and buy anything new. Just…”
“Wear what Al would dress me in if he knew I was going to a party?” Ed asked.
Roy’s grin was the least-fair thing that had come into existence since the inception of the larger universe. “Yes.”
“Cool,” Ed said. He regretted the word choice instantly; it felt like the chill radiating off of the window increased in intensity just to spite him. “So what’s our story?”
Roy went back to blinking. Fortunately, the uncomprehending look worked for him, because everything worked for him, because he was a bastard. “How do you mean?”
“Our backstory,” Ed said. “People are gonna ask.”
Roy’s eyes narrowed slightly, which Ed hated more than all of it up to this point put together—when he started to do the smart thing was when you really had to worry. It also changed the angles of his face just slightly when he started thinking fast and dangerous, and it made Ed’s stomach do inexcusably stupid little warm-flutter things. “Have you done this before?”
“What?” Ed said. “Been somebody’s fake-date?”
“Yes,” Roy said. “You seem to know what to expect better than I do.”
“Well, I do,” Ed said. “I do it for Winry all the time, because the guys in Rush Valley are always staring into her cleavage and hitting on her, and it drives her up the wall.”
Roy looked disconcerted. “I can imagine. So—”
“So we have to make up a story,” Ed said. “I mean, obviously, we met the way we met in real life, or whatever; you gotta start out with the truth and then add a chain of plausible events from there.”
Roy looked very tired and very grim for a second—just a second. It was weird.
Then he brightened up and folded both hands underneath his chin—somewhat ostentatiously, if you asked Ed. Not that anyone had, but they should have.
“Can we have started out at the park?” he asked. “What if I was dog-sitting for Riza, and you were taking a shortcut, so you stopped to say hello, and then it started pouring rain, and you were a long way from your place, but you had class to teach later, so I offered you my clothes dryer and a few minutes inside to warm up, and one thing led to another, and…?”
Ed stared at him.
Roy’s mouth twitched downward at the corners, and then he started to wilt. “Too much?”
“No,” Ed said. “That’s perfect. You just pull that right out of your ass, or what?”
Roy blinked at him, all solemn-faced innocence again. “My ass is capacious.”
Because the universe hated Edward Elric, everything he stood for, and apparently everything he drank, Ed had just taken a sip of the coffee. He choked on it. Only the legendary reflexes of old and a bone-deep conviction that coffee should never be wasted allowed him to keep it in his mouth instead of spitting it all over Roy’s increasingly smug face.
“There’s gonna be a capacious dent in your head if you do that while I’m drinkin’ ever again,” Ed managed when he’d gasped a little bit of dryness into his lungs.
“Sorry,” Roy said, sounding about as un-sorry as Ed had ever heard a human being sound.
“You could kill somebody like that,” Ed said.
“How’s the coffee?” Roy said.
“Dunno,” Ed said. “Didn’t notice, because I was trying not to die.”
“Sorry,” Roy said again, and it sounded a tiny bit more sincere this time.
“Me, too,” Ed said. “That I know you, mostly.” He took advantage of the time required for sampling a long sip in order to plan out the next sentence, because it was kind of a doozy. “S’good,” he said of the coffee. Of course it was. Bastard Roy even did that perfectly all the time. “Is it going to be weird that you brought a guy?”
“No,” Roy said, so smoothly that Ed almost missed the way his eyebrow shifted, just the tiniest bit. “Though if it starts to get weird—for any reason—feel free to dump me at the end of the night. That might be the most efficient solution, actually, since otherwise she’ll be asking about you for months afterward. And you’d probably enjoy it.”
“Would not,” Ed said.
He didn’t know why, exactly, he’d come right out with that, but once he had, he set his jaw and folded his arms over his chest, daring Roy to challenge it.
Except Roy—stupid Roy, who never, ever did what he expected, let alone what he wanted—just smiled slightly.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Roy said. “Sometimes I forget.”
“Forget what?” Ed said.
“Never mind,” Roy said, like that had ever worked in the history of the world, or at least in the history of Ed.
Ed glowered while he drank from the mug again. The drinking part was more successful this time around, although the glowering didn’t seem to work.
“Okay,” he said when he’d funneled a fair bit of caffeine in the direction of his bloodstream. “What’s the catch?”
Roy’s eyebrows arched much more pronouncedly this time. “What do you mean? The situation is the catch. You’re going to be trapped in a room—well, a set of rooms, but nonetheless—and have to pretend to like me for several hours at a stretch.”
“I do like you,” Ed said. “At least eighty percent of the time. And that’s creeping up slowly as more years go by without me having to work for you and put up with you first thing in the morning. Plus you’re such a good bullshitter it’ll probably be kind of fun to watch you string ’em along. And—jeez, Roy. Open bar.”
Roy looked… something. Guilty? Pained?
But only for a second, and then he swept it away without a trace, which was par for the extremely stupid course.
“There will probably be some cooing,” he said. “And doting. And they’ll have to pet your hair.”
Ed wrinkled his nose. “Nobody pets my hair. Except Al. And sometimes Win when she’s upset.” He watched Roy’s face very, very carefully. “I guess… my fake boyfriend probably would.”
It wasn’t his fault Roy had nice hands, and they’d probably feel extremely nice stroking through his hair, and he was less than overpoweringly averse to the idea of finding out.
Roy, as Ed watched closely, gazed out the window and did a funny thing with his jaw, followed by an inside-of-the-lip-bite, which might have heralded him working the spit around in his mouth.
“It would be more convincing if there was a bit of that,” Roy said. “But my first priority is respecting your boundaries, a—”
“I can handle a little bit of PDA,” Ed said. “I mean—I got felt up by practically every single person who lives in Rush Valley, and that’s not even counting what Winry’s gotta do sometimes. And after Al finally got his hands back, there were, like, three months where he couldn’t keep them off things, including me. And then he had a phase where he’d follow me around and nuzzle me all the time because he was just so excited that I was warm.”
Roy’s mouth twitched.
“What?” Ed said.
“Nothing,” Roy said, which was more bullshit, although at least he had society on his side this time. “That’s adorable.”
“Whatever,” Ed said. “Point is—it’s not a big deal. You can do whatever you need to do to sell it.”
“Hang on,” Roy said. “Don’t move.” He leaned forward, reaching across the table—Ed steeled himself, hard, trying not to blink. “You have an eyelash—” The first two fingertips of his left hand grazed Ed’s cheek, feather-lightly, but either the paperwork or the ignition gloves had left a trace of roughness to the skin that made it catch against Ed’s just barely—just enough to set the spark of an involuntary shiver that wanted nothing more than to burn its way right up his spine.
He fought it, stilling himself by force of will, and won.
Roy sat back, smirking, and at least that was familiar territory. Much more familiar than the horrifying wasteland they’d just jaunted across the border of, where Roy’s hands ventured way too close, but Ed’s instincts didn’t want to smack him; they wanted to meet him halfway.
“Sorry,” Roy said, once again defying the most fundamental concept of the word. “Pop quiz. You passed.”
“They pay you extra for being a piece of shit?” Ed got out, and it sounded remarkably normal, considering.
“That’s all they pay me for,” Roy said. “It’s called ‘government’.”
“Shit,” Ed said. “Maybe Al has the right idea. How fast do you think I can move to Xing?”
“Not before next Saturday, I hope,” Roy said, “or I’ll be in something of a predicament again.”
Ed eyed him. “Monarchy—I mean, official monarchy, y’know—probably sucks anyway. Might not be much better over there.”
Roy blinked, doing the unrevealing face thing again. “I thought you and Emperor Yao were rather close.”
“We were,” Ed said. “That’s why I said that.”
Roy had raised his folded hands to do the impenetrable-wall-of-pensive-fingers thing, but his eyes crinkled up at the corners and gleamed a little, which betrayed him even though his voice stayed perfectly level. “Ah. I’ll keep that in mind going forward with diplomacy.”
“Just pretend you’re dealing with me,” Ed said, “only a me who was supposed to fight their siblings to the death instead of fighting to the death for them. And a me who was spoiled fucking rotten and doesn’t think it’s weird to leave other people with your astronomical lunch bill and just disappear.”
“That…” Roy blinked from behind the wall. “Interesting point.”
“Anyway,” Ed said. “Al says he’s doing a pretty good job so far, but I’m not sure if that’s ’cause it’s true, or because Lan Fan reads Al’s mail. Whatever. Why are we talking about Ling? What’s your mom like?”
“Terrifying,” Roy said. “And wonderful. You’ll like her. She’ll probably ask you to marry me.”
Ed stared at him.
“She’s panicking,” Roy said. “All of us are past thirty now, and none of us are settling down. I think she’s concerned that she’s somehow at fault, and she’s created a bunch of commitment-phobes, so now she’s doing everything in her power to matchmake the lot of us.”
“I mean,” Ed said, slowly, trying to get a handle on this bizarre new alter-world he apparently had no choice but to inhabit for the next few minutes at least, “I’m not an expert, but… I feel like… that’s not something you should… rush or whatever.”
“I agree,” Roy said. “But she insists I’m repelling people on purpose out of some sort of self-flagellating impulse to isolate myself and doom the beautiful Mustang genome to the annals of history.” He sipped his coffee, gazing out the window again. “There might be some truth to that, but the more she says it, the more determined I am to be alone forever.”
“Holy shit,” Ed said.
Roy shook himself—not unlike a wet dog, which Ed was going to save for a moment when he really needed the firepower—and then grimaced. “Sorry. Didn’t sleep well. Sometimes that makes me a little bit more melodramatic than usual.”
Ed tried to hold back the expression he could feel starting to form on his face, but the weird combination of distress and trepidation and partly-joking judgment won out. “Boy. You’re gonna be a real treasure once you’ve been drinking for a while, aren’t you?”
“There are many advantages to growing up in a bar,” Roy said, swilling his coffee and raising his eyebrows. At least the smirk was back. Despite making Ed’s stomach acid boil in a deeply habitual sort of way, it was less unsettling than any of the scary-sincere faces that had flashed by a minute ago. “One of them is knowing how to make drinks that look potent but don’t actually hit you all that hard. Another is being able to make a single drink last hours in such a way that no one notices. And a third is managing to develop a rather high tolerance regardless of both of those things.”
Glib bastard, now and always. At least even when the sky was pouring down evil white shit, and Al was so far away that Ed couldn’t steal his blankets and lie around on top of his books and whine about it, some things never changed. It was good to have some constants in the world. Gave you landmarks. Something to hold onto.
Literally, next Saturday, most likely.
Eugh. Was Roy one of those touchy-feely kinds of boyfriends? Maybe Ed would sketch him an anatomical map and mark places in red where he wasn’t allowed to put his nasty hands.
Not that they were nasty. They were pretty un-nasty, all things considered. But Ed still didn’t want them on his person. Or at least not on parts of it. Or at least—
He really needed to think about something else.
“Two of those are gonna be necessary,” he said instead, “if you want to keep me and my BAC stable enough not to blow your cover.”
Roy winced. It looked real enough, but the way he was playing musical masks today, it was impossible to know for sure. “Ah. I can imagine.” At least he hadn’t asked why—or, worse, gone for the obvious joke that completely missed the point or whatever. “Well, I have a number of tricks up my sleeve for that sort of thing, so I’ll do my best to keep you out of the cups. Or at least keep you not any further in them than you’d like to be.”
“Great,” Ed said. “I’d be real pissed off if my fake-boyfriend wasn’t committed to protecting my fake-honor.”
“The honor, Edward,” Roy said, “is quite real.”
“Stop saying shit like that,” Ed said.
Roy blinked, with the maddening cat-in-a-sunbeam serenity that had used to send Ed’s blood pressure straight through the roof.
“Shit like what I really think?” he said.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “That’s terrible politics. Anyway, do I need to bring something?”
“To my mother’s?” Roy asked. Good that he was keeping up. “No, no. I’ll get her a nice bottle of… something. I don’t want to put you out any more than strictly necessary, and I’d hate for you to have to buy anything.”
Ed eyed him. “Okay.”
Roy put on and lit up the winning smile. “Okay, then.” He took another sip of coffee and then motioned vaguely as he swallowed—the universal sign language cue for oh, shit, I just remembered in the middle of drinking. “Ah—would it be all right if I picked you up at six or so? I thought I could take you to the first of your promised free dinners beforehand, especially since then we’ll at least have some food in us when she tries to ply us with booze all night.”
Ed had taken a break from eyeing him, but evidently the reprieve was short-lived.
Er—brief. Abbreviated. Something.
“You know something you’re not telling me?” he asked. “You keep talking like this is some kinda torture I’m undergoing for you out of the goodness of my heart, but the way you’re describing it makes it sound… fun.”
“The way my mother operates,” Roy said, “it’s likely to be a bit of both.” He paused, toying with the handle of his coffee mug. “I’ve been meaning to ask, but I don’t want to be ru—”
“Just try it,” Ed said. “Try offending me. You like lost causes, right?”
Roy smiled thinly. “Fancy that; another synonym for ‘the Amestrian government’ that I hadn’t heard before. I—all right. I would have thought you’d have… plans. I know Al’s probably too far away to make a holiday visit, but you have so many friends that—”
“Yeah, like who?” Ed asked. “Winry’n Granny went out to Creta, ’cause they never got to travel at all when we were out there doing it and making all kinds of trouble, and this is the best time of year for it, customer-wise, because most of them stay home with their families and stuff. So it’s hanging out in my apartment, alone, writing angry letters to my leasing company, or… hangin’ out with you, someplace warm, with free liquor. Gee. Tough call.”
“I suppose that’s something,” Roy said, and Ed didn’t like the slyness of his smile but couldn’t quite put a finger—steel or otherwise—on why. “Have we ever actually… ‘hung out’?”
“That sounds weird in your voice,” Ed said, just for the record. “And… unless you count times we were either trying to kill each other or trying not to die…”
“Right,” Roy said, thoughtfully. “There have been… but it’s all been business, and usually there are several other people there, and…”
They looked at each other.
Then, like two toys on the same string, and one sharp pull—they both looked away.
“Well,” Ed said, wondering why his stupid face was doing stupid things that involved malfunctioning capillaries, “cool. I’m all about free food.”
“That much,” Roy said, “I had noticed.”
Somehow, Ed staggered his way through another week of small-scale—of normal-sized-scale—chaos. Trying to tie up all of his grading as well as the last stage of his current alchemical research project—which was on the effects of matter changing state, deliberately in the course of or unintentionally in the middle of, a transmutation—before the university shut down most of its resources over the holiday was always wild. He’d never understood why so many people just up and fucked off for weeks at a time during this point in the year, since life was definitely continuing as normal, and work might as well follow suit, but he supposed that he was in the minority there, and if people wanted to take a break, then… fine. At least he wouldn’t get as many annoying phone calls if he let himself into the locked, darkened lab buildings to run some results.
