tierfal: (Ed - WHO YOU CALLIN' SO PRETTY)
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Title: Loud and Clear: Another One of Those Heartbreak Songs
Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Pairing: Roy/Ed (with Al/Win)
Rating: R
Word Count: 60,700 (17,700 in this chapter)
Warnings: please see note below!!
Summary: Sometimes the tall, dark, handsome ones are poisoned underneath.
Author's Note:SWEET BABY JESUS, wow. The next two chapters come with a huge host of warnings: general creepiness that starts out insidiously subtle and segues into an openly abusive relationship; borderline dub-con; and stalking. AWWWWWRIGHT. :| No, seriously – if any of that is likely to be unsettling to you, now that you know what it is, you aren't going to miss anything plot-wise if you wait this out / only read the present-day parts / skip ahead to chapter 3 once it's up. Please, please don't endure any hurt on account of this silly fic, okay? ♥

(P.S. If anybody would like me to tag anything additional up here, let me know; and I'll add it in.)

Also: this installment of the series ends in a cliffhanger that makes everything up until now look like fun and games. :'D I'm hoping to be able to keep adding one chapter per weekend all the way through this fic and the next one, but there are some editing holes I haven't filled in just yet, and I have some conventions scattered around through the summer, so there's a chance I'll get delayed. Bear with me! And/or just wait until it's all posted and then marathon the whole thing, as you prefer. XD

Final also: this fic would not have survived the first major block without Mthaytr, whose help and cheerleading was more instrumental than I can put into words; and you probably wouldn't be getting it today if it wasn't for Xyriath. We have an amazing community, guys. Please cherish your authors, and your artists, and your gif-makers, and your commenters, and your friends. ♥

After-final also since I can't shut up: the title of this one is jacked from Rob Thomas's "Something to Be", because with this fic I have now titled over 300 on AO3 alone, and any time I don't repeat myself verbatim is a win. :'D


RECAP: We last left off with present-day!Ed about to meet up with Hohenheim in London between academic commitments; and we left past-tense!Ed about to tell Roy the story of how Kimblee fucked everything up, so that Roy wouldn't try to take Kimblebee as a client.


LOUD AND CLEAR
PART 4: ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE HEARTBREAK SONGS
CHAPTER 1

Paddington Station on a Saturday morning is significantly more populous than he expected.  At least the rush of humanity here and there and everywhere—dense streams of people parting around the kiosks, feeding out onto the platforms and dribbling up through the doors—is distracting him from the fact that he’s waiting for his father’s train.

He texted Roy a couple minutes ago Do you want a paddington bear? they have them in like sixteen sizes. you think Elicia’s at that stage where stuffed animals have gone from uncool to cool again?, but it’s probably too early back home for Roy to respond.  Hopefully the phone didn’t wake him up.

Except—wait a goddamn second; Ed’s being an idiot, and the tossing and turning and jet-lag-dodging he’s been doing the last few nights is catching up.  First off, it’s ten in the morning here, which means it’s two in the morning Roy’s time.  Second, Roy’s already got a backlog of messages from him from yesterday—the trial started Roy’s-time-Friday, so he was pretty much out of commission all day, probably using his precious court recesses to pore over more material instead of dealing with messages like I guess if you’re going to open a kitschy souvenir store in London the least you could do is give it a bad pun name like ‘Tchotchke to the City’ from his nerdy-ass absentee boyfriend.  And then he was probably so dead-tired when he got home that he just couldn’t find the energy to answer them then.  Which is fine.  Ed totally understands that.  It’s a completely valid set of circumstances which does not in any way constitute an emergency, and Ed is not going to worry about it.

He’s not.

Here he is, not worrying.  Obviously.

Shit.

They have a Krispie Kreme store here.  Sometimes globalization blows Ed’s mind.  He’s not quite brave enough to hurl processed sugar and/or mediocre fake-ass-“coffee” into the roiling mess of agitated acid that is his stomach right now, though.  Much as it would be weirdly sort of satisfying—almost poetic, really—to vomit all over Hohenheim the instant he arrives, it’s probably not worth the pain and the mess and the humiliation.

The doughnut smell is so damn generally tempting, though, that he fords the flood of people and gets into the line—the queue, the queue—at one of the little food carts instead.  They’re asking for a pound fifty for a cup of tea, which is kind of silly given that you could get a box of ten of the same store-brand teabags for about that cost, but it’ll be hot, and it’ll fortify him for when the train from Oxford duly arrives.  According to the signage, it’s due on time—ten more minutes; one more woman queued up ahead of him; two pound coins jingling in his pocket as he clenches and unclenches his hand.

Despite the fact that the lady before him orders, like, eight different pastries and a complicated coffee—well, as thoroughly established, “coffee”—this is shaping up to be the longest ten-minute stretch of Ed’s entire life.  He’s not including the interminable limbo while Al was in the PICU after the thing in the factory; that doesn’t count as normal time.  That was straight-up fucking Purgatory.  That was a sampler plate of what eternity tastes like for sinners—presuming that any of that stuff is remotely credible, which is sort of difficult to believe; but on nights like that, Ed was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt if there might be anything that could help him.

With tea in hand, he wanders over into a little cutesy accessories store filled to the brim with impulse buys.  Maybe something in here will be more Elicia’s style.  She keeps talking about wanting to travel the world and take pictures of everything; if it wasn’t the middle of the school-year, he would’ve slipped her mom a check for the airfare and brought her with him for this trip.

Her style has shifted from sort of a girly-lite-goth to a subtly-vintage-with-a-hint-of-punk, which is making this a bit of a challenge.  He has to do better than a T-shirt with a glittery outline of a red phone booth, though; what he really needs is…

Classy black chandelier-y earrings that come in a package blazoned with a bunch of Union Jacks, for a start.  Maybe he can find her some Sherlock Holmes merchandise later; she’s still got Al’s copy of Doyle’s complete works stashed in her bedroom.

He manages to negotiate the purchase item, the cup of tea, and the bills to buy it by playing musical hands on the counter by the register, and then he tucks the earrings into one of the inner pockets of his laptop bag to keep them safe.  He almost forgets the tea, which is a pretty clear sign of how much he needs it, and then he strolls back out to the platform, and…

Finally, finally, the train rumbles up, hissing steam.

And that’s when his heart clambers up his throat and sticks there, throbbing like a raw wound.

He tries to count the lengths of his breaths—tries to hold the most recent gasp of air for one, two, three, four full seconds before he lets it out; tries to hear Roy’s soft voice in his ear; tries to feel Roy’s soft hands on his back, his shoulders, his neck.

His heartbeat jitters around behind his collarbones like it’s come loose off a string, and his whole chest tightens up around it like it’s trying not to let the pulse escape—but so far he’s still breathing; he has to focus on that.

He stumbles backwards a few steps to move the fuck out of the way as people start pouring off of the train and filtering through the turnstiles.  He looks intently up at the high, arching iron frame of the ceiling, bowing on both sides like a… curly bracket.  Like a curly bracket.  For notation.  Just like that.

He shoves his left hand into his pocket, fumbles until he gets a hold of his phone, and squeezes it tight between his fingers.  Al and Roy are both just a long-distance phone call away.

And Al won’t judge him.  Al won’t hold this against him—whatever happens.  Al just wants him to be happy; that’s all.  Al wants him to do what he wants.  And if that’s scrabbling for closure?  Fine.  If that’s turning his back right now and walking out of this train station and going and having a scone somewhere and never seeing his father’s face again?  Al’ll still love him just as much.

He has nothing to lose.

And that’s liberating.

He breathes out slowly—slow and as steadily as he can—and drags his gaze back down to the eddy of humanity spilling from the train.

Hohenheim’s just fitting himself through the turnstile, frowning slightly as the pole in front of him resists the pressure of his hand instead of rotating properly.  The nearby attendant sighs soundlessly and smacks a button, and it gives way, and Hohenheim smiles and edges through.  He pushes at his glasses with a fingertip, glances around himself, and—

Only smiles wider as his eyes find Ed.

Ed’s tried a thousand times to calculate it, but he’s never figured out the optimal distance for offering someone a verbal greeting when they’ve already seen you.  There are too many variables—ambient noise; air quality; how much spit’s still in your mouth after a narrow aversion of a streak of panic.

“Hey,” he says when Hohenheim gets kind of close.

It sounds weird.  It sounds fucked up.  It sounds like the sort of thing you’d say to someone that you know.

And at the same time, he can hear the guardedness in his own damn voice.  It’s not Hey, Dad.  It’s not much of anything.  It’s deliberately noncommittal, because he doesn’t know what the hell to say.

“Good morning!” Hohenheim says brightly.

It’s a damn good thing Ed didn’t have a doughnut, because he’d actually puke.

“I was thinking on the ride up about what you might like to do,” Hohenheim says.  He nudges the bridge of his glasses again even though they haven’t slipped at all.  “Is it your first time here?”

That’s it—the thing about Hohenheim that makes Ed feel absolutely fucking gutted every single time.

He acts like they’ve been close all these fucking years, talks like there’s no lost love between them, and then oh-so-fucking blithely asks about shit he’d already know if he’d ever even tried to make that true.

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “I did a little bit of the touristy kind of stuff the last couple days.”

“Have you seen Kensington Gardens?” Hohenheim asks.  When Ed shakes his head, Hohenheim extends a hand to point.  “We could walk from here, if you’d like—it’s really very pleasant.”

Ed swallows.  Bitter brambles all the way down, plummeting into his stomach and splashing in the tea he’s been chugging.

“Sure,” he says.

“Wonderful,” Hohenheim says, sounding like he means it.  “I think it’ll be very nice to have a little stroll and just… catch up.”

“Yeah,” Ed says.  Hohenheim gestures, then starts leading the way, and Ed must still have the cup of tea in his hand, but he can’t seem to feel it as he follows.  “Okay.”







It had been just about two and a half years prior to the day Roy walked into Has Beans and asked for a coffee and ruined Ed’s life in the best possible way.  There’d been one last big bookstore in town—Roy probably didn’t remember; the Borders had gone spectacularly out of business, and then a family with too much money and too much time on their hands had figured that they could make bank if they just reused the shelves and the fixtures and opened their own place for secondhand books and knickknacks and shit.  There was a little coffee shop space on the first floor, and since they were perpetually understaffed because they’d hired a grand total of about three desperate kids, Ed was constantly getting shuffled over from the register to the kiosk and learning how to pull an espresso shot on the fly.  It worked out for the best in the long run, given that the experience definitely helped him get the barista job—but… The point was, the place was kind of a disaster, somewhat redeemed by the simple fact that it was the only damn bookstore on the whole downtown stretch.

The other advantage was that, because of their incredible inability to staff the store properly at any time, ever, Ed could pretty much ask for the hours he wanted, and they were always available.  He usually just sort of penned himself in on the schedule around his classes and his lab time; and they were always glad to have him and scrounging to fill the gaps; and the pay wasn’t total shit; and he got to take home pastries at the end of the day relatively regularly, so Al always got a nice breakfast.

