The room was hot. Shimmering. A veritable mirage, where logically there was none. Through the third apple brandy of the evening, it was even starting to get interesting. The rhythm beat up through the floorboards and came out in his drink, making small ripples that were surprisingly hypnotic.
He continued staring at the waves in his glass, marveled at the strength of sound despite glove, flesh, and bone. The world was all gold through his shot glass, and the dancers whirled and dipped to a tune that the liquor seemed to hear. Liquor calling dancers, dancers calling for liquor; each tied up together in an inexorable chain of causation that might go on till doomsday.
"Inexorable chain of causation..." He mused, tasting the words out loud on his tongue. He liked that one. He would have to remember that for some paper or other. Drinking always got the old creativity engine going.
"Smokes, sir?" A soft voice interrupted his reverie from somewhere near his elbow. He whirled around, annoyed, to see luminous eyes, wicked fangs, and alabaster horns in an otherwise angelic face.
She could hit for both teams. Russell thought absently. All she needs is the halo.
"Cigarette? Cigar?" The temptress continued, waggling her decidedly non-angelic hips. "Scotch? We have Drachman labels."
"No, I'm fine for now. Might you happen to have a pen I could borrow, though?" He asked, as cordially as one could expect when beset by devilry.
The hostess's thick eyebrows furled together, as if she could not fathom what a "pen" might be.
"Never mind." He said magnanimously. "Let me try this one instead: inexorable chain of causation. Does that sound good to you?"
"I think so…?" The girl said doubtfully, fidgeting with the edge of her tray. One of her claws caught in the detailing, started pulling free.
"I think it has a great ring to it." Russell announced. "Or perhaps, it should rather be ‘the inevitable conclusion of drinking', which is, that drinking inspires the tongue to flow freely, but it is the nature of the tongue to want to speak, and thus, drink to remove its stopper…"
The girl's eyes went from slightly perplexed to full on exasperated, and Russell decided to take pity. He gave her a five-spot and a chaste pat on the shoulder, and bid her find a more kindly drinker to bother. She was paid for the oglers, not the smart-ass academics.
Honestly, he hated these parties.
Fletcher seemed to enjoy them well enough though, he noted sourly, watching the green-and-gold blur that had to be his brother swirling through the dance floor. He'd spent ages on that costume just so he could match his date, and there was no question at all who would be king and queen of this ball – Fletcher the Scarecrow Lord, and Catherine his Lady, in an elegant dress she had probably paid fifteen people to work on for probably as many weeks. Russell snorted. When you had that kind of money, you could afford to be queen of the masquerade.
Well, that was being unkind. Armstrong's sister was nice (if rather too old for his little brother, thank you very much!) and certainly a charming catch. But dammit, it was silly, this whole bloody affair. How on earth was it a "disguise" when it only covered half of your face? His own "costume" (on normal weekends, an opera mask) had fooled no one. What on earth was the point?
The problem was, he thought sulkily, leaning back against the chill veranda arch, All Hallow's Eve had become entirely too much of a thing these days.
Before the New Republic, when he was child, he could even remember years when they forgot about All Hallow's until mother got out the candles; even then, it was never such a grandiose celebration. This year, he'd been bombarded with it from the moment the harvest had left the ground. Absolutely ridiculous. The time of the year when the devils danced, yes, but never a time in his recollection did that beg for the humans to dance with them.
He wasn't an idiot. He knew what they were really celebrating. Bigger demons had been slain than these, on an October night with no stars in the sky.
There were an awful lot of eye patches in the crowd; the fashionable last-minute costume for men who couldn't be bothered with that sort of planning on their own. Discreet, yes, oh so very discreet…in the governor's hall, in this new bastion of Peace and Freedom, they would tolerate no ill words here. Spooks and haunts there might be, but only the solidly imaginary sort. Russell even wondered if people
Of the real Eye Patch, Russell had seen little. He was certain that the General was here – his wife had been spotted in a plain but high-slit dress – but he had already been secluded from the public, ostensibly whisked away to some "more distinguished" party. It was the price, some senators might say, for the glory of freedom. If they buried their heroes along with their demons, so be it.
The same sort of bullshit, out of the same set of mouths, that made some people question if the regime had simply found new clothing for its glorious little masquerade.
He smiled bitterly at another passing "pirate", raised his glass in a mock sort of toast. He wondered, sometimes, if anybody even remembered that the old Fuhrer had worn an eye patch too, or if they were just collectively trying to forget.
Another costumed waitress orbited close and he evaded, tipping his empty shot glass up as if nursing it. General Bradshaw would be happy to buy him a couple more, he was sure, hell, the governor himself was probably footing the bill, but he didn't really want to get tied up in a shot he couldn't back up. He usually only went to three, rarely four; five was almost completely out of the question. Six was unthinkable.
"Breathe in the old evils; expel them with the new." Or so the saying went.
He looked out at the sea of faces, no longer through the comfort of a glass, watched them spinning and bobbing, rolled the snifter around in the palm of his hand.
To hell with it.
He called the girl back and took his fourth from her tray, downed it hard like the poison it was.
The devils wheeled and cackled, pranced all around him in sinful paroxysms, and Russell was just fine, fine with everything.
The world was decidedly off-kilter by the time he finished sipping his fourth shot; even more so with the advent of the fifth. Growing brighter with every swallow, hotter; like the inside of a furnace.
Growing brighter, but not better. As if he were drinking some kind of reality-stripper, and it was cutting the room down to the quick. The costumes were no longer amusing; only tiresome. The gilding on the walls was no longer golden; the smell of the banquet no longer so fresh. He looked out into the room and recoiled, the sheer mass of them
A glamorous warlock; a seventy-year old baby; mask after mask wheeled by in the blurry ritual of quadrille. The room had a ghastly light to it, noxious and orange. Infectious.
Virulent orange. He thought once, horribly, his dramatic engine spinning out of control. Got into all of us, it's under the skin…
Shook the thing away with a flip of his head, no longer willing to entertain it.
