Fandom: Fullmetal Alchemist
Word Count: 47,200 (16,200 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: ……post limits. >___>''
PART 2 (2/2)
If Ed believed in anything, there would be some prayers of gratitude. Possibly tears. Although that could be the fat fucking bruise starting to form on his kneecap talking.
The knee in question is not helping his regular old shitty balance as he tries to lever himself backwards off of the bench without brushing against Verso, who hasn’t drawn his fucking hand back an inch.
“I’m afraid I need your research expertise,” Roy is saying—or that’s what it sounds like, through the pounding in Ed’s head and the lurching carousel twirl of nausea in his guts—as Ed fights his way off of the bench and somehow stands up straight without wincing. Roy waits just long enough for him to snatch up his tray and then starts striding towards the exit. “There’s a particular file that Second Lieutenant Falman swears actually exists—which would be bad enough by itself, but Sheska assures me it’s real, too—but I can’t find it in the records rooms for the life of me, and I need it for the—”
“Let me guess—for the three o’clock,” Ed says, trying to muster a convincing glare. Roy grimaces. “You couldn’t’ve mentioned this earlier?”
“I was trying to find it myself,” Roy says. Ed tosses his tray down onto the bussing station and glances sideways at Roy. “Like I said, I didn’t believe in its existence until multiple better memories swore otherwise.”
“Right,” Ed mutters, and then they’re out into the hall, and turning a corner, and—
Roy’s whole voice changes—goes instantly from business-smooth to personal-soft.
“Are you all right?” the bastard asks.
“Yeah,” Ed says. It’d probably be a better lie if it hadn’t stuck in his throat a little and then finally wormed its way out of him sounding kind of strangled. He narrowly bests the urge to hunch his shoulders, too. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Roy looks intently at the hallway ahead of them. “You looked a bit uncomfortable. Frankly, that close to Martin Verso, I would be, too.” Ed sneaks a glance at him, which is a fucking mistake, because right then Roy runs the tip of his tongue over his upper lip, and for some fucking reason, that makes Ed’s heart start throbbing in his throat. “I really do need your help with that file, though.”
Fuck, Ed is sweating so fucking cold. This is the first time they’ve been alone since… since the stupid pub with the stupid wine and the stupid garlic fries, probably. And even then, the public eye was on them; now it’s anybody’s fucking guess—
“So what is it?” he asks. “The file.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Roy asks.
Goddamnit. This is Roy. Roy’s not—Roy won’t—
He’s fucking safe with this man. He knows that.
He just feels—unbalanced. After that fucking asshole Verso suddenly got so far into his space—so far into his head—
“Yeah,” he says. “Just—remembered why I hate eating in that hellhole. Don’t think whatever they’re passing off as chicken agreed with me.”
“Having disagreed with you in the past,” Roy says, “I’d sympathize with the chicken—if I hadn’t tried the food. Unfortunately for all involved parties, however, I have.” Ed tries to smile for him. Who knows what the fuck ends up on his face; Roy makes a vague sort of gesture in the direction of the records rooms they’re fast approaching. “The file—Falman says it should be a fairly narrow folder. It’s an index of questionable arrests from the last year of the Bradley regime.”
Ed blinks. “They—let that shit get written down?”
“Part of why I doubted its existence,” Roy says. “He says he remembers it being slipped in with a very dry compilation of climate data, which is probably how it survived.”
“He should’ve kept it,” Ed says. “Fuck’s sake, I would’ve shoved it down my pants.”
“Me, too,” Roy says calmly.
“Or eaten it,” Ed says.
“I think that strategy would have been slightly less effective,” Roy says, “but I support the sentiment.”
Smiling at him comes a little easier this time. “I’ll see if I can find it. No fuckin’ promises, but…”
“The best that you can do before three,” Roy says, smiling back, “would be appreciated more than I can express.”
It is unspeakably weird how they never seem to fight anymore. Some part of Ed’s still waiting, poised to pounce on the slightest sign of annoyance and worry it between his teeth until they’re howling at each other across the room, and the windowpanes rattle with the force of their stubbornness colliding—
But it’s a small part, now.
Mostly he’s… relieved. It is a fucking relief not to walk into Roy’s office and immediately start gunning for the thrill of the adrenaline and the frigid edge of real fear. It is a fucking relief to be cultivating conversation and intuiting a mutual respect.
“Sure,” he says. “I’ll bring you whatever I dig up.”
