Ed may have to admit that the difficulty of concealing a surprise that he’s excited about has made him slightly antsier than usual. He may also have to admit that unsettlement, for him, almost always seems to translate into fussing over Al.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay walking the whole way?” Ed says. “We should’ve picked a closer park. Part of it’s uphill.”
“I like Rosewood Park,” Al says, perfectly calmly, as he winds his green scarf around his neck. “It’s just the right size, and there are ducks.” Shit. Ed forgot about the ducks. They’re probably plague carriers, and that’s the least of it. “I’ll be fine walking. And walking back. It’s been three years, Brother; I think my legs are more reliable than yours.”
Ed makes a face. “I can’t believe Winry’s gonna have to kill you at your own birthday party.”
“Shame,” Al says idly. “Brother, it’s fine. And anyway, if either of us gets a little worn out, I’m sure General Mustang would be willing to drive us home.”
The ducks and Winry’s wrath have now sunk several positions on Ed’s list of existential terrors.
“Wait a damn second,” Ed says. “Why the hell would you invite him?”
“Because it’s my birthday,” Al says, tucking his scarf under the lapels of his coat, “and he’s our friend.”
“I didn’t invite him to my birthday,” Ed says.
“You didn’t invite anyone to your birthday,” Al says. “Unless you count that stray dog that you saw in the street that you said ‘C’mon, c’mon’ to and tried to bring into the restaurant.”
Ed will set his jaw and hold his ground on this one until the day he dies. “They should’ve let him in. He was a good boy.”
“He was,” Al says, smoothing down his coat. “I believe the fact that we were in Creta also factored in to the attendance of your birthday party.”
“Winry probably would’ve come down if I’d asked,” Ed says.
Al gives him a look so amused that it sets off eight different alarm bells in Ed’s head. “Roy would have, too.”
“Stop calling him ‘Roy’,” Ed says. “And he would not.”
“Would so,” Al says.
“Would not,” Ed says. “Quit arguing with your big brother. We gotta go, or we’re gonna be late to your own party. Let me get the cake.”
Al still looks disproportionately delighted, and the worst part is that Ed kind of has to let him get away with it. Birthdays suck.
“I dunno about this,” Havoc says. “I don’t feel comfortable eating alchemy.”
Ed holds both hands up. He pulls his right glove off. He wiggles his fingers.
“Oh,” Havoc says. “Right. Sorry, Boss.”
“Don’t call me that,” Ed says.
Havoc grins. “Sorry, nerd.”
“Never mind,” Ed says.
“I think it looks pretty damn good,” Breda says. “You ever thought about opening up a bakery or something?”
Ed shrugs, trying not to feel slightly helpless. Nailing down what the hell he wants to do with the rest of his life is… still something of a sore spot. He’s trying to make his peace with the slow and painful and grindingly gradual process of reorienting his entire understanding of his own existence, but it’s slow going. He’s also developed a nasty habit of eagle-eyeing the balance in his bank account as he and Al burn through what’s saved up from the military days; part-time teaching and odd jobs haven’t helped much to offset rent and expenses. Al might want to enroll in university classes soon, and then that’ll be a whole budgetary mess, but obviously Ed would die before saying no, and he doesn’t want Al to have to stress about scholarships, and—
“If it’s something that you do for enjoyment,” Roy says, and Ed has to steel himself not to whirl around and gravitate right fucking towards the velvet voice; “you may not want to try to turn it into a career.”
The flaring bonfire in Ed’s stupid soul wants to snap back with an I know that or a Don’t tell me what to do or a Just for that, I’m gonna found the best goddamn bakery in Central City, and I’ll put a sign on the door saying that asshole generals aren’t allowed in, and they’ll get sprayed with a hose if they try it. How do you like that?
But he knows, these days—knows that that’s an old, knee-jerk reaction from a person that he used to be. He knows that the hackles-rising, skin-tingling defensiveness isn’t because Roy’s wrong; it’s because Roy is expressing interest in Ed’s life, and all of Ed’s self-preservation instincts want to kill the conversation before his idiot brain can make that into something that it’s not.
