tierfal: (Ed - Red and Blue)
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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 (18,500 in this chapter)
Warnings: please see note in Chapter 1!!
Summary: Sometimes the tall, dark, handsome ones are poisoned underneath.
Author's Note: First off: this chapter is even more intense than the last one! Same thematic elements, but ramped up a lot. Please be careful, and feel free to drop me a line asking about specifics if you need them! ♥

Second, I have some news, which was going to be good news until it turned into bad news, which may have sort of circled back to good news for you and bad news for me.  HOW FUN WAS THAT SENTENCE, BE HONEST

tl;dr: I was finally assembling Part 5 from the separate documents where I keep the past-tense stuff and the present-tense stuff because I am a disaster, and I discovered that – not according to keikaku – PART 5 DOESN'T ACTUALLY FIX ALL THE SHIT WE GET IN THIS ONE.

The "good" news: if I can get my shit together and edit fast enough, we might just have to run the updates all the way through Part 6 right after Part 5.  Ficsplosion.

The bad news: if you're holding out for all of the really bad cliffhangery shit to get resolved, you probably want to play it safe and not read anything after next chapter (Part 4, Chapter 3, that is) until we're at least a chapter or two into Part 6.  Part 4 only has four (long-ass) chapters; and it looks like Part 5 follows suit; so hopefully we're looking at 10 weeks?  But if there are Complications with Part 6, or with me accidentally having a life and shit, that could change, so I don't want to make you guys any promises. ♥

RECAP: Present-day!Ed just met up with Hohenheim at the train station, and they're going to go to Kensington Gardens to walk around and catch up; past-tense!Ed is telling Roy the story of how he eventually realized he needed to get away from Kimblee after an extremely nasty abusive relationship unfolded around him.


Ed comes to his senses a couple blocks down.  Hohenheim’s been rambling about something.  Possibly the pigeon infestation.  He seems to know more about pigeon morphology than any non-ornithologist has any right to.

There’s a trash can off to Ed’s right, so he veers away from his dazed zombie-stagger walking path and dumps his empty tea cup into it, then veers back.

“No kidding,” he says, which is a pretty good silence-filler when someone’s clearly reached the end of a sentence, but you don’t have any fucking clue whether you’re supposed to react with a positive or a negative.

Hohenheim nods idly, so apparently that was close enough to what he expected Ed to say that he suspects nothing.

“So, um.”  Ed’s guts seize up.  Here comes the brave part.  “So… I mean, I kind of know what you’ve been up to—I read a little about your research.”

He takes one deep breath, then another, then looks up at the wrought-iron gate they’re passing through.  Greenery sprawls out everywhere around them; there are flowers and hedges and trees, and it’s all so picturesque he considers—for a second—just dropping it.  Just letting this be decent instead.

But he can’t.  He’s like a fucking puppy with a favorite rag.

“What I don’t know,” he says, “is why you left.”

There are chirping sparrows and little kids with tiny, fluffy dogs.  Rosebushes.  Blue sky—that’s practically a sign of the Apocalypse in this city, isn’t it?

“Ah,” Hohenheim says.

He goes quiet, and Ed thinks…

Ed thinks Fuck that; fuck you.  Ed keeps his mouth shut.  Ed waited for him for fucking years—waited for less than a word; waited for a letter, a whisper, a clue.  He can damn sure outlast Hohenheim’s reluctance to give him an answer now—when that bastard’s only choices are indescribably awkward silence or caving to Ed’s will.

Ed’s will has withstood greater tests than this.  Ed’s will has withstood better men.

“I thought you might ask,” Hohenheim says.

…that’s all he says.

The fucker.

Ed pushes his hands into his pockets and curls them into fists to stop himself from glaring.

Hohenheim takes off his glasses, lowers them, wipes them carefully with the corner of his cardigan, holds them up to the light, breathes on them, wipes them again, and then puts them back on.

“Before I met your mother,” Hohenheim says, “I was involved in quite a lot of very cutting-edge prototyping for electronic devices and so forth.”  He sighs, not at all regretfully.  “As much as it’s an enormous cliché, your mother changed everything.  I’d been slavering for fame and fortune all my life, and then suddenly the only thing I could imagine wanting was her.  Nothing else mattered; the whole world sank into a fog of absolute irrelevance; she was the only other human being on the planet.  And all I wanted was to serve her—I scrambled to try to tie up some loose ends and turn them into money so that I had enough to make her more comfortable than she could possibly imagine; it was a compulsion in me—to give her everything I had.”

He pauses, like he’s waiting for Ed to comment.  Ed’s currently biting his tongue on So how much did you try to buy her for?, however, so Hohenheim can just fucking keep on waiting ’til the stars burn out, as far as he’s concerned.

“We met at a restaurant,” Hohenheim says, like it fucking matters.  “I was out with my… you might call them ‘cronies’, I suppose—and we were making a tremendous noise, rather late.  She was waiting our table.  Their uniform was this… she had this black skirt to her knees, and black tights, and a green polo shirt.  It made her eyes incredible.  I felt like I’d been shot.”  He smiles, sunnily, and adjusts his glasses.  “She probably wished all of us had been.  We were diagramming all over the table, talking much too loud—we had a company wanting to invest in our prototype, and you know how young men are when they’re flushed with an impending victory.”

“Not really,” Ed says.

Hohenheim blinks at him.  “Surely you celebrated winning the Nobel.”

“Well, yeah,” Ed says.  His stomach’s churning; fuck this shit.  Hohenheim’s judgment doesn’t matter.  Nothing about this bastard does.  “But that was, like… me and Roy taking Al and Winry out to a fancy-ass dinner and then going home and going to sleep.”

Hohenheim looks at him.

Ed looks back.

“It is extraordinary,” Hohenheim says, “that you can have such youthful verve coupled with a very old soul.”

Ed has no idea what the fuck Hohenheim just said.  “Th… anks.  I guess.”  He looks over at some flowers so he won’t just stare.  “You were talking about Mom.”

“Ah,” Hohenheim says.  “So I was.”

And it’s fucking creepy—his voice sounds exactly the way that Al’s does when Al starts on about Winry.  Even though they’re in totally different registers, the inflections are identical, and it sends a current like hungry electricity up Ed’s spine.

“So,” Hohenheim goes on.  “There we were, rambunctious as a bunch of children; and there she was, like an angelic vision in a half-apron.  She brought a tray with glasses of water, and as she was setting them down, she asked us if we wanted anything else.  I was so tongue-tied I only shook my head, but one of my colleagues on the other side of the booth—Horace, Horace Monk; he’s on the Fortune 500 now, which tells you almost all you need to know—looked her up and down and licked his lips like an animal and said ‘How much for you?’”

Ed’s not sure if he’s ever experienced this precise cocktail of mortified fascination before.  “Wh—you were in—what, graduate school?  How old was she?”

“Seventeen and three-quarters,” Hohenheim says.  He notices the look on Ed’s face.  “It was different then.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Ed says.  “People just weren’t fighting it yet.”

Hohenheim arches an eyebrow.  “That—” He pauses.  “Well… perhaps you’re right.”

Ed can’t help staring this time.  Did he walk into a weird-ass fucking universe-swapping warp hole, or did his fuckoff dad just concede his point?

“In any case,” Hohenheim says, “her age notwithstanding, I was horrified that Horace could say such a thing to such a lovely young lady, and I started to stand up from the table to tell him so.  That was, of course, precisely at the moment that he actually reached for her, and she leapt back, so she bumped into me, and the three remaining glasses of ice-water on her tray all poured directly down my shirtfront.”

Ed’s heart is doing a funny thing, hovering halfway between his throat and his ears, with a faintly-beating presence in both.  “Whose fault was it?”

Hohenheim blinks at him.  “How do you mean?”

“The crashing into each other and stuff,” Ed says.  “Whose fault would you say it was?”

Hohenheim blinks some more, then tugs at one of his sleeves.  “I… to be honest, I’m not sure.  Probably mine.  Your mother was always rather graceful—you’d just about have to be, to wait tables for several years at a stretch without injuring yourself, I suppose.”  He smiles, ruefully.  “I was always more the type to get distracted by a wayward thought and tip right off of whatever I was sitting on, or to trip over my own feet in the middle of walking the moment that I let my mind wander off.”


Crushing.  Is what that is.

It’s a stupid thing to feel like shit about, but Ed can’t fucking help it, and mostly he’s learned not to try to fight the landslide with things that feel like this.

But there was a moment there—a flicker of a searingly wonderful hope—where he thought maybe he’d inherited the clumsy-awkward shit from her.

She’d never seemed especially ill-at-ease when they were kids, but his memories are fading, and he doesn’t always trust them to begin with, knowing what he does about the brain.  It always seemed like Al got all the parts of her—the shape of his eyes and his smile; the texture of his hair; even the cut of his jaw has her in it, whether or not it’s angled in a slightly more masculine way.  He got all of her poise and all of her articulateness and all of her calm and her sweetness and her kindness and her… height.

But Ed thought—just for that solitary fucking instant… What if she’d had a little seed of stupid awkwardness pushed way beneath?  What if the collection of tiny social failures that makes Ed dread most human interaction—that dogged, baseline unawareness that makes him put his foot directly into his mouth every other minute—was actually a piece of her that he’d been carrying with him all this time?  What if she’d been with him in every single moment of miserable, fumbling shame?

Except she wasn’t.

It’s not from her.

It’s from Hohenheim.

Because the mirror’s just not damning enough as is.

Hohenheim seems to be waiting to find out what the hell is going on in Ed’s head.  Probably Ed’s making a weird face or something.

“Right,” he manages, forcing himself to focus.  “Sorry.  Go ahead.”

Hohenheim hesitates, but then he just barrels onward, which would’ve proved the point even if Ed didn’t already feel it in his fucking bones.

“So there I was,” Hohenheim takes up, “standing there staring down at myself, absolutely drenched.  She started to apologize, and I started to apologize, and then I asked where the restroom was at the same moment she said ‘Let me get a towel’, so it ended up with me following her and then realizing we were at the kitchen, and she was handing me dishtowels and apologizing again.  I kept telling her it was really all right—and that at least it hadn’t been boiling water, after all—and that I’d probably deserved it, really.  She gave just one glance back towards the table and said that if it had been about deserving, she would have dumped it on someone else.  And she would have aimed for something specific.”

Ed wishes—hard and earnest in that moment—that Elicia was here after all.  She’d understand.  She’d recognize this feeling—the dull pain of almost-finding another facet of someone that you miss with your whole being but never really knew.

“I laughed,” Hohenheim says, “and she laughed, and I made my rather damp way back to the table before too long, and I left her an enormous tip—and my telephone number on the receipt, which I think was perhaps the gutsiest thing I’d ever done, including the several quite enormous leaps of engineering logic which had gotten me there in the first place.”

Ed swallows.  That’s—

It isn’t so much that he thought all the people saying History repeats itself were full of shit, exactly—just that it’s supposed to be the larger scale, right?  Wars happen over and over because there’s a human impulse dragging all of them towards destruction.  Stuff like this—this should be too small to count.

“Did she call you?” he asks.

“Yes,” Hohenheim says, and he looks about as pleased as punch.  Which, incidentally, is what Ed is going to do to him if he says anything fucked-up about Mom.  “Just long enough to tell me I should come by after one of her shifts so that we’d actually have time to talk.”