I must really be drunk.
Then now, voices. They floated up out of his glass and whispered at him, ghostly, only rarely resolved into Real. Spirit voices from his spirits, and he listened to them stupidly
One of them even sounded familiar.
A garish collection of straw and leaves whirled its way into his field of vision, and he blinked stupidly at the harshness of its color, the abruptness of its existence. It had his brother's enthusiasm, waving its limbs around in an adorably Fletcher-like fashion.
"Look, brother! We won!!!"
Fletcher's face, emanating from a whorl of vegetation; Catherine hanging politely to one of his middle branches. He was one of the few who had bothered to come in a full body outfit. Catherine's dress was vast as well; it billowed out and swallowed both their feet.
Below her mask, at the cusp of her pretty cheekbone, Russell thought he could detect a smudge of brown scarecrow-man lipstick. He closed his eyes.
Too old. Fletcher was too young to be this old already.
"We even got a medal and everything!" His brother was shouting happily.
"That's nice." Russell said, in a very non-committal sort of way. The medal swung in front of his fingers but somehow eluded capture. He scowled and tried again, got his hands tangled in his brother's vines instead.
"Brother!" Fletcher admonished. "You've been drinking!"
Russell looked at the drink in his hand.
"Have I really, now?"
He tried for sarcastic but fell short of the mark, only wound up with tired. Something about Fletcher did that these days. What was it with kids, that they went straight from needing you always…to not needing you at all?
His brother scowled and stamped his foot, making all his myriad straws shiver. Russell couldn't help but snap to attention.
"How much have you had!?"
"Three." Russell lied, clutching his glass just a little bit closer.
"Bullshit." His sibling asserted.
"We don't use words like that in public!" Russell attempted to hiss, but his tongue slid over the syllables and spit them out sideways. "Public words use?!" was about the best he could manage at speed.
"This is so typical!" Fletcher sighed. "You never pay any attention."
Fletcher was scolding him. Fletcher. The same Fletcher he used to hold during thunderstorms. Who made him to check for monsters under the bed. He opened his mouth to say something but no words came out.
Virulent orange. He thought again. Nothing was right.
A soft hand touched his elbow and they both blinked, came out of their brother-space. Catherine, yes. Catherine was there.
"Madame de la Cort is holding a séance in the parlor." Catherine informed him, gently reminding them both of her presence. "We were wondering if you'd like to attend."
"…oh, yeah." Fletcher said, after a moment's delay. He seemed embarrassed. "That. You don't wanna come, do you?"
Russell raised an eyebrow.
"You can't be serious."
Fletcher shuffled nervously, looked toward his lady.
No, that's not right. Russell despaired. You're supposed to look to me.
"Fletcher, you're a scientist…" He complained loudly, blurry from the alcohol. "That stuff is so fake!"
"It's just a show." His brother said, uncomfortable. "Nobody really believes in that stuff."
"Then why go!? I don't see what's so great about staring into smoke for an hour."
Catherine pursed her smudged lips at them, broke into their sibling-space yet again. Russell wanted to bite.
"A pity you feel that way. In my family, the autumnal séance is a special tradition that honors the ancestors."
Fletcher gave her a pained smile and patted her arm.
"Catherine, in your family, everything honors your ancestors."
At least he contradicts her. Russell thought sulkily. He didn't think he could have stood it if she had turned his brother into one of those yes-men.
Catherine only continued her spiel, as if she hadn't heard even Fletcher. The brothers exchanged knowing glances. Knowing the Armstrongs, it was probably inherited.
"Our ancestors believed that All Hallow's Eve was the night the spirits of the dead returned to the land of the living. They lit bonfires at the gates of their castles to help guide their souls safely home."
Fletcher nodded. "We did something like that, back home."
"Only we just put candles in the window." Russell felt it important to mention.
"Once the hungry ghosts made it home," Catherine droned on, "the people would gather together and have a great séance, to welcome the spirits and bring them whole-heartedly into their homes. Then they would gather in the great hall and break bread together, to satisfy the appetites of Those Gone Before and nourish them for their long journey home."
"So, they all had a party and got drunk off their asses." Russell clarified. "Got it."
Fletcher tried to look shocked, but gave up and started snickering. "Shh!"
"The séance would last all day and all night," Catherine continued, "until the dawning of All Soul's Day, whereupon the spirits would begin their long trek back to the Parts Unknown."
"And everybody else woke up with a hangover."
"Are you sure we can't persuade you to come with us?" She asked. "It really is a lot of fun."
"Nah, I think I'll pass. Fletcher?"
"I, uh…" And then the rub, where Catherine tightened her fingers ever-so-slightly around the boy's arm. "I sort of promised Catherine I'd go already."
He gave his brother a desperate oh-please-come-with-me stare, but Russell turned up his nose. This was Fletcher's mess, he could make the decision himself.
"Besides, it's not All Hallow's yet." Russell pointed out sensibly. "Who's to say your ghosts are even out there?"
"Many things are out there, for those who believe." Catherine waxed poetic, coming suspiciously close to sparkles. "If you only opened your eyes, you would see so many of the Minor Miracles…"
"Sorry, I've read that fortune cookie." He cracked. "Only thing I believe in right now is more refreshments."
"Suit yourself." Said Catherine. "Fletcher?"
His brother gave him one last longing glance as she swept him away, still imploring his brother to come with. Russell shook his head.
He'll come around. Russell thought. He always does. I know him better than anybody.
But Russell watched. Fletcher went.
"More to drink, sir?"
A hag was offering, her large bosom spilling out messily from her raggedy top. Russell accepted the cider wordlessly, no longer caring what lines he was toeing. They knew his pleasure now, and wanted him to know it; he just wanted them to leave him the fuck alone. He dodged a party of screaming secretaries and weaved unevenly toward the veranda doors. The world was suddenly just far too much, and he needed to remember how to breathe.