On the other hand, though…
“Is that why you aren’t a professional life-coach, talking like that?” Ed asks. “’Cause you enjoy it too much as a hobby?”
Havoc and Breda both snicker right on cue, and Ed thinks he’s got a good one in; maybe if he’s very lucky, Roy will sputter a little before returning fi—
Except that Roy just… laughs.
And he’s so damn gorgeous with his eyes closed and his head thrown back and his stupid plainclothes-clad shoulders shaking that Ed briefly considers slamming his face down directly into the top of Al’s birthday cake.
At least there aren’t any candles in it yet.
Ed loiters near the picnic table that they’ve put the food on and shoos a handful of very ambitious flies away from the cake. It’s too chilly for much else in the way of insects, which is good, because every time a mosquito has the fucking audacity to target Al, Ed has to chase it down and murder the shit out of it. That’s a lot harder in an open space like this. He knows because he’s had to do it before.
After Al has flitted around to pretty much everyone and smiled in their faces until they smiled right back, he crosses back over the grass to Ed and makes a pouty face. He knows that Ed’s weak to that one. What a little demon.
“Winry and Lieutenant Hawkeye RSVPed,” Al says.
“Uh,” Ed says. “Yeah.”
Al goes from pouting to eyeing him. Zero to deep trouble in point-five seconds. “Winry is a different story,” Al says, “but Lieutenant Hawkeye is never late to anything.”
“You don’t know that,” Ed says, fighting the urge to shift his weight from foot to foot. “We haven’t been following her around for her whole life. She could’ve been late to something once.”
Al’s eyes narrow until they’re just little slivers of green-flecked gold.
“Maybe,” Ed says, “they got stuck at every single traffic light in Central City. Maybe they stopped for coffee on the way. Maybe…”
Al closes his eyes.
“Brother,” Al says, “you are the single worst liar in the history of human speech.”
“You don’t know that, either,” Ed says. “There have been a lot of people in human history, Al. I think odds are pretty damn good that least one of them was a worse liar than I am. Besides—I’m not anywhere near as bad at it when I’m not lying to you.”
A slight rustle of the grass is the only goddamn warning before Roy’s voice interjects: “I regret to report that you’re still pretty bad.”
Managing not to flinch saps the last of Ed’s wherewithal, so he can’t stop himself from turning on the bastard instantly like an agitated animal. “Get bent, Mustang. I wouldn’t’ve wasted my good lies on you anyway.”
Roy folds his arms across his chest and starts grinning. The former emphasizes all over again how nice his shoulders look when they’re not pent up in that stupid, stiff wool box of a uniform; and the latter crinkles his eyes up at the corners and makes Ed’s stomach go tight.
“I would,” Roy says, “very much like to hear your ‘good lies’.”
“You’d better hire me as a consultant, then,” Ed says. “I don’t give ’em away for free.”
“Done,” Roy says. “I’ll have something contractual drawn up. What are your rates?”
Ed tries, desperately, to recalibrate his brain in such a way that this conversation will make sense. Surely there’s a linchpin to it. Surely there’s a way that this can make sense.
Everything teeters for a couple seconds, but nothing falls into place.
So Ed says the only thing that he can think of:
“You can’t afford me.”
Roy just laughs again. Is he drunk? Did he show up to Ed’s perfect baby brother’s eighteenth birthday party drunk? Ed’s going to have to kill him in broad daylight, and then the cops will come, and that’ll put a damper on the atmosphere, and—
“Point taken,” Roy says, which is interesting. At least one of them knows what Ed’s point was, even if it’s not him. “If you’d ever like to swing by and practice draft lies on a willing audience, though, the door’s always open. I’d be delighted to give you suggestions.”
“Brother,” Al says, so weakly that Ed spins around to look at him this time. “I love you more than the whole world, but you are so, so stupid.”
Ed wishes that it was the first time that Al has said those words to him, or the first time that he had to admit that they’re probably true. “Uh…”
“Well!” Al says brightly before he can articulate much else. “It’s so nice to see you, General Mustang. I’m so glad you came, for reasons that are, obviously, exclusively limited to wanting to watch me rip up wrapping paper and eat cake. I think all present company is well-aware that you’ve never had an ulterior motive in your life.”