One Thursday night, when he’d been working there for just about four months, he was shelving a crap-ton of textbooks they’d gotten dirt-cheap from a publisher that was going out of business and marked up halfway to hell.  The Reynolds were good at that shit; they were born and bred scavengers no matter how nice they dressed.  They mostly knew it, too, and Ed kind of admired their weird sort of finesse about it.

In any case, he was in the history section with his arms full of huge-ass hardcover tomes, and his shoulder was starting to throb, but he was pretty sure the Reynolds dodged their workman’s comp shit semi-illegally so that they’d pay less taxes, and he was thinking about the homework he still had for tomorrow when he got home.

So when someone said “Excuse me” in a weirdly kind of nice voice—smooth, smooth voice; liquid, like ink more than honey—he just about jumped out of his skin.

“Sorry,” he managed, and then the guy—whose hair was even inkier than his voice, and fell in this incredible whip of a ponytail; and who had the most startling stormcloud blue-gray eyes that Ed had ever seen—said “No, I’m sorry; can I help you with—”

That was when the balance tipped, and Ed dropped the textbooks all over the floor.

Crap,” he said, crouching, and the guy knelt to help him, and he said, “Don’t worry, I got it, it’s fine,” and the guy said “No, no, I insist,” and then their hands kept meeting over books, and Ed blushed scarlet, and the guy gave him this smile like a satisfied snake.

For a genius, Ed was about the slowest learner of anyone he fucking knew.

But God, if that red flag didn’t look just a little like a blanket.

He cleared his throat and got to his feet with the books, managed a “Thank you,” and then choked out a “Can I help you find anything today?”

“I hope so,” the guy said.  “I’m looking for anything you might have on the natural sciences.”

“Sure thing,” Ed said.  He put the evil fucking history books down on one of the display tables.  “Sciences are right over here.  Any discipline in particular?”

The guy was looking at Ed’s free lanyard from the biochem department’s Christmas party, which he’d hung his employee badge on.  “How terribly fortunate that I’ve stumbled upon someone who actually knows what they’re talking about,” he said.  “Can you recommend me anything specific to organic chemistry?”

The way the guy’s eyes kept lingering on his and then darting down along the lines of his face—then to the triangle of throat and collarbones where the first few buttons of his black Oxford were open—then—further down than that—

Ed could be kind of oblivious, but he wasn’t stupid.

“Well,” he said, fumbling for the words, which were tumbling out of his grasp just like those fucking history books.  “I mean, I—sort of.”

The guy just smiled again.

Store policy-slash-tradition dictated that Ed was supposed to stay on the floor and send the customer off with his pile of science literature, and somebody else would check him out at the register.  There was a weird miasmatic sort of feeling rising in Ed’s chest about it—a strange combination of disappointment and relief.

He had to shake it off.  Fucking history books weren’t gonna shelve themselves, and his problem sets weren’t gonna do themselves, and his life wasn’t going to keep chugging along unless he fucking pushed it every inch of the way.

He latched his eyes onto the textbooks’ covers and didn’t watch the guy walk off towards the stairs.





On Saturday—as with practically every Saturday—Ed was stationed at the register, in the midst of what he and Dolch had unofficially named the Dawn-to-Dusk Murder Shift, though they abbreviated it to DDMS in front of the Reynolds.  Dolch was the one who ended up helping him get the Has Beans job later on, because he and Marta went way back, and had apparently, like, dated once back when they were in high school, before she realized she wasn’t really into guys at all.  Dolch was very specific on that, like Ed would have accused him of not being man enough or some shit when Ed had about the single least heterosexual love life track record of anyone he knew.

Anyway, they were on DDMS, and it was ten in the morning or something, and Ed was stickering the shit out of some books and trying not to hear the intercom music, and Dolch elbowed him in the ribs.  Not gently.  Dolch had what Al had once called “occasional enthusiasm-related boundary confusion”.

“That guy was in here yesterday,” Dolch said.  “He was looking for you.”

Ed knew who it was before he glanced over.  The guy was really—striking.  Not, like, damn-I’d-tap-that-fine-piece-of-ass-if-I-didn’t-think-I’d-burn-my-hand hot, but attractive.  Like a magnet.  Sort of captivating.  Something about the ease of his stride and the casual slant of his shoulders—something about the hooded eyes and the thin, almost-caustic smile.  Something so calm and disaffected that it made just the concept of garnering his interest seem… challenging.  Exciting.  Addictive.

Ed just sort of wanted to affect him, was all.

Maybe he didn’t think all that right at the start.  Maybe it was way simpler than that, and he was just projecting backwards, with the perspective that time and a hell of a lot of thought had lent him.

The guy was good-looking, and he was looking at Ed.  In the miserable, toxic wake of how Greg had replaced him with more convenient bodies—in the wash of bitter self-loathing and carved-out loneliness; in the poisonous fury at the betrayal and the pathetic collapse of the defeat—that felt… kind of… nice.  Kind of… promising.  Like maybe he wasn’t just fucking trash to be crumpled up and tossed out after all; like maybe people might not hate looking at him; like maybe there was hope for him offering his heart to someone and coming away with anything other than heel prints on it by the end.  Like at least he wasn’t everybody’s last resort.  Like someone might want him, only him.  Like someone might appreciate the sight of him enough to size him up in his stupid bookstore-peon quasi-uniform.

He wanted to be wanted.  He wanted to be loved, for fuck’s sake—cherished and cooed over, sure, fine; he just wanted to be listened to; he wanted to be held tight and kissed softly when he was so fucking worn out he couldn’t stand.  Al couldn’t give him that.  Al was stuck with him, anyway, and it was the best kind of necessary codependence anybody could’ve imagined, but Al’s affection for him was a given.  It was owed, and he gave back every iota that he got.

From somebody else, though—

From somebody who wanted to see him happy and also wanted to get him naked—

Just—

Was it too much to ask?  Was that his fucking problem?  Was he demanding too much from the indifferent universe, and that was why it kept fucking slapping him down?

Maybe he needed to learn some damn humility and teach himself some gratitude, and… and something good might come his way eventually.  Right?  It was stupid to try to hurry it, and he didn’t deserve anything; he didn’t have a right to any of his stupid, hazy-warm little fantasies; people were dying in droves in countries he couldn’t pin on a map, and his mother had died not much older than he was now.  Life was not fair; the world was not kind; anyone who couldn’t cope with that was a child.

He’d be fine.

He’d get through it, like he always did.

He looked away from the guy in the store even though Dolch elbowed him again, even less-subtly this time.  He looked down at the register keys and curled his hands into fists on the counter and didn’t fucking beg for the attention.

That was a step in the right direction, wasn’t it?

…except.

Except that the guy came in again on Sunday afternoon, and Ed didn’t have the DDMS warning system digging a pointy joint into his ribs—he just looked up from the register, and the guy was standing there, smiling at him.

His breath stuck, and his heart jittered hard and wouldn’t stay still no matter how carefully he tried to breathe.

“Hi,” he said, fighting to keep his voice level, and maybe it was a war he’d lose, but so far— “Finding everything okay?”

“Nearly everything,” the guy said.  “Could I trouble you for your educated opinion?”

He had two genetics books—a newer and an older—with contradictory passages on the same topic.

Well, shit, Ed hadn’t sacrificed all these years of his life and hours of sleep for nothing, right?  He pushed past the weird fluttery sensation in his stomach—not butterflies, really, unless butterflies had gotten a whole lot stickier since he was a kid—and started in on how the reason the older book was still in print was that it was just better-researched, honestly, and more reputable all around.  Conventional wisdom was starting to favor the newer results just because people were loud about them, but that was basically a freaking myth—and if you looked at the footnotes about the study they were citing, their sample size was dangerously small, and if that didn’t turn you off of their results, their smarmy use of certainty words instead of qualifiers was another thing, and…

And the guy was just—looking at him.

“Thank you,” he said.  “That’s very useful.”

“Sure,” Ed said.

The guy inclined his head just slightly towards Ed’s badge.  “May I call you Edward?”

Fuckin’ too late now.  “Ed’s okay.”

“Ed, then,” the guy said.  “I think I’d like to buy this one.”  He laid one long-fingered hand on Ed’s pick.  “And do you know if there’s going to be anyone serving over in the coffee shop soon?  There really isn’t anything more pleasant than a cup of coffee and some time to read.”

Ed couldn’t argue with that.  He attempted to convince their ornery fucking scanner—which somebody, he suspected Dolch, had Sharpied little eyes on, because it looked like a brontosaurus’s head and neck—to read the barcode.  “I can run over there and do that for you.  Gotta check you out separately, though—sorry.  You’re looking at $22.58 here.”

“Delightful,” the guy said, and his hands were really something; Ed couldn’t help watching the way he flipped through the bills in his wallet to pull out thirty dollars in cash.

He met Ed’s eyes the whole time as he handed them over, and then again as Ed counted the change out into the palm of his hand.  It was—what?  What the fuck was it?  Ed was getting goosebumps, and his blood was running so hot, and he could hear his heartbeat resonating back against the walls of his skull.

“Righto,” he said, offering up the receipt.  The guy plucked it out of his fingers so fucking deliberately, eyes on him, eyes always on him— “If you wanna just follow me… What can I get going for you over at the café?”

“Just coffee,” the guy said as Ed led the way over.  “Black.”

“You bet,” Ed said, slipping back behind the counter and throwing an apron on.  He washed his hands and tried not to think about the fact that the towel by the sink had to be a bacterial bar mitzvah after hanging there slightly damp for God-only-knew-how-long.  “You mind if I make a new pot?  It’ll take a little while, but I dunno how long this’s been sitting here.”

“Not at all,” the guy said, settling at the closest little wooden table and stretching out his legs.  He laid one ankle across the other and folded his hands on top of the book, and then he just… watched.  “That’s very kind of you.”

Ed kind of wanted to say Well, no, I get paid for this shit, but he couldn’t afford to lose this job.  “No problem.  It’ll be just a minute.”

“Take your time,” the guy said, and the elegant angles of his body did something funny to Ed’s throat.






Dolch’s elbow reunited with Ed’s ribcage Tuesday night.  “Your guy’s back.”

“He’s not my guy,” Ed said.

“Dude,” Dolch said.  “He was in here yesterday, ‘Might I inquire’-ing if you were around.”

Just as Ed was about to say Him looking at me like spiders look at flies does not make him ‘mine’, the guy pushed the front doors open and strode on through.

“Hi,” Ed said.  “How are you tonight?”

“Excellent,” the guy said.  His eyes flicked briefly to Dolch, but you could tell that everything but Ed was window-dressing, and he didn’t give a shit.  “And you?”

“Doin’ all right,” Ed said, which was more or less the case.  “Anything I can help you find?”

“Do you carry anything on neurology?” the guy asked.

Ed gave him a smile and turned to the computer to click into the inventory.  “Let’s find out.”






