It was the seediest hotel Ed had ever been in. There was garbage left in the hallway, and it STANK. Somehow it just didn't fit with the neat and prim image he held of the Tringham brothers. Nonetheless the note in his hand had this address and this room number.
He knocked hesitantly.
A moment later he heard something scrape and the door cracked opened. He saw a large eye appear in slit, assessing him for a moment before the door shut again. The door opened again wider. Fletcher looked up and down the hall and then waved him in.
"You came," said the boy somewhat breathlessly.
Ed looked around the room. Despite being a hotel room, it had not seen maid service in some while. There was a layer of dust on everything. The single bed in the middle of the room was simply atrocious. Ed didn't want to get near it for fear of fleas.
Fletcher had no qualms. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and Ed winced as he actually heard the springs give unhappily. "I'm glad you came, " said Fletcher. "I was afraid you wouldn't."
"Why are you here, Fletcher?" asked Ed. "What do you need me for?"
"Russell says he has something for you. But he isn't back yet."
"Where is he?"
"Looking for books to buy, I think. " Fletcher hesitated. "I'm not sure."
"And he left you here alone? In this place?" Ed's opinion of Russell was dropping by the minute. This wasn't a safe part of town, Fletcher was too soft and unworldly to be walking these streets alone, which meant that he must have been held almost prisoner in this room, waiting for his older brother to come back from buying... books. Luxuries.
Where the hell were Russell's priorities.
Fletcher smiled and shrugged. "Someone had to wait for you."
Ed made the mistake of sitting down next to Fletcher. He then realized that the blanket he was on was filthy beyond description. He stood up quickly and brushed off his cloak. That was it. He had to get this kid out of here.
He leaned over and grabbed the boy's hand, pulling him up. "Come on, Fletcher. This room will give you a disease, lets find somewhere else to wait for your brother."
Fletcher allowed himself to be dragged to the door. "But brother won't be able to find us..."
...Brother... like what Al always called him. Ed felt his heart ache and wished that Al was with him. Al was missing, kidnapped again. God only knew what was happening to him. But Ed couldn't do anything about that now. He had to wait for Russell and hope the clue Russell had dangled out for him would eventually reunite him with Al.
In the meantime Fletcher CLEARLY needed him.
"We'll leave a note at the front desk."
Fletcher looked much healthier as soon as they left the building. The kid's skin seemed rosier, his smile was brighter. "Have you eaten anything?" Ed asked.
Fletcher shook his head. "We had some bread last night..."
"Your brother is an idiot," growled Ed. "Come, I saw a sandwich shop a few blocks from here that looked like it might be decent." Fletcher held his hand tighter and followed with a bounce in his step.
Ed sat back and watched with pleasure as Fletcher lit into his second sandwich. The pure bliss on the kids face made Ed grin. "Why the hell is Russell buying books?" Ed asked. "He should be feeding you, giving you a decent place to sleep."
"He's buying alchemy books," said Fletcher. "We need them. We are going to become alchemists, and set up a shop and when that happens we won't have to worry about money anymore. Russell is so talented, he just needs to know more. Everything else can wait. I don't mind."
Ed understood the sentiment, but still... He would have never neglected Al like this to pursue his dreams. And leaving the boy alone in that neighborhood... it was clear that Russell had never contemplated losing Fletcher.
The boy sipped his soda and made it gurgle. Then laughed.
When they got Al's body back, Ed vowed, he would take him to a sandwich shop. And he'd treat his brother to a smorgasbord. They would work their way through all the flavors of the soda fountain. And Ed imagined Al's expression would look something like Fletcher's was right now.
After they left the sandwich shop, Ed led Fletcher through the park to the better side of Central. Fletcher's eyes went wide as they passed the large ornamental gates and stepped onto the sandy cobblestone paths. "This place is so pretty," the boy breathed. "I didn't know it was here."
"Have you and Russell explored much of town?" Ed asked.
Fletcher shook his head. "Only the books stores... and pawn shops."
So Ed made sure to take Fletcher to the most beautiful parts of the park—the formal gardens on one end, the path around the lake, where the ducks swam, the sculpture garden. He bought a packet of seed from a vendor and for a while they fed the ducks. Fletcher's laughter when the ducks swarmed him was the sweetest sound that Ed had heard in months.
Ed forgot about the philosopher's stone. He even forgot about Al. For a while he was just in the moment, experiencing a warm afternoon, and the happiness of his companion.
