tierfal: (Ed - The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth)
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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 (8,215 in this chapter)
Warnings: please see note in Chapter 1!!
Summary: Sometimes the tall, dark, handsome ones are poisoned underneath.
Author's Note: OKAY, GUYS. This is the LAST CHAPTER before shit starts to get really real – if you're not a fan of horrible cliffhangery goodness, stop reading after this one. I mean it. I'm serious. FINAL WARNING. XD Wait until the third chapter of the next fic in this series comes out before you jump back in – which should, hopefully, only be a total of four weeks, if all goes to plan. It's for your own good, I swear! XD

In the meantime, for this chapter, a couple things I want to reiterate, since in real time it's been a long while since Al said them:

You do not have to forgive people who have hurt you, no matter who they are. You can love someone and not forgive them; you can forgive someone and still not love them. Forgiving doesn't make you weak. Not being able to forgive doesn't make you petty. You do not have to be the "bigger person". You do not have to let it go. You are under no obligation to try to make it right. Your feelings are valid. Your pain is valid. Your healing process is valid, even if it doesn't look the same as someone else's. It is not selfish to take care of yourself. It is not selfish to remember. It is not selfish to walk away. Investment in you from another person is not a bank loan; you do not owe anything in return. You don't owe anyone absolution. You don't owe anyone an explanation. You matter. You are worthy. You are enough.

RECAP: present-day!Ed is walking around with Hohenheim in Kensington Gardens and just asked why Hohenheim left them. Past-tense!Ed finally finished the story about Kimblee in all of its disastrous glory, and now gets to worry about his career instead.


It’s not every day that you ask your fucking father outright why he abandoned you—it’s not every day that the when and the how become clear; and it’s not every day that you put your whole fucking soul on the line for the question that’s wracked you from the beginning.

It’s not every day that you stare straight ahead at the too-clear blue sky and listen to your pulse beating while you wait for an answer that might be worse than the silence ever was.

Apparently today’s the day for Ed.

He swallows. He breathes.  That’s something, right?  A woman with a collie on a leash jogs up behind them, then around them, and then off down the path ahead.

If Hohenheim makes him repeat himself, there’s going to be a murder.  Ed’s touring plans didn’t include the inside of a jail cell, but he’s flexible, and having to say the words “Why the hell did you leave?” twice in a minute to your own fucking parent would be grounds for homicide in any civilized country in the world, so maybe he’d get off with just a fine.  Or—

“Ah,” Hohenheim says quietly.  “Well… I’m afraid I digressed a bit, yes.  To make it somewhat briefer—I left the job.  I stayed on as an occasional consultant, but mostly I just… cashed in on what we’d already made, and invested, and that sort of thing.  I was good at playing the numbers—still am.  Always just a bit too lucky for my own good.”

There’s another thing Ed definitely didn’t inherit.  Hallefuckinglujah.

“And it was all so… idyllic,” Hohenheim says.  Up goes the hand; the glasses jitter around.  “It was peaceful, and domestic, and perfect in a way I’m not sure I know how to describe.”

Ed swallows, then swallows again, then voices the bubble of frigid, terrified rage:

“You got bored,” he says.

“Ah,” Hohenheim says, glancing over at him with a fragment of a smile.  “Not quite—not that simple.”

Fuck him.  Fuck him for—

Everything.  Fuck him for all of it.  Fuck him for leaving her; fuck him for treating her like a queen before he did it; fuck him for making her so fucking happy and then just disappearing into the goddamn motherfucking night and abandoning the best woman in the world with two squalling children that looked like him, talked like him, started to want stupidly advanced science textbooks that she couldn’t even fucking afford

There is no excuse in the fucking universe that can change the fact that Hohenheim abandoned the woman that he promised his life to.  He left her to die.

Ed gets a lot of shit he didn’t when he was seven, eight, nine.

He gets love now.

And that makes it worse.

“I was offered,” Hohenheim says, “an extremely covert military contract for developing a device to detect subterranean landmines in war-torn nations, so that we could extract them before they detonated.”



Still just London air with a touch of pollen and a hint of rain; still just trees and grass and a trail of pavement winding off into the distance.

“There were conditions,” Hohenheim says.  “A list so long I’d barely even read it all when I agreed.  But—ah.  It’s… perhaps you’ll understand.”

He adjusts his glasses.

Ed curls his fists in his pockets until his fingernails dig deep into his palms, just so that he can feel something other than the heat radiating through every fucking vein in his body.

“I had a chance,” Hohenheim says, “to make a difference.  An enormous one.  To change the world; to save lives; to matter, in my small way.  All I had to do was give up everything I loved for a while.”

That’s the thing, about people.

Most people aren’t trying to fuck you over.

Sure, some of them are out for blood and schadenfreude, and they know they’re pure shit and malice at the core.  They know they’re going to walk on everybody they can throw beneath them on their way towards their own personal definitions of gain and glory.

But most people aren’t.

Most people aren’t trying to hurt anybody.

Most people are just trying to get by.  Most people are just doing the best they fucking can.

But people are stupid.

They don’t know how to fix shit once they’ve fucked it up.

And they don’t know how to apologize.

The thing is, Ed does understand.  And in an abstract kind of way, what Hohenheim’s saying is really logical.

Of course you should prioritize the weight of the whole world and the good you could do for it.  From a purely rational perspective, juxtaposed that with the little happiness you’ve gathered up in your particular corner, the world wins, every time.  It’s just fucking math.  It’s obvious.