Every night that week that Ed was working, the guy came in and asked for a science book—then cracked it open and started asking seriously intelligent questions.  Ed went back and forth trying to figure out what the game was—did he really just want someone to talk obscure knowledge trivia with, or was it something… other… than that?

Either way, the dude was spending a small fucking fortune on books—the technical shit wasn’t cheap, and he was getting something brand-new every other day.  Either he had a hell of a lot of money to burn, or he was seriously desperate for… whatever it was that he wanted.  Whatever he was here for, over and over and over again.

He was sort of nice to talk to, though, weirdly enough.  At first it was just that Ed didn’t have a choice except to do the polite-customer-conversation-small-talk thing, but then it was—better than that.  The science stuff was really good, because the guy was smart, not to mention articulate as hell.  He really got it, which was more than you could say for most people who tried to dabble in just about every scientific discipline that was making headlines these days.  And he was curious, too, and not a big douchebag about it when he didn’t know something—he was genuinely interested in learning about shit.  Ed liked that.  Kind of a lot.

And—more and more and more—it seemed like he was genuinely interested in Ed.  Not just in eyeballing him from the stationery section anymore, either; he’d… ask questions.  Good questions, pleasant questions—how Ed’s day was going, what he was studying, what had made him pick this field, this school (“because of course you must have had all of them groveling at your feet, with a mind like yours”), this part of town—

And Ed had said something about Al somewhere, and something about his car, and a couple things about where he grew up, and it was only towards the end of the week that he realized—with a feeling like surfacing from warm water—that he didn’t know the first fucking thing about this guy.

On Friday night, the guy came in a few minutes before eight.  It was starting to get kind of… exciting, waiting for him, wondering what topic he’d be interested in next.  For bonus points, he was practically singlehandedly keeping this place in business.

By eight-fifteen, they’d found him a collection of transcripts of lectures at an interdisciplinary engineering conference, which they took back down to the registers so Ed could ring him up.

“When does your shift end tonight?” the guy asked, handing over cash.

“Ten,” Ed said as he took it.

“Excellent,” the guy said.  He said that a lot.  But not in a Wayne’s World way at all.  “Can I buy you a drink afterwards?”

Ed was halfway through counting change, and his mind ground to a full and complete stop, with hands and arms flailing furiously outside of the ride.  “What?”

“After your shift,” the guy said calmly, “would you meet me at the Ace of Spades so that I can buy you a drink?”

Ed swallowed.  He looked at the money in his hand, then the money in the drawer, trying to remember how much switching around he still had to do between them.  Had the guy given him two twenties, or a fifty?  Just as pertinently, what the fucking fuck was going on?

“Um,” he said.  “S-sure.  Yeah.”  A furtive glance confirmed that the guy had his thin, pleased smile firmly in place, and heat rushed into Ed’s cheeks.  “It’ll—take me a couple minutes to get there.  You’d be waiting a while.”

“I don’t mind,” the guy said.

Ed tried out a grin, aiming for carefree and roguish and adventurous or some shit.  “Okay.  Cool.”

“Fifteen forty-seven,” the guy said.

Ed blinked.

“My change,” the guy said.  “It’s fifteen forty-seven.”  The smile was back.  “You’re really very fetching when you’re flustered.”

That turned Ed’s face the color and temperature of marinara sauce in point-two seconds flat.  “I—oh, God.  Uh.  Thanks.  Um.  Here.”

The guy laughed—a soft, light, melodious kind of a sound.  Smooth and understated and utterly entrancing, like everything about him.  He took his change, and his fingertips grazed Ed’s way more than was remotely necessary, and his eyes never left Ed’s face.  “Yes, quite like that.”

Was Ed an attention whore for liking this?  Was he vain for feeling—what?  Flattered?  Validated?

Shit.

“Jeez,” he said, fumbling to tear the guy’s receipt off without shredding the fucking thing.  “Um—okay.  I’ll head over there at ten, I guess.  Um.  You gonna be inside, or…?”

It wasn’t exactly a dive bar, but all bars sort of made Ed antsy, so he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea of wandering in alone.

Maybe that was a good thing—a good sign.  Maybe he needed to shake his life the fuck up, change something, rework and rewrite and rebuild and do something different to jar himself out of this rut and feel like a human fucking being again.

“Why don’t I give you my cell number?” the guy said.  “I can put it into your phone, if you like.”

Ed wasn’t sure he liked.  He was sure, however, that this was gonna get awkward as shit if he didn’t hand his phone over, and he didn’t want to fuck it up this time; somebody was actively giving a shit about him for once, and it felt nice, and…

“Sure,” he said.  He dragged it out of his pocket, tapped in his passcode, and then pushed it across the counter.

“Excellent,” the guy said.  His gaze dipped, reluctantly it seemed, from Ed’s face to the phone screen.  Unbelievable hands.  Unbelievable fingers.  “Call if you’re having trouble finding me, and then you can just stay put until I get there, hm?”

He pushed the phone back, and his eyes lifted slow, slow, slow until they latched onto Ed’s again.

“Yeah,” Ed managed.  “Okay.”

“Perfect,” the guy said.  He tucked his receipt into the front cover of the book.  “I’ll see you soon, then.”

“Yeah,” Ed said again.

He watched the guy walk out the front doors and wondered what in the ever-loving fuck he thought he was doing.

…the dude had a pretty great ass, though.






Two hours later, Ed was standing on the sidewalk in front of Ace of Spades.  His shoulder ached like hell from vacuuming upstairs as fast as humanly possible after close, and his head was throbbing a little bit on the off-beats of the nerve pain, apparently just for shits and giggles.

Ed liked alcohol.  He liked taking the easy way out every now and then; he liked having a surefire recipe for filing the edge off of everything.  He liked tripping his stupid brain in mid-frantic-scurry and forcing it to shut up.  He liked how it made him funnier—made everything funnier—and how the world felt smaller and a little less cold when he had a stomach full of bubbles and a sticky-sweet film over the cruelest parts of his own fucking intellect.

Ed didn’t like bars.

He was pretty sure it was the concept more than the actual experience that made him so fucking leery that the doors of the Ace looked like a black hole right that second.  He just… didn’t like the noise, didn’t like the too-loud laughter and the bad music and the shouted conversations that got muddier and muddier the more that people drank.  He didn’t like the hazy eyes and the sharp elbows; he didn’t like the sense he always got that he was being watched from a dark corner by somebody who’d drowned their own inhibitions an hour ago.  He didn’t like thinking about what people were capable of when they’d had too much.  He didn’t like being in the middle of all that, in a wash of lost control, trying to preserve himself—protect himself—when his own faculties were numbed to shit the second he started to participate in the reason he was there.

Point was, he did his drinking at home.  Bars made his skin crawl; bars made him feel small and lost and stupid and vulnerable and desperate.  He couldn’t let himself be any of those things; all the shit he’d built up brick by brick would fucking crumble if he dropped his guard for a second.

Except… here he was anyway, ’cause some fucking stranger with nice hands and nice hair had smiled and asked.

Fuck.

He closed his eyes for a second, listening to the rattle of the leaves in the slight wind and the draw of his own breath into his lungs.  It was just a building.  It was just a building full of people, and he didn’t have to drink anything, and he didn’t owe anybody in there a goddamn thing.  And he could kick any of their asses even if he’d had, like, a whole fifth of whiskey; they weren’t shit.

For fuck’s sake.  He could do this.  He owed it to himself to try—owed it to his pride and all the goddamn Everests he’d scaled to get here; to the people who supported him all the way; and to the maybe-half-a-chance at something awesome waiting for him just inside.

He squared his shoulders, dragged in a breath, let it out slow, and opened the door.

The cacophony of intoxicated chaos steamrolled him right off the bat, but he soldiered through it.  He had to be cool.  He had to be fucking cool; maybe this guy was into scientists, but nobody liked a loser.

Speaking of the guy, Ed’s quick and possibly slightly distressed search of the main barroom the instant he stepped in revealed no tall figure with a crisp white shirt and a brain-shorting fall of stark black hair.  Where the fuck was he?  Had he just set Ed up for a small and pointless prank or some shit?  Was that what this was?

He had to play cool.  If he just played fucking cool, he’d be fine; he’d be bulletproof—untouchable.

He sized up the room as he started towards the bar, fishing his phone out of his pocket again—it was, apparently, too much to hope for a text message telling him where the mystery guy was.

Although—speaking of, what the hell had he called himself when he was adding himself as a contact in Ed’s phone?

That was good; that gave him something to do with his hands.  He thumbed his way down through the admittedly pretty fucking short list—the only reason there was any scrolling to do at all was that all the other lab members were in there, by order of Izumi—and kept one eye on the fluid shifting of the people on all sides.

There was one entry he’d never seen before: Soph Kimblee.  What the hell kind of a name was that?

…then again, Ed had been told on more than one occasion that his own damn name sounded fake.  And he’d gotten a hell of a lot of seriously unwanted attention for it right after Twilight came out.

There was an open segment of the bar, and he picked the seat exactly in the middle of it—buffer zone.  Never hurt.

The bartender was a big guy with a broad forehead and broader forearms, which were blanketed in tats.  He came over and raised an eyebrow.

Play it fucking cool; be ice; be Arctic

“Your dragon is totally kickass,” Ed said, pointing at the one coiling downward from the guy’s elbow, with its head on his wrist so that the flames from its mouth could shoot out over the back of his hand.

“Thanks,” the guy said.  “What can I get you?”

“Can I have a Coke for now?” Ed asked.  “I’m—waiting for somebody.”

“Sure,” the guy said.  “Two-fifty.  Still need ID if you’re gonna sit there, though.”

Ed put his phone down on the driest part of the countertop in front of him and dug for his wallet.  “Here.”  Judiciously, he didn’t add the long rant about markups on diluted soda syrup and shit.  Al probably knew that one by heart by now.

The bartender returned his driver’s license in favor of taking his three bucks, slipping off towards the register.  Ed started a text to the new number.

hey i’m here can’t find you sorry

He looked at it for a minute.  That was the fucking beautiful thing about text messages—you could think about what you wanted to say for as long as you liked before you sent the damn thing.  No such luck on a phone call; real time required you to generate coherent responses on the fly.  Plus you could manually lower yourself on someone’s list of priorities if you sent a text—texts weren’t urgent in the same way as an incoming call, and that took even more of the pressure off.

The barkeep brought him a glass of Coke and a coaster.  After five long, time-killing sips on the straw, a text to Al that said nothing more or less than hi i’m at ace of spades with a guy from work don’t wait up but just in case i’m not back tomorrow morning call the cops love you kid <3, Ed sighed inwardly, navigated back to the newly-added number, and picked the button to dial it this time.

His throat went kind of dry, and his hands went kind of clammy, and he clutched the phone to his ear and chewed on his straw, scouring the room all the while.  There weren’t exactly a whole lot of places to fucking hide

The line caught on the third ring.

