[identity profile] tierfal.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] tierfallen
Title: Heartbeat
Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Pairing: Roy/Ed
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 47,200 (11,580 this part)
Warnings: language; post-BH AU; emetophobic parties beware; depictions of anxiety and depression (including dark intrusive thoughts); very much unwanted touches
Summary: Ed makes the mistake of waiting on goddamn tenterhooks for something to change – and then, naturally, something does.
Author's Note: ye olde poste limittes


HEARTBEAT
PART 3 (2/2)

Victory is short-lived.

He knows several people who would have something to say about the phrasing of that if he’d been dumb enough to utter it aloud.

The point is, though, that he ends up lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling, while he waits for seven to roll around.

It’d probably be fine if he was just staring, but he’s not.  He’s thinking.  And that’s when the trouble always starts.

He’s thinking about what he said—what he keeps saying, to himself and to Al, which nobody seems to hear.

This is pointless.  This is a bunch of fucking brouhaha over nothing—over what will be nothing in a matter of weeks, if not days.

He’s not what Roy’s looking for.

He’s not what Roy wants.

And for someone as driven and dedicated as Roy fucking Mustang, a distraction like this—a side thing, an alternative commitment—has to be worth it.

Ed isn’t.  He won’t be.  He’s just not—right.  He doesn’t know this stuff.  He doesn’t know what any of it means; he doesn’t know how to do shit.  He doesn’t know what to say.  He doesn’t know how it’s supposed to feel.

And he’ll probably hate it when he finds out.

That’s not fucking—fair.  Fair’s a stupid word; fair’s inherently ridiculous, but—

But if it wasn’t—if the concept of justice was realistic in the slightest; if there was actually a balance somewhere, and you could contribute to it—the last fucking thing Ed would want to do would be to hurt Roy Mustang with some stupid shit like this.  To get his hopes up and then drag them down, slowly—moment by moment of incomprehension and fucking failure—into the boiling tar pit where Ed’s psyche makes its miserable fucking home.

He knows that Al’s keeping track of time so that he doesn’t have to.  Is it sort of shitty that he trusts in that?  Is it sort of shitty that he relies on Al to handle all the mentally-present adult-ish shit on his behalf?  He’s supposed to be the older brother.  He’s supposed to be in charge, in control—he’s supposed to get it.  He’s supposed to feel like he’s putting pieces of the universe into their allotted places, like he’s building something deliberate and structurally sound—not like he’s fucking free-wheeling through open space, flailing around for a fucking handhold at the best of times, and the motion makes him sick—

“It’s a quarter past seven, Brother,” Al says.  “He’ll probably be here any minute—you could wait for him out front.”

Ed could do a lot of things.

But he’s not enough of an asshole to talk shit when Al’s doing him a favor.  He levers himself upright.  “Yeah.  Good idea.”

“Tuck your shirt in,” Al says, calmly now.  “All of it.  Do you want me to come with you?”

He is so, so, so much more than Ed has ever deserved.

“Nah,” Ed says.  And Al’s fucking earned it, a thousand and one times over; Al earns it every second of every stupid day—Ed tucks the stupid shirt in, properly, and then tries not to look at it very closely so that he won’t feel like a fucking loser.  “I’m okay.  Thanks.”

He detects a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and then Al’s on him—both arms wrapped around him tight.

“Have fun,” Al says.  “Okay?  That’s the point, really.  Just—be you, relax, and have fun.”

Ed hugs him hard and then pats at his shoulder-blade to get him to let go.  After the shower, he left his hair down to dry—like fucking hell is he going outside with it like that, but he needs both hands to remedy the situation.  Al completely unnecessarily straightens his shirt collar while he ties his hair up, and then Al goes and fetches his black coat and brings it back to him.

“I’d say ‘don’t stay out too late’,” Al says, “but I think I’ve long since exceeded my allowance of clichéd parent statements for today.”

Ed takes the coat.  The coat will be good; it looks less weird to wear gloves with a coat on.  “I think you’ve got, like, one more left.”