It wasn’t until his brain reminded him that he was going to have a great time boring the shit out of Roy with questions about the research that it sunk in that the party-thing was tomorrow. That left him with one solitary day—one with an intractable forecast for snow, no less—to raid Al’s room for clothes that he might be able to bear wearing, and to pick up some sort of a gift for Roy’s mysterious mother. He’d been raised properly—or at least semi-properly, or at least properly for several years at a stretch. Like hell was he going to show up empty-handed, no matter what Roy said. City people. Honestly.
He was—now and sort of perpetually—trying not to think about the fact that he’d more or less become a city person. It was a surface problem, though—like wearing a coat. That didn’t mean you were a coat advocate, or a coat-maker, or a coat connoisseur; it just meant you happened to have a coat on at some specific time point in your overall existence. You were using the coat for a purpose. It wasn’t who you were or anything.
Maybe coats were a bad example; if this weather kept up, Ed would be the first person to sign up for becoming a coat. Being a coat sounded a hell of a lot better than being a frozen-ass string of steel and muscle bundled up into two coats at once, trying to hasten his shuffle along the sidewalk so that he could dive back into his blanket nest for a while before he had to get ready for stupid Roy’s stupid party.
Well—stupid Roy’s mom’s stupid party, but he was already wasting a lot of syllables in his head here, so same difference.
Stupid Roy knocked on the stupid door two stupid minutes before he’d said he would, which was not especially surprising. Fortunately, it was also not especially inconvenient, since Ed had wrapped himself up in all of the layers he was planning to wear to forge out into the horrible night ten minutes prior, and had just been standing in front of the heating unit since, staring at it and willing it to impart some kindness onto him.
He dragged himself over to the door, pushed himself up onto his toes—not that he would cop to that if there wasn’t torture involved, obviously, but facts were facts—to glance through the peephole and make sure that it was someone worth undoing the deadbolts for.
Close enough, so he rolled them all back.
Roy was wearing a hat, and a scarf, and a long black wool coat, and a star-bright smile.
“Good evening,” he said.
Ed stared at him. Ed looked up to the top of the hat, then down to the polished toes of the shoes, slightly shiny from smeared snow. Ed’s brain chose that precise moment to zip off on a vacation to fuck knew where, leaving him with a spiral of snowflakes inside his head and a few choice unvetted words on the tip of his tongue.
“Why do you look good in everything?” his currently brainless ass asked.
Roy’s grin started slow and spread wide. “Only you could make a compliment sound like an accusation,” he said.
“Learned it from Al,” Ed said, which was both true and marginally more intelligent. Tilting his head downward to hide the heat in his cheeks made his eyes catch on the backs of Roy’s black leather gloves. They had just the slightest bit of a texture to them, which reflected the light from the apartment differently than the leather did.
Were those—they were. Showy bastard had actually gone to the trouble of stitching on flame arrays in silken black thread to weaponize his fancy-pants theater-ready winter gloves.
Ed raised his gaze from them very slowly and sardonically so that Roy would know exactly what he was thinking. “Are those snowball-fight-proof?”
Roy raised his eyebrows. “Are you planning on starting a snowball fight?”
“I don’t start any of my fights,” Ed said. “And I definitely don’t plan ’em.”
“That’s an interesting interpretation of events,” Roy said.
“I thought that was called ‘diplomacy’,” Ed said.
Roy grinned again. He needed to stop doing that. “Touché.” His gaze panned up and down Ed’s cocoon of clothing. “Are you warm enough?” It probably should have sounded condescending, but in the years since their first million and a half knockdown, drag-out spats in the office and elsewhere, Roy had figured out exactly how to moderate his tone so that Ed didn’t want to throttle him even when he was hovering a bit.
“Close,” Ed said, which was a slight exaggeration, but it’d have to do. “Let’s go already.”
“A fine idea,” Roy said, which meant that that was what he had been about to suggest.
So Ed locked up—it took a minute to do normally, and it took an extra minute to do while wearing two sets of gloves on top of each other on your more dextrous hand—and they did.
Ed had paid a bit of attention to which restaurants were in vogue back when Al had been here, because Al’s rediscovery of the joys of flavor had, of course, superseded Ed’s primary meal criteria—which were, firstly, volume; and, secondly, value. More, heavier, hotter, and cheaper was ideal as far as he was concerned, but Al had wanted to try everything under the sun that could be served up with fancy linen napkins that were probably going to slide off of Ed’s knee and wind up on the floor, so that had taken precedence.
He hadn’t kept up on any of that shit in a long time, now, though, because there was no point eating out alone. Especially not when you could get a massive bag full of kebabs at the little kiosk right outside the university for the same price that you’d have to pay just to look at some of the places in downtown Central.
Point was—he had no idea how trendy the place Roy had picked was, though the bustling foyer told a bit of a story in that regard.
“Jeez,” he said. It was damn warm in here, at least—warm enough that he actually wanted to start prying the top layers off of his tormented body for the first time in ages. If nothing else went right tonight, this would count for a lot. “You didn’t have to pick the most popular place in town.”
“You deserve the best,” Roy said.
Ed stared at him.
Roy stared back, completely blankly, which gave him nothing to go on as far as sarcasm or the terrifying possibility that it was sincerely meant.
Well… screw it. And him. And social convention. Ed would just ignore that and move right along, and anyone who didn’t like it could get bent.
“I thought I didn’t have to dress up all posh and shit,” Ed said. The fact that those were the words his brain had selected sort of spoke for itself. He was fighting with a stubborn button on the inner coat so that he could hang it on the rack with its abandoned brother. He didn’t want to think about abandoned brothers in any capacity. His brain was on a roll tonight. “You should’ve warned me.”
“Is this posh?” Roy asked, glancing around them. “I always interpreted it as… moderately uppity.”
“The I hope this is moderately uppity enough,” Ed said, pausing in unwinding his scarf long enough to gesture down at the dark red sweater he’d paired with one of Al’s button-up shirts in a dweeby white-but-not-quite-white sort of color. “I liberated ’em from Al’s closet, since he’s not using ’em anyway, and I figured that was statistically more likely to land me something nice enough.”
Roy was—looking at him. No expression; no judgment; no nothing. Just… looking.
“His shoulders are a bit narrower than yours,” Roy said.
Ed eyed him right the hell back. “Is that the crafty bastard way of registering your observation that they fit kinda tight?”
“Yes,” Roy said.
“Consider it registered,” Ed said. “You think I didn’t notice?”
“I’m sure you noticed the physical sensations just fine,” Roy said, turning away to lift his hat off of his stupid hair, lay it on the very top of the hat rack just because he was a long-armed freak who could, and run his hand back through his bangs like they were a mess or something. Which they weren’t. “I’m not sure it occurred to you that… well. Never mind.”
Ed shoved his hands into his pockets. The pants he’d borrowed-without-asking from Al were a little snug, too, because this was the only black pair—which he’d bought himself, for Al, before Al had put some of the appropriate meat back on his bones. Al had gamely worn it for a while as he worked on the meat problem, but he was one of those people who was obsessed with purchasing things in an unreasonable variety of different colors. All of the other leftover slacks were shades of cream or beige or gray that Ed was guaranteed to spill all over and have to alchemize clean later tonight, so he was stuck with slightly-too-tight clothes there, too.
“How many times,” he said, “do I have to tell you that ‘never mind’ never works?”
Roy smirked. Ed was holding onto that damn expression like a lifeline of familiarity lately.
“Evidently,” Roy said, “at least one more.”
Ed rolled his eyes until he expected to be able to see the inside of his own skull. “This place better be good, Mustang.”
It was good. It was spectacular. Which was, of its own merit, awesome; but was, on the other hand, one less thing for him to hold over Roy later on, so that was a mixed bag.
The excellent food—excellent enough that Ed stopped on the sidewalk outside, despite the agonizing renewed assault of the cold on every centimeter of his miserable frame, to look at the signage and the location so that he could remember it for when Al got back—aside, the rest of it was bizarrely good, too. The experience was good. The conversation was good. The company was good.
Maybe Ed had finally frozen some of his gray matter this week. That would explain it.
It couldn’t just be that Roy was easy to talk to, after all. It couldn’t be that him asking how Al was doing was great, and then his interest in the research work that Ed had been doing was genuine, and then his suggestions were thoughtful and helpful and cool—
It couldn’t be that a mere half-decade had transmuted the activity of spending time with Roy from an unimaginable trial worth epic novels and tragic odes into something… kind of nice.
Kind of really nice.
There were plenty of alternative explanations. Tons. Volumes full. Pages upon pages of rational explanations for the way that the center of Ed’s chest was warmer than the rest of him—basic thermodynamics, probably. It was insulated. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the way that Roy raised his eyebrows first every time before he smiled, and it enhanced the sweet, harmless Dork Factor by a power of ten.
“Are you ready to venture into a special hell of my own making?” Roy asked.
That was less sweet and less harmless, though still dorky as all get-out.
“Born ready,” Ed said.
Roy’s offhanded descriptions of the place had sketched out an image in Ed’s head of a tiny, cozy little pub-style joint with a booth or two and a little bar and some low lights.
What he got was a staggeringly opulent cabaret-ready place all done up in rich golds and emerald-greens and carnelian-reds—which he got the sense were theme colors in other seasons, too, since the velvet booth seats and the chandeliers and the whole place was done up with tinsel and garlands and holly and big red satin bows on top of the rest of it.
Roy, gazing at the interior from where they’d paused by the coatrack, with Roy’s gloved right hand hovering just behind Ed’s shoulder-blade, said only, “Oh, dear.”
Ed wasn’t even sure how many people were in there, but he was sure he didn’t want them to see him starting to sweat from the combination of the intense warmth in here and the more-than-slight trepidation about what he was in for, after Roy’s repeated warnings.
Trying to extricate himself from the mass of warming layers, neither dropping his gift nor elbowing Roy in an unfortunate spot with his metal elbow in the process, proved just the sort of dexterity challenge that Ed usually dreaded. Winry would cry with joy at the rotations he was putting the automail through, but he was starting to wonder if there were single coats that were as thick as two, and maybe came with scarves attached with snaps or buttons or something, so that you could get one item of clothing to do the work of multiple, and you’d only have to yank off one thing once you got inside, rather than feeling like you were slowly de-mummifying yourself every time you stepped in out of the frozen hell—
A monument of a woman sauntered over, pausing in the doorway to take a long drag off of her cigarette. “Well?” she said.
“Merry Christmas, Madame,” Roy said, smoothly going right in for the one-armed hug—it was a quick one, but tight; none of that weak-limbed insincere crap Ed got sometimes. You could always tell when someone felt societally obligated to hug you rather than when they really wanted to, which just enforced Ed’s already sturdy belief that people needed to stop bullshitting and just say what they felt. In the meantime, though, Roy was extracting a shiny bottle from a paper bag and offering it.
“My, oh, my,” the woman said. “I must have been good this year. News to me.”
“Santa works in mysterious ways,” Roy said.
“Obviously,” the woman said. “How else would the likes of you walk in with this?”
It took Ed an embarrassingly long second to process the fact that she was gesturing to… him.
“Chris Mustang, sweetheart,” she said, holding out a hand, which helped a little to quiet the fritzing noises in his brain—but not enough to stop him from forgetting that automatically reaching out and shaking with the right hand was going to spill one of his secrets out across the floor right off the bat. The slightest shift of the corners of her eyes made it clear she’d felt the automail, but her face didn’t change at all—if he’d had any doubt before, now he was sure as hell that she was a Mustang. “To whom do I owe the pleasure and the apology?”
“If bashing Roy’s a regular pastime around here,” he said, “someone who’s gonna move in.”
“I’ll roll a bed out,” Madame Christmas said. “How many blankets?”
“Every one you’ve got,” Ed said.
Roy cleared his throat, loud enough that it probably hurt. “This is Ed,” he said. “Whom I told you about.”
“Oh, shit,” Ed said, realizing far too late that swearing in front of your date’s mother at her Christmas party was probably frowned upon. At least he had a little box to offer. He’d even made an effort to wrap it, which had mostly ended in tape, tears, and frustration, but the thought had to count. “Here.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Christmas said. “Isn’t putting up with my greatly-maligned lovable lunk gift enough?”
She took it, so obviously he should have, but there were parts of the script that you couldn’t really skip without confusing most people, so Ed wasn’t going to hold it against her.
“I figured that demographically speaking, practically everybody likes chocolate,” Ed said. “Which means that even if you don’t, you can, like, regift it or something. Y’know.”
Christmas was grinning in a way that was again eerily reminiscent of Roy for reasons Ed couldn’t pin down—something in the angle of it, possibly; definitely something in the intent. Something in the amused-predator tilt, which couldn’t be suppressed even by the cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth.
“I’d heard you were smart,” she said.
Roy cleared his throat. “That’s a bit of an underst—”
“But I had some trouble believing it given you were dating him,” she said, jerking her free thumb at Roy.
“Madame,” Roy said. “It’s Christmas. Can you save crucifying me for Easter?”
She reached out and patted his cheek—just too fast for him to writhe away. “Not a chance, dear. Come on in, both of you—sit down. Can I get you anything?”
“How about a stiff drink and a cab ride home?” Roy asked. His hand really did settle on Ed’s left shoulder this time, which set them both to following Christmas at a pace Ed probably would have described as tentative if he hadn’t seen Roy Mustang take on purportedly indestructible alchemically-sustained monsters without batting an annoyingly long, thick eyelash.
“One of those things you can have,” Christmas said. “How about you, Sunshine?”
The pause made it evident that, yet again, Ed was supposed to be the subject—object?—of that sentence.
“Uh,” he said. “I’m okay. Thank you.”
Al would’ve been so proud.
They didn’t even make it four steps into the room before a rush of taffeta flung itself at them—Ed ducked out of the way in the nick of time, but Roy ended up with two arms full of a squealing woman with long brown hair.
“You told me you weren’t coming!” she said, drawing back far enough to bat a hand at Roy’s chest, which nearly knocked his scarf off of him.
“I told you I was thinking about it,” Roy said.
“Exactly!” she said. “With you, that means ‘no’!”
This felt eerily reminiscent of a conversation with Winry.
“Slander,” Roy said, prying her off of his torso and setting both hands on her shoulders to look at her. “A vision, as always. How could I possibly miss an opportunity t—”
“Who’s this?” she asked, beaming at Ed.
“Edward Elric,” Roy said. “Previously the F—”
“Oh, the boyfriend!” she said. “Mom told us.”
Roy grimaced. “Of course she did. Ed—this is Vanessa. Despite appearances of being merely the staggeringly beautiful bane of my existence, she is, in fact, the staggeringly beautiful bane of my existence and also one of the single finest contacts in the network. In addition to wh—”
“So,” she said, beaming at them, “how long have you two been together?”
As far as Ed knew, there were two primary ways to bullshit: the first was smooth, confident, plausible lies; and the second was blithe, deliberate vagueness.
Unfortunately, he and Roy had studied at different schools, and there wasn’t time to split the difference.
“Five months,” Roy said, in the same instant Ed said, “Forever.”