“Uh,” Ed says again. The results aren’t much better this time, but it was worth a shot.
Roy has a very weird smile on now—similar to the one that he used to plaster on when he was trying really hard not to look like he was dying on the inside, although there’s a new scrunched-nose component to it this time. “I… yes. Thank you so much for inviting me. I do so enjoy a good round of paper-ripping.”
“I cannot fucking believe,” Ed says, “that the two of you have taken up talking over my head figuratively, ’cause you can’t do it literally anymore.”
Al pats his arm apologetically and then goes right on doing the thing that Ed was complaining about—which is, for the record, so typical that it might as well be trademarked.
“Well, Roy,” Al says. “Ah—may I call you Roy? Brother does.”
“Of course,” Roy says smoothly.
“I do not,” Ed says, much less smoothly. “I call him ‘Mustang’ or ‘my fuckoff ex-boss’ exclusively, and you know it.”
“I’m flattered,” Roy says, “to have earned such a lengthy sobriquet.”
Everything has changed, and nothing has. Ed says, “What?”; Roy just smirks at him; when Al sighs, it almost sounds tinny for a second.
“Well, Roy,” Al says again, louder this time. “I felt that it was only fair to let you know that while I sincerely do adore Lieutenant Hawkeye with all my heart and admire her more than I can begin to describe, if she hurts Winry in any way, she’s dead to me.”
Ed winces. “Ditto.”
Roy’s eyebrows arch high, but the smile is more convincing this time. “Understood. Would you like me to pass the message along?”
“No, thank you,” Al says. “I think Winry would bury both of us in Granny Pinako’s backyard if she knew that we were talking about her like she can’t take care of herself.”
“And then plant flowers over us,” Ed says.
Al nods. “Peonies, I think.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. “She really likes those.”
“That,” Roy says, “I will pass along.”
“That should go over very nicely,” Al says. “All of us have always believed that Lieutenant Hawkeye is a little bit psychic. It’ll be lovely to keep that dream alive.”
One of Roy’s eyebrows arcs up again. “May I tell her that?”
“It’s a free country,” Al says.
“More or less,” Ed says.
“More or less,” Al says.
Roy grimaces. “I’m working on it.”
Ed is about to say something scathingly brilliant about the observational data that puts the likelihood of Roy working on anything at any given moment perilously close to zero, but before he can quite get it out, Al pats his arm again, which throws him off.
“Anyway,” Al says brightly, “thanks for coming, Roy. I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.”
Ed tries—very hard—to say “What the fuck, Al?”, but all that comes out is a pathetic little intimation of a wheeze.
His solitary consolation is that Roy looks like he’s been struck around the head with a two-by-four, so at least Ed isn’t the only one tripping over every last inch of his own tongue as Al saunters away.
“I—” Roy clears his throat, then clears it again. Ed is not going to look at his throat. Nope. Or his collarbones. Those are even worse. “Ah. How… have you been?”
Perfect. Beautiful. Ed tried to teach this bastard a million different things about mercy and loyalty and the high road, and the record-breaking idiot walked away with If someone says something that you don’t want to deal with, you can always fall back on awkwardly pretending that it never happened.
“Fine,” Ed says, which is generous, but it’s not like anybody in their right mind would jump at the chance to spill their guts to Mustang. “You?”
“Mm,” Roy says, which is every bit as fucking infuriating as it is intriguing, and he probably knows it. “Not much has changed. The office is sometimes so quiet without you that I can hear myself think, though, which ordinarily I try my hardest to avoid.”
Ed shoves his hands into his pockets, hoping that the wind is brisk enough to make that look like a weather thing and not a way of hiking his shoulders up for protection. “Sounds about right.”
Roy watches Al telling some story to Havoc and waving his hands around. Ed loves Al’s hands. Ed loves Al having hands; loves watching sunlight spark off of his hair; loves watching him draw his coat in around himself and fiddle with his scarf and laugh delightedly and pull dumb faces and react, in tiny ways, in real time, to the sensations imposed by the world around him.