“Please limit it to files,” Roy says. “I’m not sure I want to know what else is in there to be excavated.”
Ed makes a point of frowning at him.
He looks so fucking young when he does that.
Then he waves, cavalierly, and starts back down the hall. “I’ll be despairing very quietly in the office if you need me.”
“Have fun,” Ed says.
“Always,” Roy says.
Ed squares his shoulders, breathes deep, and forges on into the records room.
Apparently Linda’s on curator duty today; he greets her as he goes in—most of the weather and geographic shit is in Room 3, which is good, because that gives him a place to start. If memory serves, it’s the third aisle leftward from the door, and about halfway down, and…
Maybe this file folder would be different, right? At the very least, it ought to look newer than the surrounding ones; maybe he can trail his fingers down the spines and feel a difference even if the distinction isn’t visible in the crappy light. Maybe it’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe…
Maybe that’s exactly what Roy would’ve tried at least three times if he was trying to find this thing.
A different tack might be in order. Ed lets his gaze skim along the wall of boxes and and books and the stacks of manila folders crammed between them as he weighs his options. Falman, who should’ve just taken the fucking file and hidden it under his fucking mattress at home the instant that he saw it, would probably remark that options, as a concept, cannot actually have mass, and ergo can’t have weight, and ergo multiple choices can’t have different weights, and…
Wait a damn second; there’s a thought.
Roy said it was dry climate records, right? And Ed heard that as boring as all fucking get-out, but—what if that was a direct quote? Falman’s not much good with idioms. What if he meant literally dry? What if he was talking about the contents of the surrounding records, not their quality?
Ed’s only got two hours to get this to Roy if the bastard wants any time to read it—anything is worth a try.
Dry records, dry, arid, drought—
The drought in 1903 almost wiped Resembool off the map—the East was so fucking barren that year they weren’t the only ones scraping to survive. Mom was looking fucking frail by the end of the summer; he remembers that—but his little baby brain attributed it to the shortage, the heat, the desolation, the hunger, the things that could subside. Not to the start of something worse.
It wasn’t just their quadrant of the map, either—as far as he can tell from the limited time he’s had with the history books, everybody felt it, and everybody hurt. What’s not in the textbooks is the fact that combination of the economic impact and the fear probably made it fucking easy for Bradley to bear down on Ishval all the harder, and their retaliations supposedly justified actions even worse—
The labels on this shit are barely legible when they exist at all, because apparently nobody cares about the weather here, but it only takes him a couple random pulls of folders before he hits on one from ’02, and they’re mostly chronological from there. Summer, summer of 1903—May, May, June, a thick-ass stack of really badly-drawn graphs with Spring scrawled across the top and no damn date at all, because apparently this place is not, in fact, a records room but a records graveyard, where the ones that haven’t been doctored go to die.
One of the files is jammed full of clipped-out newspaper articles about the drought; the next one has patient rosters from Central Hospital—somehow it’s hard to believe this was only fifteen fucking years ago; it’s hard to believe this happened in his lifetime. Everyone and their fucking uncle was getting heatstroke, passing out in the street, cracking their heads open—people were dying in fucking droves of cholera here, using contaminated fucking water as a last resort and then being unable to stay hydrated enough to get through it—
There wasn’t enough water to clean wounds; there wasn’t enough antiseptic to make up for the lack of water—
He shoves that file back and takes a deep fucking breath. It could be worse—right? It could always be worse. The summer they just had was a bitch and a half for him personally and for everyone dreaming of cooler climes, but at least the rivers didn’t run dry. At least there weren’t corpses rotting in the sun because the ground was too fucking hard to bury them.
He yanks out the next one, and the next—maybe this was a stupid idea after all; did he really just try to bet something this important on a word with a double meaning? This is why gambling is for fucking fools; he’s never had an iota of “luck” in his life; “luck” doesn’t exist—it’s just a combination of chance and confirmation bias, and—
The next folder in the sequence is sort of stuck; he has to haul on it to pull it free, and then he flips it open, and—
Not grainy photos inside a hospital where you can practically see the heatwaves; nothing striped with blurred ink like the newspaper print. Police photographs. Military police photographs.
He turns a few pages just to be sure, but his heart’s already leaping; this is fucking it; this is the one—
Goddamn, that feels… good. It feels good to do something fucking right for once—on the first try, without having to kill himself over it; without having to struggle with every last detail and fight it through to the bitter end.