There was a long pause. Roy was pressing his lips together in the way that betrayed that he was trying not to laugh, the shit.
“Is it?” Ed managed. “It, uh… it sure feels like forever.”
“And to think,” Roy said, “I was going to take you out for a nice dinner to celebrate six months. Now I’m going to take you out and deposit you into a very small trashcan.”
“Oh, boy,” Vanessa said. “There goes Roy ‘Perpetual Bachelor’ Mustang again, showing us all how to charm ’em and keep ’em.”
Roy slung an arm around Ed’s waist, and the draw of it wasn’t hard or fast or anything—but all the same, Ed swung right in against his side, and their hips bumped together, and the outline of Roy’s fingertips resting under his ribs felt like an imprint, and it was—
It was… not nearly as bad as it should have been.
“Why, Vanessa,” Roy was saying. “You’ve pinned me to the cork board. I’m mortally wounded. Woe. Just out of curiosity—where’s your gorgeous young blond date?”
Her triumph collapsed instantly into a scowl that looked eerily like Roy’s why are you making me do things pout even though their actual facial features were nothing alike. This whole place was a head trip.
“Smartass,” she said. “Fine—rub it in. See if I care.”
“Delighted to be of service,” Roy said brightly. He hadn’t let go of Ed.
And that made sense, obviously—if Roy had drawn back like he’d been burned the instant he didn’t need the gesture to make a point, the jig would be well and truly up; everyone would realize they were faking, and… presumably the ridicule would redouble, and Ed would no longer be entitled to free drinks, and everyone would go home unhappy.
But it was… weird. Was all. Winry usually just grabbed onto Ed’s hand—frequently the right one—and dragged him all over town so that they’d been seen together, and then bought him ice cream. The getting dragged around part was fun when it wasn’t too blisteringly hot, because it was just hanging out with Winry; and the ice cream part was awesome, because the one thing other than automail that Rush Valley had perfected was its cold desserts.
This was different, though. This was very close, and very warm, and very… soft wasn’t the word. Roy wasn’t soft; most people were in some places, and probably he was no exception there, but skeletons weren’t soft, and the side of Roy’s hip sure wasn’t, and he hadn’t wrapped his arm especially tight, but Ed could still feel every inch of it radiating heat where it draped against his back.
It was really intimate, was what it was.
Enough that it felt bewilderingly real.
Wasn’t there a logic game in that? A chicken-and-the-egg argument or something? Did committing the actions that a person with the feelings you were emulating would have undertaken reflect back through your psyche and make you feel the very thing you were trying to convince others that you felt?
Ed looked up—swallowing one of an endless supply of damn its at the inevitable fact of having to—at Roy and said, “Can you be of service making me a drink?”
“That,” Roy said, and the arm around his waist slipped away, but then Roy was catching his hand— “I can definitely do.”
Shit. Roy holding his hand—his left hand, for the record, not that the record was helping, not that anyone or anything could save him from this disaster he’d dived into willingly—felt very different from Winry doing the same thing. That was… weird. That was weird and a bad sign, and he probably needed to be concerned about it, rather than looking down at Roy’s hand and appreciating his grip, and the curve of his wrist, and how warm his fingers were because he’d only just taken the gloves off, and…
Worse still—Roy spun him just slightly as they approached the bar, so that he instinctively did a disgustingly cute little twirl-thing in the process of dropping down to sit on one of the stools. It was a Mustang-style miracle that he didn’t miss the seat, twist up his ankles, tumble to the floor, and crack his head open on the hardwood, but these days he’d take whatever kinds of miracles he could get.
“What can I do for you, darling?” Roy asked, sidling behind the bar.
“Never call me that again if you want to live,” Ed said.
Roy looked at him.
Ed started the grin out real slow and extra savage.
Roy bit his lip, but not fast enough to stop the laugh from breaking through it and out of him, bright and genuine.
This was skyrocketing up the chart towards the top of the list of the worst ideas Ed had ever had. Was there a back door out of this place? Maybe he could shout “Look, a diversion!”, dart into the hall, roll over his shoulder, fling himself out into a backalley, hotwire a car, figure out how to drive, disappear into the night, change his phone number, change his name—
“Didn’t I warn you about the pet names?” Roy asked. He crouched down to start sorting through clinky glass things on the shelf underneath the bar, so he missed the start of Ed’s glare. He caught the tail end as he got up to scour the shelves behind the bar next, by which time Ed had worked it up to a good smolder. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’. Maybe I can make it up to you.”
“Good luck,” Ed said.
“Tough crowd,” Roy said. He’d assembled what looked, to Ed’s admittedly unpracticed eye, like a very eclectic collection of bottles, as well as a relatively small empty glass. It didn’t stay empty long—Roy leapt right into the showy bartender routine, swift and sure-handed as ever, snatching up one bottle after the other and tipping just a fraction of the contents of each into Ed’s prospective drink. Somehow there was always a bottle in his fingers; they switched constantly but somehow never seemed to leave his hands.
Ed managed to pry his gaze away from the mesmerizing gleam of the filigreed labels and the shining glass long enough to notice that Roy’s eyes were every bit as intent as when he did alchemy, which was to say—
Fucking breathtaking, if Ed was being honest. Which, incidentally, he didn’t ever want to do again for as long as he lived.
“What are you making?” Ed managed, trying to force his lungs to operate normally before that bastard caught him gaping like a beached fish.
“Not sure yet,” Roy said. “But with any luck, it’ll taste all right.”
“Mustang,” Ed said. “Have you met me?”
“Once or twice,” Roy said.
“I have the worst luck of anyone in the known universe,” Ed said.
“That’s not entirely true,” Roy said. “You sometimes get good things when it really counts.”
Ed looked at him.
Roy was either finished spraying weird shit into Ed’s glass or committed enough to the sentence that he’d just uttered to take a break, because his hands went still, and he looked back, completely serious now.
“We made it, didn’t we?” he said. “Al’s doing well enough to jaunt off to foreign countries and leave you to my questionable mercy. The world has continued to turn, and we’re still turning with it.”
“At an approximate speed of a thousand miles per hour,” Ed said, because his regular facilities had malfunctioned, and his autopilot setting was a piece of shit.
Roy’s smile made his stomach acid bubble. What the fuck?
“Precisely,” Roy said. He pushed the glass across the bar to Ed. It was… turquoise, but with a should-have-been-impossible swirl of sparkly silver shit. “Brand-new, never before tasted, possibly dangerous—which is appropriate, because I’m calling it the Fullmetal. Give it a try.”
“If this thing kills me,” Ed said, cautiously taking up the glass, “my vengeful ghost is gonna haunt your ass forever.”
Roy grinned. “I’d be dreadfully disappointed by anything less.”
Ed sniffed the surface of the drink, which was… unilluminating. It had a tiny bit of that alcohol tang—which always made him want to peel off the inside of his esophagus when the taste hit the back of his throat—but not too much. It was very, very difficult to keep an eye on Roy and enjoy the way that the silver bits were swooshing around at the same time.
“Am I supposed to sip it or chug it?” he asked. “Is that a stupid question?”
“Of course not,” Roy said. “It is a practical but inexperienced question, which is the opposite. You can do whichever you prefer, though I think I’d recommend trying it with a sip to make sure it’s not liable to choke you on the way down.”
Ed went back to glaring at him. He was good at it, for one thing.
“Ah,” Roy said. “That… didn’t quite come out the way I intended. I assure you it’s perfectly safe.”
“I mean,” Ed said, “ethanol is poison. On a technical level. Like, that’s the entire point.”
“What’s in here, anyway?” Ed asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Roy said. “I think it’s fairly light on the alcohol content, though.”
“Real fuckin’ encouraging,” Ed said.
Roy was pulling out the smirk on him, which was not fair, and he had to know it. “I thought you liked a challenge.”
Ed turned the glare up until it had swooped right past glowering and settled solidly in the middle of the evil eye category.
Then he picked up the glass, steeled himself, and took a huge swallow.
Or at least not as bad as he’d expected-slash-feared. Not nearly that bad, actually—what of it he could taste, anyway, since he’d more or less gulped it in the hopes of stopping the weird dry-burn-bitter taste from coating his throat.
“Huh,” he said.
“That sounded neutral,” Roy said. “Possibly even positive.”
“Maybe,” Ed said. He took another sip—smaller this time—and let it sit on his tongue for a second before he swallowed it. “Do they marinate fruit in vodka to get flavors like this, or what?”
“More or less,” Roy said. “Is it growing on you?”
“My liver is growing in me,” Ed said. “’Cause it’s getting such a workout.”
“I don’t think it’s quite that strong,” Roy said.
“You’re not drinking it,” Ed said.
Roy held his hand out, grinning, the absolute asshole. “May I?”
“That’s just like you,” Ed said, trying to making handing it to him without letting their fingers touch look as natural as possible. “Give me something for free and then immediately take it back.”
Roy had the audacity to look offended as he accepted the glass. “When have I ever done that?”
“I dunno,” Ed said. “I’m sure I can think of a time. Or make one up. Are you gonna drink my drink or not?”
Roy sighed. He sipped it. He made a thoughtful face. He sipped it again. He frowned.
Then he handed it back.
“Science has gone too far,” he said.
“Science?” Ed said. “What the hell does this have to do with science? You’ve gone too far. Own it.”
“All right,” Roy said, gamely enough. “I’ve gone too far. It’s good, though. Peppy.”
“Not the word I would’ve used,” Ed said, “but I guess so.”
“Someday, when you’re very bored,” Roy said, “I’m going to introduce you to the art of wine bottle label dramatic readings.”
“Everything you read is a dramatic reading,” Ed said.
Roy pressed his lips together—subtly, but if you were used to looking for the little clues, that was a dead giveaway that he was trying not to laugh.
Ed tried sniffing the drink again now that he’d tasted it—if “tasted” was the right word for receiving that caliber of an assault on the senses—to see if he could identify any of the components. That was probably an alchemy hangover, but at least it was preferable to the kind that this shit would give him.
Tentatively, he sipped it again, trying to watch Roy as he did, which was a feat of dexterity that wasn’t quite in him, even after almost a decade of doing his best to monitor Mustang’s every move.
“Is that… there’s something beachy in it,” he said. The fact that he knew that despite never having laid eyes on a beach was a different problem, and he wasn’t planning to let it distract from the issue at hand, in glass.
“Coconut,” Roy said, with the start of another one of those apocalyptic grins.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “The blue is—tastes like—just sugar. And a tiny bit of… is it an orange or something? Oranges aren’t blue.”
Despite intensive competition, that was among the stupidest things he’d ever had to say.
“It’s a very particular variety,” Roy said, “which sells better with food coloring, I’m afraid.”
“There’s lemon, too,” Ed said. “Or maybe it’s just a real sour not-orange. Or…” The truly insidious thing was that he had to keep drinking it to be able to figure out what the fuck he was drinking. He was nearing the bottom now, and his head was starting to get… floaty. “Am I even allowed to drink the glitter?”
“It’s safe,” Roy said. He paused before adding, as innocently as possible, “As far as I know.”
“You are something fuckin’ else,” Ed said, but he’d buried it in one of the last sips in the glass—which suddenly choked him so hard that he couldn’t believe his shoulders weren’t shaking right out of his skin. “What the fuck is that?”
“White chili powder,” Roy said, somehow even more innocently than before—or maybe that was the way Ed’s eyes were blurring from the coughing fit. “I couldn’t exactly name a drink after you if it didn’t kick your ass when you least expected it.”
Ed stared at him.
Then Ed glared at him.
Then Ed held up the glass, with the last few murky sips sloshing around in the bottom.
“Is that why you put it in a little glass?” he asked.
It was, evidently, Roy’s turn to stare.
Then he snatched the glass out of Ed’s hand, ducked behind the counter so swiftly that Ed’s instinct was to stand up and look for him, and immediately returned—this time bearing a significantly taller glass, which the remnants of Ed’s drink had been poured into.
“What the hell is that?” Ed said.
“A full pint,” Roy said. “Because I can think of so many better ways to die.”
Ed wanted to comment on how it was good that he’d turned up a larger container, since Ed was now going to shove it directly up his ass, but he had to swallow down a laugh first, and his skull was doing the preliminary spinny thing, which was exactly why he didn’t fucking drink. Words were hard enough when you were sober, and your head was screwed on tight.
“Hey, boyo,” Christmas said, appearing from nowhere to lean on the end of the bar before Ed could find something suitably cutting to throw back in Roy’s stupid face. “They’re here. You can have more eye-sex later; I need to borrow you for a minute.”
“Alas,” Roy said, depositing the pint glass in front of Ed. “Filial duty calls.”
“Lucky,” Ed said.
Roy flashed him a blinding grin. “I usually am.”
“Not for long,” Christmas said, grabbing his sleeve and hauling on it, which solidified Ed’s burgeoning instinct to like her a lot.
“Roy’s boyfriend!” someone cried. It took Ed a long second—could he blame the blue-orange-liquor for that?—to realize that that address was meant for him and turn to look towards its origin. Another pretty girl in a pretty dress was waving at him, then approaching him, then—
Pulling him down off of the stool, linking her arm through his, and dragging him over to one of the booth tables while a second girl ladled something dark purple and steaming into a copper mug.
“Here,” the ladling one said, pushing the mug at him. “Can’t have Christmas without mulled wine. Or at least not a Christmas Christmas. Welcome to the family; we’re all alcoholics.”
“That’s not funny,” the first girl said.
They’d sandwiched Ed in between them on the curved bench seat; he was trapped. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no mannerly way to refuse the warm copper cup.
At least it was warm.
It was not, however, palatable—probably it would be to anyone who didn’t hate wine past any reasonable measure, but Ed prided himself on his unique sense of taste, after all. If the mulled part referred to the spices and fruit or whatever the hell they’d put into it, he was fine with mulled things, but wine had always tasted to him like gone-off grapes and crap.
“Um,” he said, raising the cup and trying to steel himself for another sip of it, “thanks. This is—real nice. Thank you.”
“Oh, my God,” the first girl said. “You’re so precious. Can we keep you? I’m telling him to keep you.”
The booze was also making it way harder for Ed to control the blood vessels in his face, which had staged a mutiny. His ears were probably even red. Awesome. “Oh—uh—”
“I’m pretty sure that’s the plan, Cass,” the second girl said. “Has he ever brought anybody to family Christmas before? This must be pretty serious.”
Was it way too hot in here, or was it just the mulled gone-off-grape-juice? “Uh—”
“Sorry!” the first girl—Cass, for… Cassandra?—said. “We’re always way too personal, but especially when we’ve had a few, and… you know how it is. It’s just that we worry about him, you know?”
“Right,” Ed said, helplessly.
“He’s got a talent for pretending that he wants to be alone,” the second girl said. “And a talent for scaring people off. And a talent for being married to his work.”
“I noticed that part,” Ed managed.
“Yeah,” Cass said, sighing and swilling her mulled-thing. “He’s a disaster. But we love him.”
“Sounds about right,” Ed said.
