Actions

Work Header

Catalysis

Chapter Text

 

 


I : Culmination
01

Even as you look into the abyss, the abyss looks also into you.
( Friedrich Nietzsche )

~

 

         Something.

         There was something quite captivating about how the blood seeped into the cracks of their rundown dank basement. Past the whiteness of chalk and down the veins of the hundred-atom-wide crevasses, it flowed and spread like a plague pushing itself upon the cleanliness that was its victim. Even in the half-darkness he saw its path quite clearly, a gleaming crimson red in the bluish-white glow of the still crackling circle. But by this time reality was lost on him—the pain the pain the pain

         my leg is not there my arm is not there

         was eating him from inside out and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. Left there lying prone on cold, cold stone he stared at the still form of his brother across the basement and he felt a speckle of relief. At least, he told himself with a dead inward laugh, Al will live on.

        His mother too. Bare-naked in the middle of the circle and splayed for all to see but whole and breathing and alive. They had done it—he had done it. He allowed himself one moment of basking in the enormity of what he had accomplished almost entirely single-handedly. Al had backed out midway, left the house and ran out somewhere only to come back right when he was about to perform the transmutation. He vaguely remembered his younger brother’s scream of warning as the sputter of energy surged into life with one touch on the edge of the circle—Alphonse had not believed in their theory enough to try it out on their own very dead mother.

         But he had.

         It was his theory, after all, a solid and fibrous thing. It lived (which for some reason his brother did not see) and it breathed its own air and it grew itself until it was complete. He had his father to thank for the basis of it (if he ever got out of this mess, which was at the moment looking highly unlikely) but most of the work he really did on his own. All of it in the end paid out.

          The blood was beginning to ebb and his vision was beginning to blink out. As time passed—a minute, a minute, a minute—his awareness meshed with memory and the preconscious, a ton’s worth of jumbled information and images as head-splitting as his two-time trip into the Truth. (Bullshit; that was no Truth.)

          The very last thing he remembered before the creeping black engulfed him was a frantic voice somewhere in the distance and warm arms wrapping around him.

          “Hold on,” the voice said, “you’ll be fine.”

 

~

          And so very rudely he was jarred awake by a loud whirring he could hear even in the drowning pain. What that was he had absolutely no idea, though he was not quite sure he wanted to find out. There were voices but sometimes they faded too, just as the darkness faded into the haze. The constant whirring noise was all that stayed.

          The pain was somewhere below the sounds. The pain was there, a saturated but ever present monster hiding its ugly head inside its little cave of bones, and that was all he did know.

          it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts make it stop make it stop make it stop

          For some amount of time that seemed incredibly long to his pain-inebriated brain, he floated side to side with these waves of appearing-disappearing noises. Those were the only outer realities he had. He had no idea who he was or where he was or why he was here, only that he was, and that was more than enough for him, because he really could not process much else.

          As time slowly crept by, he became aware that there were other noises too—crackle-and-boom in the background, an insistent discordant pattering on glass, boots on wooden floor walking about with heavy thuds for steps. And voices. The voices were getting clearer and clearer, and for the first time since emerging from the black nothingness into the haze, his mind formed a thought, an image, coherent and relevant to whatever his current situation was.

          Alphonse.

          Alphonse.

          Alphonse.

          Each echo of the name in the stuffed emptiness of his head tugged him back, closer towards the sounds, closer towards the light, farther away from the darkness.

          And then he was screaming—a loud, hoarse scream as his senses fully woke and the pain slammed hard and fast as a tidal wave against his brain, and it kept slamming one after another after another, and he kept screaming, and screaming even louder—

          The base of his head ached and added only to this cacophony, and the ache spread like dribbling water on parched land, upwards until he could feel the weight of the world in between his eyes. Such was his agony that he failed to notice the hands on his chest keeping him against the bed

          it hurts it hurts my leg it hurts my arm it hurts Alphonse Alphonse

          he failed to hear the voices, the jumble of words he was given until the height of the pain peaked and shot past his threshold, and all he felt then was a dragging, stiff, light-headed numbness. There was a massive easing of the ache—now only an invisible weight—in his head as the cacophony quieted and the scramble of impulses ended. Coherent but not quite, he heaved breath after glorious breath into his starving lungs. He tried to open his eyes but found that he could not—there was a wet towel draped over them.

          “...calmed down,” a frail voice, somewhere to his right, “He probably can’t feel the pain anymore.”

          “Do you think he can talk?” somewhere to his left.

          The one on his right—Pi... Pinea... Pineapp... Pinako?—gave a snort, “You’re asking for too much. The boy just lost his arm and leg.”

          He opened his mouth to speak but all he could do was pant; he could not see, but he could hear very well—in fact, everything seemed obnoxiously and unnaturally loud. The storm outside was raging, raging against the windowpane, and the pitter-patter on the roof was a repetitive and maddening thing.

          “The boy did perform human transmutation and soul transmutation.” Ed did not know this voice from his left, but the voice knew who he was—or at least, what he had done, and quite well at that.

          “Edward is eleven, Lieutenant Colonel, and with all due respect to alchemists, an eleven-year-old boy remains an eleven-year-old boy no matter what groundbreaking thing he has accomplished,” Pinako sounded extremely annoyed, which would be right if the person was a person of the military. It did not cross his mind to question why such a person was here, now. “If you could hand me the towels, please.”

          Something wet and rough dabbed against the sides of his wound, making him hiss and jerk in the sudden sensation of stinging pain.

          “H-Hurts,” he croaked, finally, and the dabbing stopped.

          “Ed?” Pinako placed a hand on his forehead, and though he could not see her, he could imagine the crumpled look of disappointment and anger and worry in her aged face. “Edward, can you hear me?”

          “Yes,” he rasped, and then broke into a cough. “A—Alphonse? Mom?”

          “They’re safe,” the unknown voice said, deep and comforting.

          “Alive?” his voice was a mere whisper now, fearing and childlike.

          There was a pause as if the voice was contemplating something. Ed remained tense through the silence, and when the voice confirmed, “Yes, they’re alive,” Ed sagged tiredly into the bed (which he only now realized he was on). The silence returned, disturbed only by the noise the pouring rain made against the walls and roofs of the old house. Pinako was clanking about somewhere to his right, perhaps getting more water to wash the blood away from the towels. He would have to thank her after all of this is over.

          “That was an impressive thing you did,” said the unknown voice, “human transmutation, followed up by soul transmutation.”

          Ed gave a snort, which faded into a rough cough and catch of breath. His throat felt like sandpaper, dry and irritating. A cold nudge of glass on his lips, and soon water was saturating the dehydrated cells again.

          “Better?”

          He grunted.

          “Do you know what a State Alchemist is?” no dillydally, curt and straight to the point. It was a blank question. Somewhere from inside the room came a loud clank of metal against metal, a protest. Pinako.

          “Dogs of war,” he sneered—or at least he thought he did. He had realized that he had patchy control over his muscles under this pain, after having quietly attempted (in vain) to raise his remaining left arm.

          The faceless voice gave a quiet chuckle. “Yes, indeed.” A pause. “But it is also true that State Alchemists get the most impressive amount of research funds from the military.”

          “This boy will not be going anywhere,” Pinako declared stoutly. Her steps were light against the floor, and she returned to his side and began dabbing at his wounds again. “This boy will stay right where he is with his mother and brother. I will not allow you to make him into a murderer.”

          Another stretch of tenser quiet. Pinako did not cease her motions, clanking about with metal things Ed could not see, but were probably the equipment for automail.

          Automail...

          “Granny,” he bit his lip, “do you think you can equip me with automail?”

          Again, Pinako paused her dabbing.

          “You’re too young, Ed.”

          “If it’s just the pain, I can take it,” he gritted his teeth and tried to shift position. His arm was responding a little bit better now. “I can bear it, just—I don’t want to be an invalid, Granny—“ he tried moving the stub of his leg and quit that immediately when an outrageous number of now woken pain demons shot up to the base of his spine and began stabbing their evil little forks into it.

          “Edward, do you realize what you’re saying? Grown men die of the procedure! Just from the pain!”

          He laughed a dry and mirthless laugh. “Well, having my arm and leg ripped away separately was good warm up for it, then.”

          “This is no laughing matter, Edward.” If Ed could see her face, he would probably have backed off. But he wasn’t seeing her; that was the thing.

          “I’m serious, Granny, please. I know I really can’t pay for it now, but I promise I’ll pay it off in the future, alright? Please, Granny.”

          Her light footsteps reached his ears again as she took the basin of water and the presumably blood-soaked towels to the washbasin to rinse and drain. She was mumbling under her breath—he only caught, “...child’s not even in his right mind...”
But he was, oh he was.

          There was the pain, and it was painful, but it was being nice for a change, and the fangs were sheathed for the moment. He could think clearly, though he could not move, because that would wake the pain again. He was lucid, maybe because of the adrenaline, yes it was because of the adrenaline—he understood what he was asking for. He was asking for some semblance of a life returned to him. Spending the rest of his days—a lot of days—missing an arm and a leg, unable to walk and do the things he used to do and hell, unable to hold up a goddamned book, would be unimaginable. He did not want that. He seriously did not want that.

          “I’ll pay for the automail, then,” the other voice said, up until now quieted, “if you still decide to go for the operation.”

          Ed stilled for a heartbeat, a heartbeat, another heartbeat—reached up with his good hand and removed the towel from over his eyes. Blinking against the offensively bright white light, he squinted to his left at the figure standing there.

          Standard issue blue military uniform, with specks of blood on the front—probably his. Damp hair hanging limply into dark, dark eyes; smooth brows sloping into aristocratic cut of jaw. Ed had to admit---this person was rather handsome.

          “...it’s expensive, you know,” he blinked stupidly at the person.

          “I believe I can afford that much,” there was an air of arrogance and amusement about the statement that Ed could not bear to stomach. He scowled up at the man for good measure before turning to Pinako.

          “Granny, I’m getting your best set,” Ed declared in a solid and demanding voice. “The most expensive set.”

          “I have not agreed to anything, young man.” Pinako had a set glare for him as she carried the umpteenth basin of water and a fresh towel over.

          “Granny,” he pleaded. “I don’t want to be like this for any longer than necessary!”

          “Then you should have considered that before you played around with your alchemy!” she was obviously close to losing her temper, and since she could get rather scary when pushed, Ed shut his mouth. For now. Even if he itched to tell her that he was not playing around. She took a calming breath and secured the bandages around the stump of his arm. “I do not understand you, Edward. I do not understand why you did what you did. But I will not ask you of it now—I would rather have you explain it later, when your mother has woken up and is here to listen to your reasons. Do not mistake this as my condoning your actions. You were rash, Edward, and you hurt your own family.”

          He collapsed back into the bed, limp from the exertion of inching upwards to a somewhat upright position. He was careful to keep his eyes closed against Pinako’s seeking ones. She failed to understand his reasons, and she failed to understand his science (he had not been rash, thank you very much; in fact, he had been very careful about the entire process!). Moreover, nobody else but he and Al knew about Trisha’s sudden death (but Pinako could probably hazard an accurate guess by now).

          “I still want the automail, and I don’t really care if you like what I did or not,” Ed petulantly barked. “Why else do you think I went ahead with it? Things could have been much worse than this. I’m lucky I only lost two limbs.”

          “Lucky, ha!” and she was really pissed now, Ed could see it in the spit of her eyes. “Still a child, you are, Edward. Don’t you realize the value of your own body?”

          “I do, but in exchange for what I got, I think this much is cheap fare,” he mumbled, turning away from her.

          The Lieutenant Colonel leaning against the wall nodded wryly. “Very cheap fare.”

          “You,” Ed snapped, before Pinako could say anything else, “Why do you care, anyway? Why would you pay for the automail? I don’t even know you.”

          “Oh but I know you,” the person smiled again, and it raised Ed’s hackles for some very strange and unexplainable reason. “Think of it as a token from a friend of your father’s.”

          Ed froze. “...you—“ he began, but his voice caught in his throat, and he had to struggle and push it out. “You know my father. You know Hohenheim.”

          “Yes.”

          “Where is he?”

          “I don’t know.” Ed could not tell if the person was being honest or not. He was too far away to see into those eyes properly, and he was too far away to threaten with a punch. “I was hoping you would know, so I went here in search of you. I received one of your letters.”

          Ed itched to ask which one, but the Lieutenant’s tone was so final that he was hard-pressed to continue the conversation. The nameless arrogant bastard obviously did not want to talk about this now.

          “So are you getting the automail?” the person asked again, “Because I need to know so I can write a note for the money.”

          “Well, Granny won’t let me.” He turned to Pinako again. “Granny, please?”

          “Edward—“

          “You might as well let him now,” the Lieutenant gave a nonchalant shrug, hands in pockets and silver watch gleaming under bright light. “The wound is a clean cut, and it’s still fresh. It would be much more painful for him if you let it stay and heal and then cut it open again later for the attachment.”

          “He’s got a point,” Ed followed up cleanly, though he felt off having to agree with this stranger.

          “Winry’s occupied with watching your mother and brother; I’m missing a pair of hands,” now she was only making excuses, and worst, he could see right through them.

          “Well, this, err, Lieutenant can help.” It shamed him to beg, but he could not help it. He turned to the stranger with imploring wide eyes. “You will, won’t you? I heard military people had medical training...”

          Wheedled he did for a little bit more, with the help of the (much amused) stranger, until Pinako sank into a contemplative silence, and it was then that Ed knew he had won. That particular sheen in the old woman’s eyes only appeared whenever she was deep in thought about automail—she was probably weighing her choices and building in her head prototypes of the best kind of port and arm for him and his body make-up.

          He settled back into his bed, gave the stranger a grin while Pinako had her back turned, and closed his eyes. He did not notice at all when he fell back into a light and tired sleep.

 

~

          “Brother, let’s not do this,” Al said.

          Ed turned away from the perfect circle and disbelievingly set his eyes on his little brother. “We’re stopping now?” his voice was rough from disuse—he had gone nowhere but the basement for the past two, almost three days now. “We can’t stop now. It’s done, Al, we can bring back Mom—“

          “But—there’s no guarantee this will work.” There was fear in his brother’s voice.

          “There’s no guarantee it won’t,” Ed set his mouth in a grim, determined line. “We’re doing this, Al.” He looked again at the circle, and at the middle, where their mother’s body lay supine and still.

          “You’re just doing this now for the sake of doing it, not for Mom!”

          His eyes tightened and before he could stop himself, he was lashing out with a fist, squarely cracking against Al’s jaw. “Don’t you dare say those words again, Alphonse. Don’t you dare accuse me of experimenting on Mom.”

          Al sneered, “Well, aren’t you?”

          Another punch, but Al dodged and threw a kick in retaliation—Ed’s back hit the side of the table and lost his footing, stumbled, and fell against the circle, his fingertips grazing the static circle—

          Rush-crackle-boom was the energy against his ringing ears, and he struggled to right himself against the gust of it, placing his palms flat against the floor, his skin colder than the concrete. Screaming—there was screaming somewhere behind him, and then the weight of the transmutation was lighter, and beside him was Al, a frantic Al, a scared Al, flattening too his palms on the circle, their fingertips almost touching as they spread over the glowing limit glyphs.

          They watched, both of them, wide-eyed and wary and in wonder as the crackling light, pure energy, rushed through the sweeping lines and was bound and shaped and directed by Ed’s chalk script. The body

          their mother their mother Mom please please please work

          was lifted and before their very eyes renewed, the hue of healthy skin—not blue and not dead—returning lost vivacity to her. He could even see, yes he could see when her chest stuttered into life once more as she drew a staggering first breath, and with her his chest staggered as well, in joy and relief and victory and

          she’s alive it worked we did it

          then Al was collapsing beside him and his pain in his leg was tearing him apart and the light was gaping its mouth open wide so he could see a black hole in its midst and as if being slammed against the wall face-first his head began aching the longer he looked at it

          what what what what

          oh but he could not look away because it was all too captivating, all too fascinating, the information, the knowledge

          show me show me show me more

 

~

          He sprang up in bed and heaved for breath, forcing his eyes open wide and bowing his back until his forehead touched his one remaining knee. Sweat poured in gratuitous rivulets underneath his shirt and down his spine, slithering as if it was a snake seeking shelter somewhere south. Over and over in his brain he convinced himself he was awake. He was awake now. He was awake.

          “Easy, mind your leg,” it was the stranger again, with another glass of water to offer. Ed wondered absently if this guy used water alchemy and had some sort of affinity for it. “Here, drink this.”

          And so he drank, and with each gulp he felt more like himself. Water really was a wonderful little molecule, so very versatile, so very life-giving, and yet still so very dangerous. He ended up draining the entire glass.

          The light-headed numbness was still there, and he still felt like his head was rounded and filled with air. Lucidity was not lost, however; he was more than glad to still be capable of logical thinking. It was the one thing he would fight tooth and nail for to retain at all times; it was the one thing that defined him as Edward Elric. Otherwise, he was just another organic body here to pass and rot.

          “Your grandmother is preparing the tools for the operation with the young girl—Winry?—as we speak,” said the stranger as Ed reclined back into the bed. It was a different bed, he noticed. It was the operation bed. “She said she was going to set the ports up for now and leave the limbs for later, since they’ll take time.”

          Sleep held him for more than just a few hours, he realized, when the stranger pulled the curtains back to let in some sun, revealing then the sprawling hills of Resembool, soggy and laden with rainwater and storm debris. He faintly smiled. Even then, it was breathtakingly beautiful. A couple of simple minutes in silence under the morning sun left him pleasantly refreshed.

          A short while afterward and as if on cue, Winry knocked on the open door and brought in a heavy tray laden with food for two. She walked up to Ed, eyeing his injuries mindfully, and after a split-second’s consideration, beamed up at him.

          “How are you feeling, alchemy freak?”

          “What do you think, mechanic freak?”

          “Call me that again and I’ll poison your food,” she snarled, dumping the tray on the small coffee table the stranger dragged up to Ed’s bedside. A wary glance was all she gave the stranger, before she hurried out of the room with a faint, “Unlike you, I’m busy, since I’m helping Granny with your ports,” in parting.

          Grimacing at the door she disappeared through, he was left mumbling acid words and unceremoniously stabbing a sausage from one of the plates. And toast. He was busy with his mastication when the stranger casually asked:

          “Do you like her?”

          He choked.

          “Do I what?” he sputtered, blinking owlishly up (damn that height) at the stranger.

          “Like her,” and the bloody bastard was smiling. Coyly smiling. “You know, possible blossoming future romantic interest? She is rather catching.”

          “...you’re a pedophile, aren’t you,” he said it more as a morbidly horrified statement (which it was), and this time it was the stranger’s turn to choke.

          Indignantly, the stranger drew himself up and sternly frowned down (damn that height!) at Ed, “I am most certainly not. I will have you know that I have perfectly healthy relationships with legal adults—“

          “—which is more than I need to know, thank you very much,” Ed’s face fell into a grimace again when his prodigious brain quickly picked the lack of specified gender in that statement. He quietly and very subtly inched as far away from the older man as he could without paining his injured leg any more than it already was.

          They lapsed into a somewhat awkward-non-awkward silence after that, and through it they made quick work of their breakfast. Once or twice Ed filched himself a piece of ham or toast from the bastard stranger’s plate, and though each time he was given a sharp glare for it, the stranger did not retaliate.

          The longer they lulled within the silence (with the food entirely gone), the deeper Ed fell into thought. Now that he was well-fed, rested, and in substantially less pain than the previous night, his lucidity was heightened and his awareness was whole enough for some rigorous analytical thinking. Clearly there were things to be picked apart, given his current situation. He had lost two limbs, which had not been part of his initial calculation, but so remained the fact that he had lost them, therefore there had to be just reason. (He consoled himself with the thought of his mother and brother alive upstairs and resting. That was a relief.)

          Finding the discrepancy was easy enough: the theory itself was perfect in all its parts, but the problem was with the execution. He had a major lapse of judgment, and forgot about the exchange for the soul altogether. Forgot. It shamed him, the thought. He struggled and failed to reconcile himself with his careless ego. Izumi had warned him against this. He had forgotten the simplest and most obvious thing in his mindless haste and subsequently endangered his brother’s life in the process. How stupider could he get.

          “Don’t beat yourself up now,” Ed’s eyes snapped up to the stranger’s passive face. “I don’t want a sulking brat on my watch.”

          “Who asked you to watch me anyway?” Ed grumbled.

          “Your grandmother, with whom I most certainly do not wish to argue with again.”

          “...how do you know I’m beating myself up anyway?” Ed scowled.

          “Your face,” there was disapproval in the stranger’s dark eyes, though why, Ed could not figure. “You wear your heart on your sleeve, kid.”

          ‘Kid’—fuck this infuriating bloody bastard is trying my patience— “Who the hell are you calling so sub-microscopic he would fit a hundred million times in the smallest cell of the human body?!”

          “How did you do it?” the shift in subject was so sudden that Ed was left staggering in wordlessness. In a soft and patient tone, the stranger repeated, “How did you do the transmutation?” as if he was deaf and retarded, either of which he was not, how dare the bastard patronize him. And insult him, all in one sentence. (Only he was allowed to do that to people.)

          “You’re a good alchemist?” he frowned in slightly (only slightly, since he was being nice) condescending evaluation.

          Lieutenant Colonel Bastard smiled indulgently. “Why don’t you try me yourself.”

          Slowly, his eyebrow—one—crawled up towards his hairline. A devious grin, an inheritance from Izumi, spread upon his face. “Try not to be left too far in the dust, bastard.”

          Mentally he debated where to start, and decided to begin from the crux of the matter.

          “Well, our Mom died, as you probably already figured,” he shrugged. “It was the epidemic, I think. She collapsed once a long time ago—about three years now—but the doctor dismissed it. Stupid. I knew there was something wrong.” He fisted his well hand into the bed sheet. “Anyway, she got sick really easy after that one time, but then she would always bounce back as if nothing happened. You know, normal flu, or maybe tiredness. We—Al and I—we were away too, training with our teacher for most of the time, so we didn’t get to look at her well enough.” Maybe we shouldn’t have left.

          “She’s been sick for a while now since we got back. She tried to hide it, but I could see. She wouldn’t listen to me, though, and Granny Pinako was gone with Winry to East City for their yearly supply trip. Then three days ago, she just—collapsed and—“

          Something was holding his throat tight and captive, and it took him a good while to loosen it well enough to speak again. He did not cry, though. He could not bring himself to cry.

          "So I thought, maybe I could bring her back,” he allowed himself a dry grin of triumph, “and I did, didn’t I. The theory was perfect—I was the one who fucked up.”

          “Your theory?” prodded the Bastard, “and watch your language,” to which he waspishly snapped:

          “Don’t interrupt a story while it’s telling!”

          The Bastard returned to his quiet.

          “The premise of it is simple, really,” he shifted against the bed, his brain racing ahead as the pieces fell together into a neat picture. This time they were even faster, and among them were bits of information—they were from the Truth. They were not there before, he did not know them before—but now he did. Now he did, now he owned them, now he realized his mistake. Which he should have realized even before he saw the Truth, idiot that he was. “Human transmutation is a conglomeration of two ideas—“

          “—creation of a body and creation of a soul,” the Bastard nodded.

          “Nice to know you remember your basics,” Ed rolled his eyes, to which the Bastard mumbled a faint, “Human transmutation isn’t basic,” but he ignored that and continued.

          “The body is simple,” he began again, “painfully so. The ingredients are easy to get a hold of—but we didn’t even need those, in our case. Our mother’s body was still there, even though it was decaying by the minute, which was why I was hurrying. The more she decayed, the more I had to pay.” He turned to the Bastard. “You saw the circle?”

          “Yes. Those were rather ancient seals.”

          “They’re just barely over two hundred years old, that’s hardly ancient,” he snorted. “The Khalic seals are lateral to the Aryan seals. Khalic’s for body, Aryan’s for soul, to make it simple. The limit glyphs are a mix of both to balance and limit both kinds of the energy drawn. The two reactions begin separately and pull together by a conjoining script crossing all three of the major seals. So basically the circle would restore the body and create the soul separately, and then bind them together into one.” The Bastard was quiet, so he added (rather cheekily), “If you have no idea what I was just talking about, go do some research. You’re probably getting rusty.”

          The Bastard glared at him; he smirked back.

          “So then what went wrong, if your theory is so flawless?” the Bastard was in fact serious and not goading, though Ed half-expected him to. “How come you lost your limbs?”

          “I miscalculated,” and he did, magnificently so. He only now knew how hard this was to admit aloud; his teeth and tongue refused to cooperate, and he had to pause before continuing, “The Gate took my leg for my Mom’s soul. I forgot to calculate for the soul.”

          “The what took your leg?”

          “The Gate,” he gave a vague gesture with his arm, about as vague as his understanding of it. “I think it’s some sort of... it decides the equivalency rule. It takes when you give; if you don’t, it still takes whatever it can. If it can’t, the transmutation fails. I think that’s mainly why all other efforts have failed—because they didn’t have enough to pay for a soul.”

          “You... saw this Gate.”

          “Yes.”

          “No mistake?”

          Ed scowled. “You think I’m lying.”

          “I have good reason to,” the Bastard leaned against the windowsill, “but I’m not.” Only now did Ed notice that the Bastard, clearly at ease, had removed his blue military top. The sleeves of the white undershirt were rolled up and the topmost buttons undone, revealing a small patch of creamy white skin. He looked away.

          “Well, I’m not,” Ed could still visualize the bright light and the gaping darkness within it, the flash of a shitload of information being rammed into his head, the eyes and the hands taking his leg away— “I saw it, okay? Twice.”

          The Bastard was quiet for a while, looking out the window into the sundrenched hills and fields, where it was as if a storm had not passed at all—a markedly different atmosphere from inside the tense house. Try as he might, Ed could not read what the Bastard was thinking, so he gave up and immersed himself in his bisection.

          Question marks peppered his understanding of what happened. He understood that his leg he had exchanged for his mother’s soul (totally worth it) and his arm was taken for Al’s (equally worth it), but how was a limb equal to a soul? It could not be, he could not fathom it—but it was. He had revived both his mother and his brother by giving only two of his limbs. Would a soul normally not be equal only to another soul, like how a pail of water was only equal to a pail of water? He was confused. He did not like being confused.

          True enough, he had miscalculated. (Actually, now that he looked at it, that statement was a mistake. He had not calculated at all, which was where he fucked up.) But even then, the Gate should have taken his soul in order to revive his mother. And Al should have been safe, even if he participated. Which reminded him—

          “Hey, what happened to my brother?” he asked, and he must have been sudden, because the Bastard, who was still thoughtfully gazing through the window (perhaps theorizing on his own), startled at his voice. He asked again, “Do you know what’s wrong with my brother? Nothing should have happened to him—I don’t know what happened to him! He was just there, dead—“

          “He lost blood, a lot of it, but he’ll be fine,” the Bastard spoke reassuringly, with deep and understanding eyes. He wondered if this man had a brother too. “He was almost entirely dry when I got him here. We got him immediately on transfusion; it’s quite lucky your grandmother has blood stocked for her customers.”

          “Blood,” Ed echoed. He could feel the lines marring his forehead in the intensity of his thought. “But—that’s impossible, he wasn’t wounded at all, unless—“

          “Maybe the Gate took his blood, too,” suggested the Bastard, following his line smoothly. “Because surely a soul can’t be worth one limb—“ he stopped, frowning at Ed, and then haltingly said, “Wait, you said he was dead. Does that mean—your arm, you—?”

          Self-conscious, Ed placed a ginger hand on his shoulder, fingers tracing where the limb had been attached once. The wound was a clean shear-through, from what he could see of it and what he remembered. But it was securely bandaged now, thankfully so; he was not all too eager to see that again. There was something incredibly nauseating about seeing one’s own disfigured body, despite his desensitization to such gore. He knew it was just a human body missing some parts but—

          “I had to,” he said, slumping against the bed. “I had to, he was dead. I couldn’t just let him die. He’s my baby brother, you know.” Suddenly he felt tired, drained of energy. Blindly, he reached for the glass of water, only to be harshly reminded by a stab of vengeful pain that he had no right arm anymore. He sighed and swallowed his pride. “Could you hand me that glass of water?”

          The Bastard did—not much of a bastard now at all. For a stranger, he was unusually kind and conscientious.

          Ed paused.

          “How can I be so sure you won’t be babbling all the information I just gave to you to anyone else?” his eyes narrowed into suspicious slits of gold, and he glared up at the man, as if to dare.

          The Bastard only gave him as much as a smirk. “You should not have told me in the first place, then.” He returned the now half-empty glass. “An important thing to remember, Edward,” he started at the use of his name, “that very few people respect intellectual property rights. Many pretend to, but given a good chance, they would take hard-fought research and assume the credit for it, unjustly. This happens often—information out in the open is free game for any alchemist. Which is why you need to be careful with what you know. You know quite a lot, for such a young age.”

          Ed’s scowl deepened even further. “What does age have to do with it? It’s a science. Anybody can learn it.”

          “Ah, but there are those given a talent others can only dream of.” The Bastard slipped his hands—long and tapered fingers, calloused from heavy use, neat nails and a strong wrist—into his pant pockets. Again there with the casual pose. “Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I am a State Alchemist. The military watches my research attentively, and will want for proof. I cannot prove something I admit I only half-understand.” Ed itched to crack an insult, but could not—the Bastard’s eyes were painfully intense. “And I do not wish to stain my friendship with Herr Hohenheim by plagiarizing his son’s work.”

          “Hah!” Baring the column of his neck, Ed threw his head back—and winced in pain. With a pinched frown, he eased his head against a pillow. “I don’t think the bastard would care at all, wherever the hell he is.”

          “Language,” the Bastard reprimanded again, the prude. “And he would care. He is very proud of you. He talked about you a lot. You look exactly like him, did you know that?”

          “Yeah, I’ve been told,” darkly muttering he decided to turn the conversation around. Being reminded of his father made him itch for a nice, long, loud rant, which would be nice, but he figured it would be wiser to conserve his energy for later (the operation, still weighing on his mind) instead. (He refused to admit it, but he was rather apprehensive about the looming pain. From what he had seen in the past, the process was not very nice.) “I don’t think the blood was for the soul. If it was, then I should have lost my blood when I paid for Al’s soul. I didn’t.”

          There was a momentary pause, and then, “Didn’t you say she was decaying, and the more she did, the more you had to pay?” Ed gazed at the Bastard, an increasingly human-seeming bastard the longer they talked, and the blocks in his brain clanked into place even before the man could get the rest of his thoughts out. “The blood must have been—“

          “—for what her body lost while she was dead, of course, of course. Genius.”

          Epiphany was a funny thing, coming at odd times from odd places. He was left staring at the Bastard’s face, mind racing a mile a minute. He had assumed the body was fully in tact and that he needed to give nothing else. He was stupid. He had entirely forgotten about the soul factor and lost his leg in the process. He was stupid. He had Al die for his stupidity, and gave an arm in exchange for the soul, and bound it back into—

          “Did you—was there a seal on my brother’s skin? On—on his chest or back or something—“

          “There was a red multi-chord circle on his chest, why?”

          “...oh, okay, yeah.” Ed nodded, closing his eyes and releasing a momentous sigh. “That’s good.”

          “The connection of the soul to the body?”

          “Yes.”

          He remained with his eyes closed, running over the big picture in his head. It was clear to him now exactly what had happened, and what was paid for by which exactly—but that was not where the questions ended. In fact, that was where they really began. What was the Gate? How did it work? What did it use as a quantifier? Because clearly there was a quantifier, a standard, a value it used to decide what was worth how much. If a limb was equivalent to a soul, then it was either the soul was very cheap, or the limbs were extremely expensive. Or both.

          One thing he did glean from this little escapade of his was the truth about creating a soul—that it was impossible. That was the one part of his theory that was ill-conceived. Human transmutation was not about creating a new soul; it was about retrieving a soul from the Truth, paying for it, owning it, and attaching it to a body.

          He itched to get out of bed and experiment. He desperately itched to read a book, a decent one, one that had something significant about the Gate. (He refused to call it the Truth, what bullshit; by giving him his mother and brother’s soul each for one limb in exchange, it was telling him that their souls were that cheap. Fuck that.)

          Opening his eyes and settling them on the Bastard—again gazing through the window—Ed remembered the previous night. Faint and hazy in his memory, but still somehow concrete; he recalled being offered the title of State Alchemist. It was a weighty achievement, this much he knew from what he’d read and heard, terribly tempting with all its benefits. Simply imagining the amount of money and resources for research he would have at his disposal sent a wanting shiver down his spine. But of course, as everything in life, the title came with its strings attached, and being a State Alchemist meant being an obedient soldier to the state when called for duty. Now, while this was all well and good if he was going to serve people and help build houses, the world was not so gracious. He would be called to war, to massacre people, to destroy lives. He did not want that.

          And he figured he should not be thinking of such things at all, in the first place. He sighed and looked away. He had his mother and brother to take care of. He did not think he was up to leaving them again. The simplicity and quiet of Resembool was something he would just have to live with. Research would be easy enough to conduct even in a small and relatively old town like this; he would simply have to go to East City every now and then to buy his supplies (after earning some money for himself, of course). Maybe, he thought absently, I should write a book.

          In the lengthy process of fantasizing and formulating what he would write if ever he should, he fell into another light sleep.

 

~

          And was again quite rudely woken by a loud noise, this time Winry’s voice grating against his ears. He flinched away, turning his head and screwing his eyes shut. The light was far too bright for comfort, and he was uncomfortably warm. He could feel the back of his neck beginning to sweat and his hair sticking to the skin there. Incredibly unsavoury.

          “Are you awake, Ed?” Pinako.

          He grunted.

          She sighed. “It would have been better if you continued to sleep. We’re beginning the operation. Your ports first, and we’ll finish your limbs within a week. Time enough to let your body rest.”

          "I’m fine,” he opened his eyes and blinked furiously under the light, averting his vision towards his left, where the Bastard was standing a ways away in close watch. He closed his eyes again when Winry placed a towel over them. “No anaesthetics, please.”

          Winry balked. “Hah?!”

          “Edward!” Pinako sounded offended. “Grown men—”

          “—die of the pain, yes, I know, damnit,” he growled, baring his teeth. “But anaesthesia can cause significant memory loss and impairment of short-term memory. I value my brain highly, thanks; I’ll take the pain.”

          “You can’t be serious—don’t underestimate it, Ed!” Winry rapped something thin and metallic on his chest, a blunt and sudden sensation. “You’ve seen our other patients! They scream and cry and lose all that pride!”

          “It’s not pride, it’s practicality. Two totally different things. No anaesthetics, period.”

          Pinako and Winry were both quiet—in disbelief, no doubt. Ed waited (rather impatiently) for them; he had no choice but to. However, there was nothing they could do to change his mind. They probably knew it, too, from the set of his jaw and the clench of his fist. He had grown up with them, after all, and Pinako had known his father. The old lady had always remarked on how much he mimicked Hohenheim in pigheadedness. In this right, Al was left in the dust.

          The tense quiet was abruptly brought to an end when the wet roughness of a towel touched Ed’s lips, and he heard the Bastard say, “Here, bite on this. I don’t think you’d want an injured tongue and broken teeth to add to your list.”

          Obediently he did, seizing the towel with his teeth and sucking on its wetness. He was scared, of course—who would not be? He knew it was going to be painful; he had seen other automail patients. It was not pretty.

          But what other choice did he have? None.

          “Come on, let’s get it over with,” he grumbled into the towel, words garbled and funny but comprehensible nonetheless. “Make it quick.”

          As such, they had no choice but to proceed according to his wishes, since he was the patient, and he had rights to his own body. Technically he was a minor and was legally unable to decide for himself, but they knew that they would never be able to stop him anyway, even if he had to crawl to another automail shop to get his arm and leg substituted. It was their best reassurance that they were the ones operating on him; at least, they would be sure to do the job properly. Ed knew how the Rockbells prided their work as much as he prided his alchemy. It was in the blood, and hesitate though they might, they never turned away from a job.

          “Brace yourself, boy,” Pinako said with a resigned sigh. “This is going to hurt.”

          Yeah, duh, he wanted to snort, but then there was a lightning surge of bright white burning hot painpainpainpain shooting up his neck—he strained to keep still, grunted and gasped and grit at the towel, hand fisting into the sheets, remaining leg jerking up in reflex. The towel over his eyes was dislodged when he turned his head away from the pain by instinct, panting and in shock.

          “About three more of that for your arm, two for your leg,” Pinako idly informed him. She was doing something to his arm wound, he could feel the pressure of something cold against it, but he could not see, and he could not feel that pain anymore. He was temporarily numbed, that spike having shot even through his heightened threshold. “Think you can take it?” she asked him.

          Gasping for breath, he grunted and resettled into the bed, resolute. “Yeah, this much is nothing—”

          (oh but he was lying because the pain the pain the pain)

          The second time he had his eyes open but the world swam in his vision and all he could see of the Bastard was a blue-and-white blotch against the quiet grey. There was a static hum in his ear, and through it he could barely hear Pinako’s voice—but he was not screaming, he knew this, because his throat was locked, his teeth clenched, his tongue still in the wake and break of the pain.

          He was given time to breathe.

          And then againslam came the pain—this time he did make a sound, a grunt, into his gag, muffled and dead the moment it left his lungs. Suddenly he felt suffocated, and turned his head to spit the towel to the side. He gasped, gasped, air air air

          oh dear god what the hell possessed me to do this it hurts it hurts make it stop

          the next one was the last one for his arm, and he heaved upwards for breath, gasping, his back straining into an arc as shockwaves rippled through his spine. Sweat poured in buckets off his skin and on his clothes and on the sheets, bathing him. His hair was matted and sticky now, all through. He collapsed against the pillow in dizzy shock.

          There was a muted quiet.

          “I’m surprised, Edward,” Pinako’s voice was subdued. “Even the toughest of men scream in this pain.”

          He only blinked.

          “Your leg’s next. Do you want me to continue, or do you want to rest for a while?” she asked. “It might be best for you to rest a bit—”

          “Now, please,” his voice was hoarse and unlike him. His voice was suffering in pain, pinched, rough, used, shackled. “Now while I’m still in the aftershock.”

          No more questions were asked. Pinako moved her station and switched places with Winry, who was hovering behind her grandmother, watchful but wary, her face twisted in a horrid mix of sympathy and fear. Both for Ed, doubtless; she had always been a kind girl.

          (PAIN)

          His back snapped into an arch, taut, his one fist white as the sheets. It dragged, this time, and Pinako had given no warning at all. Air stuttered and caught in his chest, rattling as his throat clenched and unclenched and he gasped and gusted air. In the background was some noise—coming from upstairs? who else was upstairs?—but he could not be bothered about that at all, no, no, because

          pain pain pain he was in worlds worlds worlds of pain

          and there were only so many ways one could describe that to someone who had yet to experience it before, from one who has experienced nothing quite like it before, so he stopped thinking, stopped likening it to anything else, because he could not think of anything else.

          As the surge ebbed, he registered a firm hand on his right shoulder, keeping him steady and down, keeping his recently wired nerves in tact. The warm was hand, no, the hand was warm

          he swam in warmth and heat

          unbearably hot now through his shirt and against his feverish skin. Blearily he blinked up at the man but could not muster a word. His brain was busy being overwhelmed.

          Only very slightly did he note it when the door banged open and there was hysterical screaming—and then the screaming was gone and the warm hand on his shoulder was gone—shoved away—and frantic cold hands were on his face and he jerked away

          cold don’t want the cold warmth warmth where’s my warmth

          “No,” he groaned, straining away from the insistent palms, his left hand seeking for the warmth, pleading for comfort. The warm hand seized his almost immediately and he sighed, in relief or in joy or in ease it did not matter any longer, just that he sighed and sagged against the bed. The hand was firm and reassuring, unlike the frantic cold ones offering no shelter but fear.

          “Your Mother, Edward, she’s awake,” the Bastard was saying; he was the only one Ed could pick out from the cacophony.

          “…nish it,” he mumbled, weak. Tiny droplets of saltwater tickled and threatened to fall from the edges of his lashes, but this was excusable—he was in pain. “Finish the wiring.”

          The confusion of babble continued above him, dragged for longer and longer as the pain ebbed away, farther and farther like a retreating wave, leaving him dry and shivering in the wind—he did not want this, he wanted the pain constant, because it lessened the next shock, because the brain could only take so much at a time

          “…boy asked for it, Trisha, you know how he is—”

          “He is eleven, Granny! Eleven, do you understand that?!

          “Mrs. Elric, please calm down, you are in no condition to be—”

          (noisebabblebabblebabblescreambabblenoise)

          He snapped. “SHUT UP!”

          They shut up.

          “Finish the wiring,” he panted in pain, “now.”

          “Edward—”

          “I said shut up!” and yes he was fully aware that he was yelling at his mother, but he was in pain goddamnit, how could any one of them miss that? “Granny, finish it.”

          The warm hand kept firm in holding his smaller, fisting, pale one. The last nerve—tibial nerve, a memory of a book from somewhere parroted into his ear—blotched the ceiling in black and blue and hazy shapes of different hues. The white-hot was a stabbing blade up into his brain, and when he sank, finally, into the darkness, he felt the warm hand still there.

 

~

          Something.

          There was something quite captivating about how the blood seeped into the cracks of their rundown dank basement. Past the whiteness of chalk and down the veins of the hundred-atom-wide crevasses, it flowed and spread like a plague pushing itself upon the cleanliness that was its victim. Even in the half-darkness he saw its path quite clearly, a gleaming crimson red in the bluish-white glow of the still crackling circle. But by this time reality was lost on him—the pain the pain the pain

          my leg is not there my arm is not there

          was eating him from inside out and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. Left there lying prone on cold, cold stone he stared at the still form of his brother across the basement and he felt a speckle of relief. At least, he told himself with a dead inward laugh, Al will live on.

          In exchange for his sacrifice, Al will live on.

          From inside his head, the Truth laughed.

 

 

~

 

tbc
arc I chapter 01 ver. 4-01
first draft: 2009.06.14
last edited: 2009.06.14

Chapter Text

 


I : Culmination
02

Hate is the consequence of fear; we fear something before we hate it.
( Cyril Connolly )

 

~

 

Deep it was into the night when Ed woke again, finding himself in a pleasant wash of lethargy and painlessness. Though he could still feel the aching throb of the still-lingering shock underneath his bones, he was better than he had been since the transmutation—certainly better than half a day earlier, when they were performing the operation. The last he could recall was the sensation of his smaller hand being held by a larger, warmer one, and the Bastard’s voice telling him his mother was awake. Things were rather hazy after that.