Ed tries to imagine a world where Hohenheim doesn’t make his internal organs twist up and try to stab each other with severed blood vessels out of the sheer force of his blinding anger.  There must have been a world like that, once—at least for Mom.  She must have liked him a lot.

And maybe that makes more sense than it seems like on the surface.  Maybe that’s fucking history again, circling back.  She’s not the only one who gravitated to somebody older and sort of charming who showed an interest in her despite all the rest of it—despite the shitty job and the lack of prospects and an air of world-weariness acquired well before the age of twenty.  Someone whose attention felt like a blessing; felt like it was elevating; felt like it changed something; felt like it validated all the other crap—

Maybe Ed got that much that from her.

“The rest,” Hohenheim is saying, “I suppose you can imagine.  But that’s a bit of a diversion from my original point, isn’t it?”

Probably.  Ed can’t really remember.

“I was explaining why I left,” Hohenheim says.

Fuck.  That’s like a chunk of ice dropping into the pit of Ed’s stomach, no damn mistake.

“Right,” he says, possibly a little bit weakly.

“I was still involved quite a lot with those fellows I told you about,” Hohenheim says.  “Which is somewhat unfortunate, as far as Horace Monk goes, but—in any case, we founded our little company, and we sweated like mad trying to make it work.”  He does the wry-smile thing and adjusts his glasses again.  It’s incredible the man doesn’t have a fucking rash from fiddling with them every five damn seconds.  “I believe you call that a ‘startup’ nowadays—there wasn’t much of a precedent for it back then.  But it worked.  All of the effort and the tearing our hair out yielded an incomprehensible amount of lucre as time went on, and more people signed on and contributed their capital.  Suddenly we were public, with our original cadre as the primary shareholders, and the stock was just skyrocketing so quickly it was almost impossible to track.  But of course it all came at a cost.  Everything does; there’s a balance, and it’s important to respect.”

He gestures outward, meaninglessly, towards the picturesqueness sprawled out around them.  Did Ed get that habit from him, too?  Motherfucking fuck.

“We were paying with our lives—you know?  With our youth, with our passion, with our energy.  With every waking moment.  And when canceling dates with your mother started to make me feel like something had been ruptured inside of my heart… I realized I needed to reevaluate that balance.  Because—for the first time in as long as I could remember—there was something I cared about far more than the ambition, and the acquisition, and all of it.  More than the possibility of fame.  For the first time, my life wasn’t just a game anymore.  Suddenly existence itself had a meaning, and a direction, and a point.  Suddenly my own life was something I wanted to build—to experience and explore, properly this time.  And I wanted to do those things with someone in particular.”

“Yeah,” Ed says, which is the smallest word there is for it.

“I needed more time,” Hohenheim says.  “And I needed to have enough of myself left at the end of the day to give her the best of me.”

Fucking shitfuck hell damn.  If that doesn’t sound way too fucking familiar—

“In addition to the simple fact of falling so desperately in love with her,” Hohenheim says, “I was simultaneously beginning to realize—also unprecedented in my thought process, you understand—that the ultimate goal of having children is to preserve a part of someone that you love so much that you can’t imagine depriving the world of them if there’s anything you can do to help it.  It’s about adoring someone so entirely that you just want to share them with as many generations as you can conceive of.”

Ed waits for an acknowledgment of the pun.

Hohenheim just sort of gazes off down the path in a pensive sort of way.

Well, shit.  At least that’s all his—his and Roy’s, really.  Roy started it.  Probably Roy started it.  And even if he didn’t, Ed fully intends to blame him anyway.

“It is so beautiful,” Hohenheim says, “to see her name across newspaper headlines, and on the internet, and in magazines and on the television, and to hear it out of people’s mouths.  She wouldn’t have cared—she never needed that; she never thrived on attention like most of the people that I knew back then.  But it’s wonderful that you two have done exactly what I always dreamed.  You’ve made her live forever.”

Ed’s throat closes so fast—so tight, so hot, so stickily compressed the whole way down, like it’s been scalded raw, and the oozing sides are adhering to each other—that he can’t say what he wants to.

No, we fucking haven’t.  We fucking didn’t.  Because we couldn’t do a goddamn thing without you—because we were a pair of fucking kids with no money and no knowledge and no resources, and you fucked off and left us to look after her, and she died.

You could have done something. Fuck this fake-ass immortality shit you think’s so great; I’d trade back everything I’ve ever gotten from the world if I could just have a single fucking day with her again, and you think—newspaper headlines?  You think seeing ‘Elric’ inked out in print makes what she went through worthwhile?  You think that makes any of it okay?  You think the fact that we pieced ourselves back together and carried on—because we had to; because you you left us, and you left us without a choice—can in any fucking aspect measure up to the life she could have lived if something had been different?

Fuck you, old man.  Fuck you and your fucking academic’s ego.  Fuck you for never learning what she tried to teach you all along.

He tries to pull a deep breath into his lungs, and it snags all the way down.

“She’d be so proud of you,” Hohenheim says.

If the bastard is expecting a response here, he’s going to be seriously fucking disappointed, because Ed’s not going to be able to generate words for several fucking minutes at this rate.

At least he said it that way, though.  Because Hohenheim himself has no fucking right to be proud of anything they’ve done—of any of the things they’ve survived long enough to become.  The only goddamn thing he contributed to their lives was a couple fucking chromosomes of DNA.

It’s like he said—life’s a thing you build.  Brick by fucking brick, bloody-knuckled and brokenhearted when you have to.

“We just did what needed doing,” Ed forces out, and if his voice is a little shaky and a little husky—well.  Fuck it.  He’s entitled.

“I’d say you did a great deal more than that,” Hohenheim says.

Ed runs the tip of his tongue along the inside of his teeth—slowly, counting them to ground himself.  He can almost hear Roy’s voice in his head.  Don’t rise to it.  Don’t let him hurt you.  He’s not worth it.  You have been cycling this acid through yourself for so long; you don’t have to.  You are so much more than he could possibly imagine.  You are so much more beneath the surface than he deserves to know.

“Guess so,” he says.  His pulse beats in his throat; he can feel it.  Roy would kiss him there—right over the artery, soft-grazed lips and then a playful hint of teeth.  It’s a beautiful fucking day in Kensington, and he’s not going to let his deadbeat fuckoff asshole father thrash his fucking feelings—intentionally or otherwise.  “So… what?  It sounds like you were finally happy, or trying to be.”  Deep breaths; one, two, three squeezes of the moving blood.  “Why the hell did you leave?”

The contours of his entire world had changed, shifting to fit Soph’s silhouette on every wall of every structure he was trying to create.  He had to fix that before the spaces left for Soph Kimblee’s shape brought the whole fucking place down around him.

He was trying to remember the most important thing he’d ever learned about himself—that nobody owned him.  He wasn’t dumb enough to figure that he was the master of his own fate or any of that shit—watching your mom wither in the cold hands of cancer would cure you of the notion of having any real autonomy pretty fucking quick—but over the years, through all the Nos and Impossibles and You can’ts, he’d gradually come to the conclusion that other human beings couldn’t hold him down.  Yeah, there were pesky little things called laws, and rules, and the exertion of institutional power; and yeah, those could be insurmountable sometimes—but one on one?  He could take fuckin’ anybody.  Bring it on.  He’d made it this far, and he wasn’t anywhere near fucking finished yet.  Anybody dumb enough to try him was in for the surprise of their goddamn life.


He could do this.

All he had to do was keep it together.

Deep breaths and the unshakable factual knowledge that Al would have his back no matter what were the only weapons he had some days.  Today, for instance.  Today, they were just going to have to be enough.

Between classes, he parked his ass on the stairs of the chem building and hit Soph’s number in his phone.

One ring.  Two.  His heart was banging like a whole fucking drumline full of drama queens trying to share instruments—loud and angry and arrhythmic and painful; it was almost too much to—

“Good afternoon,” Soph’s voice said smoothly—and so neutrally that Ed just couldn’t quite tell if he’d looked at his caller ID, or… what.

“It’s me,” Ed said for good measure.  Shit, that sounded so fucking rude.  “H-hi.”

“Hello,” Soph said, typically fucking opaque.

Ed mustered all the damn guts that he had left after how his stomach had dropped out when the line picked up.  “Hey.  So.  I mean, I dunno if you were planning—if you wanted—to see me tonight, but—I just—think—we should talk.  About… things.”

The pause stretched so damn long that Ed took the phone away from his ear to make sure the call hadn’t dropped.  The little timer was still ticking merrily the fuck away; it was just—silence.  He couldn’t even hear Soph breathing, although maybe that was because his heart was beating so fucking hard—

“Ah,” Soph said after about six millennia had come and gone and ground all of the mountains into dust.

Ed swallowed.  “We could—we could talk—now.  If you want.”

“No,” Soph said, so fucking calmly, like it didn’t matter, like none of it mattered—and that was all Ed… wanted.  Wasn’t it?  To matter to someone.  “Later.  I already have a reservation.”

Guilt, like a sledgehammer on a fucking anvil in the center of his chest.

Soph had already made the plans, already found the time; he’d been looking forward to it; he only sounded blasé because he was trying not to be bothered because he knew it scared Ed shitless when he started to get pissed—

And Ed was going to go walk in there and break up with him.

He was such a piece of shit.  He was such a piece of shit; why did anybody ever even talk to him—?

He closed his eyes and pressed his knuckles into the inside corner of the right one, like he could force some of his own shittiness out through the back of his skull.

“Okay,” he said.  “Where—should I meet you?”

Soph gave him another hotel address.  He’d gotten in the habit of memorizing them so he didn’t have to put the whole call on speaker, because sometimes Soph—said stuff.  Just—stuff.  Sometimes.  About what he wanted to do to Ed when he saw him, or whatever.

Holy shit.  He wasn’t going to have to do that anymore, after today—right?  He wasn’t going to have to walk on any more fucking eggshells; he wasn’t going to have to measure out his thoughts and say shit carefully and pretend he didn’t notice great food even when he was starving and lie to Al about the origin of bruises which were mostly-consensual but sometimes sort-of-not, but it wasn’t that he didn’t deserve them; it was just…

The jolt went through him like he’d grabbed a live wire with both hands.  He’d seen his own shadow just now—seen it cowering in the corner with both arms over its head, so fucking desperate to be loved that it had changed into a shape he barely recognized.

He wasn’t going to have to do this anymore.

The thought made his heart quicken and his breath deepen; probably his eyes got all melodramatically wide.  He was going to be free of all of this shit; being alone was better than always feeling like he’d fucked up, always feeling like he had to make up for some shit, always feeling like he wasn’t good enough and couldn’t be and had to try harder even though he wouldn’t ever succeed.

“All right,” he said into the faceless phone.  “I’ll see you later, then.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Soph said.

Ed stared at the blank screen after the line went dead.  Soph had to know.  He had  to.  He was smart like a fucking tack-sharpening machine; there was no way he hadn’t added it up.

Ed put his phone in his pocket and his head in his hands.  Deep breaths, and Al.  He was going to be okay.