“Hello,” the guy’s voice said, buttery as hell.

“It’s me,” Ed managed.  “Ed.  From the bookstore.”

“Wonderful,” the guy said.

Uh… okay.  “I’m here,” Ed said.  “I’m on the right side of the bar.”

“I see you,” the guy’s voice said.

Ed twisted around, and—sure enough—the guy was standing off on the far side of the room directly behind him, lowering his phone with a slow smile and a small wave.

Why the fuck was Ed so fucking awkward all the time?  What was it that other people did to fill the time gap between making eye contact and coming into earshot?  Did it just not bother them?  Was awkwardness just something you had to opt into by acknowledging its action potential?

More likely Ed was just—wired wrong.  He always had been; odds were this wasn’t any different.

“Hope you haven’t been waiting long,” the guy—Soph—said, right as he got close enough to hear, just as Ed was starting to part his lips to blurt out something probably-stupid.  The guy settled on the bar stool on Ed’s right and spread one hand on the bar.  “What’s your poison?”

“I’m okay,” Ed said, gesturing with his elbow to his Coke.  It was a fucking miracle that he managed not to knock the damn thing over for once.

“Nonsense,” the guy said.  “My treat.”

Ed tried at a genial kind of smile.  “It’s really okay.”

The guy’s other hand rose to brush something off of Ed’s shoulder—a touch so light it barely registered, and goosebumps chased Ed’s pulse all the way down his arm.  “Come on.  I insist.”

Soph Kimblee’s eyes were somehow bright and amused and fucking intense at the same time, and it made Ed’s stomach clench, and maybe… maybe he did just need to liquor himself up enough to relax, right?  “I—okay.  I’m already started on Coke; they can just put rum in the next one.”

The guy smiled and then half-turned to signal to the bartender with the rad tattoo, who dutifully returned.  “Could you bring a rum and Coke for this charming young man—” Ed flushed hot and red to the very fucking tips of his fucking ears; didn’t this guy know they were in fucking public?  “—and a vodka martini?  Belvedere, if you’d be so kind.”

Ed waited for the deluge of homophobic rage, but it… never arrived.  The bartender just sort of nodded and said “You want me to start a tab?”

“Please,” the guy said—and Ed was such a moron; he had a name.

Ed cleared his throat as soon as the bartender moved away.  “So is… Is ‘Soph’ short for something?”

“Sophocles,” the guy said, smiling again.

“Fancy,” Ed said, trying to grin back.  “You sure you can slum it with somebody named like me?”

Soph’s smile curved higher.  “You have a king’s name,” he said, “and a prince’s aspect.  What else could I ask for?”

Ed’s face was on fire again.  You’d think he’d be used to it by now, but it was a mortifying shock every single goddamn fucking time.

“That,” Soph said, narrow smile parting for a gleam of teeth as he lifted his hand and touched two fingertips to Ed’s flaming cheek.  “That is really rather beautiful.”

Naturally, the blaze under Ed’s skin escalated to three-alarm status at that.  “Wh—at?”

Soph laughed, low and quiet, and his eyes glittered, and his fingertips traced down to Ed’s jaw.  “You have such an expressive face.  Surprise flatters you enormously.”

Ed wasn’t sure he would’ve called it surprise so much as—what?  It wasn’t embarrassment, really; it wasn’t shame.  He didn’t… really… know… what it was.  Maybe there wasn’t a word for it.  It was sort of a mush-pot of being pleased at the compliments without actually believing them at all, and a hyper-awareness of all the people around them, and a draw to the increasing allure of Soph’s thin little smile—the man looked like he could do amazing things with that mouth.

The rush of heart-pounding adrenaline at that thought definitely swirled some shame in with the endorphins.  Apparently Ed was gunning for sex before they’d even had a fucking drink.  Edward ‘Self-Respect’ Elric; that was him.

Their drinks clinked down on the counter, and Ed just about jumped out of his skin as the bartender’s shadow fell across them.  Soph’s hand dropped gracefully away from his face, which sort of left his cheek tingling, like the fingerprints had left a mark—a brand—and everyone would know, now, who he belonged to.

That shouldn’t have been such a good thought—such a comforting thought.  Being beholden to someone.  Belonging; being someone’s belonging.  Being owned; being claimed; being wanted, badly.  But it was.  He was just so fucking desperate.

Fuck.

Whatever—he was playing it cool.  He was dry ice on a winter evening, and he was doing okay so far, and he was going to get through this, and it was fine.

So they… talked.  Him and Soph.  Soph had a way of tilting his head down just a little and looking up through his lashes, with his eyelids kind of low, and that should’ve looked lazy, but it was so fucking focused that it made Ed’s guts wobble in a seriously disconcerting way.  The guy was still just so good to talk to—they went on about science for ages, and then Ed asked what Soph did for a living if advanced science discussions were his fucking hobby, and Soph said something about weapons tech, which was a little unsettling, but Ed had lab-friends who did things to test animals that would make most people vomit, so he tried not to judge.

There were a lot of drinks.  Soph just kept—making this really graceful gesture with his hand, and the bartender would come and sweep away Ed’s empty glass and set down a new one, and Ed knew his words were starting to blur together at the edges a little bit, and he was starting to laugh a little too easily.  He knew he should stop, but it felt nice—not thinking anything; not over-thinking anything; just… having fun.  With a guy he’d just met, who kept smiling at him and touching his face and his arm and his hand and—once—his neck, and he probably shivered, and that should’ve been embarrassing as shit, but he just felt… floaty.  Calm.  Good.

Next thing he remembered, they were outside, and the streetlamps were bobbing around like fucking fairy lights—like will-o’-the-wisps—and he was saying “Shit, shit, I’m sorry, I had too much, I—?”, and then there was an arm around his shoulders.

Then his shoulders were against a wall—brick?—and it was dark, and then it was even darker because someone was kissing him, and he couldn’t see anything around them; there was a curtain of thick, dark hair, and he buried his fingers in it.

It was a good kiss, too—a kiss like a velvet dream; like a river of dark chocolate flooding its banks; like the mathematical average of heaven and hell, and he whimpered into it, and a beautiful voice laughed softly.

“You have had a bit too much, haven’t you?” it asked, and things were sort of tilting, and he wondered how many hours he had left before his digestive system would stage the full-scale rebellion.  What time was it, anyway?

“Told my brother I’d get home,” he forced out—or something like it, something with words; maybe it was those words.  “C’n you—I could—taxi, or—”

“Nonsense,” the lovely voice said.  “I’ll take you.  Come along.”

Like he could do much of fucking anything.

The arm was around him again, and even though his feet kept trying to tangle up and hurl him to the spinning sidewalk, somehow it supported him until he was looking at his distorted reflection in the shiny window of a car.  The door was opened, and then he was guided down onto a really comfortable leather seat, and then he started fumbling for the seatbelt at the same time that a much more dextrous pair of hands reached for it, and they pushed his aside.

“Let me,” the voice said, and buckled him in, and then he was being kissed again, and he tried to rise up into it, but the shoulder-belt was sort of cutting into his throat.  The one in his car was so frayed on the edge that it didn’t hurt anymore even when it hit him at an angle like that, and he shouldn’t’ve been thinking about seatbelts while he was kissing someone anyway; that was rude.

He didn’t want to be rude.  He wanted to be lovable.

When the kiss receded, he tried to say so, but he heard it starting to come out in an incoherent mumble of backwards syllables and gave up partway through.

The door closed, and then the door on the other side opened, and then the car bounced just slightly—but enough to jar Ed’s nausea from a creeping-lurking thing into a predator—and then the engine roared too loud, and then…

Somehow he was letting himself into the lobby of their apartment building with his first key, and the second one kept swimming in his vision, and he staggered over to the elevator and managed to hit the up button on his third try.  Was he alone again?  He tried to turn around and check, and he almost fell on his ass; somehow his fucked-up reflexes resulted in an arm against the wall that steadied him a little.  The elevator dinged real loud and then shuddered open, and he glared down at his feet and tried to make them carry him inside.

There was a sort of handrail-bar-thing on the wall, which he clung to while the elevator car lurched up and up and up to the eighth floor, then parted its doors again so that he could stumble out into the hallway.  He seemed to be good at the stumbling thing, or at least good at gathering and maintaining momentum, judging by the fact that he stumbled out of the elevator and all the way across the hall and collided with the opposite wall at a fairly impressive speed.

What the fuck time was it?  He’d gotten off work at… ten, right?  He couldn’t’ve started drinking before ten thirty, after all that fucking around with his phone that he’d done before he’d even gotten to the rum.  It had to be, what?  One?  Two?  Didn’t they close the bars at two?  Was that why they’d left?  He couldn’t remember; either everything was swaying around him, or he was swaying, and everything else was staying obnoxiously still.

The math was vaguely comforting, though.  Made him feel a tiny bit less like a dumbass piece of shit gallumphing down the hall at fuck-knows-o’-clock, probably about to garner some fucking complaints from the fucking neighbors that would make Al get all upset and shit, and—

And—

Where were his keys?

It was a miracle that their apartment was the one at the end of the hall, because he couldn’t seem to get his eyes to understand the numbers on the doors.  Which was kind of ironic, given that the numbers in his head were having a stabilizing influence.  He sort of wanted to laugh about that, but he had a weird premonition that if he opened his mouth for too long, he was gonna barf.

His stumble took him to the door—or, more specifically, into the door, as he lost his balance and sort of banged into it, and his whole fucking arm surged with violent pins-and-needles agony at the impact on his elbow, at which point he sagged down to the floor to cradle his forearm to his chest and make mournful noises to himself.

…it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.

He really only had time for two distinct noises (sort of a “Mrrrr” and then a “Hnnuu”, each masterpieces in their own right) before the door opened, and he tipped over and ended up sprawled over the threshold, arm clutched beneath him.

“Ow,” he said.

“Oh, gosh,” Al said in a high voice.  Because of course Al was waiting up for him, even though Ed had told him not to; of course he was; he always did; he got so worried, and Ed was such a shitty brother that he kept giving Al reasons to worry, and it was probably affecting Al’s sleep and his studies and his beautiful soul, and…

Ed might have been crying a little.

“Sweet mother of pearl,” Al said.  His hands were on Ed’s shoulder, and the blurry jeans-colored things in front of Ed’s face might have been his knees.  “Brother—are you—oh, gosh, Ed, you smell like a liquor store.”

“I feel like one,” Ed said.

“What?” Al said.  “Um—never mind.  Brother—c’mon, here, we’ll just—c’mon, you can sleep on the couch; we’ll get you a bucket.  How are you feeling?”

“Gross,” Ed said.

“I’m shocked,” Al said.  “Easy—you’re okay, c’mon, use your feet, Brother—all right, here we go—”

Somehow, he ended up collapsed on the couch, which he had to admit was significantly more comfortable than the floor of their entryway.