“May I ask you a moderately personal question?” Roy asks.
Ed eyes him. Fancy that: the raised-shoulders barrier is already coming in clutch. “What defines a ‘moderately’ personal question from a deeply personal one?”
“It’s not directly related to you,” Roy says, “but answering it might affect you in an emotional capacity.”
Ed eyes him harder. “I can’t believe that you had an answer to that.”
“I can’t either,” Roy says, flashing one of the most devil-may-care versions of the smile that he uses to placate people all the time. “But of course, if you’d rather—”
“Just ask,” Ed says.
Then he smiles, thinly this time.
Then he says, “Were you… surprised? By Riza and Winry, I mean.”
Ed knows that he’s going to let on more than he means to if he keeps looking the bastard in the eye, so he watches his own right foot kicking at the grass instead. “Not really. Win’s always had a thing for blonds.”
The pause lasts just long enough that Ed suspects that Roy heard the significance in that.
“Riza has, too,” Roy says, “to tell you the truth.” Another pause; and then, in a very odd, very delicate sort of tone— “There certainly do seem to be a lot of us.”
“Confirmation bias,” Ed says to the grass. “That’s bad statistics.”
“Ah,” Roy says. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Ed stares at the grass for a second and then chances staring at Roy instead. This one needs some head-on incredulity to get the point across.
“What?” Roy says at the silent accusation. “Did you really think I was going to stand here and argue with Edward Elric when it comes to math?”
Ed’s mouth keeps trying to smile even though Ed keeps stamping DENIED as firmly as possible on all of its applications. “I mean… yeah. Arguing is sorta what you and I… do.”
“Is it arguing?” Roy asks, over-the-top fake-blithe this time. “Or is it banter?”
“It’s arguing,” Ed says.
Roy frowns. “I don’t know if I’d describe—”
“I rest my case,” Ed says.
At least that makes it Roy’s turn to roll his eyes; Ed’s have gotten enough of a workout today. They’ll probably be sore tomorrow.
Everything goes quiet again. They both watch Havoc try to blow smoke in Al’s face until Breda fakes like he’s going to shove the wheelchair and send it careening down the nearest hill, which rapidly devolves into a mix of squabbling and laughter and Falman talking about penal codes. Ed used to get that lecture a lot. It was actually pretty interesting, because Falman was so thorough that he’d always include the long list of notable loopholes.
“Riza isn’t very forthcoming about it,” Roy says, still ostensibly watching the shenanigans. “That’s not a criticism—she’s had precious few private things in her life, and I certainly don’t begrudge her this one. But I do wonder.”
“That’s because you’re a nosy piece of shit,” Ed says, but it comes out sounding way less hostile than he meant it to. An undiscerning listener might even call it ‘fond’ or something. He fucked that one up good.
Further proof of his failure is the fact that Roy grins again. “Guilty as charged. I classify that as a survival skill these days.”
Ed looks at the sky, looks at the trees, looks at the grass under his shoes.
He knows what Roy’s really asking, because it’s the same thing that everybody asks, and Roy’s never loved anything more than he loves sticking his nose into Ed’s business. Roy has somehow miraculously gotten even worse about it lately; every time they end up in the same place, he starts asking questions and making conversation and commentating on stories and…
Well. And treating Ed like a person whose life and ideas and opinions are important and relevant and interesting.
Which can’t be right.
“I love Win,” Ed says. “I love her to death. Always have; always will. But it’s… complicated.”
Roy’s voice is remarkably soft. “People usually are.”
“Yeah,” Ed says. At least that’s one damn thing that they can agree on, even if for Ed it’s more a matter of sheer incomprehensibility most times; and for Roy it’s more a matter of trying not to tangle up the puppet strings.
“Speaking of which,” Roy says. “As far as what I said earlier… well, I suppose that hell will likely hold ice-skating competitions before you take my advice at face value, but… I think it’s worth pointing out that my specific experience with capitalizing on something that I loved and having it backfire was… extreme.”
