"A lab assistant?" Ed sputtered, glaring at her suspiciously. "Who said anything about a lab assistant!?"
"Well, ah, um," Scieszka stammered, faltering a little in the face of this golden glowering hostility. "Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, er, said that he didn't have any more work for me for now, and he suggested that maybe you two could use... some... help..."
"Well, we don't," Edward said very firmly. He tried to close the heavy laboratory doors on her face, as if she were some particularly irritating door-to-door-salesman, but found himself defeated by the doorstops.
A voice floated back from further in the laboratory. "We really could use some help, Brother," called Ed's younger brother, Alphonse. It was somewhat disconcerting to hear him without seeing his size and girth; it made him sound much younger. "You were just saying earlier that we could be moving along twice as fast if we only had more resources!"
"I meant more space and equipment, Al, not more people!" Edward yelled back, irate, as he struggled to push back the offending doorstop. Temporarily defeated, he glared at Scieszka again. "Besides, this is really important research," he informed her huffily. "Sensitive. Confidential. Top-secret. We can't let just anyone in."
"Ah... well... the Lieutenant Colonel said..." Scieszka fumbled with her glasses nervously. "Because I used to work in the first branch, um, my clearance is already at the top level, and, well, since I already read Marcoh's thesis and all..."
Edward frowned, apparently remembering who was responsible for recreating the valuable document they had so desperately sought. Then scowled. "But you didn't understand it," he challenged.
"Oh, Brother, stop being so difficult!" Edward's brother materialized behind him with a clank that made Scieszka jump, and yanked the door all the way open. "Please come in, Miss Scieszka. We could definitely use your help."
Ed glared at his brother and muttered under his breath, kicking an armored ankle with a clang and then hopping briefly on one foot. He glared at Scieszka as though she was the one at fault, before stalking off in a huff and returning to his workbench.
"Don't mind him," Alphonse told her in a confiding tone as she stepped inside, hugging her notebook. "He always gets really pissy when he's really intent on something. It doesn't have anything to do with you."
The large boy kicked off the doorstop easily and shut the door with an echoing clang, then made a little gesture to indicate that Scieszka should follow him. She did so, though with a sinking heart; somehow, this volunteer assignment wasn't starting out exactly the way she'd hoped it would.
Things did not improve much over the next few days. Even as Scieszka began to settle into the laboratory, learning where everything was and what the Elric brothers needed from her—mostly just watering and repotting plants, taking measurements, and running to fetch books and equipment from elsewhere in the building—the tension levels did not decrease. If anything, the atmosphere around Edward became steadily more hostile as she settled into their routine.
The graceful young man she remembered from her apartment—deftly maneuvering the mountains of books with masterful dexterity and handling armloads of books with surprising strength for such a small boy—seemed to have been afflicted with a clumsiness almost the equal of her own. He tripped over the cables running along the floor every single time he crossed them, until Alphonse took to voicing a verbal warning. He fumbled equipment, dropped books, bumped into furniture, and what was worse, he seemed to blame every little mistake and stumble on her.
He snapped at her whenever she handed him a book, or a pencil, or even a cold drink, or even if she walked up behind him. He refused to speak to her directly, instead addressing all remarks to her via Al as though Al were some mystical translation device that could communicate between them. And he would never, not even if they were working on opposite sides of the same bench, look her in the eye.
The situation was so unbearable that before a week was out Scieszka was nearly in tears. When Lieutenant Colonel Hughes had mentioned offhandedly that the Elric Brothers were having some trouble with their research, she had in an instant volunteered to work as their laboratory assistant, begging her boss so persistently for the transfer that even he was bowled over.
She tried her hardest to be helpful, to be useful, putting in long hours and applying the most scrupulous concentration to the effort. She didn't quite understand what the Elric Brothers were trying to do, but she follow their instructions faithfully and to the letter! And she always tried to be helpful in other, little ways, too... cleaning up the lab behind them, bringing food and drink when the brothers seemed oblivious to the passing of time. At least Alphonse always thanked her nicely, even if he never accepted anything. Ed never thanked her at all.
Had she been wrong, to crush on him so helplessly and hopelessly? From the moment she had first seen his anxious face peering down at her over a mountain of fallen books, golden eyes driven and worried, she had been head over heels. Edward Elric was everything she never thought she'd find in a boy—handsome, athletic, intelligent, serious, compassionate...