“I’m sorry,” he managed to get out.  “I’m so sorry, Al, I’m so sorry—I’m such a piece of shit; I can’t even go out for a drink without getting fucked up and then fucking you over even though you have nothing to do with it, and I’m the worst brother ever, and you hate me, and I’m so sorry, Al, I love you, I’m so fucking sorry, I—”

Al put a hand over his mouth, which he noticed after a few of the words got even more mangled than their predecessors on their way off his tongue.

“Hush up,” Al said.  “Gosh, Ed, you… gosh.  I’m not mad, okay?  I’m just worried about you.  This isn’t like you, and you must’ve had a lot if you’re this… messed up, and—and that’s scary, but we’re going to get through it, okay?  You and me.  Like always.  It’s going to be fine, Brother.  You don’t have to be sorry; there’s nothing to be sorry about.  I love you, too.”  He took his hand away slowly.  “Okay?”

“You won’t love me anymore if I barf on you,” Ed said, feeling the truth of the statement resonate though every miserable bone in his miserable body.

“Oh, Brother,” Al said with more than a hint of a sigh—the sigh of a good person giving up on a bad one at long, long last.  “Do you think you’re up to drinking some water?”

“I think I’m gonna puke up my lungs,” Ed said.

“That doesn’t really answer the question, but…”

“Bucket,” Ed said weakly.

Al handed it to him, and Ed filled it, and…

Well, that sucked.

But then he passed out while Al was stroking his hair a lot and murmuring a little, and that sucked much less.






The next morning, however, sucked heinously.

“I’m dying,” Ed said.  “Dying.”

“You should call in sick to work,” Al said.

“Can’t,” Ed said.  “Murder shift.  Dolch’ll kill me if I bail.”

“You’ve had four hours of sleep and twice that many Advil,” Al said.  “Dolch can’t kill you if you actually die.”

“They don’t have anybody else,” Ed said.  “Can’t miss shifts.”  He could put his head down on the table for a moment, though.  Just a second.  “Fuck.”

“Brother,” Al said in his Worried Voice—or one of his Worried Voices, anyway, since he had, like, twelve.  “I really don’t think you should go i—”

“Got to,” Ed said.

And if it was partly because he just—was really, really hoping to see Soph again—

Well—

Was that a fucking crime?






“Dude,” Dolch said when Ed staggered in two minutes before nine.  “You look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Ed said through the pounding of his fucking brain, which was not unlike a taiko drumming performance on crack.  “I’m so fucking glad I can always count on unconditional support from my compassionate fucking friends.”

Dolch laughed, which hurt even more.  Not in an emotional way; just for Ed’s headache.  “Are you hungover?”

“Maybe,” Ed said.  He’d snuck the entire bottle of Advil into his bag, which Al would kill him for if he knew; Al had this thing about preserving Ed’s liver.  Not in formaldehyde, or anything; he just thought Ed was going to destroy it with all of the painkillers and caffeine.

Like Ed had a fucking choice—his options were to coddle his liver; or to be awake and not in pain all the fucking time.  Kind of a no-brainer even when your brain was staging some French Revolution-caliber revolts and shit.

“Dude,” Dolch said.  “Did you go out last night?  You suck.  You never go out with us.”

That’s because you’re friends with Greg, Ed did not say, and if he showed up, and I was drunk, I swear to God, I don’t know if I’d deck him or try to get him to take me back.  And I don’t fuckin’ wanna know.

He snagged the key and went to go unlock the front doors.  “It was a one-time thing.”

“I get it,” Dolch said in an admittedly pretty hilarious overstated fake-sad voice.  “You just don’t like me.  After everything we’ve been through… that time those six different pigeons got into the store at once—” That had been an interesting day.  “—and the lady who tried to assault you because we didn’t have the right gospel CD—” That, too.  “—and the guy who filed a complaint because I said ‘What the hell’ when he spilled his coffee all over me—” That had been kind of rough; Dolch had almost gotten fired over it until Ed had convinced the Reynolds to watch the security camera footage and see it for themselves.  “Apparently, that doesn’t mean anything to you anymore.”

“Yeah,” Ed said, dragging some of their standing signs out into the proper places from where he’d relocated them to vacuum last night.  “Sorry.  Our friendship is meaningless.  I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”

Dolch rolled his eyes so hard it was a wonder they didn’t fall out of his head and get squished underfoot.  “Wow.  Tell me how you really feel, Elric.”

Ed went back to the Island of Lost Registers to fish his badge and shit out of his backpack and sling it on.  “No, it’s really just… I don’t… normally do that shit.  Not my thing.  It was just—that guy.”

He got sort of a warm, tingly, fluttery feeling in his stomach even saying it, which was about the single most disgusting thing that had ever happened to him over the course of his painfully unromantic life.  Also, it made the hangover nausea eight times worse.  Why did people even do this falling-in-love crap?

…oh.  Oh, God.  Was he—how could he even be thinking that after just a couple—oh, God.

“Whoa,” Dolch was saying.  There was a hand waving in front of his eyes.  “Earth to Ed.  You mean your stalker-guy?”

“He’s not a stalker,” Ed said.  “He’s just—” Aggressive.  Persistent.  Kind of maybe following me a little, sure, but whatever.  Really, really hot.  “—interested.”

Dolch eyed him for a second.  “Okay, man,” he said.  “But… I mean, I know this is some straight-outta-Cosmo shit, but—don’t… settle.”

Ed stared at him.

Dolch looked ferociously embarrassed.  “I mean—it sort of seems like you… what the fuck ever, never mind.”

This was getting dangerously close to Feelings Talk for a conversation between two dudes, so Ed figured it was probably best to… not… press the issue.  At all.  Ever.

“Uh,” he said.  “How was your night?”

Dolch started going on about an informal Super Smash Thing tournament after that, so Ed figured he’d probably dodged the bullet.






Ed was helping a little girl who wanted a sparkly notebook—but not too sparkly, and she only had ten dollars, and it needed to be a good one, and why were the sparkly things always pink when there were so many other pretty colors too?—when he heard the rush of air of the front doors opening.  Right as he glanced up, Soph sauntered in—all sheer fucking elegance and fine slacks and stunning hair and gorgeous-sharp features with the slightest meaningful twist of his hips.

Ed’s mouth went dry.  Which wasn’t really that much of a problem, because he hadn’t had any valid answers for the little girl’s questions anyway, except for maybe a sort of bewildered “Patriarchy?”, and she probably didn’t know that that was the word for it yet.

He focused hard on the stationery shelf and picked out another candidate, which he presented to her.  He cleared his throat twice.  “How’s—this one?”

It was a sunny-sky sort of blue with a stylistic flower design on it in silver.

“I dunno,” the girl said.  She couldn’t have been more than seven; fuck her parents for ditching her here while they went off and did whatever they were doing.  It wasn’t that he felt like he was babysitting—this was clearly the kind of kid who knew how to entertain herself; and also the kind who had obviously been down this road before, and would shortly be picking up a Junie B. Jones book and sitting silently in a corner to read it until her parents deigned to retrieve her again.

It was the fact that nothing pissed Ed off like kids getting left on their own when their parents had every single goddamn necessary resource to look after them and just didn’t want to.

Fucking nothing.

Anyway—just knowing that Soph was in the damn building was making his stomach flip and backflip and try out all-new pretzel shape designs, but that didn’t matter yet, because right now this little girl was the most important person in the world to him.

She was tilting the notebook back and forth so that the embossed silver would catch the light.

“It’s nice, I guess,” she said.  She looked at him, then at the rack.  “Well—what’s your favorite color?”

“Black,” Ed said.  “Or red.”

“’Kay,” the girl said, very seriously.  “You guys got a red one?  I want a red one.”

There was a small black Moleskine-type one that had red-edged pages, but it was higher up.  For once—for once—Ed was the conversational participant with superior height coming to his advantage.

“How’s this?” he asked.  “It’s sorta red.”

Her face lit up—then fell just as fast as she turned it over.  “This costs fifteen dollars.  I only got ten.”

“How about I get it for you,” Ed said before he could stop himself, “and use my discount, which’ll make it, like, twelve dollars, and then you can pay me back?”

She looked at him like he was a fucking angel sent down to save her—like there was not a goddamn thing about him that was wrong or backwards or broken.

You couldn’t put a price on that.

He rung her up with his discount, and swiped his credit card—he had been thinking about buying that one, anyway, except for the fact that having nice notebooks in lab was like setting Michelin-star restaurant dishes in front of farm animals—and then took the ten-dollar bill she solemnly handed over.

“I owe you—” She had to stand on her toes to look at the register total.  “One dollar and twenty-four cents.”

“No problem,” Ed said.  “Just come by another time.  Whenever.”

She beamed at him, clutching the notebook to her chest.  “I’m gonna write a story about you.  One where you’re a superhero who saves the world.”

He grinned at her.  “Sounds awesome.  Let me know when it’s done.”

She flounced off looking happier than just about anybody he’d ever met, and that felt… frigging rad, actually.

Dolch was totally laughing at him.  “Man, chicks dig you.  What’s your secret?”

Before Ed could say Not being interested, I guess?, Soph sidled over to the counter from the café area, all dark eyes and meaningful smile.

“Hello, Ryan,” he said, gaze flickering momentarily to Dolch’s nametag.  Ed always forgot that Dolch had a first name.  It was kinda funny.  Ryan.  Whatever.  No time to snicker inwardly about it, because Soph’s attention was turning to him—and pinning him like a moth to a fucking board, right through the center of the chest.  “Hello, Ed.”

“Hey,” Ed managed with all the breath he could muster.  “Uh—” This sort of to Dolch, as much as he could tear his focus away.  “—you mind if I take my lunch?”

“Nope,” Dolch said.  “Go for it.”

Ed wasn’t sure what he would have done if Dolch had said anything else.

He flashed a thank-you grin and then turned to Soph, who had just been smiling at him the whole time.  It made his guts feel like snakes and live wires; made him feel like there were embers in his stomach, heat curling slowly up his throat.

“You wanna step outside?” he said through the smoke.

“Certainly,” Soph said.

Ed led him out the front doors but then around the side of the place; no point standing there by the discount racks trying not to be awkward while yuppie patrons browsed around and sh—

Soph pushed him up against the wall just hard enough that the stucco prickled hard against his shoulder-blades, and then kissed him until he couldn’t remember the last time breathing right had even been a thing.

His head was still banging from the hangover, and kind of throbbing from the impact with the wall, and spinning as he started to get oxygen-deprived—

But it was good—it was so good—he felt—fucking awesome; he felt like he’d stuck a flag on Kilimanjaro and lapped Usain Bolt while they were both out for a jog—giddy and breathless and weak in the knees, with his heart going like a mad drum leading him to the greatest fucking war—

Soph drew back enough to give him a long, slow inspection with those goddamn gorgeous eyes.

“Are you feeling badly?” he asked.  “You did go a bit overboard.”