Ed reached over and brushed some seed off of Fletcher's sleeve and noticed how dingy and crusty the cloth had become. It was the same shirt and pants he'd seen the kid in the last time he'd met him, over a year before, but the boy had grown in that time. The clothes had become too short, too tight, too worn.
He remembered the kid had no luggage—none at all, not a single personal item. Even his extra clothes had gone to the pawn shop, in turn for a few centz with which to buy a meal.
Ed grabbed Fletcher's hand again. "Come on, I'm going to get you some better clothes."
"I... you don't need to do that, Ed," said the boy, blushing and lowering his eyes.
"It's nothing, really."
Fletcher looked a thousand times better in the new clothes. It wasn't that they were all that different from his old ones, in fact they were almost identical, but they fit much more comfortably, and they lacked the small tears and threadbare parts of the old clothes. Fletcher just ran his hands over the sleeves as if it were the most marvelous thing he'd ever touched.
When the boy looked up at him, it was with something close to worship.
For the first time Ed felt just a touch uncomfortable. I bought his awe with a few sandwiches and shirt. It seemed far too cheap a price.
But the afternoon was too good to waste worrying about such things. And when Fletcher's eyes seemed to linger extra long on the window of a chocolate shop, Ed couldn't resist dragging him in and buying him enough to last a week. Or a day with a bellyache.
"Hide them from Russell," said Ed conspiratorially. "Buying books instead of food, what was the fool thinking."
Fletcher just looked at the pavement. "We need to sacrifice for the future," he said. "That's what equivalent trade says. Soon things will be better."
Ed swallowed the chocolate he'd been savoring. "Some sacrifices aren't worth making," he said. If only he'd known that when he was Fletcher's age. Perhaps then Al would still be able to enjoy chocolates.
Russell didn't know what he was wasting.
They arrived at last at the hotel. Fletcher's eyes couldn't have gotten bigger. "Oh, this place is too nice," he said. "This is too much. It's..."
"Decadent?" asked Ed, smiling.
"Wasteful," said Fletcher. "We could stay a week at the last place for a day here."
Actually, Ed imagined they could have stayed two weeks at that horrible hotel for the price of a night at this one. In fact this was far more luxurious than he usually afforded himself and Al. But he wasn't paying, the Military was, and Fletcher deserved at least one night on a soft bed.
"I'm spoiling you, " said Ed.
"I have," said Fletcher. "We have nothing to give you..."
"That look on your face is all I want." Fletcher didn't understand. Of course he couldn't. He couldn't understand that it had been MONTHS since Ed had felt this relaxed. This happy. And it was all because he was with someone who enjoyed what little he could do... so ... much.
He took Fletcher up to the room and watched as Fletcher ran over to the large window looked out over the park and gave a grand view of Central. 'The city is so pretty from here."
He then threw himself on one of the beds. It took the child's weight without a whisper. "Ooooh." For a moment Ed wondered if Fletcher had fallen asleep, but then he just rolled over, and stared a moment at the ceiling.
Then Fletcher sat up, stood up, and moved over to where Ed stood, near the large window. "Thank you." And Ed was enveloped in a surprisingly strong bear hug.
He patted the kid's head kindly, smoothing the hair. It was nice for once to be looking down at someone.
But then Fletcher arched back and looked up, meeting his eyes. And there was something there that was not awe, but something more vulnerable, and sweeter, and not right.
Fletcher went up on his toes and planted a kiss on Ed's lips. Then pulled him back into a hug. "I think I love you," he murmured into Ed's shoulder.
Oh god, thought Ed. He didn't know what to do. In a flash he realized what he'd just done was literally sweep this kid off his feet. Fletcher was crushing on him... and who wouldn't after the afternoon they'd had. Had this been a date it would have been a damn good one.
Fletcher's hands were stroking his shoulders in a clumsy way.
I could push him away, and say no. Act disgusted. Act embarrassed. I could crush him so easily, and ruin this afternoon absolutely.
Or I could put him down gently. He pressed Fletcher closer. "I'm not worthy of your love, Fletcher. My life is too complicated, I'm in too great a mess to do your feelings any justice." He gave the kid's hair one last stroke. "I have to do some dangerous things, and I don't know if I will survive them."
Fletcher understood and pulled away, embarrassed, hiding his face.
They waited in silence for Russell to come. But later, while watching the sun go down, Ed saw Fletcher smiling again.