The French doors birthed him out onto the patio area amidst a swirl of noxious orange light; it cut an ominous wedge into the native shadows. He slammed the door behind him and breathed a sigh of relief. The heat of the room was already retreating, and the world no longer felt so damn claustrophobic.
That was when, as in all horror stories, it finally happened.
Many years later, he thought he recalled that a shiver had run down his spine at that exact moment he stepped out onto the veranda. But memory is faulty, no such thing took place. The truth of the matter was that it was breezy out, and the nippiness of autumn ran straight down the back of his opera critic's cloak.
Faulty too, were the memories of a slow, rasping horror creeping up from behind. All he really heard was a light footstep, and a gentle scrape as someone mounted the stairs behind him.
"Heh. I have to admit, you surprised me."
"How so?" He asked, as evenly as he could muster.
"I would have thought you'd have come dressed as me."
Russell Tringham turned around, and saw a ghost.
It was an imperfect image, cast in strangely subdued hues…the boy he had known was all reds and high colors; this specter was dull, like a jay-bird's female counterpart. The hair was wispier too, not so in need of a cutting, and it draped rather limply down the back of his neck. Taller, perhaps, yet not something to celebrate – he looked thin and elongated, like a piece of stiff taffy pulled out far too much. Only the slightest resemblance, this ghost in the moonlight, and the image so far lacking Russell almost failed to respond to it.
But the eyes. There was no mistaking those eyes.
The look of a man with nearly infinitesimal worries, and no purchase on which for his flittering thoughts to land
"Elric." He breathed, gripped his glass so hard he might break it.
"Imposter." The ghost retorted, the faintest glimmer of amusement fluttering across his impossible face. There were high bones there, beneath his cheeks
He had to be drunk. He had to be. But the cold whip of reality had sent all the rosiness from him. Somehow – he didn't know yet how, but somehow – Edward was standing here, chest quivering, life-like. Somehow, he had crawled out of the history annals and stone, the monuments he was buried in, and come calling to them in the spirit on this auspicious night.
No, that was just ridiculous.
"We thought you were dead!" He blurted, didn't pause to regret it. There was no such thing as tact anymore. Edward lived.
Edward smiled, a bloodless thing. It made Russell shiver.
"'The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.' As Mr. Twain once said, I believe."
Russell still could not picture it. He fixed on the easy thing.
"Never mind. I didn't expect you to know him."
The smile faded as quickly as it had materialized, flickered into something wistful. Russell swallowed, in spite of himself. He had forgotten how much of Edward's face was always like a kaleidoscope, reflecting all the things inside the boy in its own random patterns.
"But you—they went down there, you know, when Rose and that…thing came out, and they all said you'd gone, and—"
"And I came back." There was a mild snort. "Is there something wrong with me being alive?"
A glimmer of a memory fought its way up at that tone, and Russell drew himself up taller in spite of himself. Younger or not, he had never been one to tolerate sass from a smart-ass.
"Maybe. Fletcher cried, over you." He accused. "He thought he killed you with that damn piece of paper! Jackass."
Something in Edward's eyes softened, and he ceased being real all over again.
"I'm sorry." The other man said, and this too, was wrong – not at all the way these things were supposed to go. In his mind's eye, Edward was already yielding to the pressure of his witty onslaught. Russell wondered again if he were dreaming the whole thing.
Then again, were he hallucinating, the vision in his head would match. Wouldn't it?
"You could have at least let us know you were alright." He said. "Or is that too much for us mere mortals to ask?"
A brief flash of anger wheeled into existence but faded immediately to resignation. Edward's voice, when he spoke, was low and tired. Not just his face then, Russell realized for the first time; Edward's whole body had a language.
"Believe me, I would have if I could." Slightly sagging shoulders. Sincere, unadulterated apology. Many things the man might be, but a liar would never be one of them. It would scream itself out through every pore in his body.
The thought also occurred to Russell, belatedly, that perhaps they wouldn't have heard about Elric's amazing resurfacing. That there were in fact many secrets he and his brother would never be privy too. They had always been just close enough to the truth to know that there was so much more they couldn't hope to guess at.
Looking at this strange, too-thin Edward-apparition, he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"Well, ‘s okay now." Russell said magnanimously. "Fletcher obviously got over it. Have you seen him with that girl of his, in there?"
The sadness was gone now, almost as quickly as it had come; replaced by a quiet watchfulness. It was vaguely unnerving to suddenly warrant the whole of Edward's attention, and Russell wondered, paranoid, if there was any polite way he could ask if he had something hanging from his nose.
"Yeah. I noticed." Edward said, still staring. Still staring.
"Speaking of brothers, you wouldn't happen to have seen mine lately , would you?"
Ah. That would explain it. Of the few things he thought he actually understood about Edward, the all-importance of blood kin was one he could respect.
"Al's here?" He asked, genuinely interested.
A tiny frown, from Edward's camp.
"Guess not, then."
"My brother ditched me, too." Russell offered. "Haven't seen the silly git all evening."
"Lucky. I haven't seen mine at all."
Edward's eyes froze, and were silent.
Russell leaned forward, concerned.
"Since I got back." Edward continued. "I haven't been able to catch up with him. I don't even think he knows that I'm…back…"
His voice was broken and raspy, and Russell could not blame him. He thought about offering him a sip of his brandy, then remembered that he had none.
"Fletcher was writing letters to him." He offered, and at least that seemed sufficient. Those luminous eyes turned up to full bore again, and once again he found himself desperately wanting for a pocket mirror.
"At what address?" Edward asked eagerly, and Russell had to fight the urge to laugh. Honestly, he didn't know why he bothered to feel self-conscious. As if Edward could possibly notice a smudge on anyone's face but Alphonse's.
"I think the Rockbells'. He was living there for a while, after he, um…" He wasn't sure how to broach the subject of Edward's wayward sibling, least of all the boy's recent…unique career path.
