Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Characters/Pairing: proto-Roy/Ed, Hawkeye, Al/Win
Word Count: 17,398
Warnings: language, additional Unhappy but slightly less of it, post-Brotherhood AU with spoilers
Summary: The heat's not the only thing getting under Ed's skin and scalding him from the inside out.
Author's Note: Next part after Void and Summer! Parts of this I realized too late that I was writing directly to myself; and parts of it I just sort of… wrote. So a lot of it is probably somewhat repetitive and possibly a bit boring, and I'm sorry for that. I hope it's worth the time anyway. ♥ More to come, theoretically in the foreseeable future.
all these couples are kissing
and I can’t stand the heat
I lost my shoes and left the party
I wandered in the street
I put my feet into the fountain
the statues all asleep
no use wishing on the water—
grants you no relief
make me a bird of prey
so I can rise above this, let it fall away
make me a song so sweet
heaven trembles, falling at my feet
— “Mother” — Florence + the Machine —
Summer weather in Central is like a shitty-ass tide. The heat ebbs out, drifts away, stays gone—or at least stays manageable—for two months, then rushes back in like sweating’s gonna go out of style.
Ed’s about to go out of his mind.
The worst thing is when it’s hot one day, and then the next day, and then the next—these interminable stretches where the sizzling dryness of the air collects until it solidifies, a physical weight pressing down hard on face and shoulders and hands and feet, gluing the soles of your shoes to the sticky, steaming asphalt, adhering you to the pavement so you can’t even move—
It’s like a long slog through one of the powerlessness dreams.
Except you can’t wake up.
You can’t do a goddamn thing except sit and sweat and fantasize about the winter.
At five minutes to five on a Friday where everyone’s just person-shaped goo in their fucking office chairs, Havoc—who has been tetchy and twitchy and weird all fucking week—sighs loudly, clears his throat, glances at the door, and says, “Okay, here we go.”
He doesn’t even wait for Fuery to wet his lips enough to humor him and ask For what?; he just pops his jacket open, reaches into an inner pocket, and thwacks a little black velvet box onto the table, right on top of Ed’s latest lousy piece of paperwork.
After they’ve all blinked once each, Havoc cracks the box open and then drops back into his chair. “Do you think it’s enough?”
It’s a ring. With a diamond. A fucking huge fucking diamond, and if Ed’s hazy memories of Al’s brief fascination-with-gemstones phase are correct, the clarity of the spectrum it’s casting on the tabletop means it’s absolutely genuine.
Then footsteps, and then a soft shift of fabric as Roy leans against the doorway to his office and folds his arms.
Falman reaches out first and picks up the whole box carefully.
“This is of an extremely high quality,” he says.
“It’s huge,” Fuery says, with a great deal more audible awe.
“How the hell did you afford that?” Breda asks, eyeing Havoc sideways.
Havoc’s gaze stays trained on the ring as it gets passed between his three most interested colleagues.
“I sold the Car,” he says.
Everything goes very still—except the creaky-ass fan that they haven’t managed to replace in two full goddamn months, which Ed just hasn’t had the fucking energy to hit with a blast of reparative alchemy so intense the factory would feel it.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Roy says, slowly, in a voice so cautious it’s almost… delicate. “I don’t believe Lieutenant Catalina is the type to be bothered about the size of an engagement ring.”
“One-point-four carats,” Falman says, helpfully.
“She’s not,” Hawkeye says in a tone with more than a hint of iron.
“I know,” Havoc says. He’s still watching the progress of the little box; Fuery takes it away from Falman and pushes it back down to its owner—or its purchaser, or whatever the exact relationship is now. Havoc closes it again and then turns it over in his hands. “But that’s part of why I did it—because I didn’t feel like I had to. And I wanted to.” He runs a fingertip along the tiny hinge at the back. “I want her to be able to look at it and just—know that I’d do anything for her. That I’d give anything up. You know? ’Cause that’s what it means, and I want her to have the proof right there on her finger, all the time. Any time she needs it.”
Breda’s eyes track the box as Havoc slips it back into his pocket, although he doesn’t button the uniform over it again—not that Ed can fucking blame him, in this heat. “You gonna ask her tonight?”
“Yeah,” Havoc says, and his smile is faint and nervous, but there’s a light in it. “I’d say ‘wish me luck,’ but I don’t want it to be about luck. I want it to be about whatever’s supposed to happen—or whatever’s not.”
The fan rattles. Fuery drops a pen.
“Man,” Breda says, “it freaks me the hell out when you talk like that.”
“Like what?” Havoc asks.
“Like you get it,” Breda says.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Havoc says. “Getting it is real different from getting some.”