But the world is never going to love you back.

The world is never going to give a shit.

And life’s too short for that.

Life’s too short to spend alone.  Life’s too short to slog through unappreciated.  Life’s too short to measure with a catalogue of accomplishments.  Ed knows a thing or two about too fucking short, and he sure as hell knows this.

Life’s about the people you matter to.

It’s great to matter to strangers—to make an impact; to brush against someone else’s life and leave it subtly or not-so-subtly altered; to affect the world that’s shaped you and leave it changed.

But it’s more important to matter to yourself.

It’s more important to understand who the fuck you are and what you’re looking for; it’s more important to recognize the significance of that.  It’s more important to assign a meaning to your own goddamn existence and do right by you than it ever could be to live up to expectations levied by somebody else.  At the end of the day, you’re all you’ve got.  You’re the only one who can decide that your own happiness is worth fighting for.

That’s one of the things Hohenheim forced Ed to learn by leaving.

And it looks like he never picked it up himself.

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “I know what you mean.”

Hohenheim’s smile looks—what?  Faintly relieved?  Does he actually give a shit about Ed’s judgment after all?

Wishful thinking, probably.  Wishful, vengeful thinking that’s not going to get either of them anywhere.

“It was once-in-a-lifetime,” Hohenheim says.  “Although, I suppose, if you consider it as a case of universal coincidences, any experience is.”

Ed makes his mouth smile back instead of saying Yeah, like sticking with your wife and raising your kids.

“Isn’t that all it is, in the end?” Hohenheim asks.  “Life, I mean.  It’s a series of universal coincidences.”

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “I guess so.”

It’s funny, too.  Some part of him—some deeply-ingrained little instinct he could never shake—always felt that parents were supposed to be right about things.  That was the point of parents, after all—they knew how shit worked, and they explained it to you as you went along, to help craft you into a functioning human.  He’s always sort of secretly feared that that was where he’d gone so wrong—except then he reminds himself that Al is perfect and also well-adjusted, so a lack of parental guidance can’t be the reason Ed turned out so fucked.

The problem is, parents are just fucking people, too.  Sometimes they mean well; and sometimes they don’t; and sometimes they do, but they act stupid.

Hohenheim’s the reason Ed knows how to fight like a fucking demon to survive.  And here he is, voicing his personal philosophy that life’s something that happens to you—not something that you construct one goddamn fucking struggle at a time.

And yeah, everybody’s probability’s bitch, in the end.  Everybody’s subject to the eddies and the whirlpools made by the intersecting currents of the other lives around them.

But like fucking hell has Ed ever waited for the universe to deal him a nicer hand.  Like hell has he ever rolled over and taken it.

Hohenheim fucked his whole life up because he’d never really been helpless—that’s what it was, isn’t it?  He fucked it up because he’d always had enough; because he’d always been comfortable; because he didn’t, he couldn’t, understand the magnitude of what he had to lose.  Because he didn’t expect the universe to steal it from him in the first place.

Life is a series of obstacles—a number of which, like elements of a video game course, are actively trying to destroy you.  Life is a series of fires to put out; of piles of undifferentiated nonsense that you have to sort through for meaning.  Life is a shitshow, and it’s your choice whether you’re sitting in the gallery, or you’re on stage.

Ed’s not under any illusions that he’s better than anyone—it’s not like the rivers of crap he’s waded through have made him somehow inherently more valuable or something; that’s bullshit.  He’s just a bewildered little wisp of a soul stuck in another jacked-up body, wandering around trying to find a reason to keep on wandering.

But he’s an actor, and Hohenheim’s an observer.

Ed is never, ever going to betray somebody he made promises to just because it’s easier than figuring out what’s missing in himself.  ‘Easier’ is bullshit.  He and Al have never had it easy, but that doesn’t mean they fucking quit.  When the going got tough, they worked their asses off to keep their heads above the water and turn their luck around.  They always looked out for each other.  They always made the best they could of what they got.

Fuck the Nobel.  That’s the thing about them that Mom would be proud of.

“The whole thing took several years,” Hohenheim says.  “Much longer than they assured me at the beginning, but I suppose that’s what I should have expected from the government.”

The bastard gazes out at the trees, slipping his hands into his pockets.

“By the time I was off the contract and could communicate freely again,” he says, “I’d lost track of you.  Oxford was clamoring for my expertise—very nearly begging; they verbally offered me tenure before I’d even been appointed.”

Ed makes the mistake of glancing down and sees their shadows on the pavement—at which point he almost jumps out of his fucking skin.  They look—

Not exactly alike, but… too-similar.  In addition to the obviously-not-all-that-substantial height difference, there are some pretty distinct variations in shape and shit, but they hold their shoulders the exact same fucking way—half-hunched, almost like they’re protecting something.  Almost like they’re ashamed.

“It was so hard to say no,” Hohenheim says, “when I wasn’t even sure I had a home to go back to.”

Ed looks up at him.  He’s fussing with his damn glasses again.

It seems antifuckingclimactic, after all this time.

Hohenheim destroyed Ed’s and Al’s childhoods out of a couple of interconnected acts of ordinary fucking selfishness.

That’s all it ever was.

“Goodness,” Hohenheim says, gesturing towards the place the trees part, which marks the opening to the street with a wide wrought-iron gate.  “We’re nearly through.  Would you like to go to the Victoria and Albert?  Or perhaps we should stop for a bit of brunch—what do you think?”