Edward deflated visibly.
"Oh. Yeah, that was the first place I tried. Thanks anyway."
But it wasn't "thanks anyway", dammit! He had the sudden, ludicrous temptation to pluck Fletcher right out from his silly visitation and offer his brain for Edward to pick. Anything, anything to get that ache out of the boy's voice.
"A-actually, he does send us some stuff from the field! Picture postcards, and things."
"Yeah. I could dig some up and send them to you, if you want. Lord knows Fletcher doesn't need them anymore."
That wasn't technically true. Fletcher kept Alphonse's postcards neatly lined up and taped along the side of his bureau, and he would scream bloody murder if even one of them was missing. He could probably lift one long enough to copy the address, though, which was probably all that Edward needed.
"I'd like that." Edward said softly, and again there was that curious sense of loss, of vast oceans spreading darkly between the Edward he knew and this new, shadow-Elric.
Oceans in the space between the two of them, overshadowing even the darkness of the veranda.
There were so many things he desperately needed to ask him, complicated things with hows and whys and wherefores; also simple things with whos and whats and whens. It was always such an easy thing in the ghost stories – the specters never need explain their existence. They were wronged in life, they were wronged in death, it was all one and the same in the end.
Reality was so much harder.
He stumbled forward, still trying to gather his skittish thoughts; Edward made a curious noise at the motion. He stumbled forward, tongue armed with questions, and Edward's mouth slid open and swallowed them.
There was no taste, but the hot tang of brandy; it was as if Edward's lips did not exist at all. And yet, there was contact. The barest of touches, rubbery softness; nothing at all like kissing the girls in Catherine's salon. Flat, small lips beneath his tongue, barely responding to its flickering tease. Edward was nothing at all, a tiny shiver of sensation; he might as well be kissing himself in the mirror.
And then the crush of a lithe body pressed against his, and he knew it was real.
There was heat again in the universe, warmth he thought he had forgotten when the tipsiness left him. Edward's body was a furnace. His mouth was filled with fire, his front pockets brimstone; he could have been the devil himself from the feel of his hips. Russell pressed into him and met with nothing but warmth, bit at his mouth and heard no protest.
He simply moved forward, and Edward did not resist.
They separated amicably, only their breathing disturbed. The shadowy oceans flickered erratically at their feet, and they watched with interest as the party continued on, the same as it ever had.
"Why did you do that?" He asked finally.
"I didn't do anything." Edward snorted, and oh god, he wanted to touch him…that devilish look dancing in his eyes. It could put any number of bar wenches to shame.
"You started it, as I recall." The boy continued. "Don't shoot the messenger here, it's not my problem."
"At least I know you're real." Russell said quietly. "That counts for something."
Then, slowly, the ghost of a cocky smile Russell thought he remembered began to spread across his face.
"Come on. I know a place we can go."
They weaved their way back through the suffocating hall and its festering orange light, the beautiful hags and overweight skeletons. He wondered if Fletcher was still bobbing about, trapped within the throngs, or if he and Catherine had managed to escape.
No one seemed to notice Edward, he wondered with awe. They all just seemed to drift around him, not seeing. Not even stopping to say hello. On his own, Russell might have been lost. With Edward, the crowd just parted in front of them.
For one uneasy moment, he wondered if the boy was all there after all.
"This way." Edward indicated, jacking his head toward a hallway. He tugged Russell out of the way just before a cat-lady trod on him, evaded a devil-waiter, and sidled up to a dark and towering staircase.
He wasn't sure he was up to climbing just yet and told Edward so; his companion smiled but mercifully did not laugh.
"Just try it." He said, and Russell was surprised to learn that he could in fact follow. His feet moved automatically, completely without direction from his brain; legs folded and unfolded to a rhythm he was quite sure had nothing at all to do with him.
"Here." Edward whispered, and elbowed a door open. Firelight greeted them, lighter in color but definite blood relation to the horrible orange downstairs; the heat also familiar and infernal. Russell felt his eyes grow wide.
A chair. A bookcase.
A fuming coverlet in deepest scarlet.
Red was always the color he had associated with Edward; the color he could sometimes see when he was alone at night, looking out at the sunset and thinking about things that had Gone. The flame-colored bed was just sitting there enticingly, daring him to touch it. It had been prepared for just this sort of occasion, you could tell – both sides were turned down as if mocking him, satin sheets peeking scandalously out from beneath the covers.
And Edward was sitting on it, perched on the edge and staring at him expectantly.
"I'm not sure I'm entirely drunk enough for this." He laughed nervously.
His companion sounded entirely serious.
And oh god, he was leaning back, and Russell's throat ached very badly indeed.
He tried a sip of the shot he was holding (still holding!) but it tasted like nothing in his mouth – nothing like it had on Edward's tongue, Edward's lips. He licked his lips and ran one hand instinctively through his hair, trying to calm his fraying nerves.
"I've never…um, you know. Um."
Edward glared at him, annoyed. His hair was sliding off his shoulder, one rippling section at a time. Russell was fascinated.
"And? Look, if you don't want to do this…"
He looked on the verge of standing up and walking back out the door, which was one thing Russell was very sure he didn't want.
In desperation, Russell swept forward and kissed him again.
It was difficult to reach, bending down so hastily – he almost missed the mark entirely, caught the corner of Ed's mouth instead.
Fuck fuck FUCK! He cursed himself, fumbled messily for a proper lip-lock. Too tipsy to do things properly; that was what had lost him Diana at Catherine's last party. He had not cared half as much about getting her small blouse off, though, as he cared about this. Edward's eyes were tiny half-moons, and the haze in them already was just…
God… He swore reverently, licked fervently at the other boy's lips. God or the devil, someone had put Edward back on earth. He wondered if he would survive it.
Mismatched arms wrapped around his shoulders and pulled, and Russell was drowning in flesh.