Ed has completely lost the thread of this conversation. He doesn’t even know what kind of fabric it’s supposed to be anymore.
“I, for one,” Roy says before the weave can turn into any stranger of an optical illusion, “am going to be getting out of here for the weekend.”
“Are you,” Hawkeye says—so lightly that none of them miss the sliver of danger, and everyone glances towards Roy’s Inbox without any prompting at all.
Maybe it’s partly the heat, but Roy wilts visibly.
“Eventually,” he says.
“All right,” Havoc says. He pushes his chair back, picks up his cane, and mock-salutes with it in hand. “Don’t wish me luck—wish me destiny.”
“You can’t say that,” Breda says. “That’s not an idiom. You can’t—”
“Have a nice weekend!” Havoc says, and in three cane-steps he’s out the door.
“Evidently he can say it,” Falman says, “given that he just did.”
“I think it’s romantic,” Fuery says, pushing his glasses up his nose. They slip a lot more often when the weather’s like this, and all of them are sweating out their body weight in saline every day. “I’m happy for him.”
“You would be,” Breda mutters.
The thought darts into Ed’s brain fully-formed and crystalline, unheralded and undeniable, and pings off of the wall of his skull:
Breda gets nasty about this shit and sarcastic about Havoc’s genuine contentment because he’s scared that he’s losing his best friend.
Maybe he is.
But isn’t that the point? Sometimes people you care about outgrow you, or outpace you, or just don’t need you anymore, and—you’re supposed to find it in yourself to be happy for them. Aren’t you?
“Whatever,” Breda says, standing. “I’m gonna go get the coldest damn beer this city’s got on tap. Who’s with me?”
“Cold anything sounds good,” Fuery says, and Falman nods, and there’s a tacit permission on Hawkeye’s face, and—
“You coming, Ed?” Breda asks.
“Nah,” he says. “These requisition forms aren’t gonna fill themselves out.”
“It’s Friday,” Breda says.
Ed blinks at him.
Breda holds his hands up, shaking his head. “All right, all right—squander your youth if that’s what you want. It’s your prerogative, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Ed says.
“Have a good weekend!” Fuery says.
“You, too,” Ed says, and the heat makes his hand too heavy to raise for waving, but they flit out in the next instant anyway.
Roy drops into the chair at the head of the table with a deep, melodramatic sigh.
“He’s right, you know,” he says. “You should go—out, or home, or somewhere. Breathe the world in.”
“There’s a world in here, too,” Ed says. “One where you’re slacking.”
Roy groans and pantomimes a bullet through the heart.
Ed has to bite the inside of his lip hard to stop himself from snickering.
“Besides,” he says. Bastard makes it damned hard not to take mercy on him after a while. “It’d be just as fucking hot at home.” He takes a breath and lets it out slow, trying to keep his voice as casual as he can. “And Winry’s visiting, so…”
Roy winces. Hawkeye sits down.
“If General Mustang ever gets through today’s reports,” she says, and Roy makes a strangled noise; “you could come out to dinner with us.” Delicately, she selects one of Breda’s abandoned papers and fans herself with it. “Someplace air-conditioned, perhaps.”
“We need a swimming pool,” Roy says. “Or a lake. Or a dump-truck full of ice cubes.” He looks down at his hands, turning them over. “I wonder if I could make us a pool. My yard would fit one.”
“There are building codes,” Hawkeye says.
“I’d put it back,” Roy says.
“If this heat doesn’t break,” Hawkeye says, “I wouldn’t let you.”
“My ’n Al’s complex has a pool,” Ed says. Fittingly enough, the words on this form are swimming in front of his eyes. “I mean, there’s probably a bunch of grimy-ass kids in it, but you guys could come if you want.”
Roy leans forward, and there’s a glimmer in his eye as he grins. “Do you ever do backflips off the diving board?”
“Only when I’m drunk,” Ed says. Which is, for the record, not completely true.
“I’ve got three bottles of chardonnay at home,” Roy says. “We could pick them up on the way.”
“Good chardonnay?” Hawkeye asks.
“No,” Roy says. “But it’s been on ice since this morning.” He gestures towards Ed. “And—backflips.”
“Sold,” Hawkeye says.
Ed wants to say something about how they’re secretly a pair of fucking dorks, but he can’t get it out because he’s—
The good news is, it was too hot for Al and Winry to do much more than pass out on top of Al’s sheets in a semi-cuddled position with minimal skin-to-skin contact, so there wasn’t any half-stifled assortment of the worst noises in the entire conceivable universe conspiring with the ungodly fucking weather to keep Ed up last night.
