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A Wicked Game

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“Nice to meetcha,” Ed says to the tall young man with the square jaw.  “I’m Ed Elric.  This is Roy—my boyfriend.  We’ve been together for ages, which is great, because we’re really, really ga—”

“Glad to be here,” Roy says loudly, wrapping an arm rather heavily around Ed’s shoulders.

Ed looks at Roy like he’s an alien.  Roy fires back a big, schmoopy smile and nudges a knuckle against Ed’s cheek.

“It’s just so nice to get a break,” he says.  “Isn’t it, baby?”

Ed looks at him like he’s a golem made of crudely-animated dogshit.

This could be going better.

“I’m so glad you could come,” says the lovely blonde girl who is making the tall young man with square jaw—Trevor?  Travis?—drool so avidly that Roy worries he’ll get dehydrated.  “You always work too hard, dummy.  You really do deserve a little vacation.”  She beams at Roy.  “And it’s wonderful that you finally found somebody.”

Roy and Ed share a slightly strained smile.

“I’ve always worried about him, you know,” Lovely Blonde says faux-confidentially to Trevor-Travis.  “He has an incredible talent for being obnoxious and alienating people—”

“Fuck you, Win,” Ed says, characteristically delicately.

“—and then he gets so engrossed in what he’s doing that they can never get close enough to realize he’s actually amazing.”

Roy would like to object to that.  As far as he can tell from almost a year of grudging coexistence in a fairly confined laboratory space, Edward Elric’s talent for being obnoxious and alienating people is matched only by his preternatural ability to grow progressively more obnoxious and alienating the longer one puts up with him.  He seems to take it for granted that people will indulge all of his downright horrifying antisocial tendencies on the basis that he’s an absolute genius—which is, unfortunately, true—and appears to be genuinely uninterested in other human beings’ thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, and survival.  Roy has a weird fantasy where the whole lab burns down around them, and Ed is still glued to the microscope, ever-so-slowly turning the fine adjustment dial.

There is a distinct possibility that Roy is overdue for a spot of therapy himself.

In the meantime, an all-expenses-paid vacation on a gorgeous lake can’t possibly hurt, can it?  So why is it that he has such a feeling of vague foreboding?

“I’m not amazing,” Ed says.

“Yes, you are!” Lovely Blonde Girl Whose Name Is Winry or Wendy or Perhaps Bandeau-Bikini-of-Doom says, looking almost offended.  Trevor-Travis pats her arm a little.  “You’re the best big brother of anyone I’ve ever seen, and you’ve gone through so much crap but never let it get to you, and you’re brilliant, Ed.  That’s why I wanted you to come.  I want you to have a chance to feel… I don’t know.  Celebrated.  You should be celebrated sometimes.”

In mystifying and impressive unison, Winry and Treavisor turn expectantly to Roy.

“That’s… right,” Roy says.  He still has his arm draped around Ed’s shoulders, so he squeezes a little.  “It’s funny, about you—I think you’ve normalized your own experience so much that you really don’t see yourself as extraordinary, but… you are.  You have an incredible mind.”  This sounds like Amateur Psychology Hour.  He would know; he went to that once; it was terrible; there was nowhere near enough beer.  “And… an incredible heart.”

Winry and Treavisor look touched.  Ed looks like he just found a nest of spiders in a box of cereal.

Well, fuck Ed anyway; he’s not helping at all.

“Boop,” Roy says, and taps him on the nose.

Judging by the unadulterated murder in Ed’s eyes, he’s probably going to pay for that later, but it was worth it.

It’s Ed’s own damn fault, anyway.  He was the one sitting on his lab stool looking baffled and frustrated and, if you squinted, ever so slightly wistful.  Roy had long since gotten into the habit of asking him what he was working on when he started looking like that, if only to keep abreast of the future of science in medicine by hearing firsthand about the revolutionary interdisciplinary breakthrough of the day.

So Roy paused on his way in towards his bench, set today’s plastic bag of crappy takeout Chinese on a space that looked bereft of any toxic chemicals, watched Ed kick his feet aimlessly a few times, and then cleared his throat.  “What’s up?”

“There’s this thing,” Ed said without even glancing over.

“That doesn’t narrow it down much,” Roy said.

Earning Ed’s glare was actually a compliment, as it indicated that he had acknowledged your existence.

Roy leaned back against the benchtop and put his hands in his pockets.  “What’s the thing?”

“My best friend is going on this trip,” Ed said.  “Her new boyfriend is, like, stupid-rich, and stuff, and I guess his family has this giant private mansion-cabin-thing on a lake, and apparently they’re just allowing him and his friends to invite people to stay there for a week.”

“So go,” Roy said.  “Izumi’d let you take the time.  She’d beg you to take the time.  You practically never leave the lab.”

This is an established fact, supported by a great deal of scientific evidence and thorough observation.  Roy knows it as such because he practically never leaves the lab.  Up until Ed installed himself, Roy was alone in his pathetically overzealous dedication, long-term Vitamin D deprivation, and mumbled excuses about having experiments to run over various holidays.  The closest Ed had come to taking a day off in the eleven months since he hopped aboard the good ship Curtis Lab was going home for a grand total of forty hours (including transit) over Christmas.

Roy counted.  There wasn’t much else to do, other than listen to shitty Christmas carols on the radio and struggle not to cry.

“I want to,” Ed said, slowly, making a pair of chopsticks appear from nowhere amongst his pipettes, then opening one of Roy’s takeout containers so calmly that it seemed perfectly natural to let him.  “Especially ’cause it seems like Win really likes the guy, but she’s not sure she, y’know, week-alone-in-the-wilderness-with-his-dumbass-friends-likes him.”

He started in on the kung pao chicken.  Because it’s Roy’s favorite.  Of course.

“Then you should definitely go,” Roy said, and then— “What’s stopping you?”, because you couldn’t expect Ed to bat an eyelash if you started bleeding from the eyeballs and writhing on the floor, but there was always a logic behind it all.