By instinct, he raised his left hand to his right shoulder where it felt odd and heavy, and jerked in surprise at the feel of the cool ridges of metal sliding beneath the pads of his fingertips. He tried shimmying upwards to look down at it, but he could only see a faint glint under what meagre moonlight filtered through the curtains—and his neck protested painfully at the strain.

He laid there, fingering the blade-thin edges of the steel plates where it met his flesh. It felt strange, a conglomeration of hard and soft, of cold and warm. But this was him now, this was his new body—and he took an absurd amount of comfort from the fact that soon, soon, he would be up about on two legs with two arms again, as if nothing had ever happened.

Now if everybody else would be so kind and play along—

But of course not, who was he kidding?

There was no way Pinako would ever look upon his alchemy favourably anymore after this. There was no way Trisha would be able to look at her son without wondering what ever went wrong. They would start asking questions soon; he figured he had to set his story straight pretty quickly. Al was a quick study; Ed was sure his brother would pick things up in speed when he woke. All in all, it was better if they knew nothing at all. Especially Trisha; their mother was frail and innocent, unused to such turbulence in her life. The only major break within her normalcy and calm was Hohenheim’s departure, and in that instance she had been warned, prepared. That instance was milder on her heart. This one would not be—after all, resurrection from the dead was practically unheard of and outlandish.

Releasing a momentous sigh, he closed his eyes and half-sank into the darkness of the semi-conscious. Since his father’s disappearance, he increasingly took on the responsibilities Hohenheim left behind, such as caring for their little family and keeping it in tact. It was only now, though, that he found himself making decisions for the family on his own, without the knowledge of their mother. It was as if—he cracked a wry smile—it was as if somewhere down the line he had slipped seamlessly into the role of the man of the house.

 

He was taken from his thoughts by the weighty but somehow discreet sound of boots down the hall, and twin conversing voices: Pinako and the Bastard.

His door creaked open—he remained motionless, listening—and the Bastard stepped in.

“As you can see, he’s still asleep, Lieutenant Colonel. I can take any message you would like for him to receive,” Pinako was stern and unforgiving. Ed figured she was kicking the Bastard out of the house. The storm had abated, and the necessity for extra hands solved by Trisha’s waking; there was no longer any need for his extended stay.

The Bastard looked markedly disappointed. He turned away from the bed. “Never mind, then. I shall take my leave now. I appreciate your hospitality.”

“Wait,” Ed rasped, turning towards the man. “I’m awake.”

The Bastard paused.

“Go back to sleep, young lad,” ordered Pinako, a pinched frown marring her face.

Ed ignored her. “You wanted to talk, Lieutenant Colonel Bastard?”

“Well, yes,” he gave a pointed look to Pinako, who sighed and shook her head, closing the door behind her as she left. The Bastard chuckled, walking over to Ed’s bedside and seating himself on the chair. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit,” Ed rolled his eyes. “How else would I feel?”

The Bastard inclined his head, a slight smirk lifting the edges of his mouth. “I understand I cannot persuade you any more than I already have about the State Alchemist title,” he began, “but should you ever visit Central, come and see me. I’ll gladly lend a hand if you need any help.”

Scoffing, Ed shifted against his pillow. “Who would want help from you?”

“Oh?” the Bastard had a mocking eyebrow raised. “Who was it who reached out for me in askance for comfort earlier? Because I quite clearly remember—“

“Shutup,” cheeks burning in heat, Ed turned his head away. It was no use; the tips of his ears glowed red in his embarrassment. Using such moments of vulnerability against him—this Bastard was not just a Bastard, this Bastard was a dirty and underhanded Bastard.

Said Bastard gave a mild chuckle. “Well, anyway. I shouldn’t take too long, or your grandmother will come barging in here again. She has this thought in her head that I’m doing some evil on you to convince you into the military.”

“Aren’t you?” scowled Ed up at the man, but the Bastard ignored this.

“Remember, Edward,” the man’s expression was grave now, “never tell anyone about what happened here, what you did, the circumstances of your mother’s illness and collapse. Note collapse, not death. As far as anybody else is concerned, she did not die—you merely revived her health with a little medicinal alchemy you learned from your father’s books. Warn your brother when he wakes up; I’m quite sure your grandmother has her mouth sewn shut by now, no worries about her. Do you understand?”

“What about the doctor?” one loophole he had noticed earlier; it would be hard to cover things up with an extra involvement. “What did you tell him?”

“Your grandmother talked to Dr. Thomas earlier, she ‘explained’ what happened.” The Bastard shrugged. “Your mother collapsed, Al tried to transfuse his blood with the medicine you made into her, and he succeeded but bled too much. You healed their wounds. You lost your arm and leg in the process of obtaining the ingredients for the medicine. Keep with that story.”

Nodding, Ed digested this and began to build around it, to arrange how he would tell his version of the lie to his mother and Pinako. Nobody else needed to know; the more people knew, the more potential danger they faced. By the sheer impossibility of what he has accomplished, he—his entire family—was worth a fortune right about now, and many would want to put them under close study. If what the Bastard was saying about the military had any truth to it, then the military would be one of the unnamed many.

“Another thing,” the Bastard was saying; Ed grudgingly paused his thinking to listen. “If you want to avoid being conscripted by the military as a State Alchemist against your own will, keep a low profile. Should they ever catch wind of your abilities, they won’t hesitate. They will want your talent, and mark my words, they will have a use for it—and you won’t like it.”

So he would not be able to do public research after all. He sighed and rested tiredly against his pillow. He had hoped to earn some money through publishing scientific journals and the like, but if he was to keep a low profile, publishing would be out of the question. This was why he scorned the country’s lack of an alchemical university. If such a place existed, there would be freedom for alchemists to practice their science and improve upon it without having to become State Alchemists. Research money, after all, was not easy to come by. A university would eliminate the need for exorbitant amounts of money to conduct study, and also allow varied practices of alchemy come in touch with each other—surely a most ideal environment for the growth and improvisation of theoretical and practical applications.

“I understand,” it was but a faint whisper in the darkness, a resigned thing. “I’ll be careful.”

 

“Good.” The Bastard drew his black cloak on over his standard issue blue uniform—now cleaned of the specks of blood—and stood poised by the door. “Take good care of yourself now. This is your second chance.”

“I know. You don’t need to tell me that, I’m not stupid.” Ed ground his teeth. Even to the last second, this Bastard never failed to annoy him. This was not the last time they would see each other, though. He was quite sure of that. “Wait—you never told me your name.”

“Ah, I never did, did I?” the man had the door open, and the hallway light washed and pooled over him as he stood in its path. Again, amusement twinkled in the man’s eyes. “My name is Roy. Roy Mustang, Lieutenant Colonel.”

Ed gave a grunt. “Lieutenant Colonel Bastard it is,” this made the man smile. “You know? That’s a mouthful. You should get a shorter title. Like Colonel, or General, or Fuhrer.”

This time, the man—Roy Mustang—did throw his head back in a jovial laugh. “The next time we meet, I’ll have a shorter title for you to insult.” With that, the man who had saved his life stepped out of the room and made to close the door. However, before the last slice of light thinned into nothing and the door closed tight, Ed called out:

“Counting on that, Bastard.”

The door slid shut.

This was not the last time they would meet, because for some unknown reason, he felt a pull towards this person—a person he knew would eventually shape his life.

 

He could not figure out, however, if he was more disconcerted by the fact that someone else would be shaping his life, or the fact that it was the Bastard who would be that person.

 

 

~

 

Three days, and Al had yet to wake.

 

Tension permeated every corner of the entire house, and there was not much opportunity to dissolve it at all by way of much-needed conversation. All of them were unable to speak to each other at length: Trisha was preoccupied with caring for herself and the still-comatose Al; Ed was half-incapacitated and always deep in thought; the Rockbells were bustling about in their preparations. Ed was thankful that the pain, at least, was cooperating, and had ebbed into a dull throb in the back of his head, allowing him some freedom of movement. Walking was possible with the help of a crutch, and though it would have been easier if they had attached a temporary leg on him, Pinako refused to pain him any more than what was necessary. He was left to a depressingly short crutch with which to support himself for the meantime.

The one person in the house who suffered the least stress was probably Winry, who, in her lack of alchemical understanding of exactly what had happened, was relishing the joy of being able to take active part in the design and construction of Pinako’s best piece of automail yet. She had goggled incredulously at the lump sum of money Roy Mustang had left behind in their care, all for use in the construction of his limbs. Holding nothing back, the girl immediately launched into what Ed dubbed her “mech-freak” mode, blueprinting the make-up of two deceptively simple but in truth very durable and unique pieces of mechanical genius. As per Ed’s request, they were to make their most expensive set, using their best alloy and best design. She was, not unreasonably, within close reach of her paradise.

On the other end of the spectrum was Trisha, suffering in the grips of justified anxiety. Her younger son was comatose by fault of her elder son, and said elder son was just finishing recovery from a fiery fever, the result of an autoimmune reaction from recently rewired nerves. Suffice to say, she was not having an easy time.

And she was confused, Ed knew. Ed could see it, in her eyes, in her words, in the way she moved, in the way she acted around him, cautious as if afraid. She had just reason for her actions, he understood this, but it pained him anyway—and it pained him even further to realize that there was nothing he could do to ease her anxiety, not if he wanted to keep his secrets. All that was in his power to do was to smile in her presence, to assure her that Al would wake soon, to tell her that yes, everything will work out fine.

He had hoped that this would deter the questioning, but of course, his hope was in vain, dashed very early on the fourth morning after the transmutation.

 

“Edward,” she approached him as he sat on the porch steps, a tight look on her face, “I need you to tell me everything that has happened.”

Immediately, Edward realized the tone in her voice, and knew of what she was asking. It was something he had already decided not to give. “I thought I already told you, Mum,” he shrugged. “Al bled too much when we tried transfusing the blood into you.”

“Why do I not remember any of this?” she was frowning now, carving deep valleys into her forehead.

“You were unconscious,” he was careful to keep a straight face. “We were panicking.” That much was not a lie, though his panic was a different kind from what most people would expect.

She stood there, still and quiet, eyes intently watching him. She stood there, and he sat, and he watched the sun slowly go up, its rays dappling through the branches of the tall tree in the yard.

“I know you are lying, Edward,” she said. “I can see. You are my son. Do not think you can lie to me that easily.”

And what was he supposed to say to that? What was he supposed to say? Right at this moment, he wished for someone else to be here for him, to explain. To act as a buffer from the rest of the world, so he could be by himself even just for a while. He wished for the Bastard, almost, to be here and talk for him. The Bastard always seemed to know the right thing to say, when to say it, and how—Ed needed that.

“…I can’t tell you, Mum,” and the words barely left his mouth with sound. “It’s better if I don’t tell you.”

“Edward!”

She was livid, hands fisting and tense at her sides. She looked like she itched to hit him, an expression Edward had never seen on her face before. It hurt him, more than he could have ever imagined it would—but he knew he deserved this.

He cast his eyes down. “I’m sorry, Mum.”

She stood there, and he sat.

She left.

He remained on the porch steps long after she was gone, and to her shadow he murmured, “I’m sorry, Mum. Really, I am.” Clutching his shoulder port, he hunched into himself, rocking back and forth—but still he could not cry.

 

 

~

 

A week, and Al had yet to wake.

 

Today was the day for Ed’s limbs’s attachment. Suffice to say, he was not looking forward to it; he had seen, as a child, the pain the Rockbells’s old clients had to go through for the attachment operation itself and the rehabilitation afterwards. It was not an easy path he was going to have to go down, but he steeled himself with the courage and determination pounded into him by his training with Izumi. He managed to survive his teacher; he would survive this.

With a curious mix of dread and fascination, Ed ogled over the polished metal pieces that were to be his limbs. Behind him, Winry was arranging the attachment machine, while Pinako checked over the finer details of the automail itself. Even to his amateur eyes, their work was a splendid piece of mechanism. He traced with wondering eyes the engraved bell motif at the ball of the arm that was to go into his shoulder port’s socket. The sheer detail of the work must have taken considerable time, especially since everything was handmade. (But perhaps it was only him; he was beginning to become more and more reliant on his alchemy these days, ever since they left Izumi and her watchful warnings against overdependence and laziness. But how was he to separate himself from alchemy? Apart from its convenience, the pull of his science was just too much for any amount of willpower to stand against.)

“On the bed now, young lad,” Pinako hustled, positioning the limbs within easy reach. “Winry, mind his leg, will you?”

Ed climbed into the bed—by all rights an operation table—and reclined against the pillow, trying to relax. The scars of attachment on his shoulder and side tingled as his brain anticipated the pain to come.

From the door, he knew that Trisha was watching, quiet as a spectre. She had not talked to him in days, not a single word given between the two of them. He could see in her eyes, even now, the blame that was growing and burgeoning. The longer Al remained in his deep unresponsive sleep, the more she seemed to look at him with those dark eyes.

There was something in there, in her, that he could not fathom—something in her eyes that was building by the minute. It was tiny right now, but soon, soon it would become substantial enough—and maybe then he would be able to see what it was she was thinking and feeling. With the same trepidation he had for the attachment of the automail, he dreaded that day when he did.

But, he thought idly, as they arranged the two attachment machines around him, the reward of knowing would be worth it. Yes, in the same way that walking again would be worth the pain of attachment, being able to respond to what was bothering Trisha would be worth the pain of knowing her troubles. Because try though he might to deny it, he knew, in the end he was the root of all her troubles—he just hoped there was something he could do to make it up to her.

“We’re going to attach the limbs simultaneously,” Pinako’s voice jolted him from his peripatetic thoughts. “It will reduce the length of pain, though the initial shock will be significant.” Perhaps she saw his face, because she added, “It should be somewhat less than the pain of the wiring. I can give you painkillers—“

“—not anaesthetic—”

“—not anaesthetic—afterward,” she rolled her eyes at Winry, who giggled as she took the leg and positioned it by its port. “Ready when you are.”

Ed took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and nodded. “I’m good—”

fuck

and the pain slammed, furious against his senses, burning up his spine and searing his brain. The ceiling moulted into flashes of lightning white and blots of grey-black, and his consciousness scrambled to keep up with the overload. Pinako had not given him a warning at all—and perhaps it was better that way, but it was not very nice of her. (Then again, she had never been a particularly kind person.)

He only belatedly realized that he had vocalized his pain—when the light-headed shock tided in, his throat felt tight and scratched, the way one would feel after a sudden and particularly loud yell. He laid there for many minutes of heavy breathing, body struggling to unwind as he forced relaxation into his tensed muscles. Tingles of burning heat still shimmied up and down the nerves on his right side and chest; he dared not try and move his new limbs just yet, keeping as still and motionless as possible to minimize stimulation. It would probably hurt if he tried to rush things; he did not want more hurt, thank you very much.

“I strongly suggest against moving much for today.” He watched as Pinako tightened a screw at the elbow. “The port will sting for a while; the nerve ends are still raw. Tomorrow, you start your rehabilitation, and I’m sure you already know it won’t be nice. I’ll have you walk around the yard five laps, morning and afternoon. We increase that as we go.”

“How long will it take?”

Pinako paused to look at him. “How long will what take, Edward?”

“Rehab.” Edward gave her a candid look.

“Why, do you have a deadline to catch, young man?” the cast of the old lady’s tone was critical and probing. “Rehab will take a long time. Grown men—“

“I’d appreciate it if you could stop comparing me to your other clients, Granny,” sighed Ed. “Clearly I’m not anything like them.” He fidgeted in the bed, inching upwards so he could be in a somewhat upright position. “And no, I don’t have a deadline to catch. I’m not going anywhere, Granny; I just want to know how long it’ll take. You know me; I’m impatient.”

Ed knew Pinako’s nagging suspicions about Roy Mustang’s offer for the State Alchemist title, and while he understood her distrust of outsiders (especially military men), the fact that she was doubting him boggled his mind. She, of all people, should know that he was not about to leave Resembool, not now when his mother needed his support and his brother had yet to wake. And even after that, even after they resettle into their peaceful lives, he would not leave. He had no reason to leave. Research was easy enough to conduct on his own; he would be able to make do with his alchemy and occasional trips to East City for some books, maybe even to Dublith to borrow some ideas from his teacher. But he was not about to leave his family when he was needed.

A heavy sigh was all Pinako could give in reply to him.

Winry offered quietly, “On average, rehab can take six months to a year. Maybe you can scale it in about three or four months, if you work really hard. But it’s not going to be easy.”

Grinning wryly, Ed echoed his earlier thought, “If I was able to survive my teacher in Dublith, I’m going to survive this too. Don’t worry.”

She grinned back at him. This was what Ed liked about Winry; she asked the least questions and accepted life as it came to her. In that sense, they made a good pair: Ed with his closely held secrets, and Winry with her willingness to let people keep their secrets.

“We’ll be making lunch, then,” having tidied the work desk near the bed, Pinako folded her arms behind her and walked to the door. “Keep yourself in bed, boy. Your body needs the rest. Come, Winry.”

Obediently, Winry followed, stopping only when Ed called out, “Hey, Winry, d’you think you can get me a pencil and some paper? I’m really getting bored of lying around doing nothing.”

“Sure, but can you write with your left? I don’t think you’ll be able to control your right arm that well right now.”

“Yeah, that’s no problem. I had to learn at our teacher’s place.”

She shrugged and walked out of the door, “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Only when her back disappeared into the hallway did Ed notice that Trisha was not there anymore.

 

 

~

 

Valiantly, he tried to convince himself that he should not be hurt by such things. Trisha was merely confused, distressed. After all, Al was as good as dead to the rest of the world. But being left like that while he was in the throes of pain hurt. He would have thought she would have at least stayed, like Roy Mustang had—even if she only watched from afar, by the door. Leaving him behind—that was too cold a treatment from her. Never had he seen this side of his mother, a facet of her reflecting fear and uncertainty strong enough to suppress her inborn compassion and kindness.

He could not deny that he had a huge part of the blame. After all, he did push her away when she was trying to comfort him during the operation, and abandoned her hands in exchange for Mustang’s. But at that time he was not fully coherent—hell, he was in pain, why could nobody understand that—and so should he not be pardoned that one time?

Sighing, he blinked up at the ceiling. The sun was going down now; his stomach growled for dinner. His sheaf of blank pages lay on the work desk beside his bed, the pencil on top, diagonal, as if to hold the sheets down. He had wanted to scribble earlier, but the pain bothered him too much for concentration. True to Pinako’s words, the nerves were still raw and unwilling to operate properly.

But he was tired of lying down. He was tired of idling when there was so much to be done. He wondered if somebody had already cleaned up the basement. The blood and the chalk should still be there, drying and crusting into a thick layer of brown. Or maybe Pinako already took care of it sometime while he was asleep. He spent too many hours sleeping these days.

(the circle is the guide and the energy flows within it)

He never realized when he closed his eyes, but in the darkness of his mind he saw flashes, images, information. A ton’s worth of it, hidden there and waiting to be used. And he heard a voice.

(all matter exist in a never-ending flow and we are but tiny individuals in its wake)

Or was it really a voice? Maybe they were just words, and he was the one giving voice to them. He did not know for sure. All he knew was that this thing in his head—whatever it was—gave him endless things to ponder, endless things to theorize and build research around.

(the flow of energy is boundless, endless, and within each person the potential to harness the flow lies dormant)

It was not very conducive to socializing, this constant flash-and-flow of information. At random times, he would get images, and he would space out, inciting further worry on Pinako’s part. The old lady was already fearful enough of any kind of damage the pain of the raw operation might have caused. It was getting rather bothersome to assure and reassure her time and time again that he was fine.

(the value is decided upon—)

Stopped.

(the Gate is—)

Stopped again.

Ed frowned.

Why does it not tell me anything about the Gate?

He tried again—the flow stopped, as if a stream of water slamming against a solid dam. Cursing quietly to himself, he ground his teeth in annoyance and shifted in his bed. His fingers—the new metal ones—curled into a fist, and though he could not feel it by way of skin, he knew the force behind it. These limbs had the potential for incredible strength—he had to be careful with them.

(the Gate—)

Stopped.

Fucking hell.

Sighing, he sagged into the pillow, watching the shadows elongate in his room the further the sun sank into the horizon. It was no use; whatever was in his head refused him knowledge of any sort about the Gate’s existence.

Which, of course, in the true fashion of a scientific mind, made him wonder even more.

What exactly was the Gate? Who created it? Was there even an entity capable of creating something so powerful? How did it operate? What was its job? Was it really the calculator for the equivalency? How did it calculate the equivalency? What were its standards, its quantifiers? How does one open it without losing something? Was there a way to open it again?

“—ward!”

He jerked, affright, and scowled at the upset Winry.

“Spacing out again! Are you sure that hard head of yours is alright?” she huffed, crossing her arms.

“I’m fine. You and Granny worry too much.” He sat up, wincing slightly, and swung his legs—two of them now—over the side of the bed. “Is dinner ready yet?”

“Yes, glutton,” she helped him balance, awkward as he was on his new limb. She saw the blank stack of paper and frowned, “You didn’t write after all. I can’t believe you asked me to get all that paper for nothing.”

“I’m going to use it; I just have too many things to think about that I don’t know where to start,” he sighed again, his shoulders sagging as he used a crutch to balance for his first few steps. The weight of his body pressing down on the leg port sent clips of pain up his back, but he gritted his teeth and bore it. It was gone by the time he was by the door.

“Make a table,” she said suddenly.

He turned. “What?”

“Make a table of the things you know, the things you want to know, the things you know you don’t know—and from there find the things you don’t know you don’t know.” She smiled at him, easy and comfortable. “It’s what I do when I’m not sure I have all the right parts, or if I’m uncertain which base design to use.”

And before she could even finish her sentence, his mind was racing, putting together columns of lists and crossing them against each other. Mumbling to himself, he surged towards the work desk and seized the pencil, sketching a table as she had instructed, and began scribbling with his left.

“Oi! Do that later! Dinner first!”

He did not hear her until she bopped him on the head, bodily dragged him from the desk, and sat him in the dining room. With him he took his paper and pencil, though, and throughout dinner he was quiet, absorbed and efficient in his work. He failed to notice his surroundings, and the darkening look Trisha had in her eyes.

 

 

~

 

One and a half weeks, finally Al woke.

 

Ironically enough, he woke while Trisha was gone to the market with Pinako to restock on their food. None of them had left the household for days, and the pantry was easily emptied through Ed’s insatiable and ever-growing appetite. It was near-unbelievable how much his tiny body could intake and metabolize into energy. Winry constantly complained about having to make too much food, and asked him incessantly where he stored all that he ate; he retorted quite indignantly that he burned up all of it by using his brain for rigorous mental work, unlike her.)

Ed was walking about past Al’s room’s window, exercising his new limbs despite the (now much lessened) pain, when Al croaked groggily, “Brother?” and Ed had all but toppled to the ground in his surprise.

Righting himself and forgetting all about retaining some semblance of dignity, he scrambled over the window and into the room, making his ports twinge and ache, but disregarding it. He rushed to Al’s bedside, hands patting all over his little brother’s body as if in reassurance that yes, his brother was here, alive.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “How do you feel? Are you in pain? Do you need anything? Can you hear me? Are you—”

“Too fast,” Al coughed, turning slightly to the side. “You’re going too fast, brother.”

Ed clamped his mouth shut, but only managed total stillness for two seconds; his mismatched hands were already rubbing Al’s back before he could even order them to. He assisted his brother upright, gave him a sip of water, and drew a blanket around thinner, frail-looking shoulders.

“Are you alright?” he repeated, and Al gave him a faint smile.

“I’m fine, brother, just a little… disoriented.”

Sitting by the bedside, Ed kept tight grasp of his younger brother’s hand. The relief he felt blossoming in his chest was absurd in its intensity, but he did nothing to hide it; it was only in front of Al that he could be this open now. He could trust Al to keep his secrets, to understand his reasons, to understand what he was going through. Just as they had always been together, in this they could be, would be together too.

“…Mum?”

Al’s voice was tiny and afraid. Ed could empathize.

“She’s fine. Alive, perfectly healthy.” He hushed his voice. He knew Winry was supposed to be in the automail workshop, tidying up the mess there, but one could never know. Trisha or Pinako could sneak up on them anytime.

His brother stared at him, uncomprehending, for a few heartbeats of silence, and then choked out: “B-But how—how?”

Ed shrugged. “I managed, somehow.”

Another stretch of silence—with gentle fingers, Al lifted new metal hand and turned it over in close inspection.

“…you lost your arm,” Al murmured, “It took your arm.”

Ed jolted. “You saw it. You saw it too.” Taking hold of Al’s wrist, he pressed, “What do you remember? Tell me everything you remember.”

“Not much, actually.” Al rubbed the back of his head the way he was wont to do whenever uncertain of what to do or say. “All I remember is white. Big doors. A voice…”

“Tsk.” Ed chewed thoughtfully on his lip.

“Brother, what was that? Do you—have any idea what that was?”

“I really don’t know much yet. I just know it’s some sort of… of energy source? Channel? I don’t know,” and he sounded almost like he was whining—which inwardly he was, but refused to admit it, forcing himself to act more adult-like. “I think it decides the equivalency. You know, it calculates what is worth how much.”

“But that’s—how? I mean, what—the standards?”

“Yeah, exactly.” Ed grumbled to himself for a little bit, jiggling his knees in his seat. His leg no longer hurt. Just the simple presence of an awake and aware Alphonse seemed to abate his pain. “I need to hurry up and get used to these limbs so I can start researching again.”

They were quiet for a while, watching the sway of the big tree in the yard through the window. Ed had a myriad of things waiting to be explained to his brother, and an entire list of facts he needed Al to get straight so their cover-up would seem authentic. However, he had no idea where in the world to begin

oh to hell with it

he plunged straight into the heart of the matter.

“Look, Al, Mum doesn’t know anything,” he sounded frantic and panicky even to his own ears. “She doesn’t know that she died. She doesn’t know—she doesn’t understand what we—what I did. She doesn’t understand what happened to me, what happened to you—she’s kind of mad at me, right now, since I haven’t been telling her anything.”

Al stared at him with measuring eyes, and for a heartbeat there Ed thought Al would judge him for lying to their own mother, but then he gave an understanding nod.

“That makes sense, I guess,” Al sighed. He grabbed the glass of water again; his throat was rasping from dryness and disuse. His hand trembled in holding the glass; Edward figured he must be starving by now. It had, after all, been a week since Al has had any real food. “It’s all for the better if she doesn’t know.”

“Exactly,” Ed was glad there was someone who understood him now. He had been desperate for the past few days for someone to talk to—so much so that he was actually almost missing the Bastard. “Our cover story goes: Mum collapsed from her illness, we panicked. We tried to heal her with medicinal alchemy we learned from Hohenheim’s books and from our training with teacher. I gathered the ingredients for the medicine—lost my arm and leg—made the medicine; you tried to infuse it into her bloodstream, with your own blood. You bled too much and went into shock.”

“You lost your leg too?!”

And it seems he had not noticed after all. Ed lifted his automail leg for Al to peer at in part-horror and part-fascination.

“How? Why?”

Ed opened his mouth to explain, but heard a light clatter from the kitchen. He bit his lip and said instead, “Long story, I’ll tell you later—“

“Alphonse!”

Both boys’s heads whipped towards the doorframe, where Trisha stood in surprise. She rushed into the room, pushed past Ed, and gathered her youngest into her arms, tearfully patting Al’s back and mapping his face and holding him close.

“Good morning, Mum,” Al smiled, tentative and wondering as he gazed up at her in adoration. Trisha choked back a laugh of joy and took him in her arms again, rocking them back and forth. Over Trisha’s shoulder, Al gave Ed a look of pure awe as he held his mother close.

Ed just gave him the usual roguish grin, leaning back against the rest of the chair. He remarked, “See, I told you, Mum, he’d be fine.”

Trisha said nothing to that. In fact, Trisha acted as if she never heard him speak at all. She drew back and held her son’s face in the cup of her hands. “How do you feel? Are you feeling alright? Do you want some food? Oh, you must be hungry, my poor child, you haven’t had anything in days!”

She bustled about, removing the blanket Ed had draped over Al’s shoulders and replacing it herself, tighter and snugger, as if to secure Al in place. She refilled the now-empty glass of water, insisted that Al take a sip, and refused to let her eyes part from her revived son’s face.

Awkwardly, Ed stood and muttered, “I’m going to go help with lunch.” With an apologetic glance to Al, he removed himself from the scene and made his way towards the door, where Pinako stood watching Trisha fuss over her son.

“Be patient with her, Edward,” the old lady said when he passed her by. “She’s confused. She’ll come around.”

Edward paused momentarily, and with a grim smile said, “Yeah. I know. I understand.”

He trudged down the hall towards where Winry was happily clanking about in the kitchen preparing lunch. Desperately, he tried to purge from his mind the way Trisha had so easily brushed him aside to care for Al, and when he rounded the corner into the kitchen, he had a ready smile for Winry, a cover, but good enough to throw them all off. He could bear this much—this was his punishment for the committed taboo. He would bear this much, because it was only right. She might be angry at him for the moment, and a little bit afraid, but soon it would fade away—as long as she did not hate him, he could bear this silent treatment.

Because soon, soon, it would fade away.

 

 

~

 

Days passed in a blur after Al’s waking. His little brother was up and about again, walking around and helping with some chores, though Trisha forbade heavy work and lifting. Al only gave a wry smile whenever she fussed about; Al was always the better one when it came to tolerating people. By nature Al was a far more social creature than Ed could ever be, and so it was by no one’s fault that for the next few days, Ed was left to his own devices, practically unnoticed in the background except when he spoke up in reply to whatever taunt Winry threw.

Ed kept his quiet, letting Trisha do as she wished, letting her have her reassurance that Al was going to be fine, letting her see that eventually things would settle down again and they would be able to return to their old lifestyle. He had quite a bit of a trouble with finding some alone time with his brother, time sufficient enough for him to outline what meagre theory he had on the Gate and on what had happened to them. Pinako was a great help in that respect; again, she took Trisha out to the markets for a second shopping trip, buying the things they were not able to buy since they be unable to carry it all back the first time.

Rightly so, Al’s interest was piqued by Ed’s theories, and soon they were both digging into their books again, searching for any nuance at all about a Gate or a deciding entity or a channel of energy, something. Even more than that, Al was interested with Roy Mustang, the Bastard, and unabashedly impressed at the offer for the State Alchemist title. They knew both about the unsavoury nature of the job, but there was no denying the prestige that came with it, and the high qualifications a practitioner had to meet in order to claim such a privileged title. Being offered one was nearly unheard of, especially to a child of barely twelve.

Time and again Al questioned why Ed refused the offer, and this irritated Ed beyond imagination. He had already explained that he was not going to abandon their family, not now when they’d finally been reunited, but Al insisted upon his point, saying that the research grants—the opportunity itself was far too rare to miss. And what was even more irritating—if that was even possible—was the way Al would look at him once every now and then, with awe and admiration and this sort-of almost pseudo-worship, doubtless because of what he has achieved with their mother. His temper flared on edge whenever Al looked up at him like that, because damnit, they were supposed to be equals, and Al was not supposed to be lower than he or he higher than Al. He did not want hero-worship; he just wanted their family back together, that was all.

But as he’d learned, the simplest wishes were the hardest ones to make into reality.

Once he tried voicing this concern to Al (in a most roundabout way but Al got the gist anyway) and he was simply rebuffed. Regardless of all of this, Al continued to look up to him and listen attentively in matters of alchemy. Ed feared for Al’s individuality and personal style; he did not want his brother’s talent covered up by his own.

 

Thankfully, they did not get to talk much at all about alchemy, given Trisha’s persistent shadowing of Al. Ed tried to minimize her exposure to alchemy, at least for a little while until she loosened up again. At the very mention of it, or at the very sight of them poring into their father’s books, her eyes darkened with something he was only beginning to fathom. Wistfulness was forever gone from her eyes, and would never return to shadow them whenever she saw alchemy in action. It used to remind her of Hohenheim, but from now on, it would remind her of her younger son half-dead and her elder son half-whole.

Ed was slowly beginning to see the fine distinction between his thinking and his mother’s, between alchemists and non-alchemists. Before her death, he would have never thought to distinguish, to discriminate between the two. Before her death, before the Gate, he had believed the ideal of equality, in that everyone had a fighting chance, and everyone saw the world more or less the same way.

But encountering the Gate, not once but twice, had changed him, even if he tried his best to deny it. The ideal of equality was fake; every one was created much different from everybody else. This was where the diversity responsible for evolution stemmed from, and this was what society was ultimately built upon. It was foolish to think otherwise.

Alchemists tended to have a different view of the world in comparison to ordinary people, given the much varied knowledge and different upbringing they had (though of course he was generalizing at this point). He—and Al—they were both more open-minded than Trisha could ever be. They were thinkers-out-of-the-box; they were scientists who asked questions, and it was in their blood to do so. They welcomed things they did not know and understand; they sought the answer to them with relentless passion and pursuit.

Non-alchemists could never understand this, at least not to the same extent. Trisha certainly did not, for when she saw something she did not understand, in the true fashion of a sheltered human being, she began to fear

—and fear, he knew, was the very foundation of hate.

 

He did not want that.

He did not want to be hated by his own mother.

So he tried his very best not to upset her, to please her by taking good care of Al while she was away. He never used alchemy in front of her, and he took pains wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts even in the sweltering late summer heat, if only to hide his automail from her sight.

He struggled to convince himself that yes, she still loved him, and yes, he was still a member of this family. He struggled to maintain confidence in her affection—but he was slipping, oh yes he was, because she was not showing him one inch of affection, not one ounce of kindness at all. They had not talked since that last time when she asked him for what had happened—and whenever he thought of this, he was nagged by a desperate urge to just confess everything that had happened to her surely willing ears, because maybe, maybe

 

Maybe that would let her see just how much of himself he had given in order to keep this family together, alive.

 

 

~

 

Light streamed in bars of sunlight through the window, slanting into and cutting through the gloom of his bedroom. His floor was a clutter of books and notes, and his bed a tousled mess of either sleepless or restless nights. This was the one place Trisha never went into, and so he stashed all the alchemy books in a trunk at the foot of his bed. The trunk he had lifted from the basement (which was perfectly chalk-less and blood-free when they moved back into their house) and the books he had gathered from Hohenheim’s study and library.

He feared her fear—and yes, he was fully aware of how absurd that sounded—because he knew not just how far she could go to satisfy the drive to abate the fear. Perhaps he was just being paranoid now, but he did not care. The books—Hohenheim’s journals and notes—they were too precious to risk. She could take them anytime and burn them if he had left them in the study; what a waste of good resource it would be.

But if anything, he knew preventive action best. He had learned a whole plethora of things from his teacher; this was one of them. He kept his precious things close to him, in plain sight but not quite. The clutter in his room served to hide his important notes and the special journals Hohenheim had doodled countless blindingly intricate and equally incomprehensible circles in.

He was nearing midway into one of these journals (there were twelve of them Hohenheim left behind, and he had them all under lock and key) when he came upon a tiny little sketch at the edge of the page—a simplified ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The snake ate itself and used its flesh to reconstruct itself, killed itself so it could rebirth itself. Ed blinked, shaking his now boggled head. The circle was endless, in which life leads to death leads to life. This strongly reminded him of Izumi’s tenet, “One is all, all is one,” the truth of the universe stuffed into such small and almost inconsequential words.

Closing his eyes, he reclined against his bed and placed the journal on his chest. In his mind’s eye he could picture a dragon, a snake, coiling around on itself and biting its tail. It made sense that the symbol was a symbol of immortality, because indeed the snake did not truly die—not if it was able to rebirth itself in its constant flow of energy.

(the circle is the guide and the energy flows within it)

He snapped upright.

“The circle is the guide and the energy flows within it,” he looked down at his palms, one flesh, one metal. “All matter exist in a never-ending flow.”

Swinging his legs over the side and sitting taut at the edge of his bed, he slowly brought his palms together, until they met in a quiet clap.

(spark)

He felt that. He felt that tingle of energy, even through his automail, even through insensitive metal. Audibly, he swallowed and blinked—an image, a circle, flashed into his mind. He let go of the rounded arch of his arms and touched with his right hand a piece of scrap paper on the floor

(cracklespark)

rush went the energy as the crumpled paper turned into a perfectly folded paper crane.

Dubiously, he stared at his hand.

And then at the paper crane.

And then back at his hand.

 

“Bloody fucking hell.”

Stunned and incredulous, he scrambled for the journal and rifled through its pages, finding the page he was on and gazing at the sketch again. This time, the thing in his head was cooperative; it showed him flashes of the older versions of the ouroboros, and unlike unreliable human memories, these flashes remained burned into his retina for a prolonged period of time. He seized a pencil from the bedside table, snatched a piece of scrap paper from the floor, and began sketching the previous version of the ouroboros, and then the one that came before that, continuously, and soon he was deriving the circle to its most ancient form.

He stared at the sheet of paper and set it against Hohenheim’s notes, his eyes frantically scanning back and forth across the line of circles progressively more intricate and ancient. There was a pattern, a script and two sigils pertaining to command, somehow condensed as the circle evolved, and eventually it disappeared. Indeed, to an untrained eye, the simple form of the ouroboros would be no more than a symbol of infinity and eternity and wholeness, nothing else, but in the old ages, there was some other use for it.

And he knew—he just knew—that if he could decode that, then he would be able to figure out what he just did.

But first he needed to do that again, and observe.

Eager as a child given a new toy for Yule, he scrambled to the door—and paused, turning back and stuffing the journal (with the paper full of his derivative circles) back into its trunk. He made sure to lock it before he shot out of the room, down the hall and stairs, and straight through the kitchen into the backyard.

There he stood bouncing on his heels, looking about for something to transmute. Over by the wall, there were chops of wood they stocked up for when the winter came; it was still summer, and they were not going to need any of them for a while, so it would not be a problem if he took one or two to play with.

Walking towards the stack, he clapped his hands, visualized the circle he wanted in his head, and touched the topmost chop of wood. Smoothly with a crackle of blue-white light, it morphed into a wooden soldier toy.

Brilliant.”

He grinned to himself and took the wooden toy, rushing to where the backyard faucet was. Setting the piece of wood down on the ground, he ran the water and let it flow and wet the earth, until there was a generous pool around the wood. Then he clapped his hands—again, the circle in his mind’s eye—and touched the top of the piece of wood—and slowly, a sprout of wood came out of the top, and then a little fold of green, and then a tiny leaf, until the piece of wood was a medium-sized leafy sprout rooted in the wet earth.

“It works with acceleration reactions too,” marvelling breathlessly at the tiny tree he made, he rolled back on his heels and sat on the ground. Again, he brought his hands together and touched the tiny pool of water directly beneath the faucet—it froze and aggregated into a flower made of ice.

“What are you doing?!”

Startling out of his wonder, he jerked in fright and looked up at his mother—his very angry mother. Breath caught in his throat when he saw the burning fire behind her mother’s eyes, the same fire Al had in his whenever he felt strongly about something. Theirs was a quiet fire, normally, but when stoked, it spit and sputtered just as aggressively as Ed’s.

“M-Mum, I was just—”

“Do not do that hateful thing in my presence ever again, Edward!” she hissed, eyes narrowing and mouth clenched in anger and fear and—Ed recoiled—hate. “I do not want you performing that alchemy of yours inside this house ever again, are you listening, young man?”

Ed could not believe what he was hearing. Was this really his mother, his mother who had so loved alchemy?

“It has done no good for this family, none at all,” she straightened herself as if attempting to rein her emotions in—she was close to failing. Ed’s eyes caught the tautness and snap of her neck; she was afraid. Of him.

His mother was afraid of him.

“Alphonse will be going to town with me. I am taking him to the clinic for a check-up,” declared Trisha, before turning her back on him. “I want you to clean all of that up before we come back.”

And not even a goodbye as she disappeared back into the house, leaving Ed struck speechless and still on his perch by the dripping faucet.

 

He struggled to reconcile the Trisha he just witnessed with the kind soul he knew as his mother. He struggled to reassure himself that she was still confused, just confused, and did not know what she was talking about. How could she? He had told her nothing. She knew nothing. Not one thing about alchemy, about his blood’s science, about Hohenheim, about him, her own son—she knew nothing about how the science had saved her, revived her from the dead.

Oh, she was probably immensely shocked to wake up finding both of her sons incapacitated. Al’s prolonged condition did nothing to allay her doubts and fears. But was it fair to despise alchemy just because of that? Was it even normal?

For a moment Ed was struck with a stagnating fear—what if he had not brought her back whole and right after all? What if dying—what if the Gate affected her somehow? Because surely, surely a limb cannot be worth a whole soul

(she was whole she was brought back whole the price was paid and the soul given back)

but the Knowledge told him he had succeeded. The thing in his head was reassuring him—and it felt right. Besides, he did not think he failed at all. Everything was perfect—well, okay, not everything, since he lost two limbs—but all in all the transmutation’s results were far beyond exemplary.

Which only left behind one explanation for her contempt: that she truly felt it.

Ed did not want to believe it. He did not want to believe it—because this was his mother, his beloved mother, not just some stranger, and she could not hate him, she just could not

but she does, you saw her eyes, she does hate you

and he could not deny that now, no, because he did see her eyes. She had glared with utmost contempt at the branch of wood and frozen flower and she had called alchemy a “hateful thing”—and, since alchemy was an intimate part of him (hell, by extension, alchemy was him, his very being), that just meant she hated him too.

She hates me too.

And what had master said about hate? People feared something before they hated it. Well, she had—still does—fear his alchemy. She fears him. Therefore, by way of perfectly logical reasoning, it would be safe to conclude that yes, she could hate him too.

She hates me too.

 

Realization slammed against his heart much like how a fully speeding train would ram against a solid brick wall, except unlike the rewiring of his nerves, he felt no pain. Only a spreading, deadened numbness in his chest, and an urge to throw up.

He did throw up.

Leaning over by the faucet he heaved his last meal—but the acid in his throat and mouth was nothing compared to the stinging behind his eyes. Losing his mother, effectively killing his brother, losing two of his limbs—none of that made him cry, but this, this—

 

Perhaps, he thought, this is the payment.

I lost only two of my limbs for my mother’s and brother’s souls—but in the end, we can never be family again. And this is my payment for breaking the taboo.