Al grins at him.  “Be safe, honey.  I love you.”

Ed very, very gently punches his arm—with the left hand, of course.  “Shut up.  I love you, too.  I’ll see you later.”

He lets himself out as Al chirps a goodbye.  This’ll be over in five minutes, but maybe he’ll wander up and down the street for a little while to pass some time—Al’s probably been looking forward to an evening alone anyway, and it’ll seem less bad somehow if he pretends it took an hour or two to fuck it all up.

He’s trying to pull words out of the wispy haze of thoughts and shuffle them into the right order as he goes down the stairs, but that’s always just been so fucking hard for him—translating what he’s thinking into something he can say.

The upshot of that is, if he’s just sort of a blabbering, incoherent mess, it’ll get the point across even faster, since the point is that Roy should drop him like a hot fucking potato before either of them gets burned.

He kind of wants a baked potato now.  Or maybe fries.  Fuck.  Maybe he should let Roy take him to dinner and then fuck this u—

What the hell is he thinking?  How shitty would that be?  Yeah, cool, thanks for the free food and the emotional investment—by the way, this shit ain’t happening, so… ’bye.

Fuck and double-fuck and triple-fuck and several more on down the goddamn line.

When he comes out the front door of the complex, there’s already a shiny black car parked up against the curb.

His whole body wants to freeze up—and then turn tail and fucking run, probably.

But he’s not a coward.

He’s a lot of things, but he’s not too fucking craven to tell this like it is and suffer any consequences that he has to for it.  Not yet.

He shoves his hands into the pockets of his coat and cuts across the lawn to walk to the car.  The little cobblestone path that they put in winds around all over the place; it’s stupid-inefficient.  He needs to get this done.

Roy has the windows rolled down despite the fact that it hasn’t exactly been a balmy day to start with, and now the sun’s setting.  There’s enough light left for Ed to see that he’s smiling, though.

Fuck.  That sucks.  That aches, deep in the fucking core of Ed’s body, because the dumb bastard’s actually happy to see him for some reason—happy this is happening; happy that he’s here; happy that they’re supposed to be doing this stupid thing together.

Ed doesn’t want to hurt him.  Ed doesn’t want to hurt anybody; he never does; but it’s better to hurt Roy a little bit now than to hurt him a lot later, isn’t it?  It’s better to get this fucking over with, with minimal casualties, before Roy puts some of himself into it and ends up with that much more to lose.

Ed tries really fucking hard to smile back.  Fuck knows how well it actually works when his whole chest cavity feels like a vacuum.

He opens the door and sits down in the passenger seat, and then he shuts the door again, and then he looks out through the windshield at the empty street and swallows twice.

“Can we talk for a second?” he asks.

Roy hears it—he knows Roy fucking hears it; Roy’s too goddamn smart not to.  Too intuitive.  Too sharp.  And it must put him on his fucking guard, because he pauses for a fraction of a second before he says, “Of course.”

Here’s Ed’s chance to be a fucking hero.  Here’s his chance to throw himself on the sword before it can cut either of them any deeper.

He folds his arms and stares at the dashboard of the car so that he won’t have to watch any people going by.

“I don’t think we should—do this,” he says.

It’s a good, long, full fucking silence.  Neither of them moves enough even to make the seat leather creak; not enough to raise a rustle of fabric or a shift of hair.  He can hear Roy breathing.  His own heartbeat’s deafening in his ears.

“All right,” Roy says, so softly it’s hard to hear him over the palpitations, and it isn’t until part of Ed relaxes that he realizes that he was preparing for—something.  Vengeance.  Anger.  Violence.  And that’s stupid; this is Roy, but all the same— “Can I ask why?”

Ed wants to crush his eyes shut.  He wants to hide his face; he wants to make a break for it.  He wants this to be easier; anything in the fucking world that’d make it so that he doesn’t have to fight out every individual syllable to try to find a way to make Roy understand—

“I just don’t think it’s fair to you,” he says, measuring out the words.  “I mean—‘fair’ is bullshit, but—it wouldn’t be right.  Of me.  Because it’s just not going to go the way you want it to, in the long run, and the last thing I wanna do is waste your time.”

