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Ed fought to keep from blacking out. The rubble and debris surrounding him only entered his awareness when it it dug into his side or scraped his hand as he shifted about trying to cling to the tiny thread of awareness. He was focused on one thing: Al. Al better be okay.

Because Ed was going to kill him.

What the hell had possessed his brother—first somehow stowing away when Ed had done everything in his power to keep him from coming—to keep him safe. Then going and triggering a transmutation inside the Gate.

Rubble slid beneath his hands as he tried to brace himself. The faint breathing he had been honing in on was getting lost under his own fumbling—or was that footsteps. Booted feet, several pairs, the urgent voices too indistinct yet to tell if they were speaking Amestrian or German.

Ed had no idea which side the Gate had spit them out on.

Thoughts of the Thule Society getting their hands on his little brother gave him the strength to finally push himself up. His left arm shook so badly he almost collapsed, but just then arms grabbed him around the middle. He didn’t have strength for more than a token fight as he was lifted and eased onto his back.

His eyes focused on that silly, over-large eye patch, obscuring what was otherwise a soothingly familiar face. Ed breathed out an “Oh . . .” as the tension drained out of his body. “ Al . . .” he forced out as the edges of his consciousness frayed.

“He’s right here,” Mustang assured him. “Hawkeye has him.”

If only Mustang didn’t look so damn worried. But just the man’s presence and hearing that deep, familiar voice was reassuring enough that Ed stopped fighting and let himself sink into unconsciousness.

* * *

The next time he woke their room was so busy with hospital staff and officials in Amestrian blue that he hardly had time to think. Ed answered their questions as best he could, not sure if he was helping or making things worse for himself when he started talking about parallel worlds and rockets and alchemy only working with blood. But since they finally left them alone instead of hauling him off to an official tribunal, it can’t have left too bad of an impression.

Ed thought he deserved an award for managing to sit on his temper until the room was clear. But as soon as he turned to unleash his (justified) rage at his little brother, Al cut him off with an outburst of his own, his too-young face lit with anger.

“What the hell were you thinking? We just barely got you back, and you’re going to leave again? Strand yourself over there? On purpose?”

“What else could I do?” Ed shot back. “Leave the damn thing open?”

“You didn’t even consider any other options!”

“Of course I did! This was the only one that didn’t put anyone in danger!”

“What about you?”

“I would have been fine!”

Fine? Alone and stranded in that—that madhouse of a world?”

“It’s not—”

“And what about us? How would we be ‘fine’ if we’ve lost you—again?”

“I couldn’t just—”

“If it was only me, I might have just followed along behind you like I always did.”

“No fucking way I’d let you go over there—”

“But it’s not just me you would have been leaving!”

Something in his brother’s face and tone made Ed stop cold. His left hand twitched as he suppressed the urge to rub at the metal plate where the inside of his wrist had once been. Al couldn’t know—there’s no way he could have known.

Al narrowed his eyes. “You knew. You did! You’ve seen it!”

“I-I didn’t—” Ed choked on his reflex to deny it. He’d gotten to be an expert at shoving it down and denying it to himself, but having it thrown in his face was another matter.

“You did. You knew!” Al pressed. “And you were going to leave anyway!”

“The best thing I could do is leave!” he snapped. “Better if I’m not here at all.”

“Brother! How can you say that?”

“Because if I’m not here then I’m not fucking things up!”

Ed almost cringed when he’d realized what he’d just said.

Al’s mouth tightened but he didn’t respond.

“Think—think of how it would look!” Ed barreled on. “What people would say! I’ve already—already fucked up so much for so many. I don’t—I don’t need to fuck up his life too. Not any more than I already have.”

The door behind him clicked shut. For such a quiet sound it went through him like a gunshot. Ed was certain his heart stopped.

Al looked up past him and nodded. “If it’s all right, Sir, I’ll just be . . . somewhere else.”

“As long as you’re feeling up to it, Alphonse.” The voice behind him sounded wryly amused but had a tightness to it that made Ed’s stomach sink. “The doctors had expressed some concern.”

“The doctors can suck it,” Al muttered as he stalked out of the room.

At another time Ed might have been horrified at the language coming out of his little brother’s mouth. As it was he was frozen, staring straight ahead as the door opened and shut. Staring straight ahead as the silence threatened to smother him.

The even tread of military boots came up to the end of his bed, then fell silent. Military blue filled the edge of his vision.

“Well.” Mustang’s controlled voice finally broke through the thick silence. “Do I get a say in this? It is my life you’re talking about, after all.”