The thing in his head remained deathly quiet.

He remained hunched by the faucet, tear streams splitting his cheek, until they dried into near-invisible saline tracks and remained there, sticking and tight against his skin, much like how the stain of his mother’s hate would remain forever etched on his heart and soul. And then in a flash of awareness, in a bout of coherency amidst his jumbled emotionality, he realized:

I can’t stay here.

His spine stiffened.

I can’t stay here—not if Mum hates me. And not if I can’t do alchemy. I can’t not do alchemy—I can’t.

The thought of leaving his hometown for good, leaving his family for good, brought a seeping sadness to his chest, and it rose like a wave along with nostalgia, choking his throat. Again the stinging came to his eyes, only this time, he screwed them shut and tipped his head back, willing the tears to stop and disappear.

This—his mother no longer wanted him here, so this was what he must do. He must leave, now, and not return. He would leave a note to Al—yes—and he would go.

Hurried, almost unexplainably frantic, he twisted the faucet and ran the water again, a strong gush this time, and rinsed his mouth three times over, before clapping and returning the branch of wood with leaf sprouts into its old form, a chop of dry firewood. The frozen flower he evaporated into mist, and he brought the chop of wood back into the stacks.

Then he rushed into the house, ran to the bathroom and brushed his teeth. He went into his room and began clapping, binding together the scraps of scattered paper into makeshift booklets and stuffing them all into the small trunk. When all the paper was cleared, he began to sort through the books to decide which he would bring and which he would leave behind. In the end he decided to bring only Hohenheim’s special noted books and the twelve journals, leaving behind the basic books, which he really had no need for anymore. His clothes—what few of them he would bring—fit into a large knapsack, and—

And that’s all.

He looked around him, around the room of his childhood, now free of strewn paper. The bed was still tousled—with a few measured movements, he righted the sheets. The books went into neat stacks on the desk, and after that he snatched a piece of paper stuck in between one of the books’s pages.

A quick note to Al—an apology and a bare explanation—and he left it on the table, weighted down by the piece of rock he had always used as a paperweight ever since his early reading and writing days.

Biting his lip, dragged the trunk and carried the knapsack to the hallway, and without looking back, closed the door behind him.

 

A deep breath.

I need to go now. I need to go.

Yes, he would leave, and catch the first train out of here, and he would go to—

Well.

I have nowhere to go.

 

There he stood, staring blankly at the opposite wall. Dublith was one option—he shuddered. Actually, no, Dublith was not an option. His teacher would ask questions, and he would have no choice but to tell her. Unlike Trisha, she understood alchemy, and would immediately know about the taboo he had broken. And suffice to say, she would not be pleased. He shuddered again, more violently this time. A displeased Izumi was not a very nice Izumi to be with.

So he was left with no choices. He knew no one else; he had been to nowhere else apart from Dublith and Resembool. Not even to neighbouring cities and towns—they never had the need to travel, and constant touring was not a luxury they could afford. Trisha was, after all, by all rights and respects a single mother supporting two boys. It was a wonder exactly how they survived this well off at all. Certainly it would not have been possible if they lived in a megalopolis such as Central, or even one of the satellite governing cities like East City or South City.

“Should you ever visit Central, come and see me. I’ll gladly lend a hand if you need help.”

Ed blinked.

Well, the Bastard’s in Central.

And blinked again.

His hand tightened around the trunk’s handle. He had no other choice. He knew no one else. He would not have to stay for too long; he just needed a jumping-off point, that was all. He would never dream of imposing himself upon the Bastard and depending on charity, no. Never.

Again, he took a deep, steadying breath—his flesh hand still quivered around the strap of his knapsack; he did not want to leave, he was scared and bloody hell he had a right to be scared. He was eleven years old, and he was leaving home.

Leaving home.

The thought struck him with such intensity that his head throbbed. Eyes fluttering closed, he leaned his head against the wall and recited to himself, “I can do this. I must do this. I can do this.” Keeping it up under his breath, he slipped the knapsack on and hauled the trunk down the stairs. By the door, he took his sturdiest, best pair of shoes, and trudged out of the house, lugging with him all the intellectual property he had the rights to, and nothing much apart from that but himself.

He looked back up at the white structure, watched the light play upon the house’s eaves from a dozen steps away. This was his childhood home—he was leaving it behind.

Could he really leave it behind?

 

When they were children, about three or four, he and Al used to play a game of whoever-gets-farthest. They would try to sprint away from the house as far as they could without getting scared, and whoever stopped first and returned to their mother lost. Al always won, which was incredibly embarrassing, but there was a first time for everything, right?

Ed turned his back and began to walk.

This time, he would win.

 

 

~

 

tbc
arc I chapter 02 ver. 1-02
first draft: 2009.06.24
last edited: 2009.06.25

Chapter Text

 


II : Debut
03

 

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
( Marcel Proust )

 

~

One step into the bustling night-time station and Edward began to doubt his sanity. Whatever courage that had possessed him when he left Resembool was now entirely gone; whatever certainty he had held in his mind had disappeared into the confusing crowd of people milling around and jostling him. With a sense of inconsequentiality, he slipped through the throng of debarking people, grunting and wincing whenever some careless body nudged his shoulder.

But perhaps it was a good thing that he was not noticed by anyone. He was an eleven-year-old boy travelling alone. He had feared that this might raise questions, but it had not: either it was a common thing for eleven-year-olds to be spelunking across the country alone, or nobody really cared. (It was probably the latter.) This was good, he convinced himself. He was, after all, trying to escape attention—not only because he was a potential interest for the military, but also because he had transmuted his train money from dirt and a little bit of yellow metal he had found near Resembool’s tiny train station. By now, the authorities were probably figuring his little stunt out

or maybe not, he glanced about, failing to see any sign of alert from the authorities ushering along the gaggle of commuters. His alchemy was rather impressive.

“Well, this is certainly earlier than I expected,” said a voice behind him, and oh, by the goddamned heavens he knew that voice.

Turning sullenly on his spot, he scowled up (damn that height) at the man. There again was the blue uniform he was taught to distrust growing up. “Hello to you too, Lieutenant Colonel Bastard.”

The man behind the Bastard (also in blue uniform but lacking the rank) coughed none too discreetly into a hand. He gave the man a once over (honey blond hair, slight tan, tall build) and then turned back to Mustang.

“Come, follow me,” the Bastard motioned towards the station’s north side exit. Ed noticed a slighter tightening of the shoulders compared to when they were in Resembool; Mustang was far more guarded and cautious here, probably with good reason. The man was a State Alchemist and a Lieutenant Colonel (at quite a young age as well, if his estimates were correct)—he was bound to have some enemies. “It is best if we don’t linger outside for too long. We can talk later, at my house.” And then, as if to confirm, Mustang added, “Unless you have someplace else to go?”

Quietly and almost meekly, Ed said, “No.”

Mustang nodded. “You can stay at my place for as long as you need. In fact, it’s probably better that way.”

He was led out of the station and towards a sleek black car bearing the military’s insignia on its plate and front. The other man—Mustang’s subordinate—kindly took his luggage and placed it in the car’s trunk. Once they were inside and snugly seated, Mustang’s subordinate began to drive.

“This is my subordinate, Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc,” Mustang introduced when the car began to move. Politely, Ed greeted the man in a non-assuming voice. “He was the one who delivered your telegram. It was almost thrown into the bin—you should put a name next time.”

You told me to be discreet. I was trying to be discreet,” Ed huffed, crossing his arms. “It’s not my fault if your staff can’t even recognize relevant messages from irrelevant ones.”

“’I’m coming to Central’ is hardly enough to tell anyone anything, Edward. Especially without a name.” The Bastard shifted easily in his seat and smirked down (damn that height) at him. “If I hadn’t anticipated that you would come, I would have totally ignored it.”

“What—you anticipated that I would run away from home?”

Mustang raised an eyebrow. “Well, no—but I did know that you wouldn’t be able to resist visiting Central for long. I hadn’t expected you would run away from home. In fact, I would’ve thought that would be the last thing you would do.” Had Ed chosen to look, he would have seen the sliver of concern in Mustang’s veiled eyes.

Ed shrugged. “Well. Shit hit the fan.”

The Bastard gave an exasperated sigh. “Language, young man.” And then, “Your brother?”

“Perfectly fine now. It’s not him,” averting his eyes, Ed observed the lively lights of the passing-by restaurants and entertainment establishments outside, most of them high-end and far too posh for Ed’s liking. Soon, though, they passed the main entertainment district and turned into a quieter but still rather expensive-looking neighbourhood, where there were little shops and cafes of the type he preferred: quiet and comfortable, perfect for reading with a nice mug of hot chocolate. The outdoor spirit was still about despite the ending summer; he could see chairs and tables set outside in front of the cafes. There were still people milling about—to be expected from a never-sleeping city as big as Central, he guessed.

They remained in silence for the rest of the ride. Mustang had a good measure of mood, and probably already sensed Ed’s reluctance to discuss the matter of his family any further. This was one of the (very) few things he liked about the Bastard; the man understood the reason for secrets, the need for quiet, and the want for solitude. Just as he would never dabble with the Bastard’s affairs without permission, Mustang would never probe about in his personal matters.

The car turned into a cul-de-sac and stopped in front of one of the three houses in it. Following mutely after his host, Ed stepped out of the car and accepted his knapsack from Havoc. The man offered to carry the trunk to the house as well, but Ed declined. “I can manage,” he said.

“You’re off for the night, Jean,” Mustang dismissed the man. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And watch your drinking. Riza won’t be pleased if you’re hung over—you know how she is.”

Havoc gave a shudder of fear. “Yessir. See you tomorrow, boss.” The Second Lieutenant slid back into the car and drove off, with only a nod of acknowledgement to Ed.

“Come on inside,” and they walked together up to the (rather grand) doors of a large red-brick Georgian structure. It was a handsome thing, with quaint glass windows and a primly tiled roof. The path curved away from the cul-de-sac driveway as it made its way towards the front of the house, which was slanted away from the public road and concealed from prying eyes by tall hedgerows and a groomed cherry tree in the front yard. Ed eyed the house critically, its front and sides and the backyard (which seemed to be joined to the neighbouring house’s wider backyard). The entire thing was large.

“You live here?”

“Yes.”

Alone?” Ed was incredulous.

“Yes,” the doors unlocked under Mustang’s key, and they stepped into the gloom. An unseen flick of Mustang’s hand and the hall lights came on, illuminating their path and the grand entrance Ed found himself standing in awe of. He would imagine something so ornate only with a lord’s manor—and true enough, the place was befitting of a lord. Especially that chandelier; the faceted cuts of stone and glass looked sharp enough to slit someone’s throat with.

“Who the hell are you, Mustang?” he breathed, wide-eyed.

The Bastard only chuckled in obvious self-appraisal. “Being single and eloquently employed as I am gives much material benefit. I have no obligations to anyone; thus I am free to spend my money as I wish. The military, while quite constricting sometimes, do give exemplary benefits.”

Ed was not looking at the man anymore—he was far too preoccupied ogling the house. They crossed the entrance hall, a wide space with two sets of stairs coming down from the second floor on both sides. He was led up one of these stairs and onto the second floor landing (a podium, he consciously corrected himself), towards and down the wide central hallway spanning two arm spreads. On both sides of him flanked tall oak doors when they stopped; Mustang opened the one on his left.

“This is the second bedroom, the one you’ll be using,” Mustang helped him haul his luggage in. “My room is the one right across the hall. You have your own walk-in closet and bath; use it as you please. I’ll bring you fresh sheets in a bit.”

Suddenly Ed was feeling awkward; he was not accustomed to being cared for by a stranger. “I-It’s fine, I can take care of it myself.”

But the man only chuckled. “I’m sure you can, Edward, but leaving you on your own would be downright rude. You’re a guest in this house, and a guest is always given one’s best hospitality.”

Ed did not like how the Bastard switched so easily between Bastard and gentleman.

“You can go ahead and wash up; you must be tired. Have you had dinner yet? No? Perfect; I’ll get the food ready in a short while.” Mustang walked out of the room and down the hall—Ed followed curiously.

“What’s this room?” It was dark but Ed could see the faintest silhouette of what looked like a massive circular fireplace straight ahead and smack in the middle.

Instead of offering him an explanation, Mustang simply gave a smirk and lifted his gloved fingers—was that a circle?—snap! and a fire was roaring in the middle of the room, subtly supernatural with the blue-greenish highlights threaded through its orange-red. Ed blinked.

The room was not just a room at all, he realized now that he had light, but a library.

A very expansive library.

Wide-eyed and wordless Ed stared at the sight before him, and after three heartbeats of silence, turned to Mustang to worshipfully say: “Adopt me.”

Mustang stared for a quiet moment, as if gauging his sincerity—and laughed. “I think I’m too young to be your father, Edward, and you’re certainly too old to be my son.”

“I’m serious!”

“You’re infatuated, young man—with my books.” Still chuckling, the Bastard walked into the room, with Ed behind him, careful and quiet as if treading upon holy ground. “And I don’t think I’d make a very good father anyway. You wouldn’t want me as yours, I assure you.”

“You can’t be that bad. You’re a well-established Lieutenant Colonel Bastard with a library. With a huge library. You don’t abandon your children in the middle of the night or bring your women home, do you?” and by this point Ed was only paying half-attention, preoccupied as he was with figuring out how the shelves were organized.

“No, in fact, I don’t; you don’t have to worry about that,” and with this the Bastard was dead serious. Ed looked up. “None but close friends have seen my home, and it will remain that way. I rarely have guests over; you won’t be disturbed here, if you choose to stay for long.”

He kept gazing up at the man, trying to figure out why this bastardly person was being so kind to a lost and homeless kid like him. If it was pity, somebody was going to get a very painful broken jaw very soon—but it did not look like pity to Ed, not at all. In fact, it looked more like concern. He frowned. That was even more boggling.

“History, politics, and philosophy over here, fiction and arts over there, that entire half of the hall for alchemical references and scientific literature,” the Bastard quipped out of the blue; Ed only belatedly realized that he was pointing out the organization. “Feel free to read as much as you like; just take good care of them—some are quite rare and therefore expensive—and please put them back in their place.”

The pleasant tingling in the curve of Ed’s neck forewarned him of a multitude of lazy days spent reading. He could not wait until a good sit-down with the tomes. The very musk of aged paper bound by leather tickled his brain; he wanted to read, and the ceiling-tall bookshelves had plenty to feed his surfacing bibliophile, oh yes.

“If you don’t want to adopt me, I’ll marry you for it,” he offered.

The man paused and looked down at the wonderment on Ed’s face. There was this almost-constipated and severely baffled expression on Mustang’s face; Ed thought it hilarious. In the end, Mustang chose not to grace that statement with anything in retort and made way through the maze of shelves. A maze it would not remain for very long; soon, Ed would know them inside and out. “This way leads to the back stairs—straight down into the kitchen. I find it very convenient.”

Ed could understand that.

“Go and wash up, Edward; I’ll take care of the food. The books won’t go anywhere either.”

But it took another good twenty minutes of peeking at the shelves before Ed could lead himself back into his assigned bedroom for a shower.

 

 

~

 

Dinner: chicken scaloppini, with baby carrots, roasted potatoes, and broccoli rabe. The dish was simple yet still elegant; then again, Ed was being stupid if he expected anything else from the Bastard. They sat in the kitchen, where situated was a smaller table just enough for two or three people. Mustang had suggested the dining room, but it was only the two of them anyway—there was no reason to bother. (Upon sight, Ed felt intimidated by the long table in the dining room; it looked forbiddingly formal and far too lonely for his taste.)

The kitchen itself was not far behind the house’s grandeur. It was tastefully decorated, surely a housewife’s dream kitchen—but despite this, it never lost the necessary economical quality. The place was simple and clean, exactly the way a kitchen should be.

“I’d offer you wine, but you are only eleven,” Mustang was pouring himself expensive-looking white wine.

“I wasn’t aware you troubled yourself with matters of age,” Ed scowled. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thanks.” He really did not care much for the wine, but he refused to be treated like a kid (which he was, but never mind the technicalities).

Mustang raised an eyebrow and examined him from across the table. After a while of quite contemplation, the man shrugged. “Alright, then,” and began pouring a second glass of wine. “They do say that starting early develops one a strong tolerance against it. But only one glass for tonight.”

Ed accepted his glass and politely—yes, very politely, for the chicken was making him salivate already—waited for Mustang to begin eating before himself. Contrary to popular belief, he did know manners, and he did have them—only, he found few people worthy of his trouble. It pained him to admit that Mustang was one of them. (The Bastard remained a posing Bastard regardless of the kindness and concern; Ed was beginning to see the horns of an ego beyond the acceptable normal size.)

His thoughts were distracted (but only momentarily) from Mustang the moment he bit into his first piece of chicken.

Damn it was good.

Flavour exploded in his mouth, and underneath it was a delicate ribbon of something silky he could not put his finger on. He could taste every single hint of spice in the meat: parsley, caper, pepper, lemon, butter. This was the first time he had ever had chicken so good; not even his mother could cook this well.

“That good, hmm?”

Ed’s eyes fluttered open, blinking at Mustang’s smirk. He never even realized he had closed them. Uncomfortably, Ed averted them to the food, away from the Bastard who insisted upon fuelling his own ego.

“Where did you learn to cook?” and he was (very obviously) dodging away from the Bastard’s prodding, but he did not care. He was not about to stroke the goddamned Bastard’s ego; it had already had enough for the night.

“Books and experimentation, mostly. Cooking is remarkably similar to alchemy.”

“Yeah,” Ed grinned. “My teacher used to say that alchemy was born from the kitchen.”

“Indeed; you have a smart teacher.”

He cringed. “So smart she’s scary.”

“So scary you didn’t even consider going to her place instead?” Mustang paused his eating and sipped a little wine. “You didn’t have to come all the way to Central. Not that I mind, of course, but Dublith is pretty close to Resembool. Surely she would have accepted you?”

Eyes darkening, Ed frowned. “She doesn’t know about what I did,” and he didn’t even have to elaborate any further than that. After a moment’s quiet, Mustang nodded in understanding. “And besides,” Ed added, resuming his food, “she’s very much like Granny Pinako. She wouldn’t have let me out of her sight.”

“Which means no research. Of course. That is why you came here, right?”

He gave a nod. “Part of the reason, yes.”

Mustang pried no further. The man probably already knew. Mustang had been present at the time of Trisha’s waking; if he was as sharp and observant as Ed thought him to be, then he could have noticed even back then telltale signs of Trisha’s fearing and hateful behaviour.

Strangest was how perfectly well Ed found himself coping with this fact. By nature, he was a private person. He disliked other people knowing about and messing with his affairs. Even Al was not exempt from his tendency to secrecy—there were things he talked to his brother about, and it seemed now that this list would only grow even longer.

Following Mustang’s suit, Ed lifted his wineglass and took an investigative sip.

But Mustang, he thought to himself. Roy Mustang.

The man was the only other one who had seen his transmutation circle and the scene of his (dare he admit it?) experimentation upon his own mother. Yes, it was an experiment—and for the past dozen days he had been trying to convince himself to accept this truth. He had not known what the absolute results would be, as was obvious; he had gambled his brother’s life and soul on a reckless attempt to turn over the very tide of nature. As he remembered the Bastard remarking, he came off with a very cheap fare.

But that was not the point. With boulder-heaving effort, he returned his train of thought on Mustang. Mustang.

Surreptitiously, Edward looked up from his plate and watched the man eat. Dainty eating, no way else to describe it. Perfect manners, not even a single thing to insult—a complete one-eighty from the Bastard that surfaced its horns once every half-hour or so.

This man—this oxymoronic, acidly sarcastic, absurdly kind, and outlandishly rich man—was the one witness to the most vulnerable moment of his entire life. This Roy Mustang was the one person who saw him at his weakest moments, who saw his folly and its repercussions, who came upon him while he was well into drowning in his own blood.

And I’m not bothered.

Mustang had seen him in the hellholes of agony, thrashing on his operation bed, reaching out for the nearest barest comfort. Mustang had held his hand—a child’s hand—and Mustang had watched over him in his sleep. Mustang had given him an arm and a leg back. Mustang had given him a safe place to run to.

I’m not bothered by this.

Ed forked the last piece of potato into his mouth.

Why was he not bothered by this?

 

He did not know.

 

He frowned. He did not like it when he did not know.

“Is there something wrong?” Mustang peered at him from across the table, curious.

“Nothing, just thinking,” Ed shook his head. He turned his attention to the wine. “What do you call this wine?”

“Sauvignon Blanc,” Mustang explained, “a dry white wine. I used it to lace the chicken.” Just like that, they segued into the simplest of culture lessons, the first of many Ed knew he would get for the while he stayed in the Bastard’s highfalutin house. “Since the chicken already holds some of its flavour, it accompanies the meal well. As a general rule—though not absolute—white wine does well with lighter meals. A small dinner, lunch, or maybe with appetizers.”

Swirling the citrusy taste in his mouth, Ed willed his tongue to remember the taste.

They finished their meal in relative comfort. Ed willingly helped with the dishes, and while they washed the cutlery and china, Mustang further explained the different uses for different kinds of wineglasses. Most of the time Ed spent goggling at the complete collection of wineglasses the man owned. The short lesson was brought to a halt only when the Bastard realized the time and ushered them out of the kitchen with a promise of a continuation of wine lessons and formal dining etiquette.

“How do you know these things?” Ed asked as they went up the back stairs and back into the glorious library. “I thought—I thought these things are for girls to know!”

“It has nothing to do with gender at all.” Mustang glided—how the bleeding hell did the man do that?—towards the little island Ed spied earlier when he snooped around. There was a desk in the middle and overlooking it from the wall a tall arching window. There were couches around the desk, obviously made for comfortable reading, and piles of what looked like laborious paperwork stacked on one side of the table. Against the wall was a coffee table with a phone, a square writing pad, and a mugful of pens and pencils. “It’s good to know such things if you are to mingle with the bourgeoisie, the important people. Apart from saving yourself much disgrace, you’re able to gauge your host’s likes and dislikes, social inclinations, financial standing, and overall intelligence. Best not to be embarrassed in front of an audience, after all.”

Face faulting, Ed stared incredulously at Mustang. “So what—everything comes down to mind reading?”

“Yes, to put it concisely,” the smile Mustang gave him was a dark, sly one—and all of a sudden, an unbidden feeling of danger bubbled underneath Ed’s spine. This man was a dangerous man. “I should get around teaching you chess sometime. I think it’ll do you well.”

“What, so I can follow after you and manipulate the people around me?” Ed scoffed. “No thanks.”

“No?” Mustang sat and raised an eyebrow—again that damned condescending eyebrow—at him. “Are you sure? In this world, Edward, it’s either you manipulate or you’re manipulated. It’s all very simple when boiled down. There’s no such thing as ‘not politics’ anymore. Everything is politics.”

Ed stared, looked into Mustang’s eyes, hard and long. Beneath the deep blue-black (what a strange colour) was a clever Bastard who thrived and flourished within the very fibre of military life. This person, Ed realized, would probably fail to survive as well without people around him to manipulate and peacock over. Business would be another prime career, but Mustang was already accustomed to being a rising military leader. The Bastard was perfect for it, and the Bastard knew it.

“Maybe that’s only you, Mustang,” Ed said, wondered aloud. Mustang was a curious person, one of a kind. Ed doubted anybody else had as prime an opportunity as he to discover the face behind Mustang’s many fake faces. “Maybe it’s because you live in a world where you can survive no way else but through manipulation and power.”

A slow, this time genuine smile crept upon the Bastard’s face. “Indeed, maybe it’s only me.”

“Well, I don’t live in that world.” Ed’s retort was flat.

They faced each other in momentary silence.

“Indeed, you don’t,” Mustang inclined his head, “but one thing I can tell you is that by being here and being who you are, you won’t be able to avoid it for long. Ultimately, you will face a decision no one else can make for you—” Ed thought he was facing too many of those these days, “—do you want to be in this kind of life? Because if you don’t, you need to escape it before it takes you over.”

Ed had nothing to say against that. He had no idea what to say. No longer only mildly frustrated, Ed scowled to himself and bowed his head. The number of things he did not know was growing by the day, and he did not like it. Stability was something he had always lived with ever since he was little, and very few things shook his childhood world. But he was no longer a child now, never mind legalities. He was no longer in Resembool—he was here, in Central, and if he wanted stability

which I do, very much

then he would have to learn how to take control of his own life. He wanted—needed things squarely in his hands. Only within stability would he have peace of mind, and only with peace of mind would he be able to fulfil his research in a way that would not be an insult against his science.

Yes, I need to take control—

He paused.

Looked up.

Needing to take control sounds like something he would say. Fucking contagious Bastard.

Said Bastard was reclined against the couch, perusing paperwork in hand. Mustang seemed serious about letting Ed decide things for himself; the man did not even bother him the slightest in his thinking, instead leaving him to his own devices, which was how he liked to do things. Alone.

“I’m going to bed,” he announced, abrupt.

Mustang looked up in mild surprise. “Alright. Good night, Edward.”

 

Ed strode across the library and into the wide hallway. He slipped soundlessly into his room and drew the door shut. Unceremoniously, he flopped onto the bed and wiggled upwards, until he had his head on a pillow and his arms around another. The bedside lamp gave the room a soft yellow glow, faintly reminding him of his home in Resembool. Trisha would light candle lamps for him at night and it would burn only long enough for him to fall asleep on whatever book he was reading. It had always been Al who begged to be read stories before bedtime; in the fashion of their father, Ed liked reading by himself.

No matter how much he tried to fool himself into the comfort of sleep, though, it would not come. He laid there wide awake. The light was faintly similar to his mother’s candle, but not the same. Things were not the same. He had voluntarily thrust himself into this strange world of adults and politics and decisions, and now, not even a few hours into it, he was already faced with the decision (he was beginning to severely hate that word) of choosing whether he wanted to stay or not.

But where else would he go, should he leave? What else would he do? It pained him to admit it, yes, but he liked it here, in Mustang’s house, where he was sheltered, protected, taken care of. He had a (gorgeous) roof over his head, (delicious) food on his plate, and (a nearly endless amount of) free time on his hands to spend solely on reading and research Mustang would never discourage him against. If he went back to Resembool, he would have to face up to his mother, who condemned his alchemy, his very blood. So was there even a real choice?

Yes, things were not the same—and they would never again be.

He screwed his eyes shut, as if to push away the foreignness of this new ocean he would now swim in. In this turf, there would be no half-arsing the job—he would be risking his very life if he did. No—here he would need to learn how to swim properly, how to ride out the big waves, how to navigate the reefs.

A grin of irony stretched his lips. Well, the Bastard seems willing to teach.

He would learn—and was not that what he did best? Eventually, he would be able to stand on his own, and then he would be able to pay off his debt to this one man who was now holding his hand as he took his first baby steps into the world. Scared—oh bloody hell yes, he was scared! But he was eager too. Eager to see what was visible, eager to know what was knowable. His mind was wide open and wanting for more knowledge, because he knew that there was no such thing as knowing too much. His life had always revolved around science, and now he realized that it was the one thing he gained from all of this. By effectively severing his ties from his hometown, he would be able to further his science in the exact way he wished, without anyone stopping him.

Without anyone in the way.

Ed curled into himself, face crumpled in the pain of separation. This was almost as bad as having his leg and arm torn away. Tears leaked at the very corner of his eyes—because at the end of the night, after a barrel of bravado and a bunch of fake faces, was he not only an eleven-year-old boy, bewildered and lost? Deep in his heart, he still longed for his mother’s lullabies, even though he knew he would never hear them again.

Crying himself quietly to sleep, he dreamt of a warm hand cradling his own amidst the roiling waves of darkness.

 

 

~

 

Bacon and eggs, ah, what a wondrous aroma.

Ed blinked into wakefulness, beckoned into the land of the conscious by the wafting smell of breakfast in the air. Stiffly he turned over in bed and stretched, rolling his neck to ease out the kinks. He ended up sleeping without a pillow to cradle his head, having buried his face against it in his crying.

Muttering an oath underneath his breath, he rubbed at his mildly swollen eyes. He was being needlessly childish about this entire thing. He went into the bath, washed his face, and rinsed his mouth. He straightened his clothes, untied his hair, combed it, and tied it up again. (He had yet to manage a braid with his automail; though versatile, the thing was not as flexible as flesh.) Only when he was certain he was presentable did he make to leave the bath—

—he paused and stared at the wall.

The bathroom was actually very simple. One would step in from the bedroom: to the right would be the walk-in closet, and to the left the bath, toilet, and vanity. But right ahead would be a wall—a very unnecessary wall. If he opened a path up right in place of that wall, there would be no need to go through the hallway door and turn back down towards the library; he could simply take a shortcut through his bath and emerge in the library’s alchemy section.

Tilting his head thoughtfully, he clapped, touched the wall, and restructured it into a folding multi-panel wooden door. He inspected his work and nodded to himself. It was perfect—and he even took pains to model it in such a way that it blended well into the bath’s tan-wood-against-white theme. It was ornately decorated—surely Mustang would be hard- fought to find flaws in it. The door slid open seamlessly, and he walked right past it into the library.

“Perfect.”

Never did it cross his mind that he was tampering with somebody else’s property.

He scanned the shelves and grabbed a random book—Deconstruction and Reconstruction: The Cycle of Alchemy—and brought it with him as he crossed the glorious hall of tomes. Now, in the light of day, he gazed in even deeper awe (if that was possible) at the sheer number of books Mustang owned. It was near unbelievable to him that one man owned this much. And to think: Mustang was yet only a Lieutenant Colonel; Ed drowned in the sheer possibilities of the books Mustang would own as a General. (Absently, he wondered if the man was truly set against adopting him, marrying him, or both.)

When he padded down the back stairs and into the kitchen, the wholesome aroma of cooking food assaulted his senses so gloriously it had him pause in his steps.

“Good morning,” the Bastard casually placed a strip of bacon on the pan. “Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes. Do entertain yourself for the while.”

But Ed merely stood there and blinked at the image before his very eyes. Mustang had donned a dark blue apron over dark trousers and a white shirt with its sleeves rolled up to the elbows—and the entire attire was so very casual that he was thoroughly taken aback. When had he ever seen the man at such ease?

“Or of course you can remain as you are. I perfectly understand if you consider ogling my glorious self as entertainment. I’m more than happy to provide,” giving Ed a smug smirk, Mustang continued his seamless multitasking. He was simultaneously making bacon and effortlessly flipping omelettes, one on each hand.

Stammering, Ed turned his back on the image—now forever burned into his retina—and stepped over to the small table. “W-What’s so glorious about a smug Bastard like you?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mustang, and oh bloody hell that airy voice just grated on Ed’s nerves. “My heavenly looks?”

“Right,” Ed scoffed. “Go ahead and fool yourself into thinking that.”

Obviously most amused, Mustang chuckled at Ed’s sourness and brought over two plates laden with strips of bacon, perfectly browned sausages, slices of ham, poached eggs, and pats of butter at the side. This was followed up by a plate of French toast—enough to feed three or four people, but would probably all disappear very quickly between the two of them. The Bastard was well aware of Ed’s appetite, and rightly so; Ed was not planning on holding back.

“I’m not fooling myself into anything, Edward,” the man said, removing the apron and settling into his seat. Ed poured them two generous glasses of orange juice. “Your first lesson for the day: one can be confident of oneself, but one’s confidence must be justifiable.”

Ed stared. “Basically, you can stroke your own ego, but only if you have ego enough to stroke.”

Mustang laughed.

“What? I’m just repeating what you said!”

“Cheeky little brat.”

Who are you calling so little he wouldn’t fit into the tiniest peapod on Earth?!

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Mustang rolled eyes at him.

Ed ground his teeth.

Short of taking his first bite of sausage, Mustang stood from the table and made way to the cooler, a massive case of steel on the sides of which alchemical circles were etched to provide constant cooling to its contents. The circle was an ingenious piece of work, truly; Ed had examined it the previous night while they were washing the dishes. Energy was fed into the circle through a continuous stream of recycling. When it was first activated, Mustang had probably given more than what was necessary for the activation energy, and the extra he gave was taken by the circle and channelled to the Gate. The Gate then gave the same amount of energy back to drive the circle, and so the cycle went on. The food inside would take longer to spoil—now that was what he could righteously call economical application of alchemy.

“Here,” Mustang placed a full glass of milk in front of Edward, “I guarantee you it’ll work, but you need to give it some time. The body doesn’t fast forward.”

Blanching, Ed pushed the glass away. “Nothanks.”

The Bastard raised a delicate eyebrow. “Now, Edward. I wasn’t aware you so liked your height.”

Ed fumed. “I don’t.”

“Then drink the milk.”

“I don’t like milk.”

“Well, then, which one do you dislike more? Your height or the milk?”

Chewing on his lip, Ed glared at the glass of milk as if willing it out of existence. But there was confusion, oh yes there was, because would it not be worth suffering the vile thing if he were to eventually grow taller? It was, after all, scientifically proven that milk increased calcium in the body and thereby encouraged osteoblasts to produce more bone. Oh, but—the vileness!

Resolutely Ed pushed the glass of milk away. He then turned his full concentration towards his waiting food, eagerly forking a piece of the first slice of ham into his mouth. He ignored Mustang’s disparaging sigh.

“You don’t have to go to work today?” this was a very obvious diversion of conversation, but whatever.

“I leave in the afternoon,” again, Mustang displayed flawless table manners; Ed attentively observed and began to imitate what he did not already know to do. “Half-shift today, thankfully. You’d be surprised at how much paperwork a lowly Lieutenant Colonel like me has to suffer.”

Lowly?” snorted Ed. “You? You’re anything but. You’re a Lieutenant Colonel. That’s hardly low.”

“No, that’s low,” Mustang paused his eating to take a contemplative sip of juice. “Very low, in fact, when put in relation to what I aim to achieve.”

This time, it was Ed who rolled eyes. “The only position I can think of that would make Lieutenant Colonel ‘lowly’ in comparison is Fuhrer.”

Mustang inclined his head in silence.

Ed waited for a reply.

None.

Flabbergasted, Ed goggled at the Bastard. “You’re not serious, are you?”

A slow and devious smile spread Mustang’s lips. “I don’t joke about such matters.”

After a moment’s consideration, Ed said very flatly: “That’s treason, you know.”

Mustang shook his head. “If it was, Edward, then the Military Police would do well to seize and lock up every officer in a position equal to or higher than Colonel.” Mustang peered at him, grave and almost stern. “In this world, everybody has ambitions. Everybody, no exceptions. Men and women don’t just join the military—they do so for a reason. And though there are a great number who join to support themselves or their families, the few who have real ambition are the ones who climb up. Now, of course, there’s the concern of surviving the vicious food chain, but that’s an entirely different matter you don’t need to bother learning about at this point. What is important is that you remember that every person you talk to has an ulterior motive, and if you know how to choose your words and actions, you can make them reveal it to you—sometimes without even themselves noticing.”

“And I’m safe to assume that you’re a master at this,” Ed sighed. This man was unbelievable.

“Well, there still are people I can’t fool out there, but they are far and few in between. Each person has a weakness hidden somewhere.” The stern look had yet to fade from Mustang’s eyes. “You, in particular—you have a devastatingly vulnerable weakness: your family. At this point only I know about what you’ve done and what you can do—and no, I won’t tell anyone else. As I’ve already told you, I won’t betray my friendship with Herr Hohenheim that way, and you are a friend too. I don’t betray friends; it goes against my principles.”

Visibly, Ed squirmed in his seat.

“Things should remain this way, Edward. You must understand—you can trust no one in this city unless you know them very well, unless you are sure they are worthy of your confidence. There are many who would sell out information as valuable as yours for a higher position, or for money, or for favour... I admit it’s a bleak way to view the world, but distrust is something you must always keep. Information is power, I’m sure you’re well aware.”

“Of course,” just nodding along, Ed made good work of his food. He understood what Mustang was trying to say. He swallowed the bitterness in the back of his throat. Indeed this was a bleak way to look at the world, but he was already decided. He would stay—it was the best and most logical choice—and he would survive.

Besides, he thought to himself, surviving did not necessarily mean he had to become a clone of Mustang. He would take Mustang’s lessons, learn them, and apply them in a way that would still be him, that would still be Edward Elric. He did not have to become a manipulating egomaniac; he would just have to avoid people as much as possible and concentrate on what he was here to do. He was never very social, anyway.

Yes, he nodded to himself. This was a good strategy.

He turned his attention back to what Mustang was saying, failing to realize that by beginning to adapt strategies on how to deal with people and situations (instead of just reacting to them like he used to), he was maturing into the very thing he wished to avoid becoming.

“You never did tell me how you knew Hohenheim,” asked Ed, ever-curious. Maybe Mustang knew of what the other Bastard in his life was up to, leaving them just like that in Resembool years ago.

“Well,” Mustang shrugged (still in a very clean and fluid manner). “He was a good friend of my master in alchemy. I met him first when I was about your age, a little bit older. He rarely stayed for long at my master’s house, but he would come back, once every few months or so. I believe he was searching for something. He talked to me about a wealth of things about the world and what he’s seen of it. He is a very wise man.”

“Yeah?” Ed could not bring himself to believe that—with good reason.

Mustang looked up at him with a sigh. “Your scepticism is valid; he did leave you with your mother and brother without an explanation. However, that does not undermine his wisdom and intelligence. Your father was well-versed in many things, Edward, and I believe your intelligence and enormous talent for alchemy stems from him.”

Ed was beginning to regret ever turning the conversation down this lane. It soured his mood to think of Hohenheim, of the suffering the man could have spared his ill mother all those years had he not left for whatever he just had to search for, damnit. He could not deny, though, that he knew that urge to know more, to see more, to research. Was that what Hohenheim left them for? Research? What research could he not have done at Resembool? If it was space, then they could have just made an outhouse or something for the equipment. He and Al would have been more than happy to help.

(hypocrite hypocrite you left home for research too hypocrite)

Inwardly groaning, Ed scorned the return of the Gate’s bloody detached voice inside his head. The rotten thing was just downright horrid when it was not being nice and giving him information.

“What I don’t understand about the man is how he could have left Mom when she was sick. I know he knew she was sick; I could see. I was already four when he left, you know, and I was hardly blind. I am his son, as you’ve said—though what I wouldn’t give for a better father who would have been there to help us,” he spat drily.

“Even if it could mean you won’t have your alchemy the way you do now?” there was the inquisitive inclined head again. “Herr Hohenheim is a brilliant scientist. His techniques always fascinated me—still do, in fact.”

Ed had no answer to that one. He could not fathom a life without alchemy: one of the prime reasons he left Resembool. Alchemy was his blood, his life, his devotion, his religion. He would probably rail the same way the religious people of the far Western coast countries do if his alchemy was taken away from him. He would rather sooner die.

“You know, my first memory of alchemy was Hohenheim,” he absently remarked, forking about his last piece of sausage. He could remember it, hazily, but it was there. He could still feel the coarse hairs on Hohenheim’s jaw when his little baby hands touched the sides of the man’s face, played with the funny glasses perched on the tall nose. “He was reading a book to me. I was on his lap, and we were sitting by the fire. Mom wasn’t there; I think she was putting Al to sleep upstairs. The book was... actually, I don’t really remember which book it was or what it was about. But he was talking about taboos—about how even the worst of them could be circumvented.”

Mustang paused to think, reclining against the back of his chair. Both of their plates were empty now, and of the French toast remained only one. “Well, he certainly knew what he was talking about. Look at you.”

Ed shrugged. He was being strangely thoughtful about this entire thing, when usually he would rather not think of Hohenheim at all. He absently wondered if they were going to have these conversations over meals all the time now, like some sort of disconcertingly warm and intimate bonding tradition.

“Come, I’ll give you a tour of the house after we clean this up.” Mustang rose from his seat, taking the plates. Obediently, Ed followed with ears open. There was much he needed to learn.

 

 

tbc
arc II chapter 03 ver.1-02
first draft: 2009.07.02
second draft: 2009.12.28
last edited: 2009.12.28

Chapter Text

 


II : Debut
04

Friendship needs a certain parallelism of life, a community of thought, and a rivalry of aim.
( Henry Adams )

~

“—ward.”

Jolting in surprise, Ed blinked into awareness. The haze of words had consumed his attention so wholly he had not even noticed the passing of time. He found Mustang standing over him, still in the blue jacket but with the buttons undone. The man was obviously just home from work.

“Oh,” he marked his page and closed the book. “Err, welcome home?”

Mustang looked immensely amused. “I arrived ten minutes ago and you didn’t even hear me. Do make sure to lock the doors if you’re going to be floating into your own world like that.”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mommy.”

“I’m serious, Edward.” Walking back towards the study island, Mustang removed the standard issue blue military jacket and undid the top two buttons of his white undershirt. It revealed a pale and smooth patch of skin. Ed looked away. “Central is a far cry from Resembool. There are troubled souls here who are not above breaking and entering.”

“Let ‘em come,” Ed shrugged. “Not like I can’t defend myself.”

“Yes, but I do prefer my house in tact, thank you.”

Ed could not find anything to say against that. Indeed the house was glorious. Mustang had given him a tour on his first day, and suffice to say, he had fallen in love with the place—especially the artefacts. They were mindboggling in their rarity and preciousness, almost all of them priceless, in particular that tapestry from Xerxes downstairs in the great hall. It would be a severe crime to damage the property in any way. Ed reminded himself to reinforce the walls and windows of the house—bulletproof, preferably, if they were not already. (Mustang had an admirable amount of paranoia.)

“I don’t like this couch,” rather childishly, Ed flailed his legs over the edge of said couch by the library’s massive central fireplace. “It’s curved.”

Mustang raised an eyebrow.

“I can’t lie down on it for an entire day. It makes my back ache.”

“Then go use the window seat.”

“Not enough space. Too many books piled on it.”

A snort. “Sit here, then.”

Ed inspected the study island’s squishy long couches and nodded. “Good idea.” He stood and moved his small pile of reference books along with the one he was currently decoding. He chose a spot (the one which would usually be Mustang’s spot, but whatever) and made himself comfortable. “You know, this book has some rather interesting theories.” Settling himself across Mustang (who was depositing a small stack of paperwork on the already-laden desk) he spread the heavy gold-gilded tome on the table and pointed to a diagram. “It talks about sub-atomic theory.”

“Hmm.” Mustang paused. “This is a… Persian book? Or Xingese?”