The last thing I want to do is let you down, like I have let down everyone who’s ever loved me, and why did you have to go and try to put yourself into that category so I’d get a chance to fuck you over, too?

Roy stays quiet for another moment, and when he speaks his voice stays low and level—like he’s talking to a cornered fucking animal.

“I don’t want it to go any particular way,” he says.  “And I honestly don’t think it would be a waste of my time at all.”  He leaves Ed just enough time to start fucking squirming before he goes on: “Why do you think it would?”

Ed takes a deep breath.  Can’t fucking chicken out now; he got himself into this, and now he has to disentangle himself, too.  A part of him wants to look over at Roy, and the rest would rather hurl itself out of a moving vehicle towards three other lanes of speeding traffic.

He doesn’t look.

“It’s an opportunity cost thing,” he says.  At least Roy’s dashboard is… clean.  Wiped-down-clean and also clean-lines-clean.  Simple.  Makes it easier to focus on what he’s fumbling to say.  “You… if you invest in this, you’re expecting a payoff that—manifests in certain types of circumstances, because that’s how it works.  And that’s—fine.  I understand that, and obviously it’s not your fault, or anything; you’re just—that’s how it goes.  That’s how it’s always gone.  That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”

“About sex, you mean,” Roy says.

Ed’s stomach contorts.  Probably it’s a good thing that he hasn’t eaten anything since the fucking cereal.  “Yeah.  And that’s okay; I’m not trying to question the trajectory of fucking human history here.  That’s how it works, and that’s how it’s always worked, and that’s how it’s meant to work.  That’s not the problem—you’re not the problem.”  He takes a breath.  “It’s me.  I’m the problem.  That’s what it is.”

“Edward,” Roy says softly.

“No, listen,” Ed ays, and his elbow jerks with the brain-muscle desire to wave his hand for Roy’s attention.  “It’s true.  That’s fine; I’m not being—dramatic or whatever.  I don’t fit.  I don’t fit in the designated patterns for human behavior, because of this… thing, whatever it is; because I don’t feel the same shit, and that’s—I mean, I can’t fix it; I’ve tried.  It’s a fact.  So that’s the basis we have to build all of our other actions and assumptions on, right?  And I think this action—”

He has to free up one hand so he can gesture between them.  He barely sees the motion of his own left arm out of the corner of his eye; his vision’s gone all hazily dashboard-centric, and not much else makes it in at the edges.  Probably best that way.  Best that he doesn’t have to process whatever’s happening on Roy’s face right now.  Best that he doesn’t have any concrete images to feel fucking guilty over later.

“This isn’t…” He clears his throat.  “It’s just not going to pan out.  Is the thing.  Because it’ll come to a point where you want things I can’t… do, or give, or be, or appreciate, or—whatever, and—and I just don’t want you to try, and care, and want this thing, and then to turn around and find out it’s been shit all along, because that’s just… That’s what I do, so it’s—” He takes a breath.  “That’s what I am.  I just fuck things up, if you give me half a fucking chance.  You know that.  And it’s—I mean, I’d try, I would; I really—I wish it could be…” He breathes again.  That’s something.  “I just wish that we… could.  Is all.  But it’s not realistic.  Because the reality is I’m just—I’m so fucking—I don’t know, isolated, backwards, fucking wrong, that it’s like—I can’t even—I can’t even deal with people touching me right now; I can’t—I don’t know why you’d want to jump into this fucking quagmire shit I’m doing anyway.  For fuck’s sake, like, I can’t even do my fucking hair without attracting some skeevy-ass fucking sleaze guy and letting him get his fucking fingers all up in it—”

“What happened on Friday?” Roy asks.  “Was it more than I saw?”