Ed took the whole container and, when Roy awoke from the usual Ed-daze and attempted to retrieve it, put a trifold brochure into the reaching hand.

Sometimes—usually—almost invariably—it was easier just to give up with Ed.

“This looks nice,” Roy said, which was understating matters considerably given that his heart and a few other organs had leapt into his throat at the mere abstract thought of collapsing on the sand and lazing in the sun listening to the placid little waves lapping at the picturesque little shore.  Flipping to photos of the mansion-cabin-thing’s interior very nearly made him weak in the knees.

“Yeah,” Ed said absently around a mouthful of Roy’s kung pao chicken.  “But the thing is, it’s, like… couples only.  And fuck if I’m gonna go find somebody to be a couple with just for that.”

Roy stared at him.

Ed stared back.

Roy stared a little longer.

Ed chewed, chewed a bit more, and swallowed.

Roy stared down at the brochure, rather than at Ed’s throat.

The bedroom in the picture looked so outlandishly luxurious, and the sunshine looked so bright, and the people looked so fucking happy that every ounce of blood in his body was beating with longing.

“You know,” Roy said.  “You know…”

So.  Ed’s fault.  Roy’s idea.  And now they’re pretty much equally fucked.

“Hey, come on,” Winry says.  “Let me show you guys out to the dock.  You’re gonna love it.”

It’s been a long time—a long, long, sad, empty time—since Roy had a place like this to explore.  It’s been a long time since he could swim until his body was one big, satisfied ache of burning muscles and vague pondweed-smell.  It’s been a long time since he and Riza used to hike and camp and eat questionable berries and draw in the wet sand with sticks until the water stole their lines.  It’s been a long time since he felt like his lungs were full.

“Do you have to keep touching me?” Ed mutters.

“Yes, darling,” Roy mutters back.

“You are such a fucking shit,” Ed hisses.  “I should’ve brought a fucking blow-up doll.”

Roy laughs so hard he chokes on his own spit.

“I’m glad someone’s enjoying this.”  Ed is—Ed is grousing.  There is no other word for it.  Roy never dreamed he’d get the chance to dredge that bad boy out of the depths of his vocabulary.

“I’m just trying to make it convincing,” Roy says under his breath, keeping a bright smile on for Winry, Treavisor, and the various happily paired-up people their age scattered across the (private! clean! beautiful!) beach.  “Come on, you’re not even trying.  Haven’t you ever had a girlfriend before?”

Ed’s glare deepens into a scowl, and the scowl deepens into a sulk, and Roy forgets to pretend to be soppy and hormonal for a second.

“Wait,” he says.  “Really?”

“I haven’t had fucking time, and I don’t care, and people play stupid fucking games, and shut up,” Ed snarls.

Quite suddenly, Roy feels kind of sick to his stomach, because that’s—different.  To be miming affection and affecting romance is one thing, but to do it when one of the parties has never had a real relationship for comparison—

That’s not—right—somehow.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Ed says.

“I didn’t know,” Roy says.

Ed’s eyes put California wildfires to shame.  “If you fucking pity me, Roy Mustang, I swear I will fucking end you.”

“This feels really cruel now,” Roy says helplessly.  They’re stumbling down the dock, trailing Winry and Treavisor like a couple of disoriented ducklings; Roy gets a glimpse of the way the sun sparkles off of the water, and the warm wood of the boards creaks softly under his sneakers, and God, it’s so beautiful—but somehow he can’t quite stop staring at Ed.  “You should’ve told me; I didn’t know—”

“Lovers’ spat, already?” Winry asks.  “I think you boys need to cool down.”

Next thing Roy knows, two solid hands make contact with the small of his back.  Next thing after that, open air is rushing past his ears at an alarming rate, and then he’s getting a face full of lake water.

Yes, he’s had better ideas.

The water is freezing.  Somehow, Roy always forgets that the lakes here are sun-dappled and shining, like bronze mirrors under a sweltering sun, tree-lined and limpid, gleaming with tiny flecks of gold—but the liquid itself is literally melted snow.

He comes up gasping, with his hair dripping in his face, every square millimeter of skin scalded by the cold, and starts treading water, sputtering, wishing he hadn’t worn his nice jeans to make a good impression.

Ed comes up thrashing and starts grasping at Roy’s shirt; his right foot’s scraping at Roy’s shin; what the hell is he trying to—?

“Roy—” Ed coughs, tries to shake the cascade of wet hair out of his face; his eyes are huge— “Roy, I can’t—swim—”

Roy doesn’t really think, per se, which is a bit shameful for someone who bills himself as a rigorously scientific intellectual.  He just coils his arm tight around Ed’s waist and kicks to push them back towards the dock, and then he grabs onto the nearest support beam (motherfucking splinters) and slings his squirming cargo upward and puts his shoulder underneath Ed’s ass.  The boost gives Ed enough leverage to latch on to the edge of the pier—at which point he lifts his own body weight with startling ease and contorts himself over like he’s made entirely of rubber bands.  While Roy is still blinking, one of Ed’s dripping hands extends back down towards him, and he instinctively takes it.

Ed is either extraordinarily strong, underneath today’s permutation of the ubiquitous hoodie and jeans, or extraordinarily good at using his weight—which Roy now knows for a fact is not especially substantial.  Following just a bit of scrabbling, some remarkable force, and an admittedly rather rough landing, Roy’s sprawled out next to Ed on the boards of the dock, staring up at the sky.

The clouds are mocking him.  He can tell.

“Well,” he says.  “I did forget what we were arguing about.”

Ed punches his arm, but not very hard.

“Welcome to Fyler Lake,” Winry says brightly.

“Fuck you, Win,” Ed says again, wearily this time.  Roy should start a tally of how many times those words get uttered inside of a week.

“Hey,” Roy says, sitting up and offering Ed a hand.  “Babe, let’s go get you dried off.”

Ed gives him a dark look, takes his hand, and then vaults up onto his feet before Roy can try to be a gentleman about helping—which, of course, leaves Roy sitting there holding Ed’s hand, so he gets up of his own power, and then they’re just standing there looking at each other awkwardly with their fingers intertwined.