He draws out the climate files that were on either side of this one on the shelf and sandwiches it back in between them. All of the rubber bands that used to be on these suckers have crumbled into drooping, disintegrating gum-dust, but he manages to extract one fully intact piece of string that someone used fuck knows how many years ago to tie some other folders together. He wraps his prize up loosely and then holds it in the crook of his left arm, with his elbow out so he can defend it if he has to. Hopefully he’s gotten good enough at this bullshitting bullshit that nobody will suspect a thing.
He steps back out of the claustrophobic little aisle, tugs the cord to kill the lights, and then heads out of the room, drawing the door shut behind him. If Roy didn’t need this right fucking now, he’d ask Linda how she’s doing and all that shit, but for now he has to settle with wishing her a nice day and moving on.
He has to figure out something cuttingly clever to say to Roy when he hands it over. Digging at the fact that he almost lost his fucking eyesight is a little too pointed—even if it’d be kind of hilarious. Well, a little bit hilarious. The problem with that is that you have to get the tone just right so that it’s sort of gently mocking instead of mean, and these days it’s fucking impossible to gauge how words are going to sound by the time they’ve traveled from the back of Ed’s stupid brain to the end of his stupid tongue. He doesn’t trust himself to skim that one with the delicacy that it needs—you’d think the difference between skipping a stone across the surface of a lake and throwing a rock at someone is pretty fucking simple, but sometimes it just leaves your hand wrong, and no matter what you intended—
“Edward,” someone says.
He whirls on his heel—almost fast enough to fling the fucking papers out of the folders; he feels them starting to shift and instinctively clutches at them even as he trains his eyes on—
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Can’t this fucking day just end?
“May I call you that?” Verso asks. Ed’s stopped still as his body tries to remember how to fucking move, but that doesn’t seem to deter the colonel, who continues towards him at a decidedly leisurely pace.
There was time to run. There was plenty of time to bolt for the fucking records room, dive under Linda’s desk—but he feels frozen solid; he feels like a statue halfway turned to flesh; the only parts that have been made sensible are the trembling tips of his fingers and the thickening lining of his throat.
A superior officer asked him a fucking question.
Verso’s not tall-tall—not like Armstrong, or Sig, or somebody—but he’s got a full six inches on Ed.
“Whatever you want, sir,” Ed says. It’s marginally less fucking idiotic than any of the other options supplied by his dizzily scrambling brain.
Verso’s slow grin tells him instantly that he just made a terrible fucking mistake.
“I want a lot of things,” Verso says, and his slow, slow, ineluctable fucking swagger carries him closer, and Ed takes one step back—then two— “But I know how it works—and I know what the alchemists say. Nothing comes for free, isn’t that right?”
“Um—” Another half step, and Ed can feel the fucking wall behind him; how did this—what’s even fucking going on here? His instincts flare; this is some fight or flight shit; his hackles are up, and the adrenaline is singing through his fucking veins— “Yeah, it’s sort of… like that, I guess. Equivalent exchange.”
“Right,” Verso says. He stops advancing when there’s about a fucking foot remaining between his chest and Ed’s—less when Ed tries to drag in a deep breath and force his panicked brain to slow the fuck down— “But don’t worry. I can assure you that very good things happen to people who give me what I want.”
Ed’s heartbeat in his ears patters so fast it almost sounds like a single noise, like an ongoing hum, as the individual pulses run together.
A part of him—a minuscule fucking fragment that’s still smart; that isn’t mesmerized by the terrifying potential in Verso’s glittering eyes; that isn’t hypnotized by the serpent’s sightline, just waiting for the venom strike—gathers the remnants of his voice.
“I need to go give this to General Mustang,” he says.
Verso’s arm moves in what seems like slow-motion, but Ed’s muscles ossified so long ago that he can’t even flinch.
Verso plants his hand on the wall just above Ed’s left shoulder, next to his head.
Ed can’t hit him. Ed probably can’t even shove him; Ed has his left arm wrapped around the files, and if he pushed Verso with his right hand with any real force, it’d bruise him—probably, knowing Ed’s luck, in the specific fucking shape of his automail, so there’d be no damn doubt about it when Verso dragged him into court—
His heart bangs in his throat so fast that Verso can probably see the flitflitflit rhythm of his blood rushing right through his carotid.
“This is important,” Verso says, and his voice lowers in register and volume at once. “This is about your future, Edward. You haven’t risen in rank since you started, have you?”
“No,” Ed forces out. “But I don’t—”
“All that I’m asking for,” Verso says softly, “is what you’re already giving Mustang. And I will give you so much more in return.”