“Nothing,” Ed says.  “No.  It’s just—that’s a symptom of the fucking sickness, is all.  I’m—it really does—it feels like I’m sick.  Like I’ve got some kind of fucking virus nobody else can see, and probably you can’t catch it, but like fucking hell am I gonna drag you into the plague tent and risk you getting my disease—”

“Ed,” Roy says, and there’s a steel to it so fucking bright and strong that Ed can’t help glancing at him—just quickly, just for a fraction of a second, dropping his eyes before the outline comes clear.  “You’re not diseased.  You’re not broken.  You’re not deficient.  You are you, and you are what I want—all I want, all I’m looking for.  I’m not going to ask you to change.  I’m not going to ask you for anything you don’t want to offer.  I know what I’m getting into, I promise—or at least the shape of it; I know where you’re coming from, and I don’t… care, Ed.  None of that makes it any less important; none of that makes you any less important.  All I want is to take you out for dinner and spend a little time with you as two people instead of a pair of officers.  That’s it.  If it leads somewhere else from there, that’s lovely, but I don’t… There isn’t any pressure, Ed.  None.  Not from me.  I just want you to be precisely who and how you are—just in my company for the next few hours, if you can bear it.”

Another car goes by—loud, louder, engine roaring as it passes close by Roy’s door; then fading away.  The taillights gleam on the dashboard.  Ed listens to his own stupid fucking heartbeat and Roy’s significantly less-stupid breathing.  If he gets through this, he can just—crawl back upstairs and bury himself under the covers and lick the thousand tiny wounds until they don’t sting so bad.

“I told you,” he says, as steadily as he can.  “It’s not you.  I’m just—so fucking tired of—being a disappointment.  I don’t want to do it again.  I don’t want to do it to you.  I think—I mean, in the bigger scheme of it, I think—people like me probably should be alone.  It’s just easier for everybody.  It makes more sense that way.”  He reaches for the car door, and his hand’s not shaking at all, obviously; it’s just—some sort of ambient air wave thing.  “I bet if you went straight to Captain Hawkeye’s, you could pick her up and still make your reservation, and she deserves a nice dinner anyway, so—”

“She does,” Roy says.  “So do you.  May I buy you a steak and tackle the rest of this once you’ve torn your way through to dessert?”

Ed’s hand stays poised over the door handle.  His heart throbs once, twice—once more, twice more—and keeps on going.

“How do you even know I’m gonna order steak?” he asks.

“Hunch,” Roy says.  “And the fact that it’s plastered all over their menu that you should, because it’s phenomenal.”

“I’m not gonna give in to their shitty semi-subliminal advertising,” Ed says.

“There’s hardly anything subliminal about it,” Roy says.  “Some of it’s in red.”

Ed’s heartbeat is so agonizingly persistent it’s difficult to ignore.

“You’re making a mistake,” he says.  “I fucking mean it, Roy—you don’t know how deep this shit goes.”

“I suppose I don’t,” Roy says.  “But I’m volunteering… No, more than that.  I am begging you to let me find out.”

Ed swallows.

“One dinner,” Roy says.  “Just tonight.  If you don’t want any more than that, it’s over with, and we don’t ever have to speak of it again.”

Ed breathes.

“Come on,” Roy says.  There’s a playful kind of note in it, but it’s still so—gentle.  Like he’s expecting Ed to bolt.  Which makes sense, actually, given that Ed’s whole body’s angled towards the door, and he’s watching the sidewalk like it’s liable to escape if he takes his eyes off of it for a second.  “What do you have to lose?”

Ed opens his mouth to start prying the top off of that fucking can of fucking wo—

“The steaks are so low,” Roy says.

Ed can’t help turning to fucking look at him.

Roy grins.

“Besides,” he says, “you went to the trouble of dressing for it already, didn’t you?  You look nice.”

That could’ve been a lot of other words—words with more weight, words with more meaning, words with connotations.  That could’ve been a lot of words that would’ve fallen like lead and shrapnel into Ed’s stomach and festered there forever.

Roy’s so fucking smart.

He doesn’t know what fanged and venomous creatures lurk in the murky waters he’s wading into, but maybe—

Maybe he knows enough.