Night was falling hard—like he had, how hi-fucking-larious—by the time he made it to this week’s model of swanky-ass hotel.  There were several possible explanations: for instance, that two miles sounded like less than it really was; or that Google Maps had lied about the distance; or that Ed just… hadn’t really wanted to get there.  He’d figured that walking would help to clear his head, and it was a damn sight closer than most of the places Soph had favored so far, but… maybe that had been a mistake.  Seemed like he’d made a fuckton of those lately.

Soph had called an hour ago—Ed had been driving back from class, not that he would have wanted to pick up even if he hadn’t had his hands full of steering wheel and his mouth full of all-new hellish torments he wanted to bestow on the imbeciles around him—and left him a message with the room number and not much else.

He hadn’t packed anything this time; he wasn’t planning on staying, after all.  Al had given him a look like he was… what?  It wasn’t quite Brother, you’re messed up in the head; that was mostly reserved for amateur parkour experiments and impossible amounts of shit he wanted to accomplish in minuscule amounts of time in lab.

But Al had leveled that complicated look on him and said, in a neutral kind of voice, “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be alone with him for this conversation.  Would you like me to come?”  He hadn’t looked down towards where Ed’s T-shirt covered the fat purpling bruise under his collarbone (which Ed had waved away, like always; waved away with Huh?  No, it’s cool, I mean, it was just… excitement, he got a little too excited, it wasn’t anything bad, it wasn’t like… whatever you’re thinking)—but Ed had felt it prickling all the same.  There’d been a bubble of hysterical laughter in his throat; he’d choked it down, but he couldn’t help the thought: By the pricking of my bruises, something wicked this way cruises.

Funny, right?

Real funny.

The girl at the front counter at the hotel eyeballed him but didn’t say anything as he crossed the shiny-ass lobby to the shiny-ass elevator.  If any of these places had an actual security breach, it was gonna be a fucking disaster; nobody ever so much as asked him who he was meeting—some of them didn’t even greet him to try to make him nervous.  To be fair, they sort of had to assume that someone on another shift had checked him in, and he was allowed to be here; and as long as he didn’t act overtly suspicious, there wasn’t much that they could do.  Their own damn hospitality was their undoing.

In any case, he wasn’t going to have to wriggle his way through awkward-ass situations like this for much longer, was he?

He jammed his thumb against the elevator button for the eighth floor, closed his eyes, and wondered if this elevator was actually especially bad, or if the stomach-lurch feeling was exacerbated by his psychological state.  Didn’t really take a medical degree to make a guess at that one.

He was in one of those weird limbo-time stretches where everything was happening excruciatingly slowly and way too fast all at once—he simultaneously wanted to get this shit over with as soon as humanly possible and dreaded it with every last damn fiber of his being.

Long, long hall; ugly, ugly carpet.  Door 812.  Door 814.  Door 816.

818.  Bingo or some shit.

He tilted his head back, took a deep breath, reached one leaden arm out, and knocked.

Five seconds later—he counted—the door swung open.  Soph was down to his slacks and his shirt—still tucked in, but with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

Ed could already smell the food, and it smelled fucking killer, and he was a fucking moron for not having eaten before he came.  First off, it was going to make him less rational; second, he’d feel guilty as fuck if he gave in and ate any, but it’d be almost as bad to waste it.

Was that the whole point?  Was that what Soph had been doing all a-fucking-long?  And like a fucking kid who didn’t know any better, Ed had just—believed it?

He felt like he was plummeting in slow-mo from a fucking skyscraper, and it was only a matter of time before he kissed the cement.

“Come on,” Soph said.  He put a hand on Ed’s shoulder—lightly, lightly—and drew him in over the threshold.  “We’re not exactly strangers, Ed.  Why are you so tense?”

“Just tired,” Ed said.  It sounded weak and fake and stupid, but what the hell else was he supposed to say?  “Just—can we just—”

“Have you had anything for dinner yet?” Soph asked.  One hand stayed on Ed’s shoulder, and the other swept grandly to indicate the enormous room service feast laid out on the table.  “I ordered some of your favorites.”

Ed looked at Soph for a long couple seconds, acutely aware of the flick of his own heartbeat in his throat.  Was that a genuine gesture of affection, or was that another little guilt-noose to sling around Ed’s ankles or his wrists or his fucking neck?  Was he just being paranoid and untrusting and aloof or some shit?  What if he had it all wrong, and this was just—what if Soph was just trying, in the best way he knew how, to be generous and loving; and maybe he just went a little overboard sometimes, and maybe—

Was it just Ed?  Was it always just going to be Ed?  Did he ask too much, or expect the impossible, or—what?  Did he drive people to this, somehow?  Or was ‘this’ totally fucking reasonable by everyone else’s standards but his own, and he was off living in some fucking dreamworld with gay-ass Disney princes, and what the fuck did he think was gonna happen when the stupid fucking castle animation faded out?

“I’m okay,” Ed said.  He was such a bad fucking liar; a four-year-old would’ve called bullshit right now.  “Um—do you—you want to sit down, or…?”

They couldn’t have this conversation standing, right?  There had to be some sort of relationship rule about that.

Soph shut the door.  He didn’t deadbolt it in one slow, deliberate turn of his hand; or swing the little bar shut with a loudly ominous creak, but Ed had to resist the urge to flinch all the same.

He had to keep thinking about that—about how fucking fundamentally wrong it was to be scared of someone you were in love with.  About how the rest of it didn’t make a fucking difference if he felt like a rabbit in a fucking snare with a wolf pack closing in every time Soph’s eyes were on him.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” Soph asked.  “You insist on taking such poor care of yourself; you should have—”

The words burst out of Ed’s mouth as something in him finally just snapped: “I don’t think we should do this anymore.”

Soph blinked at him.  Dead neutral, fucking unreadable, expression entirely composed.

“Do what, exactly?” he asked.  “Is this hotel not up to your rigorous standards?”

The venom of the sarcasm in that fucking burned—like acid on bare skin.  As the resident clumsy-ass scientist, Ed would know.

“No,” he said.  He tried at a gesture; words were fucking failing him, like they always did.  Soph raised one eyebrow real slow at the way he was waving at the space between them.  “This.  Just—us.  It’s not—I mean, I don’t think it’s—working.”

Soph was standing between Ed and the door.  Of fucking course he was.  How much of it had Ed not even noticed before now?

Soph folded his arms across his chest.  The fucking eyebrow was still the only thing that had shifted on his face.  “Pray tell, then: precisely how is it supposed to work?”

“I don’t know,” Ed said, helplessly, scrabbling for something solid, but—what the fuck was he supposed to say?  He’d never gotten this right before; he’d never felt like he was in a fucking movie, and the whole world suddenly made sense, or whatever revelatory shit love was meant to confer on you when you found it.  “I just—I know what—doesn’t work, and right now I’m just—fucking exhausted and miserable all the time, and—I mean—that’s not your fault; that’s not what I’m saying; it’s just—”

He tried to rake his hand through his hair, but it was shaking so hard he sort of got tangled, which was so fucking embarrassing he could feel the blood flooding into his cheeks.

“Just—” he forced out.  “What you want, what you need, out of—a relationship—right now—I can’t… give you that.  I just can’t.  Not with how my life is.  And that’s—that doesn’t mean there’s anything—you’re not wrong to want it, but I just—I can’t do it.  I can’t do this; I’m too… I gotta take care of my shit, and right now I can’t.  A-and Al keeps saying—I mean, he thinks I’m—falling apart, or something; he thinks it’s too much of a strain, he said, because—he said I always try to be what other people need because I want to make people happy, but this time it’s—kind of—damaging, psychologically, I guess; it’s—fucking me up pretty bad to be trying so hard with so little of me left to give, and—”

“You mentioned that your brother has never had an intimate relationship,” Soph said, face blank, eyelids low.  “What could he possibly know about what you and I have together?”

Keeping a hold of his thoughts was like trying to grasp at fucking shrubs and roots and shit in the midst of a mudslide, and Ed was two seconds from going under.  “Well—I mean, he knows me better than anybody else, and—and Winry said the same thing, actually; she’s got—she’s had a couple of—”

“I was under the impression,” Soph said, “that you weren’t the type to let other people dictate the direction of your life.”

Ed wanted to say stupid shit—shit like I don’t have to justify myself to you; shit like I’m fucking unhappy, that’s reason enough.  But it wasn’t, and he did.  Soph had given him—all kinds of shit, so much food and so much affection and so much great sex; you couldn’t just discount that the second something happened that you didn’t like.

“I’m sure we could work out some of the difficulties,” Soph said.  “I thought you billed yourself as an individual who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit’.”

It was always knives and nails and needles when Soph was getting angry—tiny blades so sharp you almost didn’t feel them until he started to twist.

“Well—I mean, yeah,” Ed got out, “but this is—different, this is—I just think there are—fundamental differences in what we’re looking for, and it’s not fair to you or to me to keep trying to force it to fit when it’s just—when the shapes aren’t right, and—”

“Interesting,” Soph said, and somehow the tonelessness was as brutal as a shout.  “Somehow I’d just assumed that this meant something to you.  Apparently—”

“Stop saying that,” Ed said.  “Don’t just—don’t change around—listen, okay?  Please.  Nobody—nobody did anything—wrong; it’s just—this isn’t working, and I don’t think it’s gonna work, and I really—care about you—but—I think we’ll both be a lot happier if we quit trying to make this into stuff it can’t be and just… move on.”

A narrow smile curled one corner of Soph’s familiar mouth.  “You don’t get to decide what makes me happy, Ed.”

Ed was going to tear his hair out.  He was.  And then he’d be bald and bleeding from the scalp, and he wouldn’t have to worry about anyone wanting to date him ever again.

“That’s not what I meant,” he said.  “You know that’s not what I meant; I just—”

“Fine,” Soph said.

Ed’s heart stuttered hard.

“If you don’t think there’s anything we can do to continue to benefit from the considerable amount of time and energy we’ve both put into this,” Soph said, and the wince cut into the lining of Ed’s stomach long before it made it up to his face, “then I suppose we should put it on hold.”

Ed couldn’t quite believe he was hearing this.  That sounded—that sounded like Soph… giving in.  He never gave in; he never gave any damn quarter—he was like a dog with a fucking rope toy in his teeth once he set his mind on something.  He always held out and spun it around and clung on and kept pushing—gently, but consistent, so that you couldn’t ignore it, and nothing else could take precedence—until you finally caved just to get him to leave it the fuck alone.  That was his M.O.  Ed had accepted it; it wasn’t a big deal; it was just part of who he was, which made this… weird.  Unprecedented.


Ed swallowed twice and jimmied the thinnest remainders of his voice out past the knot occupying his throat.  “Okay.”

“There’s no sense wasting all of this, though,” Soph said, sweeping a hand out towards the table.  His eyes fixed on Ed’s collarbones, then on his wrists, then… lower.  “Or,” he said, nodding to the bed this time, “all of that.”

Whatever was happening in Ed’s chest more or less felt like breathing, but it wasn’t having the desired effect of distributing oxygen to his body and encouraging higher functions in his brain.

“Oh, come,” Soph said.  “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘one more for the road’ in situations like this?  It’s traditional.”

Ed swallowed again.  Was there a Guinness record for this sort of shit within a single conversation?  He was probably getting close.

“Traditional,” he said, like slowing down the syllables would force them to make sense.