Ed has to swallow before he can speak, and the way Verso’s gaze flicks down to his throat fucking scares him.
“All I’m givin’ Mustang,” he says, “is this file. If you’ll ex—”
Verso braces his other arm against the wall to cage Ed between them the instant Ed tries to sidle sideways.
“He must have trained you very well,” Verso says, and the softness of his voice has tilted dangerous; “if you’re so adamant to get back on your knees for him.”
Ed’s guts clench. “Wh—”
What is a stupid question.
He knows what.
Verso—and probably half of the other ignorant fuckers in this place—honestly believes that Ed convinced Roy to let him into the military by sucking his dick.
It makes him sick, sick, sick—ill, unwell, unsteady; fucking weak with it; it bowls him the fuck over; the mere fucking implication carries so much hurt—
His stomach lurches, and his head spins, and if he hadn’t pressed himself back against the wall so hard trying to escape, he might have to say hello to the fucking floor, the way the wave of vertigo takes him.
Verso wants him to kneel down right fucking here in this hallway and—do whatever exactly it is that oral sex entails; put his mouth on—
Or at the very fucking least, that’s what he’s thinking about right this second, probably in painstaking fucking detail, and—
And Ed can’t—he can’t—stay here and stand this; he can’t fucking bear it; he can’t—
Breathe—can’t gasp in any air to speak, to scream, to shout, to beg, to snarl his fucking protests—
He used to be so fucking sharp that no one would have dared to touch him for fear he’d cut them on contact.
He used to be so strong that he was safe.
“You’re still young,” Verso says, and Ed tries to jerk his head out of the way, but there’s nowhere to go, and Verso’s fingers twine into his hair again— “I’m sure you could learn a few tricks from a new master, hmm?”
The heel of his hand brushes Ed’s jaw—warm; far too fucking warm—and then a few of his fingertips settle under Ed’s chin and push upward so that Ed has to lift his head and expose his throat—
“Stop,” he fights out. “Stop—touching me—don’t—”
“Funny,” Verso says, and—the damp heat curling against Ed’s neck can’t be anything other than his breath—which means his mouth is so fucking close he could—he’s practically— “I don’t see his name on you.”
Ed’s heart beats everywhere, hard and fast and fucking frantic—in the knot in his throat, in the cavern of his chest, against the backs of his eyes. He has to fucking do something, but he can’t exactly bring his metal knee up into any tender portion of Verso’s anatomy if he wants to work in this city—in this country—ever again. He has to think; he has to think his way out of this; he has to surface from the drowning swell of animal fucking panic—has to think so swiftly that he forgets the thick shadow and the huge weight of the unknown human body bearing down on him—
Verso’s hand drags through his hair again, and then the fingertips trace down the side of his neck, nudge his collar aside, press intently against his clavicle—
Where the fuck is everyone? It’s fucking work hours; why does no one need the fucking records? Why—?
Everything is frozen solid; everything is brittle ice, rattled by his heartbeat; everything is suffocating snow; numb to the core, and nothing moves—fear courses through and hollows him and leaves him so fucking cold—
Nobody is going to save him.
Nobody ever has.
“Leave me alone,” he says. His voice sounds small and faint, but it fucking exists, and that’s something. “Let go. Don’t touch me; don’t—”
Verso hooks one finger into the uppermost catch on his uniform jacket and hauls him forward, and a dry brush against his throat turns to moist heat and a smear of wet—
That’s Verso’s mouth—his spit, his—tongue—
Fierce darts of pain where he sinks in his teeth—
Ed doesn’t think—not even half a flicker of coherence; no comprehension at all.
He draws his right arm up close to his own body and then extends it, sweeping outward from the elbow—grasping Verso’s opposite shoulder, forearm flat across his chest—and just maintains the momentum, pushing up and out and twisting himself away and underneath—
Verso starts to shift, and that fucking arm comes up again—hand out and fingers grasping. The tips graze the fabric of Ed’s uniform—he feels the tug, but too light and too late; he slides loose, slips free, and—
Down the hall, half-blind, hiking the folders up and hugging them to his chest—he turns the first corner and pelts down the next corridor; he doesn’t care; he doesn’t fucking care where he ends up, as long as—
As long as it’s not fucking here—
Even with his heart pounding and his stomach churning and the heat of a mortified flush stabbing at the inside of his throat and his face and his ears—he more or less recognizes the layout of this place; the environs of the records rooms have become familiar enough that even in this haze of burning skin and choking panic, he knows to hang a sharp left at the next intersection of hallways. That one takes him almost directly to a set of stairs; he careens down and flings himself around the bend so fast that the woman coming up squeaks audibly, and his passage ruffles all her papers, but there’s no fucking time to apologize—
He just keeps going.