Ed swallowed, closing his eyes. “I . . . look.” He’d rehearsed this so many times in his head, all the different ways he’d imagined this conversation happening—why couldn’t he just say it? “You know how people are. Do you really—you really want that following you around? Do you really—”

“I would like to be able to make that choice!”

Ed jolted, finally looking at him. Over all the years he’d known him Ed could think of only one other time that he’d seen Mustang lose his temper and genuinely snap like that.

“You’ve been awfully presumptuous about this. When did you find out? How long have you been keeping it from me?”

“Look, it’s—who’s to say those stupid marks even mean anything?” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I’m from the country. Do you know how rare it is for anyone to find a matching mark out there? It’s—they’re—curiosities, nothing more. Do you really want a—a random birthmark dictating your life?”

“Whereas you would rather throw away the chance simply because it’s—unconventional?” Something like bitter humor flickered across his face. “Do you really hate me that much?”

“Why the fuck would you want to be saddled with me?” Ed shot back. “Forever associated with a kid—a boy?” He gripped his metal wrist. “My mark is gone—for good this time. No one would need to know that—that—fuck.” He pressed his hands to his eyes. After the last twenty-four hours everything felt frayed. “I don’t need to fuck up your life, too.”

After a moment he heard a sigh, and then a hand brushed his hair back. “Idiot.” Mustang’s tone had gentled but still had an undercurrent of bitterness. “Nothing is ever that black and white. If people talk, they talk. I’m no novice at dealing with gossip.”

Ed dropped his hands. “This is . . . different.”

“Is it?” One edge of his mouth quirked up. “I’ve suspected for most of my life that my soul mate—if I did ever meet him—would be male. So that much is hardly a surprise.”

“Still—”

“And in case you hadn’t noticed, I no longer have much of a reputation left—nor any rank to worry about.”

Ed startled. “Huh? What’re you. . . .” He trailed off as his eyes fell on the insignia on the other man’s shoulders.

Mustang was smirking at him. “You really hadn’t noticed, had you?”

No, I hadn’t noticed!” He waved a hand skyward. “I was too busy trying not to die from the aeroplanes shooting at us!”

“Is that what those flying machines are called?”

“Don’t change the subject! When did—” He flailed a hand at the unadorned epaulettes that just looked so wrong. “What the hell?”

Mustang shrugged. Shrugged. “You can’t stage a coup and come away clean.” He perched on the end of the bed. “I’m lucky I didn’t face a firing squad.”

Ed’s breath came out in an “. . . oh.” It felt as if all the air had been sucked from the room.

The very real possibility that Mustang might not have survived had gnawed the back of his mind for the last two years. Fighting a homunculus wasn’t to be taken lightly. But somehow the thought that he might survive only to be tried and executed by the very military he’d risked his life to protect had never crossed his mind.

“But, as you can see, I’m fine,” Mustang said airily. “For the most part,” he added as he tapped the eye patch.

Ed desperately wanted to say something, to fling out his usual bravado, but words failed him.

“But do you really think I would place you beneath such superficial, external merits as rank and reputation?”

His jaw worked. “You . . . should.”

“Do you really think yourself so unimportant?”

Ed grimaced and looked away.

After a moment, Mustang sighed. “Well. Whether it was your intent or not, here you are.”

“But it’s—it’s stupid,” he blurted in a last bout of stubbornness. “You’re supposed to fall in love with someone just because they have a matching birthmark?”

He laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that I’ve loved you since you were a headstrong twelve-year-old trying to bully his way into the adult world.”

Ed glanced at him.

“It wasn’t romantic. There was no attraction involved. But you’ve always been. . . .” He uncharacteristically floundered for a moment. “Important to me. Sometimes to the detriment of my good judgement.”He smiled with wry humor. “Finding out you had—or had once had—the mark to match mine . . . let’s just say certain things started to fall into place.”

What should Ed say to that? Admit that he’d been in love with the bastard for years? That what had started out as hero worship and a preadolescent crush had transmuted into infatuation and admiration even before he’d happened to glimpse the stain on the inside of his wrist?

Admit that he’d thought that this might have been the Gate’s last, cruelest joke on him—to make the person supposedly intended for him someone whose life he could destroy with his mere presence.

“I’m not saying things will be easy,” Mustang continued. “People like us . . . we’re not destined for ‘easy’. But . . . I would rather have you in my life than not. The last two years have made me certain of that much.”

Ed swallowed and looked away.

* * *

Al had insisted that they needed to take that night to “talk things out.” Mustang—the bastard—had smirked and assured them that Ed’s virtue would remain intact. Ed had been about ready to deck him for that but then Al had told him “don’t bother” and all he could do was choke. Where had his brother picked up this shit?