“I think I’m starving,” Ed says.  “You got someplace in mind?”

Friday, June fifth dawned with some weird, muggy heat that made Ed’s shoulder ache.  He watched it—the dawn, not the heat; it wasn’t radiating off the pavement just yet—from Roy’s front window with a mug of coffee in his hands.  He hadn’t quite dared to finish the coffee, because he was queasy as fuck from the lack of sleep, and pouring acid on top of that didn’t sound like the best idea on Earth right before jacking his system all to hell on adrenaline, so…

So he sat.

It was probably the worst possible time to let himself dwell on it right now, but fuck that shit anyway; “the worst possible” was usually his baseline for just about anything, and so far he’d come out okay.

It was just that he had no fucking clue what he was going to do after today.

School, in its admittedly myriad forms, was the only thing he’d ever done.  Sure, the grad thing was basically a job, and obviously he’d been doing the part-time side-drudgery gig since well before he had the work permit in hand, but he’d never faced an open-ended future and stared into the void.  This was some Nietzschean abyss shit.  He had no freaking idea how deep it went, how far the tunnels ran, where the roads led to—what was waiting at the end, what the mile markers looked like—and no idea what he should be looking for.

He’d never really had a choice before.

All he knew how to do was survive.  This life thing—what the fuck was that?  What the fuck was he supposed to do with the whole world sprawled out ahead and no more pushes from behind?

The faint shuffling noises upstairs gave Roy away long before the creaky stair made its discontentment known.  Apparently deaf to the stair’s protests, Roy padded up behind the couch and leaned over the back, wrapping his arms around Ed’s shoulders, and pressed his cheek against Ed’s temple.

“Good morning, beautiful,” he said.  “Did you get any sleep at all?”

“Maybe,” Ed said, which was… slightly generous.  “It’s okay.  Just gotta get through it.”

Roy kissed his ear.  “Can I top off your coffee?”

“Probably better not,” Ed said, leaning into the touch.  “I might vibrate right out of the visible plane.  I’ll be okay; the adrenaline’s gonna be… really somethin’.”

“I imagine so,” Roy said softly.  He kissed Ed’s cheek and drew back.  “I guess I should unveil my secret weapon, then.”

Ed had to tilt his head back to blink up at him.

Roy grinned broadly—all mussed-up bedhead and five-o-clock shadow and absolute fucking gorgeousness.

“Can I make you some bacon?” he asked.

If Ed had had the brainpower to do anything more than nod emphatically, he might’ve proposed right there, so it was probably a good thing the words wouldn’t come.

It turned out to be both a good and a bad thing that Ed had fortified himself with breakfast—good, because he needed the calories to sustain his skyrocketing heart-rate; bad, because he was pretty sure he was going to throw up.

The meeting scheduled before him in the big-ass auditorium ran late, so he didn’t get in until after they’d eaten up half of his prep time.  The projector wouldn’t work.  His laser pointer was flickering in and out of life.  The video on the last research slide worked, like, fifty percent of the time, completely inexplicably, in a way that the IT chick he’d asked the other day couldn’t even fathom.

At this point, it’d be just as good to call it quits, fail to defend, drop out, never get employment, and die penniless in the gutter, right?

“Brother,” Al said, grabbing his left shoulder firmly and guiding him over to the chair right in front of the podium in the auditorium where his life was about to end, “sit.”

Ed sat.

Winry, who rocked a sundress like nobody Ed had ever met in his life—and had, on the short walk from the parking lot, turned about sixteen heads so fast that their owners had almost decapitated themselves—started banging away at his stubborn-ass computer, and Al plopped down next to him and leaned his head on Ed’s un-fucked-up shoulder.

“You’re going to be fine,” Al said, very quietly, and he put his hand over Ed’s where it was clenched in the leg of his slacks so hard his knuckles ached.  “The hardest part was getting here.  If you just flip through the slides and show them the draft of your paper, you’ll pass.  I promise.”

“Maybe,” Ed got out.

“Roy’s coming, right?” Al asked.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  Distraction helped.  Al knew it, and Ed knew he knew it, but it helped anyway.  “He got a case just the other day, and they really need it right now, so he can’t really afford to take the whole day off anymore, but he said he’d make it.”

“Then he’ll be here,” Al said—like it was just that simple.  He had to have been straining his neck a little, slouching like that.  Not that Ed was—y’know—or anything; just that… Al was… really tall.  Freakishly tall.  And maybe the seats in this auditorium were uneven or something.  Maybe there’d been a very localized earthquake recently, and the floor under Ed’s chair had sunk.  “Where would you like to go for dinner tonight?”

“Don’t care,” Ed said.  “Just want steak.  And vodka.  Maybe not at the same time.”

“I’m glad that the stress hasn’t had a negative impact on your unshakable dignity and characteristic tact,” Al said.

Ed had no idea how people could assemble sentences like that even when they weren’t wrecked as shit and sleep-deprived and generally weary of the world, so he settled with just sort of growling in response.

Al laughed.

The little shit.

“You’re going to be okay,” Al said again.  “You don’t even really have to say anything.  Your slides are bulletproof.”

Ed scowled at his ornery fucking laptop, which Winry was talking to in a very soothing sort of voice now.  “That’s not gonna help if my committee never fucking sees ’em.”

Al wrapped an arm around his shoulders and knocked their heads together gently at the temple.  “Breathe, Ed.”