The other good news is that nobody actually got especially drunk, and he personally only had about three sips of the wine before the tingle in his head started to feel ominous instead of liberating, so he doesn’t feel hungover at all when he wakes up. And there aren’t any cracks in his skull from trying to do drunk backflips off of any surface, which really never ends well.
The other-other good news is that it was just—
It was nice.
He had fun.
He shot the shit and hung around the stupid germ-cesspit pool with people who know but don’t seem to care much either way. And he splashed Roy in the face a couple times. Which’ll be terrible if the bastard gets, like, a staph infection or something, but was pretty hilarious at the time.
And since Hawkeye was there, she bundled herself and Roy into a cab before it got too late, so even with the heat clawing at the edges of his every dream, and the sweat prickling on his skin to rouse him a couple times, Ed actually got some sleep. So it’s sort of—pleasant. This morning. It’s sort of pleasant, and he feels kind of peaceful with his hands around the too-damn-fucking-warm coffee cup, letting his mind float in a wash of half-formed thoughts.
He’s happy for Al. He’s happy about the way the delight just radiates on Al’s soft, shifting, perfect damn face when he puts his arm around Winry, and she leans her head on his shoulder. He’s happy about the disgustingly cute way they always start to laugh at the same time. He’s happy about how she plays with Al’s hair—especially around his ears or at the nape of his neck—and he blushes a little bit but never tells her to stop.
There was a lot of laughing—more of it as they got through the crappy wine, although all wine tastes more or less crappy to Ed’s palate, so he’s probably not much of a judge. There was a lot of laughing, and it felt so fucking good seeing Hawkeye’s shoulders loosen up, and Roy’s wet hair draggling in his eyes. They make him feel safe—at work all the time, and just in a general kind of way, with the knowing and the not-caring and all that shit. It’s nice to be able, in some way, to return the favor.
And Roy’s got this weird, mischievous little Other Smile for when he’s not playing the part of the king in his castle, and it’s—
Unsettling. Is what it is. But in a way that isn’t nauseating; in a way that’s just kind of…
Thinking about Al and Winry makes him think about Havoc, and it’s just about ten minutes to nine, which is probably an acceptable time to call somebody on a weekend, right?
It kept nagging at the back of his mind yesterday—not that he thought Rebecca was going to say no, exactly; just that… what if she did? Havoc was hanging all his hopes on a single star here, and sure, it was a bright one, but sometimes shit goes sour no matter how much you believe in it and in yourself.
Is it creepy to remember your coworkers’ home phone numbers from a brief, semi-accidental glance at your C.O.’s emergency contact list? Hawkeye would probably say “Creepy? Possibly. Useful, and efficient? I think you know the answer to that.”
The line rings three times before it catches, and Havoc speaks through the middle of a yawn. “…’lo?”
Shit. “Hi. Sorry. It’s Ed.”
“Heya, Boss,” Havoc says. His accent comes out strong when he’s sleepy. “How goes it?”
“Fine,” Ed says. “Just…” Now this is awkward as hell. Why did he think this was a good idea? He hasn’t had enough fucking coffee yet; he’s such a dumbass. “…wanted to… see how you were doing.”
There’s a long pause while Havoc presumably acknowledges Ed’s unprecedented and insurmountable dumbassery.
“Anyone ever out and told you that you’re a good kid?” Havoc asks.
Wait a damn second.
“Nah,” Havoc says, which is more like it. “Scratch that.” What the actual f— “You haven’t been a kid in a long time. Anyone ever tell you you’re a good guy? Just—really decent, straight through. Ain’t so easy to find that these days.”
“No,” Ed says slowly. “Nobody’s… Well. I mean. Anyway—you don’t sound like you got your heart broken and ended up crying all night, so—I guess it went okay?”
“Great,” Havoc says, voice brightening until Ed wants to close his eyes before it streams out of the phone as pure fucking photons. “Totally amazing. We were walking through the park after dinner, and I got down on one knee and all of that, and when she saw it she screamed ‘What the hell, Jean?’ so loud I lost my balance and tipped over and dropped it, and it fell out of the box and rolled off the path. Took us an hour of crawling around in the grass to find it. So it’s a good thing I got the big one after all, huh?”
Ed’s not exactly about to claim to be an expert in this shit, but— “Did she actually say ‘yes’?” he asks, slightly cautiously. “Or was it a, like, clearly affirmative ‘What the hell’?”
“Both,” Havoc says, so warm-and-fuzzily that Ed’s chest feels like it’s growing mold in fast-motion. “After we’d been rummaging around in the dirt for a while, I asked again just to check.”
“That’s really great,” Ed says, and he hopes Havoc can hear that he means it. “Congratulations.”