“We should’ve asked for the money this is costing,” Ed says, “and fucked off to Hawaii.”

“Then she would have pushed us into a volcano,” Roy says.

Ed’s hair is trailing in his face, a puddle is forming under him on the dock, and he doesn’t seem to have caught his breath yet.  All the same, he cracks a grin, and that’s kind of… nice.

“Treasure this,” Ed says as he stomps up the stairs, flinging water as he goes, “’cause I say it about once in a lunar eclipse of a blue moon under Mars.”  He takes a deep breath.  “You were right.”

“Hang on a second,” Roy says, edging around in front of Ed’s sopping frame using the power of his stride advantage.  “I’m trying to carve this moment into a stone tablet in my memory.  Edward Elric told me I was right.”

Ed snorts.  Roy holds the door, which has a four-inch-by-four-inch chalkboard hung up on it with a ribbon.  Said chalkboard reads Roy + Ed, enclosed by a heart.  It might be cute if there was any actual sentiment behind it.

“Okay,” Roy says after a suitable interval of reveling in Ed’s concession.  “What was I right about?”

“Ditching our phones when we got here,” Ed says, gesturing to the nearest nightstand with his elbow.  “I figured you meant we should pretend we’re inaccessible for lab emergencies, but it turns out you just saved them from death by drowning.”

“Are you kidding?” Roy says.  “You have a Nokia.  Water damage would only make it stronger.”

“Yo,” Ed says, hunkering down over his suitcase on the floor instead of lifting it onto the bed.  “Can’t risk it.  Can’t afford a new one.”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” Roy says.  “If you don’t mind my asking—”

“I do,” Ed says.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say,” Roy says.

“Any question that starts with a caveat is gonna be a pain in the ass,” Ed says.

“All right,” Roy says.  “Even if you do mind my asking—how come you never learned to swim?”

“I did,” Ed says.  “I just didn’t re-learn.”

Roy really should have stuck to talking to Ed about massive leaps of scientific faith and extremely high-level molecular theory; it makes much more sense.  “What?”

“Never fucking mind,” Ed says.  He keeps pushing back his wet bangs, and gravity keeps sending them straggling down into his eyes again.  “Fuck my life; I forgot to bring another sweatshirt.”

“Borrow one of mine,” Roy says, going for his suitcase.  “It’ll be big on you.  Everyone’ll probably puke rainbows.”  He packed his free swag hoodie from the last big departmental party right on the top, so that it would protect his toiletries from getting squished and splattering all over each other.  “Here.”

“Thanks,” Ed says, snatching it without touching Roy’s fingers.  He slogs off into the bathroom trailing the sweater from one hand and a dry pair of black jeans from the other.  “So today I learned that vacations kind of suck.”

“This is only the first hour,” Roy says.  “It could turn around from here.”

Ed kicks the bathroom door most of the way shut; rustling and a very loud slap of wet fabric on tile follows.  “Like that’s ever, ever happened.  Ever.  In human history.  S’called ‘entropy’.  Shit goes sour.  It’s the natural order of things.”

“You’re confusing ‘entropy’ with ‘outrageous pessimism’,” Roy says.

“You must live a charmed fuckin’ life, Mustang.”

Funny thought.

“Nobody got hurt, not even our phones,” Roy says.  “I think that’s a pretty fortuitous start to a vacation, all things considered.”

Ed reemerges attempting to fight with the hoodie zipper and to towel at his hair simultaneously, apparently not intimidated by the prospect that he’s short a hand or two.  “So you’re enjoying the fact that we have to convince a bunch of preppy spring-breakers with overflowing wallets that we’re gay lovers who happen to be experts on brunch and yachts and fucking equestrianism or whatever these people like.”

Roy starts moving towards him, and he flinches away.

That’s—well, it’s fucked up, is what it is, but Roy can’t exactly say that, so he just slows his approach down to a cautious, hands-out, harmless sort of crawl.  Ed eyes him like he’s dangerous but doesn’t back away, and he manages to get close enough to take the two halves of the zipper end out of Ed’s hand.


art by the inimitable Phindus


“I honestly don’t give a shit about any of that,” he says.  “I’m here to relax.”  The zipper catches, obediently enough, and he draws it halfway up Ed’s chest.  “You should try relaxation sometime.  You might like it.”

Something—something terrible—compels him to pat Ed’s cheek before he steps away.

Ed’s face disappears under the towel, and he says nothing for a long, long moment.

“You think there’s food yet?” he asks.

“There had better be,” Roy says.

What in the hell was he thinking?  Did he really dare to dream that they could pull this off?

A better question—precisely what happens when they get caught as a pair of pilfering phonies trying to swindle their benefactors for something so lowly as free room and board?

“So how did you two meet?” a cute brunette wearing pigtails asks right as Roy has his mouth full of French fries.

Ed stares at the girl and then turns a deer-in-the-headlights look on Roy.  Roy tries to convey a Make something up! that Ed will understand and that everyone else will interpret as a variation on Large bite of delicious food, mmm, very appreciative of this opportunity, my sincerest thanks to everyone involved.

“Uh,” Ed says.  “In lab.”

The girl’s smile does not dim a watt.

Ed blinks and picks at the edge of his paper plate.

“No kidding?” the girl says, expectantly.

Roy thinks he can see a bead of sweat at Ed’s hairline, although it could be residual lake water.  He’s chewing as fast as he can.

“Yeah,” Ed says uncertainly.  “Just… we… work… in the same… lab.  So… yeah.”

Winry ghosts up behind Ed and tugs on his ponytail.  “So you had chemistry from the start?”

Ed stares at her in absolute incomprehension.  The kid has the single most ferociously capable brain of anyone Roy has ever met; how is it that simple conversation seems to short-circuit him almost instantly?

Roy swallows, almost chokes, swallows again, and clears his throat.  He smiles suavely at the girl in the pigtails and then more softly at Ed.

“I think we’re both a little too married to science for our own good,” he says.