Edward's hands were everywhere, writhing against his back and stirring sparks in their wake; his legs wrapped around Russell's hips and enveloped him, kept him from getting up. A wet, voracious mouth strained upward, suctioned onto his neck, devoured expanses of it; slippery tongue painted jagged lines along his pulse points.
He was being eaten alive, and he had never been so hard in his life.
"God…" He cursed appreciatively, out loud this time, and Edward attacked his lips savagely, sucked out the rest of his oath as if drawing out poison. Their hips jerked together erratically, desperately; it would not take long.
"Ed…" He panted, and this, it seemed, was allowed. Edward smiled and rocked against him and Russell hissed, his whole groin one slow burn of pleasure.
"But I don't—what should I—" His voice cracked like it hadn't since he was sixteen, and Russell wanted to cry from sheer frustration. The words just weren't coming. All logic was failing. Edward was burning up beneath him, his whole body was shaking, Edward was shaking, and they were swimming in a veritable ocean of crimson. Of Edward.
Edward kissed him again, slower this time; drew him down deeper into the mattress. He didn't want to put his whole weight on the other boy – so thin, he looks like he's going to snap – but Edward wouldn't let him go. Pulled him closer, harder, until they were pressed so close he thought he might die.
"Okay?" Edward asked simply. Rocked his hips upward in a hard, slow grind. Russell choked on an incoming breath.
Too much. It was too much. He was going to drown in this red, let it eat at him until there was nothing of himself left. He couldn't do that. Russell began scrambling upward, wanting to surface.
A single hand wrapped itself around his wrist, held him loosely. Edward was staring up at him, desperate. Wild-eyed.
"Please…" He whispered, and he was trembling. Trembling.
Russell sucked in a deep breath and closed his eyes against the firelight, the festering red. Concentrated instead on the way Edward felt against his body, the feeling of the other boy's warmth on his groin. Tried not to let himself worry.
What were any of them tonight, if not ghosts?
"Okay." He whispered back, nibbled at the edge of Edward's jaw. Stretched his arms out and welcomed Edward back; let him know with his hands and lips and hips and tongue that he was needed. Edward was sinking, and where he went, Russell would follow.
The boy swam down in those sheets, and came up a man.
He woke the next morning with a sourness in his mouth, a bitterness that he didn't quite recognize. Slightly flavored like brandy, but not at all pleasant. This was sourly alcoholic, like he'd brushed his teeth with mouthwash. He made a face and tried to spit his tongue out; found it vaguely upsetting when it failed to detach.
Something stirred beside him, and he turned toward it, hands seeking visuals where his eyes could not. His vision was muzzy; the details didn't quite seem to resolve.
Edward, lying next to him, in a spill of bright hair tangled up with the sheets.
He woke up all over again.
"Nnnn…?" He whimpered intelligently, struggling to get his arms to lift himself. Edward was sliding away from him, backwards, out of grasping range and that seemed wrong, for some reason. Edward wasn't supposed to be over there.
"Shh." A cool hand, brushing over his forehead. A slight wetness – now, a washcloth – on his lower half.
He must have dozed off for a few more minutes, because when he finally got his head entirely turned Edward was standing up and dressing, tugging a stark cotton shirt sleeve over his automail arm. It was like watching a film strip in reverse, he thought absently…last night, he had watched intently as that white shirt came off.
Edward's hair still streamed down his back in an unkempt gold tangle. Russell seemed to recall using it as reins at one point. And the nape of his neck (almost visible, through the knots in his hair) seemed to beg for a good, solid kissing. Russell had the sudden urge to pull himself out of bed and wrap himself around from the back, do exactly that. Wondered, perhaps, if he would be allowed.
"Hey." Edward said when he noticed him watching. "How ya feeling?" He spoke in a soft, probably purposeful whisper.
"Not so hot." Russell admitted truthfully. "Kinda feel like I got hit by a streetcar." He wanted to chuckle, but his poor belly hurt too much.
"Have some water." Edward advised. "It'll help."
He gestured toward the night stand, where a small glass stood waiting. Russell stared at it distrustfully, wasn't sure his stomach wanted anything inside it at the moment. The other boy continued dressing in sharp, matter-of-fact motions: first one pant leg, then the other, then the buttons, then the zipper. Very business-like. Every part of the ritual was firm, finalistic…a good-bye in itself. The clothes were not coming off again.
He looked down at his own, naked self and felt vaguely discouraged.
They had slept together. Was this supposed to mean something? He really didn't think so. This happened all the time at parties (at least, to other people). The red sheets lay soiled and rumpled around him, and it was only a matter of time before someone came in to change them. He felt eyes on his skin and oh god, Edward was looking at him, staring with those beautiful, beautiful eyes of his. Did he regret what he had done? His expression was flat and devoid of emotion, the first time Russell had seen it lacking.
"Thanks." Edward said simply, flipped his hair back over his shoulder. Headed for the door.
The word was out before he could explain it, and it froze them both in their tracks. Edward stopped with one hand already on the doorknob, let it fall back to his side.
"Pier Street." Russell stammered. "Fourteen-twenty Pier Street. For the postcards."
The ghost of a smile flickered at the edges of Edward's lips.
"I'll see if I can stop by, maybe."
The door swung open and shut, and in a matter of heartbeats Edward was gone.
There should have been something more, perhaps, Russell thought vaguely, but what exactly that was quite escaped him. Maybe nothing.
He dozed off to sleep again, but this time, to dream.
He got up for real again later that morning (or was it afternoon? hard to tell, in the rain) and stumbled out into a thunderstorm, without either coat or umbrella and fast became soaked. Normally, he would have cursed at this; today, it just didn't seem to warrant it.
A girl's golden jewelry; the gilding on the clock tower. Yellow, saffron, golden things kept catching his eye, and he peered into alleys on more than one occasion.
Just in case. Russell thought. Just in case.
He stomped in puddles like a man possessed, and it was no surprise that their house came up quickly, the fastest commute he had ever made on foot.