“I’m fuckin’ trying,” Ed said, and he was, he was.  It was just— “What the hell am I supposed to do after this?”

“Rest,” Al said.  “Take some time off.  Do lots of nice things with Roy that I really, really don’t want to know about.  Read a book.  See the sun.  Remember that you’re a human being and not just a production machine that specializes in coffee and biomedical treatises.”

“Well, that’s, like, a week, right?” Ed asked.  “Then what?”

“After six years of frenzied labor,” Al said, “I think you’re entitled to more than a week of relaxing, but—Brother, don’t worry about what’s after that.  Life happens while you’re not paying attention, in between the things you planned—you know that.  Besides, after this?  After that paper goes to print?  Everybody who’s anybody in the bioscience community right now is going to be begging you to work for them.  They’re going to fling cash in your face.”

“You make me sound like a stripper,” Ed said.

Naturally, that was the part where Winry looked up.  “Wait, what?”

“Never mind,” Al said swiftly.  He kissed the side of Ed’s forehead and slung his ridiculously long body upright again.  “Can I help, Win?”

“Hell if I know,” she said.  “Can you do exorcisms?”

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” Al said, perfectly straight-faced.  He paused.  “That’s… all I know.”  He reached over and tapped a key.  “Behave, wrathful demon possessing Brother’s laptop.  This is important.”

The screen shuddered into a rainbow of colors and then lit up with Ed’s cover slide.

All three of them were entirely still for a long moment.

“That is fucked up,” Ed managed.

“Whoa,” Al said.

“Damn, you’re good, Al,” Winry said.

Al grinned over at Ed.  “Sometimes you just have to believe in miracles.”

“I do,” Ed said.  “You got born, after all.”

Al looked like he was going to cry, and Winry looked like she was as close to vomiting as Ed had felt for the past five hours.

This was going to be an interesting day.

Ed’s heart was running like a prize-horse, battering at his ribs like some fucking Three Little Pigs shit, and the human body was a fragile house, when you really thought about it.

Roy appeared like a fucking vision exactly five minutes before Ed was due to start, by which time he was loitering around the podium turning his laser pointer over and over and over in his hands while he tried not to panic.  Al, who’d been loitering next to him, gave an audible sigh of relief when Roy’s sharp suit and general incomparable suavity materialized in the doorway and then sauntered down the aisle towards them.

“Hey,” Ed said, and the flood of relief and adoration almost took him out at the knees.  Roy’s smile didn’t fade, and his stride didn’t slow, and he wrapped Ed into a tight hug too fast for any protests.  Ed nudged his head under Roy’s chin.  “You’re so damn busy,” he said.  “You didn’t have to come.”

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the whole of the world,” Roy said softly.

Drawing back, Ed caught a glimpse of Al, who looked unspeakably smug.

“You should get ready,” Winry said.  She chafed her hands up and down her arms, frowning at the air vent that was keeping Ed from combusting on the spot from the immense activity in his nerves.

“Are you cold?” Ed asked.

Roy and Al stepped towards her at the same moment and—in perfect unison—asked, “Would you like my jacket?”

Winry stared at them.  They stared at each other.  Ed tried to stare at everybody at once, which was hard when there were three of them, and he only had binocular vision to work with.

“Holy crap, Ed,” Winry said.  “Are you secretly dating your brother?”

No,” Ed said.  “Gross.  No offense, Al.”

“None taken,” Al said mildly.

Roy touched Ed’s elbow.  “I’ll disabuse her later.  Are you all set to get started?”

I am now that you’re here would’ve been too damn cheesy even for them.  Ed hoped the least-crazed smile he could force onto his face would do.

Roy smiled back, all fucking gentleness like always, and Ed’s heart didn’t stop ricocheting around his chest like a fucking ping-pong ball on speed, or anything, but it did kind of—soften—a little bit.

“Whatever happens,” Roy said, “no one here will love you any less.”

Ed couldn’t afford to get all dumb and emotional right now.  He pushed at Roy’s chest without much of any vigor.  “Go sit your sappy ass down, would you?”

Roy would know what he meant.  Roy usually did.  That was why this was working, and why this was wonderful, and why it was rocking Ed’s whole stupid little universe in the best possible way.

“Yes, sir,” Roy said, grinning, and Winry rolled her eyes, and Al touched his closed fist to Ed’s shoulder and then settled into his seat.  Ed felt sorry for whoever got stuck sitting behind that kid.  Tall-ass freak of nature.

Ed looked up at the screen, and then down at his three favorite people, and then at Pinako, sitting near the back “so your committee won’t mark you down if I fall asleep”, and then at Izumi about in the middle, and then at the panel of faculty judges that was going to decide his fate.

Well—no.  No, they weren’t.  He was.  He was the force that was acting here.  All they could do was take what he was giving and describe what they saw.  He was deciding what the verdict was.  This was all him—it had been since the start; this was his life.  The waves and the weather weren’t under his control, but he was steering this motherfucking ship.  Nobody could take that away.

He closed his eyes.  Nobody could take that away, but they were damn welcome to try—and to find out what he was made of.

He opened his eyes again.  He drew a breath.  He cleared his throat.

“Um,” he said.  He leaned in closer to the mic.  He honestly couldn’t tell if the sound he was hearing was feedback, or if his ears were ringing.  “…hi?”