Right on cue, the back door slammed open, a cold wind swept in through it, and the tip of a good-sized fir tree followed the weather. Fortunately, the tree wasn’t entirely unattended: Madame Christmas had a grip on the trunk near the top, and, as she hauled it through the doorway behind her, Ed could see that Roy was carrying the other end.
“Oh, sh—jeez—” Instinctively, compelled like he’d been burnt, Ed tried to get up, but obviously there was a table in the way, in addition to which he was penned in. Fortunately, Cass got the hint without him having to articulate it—which would have taken him a minute at the rate he was going—and slipped off of the end of the bench seat so that he could wrangle himself off of it. It wasn’t until he was up that the vertigo caught him; when he latched on to the edge of the booth with his right hand so that he wouldn’t stumble, he realized he still had the mug of mulled wine clutched in his left. “Can I—do you need help?”
“No, no, no,” Christmas said. “Sit down and take it easy, Sunshine; we’re just fine.”
“Ed’s stronger than I am,” Roy said, calmly, which… was debatable, likely, depending on exactly how you defined it, or the metrics you used to measure, or—
“That may well be true,” Christmas said, guiding them around an inopportunely-placed table, “but he’s a guest.”
“And he’s tipsy,” Christmas said.
Ed opened his mouth to protest, remembered that this woman ran a bar for a living and could probably estimate a person’s BAC from a glimpse of them walking half a mile away, and shut it again.
“Poor dear,” Cass said. “We’re clearly not working hard enough.”
“We’re going to get disowned if he’s still standing at the end of the night,” the other girl said.
“It’s really okay,” Ed said. He wasn’t sure if that was what they were asking, but—whatever. Vague courtesy rarely went wrong. “Thank you for…” He raised the copper mug and then scrambled after Roy in case maybe they’d let him help set the tree up.
He was, as it happened, a bit tipsy—not yet tipsy enough to have tipped over and planted his face on the floor, but walking evenly and in a relatively straight line required a substantial portion of his concentration, and by the time he’d made it over to the metal tree stand, Roy and his mother had already hiked the thing up, aided by a few other guys that Ed hadn’t noticed before, who might be real-boyfriends.
Roy was dusting his hands off. Ed was paying too much attention to Roy’s hands again. He paid attention to the fact that the chill the tree had brought into the room with it was threatening his susceptible bones again and tried to combat it with a deep draught of the mulled wine.
The mulled wine had remained warm. It had also remained crap.
By the time he was done shuddering, Roy had come over and… slid an arm around his shoulders. He was so damn smooth about it that by the time you noticed he was moving, he’d already settled it in place, and there was something weirdly comforting about the weight.
“I was hoping they wouldn’t spring on you quite so fast,” Roy was saying as Ed stared into the surface of the wine, like maybe it would yield up some answers to questions like What they said has to be true, doesn’t it? He could have gotten a different date. He could have had his pick. Why would he have resorted to this except if he’s just so tired of letting down people that he actually wants? “I think that’s a new record, even for them. Are you doing all right? I’ve already failed at protecting you from the spirit-mongers, I’m afraid, and that was half the bargain.”
“Fine,” Ed said. The wine did not have any answers, or even any commentary—which was unsurprising, since it was, after all, crap. “S’okay, just—” He glanced sideways to make sure no one was close enough to hear them, then pushed the mug at Roy. “Can you finish this? I just—I hate wine, but it’d be rude as hell to leave it when they gave it to me to be nice, and—”
“Of course,” Roy said, taking it, kind of gently, and his voice was gentle, too, and that just—made it worse. Was what that did. He smelled like pine tree; like nature and the crisp snow-laden air outside and woodsmoke and Christmas. “Are you all right?” He stepped back, freeing his hand to rise and stroke Ed’s hair back from his forehead, and that was not—not okay, not even close to— “We don’t have to stay much longer if you’d rather n—”
“S’fine,” Ed said, biting down on the inside of his lip so that he wouldn’t squirm away from the touch. It was fine. Everything was fine. Roy was just—playing along. He was good at it. He was a good actor; always had been; he’d saved all their asses with it back in the day. “Just—”
“Here,” Roy said, darting over to one of the other tables and then back, having grabbed up something from the basket sitting in the center. He lifted it up for scrutiny; it looked like a little chocolate biscuit. There were tiny peppermint flakes sprinkled on the top. He was holding it out— “To get the taste of the wine out of your mouth?”
“Jeez,” Ed said. “You are a fucking genius strategist.”
That had come out much more forthright than an un-wine-plied Edward Elric ever would have permitted, but he supposed it was too late now.
Roy looked delighted.
And that was—
Wrong. That was wrong, because this was supposed to be fake. None of the emotions were meant to matter. It was supposed to be casual—just one idiot doing another idiot a stupid favor, and then they’d both wash their hands of it and pretend it’d never happened, and Ed would get to read a bunch of Roy’s books. That was it.
There wasn’t supposed to be delight in it. There wasn’t supposed to be this churn of silky warmth in Ed’s stomach, twining itself up tighter and tighter into some sort of impregnable, throbbing knot. There wasn’t supposed to be a soft-winged beat of terror in the back of his throat that Roy was doing this on purpose—to himself, primarily. That Roy had brought Ed so that he wouldn’t have to bring someone he might accidentally invest in, who wouldn’t like it and wouldn’t want him. That Roy was doing his absolute damnedest to sabotage himself and stay alone.
And there wasn’t—
And it wasn’t supposed to—
It wasn’t supposed to hurt, because Ed didn’t care; of course Ed didn’t care; Roy was just—
He was past this kind of shit—above it, metaphorically speaking and otherwise; he had moved the fuck on. He had busted his ass one last time, wading into unfamiliar waters full of leeches and eels and contagion, and built himself a life, brick by goddamn brick, where he didn’t have to rely on anyone. He’d clawed self-sufficiency out of the shadowed grasp of utter obscurity—made something he never would’ve dreamed of, back in the day, because he hadn’t known anything like normalcy was possible. He’d constructed this, the hard way, one little struggle at a time. It still wasn’t easy—he was starting to accept that it never would be; that there’d be new hills to climb and curse and decide whether or not to die on every single day. But he’d done it. He’d gotten this far. He’d made this.
He did not need Roy’s bullshit. He did not need Roy.
He didn’t need anyone.
That was the point.
Who the hell did Roy think he was, shoving his nose and his fingers and his chocolate-peppermint cookies and his smothered pain into that? Ed hadn’t swooned over that stupid face and even stupider eyes or those equally stupid hands in five solid years, and he’d be damned if he started again right now.
Fuck Roy for doing this to both of them. Couldn’t he have just—asked some nice girl to play the part? He probably knew tons of actresses; he’d used to go to plays all the time. They probably threw their phone numbers at him during the curtain call while they were doing the bows. Or maybe he would just go to the back stage door with his playbill and hand it around, and they’d all sign their numbers instead of their names—
It shouldn’t have been Ed, was the thing. It shouldn’t have been Ed, because they’d both had to work so damn hard to be friends, after all of it; to be warm, cordial more-than-acquaintances and try to set aside everything they’d done and been in the days before Ed quit the military and started construction on the fragile bastion of a life he’d set out to build.
And—Roy had to know, didn’t he? Roy had made it his business—his trademark—to know everything about everyone all the goddamn time. He had to know, because not knowing would defy his very essence as a human being. He had to know that Ed had fucking burned for him, in those days, like a fever that wouldn’t dull and wouldn’t cool and wouldn’t break. Diseased. Hallucinations and wild dreams and a pulsing tang of miasma in the back of his mouth, but he’d swallowed it—the years had finally worn the worst of it away, and he could handle it now; he could wrangle it under control and tie it down and lock it in a forgotten little cupboard where it belonged. He’d filled the space with other people until the emptiness didn’t eat away at him anymore, and then he’d just let it stay empty, and that was fine. He was over it. It was done.
Except, apparently, when Roy was making sweet-as-shit little gestures that involved chocolate and an unprecedented sort of softness in his eyes.
The bastard. The absolute bastard—he knew what he looked like; he knew what he did. Why had he started this? Why had he dragged Ed into this wolf den in the first place? His own family members were weepy at the mere prospect that he’d open up enough to bring somebody, anybody, to an event like this—why use Ed as the diversion when he could’ve brought somebody so much less obtrusive? Any girl in the world would’ve leapt at the opportunity; and Ed was evidence that a substantial portion of the non-female populace would follow suit; Roy could’ve hand-picked someone subtle and believable but nondescript, so that if she gave up on him two weeks later, no one would remember enough about her to be sad. Roy was smart like that. And he wouldn’t be a total shitheel about it; he’d be nice to her, probably, and make the two weeks good even if he was such a lost cause—
Which Ed wasn’t sure he believed, anyway. Had any of these people actually met Roy? He was the least-lost cause—he was one of the foundest people Ed had ever butted heads with, and that was a long list, and—
“Or are you not fond of mint?” Roy asked, and he was drawing his hand back, and Ed managed, “Nah, s’good, just—”
Roy was hesitating, hand hanging in the air between them. “Just…?”
“Nothing,” Ed said.
He tried to lean forward, target the cookie, and eye Roy suspiciously at the same time, which turned out to be every bit as impossible as he’d expected. It resulted in peppermint flakes smeared on his cheek before he could adjust his trajectory enough to get some chocolate into his mouth—which he hadn’t expected, and which was startling.
“Whoops,” Roy said, trying not to laugh, which made it significantly worse. “Hang on—”
“You hang on,” Ed said, reaching up to grab the stupid-gorgeous wrist, so that at least it would stay steady while he shifted forward and nipped a proper bite of the stupid cookie so that he could tip the rest into his mouth after it. “There,” he said.
Tasted a hell of a lot nicer than the wine, but likely so did a substantial proportion of the contents of the average sewer.
“Don’t move,” Roy said. His hand—which was probably chocolaty, the shit—settled on the side of Ed’s neck, which was pricklingly immediate, and then—
Tilting his head, moving way too close, and—
Kissing the scattered fragments of peppermint off of the corner of Ed’s mouth.
Ed’s brain slammed on the brakes.
Not like that. Not like that—not that cute; not that close; not that fucking real—
He was not going to be used that way. Not tonight. Not to save Roy’s ego from his mother. Not for fucking anybody.
Ed was not shaking. He was not, and he would not.
He curled his fist into Roy’s waistcoat, holding him captive before he could draw away and then dragging him in until their heads were side-by-side—close enough to speak just above a whisper into his ear.
“Don’t,” he said. It was easier to keep his voice steady when it was low like this anyway. “Don’t—do that.”
Roy went very, very still, and the length of the silence meant he was thinking quick. Bastard. Always had to be two steps ahead; always had to know everything, everybody, inside and out.
“I’m sorry,” he said, so softly Ed couldn’t hear a single damn emotion off of it, which didn’t help at all.
“Don’t be sorry,” Ed said. “Just don’t do it.”
“Won’t happen again,” Roy said. It was the lightness—his voice was light like clean sheets drying on a line, with the sun pouring and the breeze rippling right on through them. It was so unoffensive and unrevealing that Ed couldn’t help feeling a touch of awe. How did he control his voice like that? That kind of precision was a weapon all on its own.
Ed tugged on his captured fistful of waistcoat and then released it. He tried to resist the urge to swallow, but the alcohol had fogged up his head, and impulses just kept getting the best of him before he could reassess his options.
“Okay,” he said.
Roy was stepping back, face wiped blanker than a clean chalkboard again, and then reaching into the chest pocket of his waistcoat—without ever breaking eye contact with Ed for a fraction of a second to look at what he was doing—and withdrawing a white linen handkerchief. Because of course he was.
“May I?” he asked, lifting it just enough to make the act of raising it double as a gesture towards the remaining thrice-damned specks of sticky peppermint on Ed’s face.
Ed swallowed again. He was trying to weigh his options, trying to ground himself in rationality—but the scale kept wobbling, and his head kept twirling, and the tingle of other people’s eyes on them was almost as bad as the one he’d been getting from the cold this entire week. He was realizing—much too late, but better than never, he supposed—that he really did not like Christmas parties at all.
“Okay,” Ed said.
Roy didn’t move.
“I mean it,” Ed said.
Slowly, leaving ample time for Ed to jerk back or shy away or whatever the hell the bastard thought that either he or a spooked horse would do in this situation, Roy reached in and carefully dabbed the smudged evidence of kiss and peppermint off of Ed’s cheek.
“When you’re done flirting, dear,” Madame Christmas said—honestly, Ed was shocked nobody had recruited her to do announcements at sports games yet; she had a voice like a bullhorn when she wanted to; “would you like to help decorate the murdered foliage?”
“Well,” Roy said, turning slowly, and his raised hand dropped from Ed’s face to brush against his shoulder in what was probably meant to be a reassuring way while the other lifted the mulled wine mug at the perfect time to take a sip and half-shield his expression. “I suppose it’s traditional.” His unencumbered arm migrated up, deposited the handkerchief back in its pocket of origin, and then extended towards Ed again—where it paused, opened in the air, for him to decide whether to step into the embrace.
He was stuck here, wasn’t he? They were stuck here together; Roy had gotten them into this, sure, but Ed had agreed to it, like the idiot he was. He had to sell it. Roy wasn’t the only one who had walked in here on false pretenses, and Ed was the only one who’d done it as a guest.
He shuffled two steps to his right to fit his shoulders under Roy’s waiting arm.
“Can we con you into assisting?” Roy asked, all grace and dignity without even the slightest trace of panic about the long moment of uncertainty before Ed had responded to the gesture.
“Uh,” Ed said. It wasn’t the biggest fir he’d ever seen somebody cram into their living space or place of business, especially since all of the banks in Central seemed to have a pissing contest going about it, but it was respectable at any rate. “Maybe. What does ‘assisting’ mean?”
Madame Christmas held up a billiards cue, around the tip of which she’d looped a long string of tinsel. With a calm sort of deftness that spoke both to considerable practice and the relation to Roy, she used the stick to hook the end of the tinsel strand on one of the branches near the top of the tree, then started to guide the rest of it down in a loose spiral.
“Whatever you want it to mean, Sunshine,” she said.
One of the pretty women—Ed was fairly sure this was one he hadn’t met yet—sauntered by and pushed a cardboard box at Roy, who had to set the wine aside and release Ed’s captive torso in order to take it.
“Enjoy,” the woman said.
“Oh, good,” Roy said, gazing in. “The humiliation box survived another year.”
Maybe this party was looking up after all. Ed peeked at the contents—as far as he could tell, they amounted to little more or less than a bizarre jumble of poorly-crafted ornaments.
“Did you make these?” Ed asked, reaching in to grab for what looked like a small animal sculpted by someone who had never either seen an animal or attempted to shape clay before.
“Yes,” Roy said. He nodded to the modestly-sized monstrosity in Ed’s hands. “That was the first thing I made with alchemy. It’s a mustang. I’m sure that was going to be your first guess.”