“Speak for yourself,” Ed mutters.

“But that’s really how it came about,” Roy says.  He’s always been a natural bullshitter; he has a gift for striking a balance of plausibility and invention.  “We were so often the only people there at all hours of the day—and night—that I just kind of… started to pay attention to him.  And I love his laser focus—I really do, even if I think it’s going to make him blow a blood vessel in his brain one of these days, just concentrating so hard.  Anyway, I started to notice he ate almost nothing but Flamin’ Hot Cheetos—”

“With Lime,” Ed mutters.

“—and coffee, and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe an ulcer before an aneurysm,’ and I thought, ‘He probably just forgets,’ so I started getting a little bit of extra food every time I went out, and then bringing it back to the lab and conspicuously leaving some near his desk.”  He winks at the small cluster of rich kids listening politely.  “You know what they say about the way to a man’s heart, right?”

“It’s in the center, protected by the sternum, so stop holding your hand over your left lung when you salute shit?” Ed mutters.

“He started eating,” Roy says, crossing his legs, “and then we started talking.  It was just about projects at first—you know, ‘How’s this going’, ‘What do you think about this article’, ‘How are you going to solve that problem’, ‘Aren’t you going to put that fire on your coat sleeve out’—”

Scattered laughter; they’re more or less tuned in.

Roy softens his voice a little more and directs a shy, fond smile at his plate.  “But then we started talking about… everything, really.  And I kept finding excuses to be near him; I brought ice cream; I’d refill his coffee; I’d deliberately ask stupid questions just to get him worked up and ranting at me about how I was going to be the ruin of the discipline.  And eventually, I just… grew a pair and asked him out to dinner.  And he said…”

Everyone starts to Awww, and Roy turns a plaintive gaze on Ed.  Just fill in the blank; I did all of the hard work, you little shit; surely you can do that much…?

Ed frowns at him.  “I… forget what I said.”

“You don’t have a romantic bone in your body,” Roy says, lovingly, instead of saying You absolute deadbeat; I hope you fall down the stairs.

Ed ducks over his burger a little, and then—he’s—blushing.  Holy hell; it’s perfect.

“I said—” He bites his lip and pushes a crumb around with his fingertip.  “I said, ‘Sure, the cafeteria blows, do you wanna go dutch?’, and he said, y’know, ‘No, I meant take you out to dinner’, and I said… ‘Why would anybody wanna do that?’”

Winry tightens her grip on Ed into a strangle-hug and kisses his cheek.  “Well, it’s a good damn thing you finally found someone who loves you for everything you are.”

“Let go,” Ed says, wriggling, but there’s a bitter shadow to his smile.

Funny.  Roy’s not hungry anymore.

“I hate this game,” Ed mutters.  Ed is doing a positively record-setting quantity of muttering today.  “It’s the worst icebreaker ever.  It’s always just stupid and embarrassing, and all I get is confused about people’s actual names.”

“There, there, snookums,” Roy says, rubbing at his back.

If looks could kill… well, Ed would be the Grim Reaper, and the planet Earth would be due for a rousing Apocalypse.

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of this situation,” Ed says.  “Winry’s hand-picking the stupid celebrities we’re secretly supposed to be.  The woman is an evil witch.”

“That’s not very nice,” Roy says.  He’d been wondering if Ed’s determination to chaperone Winry and shelter her from the menacing advances of the completely harmless Treavisor were rooted in jealousy, but the overprotective tendencies consistently ring fraternal.

“It’s pretty charitable, actually,” Ed says.  “Just you wait.”

“Edward, my dear!” Winry calls, beaming.  “Your turn!”

Ed crosses the room like a man condemned.  “Oh, joy.”

“Close your eyes,” Winry orders, and when he cringes and obeys, she jams a plastic tiara with a piece of index card taped to the front onto his head.  “I dub thee… mystery celebrity.  Go forth and mingle, mystery celebrity!”

“Gee, thanks,” Ed says.  Roy is vaguely surprised that the sarcasm dripping from his every pore hasn’t eaten away a hole in the floor—which Ed might welcome, really, since he looks like he’d be delighted at the opportunity to disappear into it.  He storms back over, hunching his shoulders, and glares his gratitude (somehow) as he takes back the root beer Roy was holding for him.  “What’s the damage?  Fuckin’ evil witch curse, I’m telling you.”

Roy manages not to spit Pepsi all over Ed’s hair.  The tiara reads Marilyn Monroe.

“Ah,” he says, swallowing a laugh that sticks all the way down.  “Just… stay away from Kennedy.”

Ed scowls.  “Who the fuck am I, Lee Harvey Oswald?”

“Not quite,” Roy says.

Ed scowls a little more and shoves his free hand into one of the pockets of Roy’s borrowed sweatshirt.  “Didn’t figure.  Too fuckin’ morbid for Winry’s tastes.”

Roy looks at him—really looks, taking in the I refuse to have any fun whatsoever pout and the scuffed black jeans and the ancient black Doc Martens and the adorable way that Roy’s sweater dwarfs his frame.  The tiara is a wonderful, slightly surreal cherry on top of the whole picture.

Roy’s thinking this vacation might just shape up to be worth all of the trouble when a voice trills out a sentence that sends a shiver down his spine:

“You next, Roy!” Winry says.

Roy, his secret pop culture fetish, and his superior deductive reasoning are having a field day.  He told the girl who’s Kate Middleton that the tiara suits her, she’s magnificent at wearing silly hats, and she shouldn’t worry too much about male-pattern baldness being hereditary.  The guy who got Oprah Winfrey was duly begged for a car, and the poor bewildered surfer-aesthetic kid whose tiara said Picasso received some wonderful compliments on his facial features while Roy was staring just to the side of his ear.  Additionally, based on the queries about what he’ll wear next, the remark about how he’d probably look good in hot pink lipstick, and Winry’s insistent urgings that he dance (“You’re going to have to get me really drunk for that,” he said, and she just smiled sort of diabolically, so maybe Ed’s not too far off), he’s narrowed his own identity down to Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.