Soph stepped towards him—Ed didn’t, didn’t recoil—and raised a hand to graze all five fingertips down along his jaw.  “That’s right,” he said.  “It’s the best way I can think of to say goodbye.  It’ll give both of us a sense of closure.”

What was he supposed to say?  Fuck your closure; I want to get out of hereYour feelings are fucking irrelevant?  The first was true; the second wasn’t, but the first would sound like the second anyway, and—just—

He hadn’t done enough swallowing for today, right?

“Okay,” he said.  “I… okay.”

“It’ll be a great deal more than just ‘okay’,” Soph said.  His fingertips skated down the side of Ed’s neck and curled into the fabric of his T-shirt.  “You know better than that.”

Ed closed his eyes, and Soph’s mouth ghosted up his throat.  “Y-yeah.  Sorry.  Yeah.”

This was good.  Soph was good—good at this, good at making him feel good, good at dragging his soul up into a layer of boiling steam just underneath his skin, good at waiting until it shredded his insides before tearing it out of him in a single stream—

This was going to be good.  This was going to be fine.  Which was—which made him feel—like a thief, like he was fucking stealing, like he’d refused to give up the good stuff with the not-good, like he was cheating at this—

Like a fucking slut for accepting sex when he was trying to cut all the strings.

“I don’t—” he said.  Soph’s elegant, long-fingered hands settled on his waist, slid down, and cinched in around his hipbones.  Ed tried to force his eyelids up; the weight of his heartbeat in them made them so fucking heavy.  “Could we—not?  I don’t—feel—right, I—”

“Relax,” Soph said, breath hot on his throat, fingers curling into the bottom hem of his shirt.  “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It’s not—” Off came the shirt; black cotton crumpled on the tactful beige carpet.  “—I’m not—”

“Hush,” Soph breathed into his ear.  Teeth grazed the shell; a tongue grazed the lobe, and his knees went jellied underneath him.  Apparently he did want it, whatever he said.  So apparently he deserved whatever was coming to him.

Soph was guiding him backwards—the backs of his knees met the edge of the bed, and his weight tipped, and he was down on the mattress, and his eyes were popping open on instinct.

A section of Soph’s silky hair had slipped loose from the ponytail; Ed wanted to card his fingers through it, savor the smoothness; it was beautiful—really, it was—but Soph always got this look like it bothered him when Ed clung onto him, and wasn’t the point of all of this to end the whole thing on a high note—?

“I suppose this is our last chance, isn’t it?” Soph murmured into his ear, running a few fingertips lightly down the top of his thigh.  “There is one thing I’ve been meaning to try.”

Soph drew back—his pupils were blown, and the intensity of his gaze sent chills chasing up and down Ed’s spine.  Ed’s mouth was so fucking arid you would’ve needed a dune buggy to cross his tongue.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Yes,” Soph said, dragging his hand down Ed’s bare chest to fix it on his belt buckle.  He trailed it back up again, and then down—this time with his fingernails digging in a touch.  “We discussed it; you sounded receptive.”

There was a small Sahara in Ed’s throat and lungs—no, wait.  A large Sahara.  Enormous.  Pretty much the same size as the real one.

“Sorry, I—” It was a wonder he wasn’t spitting sand.  “I forget—what—?”

“Knives, my sweet boy,” Soph whispered into the underside of his chin, forcing his head back, forcing his throat out.  “You said—” Ed remembered. “—‘One of these days, sure’.”

Which had meant I don’t think I like that idea, because I’m scared of you sometimes, which is also the reason I can’t say ‘no’.

Ed could no longer recall a time in his life when he’d had sufficient saliva.  “I…”

“I have them in the car,” Soph said, softly, and then the tip of his tongue glided up the ridges of Ed’s throat.  “Shall I get them?”

Ed kept trying to inhale, but the oxygen just wouldn’t fucking stick in his lungs, and he was staring up at Soph’s serene little smile, and—

It clicked.

“Yeah,” he gasped out.  “G-go ahead and get ’em.”

“Lovely,” Soph said, with that purring undertone—like a satiated animal.  He leaned in again, nipped Ed’s neck just under his ear— “Hold that thought.”

Ed was going to hold that thought right out the fucking door and then drop it eight floors and get the fuck out of here and never, ever come back.

“Okay,” he said with the paltry remains of his voice.

“Ah,” Soph said, and the tone was regret now, but nothing pointed, nothing real; “parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Soph shifted back from where Ed was splayed out on the edge of the bed, moved to his little overnight bag by the dresser, rummaged for a second, and drew out—


Bright-gleaming silver and a narrow chain; solid metal; totally legit; and you could buy anything you fucking wanted on the internet these days, couldn’t you?

How fucking convenient.

Soph stepped towards Ed again, and Ed’s heart started slamming so fast he couldn’t breathe around it—like a fist on a door in the dead of night; like the end of days had come, and the only hope for restitution lay behind this bolted fucking barrier—

And he was so cold—the room hadn’t been cold a second ago, had it?  Soph’s hands had been cool, maybe, but Ed’s skin had been flushing; he’d been—well, he’d been worked up, after all, and that always set his blood to singing through his veins so fast he basically heated up like a car engine, and—but it was cold now; he was fucking freezing; he couldn’t feel his fingertips; that shouldn’t have been—

He was trying to scramble back on the bed, but his fucking hands weren’t working; his fingers were completely fucking numb, and he couldn’t see quite right; the edges of his vision had blurred.  He thought he was actually going to choke on his own fucking heart, which should’ve been a medical impossibility, but it felt like—it felt—

“Easy,” Soph murmured, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t done a little bit of ropes-and-ribbons shit before; it wasn’t like this was new, really—it didn’t make sense, but Ed was just—he couldn’t—he—

Soph caught his right wrist and tugged hard, and he felt one warning twinge from his shoulder, and it only ever got worse from there, so he tried to wriggle up the bed to make it so Soph wouldn’t have to wrench his fucking arm off to cuff him to the bedframe, but at the same time, breathing was like sobbing, short and high and weak and useless, and he couldn’t think right; he couldn’t—

He didn’t want to be here; he didn’t want to be anywhere, but this was the worst place in the world—but if he didn’t cooperate, everything would just hurt more—

His body wasn’t listening to his brain; he tried to make his thoughts louder, tried to howl at his own muscles to force them to move—but the nerve signals just wouldn’t fucking fire; the messages wouldn’t run; he managed a weak half-shiver, and then—

Soph released his arm, grabbed his hips, leaned down to kiss one of the little bruises just above the top hem of his jeans, and hiked him further up the bed.  He didn’t know hearts could beat this fast; he didn’t know blood could pump with this kind of urgency, and he was—what the fuck was he?  What was it that heart attacks were supposed to feel like?  There was an arrhythmic stabbing pain in the center of his chest; there was a tornado in his brain—

Cold metal cinched in around his right wrist, and the nerve in his shoulder squalled, and the other cuff rattled as Soph closed it with a sharp c-c-click around the first wrought iron bar of the bedframe.

No, no, nonononoplease

“Wait,” Ed choked out, and why couldn’t he fucking move?  “W-wait, d-don’t—”

He didn’t even know what he wanted to ask; he just couldn’t be here like this, not now, not with his whole body rebelling, not with his fucking heart poised to explode—

His face felt hot even though his hands were frozen; did Soph think he was enjoying this because he was blushing, or—?

He was dying; he had to be fucking dying; that was the only explanation for how fucking haywire every single last fucking one of his vital systems had gone; he was going to fucking die in a fucking hotel room handcuffed to the fucking bed, and Al would be all alone, and he’d said it; he’d said Don’t go by yourself, Brother, don’t be stupid, don’t take risks—and like every other fucking time, Ed’d ignored him, because he was the smart, independent big brother; because he knew better; because he knew his limits; because he was a selfish fucking prick who prioritized his own fucking pride over the safety of his family, and he deserved this; he deserved all of it—

Soph’s hands grazed against his skin again, skimming down his stomach to unbutton his jeans and drag the zipper down slow, like he was savoring it; he was casting bedroom eyes-y looks up at Ed as he hauled them off—and usually Ed contorted his spine as much as he needed to lift his hips up, to make it easier, and he felt the instinct for it sparking somewhere in the hazy, screaming muddle of his brain, but he couldn’t tap into it; he couldn’t do anything—his heart was ricocheting around his whole fucking body, and his throat had contracted smaller than a plastic fucking drinking straw; he couldn’t—breathe

Soph yanked his shoes off, too, and dumped everything on the floor; he ran those elegant fucking hands up the insides of Ed’s legs—faint pressure from his fingernails; light scraping all the way upward until he reached the bottom of Ed’s boxers.  He curled his fingers into them slowly and then dragged those down, too, and Ed couldn’t even fucking see through the fear for a second—like all the jittering, fluttering, swooping thoughts had solidified into a single curtain that had slapped into his face, and no matter what he did, no matter how he fought it, no matter how he tried and tried to push it or part it or sweep it aside—he just—couldn’t—and—

Soph kissed his knee, and then that spot of warmth disappeared.

“Just like that,” Soph’s voice said, and Ed could almost—there was a thread out in the ether; he tried to grasp it; he could almost focus on Soph’s face—


Then nothing, then footsteps, then a door slamming, then—

All he knew was that he had to get out of here—had to get the fuck out; he was either dying, or he was going to be dying, or he would if he stayed, or—

There was something wrong with him, and there had been something wrong with Soph fucking Kimblee all along, and he’d just been too fucking lovestruck to see it—

He was handcuffed naked to a hotel bed, and there was something wet on his face and his neck and his collarbones, and his shoulder was throbbing, and his heart wouldn’t stop skittering like dead leaves in a sharp wind, and he couldn’t breathe

He just—


He had to get to Al.

It’d be okay; Al would make it okay; Al always made it okay.

He could do it; he had to.

He just—

One breath; that was all he needed; one fucking breath; he was Edward fucking Elric, and he’d been through worse; he could do this; his fucked-up, stupid body couldn’t stop him; let it fucking try

He dragged in the oxygen and held it in his lungs, squeezing his eyes shut, listening to his heartbeat.  Systole, diastole; they were both for Al.  Every fucking cardiac muscle contraction was for that fucking kid—that perfect fucking kid; the only good thing he’d ever been a part of.  Al had the best smile of anybody on Earth—in the first half-second, it was so tiny, like he didn’t even know how to express his own happiness, but then it’d just bloom, and next thing you knew, he was beaming, and the room lit up, and the world made sense, and—


He could do this.

He could, and he would, because Al needed him.  Al needed him to make it home.

It was a fucking war with his fucking heart and lungs and spinning brain—a fucking battle every fucking second; drums and cannons and bayonets.  He rallied every last goddamn fragment of his fractured little being, and he opened his eyes, and he sucked in a deeper breath than the last one, and he planted his left hand on the mattress and levered himself up.

He sat.  He swallowed, hard.  He looked at the shining silver contraption trapping him here.