Maybe he knows just enough to tread carefully, and he doesn’t mind if he gets bitten once or twice.

Ed swallows down the part of him that wants to say The leeches alone are a fucking nightmare; don’t even start me on the eels.

“You do, too,” he says.  “Look nice.  I mean.”

It’s always true, obviously—Winry once memorably remarked that Roy Mustang could make a paper bag look like haute couture, whatever the fuck that is, exactly—but it’s especially true when he’s wearing the gray vest and the narrow black tie like he is right now.  It frames his face nicely.  Any time he’s out of the uniform, Ed sort of has to do stupid double-takes at how fluid the movements of his shoulders are; their actual shape gets mostly lost under all the wool, and they’re… also nice.  Nice shoulders.

“Thank you,” Roy says.  He reaches forward to put his hand on the keys where they’re still waiting in the ignition, and he raises his eyebrows at Ed.  “Shall we?  If you need a minute—”

“Just drive,” Ed says.  “Or maybe let me drive, since I hear you’re shit at it.”

“I’m not sure my seat goes up that far,” Roy says, and Ed fucking sputters, and Roy laughs—but so softly that it disappears under the growl of the engine almost immediately.

One dinner.  One dinner, and then Ed can bail, and they can both get out of this more or less unscathed.










“Is that the place?” Ed asks the second time they go by it.

“Ah,” Roy says, delicately, “yes.”

Ed watches as the front of the restaurant dwindles away in the side mirror again.  “So… you gonna park this thing, or what?”

“I have a confession to make,” Roy says.

Ed eyes him.  “Okay.”

“The last time I parallel-parked,” Roy says, “I may have put a substantial dent in the back bumper.  And might possibly have ruptured a fire hydrant.”

“‘Might possibly’,” Ed says.

“There’s really no definitive proof either way,” Roy says.

“I call bullshit,” Ed says.

Roy grins.  “How uncharacteristic.”

Ed scowls at him, and then points at the curb.  “There’s a spot right there.”

The grin segues seamlessly into a grimace.  “That’s… a bit… risky.  I’m sure something will open u—”

“Let me drive,” Ed says.

Roy blinks, but—probably fortunately—he’s primarily looking at the road, so it’s hard to judge the precise implication of the blinking.  “I wasn’t aware you could.”

“I can’t legally,” Ed says.  “I don’t know the rules, and I didn’t take the test or any of that crap.  But there’re about a billion janky-ass cars sitting around rusting in people’s yards back home, and nothing friggin’ else to do.”

“Fascinating,” Roy says, and he actually sounds like he means it.  “Do you mean to say that I could have turned this whole little fiasco over to you a long time ago?”

“Just pull up next to that one,” Ed says, leaning forward and pointing again before Roy misses another perfectly good fucking parking spot.  “I’ll handle it.”

For a long, long moment, the lack of a response makes him think Roy’s pissed off—that Ed stepped on his toes or impugned his driving skill and by extension his honor or some shit like that—but after a swift glance at each mirror in turn, Roy does exactly as he asked.

The last thing Ed wants to do is hold up traffic and get honked at, so the second the car stops moving, he jumps out and darts around the front of the hood.  Roy’s only just getting up when he comes around the corner—but that seems to suit the bastard fine, since he then proceeds to straighten his tie with one hand, hold the car door for Ed with the other, and half-bow as an unnecessary invitation.

“Thanks,” Ed says, because it’s what Al would want him to say.  “You weirdo,” he adds, because it’s what he wants to say.

“My dear Edward,” Roy says, because he’s also an asshole, apparently, who enjoys watching Ed fight the hot rise of a flush, “it takes one to know one.”

For another thing, he’s a goddamn banter-cheater—he books it around to the other side to get to the passenger seat before Ed can cobble together a comeback.

“I can’t believe you trust me with your car,” Ed says.  He has to stretch a little—okay, kind of a lot—to reach the fucking pedals, but he’s not about to move the seat forward and give Roy a chance to comment.

“I trust you with a great deal more than that on a daily basis,” Roy says.  “Besides which, if anyone can do rotational momentum analyses in his head on the fly, I’m betting that it’s you.”