“Obviously,” Ed said, turning it over. “Lines are pretty good—clean, y’know. I think mine was a dog.”
He blinked down at the object he was holding, then up at Roy.
“Fitting,” Roy said.
“Something like that,” Ed said. “Can I put this on the tree?”
Roy smiled. That was the worst part—he was just so…
Decent. Nice. Something. Him.
“Go right ahead,” he said.
Ed considered the possibilities, averaged a few, and then crossed to the tree and hung the little horse from a sturdy branch front and center on the tree.
“There,” he said. “Place of honor.”
A glance confirmed that Roy, holding an old cardboard box in both arms, torn between chagrin and amusement, was still so damn stunning he’d be worth a stint in hell.
Any hell. Ed wasn’t picky. He’d tried a few.
This particular one was new, though. So far it didn’t rank on his list of favorites.
“You’re too kind,” Roy said.
“I know,” Ed said, coming back. “What other embarrassing crap you got in there?”
The answer, as it turned out, was several faded photographs in tiny handmade frames, half a dozen glass baubles with bits of ribbon and fake holly and glitter crammed inside, and an assortment of other children’s craft projects that should have been consigned to a much darker and more remote corner many years ago for the sake of all involved.
There were other ornaments, too—lots of nice, newer, classy kinds of ones, but Ed let Roy’s sisters deal with those. It was safer if someone else handled all of the glass stuff, whether or not those looked a lot prettier on the tree.
Besides, Ed couldn’t help sort of… loving it. Fond resignation was one of Roy’s most undeniably human expressions, and seeing tangible evidence of his past—of the life he’d had and the kid he’d been long before they’d ever butted heads over train tickets and silver watches and some nebulous notion of “the right thing to do”—solidified him personally in a way Ed had never realized that he’d been waiting for. Roy wasn’t an abstraction. He was a man. Sometimes decent, sometimes desperate, sometimes decadent.
Sometimes getting pulled away towards a standing piano, and having sheet music shoved in his face.
Ed lingered back by the bar, halfheartedly pretending to guard the mostly-empty boxes of decorations, as Roy let himself be dragged over and paused to massage at the thick white scars in the centers of his palms. He knitted his fingers together and flexed his hands a few times before he’d concede to sit on the little cushioned bench, and then he was testing the pedals and grazing his fingertips over the keys while the girls argued about which song to start with, and…
Ed couldn’t help watching, struck by a strange combination of fascination and… what? There was a sour taste behind it—something almost like resentment. He’d never had the slightest idea Roy was musically inclined. Surely that should have come up at some point. Surely they’d known each other long enough that Ed was worthy of that knowledge by now.
A deeper, fuller pang resonated under that—an old, familiar ache of jealousy. There were a few instruments you could coax into cooperating with automail, but the sensitive ones—the ones that made sounds that really tore into people’s hearts—wouldn’t yield up the same magic to fingers made of metal. It wasn’t that Ed had ever set his sights on becoming a musician, or anything, but to have the remotest chance of an opportunity stripped from his future without his consent—
There was something curious about it, too. Ed understood, obviously, in a rational sort of way, that a lot of people’s brains were assembled differently than his was. A lot of unerringly logical people liked to balance out the scale with creative activities of one variety or another, but he was rarely in a position to watch them in the process, and he hadn’t had so much as an inkling that Roy fell into that category. He was learning all kinds of remarkable things tonight.
Was Roy going to sing? Shit. That might just punt his brain right out of his skull once and for all. Damn thing already felt light and loosely-moored; one solid kick would send it sailing out into the stratosphere.
Tipsy as hell or otherwise, he could still feel someone coming up beside him—he didn’t have to hear footsteps over the ambient chatter and the clinking of glasses; a flicker of motion at the corner of his vision was enough, and he readied every muscle without tensing any of them visibly, and—
“You holding up all right, Sunshine?” Madame Christmas asked, leaning back against the bar next to him. “Alyssa likes her mulled wine real strong.”
“Oh,” Ed said, which was not helpful, followed by “I’m fine—thank you,” which was a better start. He couldn’t leave his host floundering in the wake of his awkwardness, forced to generate every topic of conversation—that was crap etiquette, wasn’t it? He had to think of something to say. The start of an uncertain, uneven melody, followed by a trill of laughter from the girls, a scowl from Roy, and a second attempt that sounded much cleaner… “I didn’t even… I didn’t know he could…”
Shit. He shouldn’t have said that. The stupid liquor was muddling his even more stupid head like nobody’s business—if they’d really been dating for five-months-or-forever, like they’d said, he’d have to know that, wouldn’t he? That was the sort of thing that people who were dating for more than four weeks at a maximum found out about each other. Right? Hell. Had he just blown it? Had he sold them out on accident in the process of trying not to look suspicious, and—
But Christmas just smiled thinly. She gestured towards the piano with her cigarette, and a tiny silver filament of smoke trailed her hand like an afterimage in a photograph.
“He plays a lot of things real close to the chest,” Christmas said. That much it was safe to say Ed did know about Roy. “And I think he believes—deep down, under all the fancy-pants intellect and the science logic and all of that—that the worst things about a man are all there is. Not just all that’s important, but all that exists. I think he tries to smother the rest of it—maybe he doesn’t feel entitled to it anymore; maybe he doesn’t feel like he’s allowed to be more than the parts of himself that he’s trying to make up for. Like that’s cheating, or something like that. Like anything that’s not done directly in the pursuit of redemption is a distraction or a denial of the fact that there’s something to work towards in the first place.” She took a long drag off the cigarette and blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling. “He was always real damn good at hide-and-seek.”
Ed suspected that saying Me, too would invite a comment about why he was the only kid in his class who’d been able to fit himself into the cabinet under the sink, so he bit that back.
“Yeah,” he said instead. “I guess it—I mean, it makes sense in a… tortured logic kind of way. In a damaged way. But it—” Roy had found his fingers; the keys of the piano, like just about everything else he tried to play, were singing avidly. “It’s a shame. I dunno.” Roy’s sisters were singing, too, equally avidly, and one had thrown an arm around his shoulders from either side, and a third was mussing up his hair; he tried to duck away but kept his hands on the keys, and the rhythm didn’t falter. Typical of him—any time someone accused him of malingering in the office, he’d blame it on an inability to multitask, but here he was. “He’s… you meet people sometimes, and you know they matter. He matters. But it’s like you said—he thinks he can only ever be… who he was, and what he was, back when he did all that shit. And—I mean—yeah, the past doesn’t die. It won’t ever go away, and that piece—that sort of stuff just lives in you forever. But it’s still… that’s why you have to be other stuff. Do other stuff. Make stuff, find stuff, help people. Atonement doesn’t always look like government policy or whatever—sometimes it’s—” He gestured, helplessly, to the laughing cluster at the piano. “I mean, why can’t it be this?”
She was quiet long enough that he glanced over at her, at which point she raised her eyebrows, smiling slightly.
“I think you’re gonna be good for him, Sunshine,” she said.
That dropped into the pit of his stomach like a hunk of frozen lead, to say the least.
“Yeah,” he managed, even though the cold was creeping upward in his chest, and he could already feel the prickle of it on the back of his tongue. “I hope so, anyway.”
“People need people,” Christmas said. “And my poor, pigheaded son…” She sighed. "He needs people he can trust—not just in the I’d throw myself into a frozen lake to pull you out if you fell in sort of way, though I figure that can’t hurt.”
Ed wanted to believe that he wouldn’t, because it was an extreme example, and it sounded ridiculous laid out like that, but… he would. In a heartbeat. He didn’t have a choice. He’d jump in after anybody, despite knowing he’d probably make the whole thing worse because of the automail and all.
“Roy needs people,” Christmas was saying, “that he can trust with the worst of him—so that it’s safe to give them the best, too. People he already knows can handle one end of the spectrum, so he starts to think the other side could be on the table. People who don’t ask him to take his guard down—just make him forget why he wanted to put it up in the first place.”
Ed’s throat stuck. That fucking mulled fucking wine—
“Not that I’m trying to get you to promise me you’ll marry him or something,” Christmas went on, which was, somehow, unbelievably, even worse, and which made Ed’s heart skitter through his chest like a startled rat. “Just… spitballing. He’s so good at locking himself up and then coming to stuff like this and pretending everything’s been fine and dandy all year long.”
Ed was going to kill Roy Mustang. He knew that for a fact now. It was just a matter of selecting a fitting method at this point.
Could you garrote someone with tinsel? Maybe it would be better to stab him with a particularly sharp ornament, or drown him in a vat of eggnog, or mummify him in wrapping paper and push him off a cliff—
“Yeah,” Ed forced out again. “He’s—sometimes I think he’s just so good at lying that he does it on a reflex. And sometimes I think he’s good enough that he even fools himself.”
Christmas tilted the cigarette towards him. “You’re as smart as they say you are, kid.”
Ed tried very hard to grin at her. “Maybe I’m just good at lying, too.”
She raised an eyebrow, and the cigarette angled towards Roy. “You probably learned from the master, so I wouldn’t be too surprised.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. The singing had devolved into a lot of playful shoving and overlapping peals of laughter, so he set his jaw and his shoulders. Now was as good a time as any and better than most. “I’m gonna go borrow him a minute, actually, if you don’t mind.”
“Be my guest,” Christmas said. “Oh, wait, you already are.”
“Thanks,” Ed said. “And—thanks for having us. Really. It’s been… this is really cool.”
She patted his back as he started towards Roy, just barely missing the edge of the automail. “You’re sweet. I hope he doesn’t scare you off.”
“Let him try,” Ed said.
Roy looked up when Ed was only halfway over to the piano—it was unlikely he’d have been able to hear Ed’s footsteps well enough to identify the slightly uneven cadence of them, which was what always gave Ed away to Al; there was too much ambient noise. Roy’s reflexes had always been on another level, though; and despite the ravages it had gone through and his ever-increasing antiquity, his eyesight seemed to have stayed sharp. That had to be it.
“Hey,” Ed said when he was close enough that he didn’t have to yell. Yelling would have been great—it might have precluded most of the rest of whatever was coming, actually, because it would’ve blown off some of the steam—but you couldn’t just shout at people you were supposed to be dating in the middle of somebody’s nice family Christmas party. “Can I talk to you a sec?”
“Of course,” Roy said. Lounging on the piano bench like that, with his hair tousled and his smile relaxed and his tie just slightly askew, with a touch of pink in his cheeks and a gleam of the light in his eyes and his shoulders settled casually instead of harsh and tight to hold the structure of the uniform—
He was just too much. That was the problem, wasn’t it?
“Do you like toffee?” he was asking before Ed could untangle his tongue again, and one of those gorgeous hands extended to him, bearing another bite-sized morsel of something that smelled overpoweringly sweet with a hint of spices—like Christmas was supposed to.
Ed must have been some special kind of idiot, because he opened up obediently and let Roy’s fingertips graze his lips in the process of placing it into his mouth. He tasted something every bit as sweet as he’d anticipated, but the hurricane in his head washed all of the details away as he crunched through and swallowed it instinctively. Roy was standing up, anyway, and the last few functioning remnants of his intellect had wisely elected to focus on that.
Why was it so easy, when Roy’s arm opened towards him, to fold himself right into the bend of it and settle in against the bastard’s side?
“What do you need, sweetheart?” Roy was asking. Apparently that was directed at him. He knew he shouldn’t make a face at it—surely if they’d been dating for five months, he’d either be over it by now, or he would have killed Roy in cold blood three and a half months ago. “Would you like to go somewhere private?”
Ed hadn’t detected a curl of suggestiveness underneath that, but one of the girls giggled like Roy had followed it up with a broad wink, and the implications of that sent a hot flush blooming bright and volcanic in his throat, climbing doggedly up towards his cheeks. “Um—”
“Ignore Alyssa,” Roy said, giving him a dry look. “She’s just jealous because she used to be my favorite.”
“If I’m jealous of anything,” Alyssa said, “it’s that he doesn’t have to get disowned from the family to get away from you.”
“Not yet, anyway,” one of the other girls said, so calmly that it took Ed a second to realize what that meant.
Roy must have been in really bad shape if every single one of his adopted siblings was desperate for him to settle down.
Recognizing that trend, however, rather than helping matters, made everything significantly worse.
“Don’t you have some more obsessive decorating to do?” Roy asked. His arm tightened fractionally—a gentle little It’s okay sort of a squeeze; why did he keep—?
Both girls’ eyes lit up, which was… terrifying. It was terrifying. Ed didn’t know what they were feeding them around here, and he didn’t want to know, and he was going to refuse the next candy Roy offered him just in case.
“Now that you mention it,” Alyssa said, slowly, with a blood-chilling sort of delight, “we do.”
“Wait,” Ed said, although a part of him knew it was too late; Roy and his damn survival instincts were tugging them both towards a doorway— “What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure, dear heart,” Roy said. The doorway led to a hallway, and twelve steps and one right turn landed them in a little parlor done up all in rich reds and golds, and… Ed wasn’t going to think too much about the purposes these parts of the building might have.
“Well, I don’t like the sound of it,” Ed said. He had to say something—they were alone in an opulent little room with armchairs and a thick rug and an unlit fireplace, and Roy hadn’t let go of him yet.
“I must confess,” Roy said, and at least his arm was falling away, finally; “that I have liked very little of what’s been said since the first time I set foot in this place. It’s all quite a bit worse when everyone’s been drinking, obviously; they don’t take any prisoners.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. The chairs looked obscenely comfortable, but if he sat down, he wasn’t sure his balance would favor getting up. Like, ever.
Why were they here, again?
“Hey,” he said. “You—fucking level with me. Okay?”
Roy slipped his hands into his pockets, which made his shoulders lift. His stupid face went unfathomable again—nothing to go on; not a trace. “What about?”
“This,” Ed said, waving his left hand around them. “This whole—thing.” That wasn’t the real question, though it was related. Both of them knew it. No point equivocating. “Why’d you pick me?”
Roy blinked. Still nothing. No single, solitary iota of an emotion; not so much as a smudge of feeling.
“I told you why at the beginning,” Roy said. “You don’t have any history with them, but you’re charming and unusual, so they’ll believe it’s more than just some two-week-long affair I started specifically for the sake of having a date to the party.”
“I’ve never been charming in my fucking life,” Ed said, which was true.
At least that coaxed a shred of detectable humanity onto Roy’s face, even if it took the form of mild bewilderment. “In that case, I suspect you and I have two very different definitions of ‘charming’.”
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Ed asked.
“You don’t have to be suave or articulate or any of the typical measures of sociability to be captivating,” Roy said. “I guarantee you that if I did a survey of the room we just left, every last person in it would agree that y—”
“You’re avoiding the question,” Ed said. His brain was still grinding through an attempt to unpack the sentence that Roy had been in the middle of, but it sure as hell knew when it was being had.
“I answered the question,” Roy said.