He just keeps going at full fucking speed—next right; right again after that—until he skids to a stop, panting fit to burst his fucking lungs, in front of the door to the bathrooms. He shoulders through it, and then he spins around, presses the folders to his chest with his left arm to free his palm, claps, and smacks his right hand against the locking mechanism on the door to seal it shut.
His knees are shaking. Everything is shaking. The whole fucking world keeps wobbling as he tries to walk across the tiles—somehow he makes it all the way to the bank of sinks; there’s a sort of shelf part sticking out of the wall under the mirror to contain the plumbing. He sets the folders own on it. Somehow the string is still looped around them.
He sets his right hand on the edge of the closest sink for a second, and the glove muffles the clink of the automail against the porcelain.
He’s been through worse than this.
He’s been through so much worse than this, but he can still feel the encroaching burn of Verso’s mouth against his throat, the brush of the beard, the tug of those fingers tangling in his hair—he still feels trapped like a cornered fucking animal, teeth bared and fur bristling to mask the fact that he doesn’t have any real defenses—
He still feels fucking powerless.
The possessive force of Verso’s foreign fucking hands on him might as well have bruised him everywhere they landed; he feels marked; he feels claimed; he feels filthy.
What did he fucking do? What did he fucking do wrong?
It’s a thing alive inside him now—the suggestion; the requests; the demands. His brain replays it, in little damaged-record fits, stuttering static and repeated little jerks—
He should’ve—fought, or said something so fucking cutting Verso would’ve just backed away—should’ve said he had some highly communicable disease, or that he was bringing that file to the Führer, or—
No one’s ever done shit like that to him before; what did he do to put the idea in—
He doesn’t have to glance in the mirror to know the answer to that.
He fumbles to get his fingers in the tie in his hair and drags it out, yanking sharply every time it sticks. Fuck it. Fuck all of it; fuck all of this; fuck him, thinking he could just—be, just do things, just go about his fucking business and expect people to leave him alone; expect people not to care, or mind, or take advantage of how twisted-up he is underneath—
He can’t do much of anything fancy with these numb-ass fingers, but he doesn’t need anything special anyway; he just needs his damn hair out of his damn face. He ties it back at the base of his neck in a limp tail. Good e-fucking-nough.
Get on your knees, get on your knees, get on your—
Like a fever. And his heart beats to it; the rhythm of his blood ferries the fucking accusation to every last extremity, and—
He can’t carry that; he can’t—
He has to get it out.
He has to get it out of him.
He raises his hand and nips the index fingertip of the glove to tug it off, then shoves it into one of the pockets on the inside of his jacket; after a second of vaguely dizzy deliberation, he unhooks the cavalry skirt and drapes it over the basin of the sink—all the way across, so that it won’t slip down. The whole point is to keep it off the floor.
When he’s pretty sure neither it nor the files are likely to make a break for the bacteria-encrusted tiles of the linoleum, he crosses to the row of stalls and applies his elbow to the closest door to swing it open, and then he gets down on his fucking knees—
And lifts up the toilet seat with his left hand and opens his mouth for the fingers of the right.
He reaches until they hit the back of his throat, and then he pushes until he gags—the whole-body convulsion of it still rubs his instincts the wrong way; still telegraphs as bad even when it’s the only thing in the world he fucking wants right this second.
He presses harder, and the revolt (revolting; he is sick; he is wrong; he is revolting; he is—) starts as a deep-down jolt in his guts that shudders up his spine swifter than a thought. His stomach rolls, and then contracts, and then presses upward—and then the balance changes, and the rest happens so fucking suddenly—
The deliberateness of this whole fucking situation doesn’t quell the moment of miserable shock and instinctual fucking terror when the bile fills his throat, and for that long, long second, his whole airway’s full of liquid, and he can’t fucking breathe—
He vomits into the toilet bowl, gasps twice, spits, and sits back on his heels, letting his tortured fucking body lean sideways until he’s propped himself against the wall of the stall.
Then he scrambles forward and throws up again.
He waits a little while this time, counting down the better part of a minute, trying not to let the smell of his own fucking sick coax any more out of him.