He had a tiny flathead screwdriver in his wallet, but his jeans were too far away for him to reach it; he could’ve maybe jimmied the lock with the tongue of his belt buckle, but same fucking problem.  He fixed his eyes on the nightstand by the bed.  Nothing useful was evident; he reached over and checked the drawer, but the only fucking thing in it was the obligatory Bible.  Nice and fucking ironic, but you couldn’t pick a lock with a couple flimsy-ass pages of scripture, so…


He tried unscrewing the switch on the bedside lamp, in case its connecting pieces were the right shape, but no fucking dice; it wouldn’t even come loose.  What else?  What fucking else?

His heart wouldn’t stop pounding, and he couldn’t chase the thought out of his head that he was having some kind of fucking reaction that was going to kill him.

But not yet.  Later.  He’d have time for all that dying shit later; not fucking now.

He shook the cuff experimentally and got a nice little chiming ring out of the steel.  Fucking police-grade shit.  Maybe he would’ve had a hope in hell with a pair of pliers, but his bare hands wouldn’t do jackshit against the links of the chain or the joins of the cuffs.

He gasped in enough partial breaths to make up a whole one, held it, and then stood up on the mattress.  He set both feet against the lowest bar of the headboard, wrapped both hands around the chain, and started leaning back.

How long did he fucking have?  Soph had to… what?  Walk down the hall, take the elevator down eight floors, walk out of the lobby, cross the parking lot to his car, unlock it, collect his fucking murder tools, presumably conceal them in some way in case the useless fucking staff reasoned that a man whistling a cheery tune with a bunch of gleaming knives in his hands was vaguely suspicious, walk back, take the elevator eight floors up—

How long had Ed spent fucking blind with panic?

He didn’t have time to try to pry this fucking thing apart.

He had to get out of here; he had to get out; he just—

Whatever it took.


Soph hadn’t quite locked the cuff as tight as it would go—there was enough of a gap for Ed to shift it right up to the juncture of his thumb.

He pushed it up as far towards his fingers as it would go, tucked his thumb in, closed his eyes, let go of the chain, braced his feet against the bars of the headboard, and threw himself backwards as hard as he could.

The edge of the steel dug deep into the meat of his thumb, and his heart kept finding a way—somehow—to gallop faster, harder, an earthquake in his throat, shaking his ribcage, thundering through him—

The breath ripped out of him, scalded on the way back in; too fast, too hard, too hot; he was choking on it, but he couldn’t stop.

He twisted his hand as violently as he could bear—pushed with both legs, heard the iron bedframe creak under the strain—

Something hot slipped down his wrist; the steel bit deeper still—he leaned back, gritted his teeth, latched onto his right forearm with his left hand—

Hauled with everything he fucking had because he couldn’t fucking stay here he had to get out he had t

A sick popping sound, and then a scrape, and the pain overwhelmed everything; blood sprayed over the white sheets; he fell free of the handcuff, and his momentum flung him backwards almost off the mattress; he landed on his back, bounced once, lay with his head extended past the foot of the bed, and stared up at the ceiling open-mouthed, distantly aware that his hand had caught fire—

There wasn’t time.

He scrambled up; it was so fucking cold except for his right hand.  He had to put some fucking clothes on, but there wasn’t—how long could he possibly have before Soph—?

His knees gave way under him the second he tried to stand unaided, and he tumbled to the carpet; he wanted to fucking cry—but, y’know, no fucking time; just no fucking time

With a trace of fascination, he noticed he was leaving bloody handprints as he crawled over to his jeans.  He felt bad for the maids that’d get stuck with this room tomorrow.  All the skin on both sides of his right hand had torn the fuck off with the handcuff; some of it had ripped away clean, but there was still a thick flap hanging from the left side.  His thumb was sort of… dangling, limply, in a way that would’ve probably disconcerted the fuck out of him if he’d had any goddamn mental energy to spare, but all of it—every figment of a thought; every flash of a fucking neuron—he’d channeled towards moving, dragging, forcing, scrabbling, getting the fuck out of this place

Pants first.  Then the rest of this shit.

He swung himself around and shoved his feet into the legs of his jeans.  His knees still felt like somebody’d clubbed them with a fucking crowbar; he was just going to have to lock the joints and figure it out; he’d just… it was fine.  He was going to be fine.

He hiked himself back onto his ass—using his back as much as he could, because putting weight on his hand sent spears through his shoulder and daggers up his wrist—and wriggled into the jeans, then half-zipped them on the third try; his left hand kept shaking like a motherfucker, even though it wasn’t the one dripping all over the floor.

He grabbed up his T-shirt and gave himself three seconds—one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three—to find the collar.  When it fucking eluded him, he jammed his left hand into the bottom, snaked it around until his fingers went through some hole, and slung it up to his elbow.  He’d put it on later; there just wasn’t time

It took every last fucking ounce of pigheaded willpower—and a major assist from the desk chair—to drag himself upright.  His knees wavered again; fuck his cartilage; he set his jaw and tilted his weight back until they stuck, and then he pressed his right hand into the shirt tangled over his left and fucking marched his ass over to the window.

He probably would’ve done it even if there hadn’t been a fire escape.  He would’ve—something.  Décor, molding, nicks in the paint; he would’ve found something, and if he hadn’t, he would’ve eaten pavement from eight floors up before he stayed in this fucking place.

This room looked out over the back parking lot, which was almost empty—no black fucking Lexus, anyway, and that was what mattered; Soph must’ve parked in front.  He could do it; he could do this, he could—

The handle stuck—or had he finally drained out the last of his fucking strength?  Or was it literal fucking window dressing having a latch there at all, and this was one of those fucking safety windo—

Fire escape.  It had to open; there were fucking laws.

How much of his maybe-five minutes did he have left?

He pushed the T-shirt back, ground his teeth hard, grabbed the handle with both hands, and threw his weight into this one, too, and—

With a fucking shudder and then a creak—

The bottom half of the pane angled open a crack, and then he planted both palms on it and pushed—so much for the stealth T-shirt plan now; he was smearing his fingerprints all over the fucking glass—until there was a foot or so of space, enough to grab the sill, lift his body one more time, and roll it over—

For one irrational second he knew—he knew, in his guts, in his soul—that the deck of the fire escape was going to give way, and he’d go all the way down.

He landed on his fucking spine on cold metal, staring at the open sky, and lay there winded for way too long.  He gasped; he choked; he didn’t have time to search for air; he contorted his reluctant muscles again—bloody hand first on the nearest ladder rung—his vision narrowed to the black paint flaking off the cheap metal, and he closed his other fist around it, too.  Just a million more of these.  That wasn’t so much—not standing between him and survival; that wasn’t so much.

He pulled himself over, stuck his bare feet out—he was just sort of kicking stupidly for a second, then he found purchase, then he shifted his weight—his right hand was screaming, and his shoulder was past sounds and into lights too bright to see; he couldn’t think about it; couldn’t give it time; couldn’t give the pain any power over his mind—

He was still breathing.  He was still breathing, and he was going to make it out of this if it fucking killed him, and he was going home to Al—

He counted the rungs.  He watched his own fingers curl around every one; he glared at them so they wouldn’t fucking let go without him, not on his goddamn fucking watch.  The pattern of blood crusting on his knuckles around the way they bent was fascinating; fluid was a funny thing.  Drips chased each other down his arm and dove into the endless open air below; he estimated their velocity by the time they splattered on the ground.




His right hand was so slick with the blood now he had to take extra care to compensate with the other hand and both of his feet—if he relied on its grip, he’d slide, and his weight would go.  It was okay.  That was what he had three other fucking limbs for, after all.


One more.

One more, and then it was close enough that whoever designed these fucking things had cut it off, figuring people could just jump the rest of the way, apparently; had that asshole figured on bare feet and Jell-O knees?  Ed thought not.


Thirty-eight, and he just—

Braced himself, let go, fell

The sting of the pavement on the soles of his feet barely even registered.  Landing on his ass jarred his tailbone so bad he saw stars, though, so that charted on the scale.

He flattened both hands on the concrete to lever himself up, immediately regretted it, and followed through anyway.  No fucking choice.  No fucking time.  There wouldn’t be any damn mystery where he’d gone; he’d left a fucking trail a lot more goddamn durable than breadcrumbs—and more personalized, too, for fuck’s sake.

One ragged breath; two ragged breaths; he stood up and shouldered his shirt on, trying to look up to the eighth-floor window at the same time.  It had to’ve been long enough by now, but Soph wasn’t sticking his fucking head out, and there was no one on the ladder, so—maybe—just—maybe

Shirt on, jeans buttoned, presence and functional capacity of phone confirmed—one more breath, one long second with his eyes closed, and then he clenched both hands into fists and started running.

He didn’t really know this fucking area, and he didn’t really care—there was a road out past the parking lot, and beyond that there was something that looked like a park; past that, some suburban shit.  He was okay.  He was going to be okay.  He wanted to throw up; he wanted to lie down; but there wasn’t time for either, so he was just going to have to be okay first, and then—later—when he got back to Al—

He ran.

He clutched his bleeding hand to his chest, clenched his jaw tight, and made his miserable body carry itself forward—just a little further, just a little longer, just a little deeper into the beautiful, beautiful, anonymous safety of the spreading night.

He ran until he’d passed more houses than he could count; until the turns he’d taken had tangled up even the vaguest concept of a map inside his head.  He ran until he couldn’t tell what part of this was ravaging his heartbeat.

And then just a few more steps.

Just a few more squares of sidewalk; just a few more jagged breaths searing up and down inside his throat.


A little…



There was an oak tree in front of one of the picturesque cottage-looking houses.  He’d put what felt like a mile and a half—so maybe three-quarters of one, if he was lucky, realistically speaking, right?—between himself and that fucking hotel; there were rows and rows of houses in the way, and he’d turned onto random streets half a dozen times and followed them to other ones and did his absolute damnedest to disappear into the suburban maze.

This was as good a place as any, and the tree reminded him of the one that had used to stand in front of the house they grew up in, and he reached it, reached out to it, and just sort of… crumbled.

Maybe the roots really did sort of cradle him; maybe it was just his stupid fucking imagination.

He had to twist around enough to put his left hand into his right pocket and pull out his phone again.

He had six missed calls from Soph.

His stomach churned—like some fucking Charybdis-level shit—and there were white spots in front of his eyes for a second, and his heart turned over and sputtered like a car engine when you really ground the ignition, but—

He just—

Swiped past with his shaky thumb and tapped over to Al, to Al’s fucking gorgeous fucking face on the speed-dial list, and held the phone up to his ear.

He didn’t even hear a whole ring before the line caught.

“Brother?” Al asked, and the shard of terror in his voice buried itself in the center of Ed’s chest and lodged there, radiating cold.

“Yeah,” he grated out.  “Who’d you think?”

“Are you okay?” Al asked.  He cleared his throat, like the gesture would travel back in time and stop Ed from having heard the tremble.  “Where are you?”

“Uh,” Ed said, to both, “long story.”  And then, to the latter, because the former was a mess: “Some… place.  I—need you to come pick me up, if you can; I… it’s… fucked up.  Everything’s all fucked up, but it’s okay; I’m—fine.  It’s some little housing development or something.”  He had to think.  He had to keep this shit together; he was the big brother; this was his job.  He swallowed, closed his eyes, forced himself to smile.  “Hang on.  I’ll map myself.  Okay?”

“Yeah,” Al said softly.  “Okay.  I can be there in just a couple minutes.”