"Brother!" Fletcher shouted, as soon as he floated through the door. "Where have you been!? I was worried about you."
"At the party…" Russell said absently, hung his coat up on entirely the wrong hook. Was it wrong (certainly disturbing) that he found himself staring at his brother, wishing his hair was a higher shade of blonde?
"Oh." Fletcher said simply, retrieved the misplaced sport jacket. "Okay. We were worried you had wandered off, or something. I figured I would be the last one home, so…"
He trailed off in mid-sentence, blushed uncharacteristically pink. Russell blinked. Wondered briefly if Fletcher and Catherine had spent the night in their own room doused in red.
Shook himself desperately. There were some things in life he did not want to think about.
The red, though, oh that red, and ruddy skin that flushed to match it—
"Are you okay?" Fletcher was asking. "You're all pale."
"Yeah." Russell swallowed, aware that his mouth had gone dry. "Yeah, sure, I'm fine. Need to get cleaned up, though. You mind?"
He stumbled off toward their shower and discarded his clothes haphazardly along the way, called for Fletcher to start the laundry. The lack of water was going to make the shower run cold, Russell knew, but that was really all the better.
He had the feeling he was going to need one.
Much later, much cleaner, he joined his brother in the living room for the ceremony.
"Do you have the candles?" He asked. "I got the oranges."
Fletcher wrinkled his nose at him as he placed the fruit on the altar.
"I really wish you wouldn't use those." He complained. "They're so expensive!"
"Got any other suggestions?" Russell retorted, annoyed. "You're the one who bought ‘em."
"I was going to use apples and keep those for dinner, but as I recall, somebody just had to make pie…"
"…let's just get this over with." Russell sighed. "I'll go and buy you more apples while you're at Catherine's. I promise."
"You're not going?!" Fletcher's eyes widened. He had the audacity to look horrified.
"I thought we went over this already!" Russell snapped, annoyed. "Dammit, Fletcher…she's your girlfriend."
"And you're my brother. So if I say you're welcome, then you're welcome." The boy said resolutely. Damn the kid and his logic.
I wish it were that simple, Fletcher… He thought to himself, resisted the temptation just to reach out and ruffle the boy's hair. But I don't want to screw this up for you.
"Look, come on…it was a really late night last night, okay? Not really sure I'm up to dealing with the Armstrong crew just right now."
"Catherine says Alex will be on his best behavior!" Fletcher answered stiffly. "She promised me herself!"
He's even calling the Colonel ‘Alex' now. Russell thought, despairingly. How much longer before he starts to call him ‘brother'?!
"Be that as it may, I don't particularly relish the thought of his ‘welcome hugs'. Last time that happened, I thought I was gonna be in traction for a week." Russell tried to laugh, but the sound came out forced.
Fletcher looked at him sadly and placed a hand on his arm.
"You're not going to be the ‘third wheel', brother." He said softly. "The Armstrongs like you. They really do. You won't be in the way at all."
"I know." Russell lied. "I'm just really tired. I swear."
"…well, let me know if you change your mind." Was all Fletcher would say. "Come on, let's get these lit."
They placed the heavy candles in the old candlesticks, struck a match a piece off the edge of the windowsill and touched them to the respective wicks. Fletcher lit Mother this year; Russell lit Father, but when they bowed their heads it was to both parents that he prayed.
Take care of Fletcher, you guys. He said. He's got everything going for him right now. And he deserves it. Please, don't let anything screw this up for him.
Especially not me.
He stood there and stared at the fire, listened to the intent way his brother whispered under his breath. What Fletcher asked them, he did not know. He only hoped that whatever he sought after, he would get.
Seeking… He thought, musing by the candlelight. There was another out there who was searching, alone in the streets.
Did anyone even think to light candles for him?
"Bye, brother!" Fletcher was calling. Russell nodded, waited until the front door had completely closed before he drug out the step-stool.
A short while later there was a third candle on the altar, tall and spiraling, blazing into night like a miniature bonfire.
Russell hoped that would be enough.
He had almost forgotten what he was waiting for when it finally arrived. The candles were half-way consumed and the room was hazy, abstract with their smoke. He was considering opening a window when the door started to rattle off its hinges. He was almost afraid to approach it…had the strange premonition it might blow off its hinges, lay him cold on the carpet. Destroyed, by some other-worldly force.
There was no monster lurking behind the frame though, only Edward; the younger boy huddled beneath his coat yet still looking cold. His beautiful hair (the same shade Russell had been mooning over the entire afternoon) was unbound and streaming, streaming down around his shoulders.
"Come in." He rasped, mouth completely spit less. What took you so long? Edward's eyes seemed to say, but he bowed his head cordially and stepped in without comment.
Edward. He was wearing small spectacles, Russell noted with glee; it made him look dignified. It suited him, somehow. He could perfectly picture the boy curling up by the fireside, using those tiny little glasses to read in the hearth-light.
He wanted to take them off with his teeth.
"Can I get you anything?" He asked, trying to distract himself from that glorious, all-too-forward image. "Coffee? Tea?"
Edward shook his head, but his eyes flickered toward the oranges on the altar, caressed them in a way that almost made Russell blush.
Edward nodded, fixated on the orange globes. Russell moved toward the windowsill and fetched him the largest one. He didn't even have time to offer a plate before there was a flash of transmutation, and Edward was peeling the orange with a blade on his wrist.
He wasn't really aware that he was staring until the other boy froze, turned to him with a pained expression.
"Sorry…I didn't mean to barge in and start moochin' your stuff!" Said Edward, dripping orange juice from his automail.
"No, it's okay! M-make yourself at home!" Russell stammered. He wasn't quite sure how to express that it was just that he'd never seen automail, at least, not in such a domestic setting.
"Go ahead and sit down." He offered the couch. "Make yourself comfortable."