They got as far as the hotel room, but that was it. Passing out cold must not count as genuine rest, because Ed didn’t get more than five sentences in to their “much needed” talk before he couldn’t keep his eyes open. The last thing he was aware of was the creaky old hotel mattress dipping behind him as a blanket was tucked around his shoulders.

He woke the next morning wrapped up in a pair of arms. He shifted experimentally, and the arms shifted with him and tightened, seeming set on keeping him firmly in place.

“What the hell, bastard?” he grumbled. “. . . Are you even awake?”

Mustang sighed into his shoulder.

“Oy.” Ed elbowed back and Mustang jumped with a grunt. “I swear I’m not gonna run off.”

“Ah!” Mustang jerked his arms back. “Sorry.”

Ed snorted and turned over. “Am I just special, or do you do that for all the girls?”

Mustang had rolled onto his back and was groggily rubbing his face. At Ed’s tease he snorted and squinted out from behind his hand. “I’m sure I would—if I shared my bed with any. I can’t remember the last time I had anyone in my bed, let alone a girl.”He grinned, looking rueful. “I really did have every intention of staying on my side.”

Ed propped his cheek on his fist. From the look of it Mustang had been sleeping on top of the blankets, which seemed excessive but was oddly touching bit of courtesy. “So what do you do when you’re all alone? Cuddle a pillow?”

“Usually.”

“What—really?” Ed grinned. “You’re serious?”

“Hughes even had a picture.”

Really?

Mustang snickered, pushing himself upright. “It’s a long story, but it was from our academy days . . . I promised him that if it ever got out I would burn off his short and curlies.”

Ed fell back against the pillow laughing. “Oh god! I have to dig that up now. No way he got rid of it.”

Mustang was laughing now too. “Of course he wouldn’t have. And if he’d really wanted to, believe me, that little threat wouldn’t have stopped him.”

“Would you really have—?”

“Yes.”

They looked at each other for a beat before they both burst out laughing again.

Ed realized suddenly that Mustang wasn’t wearing the eye patch. He sat up and brushed the other man’s hair back, getting his first look at the damage.

The scar was deep, the skin around it pale from the patch. Ed brushed the edge with his thumb, wondering if the wound had been from Bradley’s sword—or if something else had happened that night.

Mustang had gone still, staring at the blankets. But he wasn’t pulling away.

Ed ran his fingers through the dark hair, watching it fall back into his face. The Mustang he remembered had always kept his hair trimmed to “carefully tousled”; this was downright messy. “When was the last time you had a haircut? Shit.”

The smile he got almost looked normal. “I wasn’t about to trek out fifteen miles through the snow just to go looking for a barber.”

“You mean you were being lazy.” He ran the strands though his fingers out to the ends. “Look at that. You almost have enough to pull back.”

“You think so?” With a smirk, he brushed the hair out of Ed’s fingers and made an attempt at doing just that. “I think I’d look quite dashing with a ponytail.”

“You’d look like a pimp.”

Mustang barked out a laugh so sudden that it made Ed jump. He gripped the blankets, all but doubled over as he tried to contain his mirth. “Sorry—” he gasped out.

“It wasn’t that funny,” Ed muttered.

He shook his head. “No, it’s—just—damn. I’ll explain later.” He shook his head, wiping his face. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I do need a haircut.”

“Just don’t ever grow a mustache. Then you’d really look like a pimp. Or a pirate.”

He grinned. “I would make a suave pirate.”

“Don’t even think about it.”

Mustang snickered. “Well, before we go hunting for a barber, why don’t we get cleaned up and hunt down breakfast? My treat.”

“Better be. Because I have zero money. Nothing that does me any good over here, anyway.”

“We’ll have to see if we can’t do something about that. I’m fairly certain you’re owed some back wages.”

As Mustang got up from the bed it struck him: this was the first time they’d ever joked around. The first time they’d ever teased each other as equals instead of ribbed each other as commander and subordinate. No games. Nothing to prove.

It had been . . . nice.

But he couldn’t let himself get caught up in it.

* * *

Winry intercepted him in the hotel lobby, pulling him over to one side to tut and fret over the state of his arm. “You’ve barely had this for twenty-four hours and you’ve already got it all gunked up.”

“That entire aeroplane was covered in gunk from the Gate, it’s not my fault.”

Winry hmphed and whipped out a tool to clean the joints. “This stuff better not be corrosive. Couldn’t even keep it clean for a day.”

Ed found himself smiling, comforted by her familiar disapproval.