Ed is just a hair too polite these days to respond with That’s the single most political-bullshitty way I’ve ever heard anybody say ‘I helped destroy a city full of innocent people’, so instead he says, “Points for the lousy pun.”
“Thank you,” Roy says. He sounds sincere. Bastard. “Just… I think it’s… helpful to hear, perhaps, that not everyone finds some sort of ‘calling’—sometimes not right away; sometimes not ever. But that’s all right. You don’t need one to be happy with the overall state of your life. It’s not a requirement that every hour of your day fulfills you somehow; not every minute has to be spent in some sort of rapture for the whole of it to even out.”
Roy looks up at the trees for a few seconds, but Ed knows him well enough by now—too well, likely. Ed knows that there’s more.
“Sometimes,” Roy says, “a way that it helps to consider it is… an occupation can be less about what you do and more about what you cause. More about the impact. It can be about the effect that a job empowers you to have on others. I know that I don’t have to tell you about ends and means. And I know that I don’t have to tell you about the power of a purpose. But I find that that tends to get lost, in conversations like this. People tend to focus on ‘do what you love, all the time, always’ until you start to think that if you’re just turning in time and taking paychecks, you’ve somehow failed to meet your potential as a human being. But that’s not it at all. Jobs can just be something that people do, not something that they are. And that’s fine.”
Ed’s been thinking about this shit a lot lately.
Apparently not as much as fucking Roy has, but—still. A lot.
Nobody thinks as much as Roy, so he’s not going to hold that against himself. That’s probably why Roy naps in the office so much; he’s up all night ruminating on other people’s business.
“All of that said,” Roy says, in a significantly lighter tone of voice, “if you’re passionate about edible chemistry—” Double bastard; he shouldn’t have figured that out so fast. “—then it might at least be worth trying it out to see where it takes you. If you realize later on that you don’t like where you’re headed, you can always try something else.”
Ed goes back to eyeing him. “You might’ve noticed,” E says, “at some point during our acquaintance, that givin’ up isn’t really something that I’m good at, even when it’s probably the better choice.”
“The thought occurred to me,” Roy says, smiling wryly again. “Well…” If Ed wasn’t watching so closely right now, he might not have noticed the subtle way that Roy shifts his hips and angles his shoulders to project an even-more-spitting image of casualness. “If you’d ever… if sometime you’d like to test out a few of the other bakeries around town in order to scope out the competition, I’d be delighted to help you collect data.”
The eyeing necessarily stops as Ed feels his own face shift into outright staring instead.
That almost sounded like—
“That is to say…” Roy proceeds to avoid Ed’s eyes, bite his bottom lip, and then run a hand back through his hair. This is not happening. This is a goddamn motherfucking hallucination. All other attempts at rational explanation have failed. “If you’re… available… on S—”
“Well, it’s about time!” Al crows from across the lawn; followed immediately by “What the heck is that?”
“It’s your birthday present, silly,” Winry says, walking towards Al and the rest of the crew very slowly, taking even strides. The box is huge, but Ed knows that it won’t be heavy. “Most of it, anyway.”
Lieutenant Hawkeye, strolling alongside Winry just about a half-step behind, gazes at her like she’s iterating some kind of poetry, rather than practically spoiling the surprise. Hayate’s rapt attention being fixed on the box isn’t helping much, but Ed doesn’t blame him; he doesn’t figure that birthday presents really translate for dogs. Dogs think every day is worth celebrating, which is what’s so fucking great about them.
Ed’s feet carry him faster than he’s aware of—he knows that he has to get to the box before Al does, to make sure that it doesn’t get shaken.
“Hey,” he says, interposing himself between the two of them in the nick of time. “Since we had to wait so long for the Grease Princess anyway, let’s do presents before cake.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Brother,” Al says.
They’ve probably got a maximum of about forty-five seconds before he catches on if they don’t distract him with other gifts.
“Ed never makes sense,” Winry says. “We’re just lucky that now he makes cake.”
Ed considers turning to Roy and explaining that he’s ready to take back the I love her to part but leave the death, but there isn’t time.
“That’s the way my family always did it,” Havoc says. “The Eastern rule is that you always have to eat until you can’t move to show that you appreciated the food, so then you can’t really enjoy opening your presents anyway. Better to do presents first.”