“Persian, I think,” Ed ran a finger down the edge of an image. “Golds and greens.” Furrowing his brows and looking up at Mustang with bewilderment, he said, “Where in the world do you find these books?”

What he got in return was a smirk and a smug statement: “I have contacts.”

“Introduce me,” Ed demanded.

“One day,” Mustang gave him an indulging little smile, before turning to the book and inspecting its texts. “I don’t have education in the old Persian language, but this looks faintly similar to Xingese.”

“You can read Xingese?”

Mustang nodded.

“Teach me,” Ed demanded again.

“It’s better done with a Xingese book, preferably an old one. We’ll make time for it.”

They were, at this point, well within building a solid daily routine. In the mornings, Roy would wake first and prepare breakfast, and the wafting aroma of food would be Ed’s never-failing prompt alarm clock. Over breakfast they would have a light lesson over politics and strategy, sometimes even a quick game of chess (in which Ed was an amateur as well) before Mustang left for his duties. Ed would then spend the entire day holed up in the library poring over tomes and tomes of endless information and forget altogether about food, until Mustang returned in the afternoon and prepared from them dinner.

Which reminded Ed: he was hungry.

“I’ll tell you about the book over dinner?” he proposed, prompting an amused chuckle from Mustang at the eager expectance in his voice.

“Let me change,” Mustang said, “and you go ahead and prepare the ingredients. Cannelloni and chicken with greens.”
With a surprisingly quiet obedience, Ed put down his book and made his way down to the kitchen. Mustang insisted upon culinary education as well. Ed really just wanted the food, though of course his brain absorbed all the details and intricacies of the lessons anyway. Mustang preferred their food rather classily and tastefully; as such, the preparation took longer and at times became more tedious. Ed could lodge not one complaint, however, because the reward of extraordinarily tasty dinners was more than enough to pacify his impatience.

Thankfully, it did not take long before Mustang came down to help him about. Ed had no idea what cannelloni was, though he did retrieve the chicken from the cooler. Mustang promptly began explaining tonight’s dinner to one attentive student, and thus Ed lost himself in the flurry of preparations and instruction.

 

When they were finally seated at the table, again with wine (a different kind), Mustang interjected: “By the way, I’m visiting a friend tomorrow. You’re coming with me.”

Ed blinked. “Why?”

“Because I want you to learn,” was the usual explanation. Ed thought Mustang was getting a little far too comfortable with that excuse. Did the man expect him to accept that kind of explanation all the time? But he let this one go, and instead asked:

“Don’t you have work tomorrow? It’s a weekday.”

“I only have half a day tomorrow, providing Hawkeye isn’t able to find me extra paperwork,” the last part was grumbled with a dreading grimace. He’d heard quite a bit about this faceless Hawkeye; whoever this person was, they had Ed’s admiration. To be able to bend the Roy Mustang into work was one very impressive achievement any living being on earth had the right to be immensely proud of. “I’ll call you before I leave the office so you can get ready. It might take a while, but you aren’t going anywhere, yes?”

Shrugging, Ed conceded. It would not be a bad idea to see the city. It was rather idiotic of him to know nothing about where he was living. Such information would certainly be useful in cases of emergency. Besides, he wanted to see where the Central Libraries were. From what he had seen on Mustang’s wall map in the library’s study island, there were five state libraries, four of them open for public access. They were all owned, funded, and operated by the military, though the four public libraries hired civilian employees. The only one that was strictly all-military personnel was the First Library, the most expansive and updated of all five, a hive of information available exclusively for ranked military personnel and State Alchemists. According to Mustang, there were sections of that library reserved only for State Alchemists, Generals, and the Fuhrer—any lower and one would be denied access. Whenever he thought of this, he could feel his spine tingle in wonder and want of what information was locked within those walls.

Ed gently forked a tender piece of chicken and deposited it into his mouth, marvelling at the taste and the apparent lack of char. Part of the reason why they did not take as long to cook tonight was because Mustang roasted the chicken using his alchemy. He had goggled incredulously at the sheer precision of Mustang’s control. The meat was perfection.

“So if your gloves get wet,” Ed asked out of the blue, “what do you do?”

Mustang paused, staring at him across the table with a raised eyebrow.

Ed continued, “You need an initial spark to set off the fire, right? That’s why you use that cloth. But what if they get wet? I’m just asking.” He added a nonchalant shrug to offset Mustang’s suspicion.

Of course, against the master of pretention, it did not work. Mustang smiled. “A smoother and altogether better attempt at subversion, Edward, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Don’t hope to beat me at this game anytime soon.”

Scowl. “Answer the question, Bastard.”

“Spares,” the man chuckled. “I have spares on hand. In a waterproof case.”

Ed realized there were still flaws in this backup, but there was not much to be done if Mustang relied on fire. The most one could do was to prevent the gloves from getting wet at all and refrain from using them when in watery situations. Or…

“Can I see your circles?”

Mustang raised an eyebrow, but handed one over anyhow. Ed inspected the deceitfully simplistic dual-glyph circle with a critical eye, and found next to no flaw in it. The one thing that was missing of it that would be useful was the ability to alchemically dry the gloves should they get wet.

“Have you ever thought of adding a drying component in the circle?” he suggested. “It would be really easy to add, since you already have the molecular manipulation part down.”

“Hmm. Good idea,” the man did not even ask how Ed knew of the workings of the technique. For Ed’s genius, it was not too hard to postulate the theory behind an array at one glance. The two glyphs were glaringly obvious (at least to those who could read them, which would include only a scarce few): volume and precision, the two components of molecular control. “I’ll consider it,” Mustang said, pocketing the glove again.

For some unseen reason, Ed could not shake the feeling that Mustang was omitting something. He frowned and began to turn over the circle in his head for the second time. He sorely hated missing things.

Glancing aside, his eyes were caught by the now-turned-off black iron oven by the far wall of the kitchen. This was yet another interesting piece of alchemical technology right here. He knew that by the arched shape of the wall, the central circular fireplace (which formed a narrowing cone as it went from the first floor to the second) was right behind the oven. He had inquired earlier, and apparently, the fire in the fireplace (the one that was visible in the formal dining and great hall) supplied the necessary heat for the oven to work. Instead of installing an electric oven as was the custom in any affluent house in Central, Mustang had engraved a thermal manipulation array on the oven; effectively cutting down the house’s electric spending by half.

If anything, Mustang the Bastard was ingenious when it came to the practical applications of alchemy. Ed could give him that.

He grimaced. With the mention of fireplaces, he could not help but recall their little unfortunate experience two days past in the library one afternoon, after Mustang had returned from work more than just a little tired and eager for some good food and scintillating conversation. By habit the man had snapped his fingers to ignite the dormant fireplace—and CRACKLESPIT it went, spurting and roaring wildly until a stunned Mustang, after five seconds of confused struggle, had managed to get it under control.

Hair singed from having sat close by the fireplace, Ed had spluttered in surprise. There had been leftover energy from when Ed had earlier that day rid the entire house of dust by alchemy. Mustang’s alchemy had picked up that extra energy, thus the uncontrolled spitfire. Initially it had been funny, seeing Mustang’s flustered countenance, but when Mustang reminded him of the suffering they would both have to go through if the fire caught on the books and burned precious history, he had blanched in terror. He had cleared the surrounding of the fireplace of books and anything flammable with meticulous efficiency after that.

 

“You were talking about the Persian book earlier,” Mustang abruptly quipped, jerking Ed out of his thoughts. “Sub-atomic theory.”

“Ah, yeah,” Ed nodded. “From what I could decode of the texts—I used some of your reference books—it talks about ‘dividing the smallest unit of matter.’ That would be the atom.”

“Interesting. And this is… what, early fifth century? Are you sure they’re talking about sub-atomic theory?”

“Oh, I don’t know about atomic theory—they don’t mention the concept of an atom at all, as far as I’ve read. But they are talking of something smaller than a molecule, so,” Ed shrugged, “they were on to something.”

“I’m not aware of any prevalent Persian alchemy today,” Mustang said. “From what I’ve heard, the Persian alchemists were castigated and through the ages extinguished in the population by multiple invasions from Western countries. They were said to practice a strange and foreign alchemy the Westerners—mostly the colonial coast countries—could not comprehend.”

“Well, Amestris has always been ahead of everyone else in alchemy and mechanics. Maybe if we were the ones there, we could have figured it out.”

“True,” nodded Mustang. “But they were wiped out nonetheless. As I’ve told you, the very base of human nature does not change even through the ages. What people fail to understand, they fear. Persian alchemy, according to the classics, was also particularly powerful in battle, though how specifically I don’t know. That would only be more of a reason to hunt and kill all the alchemists.”

Face crumpling in distaste, Ed reclined in his chair. “So effectively they wiped out an entire science developed over centuries of hard work and research just for power.”

“Land and resources.”

Power,” Ed reiterated.

Mustang was quiet again, for longer this time. And then, “If Persian alchemists exist today, they would be rare and hard to find. They would be in hiding—they’re not being hunted anymore, but they’ve been in hiding for so long it would be rather hard to assimilate back into normal society after having been outcasts for centuries. And I doubt they would have knowledge of the science stretching that far back. Information was probably lost through the ages.”

“Still, though. I think it’s worth a look. Think about it. They were talking of something we discovered only recently—half a century ago?—a good thirteen-hundred years before we even developed the technology to know these things. You said their alchemy was powerful—maybe they discovered something innovative ahead of us that we’ve never realized. After all, we’re still new to the idea of an atom.”

“Most don’t even accept it fully yet, and even if they do, they don’t think anything can be done about it at all,” which was a good point, Ed thought. Mustang probably knew some State Alchemists who disregarded atomic theory in favour of combat alchemy, which was all too conventional and easy. It was no wonder Mustang was a highly lauded alchemist; his flame manipulation was about three to four notches higher (and therefore harder) than conventional alchemy, depending on the scale of the reaction.

Ed scoffed. “There are tons of things you can do with atoms; you just have to think!”

“Most people don’t like thinking, Ed. It’s painful. It hurts the brain.”

“It’s a good kind of hurt.”

“Why, Edward, I wasn’t aware you were so…” Mustang tipped his near-empty wineglass with a sly smile, “...masochistic.
“Shu’up,” Ed mumbled into his own glass, forehead creasing in annoyance. The Bastard was a Bastard and would remain a Bastard forever, never mind the good food.

They sat there for about five minutes of companionable and thoughtful silence, until Mustang stood and began to gather the dishes. “Come on, let’s clean this up. We can talk upstairs.”

Draining his wine, Ed rose and followed, still deep in thought.

Their discussion about atomic theory had rekindled that sense of subversion in Mustang’s voice, that feeling that there was something more to Mustang’s flame theory than atomic manipulation.

 

Now if only Mustang would give him more clues… Ed sighed. It was useless. Mustang was a master pretender. He would not at all be surprised if Mustang slept with his masks on. It would only be most appropriate for his paranoia. Which meant that Ed would just have to figure the theory out by himself.

Well, Ed thought to himself, a good challenge is never to be turned down. This was what he was taught by his teacher, a prideful and wise woman who would no doubt butcher him to hell and back if she ever heard of him refusing a perfectly nice and mentally exhausting challenge. That was exactly what Roy Mustang was to him right now: a severely mentally exhausting challenge.

He was not going to lose.

 

 

~

 

True enough, the following day early in the afternoon, the phone rang from right beside Ed where it sat on the study island’s table. Grumbling at the incredibly rude manner he was jolted from his reading, he picked it up and gave a gruff greeting. Mustang promptly informed Ed (over a somewhat commanding female voice in the background) that he was coming home in a few minutes.

Ed sighed and regretfully closed his book, rising and heading towards his room. He picked out his cleanest, best set of casual clothing and washed his face, having already showered earlier. Once in the clean set of clothes—simple khaki pants with a dark long sleeved shirt—he removed the knot at the base of his neck and combed his hair. It was longer than what he was used to, maybe too long; he wondered if Mustang knew a competent barber.

“Ed?” a voice from the library echoed.

“In the bath, give me a minute,” Ed called back, holding his hair up and redoing the knot, this time neater and up high at the back of his head. Footsteps thudded quietly against the wooden floor, towards Mustang’s own bath. The man was probably going to change into civilian clothing. Mustang despised going out in uniform unless on duty, which was understandable; the uniform set him apart from people, which he did not want, if he was going to charm them into submission.

Mentally scoffing at the Bastard’s Bastardliness, Ed trudged out of his bath, crossed the library, and rapped on Mustang’s door. “Are you done yet?” He could see the exasperation that would be on the Bastard’s face just about now.

A sigh. “Give me a minute, Edward. I’ll tell you when I’m done.”

“Are you done yet?”

Another sigh. “Hang on, Edward, I haven’t powdered my nose yet.”

“Are you done yet?” Ed was having too much fun to stop.

This time, Mustang’s bath door (the one that led straight into the library like his transmuted one did) creaked open the faintest of a fraction. “Would you rather watch me undress, Edward, so you wouldn’t have to ask me every other second if I’m done?”

Ed froze. “Never mind, take your time.” He walked away, scuffling down to the kitchen and valiantly ignoring both the creeping heat below his collar and the blatant chuckle coming from the bath. Why did the Bastard have to be such a Bastard all the time? A very perverted one, too.

It took a good fifteen minutes before Mustang stepped down into the kitchen, where Ed was idling about munching on an apple. The Bastard looked stunning in light brown slacks and a white collared shirt. A matching jacket was slung on his arm, but that was not what caught Ed’s attention. His eyes immediately zeroed upon the gun slung at Roy’s side, to be hidden by the jacket.

“You’re armed,” Ed noted faintly.

“Always,” Mustang said, “which reminds me: I should have Hawkeye teach you how to shoot.”

“Why?” forehead creasing, Ed finished his apple and deposited the remains into the trash. “It’s not like I’m in any particular danger.”

“Would you rather be caught in a situation first before learning?” Mustang gave him a stern gaze, and again for the nth time that week, Ed felt as if he was a son being reprimanded by a father. It was not exactly a teacher-student relationship between them anymore; Izumi was his teacher, and she was rather irreplaceable. Mustang was different.

He averted his eyes and tilted his head. “Prepare for the worst,” he murmured under his breath: one of his first and foremost lessons from Mustang. Constantly, it was being shoved into his head: a paranoia that would be debilitating for most people, a paranoia that defined Mustang’s success. He sighed as they made their way out of the kitchen and down the hall. “I don’t mean to go against your principles, but sometimes, you can be a little bit too paranoid.”

Mustang laughed. “Yes, I might seem so. But there is no such thing, Edward. My ambitions are well-known within the military, and though I have taken measures to make it extremely hard and costly for people to go against me, there are some who will not be deterred. I must always be on my guard if I want to keep breathing—and so should you, once people know of your association with me.”

“Rather tiring,” Ed remarked. Mustang was now leading him through the front yard and towards an outhouse—a garage, he belatedly realized as they stepped in. He wondered how he had missed this.

“Yes, but necessary.” Mustang lifted the tarpaulin cover from the hulking shape parked in the middle of the detached garage. There sat a well-kept shiny black car.

“You have your own car,” and he could not keep the wonder out of his voice. Just how bloody rich was Roy Mustang? Was there even a limit to the man’s money? Edward was surprised that Mustang did not have a more ostentatious house. Not that the current one was lacking, not at all, but with this much money, surely…? But Mustang did not seem that kind of man. The neighbourhood, a quiet and modest upper-middle class place, spoke for him.

“Yes, I do,” Mustang gestured for Ed to slip into the passenger seat, which he did, awkwardly.

“B-But that man—your subordinate—doesn’t he drive you around all the time?”

“Yes,” again Mustang affirmed.

“So why waste your own gasoline?”

Mustang brought the engine to life and carefully backed out of the garage. “Havoc is currently on a date,” Mustang shrugged as they drove on a dirt path that led to the main road outside, past a gate that was hidden by the foliage of the hedgerows. “And besides, would you really have him impeach upon our quality time?”

Ed spluttered in indignation but was robbed of the opportunity to bark his retort when Mustang brought the car to a halt in front of the house and got off to close the gate. He watched as Mustang walked up to the hidden gate in the hedgerows to lock it before heading back towards the car.

“Bastard,” he spat when Mustang slid back into the driver’s seat.

Mustang merely gave him a beatific smile.

 

 

~

 

Arriving at their destination took shorter than Ed expected, though perhaps it was only because he was too busy ogling his new city, so urban and so foreign. Mustang parked the car before a medium-sized establishment: a clothing shop. Ed debarked and quietly followed Mustang inside.

“Ah! Master Roy!”

Ed gurgled a laugh in the back of his throat.

“Welcome, welcome! What can I do for you today?” immediately the other shopkeepers ushered aside the couple who came before them. Mustang’s presence now received the full attention of the proprietor, and, if Ed’s guesses were correct, the master tailor. “Is the Master in need of formal wear? A new suit, perhaps?”

Now this person was far too obviously kissing Mustang’s ass. Ed made a face. He could not see what he was here for. There was nothing to learn! He stomped his foot.

“Actually, it won’t be for me today,” Mustang stepped aside to reveal Ed. “This young man here needs a complete wardrobe overhaul.”

Ed stared up at Mustang rather stupidly. “What.”

“You need clothes.”

“No, I don’t! My clothes are just fine! What’s wrong with them?” indignantly, he backed away.

“Edward, nothing’s wrong with them apart from the fact that they’re old and worn.” The tailor clucked disapprovingly behind Mustang.

“Well, it’s not like I need grand clothing like you do. I don’t go out that much.”

“I won’t have my charge going about wearing scruffy clothing—yes, even only inside the house.” With firm hands on shoulders, Mustang took Ed and steered him towards the tailor, to whom the Bastard said, “He’s all yours.”

Spluttering, Ed was dragged away, towards a stool whereupon he was made to stand still while his measurements were taken. All the while, Mustang was reciting to the tailor’s assistant: “He needs three sets of formal suits, five slacks—casual, six to ten collared shirts, three to five waistcoats, two summer blazers, a leather jacket, a summer jacket… a few cardigans. Did I miss anything?”

“For a basic wardrobe, that’s just perfect,” the tailor replied, absentminded, as he flitted about Ed, meticulously checking and rechecking various measurements. “You will have to come back for the winter set.”

“Of course.” Mustang made sure the assistant had them all down correctly before prompting, “I would like to see your available hair ties.”

“Bring Master Roy our best sets, Vivianne.” The tailor gestured for Ed to raise his arm, and then clucked again in annoyance. “I cannot say I am getting your correct measurements with confidence, Young Master Edward.” Ed choked on his own spit. “Perhaps it would be best if you removed your shirt?”

Eyes tightening, Ed turned to Mustang. He did not want to, but if he had to, was this tailor to be trusted? Mustang nodded his assent. “Go ahead, Ed.”

Giving a sigh, Ed did as he was told. The tailor’s eyes widened a fraction upon sight of the gleaming metal automail, and the returning assistant was graceless enough to gasp out loud, but the tailor did not say a word. Instead, the elder man simply continued his work in quiet. He was also made to strip his pants off, leaving him standing in his boxers, while Mustang perused the rather extensive (and expensive) collection of hair ties.

The soonest he was allowed to shuck back into his clothing, he did so, and hurriedly stepped off the stool. The tailor checked over the list of clothing as he struggled into his shirt. “What colours would be preferable for the slacks?”

“An assortment of navy blues, greys, and browns. I’ll leave the specifics to you,” Mustang gave The Charmer Smile. Ed rolled his eyes, grumbling under his breath. “For the formal wear, all of them black, please.” Then Mustang beckoned him closer, turning him around.

“Hold still,” the Bastard said, and from the corner of his eye, Ed could see Mustang pick out a silken tie, slate grey and almost silver in colour. With gentle fingers, Mustang removed his old worn tie and let his hair fall. And then, with utmost care, he gathered the hair again, pulling it up and knotting the expensive slip of silk around the golden strands. “There. It looks good.”

Ed sidled to the mirror. He looked at himself sideways, touching the silk tie and tightening it. It felt nice against his hair, and the loose ends did not tangle. He had to admit: it looked very good—but still excessive. “I don’t think the hair ties are necessary. I was actually thinking of cutting my hair.”

Mustang—and the tailor (who drew a gasp)—looked absolutely horrified. “Why? It’s good the way it is!”

“But—isn’t it too long already?” Ed fingered the ends of tie.

“You’re just not used to it,” the tailor bustled. “It looks wonderful, child, very aristocratic. Don’t cut it; it’s such a waste! Women dream of hair like yours; it’s beautiful. You’re very fortunate. Your mother must have such beautiful hair.”

Faintly, Ed smiled. “Well, yes, but actually, I have my father’s hair. Which reminds me: I don’t want to look like him. I want to cut it,” he whined.

“No, you don’t,” Mustang firmly insisted. “And you aren’t exactly looking like your father. You don’t have glasses, and Herr Hohenheim didn’t have your fringes.” As if to emphasize, Mustang brushed one aside to reveal Ed’s petulant scowl. “Tell you what: if you beat me in chess, I’ll take you to a barber then. Only then.”

And Ed, being Ed, could not back away from a challenge. “You’re on.”

Mustang smiled in satisfaction, before turning to the assistant. “We’ll be taking three of the grey ones, three of the black, one of the navy blue, two of the light brown, and one of the Persian green.”

“What of shoes? The Young Master will need shoes to go with his attire.”

“Ah, yes—”

Before Mustang could even complete his sentence, the tailor jumped into action. Quickly stepping out of the store, the tailor went and rapped on the neighbouring shop’s door. In a loud voice, the tailor yelled, “Andrew! I need you to fit me some matching shoes for Master Roy’s charge!”

“Andrew is his brother,” Mustang supplied helpfully. “They’re both good friends of mine.”

Loud clattering and an answering shout came. Moments later, Andrew the shoemaker was shuffling into the tailor shop with tools in hand. Ed blinked in surprise; the tailor and the shoemaker were identical twins. There was a distinct difference, though, in that Andrew had a more fleshed out build. The tailor was narrower and roughly an inch taller.

“Master Roy, good afternoon,” Andrew greeted in the same happily enthusiastic manner as his twin. “Will it be formal shoes for today?”

“Two of those, leather, black, for this young man here,” Mustang pushed Ed forward again for measurements. “Two pairs of walking shoes, one with lace and one without. Two pairs of loafers, one black and one brown. One pair of ankle boots, black—“

“I want high leather boots,” demanded Ed, because if they were going to be spending exorbitant amounts of money anyway, they might as well spend it on worthy things. “They’re good for rugged terrain and travelling.”

“And that,” the Bastard conceded, inclining his head with an indulgent little smile.

Content, Ed patiently sat and allowed Andrew the shoemaker to collect his measurements. When smiled upon like that, even though it was from the Bastard, Ed felt free to be a child again, felt free to ask for what he wanted and be given it (though of course still within reason). It was almost as if Mustang was doting on him. He wondered absently if this was how it felt like to be taken care of by a loving father.

 

 

~

 

It was a long while after when they finally stepped out of the store and back into the car. Mustang lingered behind, graciously accepting the twin brothers’ gratitude. Ed was polite enough to wait until they were pulling away from the store before barking:

Why did you give so much money?! We could have gotten all of that for a much lesser price at another store! You know, generic clothing!” he just could not believe how much money Mustang spent on that little trip. That much was enough to build a nice and comfortable house!

Please don’t tell me you really are thinking of wearing trash for clothing,” sighed Mustang, ever the elitist Bastard. “And besides, it’s not a waste at all. The money will come back to me anyway.”

“What?”

“I invest in them, Edward,” skilfully, Mustang navigated the busy roads with ease, even while busy talking. “Andrew’s shoe shop and Anthony’s tailor shop, both of them began their business with help from my funding. You didn’t think all my money came from the work I do for the military, did you?”

Uneasily, Ed shifted in his seat. He did think so.

Mustang chuckled. “Money doesn’t grow that way. One needs to invest if one wants to gain. Yes, the military gives me a steady salary, and yes, I have bonuses and allowances due to my status as a war veteran and a State Alchemist. But that’s nowhere near enough to establish a home such as mine. I invest in businesses I see profitable, which is why they accommodate me so congenially.”

“Yeah,” Ed grunted. “I thought it was rather strange how they seemed to fall over themselves for you.” He could recall the expression on the twins’ faces when they saw the handsome sum of money Mustang wrote on the note. It was no doubt more than what was necessary; Anthony the tailor blurted out a worshipful, “Oh, bless your soul, Master Roy!” upon receiving the note. They had, of course, tried to refuse it, but Mustang would not listen. This was a truly ingenious way of securing their affection, loyalty, and excellent craftsmanship.

“They are good men with talent,” Mustang explained by way of saying. “They deserve a steady business with which to support themselves and their families.”

 

They sat in relative silence after that, until Mustang pulled over by a grocer. Ed noted in passing that they were once again within their neighbourhood. He followed after Mustang into the shop, observing the mill of people within the rather expansive place. There were aisles in the back for the non-perishable produce and canned goods, while the front section of the grocer was occupied by small stalls of fruits, fresh meat, seafood, and dairy handed to the customers by a small army of helpers.

Mustang took one of the trolleys and beckoned Ed along, going first through the aisles and pointing out what they needed. It took them near twenty minutes to scour the aisles for whatever else they needed for the pantry and the rest of the house. Whenever Ed saw something he wanted, he asked tentatively, and he was given. He was not used to such treatment; Trisha had always been on a budget whenever going to Resembool’s relatively small grocer.

They finished the non-perishable aisles—then came the bane of Edward’s existence.

“Ten bottles, please,” said Mustang to the helper behind the counter. The helper nodded and began hauling out ten large glass bottles of fresh milk.

Ed blanched. “Ten?! What do you need ten for?!”

Raising an eyebrow, Mustang began to place the milk bottles within the trolley, making just enough extra space for fruits and some meat. “Well, some dishes require milk in them, Edward. Especially desserts. And there’s the milk for drinking—“

“But I don’t like milk.” Stubborn as a mule, Edward began hauling the milk out of the trolley and back onto the counter, from behind which the helper stood in confusion.

“Regardless, you need you calcium, and you should know this, child genius that you are.” Mustang hauled the bottles back in. “You don’t want to be this small forever, do you?”

Who the fuck are you calling so minuscule he wouldn’t be visible under a microscope?!

The lady next to them gasped. “Language, young man!”

Mustang wore a disparaging face for the lady and nodded apologetically. “Do excuse him; he’s yet to be trained.”

Who the hell are you calling a dog that needs training, Bastard?!

“Now, Edward, I’m not forcing you to drink the milk at all,” the Bastard soothed, placing all of the milk bottles in the trolley (finally) and ushering his indignant charge towards the fruit stalls. Mustang gave one last apologetic smile to the very much affronted lady following after them. “If you don’t want the milk, that’s fine, you don’t have to drink it.”

“Yeah, because I won’t,” grumbled the child, all crossed arms and stomping feet. Mustang merely gave a chuckle that was dangerously bordering on (dare Ed say it?) affectionate. Never did Ed see the lingering little devious smile on the edges of Mustang’s lips as they walked away from the dairy.

They picked a few vegetables to carry along with them (Mustang appeared to adore tomatoes) and then made their way towards the fruit section. Once every now and then Ed threw a dirty look at the bottles of milk clacking about in the trolley, but said nothing further about it. Instead, he listened attentively as Mustang explained how to choose the right fruits, the seasons different fruits came in, and when and how it was appropriate to have them. Mustang tended to be dead meticulous about matching dishes, desserts, and whatever else accompanied their meal on the table whenever they ate.

Ed expected to be taken to the meat section afterwards, but Mustang took him towards the clerks instead.

“We won’t get meat?”

“We get meat directly from the butcher,” Mustang explained. “Fresher and much cleaner slices. It takes an immense amount of training to get the slices right; not everyone can do it.”

“But—won’t that be expensive?”

Wrong question, Ed belatedly realized.

“Good food, Edward, is worth good money. That you must remember,” declared the Bastard.

Ed rolled his eyes. “Along with every other creed you give me, of course.”

“You’re learning,” and the smile on Mustang’s face was again a fond and amused thing. The man gave him a light pat on the shoulder and pushed the trolley forward. The clerk began counting.

 

Idling about, Ed stood behind Mustang, people-watching. This was the one thing Mustang did not have to teach him: people-watching had always been a hobby of his since he was a child. People were fascinating in their tiny and near-unnoticeable quirks and idiosyncrasies. They could never escape his seeking eyes, though; his gift of observation and deduction extended far beyond books and laboratories. Contrary to popular belief, he was just as incisively sharp at gauging people as Alphonse. Only, unlike Al, he was not as conscientious and did not care for their emotions as much. Politesse was something he understood and could practice but was too lazy to. Unfortunately for him, Mustang was not giving him much of a choice.

A couple of chattering ladies in line for the counter next to theirs caught his eye. They looked older than his mother, probably around middle age, and much plumper, which was no surprise. Convenience was in fashion in Central; they probably never had to do the same amount of energy-burning work Trisha had to do around the house. They, however, had the similar motherly aura about them; these women, Edward realized, probably had children about his own age.

But this was not what piqued his attention. It was the way their eyes darted about, the way they clustered together, the way their poise seemed guarded and recluse. As if they were expecting an attacker, even in midday.

“…murders were just grisly, did you see?” one of them was saying in a hushed voice. Ed kept his eyes low but his ears tuned; he did not want them to stop talking until he had what he wanted from them.

“Yes, just awful,” they all murmured uneasily, with different degrees of shock, disgust, and thinly veiled fear.

“It makes one wonder just what the military is doing.”

“They say the last one was the fifth victim, and that the military’s been hiding it from the public, but there was a leak.” Ed’s forehead crumpled in thought. Surreptitiously, he snuck a glance at Mustang, who was still conversing with the clerk. He wondered if the man knew anything about this. The lady continued: “They say it might be a cult.”

“I still think the papers should have published their content with much more propriety and consideration for younger readers. Such detail! And the images! Oh, I had to burn my copy after my husband and I saw it yesterday morning; what if my daughter saw that atrocity?”

“Wouldn’t it be better for them to know, though? It would keep them off the streets late at night.”

“True…”

The conversation petered out from there as the ladies began to check their items out. Impatient now, Ed waited as Mustang handed the clerk the right amount of money and accepted his change. Together, they exited the modest establishment and made a beeline for the car. The sun was near its setting, rather early for a summer day; it was the signalling of the beginning of autumn.

Quietly, he helped unload the groceries from the trolley and into the car’s compartment. A helper offered to take the trolley back, and soon, they were pulling away from the store and back down towards their street. Ed recognized the route easily.

After a moment’s deliberation, he decided to cut through the dillydally: “I overhead some of the ladies talking about a series of murders earlier,” he began.

Mustang’s grip on the steering wheel tightened the tiniest of a fraction.

“Do not concern yourself with it; it isn’t for you to worry about.” They made a careful turn. Ed could now see within a block’s distance their house. As if to add, Mustang continued: “Do not go out at night, or even in the late evenings, alone. Ever. Stay inside and be sure to lock the doors, especially if I’m not home yet.”

Ed shrugged. “It’s not like I have anywhere to go anyway. You know that there’s nothing anyone can offer me that will make me leave the library.”

Even still,” Mustang’s voice was firm and allowed for no argument. “I want you to be careful. I want you to stay inside and be safe. I don’t want you hurt.”

Sighing, Ed conceded. “Yes, Mommy.”

“I’m serious.”

“I know,” Ed fiddled with the hem of his shirt. “I’ll be fine. You worry too much.”

“I have good reason to.”

Ed’s forehead creased. The tone of Mustang’s voice suggested knowledge of the murder cases. Ed knew, however, that no matter how much he badgered Mustang about it, the man would not tell. He could tell that the case was confidential from the finality of Mustang’s words; perhaps it was Mustang himself who was taking care of the case, which would certainly explain why the Bastard was so incredibly paranoid about security and safety.

While he was here, in Central, he had no choice but to trust Mustang. He had no one else. Bastard though the man was, Mustang was a good person, and was genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. Ed could not fault him for being paranoid at all, especially if he was dealing with the murder cases.

Mustang parked the car in front of the house and slid out of his seat. “Come; help me get the groceries into the kitchen.”
Restraining his curiosity, Ed asked no more about the case. He simply consoled himself with the thought that if it was Mustang taking care of the case, it would surely get solved soon.

 

 

~

 

Watching the nice dust of orange fade as the sun set slowly and the moon rose over Central, Ed sat in one of the sprawling grand parks near the house. After they had come home earlier from the grocer and fixed their shopping items into the pantry and wherever else they went in the kitchen and the house, Mustang had declared that he was feeling too lazy to cook their dinner, and so resolved that they would, for a change of pace, go out to eat.

Edward could not shake the feeling that this was some sort of date—the place was certainly romantic enough for one. They were sat outside, under the generous branches of one soaring and wide oak tree, probably more than a hundred years old. The restaurant was built into a small clearing in the park and was surrounded by trees and winding paths that took visitors—mostly lovers—into the woods if they wanted to walk about.

Relaxed and idle, Mustang reclined in his eat, until a chef—the chef—rushed out of the restaurant house and made towards them with a great smile on his face. “Master Roy, what a pleasure!”

Incredulous, Ed watched as Roy rose to give his polite greetings and was seized for a (very manly) hug. Again there was that constipated look on Roy’s face, but quick as silver, it was masked with a polite little smile. The man was a master at deception.

“Thank you for the excellent ambiance and excellent service as always, Giovanni.” Mustang turned to Ed. “Edward, this is Chef Giovanni, a good friend of mine.”

“Ah, you flatter, Master Roy,” the chef smiled, and though the smile was bright, the bald head blinded Ed more. “I should be thanking you for your continued patronage. And you’ve brought us a new customer too, a most charming young man.” Edward stood and shook the chef’s hand with a polite smile. Mustang seemed approving and amused at the same time; Ed assumed he was doing well. The chef continued, “What would you like for tonight, hmm? We just had a shipment of fine Chianti—I do know that Master Roy is quite fond of his wines, yes? Perhaps you would like red meat to go with that.”

“Well, first we shall have a platter of antipasti—bocconcini, green and black olives, roasted garlic, calabrese salami, genoa, and the rest of them you know of course.” Giovanni nodded, listening closely. The chef was not taking notes at all—but then, Ed figured, if he was doing this for a living, surely he would already know all of it by heart. Mustang seemed to be a frequent patron as well… continuing, Mustang said: “We’ll have one flank—no, actually,” Mustang cut himself in midsentence with a sideways glance at Ed, “make that a Porterhouse, please, to go with your wine. Pasta on the side, I’ll leave the details to you.”

“And how would you like your steak done?”

“Medium rare—oh, and would you add the crumbled cheese on top with herbs, as last time?”

“Of course, of course, anything for you.” Giovanni flashed another smile and excused himself to ready the food, giving sharp orders to one of the older and more reliable-looking waiters.

Ed turned back to his companion as they sat. “Do you own this town or something?” his tone was flat out serious.

“No, I don’t,” Mustang gave a tiny delighted laugh, as if pleased by Ed’s assumption. “I just have acquaintances and good relations with the people, Edward. This much is natural, don’t you think? I do live here. Surely you knew most of the people in your hometown as well.”

Shrugging, Ed noncommittally grunted. He was still disbelieving. These were not just pleasant acquaintances. Such grand accommodations meant that they were somehow indebted to Mustang. This restaurant, just like the tailor shop and shoe shop, was a business Mustang had substantial investment in. That much was certain.

They only had to wait for a few minutes in comfortable warmth under the summer night sky before the waiter came with their platter of antipasta topped with olive oil—extra virgin, Ed was willing to bet. Their wine was brought by another waitress seconds later, but Ed barely recognized it. The bottle was unusual.

“Traditional wine bottles are like this, with large rounded bottoms and a narrow neck,” Mustang promptly explained at his wondering look. “This is Chianti, a kind of red wine. We’ve never had red wine at home before, since we’ve only had chicken this past week, and white goes well with that, but red wine will be perfect for the red meat. It’ll be lighter than Bordeaux, which is what I would have had normally, but I don’t want you tottering drunk after we’re done.”

“It’s not like we have anywhere else to go after dinner,” scowled Ed, before pausing mid-sip, “do we?”

“The antique shop,” and Mustang offered no further explanation, lifting a fork and starting on the antipasti. “Appetizers. Olives, cheeses, salami, garlic, funghi, genoa, torched aubergines, I think, and torched peppers.”

Torched peppers?”

“The heat bubbles the skin off. Try it.”

Ed did, and after a tentative chew, he made a face.

“You don’t like it?”

“Yours are better,” and they were. Mustang was a great cook.

The smug Bastard only gave a smug little smile.

Quickly, they made their way through their plate of antipasti, and soon it was clean. The waiter promptly took the plate, poured more wine into their half-empty glasses, left, and came back with their steak and pasta. There was only one steak on the table (they were to share), but it was huge and certainly more than enough for the both of them. Atop it were crumbles of cheese and a dusting of herbs. The pasta was immaculately prepared, with whole roasted cloves of garlic and small tomatoes Mustang called pomodorino tomatoes.

Eager to compare the pasta with Mustang’s homemade ones, Ed lifted his fork and spoon and made to twirl—but Mustang stopped his hands with a firm touch.

“No spoon, just the fork. Spaghetti is made to be eaten with a fork only,” the man’s voice broached no argument.

Ed sighed and readied himself for yet another etiquette lesson. He relinquished his spoon and held the fork in hand, watching as Mustang first twirled some pasta and then copying the motions.

“Don’t overload the fork—take just enough. It’s not exactly charming to be seen shoving a ball of pasta into your mouth,” obediently, Edward un-twirled and repeated, this time with less pasta. “No slurping—it’s unbecoming and boorish. Be careful with the sauce. Rather disastrous on clothes.”

After that, Mustang began slicing for the both of them the meat, and bid him to observe closely. There was a proper way to slice and eat meat, Mustang said, and one must always observe the rules. Edward was quiet as they ate; only watching and occasionally lifting his fork to bring food to his mouth.

The longer the day progressed, the more he felt like a child being coddled and gently taught. Mustang was always conscientious of his background, generous with knowledge, and strict in observance. Challenges were never taboo, and there were no holds on any question he needed an answer to. The sheer amount of things he learned in one day under the man’s care was more than what he used to learn at Izumi’s house in one week. Then again, Izumi was not much concerned with etiquette and propriety; she was a down-to-earth woman with a down-to-earth house, unlike Mustang who lived in polite society. There was a wide gap. Apples and oranges, Mustang might say.

“Why do you care so much?” and it just came blurting out through Edward’s lips, startling Mustang’s hands into stillness.
The knife and fork were still lodged within the scrumptious and juicy-tender strip loin meat. Mustang was gazing at him with deep, dark eyes; the throw of candlelight danced against the darkness. Ed suddenly felt like he was back in his operation room in Resembool, and Mustang was at his bedside, looking at him with those same dark eyes. It was as if they knew him, knew Edward and all he had to offer. He felt all sorts of naked, awkward, and vulnerable under that stare.

Just as suddenly as it came, the intense gaze was gone and Mustang was back to the steak. Very meticulously, the knife slid against the meat, releasing juices that mingled with the generous topping of olive oil.

“I guess your suspicion is justified,” Mustang smiled wryly, “since I am yet a stranger who took you in without questions.”

“Yes,” Ed barrelled into the conversation with determination, though he felt a twinge of apprehension. This was a dangerous trek, and he had already revealed much to Mustang. Not all, not yet, but he had already laid out a lot. If there was anyone who had enough on him to successfully manipulate him into submission, it was Mustang—and certainly, the Bastard was conniving enough to do so. But as always, Edward needed the truth. Even if it blinded him. “Don’t give me some crap about Hohenheim,” he said. “My father had many friends, but I doubt they would have take me in like you did.”

Mustang chuckled, relinquishing the fork and knife. There were ready bite-sized cuts of meat on the plate, but the man reclined in seat and looked at Ed with fond eyes. “Actually, I think your father’s friends would have taken you in if you’d come to them. Your father was a wise man who knew how to pick his friends.” A sip of wine. “But my reasons—well, there are three, and you’ve already pointed out one of them. Herr Hohenheim is a valuable mentor to me, and it seems a right way to mentor his son in exchange for the invaluable things he’s taught me when I was your age, learning alchemy.”

Edward hated Mustang’s blatant infatuation with Hohenheim.

“The second reason: because you’re an investment,” and Mustang was looking at him over the rim of his wineglass, with shrewd eyes belonging to none else but the most skilled statesmen. Well. At least the man was being honest with him. “Not one soul who has encountered you can deny your genius. What you’ve achieved, that groundbreaking thing: that only compounds it—but I’m not so wicked to use that against you. Apart from violating Herr Hohenheim’s son, I would be breaking my own principles. But because you’re a genius, I don’t need to do anything apart from giving you your freedom, all the while educating you. Eventually, inevitably, you’ll become a star, one of the top intellectuals of the country—then all my efforts will not have been in vain. After all, as Fuhrer, I want nothing more than the prosperity of the state.”

Scoffing, Ed forked a piece of meat and brought it to his mouth. “Of course you do.”

The pompous Bastard looked like he was going to argue, but then decided against it and let the sarcasm in Ed’s voice slide. Mustang continued, “The third reason would be because I’ve taken a liking to you.”

Ed choked.

“What?!”

“I said,” Mustang’s eyes were dancing with withheld laughter, “I’ve taken a liking to you.”

Speechlessness was all Ed had to give.

“Don’t worry; I’m not going to molest you in your sleep or anything of the sort. It would be terribly unbecoming. I only take willing participants to bed,” the Bastard—fucking perverted pompous pedophile! Ed’s brain screamed—laid the wineglass down and took a small portion of pasta. After a short silence of chewing and swallowing (and on Ed’s part, dislodging the strangled piece of food in his throat), Mustang began again: “I meant it in a platonic way, Edward. You remind me of myself when I was younger, and what can I say? I love myself.”

This time, Ed choked and gurgled on his wine. He ended up in a coughing fit, to which a nearby waiter was alerted. He was brought a glass of chilled water.

“There you have my reasons for housing you, feeding you, granting you free access to everything in my house, clothing you, and indulging you,” Mustang’s list was rather accurate, except Ed felt the “indulging” part looked far too tiny to stand for what it really did. When the Bastard indulged on someone, he smothered them with everything a man could give. Ed knew this now. To Mustang, it did not matter how expensive things were—he only afforded the best. On top of that, material things were the lowest on Mustang’s hierarchy of needs, which was uncommon for most rich people. The man valued comfort, safety, and happiness above all else. Perhaps the man thought Ed failed to notice, but for the past few days he had been staying in Central, Mustang had made sure everything was in order—and all he had to do was lay back, read, and indulge his brain. Everything else was taken care of. It was downright amazing.