So that’s a start.
He gets up and flushes the toilet and trails his hand along the wall of the stall to steady himself on his feet before he crosses back to the sinks. He rinses his mouth out a couple of times and then washes his hands and then splashes some of the cold water on his face. He intended to glance at himself in the mirror to see if he’s pale as a fucking sheet, but he can’t—look. Not right now.
He slings the cavalry skirt back around his waist and hooks it on, and then he pulls his glove on again, and then he picks up his files and goes to the door and hits the lock with a smooth bit of alchemy to undo what he did before.
He doesn’t—he doesn’t—lift his hand up and rub at the spot on his neck that’s feels like a bed of pinpricks where Verso—
He just doesn’t.
He looks over his fucking shoulder every step of the trip down to the office, but no one materializes behind him. He runs into a couple of people on the way, but nobody pays any attention to him past a cursory glance—and fuck, when did that become a blessing—?
He opens the door as quietly as he can and tries to get a quick impression of who’s present and who’s not.
Nah. Fuck that equivocation. He looks to see if Roy’s in the outer office to see him.
Apparently one thing’s gone right today.
Hawkeye stiffens just a tiny bit as he steps through the doorway; he must look like shit. The crap excuse for a hairstyle he rigged himself up with probably isn’t doing him any favors, but he doesn’t exactly have spare fucks lying around to give for that.
He crosses over to her and extracts the middle folder from his stack and offers it. “Can you give this to him?” he asks, and his voice mostly stays level. “For the meeting at three.”
“Of course,” she says, and her eyes say the rest of it, but he can’t… cope… with sympathy. Not right now.
“Thanks,” he says, keeping every intonation as neutral as he can, and then he circles around the table to drop down into his seat.
He looks at the clock.
Three more hours.
He’ll make it.
Somehow he will.
He hunkers down over a huge stack of reports and tries to focus on them—tries to pin his eyes on the words one letter at a time when they start to blur and squiggle; he’s just so fucking tired, and the acrid taste of his own stomach acid keeps clawing at the back of his tongue, and every fucking place where Verso touched him seethes like a festering wound, and it’s only a matter of time before an open sore breeds maggots, right?
Hawkeye steps into Roy’s office, and he tenses—not enough for the guys to notice, probably, but he makes himself relax again just in case. Her voice is too muted for him to hear, but he’d be willing to bet that she respects him too much to fling his business in Roy’s face without his permission, and she’d never do it during work hours. Roy says something that sounds like, “Oh, excellent,” and then something that might be “I’m glad there wasn’t money on the line this time,” and Hawkeye says “As am I, sir,” and with any goddamn fucking luck, Roy will be too amused with his own wit to wonder why Ed didn’t bring it in himself, and that’ll be the end of it.
Ten minutes before three, some shuffling from the inner sanctum heralds Roy shouldering his coat on and then striding out to the meeting. Ed keeps his head down; keeps his breath slow; keeps his hand moving even though it wants to stop and just—shake. He has no idea whether Roy even glances at him on the way out; the man’s in far too much control of his own body to betray it with a pause in his walking pace or anything as obvious as that. It’s better not to know. If he looked, he’ll have noticed that Ed changed his hair.
Ed feels guilty for being glad about this stupid meeting in more ways than one—Roy’ll be fucking miserable; it’s going to be crap; it’s one of those ones that’s like a chess game, except that you’re playing against eight people who hate you and one who thinks you’re sort of interesting, and almost all of them have the power to decapitate you if you lose.
But on the other hand, it’s got two benefits for Ed—first off, Roy’ll be way too distracted trying to solve the murder-puzzle to pay much attention to the fact that Ed was acting unusually just now; second, it’ll probably take at least two hours for Roy to wade through the murder-quicksand of the meeting itself, so no one’ll think twice if Ed cuts the fuck out at five instead of waiting around for him to talk murder-shop.
So that’s just a couple hours he has to trudge through—without garnering suspicion from any of the guys, and without giving the whole thing away to Hawkeye just by meeting her gaze.
He’s been through so much worse.
No fuckin’ problem.
He knows—from a rational standpoint—that Hawkeye’s too good to him to press an issue like this unless she has some definitive proof that it’s right about to push him off the deep end. There’s still a moment where he thinks she will—a moment where his heartbeat trills a wild alarm as he gets up from his desk and shuffles all his papers together in a way that’ll suck a little less on Monday, and he can almost hear the question teetering on the tip of her tongue—but the prediction holds. He says his goodbyes and swans out before anybody else has even finished gathering up their shit—
And realizes his critical fucking error when he steps out into a hallway full of jostling bodies as everybody makes a break for the door.