He glanced at Al, at Win, and then at Roy—who was smiling at him like he’d hung the fucking stars up one by one, even though he was already failing to execute all of the advice Roy had given him on public speaking less than a week ago.

He cleared the rubble from his throat as well as he could with his heart still stuck in it, plastered on a smile, and squared his shoulders.

His whole lab was here, and a bunch of faculty members and miscellaneous lab rats had straggled in from his department and several others—some people he’d met at poster sessions and happy hours and whatever else; and plenty he’d never even seen before.

He had a brisk wind at his back and a hell of a lot of help on board.  Even if he couldn’t find his course, he was a long way yet from sinking.

“Hi,” he said, louder.  “I’m Edward Elric.  And I’m about to tell you why you should give me a doctorate.”

The next two and a half hours were a feverish blur of shit he’d practiced so many times that it felt like a mix of déjà vu and heroin, chased with such a brutal cocktail of adrenaline and exhilaration that the next thing he knew for sure, Al was holding tightly to his elbow while he walked up the stairs into the sun.

There was a hole towards the end of it—a part where he had been all alone in the giant auditorium in front of the committee members, and they were firing off questions to try to trip him, but he knew the answers to everything they asked.  The giddy, flitting terror of it subsided as he stumbled along; all he had to do was string the words together in an order that mostly made sense, because all of the facts were there.

Plus he knew Al and Roy were both hovering right outside the door, waiting for him, and he just had to get through this part so that he could go meet them.

And when he had—

The gentle pressure of Al’s hands on his arm solidified him as a human being again, guiding and nudging as he tried to remember how walking was supposed to work; but even when his ankles tangled on the second landing of the staircase, Al had a strong enough grip to keep him upright, and then they were topping the stairs, and then…

That was it.

Fuck knew how long his committee was going to deliberate.  Apparently the traditional thing was to give them a couple hours, so he’d gone ahead and booked, like, three.  If they were considering throwing him out without a degree, he wanted to make sure they had enough temporal leeway to rethink it a couple times.

“Brother,” Al was saying.  “Look at me.”

Ed did.  Ed blinked.  Some of the fog dissipated a little.  His knees were wobbly as shit, and his head still felt like it hadn’t gotten stuck on quite right, and a strong breeze would knock it off his shoulders, but mostly the shapes of the world around him were clear and comprehensible.  They’d climbed the staircase up out of the auditorium; and now they just had to wait; and shit, was he thirsty; and Roy was beaming at him like he’d turned a sewer’s worth of water into an extremely upscale vintage.

“Jesus,” Ed said.  “Okay.  Uh.”

“Here,” Winry said, grabbing his hand, opening up his fingers, putting something cold into his palm, and closing his fingers around it for him.  “It’s from the café.  I’m not sure about this whole radioactive color scheme thing, but supposedly it’s their healthiest smoothie-whatever.”

“These are so fucking expensive,” Ed said stupidly.  “You didn’t have to do that.”

Winry grinned.  “So what?  It’s not every day you get your damn doctorate, dummy.”

“I don’t have it yet,” Ed said.  Either the cap on this thing was stupid-complicated, or his hands were beyond fucked.  Maybe both.

“Oh, my God, Ed,” Winry said.  “Did you hear yourself?  I’m hazy on the details of the whole sequencing thing, and even I thought you were amazing.”

Ed stared at her, sort of frozen with his hand curled around the plastic cap of the bottle.  Winry didn’t exactly dole out honest compliments a lot.

“Can I have that in writing?” he asked.  “Or… no wait, hang on, say it again; just—somebody get their phone—”

Winry rolled her eyes, and Al laughed, and a very warm, very familiar, very beautiful arm wrapped around Ed’s shoulders.

“She’s right, though,” Roy said.  “You were even more extraordinary than usual.”

Ed tried to eye him suspiciously instead of just melting into a puddle of adoring goo.  Adoring goo didn’t usually get to walk at graduation and shit, and he knew Granny would want a picture of that.  “How do you know?  How much of it did you understand?”

Roy grinned, shamelessly delighted.  “I thought the first slide was absolutely stunning.”

Ed stared at him.  “You mean the title page with my name on it?”

“Poetic, even,” Roy said, hugging him closer.  “Positively inspiring.”  When Ed wriggled against his grip and made a point of scowling, he just grinned wider.  “I didn’t need to follow the finer details, Ed; I could hear everyone who did gasping and starting to take notes.”

Val and Derek and most of the rest of his lab wandered over, and Roy let go and stepped back so that everyone could pat his shoulders and shake his hand and otherwise transfer all kinds of bacteria to his vulnerable immune system, albeit in a polite sort of way.

“That was really something,” Val said, clinging onto his left hand, which couldn’t have been pleasant, because he’d been holding his juice thing in it a second ago, so probably it was clammy.  Her eyes were sort of shining, which was odd and possibly unhealthy.  “You’re really something, Ed.”  Her shining eyes then fixed on something just past Ed’s shoulder, widened, and shone a little more.  “Oh.  Oh.  Who’s that?”

Ed finally managed to extract his hand from hers in a not-completely-awkward way as he turned.

Roy was extending his hand in a not-awkward-at-all way, backlit by the bright sun, with a fucking dazzlingly gorgeous grin.

“Roy Mustang,” he said.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Val looked like she was going to pass out.  “I—I—you, too, I’m—Valerie Tussinger, it’s—” She paused, mouth slightly open.  “Wait—Roy?  You’re Roy?”