And he loved books. Scieszka itched to invite him over to her house again, she had cleaned it up, really, and tried not to feel guilty at using a little of the money he had given her to pay for repairs and new bookshelves. She wanted to show him the cream of her collection, the original editions, the leatherbounds.... Edward, she had thought, would really understand.
If only she could understand him.
If only she knew where she had gone wrong...
Al found her in the corner of the refectory, sniffling into her coffee. He slid into the chair opposite hers with surprising delicacy for a person his size, and she could almost have sworn that the blank expressionless visage smiled encouragingly at her.
"Hey there," he said softly, in that sweet, incongruous voice, as she hastily tried to scrub back her tears. "Miss Scieszka, if you're tired, you can take the night off, you know. You've been a lot of help, but you've been working so hard lately, it must be tough. We don't expect normal people to keep up with us, you know," he chuckled.
"It's not that," she said thickly, groping around for a tissue. Al passed her a paper napkin from the countertop, and she couldn't help but giggle a little as she wiped her eyes. "I... I want to help..."
"You've been a lot of help!" Al assured her, his voice leaking sincerity. "You know, it's really amazing the way you can remember books, we've advanced an amazing amount thanks to you. We really appreciate it, Miss Scieszka."
"Yes, but does he appreciate it?" came out of Scieszka's mouth before she could stop it; she hastily covered her mouth with the damp and crumpled napkin, but it was too late. "I didn't mean that... I..."
Al had stilled, and Scieszka feared some outburst of anger. But Al only laughed, softly, the noise making an odd hollow echo. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize," he said, his voice warm with caring and an edge of... humor. "Has Brother been treating you badly? He can be so rude, especially when he's wrapped up in a problem, you know."
"I... I guess." Scieszka found it easier to look down at the sodden napkin, pulling it apart in her lap, than look up at Al. "I just wish... well... he doesn't seem to like me at all, you know. I just wanted..."
Her voice died, and she sniffed. Wanted something silly, she supposed; her own fault for bringing her foolish girly cares into the brothers' serious business. No wonder Ed was so irritated with her; she didn't belong with him. Her eyes pricked again.
Unexpectedly, a large leather gauntlet landed on the table between them and patted her hand kindly. She jumped and squeaked, but Al only said "Miss Scieszka, you may not believe this, but trust me. Brother likes you a lot."
"That's kind of you to say, but," Scieszka began miserably; but Al shook his helmeted head with a creak.
"No, really. He likes you a lot. Brother always gets grumpy around girls he thinks are cute, but it's never been this bad before. He's always looking at you, you know, when he thinks you aren't looking, and then he trips over things or bumps into things. Hadn't you noticed?"
How could she have noticed if he was always looking when she wasn't looking? "No..."
Al went on. "And when you bring him things, he snaps at you, but then his neck blushes. It's kind of hard to see unless you know him, but it's true, Brother likes you a lot more than he's letting on. If you left, he'd spend the rest of the week dragging around in a funk, while complaining how impossible it is to do anything without you there to help. Believe me, I know my brother."
Scieszka's heart began to beat wildly, despite herself. "Really?"
"Really," Al said firmly. "Tell you what. Brother sent me to run and fetch this book from the library, because it wasn't one of the ones in the First Branch. But I think I want to take a night's rest myself, it's been almost a week since I took a break. Why don't you take it up to him, with a drink or something, I bet he's forgotten to eat again."
Scieszka gaped. She could have sworn one of the helmet's eye holes had just winked at her.
"I think I'm going to take all night off." Al said, and pushed back from the table. "See you tomorrow, Miss Scieszka."
With the book clutched in one hand and a steaming cup of cocoa in the other, Scieszka made her way back to the lab amidst a cloud of disbelieving hope. Surely Al wouldn't lie to her to make her feel better... but then again, maybe he didn't know his brother as well as he claimed. The things he described certainly didn't sound like hopeful signs of romance to her, at least not the way romances were supposed to run. Scieszka had read dozens of books on the subject, and they all tended to follow a pretty recognizable pattern, and none of them involved dropping microscopes.
Ed was bent over one of the work desks with his back to the door, when Scieszka quietly reentered. She could just see part of his profile from this angle, and her heart skipped a few beats at the serious, intent expression on his face. He looked a lot older, when he wasn't pouting or sulking like a kid, and much more handsome.
