Open Mike Night at Rush Valley's one and only coffee house attracts a great many of the town's most ridiculous people. In fact, it was the one night that the town's hipster population could be seen all in one place, even standing in an incredibly long line to enter the wildly popular event, which is to listen to a bunch of loser freaks read their retarded poetry.
"This sucks. You know I hate poetry," is my way of saying that I am fucking bored standing in line.
"But you like coffee," Winry says. "And this place has the best in town." Then Winry grips Paninya's hand and jumps up and down like a jackrabbit to see if the door has opened yet.
"Usually when you have guests visiting from out of town, you might consider bringing them to something they'd enjoy." I cross my arms and attempt to look even more bored than before, because it is my aim to make everyone feel sorry for me having to be at this stupid event when I could be somewhere nice and quiet right about now, having Russell giving me a blow job while I eat a bowl of noodles.
"Like what?" says Winry, making the arched eyebrows at me. "There's a cockfight pit next door, I'm sure you'd just love that."
"Very funny," I say.
Russell rolls his eyes at Winry. "He's not cultured," he says. La-di-da Russell, as if he are the most cultured guy east of Aquoroia, he pretends he knows all about opera and architecture and shit like that but really all he knows about is his fucking plants and how to pleasure me in forty-one different positions.
"They've opened the door!" squeals Paninya.
Russell throws his arm around my neck and kisses me hard on the cheek, which just annoys me tonight.
"Get off!" I push him away but he sticks his fingers through my belt-loops, I swear to the fucking Gate, I am going to kick his ass.
We are herded into this tiny low-ceilinged place and are supposedly lucky to secure a tiny, equilateral table a bit too close to the front, a bit too close to where the exhibitionists will be playing their guitars and singing and reading their poetry to the room. They might want to try to make eye contact with me. Shudder. As usual, Russell is hanging all over me. No need to flaunt it, I always say, but Russell is...Russell. One arm slung over my shoulder, Russell picks up his mug of coffee and I notice that he has his pinky out daintily as if he were holding a tiny cup of tea. Oh for fuck's sake. I have to look away, but then I catch the big shimmery blue eyes of Winry, and she winks at me.
I shouldn't have winked at Ed, if Russell had seen that he'd go nuts, he's so possessive. But I couldn't help it...it's getting impossible to keep this a secret, it really is. I feel like I'm about to burst all the time, since Ed and Russell showed up in Rush Valley last week. Look at him, aw, looking all cranky and bored and glaring around the room. He never seems comfortable in places like this, but it's part of the reason I brought him here. I just love to torture him, I don't know why. It's so easy to poke the crazy, with Edward, to rile him up.
I turn around and crane my neck to look for Paninya. That girl is forever disappearing into crowds, leaving me to fend for myself half the time, seriously, whenever we go anywhere, I feel like I'm going stag. Of course, Pan always comes back with something nice for me—an ice-cold beer, or a clove cigarette, sometimes she just turns up with a new earring for me to wear, all of them I have now are from my girl. I'm still not entirely sure if Pan has entirely given up her old light-fingered ways; in a way it's flattering to think of her stealing, just for me. I finger the piercings in my right ear, feeling guilty. Tonight isn't the night to feel regret, or to let my resolve fail me.
Still, I feel bad. Sorry, Pan.
Meanwhile, as I sip at my already-cooling coffee I am subjected to watching Russell nuzzle Ed's neck. Really, does he have to be so demonstrative? It's a little much. Yeah, yeah, he's in love. Ed looks sweetly put out, his face flushed and he keeps avoiding my eye.
I don't know why I'm still so stuck on him. For years now I've tried to convince myself that it's just that childhood puppy-love that persists, a part of me that doesn't want to grow up. After all, I have Paninya, and Paninya is a great girl. Beautiful, sexy, clever, tough, and we have a heck of a lot of fun together. Ed is all those things, too, though he does tend to get a little intense sometimes. But, but...Paninya has the advantage of three automail limbs, and Ed has only two. There is that.
That makes me laugh to myself. Imagine having a lover with no automail? Ewwwww. Just, ew.
"So when do the poetics start?" Russell asks sharply, the crook of his elbow still hooked around my neck. I see him give a pointed glare to a tall, dark-haired guy who happens to glance at our table, wincing and sucking in his cheek in a hey he's mine, buddy way. Can't he give it a rest for a minute? I try to pull away, I want to just breathe dammit. Finally, I wrap my hand around Russell's wrist and pull it off.
"It's so damn hot in here," I say. "When is this thing gonna start?"
"Soon," says Winry, again glancing around, looking for Paninya I guess. I see her eyes dilate, and when I turn around I see that she's caught a glimpse of her girlfriend's rather lovely, pleasantly wide ass close to the coffee bar, leaning forward, talking to the guy behind the counter.
Suddenly, Russell takes the liberty of pushing my hair away from my face.
"Look at how you're wilting!" he says.
I push his hand away. "I'm not one of your fucking plants! Leave me alone, I'm hot."
"You're so cranky, Ed," says Russell. "Isn't he, Winry?"
"He can be," Winry says, avoiding my eye.