At least nobody he knows is here to see him being grateful for his stupid fucking size for once. Sure, bigger elbows would probably be an asset for muscling his way through this shit, but right now the last thing he wants to do is make any contact with another human being. Slipping in between people is the way to fucking go, and as far as that’s concerned—
Well, Al would have it a little bit harder, is all.
Al would also have it harder because he doesn’t know any of the shortcuts and back halls and less-used passageways that Ed’s found on his own or walked with Roy or Hawkeye over the years, since the Dynamic Duo has long since designed their own routes to almost anywhere in the building, which are either naturally faster or faster if you take them at a run while no one’s watching. Roy calls it the seminal element of surprise. Hawkeye calls it fairly simple cartography, sir, but if that’s kinder on your dignity…
The point is, he gets the fuck out without having to brush shoulders with too many strangers, so he’s less on-edge than he could be. It’s only two miles home—less than twenty minutes. He’s almost there. He’s almost there, and then he can shut the door and lock it and leave this fucking day behind.
“What’s wrong?” Al asks the instant he steps through the door—before he’s even come in far enough to show his face, while his back is turned to hang his jacket on the coatrack.
“Nothing,” Ed says.
That was stupid. He should’ve made up something innocuous that he could theoretically be annoyed about to throw Al off the scent of the real thing; that kid is way too smart to fall for an actual lie. Ed’s judgment is all fucked from the lousy sleeping and the… everything. From everything.
“Uh huh,” Al says, sounding about as unconvinced as it is humanly possible to sound. “What do you want for dinner?”
Ed’s stomach tightens at the mere fucking thought—and then keeps tightening, and twisting, and squirming until it’s just one big fucking miserable knot—
“I’m not—hungry,” he says. Shitfuck; how slow does he learn? “I ate at the office. There was—Breda was starving at, like, four, and he went and got sandwiches.”
“Okay,” Al says, although the convinced-ness levels in his voice haven’t substantially risen.
“Hey,” Ed says, crossing into the kitchen without looking at Al where he’s sprawled across the couch. “Do we have scissors in here somewhere?”
“I think so,” Al says. “Try the drawer next to the knives. What for?”
Ed’s been thinking.
He’s been thinking a fucking lot, in between filling the lines of the reports and counting the streetlamps and piquing his ears for any footsteps that might be trailing too close.
And the knot in his guts just won’t come loose.
“I’m going to cut my hair,” he says.
He opens the drawer next to the knives.
Someone—probably Pinako—gave them a garlic press. There’s also a spatula, two vegetable peelers, and a pair of scissors with a set of long, clean blades.
He could cut out the place Verso kissed him—just wedge the edges in and slice it off; if removing the skin didn’t fix it, he could stab the end in and just start digging—
His shoulders go tight as light footsteps scuff along the kitchen floor behind him—for a second he can’t make his brain understand that it’s just Al.
“Why do you want to do that, Brother?” Al asks quietly.
He swallows. He sets his right hand on the counter and picks up the scissors in his left, curling his fingers around the hinge. He could just—bury it in the meat of himself somewhere, anywhere; if he felt it cold and fucking solid, carving its way deep—while the blood ran hot around it, he’d know he’s real; he’d know he’s alive—
He stares at the countertop, and a tiny plaintive part of him wants to know when the hell it came to this.
He never used to think shit like this.
He never used to be so…
Sad. Stupid. Self-destructive.
“People kept looking at me different,” he says. “When I had it down. I don’t fucking like it.”
Al is just two steps away now, but he pauses there. “Doesn’t that say more about them than it does about you?”
“Not when they’re the ones who make the rules,” Ed says. “And they’re the ones who tell the story how they want it heard, and then they pass their fucking judgment afterwards.”
“What happened?” Al says softly.
“Nothing,” Ed bites out.
He’s gripping the scissors so tightly he can feel his pulse beating against the metal—too fast; too fast; counting his pathetic fucking life down one split-second at a time, and for what?
Al breathes in and out slowly—maybe too slowly, maybe measuredly, like he’s trying really hard to keep his cool. Like he’s just so sick and fucking tired of all of Ed’s bullshit and the lousy fucking lies—
“Brother,” Al says gently, “I love you.”