Edward complied, still fussing with the orange. Russell watched, fascinated, as nimble steel parted the flesh into individual sections, even. How precise were those fingers, he wondered, could they perform any other types of fine motor movements…
Watched as Edward's lips curled around the orange pulp and sucked it dry.
I remember that. He thought to himself, and then blushed.
Edward attacked the fruit ravenously, draining each section of juice before tearing out every last strand of pulp. Wasting no time, and not one bit of flesh. Russell frowned. He remembered how skinny Edward was, how prominent his hip bones had been when they rubbed themselves together.
"You sure you don't want anything else? Gramma would say we've gotta fatten you up!" He said, only half-joking.
"Naw, I'm fine." Edward said, between pulls.
"Another orange, at least?" God. He had the ludicrous urge to just give Edward things. Especially if it meant he could watch his lips work like that.
He picked a second up and almost started peeling it himself, but Edward snatched the fruit away and began inhaling it. Again. Absolutely mesmerizing.
He sat down gingerly at the edge of the couch – not too close, that might seem…odd – and wondered like hell what he was supposed to do now.
Edward raised his eyebrows and inclined his head toward him, still licking the last of the juice off his lips.
Russell almost forgot how to breathe.
"You mentioned there were postcards?"
"Postcards. From Al?" Edward asked again, looking slightly betrayed.
"Postcards! Right." He chuckled nervously. Oh god, Ed, I swear I'm not lying…please…
"This way." He said, and showed his ghost to the shrine he was buried in.
"I have to warn you." He said as he turned the handle. This was the embarrassing part. "Fletcher was somewhat of a…fan of you two when he was younger."
He flipped on the light switch, indicated helplessly toward the Wall on the north side of his brother's room. At first glance, it looked like it was merely papered in gray. On second…
Edward's eyes went wide.
"Yeah, I know what it looks like." He rubbed the back of his head self-consciously. "You have to understand – we grew up in the boonies. Fletcher, he…we didn't even have a Grampa who went off to war or whatever. And after you two came to town…you guys were the closest thing he had to a real live super-hero."
Edward stepped forward and fingered the edge of one of the hundreds of newspaper clippings. Adjusted his glasses.
"I told him to get rid of that crap, you know." Said Russell, babbling. "But after you died—I mean, after you left, he wanted to put it on display. Said it was…"
"Said that he wanted to ‘honor the dead'."
"Well, at least he didn't pick the living room…" Edward said eventually. His expression was neutral, but his voice – his voice was utterly amused.
"Or the bathroom!" Russell sighed. "I put the kibosh on that one, too."
Edward arched an eyebrow.
"Well, he figured that would be the one room every visitor would have to see eventually."
They both snickered at that one, the thought of someone trapped in the gaze of the photograph-eyes.
"Maybe if you put Mustang's face over the can." Edward suggested. "He'd make a good target. He's in enough of these damn pictures!"
"Yeah…you two were kind of camera-shy, you know."
"Naw, the Colonel was just too damn camera-friendly!"
He isn't these days. Russell wanted to say, but held his tongue. He owed a lot to General Mustang and his faction. Owed them his life. He could begrudge the man a little vanity.
"Always jumped in front of me when the reporters showed up." Edward sniffed, continuing his rant. "Never let me get in the spotlight for anything."
"Course," he said wistfully, "I suppose that he thought he was trying to protect us."
He turned to Russell and there were lines in his face,
"So. Where's the recent stuff?"
"On his dresser." Russell said. "He tapes those along the side."
"No more newspapers?"
"Nah. I think he got over that after…well, you know. They sort of buried your story."
Edward scowled, turned around momentarily.
"That supposed to be a joke?"
"N-no, of course not!" Russell stammered, unsettled. Why did he just have to keep tripping over his damn tongue? He felt like a puppy faced with a pitbull.
"Jeez, everything has to be about you, doesn't it." He laughed weakly. "There is such a thing as a figure of speech, you know."
"Yeah, right." Edward sniffed, but went back to examining Fletcher's relics. Russell sucked on his lip hard, willing himself just to be quiet.
I've read them. He wanted to say. I could tell just you…
Tell him what? Edward needed this for himself. It wasn't his place to spoil it. Russell could only watch the progression as the other boy's head weaved, scanned along the columns. His eyebrows swooped and danced, mirth and anger and joy playing out like a symphony. He was laughing as Alphonse laughed, crying as Alphonse cried, and Russell would do nothing to take that away from him.
Edward's eyes tracked all the way to the middle of the display, then abruptly, froze. He bristled visibly, balled his hands into fists.
Slammed his fists against his sides.
"He never told me." Edward hissed, and Russell was confused momentarily. "Goddammit Mustang, why the FUCK didn't you tell me?!"
He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, staring at the image; Russell looked at it too, though he knew all too well what he would see. Alphonse's long bangs and ponytail, that red coat unmistakable even in gray. It was an awful photograph – it had been taken quickly and unprofessionally, in a town square by some backwoods journalist – but it was undeniably Alphonse. Alphonse, such as he had become.
Alphonse, the Fullmetal Alchemist.
"Did you know?" Edward asked, sounding hollow. Sounding tired. "All this time, I've been looking for myself?!"
"Yes," Russell swallowed. "I knew." He couldn't believe that Edward didn't know. There was momentary anger, the desire to storm right down to Mustang's house right now and rip the bloody door down…
But it was not his vengeance to have, he reminded himself. He was getting too involved in affairs that did not concern him.
Edward brushed the edges of his fingertips – his real fingertips, not the automail – across the face of the photograph, outlined his brother's ghostly face. Alphonse's long bangs and ponytail, the red coat unmistakable even in gray. There was longing there, deeper than anything Russell had ever known, and it was almost humbling in its intensity.
Russell looked away. It seemed too private somehow.
"I didn't want to believe it." Edward whispered to his shade of a brother, almost too low for Russell to hear it. "But it's true."
He turned to Russell and his expression was imploring, grasping for sympathy.