“You won’t be able to be so cavalier with your next set,” she was saying. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s not going to be so sturdy—”

Ed blinked. “What—next set?”

“The northern automail, idiot. You’ll need a set that won’t give you frostbite. On the upside it’ll be lighter but the alloys aren’t as strong—”

“Wait—northern? Winry, what—”

She looked at him like he was a complete simpleton. “Mustang is still assigned to that outpost, isn’t he?”

“He—yeah, I guess, but—uhm. . . .”

His protests withered under her glare.

Winry finally sighed, and turned back to cleaning the automail. “Al did say you were being stupid about this.”

Of course she knew. Ed was starting to wonder if there was anyone who didn’t know. “Oy. Weren’t you the one who said the whole ‘soul mate’ thing was bullshit? Romantic garbage?”

“Ed, please. I was eight. I was bitter because you didn’t have my mark.”

“Uh—um?”

Her smile was gentle. “Like I said, I was eight. And I was just starting to realize that you didn’t even like girls anyway, and I was kinda bitter about it all.”

“. . . Oh.”

He glanced down. Her mark was just visible past her cuff. He remembered being grateful, in his childish way, that their marks didn’t match. It hadn’t been something he could articulate then, but he’d always had a sense that she deserved more.

“Don’t you think it’s . . . weird, though?” he muttered in a last-ditch effort. “I mean, two men. . . .”

“No.” She flexed his wrist, then dug out a stubborn bit of debris. “I’d already figured your soul mate would be a guy. I was kind of startled when Al told me it was Mustang, of all people, but only at first. It . . . actually makes a lot of sense. Any idiot could see how much he cared about you.”

“But. . . .”

“No, Ed—listen to me.” She squeezed his hand. “I know what people say. Especially back home. But they’re wrong. It’s not something that can be perverted. It doesn’t work that way.”

“How would you know?” he mumbled halfheartedly.

“Rush Valley—with everyone who goes through that city, it probably has more people who’ve found their soul mate than—than anywhere else. I’ve spent a lot of time there apprenticing over the last two years, and I’ve seen—everything. Men with men. Women with women. Some who are neither. Even a soul-mated trio!”

“—Really?”

“I saw their marks! And it’s—There’s no perversion about it. It’s just as—as stupidly sweet as when a man and a woman find each other.”

He laughed at that in spite of himself. “You make it sound like one of those romance serials.”

“Where do you think they get their ideas? But Ed. . . .” She cleaned out a last bit of black gunk and put the tool away. “I’m serious. You’re trying to protect him from yourself and you need to stop. You need to stop doing that kind of thing.”

He winced.

“It’s the same thing you did to me and Granny. When you never called or wrote. Do you think that actually helped anything? All it did was hurt.”

“That was. . . .” He’d had his reasons, of course. It had seemed more than justified when he’d been twelve, thirteen, fourteen. An insane killer had convinced him of that. “I was. . . .”

“Give us a little credit,” Winry persisted. “And this is . . . so much more important.” She laughed. “Do you think Mustang can’t take care of himself? Of all people.”

Ed sighed. He could tell when he’d been defeated.

“He’s a good man, Ed,” she continued. “A good man who’s been made to do some horrible things. I would think that even if I didn’t know he had your mark.”

Of anyone, Winry had the most reason to object. If she could accept the past and tell him to move forward—maybe he really was being an idiot.

“There. Now you finally don’t have that look on your face.”

“What?”

“That look like you’re going to do something stupid,” she said as she hugged him.

He sighed. “My mark’s gone, though. No one is going to believe it. They’ll just think. . . .”

“Forget everyone else.”

That was probably the best blessing he could ask for.

Mustang—Roy—was talking to Al on the other side of the lobby. They both looked up as he approached, and Ed paused a moment to muss up his little brother’s hair. “Hey. Sorry. I owe you big.”

Al grinned. “Yeah. You do.”

“And, um. . . .” Now he hesitated. The weight of eyes, real or imagined, pressed on him. But he made himself reach out, made himself brush his fingers against the inside of Roy’s wrist. “Sorry. I’m sorry. For trying to run. Maybe . . . maybe we can . . . start this from the top? Um.” He swallowed, and managed a smile. “Hi. I’m back.”

Roy caught his hand and squeezed it, and the mix of joy and relief in his smile made Ed’s heart ache. Enough that he squashed down the urge to snatch his hand away before anyone saw. “Welcome back.”

This wasn’t going to be easy. Nothing about this could ever be easy.

He’d never let that stop him before.

“People are gonna talk,” he reminded him as he squeezed his hand.

“Let them.” Roy just smirked. “We’ll give them something worth talking about.”