Ed stares at the dully-gleaming steel of his fist on the countertop. There are new little nicks on it every time he looks—new smudges; new scratches; it’s never twice the same. It’s impossible to memorize.
“Why?” he says. “I’m a fucking wreck, Al. It’s like—it’s like I did everything I was ever built to, and now it’s over, and I’m fucking useless. I served my fucking purpose, and now I’m just this—specialized machine with nothing left to do, nothing left that I exist for; it’s all just—it’s all just shit, Al; it’s all just one stupid, shitty thing after another, and everybody just wants parts of me I don’t have even if I did know how to fucking give them, and I don’t—” He shuts his eyes, grits his teeth, leans forward and puts his weight on the steel arm, with the scissors clutched like a fucking lifeline in his left hand— “I used to be so much… better, Al. I used to be so much more. And I don’t know—I don’t know how—I don’t even know if it’s possible, if—”
Two more footfalls, and then a body conforming to his back—and that’s all right; it’s all right because it’s Al, because the face pressing its cheek against the back of his head is all he ever fought for.
“You’re enough,” Al whispers.
“I’m not,” Ed says. “I’m fucking not; I never—”
“You are,” Al says. “You’re enough. You’re good enough. You are.”
He will not fucking cry—not for this, not over a shitty day of ordinary stupidity. Not over the enormity of who Alphonse Elric is; not over the indescribable beauty of what this kid is capable of. “It’s not—”
“Hush,” Al says, and the arms wrapping around him tightly are warm and real and safe. Even the steel plates and the sharp spikes felt like home; even convex curves felt like cushions when Ed laid his head down on them, because he knew—
He knew Al would never fucking give up on him, no matter how bad it gets.
“Put that down,” Al says, grasping his left wrist and shaking gently until he drops the scissors back into the drawer. “Listen to me.”
“Hard to fucking avoid it when you’re shouting in my ear,” Ed mutters, ignoring pertinent details such as the fact that Al isn’t shouting, and that he wouldn’t move from here if there was a fortune on the line.
Al headbutts his temple so lightly that the gesture probably wouldn’t be recognizable if they weren’t such dorks. “I said listen. Things are different. Okay? Things have changed; we’ve changed; the way we interact with the whole world has. And maybe it hasn’t changed for the ‘better’; maybe things are harder now than they were, in some ways. Or maybe it was always like this, and it’s just that you and I never had time to stop and see it, and now all of this lousy stuff that we didn’t even notice before is catching up.”
He starts hauling, and Ed lets himself be dragged backwards and sat down at the kitchen table. Al drops into the chair next to him and keeps one arm half-draped around his shoulders.
“None of that matters,” Al says. “Because we’re going to get through it. Okay? You and me. We’re going to find a way to make it good. And nobody—nobody in the military, nobody in the world—can make us quit.”
Ed looks at him.
It sure sounds nice.
“Don’t do that hangdog face thing,” Al says. “I’m making you some tea.”
“How come that sounds like a threat?” Ed asks.
“It is,” Al says. “If you don’t drink it and feel a little better, I’m going to kick your sorry butt. Okay?”
Ed feels himself starting to smile, which is kind of a relief. “Okay,” he says.
The upshot of all of it is that the tea’s decaffeinated and/or drugged, and by the time nine o’clock rolls around, he’s so fucking tired it feels like Olivier Armstrong ran him over with her tank and then put it in reverse and flattened him again.
He used to pull all-nighters all the time—or at least a seriously inadvisable percentage of it. He used to subsist on coffee and explosive rage; he used to barrel through obstacles by force of will alone. He used to… care. He used to care about everything. He used to have energy left to care after he was finished fighting his way through the fucking day.
But Al’s right. Al’s always right; it’s part of being Al. Things are different. Dwelling on it isn’t going to change jackshit.
“Hey, Brother,” Al says as he pads back out of the bathroom after blearily shoving his toothbrush around in his mouth a couple times.
“Yeah?” he manages.
“I mean it,” Al says. “I love you. Lots of people do. But I loved you first, and I love you most, and nothing is going to change that, ever.” He glowers, and he looks so fucking much like Mom, and Ed’s heart just about tears itself in half. “Okay?”
“Okay, okay,” Ed says. “Jeez. I got it. And I fucking love you too.”
The glare dissolves instantly into a beaming grin. “Good.”
Ed rolls his eyes, drags his weary meatbag back down the hall, and deposits it on the mattress.
He made it.
He made it through today; he’s still here.