He lines up the final test by approaching Ed, who frowns up at the card.  As far as Roy can tell, Ed lives a remarkably cloistered existence, but no amount of social isolation could preserve a human being from at least an awareness of Mama Monster.  Nicki, on the other hand, is a newer comer and far less controversial; Roy’s money is that Ed’s never heard of her.

Ed wrinkles his nose and waves his hand dismissively at Roy’s tiara.  “I don’t even know who that is.  I hate this stupid game.  Some guy just told me I should stand over a subway vent.  What the fuck?”

“Gentlemen prefer blonds,” Roy says.  “Then again, some like it hot.  Well, what can I say?  Maybe we’re the misfits.”

Ed stares blankly up at him.  He really is sort of disarming, with his huge honey-colored eyes and his hair still matted from the lake water, mussed further by the glinting tiara.

What are they putting in Pepsi these days?

“Okay,” Ed says slowly.  “So I guess whoever that is on your card is… a crazy person.  That’s cool.”

“No,” Roy says, “I’m afraid the crazy is all mine.”  He bats the vibrant yellow bangs out of the way and kisses Ed’s forehead.  “Hang tight; I’m going to go win this thing.  Winry, I think I know who I am…!”

His prize is a giant basket full of multicolored bath salts.

He deposits it on the floor of their bedroom, and he and Ed sit down on either side to examine it.

“But what do they do?” Ed asks.

“I’m not sure,” Roy says.

“Baths don’t need salt,” Ed says.  “You don’t drink the bath.  Or if you do, you’ve got bigger problems than what it tastes like.”

Roy picks up a tube full of green crystals, shakes it, and then raises it above his head to look for a label on the bottom.  “Sodium sesquicarbonate.”

“Oh,” Ed says.  “That’s boring.”

“It is,” Roy says.  “I was much more interested in the drinking-the-bath idea.”

“You could get bath salts and bath pepper,” Ed says.  “Maybe some bath sugar.”

“Bath ketchup,” Roy says, “if you were feeling especially saucy.”

Barf,” Ed says.  “Of course you like puns.  Who the fuck is Nicki Minaj, anyway?  You should’ve been the Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Legit fuckin’ crazy.”

Sometimes it stings a little.

“I wonder if any of these are bath salts-bath salts,” Roy says, sorting through the basket, “as in bath salts the extremely potent drug.”

Ed raises one too-big sleeve to cover a yawn.  “Isn’t that the one that made the dude eat the other dude’s face?”

“You have such a way with words,” Roy says.

“Fuck you,” Ed says.  “You just said ‘bath salts-bath salts’.  You don’t have shit on my verbiage.”

Roy opens the container and sniffs it.  Ed goes quiet.

Roy puts the container down on the floor beside the basket and looks at it for a long, long moment, waiting.

“Well?” Ed says, breath faint and eyes massive.  “What do you think?”  He swallows.  “Roy, knock it the fuck off.  Roy?”

“I’m hungry,” Roy says in his flattest, coldest monotone.  He turns slowly to look at Ed and gives a leering grin, reveling in the flash of horror across Ed’s face.  He shifts, and Ed starts to scramble a little as though he’s going to crawl away, and Roy seizes the golden opportunity to lunge at him.  “…for your face!”

The ensuing tacklefight is extremely juvenile, extremely up-close-and-personal, and extremely… fun.  For about ninety-eight seconds of Ed screeching, Roy tickling, and enough general back-and-forth roughhousing to make the floorboards creak, Roy dares to think they both feel like… kids.  Just this once.  Ninety-eight seconds of freedom.

Then somebody bangs on the wall.

Ed shoves harder this time, and Roy doesn’t fight it; he rolls off and sprawls on the carpet, panting.

Ed couldn’t stop laughing, but now he’s too damn quiet.  The giddy euphoria is fast wearing off, and now the embarrassment is setting in.  What the fuck was Roy thinking, anyway?

“Hey,” he says, fighting the tingling heat spreading under his skin.  “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not,” Ed says.  He rolls over, clambers upright, and brushes at the front of his borrowed sweatshirt.  “Apologies should mean something.  People use ’em like a get-out-of-jail-free card every time they change their mind about something.  Fuck that.  It’s not even ten o’clock at night, it’s a free fuckin’ country, and we came here to get a chance to be stupid for once in our pathetic lives.  We can make some fucking noise if we want to.  I’m not sorry for that.”  He flips his suitcase open and starts digging.  “And now I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Why not enjoy a salty bath?” Roy asks, hefting the giant tube of pink salt and holding it out in both hands.  “For a limited time only, we’ll throw in the soothing effects of psychedelic psychosis absolutely free!”

“You’re sick,” Ed says, but he’s doing a very poor job of hiding his grin.

Roy snags the shower immediately after Ed finishes—he’s all in favor of nurturing lake bacteria and seeing what happens, but he’d prefer to conduct those adventures in microbiology in some agar, rather than his own hair.  None too surprisingly, showering after Edward Elric is something of an expedition in and of itself, given the thickly humid rainforest of shed hair that Roy has to navigate just to get to the faucet.

Ed is already sitting up in the bed by the time Roy returns—he’s chosen the left side, he’s curled up with the latest Stephen Hawking, and he’s wearing pale blue flannel pajamas with a pattern of test tubes.

“Shut up,” Ed says without even glancing up from the page.  “Al got ’em for me for Christmas.”

“Aren’t you too warm?” Roy asks.

Ed manages to tear his eyes away from the page, the better to stare at Roy’s T-shirt and boxers just long enough for Roy to feel completely naked.  Then Ed’s gaze swoops back down to the book again.  “No.”

Roy attempts to shrug off the feeling that his skin is prickling everywhere with little flares of yellow and goldenrod and caramel-brown leached from Ed’s eyes.

He starts to climb into the bed, and Ed says, “Wait.”

He pauses with his knee on the mattress, looking for the mutant arachnid crawling out of his pillow in the hopes of bequeathing him with superhero powers.  “What?”