“Amazing,” Ed muttered, stunned, under his breath. He dabbed minutely at the corners of his mouth, where the wine had stained them red.

“Am I? Wait—yes, I am.”

He had not intended for the man to hear that.

“Oh, shut your trap,” exasperated, Ed steered the conversation away with improving skill (which, of course, elicited an approving smile from the Bastard). For the rest of the evening, Ed skirted this topic, and this was fine with him, because his questions had been answered truthfully—that was all he really needed.

He was glad that his new mentor, at least, knew what he needed and was gracious enough to grant them. He refused to think of his mother, now removed, alone in Resembool.

 

 

~

 

Warm and the tiniest bit giddy from the generous wine, Edward quietly followed after Mustang as they made their way back to the car. It was dark now; nearly three-quarters past eight, but the roads and shops were still brightly lit. In fact, it seemed as if the people were only beginning to mill. It was a Friday night, Mustang explained, and people were always out and about for a good time on their weekend offs.

They drove through the streets bathed in the soft yellow glow of lamplight. Ed happily watched young men and women walk about, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, most of the time in pairs. They looked like they were enjoying themselves. Ed had to wonder, if but in passing, what normal kids his age would do on weekends. Stay up late and play with neighbours’ kids or siblings? He’d only had Al and Winry at home, but he would always spend what he had of his time reading quietly in Hohenheim’s study. Play was occasional and during the mornings, after breakfast while they were helping Trisha with chores.

The car parked in front of a sizable antique shop standing beside a large café. The café sat by a street intersection, and had chairs and tables rolled out and occupied for the pleasant summer night. Inside was brightly lit and comfortable-looking, but in sharp contrast to this bright atmosphere, the antique shop was gloomy with its wide but darkened double-doors and faint lamplight filtering through the show windows from the inside.

For a moment, Ed thought it was closed, but Mustang confidently walked in and rang the bell at the book-laden and dusty front desk. “This is one of my most trusted places,” the Bastard explained. That meant that this, too, was an investment.
Ed was severely tempted to poke his nose around and peruse the heavy and sagging shelves. The entire place was cramped, despite the five long aisles extending to the back and the walls that seemed to be made of shelves, ceiling to floor. Every space was taken up with either books or some sort of artefact. If he had been a normal person, he would have found the place anciently freaky—but as it so happens, his curiosity overrode any sort of apprehension or fear.

“Anya!” Mustang suddenly hollered in impatience, making Ed jump out of his skin. The sound echoed loudly—Ed feared something fragile would break.

“Coming, damnit! Ow!” said a voice from the back. Multiple crashes resounded from upstairs, perhaps the living space, until a lady poked her head through the dusty curtains separating the store from the stocking rooms. “Oh, it’s you. Yo.”

Ed stared. The lady was small, but lithe and trod on bouncy feet. She grinned playfully and without pretentions asked, “Where’d you get the brat, Mustang?”

Turning his nose up, Mustang indignantly sniffed. “For your information, it was him who came to me.

Hackles raised, Ed frothed, “Who the hell are you calling a brat, Bastard?!”

“You’ve got some guts, calling Roy Mustang a Bastard to his face!” Anya threw her head back and laughed. “I like you already, brat!” She tried to ruffle his hair; Ed dodged away.

“Well, this month’s shipment was delayed, so I have nothing for you at the moment,” she easily rolled her shoulders in what Ed supposed was a shrug. Mustang raised an eyebrow. “It’ll come in Sunday; I’ll call you then if I see something I think you might like.”

“Ah, well. I hope you don’t mind if we still look around. Edward wanted to see my source for antiques.”

She stepped back and wordlessly swept her arm in a grand gesture of welcome.

Like a hound set loose, Ed promptly zigzagged through the aisle sections and gravitated to the Persian section. The book he was reading was still niggling his consciousness. He needed some sort of translation reference to be able to decode it faster, and if they had one…

 

(Xerxes Xerxes is the origin the beginning)

Ed froze.

For some time now, the piece of the Gate had been quiet inside his head. It had done nothing but flash him images and information whenever he needed it, mostly as supplements to his reading. The knowledge, after all, was in reality all his, unless the Gate explicitly forbade it, and that was rare. The Gate acknowledged his rights to the knowledge; he had survived after seeing it, therefore it was his. That did not mean, of course, that the Gate helped him solve his calculations, or anything of the sort. The most it did was give him clues if it was being nice, or taunt him if it wasn’t.

He figured it was being nice, now.

 

(Xerxes find must find life read void Xerxes must must must)

 

His eyes shot to the bottom of the Persian shelf before he even had a chance to comprehend what the Gate was saying. It was as if someone else had been controlling his muscles, forcing him to look down

(Catalysis)

the whispers were growing faint. It was going back to sleep.

 

Catalysis.

 

He knelt and lifted the flask his eyes were fixed upon. It was a mossy green colour, old and made of some sort of metal. Bronze, he figured—only bronze would turn this colour. It was shaped like an old wine flask, similar to the Chianti bottle they emptied at the restaurant: wide bottom flattening out and a long narrow neck. Obviously made to contain some sort of liquid or gas… it was not translucent, though, which was strange. It was something one would find in a laboratory, but what was the use of a flask if one could not observe its contents?

“Did you find something, Edward?”

Startled, Ed whirled about wildly and almost toppled to the floor. Mustang caught him.

“Are you alright?”

“Y-Yeah, you surprised me. Sorry.” He lifted the flask and showed it to Anya. “Hey, do you know how old this is?”

One look, and she said (through her turkey sandwich), “Oh, that. One of my contacts found it in the Great Desert, a little bit south of the Xerxes ruins. Roughly around two thousand years old, maybe even more. Well-preserved, isn’t it?”

Slightly winded but with his mind racing ten miles a minute, he asked, “Why is it in the Persian shelf?”

Anya blinked. “…because it’s Persian?”

“No it’s not,” Ed blinked back. “It’s from Xerxes.”

Silence.

Anya put down her plate and walked over, dusting her hands on her pants and putting on soft and worn kid leather gloves. She took the flask from Ed and pointed at the greenness of it. “See that ink? It’s traditional Persian green.”

Ed blinked, slowly. “No, that’s the bronze aging. It was probably somewhere near water, someplace damp. An aquifer or a well.” He pointed at the bottom markings. “Those are very similar to ancient Amestrian glyphs, but they’re not. They’re Xerxian—“

 

He stilled.

 

“Edward?” nearly hesitant, Mustang prompted after a couple of heartbeats of silence. Mustang recognized an epiphany when he saw one. “What is it?”

Ed looked up to Mustang with a stunned and breathless expression on his face.

“It’s Xerxian,”he stood there and blinked to himself in astonishment. “That Persian book at home—that theory—it’s all Xerxian!

 

 

tbc
arc II chapter 04 ver.2-01
first draft: 2009.07.22
last edited: 2009.07.22

Chapter Text

II : Debut
05

Edward blinked into wakefulness.

His vision swam as he stared up at the ceiling. Motes of dust danced in and out of his vision as they crossed the lineated bars of sunlight streaming through the library’s tall arched windows. He had, again, fallen asleep on the library couch; he could feel a slight crick in his neck and a faint numbness on his left arm where the spine of the book he had been reading had pressed against it all night.

 

He closed his eyes.

 

There in the curve of his ears, just beyond intelligibility, was a whisper of something, sibilant as quietly rushing water. Thoughts. They were thoughts. Still half-mired in the cloudy confusion of dreams and the subconscious but quickly shedding the dregs, he kept grasping for it as the mist slowly faded away.

XerxescatalysisPersiabookglyphscircle

He sprang up at the slam of information swiftly clicking into place as memories of the previous night rekindled themselves. The book that had been half-lying on his chest slid to his lap, flopping open to a marked page—the Persian book, he realised, relatively thin and light enough that he did not feel uncomfortable sleeping underneath it. Almost instinctively, his eyes slid to the study island table, where the bronze flask sat. Mustang had bought it for him last night.

 

“Edward.” Ed swivelled towards the back stairs. “Come on down for breakfast.”

Mustang was untying the same dark blue apron he wore every time he cooked, and only now did Ed notice the wafting aroma of food from the kitchen. Seeing no point in resisting the beckon, Ed rose and deposited his book on the table, stretching as he spanned the distance from the study island and took the stairs two steps at a time.

Mustang stopped him at the base of the stairs, turning him back up and shooing him to his bath. “Straighten your shirt, young man, and fix your hair.” He rolled his eyes, but followed anyway.

After having washed his face, rinsed his mouth, and made himself presentable, he clambered back down the stairs, eager for some grub after a long night of heavily taxing critical thinking. Mustang was already pouring them generous glasses of pineapple juice, to go along with a hearty combination of focaccia, cheese, and roasted sweet peppers atop cooked ham slices and scrambled eggs. On the side was a small selection of fruits: young grapes and half-sliced strawberries.

Ed politely waited for the wordless cue to begin eating, and when they tucked in, Mustang propped him the first question: “Have you figured anything out from last night?”

“Nothing yet,” it pained him to admit, but it was the truth. “I’ll need time. I don’t want to make mistakes.” Both he and Mustang were quite intimately acquainted with the costliness of rash action. Mustang inclined his head. Ed continued, “I need to compare the glyphs closely. Things would be much easier if I had a Xerxian book for cross-reference, instead of just a half-decayed flask they used to use for who-knows-what.”

Ed cleanly sliced and forked a piece of ham. It was startling and scary how quickly he was learning Mustang’s manners by observation, just as it was unsettling how he felt so at ease with the man—enough so that he had shared his hypotheses with Mustang the previous night while they were yet incomplete. He had never done that before, not once in his deceptively short life—not even Alphonse got to hear his thoughts before he had them checked, cross-checked, double cross-checked, and triple cross-checked. It was, for the lack of a better word, freaky.

“It’s not a book,” Mustang began, commanding all of Ed’s attention, “but it might help. The tapestry in the hall is Xerxian; purely authentic.”

Ed stilled.

He had not realised that. Why had he not realised that? Shooting up from his seat, he dropped his knife and fork and made to rush to the living room to get a glimpse, but was stopped by Mustang’s hand on his arm.

“Where do you think you’re going, Edward?” the admonishing disapproval in Mustang’s eyes was not supposed to sting that much, but it did. “Sit down and finish your meal. The tapestry won’t be going anywhere.”

Cowed but still (intrinsically) defiant, Ed sat back down and huffed into his meal. After a moment’s thought, however, he muttered quietly, “Sorry.”

“Quite alright,” Mustang’s disapproval vanished into a satisfied little smile. “I understand what you feel—I understand that near-manic passion you have for your science. But it’s important as well that you mind your priorities. You won’t be able to function properly without nourishment, yes? So eat first—and while you’re at it, why don’t you organise your thoughts? I find it quite easier to begin when I have what I need to do in line.”

Nodding quietly, Ed resumed his meal. His mother had not minded him carrying his books to the dinner table or rushing off in the middle of a meal to record a sudden light in his theory. Izumi was, however, dismayed with this habit, and tried her very best to knock it out of him. She had said that such behaviour was terribly disrespectful towards the generous person who prepared the food for him, and that it was unbecoming of a civilized human being. His brain had not cared; either way, it demanded attention whenever there was an epiphany.

Now, he felt rightfully awkward about the situation. More and more he found himself seeking to follow Mustang’s principles, and what few rules the man had for him while he was in the house. His respect for Mustang was already quite high, and it was continuing to build. The entire thing was disconcerting, to say the least. He was normally a very rebellious child, and to think that it was barely a week since he arrived…

But my priority is learning, he told himself solidly, and rebellion is beneath it. Mustang has the world to give me and teach me. That’s more than enough.

He learned by theory, by example, and by experimentation; as if by some stroke of absurd luck, they perfectly matched Mustang’s preferred teaching methods. Before he could learn from Mustang, however, he first had to follow and see, and within this, obedience was essential. A teacher, he knew, was not an efficient teacher if unable to make the student obey, one way or another. Mustang was simply very good at this. Even before he was consciously willing to submit to instruction, his mind had already realised the wealth of knowledge and wisdom he could inherit from this man—and his brain already was learning the first of the patterns.

 

A wry smile came to his face as he emptied his glass of juice. Izumi had always been amazed (and heartily approving) of his self-knowledge. It was an expected personality trait, she had said, but his self-analysing was so incredibly ruthless it went beyond the norm. He strove to be aware of his faults and to correct them—and he was willing to sacrifice pride for the sake of learning the right way.

 

“I should have maps of the old world in the library,” Mustang abruptly interrupted his train of thought. “They’ll help if you should feel the need to re-examine and trace Xerxes and Persia’s communications.”

The previous night, the similarities between the Xerxian flask’s ancient glyphs and the Persian book’s circles had jumped out at him in a realization so unexpected and so obvious it had knocked him off his feet. The Persians were known to frequently trade with Xerxes, although they had unsavoury relations with Creta and the then tiny Amestris. Xerxes liked Persia’s gold and art; Persia wanted Xerxes’ expertise in alchemy. It made sense that Persia’s advanced theories were rooted from Xerxian theories; the circle modifications were probably because of the time gap. Xerxes had disappeared three centuries before Common Era; the Persian book was from the fifth century after Common Era. There was an eight-century lapse in between.

At the moment, the Persian circles seemed translatable through Xerxian script. If indeed this was possible, then it was no longer a priority to learn Persian (or Xingese to understand Persian) in order to decode the arrays in the mysterious Persian book. Of course, understanding the very book itself would help, but Mustang could do that part of the work. Mustang already knew Xingese, and unlike how Persia only had similarities with Xerxes in terms of alchemical arrays, Xing’s language itself was very much similar to the Persian language. (1)

The engraved glyphs on old Xerxian flask, though a bit laborious to make out, were startlingly similar to the Persian circle’s scripts, if not at times the exact same. Whatever the flask was used for centuries ago, it had something to do with the atomic theory the Persian book was talking about. This much was more than enough for him to begin researching; atomic theory was an obscure field, and obscure was just his penchant. He would not rest until he got to the bottom of this.

 

“Edward.”

He started and looked up to Mustang. “Sorry—what?”

Mustang smiled, “You blanked out. Never mind organising your thoughts; finish your food first. Go on.”

“Oh, uhh, sorry,” abashed, Ed ducked his head and, with renewed vigour, returned to his food. The ham was almost gone, and he had not even tasted them yet. He hated eating in a daze; all the flavour went to waste.

“If I could ask you one question,” Mustang began; Ed shrugged, “from where did you learn ancient Amestrian? You’re frighteningly fluent. Your teacher?”

Ed scoffed. “No; she hates my old-style alchemy. She doesn’t like how intricate it is; it’s dangerous if I accidentally fail to balance it correctly, after all.”

“Then who?”

“Same as you: from Hohenheim.” Ed polished off the last of his fruits. The scrambled eggs (with chopped bell peppers in them, apparently) were damn good. “Or rather, from Hohenheim’s books and journals. The man was never there to teach me anything. The rest I figured out on my own.”

“Figured out on…” Mustang trailed off, muttering to himself in disbelief, with raised eyebrows and an appraising eye for Edward. “Child, you never fail to surprise me.”

“I’m not a child,” Ed scowled up at the Bastard. “And it’s not that hard, you know. There’s a pattern, like with every other language.” This really was how he understood the ancient Amestrian language (and by extension the Xerxian language, though only roughly). He gave a vague wave of the hand, as if that was meant to explain everything.

Mustang merely cocked a brow at his offhand remark. “A pattern. Edward, have you ever heard of the concept of structured learning?”

“Nope, never,” merrily, Ed emptied his glass of juice and dabbed at his mouth with the napkin. Then he reclined against his seat and patted his full belly. “I’ve always learned by intuition and instinct. It’s just my style. Al learns more with structures than I do.”

“Genius.”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Just talent.”

“No,” Mustang shook his head. “Doing easily what others find difficult is talent. Doing what is impossible for talent is genius. You brought your dead mother back to life—that is no talent, Ed. That is genius.”

Again, Mustang wore the all-penetrating look in his eyes, and in awkward discomfort, Ed looked away. The man’s logic was sound, but was there a need to state the obvious over and over again and again?

“You’re being far too generous with your compliments, Bastard. If you don’t watch it, I’m going to start thinking you’re intentionally flattering me.”

Letting out a delighted laugh, Mustang rose from his seat and began collecting the dishes. “I’m just stating things as they are, Edward. You undervalue yourself, did you know that? And whoever said I wasn’t flattering you?”

“Pervert.”

“Why, thank you.”

Ed paused.

“Did you just say thank you?”

“Yes.”

With a sense of dread, Ed asked: “What’s so great about being a pervert?”

“Perversion is essentially deviance from the norm or the orthodox definition of things, which society does not condone, and therefore is given a negative connotation.” Mustang shrugged as they cleaned the table and he replaced the jug of pineapple juice in the cooler. “I personally don’t see anything wrong with being able to appreciate genius in a way no one else can. In fact, it makes me feel rather special.”

“Of course,” Ed cast his eyes skyward. “Egotistic bastard.”

“Why, thank you.”

“You said thank you again.”

“Being selfish is perfectly healthy and normal, Edward. There is nothing wrong with it, so long as you hurt no one.” Turning and giving him a grave face, Mustang said, “You must shed away society’s prejudices and authoritative opinions in order to understand what I will be teaching you. Society’s rules and norms are for the sheep; free-thinkers like you, surely, will not be satisfied. You should know what I’m talking about.”

“Thinking out of the box.”

“Yes,” Mustang nodded. “Painful, but beneficial. All great wisdom is like that, and they are made to be handed down from one generation to the next—but only to those who are fit to receive them.”

“Elitist.”

“Yes.”

Ed sighed. This Bastard was a bad influence on his morality.

 

~

 

He excused himself ahead of time when he finished helping with the dishwashing. It would take only a minute or two to put the washed and dried plates away, so Mustang let him go with a knowing little smile. Ignoring this, he dashed up the stairs and hurtled towards the study island, snatching up an inkwell and a sheaf of paper. When he returned to the kitchen, Mustang was already finished and there waiting for him, patting nimble hands dry with a fluffy kitchen towel.

“Careful now,” the Bastard said when Ed nearly tripped over himself at the foot of the stairs. Ed just scowled up at the man, crossing the kitchen and stepping into the formal dining, where he skirted the long table and walked up to the tapestry. The formal dining was the far section of the area he had inwardly dubbed the Great Hall, which encompassed an entire long half of the house, with a spacious section for entertainment and general pleasantries. If cleared out, it would be a suitable ballroom in medium size.

The ceiling was high, just as every ceiling in the house was high. On its flat expanse was a fresco of the Great Amestrian War, the very battle that moulded Amestris into being. If his history was not failing him, Ed knew that this had been a battle between the Drachman empire and the then scattered and largely tribal Amestris, sometime around three to four hundred years into the Common Era.

Generally ambivalent towards each other and rather familiar as well since they were fellow traders, the tribes had banded together in a desperate attempt to push out the invaders. Under the fortuitous command of the first Grand General Friedrich the Conqueror (modern-day equivalent of the Fuhrer), the tribes won, and upon the very heart of Central, a city-state was born, modelling that of Creta’s impressively old and then still functioning system. The young and tender city-state was named Amestris—an old Xerxian (and perhaps Persian) word meaning ‘friend’: a testament to the lasting friendship between the tribes. (2)

“Rather expensive, that,” Mustang remarked, coming up beside Ed as he gazed up, head tipped back. “But well worth the money, don’t you think?”

Ed continued to gaze thoughtfully at the fresco. Morning light played its tricks on his eyes, and for a second had him finding movement in the still images. Bodies were prostrate on the ground, arms raised with gleaming swords, warhorses neighing and bucking, and a great man on a great mount raising a green flag over a very dead Drachman General. On the green flag was the well-known symbol of the great white beast with claws ready to grapple and defend.

“You know what I can’t understand about this entire business?” Ed tilted his head thoughtfully to the side. Mustang waited patiently, and quietly, for his continuation. “Creta was an ancient democratic city-state. The books say Friedrich modelled Amestris after Creta. Why is it, then, that we are militaristic and nowhere near democratic?”

“Good question,” Mustang nodded. “Sit down. This is your politics lesson for the day.”

The idea of disobeying never even once entered his mind as he wordlessly set his sheaf of paper and inkwell on the table in one of the sitting areas. There were two, but this one was closer to the formal dining and kitchen. The other lounge was across the blank space of the hall, near where the grand concert piano and a few bookshelves sat. He sprawled himself on one of the armchairs, leaning forward, eager for a good story.

“The reason why Friedrich refused to fully mimic Creta’s democratic system,” Mustang began without preamble, “is because democracy does not work.”

Ed’s eyebrows shot up. “Creta’s democracy lasted for nearly a thousand years, you know.”

“And look at how much incompetent decision-making was made,” Mustang reclined against his chair, forehead crinkling in deep thought. “Creta was a great city-state, with great emphasis on culture, wisdom, and the search for truth. But it had its flaws, and they were grave ones.”

“For one, I’m pretty sure you would not survive at all in ancient Creta. Creta was very similar to the Western colonials. They persecuted anyone who went against the norm. They scorned free-thinkers, accused them of heresy and impiety—yes, they were religious—and sentenced them to death. I can name a handful of influential thinkers brought to their sudden end, all because of petty sheep-thinking.”

Upon hearing this, Ed grimaced. Of all things, he loathed people who were unable, unwilling, or both, to think for themselves.

“For another, it was not a true democracy in Creta; it was an aristocratic democracy. A lot of the residing people in Creta, in truth, were not entitled with voting rights. They were slaves. You have to remember that history is often written with a biased hand, and almost never with absolute truth—it’s hard, you see, for a people to admit their own faults. The greater they are, the harder it gets.”

Ed nodded. That sounded logical, and all too human.

“And lastly, even if it was a true democracy, it still would not have worked. In fact, it only worked that well for that long because it was an aristocracy in disguise, and aristocracy is inherently stronger than democracy. Think about it, Ed. What is the definition of democracy?”

“The rule of the people’s majority.”

“And what is the flaw in this?” the Bastard folded his hands on his lap and expectantly gazed upon Ed with the eyes of one who was no longer a mere guardian and companion, but a strict disciplinarian and mentor.

In a flash, Ed remembered their discussion over breakfast. He muttered with a frown, “The majority of people are idiots.”

“Excellent answer, as always,” Mustang smiled beatifically. “You have real potential for this, Edward.”

“I would rather not, please.” Sullenly, Ed swung his legs forth and back, his heels hitting the couch in a muted thud every time. “Politics is something I think I can do, but it doesn’t mean I’d like it. Much.”

“As long as you are prepared—that is all I wish for,” Mustang opened his palms in a gesture of welcome—an overt indication of his willingness to let Ed have his freedom with both opinion and career choice. “As long as one is educated, enlightened, and prepared, one will fare just fine in this world, with enough hard work. The problem is that most people aren’t educated enough, wise enough, tactful enough, or even just sensible enough to decide for themselves the right things.”

“Imagine the horror, Edward, if Amestris was ever surrendered to the hands of the dumb majority. Rights would be stripped, alchemy grants minimised, defence made secondary, funds wasted on the leisure of the many. Free-thinking would cease to exist, because of the enormous pressure to identify with the majority and avoid persecution. Ordinary people are given to panic and distress, and every little thing would turn into a major catastrophe. No confidentiality on the part of the military; the public would know everything, which does not work in a political scheme, because people are often better off not knowing what is done for their benefit. As you might already know, people predominantly revert to hostility when their innocence is broken, or when faced with something they cannot handle.”

 

And yes, Ed did know that, quite intimately in fact. Memory of his own mother’s livid face flashed through his memory, and he hung his head low, overcome with a shame he knew he should not feel. It was not his fault; he did nothing wrong. He did everything right, and it was because of him that she was alive. But of course she failed to understand that, so here he was, left with nothing but her oblivious contempt.

A weight on the crown of his head pulled him back to reality, away from the taunting cackle of the Gate and the scalding lash of hurt and shame at the memory of his mother’s words. He blinked and looked up—Mustang had a tentative, gentle hand on his head.

“I apologise,” Mustang said, quiet now, and almost remorseful.

Ed shook his head. “It’s not your fault; you shouldn’t be the one to apologise.” In fact, he thought quietly to himself, I should be the one apologising for all the trouble I must have caused you.

“It’s not your fault either. You shouldn’t be the one to apologise.”

They were sharp and solid words, cutting through the haze of Edward’s scattered thoughts. They snapped him into place, just as the heavy hand now on his shoulder anchored him into reality. It was then, at that moment, that Edward realised just how much Mustang was intent on keeping him grounded and stable. This person, for some utterly unfathomable reason, was trying to keep him from sinking into the mire of depression.

“Well, Mum thinks otherwise,” he snorted, lifting his head, but not drawing away from the comforting hand. It was a reassurance to be touched, he realised with a start. Touch was something he had not had in abundance since the transmutation. He was beginning to sorely miss it.

“Your Mother does not know to what extent you have gone through for her and for your brother,” Mustang haughtily dismissed. He seemed mightily offended at how laxly Trisha had looked upon Ed’s momentous achievement. She really did not understand alchemy at all. Mustang continued in a quieter but more determined voice, “Her opinion is not valid.” And then, as if to remediate: “Please do know that I don’t mean to insult her or her intelligence.”

Lips quirking, Ed uttered a quiet chuckle. “Bastard, by just being in the room, you insult everybody else’s intelligence.”
Caught unawares, Mustang was quiet for a split-second. Never before had Ed engaged in games of wiles with the man and pulled a stumping good one. Mouth lifting at the edges in satisfaction, Mustang, with approval in his eyes, playfully parried back, “I’m afraid you have it wrong, Ed. It’s not me who insults intelligence by mere presence; it’s you. After all, you are the genius.”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Oh, shut up.”

He rose and grabbed his sheaf of paper and inkwell. It was high time he moved on to his work.

 

~

 

On the wide wall of the Great Hall hung on display a giant and inconceivably old Amestrian tapestry. It was, as Ed had expected, protected by seals on the fabric’s four corners, designed to defend against weather and tear. Mustang had not dared to touch the circle painted into the absorbent fabric at all, and rightly so—the ancient thing was a colossal monster, an array that would probably take Ed a good while of time and a great load of help to fully decode.

Already he could feel the eager tingling in his palms.

Suppressing his apprehension, he stood before the wall. He felt a creeping dread when he looked at this circle, though he could not fathom why. Underneath his feet, the rugs felt comfortable and warm. He curled his toes into them uncertainly.

What was there to be afraid of? It was just an array, nothing more. What was there to fear? Nothing.

Inside of his head, the Gate was deathly silent.

“Alright, Ed?”

He jumped.

“Yeah,” sweat began to moisten his palms. “Yeah, fine.”

Taking a huge breath, he closed his eyes, calmed himself, and then opened his eyes again. With a blank mind, he gazed upon the massive array on the wall, absorbing every detail, burning the very threads of the fabric into his retinas. When he had looked enough and his eyes were watering generously, he closed them again, and instinctively brought his palms together.

Clap.

He knelt on the soft Xingese rug. With one hand, he touched the sheaf of paper, and with the other, he touched the inkwell

surgecracklerush

in a bright wave of blue light the leaves of paper chained together to form one large blank sheet. Another surge of light and on it an invisible hand began inking in an exact replica, albeit smaller, of the Xerxian tapestry circle. When the inking stopped and the light faded, the copy fluttered to the floor, harmless and clean.

 

“What did you just do?”

Ed blinked.

“Huh? Oh,” he turned towards Mustang, who was gazing at him with an incredulous look on his face. “A copy,” in a not entirely too bright manner, he pointed at the huge fold of paper.

“Yes, I can see that much,” the sting of sarcasm was back in the Bastard. “I meant your reaction. Where are your circles?”

“Oh, those,” Ed shrugged idly. “I—don’t need them?”

Disbelieving, Mustang stood there for a quiet heartbeat, and then two, and then three. And then as if driven by some invisible force, the man lunged forward and took Ed’s palms, examining them as if to search for some sort of cheat device: a set of tattoos or perhaps twin slips of paper. Nothing.

No cheating.

“That, Edward,” Mustang began in a somewhat dazed tone, “is just impossible.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ed shrugged again. “I just did it, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but how?” the words escaped Mustang’s lips in quick succession, as if bursting with anticipation and curiosity—and which the man obviously was. “I mean—the energy has no directional.”

“There is a circle—in my mind,” Ed warily amended, toeing the tasselled end of the rug beneath his feet. He bit his cheek as he was pitched headfirst into a struggle between telling and not telling Mustang about the piece of the Gate inside his head. The latter eventually won out. His words were slow and deliberate: “I don’t know how to explain it. I… project the array I have in my mind onto the circle of my arms…? I still have a circle, but having it down is unnecessary, I guess.”

“You guess,” the arch of Mustang’s brow was clearly sceptical. For some inane reason, this urged Ed to make a more corporeal case, when normally he would have dismissed anyone who could not bring themselves to believe in his genius. For some inane reason, Mustang was different.

“I—don’t know, okay?” desperate now, Ed tugged at the Gate’s strings for help, and though it unravelled for him pieces of information, the smug and mocking nature by which it leered at him was intensely unpleasant. He felt as though a bucket of grime was just poured over his head. “I see it as something similar to psychological projection, except instead of inwards, it goes outwards—if that makes sense?”

Mustang was deep in thought now, eyes bright and roiling with knowledge. The man was rather knowledgeable well-informed in the relatively fresh field of psychology.

“You attribute the circle upon the object with your mind?”

“Uhh, no, it doesn’t work that way,” Ed said. “If I did that, it would mean that I would have to project a circle on every grain of sand or every piece of rock. No—I attribute the circle on the energy—“

“Of course, because the object is of no direct relevance to the circle!” Mustang was now pacing back and forth, back and forth, and Edward stood there watching. The Bastard was a bright bastard; they were, miraculously enough, on the same page. No one apart from Al had ever been able to keep with him this much, not even Izumi. “The circle shapes the energy, and the energy shapes the object. There’s no need for the circle to directly touch the object, as long as it touches the energy and directs the energy to touch and mould the object!”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Mustang stopped a few paces away from him, arms crossed, chin on chest. “But how can you mentally project a circle on invisible, intangible energy? That’s—thoughtform projection?”

“…I have no idea what you’re talking about,” so it pained him to admit, yet again. This was quickly becoming commonplace between the two of them, and it was beginning to get on his nerves. Normally, he knew more than most people—but this was rarely the case with Mustang. Of course, it should be this way, because Mustang was now his mentor, never mind the informality. But still, it was incredibly annoying—especially to someone like Edward.

“It’s basically harnessing and manifesting mental energy to project a cohesive, solid form of thought on something physical. Yes, energy counts—energy is physical,” Mustang slowly supplied. The man continued to stare; Ed ignored this and lifted the large sheet copy of the tapestry’s circle, collecting it in a neat roll. “I should have you read that Xingese book on mysticism.”

Mysticism,” Ed scoffed.

“Most of it, if you look close enough, is actually based on solid science and experimental alchemy. We just aren’t open-minded enough to appreciate it fully.”

“If you say so,” Ed was, at this point, unwilling to argue. He still felt conflicted about the Gate’s presence in his mind, and now that he was reminded of it, the unease returned to the forefront of his mind with full force. Hearing voices inside his head was not a very warm reassurance of his sanity, especially to Mustang, who would be incredibly paranoid about these sorts of issues. Genius or not, having the piece of the Gate in his head was not normal, and it was a serious matter he was not sure he wanted to confide in Mustang about.

The secrecy made him feel filthy and rotten. Mustang was giving him so much, and yet here he was, a dirty little liar hiding a potentially destructive secret from the man who provided for him shelter, food, clothing, and generous education. He tried to convince himself that this was technically not lying, but it was all in vain: personally, he considered omission a form of deception, and from the beginning, he had never been all too exceptional at fooling his own incisive mind.

 

Walking back up to the library was a quiet and short affair with both of them in deep thought. Mustang immediately made for the shelves, muttering titles under his breath. Ed spread the tapestry’s copy on the study island table (which was, for once, relatively clear of paperwork and clutter). With a few books in arm, Mustang settled himself into a seat across from Ed, borrowing a little bit of table space for a notepad, and easily sinking into informative reading.

Together in quiet and comfortable company, they worked until well into the mid-afternoons, only to be interrupted when Ed’s stomach let out an embarrassingly loud growl of distress. With an affectionate little smirk on the Bastard’s part, they retreated into the kitchen for quick sandwiches and orange juice.

The rest of the day was spent in the same manner, with intense reading and research on Edward’s part. His charting was meticulous and detailed; it would take a while before this research went anywhere significant. But Ed was, if nothing else, persistent.

Dinner was the same: quick, elegant, substantial, and full of conversation. They exchanged theories (Mustang on Ed’s thoughtform alchemy, Ed on the Persian book and tapestry) and bantered playfully, a light reprieve from the extensive heavy reading.

Afterward, they retreated again to the library, where instead of sitting back in the study island with his yet unfinished but generously tagged pile of books, Mustang walked up to the baby grand piano. Now why anybody would have a piano in a library, Ed had absolutely no idea—but Mustang has always been a strange man, and just like everything else in the ridiculously posh and primped house, the reason behind this was probably a combination of indulgence and laziness.

“Please don’t break my eardrums,” sighed Ed as he settled comfortably into his pet couch. He swirled the contents of his second glass of wine (which he was now allowed for the lighter kinds) and relished the short break from his books.

“I will have you know that I was schooled in music by the best instructors from my childhood,” the lid of the piano went up; Mustang sat down.

 

The very moment those long and tapered fingers descended upon the keys, Ed’s ears were captured by an upward cascade of notes, smooth, quick, and flowing. After a short proem of graceful notes strung in clipped and common melodies, Mustang began a light and sweet summer song—a love song, Ed realized very quickly.

Not just a grand Bastard, but a grand romantic Bastard, he snickered to himself.

He had to admit, though: the piece was a beautiful one, simple but memorable. There was not a single word of reproach he could pull up against the execution, though of course his opinion was an admittedly amateur one. There was no detectable stutter, the tempo was even, the flow was smooth, and the style and flair indeed very Roy Mustang. Not a single doubt.

At that very moment, as Mustang switched to the next song, Ed was struck with the intense desire to learn how to play. The descant tickling his ear was a mystery—how could something so beautiful be created so easily?—and he wanted to unravel it. Music, he had read, was in its nature very mathematical, though it had more of the passion and emotion the physical sciences so refused.

But would he be able to? He doubted it.

He glanced down at his automail hand, and for the first time since that inauspicious night, he felt a wave of self-loathing and regret. In this sense, his rashness had taken away from him an avenue of learning he could have otherwise pursued. There was nothing that disheartened him more.

 

The music stopped. “Ed, come here.”

Ed looked up. “Why?” he blurted before he could catch himself.

Mustang had that little smile playing on his lips again; Ed felt justifiably apprehensive, if only a little bit. “Come; I have something to show you.”

Leaving his empty wineglass behind (Mustang seemed bent on turning him into some sort of alcoholic), he stood and made his way over. The Bastard pulled over another stool for him to sit on, and when he was safely situated on Mustang’s right, his hands were taken and placed upon the keys.

“These are the basic notes. A to G, starting with the middle C, right here. It’s the basic reference point,” to demonstrate, Mustang played eight notes, one whole octave. “Go ahead; try.”

Sceptically, Ed blinked up at Mustang. “You expect me to learn the piano? I have an automail hand.”

“So?” Mustang arched an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’ll let such a tiny setback stop you from learning something new. I expected better of you, Edward.”

Successfully refuted, Ed scowled and set his awkward hands back on the keys. Gingerly, he pressed down on the middle C. The single note vibrated in his ears, loud and clear. This, he realized immediately, was good practice for his automail arm’s control, which he had yet to perfect.

“That’s alright; loud is good when you’re beginning to learn,” Mustang encouraged, ever the model teacher. “Scaling volume is something you master later; all loud for now. But don’t bang on the keys; know that there is a clear distinction.”

Gently, patiently, Mustang took him through the core basics of music and the piano, letting him find his own balance with his fingers. Mustang—in moments like these no longer a bastard—said nothing when his fingers slipped, when his automail hand refused to cooperate and gave him minor difficulties. All that was said were quiet words of encouragement, spaced out and even, there for comfort whenever Ed needed them.

Was it disturbing that he found he needed them often?

Yes.

It should not be, he told himself, because he was a child, really. He was eleven, barely going on twelve. It was perfectly natural for him to seek an anchor, if not a guide. It was perfectly natural to feel a pull of gravity towards Mustang: this confusing, charming man who now held his hand as he walked his slow way into the adult world. It was perfectly natural, he convinced himself.

These accidental thoughts and self-doubts, however, tended to stick in the spokes of the mind, so when Edward fell asleep on the couch that night listening to the serenade of Mustang’s fingers, his dreams were occupied by none other than the magnanimous Bastard and his magnanimity.

He had never had sleep so full and satisfying.

(Sarcasm.)

 

~

 

No breakfast.

Ed lamented his fate, dawdling about in the kitchen aimlessly. Now he knew that starvation was the painful consequence of unwarranted acts of kindness towards the Bastard.

It was Sunday morning, and he had taken pity on Mustang, who was sprawled and sleeping on the luxurious-looking silk-covered bed in the master bedroom the last time he took a peek to check. Mustang never had any chance to sleep in during the weekdays, and even on the weekends, the man woke early to make him breakfast and accommodate whatever he should need.

Rightfully so, he had felt awkward about poking Mustang awake so that he could have his breakfast made for him. He just could not do it—not when Mustang looked so blissfully worry-free and happy in his sleep. All the stress bled away made the man look so deceptively harmless: more towards a napping puppy instead of a wolf with craftily sheathed sharp teeth. No; he could not do it.

So there Ed stood in the very midst of the kitchen, staring helplessly about, as if a lone and absolutely inept survivor of a capsized ship marooned on an uninhabited island. He quietly pulled the cooler open to see if there was anything edible and was faced with nine happy bottles of fresh milk.

He closed the cooler.

Turning to the countertop where the coffeemaker sat, he saw a loaf of wheat bread, unsliced and fresh. Nodding to himself, he went about making himself coffee, and three sandwiches with slices of cooked but cooled turkey. He adorned this with random cheese he picked out from Mustang’s generous collection and added a few leaves of green. A few strawberries, grapes, a mug of coffee, and he was all set.

 

He took his breakfast up to the study island, where he was allowed to eat only if he made sure to clean up after himself and avoid food slobber. The sandwiches disappeared quickly as he immersed himself once more into his reading—and he only noticed the passing of time when the phone rang (thrice) and was picked up by a no doubt groggy Mustang. (They did stay up quite late last night.) Fifteen minutes later, the Bastard was up and out of his room, one hand preoccupied with buttoning a black collared silk shirt.

Ed glanced up from his book, took his Bastard landlord’s appearance in, and incredulously remarked, “Work on Sunday? Do you ever do anything else?”

Mustang only chuckled and ruffled Ed’s hair as he walked past. “I need to go somewhere real quick. I should be back by lunchtime. Be a good boy and behave while you wait for me, hmm?”

“I’m not a child, I tell you!” but Mustang was already gone down the back stairs. There was a telltale clatter-and-thud, faint but there, as Mustang checked and double-checked the back door’s lock. It was nearing midday now, but Mustang was as paranoid as ever. Ed had no doubt the obsessive-compulsive Bastard would triple-check the front door’s locks before he left.

Mystified but none too concerned, Ed returned to his book. Mustang was a big boy; he could handle himself, surely. He had seen the gloves go into Mustang’s pant pockets, so there should be no worries. If anything, Ed was far more worried for whoever was unfortunate enough to face against Mustang’s fire. He had only seen the spark-initiated fire alchemy in domestic use; he could scarcely imagine the damage it would do to a human target if the need should ever arise.

 

(charrrr)

The piece of the Gate, dislodged and unhinged as it is from the rest of the original Gate’s collective consciousness, sounded far too gleeful for comfort. Curling quietly in his mind, as if a very amused evil little housecat, the Gate flashed him an assortment of images: the salamander array Mustang used, the same array broken down into parts, the sight of a generously cooked something (was that a human arm?) on bloodied ground—

“Okay, stop. Stop.”

This, the Gate, was the other double-edged sword he gained from that night when he transmuted his mother, apart from his automail. The Gate was insane—there was no bloody argument about it—but it was smart. Oh, the sheer knowledge it contained, the bulk of information it allowed him free access to—

But in return for this he was to carry the piece of the Gate in his mind, and it would forever stay with him, just as a piece of the Gate stayed with anybody else who opened the Gate for their own purposes. He had yet to fully explore the capacities of one piece of the Gate, but so far, it was proving itself terribly useful.

And terribly scary.

Struggling against the (very helpful) images the Gate (very nicely) insisted on conjuring for him, he failed to notice the sound of the clatter-and-thud downstairs. Only when a man called up from the kitchen—

“Hey, Roy! You there?”

—did he notice that somebody else was in the house, and he was no longer alone.

“Roy! Wake up!” the person banged loudly on the wall, all the way up the back stairs. “Gracia made quiches to go with lunch! Breakfast for you, I guess,” the person added as an afterthought. Ed watched as a man came up from the kitchen, bespectacled, but with sharp and cunning eyes.

 

“Sorry,” Ed said. The person started, only just now noticing him. “The Bastard’s not in right now.” Ed returned to his book.

Lightning-quick inductive reasoning told Ed that this person was at the very least not an immediate threat, primarily because the man had a key to the house (on a keychain which was dangling from the man’s finger). The only way for this person to have a key would be if Mustang himself gave this person the spare key for use. If Mustang trusted the man with the house, Ed figured he could trust the man enough not to tackle at first sight.

“Ohh,” the bespectacled man—not old; about Mustang’s age, very close—stepped up closer and grinned at Ed. “You must be Edward. Roy’s told me about you.”

Even more reassurance of the man’s trustworthiness: the man was familiar enough with Mustang to go by first-name basis, and had heard from Mustang about him.

Which he did not like.

“He told you about me,” Ed repeated dubiously. The man nodded. “Fucking Bastard. He promised not to tell anyone from the military!”