I do not like when people talk about me like I'm not there. I'm just about to say something to that effect when Paninya rushes up . "Ta da!" she says, and several things clack onto the table. Paper fans. "I got the guy at the bar to give them to me, they were saving them for later."
I grab one with one hand, and open the collar of my jacket with the other.
"You're welcome," says Paninya.
I am just about to say thank you when, "This is great, thanks," Russell says. Then he begins to fan himself dramatically, like those overdressed fancy ladies from a century ago. He really is getting on my nerves tonight.
Finally, the lights in the crowded room dim, and the loud talking ceases, as everyone hushes. The emcee for the evening is a skinny guy dressed in black, with lopsided eyeglasses and thick silver rings on every finger. He taps the microphone, standing alone and looking stranded at the front of the room, and clears his throat. The microphone produces a great deal of feedback, and the audience twitches and groans for a moment because microphone feedback is so fucking excruciating. Man, I hate crowds like this.
"Open mike night is a night for the people!" the guy announces, forming an unconvincing fist with his hand, he holds it before him as if he intends to beat everyone in the room to a pulp—if he only had the strength. "Open mike night is a chance for any of you to come up here and share your work...without judgment, without credentials! This is democracy! This is freedom!"
The crowd stirs; some people clap. I am unmoved. Russell seems nervous and uptight all of a sudden, sitting up straight, and looking kind of tense, and then I notice Winry's hands on the table right next to his, twisting together. That isn't like her. I watch her hands as the emcee rants, something about the State and the Military and how they try to keep the People from expressing Themselves...Winry's hands, long-fingered, strong, her fingernails never clean no matter how hard she scrubs. Because of her work, she would never have hands that looked pristine and ladylike, but I know what they are capable of, and how hard she works, and how gentle she can be, and how those hands could work something like miracles...like they have for me.
Wait...I'm having a moment.
Then I feel a hand slip over my flesh one and squeeze, hard, almost an admonishment.
The emcee consults his list of fools who have volunteered their self-respect. I'm not sure how long that list is, but after two pathetically bad poets, a lady in a very unflattering dress stands behind the microphone and begins to warble hideously depressing folksy songs to her poorly tuned guitar. I'm no expert on music, but is "The Lonely Soldier of Xing" supposed to sound like a cat being turned inside out?
The music is bad, but looking at Winry...ever since we've been here in Rush Valley visiting her and Paninya, I can't keep my eyes off of her. It's different from how it used to be, when we were just kids. I can't explain it but those feelings I used to have for her, that I thought were just kid-crushes or puppy love, have turned into something that feels so real, like, if I could only kiss her, everything else in my life would make sense.
I know, it sounds dumb. Especially since I've never so much as touched a girl in my life. Mustang, Russell, even the occasional tumble with Havoc...I'm a guy's guy, right? Man, would I feel stupid having a girlfriend. Everyone would just take the piss all the time.
Still...I imagine myself touching her hair, and her neck...but I see Paninya put her arm around Winry, and Winry tips her head toward Paninya's shoulder. I see how much they love each other, who am I to get between them....
Suddenly there is a jolt of movement beside me.
Holy shit. Russell bolts from his seat, nearly upending the chair in his haste to leap toward the microphone. What the holy hell is he doing? I shrink into my seat. This isn't going to be good.
Russell removes a folded piece of paper from his pocket. I've never seen him look so sweaty and disheveled, it had just happened over the course of that moment, leaping from chair to center stage. His hair is falling almost completely over his face, a curtain of soggy yellow hair, and there are huge perspiration stains forming in his armpits.
Since when did Russell write poetry? Something tells me that this poetry is going to be neither good nor entertaining. At least not for me.
Russell fidgets, opening the paper with shaking hands. He is visibly trembling. I want to slip under the table, but a worried look from Winry catches my eye. She shakes her head. I look at Paninya, leaning back against the table and facing the mike, she smiles as if she is really looking forward to Russell's total humiliation.
"Ahem." Russell clears his throat. The audience is getting jittery; I can sense movement all around the dimly lit room. He can hear blood beginning to circulate; this crowd knows an amateur when they see one. Uh oh.
"This is called ‘Red' and it's for...well, he'll know," Russell begins.
Death, please come for me now. I'm ready to meet my maker. I'll go stand at the Gate. Anything, anything but this.
But life isn't through with me yet. First, apparently, I must suffer the exquisite torture of having my boyfriend—whom I was seriously thinking of breaking up with anyway—read me badly written poetry. In public.
This is worse than the Gate. I'm pretty sure about this.
"He is like the color RED; [Russell speaks as if spitting out each word]
The color of BLOOD and HEARTS and PASSION.
The color of the coat he wears"
[here I curl into myself and consider sliding off my chair onto the floor and maybe crawling on my belly toward the door, then making my escape; I can't get any lower if I tried]
RED is the color of the walls of the room
Where we make LOVE
And RED is the COLOR" [shouting, man, he is SHOUTING the words for emphasis, and raising his fist and shaking it around....horror]
Of my LOVE for you.
Russell shuts his eyes and lowers the hand holding the tattered bit of paper.