Probably he should’ve gotten up and, y’know, looked at a fucking street sign or something, but for once he was giving himself a pass on the indolent technology shortcut thing.  Plus this way he could send the pin on the map right to Al, and there was no chance of Al ending up with the wrong intersection on his GPS.

“Got it,” Al said.  “Shouldn’t be more than—ten minutes?  I’ll, um.  Drive fast.”

Ed wanted to laugh.  Ed wanted to part his lips and let the joy pour out, because his beautiful baby brother never drove a hair over the speed limit, but for Ed—for his fuckup-failure sibling—Al was volunteering to bend the rules.

In a way, that was about the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to him.

“Okay,” Ed said.  “I—love you, kid.  Okay?”

“I love you, too, dummy,” Al said.  “Sit tight.”

Ed hung up, and draped himself over the roots, and stared up through the lattice of oak tree leaves, and was sort of relieved and sort of disappointed that he was just too exhausted to cry.

He slammed the brakes on the rush of adrenaline the first time he heard a car engine rumble by on the sleepy street, headlights swanning through the dark—and the second, and the third.  On the unthinkable off-chance it was Soph, better not to attract his attention with movement anyway.  If Al had altered the laws of space-time in his hurry to get here, he wouldn’t just leave again without texting, at least.

After eight minutes or so, Ed managed to stand up and look at the road, and everything hurt like hell.  It was sort of a good thing, in a way; once he’d finally wrangled his body into an upright position, he didn’t dare to set it down in case he’d never be able to coax it to its feet again.

He peeked around the oak as a familiar engine growl puttered closer, and his knees just about fucking telescoped—had there ever, ever been a more beautiful sight than Alphonse Elric’s washed-out face past the windshield of Mom’s old piece of shit Volkswagen?

He had to open the door with his left hand, obviously, and he tried to tuck the right in against his stomach so that it was sort of below Al’s sightline, because it was still bleeding sluggishly all over everything.  Al, of course, wasn’t quite that easy to distract—on top of which he was actively looking for shit that’d gone wrong, which sort of made sense, given the circumstances.

Didn’t make it any easier to have to see the abject horror in his widening eyes.

“What did he do to you?”  And there was the voice breaking, and the telltale gleam at the bottom corners of Al’s eyes as they filled up, and he fought it, gripping the steering wheel way too tight, but it was obvious that he was going to lose.

“It’s fine,” Ed said, which admittedly was pretty fucking stupid.  He slammed the car door too fast in his dumbass eagerness and banged his knee, which just about fucking figured.  Maybe that’d hurt tomorrow, if he slipped back under his maxed-out pain threshold at some point.  He started to reach out with his right hand and remembered to switch when he saw all the crusty crap coating his arm like a fucking glove.  This was getting to be some serious second-rate horror movie shit.

In any case, he touched Al’s arm with his less-disgusting hand and looked his perfect baby brother in the eyes.

“Let’s just go,” he said.

Al managed a hitching breath, nodded firmly, and then put his foot on the gas.

Ed got about forty seconds of silence, give or take.  His sense of time was beyond fucked at this point; the relief was like a fucking drug trip, and his brain was swimming in it.

“It’s just—” Al said.  He stopped neatly at a light—applying gradual pressure to the pedals of a car was not one of Ed’s fortes; it had always baffled him that Al was so careful and precise and shit when Ed was the one who’d semi-legally taught him how to drive—and frowned at the steering wheel.

Ed braced himself, but there wasn’t any preparing for this sort of thing, was there?

“I could have—” Al’s eyes shone with the start of the tears, and Ed’s heart contracted to a cold spot of nothing—like a black hole, like a time bomb, like a single stone in the fucking tundra, buried in the snow.  “I could have stopped it,” Al said, and his voice caught, and then it shattered, and the first tear slipped out of the corner of his right eye and rolled down over his cheek.  “I should’ve insisted you let me go with you; I could’ve been there; I—”

No, Al,” Ed said, settling for grabbing Al’s wrist instead of his hand, since there wasn’t any goddamn way Al would release his ten-and-two grip on the wheel anyway.  “It was—fucking—it was something I had to do by myself, and—”

“It’s not,” Al said.  The light changed, and green glowed on the wet tracks on his face, and he accelerated slowly and smoothly even though he was flat-out fucking crying now.  If there was some fucking God, the dude must’ve been pissed about the absentee angel that had ended up here.  “That’s b—that’s a stupid… idea.  Concept.  Thing.  That’s a stupid thing.  There’s nothing you have to do by yourself, Brother; that’s the whole point—of me, us, of having a f-family, Ed, that’s—”

“I didn’t want you there,” Ed said, dropping back against his seat.  “He would’ve lost his shit.”

Al let go of two-o’-clock long enough to wave his hand at Ed’s bloody arm.  “What do you call this?”

“He didn’t—” Ed had to fight the urge to run his filthy-ass hand over his face.  He could already feel the prickle and pull of a spatter that had dried on his forehead—he should’ve figured.  “He—okay, he handcuffed me to the bed and—”

“Stole your sh-shoes?” Al asked.  His knuckles were white around the wheel, and two more tears spilled out as he blinked, but there was an anger in it now.

“Well—yeah.”  Al wasn’t dumb; he’d get six from a pair of threes, and Ed didn’t exactly want to spell it out.  “So he—then he left, and—and I freaked out.  I dunno, I just—I fucking lost it; I thought—” I was dying.  “I dunno, I was fucking—losing it.  Just… no higher fucking function, just—animal panic, I dunno, and… I was like ‘Fuck this shit, I’m out of here,’ so I… got out.”

A trio of threes made nine, and he didn’t need to say I would’ve chewed my own fucking arm off if I’d had to, right about then.

“I knew he was messed up,” Al said.  His eyes were on the road, and they were hardening; all the tear wetness somehow went cold—oceans were saline, too, after all, and sometimes ships weren’t ever seen again.  “I knew he was rotten underneath; I could hear it in his voice, and I shouldn’t have—I shouldn’t have stood by while he tortured you, no matter what you said—”

Ed leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling—or, really, the inside of the roof, since all of the lining had long since peeled off.  “It wasn’t—I mean, mostly it was—fine—”

“Like hell it was!” Al snapped, and Ed sat up straight—even a G-rated curse word was way beyond the fucking pale for Al.  “I knew something was off about that guy, and I knew something was off about you, and I should have stepped in a long time ago, before he did something like this!”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” Ed said, feeling—what?  Stupid?  Tired?  Numb?  As the words passed his lips, he knew they weren’t just consolation; they were true.  “I would’ve taken it like a challenge.  I always fucking do.”

Al was quiet but for shaking breaths for a while.

“I know,” he said at last.  “I know, and I knew, and that’s—that’s why I didn’t, but that doesn’t make it okay; that doesn’t undo—”

“Nothing’s gonna undo any of it,” Ed said.

Al took his other hand off the wheel this time to cover his mouth, but the sob that racked his shoulders and rattled out of his throat felt like a stab wound all the same.

“I know,” he said, gasping to get a breath in.  “I kn-know it’s not.”

“Hey,” Ed said, softer now, reaching with the cleaner hand to ruffle at Al’s hair.  “We’ve been through worse, kid.  We’re gonna be okay.”

“Yeah,” Al said, elbowing Ed’s arm away—gently, somehow; Ed sure as hell didn’t have that much control over his elbows—and then scrubbing at the tears.  Somehow the car didn’t veer so much as an inch.  “Just… why does it always have to be so darned hard?”

“Anything that’s worth it is,” Ed said.

Al’s breath was evening out.  At least there was that—at least there was fucking that.

Ed made a sincere effort to relax his shoulders, especially since the right one had taken up throbbing so bad that he might as well have jammed a rusty icepick into his own fucking arm, and looked ahead.

He blinked.

“Wait,” he said.  Neither of his arms cooperated with his desire to point at the passing turn.  “You missed the…” Thoughts slotted into place.  That was a nice fucking change, although the ones he got weren’t exactly moving in a favorable direction.  “Where the hell are we going?”

Al gave him the Look that Mom had never actually leveled on them—she’d only ever set its absolutely-no-bullshit frigidity on people who walked into her living room and drank her tea and told her that she should find another husband and get her life back on track; or the ones who said she should pray and make promises to Jesus or somebody to make the cancer go away; or the ones who asked if they could have a neighborly discount if she sold the house before she died.

The looks she gave to him and Al were different—even when she was really tired or really mad, there was always a gentleness to it that softened the reprimand a little bit.

Al, though, wasn’t pulling any fucking punches tonight.

“We’re going to the emergency room, Brother,” he said.

Ed knew in his gut that he was going to lose this one, but he had to try.  “Al,” he said.  “No, come on—they’re too wide for stitches or any of that shit.  All they’re going to do is slap some band-aids on and then charge us a fucking grand for the privilege of hanging out in the waiting room for two fucking hours.  I just wanna go home.  I just want this to be over.  I don’t care; we can fix it up ourselves.”

“Ed,” Al said, “your thumb’s dislocated.”

“Well—yeah, but—”

“And the first thing I did when we accepted the offers for grad school here was check the health insurance.  ER visits are covered.”

“They can’t be completely; we’re gonna have—”

“Besides,” Al said, “even if we had to pay the whole thing out of pocket—” His voice was sliding precipitously into the thick, wet realm of quavering tears again.  Ed should’ve just—died.  Ed should’ve just died and saved everyone the trouble.  “—you’ve gone through enough, Brother; I want you to get better; I want us to move on, and you can’t do that with your stupid thumb hanging off the side of your hand, and I’m not jamming that back into the joint myself and risking screwing your hand up for life, and—”

“Okay!” Ed said as fast as he could when Al paused for a shuddering breath.  “Okay, we can go to the fucking ER and sit on our asses and hate the healthcare system and… okay.  Fine.”  To be fair, his thumb was sort of a fucking wreck.  Maybe.  It was hard to tell under all the blood.  Also, everything was swelling a little bit.  Maybe swelling a lot.  “Fine,” he said again, somewhat nobly, he felt.  “You—kind of have a point.  But—just—if anybody points a fucking needle at me, I reserve the right to get the fuck out of there.”  He slouched in the seat as low as he could go while keeping just a sliver of vision over the dashboard.  Depressingly, it didn’t take long.  “Been through enough fucking trauma for one day.”

“For one lifetime, I think,” Al said.

Ed had meant it kind of as a joke, but the whole thing landed flat.  His stomach roiled a little more.

Then it growled.

“Can we get some takeout on the way over?” he asked.  “Hospital food fucking sucks, and we could be waiting fucking forever, and…”

“Only if you text Izumi and tell her you’re taking tomorrow off,” Al said.

“Can’t,” Ed said.

“You can,” Al said, “and you will.”

“I can’t,” Ed said.  “My flies’re gonna die.”

“With all due respect to the noble Drosophila and its many contributions to the field of genetics,” Al said, “screw your stupid flies.”

Ed tried for the piteous whine.  “Aaaaaaal.”

“You’re taking the day off to stay home and recuperate,” Al said.  “That’s final.”

Ed tried for the piteous whine at a higher pitch and volume.  “But Aaaaaaaaaaal—”

“No,” Al said.

“I’ll go in for a half-day,” Ed said.  “Take it or leave it.  And if you leave it, I’m probably gonna climb out a window and hurt myself worse.”