There’s a dreamy quality to Havoc’s voice now. “Thanks. Man, I’m just so… Hey, I wanna tell you something.”
“Okay,” Ed says slowly. “Shoot.”
“I know it’s gonna sound stupid,” Havoc says. “And I gotta be honest, if somebody’d said this to me a while back, I would’ve told ’em where to shove it, ’cause… I mean, anybody can stand there and say anything they want, right?”
Ed isn’t especially optimistic about where this is going.
“But listen,” Havoc says. “Don’t—change. Don’t try to change. Don’t try to be who or what you think somebody wants; don’t try to do shit just because you feel like you’re supposed to, or someone’d like you better if you did. Just be—you. And do whatever comes natural; be whatever’s natural. ’Cause you can’t hold up a fake you forever, and that’s not what it’s about. The only people worth loving are going to want you the way you are—the real you, as weird or stupid or whatever as you think the real you is. The stuff you think that you should change is the stuff they’re gonna love you for. And that’s the point. If you don’t open yourself up to all the hurt and failure and rejection and Mustang stealing all your chicks and crap—and that’s hard; it is—but if you don’t, the people who are worth it are never going to see the real stuff in you.”
Ed stares at the surface of his coffee. On any day that wasn’t this hellishly hot, he’d worry about it going cold.
Havoc clears his throat. “Okay,” he says, faintly sheepish this time. “Sermon over. Just—I feel like—even in the last couple years, you’ve… faded. And it’s not ’cause you’re less—you’re more than anyone I’ve ever met; even at half-strength, you’d be worth two ordinary guys, and you’re first pick on my team any day of the week. But I just get this feeling like you’re… hiding. Like you’re kind of trying to disappear. And it—I mean, I gotta be honest, Boss; it scares the hell outta me, ’cause you’re the last person who should think so little of yourself that you’d try to smother some of the stuff that makes you so damn great.”
The thing about long, lavish compliments is—
Ed’s brain just turns them over, shakes them for loose change, and throws them in the trash.
It’s a nice thing to say, sure. But it’s fundamentally incorrect. That’s a fact of his being; it’s a law of the universe; it’s…
Just how things are.
His soul’s about as clean as the unseen scars on his alchemy-sutured small intestine from that time with the pole in Baschool. He’s always been pretty good at convincing people that he’s something that he’s not—whole, or healthy, or fine, or decent. ’Cause who gives a shit about the real story, right? It’s just a big, dragging net of accumulated bitching and moaning he’s got no right to—manufactured miseries he doesn’t even deserve.
“Relax,” he says, putting a smile on so Havoc will hear it. “I’m all right. But—thanks.”
Havoc’s quiet for a second, and Ed wonders how anyone in the world could ever think that this guy’s stupid.
“Sure,” Havoc says. “Hey, another thing—we called Becky’s parents last night, and they wanna throw a little party for us next weekend. You should come. And Al, too.”
There’s some timely mumbling from down the hall, not that he was about to forget anyway. “Can Winry come?”
“The more the merrier,” Havoc says. “I’m gonna invite the whole office, but—figured I’d catch you while I had you, when you’re not awake enough to make an excuse.”
“Har, har,” Ed says.
“Hey,” Havoc says. “I’ve known you a long time now, Boss.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “Sorry about that.”
“Hold up just one damn se—oh, wait, hang on—”
There’s a crackle as he puts his hand over the mouthpiece or something, and a few murmurs of voices filter through.
“Hey,” Havoc says after a second. “Can I call you back? I gotta make breakfast for my buttercup.”
“Not a flower,” a distant version of Rebecca’s voice says.
“My cupcake?” Havoc tries.
“Not food either. And the ‘cup’ thing is pretty telling, bub.”
“’Bye,” Ed says. “Good luck.”
“Not gonna turn that down this time,” Havoc says, and then he hangs up.
Ed manages not to put the phone in his coffee, which is sort of an accomplishment when he hasn’t had enough of it—enough of the coffee, that is; he’s had more than enough of the fucking phone—and sits back in his chair to scrub at his eyes with the softer hand. At least if everybody he knows is at this stupid party, he’ll have people to talk to. And it is sort of a nice thought—that he’d be supporting them by showing up. Sort of giving the whole thing his stamp of approval, not that they need it.
Winry shuffles into the kitchen covering a yawn with the back of her forearm. She’s wearing one of Al’s biggest T-shirts and what looks like a pair of his boxers—which is probably why Al’s not here; most likely he died of exposure to the sheer cuteness or whatever. That or he’s taking a shower. Either way.
“Hey,” Ed says.
“’Morning,” Winry says. “How much coffee’d you make?”
“Lots?” Ed hazards. “Enough?”