Ed puts this sucker in reverse and spins the wheel to angle himself.  “Once you’ve driven backwards between enough barns and houses with about two inches to spare on each side, you don’t really have to do the calculations anymore.  S’instinct.”

“That’s probably what I’m missing,” Roy says as Ed whips the little black chariot—which drives so damn smooth it really ought to have choral accompaniment every time you make a turn—in at a sharp fifty degrees and then swings the front to even it out.

“Nah,” Ed says.  “What you’re missing is Winry teaching you how to drive a tractor.  And then Granny Pinako teaching you again, from scratch, so that you don’t kill anybody doing it Winry’s way.”  He straightens the wheel, takes them a few inches forward, and then stops the motherfucker and pulls the lever that looks like a parking brake.

“Good Lord,” Roy says, opening his door and looking at the curb.  “That was remarkable.”

“I’ll tell Granny you said that,” Ed says.  He pulls the keys out of the ignition and holds them out to Roy.  “I don’t think they let kids get bored enough up here, that’s all.”

Roy reaches out to take the keys, and their fingers brush together, and Ed’s chest tightens up at the prospect of what else that could mean or do or lead to—

But Roy just smiles slightly, pockets the keys, says “Shall we?”, and gets out of the car.

Ed climbs out.  He’s not fucking sure how this part goes; he’s not fucking sure how any of this goes.  The uncertainty puts him on-edge, and then knowing that he’s on-edge puts him more on-edge, because he doesn’t want to be an asshole out of anxiety; that’s some fucked up shit—

Roy’s waiting for him up on the sidewalk.  Roy has his hands folded behind his back—which, like the word “shall”, should make him seem all stilted and awkward and overly formal and shit, but which is instead sort of… dashing.  Is that the word?  That’s the word Al would use, at any rate.  The fucking vest-and-tie combination isn’t hurting matters either, unless the matters in question encompass Ed’s stupid brain gradually going haywire.

Roy extends an arm towards him, and Ed manages to overcome the impulse to hesitate.  He follows the direction of the gesture and steps past Roy, starting for the restaurant—waiting for the hand to sweep in and touch his shoulder or his back or his arm or something; steeling himself for the impact so he can pretend the brush of someone else’s fingers doesn’t fucking set his stomach acid to a rapid boil—

But Roy’s hand never makes contact.  He just sort of—ushers Ed along, with just enough of a grandiose kind of air that Ed has no choice but to roll his eyes and… relax.

Only a little, but it counts.

Roy does a hilarious little borderline-skipping quickstep to get to the restaurant door fast enough to hold it open.

“After you,” he says.

“Why?” Ed asks—though he’s not too much of a jackass to be going through as he says it.  “Are there cannibals inside?  Or is it wild animals?  Or…”

This restaurant’s foyer has two sets of double doors for some reason.  The instant Ed opens one side of the inner set to return the favor, he gets walloped in the face with a swell of absolutely fucking transcendent  smells.

“Thank you,” Roy says, sauntering through more smugly than anybody’s got any right to be able to walk.  It shouldn’t be possible to have smugness evident in the very length of your stride.  “Or what?”

“I forget,” Ed manages.  Roy pauses a few steps ahead, and Ed realizes he’s still standing there like a moron, clinging to the door handle and sniffing a bit, so he hastens to catch up.  “Um—what—how much can I eat?  How much can you afford?  Do they have a—like, a sampler, or something?  So you can try everything?”

“I’m not sure,” Roy says, and Ed would ask him what he’s so fucking happy about, but there’s something sort of weirdly, charmingly pure about the smile, so he leaves it alone.  “I propose that we find out.”

Roy continues sauntering right on up to the stand where a woman in black is paging through a ledger.  She looks up and smiles.  “Good evening, sir.”

Ed’ll just… stand here and continue to be invisible.  That’s cool.  Honestly, he kind of prefers it.