“Your answer’s not good enough,” Ed said. “Don’t bullshit me. You could’ve gotten tons of people. And they’re all—they’re talkin’ like—like they believe it, first off, and—shit, they just want you to be happy, you know that?”
Roy smiled—or offered up a narrow, uneven, half-assed impression of a smile, at any rate.
“I know,” he said. “Is it so unthinkable that I considered my available options and decided that I wanted to spend the time with you?”
“If you wanted to spend time with me,” Ed said, “you’d take me to coffee again, not put us both through shit like this.”
Roy rolled his shoulders without removing his hands from his pockets, and that shouldn’t have looked so—
Smooth. Graceful. Appetizing.
“Are you assuming I had some sort of ulterior motive beneath my ulterior motive of conning my own family?” Roy asked.
“Have,” Ed said. “Present tense.”
“What do you want me to say?” Roy asked, which was the most annoying thing it was possible to come out with, just as a general rule but especially at a time like now. What Ed wanted him to say was completely fucking irrelevant; what Ed wanted was for him to stop hedging, and he knew it, and— “You were far and above the ideal candidate, and I thought—I explained it all, Ed. I needed someone I could trust to keep the secret and to be clever enough to pull it off in the first place. Whoever I brought here had to know me well enough to be convincingly familiar, but they couldn’t know my family—or be on my mother’s radar in any way, which is a much more challenging prospect than you might think. They had to be plausibly my type, but in order not to take advantage, not attracted to me, so that it wouldn’t—”
“Oh, fuck you,” Ed said, and it came out louder than it probably needed to, because he was trying to speak over the pounding of his heart in his ears. Stupid, stupid, stupid—
“What?” Roy said. He’d started pushing his hair back with one hand, and he paused, leaving it there, fingers twined into the thick, artful mess of silky black, pinning it off of his forehead, and he was just so fucking impossible—
“You know what,” Ed said. His head spun, wobbled, banged like a bass drum— “Fucking—never mind. Just—never mind. It’s not—it’s fine. I get it. I get your logic.”
Roy stared at him, open-mouthed for a long moment. Before Ed could appreciate, if nothing else, the novelty of leaving the likes of Roy Mustang speechless, Roy swallowed, hard, and rasped out, “I didn’t think—”
“I didn’t either,” Ed said. “Or I thought—” Fuck this alcohol in his stupid brain. “I didn’t think it was—a big deal. It’s not a big deal. It wasn’t, and it’s not. I—whatever. It’s fine. I just—you’re an idiot for wasting an opportunity like this. If you’re so fucking lonely, and they’re so fucking desperate to help you, least you could’ve done is brought someone you actually wanted to get to know better, so that if nothing else, they’d see what you’re like behind the uniform shit.”
There was something sort of fragile about the next smile Roy trotted out—something soft like the last second before the bruise started to spread. What was that?
“Ed,” Roy said, gently, and he stepped forward, and his hand rose—
Oh. Pity. That was it.
“I said never mind,” Ed said, turning on his heel and starting for the hall again before Roy could touch him. No goddamn point torturing himself; no goddamn point wasting Roy’s time trying to make up for something that was Ed’s fault, if it was anybody’s. “I’m over it. It’s—just leave it. Let’s just—make sure your mom has a nice time and then never fucking talk about this ever again, okay?”
“Ed,” Roy said again, but Ed had swung around the corner and hit the carpet runner in the hall; he could hear Roy’s footsteps hastening after him, but he was planning to walk as fast as the ship-deck tilting of his addled head would let him. He could see the lights of the main barroom through the doorway, and if he just put his head down and kept going… It’d never failed him before. “Oh—hell, Ed—Ed, wait—”
Ed trusted him. That was the worst thing. Ed had trusted him for so long there wasn’t any other choice; Ed had trusted him for so long that it was a reflex—it was a fact.
With one foot over the threshold, he turned to direct a glare towards the urgency in stupid Roy’s stupid voice, then startled backwards when he saw that the bastard had reached out to him again.
And had… frozen there, looking up.
Ed, mouth dry despite the flood of dread, followed his gaze.
Long green leaves. Little white berries.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Ed said.
Fortunately, while Roy had almost certainly heard him, the whooping and whistling grew deafening after two syllables had left his mouth, so likely none of Roy’s relatives had been able to detect the particulars of his commentary.
Roy was wincing, first at him, then at the assembled company, then at him again. “It’s not—it doesn’t have to be—”
But it did. Because if they gave up now, Roy’s mom and his sisters and everybody who was rooting for him were going to feel betrayed and disappointed, and Ed had been down that road a thousand and one too many times.
“I know what I want for Christmas,” he said over Roy’s stammering.
Roy blinked. “I—beg pardon?”
“I want you to shut the fuck up,” Ed said.
“Christmas is for presents,” Roy said, making a weak attempt at a smirk. “Not mirac—”
Ed dragged in a breath, curled all five fingers of his right hand around Roy’s stupid tie, curved the palm of the left up against his jaw to stabilize his face, and used both points as leverage to haul him in and kiss him.
He’d closed his eyes. You were supposed to do that. People sort of freaked out if you didn’t, even though it was really interesting to watch them and try to gauge their reactions from the subtle shifts of the muscles on their faces.
Roy started out with no shifts at all, because he went completely still—so frozen that he might as well have been a mound of snow outside, albeit one crafted into an agonizingly aesthetically pleasing shape.
And made up for so much of it even in the first fucking instant that Ed’s heart trilled, and his breath stuck, and he felt the fingers of his left hand doing a ridiculous flutter-thing.
Roy hadn’t just leaned down into it; he’d descended, and his mouth was so fucking hot and skilled and confidently commanding that Ed’s spine tightened—every single vertebra, all the way down.
So many people kissed like it was a greeting—a message, yes, but the act was secondary to the intention, and the missive was short and simple and direct. Just another mode of communication for the little, uncomplicated things that most people wanted to say. Semaphore with the mouth; two strokes and a smile on the way out, and done.
Roy wanted to write a novel; Roy wanted Ed to hear arias echoing back off of the inside of his own skull; Roy wanted to paint his magnum opus on the roof of Ed’s mouth with the leisurely progress of his inimitable tongue—
He tasted like alcohol and chocolate, which was nothing mythical given the circumstances, but it felt like sinking right into an indescribably beautiful sort of sin. That was Roy for you. Only ever an overachiever when it was drastically inconvenient; capable of turning your knees into gelatin goop the instant he applied himself.
The fingertips of his right hand had dappled up the side of Ed’s neck to slip into the soft hair along his hairline and curled themselves there, holding just this side of too-tight; Roy’s left hand settled on his hipbone and squeezed.
Ed never wanted to stop. If this was what hell tasted like, he wanted the whole damn thing—every last circle; every single tongue of flame—
That particular turn of phrase had never shivered through him with its own aptness before. Roy’s pulse beat in his fingertips; Ed could feel it quickening against his own skin; it made him dizzier even than the goddamn wine. Roy’s lips slid slowly, intently, so thorough it verged on meticulousness; so deliberate it felt more than just premeditated—more than long-awaited; a kind of certainness veering dangerously close to inevitability.
It felt like falling. Like a dark precipice and a moonless night and a long, long way down.
Ed drew back, as sharply as he dared, like he should have fucking done the second that they’d started.
They stared at each other for a series of seconds that felt endless—distantly, Ed detected what sounded like uproarious cheering from Roy’s family members, although he couldn’t make head or tail of any words or suggestions that might have been involved; it all muddled into a wash of sound like waves through a windowpane.
Then Roy cupped his hand around the back of Ed’s neck and leaned in to kiss him again.
Ed had known for a long time that he was a special caliber of idiot, but sometimes he went out of his way to prove it to himself again. Evidently, tonight was one of those times.
It wasn’t his fault—it wasn’t. Roy was just so fucking gorgeous, and everything he did—every pass of his mouth; every press of his tongue; every stroke of his fingertips down Ed’s neck, up his throat, along his jaw, over his ear—radiated with it. Times like this, eyes closed, judgment scattered, guard down, inhibitions drowned under the tide of every minute of this thousand-times-damned night, Ed saw him like he really was.
Fire obliterated, yeah. It wrought hell faster and further than most people’s brains could fully conceptualize. It scorched and leveled and disintegrated and destroyed.
But the first times humankind had toyed with it, it hadn’t been to raze cities or scald the very surface of the earth.
It had been for light.
And for warmth.
And for safety.
And that was what Roy Mustang was, beneath the bullshit.
That was what he’d added up to all along.
But that was why this couldn’t—
That was why Ed never even should have been dumb enough to dream—
He planted his left hand flat on Roy’s chest—the heel of his hand settled right below Roy’s collarbone; far too much of him wanted to run his fingertips over every last inch, learn the curve of every muscle and the shape of every scar.
Instead, he pushed, gently—not enough for an observer to notice, but enough for Roy to feel.
Bastard was an unprecedented pain in the ass at the best of times, but at least he could take a hint not-so-subtly delivered: Roy pulled away, panting softly, and leaned their foreheads together. His eyes met Ed’s, and they were—what? There was something confused in them again—something in between trepidation and triumph. If that didn’t sum up the pair of them and their equal amounts of insipid stubbornnesses, Ed didn’t know what would.
“You all right?” Roy asked, very nearly under his unsteady breath.
“Now, that,” Madame Christmas said before Ed could dig his voice up from the wreckage in his ribcage, “is what I call a mistletoe kiss.”
Roy smiled thinly, turning towards her, but he kept one hand resting lightly on Ed’s shoulder. “I live to impress.”
“You live to give us all gray hairs,” Christmas said.
Ed ducked out from under Roy’s hand as naturally as he could manage and beelined for the bar. He had to give it to this family—since it seemed like all of them had grown up here, every single one was ready to jump behind the counter at the slightest provocation and beam at him, both hands at the ready.
“What can I do you for?” Vanessa asked.
“You have anything that’s like hot chocolate?” Ed asked. “Only with booze?”
“Do I,” Vanessa said.
She did. Whatever she put into it blended pretty well with the cocoa and only drop-kicked him in the back of the throat a little bit.
He was trying, arduously at that, to ignore what felt like Roy’s gaze on him as he pretended to give a shit about Christmas traditions—Christmas Christmas traditions, he supposed. He’d meant to do better than this; he’d meant to be genuine about the enthusiasm, even if the reason for his presence was contrived; he’d meant…
Well. He’d meant to do and be a lot of things in his life that he hadn’t delivered. At least this was familiar.
“Is it hot enough?” Vanessa asked when he’d blown on the surface a couple dozen times—and then sipped it, gingerly, and burned the tip of his tongue anyway.
“Yup,” he said. “Thank you.”
She winked. “Is Roy?”
He blinked at her. The alcohol in this couldn’t be hitting him that fast, so this had to be the residual buildup from the previous drinks. “Is Roy what?”
“Hot enough,” Vanessa said.
Ed stared at her, powerless to stop the flush he felt creeping up his face again.
“Uh,” he said. “I—I mean—was—was that not—you saw what—”
She planted an elbow on the bar counter, rested her chin on her hand, and grinned at him. The diabolical edge on it would have made Roy extremely proud. “Mistletoe’s one thing; stickin’ around long-term is another. Is he hot enough for that?”
“Uh,” Ed said. Would it be gauche to commandeer a napkin to wave as a white flag? “I mean, I… I dunno what’s gonna happen tomorrow, let alone…”
Vanessa waved her free hand, flashing another grin—although it was an apologetic one this time. “I know, I know. Sorry. Not trying to pry.”
“S’okay,” Ed said, although his misbehaving blood vessels probably said otherwise. “I, uh—I’m gonna… take this outside for just a minute so it cools down.”
She raised her eyebrows, but apparently that sounded rational enough—at least coming from a guy who was stretching the limits of his alcohol tolerance—to be believed.
He wasn’t a total idiot, so he gathered up his coats and draped them over his own shoulders before he stepped just outside the glass doors. If he stayed within a couple inches of them, the heat passing through still reached him, but the little alcove isolated him from the noise of the street.
The steam rising from the drink that Vanessa had made him rose and bathed his face, which made a nice counterpoint to the slowly-mounting ache in his right shoulder—he couldn’t loiter out here long without inviting an exquisite hell to face tomorrow, so he’d have to keep this brief. He needed the reprieve, though.
Because his luck was legendarily shit, it was snowing again—lightly, for now; tiny, tentative flakes spiraling downward from the low, heavy blanket of the pewter-colored clouds. They kept looping around the lights in the streetlamps—every time, it looked for a second as though they were hovering at will, like butterflies.
A horse-drawn carriage clopped by on one side of the road, and a car roared past on the other. Trust Central City not to be able to make up its mind whether it wanted to be trendy or traditional. Was every city like that? People were built on splendid contradictions; that much Ed had figured out. He was starting to understand that places had personalities, too, in a funny sort of way. Central was still struggling to figure out exactly who it was.
He supposed he could sympathize with that.
The shadows cast by the light behind him from the inside shifted—he turned to see who had approached the door; if it was someone leaving, he’d have to shuffle out of their way and do his damnedest not to land in a snowbank—
It was Roy.
Of course it was Roy.
The bastard of the hour—or the last several hours, really—slipped out between the doors and eased them shut behind him, and then he rubbed both hands at his biceps in that way that people did that never actually assuaged the cold.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Ed had been lying in answer to that question for as long as he could remember, but it was a stupid question, so he never felt bad.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just needed some air.”
For all his faults, Roy was no damn fool: he’d put his coat on—properly, with his arms through it, for once in his life—before he stepped outside. Bastard still looked like a million cens and change. As much as Ed hated this miserable weather, it was safer to look out at the snow.
Roy waited until he had turned away before speaking, which was… interesting, probably, to people like Roy, who rooted through every single conversation for those sorts of cues. “May I say something? Or would you prefer to be alone? It can wait.”
Ed opened his mouth to say Can it wait for me to start walking in the direction of Creta and not stop ’til I hit palm trees and coastline and a notary where I can change my name?
He shut his mouth.
He set his jaw.
Edward Elric didn’t cut and run. Not from the likes of this.
“Now’s fine,” he said.
Roy was standing right beside him—shoulder almost pressed to his. “Are you sure?”
“Gonna be less sure the more times you ask,” Ed said, “since that makes me figure you’re procrastinating, and there’s probably a reason for that.”
“Fair enough,” Roy said, but the slight hint of a laugh gave over to a sigh.
He was silent, for a second, as another car rumbled past them, headlights slicing through the streaks of snow.
And then he wasn’t.
“I’m sorry,” Roy said, low and measured like always. “Sincerely. I thought… Well. I should never have made an assumption, but for anything it’s worth—I thought that if you weren’t attached, it had to be because you weren’t interested in those sorts of attachments, either at the moment or at all. Which would absolutely be your prerogative, of course; there’s nothing…” He cleared his throat, hands in his pockets, eyes on the road. “But my incorrect conclusion was that if you’d wanted something like that, you could have had it with anyone you asked—”
What Ed wanted was to say Like hell or How drunk are you?, but with Roy offering the olive branch, he had to choke down the sticky-fingered defensive impulses and respond in kind.