“It’s okay!” the bespectacled man laughed, eyes crinkling kindly at the corners. “You can trust me. Roy knows I’m good with information; that’s why he told me about you. He’s told no one else, I’m sure. Well—Hawkeye might have an idea, but I don’t think Roy would tell her explicitly. It’s just not him.”

The person stepped up closer. Ed’s fingers curled tighter around his book. His muscles tingled, warming themselves, getting ready to spring—just in case. Proximity was still an issue for him; it was a miracle how he managed to relax around Mustang at all.

“How did you know I was from the military?” the person looked genuinely curious.

Eyes narrowing, Ed closed his book. The book lay quiet on his lap. “The way you move,” he said. “Your eyes—they tell.”

The man smiled. “Do they.”

“Yes.”

They stood in quiet, gauging each other—and they would have remained such if not for the grandfather clock, situated near the phone and against the wall, tolling midday with its usual loud echo.

Almost comically, Mustang’s bespectacled friend jumped an inch into the air, as if waking from some sort of internal reverie. “Oh dear, it’s noon! Mustn’t keep my beautiful wife waiting. Have you had lunch yet, Ed?”

“No,” Ed flinched at the familiarity. What was it with people in Central? They all had a common and unseemly habit of calling him by his first name, or some variation of the sort, immediately after acquaintance. Proximity and familiarity, oh, the two concepts nobody ever seemed to understand!

He could not bring himself to refuse, however, when the bespectacled man herded him down the back stairs, through the kitchen door, and out onto the back yard. The man offered free lunch; he was hungry. Simple equation. He did leave a note in the library for Mustang, though. The paranoid Bastard would probably hernia if he failed to adequately specify his whereabouts.

“My wife Gracia made lunch, and we knew Roy would be off from work, since its Sunday, so she made more than the usual,” story-telling seemed to be a fad in Central. “But since he’s not here, I’ll just have to kidnap you and take you with me! She won’t be pleased if I left you in there to starve all by yourself.”

They were crossing a massive lawn between two houses: Mustang’s house, and another house that had a similar Georgian structure but was wider. Around them was a beautifully landscaped garden, with flowerbeds and trees (and on one tree branch, a swing for a child). Clad in flimsy summer slippers, Ed could feel the heat of the brickwork pathway underneath his feet. The sun was beating happily down on Central, harsh in its last few days of summer reign.

“This is my house,” the man said, pointing up to the fatter Georgian house. “I bought it so that Roy and I could be neighbours. He didn’t want to get his house at first, you know—I found it for him. Until I told him that there was this massive central fireplace in a huge hall he could use as the library—then he gave in.”

That sounded about right to Edward. (He knew he would have given in, too—though the fireplace really was unnecessary. Mustang was just an unjustifiable pyromaniac.)

“Oh, how rude of me—I never even introduced myself!” the man walked ahead of Ed to open the back door of the neighbouring house. With a warm smile, the bespectacled man said: “I’m Hughes, Maes Hughes. It’s a pleasure to finally meet the very item Roy’s ever-so-arbitrary eyes!”

 

~

 

Arbitrary, hah! If there was one thing Roy Mustang was not, this was it. Indecisive people were sheep, and inflexible people were fools, so went the creed. Roy Mustang was neither, this Ed knew for a fact.

Ed’s train of thought was a little messy as he stepped into Maes Hughes’ house, but he said none of it. Instead, he gave a polite little smile, if awkward and uncertain, and said, “Edward Elric. Pleasure’s mine.”

“My, what a polite young man!” Hughes’ eyes crinkled at the corners again, in some sort of half-suppressed mirth. “Roy must be stuffing you to the brim with all of his impeccable manners. I swear the guy is far too uptight for his own good.”

“You can say that again,” Ed was beginning to like this Hughes person.

He was led into the house, similarly tastefully decorated as Roy’s, though not as blatantly opulent and intimidating. This house had a warmer, homelier feel to it—perhaps because of the presence of a woman’s hand.

“Gracia, darling!” Hughes hollered, taking Ed by the shoulders and steering him towards the dining. “I brought over a guest!”

A lady walked in through the door from the kitchen and gingerly placed a dish on the table with a smile. She had short auburn hair, a kind smile, gentle eyes—and a very, very pregnant belly.

Ed’s eyes remained fixed on her stomach.

“Isn’t my wife just absolutely radiant?” Hughes’ infatuated purr into his ear was disconcerting. The man was taking Ed’s speechlessness as awe at her beauty—which was indeed remarkable in its gentle sincerity, but that was not exactly what he was fascinated with. He had never seen a pregnant woman before, and he was—curious.

Yes, that was the right word for it.

Curious.

“This is Edward Elric, Roy’s new charge,” Hughes was already introducing them, and Gracia was giving him a gentle little smile. For some reason, Ed was strongly reminded of his own mother. Was he trying to compensate? Perhaps. “Amusing, isn’t it? Roy would be the very last person to take anyone in.”

“Well, maybe Roy’s found an intellectual match,” Gracia remarked, extending a hand for Ed to shake. Ed accepted it awkwardly.

“You’re—it’s—… huge,” he ended lamely, eyes still lingering on Gracia’s belly.

She gave a delighted little laugh. “I’m into my fifth month; it’s nowhere near done growing. The baby can feel touch now. Sometimes it moves, very faintly. Do you want to touch?”

Blinking in surprise, Ed looked back and forth between the two of them. Gracia stood there smiling as Hughes shrugged his assent.

Apprehensively, Ed lifted his flesh hand—and neither of them was shooting his automail hand wayward looks, so he gathered Roy had already told them about his little debacle back home. He hovered tentatively upon the crest of Gracia’s belly, not knowing where to touch and feel, so she took his hand and gently guided it to the side, applying just a little bit of pressure so he could map the faint outlines of the baby’s head.

Wonder thoroughly overcoming him, his fingers splayed and tried to map the baby more clearly. He was afraid to apply any more pressure, though; the hardness underneath the skin was superficial at best, and he knew that it would bend like putty under his strength. He did not want to damage that blooming little life, no.

“If you keep touching, I’m going to get jealous,” Hughes’ glasses flashed in a very sinister way indeed, and Ed quickly retracted his hand. He had a feeling that Hughes was not just any military personnel; the man most likely had some sort of combat experience. It was evident in the way Hughes carried himself.

“I apologise,” Ed flashed a quick little smile at Gracia, who simply waved dismissively. She appeared not to mind in the least, a very understanding woman. “I—well, I haven’t seen a pregnant woman up close before. My mum was pregnant with my little brother, but I was only one year old; I don’t remember anything about it.”

“Mm, I understand,” Hughes was patting Ed’s shoulder now, ushering him into a seat. “That’s alright, as long as you keep in mind that my wife is exclusive.”

Ed stared.

Gracia batted at her husband. “Not everybody is conspiring to steal your family away from you, First Lieutenant,” she playfully said. “Now sit down, be a good boy, and eat your lunch. And mind your manners! Edward is a guest. You don’t mind me calling you Edward, do you?”

Finally—someone who had enough sense to ask for permission first! Ed shook his head and gave Gracia another little smile. He liked her; she was nice and reminded him of Trisha. In a very warm, motherly, good way. And the stew looked and smelled mouth-watering.

Hughes was grumbling in mock hurt beside him as they began to dig in. “Can you blame me for being very territorial? Can you? The kid looked so infatuated with you!”

“I’m not a child!” he huffed for the hundredth time. “And I was not infatuated, just—”

Eyebrows raised expectantly, Hughes prodded in between spoonfuls of rice, “Just?”

“Just—” struggling with the words that were stuck behind his tongue, Ed frowned. Words were never his forte. That was Al. “Just—I find it—miraculous, I guess, and incredibly fascinating how a mother, a pregnant woman, any woman, can produce a life so simply and easily. I mean—I’m sure there are hardships, little caveats to the entire process, but—” he paused to gather his words again, “—you know, alchemists have been trying to do the same thing: make a life from scratch. And after hundreds of years of labour and research, we’ve gotten nowhere, while mothers just keep on birthing and giving life. I just—it’s—yeah.”

Ed knew he sounded indecisive, jumbled, and altogether generally lame, but he hoped he was getting his point across. He was startled when Hughes gave an immensely amused chuckle.

“What?” he frowned.

“Oh, nothing,” the bespectacled man speared a potato from his plate. “I simply find it incredibly amusing how you’re repeating Roy’s words when I told him that Gracia was pregnant.”

“I told you, didn’t I?” Gracia had that knowing smile that most women held when they were aware of something the rest of the world—namely the entirety of the male population—was unaware. Ed thought it was incredibly unfair how women were granted enhanced psychological insight through sheer natural biology. “Roy found himself an intellectual match. They will make good friends.”

Ed scoffed. “Me and the Bastard? Hell no.”

Hughes exploded into laughter, which turned into hacking coughs as he choked on his beef stew. This was the natural reaction: most people were astounded at his gall to call Roy a Bastard with a capital B, even to the man’s face. He did not understand what was so special about it, though; Roy valued honesty, and he was simply honouring the man’s creeds. It was not as if the Bastard felt hurt.

He waited until Hughes was resettled and calm, which took a full glass of water and much petting from his wife. The bespectacled man was still chortling afterward.

“I don’t get what’s so amusing, really,” he truthfully said. “So what if I call him a Bastard? I mean, he is. The Bastard, I mean.”

Hughes exploded into laughter again. “Nobody would dare call Roy Mustang a bastard to his face, Ed! Nobody.”

“What, for fear of burning?” Ed pulled a sly grin. “Oh, that doesn’t scare me. I’ll just wet his gloves.”

Settling appraising eyes on him, Hughes said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “I’ll give you a hundred if you manage to.”

“Deal.”

“Not that I think he’ll ever snap at you,” shrugged Hughes, returning to his food. “He’s completely taken, from how I’ve seen him talk about you. Most of the time, he doesn’t talk to me about his acquaintances unless he knows they’re lasting and important ones. I don’t think he considers you as just an acquaintance anymore, either.”

“You’re exaggerating now.”

“No, I’m not,” Hughes smiled. “He’s thoroughly fascinated with you. I can’t exactly say why at the moment, but he is. And I think I’ll know why when I see the two of you interact.”

 

Before Ed could reply, there was a loud knock on the house’s back door.

“Ooh, speak of the devil,” Hughes grinned. “Only Roy raps on the door with that rhythm knocks like that.” He excused himself and rose from the table, briskly walking over and disappearing into the hallway. When he came back, a very eager and very awake Roy Mustang was following after him.

“Ah, I see you’ve met Edward,” the Bastard said, coolly brushing strands of his flyaway hair aside and sliding into a seat. Gracia set a plate and cutlery for Mustang, who graciously thanked her with a heartbreaker of a smile.

“A very intelligent young man, from what I can see,” Gracia said to Mustang. She glanced over at Ed and her smile widened. “The two of you make a dynamic pair.”

Edward grimaced; Mustang gave a wry little smile. “Women always know,” he said. Hughes nodded in hearty agreement. Ed was willing to bet that Hughes was prepared to agree to anything that glorified his wife. Edward scowled up at Mustang when the man turned to him with expectant eyes. “I do hope you kept yourself well-behaved while I was gone.”

“I’m not a child! How many times do I have to say it? I am not a child!” fuming in his seat, Ed angrily forked a cube of meat into his mouth. He graced Mustang with a stretch of wounded silence, before barking sharply as Mustang began to settle into his lunch, “Where were you, anyway? I thought you had no work on Sundays.”

“What—you went to the headquarters on a Sunday? You?” Hughes incredulously followed.

“No,” Mustang said, ever decadent and clean as he spoke in between bites. “Business elsewhere.”

Edward eyed the book bag lying safely on the small table against the wall near the door, beside the dining room’s telephone. The bag was made of familiar kid leather—now if he could only remember where he last saw kid leather—and was carried in by Mustang’s careful hands. The man seemed particularly reverent of it when he put it down; perhaps high-priority files? But Mustang said that he had business elsewhere, which meant that it was not the military headquarters he came from.

Ed boggled to himself as he ate. It did not look like Mustang was going to divulge information anytime soon, so he would have to wait—and he sorely disliked waiting.

When he finally managed to pull himself back from his reverie and enjoy his food instead of agonising over Mustang’s whereabouts, Hughes and Mustang were both involved in a discussion of politics (also hereby known as military gossip). Names—some vaguely familiar, some outlandish, and some plainly plain—flew over Ed’s head as they exchanged bits of trivia, random observations, and occasionally some juicily scandalous incidents with the notorious many of the top brass.

They carefully avoided talking about anything of operational importance, Ed noted, a precaution probably drilled into the both of them from years of protocol and paranoia. But Ed did not care either way; military information was something he had nothing to gain from knowing, at least at the present time. Maybe in the future, he would benefit from it, but not now. He could not be bothered; his brain was far too busy with the Xerxian circle and the Persian book.

Speaking of which—

“Hey Glorious Bastard,” he shamelessly stepped into the men’s conversation, “do you think you could decode the Persian book using Xingese? If you have free time, that is,” he added hastily. He did not want to impose on Mustang any further. He was already as grandly accommodated as it was. “The Xerxian circles will take work; if I do both the text decoding and the circle-breaking, progress will be slower than snail-pace.”

“Of course; I’ll start on them as soon as we get back,” Mustang’s response was smooth, without a single drop of hesitation. They were finished eating now; Gracia was taking the dishes with her husband’s help, and putting out the quiche. “But on that note, I have something I’m sure will immensely please you.”

Mustang rose from his chair and finally went to retrieve that curious leather bag, bringing it to the cleared table and laying it carefully down. The latch came free under Mustang’s fingers, and gently, Mustang reached inside, pulling out an aged leather-bound book, its pages made of the signature papyrus produced by the desert cultures of Persia, Xerxes, Arabia, and the western tribes of Xing. The binding was obviously recently reconstructed, made tighter, firmer, and sturdier. On the front was a slip of paper adhered to the leather, with a small doodled circle to prevent further wear and tear.

This was not what caught Edward’s eyes, though. It was, instead, the sprawling crest stamped impressed upon the leather and filled in with what looked like gold ink. Most of it was faded, but on a few areas of the crest, the original sheen and depth of the gold remained untouched by time. He recognised the crest from the Xerxian circle and—he started—from inside the Gate. This on the book was the exact same as the centrepiece of the Xerxian tapestry circle; the one in his head, the one he had seen engraved on the doors of the Gate, was an inverted version. Or was this one the inverted one? It would make more sense if the Gate was the original.

Which means that somebody from Xerxes already knew how to perform human transmutation, or at least some kind of reaction that would be large enough—and imbalanced enough—to take them to the realm of the Gate.

Ed blinked.

But that’s more than two thousand years ago.

He blinked again.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” he reverently murmured under his breath, eyes wide and fingers clenching in anticipation. He wanted to seize the book from Mustang’s hands, but he did not have leather gloves, and Mustang did. He did not want to harm the book. If only he had silk cloth to handle it…

“Language, Edward,” Mustang admonished, “and no, I’m not kidding you.”

Gently, Mustang laid the book flat on the table, taking care to avoid any droplet of water or fallen food (of which there was none, thanks to the man’s impeccable manners). Ed loudly dragged his chair over, scooted close to Mustang, and eagerly watched as Mustang’s careful hands turned the cover page to reveal the intricate writings on the thick volume.

“Authentic, unearthed from the Xerxes ruins by accident,” Ed listened attentively, dividing his concentration between Mustang’s voice and the bare awe and reverence he felt for the ancient text. “Taken by grave-robbers who had failed in their original exploits and turned instead to the ruins to collect some precious porcelain. The book was inside a large sealed pot, a common way to preserve and conceal texts. All the ancient scholars did such. Luckily, the bandits had yet to open the pot, so the book was not damaged by exposure or rough handling. Anya’s brother bought the goods from the bandits for a high price.”

“Worth it.”

“Yes, definitely,” Mustang nodded. “I matched their price and gave extra. You did want for Xerxian reference texts, after all.”

“Look,” Ed pointed to the lower corner of the third page, his finger almost grazing the ink but not really. He was afraid to touch, afraid to smudge anything; this was precious information within their hands. “That circle looks like one in the Persian book. The twelve-sequence, do you remember?”

“Yes,” Mustang turned to the next page, which was all scribbles and script. “Do you think you can decode this?”

“Decode?” Ed grinned. “No need. I can read it just this way. It’s similar enough to old Amestrian script. (2) Rough, but I’ll get better over time. As I said, every language has a pattern. Give me a few days and I’ll have the first few pages translated for you, if you want.”

“Overflowing with confidence as always, the genius,” Mustang softly remarked, almost fond, dare Ed even think it. “The book is all yours. Just be careful. There are plenty of circles in there.”

“I’m not so stupidly careless I’d activate a circle in a book by accident, you know,” Ed tugged at Mustang’s free hand, the one not occupied with turning the pages. Quickly he rid the hand of the leather glove and pulled it over his own fingers, so that he too could touch the pages, even if only with five fingers and not ten. (That was okay; Mustang only had five gloved fingers to himself. He was not alone; they suffered together.) “Besides,” he continued, “by the sheer paranoia you’re force-feeding me, I’ll never be careless again in my life.”

“That’s good,” Mustang said. “Constant vigilance. You never know who you are or might be up against.”

Ed rolled his eyes, before ducking forward and poring over the tiny scribbles on the tenth page’s corners. He could barely read them, but they looked like corrections.

Corrections?

So this was not a book at all, he realised. This was a notebook, a log of an alchemist—the alchemist—who had developed the Persian circles in the Persian book more than two thousand years ago. The circles in this book—at least from what he could see in the first few pages—were far less holistic in comparison to the Persian ones. These circles were younger, yet incomplete—the alchemist was still experimenting when he (or she) wrote this.

Maybe by the end of the book he’ll have something closer to the improvised Persian circles, Ed thought. The flask’s seals certainly derive from this, but are more advanced. But the flask comes from Xerxes too, which means this man improved on himself over time. There’s a great chance that he created the flask as well.

Ed could not wait; there was nothing like conversing with another mind, despite the separation of generation, culture, and time.

“If you don’t hurry, your quiches won’t be warm enough anymore,” a voice from across the table reminded them.

Ed snapped from his reverie and looked up. “Oh, you’re still here?” he said to Hughes.

Hughes grinned through his own slice of quiche; Mustang sighed. “Manners, Edward.”

“Sorry, Bastard,” he absently, automatically responded, grabbing a fork and digging into his quiche. Before taking a bite, though, he turned to Hughes and repeated, “You’re still here, Mr. Hughes?”

Choking on his food, Hughes smothered a laugh. Mustang had only a tiny smile to offer, having already gotten used (somewhat) to Edward’s inherent cheekiness.

“This is my house, you know,” Hughes chuckled. “And that’s my wife’s quiche you’re eating. It’s best to eat Gracia’s quiche warm, though of course you can take some home, cool it, and eat it later. Go on, don’t be shy. Eat as much as you like. I know Gracia’s cooking is the best!”

“He hasn’t a shy bone in his body, Maes,” Mustang scoffed. “Not one. After all, he’s a prodigy.”

“Shu’up, Bastard!”

“Mm,” smiled the man, gently closing the book and placing it back into the leather bag’s safe confinement. The leather gloves went back in as well. Ed had a feeling they were borrowed from Anya, the last place he’d seen kid leather being used.

He shrugged and turned back to his food, quickly finishing his slice and asking unabashedly for more. So full was his mind of information spiders weaving their webs into a coherent nest of theories that he failed to notice Hughes’ little glances, once in a while thrown his way once in a while, a combination of fond, amused, and impressed.

If he had noticed them, he would have known the little conspiracy brewing inside the man’s head: to bring him and Mustang more time together, because of course, any friend of Mustang would see him, the new charge, as a positive influence on the man’s otherwise lonely and monotonous social life (one-night stands and occasional whores notwithstanding).

Such was the failure of his oversight and preoccupation.

 

~

 

After that one meal, whenever Mustang was not at home, he would daily cross the lawn at lunchtime and drop by at Hughes’ house to impose himself on Gracia’s kitchen. She was a kind and understanding woman, very practical but at the same time emphatic and knowledgeable when it came to solving personal dilemmas. With one look she had sensed Edward’s unspoken and unsettled misunderstandings with his mother, and encouraged him with a few words to talk to her as soon as he was ready. It was imperative, she said, that they repair their relationship, because a mother to a son only came once in life.

Her pieces of advice did not stop there; she gave Edward her thoughts on Mustang, seeing how Edward seemed to still be a little abrasive and defensive in the man’s presence. She tried her best to persuade him of Mustang’s goodness, which Ed could see, yes, but he could not simply just let go of the natural distrust that was borne into him through years of brainwashing by Pinako. (Besides, he could not help his disbelief when the Bastard acted like a Bastard day in and day out without rest or even a pause for single breath. It was as if the man lived on his own hubris. Which the Bastard probably did, the Bastard.)

Half the time, though, Gracia just talked of small things, random things, favourites, the type of conversation people had when they were getting to know each other at first. It was something he had never done with Mustang, because both of them had monsters to keep in their closets, but Gracia had next to none, and was open about her opinions and preferences.

If only he was as free, Ed thought.

 

Days passed quickly, almost in a haze but not quite. He spent his hours buried to his eyeballs in scripts, books, scrolls, circles, and codes. There was a lot of work to do, a lot of comparison and cross-referencing in progress between the flask, the tapestry circle, the Xerxian book, and the Persian book. He was alone, but that was alright; he worked better alone (no offense to Alphonse). From time to time Mustang would come to help him with the research, but Mustang too was busy, and often came home drained and lethargic. Only wine and a good meal would bring the spark back.

The established routine endured over the next week, and the following Friday, they were out again, to the same restaurant but for a different kind of cuisine. Everything was a learning experience, Ed found, whenever he was in Mustang’s presence. Never had he ever gotten such a meticulous and intense one-on-one teaching on such a wide variety of themes.

He revelled in it.

 

I could live like this for the rest of my life and not have any regrets, Edward mused to himself, reclining against his chair and gazing up at the sky. The stars were beginning to lean towards the autumn alignment, and the breeze was slowly beginning to chill. By this time, in Resembool, one would already need to wear long sleeves and perhaps a sweater, but here in the bustle of urban Central, the heat lingered after summer.

“What are you thinking?” inquired Mustang from across the table. They were finishing up on their dessert, panna cotta midway submerged in rich blackberry currant sauce.

“Mm, not much.”

“Well, that’s a surprise,” Mustang forked a sizeable piece from the large circular panna cotta. Ed scowled; they were sharing a plate (since Mustang had claimed that having one plate each would mean ingesting more sugar than what was healthy) and here the Bastard was, unconscientiously stealing more than his own fair share! To match Mustang, Ed forked a similarly large portion and dipped it for a little bit more sauce, before savouring it if only to taunt the Bastard. Only recently had he discovered that both of them had a similarly monstrous and very greedy penchant for sweets.

“I was just remarking on the disparity between my life here and how I used to live in Resembool.” Ed coated his fork with sauce and lifted it to his mouth, licking it clean. “Worlds apart. One would think I was transported across dimensions.”

“Are you satisfied?” there it was again, the deep eyes. “With what you have here, I mean.”

For a stretch of a few heartbeats, Ed kept his quiet, gazing back at Mustang with an equally intense scrutiny, until he shrugged with a smirk, “It’ll do.”

Mustang’s brows lifted with the edges of his lips in a surprised but pleased little smile. “Is that a challenge I hear, Mr. Elric?”

“Well, there is certainly much room for improvement, Mr. Mustang,” the playful tone never left Ed’s voice, lest Mustang think he was actually being serious. He knew that the man knew that he appreciated what has been done for him, what has been given to him, and he was not being ungrateful. He simply wished to keep this evening’s tone light-hearted and warm. “For example,” he elaborated, “you could get me the same silk sheets you have on your grand bed for mine. They look very comfortable.”

“They are, very much.”

“I find it hard to understand how you can have your guests in such bland accommodations as mine and have silk sheets when you go to bed at night,” Ed pushed a little bit more. He really was not kidding about this; he wanted those sheets. Well, not Mustang’s exact same sheets, but silk sheets. They looked really, really comfortable, and he was willing to bet the library they were.

“Ah, but I give you more than what most families and house-owners would accommodate their guests with,” Mustang leaned forward. “I give you clean, prime linen from the best weavers in all of Europa. I give you a bed that is as soft as the clouds above—metaphor, Edward; I am aware one will fall if one should lie on literal clouds. Why do you say I accommodate you poorly, then?”

“Yes, I have clean, prime linen as you say—but you have silk. Does that not strike you as a tad unfair?”

“But I’m the master of the house, am I not?” Mustang reclined again, satisfied with his simple defence.

Ed rolled his eyes. “And it comes down to your ego, yet again.”

The Bastard laughed. Laughed. But Ed really wanted those silk sheets!

“I wonder when we will have a conversation which does not end or begin or somehow concern your awe-inspiring self.”

“Never,” Mustang declared.

“Ugh. You’re insufferable.”

“Thank you.”

Mustang finished the last of the panna cotta. Fucking Bastard.

 

~

 

Their peaceable quiet was dealt a crack when on Tuesday morning Ed picked the newspaper up from where it was left by the gate and read the headlines. Minutes later, he walked back into the kitchen, face drawn as he handed the paper to his companion. Mustang was preparing for them breakfast, refreshed from sleep but grave and obviously dwelling on something. Ed had a strong idea what.

“The headlines talk of a murder last night,” he barrelled into the heart of the matter. He disliked small talk when it came to things that were of importance, and so did Mustang.

Mustang blinked up at him, hands stilling momentarily, as if now only realising that he had company. There was a muted sigh, and Mustang slid quietly into his chair, motioning for him to sit as well before their meal. They began eating. Patiently, Ed waited for Mustang to gather his words, and it was only when he was a third of the way through his plate did the man speak, all business and not an ounce of jest in tone.

“It’s the sixth in a series of murders that began this year’s early spring,” Mustang shortly explained.

Ed frowned. “The papers say it’s the fifth.”

“The media knows nothing; never trust fully on what they say,” Mustang gravely warned. “Anyhow, it’s imperative that they know only the barest details about the murders. If the papers still have yet to connect the first in the six, it means that my subordinates have been doing their job.”

So Mustang was in charge of the murder investigations, as Ed had suspected. It did strike Ed as strange when Mustang had called home the previous night and had apologised for being late. He had told Ed to go to Hughes’ house instead for dinner and to not wait up for his return. The man had not explained much further, but Ed was yet awake when Mustang returned, and had prepared a small and humble meal for his exhausted companion. He asked no questions the previous night and quietly kept Mustang company until late into the night, but now, he could not help but inquire.

“Is there any way I can help?”

Mustang’s jaw tightened at that suggestion. “I would prefer if you remained here at home, Ed. Safe.”

“You know I can take care of myself,” Ed quietly insisted. He treaded with caution, afraid to push. According to Hughes, Mustang’s temper was explosive when triggered. Ed was not quite sure if he wanted to acquaint himself with it so early.
“I know that very well,” Mustang nodded, still with the same taut tension, “but I have seen these murders, Ed, and they aren’t something I’m quite sure I want to expose you to. Furthermore, we have already established that you are steering clear of the military for now, and getting yourself involved in something like this will throw that idea out of the window for good. The military has good intel; Hughes can attest to that.”

Quiet settled between the two of them.

The meal was excellent as usual, but Ed barely tasted the flavour in the depth of his thought. He wanted to rebuke Mustang, to rebel and offer his hand in whatever matter he could be of help with. But with that tone Mustang was using? It was impossible.

Again, Ed felt as if he was a child, coddled, treasured, taught. Again, he wondered if this obedience was natural. Again, he wondered if this was how it felt to have a loving father who cared about his safety and future.

 

When they finished with their meal and began washing the dishes, Mustang quietly spoke, “I appreciate the offer, Edward, but for now, these matters aren’t your business. Don’t worry about them. Don’t even spare them a thought. I just want you to concentrate your energy in your studies—and I want you to keep yourself safe. Promise me that, will you?”

Ed nodded. “I will.”

“Thank you.”

 

Mustang’s hand was warm on his shoulder, a comfort, a reassurance. Ed had relinquished to the man for now, but that did not mean he would not look into matters on his own. Oh, he would not leave the house—he was not the type to break promises—but he would read the papers and find out what he could. Perhaps there was something there he could offer to Mustang, something that would ease the investigation through.

He had not liked the stress he had seen the previous night on Mustang’s visage. Though Mustang carried it well, when the masks were down inside the four walls of the house, Mustang was just another human being carrying a responsibility that, borne alone, would cripple most common men.

Ed shuddered to think how much worse it would get as Mustang ascended the ranks, and marvelled at the sheer resilience Mustang displayed with how long he had lasted in the game, virtually alone, with no one to lean against. Hughes was an ally, and there were Mustang’s loyal subordinates, but even then, Mustang had no one to console him at night, when he sat alone in his large and lonely house. Considering how this was only the beginning of Mustang’s steep climb, Mustang would need someone there to stay, and perhaps share part of the personal trauma a job as hazardous and emotionally taxing as this cost.

Ed wanted to help.

He wanted to help, because Mustang had helped him.

Inwardly hardening his resolve, Ed swore that he would find some way to be of use. It was not as if he was going anywhere anytime soon anyway; he would be staying for a long while, and hell be damned if he was not going to find a way to repay his debts.

 

“Be careful, then,” Ed bid as he strode with Mustang through the hall and into the entrance hall. It had taken Mustang less than fifteen minutes to prepare for work after the meal, having already showered and half-dressed.

“I’ll call home if I have to stay late tonight,” Mustang said. “Gracia will be more than happy to have you over for dinner, I’m sure. Maes will no doubt be staying late with me as well, if I do. Stay inside otherwise.”

“I understand.”

Ed watched as Mustang stepped through the doors and towards the gate, outside of which a sleek black military car sat waiting. The driver, Lieutenant Havoc, was leaning against the side, smoking a cigarette.

“Lock the doors!” Mustang called behind him.

Ed did as he was told.

 

~

 

tbc
arc II chapter 05 ver.1-02
first draft: 2009.09.05
last edited: 2009.09.05

Chapter Text


II : Debut
06

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to always and forever be explaining things to them.
(
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince )

~

Nothing.

 

Edward came up with nothing relevant from the newspapers, apart from the bare facts he already expected to find and could have gotten by asking his neighbours. If this was indeed Mustang’s subordinates’ work, they were a painfully thorough bunch. Then again, this was Mustang. Mustang would have nothing less than the best of people for himself, just as he had his way with everything else. From what he’d heard from Gracia, Mustang was plenty influential within the military ranks, despite his young age and lack of rank. Lack of experience was something nobody could accuse Mustang of; the man was a veteran from the Ishbal War, and a more-than-adequate politician from how he had worked his way up so rapidly through the military.

But such was not his point.

The tight security protecting the information was maddening. He had, by nature, a curious soul, and he itched to know about those murders Mustang insisted on keeping from him. He did not blame the man for doing so, not at all—only, he thought that the man was a little bit too overprotective at times.

Alright, that was an understatement. The man was a fucking paranoid Bastard.

 

He gave a momentous sigh and stretched his limbs, sprawling all over his couch. The table was laden with his usual books, the flask, his references, and his notes; but over them, newspapers dating from February of the same year were spread in a systematic fashion. So far, he had nothing more than what he would bet the military had, probably even less. He did not have nearly the same amount of abundant resources the military had. He only had one library and very unreliable newspapers on hand.

What was he thinking, trying to poke his nose into Mustang’s business? The man was not playing a game.

 

The phone rang loud in his afternoon stupor, echoing against the walls. He swung up from the couch and grabbed the phone, following Mustang’s instructions to never say anything and let the other side speak first.

“Ed, it’s me,” Mustang’s voice filtered through.

“Oh, hey, Bastard,” Ed relaxed back into the couch. “You’re going to be late tonight, then?”

“About an hour or two, if you can wait. If not, go to Gracia’s house. Maes should be talking to her right now,” there was cacophony in the background, unusual for wherever Mustang worked. Perhaps he was not in his office? Ed did not even know if the man had one. (He probably did.) “We just have a little bit of extra work to deal with.”

“I can wait,” and Ed spent the next few minutes reassuring Mustang that no, he was not going out of the house, yes, the doors were locked, yes, he could wait, and no, he had not talked to anyone from outside. When they finally hung up, Ed was at the verge of giving into an intense impulse to rebel against Mustang’s now somewhat suffocating rules. Seeing the newspapers, however, was enough to discourage any rash action his deviant little brain could cook up.

He languished about, feeling unjustifiably useless and generally incompetent. Mustang would come home tonight tired, no doubt, again with that hollow, drained shadow in his eyes. Ed did not like those alien eyes; he liked the intense and fiery Bastard. But how was he to help relieve the burden if he was trapped here like a caged pet, unable to do what he was good at? These murders, from what the paper clippings said, seemed to have some sort of alchemical component involved; he could crack that, surely. And Mustang knew this, yet here he was, being kept away from the investigation. It was all sorts of infuriating, frustrating, and touching.

 

His eyes instinctively glanced over at the clock; it was nearing four in the afternoon. Today was a wasted day with no progress on his research—on the Xerxian book, or on the murders. He sighed again; he hated the lack of visible progress.

Mustang had said that he would come home an hour or two late—not very late, but late enough that the man would probably have no time to prepare a proper dinner for the two of them. Ed did not want to stress Mustang any further by demanding food, but he did not want to impose too much on Gracia either…

I could cook for him.

Ed paused at the thought.

Cooking was something he had never really tried his hand with, much less study. Mustang had been giving him pointers for the past few weeks, but pointers were really nothing compared to the real thing.

But isn’t experimentation what I do best?

He felt rather awkward about experimenting in Mustang’s immaculate kitchen.

I could easily clean up any mess I might make, and repair any damage I might incur…

Ed’s eyes idly wandered towards the far bookshelf near the back stairs, where there was a section for the culinary crafts. It was small, smaller than the other sections, but sizable enough for the basic and intermediate lessons. He gathered Mustang learned the advanced techniques from experimenting and improving upon the basic techniques.

Rising from his seat, Ed made his way to the kitchen. He had about three hours. That was more than enough.

 

 

~

 

By the time Ed heard the opening of the front door and the quiet noise of the military car leaving the driveway, he was finished with the final preparations. His meal was simple, a combination of two different dishes he had seen Mustang cook before. It was a simple salad, with a serving large enough to be a light dinner, with freshly baked bread. (Baking turned out to be easier than cooking—never mind that he had clapped.)

“Edward?” Mustang was removing his jacket when he stepped into the kitchen. Ed turned from where he was preparing the olive oil and spices (to dip the bread in); the salads were already laid out neatly on the table. Mustang gave a slow blink and once-over of the kitchen—free of mess and relatively orderly—before turning back to Ed. “What are you doing?”

“I clapped us some food,” Ed said proudly with a grin.

“…clapped.”

“Well,” Ed shrugged and explained (not whined), “your oven doesn’t seem to work for some reason, and the stove hates me. I managed to fry the chicken alright, but the breading was hell. I don’t know how you do it. So I just clapped. Oh, and I made the bread too.” He gave Mustang another grin.

“…are you sure it’s not, you know, poisonous?” Mustang motioned toward the table, apprehensive as if facing a rearing tiger.

Ed scowled. “I trust you enough to eat what you cook; it’s only fair that you trust me enough to eat my cooking!”

“Edward,” Mustang deadpanned. “Clapping isn’t cooking.”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it so is!” Edward petulantly stomped his foot. “The Gate says that as long as you accomplish a certain temperature, it is so cooking!”

“I thought you didn’t like the Gate,” an eyebrow lifted in surprise, Mustang set down his jacket and slid into a seat, facing the food.

Ed prepared them three loaves of freshly baked (err, clapped?) bread, still steaming and soft, with extra-virgin olive oil with spices to dip them in. The salad was simple: spinach, roma tomatoes, red onion strips, fried onion rings, strips of fried bacon, crumbled gorgonzola cheese, with basic vinaigrette. On top was a chicken breast deep-fried with spices to seal in the taste, and then breaded (crusted with pecan sprinkles, Ed’s personal touch) and baked (err, clapped) into perfection. Then Ed cut it up in strips to make the eating easier. His meal was not as elaborate as Mustang’s meals, but he thought it was rather impressive for an amateur like him.

“I don’t like the Gate,” frowned Ed. “But my opinion or perception of it doesn’t affect in any way its accuracy.”

Mustang merely smiled, as if he had expected that. Ed wondered if he really was that easy to predict.

“I don’t know what wine goes well with this,” Ed confessed after a moment of silence. Mustang appeared to like the bread, enough to savour it slowly and carefully in his mouth. Ed sprinkled a little bit more of the spices into the olive oil dip saucer between the two of them.

“Mm,” Mustang stood and stepped over to the island, where his hand hovered over bottles until he seized one and carefully pulled it out of its little slot. With practiced ease, he opened it for them, letting Ed set out the two glasses and filling it halfway. “Chardonnay. Buttery taste. Perfect for cutting into the gorgonzola chalkiness.”

Ed swirled the wine in his mouth, grimaced when he found it was not chill enough, and clapped for their glasses and the bottle so that the wine would cool. Mustang observed his alchemy carefully; the man had expressed intense interest and fascination with it. Ed did not fault Mustang; he himself was very intrigued.

“How was work?” Ed asked now that they were settled into their food. He knew that it was futile to try and direct the conversation towards the direction he wanted, but that did not stop him from trying. And he was actually genuinely curious about Mustang’s workplace; he was slowly beginning to realize a want to see the outer world, a world beyond this house, and he wanted to see how Mustang was beyond this house. He knew Mustang’s softer, more personal faces, but that was not all of him. Ed was curious; Ed wanted to know all of him. It was only fair; Mustang knew nearly everything about him, after all.

“You’re not going to get involved with the investigation, Edward, if that’s what you’re hinting at,” Mustang wryly smiled over the rim of his wineglass, and then continued, “We were rather busy, as you might have already guessed. Hawkeye was as bossy and overpowering as usual. Things are just a little bit more… ahh, how should I say this—populous.”
“You don’t like it when other people step into your team,” that was so typical of Mustang.

“I do not like it when information is not ferried through me before action is taken. I should be the one to dictate action, but there are some people who perceive themselves competent when in truth they are not,” the stiff, condescending tone Mustang was using suggested intense dislike; perhaps a superior officer poking a nose within Mustang’s jurisdiction. Ed hated those too, the belligerent and quarrelsome idiots.

“So what do you do when you encounter people like that?” and Ed was surprised at how easy it was to make conversation with Mustang—because usually it was Mustang sparking their conversations—such that he did not even have to think too much about what he was going to say or ask. The words simply flowed.

Watching as the tension bled out of the set of Mustang’s shoulders, Ed relaxed against his seat and kept the conversation going. Talking was Mustang’s way of distraction tonight, a way of relieving his brain of the stress of work and murder cases. Ed figured that if he could not help solve the case directly by being a part of the investigation team, then he could at least help the team leader unwind at home, so that the night would be occupied by a nice, deep sleep, and the next day would surface fresh and ready.

 

 

~

 

Mustang was impressed with his cooking, though disapproving of his ‘shortcut’ methodology. Ed discarded the very word; alchemy was not shortcut. It required the same amount of work, only Ed was better at alchemy, therefore faster and more efficient. (Mustang said these were all excuses; Ed refused to listen.)

Every night, whenever Mustang came home a little bit late, Ed would cook for them, varying his dishes according to what he was reading or what he had seen Mustang cook. At times he would stop over at Gracia’s place, and Gracia would teach him different techniques, show him different dishes. Sometimes, he would even get a taste.

It was Gracia who initially gave Ed the idea of distraction. On Monday noon, before Ed had picked up that newspaper and found out about the sixth body, Gracia had told Ed about the Ishbal War and how Hughes and Mustang met. Gracia had mentioned feeling inadequate in the beginning of her relationship with Hughes; Hughes and Mustang were such close friends that it seemed to the rest of the world that they needed no one else. Hughes and Mustang were each others’ support systems. Gracia was essentially a third wheel.

But eventually, she told Ed, she found her place and her purpose in Hughes’ life. She was able to distract him from the war, and while Mustang remained the one friend Hughes sought to talk about work, she was able to teach Hughes how to begin to live life again, especially after the war.

Which of course led Ed to think: if Gracia helped Hughes, then who helped Mustang?

No one.

Mustang had no one, Ed quickly realized. This house was a beautiful house, but it was an empty house, and no doubt Mustang would have felt the stagnant loneliness pooling within these tall walls whenever he was alone at night, without anyone to talk to about the war. Sure, there would have been other friends he could have sat with, but from the looks of it, it was only Hughes who truly came close to understanding whatever Mustang went through.

Ed felt incredibly uncomfortable thinking about such things. He was unused to the practice of considering other human beings’ feelings this much, especially someone like Mustang, who was still a half-stranger to him. Barely three weeks in Central and he was already so immersed that he was worrying this much about Mustang’s wellbeing. Perhaps it was guilt, or some sort of manifestation of obligation, he did not know—but not helping Mustang in some way bothered him to his very core.

And he saw that at the very roots of this, there was his selfishness as well. It would never go away; Ed knew that it was in his blood. Just like Hohenheim, he was selfish enough to leave behind his family and pursue his dreams; today, Ed knew that he was being selfish by wanting to help Mustang. He wanted to keep Mustang healthy and happy, because by now, he considered Mustang a valuable mentor.

Granted, he could be underestimating Mustang’s resilience under stress, but every man had his limits. Even he had his limit, and he had come very close to it. (He had Mustang to thank for keeping him from that disaster, too.)

 

He voiced this to Gracia, and she did not even need to hear all of it before she said, “Just do what feels right, Ed. Trust your heart.”

Ed wanted to tell her that the seat of instincts and emotion was in the limbic system in the brain and nowhere near the chest, but refrained. He understood what she was saying, and found it incredibly amusing—and revealing—that since Resembool, he had yet to act in a purely instinctive manner. Everything seemed to be all about thinking ever since he came to Central. Perhaps it was Mustang, who discouraged impulse. Or perhaps it was simply the suddenness and shock of it that he was being overly cautious, as Gracia insisted. He did not know; he was not sure. But something had changed; he began to think too much.

Maybe Gracia is right. Maybe I should just follow what feels right this time around. Emotions are felt, after all. And that made perfectly logical sense, surprisingly enough.

 

 

~

 

Somewhere along the way of conversation, they got talking about the military generals, people Mustang particularly disliked, except for those few competent and sane ones. Mustang was in the process of deriding a certain general’s uneducated tastes in art; Edward was in the process of snickering his head off.