“Good evening,” Roy says, and the shall-slinging fucker makes that sound natural, too.  “I should have a reservation for two under Mustang.”  He glances up at the fancy-ass clock on the fancy-ass wall and winces.  “I’m afraid we’re a bit late because of my ineptitude at parking.”

“‘Ineptitude’ is sort of harsh,” Ed says.  “‘Incompetence’, maybe.”

Roy presses his lips together in the way that means he’s suppressing a smile.  “How kind.  Thank you.”

The maître’d lady is also trying not to laugh as she gathers up two menus.  Ed can’t fucking wait to get a hold of that thing.  “Not a problem at all.  Right this way.”

She leads them over to a little square table off along one of the walls—the whole place is done up in white and aged gold, with all these winding pillars and draping fabric and antiquey décor and shit.  It looks like a museum as much as a restaurant, so it’s probably a damn good thing that it smells so distinctly like the latter, just so that nobody gets confused.

Either by sheer stupid fucking luck or because Roy’s talent for emotional intelligence extends further than any human being’s intuition should, Ed ends up at the table first, and Roy’s a couple full steps behind him, so he gets a second to pick which seat he wants.

Not that he has to pick, exactly—he sits down with his left side towards the dining room so that his right arm’s up against the wall.  As a left-handed-by-default person, it’s going to be easier to maneuver his elbow anyway; on top of which somebody’s bound to notice him wearing one fucking glove if he doesn’t tuck that hand discreetly under the table.  Having a glove on the left while trying to execute small-motor skills like utensil manipulation is just too much of a pain in the ass, but the only thing that draws more attention than wearing two gloves in a food-service facility is wearing only one.  It’s like a fucking neon sign with a giant flashing arrow, pointing to his hand and saying Hey, this is ugly and fucked up, so I’m hiding it, okay?

If Roy notices any of the distant smoke from this internal battlefield, he doesn’t say anything—just slides into the seat opposite more gracefully than anybody’s got any right to be ever, let alone when they’re shifting their own balance, and then flashes a winsome smile at the lady when she hands him his menu.

“Thank you,” he says.

“Thanks,” Ed adds when she gives him the second one, which seems like something of an understatement considering the incalculable power of awesome food selection that she just bestowed upon him.

“You’re welcome,” she says to both of them.  She sets a third little padded folder down.  “Here’s your wine list.”

Ed looks at Roy.

Roy looks back.

“Thank you,” Roy says.

“Your server will be with you shortly,” the maître’d says, and then she strides away.

“I keep meaning to ask you,” Roy says, “whether you’ll be with me shortly.”

“I’m with you right fucking now,” Ed says, resisting the extremely tempting urge to rise to it.  Not that he has to rise in a literal sense, obviously, since he’s a perfectly normal fucking size.  He tilts his head towards the wine-thing.  “You’re off the hook now, y’know.”

Roy picks the folder up, and the movements of his fingers are so smooth and distinct that Ed gets sort of mesmerized and doesn’t really notice until it’s already over that Roy’s folding the thing shut and setting it down.

“Be that as it may,” Roy says, “I’d much prefer to be in complete control of my faculties tonight.”  He pauses, then lifts the little folder up again.  “Unless you want—?”

Something that would hit him hard and fast and bowl his anxious brain right the fuck over might make it easier to enjoy this… But like Al pointed out, Ed’s never been in the habit of doing shit the easy way, and there’s no point starting now.

“I only drink when I’m planning to do backflips off the diving board,” he says.  “Then I can ignore that voice in my head trying to convince me that my neck is breakable.”

“You may want to start listening to that one,” Roy says, laying the folder down flat again.

“A rational awareness of mortality is for the weak,” Ed says.  He does his best impression of Al’s why-yes-I-am-slightly-evil smile.  “Or the old.”

Roy pantomimes being stabbed in the heart.  That’s one of his favorites these days.

Ed snickers.

“If you’re done abusing me,” Roy says after a few moments of indicating dribbles of blood by drawing squiggly imaginary lines down his chest, “you should really take a look at that menu.”