He was working with sulfide solutions, she could tell by the faint acrid odor, and she wondered if cocoa would be appreciated at the moment after all. Still, she crept forward, moving as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, so as not to disturb him. Her nerve was already failing her, and her initial plan to say... What? Do what? Confront him? Demand that he like her back? was washing rapidly down the wet-bench drain.
Her plan to leave the book and cocoa by his elbow and creep out again, so as not to disturb him, backfired. She was less than a foot behind him when he abruptly straightened up, grabbed the beaker in front of him, and swung around off the stool. His eyes widened as he found himself unexpectedly nose-to-nose with her, and an absurdly high-pitched yelp fell from his lips.
Despite herself, she gave a little shriek and sprang backwards; not far enough, however. For as he tried to back away, he rebounded off the workbench, jostling his arm enough that the beaker of liquid flew from his hand, its contents splattering all down Scieszka's front before it burst on the floor, mixing with the lost cocoa. "Oh, shit!"
Scieszka hardly had enough time to comprehend what had happened, much less react. Edward lunged forward, eyes wide and fierce, and clapped his hands together before slamming them against her upper arms.
The hair on the back of her neck went up, as though she were charged by static electricity, as a strange crackling energy flowed from his hands over her. She barely had time to feel a caustic, burning sensation seeping through her clothes before the chasing alchemical reaction dampened it out.
Little lights danced about the edges of her vision, weirdly beautiful to behold; then the reaction died out, leaving her feeling strangely... stimulated. She finally registered what had happened; he had spilled the caustic solution on her, then used his... alchemy to transmute it to something harmless. Her tongue stuck in her mouth, which was just as well, as it kept her from begging him breathlessly to do it again.
"Oh, shit, oh, shit..." He was still swearing under his breath, eyes huge and panicked, as his hands flew over her arms and chest. "Are you all right? Are you burned? Shit, shit, shit..."
Before she could reply—not that he waited for a reply—he was already yanking at the buttons of her blouse, scattering them left and right as he half-ripped it off her chest and over her shoulder. Scieszka gaped and blushed, but couldn't find it in her to voice a protest as he yanked the fabric to the side, then stopped, hands and eyes running over the skin on her chest and shoulder. He stopped, and exhaled a long sigh of relief, shoulders sagging. "I think I got it. You look okay, although I think your clothes got burned, I'm really sorry, it was an accident..."
She couldn't help it; her mouth took over. "Was it an accident that my clothes got ripped, too?"
"Huh?" He looked up at her, brows drawing together as he frowned in puzzlement, and met her eyes—directly—for the first time in weeks. She felt a little shock go through her at the contact, and then his gaze wavered, and dipped back down again to her torn and opened blouse.
"Um." She was starting to blush. So, she realized now that she knew what to look for, was he; a reddish flush was showing all down his neck. "I... uh... I thought... I thought you didn't like me like this."
Edward sputtered, and backpedaled to the distance of maximum arm's length; although he did not, she noticed with great hope, let go of her. "It's not! ... like that, I mean, it's not that I don't like you, I, I—I just thought you were hurt, and I was... scared...!"
They were on unknown territory here, she realized suddenly; none of her favored romance novels ever seemed to go like this. Still, a warning voice inside her seemed to opine that if she let this chance go to waste, there might never be another one. Now if only the same voice would give her some ideas on how to proceed...
Fortunately, Edward was still talking. "It's not that I don't like you!" he said, flailing slightly as he tried to communicate emphasis by movement. "I just, I just... We're onto something really big, you know? You've been a lot of help and I know you have but I, I, you, I just don't have time for... this... you know! This... distraction!"
His face fell, and she realized in a flash that Al had been right. About everything. Including staying out all night.
She swallowed, and tried to gain control of her still distressingly squeaky voice. "Well, you know," she said, trying to sound knowing. "One way to get rid of, er, distractions would be to, you know, act on them, right? Like being distracted by a book you want to read... once you read it, then it's over and you aren't looking forward to it any more, you know? So maybe if you... get it out of the way, it won't distract you any more?" She smiled at him, hopefully.
That, the little voice scolded her, must have been the single most stupid come-on line ever in the history of womankind. He was staring at her with a glazed, slightly perplexed expression, and Scieszka began to despair. Hopeless, completely hopeless....
He licked his lips. "Okay," he said.
"I mean, I understand if you don't want to... huh?"
