The study door creaked open, a dark head poking around the corner. Ed smiled slightly but didn't look up from his book, turning the page and waiting for the girl by the door to make up her mind. The door opened wider, followed by the sound of soft footsteps on carpet. Edward shifted, lifting the arm holding the book.
Kara took the silent invitation, climbing up onto his lap and squirming slightly until she got comfortable, resting against his chest. Ed lowered the book so she could read it. Kara liked reading with him; she was a smart kid and could already read better than most of the children in her class. She didn't always understand the subject matter, and stumbled over the more complex words, but she didn't seem to mind. Ed was fond of the routine, it was quiet and comfortable, and he loved how she seemed to love learning.
Today though, something was different. She fidgeted slightly, drew breath to speak but didn't. Finally, Ed snapped the book shut, setting it on the small table. "Did you have something you want to say?" he asked.
Kara frowned slightly. "Sarah's papa picked her up from school today."
Ed raised his eyebrows in silent question, waiting for the girl to elaborate. Sarah was obviously one of her classmates, though he wasn't sure what the significance of the statement was.
"And..." Kara bit her lip thoughtfully, trying to figure out how to phrase her thoughts. "I was wondering why I don't have a papa."
Ed's heart stopped.
He wasn't surprised by the question, Roy had mentioned once that she was bound to get curious about her parents sooner or later, but Ed had always assumed Roy would be the one who dealt with it. He certainly hadn't expected her to come to him about it. "Well," he began, hoping his mental flailing wasn't showing on his face. Honesty was the best policy, right?
Roy couldn't get mad at him for telling her the truth, right?
With the dread certainty of a man who knew he was going to scar a child for life, he said, "Your parents died when you were little. Do you remember?"
She shook her head slowly. "No," she looked up at him, and Ed was relieved to see that she seemed thoughtful, not traumatized. "Uncle Roy showed me a picture, though. My papa was his brother, right?"
"That's right," Ed replied, putting a hand on her head and absently stroking her hair. He felt a little lost. It seemed like he should be reassuring her somehow, but he wasn't sure what to say.
Kara seemed to deflate a little. "But he died. So I don't have a papa anymore."
"Not in the literal sense, no, but," Ed paused, trying to figure out how to explain to her that the technicality of blood relation wasn't what mattered. That real family was defined by those that loved you. "I lost my parents when I was little, too."
Green eyes grew wide. "Really?"
Ed nodded solemnly. "My father...he left when I was very young. My mother got sick and died when I was a little older than you are."
"Did you live with your uncle, too?"
"No," Ed shook his head. "Al and I didn't have any relatives to take us in. Instead, we lived with a really good friend of the family for a while. Eventually, we met our teacher, and we went to live with her."
Kara seemed utterly fascinated. "Teacher? Like Miss Dawson?"
"Not quite. Our teacher and her husband became something like surrogate parents to us. So, even though we missed our mother very much, we weren't sad." Which wasn't entirely true, but mostly they were just determined. And stupid. Very, very stupid. "Do you know why?"
"Because we still had people who loved us. That's what real family is, kiddo." He smiled at her. "Even though your parents are gone, you still have people here who love you."
"Family is the people who love you," Kara said, then lapsed into thoughtful silence, resting her head on Edward's shoulder and digesting what he had told her. She curled one hand into his shirt after a few minutes and asked shyly, "Would it be okay...if I called you papa?"
Utterly stunned, Ed could do nothing for a few seconds but stare at her. She actually felt close enough to him to consider him a parent? What about Roy? If anyone deserved that title, it was her uncle, not him. His jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, before he managed squeeze out, "But what about Roy?"
"Can't he be my papa too?"
Now assured that he hadn't somehow stolen Kara's affections from Roy, he smiled a bit stupidly. "He would love that," Ed said sincerely, resting his head against hers. "But it would get a bit confusing if you called both of us 'papa' don't you think?"
"Oh." Kara was silent a moment, considering. "I could call him daddy, and you papa. Would that work?"
Edward hugged her a little too tight, touched beyond words. "That would be perfect, kitten. Absolutely perfect."