“We’ll see,” she says.
He opens his mouth to tell her where the mugs are, but she’s already reaching for the right cabinet.
“You guys keep ’em the same place Granny does,” she says. “Weird how habits are kind of inheritable, right?”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “Weird.”
She glances at him over her shoulder as she puts one of the least-cat-related mugs down on the counter. “Kinda like how you’ve been acting for the last… oh, y’know. Forever.”
She probably means for it to sound concerned or compassionate or something. But her intentions don’t change the fact that it feels like a chilled chef’s cleaver getting buried to the hilt in his sternum.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, but it’s stupid—playing chicken with Winry is stupid, because she’s never been afraid of anything, least of all telling the truth, no matter how brutal it sounds.
She turns towards him and opens her mouth, and then she—
—closes it again.
He’s gripping the handle of his coffee mug a little too tight.
She fills hers and drops down into the chair across from him with a sigh.
“You’ve always been weird,” she says. “I should just learn to accept it.”
He rolls his eyes and tries to release his grip on the mug. He’s gonna start breaking their kitchenware at this rate, and every other mug is Al’s favorite.
“Can you explain it to me again?” she asks right as he’s finally having a little luck convincing his fingers to loosen. “Just—I mean, scientifically. I’m having trouble understanding.”
And here he’d been hoping to make it to nine-thirty this morning without breaking a sweat. “Which part?”
“I dunno,” Winry says, getting up to douse her coffee with cream before she plunks down again. If people don’t find that weird, why…?
He knows why. It all has to do with demographics and statistics and how hard it is for human beings to get outside their own heads, even just long enough to analyze a concept.
“Do you feel anything?” Winry asks.
He feels his heartbeat flickering through every vein in his body, light and fast like a captured bird. He feels his guts churning, and a grand total of zero brilliant words are emanating from the whirlpool of stomach acid and caffeine.
“Well,” he says, “yeah—all kinds of… things. Just not—whatever. Like… as a kid, I always sort of figured that when Al was mooning over people, it was this—purely intellectual thing, or intellectual and aesthetic or something, and… when he kept at it, I assumed he was just—trying to get a handle on staying human, or—something. And eventually I sort of realized that people weren’t just… faking it. They really wanted to do all that shit, which was why they were talking about it all the fucking time. And it wasn’t a passing thing; it was really important to them, and it was driving their psychology in all these ways, and I guess I sort of went—‘Wait a minute, I don’t have that.’ Which—at the time, we were so busy and shit that it didn’t really matter. Except then when we got Al’s body back, it was like… that part of him came back, too, but with a vengeance, and—I think he knew. I think he’d known for a really long time; I think he knew I wasn’t just—postponing puberty or some stupid shit because I was so preoccupied with him and the job and whatever. So he kind of… tiptoed, I guess. For a while. And that was never what I wanted, and I could tell he was holding back, and he could tell I was, because I didn’t want to wave some fucking banner about it and sound like some kind of freak, and…”
He turns his coffee mug a full three-hundred and sixty degrees around on the tabletop, watching the meniscus waver as it sloshes just a bit.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess it’s hard to explain.”
“I’m not trying to be rude or anything,” Winry says, almost plaintively now. “Just… I mean, you’ve never even had a crush? Not ever?”
“I dunno,” he says. “What’s that supposed to feel like?”
“Jeez,” she says. “Um… warm. Warm right in the middle of your chest—and sort of spreading out from there.”
“Sounds like a diaphragm problem,” he says. “You should get that checked out.”
She makes a face at him. “Smartass. It’s—you know. You just… have this really strong inclination to be around someone; you wanna spend time with them and get close to them and… I don’t know. Touch them. Make out. There’s a lot of fantasizing about cuddling involved—for me, anyway. And—y’know.” She raises her eyebrows, but there’s a tentativeness to her grin. “More-than-cuddling.”
Cuddling is… fine. Cuddling sounds—kinda—good, actually. But that’s just sort of a… warm physical sensation thing. Gentle nerve lights, like crawling into bed and pulling the covers in on a cold night. He and Al used to cuddle all the time, right after they restored him and stuff—one time he spent, like, an hour with his fingers tangled up in Ed’s hair, just sort of mesmerized, while Ed was reading. And that was nice. But there wasn’t any—intention. There wasn’t any undertow—any implication of more, like it was a segue to something else, like it wasn’t sufficient on its own. He’s beaten his forehead on that wall a million times—that’s the thing that’s missing, really. The more. The desire for it. If this whole relationship thing was just about finding someone who wanted to play with your hair and go eat food with you, it’d make a hell of a lot more sense.
“I dunno,” he says. “I get interested in people, sometimes, but, like… brain-interested.”