He gulped, and with a seeming effort wrenched his eyes back up to meet her. "I mean... okay, sounds good to me," he said, his own voice disarmingly high-pitched. "If... if you wanna do it... here? Now? Or... maybe not..."
The beautiful romance books in her brain shrieked in horror and recoiled at such absolutely unpoetic straightforwardness. By no means was this cluttered, sharp-edged, slightly acrid-smelling lab any kind of a suitable place for a tryst. It should have been absolutely unthinkable. When the time came, the time, the books always emphasized, a candlelit bedroom with rose-strewn sheets was supposed to just appear, to mark the moment as perfect.
But another part of her brain, which contained some much more straightforward scientific anatomy manuals, seemed to think this was a great idea. Here, now, on the floor, yes—but with Edward.
"Sure," she managed. "Let's do it."
Right there on the floor turned out not to be such a good idea, since the forgotten puddle of corrosive sulfides was still pooling on the ground. But a few feet away, between the plant greenhouses and the supply bench, proved nicely free of damaging chemicals while providing enough room for two small adults to tumble onto the floor together.
"Who are you calling small?" Ed growled when she mentioned this aloud, although he was too distracted by belt buckles to really get mad. Scieszka couldn't suppress the giggles that had overtaken her, and they bubbled out at this.
"Nothing," she whispered, then gasped. Ed's fingers, worming under her clothes, fluttered against her skin in a way that made her pulse beat fast in her throat. His face, when she opened her eyes to take a peek, was starting to take on that intent, absorbed look that he got when he concentrated on his work. Concentrated on her, now. He nipped at her bare collarbone, and she shivered.
An undignified squeak escaped her, when he managed to work open her pants and cold metal digits brushed against her skin. "Sorry," he muttered, and switched hands; but the dry, sturdy heat of his skin only made her yelp louder. "It's fine, it's fine," she gasped, when his gaze turned worried; she covered his hand with one of hers, guiding it down.
He sat back, suddenly, kneeling between her sprawling legs between the cabinets, and began fighting to take off his shirt. She gaped openly at the vision he presented, black hem brushing upward over taut, bronze-burnished abs and chest, and gawped even more at the sight of the automail, glinting dull and rigid in the white lights of the lab. Her eyes traced down the skin of his chest, his arm, his abdomen, unexpectedly muscular and defined... and the anatomy textbooks sprang to mind most urgently.
And with them, a sudden warning. "Wait a moment," she blurted, as he leaned forward over her again.
He stopped, one hand on the floor, the other at his waistband. "It's the automail, isn't it," he said in a strangely flat voice. His expression fell. "Do you... do you want me to put my shirt back..?"
"No, no, it isn't that!" she quickly assured him, and it was true, it wasn't. She'd known he had the automail, and it was kind of scary to hear about, and yet... somehow the contrast just made him all the more striking, made the rest of him look more human, more pure male. In fact, that was the problem. She swallowed, and marshaled her thoughts. "Shouldn't we... you know, use... some kind of... protection?" she squeaked the last word out through her hands, held up to her face to cover her embarrassment.
He looked utterly blank. Scieszka remembered all in a flash that he and Alphonse were still teenagers, and didn't live with their families, so maybe he hadn't had a kind father or an uncle to explain these things to him. But he couldn't be completely innocent. "You know... condoms," she tried.
Realization flashed over his face, and he sat back with a groan. "Figure you'd think of this now..." he grumbled, although he didn't sound serious, and he waved off Scieszka's attempt at apology. "Wait, wait... I can think of... something..."
He got to his feet, staggering in what looked like a painful way, and limped a few steps over to the equipment bench. Notebook paper and litmus strips fluttered down as he tore through the drawer, then a bundle of white hit the floor softly as that flash of alchemy crackled again. Scieszka shivered.
A moment later he staggered back, almost falling on her, gripping something in his hand. "Here," he panted. "This... this should be okay, right?"
Scieszka took a peek. Somehow, looking at the condom was worse than looking at the actual cock, but she managed a slightly strangled "Looks good."
While he fumbled to try and get it on, she took the opportunity to wriggle out of her pants and underwear. She leaned back on her hands, panting, to watch him; the tile floor of the lab was unpleasantly cold under her palms and backside, but the rest of her skin felt so overheated that she hardly noticed.