Ed flushed hard and fast and hot.  That did not feel so awesome.  “Well—” It was kind of your fault, unless Santa Claus bought me, like, eight fucking rum and cokes and then fucked off back up the chimney before I saw.  “—I mean—”

“I’m not trying to be judgmental,” Soph said, laughing softly at his expression and tucking a little flip of hair behind his ear.  “You’re an adult, after all; you can make your own choices.  I was just concerned.  Perhaps it would be best if we didn’t make a habit of that.”

Sounded like judgment to Ed, but maybe he was reaching—maybe he was overthinking it.  He usually fucking did.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I mean—I don’t—do that—much at all.  Dolch was just giving me crap about it, actually; I’m kind of—kind of a lightweight, and I don’t really like crowds, an—”

Soph put an elegant finger to his lips.  “You don’t have to justify yourself to me.”

Ed’s racing heart staggered like it’d tripped over a hurdle halfway down the course.  Was this—a thing?  Was this a thing-thing, like a relationship-thing, or—?

“Um,” he said, “hey, can—well, first, I mean, thanks for driving me home last night; that was really cool of you.”

Soph smiled.  “Purely selfish of me, really.  I wanted to know you were safe.”

“Still,” Ed said.  He had to ask this question, didn’t he?  He had to find out the answer before he could make his next move.

But then—wasn’t it sort of implied?  Soph hadn’t just dragged him into an alley last night and hauled his pants down; and he’d shown up here and demanded kisses, not a quickie.  If this was some one-night stand shit, or some cheap hookup, wouldn’t… Well, wouldn’t it already be over by now?

Soph fanned his fingertips over the blush still simmering on Ed’s cheekbones.  “You can talk to me, you know.  I don’t bite.”  He slanted a grin.  “…unprovoked.”

Well, that really helped with the fucking flustered-to-hell problem.

“Um,” Ed got out, “just—I, um—I mean, are we—”

“What?” Soph asked.  “Facebook-official?”

At least that was so funny that Ed sort of choked on the strangled laugh he hadn’t known was clawing up his throat.  “Well—sort of.  Yeah.  I guess.  Official.  Yeah.”

The man had eyes like nebulae, and Ed had never seen somebody focus on him like this—like he was the one built of stardust; like he was worth studying through telescopes, worth charting out and contemplating as part of a career—

“Would you like us to be?” Soph said.

“I—yeah,” Ed said.  It was a fucking miracle he hadn’t just burst into flames by now, and given Soph a pretty good fucking burn on that soft, swift hand while he was at it.  “I—like you a lot.”

This was a whole new caliber of sweet-sexy grin, and Ed’s entire body froze for a second while he tried to take it in.

“Good,” Soph said.  The stroke of his fingertip down Ed’s jaw was so fucking slow, and so fucking light, and goosebumps ran down Ed’s arms so fast he clenched his fists on instinct— “You seem to be obsessed with working yourself ragged.  When’s your next day off?”

It took Ed a stupidly long time to grind the gears in his brain enough to think about it.  “Next—Wednesday.  I think.”

“Can I see you then?” Soph asked, steering a wisp of hair at the nape of Ed’s neck upwards towards his ponytail, like it’d stick.  Or maybe just—because.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “Yeah, I’d—like that.  Um—I’ve got class until two, but after that—yeah.  If you want.”

“Believe me,” Soph said, grin curling wicked, eyebrow arched.  “I want.”

Ed’s spine didn’t just shiver; it fucking vibrated.  “I—awesome.  I—”

Soph’s fingertips trailed down along his jaw and settled under his chin, tipping his head up, and then that mouth—tongue; teeth; wet heat; the slither of that silken hair against Ed’s chest, his neck, his throat—fucking transcendence—

“I can get us a hotel for the evening,” was the murmur against his lips.  “How does that sound?”

“Sounds—”

Jesus fuck, was that his voice?  He sounded like a rusted barn door squeaking in a fucking gale, only without the gale, because any serious wind would’ve drowned out his pathetic excuse for speech just now.  He cleared his throat.  There seemed to be an awful lot of fucking dreck in it.

“Sounds—”

This time, there wasn’t any trouble with the volume or the pitch; it was the concepts choking him.

It sounded salacious and depraved and ever so slightly—dangerous.  It sounded like anonymity and a locked room and an almost-stranger who kissed like an avenging angel and slid words like gemstones off a silver tongue.

Oh, holy goddamn shit and hellfire raging; Soph was still waiting for an answer.  Which made sense, ’cause Ed’s dumb ass, standing there stammering, still hadn’t said a thing.

“Sounds amazing,” he managed at last.  “Wednesday?”

“Wednesday,” Soph said, and somehow the single word sounded like a whole fucking sin.






On Monday, Ed’s phone started buzzing in his pocket right around eleven—while he was in class, of fucking course.  He jogged his knee while he waited for it to just stop already, feeling the slow creep of guilt up from the pit of his stomach towards the eighteen thousand tiny hair-trigger panic buttons in his brain.

It was okay.  He’d call back when he got out of class; it wasn’t more than an hour; who could be mad about an hour?

Except—what if it was Al?  What if it was the fucking hospital, about Al, because Al had crouched down to pet a kitty on the side of the road and gotten run down by a reckless bicyclist—or a shitty-ass driver losing control of the wheel—

Or what if it was Soph, and he could be mad about an hour, and he gave up altogether and just—quit?

FuckshithelldamnGod.

Ed slung one leg over the other, chewed his lip, and watched the clock hand crawl while his skin did likewise.






The second that class wrapped up, he was out the door like a shot, dredging his phone up from his pocket to scan the screen.

It wasn’t the hospital, thank whatever benevolent powers might or might not have been coursing through the universe at that particular moment in time.  It was Soph, though.  And he’d left a message.  Like that wasn’t some ominous shit.

Ed’s entire body tightened as he tapped his way into his voicemail.  He swallowed, swallowed, breathed, and raised the phone to his ear.

“Good morning,” Soph’s voice said, all honeyed butter, holy shit.  “Call me back, won’t you?”

That was it.

Just that.  The detached, robotic courtesy of the operator voice filled in the silence, letting Ed know his options to save or delete or whatever the fuck else.

Motherfucking son of a bitch, didn’t Soph know what he was doing?  Didn’t he know how fucking difficult it was for Ed to believe in anything?  In anything good, anyway, let alone the possibility of someone treating him like a worthwhile receptacle for some portion of the planet’s oxygen—?

Except—maybe he didn’t.  Maybe most people could handle a little bit of teasing, a little bit of playfulness—maybe that’s what this was supposed to be; maybe it wasn’t supposed to sound like a fucking threat.  Maybe that was on him.  Maybe that was in his head; maybe he was projecting; maybe he was about to tear this down before they’d even managed to fucking build anything—

He sat down on the worn marble steps in front of the chem building, took a deep breath, and thumbed the button to redial.

Shit, man, if there was such a thing as Purgatory, it sounded like the endless ringing of Soph Kimblee’s cell—

The line caught, as did Ed’s breath in his tormented throat.

“Hello,” Soph said.

It wasn’t even close to a question, which sort of threw Ed for a loop, which ended in him hesitating, then blurting out, “It’s Ed, from—the bookstore”, then flushing bright red in broad daylight and hating everything sofuckingmuch.

Goddamn it.

“I know,” Soph said, and Ed couldn’t tell whether that was condescension or amusement or maybe a smidgeon of each.

“Oh,” Ed said, feeling… fucking… stupid.  Helpless.  Some shit.  “Well—hi.  Sorry I didn’t pick up earlier; I was in class.”

“That’s fine,” Soph said, so fucking smooth-calm—impervious, unreadable, and Ed was clinging to the phone, and he felt like a moron, but… “I wanted to give you the address of the hotel.”

Holy frigging hell, this was actually happening to him.  No damn doubt about it now.

“Awesome,” Ed fought out.  “You—wanna text it to me?”

“Just put me on speaker,” Soph said.  “You can type it directly into the mapping application that way.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ed said.  “Good point.”  Except… that… he was in a public place, having a personal call, and—well, shit, what if—Soph said something—y’know, private, or—?

Couldn’t worry about it yet.  Just had to trust college students to be so focused on their own little fucking worlds that they wouldn’t notice his fucked-up life playing out in front of them.

He tapped around with his left hand, realizing slowly that he seemed to have fisted the right one in his hair.  Shitfuck.  What the hell was wrong with him lately?

Well.  What the hell had been wrong with him since the day he’d been born, which would presumably stay wrong until the very end?

He tried to untangle his fingers from his fucking ponytail while he fumbled his way over to the Google Maps app.  Because Apple Maps was a piece of craps, as Dolch had taken to saying after that time it almost left him stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert en route to Vegas.

“Okay,” Ed said.  “Hit me with it.”

“That’s a bit forward,” Soph purred, and Ed’s whole face lit up scarlet like a fucking beacon to other humiliated idiots the world over; he tried to glance sideways to see if anyone was staring, but he couldn’t quite tell— “Perhaps we should save that for the second time.”  Before Ed could choke out more than a sort of strangled almost-breathing noise, Soph was dictating a street address in that same damn seduction voice, and it took just about everything he fucking had in him to pay enough attention to get it down.

“Okay,” he said when he had, and Google was wading through the murky 3G waters to find the place.  “I’ll just—pin it.  And… yeah.  See you… day after tomorrow, right?”

“That’s right,” Soph said.

“Cool,” Ed said, feeling like an idiot talking at his phone, not into it.  How did people do this whole speaker thing?  Too weird.  Too open.  “Um—how’ve you been?”

“I’ve been well,” Soph said.  “You?”

“Good,” Ed said.  “Y’know.  School and lab and whatever.  How’s… work and stuff?”

“Just fine,” Soph said.  “Not nearly as interesting as you.”

…yeah, he’d just said that out loud, on speaker, while Ed was on campus, with people around, hypothetically listening.  Ed sort of wanted to bang his head against the marble stair until he cracked open a hole big enough to hide in.  “Aw, jeez, c’mon.”

“I’m only being truthful,” Soph said, with a hint of a smile in his voice.  “You’re so easy to fluster; it’s really rather fun.”

“Aw, jeez,” Ed said, because apparently his touted brain had finally fucking short-circuited.  What a way to go.  What a crappy way to go.  He’d been hoping for something exciting—lava, or drunk parkour, or a seriously ambitious experiment with hydrochloric acid and/or pyrotechnics… something.

Soph laughed, softly.  “If you didn’t react so delightfully, I wouldn’t toy with you.”

Holy fuckballs on a stick; had anybody heard that?

Speaking through the sticky shame in his throat presented Ed with something of a challenge.  “I mean—it’s not like I can—help it.”

“No need,” Soph said.  “I quite like it.  I’m looking forward to seeing you.”

Ed swallowed hard a couple times and found himself smiling a little at the thought.  “Yeah, I—yeah.  You too.”

And he was—he was.

He was just scared shitless at the same time, was all.

That was totally normal, right?

Maybe?

Sort of?

Fuck.