Apparently, two days ago on Wednesday night, an auction was held at one of the military-owned public museums. There was a general named Hakuro, who, despite obviously not having enough money to fight for a certain art piece, still went ahead and spent an extravagant amount of money on something entirely worthless. Edward listened as Mustang regaled about Hakuro’s pathetic attempts at showing the bourgeoisie just how ‘enlightened’ he was, while occasionally sipping cold tea spiked with raspberry flavour.

“But you said he’s a general,” Ed stepped into Mustang’s little rant. “How come he can’t afford the art piece?”

“Well, the… art piece—if you can call that piece of imitative junk a work of art—was going for roughly fifteen thousand marks—“ Ed choked, “—and there is just no way he can afford that much on military salary. Not with a wife and two children to support, and a house to pay for. That is three-fifths his monthly salary, and double mine.”

The calculations were quick in Ed’s head. Slowly, he blinked at Mustang and narrowed his eyes.

“So your monthly pay is eight thousand marks as a Lieutenant Colonel?” Mustang nods, and Ed continues, “But you paid more than two thousand for those clothes you bought me, nearly three hundred for food and stuff enough to last us two weeks—and I’m willing to bet the flask and the Xerxian book didn’t come cheap. Where the hell did you learn your budgeting?”

“Every month I gain more than double my salary from the park restaurant alone, Ed,” Mustang had that conniving little smile again. “The businesses I sponsor are more than enough to support me luxuriously, in truth. I stay in the military purely because of my ambitions, though of course, not many people are aware of that. To many, the military’s monetary benefit is already quite grand—and it is, by normal terms.”

“Ah, of course,” the slow drag of Ed’s tone is exasperated but amused at the same time. “Roy Mustang is far too great to be defined by normal terms.”

“Why, thank you.”

Ed scowled.

There was a stretch of comfortable silence, and then Ed piped up again, “What do you mean when you said that not many people knew about you staying in the military purely because of ambition? Doesn’t the military collect information about their employees’ properties and assets and whatnot?”

“They know I own a house and a car, but other than that, not much else.” Mustang gestured to the grand library surrounding them, towards the hall where rare and authentic paintings hung framed on the walls. “All of this is private property; I am not obliged to list it down. I am also not obliged to list private sources of income—businesses and such. They might track my movements—what I buy and where I go—but as for sponsoring the businesses, all of it is grassroots, done through personal connections. They don’t search that deep. All of them think that my financial standing is just like any upper-middle class citizen, living on a decent and marginally luxurious wage.”

“They don’t know you’re obscenely rich, is what you’re saying,” Ed had to roll his eyes. “So where does this all go if you die or something?” and for good measure, added, “Not that I’m saying you’ll die soon or anything; I’m just curious.”

Mustang chuckled. “If it were any other person, Edward, I would seriously doubt that excuse. But since you’re you, I trust your curiosity.” Ed scowled, though feeling strangely flattered. “My will has Hughes and Hughes’ family as the primary beneficiary. A few close friends also have their parts.”

Ed had expected that. Cheekily, he quipped, “Are you sure you don’t want to adopt me?” adding a little charm by giving a beatific smile. It had Mustang laughing for a straight three minutes. Ed figured this whole going-with-what-felt-right thing was not all that bad of an idea, after all.

 

An hour later and Ed found himself still immersed in conversation. He listened attentively to Mustang’s line-up of up and coming events for Central’s arts, letters, and history districts for the approaching autumn season. He had mentioned a while ago that he wanted to see more of the city, and Mustang thought it was a good idea to take him to shows and events around the place. Ed found himself eager for it.

“The annual alchemy symposium is also coming up,” Mustang said, and Ed perked in his seat. “We’ll go to that one. I think you’ll find the variety of topics the guest speakers talk of highly intriguing and educational. They’ll probably host it in one of the public halls again, but I’ve heard talk of hosting it at a preparatory school, which might be a good idea. The students—curious young men and ladies, I’m sure—will benefit from it greatly.”

That made sense, Ed thought. They desperately needed more competent researchers, ones that were genuinely interested in the science and not just the monetary or statistic benefit. The young ones were the easiest and best to pick up.
“So have you ever spoken at one of those symposiums?”

Mustang shook his head no. “I rather prefer the smaller, more intimate discussions, than the big halls. I like enabling critics to speak up against me, and consequently arguing my points with them. Besides, there are plenty of other State Alchemists eager to fill that stage.”

Ed frowned as some tension bled into the man’s countenance. Mustang seemed to greatly dislike mingling with his fellow State Alchemists, for reasons Edward can somewhat understand. Mustang was one of a kind, unique within his league; the other alchemists were probably just dogs to use for the war or slaves for some classified experimental military project. (Now if there were four words that should never appear in one sentence together, they would be those four.)

Smoothly diverting the conversation to lighter matters, Edward jested lightly, “Shouldn’t you be sending me to school, then?”

Slowly, Mustang’s eyebrow rose. “Why?” the tone was very flat. “It’s not like you need it.”

Ed shrugged. “But isn’t that what good fathers do? Send their children to school?”

Mustang gave him a level stare, and for the longest while kept quiet. And then there was a shrug, “Alright, if you so want it.” The man craned towards the desk to reach for the slim leather contact log the size of a thin portrait notebook.

“I don’t want it,” Ed refuted. “Children are immature.” That earned him an amused look. “I’m just saying!”

But Mustang was already lifting the phone to call someone. Ed glanced at the clock.

“Hey, are you serious? It’s nearly midnight; I think schools are closed now,” and nervously, he added, “And I was just joking, you know.”

“I’m calling an acquaintance and leaving a message, Edward; I don’t plan to wake up early tomorrow morning to do this call,” Mustang was dialling. “And I think it might actually be a good idea for you to go to school. It might help you with your social skills.”

“But I already talk to you so much. Isn’t that enough socialisation?” Ed was getting really anxious now; Mustang was being serious. He damned his stupid gut; he was only joking! He should have known Mustang would take it seriously.

“Well, yes, and I would like for our conversations to remain the same, but obviously I can’t be with you at all times,” Mustang gave him a doting little smile. “It must get a little boring here when you’re all by yourself, no?”

Cursing to himself, Ed watched in horror as Mustang talked to the acquaintance on the other side. (Apparently, for the other person, eleven o’clock was still early enough.) He tried to calm his spinning mind by trying to convince himself that school would not be so awful. After all, it would not be his first time attending one with other children. (He then grimaced at that thought. The day school in Resembool had been depressingly lacking for both him and Al. Hopefully, this school Mustang knew would provide better education. They were in Central, after all.)

 

When Mustang was finished, Ed barked vindictively at him: “Putting me in school makes you my father. I expect to be on your last will and testament as the sole heir—sole heir—to these books, you hear me?”

This time, he had Mustang laughing for ten minutes straight.

“And the map! Don’t forget the map! And the tapestry! And the flask!”

Mustang laughed some more.

 

 

~

 

What he woke up to on Monday morning should have been enough to warn him of the awfully harassing day he would have. Mustang gently nudged him into awareness, and waking to the aroma of breakfast and Mustang’s admittedly melodic voice would have been pleasant, except Mustang just had to say:

“You don’t want to be late on the first day of school, Edward; come, get up and get ready.”

Pitifully, Ed groaned into his pillow. He was not dealing with immature little children this early in the morning. But ugh! Mustang isn’t giving me a choice, is he, the bloody officious twit! So he began to prepare for the day.

 

The ride to the school took a lot less time than Ed thought it would, but that was probably because he was anxious. He hoped it did not show too much.

“On your best behaviour, Edward,” Mustang warned as they stepped up to a large red Victorian structure. “Try not to terrorise the children on the first day.”

Ed rolled his eyes, deigning not to reply. He observed their surroundings as they walked up the stairs to the front doors of the subtly opulent private institution. There were four floors, and the building was wide. Behind it, Ed surmised, was a garden, and if he craned his head to look to the far ends of the wide building, he could see other structures behind it. This was a huge school, more than likely catering to children from the ages of six and seven to young lads and ladies aged sixteen.

They went straight to the headmaster’s office, where the paperwork was taken care of very easily. The headmaster’s name totally escaped Edward’s memory, but he figured he would not be seeing much of the very ordinary-looking man anyway. He accepted his schedule and ran a curious and admittedly critical eye over it, and soon after that, he and Mustang were stepping out of the office. He was finally left to his own devices when Mustang had to leave for work.

“You know where to call me if you need anything, Edward. I’ll send Havoc to pick you up at three.”

And so he was left alone.

 

The schedule for his particular academic level was broken up into two by an hour long lunch break stretching from twelve noon until one. Six hours, Ed steeled himself. Only six hours for today and he would be free. (He tried his damnedest not to think about tomorrow.)

The first class was literature and writing, in a classroom on the third floor. He found himself a seat by the windows and observed as the children around him tittered and talked amongst themselves. They were all approximately his own age, eleven or twelve, but so much more immature, childish. No, he was not being condescending at all; he was merely stating the pure truth.

One of them, a young boy with dark reddish brown hair and bright green eyes, looked particularly eager to strike up conversation with him, but luckily, the teacher stepped in before that and calmed the motley crew of privileged spoiled brats. Ed sighed in relief; he did not think he could actually hold a conversation with these children.

He moved through the lesson with ease, despite not having taken the prerequisite courses. He knew the book that was assigned, and he remembered Mustang talking about it. Sparingly, he took notes, if only to practice his automail hand; he really did not need them. The class lasted an hour until ten, then came the next class, which was in a room down and across the hall. Natural sciences, Ed grinned.

It turned out to be a pretty basic introduction into chemistry (which by the way Ed learned all by himself when he was four): molecular and atomic theory. He listened, rather annoyed, as the teacher babbled onwards a watered-down version of what he had studied. At least, Ed told himself, he has the principles down correctly.

“…and the atom is the smallest known unit of matter.”

Ed’s chin slipped off his hand in disbelief.

Blinking at the teacher, he (rather loudly) protested, “No, it’s not!”

Heads uniformly swivelled towards him, and some of the smarter students (or at least they thought they were smart) sniggered at him. They were probably thinking that he did not know what he was saying, really, but wanted to sound smart. Ed scowled. No; they did not know what they were saying. They were the ones who wanted to sound smart. Stupid kids.

“I’m sorry, Mr….” the teacher had to look at his roll sheet for his name, “Mr. Elric. Did you have a question?”

“I said,” Ed repeated very slowly, “no, the atom is not the smallest known unit of matter.”

The teacher looked at him with a raised brow. “I understand you have some basic background on the sciences, Mr. Elric, but I must insist. This is an advanced version of the chemistry course, and there will be details here that might be contrary to what you have read in the past.” The teacher took that opportunity to turn to the class and impart another bit of knowledge: “It has been proven that the atom is the smallest unit of matter by a certain alchemist named—“

“—Robert Mahler, research report published 1863, under the wing of General Lucas Armstrong, yes, I know,” Edward sighed. “It was a major breakthrough, and as you said the atom was considered the smallest unit of matter until eleven years later, 1874, when Abel Montague offered the world’s first peek into the structure of the atom, consequently discovering the subatomic particles: neutrons, protons, electrons and such.” The entire class was quiet now. Alarm bells rang in Ed’s head—Mustang had explicitly warned him not to cause trouble in class like this—but he continued anyway, “Therefore, the atom is not the smallest unit of matter. What you said was wrong.”

Slightly red-faced but sufficiently cowed for the moment, the teacher swallowed and straightened himself. “Well, it appears Mr. Elric is rather well-versed in advanced chemistry. Subatomic theory, however, is something we need not concern ourselves with for the moment.” The teacher turned back to the board, continuing rather awkwardly, “Although the atom is not the smallest unit of matter, as we have… established, it is, however, indivisible, and therefore—“

“Actually, that’s wrong too,” he had tried to grit his teeth and prevent from speaking up at all, but he was just unable to ignore such ignoble instruction. Oh, Izumi would be railing at the very thought! “The atom can be divided using certain alchemical procedures.”

The teacher slowly turned to face him again, adjusting the ugly horn-rimmed glasses. “I am not aware of any published research confirming the division of an atom, Mr. Elric.”

“Well, of course,” Ed rolled his eyes. “At the moment, it’s only theoretical. Research is still in progress. But there’s strong evidence that subatomic alchemy has been around for as long as since the Persians, perhaps the Xerxians.”

Scoffing now, the teacher gave him a patronising smile. “Child, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The Xerxian civilisation thrived two thousand years ago!”

“And how does that disprove their capability to perform subatomic alchemy?” Ed challenged, but before he could launch into a nice, loud, long rant, the bell rang.

Reclining against his seat, Ed held the teacher’s stare, only letting go as the class began to move. He gathered his things into the one leather folio he carried (enough space for two pens and a notepad), borrowed from Mustang’s extra stock of stuff. He was making for the door when the teacher called out, “Mr. Elric, I would like to talk to you for a moment, please.”

Well, he could not say he did not expect that.

Heading for the front of the room, he stopped short before the teacher’s desk and stood quietly, until the flustered teacher began speaking again, “I see that you are very widely read, Mr. Elric, and rather imaginative at that. But I will have to ask you henceforth to refrain from spouting fantastic theories about science. This is a class, Mr. Elric, not a story book reading. Please watch your remarks from now on.”

Edward stood there, rather incredulous, and released a huff of disbelief.

“So you really do think I was making all that up?” he rocked back on his heels. “Sir, the theories clearly show that an atom can be divided!”

“I make the facts as simple as I can to prevent any confusion on the students’ parts,” the teacher said, holding up a hand. “And I do not contest as much the atomic division theory; but Xerxians! Surely they cannot possibly—”

Why not?” Ed petulantly demanded, stomping a foot. “Why is it not possible for them? They discovered alchemy for us! They developed it first, without our technology!”

Annoyed now, in no small amount, the teacher said, “Young man, until there is no proof or hard evidence of any such theory existing in pre-modern times, it cannot be taught as fact.”

But I have the evidence! Ed wanted to scream. He held his tongue; he was selfish. He wanted to keep that Xerxian book to himself. (And he could not very well tell a stranger about the Gate in his head, though the Gate was just about all the proof anybody could ever need.)

The teacher continued, “And on that thought, if the atomic division theory truly is sound, then why has there been no breakthrough, no successful experiment reported since?”

Obviously because you die if you do the alchemical reaction!” it was Ed’s turn to be exasperated. “You’re a chemistry teacher! You should know this! Equivalent exchange! Basic alchemy! The energy required to pull off such a massive stunt of physics is near-impossible to gather! The array would swallow the alchemist for sure!” He meant that in a more than metaphorical way. Inside his head, the Gate purred with a wide diabolical smile.

Rightfully, the teacher was taken aback at his boldness. It took a few seconds of tense silence before the teacher spoke again, in forcibly measured tones this time, “Even then, I cannot teach this to my class. There is too little support for the theory, no proof from experiment, and not enough details on the process. It is best if they focus on the conventional side of things and learn of the basic without the complicated subatomic theories.”

“You’re saying that it’s best for them to learn things the old way, the insufficient way, just because it’s easier,” Ed shook his head in disbelief. “You’re supposed to give them their building blocks! Just because the theories are advanced doesn’t warrant you condensing and editing them! What you’re teaching them is wrong, incompetent idiot!”

And that was how Edward found himself sitting sullenly in the headmaster’s office, no later than two hours into his first day of school. Mustang was going to be so impressed.

 

 

~

 

Upon stepping into the office, the first thing Mustang said to him was: “Edward, what did you do.”

The man’s tone was with such dread that Edward just had to bristle in indignation. “It’s not my fault! He was teaching the wrong things!” he stabbed a finger towards the science teacher. “He said that an atom is the smallest unit of matter. And after that, he said that an atom is indivisible, the misinformed old fart! Misconstrued, I tell you!”

Sighing, Mustang surrendered to Ed’s ire with a learned patience. “I told you this school was a bad idea.” The headmaster gave an appalled gasp.

Ed scowled. “I told you I didn’t actually want to go to school! I was just joking! And no; you said it was a good idea!”

“For you to socialise, not for you to learn from a school,” Mustang gave Ed a dry stare. “No preparatory school would be fit to accommodate you. You need a university.”

Yes, please!” Ed threw his hands into the air and collapsed back into his squishy chair. Sulkily, he refused to say any more.

“Really, Mr. Mustang,” the teacher appealed, casting a disparaging glance at Edward. “He needs to be disciplined. And I believe he reads too much of the wrong kind. Perhaps too many fantastical tales? There is neither valid proof for his subatomic theory, nor solid evidence for the existence of such in the first century!”

“Actually, I am in the process of researching several Xerxian artefacts which may contain strong proof towards the very thing,” Mustang provided gracefully; the teacher gaped. “You will pardon Edward’s assertiveness, I hope; it’s in his personality to always seek for accuracy and truth. I never discourage such… desirable traits.”

Ed threw Mustang a nasty glance; he just knew that one was a backhanded insult.

“And regarding Edward’s reading—well,” Mustang bowed his head. “If you truly think that through his reading he is ill-educated, then we have significant… ah, differences in our opinions of good and bad literature.” Mustang’s tone was casual, but his eyes were frosty and hostile. Ed thought the teacher deserved a few well-placed barbs; nobody was entitled to insult such a perfectly wondrous library as Mustang’s and get away with it scot-free.

Mustang then turned to Ed and motioned, “Come along, Edward. We’re leaving.”

“You said I needed socialisation?” but Ed was already rising from his chair.

“I can provide you with all the socialisation you should ever need,” and the matter was dismissed with an idle wave of a hand. Mustang returned to the men and bid them, “Please do excuse myself and my charge. We shall be leaving you to your classes, as I’m sure you need to attend to them.”

Confused now, the headmaster said, “Ah, but—Mr. Elric has afternoon classes, sir—“

“I am withdrawing Edward from the school. I see no point in letting him continue to take classes that are obviously far below him. As I had initially surmised, individual instruction will be for the best.”

The headmaster looked sufficiently devastated at the sudden loss of a patron. Scrambling to pull up the falling pieces, the man added, “Perhaps you would like to hire one of our private tutors, then? We do provide one-on-one instruction for the, ah, special cases.” Ed scowled; that made him sound like a retarded invalid!

“That won’t be necessary. I shall instruct him myself.”

Disbelievingly, the teacher looked at Mustang. “Not to mean any disrespect, Lieutenant Colonel, but while working with the military? Surely, your schedule—“

“—is well-managed and spacious enough to afford Edward daily lessons over a wide variety of topics and genres, as we have been doing for the past few weeks,” Ed avoided that pointed stare. “Rest assured I will give him the best education possible. Edward is also plenty capable of learning by himself. Now, if you will excuse us; my lieutenant is waiting out front.”

“Sir—I must insist,” the teacher pushed, totally unwilling to let Ed go, the bloody cow! “There is only so much a child can learn individually.”

Ed hissed in severe offence. “I learned everything I know today by myself, you know!”

Mustang sighed. “Professor, Edward is an alchemist. Self-taught, self-styled. He is more prolific than any alchemist I know, myself included—a genius hardly worthy of being trapped within conventional education. He can take care of his studies with minimal assistance. He conducts research and experimentation on his own.”

The shatter of china on wood startled all of them into silence. The headmaster had been pouring tea for himself, but had let slip the teacup after hearing Mustang’s statement.

Ed supposed it might come as a shock that somebody his age would be doing individual alchemical research. He saw the open disbelief in the two men’s faces, so he sighed and brought his hands together in a clap, using the convenient situation to demonstrate. Touching a broken fragment of the china on the floor, he watched as the crackle of light easily pieced the parts back together—and the teacup was whole again.

The headmaster was left dumbfounded, the teacher gawping. Ed happily tucked his portfolio under his arm, following after Mustang, who strolled out of the office then.

 

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Ed grinned. At this rate, they were going to play the blaming game for days, maybe weeks, but Ed was going to relish every moment of it. After all, such an abundance of opportunities to tell Mustang, “I told you so,” was not so easy to come upon.

“That doesn’t justify shaming the teacher in front of his students, Ed.” They stepped out into sunlight, Mustang guiding him towards the car. “Consider people’s pride a little bit, will you?”

“Be thankful that I even consider yours,” grumbling, Ed quieted down as Mustang instructed their chauffeur to some restaurant nearby for lunch.

After finishing with Havoc, Mustang returned to Ed and said: “Why, thank you, Edward. I’m glad to know that I’m that important to you.”

“Bastard,” Ed spit, wrinkling his nose. “Besides, you only said I couldn’t terrorise the children; you didn’t say anything about terrorising the adults,” his cheeky grin said it all.

 

 

~

 

The rest of the week was spent uneventfully, except for one incredibly tiring dinner with the Hughes household, wherein they (excepting him) spent the entire night laughing at and regaling his scholastic misadventures. Ed knew they did not mind his oft scathing attitude towards incompetent fools (goodness knows Mustang was just as ruthless) so he did not bristle when they poked fun at him. He scowled at Mustang, though; the man was making it look like it was entirely his idea, when in truth it was not.

That aside, he spent his days buried gratefully within his books. Two mind-numbing drone hours inside that posh prep school was enough to ensure his forever-lasting loyalty to the privacy of the library and solitary learning. He was glad to find that with renewed fervour (and with less talk of uncaught serial murderers), he could make more progress on his research. Bit by bit, he was beginning to unravel the flask using the Xerxian book. The flask itself would not take long to decode, if he kept going at the same rate; the next challenge (a challenge he so truly looked forward to) would be to piece apart and analyse the Xerxian tapestry. The Persian book he would leave to Mustang; the script was closer to Xingese than it was to Xerxian, and damned if he was going to let that torture him when he could let Mustang take his place.

 

On Saturday afternoon of the same week, Mustang wound into the library’s massive shelves and retrieved a slim little book for him. It was obviously a new copy of the book, with the cloth cover in excellent condition. (Then again, very few of Mustang’s books were in deplorable condition; they were treasures, and he was sure as hell Mustang spent money on keeping them alive and healthy.)

Wordlessly, Mustang handed him the slim book, and wordlessly, he accepted it. The cloth cover was black and red, with the title embossed on the side and front: “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

“...it’s not some fairy tale, is it,” he deadpanned.

“Do I seem like the type who reads and collects fairy tale books, Edward?”

“Yes.”

A pause.

Mustang coughed. “It’s a book on political philosophy. You’ll gain much from it, I’m sure. Every good and sane politician must and probably have read it. I deem it essential to success.”

Ed raised a brow, “So you’re letting me into your trade secrets? How unnaturally trusting of you, Bastard.”

“Ah,” Mustang said, “but that’s just it. They aren’t secrets at all. In fact, most of that book is common sense expanded into scenarios. The philosophy in that book is nothing new—it has been around for centuries before that was written, and will continue to exist onwards. But the catch—”

“Let me guess,” Ed cut in, flipping open the book and replacing the ribbon marker from somewhere in the middle to the first page. “Not everybody can do it.”

At that, Mustang smiled what Ed thought was a proud smile. Ed could not help the feeling of warmth when Mustang reached over and ruffled his hair; it felt comforting, familiar. Safe.

Home.

“It isn’t that long,” Ed shrugged. “I’ll finish it by tomorrow.”

Mustang nodded, “Then tomorrow we will discuss it. Be sure to take notes; I’m certain you will have plenty to tell me afterwards. And you can keep that copy; it’s yours.”

Ed watched as Mustang disappeared into the kitchen to begin preparing for dinner. No doubt they would have something extravagant once again tonight; Mustang liked having fine food just as much as he did making it. Ed could not find fault in this, not when he too was beginning to settle into the habit of being fed great food on a daily basis. He made a note to begin running laps around the house to burn some of the energy off. Granted, his brain worked and burned twice as much as most other people’s brains, but he had no desire of becoming fat. It would be extremely embarrassing if he fell out of shape and ended up unable to fend for himself like so many of those brains-only alchemists his teacher Izumi so loathed. She saw them as imbalanced souls, unsightly and disgusting. (He did not want her disgust. Her disgust had the tendency to be rather painful, not to mention fatal.)

Attention gravitating away from Izumi’s fists and back towards Mustang’s dinner, Ed rested his back against the long couch, watching as the last of the sun’s rays slanted through the tall library windows and cast the shelves into a most stunning colour of burgundy fire. The nooks and crannies of the house—especially the library and the kitchen—were now so familiar to him that he was completely free of the edge that accompanied him every time he was apart from Resembool. Even Dublith had been foreign to him, and remained foreign throughout their two-year training. Home was Resembool and their mother, and nothing could change that. Or at the very least, he liked to think nothing could change that.

He closed his eyes and sighed. More and more these days, however, he would catch himself thinking ‘home’ whenever he was inside Mustang’s house, or outside and thinking of the house. He would feel the edge of the inborn subtle paranoia dulling whenever Mustang was around, vanishing whenever they were both home.

Ugh, there it goes again. Home.

Absently, he wondered if the Gate had somehow messed with his mind even more than he had thought it did. The Gate bristled, though, as if an offended cat woken from its sleep by its master accusing it of destroying a piece of furniture it had not touched at all. Ed sighed, and, feeling ridiculously insane while doing it, began to pet the Gate back to sleep. It was kinder when it was asleep and generally incapable of spitting insults.

He decided to return to his newly assigned book and began reading the introduction. In the end, he could find nothing wrong with feeling safe with someone in the world, someone else outside of his family. Mustang was trustworthy, though a Bastard at times, and kind. (Kind of.) Intelligent, generous, a good cook, filthy rich. Ed considered himself so bloody lucky; if things were to change into something different, something less than what he had now, he would cry.

...well, crap. I have become a self-consumed ass.

But as Roy often said, humans were made to be selfish. Otherwise, there would never have been an existing and persisting concept of self within the human being.

 

Perfectly sound logic.

 

 

~

 

“...and he made me walk a billion times back and forth the tailor’s shop, like I was some sort of show!” Ed spluttered to a very amused Gracia. Hughes and Mustang laughed to each other over a game of chess; tonight, Ed was helping Gracia prepare them dinner for four-and-a-half. (The baby inside Gracia was greedy.)

Earlier in the morning, they had stopped by at the tailor’s shop to pick up Ed’s finished clothing (and shoes, from the tailor’s shoemaker brother). Another week had passed in silence since he was given the Machiavelli book. Saturday was a good day for the tailor to have finished the clothes, Roy had said; they had plenty of time to make sure things were in order. Ed had not understood what that meant until much later, when his feet were aching and his back was hurting from all the stiff walking and training Mustang mercilessly put him through.

The clothes had fit dashingly, except Mustang had claimed that he had a graceless drag to his walk and a lazy slouch to his back. Thus began a torture session, through which Ed was introduced to the many intricacies of grace and mobility combined in one atrocious, hurtful form, also known as posture.

By the end of the painfully long day, he had modelled all of his new clothes and walked just about one thousand five hundred twenty-something times back and forth across the store’s back room. By the end of the painfully long day, his gait and sway swung like Mustang’s. He was not amused.

“My body’s not even obeying me anymore!” he whined to Gracia, who patted his shoulder in a comforting manner. “My legs walk like the Bastard now!”

“It’s good for you, Edward,” she assured him. “The right posture will ease tension from your back. Since you read a lot, I’m sure you slouch over your books, so you mustn’t do it too while standing.”

“And besides,” Mustang began; Ed threw him a dirty, disgusted glare, “a certain element of your gait gives away your combat experience. The posture training will hide that. It’s always an advantage to have people think of you less than they think of themselves. It’ll be easier for you to catch somebody off-guard.”

“Paranoid Bastard,” Ed spat, sulking over his curry. The sauce was still steaming; he blew on it. If he had known that the one week of comfortable, perfect quiet was payment for this Saturday’s horror, he would have ensured that each day of his week had been disturbed by something, if only to avoid this. He did not like this, thank you very much.

 

But Mustang insisted, so he had to continue. Over the week, whenever Mustang caught him slouching or dragging about, Mustang would snap and singe a sleeve to snap him out of his inattention. The bloody Bastard was a slave-driver!

Ed frowned through Monday, grimaced through Tuesday, scowled through Wednesday, and ground his teeth at Thursday. By Friday afternoon, he tired himself out by rebelling and so he was docile and compliant. Mustang was triumphant; Ed could not find the energy to snarl at the Bastard for flaunting it.

 

Saturday night, nearly a fortnight after his scholastic misadventures, Ed was having dinner as per routine with the Hughes household and Mustang, when a call from the military came in the middle of dessert. Greedily polishing the custard cake off his plate, Ed allowed Hughes and Mustang to handle the call, remaining glued to his seat. No amount of persuasion was going to separate him from Gracia’s cooking, not tonight. He was so pleasantly full and sated that it felt like heaven simply staying gracelessly slouched against his chair.

However, when Hughes motioned Mustang up and gave a quick peck to Gracia’s cheek, Ed rose from his satiated stupor. There was tension visible in the corners of Hughes’ eyes, and he was not the only one to pick up on it. Gracia and Mustang both noticed immediately, Mustang stiffening up and rising briskly from the table. Gracia took everything in stride with the grace of an experienced military wife, but Mustang was obviously not all too pleased.

Ed jumped in. “Hold on. Where are you going?”

“Work, Ed,” Mustang’s words were clipped. “You don’t have to wait up for me. Stay inside, alright? I’m sure Gracia can use some company for the night. We’ll be back by morning, hopefully.” Ed was about to rise from his chair, but the heavy hand descending to ruffle his hair was heavy, as if intent to hold him in place, secure and safe.

Smiling, Gracia followed, “You’re welcome to stay the night, Edward. We have a spare room. I’ll feel much better if I know you’re not all by yourself in Roy’s house.”

Ed watched as Mustang slipped gracefully into his jacket and followed after Hughes towards the entrance hall, all the while checking for his State Alchemist watch. Ed watched and felt the tension brimming under his fingertips—and suddenly, through lightning-quick deduction, he knew.

“There’s been another murder,” he frowned, stopping both men in their tracks just as they were about to step out of the door. Outside, there was already a military car parked and waiting. Immediately, Ed strode after them. “I’m coming with you.”

“No.”

The snap of reprimand was quick and abrupt, stuttering Ed’s steps. With a scowl, he faced Mustang squarely.

“Why not.”

Mustang’s jaw tensed, perhaps at his boldness, but Ed was not backing down. Ed had faced Izumi and survived; he could face Mustang.

“This isn’t for you to worry about, Edward,” Mustang’s tone was forcibly imbued with calm. Ed was pushing the right buttons, alright. “Stay here. You’re safe here.”

“I can take care of myself!” he snarled indignantly. “Why won’t you let me help? I can help! You know I can help. Those murders, they have something to do with alchemy, and nobody’s figured it out yet. Maybe I can figure it out. You’re the one who keeps saying I’m a prodigy. Have you lost your faith, now?”

As if physically struck by the words, Mustang stepped back, regarding him with critical eyes. There was concern there, plain for him to see, and Ed appreciated that, he did—but he wanted to help, and he wanted Mustang to let him. Because, as much as Ed wanted to deny it, he now sought Mustang’s approval before stepping into anything, and he would not be able to put a toe beyond the line if Mustang said no. This was how much he respected the man now; this was how much obedience he was willing to give.

“He is a genius, Roy,” Hughes quietly added, after a taut stretch of silence. “He might give us the break we need. We need it even more so now—this is the seventh victim, and if we don’t act fast, we’re going to have an eighth before we know it.”

Mustang’s expression was grim, but defeated. Ed knew that Mustang knew that he could help the investigation immensely if he was allowed, only Mustang’s paranoia and overwhelming concern kept the man from allowing him on board. It was as if he was a baby, Ed thought, and Mustang was a first-time father. Mustang was afraid that somehow he would crawl off and fall overboard.

“Look, you can keep me as close as you want,” Ed insisted, stepping up closer and grasping at Mustang’s second thoughts. “You can keep me within your sight at all times. I won’t wander away from your watch. And I have my alchemy with me wherever I go—you know that. Let me help. Please.”

It was another three heartbeats of silence until Mustang finally surrendered. Jaw still clenching, Mustang took Ed’s jacket from Gracia’s hands (how Gracia knew Mustang would eventually cave in, Ed had no idea) and draped it around Ed’s shoulders. Ed slipped into them as Mustang began citing out instructions.

“You are not to say anything unless you are asked,” Ed nodded along, “and if you are asked, you will not give out important information. Tell them you are my charge, and nothing beyond that. If they insist, tell them to talk to me.” Mustang took him by the shoulders, and continued, this time with a heavier emphasis, “You are only a consultant; you have no jurisdiction with this case, so you must ask permission before touching anything. You stay with me at all times, do you understand? At all times. I don’t want you out of my sight. There is a great chance that this killer is watching the investigation from somewhere nearby; I don’t want you too noticeable. Keep your head low. I want you safe.”

“I understand,” Ed pushed certainty and alertness into his voice, if only to convince Mustang that there was no need to worry so much. Ed had to admit, though, that he was pleasantly flattered that somebody cared for his safety with such intensity.

He walked along as Mustang steered him, a shoulder under hand, towards the military car. Behind them, Hughes was bidding Gracia a good night, and promised he would call first thing in the morning. Havoc was again the one driving them. Immediately as they stepped into the cramped car space and the vehicle began moving, Havoc launched into a quick briefing, through which Ed picked out about an entire list of new information he had not found in the papers. The military really was thorough—or at least, Mustang’s team was.

 

A ride that would have taken thirty took ten minutes as they sped through the mostly empty roads, and before long, they were stepping out of the car again, into the cool shroud of night. Further down the road, there was a cluster of soldiers in uniform cordoning off an area by a corner alley. A coroner was standing by, but was looking incredibly bored; the man must have stood there for quite a while now, waiting for the military to be over with the scene so he could collect the body.

Ed approached with the smallest bud of trepidation seeding in his chest. As promised, he kept close to Mustang; he had no wish of wandering too far away.

Havoc cleared his throat from behind them, casting a doubtful glance towards Ed. The man removed his cigarette and said, “Permission to speak freely, sir.”

Blinking, Mustang turned the slightest fraction towards Havoc and pre-empted, “If you’re wondering about Edward, he’s with me. He might be able to help with the investigation. Pull the other men away; I want only my team and Hughes’ people on the scene tonight. We’re more than enough. Have whoever else is spare guard the periphery and patrol the neighbourhood.”

“Yessir!” Havoc turned sharply on his heels and sprinted towards a uniformed personnel Edward presumed was the captain of the lower-ranked soldiers.

“Come on,” Mustang said, ushering Ed forth. They made their way through the small throng of people, and when they got there, the sight that welcomed Ed was something else entirely. He had to turn around and take four steps back the way they came, a hand clapped over his mouth in an effort to push his rising bile back down. The papers had definitely been censored.

Ed could feel Mustang’s heavy gaze on the back of his neck, but before Mustang could say anything—most likely to ask if he was alright—another soldier, perhaps one of Hughes’ men, approached them and announced that inquiries into the missing persons database had turned up with no results. They had an unidentified body—an unidentified dead child—in their midst.

“Have you checked the recent reports from the smaller precincts? From today, perhaps,” Hughes asked. “You know there’s a lag time before they get into the general registry.”

“I took the liberty of checking for that, sir,” a diminutive young soldier in thick-rimmed black glasses piped up. To be involved in such an investigation at such an age, Ed figured the young soldier must have some sort of specialty or talent. He looked like he was in Mustang’s team. The young soldier continued, “None turned up. Nobody’s reported a lost child of around this age today.”

“So the parents have yet to notice that he’s missing,” Hughes deduced. “But how unlikely is that? It’s nearly twelve midnight. Most parents would be worried, wouldn’t they?”

“Not if they think the child’s tucked into bed and asleep already,” the blonde lady with two guns pointed out. Ed knew she was the faceless but formidable Hawkeye, ever-present in Mustang and Hughes’ workplace stories.

“Or if the child has no parents and family. A street kid,” Havoc was back now, fumbling anxiously for a missing lighter. When he could not find it, Mustang reached over and snapped, lighting a minute fire at his gloved fingertips. Havoc thankfully lit his cigarette, obsessively puffing as if he felt he would die without the smoke. “We can’t rule out the possibility; there hasn’t been a pattern from the past seven kills. Anything’s possible, right?”

Mustang was about to agree and perhaps issue an order, but Ed stepped in.

“No,” he said, calling everybody’s attention. “No; that kid has a family, I’m sure.”

Ed’s eyes happened to pass over Hawkeye’s face at that moment; there was disapproval tight in her eyes, as if Ed’s very presence irked her. Steeling himself, Ed glared right back.

Hawkeye began, “With all due respect, sir, he—“

“—is Edward, my charge, and will be helping with the circle tonight.” Mustang sighed, “I know, Hawkeye; I didn’t want to take him either, but he insisted.”

“And Ed’s an alchemical genius!” Hughes exclaimed, as if that was enough of a reason for his presence. Ed agreed; it was more than enough. “He already has something to contribute, see? You were saying, Ed?”

The corner of Ed’s mouth twitched, but he could not bring himself to smile. The very reason was right before them, sprawled on the bloodied cobblestone side-alley. “I know this kid,” he declared.

Mustang’s arm jolted beside him, as if to keep him away; it was indeed alarming that he knew the seventh victim of the very murderer Mustang was investigating at the moment. It could mean anything, but it could also mean that he could be targeted.

Continuing nonetheless, he peered at the victim’s reddish-brown hair underneath the mat of blood. “He went to the school. That school you put me in,” Ed looked up at Mustang, who was wearing an expression of surprise, and then back down at the head. “He tried to talk to me, but the bell rang, if I remember clearly.” After a pause, Ed added, “He had the most vivid green eyes I’d ever seen,” though he did not exactly know how that little detail was important in the bigger scheme. His instincts were roiling underneath his skin, however; there was something about the eyes… “Hey, weren’t the eyes missing from the other corpses too?”

Mustang nodded. “They eyes and the overall thematic of the array are the two things that connect this murder to the other ones, in truth. This body is intact; the other ones were decapitated first.”

“What’s so different about this sacrifice?” Havoc was wondering aloud, probably, but it piqued Ed’s attention.

“Sacrifice? What—like a religious sacrifice?” he rounded the body, carefully keeping away from the chalked array. The last thing he wanted was to activate it by accident. It was foolishness to activate a circle without first knowing what it could do.

“Well, the other bodies—except for the first one—were all decapitated, with the body thrown aside, and the head placed in the middle of this strange array, which I’m not sure even works. It certainly doesn’t look normal to me,” Hughes shrugged. “At first we thought it was just an individual, except the array style differs with every kill. The fundamentals remain—missing eyes and decapitation (except for the first one and this one). Oh, and the salt rubbed on the neck, for the decapitated ones. Well, after seeing how each murder’s array seems to have a certain unique touch to it, we thought that maybe it’s done by a cult, except they do it one by one.”

“The people in the cult might be competing with each other to see who can do an altogether cleaner, worthier sacrifice,” said another soldier who had all along been standing in the corner. The man had grey hair (strange, Ed thought) and slightly slanted eyes, but was clearly not of Xingese descent. “There are a number of cases where members of a small organisation—religious, mostly—try to beat each other at some sort of game where they use the victims as prey or sacrifices. Whoever wins gets to lead the organisation, so goes the common theme.”

Ed stood there and stared at the body, as if intent to ingrain the very image into his retinas. But in truth, he was looking inwards, rearranging the basic details into a table, piecing them together and pulling them apart in an attempt to see a connection. Hawkeye was saying something in reply to what Havoc had said—about this one being a different sacrifice—but Ed was not listening at all.

The things he knew for certain went such:

The standard from the second to the sixth murder was decapitation. There would be salt rubbed on the neck where the head was severed from the body. The body would be cast aside, nearby but far enough to indicate that it was not necessary to whatever was being done. The head would be in the middle of the circle. The eyes would be missing. The circle would be the same thematically, but some of the sigils and scripts placed and strung differently each time.

Ed fell into a squat, observing the body up close. The empty eye sockets gaped up at him. His stomach roiled, but he ignored it. (He was not going to give up Gracia’s scrumptious dinner.)

This body was intact; the seventh victim was whole. The eyes were still gone, yes. But the body was intact. The array subtly different, the body placed in the middle of the circle.

(With the head.)

Ed jolted at the Gate’s voice in the very back of his mind. It was but a faint whisper, a one-time thing, but it was there.

With the head, the Gate had pointed out.

With the head.

 

Mustang was issuing orders to interview residents and frequent passersby of the area for any possible witnesses. It was a long shot, but Mustang was anal that way; the man would not let the slightest detail rest.

Well, neither would Ed.

“It’s not a cult,” Ed declared, halting everybody else’s respective conversations and pulling attention to himself yet again. The grey-haired soldier opened his mouth to argue, but Ed raised a hand and amended, “I’m not arguing against the established fact that there have been cults with members operating individually, and yes, at first sight, this serial case might seem like that. But it’s not.”

He rose from his squat.

“The papers I read at home didn’t have information on the first body, because they didn’t think to equate it with the rest of the five murders after it,” he tucked his hands into his pockets, “but I’m going to hazard a guess.” Mustang was listening. “The first body was intact, but the face was cleaved off. It was placed in the middle of the circle like this one. The eyes were not missing—or at least, not all of them. Bits of them were probably left there, if your forensic people do their job well enough to see them.”

Havoc let out a low whistle. “You really didn’t tell him, did you, Boss?”

Mustang shook his head no. Hughes just had a curious little smile, as if he had expected all along that Ed would accurately put things together.

“Did you take photos of the circles from the first murder onwards?” as soon as he finished his sentence, the diminutive bespectacled young soldier had a folder containing the pictures ready. Ed murmured his thanks and said to Mustang, “You can tell the coroner to take the body now. Poor guy’s been waiting for forever.”

 

Ed moved towards the car, where on its hood he laid out the photographs chronologically as they were labelled from the first to the sixth one. Mustang’s team and Hughes followed after him; Hughes’ team began clearing out the body with meticulous care to avoid tripping the circle.

For a few moments, he simply peered from one array to the next, quiet and unmoving, except for the flick of his irises. Mustang and Hughes both knew to wait, but Havoc was getting impatient, and the diminutive soldier was fidgeting in the silence.

And then Ed let out a bark of derisive laughter. Havoc nearly dropped his cigarette; the diminutive soldier jumped, affright. “No wonder you were confused!” Ed exclaimed to Mustang. “Whoever this idiot is, he fucking sucks!”