“—ergo you must not have wanted that sort of thing in the first place,” Roy said. “I never intended to—hurt you. Or belittle your feelings.”
“Jeez,” Ed muttered. Maybe the reason people were so obsessed with bars was that a drink to nurse made a great conversation prop. He could pretend to get distracted by the contents, or bury words in the rim, or all kinds of things. “Belittle ’em, huh?”
A glance confirmed that Roy was smiling—slightly tightly, which meant he was still concerned. “I hope you know that’s not how I meant it.”
Ed watched Roy watch the snow. What a stupid little farce this was. They should’ve sharpened up the dialogue and shoved it onto a stage; at least they could make some money off tickets that way.
Roy’s tongue grazed his upper lip before he spoke. Ed wanted to do likewise, which was even more stupid than the rest of it. “I… you’d never mentioned dating any of the times we talked.”
“There was never anything to mention,” Ed said. “It—people are—okay with… you know. When it’s superficial and stuff. At the start. But when they get deeper in, and they get to all the nasty stuff—” Who the hell are you? You just—what? Carry that around in you all the time? Like some kind of poison? “I mean… I don’t blame ’em. It gets—dark sometimes. Y’know. Takes a certain kind of person to be able to handle that.”
This smile was softer, and smaller, and wry in a way that wrung Ed’s heart like a sponge. “It does.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “And… I mean, if I’m gonna get a few of those people, I’d rather they be my brother and my friends, anyway, you know? So—it’s fine. It’s—”
He wasn’t sure how much he saw, how much he heard, and how much he sensed, but Roy tensed next to him, which meant they’d both noticed movement from just inside. Someone was watching them through the door.
They glanced at each other. Roy raised an eyebrow, so Ed half-shrugged his left shoulder and then shuffled one step in, and Roy slung an arm around him again.
That shouldn’t have felt so fucking nice.
“Edward,” Roy said, very, very softly, which was a red flag attached to a central alarm system gearing up to blare an evacuation notice, “do you want to give it a shot?”
Ed wanted to drown himself in this spiked cocoa and cease to exist. “Give what a shot?”
“Us,” Roy said.
The drowning-in-cocoa plan was sounding more appealing every second.
But Roy was trying to be nice, and even if he was shit at it, the trying part had to count for something. Practically Ed’s whole life hinged on that.
“No, thanks,” he said, swallowing the other words he would have liked to decorate that sentence with. “I’ve had enough pity fucks for more than just one lifetime, and whether or not yours are probably pretty good, it’s just… I’m tired. I’m tired of it. Let’s just skip to the part where it doesn’t work out and save ourselves the trouble.”
Roy went silent for long enough that Ed shifted his weight, then long enough that he settled again. Apparently something had finally sunk in. It was good of Roy to listen for a change, he supposed; people loved to argue for the sake of arguing, and Roy was like him that way, contrary to the core most days, so—
“When I really think about it,” Roy said, “it breaks my heart that you feel like you deserve to be unwanted.”
“There’s no ‘deserve’ about it,” Ed said, which was difficult when it felt like his heart, several knives, and a significant portion of the blood in his body were all in his mouth. “‘Deserve’ is a stupid word anyway, and—it’s just—that’s how it is. And I get why. I’m weird and too old for my age, except I still have a shitty kid temper sometimes; and I’m hyper-logical and super awkward and totally obnoxious, s—”
Roy’s arm left his shoulders, and the force of the movement spun him, and then Roy’s cold hands were cradling both sides of his face, and Roy was kissing him again—
Which was fair turnabout, sort of, as far as the shutting-someone-up thing; but also entirely unjust.
Not spilling hot cocoa down either of their shirts sapped all of Ed’s willpower, which left him without a single scrap for resistance. Roy’s mouth was so warm, so warm and so talented and so delectable and so dizzyingly right against his; there was something about the way their breath mingled, something about the incomparable softness of his fingertips against Ed’s freezing cheeks—
Something about the way they crashed together, and the impact felt like fireworks. Something about the way that it was always, always flame and never ash.
He pulled back, pried his eyes open, and tried to remember how the hell to breathe.
“I want you,” Roy said, looking him right in the fucking eyes, and every syllable shook through him—lightning first, riding fast and bright, and then thunderous— “Is that plain enough? I don’t—well, possibly some of those things are slightly true if you squint sideways, but I don’t care about any of them. I think you’re wonderful. I think you deserve all of the best and kindest things the whole world has to offer. And there’s no pity in any of it; you’ll never get pity from me.” He paused, blinked— “Unless you’re into role-playing, but that’s—a very different conversation that should be had another time.”
The thoughts in Ed’s brain were about as substantial and about as resilient as the snow. “Into… what?”
“Never mind,” Roy said.
“I’m gonna start a fucking petition to stop you from ever saying that again,” Ed said.
“Please do,” Roy said. “It’s a fine way to get involved in our fledgling democracy, and that was less important than any of the other things I said.”
Oh. Right. The other things he’d said.
Ed tussled with a sticky bit of leftover chocolate powder or something clinging to the walls of his throat. “You—why the hell—”
“I thought you’d say something,” Roy said. “Or—I don’t know. Make it obvious. If you had the slightest interest at all, I mean. You’re usually so utterly unashamed of your own feelings, and that’s one of the things I admire most about you, but it seemed like after you left the military, it just… went away. And that made sense, of course; I thought maybe it was mostly just a side-effect of the ways we’d relied on each other, and it had never really been about me at all, so—”
“You are so fucking stupid,” Ed said, faintly. “You know that?”
Roy smiled at him, and the wonderful thumbs stroked his hair back from his ears. “Yes.”
“So am I,” Ed said.
“You’re not,” Roy said.
“If you’re stupid, I’m stupider,” Ed said. “And you just said you were stupid.”
Roy blinked at him. “I… think it’s time to cut you off, dear.”
“Get fucked,” Ed said, pointedly following it up with a sip from his mug. The weather out here had done wonders for the temperature of it.
“Mm,” Roy said, slinging the arm around his shoulders again, and it was just so nice— “Perhaps that should wait until the second date. Or at least until we’re well away from my mother’s residence.”
Ed eyed him over the rim of the mug and slowly and deliberately slurped the next sip.
Roy cringed. “Point taken.”
“Good,” Ed said.
Roy hesitated for a second—which was remarkable enough in and of itself—and then shifted a little closer and leaned his head on Ed’s.
That should’ve been annoying as hell—condescending, or lord-over-y, or something. It should have been a pain in the ass, and it should have motivated Ed to administer an equal pain to Roy’s ass by way of kicking it.
But it just felt… cozy. And safe. And fuck, Ed was in way deeper than he’d thought. Sometimes it seemed like if you just didn’t look down, maybe the ground wouldn’t be as far away as you’d feared it was once you finally cracked an eye open, but…
But here he was, plummeting, and the wind on his face didn’t even feel too cold.
The rest of him did, though, despite the cocoa, and made its discontentment known in the form of a full-bodied shiver.
“Oh, dear,” Roy said. “Would you like to go home?”
“No,” Ed said. “Fuckin’ heater doesn’t work. Warmer here. I mean—not here-here, with the fuckin’…” He pried his right hand off of the mug to gesture towards the snow. “But…”
“Hold on,” Roy said—which was another conversational convention that society, as a collective, needed to jettison and forget about forever, because it wasn’t like Ed could leave or something. Before he could light the fuse on that rant and watch it blow, though, Roy was extracting his arm from around Ed again, contemplating the way their exhalations misted in the coldness, drawing a breath, closing his eyes, and clapping his palms together.
The first wisp of warm air just felt like wishful thinking—like Ed had finally talked his brain into believing that maybe they’d experience warmth again someday if they focused hard enough.
The second buffet of it bathed him head to toe, worming its way in under the coat, circling the places that the shrinking steel bit into his skin—
“Holy shit,” he said, helplessly, looking down at himself, even though his rational brain knew there was no way in hell he’d be able to see the wavering lines of the heat moving. “You—just—aggravated the molecules—to make it warm—thermodynamics parlor tricks by way of flame alchemy, only—”
Roy was grinning at him. “You said you were co—”
What Ed had said was irrelevant, and he had much more interesting things to say by sealing his mouth over Roy’s. Some desperate self-preservation instinct had guided him to hold his mug well off to the side with his left hand so that the right could fist itself in Roy’s shirtfront, the better to drag him in and explore the roof of his mouth and taste his tonsils and explain to him exactly how much Ed had appreciated that.
Why was kissing so nice when you finally found someone who did it right, anyway?
…shit, he’d just thought that. He couldn’t take it back.
It wasn’t untrue, of course, but if he let on to Roy that the bastard was the first person he’d met mouths with who made it matter, Roy was going to be so smug that the whole solar system would collapse into a black hole around the sheer gravity of his self-satisfaction. Ed had a couple more things he wanted to do in this universe before it tore itself to shreds.
He drew back, trying not to notice how reluctant every fiber of him was to relinquish the contact.
“Sorry,” he said.
Roy stared at him, which was… weirdly cute. Shit, shit, it was already going to his head. Doom, disaster, cataclysm; the end of days had come even though he hadn’t given in on the smugness thing; damn it— “For… what?”
“Distracting you,” Ed said. He had, too—the cold had cinched in around them again, and the only pocket worth inhabiting was the one in Roy’s immediate vicinity, where Ed could bask in his body heat.
“Here,” Roy said. He took the mug, set it on the ledge next to the door, pushed his hands into his coat pockets, opened up both sides of it, pulled Ed in against his chest, and wrapped the coat around him.
Oh, shit. Oh, shit, oh, fuck; a guy could get used to this, and then what unprecedented horrors might unfold?
“I just had a better idea anyway,” Roy said.
Ed attempted to make it not-obvious that he was burying his face in Roy’s waistcoat and leeching as much of his warmth as possible. “Yeah?”
“I believe,” Roy said, “that if we’re clever about geometry—which I know you’re up to, no matter how much liquor you’ve had—we can fit my couch in front of the fireplace in the library.”
Ed opened his eyes so that he could blink a little bit, but blinking didn’t help.
Roy rubbed a hand at his back, which was too fucking wonderful altogether. “How does that sound?”
“S’too many of my favorite words in one sentence to process all at once,” Ed said. “I’m still working on it.”
“Take your time,” Roy said. “Although perhaps in the interest of preserving you from frostbite, we should go back inside. If you’re ready, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “We have to say goodbye before we can library.”
Instead of complaining about what a charitable person might have called his creative interpretation of the tenets of grammar, made worse by the way he was still swimming through the tipsiness, Roy just sort of—squeeze-hugged him. Ed wanted to barf. And also to live here—just set up shop in the ring of Roy’s arms, pretty much eternally.
“That is, unfortunately, advisable,” Roy said.
“All right,” Ed said. “Let’s get that shit good and done.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Roy said, which was a heinous lie, but a kind one, so Ed let it go.
The instant they stepped back in, a shadow swooped on them, and Madame Christmas pushed a glass filled halfway with amber liquid into Roy’s hand.
“Thank you,” he said. “What’s this?”
“I’m making your Christmas wish come true,” she said. “You asked for a stiff drink and a cab. Taxi should be here any minute, so you’d better make it quick.”
“Getting rid of me so soon?” Roy said, swilling it. His other hand had settled on the small of Ed’s back, and that… Damn it. Why were so many ordinary gestures ripe for reveling in when Roy was the one doing them?
“It’s for your own good,” Christmas said. “And Sunshine’s, since I don’t think he’s going to be upright for too much longer.”
Alyssa elbowed Cass. “He wasn’t gonna be upright when he went home with Roy anyway, Mom.”
“How dare you,” Roy said. His fingertips skimmed up Ed’s spine, touched his shoulder blades, flitted back down— “Don’t listen to them, Edward; they’re so jealous they simply can’t contain themselves.”
Alyssa had another cup of what was probably more mulled-crap, and she sipped from it demurely before she said, “Never claimed I wasn’t.”
So much for not destroying the universe and all that: evidently the bottom had dropped out and deposited them in some kind of alter-world where people talked about Ed like he was…
Well, like he was Roy, really.
He eyeballed Roy’s drink, which was still being swilled instead of emptied. “What’s in that?”
“I don’t think you’d like it,” Roy said.
Ed eyeballed Roy instead.
“Oh, dear,” Roy said. “I shouldn’t have said that. But it’s very strong; it… here.”
He waved the glass under Ed’s nose, at which point the scent of the alcohol alone sucker-punched him in the sinuses.
“Eew,” he said.
Christmas laughed, which he figured he deserved at this point.
Saying goodbye—or, really, hugging goodbye, in Roy’s case—took so long that Roy hadn’t yet touched the drink in his hand by the time their cab was honking at them from the street.
“Hmm,” he said, looking into it.
“Dare you,” Ed said.
Roy grinned, slow and bright and brutal. “What’s in it for me?”
“Not wasting a free drink,” Ed said.
And then he downed it—so fast it seemed like Ed blinked, and then his gorgeous throat was long and pale and smooth and tantalizingly displayed as he threw his head back, and then the glass was empty, and he was shaking his head, and his hair was fluttering across his eyes, and how in the hell did he do that?
“How’s that?” he asked.
“It’ll do,” Ed said.
“It’d better,” Christmas said, prying the glass out of Roy’s hand, grabbing his wrist, and placing his hand on Ed’s arm instead. “You two skedaddle before he drives away. G’night, kid. ’Bye, Sunshine.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ed managed. “All of you.”
Vanessa beamed at him. “We’re gonna see you again next year, right?”
At least flushing to the roots of his hair provided him with some extra body heat as they were about to venture out into the snow. “Uh—”
“Well,” Roy said loudly, “off we go.”
And they were out the door, and tumbling into the backseat of a cab, and the seats were cold, and the driver was asking where to go, and that was that.
Or Ed thought that was that.
It wasn’t quite—because once they started moving, as Roy was calmly giving the cabbie directions for the shortcut, he reached across the empty seat between them and very gently took Ed’s hand.
Even with the both of them swaddled up in gloves, it was so damn nice that it knocked every word he might have mustered right out of his head.
If there wasn’t an epic and extremely warm library on the line, it would’ve been very tempting to hurl himself out of the moving car to avoid having to deal with this when he was sober.
In a rather distinctly uncharacteristic stroke of luck, however, the library turned out to be worth the wait.
Roy knew his business with this escorting-drunk-people-home shit, which was disconcerting and useful in pretty much equal proportions: he’d kept one hand under Ed’s left elbow to steady him and had let them into the house as swiftly as possible. Other than deadbolting the door behind them, he hadn’t wasted any time before shepherding Ed down the hall to their destination.
Perfect. Was what it was.
It was big, but not so big it felt empty or drafty or open—big insofar as it held about as many books as the reading room at the good university library. Big insofar as it was crammed from end to end, corner to corner with shelves, and the shelves were crammed with gold-lettered spines, and there was a big mahogany desk, and the curtains looked velvety, and the armchairs looked so cushy that you could drop into them and disappear.