“Do you have any weird sleep habits?” Ed asks.

Roy blinks at him.

“Y’know,” Ed says.  “Somnambulism?  Crazy, flailing dreams?  Sleep cuddling?”

“Sleep cuddling?” Roy says slowly.

Ed’s cheeks go pink.  “Well—fucked if I know.  The sleeping brain is batshit.  I once had a dream I was making movies in Germany in the twenties.”

“To the best of my knowledge,” Roy says, climbing the rest of the way up and giving the pillow a good shake, “I have never cuddled anyone in my sleep.”

Ed eyes him.  “Okay, but how much empirical evidence are we basing this on?  How many opportunities have you had to cuddle people in your sleep?”

“A statistically significant amount,” Roy says.  He settles and pulls the blankets halfway up his chest.  “What were you going to do if I said ‘yes’?  Make me sleep on the couch?”

“Nah,” Ed says.  “In the bathtub.”

“The bathtub,” Roy says.

“You could snuggle with the bath salts,” Ed says.

“They don’t really love me,” Roy says.  “They only want me for my body.”

“Bath salts are douchebags,” Ed says.  “Why are we talking about this?  Yo, if you want to go to sleep, I can turn the light out.”

“Only if you don’t mind,” Roy says.

“It’s cool,” Ed says, setting the book on the nightstand.  “I’ve read it a couple times.  It’s just that my sleeping habits are so fucked from lab.”

“Mine, too, usually,” Roy says.

Ed fiddles with the little switch on the bedside lamp, which apparently was not designed for actual use, judging by its refusal to cooperate.  “I once took an Ambien when I got home,” Ed says when at last it yields, and the room goes dark.  Sheets rustle, and Roy tightens his grip on the covers preemptively.  “It didn’t kick in until one in the morning, at which point I started wandering the apartment singing shit from ‘Aida’.  I’ve never even seen ‘Aida’; I just had it described to me once, and I thought it was a good time to start making up an adaptation.  Then I tried to climb the cat tree, and Al tied me to a chair so I wouldn’t hurt myself and then went back to sleep.”

“Who’s Al?” Roy asks.  “You talk about him all the time.”

Who’s Al?”  The horrified incredulity in Ed’s voice is more than a bit hilarious.  “What do you mean, ‘Who’s Al’?  Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the name Alphonse Elric getting thrown around.  Do you live under a rock?”

“You’re the one who hasn’t heard of Nicki Minaj,” Roy says.  “She had seven singles simultaneously on the Billboard Hot—”

“Well, fuck that,” Ed says.  “Al’s going to win the Nobel.  Guarantee it.  He’s the best person on the planet Earth.  Fight me.”

“I’ll pass,” Roy says.

“He should’ve been the one who came to this,” Ed says.  “He’s really good with people and all that shit.  And he could’ve just walked out into the quad and said ‘Hey, I need a girlfriend!’ and gotten mobbed by girls, so.  Y’know.  Only this big pharma company that’s based in France was visiting last year and saw what he was working on and begged him to let them give him a fellowship, so he’s at the École Polytechnique this semester doing all that shit.  He’s brilliant.  And he goes out every weekend and finds the tackiest souvenir he can and takes a picture and posts it to my Facebook wall and then sends me an email letting me know how it’s going and stuff.”

“Wow,” Roy says.  “I always assumed you’d gotten all of the brains in the family.”  Judiciously, he does not add So I figured that any siblings you had would have inherited all of the social graces meant for you.

“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Al” is all Ed says.

“Is he your only sibling?” Roy asks.

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “Unless you count Winry.  Which I sort of do.  We pretty much grew up with her, so…”  He pauses, and then there’s a different tenor in his voice—suspicion.  “Why the sudden interest in an Elric family tree project, Mustang?”

“I don’t know anything about you,” Roy says.  “If we’re going to get through this week without totally blowing our cover and… I don’t know, getting sent home, or getting arrested, or getting thrown off a yacht—whatever it is these people do to liars—we’re going to have to convince them that we’re more than just two guys who practically live in the same lab.”  He shifts onto his side and tries to parse the dark to find Ed’s face.  “No offense—”

“That’s the most bullshit phrase in the English language,” Ed says.

“Fine,” Roy says.  “Take all the offense you want.  You’re not very forthcoming, all right?  That’s fine; I don’t care; you’re—well, shit, Ed, you’re a genius, and you work like you expect the universe to implode tomorrow.  That’s what the lab needs, is people like that.  But what we need right now is to be able to fool that pack of yuppies into believing that we’re in a long-term relationship.  If one of them had asked me earlier where you’re from, I wouldn’t even have known what to say.”

The ensuing silence is so profound that he can hear Ed breathing softly.  It endures, and then it endures a little longer, and then Roy fidgets a bit with his pillow and swallows, which sounds remarkably loud.

“Huh,” Ed says.

Roy is not sure what ‘Huh’ means.

“You ever driven north?” Ed asks.  “Not, like, San Francisco north; like, out past all that shit around Sacramento north.  Shasta area.  Only less posh.”

“Once or twice,” Roy says.

“We’re from around there,” Ed says.  “There’s sheep.  And cows.”

“How did you end up here?” Roy asks.

“Long story,” Ed says.  “Shitty story.”

“I’m not tired,” Roy says.

Ed takes a deep breath, lets it out, and takes another.  “I don’t… Jesus.  It’s just… it’s not… what, you want my life story?  Now?”

Roy is not too stupid to recognize a nose-dive in progress.  “If you’d rather, we can just agree on something.  As long as our stories match up, no one will notice.”

“Wait,” Ed says.  “No, ’cause Winry’ll know.  Fuck.  Okay, fine.  Buckle your fucking seatbelt.  That’s gonna be funny later.”

Bewilderment is one of Roy’s many emotions.  “It is?”