"All I ever wanted was for him to have a life." He said, and there was a quavering note. Pleading. "That was it."
"That's all any of us ever want, for our brothers." Said Russell, feeling awkward. "You can't do anything more than that. Wish, and hope it comes true."
And you, Edward…what do you wish for?
Is there anything else to you, outside of this want?
"I just wanted him to grow up and be happy. I just wanted him to live." Edward repeated again, more violently this time. "And now I'm here, and it's all fucked up again."
"What are you talking about?"
Edward jabbed a finger at Fletcher's collection, pointed toward the lowest row.
"When was that last one dated, huh? Over a month ago."
"…I don't follow you."
"The others were all two weeks apart, right as clock-work. What happened to the last one?"
"He was busy? Edward…"
Edward squeezed his eyes shut. When they opened, they were like polished coins – flat and reflective, giving nothing away.
"I suppose I should thank you." Edward said. His smile was ghoulish. "At least you confirmed it."
"Confirmed WHAT?" Russell asked, exasperated. He had long since forgotten his hesitance toward the boy, his strange need to pet him; he was filled instead with the sharp desire to strangle him. He had forgotten Edward had that effect on people.
Edward flopped backward onto the edge of Fletcher's bed, wrapped his arms around himself.
"I came back a month ago, in the middle of the night – the last day anybody had any sort of contact with him. I bet Mustang knew, that great son of a bitch…"
"I came, and he went." Edward laughed, a bone-dry chuckle. "Where's the good in that."
"I don't understand." Said Russell, throat dry.
"It's okay. You don't have to understand."
He looked up at Russell. Stretched his arms out as far as they could go, waggled the tips beseechingly.
"Just come here." He said simply, arched himself up. "That's all you have to do. Just come here."
He wriggled again, and there was desperation in his eyes.
Russell obeyed. It was Fletcher's room, Fletcher's small bed; but somehow the thought didn't horrify him as it should have. His own brother was gone, lost to him tonight; would not be living here much longer anyways. In the grand scheme of things, this was nobody's room at all.
Nobody home but us ghosts. He thought, twining himself in flesh. Nobody here at all.
Edward arched up into his touch, mewled helplessly inside his mouth. He tasted like nothing and oranges all at once, and Russell let him take what he wanted, let the smaller boy rise up and pull him under.
"Please…" Edward rasped, and Russell gave with everything he had.
At some point the glasses fell, and came off. They clattered to the floor, slid back beneath the dresser, and there they would remain until spring, when Fletcher found them rearranging his room.
Sometime later, when the edge was off their hunger, Russell found himself wide-eyed and staring. Edward dozed across his chest, exhausted and motionless, but still…still not there. Even the rain was louder than the sound of his breath.
He extracted a hand slowly, ran it down along Edward's sides just to feel if his chest was still moving. Yes, it was – the flesh was warm, quivering, heaving like always. Edward was warm, he was even slightly heavy. His automail pinched.
Maybe it's me, Russell thought, that isn't here.
Edward stirred and Russell's arms tightened instinctively, cradled him closer as he started to wake. Edward began sliding a hand up his leg again, lips working soft against his collarbone, and Russell, exasperated, shoved his hand away.
Is this all there is to you, Edward? He thought, feeling helpless. Is there anything else to you but endless wanting?
He had the feeling the answer would be no.
Edward made a soft, displeased noise and lifted his head up, blinked adorably through sleep-shrouded eyes.
"Why did you stop?"
"Why did you start?"
Edward scowled. "Look, if you're going to be weird about this…"
"I wasn't aware there was a ‘this' to be weird about."
"Smart ass." But he did not deny it.
Russell stroked him again, ran his hands along Edward's spine. He didn't want to know, but he had to.
Had to know if this apparition would ever be real.
"What are you going to do?" He whispered.
"…find him." Edward said, and god those lines were back in his face again, that horrible shadow. "If we have to chase each other all eternity, so help me. I'll do it."
"I'm going to bring him back."
"And after that?"
Nothing. Only the sound of the wind, and the rain against the windowpane.
"There is no after, is there?" He asked, arms tightening until Edward squirmed to get free. "Ed—"
The other boy kneeled above him and tried to smile, the saddest expression Russell had ever seen.
"I never believed in one in the first place."
Lips descended, and his neck was suddenly on fire.
"No," he gasped, "I don't want—"
But he did want, because he craned toward those lips like a man possessed, rocked his body up into Edward's like his own life depended on it. A hand, lower on his torso, and then he could no more tear away than stop breathing. His body was one long line of fire, and he praised and cursed Edward's name all at once as that hand started to move.
Rain came, put out the fire between them.
"Why?" He whispered hoarsely, as soon as he could breathe again. "Why me?"
"Because you called for me." Edward said, ran sticky hands desperately along his spine. "I went down, looking for Al, and you called for me."
"You called me back."
Russell looked at him, wild-eyed, needing…and bent his head up.
This time it was Edward who arched into Russell's touch, Edward who whimpered as his skin was licked, sucked, swallowed, devoured. He might not be as good at this as Edward, but he knew how to reach between their bodies and make that fire burn, and that was all that mattered.
For this one night he could hold, kiss, indulge, make things feel real again, and that would be enough.
They woke once more just before dawn, tired and sticky and hopelessly entangled. He asked if Edward would like to join him in the shower, but the other boy politely declined, asked only for a washcloth. It was the automail, he claimed. Shouldn't be entirely submerged.
It didn't matter what the reason was to Russell, because Edward was out the door, and leaving.
There was no rain this morning; nothing but light and more light through his doorway. Edward faded in the wash of it, his hair the only thing dark enough to stand out. Swaying ponytail, floating in the morning sun. Russell stood there and watched him vanish, didn't bother to run after or squint his eyes. He no longer needed to separate the fact from the fiction.
He knew, sure as anything, that he was looking at a dead man walking.
The sun climbed the sky, and the last of the puddles rose up and evaporated.