Ed was dying of thirst but didn’t quite dare to fill his mouth with liquid when this conversation was probably on the verge of a nuclear explosion, and he might have to intervene.  Then again, knowing him, it was more likely that if he spoke up, he’d somehow find a way to make it worse.  Make it go Chernobyl.  Pretty much decimate the entire surrounding area.  Whatever.

“I thought you were another student,” Val said, sounding slightly faint.  “I mean—he talks about you—all the time, just—”

“I do not,” Ed said.

Everybody from his lab fucking busted up laughing, because they were a bunch of fucking traitors who were dead to him from now until eternity.

“I just figured you were someone from around here,” Val was saying, because Val was especially dead and also had no soul, “rather than…” Her eyes flicked up and down. “…a total stud.”

Roy smiled warmly.  “Is there a shortage of total studs around here?”  He gestured to Ed.  “Perhaps I found the only one.”

Silence.  A four-alarm fire on Ed’s face.  More silence.  Roy was grinning, the sick fuck.

“Oh, my God,” Winry said.  “You’re even worse than Al.”

“I beg your pardon?” Al said with a hint of a squeak in his voice.

“I mean good-worse,” Winry said.  “You know.”

“Wait,” Val said.  She stared at Ed, then at Roy, then at Ed.  “Roy’s your boyfriend?”

Roy paused, and there was a flicker of consternation in his expression now—which made Ed’s heart drop to his fucking shoes way faster than gravitational acceleration should have allowed.  Roy hadn’t said that to embarrass him—or not primarily.  Roy had said that because he’d assumed that Ed had told his lab that he was gayer than a rainbow and dating a smoking hot lawyer ten years his senior.  Roy had said that because he’d figured that their relationship was important enough to warrant coming out for.  Roy had said that because he’d thought that Ed had had the balls to say it months ago.

Ed sure fucking hoped he got a PhD today, because he might be losing the second most significant thing he’d started in the past six years.

“I just thought—” Val’s face was bright pink, too, now; she started to fan herself with her hand, and Winry offered her a folded up piece of paper that said GO GET EM NERDFACE, which she’d been waving at Ed all day.  “Oh, thanks—I just thought—I always just figured he was… your best friend, not your… I mean, you just talk about how great he is, not how cute.”

Ed’s heartbeat in his ears was getting deafening, so he focused on watching Roy’s face to try to get a read on just how bad he’d fucked himself over this time.


Roy was—

Smiling at him.

“You talk about me like I’m your best friend?” he asked.

“Well,” Ed croaked out.  “…I guess… so.”

Roy slipped an arm around Ed’s waist and kissed his forehead—which was a terrible idea; the man was going to burn his lips off touching Ed’s flaming face with them, and that would be a tragedy worthy of a Grecian epic, because he had the best mouth on Earth—and then released him.  He stayed close, but not too close, and maybe—

Maybe he got it.  Maybe he understood that it wasn’t that Ed loved him any less; it wasn’t that Ed didn’t want to sing it out from the rooftops of every major city in the world—

Just then a professor that Ed recognized from a couple of department functions and symposiums and shit who was kind of a big shot in genetics emerged at the top of the staircase and sauntered over to their little cluster.  He held out his hand, and Ed took it.

“Hey, Dr. Zaman.”  He almost sounded like a normal person having a real conversation; how the hell had he managed that?  “How are you doing?”

“Extremely well,” Zaman said, pumping Ed’s hand twice and patting it once before letting go.  “I do believe I just solved our hiring problem, what with Avi Polashek getting poached by MIT.”

“That’s great,” Ed said, because that was what you were supposed to say.  “I’m glad to hear that.”

This silence was even weightier than the last one, which was sort of bizarre.

“Ed,” Valerie said in a hushed voice, “you’re a moron.”

“I like you,” Winry said.

“Oh, gosh,” Al muttered.

Zaman—laughed.  What the—?

“Maybe I should make this plainer,” he said.  “Edward, how would you feel about an assistant professorship in the department of genetics?  I don’t have the paperwork yet, of course, but—” He held his hands out.  “We have quite a few witnesses to the verbal offer, no?”

There was a weird rushing sound in Ed’s ears.  Maybe it was his blood.  Maybe it was the music of the spheres or some shit.

“Are you offering me a job?” he asked.  “I don’t even have…”

“You will,” Zaman said.  “If one of your committee members drops dead, and they reject you on a technicality, I’ll grant it myself.”  He paused.  “I think I can do that.  Hopefully we won’t have to find out.”

Ed opened his mouth, tried to speak, failed, and shut it again.

Zaman laughed again and clapped him on the shoulder—the right shoulder, so at least the jolt of pain sort of woke him up, and the ongoing radiating waves of it helped keep him that way.

“Izumi told me a little about what you’re publishing on,” he said.  “Don’t worry!  Just a taste-test—just enough to make me hungry enough to clear my schedule today so I could be here.  And forgive the tortured metaphor, but… damn, if you didn’t whet my appetite just now.  You’re going to do things so great we can’t afford to let anybody else get their hands on you.”

Ed could feel Roy resisting the dirty joke.

“You don’t have to give me an answer yet,” Zaman said.  “You didn’t hear it from me, but you should shop around—somebody else might offer you more.  If they do, though…” He winked.  “Let me know, and it might not be the best offer for long.”

Ed had to clear his throat twice before he could produce enough sound for: “Th-thank you.  Thank you, Dr. Z—”

“Call me Amir,” Zaman said.  “With any luck, pretty soon, we’ll be coworkers.”