Now properly attired, Edward fell forward onto her, shaking almost desperately. Barely avoiding cracking her head against the floor, she managed to wrap her arms around his shoulders, as he practically buried his face in her breasts. His weight made it hard to breathe, and the floor was cold against her. "Shez..." he said, the new nickname muffled against her skin. "Now what?"
Scieszka caught her breath, and tried to force her muddled mind to think. According to the romances, it really should have just... happened by now, in suitably flowery terms. Failing that, she reverted to a more scientific approach. "Ed... Edward... maybe... try sitting up again?"
After a moment, he did, seemingly reluctant to lose contact with her skin. She scrambled up again considerably less gracefully, and scooted forward to straddle his lap, instead. He was still shaking, eyes wide, and Scieszka was reminded for the first time of just how much younger than her he was. Surprisingly, it calmed her mind, leaving her feeling only eager, and she leaned forward to kiss him.
"Trust me," she whispered, into the space between his parted lips. He blinked up at her, looking suddenly suspicious... but at least not scared.
He sat back, following her insistent push, until he was kneeling up. She ran her hands down his chest, nervously skirting the automail, into his opened pants and underwear. When her nervous fingers encountered smooth plastic instead of warm skin, she looked down, excited and mesmerized by the sight of the dark golden curls running down into his crotch.
When she gripped his erection, he gasped and squirmed, grabbing onto her arms. "Scieszka, do something," he moaned.
"I will, I will," she promised urgently, feeling the foolish urge to ask him to close his eyes; much to her surprise, they fluttered closed of their own volition when she kissed him again. Like that, it was suddenly much easier to scoot further up his thighs, still deliciously leather-clad... lift herself up, over his lap, and then sink down.
At first, she was surprised by how much it hurt... and then, after a moment, by how much it didn't. She'd always been told that it was supposed to hurt the first time, maybe even bleed, but nothing felt like tearing or breaking, just a stretch and an oddly eager burn. "Ed!" she cried out, involuntarily, and then bit her lip when his eyes popped open to stare at her again.
"Oh, fuck," he whispered, sounding more like a prayer than a curse. His head rolled back, and he swallowed; she was mesmerized by the sight of his adam's apple bobbing down and up again. "Oh fuck, Scieszka..."
It hadn't really been a request, or a command, but now that he was buried inside her she felt an almost maddening urge to roll her hips, to push back against him. He must have felt the same urge, because halfway through her first thrust he suddenly met her there, pushing back against her with a hard and powerful motion. "Shez!"
She cried out, an almost involuntary noise as the motion seemed to hit something right. She rested her arms against his shoulders, leaning forward and panting, and shuddered explosively as he pulled her tighter against him, his mouth finding and lipping at one breast. "Ed... Edward!"
In a surprisingly short time, she felt herself shudder, felt every muscle tighten and twitch around the hard, wonderful heat inside her. She cried out, and collapsed onto his shoulder; he grabbed at her, only his embrace keeping her upright.
"Almost... there... Scieszka," he panted, from between gritted teeth. She shuddered, feeling suddenly much too sore and sensitive, but apparently he'd spoke the truth; with one final thrust, he suddenly shuddered, head snapping back and mouth open. She didn't feel anything (had she expected to?) but the expression on his face was so dramatic, and so unmistakable, that it took her breath away.
After a long moment, he slumped down, nearly folding over her. His breathing was hard and ragged, and hers wasn't much better; he was soaked with sweat, and smelled rather strongly of... well, something very strong and masculine, anyway. Was this was sex smelled like? she wondered. It certainly wasn't roses.
"Lie down?" she suggested after a long moment, and he murmured vague assent. With some care, and after a long moment to collect the effort, she eased up and out of him, and then the two of them toppled over onto their sides; Ed just barely missed braining himself on the edge of the counter.
She felt, vaguely, like she really ought to reach for her clothes and get dressed; but Ed was snorting and warm against her belly, and nobody else would come in here but Al, who had promised to stay out all night. Somehow it felt more wanton and wicked to stay naked after sex, than it had been to be naked during sex.
The whole exercise had much greater resembled the description set forth by the anatomy textbook than the one spelled out in the romance novel; but, she had to admit, it had been a lot more fun. Certainly more fun than the dry text had made it sound, which made her wonder whether some of the more flowery overblown passages of the romances had been concealing some secret disappointment.
All in all, Scieszka decided as she cuddled sleepily against Edward's hair on the laboratory floor, there was a lot to be said for the scientific method.