Please let it be over, please, please,
But, oh no, it is far from over. Russell looks right over at me and the whole room turns to stare.
"Edward, I love you."
Ed probably couldn't discern the collective "Awwww" the audience cooed at that romantic gesture, because his head was already down on the table. I am a little concerned; he must be pretty embarrassed. I just know him, that's not the kind of thing that he'd like. Russell returns to the table, all eyes watching him. He is sweaty and red-faced, and not particularly pleased to find Ed face-down on the table. He taps Ed's shoulder.
"Ed?" he says, voice already shimmying and uncertain. "Are you okay?"
"I am not okay," comes Ed's muffled voice, still face-down on the table. "I don't think I'll ever be okay again."
Then Ed suddenly stands and bolts away from us so fast that the tiny table shakes. Russell stares after him, looking stricken.
He turns to look at me, that one, visible eye wide and puzzled.
"Let me go talk to him," I volunteer. Rising from my seat, I put my hand on Russell's arm.
"Bring him back," Russell says in a small, panicky voice.
"Bring back some ice in a cup, too," Paninya says, fanning herself and looking bored. "It's hot as hell in here."
I weave through the maze of tiny tables and push through the thick crowd at the back of the room, by the door. Certain that Ed has left the building, I plunge outside into the relief of fresh, cool night air. I can't see Ed immediately outside, but when I walk to the edge of the building and peek into the dark, narrow alley, I see Ed standing, facing a brick wall, his hands spread out flat against the side of the building, he leans into it as if he wants to become part of it.
"What are you doing?" I ask gently.
"I'm thinking of alchemizing a hole in this wall and sealing myself up inside it so that I will completely disappear, forever." When he pulls away from the wall and looks at me, I see that his face is red, and even his eyes, as if he might cry at any moment. I've never seen him cry so this is alarming.
"Russell is upset..." I begin, stepping closer. What I really want to do is put my arms around Ed and kiss him, although that would be ridiculous. He'd probably just shove me away and we'd both be totally mortified...
"Well he should be," Ed says, looking away again. "He made a total ass of himself. And of me. I'm gonna kill him."
"He did it out of love," I offer lamely. "He loves you."
"I know..." Ed looks down at his feet and crosses his arms. "But I don't love him."
I'm getting uncomfortable with this conversation and my heart is beginning to beat quickly. I could ask him, Why not?
But instead it just comes out, what I really want to know, and my heart pounds hard in my ears as I say it: "Well, then, who do you love?"
Then, Edward looks up, lets his hands fall to his sides and seems to wince as he says, "You."
The kiss was something I'd been waiting for all my life, apparently. It was just how I had imagined it, back when I was eight, nine, ten years old, back when we were just friends and playmates, when I had always just assumed that I was going to marry him, because he was my best friend. Things changed, people left, I grew up, I took my destiny into my own hands, met Paninya, thought I had everything I wanted.
But the last few times I'd seen Ed, those little-girl dreams had come back in full force. Now that they had become real, I wasn't going to let this slip through my fingers.
This fairy tale was going to come true.
After kissing and fooling around in that alley for about an hour, Winry and I finally get it together and resolve to go back inside and tell Russell and Paninya. I'm not looking forward to this, I can tell you. Russell is very emotional. And Paninya can get fairly close to kicking my ass. But, this is the right thing, I just know it.
As we approach the table, I see Russell, sitting with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands, face obscured by that curtain of hair. Paninya is smoking and watching the room with her usual vigilance, probably trying to figure out who looks like they have a lot of money in their pockets. As we come closer, I can see Paninya's face change, she notices that we are holding hands. I feel my cheeks burning: walking around holding hands with Winry, of all people!
Paninya stands right up.
"What's going on? What took so long?"
Winry and I sit down.
"We have something to tell both of you—"
"We didn't mean for this to happen—"
"We're really sorry that the two of you had to get in the middle—"
"But we're in love," Winry finishes.
I feel myself blush, just at hearing her say it.
Paninya and Russell just stare, open-mouthed.
Paninya is the first to break the silence. "Whaddya mean, in love?"
Winry places her hand over mine and says breathlessly, "In love. Like, we want to be together. And get married. And have babies together."
Russell wrinkles his nose in disgust. "You mean, like our parents?"
"I know it's old-fashioned and weird...but yeah, like our parents," she says.
"So, when exactly did this great love happen?" Russell spits. "No more nude wrestling with Fletcher and Al? No more angry drunk sex? No more lazy Sunday morning never-get-out-of-bed marathon fucking? You know, you'll never get to do shit like that with Winry, I'm telling you that right now."
And then he gets up and kicks his chair over, and rushes out angrily, and I wonder if he'll ever forgive me, not that I deserve it. I see Winry try to hug Paninya but the girl isn't having it, she pushes Winry away and follows Russell out the door.
Winry smiles and laughs weakly. "Ha ha. That went well."
"Yeah," I say lamely, scraping at the tabletop with my fingernail.
"But this is good, right?" she says.
"Hell yeah," I say, and then there's nothing else to do but kiss her on the mouth and taste coffee, cloves, peppermint, and a slight hint of Paninya.
I think I feel a poem coming on.