“See?” Ed says. “It’s traditional.”
“Oh, gee,” Al says flatly. “It would be unthinkable for the likes of us to break with tradition.”
“I can’t believe that you’re arguing with presents,” Ed says, “and I’m gonna have to disown you on your birthday.”
Al sticks his tongue out.
Ed stick his out back.
Fuery says, “Mine first!”
The generous, thoughtful gifts are unwrapped one by one—Fuery refurbished an amazing radio for them and engraved a custom frontplate for it that says Elric; Falman found the most beautiful illustrated alchemical encyclopedia that Ed has ever seen; Breda got them another handcrafted strategy board game for Al to kick Ed’s ass at; and Havoc somehow dug up and framed a copy of Ed’s all-time favorite newspaper from the summer of 1914, the front-page photo of which depicts him and Al standing in front of a crater that had been a military building, trying excruciatingly hard not to look guilty. The unfortunate fate of that particular edifice had, as Ed’s report had detailed, been entirely the fault of the rogue alchemist that they’d had to fight in it, and they’d put everything back the way it had been, but the interview contains several winners all the same. Ed’s personal favorite is still The Fullmetal Alchemist offered a few words of advice to others who wish to protect their communities: “Sometimes you gotta break a couple eggs to make an omelette. And by ‘eggs’, I mean ‘walls’. And a roof or two sometimes. Roofs are overrated.”
He still just can’t quite wrap his brain around the fact that they flung themselves at this team of remarkable human beings like a flashbomb, and instead of being pitched back out the window the instant that everyone could see again, these people have become their friends. Everyone settled in this loose circle in the grass near the splinter-ridden picnic tables really, really cares about them.
Everybody here loves Al the same way he does—that is, ferociously and protectively and devotedly—even if nobody can top him on intensity now or ever. They matter to these people. They built another home here without even realizing what they’d done.
Roy’s gift, which is wrapped all nice and neatly, which probably means that he whined and begged until Lieutenant Hawkeye did it, is a cashmere sweater in a deep emerald-green, with a cream-colored scarf that looks every bit as soft.
“I remembered you mentioning that you’re still enjoying textures,” Roy says as Al runs his fingertips over them with his eyes wide; “and that your brother still worries about you being cold all the time.”
Ed eyes him again. It’s almost like a gift for both of them, which sounds an awful lot like a bastardly conspiracy.
At least it’s a bastardly conspiracy where Al will be warm.
That leaves the big box that Winry has oh-so carefully rested in her lap, which she offers over to Al.
“Hang on,” Al says, eyes narrowing as he examines the top, and Lieutenant Hawkeye hooks her fingers into Hayate’s collar, and Winry starts to look extremely smug. Ed stands up just in case some shit starts going down; he’s seen chaos emerge from less. “This has air holes in it.”
“How do you know they’re air holes?” Winry asks. “Maybe we got you dry ice, and we didn’t want the box to explode.”
“This says it’s from both you and Ed,” Al says. “Ed always wants things to explode.”
“Not always,” Ed says.
Everybody looks at him at once.
That’s… eerie. And, for the record, completely unfair.
“Just open it,” Ed says.
Al makes a face at him.
Al lifts off the lid.
Al stares down into the box.
And then Al starts to cry.
The crying wakes the kitten, which uncoils itself from its little black cat-bun position, blinks up at Al, and meows.
Ed has to hold a hand to his chest for a second to stop himself from keeling over. It’s a close thing. The whole peanut gallery from the office has also started cooing, which doesn’t really help.
“She doesn’t have a name yet,” Winry says. “But the lady at the shelter says that she has all her shots.”
At this rate, Ed is going to need a shot. Or three. Not the kitty vaccine kind.
“She’s p-perfect,” Al gets out. Tears are still beading at the corners of his eyes and chasing each other down his cheeks, so Ed has no choice but to sit down again and put an arm around his shoulders and hug him in the Cry as much as you want way. “Brother, look at her little face. And—you all knew that black cats don’t get adopted as often, didn’t you?”