Ed gives him a glare to make sure he knows this isn’t a surrender, then cracks the fucker open.

Oh—

Yes.

Yes, this was worth the fucking trouble; this was worth every fucking minute of misery yesterday, last night, this afternoon—

Roy wasn’t kidding; there’s nothing about the spread of descriptions of this potential feast that anyone would qualify as subtle in the least.  The fabled steak features prominently: it is, apparently, pomegranate-rubbed, which is a hilarious mental image.  Significantly more importantly, it comes on a bed of roasted russet potatoes, which is a challenging series of sounds even to think, and which also sounds like the kind of place Ed wants to sleep for the rest of his life.  His mouth is a fucking monsoon.  He may get dehydrated from salivating and slip into unconsciousness before their food ever comes.

“Steak,” he manages.  “What else should I get with it?”

“They have these little lamb skewers that are worth going to hell for,” Roy says, leaning across the table to point to the extensive appetizer section on Ed’s menu.  True to Roy’s earlier warnings, Ed was having trouble paying attention to anything but the ad for that fucking steak, since it’s blazoned all over the damn place in a maroon-red color that immediately draws the eye.  Clever bastards.  Ed thinks he loves them.  “And the stuffed olives are excellent, although I get the sense you’d prefer meat.”

“When it’s an option,” Ed says, trying to make his eyes focus on comprehending the descriptions rather than getting hung up on tantalizing words like spicy and savory and garlicky, “why wouldn’t you eat it?”

“A perfectly valid question,” Roy says, sitting back.

Ed manages to tear his gaze away from the seductive lettering and look over.  “What are you having?”

“Whatever you want second-most after the steak,” Roy says, gesturing in a typically vague kind of way towards the table and the menu and possibly the universe at large.  “So that you can try it.”

Ed stares at him.

Roy blinks, looking faintly surprised before he schools his whole face back into the sort of genial neutrality he favors most of the time.  “Is something wrong?”

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “Your priorities.  They’re jacked up.”

Genial neutrality breaks for another grin, and it’s—mind-boggling, actually.  Mind-boggling and a little unnerving and a lot hypnotic.  Ed’s never seen Roy genuinely smile so much—so frequently and so consistently, like it’s bursting out of him every time he lets his guard down for a second.

“I told you,” Roy says.  “Everything on the menu is extraordinarily good.  There’s no way for me to lose.  Besides which—you’re likely to pick something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, so I’ll be broadening my horizons at the same time.”

Ed eyes him.  “You call yourself a strategist, but you’re trying to tell me no-lose situations exist?”

“Only here,” Roy says, spreading his hands munificently.  “That’s part of the magic of this place.”

“The other part is that they rub pomegranates on literally everything,” Ed says, “apparently.”

“Vigorously,” Roy says.  “That’s the only way the pomegranates will cooperate.”

“It’s only fair,” Ed says.  “They’re holding up most of the menu.”

“I wonder if we can leave a tip specifically for the pomegranates,” Roy says.  “They deserve to be recognized for all of their hard work.”

“Maybe we can send a note with our server,” Ed says.  “Dear pomegranates: we appreciate your sacrifices in the name of making fucking awesome food.”

What a bizarre conversation to be having with your boss-slash-date.

Ed fucking loves it.  It’s like talking with Al; you can just go off in some weird-ass fucking direction, and it’s fun, and—

And he thinks he might just be getting the point of this shit right now.

Roy’s doing the crinkly-eye grin that usually leads up to a laugh, and Ed’s chest just—tightens, and his guts follow suit, and that can’t be normal.  His stomach heats up, and so does the inside of his throat, and the collection of abnormal sensations is not exactly the most encouraging sign he can think of as far as the way this thing’s going, but—

But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Maybe you’re supposed to feel unbalanced and feverish and a little bit ill.  Except don’t people always claim to enjoy this shit?

Then again, ‘people’ tend to be pretty unreliable about that sort of thing.

He’s just going to have to roll with it.

For the first time in a long, long, long-ass fucking while, that doesn’t sound so bad.


[Part 4]

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