Ed was sort of struck dumb after that; his mind spun and spun and spun without catching while he watched Zaman walk away, contented as you fucking please, after hurling admittedly about the best kind of depth charge possible into the existing maelstrom of Ed’s emotions.

“Oh, Brother,” Al said after several moments.  “I told you it’d work out.  You look like a deer in the headlights; are you o…?  Ed, oh, my gosh—”

And then Al was hugging him, which was fantastic, and he closed his eyes and buried his face in his perfect brother’s perfect shoulder, because his own arms seemed too heavy to lift—and then Roy was hugging him, too; and then Winry finagled her way into just about the only open spot left—

“Okay,” he wheezed out.  “I get the point—”

“About damn time,” Winry said.  “I swear, you’re the single most self-deprecating genius I’ve ever met in my life.  And I’ve met a few.”

That was about the part where Val started asking Winry about where she’d gone to school, and then the geeky girl talk started, and then there was some slightly high-pitched excitement about the intersection of biorobotics and stem cells and shit, and by that point the sleep deprivation had snuck up behind Ed and essentially chloroformed his ass, so he was just sort of standing there reading the label on his juice bottle and trying to figure out how you were supposed to unfurl complex thoughts so that you could understand them.  Right now all of his were just sort of rolled up in his head, like… sleeping bags.  Or bales of hay.  Or potato bugs.  Or—

“Let me get you something to eat, sweetheart,” Roy said, and then after a brief blur of Al chattering and patting his arm, there was ice cream in his hands and a totally unnecessary apology about how the café had stopped serving lunch, so there wasn’t anything with protein… which Ed cut off by grabbing Roy’s tie in one hand and dragging him down to kiss him hard.

“Oh,” Val said.  “Yeah.  Um.  Boyfriend it is.”

Roy was grinning down at him as he drew back, and two fingertips rose to brush his cheek.

Except then—before Roy could produce any more gorgeous mushiness—Ed’s thesis committee came parading up the stairs, and his heart staggered, stopped dead, plummeted, and pile-drivered his defenseless liver.

No matter what happened, he was going to have to apologize to his liver with some fucking booze.

Oh, God, oh, God, oh, holy fucking shit—


Izumi was—


She wouldn’t fake him out; she liked him too much; she—

“Congratulations,” she said, reaching out for his hand, “Dr. Elric.”

Unsurprisingly—although his memory of the moment would lag like a glitchy animation forever, all stops and starts and jagged movements that didn’t really seem to transition, but they’d happened somehow—the handshake morphed into a hug, and it was only when Izumi was patting his back gently that he realized he was clinging to her and mumbling “Thank you” and asking why she’d believed in him over and over, and that was probably…

Hell.  At least it wasn’t the first time she’d seen him coming unhinged from a lack of sleep, and if he somehow ended up employed here—if Zaman wasn’t shitting him, if it was really

Well, maybe it wouldn’t be the last.

His recollection of the rest of it skipped over a lot of the interim shit—somehow he and Roy and Al and Win ended up at a nice steakhouse, and even though it was a Friday night, Roy had somehow commandeered them a little booth off in a dark corner where Ed could be fucked-up-weird and embarrassing without anybody taking too much note, and Winry kept insisting that she was paying for his drinks, so he should try to bankrupt her while he had the chance, and—

Roy carded his fingers through Ed’s hair at some point between the first half of a cocktail with a bizarre name and the arrival of an appetizer that smelled like pure fucking caloric temptation.  “You… look like you’re in shock, sweetheart.”

“I’ll be fine,” Ed said.  “I hit that—you know that—the, like, wall—in your brain—when you’re just driving, and you don’t even think, and you don’t have time to care, and then—”

“Existential crash test dummy,” Winry said, miming a car smashing to pieces, or… something.  Hopefully the car; otherwise Ed didn’t think he wanted to know.  “Hey, that fits, since you’re a dummy.”

“Dummies don’t get doctorates,” Al said, and he was grinning fit to break his face, and he looked so proud

“You know that’s not true,” Ed said.  “I’ve seen a couple.”

“You’re not one of them,” Al said.  “Ed, you’re—you’re so brilliant, and you worked so hard, and the future’s just getting brighter all the time, and—I’m just so lucky you’re my brother, and I’m so happy, and—”

They were both gonna cry.  What a fucking drag.

“Oh, jeez,” Winry said.  “I was waiting for this part.”

Roy’s hands were fluttering around Ed’s shoulders in a concerned sort of way while he blinked the tears back just so that Winry wouldn’t get to rub this in his face later on.

“Are you all right?” Roy asked.  “Edward—”

“So much f-fucking better than all right,” he managed.  “That’s—that’s the h-hard part.”  His laugh came out wet, but not as weak as it could’ve been.  “I dunno how to deal with feeling this fucking good.”

“There’s also the fact that I think your blood is sixty percent caffeine right now after the week you’ve had,” Al said.

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “Maybe sixty-five.”

Roy kissed his temple.  “You can sleep a lot easier tonight.”

“Are you going to quit the coffee shop?” Winry asked.  Her eyes gleamed in a way he wasn’t sure he liked.  “I could use a fresh up-and-coming scientist to help as a consultant for some of my new designs.”

“I’m not gonna be your startup slave,” Ed said.  “That’s why you have Al.”