“Shit,” Ed said, followed by “Fuck,” followed by “Fuck” when he realized that his voice was sticking, and his throat was getting all hot and narrow and tight.
Roy’s hand migrated from his elbow up his arm, fluttering around his shoulder for a second. “Are you all right? What’s—”
“Nothing,” Ed said. “Nothing, just—” At least being pissed at Roy for putting him in a position where he was obligated to tell the humiliating truth took the edge off of the sting of it. “This is—this is the type of room I’ve wanted my whole fucking life.”
“Well,” Roy said, and his hand settled very lightly on Ed’s shoulder—light enough to shrug off easily if he decided that he didn’t like it there, which was… remotely plausible, possibly, in alternate versions of a universe like the one where they existed. “It’s functionally yours for the foreseeable future. Oh, right—” He stepped back, slipped his right hand into his pocket, withdrew it again, and held out— “Here.”
—a little ring with three silver keys on it.
“Obviously you’re quite capable of letting yourself in the fun way,” Roy was saying as Ed stared silently, “but in case you’d prefer a quick logic game trying to figure out which key goes with which part of the lock—”
“You can’t give me the keys to your house,” Ed said.
“Of course I can,” Roy said, blinking at him. “Didn’t I say I would? I meant t—”
“I figured you were kidding,” Ed said, “because you can’t give me the keys to your house, you—”
“Why not?” Roy said. He still had his hand out, still had his fingers spread open—the keys gleamed in the low yellow light of this unimaginably wonderful little hideaway, and the scars beneath them had mostly knitted over in the intervening years, but they weren’t healed, not really. They weren’t even close to gone.
“It’s your sanctuary,” Ed said. “You can’t just—”
Roy smiled, and his eyebrows arched, and he held his hand out further, bridging the distance in between them.
“Can so,” he said. “I’m doing it right now.”
Ed could take them. He didn’t ever have to use them—he could just take them so that this whole thing would be over, and they could go back to the part with him getting the run of this place and trying to make his alcohol-soaked brain parse all of the book titles, and he could triage what he was going to read first tomorrow while he was hungover as shit. He could just… keep them. He could circumvent this whole conversation and just…
“I’m not takin’ your keys,” he said.
“It was part of the bargain,” Roy said. “As originally set out, for accompanying me to that wretched function, you were to be granted unlimited acce—”
“It’s not equivalent,” Ed said.
Roy’s eyebrows somehow moved higher. “How do you mean? It seems pretty cut and dry to m—”
“Not anymore,” Ed said. The thought slithered through him and nested in among his ribs. “Unless—I mean—you—changed your mind. Which is—fine, but—”
Roy’s impossibly quick hands struck again: he was touching a finger to Ed’s lips before Ed had even noticed he’d started moving. That was… startling, and weird, and archaic, and weird, and weirdly pleasant, and made Ed want to lick him, and—
“Hold that thought,” Roy said.
“Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do,” Ed said.
“All right,” Roy said, lowering his finger before Ed could do anything untoward to it. “Please hold that thought?”
Ed glared, but he couldn’t think of an objection to that yet. He was working on it.
In the meantime, Roy had turned on one heel and ghosted out through the doorway, which left Ed unattended in a room straight out of his vividest library fantasies. He hesitated, just in case it might evaporate, and then crossed over to the nearest shelf and started squinting at the bindings. Reading them would be much easier sober, but dealing with Roy would not, so he would take what he could get here.
He hadn’t made it too deep into the collection before His Bastardliness returned, bearing… a very tall glass of water.
“Here,” Roy said, holding it out to Ed. “Drink this.” He paused. “Ah… please?”
“Hmm,” Ed said. It was meant to sound ominous, although he couldn’t tell how well that had worked, and he was just self-aware enough at this point to recognize that the hangover was going to be a bitch if he didn’t hydrate a little, so he took the glass.
“Excellent,” Roy said. “Hold that thought.”
“Thoughts are conceptual,” Ed called after him as he vanished again.
Despite what a pain in the ass Roy was, though, Ed made pretty good headway into the water while he waited for… whatever the hell the bastard was up to this time. Al would probably be glad about that. Al wouldn’t want him to be hungover, either, except maybe insofar as teaching him a lesson about what happened to dweeby brothers who went on fake-dates with fake-boyfriends and ended up with possibly-real-boyfriends but maybe not really.
Fancy that: Ed’s head hurt already.
He was contemplating the last few sips in the water glass—probably more seriously than they deserved—when he first heard the scraping noise. The scraping gave way to a thump, which compelled him to put the glass down and stepped out into the hallway, where he found…
Roy, attempting to push a fairly substantially-sized couch around corners by himself.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ed asked.
Roy paused in straining against the arm to blink at him, then beamed. “Exactly what it looks like,” he said.
Ed was going to hit him.
But later, after he’d taken the other arm of the couch with both hands and said, “Your sister who called you a disaster is right.”
“I’d ask which one,” Roy said, hefting from his side, “but even the ones who haven’t said it are thinking it.”
“Whatever,” Ed said. Glancing over his shoulder made him dizzy for a second, but it was better than backing up into the doorframe. “Disasters get shit done.”
When he looked back, Roy was grinning. “I quite like that perspective.”
“I like your library,” Ed said. “You sure this is gonna fit?”
“No,” Roy said.
Miraculously, however, it did—relatively squarely in front of the fireplace at that, and they only had to move one of the armchairs into a corner to make room.
“Ah,” Roy said, standing back and placing his hands on his hips, like Ed had been impressed by that sort of posturing even once after turning thirteen. “One more thing. No—two more things.”
Ed was suddenly glad of the fact that there was a couch between them. It wasn’t that he thought Roy was going to do anything—weird, or anything. It was just that so little of what he’d done tonight had been predictable, and it was always safer to have a physical barrier at a time like this. Worst-case scenario, if things went real sour, Ed could shove the couch at him and run.
He didn’t really want to talk about… any of it. The alcohol wasn’t helping, obviously, but he was pretty confident that the half-conversation they’d had when they got here was most of the reason his stomach was churning. Roy Mustang never wanted what he said he wanted—that was a fundamental facet of his being or something like that. He was always playing a game; there was always another layer; his secrets had secrets. He could smile and kiss and croon out promises all he wanted; that didn’t make any of it true.
“First,” Roy said. “Let me…”
One hand dipped into his pocket; it came back up bearing one of the regular ignition gloves, which he slipped on, the better to snap his fingers and light the fire.
Ed said, “Cool,” kicked himself for the unintentional and extremely lousy pun, tried to pretend he hadn’t noticed it, and followed up with, “What’s the second thing?”
“I’m going to get you a toothbrush,” Roy said. “Alphonse will murder me in my sleep if I let you rot your teeth.”
“He wouldn’t do it in your sleep,” Ed said. “He’d want you to be awake and aware of exactly why he was murdering you.”
Roy made a face.
Ed made one back.
Roy cracked a grin. “The worst part is, I can’t blame him. I’ll be right back.”
The way he kept leaving made Ed wonder if maybe there was some kind of a remote possibility that he might be feeling unsettled about the whole thing, too.
That was probably the alcohol talking. Roy Mustang didn’t get nervous. He just got… ass-kicky. Which was reasonable, and usually good, at least when you and he were on the same side.
Ed sat down on the couch, which was, it had to be admitted, definitely the kind of couch worth crashing on in a gorgeous library, directly in front of a crackling fire. Roy had given up on the keys, so that was progress. Accepting the loan of a toothbrush did not constitute any kind of longstanding contractual obligation, to the best of Ed’s knowledge, so that might be okay, too.
Except Roy returned with something other than a toothbrush: he had his arms full of linens and a face full of another one of those devastating smiles.
“The only bathroom is upstairs, I’m afraid,” he said. “But I found a brand-new toothbrush for you—still in the packaging. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Roy had always acted hospitable in a social-convention sort of way—pulling out chairs for people, holding doors, offering to pay for other people’s food and not even rolling his eyes at the fact that Ed usually accepted. But this was… different. This was more than that, and something in Ed’s instincts whispered that it was more than some sort of an ordinary loneliness-resolution thing—that it wasn’t the fact that there was a body in his house to take care of; it was the fact that…
It was the fact that it was Ed. And Roy wanted to cater to him, to a degree that seemed almost obsequious on the surface, because Roy wanted him to stay.
In a way that the words hadn’t; in a way that the thoughts hadn’t; in a way that all of the speculation up to this point had not.
“Yeah,” Ed said. “You can get me some answers. You’re—serious about this… thing. Aren’t you?”
Roy Mustang, Flame Alchemist, Hero of Ishval, decorated general of the Amestrian military, was standing four feet away with his arms full of blankets and bedsheets, and the starlight gleam of his eyes had always defied physics and color theory and Ed’s ability to convince himself it didn’t take his breath away.
“I am,” Roy said. “If you want it. Do you?”
“Yeah,” Ed said. He was too tired and too tipsy to remember how to lie. “Kind of—a lot. Which is why it’s…”
“Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure?” Roy asked.
“Pretty much,” Ed said.
Roy came over—slowly, like maybe Ed was going to bolt or something if he approached too fast. He set the pile of sheets down on the end of the couch, then sat between it and Ed.
“I have no expectations,” he said.
Ed eyed him. “Bullshit.”
“All right,” Roy said. “I would hope that our respect for each other won’t change, and that the conversations will continue to be startlingly delightful. I hope you don’t cut your hair, although I’m confident I would somehow survive if you decided to.”
“That’s it?” Ed said, slowly.
“And I hope you won’t steal all of my food all of the time,” Roy said. “I don’t imagine starvation is a pleasant way to go.”
“You’re terrible,” Ed said.
Roy was grinning—the sleepy, almost-sad, soft little one he had for when he meant it.
“And yours,” he said, “if you’ll have me.”
“Fuck it,” Ed said. “I wasn’t plannin’ on cutting my hair anyway.”
“What a relief,” Roy said. His hand rose, grazed Ed’s cheek—he leaned in and kissed Ed’s forehead so fucking gently— “Why don’t you run upstairs and conqueror your cavities, and I’ll get this ready for you?”
“Jeez,” Ed said, levering himself up. “Thirty seconds in, and you’re already a tyrant. This shit’s doomed.”
“Tragic,” Roy said. “It’s at the top of the stairs on your left.”
“Thanks,” Ed said, and he meant it—for all of it.
Stairs could pose a problem when he was sober and distracted, but since he wasn’t too intoxicated to remember as much, he took them as carefully as he could manage, one hand tight on the banister all the way up and all the way back down. When he peeked into the library, slightly freshened and having hopefully drunk enough water from the tap to help deter the hangover, Roy had laid out an obscenely cozy-looking quantity of blankets on the couch and was literally fluffing his pillow.
“Wow,” Ed managed.
Not just at the full-service host thing Roy was doing, either—at the way that the firelight flickered around him; at the way it kissed the arches and smoothed the shadows of his face. At the rueful little smile he offered as he straightened up and pushed his hair back, and—
Holy shit. Ed was going to—get this? Every single day?
“I hope it’s all right,” Roy said.
“I hope you get your eyes checked,” Ed said.
In addition to the sight thing, which was getting more questionable by the minute, Roy really needed to see someone about the way his stupid eyes kept dancing all the time. That had to be a medical emergency.
“I’ll work on it,” Roy said.
“Like hell you will,” Ed said.
“Fair,” Roy said. “Well, in the meantime, I’m going to run upstairs—are you all set here?”
“I dunno how you missed the part on the checklist where I need a life-sized rainbow-colored unicorn stuffed animal with me before I can get to sleep,” Ed said. “You know I’ve passed out on the floor in the corner of, like, six different train stations, right?”
“Yes,” Roy said. “But the fact that you can doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my damnedest to make sure you never have to again.”
Ed eyed him.
That was getting to be eerily familiar.
“I’ll be right back,” Roy said, and he sidled out again, and that left Ed alone with quite possibly the single most beautiful sleeping arrangements known to man.
He’d been accused of being thick once or twice or six-thousand times, but he wasn’t thick enough not to take advantage of this opportunity when it had shoved itself directly into his face. He took a deep breath to fortify himself against the cold, peeled off Al’s sweater and Al’s shirt to leave only the much softer undershirt for sleeping in, ditched his belt even though it would probably encourage badass dreams, and crawled into the blanket-cave Roy had made for him.
How fucking bizarre was it that he’d gotten everything he hadn’t even known he was allowed to want for Christmas, pretty much on accident? If this shit kept up, he was going to have to revise some of his theories on luck and intentionality and the shitty-ass universe.
But that could wait—certainly until tomorrow. Probably until a long time after that.
By the time Roy’s footsteps carried a pajama-clad version of him back into the library, Ed had wriggled down until barely anything except his eyes had remained unobscured by the blankets, which probably looked funny as hell but was so indescribably cozy that he didn’t give a single shit.
Roy bit his lip on a smile. What an asshole.
“Are you warm enough?” he asked.
“Almost,” Ed said.
Roy’s eyebrows rose, and his smile turned down at the corners, which was also adorable. At this rate, Ed was going to have to kill them both to spare his dignity from this smooshy romance nightmare.
“What do you need?” Roy asked.
Ed extracted one arm—it turned out to be the right—from the blankets enough to reach out towards him.
Roy blinked for a few seconds.
Then he grinned.
Then he padded over, shed his bathrobe, laid it over the back of the couch, and climbed in next to Ed.
Some shuffling, some shifting, and quite a lot of squirming ensued, but eventually they settled in a way that didn’t present any immediate danger of one of them falling off of the cushions and onto the carpet in the middle of the night.
“Bit tight,” Roy said, although he didn’t seem especially eager to move the arm looped around Ed’s waist.
“I know,” Ed said. “It’s because I’m fucking enormous.”
“Clearly,” Roy said.
He was so warm. Ed was going to keep him forever.
Or—shit—or—until the end of winter, at any rate. Maybe—longer. Whatever. Hopefully the silhouette of that bridge hadn’t even broken the horizon yet.
“Perhaps next time we should relocate this to the bed,” Roy said.
“Your bed got a fireplace in front of it?” Ed asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Roy said.
“Then fuck it,” Ed said.
Roy squirmed around a little more, somehow freeing a hand to stroke his fingers through Ed’s hair. If that felt half as good for him as it did for Ed, they were both going to stay here until they starved to death after all.
“It has some other advantages,” Roy said.
“Show me later,” Ed managed to mumble through the transcendence of the hair-petting going on.
He could hear the grin in Roy’s voice. “I would be delighted.”
“Good,” Ed said. He nudged his shoulder at Roy’s chest. “Hey.”
He really liked having Roy’s head leaned against his—really liked it. “Mm?”
“Merry friggin’ Christmas,” Ed said.
He also really liked having Roy’s mouth touching his forehead, heralded by the out-breath of a soft laugh.
“Merry Christmas, Ed,” Roy said.