“They mentioned it,” Lieutenant Hawkeye says. Hayate is on high alert, but he’s still sitting primly while he sniffs the air and tips his head back and forth, so they may have evaded disaster on that front.
“Plus,” Winry says brightly, “the fur’ll match Ed’s one-color wardrobe.”
Ed gives her a dour look, and she beams back at him. Breda reaches down to give her a high-five.
“Whatever,” Ed says. “We went in on some cat stuff, too—toys and stuff. Lieutenant Hawkeye’s been storing it all for us.”
“It’s in the car,” Hawkeye says.
“Except for this!” Winry says, triumphantly producing a tiny little harness and a tiny little leash. “We thought she might want to explore the park.”
Al stares at her for a second, tear trails glimmering on his face. Then stares down at the cat again. Then he starts crying harder.
“Oh, shit,” Ed says. “Uh—Al. Hey. C’mon.” He squeezes Al’s shoulders gently. Fuery has started very gently patting the far one. “You’re happy, right? This is happy-cry?”
Al’s bottom lip is wobbling all over the place. “I’m so h-h-happy.”
At least that’s… a start.
“Well,” Roy says, because of course he can’t let anybody else meddle more than he has. He comes over and crouches down to peer into the box, and then he extends his hand towards the kitten, fingers curled, for her to sniff at him. “The all-important question—what are you going to name her?”
“Nightshade,” Ed says. “Nightfang. Or Shadowclaw. Or Wraith. Or—”
“Wraith is c-cute,” Al says, reaching down very slowly and running just the tips of his fingers down her back. “Oh, she’s so soft, Brother; feel. We could call her Wray-wray.”
“What?” Ed says. “No. Wray-wray isn’t cool. That sounds like—”
Al grabs his wrist and pulls his hand into the box to force him to pet the kitten. Noticing that Al remembered to grab his right wrist—his fingertips are still a hell of a lot more sensitive on the less-abused side—makes the next words that Ed was going to say about the kitten’s dignity and its rights to a kickass killer name tangle up and stick in his throat.
Plus the cat is really soft.
“This is the best birthday ever,” Al says, sounding like he’s getting choked up again. “Thank you so much—everybody. And Brother, and Winry, and Lieutenant Hawkeye—this is… this is so a-amazing.”
“Oh,” Lieutenant Hawkeye says. “I only helped with transport. I have a separate present for you.”
She extracts an envelope from her coat pocket and passes it to Winry, who passes it to Ed, who hands it over to Al.
Al opens it. He pulls out the little coupon-looking thing inside.
“It’s a few free lessons at the firing range,” Lieutenant Hawkeye says. “So that you can protect your new cat.”
Roy, who has not stopped hovering directly across the suddenly-too-small box from Ed, sighs feelingly.
Ed hears what sounds a bit like money being exchanged behind him, and what sounds even more distinctly like Havoc saying “Every time.”
“You know,” Al says, slowly, “this is… actually a very good idea.”
Ed reaches into the box and pets the kitten again. Feels nice. Not like the towering existential terror of imagining Al getting good with guns, which definitively does not feel nice. Thank fuck that there’s something sweet and harmless in the world.
Right on cue, the kitten tries to bite him, and he whips his hand back, and his hand collides with Roy’s, and—
“That reminds me,” Al says, tapping the envelope against one palm and smiling down at the kitten. “You know what else is a good idea?”
“Me moving to another fuckin’ country,” Ed says.
“Do you have one in mind?” Falman asks. “I’d recommend Aerugo based on healthcare alone, but there are certainly other considerations.”
“C’mon,” Breda says. “Healthcare shouldn’t be a consideration. You’ve heard Ed—it’s never his fault that he gets hurt. The building always starts it.”
Ed scowls at him. “Prove me wrong.”
“Moving isn’t a good idea anyway,” Al says. “Because then you wouldn’t get to watch Wray-wray get all big and sleek and beautiful and discover the joys of chewing on your hair. A better idea would be you and Roy going out for dinner sometime so that the rest of us don’t have to suffer through watching the two of you make eyes at each other when the other isn’t watching and pretend like it’s not a thing.”