“If you give me reason to suspect that you’re going to make a break for it,” Al said, “I’ll knock you out with NyQuil.”

Ed glared.

Al glared back.

“Half-day,” Ed said.

“Quarter-day,” Al said.

“Three-eighths day,” Ed said.

“And someone covers your next three bookstore shifts,” Al said.


“You shouldn’t be lifting anything with your right hand anyway,” Al said.  “Brother, I swear, it’s like you’re trying to destroy yourself before you turn twenty-five.”

“I’d be doing a much better job if it was intentional,” Ed said.  “Three-eighths day, and I’ll drop two shifts.  That’s the most you’re gonna get.”

Al sighed for so long Ed couldn’t help being impressed at his pulmonary capacity.

“In-N-Out?” he asked.

“Fuck, yeah,” Ed said.

Even better, it was obvious Al wasn’t really mad, because he bought Ed a milkshake.

Roy lifted Ed’s right hand and ran his fingertip lightly over the ridges of scarring on either side.

“I always…”  His voice came out hoarse and sort of wobbly, and he cleared his throat.  “I always—assumed these were related to the surgery on your shoulder.  I should have a—”

“I wouldn’t’ve told you,” Ed said, and he knew as he said it that it was the truth.  The truth sucked balls sometimes, which unfortunately did not affect the fact that it was true.  “I—never mentioned it to anybody before.  Winry doesn’t even know.  I just told people I fell.  Which I did, a couple times—that’s just not what did it.”

He swallowed.  Roy squeezed his hand gently and then stood up and crossed the kitchen to get him a glass of water, which was just… fucking… adorable.  Was what it was.

He gulped some down and took a breath.

“Sorry,” he said.

Roy smiled that same fucking heart-twisting life-ruiner of a smile and brushed a couple strands of hair back from Ed’s face.  “Don’t be.  Why are you sorry?”

“’Cause I’m not done yet,” Ed said.

The smile faltered a little bit.  “…ah.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “So we got In-N-Out, and we parked in the lot to eat it, and Al pretty much just upended his hand sanitizer bottle on my hands, and… it was literally the best fucking thing I’ve eaten in my entire life, ever, period.”  More water.  He fucking needed it.  “Except—then my phone started to ring.  And ring.  And ring.  And Al got this look in his eyes like fucking steel, and he—I’d never heard him use that voice before, and I haven’t heard it since, but he just said ‘Give it here,’ and it wasn’t even a choice; I just handed it over.  And he just started going through it app by app and deleting Soph from everything—y’know, contacts, phone, recent calls, Facebook, everything, and blocked his number and all that shit.  And then he gave it back to me, and he said ‘Don’t take any calls from any numbers you don’t recognize for a while,’ and I was just like ‘Okay’, and… then we went to go chill in the ER.”  He took another sip of water.  “For, like, three years.”

Roy wrinkled his nose, which was actually the cutest thing that had ever happened on the planet, barring a few Al-and-kitten interactions that had instantaneously cured diseases with their sheer fucking schmaltz.

Except… this was sort of the bad part.

“Long story short,” Ed said, “they put my thumb back, mummified my hand in gauze and shit, told me not to punch any more brick walls and blah-blah, and… by that time it was, like, godawful o’clock, so I was sort of secretly glad Al’d blackmailed me into agreeing to stay home the next day.  And while we were waiting, I’d been texting people to take my work shifts, so that was all right.”  He stared into the water glass.  “Right up until the next morning, when my hand somehow hurt more, and also my fucking back was killing me from landing like a moron, and I was hobbling around our apartment like I was a billion years old, so I was lying down on the couch, and I’d just started checking Facebook and shit, and… he’d made a new account and sent me all these—messages.”

The depths of the water glass were spectacularly unrevealing, but it was better than looking at Roy.

It was fucking hard.  It was fucking hard, and he was trying to figure out how to say it, and he hesitated long enough that Roy said softly: “Like what?”

“Just—” Ed ironed out the threat of a waver in his voice.  “Whatever he fucking… I dunno.  ‘Come back, or I’ll find you.  You’re mine, and you know it, and you can’t hide from me.’”  He rubbed his thumb at a tiny mark on the glass.  “‘How dare you use me like that and then run away like a coward.  Who told you to leave me?  You didn’t want to, did you?  You’re better than that.’  Just—shit.  All kinds of shit.  And Al came in with this heaping-ass plate of bacon—I remember because he literally dropped it when he saw my face, and then he grabbed my phone out of my hands and started reading all of it, and I was like ‘What about the grease?  Look at the carpet, what about our deposit?’, and he was like, ‘To hell with our damn deposit, Brother,’ and I almost passed out.”

Roy was staring at him again.  He could feel it.  That was about the thousandth reason he needed to get through this; there’d been other shit he needed to talk to Roy about, and the last goddamn thing he wanted was some pity for a stupid fuck-up two years past—even if it was rearing up into the present at the worst possible fucking time.

“Anyway,” he said, “Al was like, ‘I’m telling him never to talk to you again, and if he does, you tell me, okay?’, and I just… I mean, I was on autopilot; he could’ve said anything, and I would’ve said ‘Yeah,’ and I would’ve meant it.  When I just—when I run out of me, I just default to whatever Al says, and… he’s always right anyway, so it works out okay.”

Roy’s stare had softened a little bit.  Ed could sense that sort of shit now—how weird was that?  If he wasn’t so goddamn busy with thesis crap, he would’ve tried to set up a study; what were the parameters of it, and was it consistent, and…?

“I guess he took a couple screenshots,” Ed said.  “Al’s fucking smart like that, but he sent them to himself and then deleted them off my phone, which—” One of the hard parts.  He’d get through; he always did.  “I mean, the whole goddamn fucking point of me, of being his brother, is that I’m—I’m supposed to be the one who deals with the bad shit, right?  I’m supposed to be the one who protects him, not the other way around.”  His voice kept trying to stick, but he wouldn’t let it.  “Just—I fucked it up so… much.  I don’t know.  He never should’ve had to deal with all that crap just because I’m…” A weak, self-centered, self-destructive piece of shit and a whore for validation.  “…me.”

“I think you’re wonderful,” Roy said softly.

“You’re delusional as shit,” Ed said, more towards the glass of water than anything else, but Roy would figure it out.  “Though I gotta say, it looks damn good on you.”  He drew another breath.  “But—yeah.  Anyway.  Al… called Dolch and was like, ‘Hi, this is Al, I’m Ed’s brother, can you do me a favor and call back here if that—individual—he was with comes by the store, please?’, and then he turned to me all serious and shit and was like, ‘Does he know where your lab is?’  And I hadn’t ever said, or I didn’t think I had—I mean, obviously he knew what fucking school, but it’s a big-ass fucking campus, so I was like, ‘Al, it’s fine.’  And Al goes, ‘But your lab website will come up in search engines, won’t it?  If he Googles your name, he’ll know exactly where to start looking.’  And he was right, ’cause—I mean, most of the time, people just don’t think about it, but so fucking much of our stupid lives just… becomes public property somehow, and it’s all out there, and you just sort of trust that the majority of people won’t take advantage of it and try to fuck you over, but then you get into a situation like this…”

“It’s true,” Roy said softly.

“Which is how I know you were valedictorian at your high school back in the Stone Age,” Ed said.  “They put the list going back until, like, 1940 on their site, and it comes up for your name, and then you can verify that against your LinkedIn, where you say where you went—I mean, it’s batshit, when you think about it.”

He risked a glance.  Roy was smiling wryly.  “That’s… the primary reason I try not to.”

Ed scrubbed a hand down his face.  “Anyway, just… Al walked me to lab like I’d get lost or something, which was pretty funny except when he wouldn’t leave, and I fake-casually asked our lab manager if they could just—temporarily take me off the website, or whatever, which was probably hilarious, because I can’t act for shit, and… Al went off to do his stuff, but he told me not to leave without him, so I just hung around forever, so I was still in lab when Dolch called and was like, ‘Dude, that guy’s here; he’s asked where you are, like, eight times.’”

Roy winced.

“And right after I hung up,” Ed said, “Izumi came out of some super-intense application review meeting or something and walked in and was like ‘What the hell happened to your hand?  Did you burn yourself?  Was it here?  Damn it, Ed, HR is going to flay me,’ only then she saw the look on my face and just—stopped—and was like, ‘Wait a second, what are you still doing here?  Don’t you usually work nights?  You look like you saw a ghost, Ed, what’s wrong?’”

Roy winced harder.  “Sometimes… I’ve found that sometimes getting sympathy makes it worse.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  That was a nicer way to put it than I almost burst into tears all over my PI and told her I was a miserable failure and I’d always be alone and I just sort of wanted to stop existing so I wouldn’t have to cause people I loved so much fucking trouble anymore.  Presumably that was why Roy got paid to couch shit cleverly.  “Before I could freak out about it, though, Al came in and distracted Izumi talking about how great all my recent research was, so then we were talking about that, and I kinda calmed down, and then Al dragged me out and drove me home and made dinner and put me to bed and shit.”  He paused.  “Y’know… Winry is about the luckiest chick alive.”

“Certainly high on the list,” Roy said, starting to grin.  “I think she knows it, though.”

“She fucking better,” Ed said.

Roy waited—somehow without making it look like he was expectant or trying to rush Ed through it or anything.  The man was fucking talented.  How did people do shit like that?

“Right,” Ed said.  “Anyway… Next morning, he’d… made another Facebook, and I had all these messages again, only this time they were, like… I miss you so much it’s killing me, I’m so sorry, whatever I did, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it, please just let me make it up to you, we can get through this, don’t give up on me, I adore you, perhaps I didn’t say it enough, you illuminate something in me that I never knew could catch the light, you make me better, I need you, this life feels so absolutely desolate without the beautiful prospect of you in my future, and I don’t know if I can bear it, please let’s just give it another try, and another chance, and this time I swear to you I’ll make it worth your while.”

Roy’s eyes darkened, but he didn’t say anything—didn’t say How many times did you read that to remember it so well?, didn’t say Are you really enough of a sucker that you believed him?

He just took Ed’s right hand again and held it in both of his, very gently, and Ed could feel his heartbeat through his skin.

“So Al came in,” Ed said, leaving out the part where he’d ignored offers of bacon and coffee from the direction of the kitchen because he was too busy lying on the bedroom carpet having an existential crisis and listening to his cardiovascular system thoroughly test its own limits, “and was like, ‘Brother, I think maybe you should shut down your Facebook for a while,’ so I did, and he put a message on his saying people could contact him to get in touch with me, since almost everybody knows that anyway.  And then he was like, ‘Also, I was thinking you might want to quit your job at the store, because he could trap you there, and he knows your schedule,’ so I called the Reynolds and told them I was having some shit going on, and I was going to have to leave, and I was sorry and all that shit, and if they wanted I could take really early morning shifts and do a lot of the stocking to make up some of the staffing problem while they tried to fill my spot.  And they couldn’t exactly turn down help, and they couldn’t exactly make me stay, either, so they were just sort of like, ‘Sure, whatever,’ so I started doing crack-of-dawn shit for them a couple days a week to try to keep the money coming in.  Which turned out to be real good practice for the coffee shop.  And I didn’t have to see him or anything, although I kept running into Dolch when he came in for his shift, and he’d always be like, ‘Yeah, he was here yesterday, and he asked for you’—every single fucking time.”