“No,” Ed says.  “It’s not.  All right.  So… my dad walked out when I was four.  Al was three.  I guess that’s sort of how it started, because everything… I mean, none of the rest of it might’ve happened if he’d just been there.  I dunno.  Al thinks he must’ve had a good reason, but fuck that.  There isn’t a reason good enough.  Anyway, I—we just sort of… y’know, made it.  It was fine.  My mom had this shitty waitressing job at this diner place, but sometimes she got to take pie home, and stuff, and she did a lot of freelance shit, too—like editing newspaper articles.  On Saturdays, she’d make waffles—we had this waffle iron that was a Mickey Mouse face, and Al’n I used to get real creative with the strawberry syrup, because we were little shits—and then once we were all stuffed, she’d spread all these article drafts all over the kitchen table, and she’d start going through them, and Al and I would try to help.  Mostly I think we got in the way, but… I mean, sometimes we did the dishes, or the laundry or whatever, and I think that probably made it a little easier for her, y’know.”

Roy thinks he should say something, but interrupting feels like burping during Mass.  “Yeah.”

Ed sighs.  “Anyway… fuck.  When I was eleven, I got this… I came down with this really nasty case of pneumonia, and… Al’n my mom both caught it from me.  And they got it worse.  It was like a fucking plague house in there; it was so—and—I don’t know, there were complications or something, and Mom… died.  We were there.  In the room.  She just stopped breathing, and she wouldn’t start again, and Al and I were standing there coughing into our sleeves.  And she was gone.  She wasn’t Mom anymore; she was a corpse.  It wasn’t even until we called Granny—I mean, she’s Winry’s granny, but she’s basically ours too—that we started crying, because it wasn’t… real.  She wasn’t really dead.  That didn’t make any sense.  Not to a couple of kids.  Anyway, Granny stuck us in the spare room over at her house and went over and just started arranging stuff, I guess.  There was a funeral.  It was nice; she would’ve liked it.  Lots of flowers.”

Roy wants to touch him, but he doesn’t think they’re there yet.  He doesn’t know if Ed even does there.

“But then a couple days after that,” Ed is saying, “Al was still sick, and he was getting worse, and there was this night where Granny and Winry went to do a house call—Granny’s, like, number one in the world for biorobotics; I think I forgot to mention that; she got ’em started at MIT and all that shit, and she runs a little medical center out of her house.  Anyway, they were out, and Al kept coughing, and then I pried his hand away from his face, and it had all these flecks of blood on it, and I was like, Fuck this, and I bundled him up in a blanket and put him in the front seat of Mom’s old car and got in and… learned how to drive.  Sort of.  We’d been to the hospital a couple times with Granny over the years, so I knew where it was, and I just sort of figured it out as I went.”

“You were eleven,” Roy says.

“Yeah,” Ed says.  “I couldn’t reach the pedals very well.  That was the biggest problem, actually.  We made it most of the way, though; I was driving pretty slow.  I wasn’t a total fucking idiot.  But about half a mile from the E.R., some lady pulled out of her driveway real fast, and I freaked out and swerved and hit this giant old tree.”  The sheets whisper again as he moves.  “It… my side of the car kind of… accordioned.  I guess.  I saw pictures later.  It was sort of surreal; the whole hood on the driver’s side just… crumpled.  Sort of dented the tree.  I don’t remember that much about when it actually happened—I sort of came to after a couple seconds, I guess, and Al was screaming at me to wake up, and all I could really tell was that there was blood everywhere, and there was a bone sticking out of my arm, and we weren’t at the hospital, obviously.  And I kept asking Al if he was okay, and he just started crying, and I thought maybe I’d hurt him, and then I saw he had a phone in his hand, and… I mean, on the upside, it took the ambulance about ninety seconds to show up.  But by then the pain had sort of filtered in, and I couldn’t even see straight; it was all little blinky lights, and the edges kept blacking out like it was cutting to the credits of an old movie.  And then the firefighters were jacking up the door of the car, and people were trying to get me out, and I was screaming at them to take Al first, you know?  I thought he was dying; I was fucking terrified.  But then as they were packing me into the stretcher, I thought—maybe this wasn’t really the inside of an ambulance, right?  Maybe this was like the waiting room to the afterlife.  And I’d just told them to take Al first.  And I lost my shit; I just—I was screaming and howling and clawing at them and totally fucking up my arm, and I remember this… this, just, spray of blood across one of the EMT’s shirts, and I kept saying Don’t take him, let me see him, bring him back, bring him back, bring him back.”

Roy can hear his heart pounding—or is it Ed’s?

It’s Ed that huffs out a breath.  “And then… I guess they stuck me with a sedative.  ’Cause I woke up in the hospital.  And the nurse they had—she was a pro; she must’ve heard about me.  The first thing she said when I opened my eyes, before I could even start screaming—she said, ‘Your brother is stable, and he’s going to be fine.  He’s in the PICU.  You can see him soon, but you’ll have to wait just a little while.’  I think her name was Sandy.  I should’ve sent her a letter later, to thank her, but I was just a stupid kid.  Anyway, that was when I noticed that there was this space in the bed that was just flat where most of my left leg should’ve been.”

It must be Ed’s heart, because Roy’s not sure his is functional anymore.  How—?

“Apparently it got so crushed by the car that they just had to amputate it, so… yeah.  And my right arm was broken in three places, and they did a couple surgeries and jammed it full of rods and pins and shit, and now I can’t go through metal detectors.”

“Wait,” Roy says.  “Amputated?  But you—I mean, you’ve got—”

“I told you,” Ed says.  “Biorobotics.  MIT.”

“But how—”

“Jesus,” Ed says, and the mattress creaks slightly as he shifts, and then there’s a clicking noise.  “Anybody ever tell you you’re a pain in the ass?”

“Several people,” Roy says.

The light comes on, and Roy cowers away from it on instinct, burying his face in the pillow.  “Aaaaaah.”

“Man up.  Here, take a look—unless you’re too chickenshit, like most people.”

Roy rubs at his assaulted eyes and sits upright.  He’s starting to realize just how much of Ed’s brashness is bravado—every assertion is too loud; every challenge comes on too strong; the flaring overconfidence is a smokescreen.  It’s a defensive mechanism employed like a raging offense, to scare people off before they can tear him down.