“It’s not a thing,” Ed says, at the same instant Roy says “I do not ‘make eyes’.”
“Yes, you do, sir,” Hawkeye says.
“I’m with Al,” Havoc says.
“Seconded,” Breda says.
“Thirded,” Fuery says.
“‘Fourthed’ isn’t a word,” Falman says, “but if it was—”
“Fifthed!” Winry says, beaming fit to break her face.
“Ah,” Roy says, grimacing. “The dulcet tones of democracy.”
Ed tries very hard to scowl at everyone at once. It’s not easy, obviously, but he’s never backed down from a challenge before. “My life is not a fucking democr—”
Al puts his hands over the kitten’s ears.
Then Al turns to Lieutenant Hawkeye and says, “Next Friday?”
“Meeting at four,” Hawkeye says. “Might run over. Saturday?”
“Perfect,” Al says. “Six thirty?”
“Done,” Hawkeye says. She smiles serenely. “Good that that’s settled.”
“Excuse me?” Ed says, at the same time that Roy says “I beg your pardon.”
They look at each other.
Ed’s shitty, no-good, rat bastard traitor of a face goes hot.
The only upshot is that he can detect the tiniest touch of pink in Roy’s cheeks, too. And in the ears. How has Ed never paid attention to Roy’s ears before?
…on second thought, he would rather hurl himself off of a steep cliff than receive an answer to that question. Rhetorical. It was rhetorical. It should be left at that.
“Are you—” Ed clears his throat, agonizingly aware of the fact that every single stupid friend at this stupid party is currently watching them. Stupidly. “Are you blushing?”
“Of course not,” Roy says. The tiny touch of pink deepens and spreads. The shells of his ears darken towards an unmistakable red. “I’m not even capable of blushing. I was tragically born without capillaries. I—”
“He’ll pick you up at ten past six,” Lieutenant Hawkeye says.
Roy blinks. Probably Ed didn’t notice his ears because Ed was so fixated on his eyes all these goddamn years.
They really are sitting here in the grass on either side of a kitten box getting set up by everyone that they’ve ever called an ally, aren’t they?
In a weird way, that sounds about right for Ed’s inexplicable farce of an existence. Vaguely fitting.
“Well,” Roy says, very slowly, “does… would Saturday work for you?”
Ed makes sure to keep glowering at him just in case. So that the bastard doesn’t get any ideas. And so that Ed’s schmoopy, swoony, swoopy impulse to smile like a giddy kid doesn’t break through. “Fine.”
The amount of cheering, celebration, back-thumping, high-fiving, and long-suffering sighs that explodes out of the assembled company startles the kitten so much that she meows piteously and tries to jump out of the box. Al manages to catch her and cradle her to his chest, but Ed definitely sympathizes.
“Shut it,” Ed says when the whooping has died down enough that he thinks that he might be heard. “It’s Al’s birthday. That’s what we’re here for. Who wants some cake?”
“I do!” Winry says, patting Ed’s head instead of his shoulder, because she’s fucking evil. “But not as much as you want some beefcake, am I right?”
Ed stares at her in the hopes that this ongoing nightmare might resolve itself into a sticky half-dawn, several moments of confusion, and then the relieved revelation that none of this has really happened.
“Brother’s so cute when he’s flustered,” Al says in his babies-and-animals voice, stroking the kitten’s oversized ears. “Isn’t he, Wray-wray? And isn’t he, Roy-roy?”
Roy looks like he might be sick, which Ed also sympathizes with.
He then looks extremely surprised when Winry smacks him on the back hard enough that she almost knocks him over.
“Welcome to the family, Roy,” she says.
“Thank you,” Roy manages, slightly feebly, before Ed can even sputter his way through a Don’t you think you’re getting a little fuckin’ ahead of yourself there, Win?. “…I think.”
“That’s about the shape of it,” Winry says. “C’mon, there’s cake!”
Ed’s pretty sure that he’s going to cancel every single Elric birthday from now until forever, just to be safe.
But at least there’s cake.
And, y’know. The prospect of next Saturday, which might just be better.