Winry glances at the refrigerator, then back at him, then purses her lip. He braces himself.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “Because you seemed pretty body-interested in General Mustang last night.”
There it is—the dagger-point she was leading up to, and the tendrils of the half-formed thought he was avoiding.
“It’s just fuckin’ weird seeing him out of context,” he says.
“And out of uniform,” Winry says, and this time she gives him a full-on eyebrow-waggle thing. “You can’t tell me you didn’t notice—”
“That’s the thing, though,” he says. “I mean, it’s—sure, I can sit there and fucking observe that—I dunno, I guess he’s—attractive or whatever—”
Winry actually slaps her hand over her face.
“‘Attractive or whatever’,” she says, faintly, like she’s in pain.
“—but it doesn’t… matter,” Ed says. “It doesn’t—do anything. It doesn’t affect me; I don’t feel… I dunno. Like I want anything. I don’t want anything. It’s just like—‘Huh, he looks better than I expected given all the long stretches of sitting around being a lazy-ass alternating with massive amounts of stress. Also, I’m kinda hungry.’”
“You were looking,” she says.
And maybe she doesn’t mean it to, but the ring of it in his ears sounds like—
You were lying all this time.
You just weren’t trying hard enough.
You made it up to make yourself sound special, to act like you were better than the rest of us.
You’re not above evolution.
You’re not any different.
You’re just a liar and a fake.
You objectify people every day, every minute, just like the rest of us; you just self-righteously pretend like it bothers you, and you’ve gotten so good at pretending that you can convince yourself that you really feel sick, that you really even care, that it doesn’t feed some deep-down molten part of you like everybody else.
You’re just lying, because you’re stubborn, and you’re clinging to the childhood you didn’t really get.
You’re just lying, because you don’t want to admit you fucked this up a long time ago because you were too scared to try it for real.
You’re just lying, because it’s easier than admitting that you failed.
“I wasn’t,” he says. “I didn’t… look-look.”
There isn’t enough coffee in his system for this shit.
There isn’t enough coffee in the world for this shit.
Winry sits back in her chair, smirking like she just whooped his ass at checkers. “Not with your eyes-eyes?”
He tries to shift the balance of the coffee deficit at least a sip in favor of sanity.
“Okay, listen,” he says, fighting to find words that’ll carry all the weight. “It’s not—it’s—complicated, okay? I mean, it’s not actually complicated; it’s really simple, but people make it complicated. The fact that everybody else is in on a joke I can’t get makes it complicated. ’Cause even when people aren’t… telling me to laugh at it, or talking about how hilarious it is, or whatever, it’s like—there’s this constant quiet pressure from everywhere to just—figure out what’s so fucking funny about it, because it influences everything that anybody ever does.”
Winry opens her mouth, shuts it, and opens it again.
“I—” she says. She presses her lips together, then scrunches up her whole face. “I’m not trying to fix you, Ed. I promise I’m not. I just—”
She gestures unhelpfully to what seems to be the room at large, slugs down a deep draught of coffee, and then she lets out a deep breath as a sigh.
“I just want you to be happy,” she says. “And—I guess maybe it’s closed-minded, but—being with Al makes me so happy that I really want you to find something like this.”
That one’s less a knife than a long, long needle, sliding in between his ribs, angled in and down, and it doesn’t stop when it hits the heartbeat; it just keeps pushing right on through.
No one says it—not quite. But it ripples underneath the silences, dancing just behind the awkward smiles.
People like him end up alone forever.
“I know,” he says. “Thanks, Win.”
She tries to bury the relieved expression in the coffee mug before he sees it. “Yeah, yeah. Hey.” This with the first dart of a glare. “Did you dry your automail off properly after you stuck it in the pool last night?”
“Yes,” he says. “I was really careful, and I used a nice towel, and I oiled it after, and all that shit.”
She looks skeptical. The consumption of a hell of a lot more coffee is still absolutely in order, so he gets up and goes to the counter for dose two out of possibly several hundred.
“How’s it been with the conductivity?” Winry asks.
Which is the nice way of saying Is the thing I built still burning you?
“It’s okay,” he says—which is almost not a lie; experiments with covering every inch of metal to keep it out of the sun have been relatively successful. He hasn’t blistered since he started to try it, and he’s been more particular about keeping in the shade and stuff. Mostly it seems like it’s working.
Her eyebrows lower, and then one arches.
“What?” he says.
“You always downplay it,” she says. “All the pain and side effects and stuff—you always act like it’s less than it is to make me feel better. And that’s nice, but it’s not helpful, okay? I need accurate diagnostic data to work on improvements so you—and other people, tons of other people—don’t have to feel like that anymore.”