When Soph had said “hotel”, Ed’s brain had sort of filled in “janky-ass six-room motel where the locks don’t work, located smack-dab in the shittiest part of town”.  Somehow, mapping the location hadn’t quite shaken that image from his head.

So it was kind of a shock when he pulled into the parking lot and found himself staring up at what might as well have been the Ritz-fucking-Carlton with some Hilton on top.

He looked up at the classy entryway and the sparkly-clean windows, then back down at his phone.  He’d pulled into a parking spot but hadn’t killed the car engine, because this couldn’t be right.  Could it?

But Soph didn’t really seem like the kind of guy who made mistakes—Soph didn’t seem like the kind of guy who let anything get in his way, least of all something stupid like giving out the wrong hotel address.

Besides, it sort of… made sense, right?  The dude was classier than a crystal champagne glass refracting candlelight from an old-school chandelier.  He clearly had the money to sustain the lifestyle, or he wouldn’t’ve dressed like he did; and Ed didn’t remember what kind of car he drove, but it was comfortable as hell.  So it wasn’t unreasonable, was it, that he’d only want to stay at the kind of hotel that had actual fucking doormen hanging around?

Shit.  This really wasn’t Ed’s scene—understatement of the year, if not the century.  He’d dressed nice enough that a couple people from lab had asked where he was going after—to which he’d responded by trying not to blush hard enough to burst into flame and then saying “Got a thing,” which sort of answered the question without telling them anything at all—but he was still totally out of his depth.  Hopefully nobody would, like, spit on him and order him to go back to the gutter whence he came, especially since these guys probably expected tips… But his car looked painfully out of place, and the slow prickle of desperate humiliation was tracking over every centimeter of his skin.  He didn’t belong here.  He shouldn’t have come.  He felt like an eyesore—like a beer stain on Berber carpet or some shit, like…

Like he should probably get a hold of Soph and find out if this was really where he was supposed to be before he dragged his slovenly ass into the lobby and… what?  What the fuck could he even say?  So I’m having sex with some guy who I guess is probably here; can you tell me his room number in the unlikely event that he even booked it under his real name?

Fuck.

He’d figured out by now that Soph didn’t really do text messages, which was… fine.  Ed was adaptable.  That was the thing, about humanity, especially about him—he was flexible, and he could learn shit; he could change habits when he had to.  If the not-texting thing was important to Soph, then he could make it work.

He put the car into park, ran a hand over his face, tried to smooth his hair, pulled out his phone, and went through his recent calls.  Soph was second to the top, except for Al.

The line rang… and rang… and maybe this was a stupid idea; maybe he was supposed to know that this was right; maybe he was showing that he didn’t trust Soph to tell him the right shit; maybe it was a test; maybe—

“Hello,” Soph said.

“Hey,” Ed said.  “Um—”

“Are you running late?” Soph asked.

“No,” Ed said.  He’d been too antsy-excited to be fucking late, and he knew it, but he glanced at the car clock anyway.  “No, I’m here, um—I think.  I mean—this place is hella nice.”

He was hoping that curl in Soph’s voice was amusement, not contempt.  “It is.”  There was a slight rustle on the line.  “Is that you in the parking lot?”

Ed would’ve waved if he’d known which window to direct it at, although probably the angle would’ve made it impossible to tell.  “Crappy-ass black Civic?”

That sounded like an intimation of a laugh.  “I’m not sure I’d use those words exactly, but yes.”

“Okay,” Ed said, sagging in the seat a little with the stupid relief.  “Just—wasn’t sure I was in the right place.”

This time, the edge on Soph’s voice was definitely a sultry one.  Fuck.  “I’d go so far as to say that you’re in the right place at the right time.”

Ed swallowed down the adrenaline making a cold little ball in his throat.  “That’s pretty friggin’ nice for a change.”

“I imagine,” Soph said.  “Why don’t you come up?  It’s 644.”

Ed’s entire body had taken on a weird and uncharacteristic and probably unhealthy viscosity—the thoughts were sticking to the walls of his skull instead of coming free; the words were sticking in his throat instead of coming up; the blood was sticking in his veins; the heat was sticking in the pit of his stomach and driving the butterflies up towards his heart.

This shit was easy for other people.  He knew that; he could tell.  People talked about this kind of stuff—relationships, responses, other human beings—like the whole damn game was childsplay; like the give-and-take didn’t drain them dry.  Like trying to figure out who you were supposed to be to make somebody care about you wasn’t enervating as all hell; like pretending to be all functional and together and attractive and shit wasn’t stressful like no presentation Ed’d ever done; like trying to trick people into liking you wasn’t the hardest fucking thing on Earth.

And you had to—trick them into liking you, that was.  You had to do it somehow, because you had to get them committed and invested and shit, or else they’d get the fuck out of Dodge the second they saw what you really were underneath, and…

And it wasn’t fucking easy for him.  But he saw other people doing it all the time, chatting about it, flitting from one social interaction to another, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how they did it.

He tried his best to take a deep breath, which—viscosity problem—stuck in his lungs.  He coughed it back out and forced a smile, because you could hear that sometimes.

“Sure thing,” he said.  “I’ll be right up.”

That, too, was easier fucking said than fucking done.  How were you even supposed to act in a place this posh?  Were they going to examine the soles of his shoes and toss him the hell out if there was mud on them?  Were you supposed to be, like, super courteous and gracious and shit to everybody, or where you supposed to kick the attendants out of the way like they were those tiny baby-velociraptor things from ‘Jurassic Park 2’?  Obviously erring on the side of the former was a better idea, but they’d know he was faking—not that they wouldn’t have noticed his car by now, but—

Well, shit.  Who cared?  Him, apparently, but hotel staff probably had to see shit that he couldn’t even dream of every single day, so one jumpy scruff-bucket of a kid wandering in to meet someone for sex probably barely even registered on the What the Fuck Richter scale.

He climbed out of the car, grabbed his backpack and slung it over his left shoulder, shut the door, locked it, and shoved the keys into his pocket.  One deep breath later, he was going for it.  Fuck everything; the universe couldn’t stop him.  He wanted this, and he was going to get it.

He strode across the parking lot, and he did not hesitate; he did not slow his stride as the doorman reached for the shiny gold handle to usher him in—though he did smile as genuinely as he could and offer a “Thank you,” because customer service jobs sucked, and gratitude was free.

The shiny marble tiles of the foyer spread out in blinding splendor for what looked like miles.  There was a posh-cozy little living room-ish space off to the side with a bunch of ivory-colored couches and a huge flatscreen TV; there were racks with newspapers and a whole little bar with a guy standing behind it.  Ed looked at that instead of over at the extremely neat, extremely tall, extremely imposing counter where the clerks were standing.  He just had to keep moving briskly like he was supposed to be here, and he knew where he was going.  They had to see a million people stroll by every day, so they must’ve known they couldn’t remember everybody, and there was nothing illegal about walking into a hotel without a reservation if you’d been invited to share someone else’s, so no way would they sic security on him, and this wouldn’t end in a tarnished permanent record and a night in jail and Al in tears—

When he made it to the first-floor hallway full of doors without being hailed or halted, he almost sighed aloud in relief.  The rest of this was cake—wasn’t it?

Presuming that cake could mean leaning against the handrail in the mirrored elevator fighting to breathe over the frantic, uneven banging of one’s heart, anyway, since that was what he ended up doing.

He was such a fucking idiot—such a fucking… He didn’t even know what he was walking towards; he barely even knew who this guy was.  Soph might not even be a real name—and Al knew where Ed was, yeah, because he wasn’t a total fucking dingbat, but what good was having the address and whatever possibly-fake name Soph had given to the hotel gonna do if they found chopped-up pieces of Ed strewn all over the sheets tomorrow?

Was he really this desperate for just enough sex to make him forget how fucking lonely he was?

He slammed his head back against the elevator wall—hard.  He could make the fucking dissenting voices in his head shut up if he really worked at it; he knew he could; it was just a matter of time before he got those fucking things under control.  He was here because he wanted this—he had to remember that.  He was here because Soph was the kind of guy who would help him into the passenger seat and buckle him in and then come back and kiss him on his break; he was here because Soph gave a shit and was exciting, and there was nothing wrong with that.  There was nothing wrong with him.  This was fine.  He was going to be fine.  He could make his own damn choices, and he could take care of himself.  It was fine.

The elevator sang.  The doors opened.  The tactful carpet led the way.  Like fucking Dorothy, like a sleepwalker dreaming, he followed it to the door marked 644.  He raised his hand, looked at it, curled his fingers, and knocked.

Soph opened it with a slow, bright, gorgeous smile.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said.







Roy was looking at him like… well, like Ed was poised to relate a long and detailed story about questionable sex with some other guy.  Which was pretty much a summary of things.  His hands had tightened around Ed’s until it almost hurt—but not quite; he was always so fucking careful—and his eyes were huge, and Ed wasn’t entirely sure either of them was breathing properly.

He probably needed to fix that.

He cleared his throat and took a deep breath in, then let it out—partly for himself, partly for demonstrative purposes.  Roy startled slightly, and his chest filled a little, and he pressed his lips together, eyes still searching Ed’s face.

“Long story short,” Ed said, looking at the edge of the table, “that… happened.  I mean, it was actually—it was really—fun.  He was—he was really good, and really, like, laser-focused, and it was weirdly hot, and then we got posh-ass room service, and he wouldn’t let me put my clothes back on, ’cause he said the fancy-ass robe they had made me look ‘too delicious altogether’, and… that was—great.  It was really great.  I really felt like he—wanted—me.  I was fucking high on it, I dunno, I…”  He had the distance, now, to know.  “I forgave a lot of shit I shouldn’t have because we’d had that.  I just kept thinking that maybe if I tried hard enough, if I was good enough, I could fix all the shit that was going weird, and we could get back there, and it’d be great like that again.”

Roy extracted one of his hands from the tangle between them and brushed Ed’s hair back from his face—gently, so gently.

It wasn’t even gentleness.  That word wasn’t big enough.  Anybody could be gentle; anybody could keep their touch light.

Everything Roy did, every movement and every moment that passed between them, was bigger than gentle.

Everything Roy did was loving.

Roy wasn’t afraid.  Or he was, but he thought the risk was worth it, and he braved the vulnerability to put himself out there every single time.

“That’s not how it works,” he said softly.

“I know,” Ed said.  “But it seemed like—well.”  He was leaning in towards Roy’s fingertips; he couldn’t help it.  They were magnetic, and his brain was a well of iron ore, roiling slowly, churning hot.  “Anyway—abridged version.”

Roy looked slightly relieved.

“He was just sort of… obsessed with me,” Ed said.

Roy looked substantially less relieved.

“I mean,” Ed said, “I was obsessed with him, too, at the start, which was… I mean, that’s sort of how it goes, right?  You meet somebody, and you click with them, and you get all excited and shit.  Or at least I do.  But then—I mean, he wasn’t even really excited; he was just sort of…” He had to extract one of his hands from Roy’s to wave it around, like the word was going to materialize out of thin air and catch between his fingers.  “…intent.  I guess.  Single-minded or some shit.  And I was so excited I didn’t… it just felt like a compliment.  It felt like he cared.  It felt like I mattered.”