“God,” Roy said faintly.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “And… yeah.  So… I mean, it was okay for a week or so.  Like, it was fucked-up, and I kept—I’d just be looking over my shoulder every second; I was so jumpy you could’ve restarted a fucking car battery from my shit, I dunno, but… it started to get a little better, because at least—y’know, I mean, at least he wasn’t in my face all the time, right?  Just… in my head.  But there’s all kinds of shit in my head, so he had to fight for elbow room anyway, and… yeah.”

Roy was doing the tactful waiting thing again, which was even more impressive given that he had to have heard the implication in Ed’s voice that the other shoe was hanging by a thread.

No point in trying to maintain the fucking suspense, though.  Ed wanted some fucking sleep tonight.

“So then,” he said, “a week and two days after the whole… handcuff… thing, we… got a letter.”

Roy’s eyebrows drew together.  The man was just so fucking cute.  Jesus.

“No return address, obviously,” Ed said, “but I knew it was his handwriting.  I mean, I just—I’d taken the whole stack of mail from our little cubby or whatever and brought it upstairs, and then I flipped our cell phone bill over, and then… that, and I just…”

“Just what?” Roy asked softly.

“Panicked,” Ed said.  “You—know how.  Like that.  But—bad.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Roy said, and that should’ve been—something.  Should’ve been annoying or condescending or disparaging or something.  But it wasn’t.  Roy wasn’t.

“Well,” Ed said, “I honestly don’t remember that much of it, ’cause it was all just—blurry and weird and shit, so—yeah.  Al was at the other end of the place talking to Winry on the phone, so he didn’t… I mean, I knew he wouldn’t want me to, but I—read it—and—I mean, it was—”

Dead-on.  Accurate and merciless in absolutely equal measure.  How dare you run from me after all that time, all that energy, all that affection—all that personal cost, everything I gave you; did you ever ask a single thing of me that I didn’t deliver in full?  You wanted to be tied up and held down and owned straight through and told again and again and again that you were beautiful that way; you begged for it like a whore, gagged for it, groveled—did I judge you then?  What did I ever offer you but more generosity?  You are sick inside, Edward; you are sick at the core and broken deeply, and it takes a very particular kind of person to accept that, let alone to appreciate it.  When did I ever turn you away?  When did I ever give the slightest indication of how disgusting most people would find your needs?  You are the single most ungrateful slut I have ever been foolish enough to get involved with.  Do you think anyone else will ever forgive that?  Do you honestly believe any other human being on this planet is going to want you?  How dare you cast that all aside—for what?  A whim?  You change your mind by the moment, you stupid boy.  You don’t know the first thing about people, about living, about others—about how to treat your benefactors; about how to be worthy of their care.  How dare you disrespect me when I have scraped the very bottom of my fortitude in order to accept all of your pathetic faults?

His head was ringing—spinning, echoing, bright-white-empty and too small.  “It was—fucked up.  He was fucked up.  He said—I guess he thought name-calling was a good way to get me back.”

There was a gleam of something very, very dark shifting in Roy’s eyes and darting down the shadows of his face.  “Did Al keep that?  The letter.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  He neglected to mention the part where Al had had to pry it out of his shaking hands and hold him while he cried like a fucking baby, or how magnificently humiliating it was to sit there with his head in his hands while his angelic younger sibling read a long-ass tirade about his fucked-up fetishes.  “And the one that came after that, before we got the post office to hold that shit.”

Roy paused in scheming long enough to cringe a little more.  “Oh, Lord.”

Ed put the water glass down so he could rub his eyes without having to let go of Roy’s hand.  “I mean, that was—fine.  They were pretty cool about it; they just… stopped delivering his shit.  So that was okay, and we were sort of—trying not to think about it too much, I guess.  I was—I watched my back everywhere I fucking went, and I was applying for other jobs and shit, but I got this one interview at a toy store and just… showed up looking wrecked and hungover and trashed to shit and nervous as hell, and they were like, ‘No, thank you.’  Even though it wasn’t that I was a coke addict or some shit; it was just that I wasn’t sleeping.”

That memory was pretty reliable for gathering a sigh out of the bottom of his lungs.  And we just want to let you know that drug tests are mandatory for all employees, Mr. Elric.  …well, I mean, sure, yeah, you’d want t… wait, what?  Wait, do you think I’m high?  The hysterical laughter probably hadn’t helped his case, all things considered, but… water under the bridge.  Too late now.

“But it was okay,” he said.  Sort of not-really-true, but not exactly a lie either.  “Up until I got up on the Sunday two weeks after that Friday night at the hotel, and I went to go into the kitchen, and there was an envelope that’d been slipped underneath the door.”

Roy’s eyes narrowed and then widened.  Now he was getting it.

“It was one of those apartments with a lobby downstairs and shit,” Ed said.  “I forget if I mentioned—y’know, the kind where everybody has the key to get into the complex, and then only you have the key to your place, right?  So one way or another, he got into the building, figured out from the little call button shit where our apartment was, and came up to leave that.  Just so—” Ed’s throat was starting to stick—not in a crying way; just in a… well, he wasn’t sure, really.  It was weird.  Like he’d been chewing on gravel, and some of the shrapnel was buried in the walls of his esophagus, or some shit.  “Just so we’d—know he’d been there.  Just so we’d know that he knew exactly where to find us.”  No.  Not ‘us’.  Not really.  “Where to find me.”

Roy’s grip on his hand tightened until it almost hurt.  “You—what did you do?  Did you go to the police?  Di—”

“Al found me lying there losing my shit again a while later.”  If he glossed over it, and said it like it was no big deal, that made it less stupid, right?  Maybe.  Hopefully.  “And he picked it up—and read it, and then folded up the paper and put it back in the envelope real carefully and held it by one corner, I guess ’cause he wanted to preserve the fingerprints—he said, ‘Brother, we have two choices.’  But I was—I mean, I couldn’t—really do conversation yet, so he had to put it down again and then crouch down and talk me back into being a human being and shit for a while, and then he said it again, and this time I could do words okay, so I was like, ‘What?’  And he said, ‘We can file a restraining order, or we can pack up and move.  Those are our two options.  What do you want to do?’”

Roy was waiting again—waiting and looking at him, but not in a judgey way, and fuck, Ed loved him so goddamn much.

“And—I mean—” The fact that it wasn’t judgey didn’t make the weight of Roy’s gaze easy to bear by any means.  Easier, maybe, but a far fucking cry from easy.  “I just—I was a fucking wreck by then, right?  I was—I was so wound up and torn apart and shit; I couldn’t… I mean, I’d sort of—Googled it, I’d been thinking about it, but the idea of trying to fill out the forms and probably having to take out a fucking loan to pay a lawyer—and then have to see his face in court—and getting it all fucking dredged up, and having to talk about everything he’d said and done and all the shit he’d called me and all the shit I’d agreed to—in front of a bunch of strangers—”

“A good lawyer would have made it as painless for you as they could,” Roy said softly.

“Yeah,” Ed said, although he didn’t exactly figure it could have been even if he’d found a firm composed entirely of canonized saints.  “But I didn’t have any kind of lawyer.”

Roy smiled slightly, but there was a hard edge to it.  “You do now.”

“You just told me you can’t pay your office rent,” Ed said.  “And you know damn well I can’t afford you.”

“Legal counsel is complimentary for lovers,” Roy said.

“Smartass,” Ed said, and if his face was heating up a little bit, it was a fucking coincidence, okay.  “I’m not gonna take advantage of you like that.  I’ve had enough people ask me to diagnose their weird skin conditions and shit for free just because I’m getting a fucking doctorate.”

“I believe it,” Roy said.  “But—really, please.  Consider it.  I wouldn’t mind.  All I want—” Aw, shit, he was taking both of Ed’s hands again, and lifting them up, and kissing the knuckles, and Ed was going to die, and he didn’t even really care at this point.  “—is for you to be safe and happy.  Nothing in my power would be too much to ask.”

Ed squirmed a little, but he was careful not to dislodge his hands.  Because… just because.  “Well—I wouldn’t—feel right.  And it doesn’t matter.  It’s all over and done with and whatever.”

“But if he’s local,” Roy said quietly, “and he’s asking around the area, it… might… not be.”

It was less that Roy’d taken the words right out of his mouth and more that they’d been pried out of the darkest corners of the deepest vault in his terrified animal brain, but the end result was the same.

Roy must have seen the edges of it wearing through onto Ed’s face, because he winced again—hard this time—and leaned forward to kiss Ed’s forehead softly.

“Never mind,” he said, like that fucking phrase had ever erased a goddamn thing in the whole of human history.  “All of that can wait until after you’ve defended next week—and worrying about that can wait until tomorrow.”

“I’m not worrying,” Ed said.  “I’ve never worried about anything in my entire life.”

Roy smiled, stood, and offered him both hands, even though it obviously wasn’t like he needed help standing up from a kitchen chair.

He took them anyway.

Roy wrapped him into a tight hug as soon as he was upright.

“I imagine you might be ready for some sleep by now,” Roy said.

“Yeah,” Ed mumbled into Roy’s collarbone.  It wasn’t even a voluntary thing; he’d forced out so many words tonight that it was like the remnants and the rejects and the leftovers were just sort of… spilling.  “I was… thinking… I wanted to ask you—later, I mean; tomorrow—if you have any tips on how to talk in front of people so my defense’ll be even more kickass.”

Roy kept a hold of his right hand all the way up the stairs, letting go long enough for them to brush their teeth—but for the entirety of that, he had his fingertips settled against the small of Ed’s back, right above the edge of his jeans, feather-light but undeniable.  Weirdly, it was—nice?  Maybe it should’ve felt possessive, after everything Ed had said; maybe it should’ve seemed like overcompensation, or like staking a claim to territory, and it should’ve been offensive, but…

Roy had a gift for that—for striking the right note, strumming the right chord, balancing all the fucked-up feelings on a narrow edge, but with so much confidence that Ed never feared that they were going to fall.

And it was funny—how, apparently, having somebody you’d slept with stripping your clothes off could be sweet instead of sexual.  He’d been expecting… well, he’d been too fried by trying to get all those words out to expect much of anything, but if he’d thought about it, he would’ve expected Roy to want to touch him everywhere—kiss him, bite him, mark him.  He would have expected Roy to seduce him fast and hot and furiously, for some aggressive thank you for confessing/now you’re mine sex to try to peel the stain of Soph Kimblee off his skin.

Except Roy didn’t.  He swept Ed’s hair back very gently, ghosted the pads of his thumbs over the deep-ass fucking circles underlining Ed’s eyes, smiled with a delicate sort of sadness in his own, and leaned in to kiss Ed’s forehead.

“Come on, sweetheart,” he said softly.

Ed could hear the other words—the usual ones, loud and fucking clear, three damn syllables to shake his life apart—but there were new ones, too, unvoiced, carved in kisses into the nape of his neck as Roy’s arms wrapped around him, and the blankets started to absorb the heat.

I’ve got you, Roy was saying.  And if he had, if he’d spoken it, Ed would’ve answered, You do, though—every last damn thing.

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