What a fucking morning for fucking lectures. If Saturdays are going to keep being like this, he’s going to start working weekends. At least Roy’s easy to ignore, and he gets all pissy when you do, and it’s really kind of…
Hilarious. Is what it is.
“It’s fine,” he says, and then instantly regrets using such a loaded fucking word. Nobody ever says fine and actually means it; it’s pretty much code for I don’t want to talk to you about why I’m not fine at all, which is exactly Winry’s point. “It’s not as bad; I figured out that if I keep it out of direct sunlight, it’s really okay.”
Winry stands up. “Let me see.”
He folds his arms over his chest like that’ll stop her. “What is this, a pop quiz checkup? It’s okay, I swear; I just—”
Only somebody like Winry could make crossing a few squares of crappy linoleum look like the descent of an avenging angel. “Let me see, Ed.”
He hunches his shoulders and tightens his arms, but then she’s up in his face and pulling at the collar of his tank top to try to look at the burn scars winding around on top of the regular scars around the bolt through his collarbone, and he can’t bat her hands away, because the automail bruises people when you barely even brush them, and—
“Knock it off,” he says. “It’s fine.”
Her fingertips grazing his skin gives him goosebumps—the same kind of bone-marrow shiver as a razor blade scraping up against a vein, and she’s right; there’s something wrong with him; it’s not supposed to be like this. Not wanting to fuck anybody’s one thing; feeling like a cornered animal when your best friend barely even touches you is a whole new level of You’re unhinged, Elric; you’re fundamentally unstable; you’re broken so deep down that nobody could caulk up the cracks if they wanted to. You should go. You should go away, too far for these people who keep trying to help you to find out where, so you don’t burden anybody ever again.
Fucking panic flutters in his chest, blindingly bright white and frantic, feathers falling everywhere—he finds himself trying to hike himself up onto the counter just to get some distance from her hands—
The fuck is this, anyway? He trusts Winry; he knows he does; trusts her with his life, with Al’s life, with all the secrets and the worst of the truth—
“Win,” he says, and he hears his own voice shake, and what the fuck— “Don’t—d-don’t—”
He’s scooting back on the countertop; the toaster clangs as he collides with it and pushes it into the wall; the back of his head bangs on the cabinet door, and—
Stares at him like he’s—
At which instant Al wanders in, dressed in just his pajama pants, covering a yawn with his forearm with his wet towel draped around his shoulders.
He pauses, arm still half-raised, when he sees Ed sitting on the counter, Winry standing in between his knees with one hand fisted in his shirt.
“Oh,” he says.
Winry scrambles back like she’s the one burnt by the steel; her hands lift and then hesitate, like she’s trying to decide whether wiping them on her shirt—Al’s shirt—would make it better or worse. “It’s not what it looks li… Ed’s into guys.”
Ed’s heart, which was recently filing for permanent residency in the top of his throat and encroaching on his tongue, plummets to the pit of his stomach so fast it leaves him reeling with the vertigo. “I’m not into—”
“He’s into General Mustang,” Winry amends.
His guts tighten, but he chokes the words out before it’s too late; he’s learned by now that if you don’t correct people quick enough, they’ll fill the silence in themselves. “I’m not into Roy either, the fuck—”
“See?” Winry says, stabbing a finger towards him from where she stands in the center of the kitchen, equidistant from them both. “He even calls him ‘Roy’ now! Did you notice that?”
“Yes,” Al says, and his voice is so calm that that’s what scares them both. “Is there any coffee left?”
There is. Although Ed’s practically sitting on it.
At least his countertop vantage point puts him in a prime position to twist around and fumble through the cupboard for a mug. The patterns on them seem too bright—jarring, overwhelming. He grabs one at random and hears the ceramic clink repeatedly against his fingers, and then he reaches for the coffee pot.
“Wait,” Al says, and he doesn’t raise his voice, but there’s an iron note of a command in it. The real question is—did he learn that from Mom, or from Hawkeye? “Let me.”
Ed has no fucking idea what Al’s talking about until he realizes that the clinking hasn’t stopped, because his hand is shaking.
He tries to freeze. Al takes the mug carefully out of his hand and touches his knee.
“It’s okay, Brother,” he says. He turns to Winry and gestures to the machine. “Did you get enough, Win?”
“Um,” she says. “Yeah. You’re not—?”
“Mad?” Al asks, blinking at her. “About what, the two of you fighting the same way you have for twenty years now?” He smiles at her, and the sheer adoration in it— “Of course not.”
The relief suffuses her face like a spreading sunbeam, and she glows as she smiles back. “Well—okay. I’m gonna go take a shower.”