Speaking of the perfectest person in the universe, his eyebrows were drawing together.  “It’s not a bad idea, Brother.”

Ed stared at him.  “Being Winr—”

“Working less at Has Beans,” Al said.  “Or at least picking up some later shifts now that you don’t have classes to worry about.”

Roy was rubbing a few knuckles very gently between Ed’s shoulder-blades, which felt so fucking transcendent that he thought he might melt into jelly and die.  That wouldn’t be so bad.

“You can think about it,” Roy said.  “That’s the beauty of this moment, isn’t it?  It’s an opportunity to assess how you want to prioritize your energy.”

“I have no idea how to do that,” Ed said.

In exquisite unison, everyone at the table said, “I know.”

The rest of the night was even blurrier—a hell of a lot more laughter; a hell of a lot more drinks; a hell of a lot of Ed snuggling into Roy’s arm and nuzzling at his jaw and smiling goopily, probably.

He remembered… getting coaxed into drinking a hell of a lot of water; Roy driving them home; bursting into giggles when he crashed into a doorway, while Roy’s hands moved frantically around his head to see if he’d done any actual damage to himself—

When he cracked his eyes open the next morning, the whole world seemed hazy and warm and white.  He tried blinking a few times, but the cloudy fuzz wouldn’t quite clear out of his cranium; there was… sunlight, and… sheets, and…

…Roy, nestling in, sliding an arm around his waist, pressing their foreheads together, and smiling at him like he was some kind of fucking miracle.

“Good morning, beautiful,” Roy said.

“M’not,” Ed said.  His voice came out froggy and faint, and trying to clear his throat made his head throb a little bit—way less than he expected, though; he must’ve had more water than… well, shit.  He must’ve had a lake.  “What time s’it?”

Roy lifted his head to look without shifting his arm away from Ed’s body, and that was… about the best thing ever.  “Ah… eleven thirty.”

“Holy shit,” Ed said.

“I daresay you needed the rest,” Roy said.

“I guess,” Ed said.  “It’s, like, lunchtime.”  He attempted to sit up and start rubbing his eyes, carefully shifting backwards so that he wouldn’t displace Roy’s arm at his waist.  “God, I haven’t slept this fucking late since…”  High school.  The start of it, before he’d gotten the work permit for weekends.  And maybe the day after his twenty-first birthday, but he didn’t remember much of that.  “…a long fucking time.”

He stretched both arms up over his head, trying to get his right shoulder to pop without jarring it too much, and when the oversized T-shirt he was wearing for some reason rode up, Roy wriggled in and kissed at the skin of his side.

Ed plucked at the shirt, trying not to lower his arms; giving Roy a faceful of cotton seemed like a poor thank-you for the gesture.  “Where did this come from?”

“You said you were cold,” Roy said.  “But ‘not, like, cold-cold, just, like, mm, shivery-cold’, apparently—” Roy was looking up at him intently to begin with, and then his eyes got to gleaming, and Ed’s guts clenched in the best fucking way.  “And then you asked me to fuck you into the mattress—an offer I regretfully declined—and then you pouted, and then I put you in a pair of my pajamas, and that cheered you up.  Then you did a very mediocre job of brushing your teeth, and then you collapsed.”

Ed could feel his face reddening.  His face was a fucking asshole, for the record.  “Sorry.  I’m a dumbass when I’m drunk.”

“You’re not,” Roy said, grinning.  “Then or any other time.  Besides.”  He tugged on the T-shirt a little.  “For some reason I haven’t quite sorted out, I absolutely love seeing you in my clothes.”

Ed snorted, despite the fact that the heat in his face was spreading down his chest—and further down from there.  “Probably some kind of possessive thing.”

“Possibly,” Roy said.  “There’s also the fact that it’s agonizingly adorable.”

Ed wrinkled his nose.

“Case in point,” Roy said.

“Barf,” Ed said.

“I’m glad you didn’t do that yesterday,” Roy said.  “I was worried for a while.  Al was very careful to be sure that you had a full dinner, and I’ve never seen someone down so many glasses of water in one sitting.”

“Yeah,” Ed said.  “He’s a mother hen sometimes, I swear.”  He blinked a little more, assessed the sheer fucking glory of his position, considered the gorgeous weight of Roy’s arm against him, and stifled a sigh.  “Speaking of which, though, I gotta pee, or I’m gonna die.”

Roy drew his arm back like he’d been burned.  “Go, go, good Lord.”  He waited until Ed was halfway across the room, in a perfect position to turn and see him sprawled on the bed, blankets bunched around him, looking like a fucking dream incarnate.  “Would you like to go get brunch afterwards?”

“Fuck, yes,” Ed said.

“And perhaps some of that later on?”

“Fuck, yes.”

Roy rolled onto his back, folding his hands behind his head, eyes closed, smug face absolutely fucking perfect.  “I do so love celebration sex.”

“No kidding,” Ed said.

“Not a whit.”

Ed folded his arms.  “You realize it’s also unemployment sex.”

“Not really,” Roy said.  “You still have another job, and you won’t be without this one for long.”  He propped himself up on his elbows, grinning.  “Relax, Ed.”  At Ed’s scowl, the grin only widened.  “You know what I love even more than sex of any variety?”

“Chocolate,” Ed said.  “Bacon.  I dunno.”

“You,” Roy said.

Eugh,” Ed said, and he made a break for the bathroom before Roy could see him smiling like a goddamn dork.

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