So he keeps his face completely neutral as Ed kicks the bedclothes aside and then pulls up the fabric of his pajama pants.

At first, Ed’s ankle and foot just look sort of… off.  They’re not angled quite right against each other, and the toes are too even, too regular, and too round.  Then it occurs to Roy that there’s no hair on Ed’s leg anywhere; and then he starts to notice that the light just doesn’t reach it the right way.  The skin on Ed’s fingers where they’re curled in the (hemmed-up) cuff of his pants isn’t the same color, or the same consistency; it reflects, a little, and absorbs, and has contours and color variation, and…

And as Ed draws the fabric back further, the false skin and muscle feeds into an artificial joint with open—steel?  Titanium?

“It’s a customized version of Ottobock’s C-leg, mostly,” Ed says.  “Expanded distance range, and I can actually run on it.  This one’s pretty new—Granny and Winry were working on it a long time and then gave it to me for my birthday last year, which is crazy, because I know sort of how much this shit costs, and… Anyway.”  He extends it out flat on the mattress, and the knee unbends beautifully.  “Pretty fucked up, huh?”

“It’s amazing,” Roy says.

Ed eyes him.  “And… fucked up.  Here, touch it.  Come on.”

Roy spreads his fingers on Ed’s shin.  The fake skin has a rubbery, plasticky sort of texture to it, and no give at all, and the fact that it isn’t warm when his brain knows he’s making physical contact with a human being is startling.

“They wanted to make it look pretty real,” Ed says, still monitoring his reactions.  “I guess Winry thought I’d go around wearing flip-flops if she gave me toes, or some shit.  Maybe she would, if it was her.”

With such abrupt speed and efficiency that Roy barely has time to withdraw his hand, Ed is yanking the cuff of his pants back into place and jerking the blankets up over himself again.

“Whatever,” he says.  “Where the hell are you from, then, if anybody asks?”

“Greater Los Angeles,” Roy says.  “The crappy part.  Well—”

He should tell the whole truth.  It would only be fair, after all the old scars Ed has put on display, but…

But with the lights on, looking into Ed’s eyes, he doesn’t think he can bring himself to say it all.

Most of it.  He’ll start with most of it, and the worst of it can still just… hibernate.

“I was actually born in San Francisco,” he says.  So far, so good.  “We were pretty close to the zoo.  One of the only things I really remember is going there and seeing the flamingos and just thinking… I mean, in four-year-old terms, thinking Those are incredibly weird; how is it that nature can create me and also that?, and I think that’s when I knew I was destined for science.  But it wasn’t…”

There’s a reason he doesn’t talk about it; he can never figure out how.

“My parents passed away pretty soon after that,” he says to the nearest fold in the comforter, because Ed’s eyes are too damned intense.  “My mother first, and my father a few weeks later.  I barely remember them.  I have a couple pictures, but when I think back, they never… they don’t really have faces.  I guess my mother does—sometimes.  When I think about… My father smoked; I remember that.  He wasn’t supposed to do it in the house, but he would, and he had a car—this black Infiniti—and the thing reeked.  I’d try to hold my breath when we were driving to the grocery store.  My mother had this… scarf.  It was pink with these tiny white flowers.  I always thought it was silk, but it was… strong.  I like to think my father must’ve given it to her, but that’s probably just my inner hopeless romantic talking, really.  She wore it all the time.  I take after her side of the family, I guess.”

Ed does not say I don’t have an inner romantic, or an outer romantic, or any romantic.

Ed does not say All the good-looking must’ve been on your dad’s side, then.

Ed does not say I don’t give a fuck about your dead mom’s scarf.

Ed doesn’t say anything.

“Anyway,” Roy says to the comforter, which is, unfortunately, not especially comforting at this point in time, “my father’s sister came up and took care of everything and sold everything and signed all the papers to adopt me, so then I went back home with her to L.A.  I cried the entire first week—nonstop, apparently.  She loves to tell that story; she always says ‘I kept trying to get him to drink water so he wouldn’t pass out.’  And then the landlord served her with an eviction notice for it, and she always says—‘Sure, we left.  But I made sure he’d be crying for a whole lot longer than a week.’  I still have no idea what she did, but there’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that she was serious, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my aunt Chris.”

He clears his throat.  He picks at the comforter a little.  He doesn’t look over.  Ed says nothing.

“We lived in Mount Washington,” he says.  “My aunt runs a bar in Lincoln Heights.  I learned how to read from the menu; I can still list everything she sells.  After a couple years I started to bike down to Little Tokyo and buy Pocky and sit on a sidewalk somewhere and try to spot people who looked like me.  Sometimes I’d go do it at USC instead, and one time when I was twelve, this girl my age came and sat down next to me and asked what I was eating.  She said her father didn’t let her have sweets, so I tried to give her the whole box of Pocky, and she said she’d never finish it by herself before he got out of the lecture he was giving, so we’d have to eat it all together.  By the end of the week, she was my best friend, and we were spending entire weekends getting lost in the woods behind her dad’s house.  She flies helicopters in Michigan now.”

What else is left to tell?  His is a life of mundane tragedies—of an ebb and flow of fortune he’s never quite been able to appreciate.  What else is there to describe except the streak of sickness in him?

Ah.  Well.

“My college best friend left, too,” he says.  “Right after he and his wife got married, her grandmother died and bequeathed them this huge house in Ashland, so they moved up to Oregon to live in it.  He’s a sheriff.  And a theater buff now, without even trying.  They’re talking about having kids.”  He runs a hand through his hair.  “Meanwhile, biochemistry is delighted that I’m no longer cheating on it with my social life.”

He sneaks a glance.  Ed is smirking.

“I hear the humanities are a little more accepting of open relationships,” he says.  “Science is real possessive.”

“Must be the strength of the bonds,” Roy says.

“How ionic,” Ed says.

They share a severely dorky grin, and Roy dares to hope that he’ll get some sleep tonight after all.