“I saved some hot water for you,” Al says cheerfully.
Winry makes a face. “Gee, thanks.” Without another glance at Ed, she slips out of the kitchen and pads down the hall.
Al doesn’t make Ed wait while he pours himself coffee or anything—just sets the mug down, then hops up onto the counter on Ed’s other side.
“Brother,” he says. “I’m not upset.”
Ed eyes him.
Al pauses. “All right—I’m not upset at you. Or at her. Just a little bit at myself.”
Ed’s stomach hasn’t stopped roiling. “You didn’t do anything.”
“Neither did you,” Al says. “Neither did she. Nobody did anything at all.”
Ed eyes him a little harder.
Al sighs, lifting a hand to wave it towards the room at large. “It’s all—in our heads. It’s all in our individual heads. I’ve always…” He takes a breath, licks his lips, and twists them into a thin sort of smile. “I’ve always harbored just a little bit of… fear, or suspicion, or whatever you want to call it—that you were always the one she really wanted, but when she realized you weren’t available, she settled for second-best.”
Ed’s head pirouettes a little bit. “There are so many things wrong with that fucking sentence th—”
“Hush,” Al says—gently, but he means it, and Ed shuts his mouth. “If there’s a part of her that’s still holding on to all of the hopes she’d projected on you, that’s her business—and mine, now, I guess, as far as how large that part of her might be, and whether I can be okay with it being there. But it has nothing to do with you. And I know you’re going to feel guilty for ‘ruining’ something that makes me happy; and at the same time, even though it’s completely contradictory, you’re going to feel guilty for not being able to give her what she wanted from you all this time.” He picks up his coffee cup and turns it around until he finds the tiny little cat silhouette along the bottom edge. “Sometimes I think I should write a book about your feats of cognitive dissonance.”
“Hey,” Ed says. It sounds dull to his own ears. It feels like the part of him saying it is calling from another room.
“The point is,” Al says, “this is between me and Winry. You’re a bystander here, Brother—you’re collateral damage. This isn’t your problem, and it isn’t your fault.” He reaches around the coffee machine to free the carafe and fill his mug from it at last. “And what you do or don’t feel about or for General Mustang is your own business, and nobody should try to make you decide. Emotions are complicated. That’s fine. That’s why they’re precious; that’s why human beings are precious. Nothing you think or want now invalidates anything you’ve done or anyone you’ve been. Labels and terminologies are useful most of the time for categorizing the big mess of chaos that the world is around us, but they cease to be useful—or important—if they start to confine you. And that’s okay. You’ve never been just a guy, or just an alchemist, or just an Easterner, or ‘just’ anything. You’re you. You can encompass all of those things without being beholden to any of them. People get scared of things they can’t understand easily—you know that—and then they try to pin words on them to make them stay still in a way they’re already familiar with. But you get the final say, Ed. You are the authority, and your only responsibility is to feel right within yourself. And if other people don’t like the way you go about seeking that, they can go screw themselves.”
Man, when Al gets going, he just… goes.
“Okay,” Ed says, since he’s still processing at least twenty percent of that enormous pile of words. Objectively enormous—not, like, specifically in comparison to him, or something.
Al smiles a little, stirs some sugar into his coffee, and then stretches over to touch his curled fist to the center of Ed’s chest.
“You’ve spent your whole life doing right by other people,” he says. “Playing other people’s games, trying to prove them wrong—I’m going to give you a challenge, okay? I want you to make an effort—a real effort, a serious one—to do right by you. To make yourself happy, whatever that means, regardless of anybody else’s feelings at the time. Just once. Be as selfish about it as you can.”
Damn Al, being so damn smart—
Ed swallows, folds his hands up and then parts them again when he remembers how that traps more heat, and tries to look his way-too-fucking-brilliant brother in the face.
“Okay,” he says. “I mean—I’ll try, if you want.”
Al gives him the single most long-suffering look that has ever graced the visage of a human being.
“It’s not about what I want,” Al says. “But if that’s going to help you get started, then—yes. All right. Try it because I want you to be happy. Maybe the rest will fall into place from there, huh?”
“I don’t know where you get all this faith in the universe and shit,” Ed says, “after what it’s done to us.”
“Good things happen, Brother,” Al says. He doles some nasty-ass lactose-based shit into his coffee. “And for all that’s ever gone wrong, we have always had each other, and that’s not about to change.”
Except that someday—
He can’t think about the somedays. Not right now. Al’s doing everything he can.
“Yeah,” he says, hopping down from the counter and punching Al’s shoulder really lightly on his way back towards his room. “Thanks, Al.”
“Sure thing, Brother,” Al says.