Roy squeezed his hand, and you could just see him biting back the You do, matter, Edward; you matter so much it staggers me sometimes or whatever way he’d say it; you could see it rising in his eyes, and Ed loved him so fucking hard in that moment that it felt like his soul couldn’t hold it, and he’d snap.

He swallowed.  Roy smiled, just a little.  Ed tried to smile back, and then he tried to keep going.

“So—yeah,” he said.  “It was just—fucked up.  Really fucked up.  But I didn’t really… It didn’t seem that bad at the time; it just seemed like he was really into me, and that was… yeah.  He’d call me while I was in lab and ask to see me after work all the time, and it was—I mean, I wouldn’t get off until after ten, and then we’d hang around in his car and make out and mess around for another hour or two, and then I had to go home and get my work done, and… I was just a fucking wreck from it after a while.  And if I told him when he called that I was really tired, and I needed some sleep, and could I just see him later, he’d say ‘Fine’ in this voice like acid and just—hang up.  And I’d call back and call back, and he wouldn’t pick up until I’d called five or six times, and I’d try to apologize, and he’d say ‘You don’t need to be sorry for not wanting to see me; you can’t help it’, and I’d have to spend half an hour trying to convince him that I did want to, and—yeah.  Just—yeah.  And then that night he’d sit there and give me the cold shoulder until I’d groveled for a while, and then he’d—” Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuck, it still—it was never going to get any less shitty, was it?  The boil of shame and misery in the pit of his stomach was never going to go away.  “He’d shove my head down in his lap, and after I blew him, he’d forgive me until a couple days later, when I was just so fucking exhausted that I’d ask again.”

“Edward,” Roy said softly.

“I know,” Ed said, gripping Roy’s hand with both of his again; Roy’s free fingers settled very lightly on his knee.  “But it was—you know how when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see what it is?”

He chanced a glance up.  Roy smiled, but his eyes were so damn sad.  “Yes,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “And—I mean, when I did have days off, he was—I mean, he’d come pick me up; he was all swish as hell—it was a Lexus, that he had, and that was a nice fucking car—and he had, like, twelve different hotels he liked, and we’d just—he’d buy me books, he’d bring me chocolates, and we’d get incredible room service and a shit-ton of dessert, and watch pay-per-view movies, and he’d just look at me for fucking ages, and he’d trace his fingertips so fucking light along all the scars and whisper shit like ‘My sweetest patchwork boy’, and—”

Consternation flashed across Roy’s face, lightning-quick and thunder-dark.

Ed had to get through this, now, or he never would.

He swallowed again, fought in a breath, let it out slow, twisted the tail of it into words.

“Mostly that part was—it made me feel really… special.  Spoiled, almost.  And that was kind of—I dunno, embarrassing, maybe, and I felt kind of guilty, but—but I thought—y’know, there was nothing wrong with him wanting to do nice shit for me, and it did make me happy a lot.  And I started to feel sort of—comfortable—with the nice places, and the pretty stuff, and the good food and whatever, and… I thought maybe that was okay.  I talked to Al about it one time, and he was like, ‘Brother, you’re not using him; he’s giving it to you because he wants to; I know you, and you don’t go into these things with demands, and unless he’s an idiot, he doesn’t think you expect it.’  So I figured—maybe it was okay.”

“There’s nothing wrong with liking to be treated well,” Roy said slowly.

“I mean—not by itself,” Ed said, although there was, kind of, wasn’t there, when you didn’t appreciate it for the privilege that it was?  “But—I mean, with this, it… there were…” He dragged in yet another fucking fortifying breath.  “Conditions.  I guess.  It started to be a game—for him, anyway; I didn’t even know we were playing until later.  Way later.  Looking back.  It started to be—he’d order a bunch of food and be fine, be great, but then it’d get to us, and I’d get excited for it, and he’d say ‘Well, good to know that this is why you’re here,’ and he’d take the little silver dome-things—just—he’d throw them.  At the walls, and shit, never at me, but it was so fucking loud, have you ever—?  And I’d—I’d be doing the same thing again, trying to convince him, ‘No, no, it’s not, I want to see you, we could do this anywhere, I don’t care about this, I’m not even hungry, look, don’t be mad at me, please,’ and—”

He had to look away; Roy’s eyes were too… much.  Too big, too deep, too… terrified.

“Sometimes he’d—grab me, grab my clothes, yank me in right up against him and just look at me for—I dunno, thirty seconds, forty-five; it felt like forever; and I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t do anything, but after that he’d say ‘I believe you,’ and he’d let go and smooth my clothes out and tell me to take my hair down and then start telling me how—pretty I was, and…”

Roy closed his eyes.  His throat worked; his jaw worked; his fingers tightened slightly around Ed’s.

Ed focused on their intertwining fingers resting on the worn knee of his jeans.

“He started to push me a lot,” he said, and the words sounded so fucking weird out loud—so much smaller than it had been, so fucking pathetic, so… weak.  “Just—y’know, over to where he wanted me, or onto the bed, or—whatever, but it—you know how… there’s this difference, in—I dunno, body language and tone of voice and just… all that shit?  Between when it’s playful, and when it’s… not?”

“Yes,” Roy said, very, very quietly, and Ed could feel that those goddamn gorgeous eyes were going hot, bad-hot, but he didn’t quite dare to look.

“Anyway,” Ed said.  He ran his thumb along the side of Roy’s index finger, back and forth.  “He… it just… got… worse… as it went along.  When I had shit I wanted to do, I’d tell him a week or two in advance and then every day leading up—carefully, ’cause I thought he’d be mad; I thought he’d… I don’t know, hit me, or leave, or something, and—like, I’d tell him I was going to be hanging out with Al and Win for a night or something, because I fucking missed them, and Winry didn’t live down here back then, so she wasn’t always in town, and… he’d call, and call, and when I picked up, he’d keep me on the phone for hours, and it was just—”

“Oh, God, Ed,” Roy said.

“It was pretty shitty,” Ed said.  Understatement, maybe, but there were people who had it worse; there were people who had it a lot worse.  And there were people who had to go through it alone, without Al or anybody.  And there were people who never made it out.  “Al kept just—asking me if I was okay, asking me to tell him what’d happened and shit, and—but I always—it just felt like it was my fault, because it’d started out one way, and now it was another way, so what did I do wrong, right?  So I just kept telling him it was fine, and it was okay, and maybe we were going through a rough patch, but he was—important to me, so it was… fine.  And I could tell Al didn’t want to push too hard, because he didn’t want me to get defensive, so I’d tell him just enough to get him off my back, and—”

That hurt the worst—well.  Close to the worst.  That hurt a fucking lot, the way he’d manipulated Al like that, over—what?  Some piece of shit asshole fucking psychopath with nice hair.  He’d risked what he and Al had over one good fuck and the empty promise of more—over his fucking pride about it; over the terror of having to admit that he’d hurled himself into this, and it had blown up in his fucking face.  Over having to face the fact that he had categorically failed.

“A-anyway, after…” He cleared his throat again.  “It was just about five months, all together.  Then there was one day when I was in lab, and Izumi, like, touched my shoulder while I was working, and I almost jumped out of my fucking skin, and she was like, ‘Can I talk to you?’, and she took me in her office and sat me down, and I felt like I was in a fucking interrogation room in a police station or some shit, and—she was like, ‘Your personal life is your business, but I’m worried about you, and if there’s something going on that you need to talk about, I’m here for you, okay?’”

Roy clasped both of Ed’s hands between his palms.  “She’s still your PI, isn’t she?”

Ed nodded.  “She kicks ass.  But it—I mean that was—a little bit of a light went off.  I still felt—just—swamped, I don’t know, fucking guilty, like I’d… like I’d had everything going right, I’d had it in front of me, and I’d fucked it up, and now I was in this pit of fucking disaster I’d made somehow, but if I figured out what I’d done wrong, I could undo it, and it’d be great again.  Except hearing that from her, it seemed like… something had changed me so significantly that she’d noticed, and she was concerned, right?  And then I started trying to think about it in a bigger-picture way, I guess, and I started to think—what the fuck am I doing?  I’m jumpy as fuck and scared and miserable all the fucking time, and the variable here is that guy.  And everybody I know thinks something bad is happening, and these are smart people; this is Al and Izumi; these are people that I trust who don’t like what’s going on, and maybe they’re on to something.”

“It’s hard,” Roy said softly, squeezing both his hands, trying to meet his eyes—or it seemed like it; Ed still couldn’t summon the balls to look.  “To see the forest for the trees, and to separate the factual reality of a moment from your emotional experience of it.”

“You probably know a thing or two about that,” Ed said.  “Mr. Lawyer-Man.”

“I’d like that on a T-shirt,” Roy said.

Ed pushed his facial muscles into something like a smile.

Roy’s thumbs skimmed over the backs of his hands.

“That’s enough,” Roy said.  “That’s more than enough; that’s far more than enough.  I’m sorry I—” He swallowed, drew a breath, cleared his throat, and took another.  “I’m sorry I made you relive so much of it.  I mean that.”

“No,” Ed said.  Roy had the most beautiful hands of anyone Ed had ever met.  “No need to be sorry, ’cause it’s not your fault.  And…” Fuckityshitdamn.  “…it’s not… enough.  That’s not… There’s a lot… left.”

“Edward,” Roy said.

No choice—magnets in his body, charged particles in his soul; his eyes slid up to Roy’s in spite of his damned reservations.

“You have nothing to prove,” Roy said.  “Not to me.  Nothing to justify.  You are not on trial.”  He extracted one hand and lifted it to touch Ed’s cheek—just with his fingertips, barely grazing the skin, so light Ed’s nerves prickled in the best possible way.  “Nothing you can say will change the enormity of my respect for you or make me feel any different.  You don’t have to finish unless you want to.”

Ed felt the air rushing in to fill his lungs, then flowing back out, leaving them to collapse—meat balloons.  If you really thought about it, just about everything in the human body was just… meat.  The electric signals making up thoughts were the real magic; any idiot could grow a kidney in utero, right?

…barring DNA errors and genetic malfunctions and all that stuff.  So maybe that wasn’t really a good example after all.

The point was, life was short and fucking arbitrary, and he was going to make the best of every fucking second that he could.  It was worth being brave for.  It was worth getting through this.

“‘Want’ is kind of a funny word in that sentence,” he said to Roy—Roy and his deep, deep, gorgeous eyes.

Roy almost smiled.  “I suppose it is.”

Ed flooded the meat balloons again.  “I think—I’d better.  While I’ve got the momentum.  Better just—get it over with.”

Roy held his hands a little tighter and spoke a little softer, which probably shouldn’t have been possible by now.  “All right.”

“All right,” Ed said.



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