Language, Edward,” Mustang reprimanded, but it was half-hearted. Mustang was more curious than anything. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“Look,” said Ed, pointing to a certain string of script on the first array. He then moved his finger to the second and third one: there was a new collection of sigils added. On the fourth was another string of script, on the fifth and sixth narrower baselines for the circle in general. “Don’t they look familiar to you? They should.”

Mustang pushed Hughes aside and squinted closer, looking back and forth between the pictures. And then he rose, with an incredulous face. “Four,” he said. “Four. Why did I not see that.”

“What?” Hughes pressed. “What? What?”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Ed absently patted Mustang’s arm. “The idiot fucking sucks. It’s his fault for being so stupid he’s barely intelligible. You’re just too smart for him, that’s all. He could have done this the modern, simpler way! Was he so stupid that he didn’t even realize that? He didn’t need to use four different Xerxian theorems and piece them together—which, by the way, he does so clumsily it’s a surprise the bloody thing works at all.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Hawkeye had an irritated look on her face. Her hand was inching towards her gun.

“One person did this, indeed,” Mustang nodded now, launching into an explanation for the less alchemy savvy people. “And whoever it is wished to seem arcane and—exotic, for the lack of a better word, by using Xerxian arrays: a very old, very difficult style to master. Perhaps he wanted to hide himself too by not using his usual alchemical style, but I think it’s more of ego.”

“Except he sucked,” scoffed Ed, crossing his arms and turning his nose up at the arrays. “Still sucks.”

Mustang had a fond little smile to offer Ed for that remark. “Most of you aren’t versed in alchemy, so you might not know this, but the Xerxian style is nearly extinct. There are very few people who can use it, let alone master it. I can understand it, but not as much as Edward can.”

“He knows this old alchemy too?” Hawkeye was surprised. Ed somehow felt he was being judged because of his age yet again.

“Edward uses it. On a regular basis,” Mustang’s voice was still incredulous, even though the man had already repeatedly seen Ed’s alchemy. Maybe Mustang was incredulous because he had seen it repeatedly. Ed knew he was that awesome.

“See!” Hughes grinned. “It was the right decision to take him along, after all! I told you so.”

Mustang threw him a passing glare.

“So why did the Boss not see it at first?” Havoc asked, perhaps a little tactlessly.

Edward explained, “Xerxian is very similar to old Amestrian, which is the basis for the modern alchemy. Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish between them—particularly in this case, because the Idiot pieces together different parts of different systems, instead of just using one cohesive system. If he wanted to do this the true Xerxian way, he would’ve had to make his own Xerxian circle from scratch, which he probably failed to do, so he looked up premade theorems and took the pieces he needed, gluing them together in some—amateur collage.”

“Give it a rest, Edward,” Mustang smiled indulgently. “Not everyone is as smart as you.”

“So what does the circle do, exactly?” Hughes asked. “In plain language, please.”

“Well,” Ed looked at them again, “they cleave out the eyes.”

There was then a permeating silence that cloaked over the group.

“But—weren’t the eyes taken out by scalpels? The eyelids are gone,” the grey-haired soldier pointed out.

“No—I looked. The sockets didn’t even have striations,” and it was during times like these that Ed found himself immensely grateful for the biomedical background he had from living in close proximity with Winry’s family. “The cut is too precise, too perfect, to be done by human hands. Or machines, for that matter. The only thing I know that can cut that cleanly is alchemy.”

He repressed the urge to clutch at his shoulder, but his automail hand twitched nonetheless—the bloody thing was sometimes far too sensitive—and Mustang saw it. Thankfully, the man said nothing.

“This still doesn’t prove that it’s not a cult,” the grey-haired soldier pushed. “Why the salt?”

“Of course,” Mustang nodded. “The salt is there to keep the blood in the head. It encourages clotting, so the blood doesn’t bleed out entirely when the head is separated from the body.”

“Because if the blood bleeds out entirely, the eyes are damaged, and the bloody fucker—an eye collector!—doesn’t want that,” Ed could not help it; his face was contorted in a disgusted snarl.

“He collects eyes,” Havoc’s tone was flat, disbelieving. “He killed all of those people for their eyes.”

“Certainly what it seems like,” Hughes sighed. “But we haven’t a way to get him, even if we know the why and roughly the who.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Ed turned to Mustang, tugged a pen out of the man’s jacket pocket, and snagged a piece of paper from Hughes. “Have your people search the library logs for whoever borrowed these books in the last few months or something.” When he finished writing the short list of commonly known Xerxian references, he handed it to Mustang. “The libraries do keep logs, right?”

“Why, yes, they do,” Mustang passed the list to Hughes, who passed it to one of his people to spread it. Hopefully, Ed thought, by tomorrow they would have enough leads to begin arrests and individual investigations into the most probably suspects.

He stood quietly aside as Mustang and Hughes both finished up. The clean-up squad came to scrub the blood and chalk off the pavement, now that the body was retrieved and the forensics had had their run over the place. It was only now that Ed noticed there were people peering through curtains and windows from the surrounding townhouses. The first floor shops and establishments were darkened, closed, but he was willing to bet that there were people in there listening. He scowled. He was glad that he had kept his voice low.

Soon enough, Mustang was separating from his team with a few last minute instructions, most of them for Hawkeye. Havoc was already waiting in the car; Mustang approached Ed with Hughes following along.

Ed looked up at Mustang and said with a self-satisfied little smile, “I helped, didn’t I?”

Mustang rolled his eyes, but the pride was heavy and warm in his hand, and Ed could feel it when said hand ruffled his hair and came to rest on his shoulder. “Yes. Yes, you did. Thank you.”

 

 


tbc
arc II chapter 06 ver.1-02
first draft: 2009.10.24
last edited: 2009.10.24

Chapter Text

 


II : Debut
07

 
 

“The individualist anarchist recognizes nothing above his ego and rebels against all discipline and authority, divine or human. He accepts no morality and when he gives himself to the feelings of love, friendship, or sociability, he does so because it is a personal need, an egoistic satisfaction—because it pleases him to do so. He does not completely reject cooperation; he argues that cooperation is essential for the fulfilment of some needs. But he contends that only the individual of their own definition is capable of genuinely forming a voluntary association with others.”

 

~

 

Crouched over the desk with a pen in hand, Edward growled at the piece of paper that was well on its way to becoming the bane of his existence. With how much suffering he was going through, he was in no position to feel even the tiniest shred of pity for the paper’s very visible pain. He stared at its scribble-laden, messy surface for thirty more seconds, before—“GAH,”—stabbing it vindictively with the expensive pen he had in hand. Crumpling it up in one swipe, he viciously lobbed it towards the general direction of the fireplace and then collapsed into his couch.

“Edward, how many times have I told you not to do that?”

“Ugh, please, not now,” sliding down to lie on his side, rubbing the back of his neck to alleviate the tension there. “I’ll listen to you later,” he mumbled.

“Such a shame, Edward,” Mustang sighed, cleanly shifting aside a finished sheaf of military paperwork, “that your… towering genius is defeated by a measly little letter.”

Ed just knew that was a stab at his height.

“If it’s giving you that much difficulty, why don’t you use the tried-and-tested formula?”

“What formula?”

“Well, for starters, how about telling him that yes, you’re still alive, and no, he doesn’t need to rush to Central on the next train to gather your bones? Ask him how he’s doing, like how any normal person would begin a letter.”

“Oh,” Ed said. “That.”

“Yes, Edward,” Mustang smiled. “That which your brother would be most pleased to know. You can leave the alchemical theories for later.” Ed scowled. “In fact, I highly suggest against sending any important data through the post; it’s not as trustworthy as we would hope. Just another thing that needs to be corrected for when I become Fuhrer.”

“Of course. It always comes down to you, your paranoia, and your mighty ego,” spat Ed, pulling out another sheet of paper and rotating the pen in his grasp. Al, he began, I’m writing this from Central, and yes, I’m safe. He had long since decided against ‘Dear…’ and such pleasantries; they took up too much space, and he sucked at them anyhow. They were a waste of time.

Writing to Al was something he had only recently thought about (which shamed him, of course) but he couldn’t help it: he had plenty to distract him. Mustang had only reminded him of it when on one occasion, they were talking about array architecture, which Al was exceptionally good at. He had contemplated first on calling home, except he didn’t think he was ready to face up to his mother (who would no doubt answer the phone if he did call home) or, for that matter Winry, who would answer if he called the other house. Besides, writing a letter gave him a much-appreciated leeway—a distance that would help him organise his ever-messy thoughts.

Slowly, he trudged through the words, picking and choosing what he wanted to tell and what he wanted to keep. Never had it been so hard to talk to his brother before, but circumstances were awkward at the moment. All things considered, he was still a runaway.

He made sure to mention that he was staying with The Grand Bastard, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang for the while—and it reminded him of Hohenheim and Mustang’s... relations, but he gingerly skirted that. (Al already knew about it anyway.) Talk of Hohenheim was unpleasant to him at the moment; it left a bitter taste of betrayal in his mouth, and not because his father had walked out on them, but because somehow somewhere along the way, he too became just like his father: a traitor.

This bitterness, however, was something he took in stride; he looked it in the eye, swallowed it up, and steeled himself for the next turbid dose. It was his rightful payment, a compensation he had to pay in exchange for this freedom he now enjoyed. He just hoped that wherever his father was, Hohenheim too was enjoying the same bitter draught. (Hopefully the bastard was dead in some cold, muddy ditch somewhere in Drachma.)

Realising that he had paused mid-word, he rotated the pen in his left hand grip again and continued penning the letter. Now he was apologising for the sudden departure and the delay in contact. With careful words, he explained what Trisha had said that had made him leave. The note he had left behind was less than substantial at best; if anything, his brother deserved a full explanation.

This was the best I could think of, he told Al. I couldn’t not do alchemy; I’m sure you understand. It’s all I know.

Perhaps he was being uncharacteristically open, but this was Alphonse anyway; ultimately, it didn’t matter. Al could read him like an open book.

He was more than relieved when the train of thought segued away from himself and towards his circumstances. Picking up his pace, he happily relived every single moment of his memory since he stepped off of the train from Resembool. Storytelling was something he was usually rather sloppy at, but just with this one instance, he put extra effort into making it an experience for Al, who would no doubt be dying of curiosity and of that inadvertent tinge of envy). He made sure not to hold back on anything, evident by the sheer length of his satisfying expository diatribe of none other than Mustang the Bastard. He severely needed the outlet; he was sure that Al would understand. (It doubled as a warning too, for the eventuality that Al visited Central. Forewarned, after all, was forearmed.)

Taking no notice of the time, he only came to realise of the late hour when the grandfather clock’s repetitive chiming broke his concentration. It was midnight; he and Mustang both had burned half the night away whittling at their work. Thankfully, he was nearly done; he added a few more details (Mustang’s office and home numbers, Hughes’ too just in case, a reminder to use code words and to never reveal too much in the reply) before signing his name at the very end.

Just as he rose from his slouch, a steaming mug of chai with milk was placed beside his arm on the desk, and Mustang settled across from him with a small smile. “Are you done?”

“I think so,” Ed bit his cheek, looking down at the eleven-going-twelve long pages of his tiny, spiky script. He gathered them up, put them in order, numbered them, and awkwardly handed them to Mustang. “Could you see if it’s alright?”

Mustang quietly accepted the sheaf and began reading, all the while sipping the hot drink. Ed gave his own mug a sniff and a sip as well, in that order. For the last two days, he had grown quite addicted to this beverage. Mustang had introduced it to him when they’d stopped once at a small coffee shop Mustang frequented during the mornings on the way to the Headquarters.

Warily, he eyed the man for any response at all. As usual, disapproval was something he wished to avoid, and he still did not know why. It was as if his psyche had somehow adopted Mustang as some sort of surrogate father figure within the last month or so that he had been in Central. There was something unsettling in that thought. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to a father so kind in comparison to Hohenheim, whose absence was the only thing he had remembered about a father since he was little. But at the same time, there was always a wash of comfortable warmth, a feeling of safety and contentedness with Mustang. He wondered if Al would feel this too, were his little brother here.

 

He sighed, shaking off such melancholic thoughts and retrieving another blank sheet of paper to pen a short note to Winry. Much as it saddened him, he had no faith in his mother at the moment—there was no guarantee of Al ever seeing the letter if he sent it directly home and Trisha saw it first. She could read it, or hide it, or even burn it—he didn’t know, and he wasn’t risking it. Winry, on the other hand, would be sure to hand it directly to Al as long as he told her to. She had always been the more emotionally aware of the three of them since childhood. She would understand.

Just as he was shifting to the note’s second line, Mustang chuckled, pursed lips suggestive of suppressed laughter. Ed narrowed his gaze: “What.”

“A ‘perfectly grand egomaniac,’” Mustang met his gaze with eyes dancing of amusement. “Why, I wasn’t aware that you thought of me so highly, Edward; thank you.”

“It was not a compliment.”

“I am aware,” and again came the silky shrug, “but I shall take it as such. My, are the next three pages solely about me? I must admit, I am rather flattered.”

“SKIP IT.”

“Oh, but I won’t be able to evaluate your letter with confidence without reading all of it.”

“You need no further addition to your already far too bloated ego, Bastard!”

“My ego can never be too bloated, Edward; it simply is,” the Bastard reclined against the couch, legs crossed, and with a sense of extraordinary superiority about him. The air was so thick with it that it took all of Ed’s effort not to choke on its density. Mustang continued, “If I seem too bloated to you, then it’s probably just me not coming up to my own expectations.”

Fucking hell, Edward thought to himself. He sank into his couch as he listened to Mustang’s intermittent chuckles and uncensored remarks of shameless self-glorification. The Gate snickered inside his head, evidently amused—but he was not! He forced himself to return instead to the note he was writing to Winry—

“Am I truly the first to keep up with your theories, Edward? Oh, how lonely you must have been all those years!”

—and tried his very best to temper the urge to forcibly shut Mustang’s flapping orifice—

“Aren’t you so glad we met? It must have been fate!”

Suffice to say, he had to try very hard.

 

When he finally finished writing the note to Winry, he grabbed a random piece of expensive stationery from Mustang’s stash—dark blue with silver lining—and transmuted it into an envelope big enough to fit the folded pages. With care, he printed the names and addresses on the front as Mustang finished reading the eleven-and-something pages’ worth of script.

“It’s perfect,” Mustang smiled, handing them back to him. “Absolutely perfect; you need not change anything.”

“Of course you’d think so,” Ed snatched the letters back and stuffed it haphazardly into the envelope. Mustang had offered to take him tomorrow morning to the post office, after which they would stop at Mustang’s favoured cafe to have brunch. “Where else are we going tomorrow, after food?”

“Stationery shopping,” Mustang said, finishing the now-lukewarm cup of chai. “I need to restock, and you need your own stock for your research.”

“But it’s Saturday tomorrow. Don’t you have work in the morning? I’m sure I can go to the post office on my own, as long as you show me where it is. I’m not that directionally challenged,” and he didn’t want Mustang to spend even more money on him yet again.

“I’m not letting you out of the house alone, Edward; not while we’ve yet to catch that eye collector,” there was a sour note to Mustang’s tone at the mention of the serial case. A stretch of heavy silence, and then Mustang shrugged, “Besides, I can use you as my excuse so Hawkeye won’t force me to the Headquarters tomorrow. Saturdays are actually overtime; she claims that it is rightful compensation for my wasting half the week feeding birds.”

“You feed what?”

“Birds, Edward. Those feathery flying creatures you see from time to time if you ever took your eyes off your books and glanced outside the window—”

“I know what birds are; I’m asking why the hell you would feed them at work!”

“Well, they’re certainly more amusing than paperwork from Douglass. My window stares across the courtyard at this old tree, you see, and quite a number of birds choose to nest there. Did you know that crows can purr? Like cats!”

Ed rolled his eyes, smoothly sealing the envelope’s flap. For someone with such distinguished rank and honour at an early age, Mustang was actually rather lazy, and a very prolific procrastinator. The way Mustang did it was almost an art, if it weren’t for Hawkeye and her trusty guns trashing his style.

 

Cleaning up his mess took less time than he expected, and when he was done, he sat back and sipped at his drink, deep in thought. His eyes remained on the solitary blue envelope rested on the tabletop. What would Al think of what he had written? Would it be sufficient? Mustang had given his approval, and that was a good thing. But Al was Al. He would think of things differently for sure.

And Ed didn’t even know if Al would still talk to him. He sighed, throwing his head back and closing his eyes. For all he knew, Al could be infuriated with him; his little brother had always hated being left behind. But he couldn’t very well run off with Al and leave their mother alone in the countryside, could he?

Well, yes, I could, actually. Granny and Winry would be there for her.

Yes, he could have run off with Al to Central, and they could have been here now, together, doing research, if it hadn’t been for his selfish impulsivity. On that sunny afternoon when he left Resembool, he had wanted to take himself as far away and as soon as possible from his mother’s hateful, condemning eyes. He hadn’t even stopped to think of his brother then, to be honest. When faced with the grave consequences of what he had done (a taboo, a sin out of misled love), he recoiled as if bitten by a rattlesnake. He ran off to nurse his wounds, to let the poison bleed out slowly, away from the origin of pain. This was him. This was his cowardice. He was a loving son, a pathetic brother—more than what he thought he was, less than what he wanted to be.

“I think I’ll go to sleep now,” he declared.

“You should. Long day tomorrow.”

He left his near-empty mug of chai on the tabletop and went to bed with the feel of the grit of betrayal underneath his fingernails.

 

 

~

 

The dreams had started bothering him not long after they had found the seventh body. They weren’t much, really—just a lapping, warm darkness against his skin. Occasionally there would be a flash of light; at once an image, a circle, a glyph—but oftentimes they didn’t make sense, and it was fine that way. Dreams weren’t supposed to make sense anyway, except on the rare occasion that they did. On those days, Ed tended to be irritable beyond imagination; he had these foreboding dreams more than other people did, and he had a niggling suspicion that this was another one of the parasitic Gate’s damnable side-effects.

These dreams weren’t nightmares, not just yet; he didn’t wake in the middle of the night screaming the house down. No; normally the darkness would simply fade away into the grey of the morning, when inevitably he would wake to the beckon of Mustang’s breakfast cooking.

So it was again today, except what beckoned him to awareness was the warm hand resting atop his forehead, steady as if to calm his wandering mind. Wordlessly, he blinked up at Mustang, who sat on the edge of his bed.

“Dreams bothering you?” the man asked, brushing aside his fringe. Ed found himself briefly awkward with the affectionate gesture, but he shrugged it off.

“A little bit,” he rose from the sheets, if a little sweaty. His clothes for the day he already had prepared the previous night; he only had to wash up. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I’m sure,” Mustang’s tone was wry, but Ed thought nothing of it. Mustang was wry many times during the day.

Ed swung his feet over the side of the bed and made his way into the bath, gathering hair off of his shoulders where they had spilled out overnight. He had yet again forgotten to take the tie off before collapsing into bed. His hair was longer than what he was used to; normally he wouldn’t have to put it into a high tie anyway. Until he won against Mustang in a game of chess, he would have to put up with its length.

“You know,” Mustang began again, “Hohenheim used to say that dark dreams are highly conducive to the overall health of one’s psyche.”

Ed gave a snort. “How is this, exactly?”

“He said that dark dreams are the mind’s way of relieving the volatility we try to keep tightly lidded in civilized society. Violence and aggression, shameless sexuality... things that our stiff-backed mores preach against—and most people listen, for fear of being ostracized. But as human beings, we need an outlet for them, and if we don’t grant them that outlet, eventually, they will overcome us,” Mustang explained. “Hohenheim posited that the mind is ingenious enough to create its own outlet in the form of dreams—perhaps not as satisfying as unleashing one’s anger upon its true item, but enough to keep one sane.”

“Or insane,” dreams were porous, tricky things; Ed knew better than to trust them with the certainty he reserved for facts.

“Or that,” Mustang conceded. “But according to Hohenheim’s supposition, a mild-mannered, passive person would have violent dreams; the vilest, most dreadful murderer would sleep like a babe.”

Ed emerged from the bath, hair tie and brush in hand. “Are you calling me a mild-mannered, passive person?”

“Hardly, Edward,” Mustang gently stole the brush from Ed’s slightly fumbling automail hand. “You don’t scream the house down in the middle of the night, after all.” With meticulous care, Mustang began brushing Edward’s hair straight down his neck and back, past the shoulder, pulling stuck strands out of the shirt’s collar and from behind the ears.

From time to time, Edward felt like a doll of Mustang’s, something to dress up and prettify. Of course, he never complained; as much as he was awkward with the affectionate doting, he loved it, and he basked in it. Growing up, he had never been the spoiled one; there were two of them, him and Al, and there had only been their mother. Trisha had loved him, but she had always been closer to Al, perhaps because they were more alike. Trisha had loved him just as she had loved Hohenheim; loved, but never truly understood.

 

The doting continued well into the rest of the day. Mustang took him on a tour through the other side of the neighbourhood, one that he had only been to once before, on that night when Mustang had fetched him from the train station. Under the bright morning light, the place looked even livelier, with more people milling about. This was the Historical District, Mustang explained to him, and the big street they were driving on was the East 3rd. Mustang’s house was still within the boundaries of the Historical District, in the residential areas a little more than five minutes away from the main street.

Quickly, they stopped at the post office, parking the car in front and to the side of the road away from the trams. The trams ran along the seven main streets of Central. Three of the seven main streets formed concentric circles radiating outwards from Central Plaza, while four of them passed through Central Plaza to bisect the circles into eight parts. The city itself was constructed similar to how the skeleton of a basic alchemical circle would be constructed, which Ed found typical of Amestrian city planning, and rather amusing.

Inside the post office, they had to stand in line. While Mustang’s silver watch could have ferried them easily past the queue, they both decided to err on the side of caution and desist from associating the letter with Mustang’s name. It was for the letter’s safety; they wanted to keep it from ending up in one of Mustang’s playmates’ hands.

Ed took that time to observe his surroundings, captivating as they were. The post office and its surrounding buildings were all of the Romanesque style, inspired by the architecture of Rium, a city in the far western country of Viteliu. He remembered from his early reading days that Viteliu was once only a weak country under the shadow of the then looming Creta, but now, it was one of the three powerhouses of the western continent, alongside Ailia and Francia. During the Dark Ages, Viteliu was the western world’s one light, serving as a centre of innovation and art.

Of course, even back then, Amestris was scientifically superior to Viteliu. But while trapped in a particularly bloody bout of fighting with Drachma, Amestris, financially chained, couldn’t show its superiority. It wasn’t until the earliest beginnings of the Age of Illumination that Amestris began to shine as the centre of western science and technology.

 

They left the post office a few moments later and hurried for food. The cafe itself was also within the Historical District, as with most of Mustang’s haunts. Ed could see why Mustang loved this part of the city. There was an atmosphere of dignity and tradition that came perhaps with the age of the structures towering around them. Past the Riumi section were the grand and intricate Gothic structures: it was as if he was being led through time itself as they drove further uptown towards Central Plaza.

Lunch was quick, consisting of delicious sandwiches made with freshly baked bread and robust coffee roasted especially for them. The entire time was spent discussing history and art, and between the two of them, there never was too much conversation.

Afterwards, they walked down and across the street to the stationery shop, leaving the car parked by the cafe, where the owner had agreed to watch it. Ed didn’t think that there was a high risk of burglary or vandalism in this part of the city, but he decided to indulge Mustang’s paranoia. He needed to walk his meal off anyway.

It was then while following Mustang on foot that Ed realized just how many people were about. Absently, he wondered if this was how Central looked like on normal days. The people were no longer afraid to step out; it was as if the eye collector was completely wiped from the populace’s memory.

The entire thing was irrational, Ed thought. The leads Mustang’s team had gotten from the library logs had prompted several arrests over the past week, but none of them were concrete, and he knew from what Mustang had told him that most of the suspects in custody were mere pseudo-alchemists—wimpy myth hunters—blindly probing into Xerxes’ past. The military had yet to announce a successful capture or elimination of the serial killer, and yet the people were already forgetting about caution, haphazardly walking about with no care for their own safety. They were practically begging to be killed. Granted, it was broad daylight, but the eye collector could very well abduct his victims during the day, while it was easier to blend into the crowd, and there were more victims—more eyes—to choose from.

Look at them,” Ed tugged at Mustang’s arm as they turned into a smaller, less crowded street. The stationery shop was situated at the corner where the main street met the smaller one. “They’re having picnics with their children while a killer is lurking out there—and they have no way of defending themselves! Don’t they read the papers?”

“They do, Edward; they just can’t read very well,” Mustang’s tone was dismissive. Ed wondered if he should take that to mean that Mustang already had a plan in place. Knowing how paranoid the Bastard could be, there probably was a plan in place. “The people see what they want to see; it can’t be helped. They’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the news of arrests being made.”

“The military’s not doing anything about it?”

Mustang stopped and laid a hand on Ed’s shoulder, gently turning him around. “Look,” the man spoke low into his ear, “that young man over there. He’s a soldier—civilian clothing.”

Ed stared. “Is he your subordinate?”

“No; I don’t know him.”

“Then how do you know he’s a soldier?”

“By the way he moves,” and Mustang had that air of superiority again, except Ed could no longer be bothered to try and temper it. “I can see that he’s been trained. The Military Academy is painstakingly thorough with its cadets.” With the hand on his shoulder, Mustang steered him away from the main street and towards the shop. “There are many more of them on the streets every day and night. Uniformed soldiers have also been increased in number; it’ll put pressure on the eye collector. Before long, he’ll slip up and show himself to us—and the best part about it is that we won’t have to do a thing.”

“Lazy Bastard,” Ed had to sigh. “We don’t even know when or where he’ll kill next.”

“Soon. Serial killers tend to escalate; very few of them have enough self-control to hold the urge. Those few are the ones we don’t catch, and he’s not one of them. He’ll move again within two more weeks or so. Until then, we’ll just have to be patient. As for where he’ll kill next, hopefully we can force him out of his normal boundaries. The less variable control he has, the better it is for us.”

“You sound like a cat hunting a mouse,” snorted Ed.

Mustang gave him a wry smile, “Something like that, yes—though I’d prefer to be a bigger cat, if you don’t mind.”

“But how can you hunt a mouse when you’re a fat cat? It’ll outrun you.”

“...big, Edward, not fat. There’s a distinction.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Yes, there is.

“No, there isn’t”

Yes, there is.

“No, there isn’t! The cat is big because it’s fat! It’s a flawless deduction, and you know it,” Edward was smugly grinning to himself (the image of a fat Mustang cat was too hilarious) when they stepped into the shop. The scintillating scent of fresh paper assaulted Ed’s nostrils, and almost instantly, the tension waned from his shoulders. He gravitated eagerly towards the mahogany shelves against the wall, where there were sample stacks of all kinds of paper, from ordinary trade to the most expensive kinds of decorated stationery.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

Ed jumped, turning to the deep, booming voice to his left. Upon turning, he had to tilt his head far back to see the other person’s face. The man was a typical Amestrian, down to the brilliant blue eyes and pale blond hair, except the man’s build was massive. Ed was (unpleasantly) reminded of Sig, his teacher Izumi’s husband, from Dublith.

“General Armstrong, what a pleasant surprise,” Ed had to admire Mustang’s fearlessness as the man casually stepped forward to shake the General’s proffered hand.

“Indeed! I rarely see you around these days, Lieutenant Colonel. You must come and dine with us once. My wife will be very pleased to have you over; you know how she’s taken a liking to you. Take Hughes and his beautiful wife along as well,” the General gave a friendly pat on Mustang’s shoulder. And then, surely enough, the General turned to look past Mustang’s shoulder and gazed at Ed with piercing blue eyes. “And who might this young man be?”

“Ah. Edward, meet former General Lucas Armstrong, one of my acting superiors back in the day.” Ed swallowed his intimidation and stepped forward, meeting the General eye to eye. “General, this is Edward Elric, the elder son of one of my alchemical mentors.”

“Lucas Armstrong—as in Robert Mahler’s sponsor, Defender of West City, the Lucas Armstrong?” Ed had to gape, while Mustang took the opportunity to explain his current circumstance.

“Edward is staying with me while he remains in Central for his research,” the Bastard said. “I thought his talent would be severely wasted if he were to suffer East City’s horrendously lacking libraries.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the General nodded gravely. “East City’s libraries are rather depressing.” Then, addressing Ed directly, the General asked, “So the young man has interest in alchemy! What field are you hoping to conduct research in, Mr. Elric?”

“Subatomic alchemy at the moment, sir,” Ed awkwardly replied. “I’m hoping to build upon what Mahler and Montague had already established.”

“Very good,” the General nodded approvingly, giving Edward’s shoulder a pat with one hand. He had to tense his muscles to keep his knees from buckling under the large hand’s force. “Rest assured you are in capable hands. The Lieutenant Colonel, unlike the rest of the military these days, is very caring of his subordinates,” Ed had to struggle to keep a straight face. “Work hard and you might be able to achieve the same heights as Mustang here, maybe even pass the State Alchemy exam within a few years’ time!”

But before Ed could say a thing, Mustang wryly interjected, “Oh, I think he’s plenty qualified to take the State Alchemy exam next year, if he wishes to, sir.”

“Ho,” the General raised both eyebrows in surprise. “That skilled, are we?”

“Careful with your expectations, Mustang. Set them too high and you might just face disappointment,” from the back door leading further into the shop’s stock room, a tall, blonde lady emerged in full business attire. She was followed by another blond man of similar stature and facial features as General Armstrong, if younger.

“Brigadier General,” Mustang inclined his head to the lady, and then turned to the other man. “Major.”

Edward blinked and inched just a little bit closer to Mustang. It was quite obvious that the lady and the Major were both Lucas Armstrong’s children. The physical similarities were undeniable. Their entire family is in the military? And the daughter’s a Brigadier General! Wasn’t Lucas Armstrong’s father also a General? What is this, a fucking dynasty?

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang!” the Major smiled, grasping Mustang’s hand with fervour. “It is always a pleasure!”

“Promoted again?” the lady sighed disbelievingly. “The last time I was here, you were only a Major like my brother—and even then, you commanded your own battalion, which was unprecedented of such rank. No wonder people suspect you of foul play. The way you brush through ranks is unorthodox, Mustang. That annoying face of yours doesn’t help either.”

“Well, I can’t help it if I’m so fabulous, can I? I was born this way. Besides, orthodoxy is overrated,” and there was again that beatific smile.

The Lady General merely shook her head in disgust, a sentiment Ed could understand, before redirecting her attention. “Mr. Elric, was it? Mustang seems to be expecting a lot out of you. You’re capable of performing transmutations of State Alchemist class?”

Ed gave a lopsided shrug. “You would have to tell me what State Alchemist class means. I just transmute as I go. I don’t really care much for ranks and stuff,” he tried to be formal with her, but he just couldn’t, not when she was treating him rather informally herself. General Armstrong didn’t seem to mind, as the elder man stood there and listened with an idle smile.

“Typical,” she said, casting her eyes skyward, before gesturing towards her brother, the Major. “You and Alex and all of your kind—alchemists—you hold so much potential, and yet you never even think of using it in a worthy way!”

“Worthiness is relative,” Ed retorted, a frown tugging at the edges of his lips. For some reason, her words grated at his nerves, even though the tone of it was congruous to Mustang’s usual spiels about power. He must have gotten used to the Bastard after a while of cohabitation.

Their little exchange was broken by Lucas Armstrong, who expectantly offered him a blank sheet of paper. “If you would indulge an old man’s curiosity, Mr. Elric, I would like to see a small demonstration of your alchemy.”

Perhaps the General wanted to see him draw an original array, but Ed had another thing in mind. He turned to Mustang for permission, and, when he was given it, calmly brought his palms together, feeling the now familiar spark of energy crackling against his skin. There was a brief rush of blue light illuminating the shop when he touched the sheet of paper still in the General’s hand. He watched and guided the reaction as the sheet smoothly folded itself into a simple paper crane. It was one of the earliest reactions he had learned long ago when he was a child, but it was by no means simple. The reaction itself was quite complicated, as it concerned molecular displacement, instead of the recombination process common with typical reactions.

The blue light ceased as the reaction waned, leaving the paper crane sitting primly atop the former General’s palm. The expression on the Major’s face was of pure admiration, which Edward had to admit he was a little uncomfortable with. (It was too pure. It sparkled.)

“Is everything alright?” the shopkeeper stepped into the shop from the inner storage, alarmed. “I thought I saw a flash of—Master Roy! I wasn’t aware you were—I do apologise for not attending to your needs immediately; Chantal and I are both preparing General Armstrong’s orders, sir. Why, you could have given us a call and we could have prepared your usual set in advance!”

“It’s quite alright, Marc; I’ll need more than the usual, anyway,” and no doubt this shop too was another one of Mustang’s investments. The man practically owned the entire Historical District. The cafe they had their lunch at was also another one of Mustang’s shops. Ed inwardly sighed. Perhaps from now on it would be wiser to assume—as much as he hated assumptions—that every single shop Mustang introduced to him an investment.

“We were simply having young Mr. Elric here demonstrate a little of his alchemy, my friend,” said the General, setting the paper crane on a nearby coffee table. “I hope you don’t mind me borrowing a sheet of your sample paper.”

Assured that everything was going well, the shopkeeper returned into the storage room, calling for somebody named Isabel to come down and entertain the customers. Once they were again left alone, the General turned to Ed and remarked, “That was an exemplary reaction, Mr. Elric. You would no doubt be an invaluable addition to Central’s research specialists.”

“I still think using gloves with circles is akin to cheating,” dismissed the Lady General, to which Ed had to scowl, even though it was more of a jab at Mustang.

“I don’t use circles,” Ed retorted. “I don’t need them.” He raised his gloved hands to the Lady General’s eyes for inspection, and then took off the gloves to reveal that he had no tattoos or any such trick to his alchemy. Inside his head, the Gate too bristled, as its gift to Edward—the ability to transmute without a drawn circle—was similarly insulted.

The Armstrongs’ attention was, however, called by the gleam of polished automail. Mustang laid a hand on the back of Ed’s neck and sighed, “What did I say about being careful with information, Edward?”

“I’m sure they can keep secrets,” Ed shrugged, putting his gloves back on. “I mean, they’ve not revealed to anyone else how much of a real Bastard you are,” he gave Mustang a wide grin, “have they?”

General Armstrong laughed, but the Lady General remained quiet, eyes sharp with something Ed could not define. The Major was still gazing at his right arm, now more than aware of his automail. And then, much to his surprise, the Major straightforwardly asked, “Mr. Elric, did you perhaps perform human transmutation?”

There was a quiet pause.

Ed looked the Major in the eye and thoughtfully tilted his head. “Human transmutation isn’t the only way to lose a limb through alchemy, Major.”

Sensing the dismissal plain in Ed’s tone, the Major lowered his eyes and conceded, “Of course. You’re right.”

I always am, Ed huffily thought to himself, and was heartened to find the Gate huffily agreeing with him.

 

The more than just a little tense atmosphere would have quickly become uncomfortable had they not been interrupted by noise from the stock room. A young girl of about seventeen or so walked through the door from the back of the store and approached them with a smile. Ed was busy huffing to himself to hear her greetings, but he did register Mustang’s voice. The Bastard was (imperiously) requesting for the usual stock, and something else called a basic researcher’s set.

As explained to Ed, the basic researcher’s set consisted of three kinds of writing paper, four styles of letter paper, two types of tracing paper, two types of mapping paper, and two types of drawing paper. All of it was for him. He was free to pick what kinds he wanted for each subset, and was also allowed to sample each kind with pencil, pen ink, traditional quill, and colour paint. (Mustang added that they actually allowed customers to test with their own pens, if the customers brought them along.) The mapping, tracing, and drawing papers originally came in rolls, but they could also be ordered in standard letter-size. And of course, since Mustang was a regular of the shop, they kindly included a ream of plain trade paper for miscellaneous use. Scratch paper, basically.

“They also offer binding and printing, in the eventuality that you write your own work and wish to publish it,” the Bastard informed him as he was choosing between two different kinds of writing paper for the last of the three slots. He took a while to finish picking for the entire list, by which time the Armstrongs’ packages were ready to be paid for.

Soon, they were bidding each other a good day, with the Armstrongs taking their leave. The Lady General took the car keys, while the Major easily carried three heavy boxes of paper out of the shop. The former General, however, did not immediately leave. Instead, Ed found himself held by eyes of incredible depth acquired only through years of a fully lived life.

The General said to him, “I see great potential in you, Mr. Elric. I can see why Mustang here holds high expectations of you. I myself hold similar expectations. Your technique is obviously born of a talent that comes along only once in two generations, maybe even more than that; I have never seen anything like it, and trust me, I have seen quite a lot through the many alchemists I have sponsored in my career. I can say with certainty that you will one day become a great pillar for this country, hopefully alongside the Lieutenant Colonel, who will no doubt reach high ranks in the foreseeable future. Whenever you are in need of any assistance whatsoever, know that the Armstrong family’s doors are always open for you.”

Ed struggled against the urge to look away. Upon his shoulders was a heavy, insidious film of pressure; it was expectation, and it was not a small amount. It took him an absurd amount of self-confidence to keep looking the General in the eye—an amount of self-confidence he wasn’t even aware he had.

“I’ll see you again, Mr. Elric. Until then, keep yourself safe,” and then the General turned to Mustang to say, “You too, Lieutenant Colonel. Good luck with your latest case. Do give me a call so we can set a date and time for dinner later this week, eh?”

With that, the former General took his leave. Mustang lowered his head a slight degree in a gesture of respect and gratitude just as the General stepped out of the shop.

 

When they were finally left alone, Ed released a momentous breath and sagged against Mustang’s side. Mustang ruffled his hair and laughed a little. “Look at you. You’re already gathering your own set of loyal sponsors!”

“Let’s not do that again anytime soon,” he groaned, reaching a hand to press at the junction of his neck and right shoulder. The muscles there were taut, pulling painfully at the automail’s port. He would have to be gentle on his arm for the rest of the night; though the wounds were mostly healed, they could easily rip open, if he pushed himself.

Mustang took a seat in an armchair at one corner of the shop, where there was a sitting area. “I understand that the General is rather intimidating at the beginning, but he is a kind man. You shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself. They won’t spite you for being casual. It’s better if you keep away from pretention and just be as you are. They value integrity and honesty in a person far more than they value knowledge and culture—though of course, having those as well would be preferable.”

“Of course,” he didn’t need Mustang to tell him that. He wasn’t stupid. He simply was unused to such heavy expectation placed so suddenly upon his shoulders. With Mustang, he was more comfortable; between the two of them was a more tangible connection. But General Armstrong was a man he only just met, and yet...

Is my alchemy truly so remarkable?

He couldn’t help but wonder. The Gate stirred from where it had been napping—six people, it told him. In the entire history of western alchemy, six people, including him, had been capable of grasping the enormity of the Gate’s knowledge without succumbing to insanity. Only six people were found with the skill of transmuting without a circle. Against hundreds of thousands of alchemists in the western continent, that was a very small number.

(You’re special because you have me.)

The Gate inside his head was a conceited little piece of shit.

No; I’m special because I can stand you—because I survived you. Twice.

It hissed at him, before curling up and settling down again into its little hole in his mind. It allowed him to play with its strands, and he freely sifted through its information, picking at threads and pulling out images. Indeed its presence in his mind was somewhat... defiling, but he was growing used to it. The benefits of having the Gate far outweighed its consequences—and besides, he had rightfully earned this information by surviving his two trips into its bowels.

For a moment, he wondered if it was only because he had gone twice into the Gate that this piece of it in his mind had a distinct personality and an individual will. Perhaps the double trauma had reinforced it into his consciousness a little harder than the usual. (Just a little.) But after a moment’s consideration, he dismissed the thought; the Gate really was just a piece of shit by nature, and there were no two ways about it.

He was removed from his reverie by the shopkeeper’s voice. Their packages were ready to go. Mustang momentarily left the shop to drive the car over so they could load the boxes easily in. (“We should have just taken the car with us,” Ed sighed.) While he waited inside the shop, the owner offered to show him their selection of writing implements—and Ed didn’t even try to resist. When Mustang returned, he had a handful of pens, pencils, and three quills (with inkwells) ready to be added to the tab.

 

 

~

 

It took them little time to get home. Upon arrival, Ed attempted to help carry their purchase inside, but Mustang sent him along his way, and so he prepared for them tea, which they both enjoyed later on.

Ed sat sprawled on the floor in the library with their tea, gazing at a map of Central spread before him. With his eyes, he traced the East 3rd street, from Central Plaza all the way until it terminated before the front steps of Central’s train station at the East End of the city. He could see the rails sprawling out from the station, branching this way and that; some of them skirted around the city to head west, some headed further east, and others made their way straight north or straight south.

Leaning back, he absorbed the big picture, now made even more cognizant of the city’s shape. It was truly like an alchemical array taken straight out of a basics book. He knew that this map of Mustang’s was the latest and most accurate of all issues, and as he gazed at the seven main streets, he found them immaculately straight, as if they were drawn with a ruler, much like how an alchemist would draw array chords. Even the canals were made to guide the river straight down along the 4th street, all the way from the northwest to the southeast, where it split into two smaller canals. The only instance where the straight canal was diverted was where it reached and skirted around the edge of Central Plaza, only to return to the original straight line.

Different colours were used to shade different sectors of the city, and Ed eyed the Historical District, shaded in tones of sepia. He spent the next half-hour studying the map as Mustang read a book nearby, only stopping when he felt the tension gathering painfully at the middle of his back. He straightened his slouch and stretched his neck, gingerly massaging his shoulder where it met the automail port.

“Is your arm paining you still?”

Ed gave an absent hum, still probing at the knots with his flesh fingers. It was hard to apply enough pressure to them with the awkward position, but it was the best he could do.

“Come here,” Mustang gestured him over.

Ed turned and stared.

“Come on.”

Curious, Ed half-crawled towards Mustang’s armchair. He was made to turn around and sit facing away from Mustang. Fingers began pressing into his back, and almost immediately, Ed groaned in relief. Mustang’s fingers were very accurate, and as they probed around the edge of the automail’s metal plate, they released knots he never even knew were there. His head lolled to one side as Mustang pressed a thumb into the junction of his neck where it met the right shoulder, and within ten minutes, Mustang had him pliant and nearly purring.

Only at one point did Mustang press near the automail that Ed hissed in pain, and it wasn’t much. Mustang must have had intimate education in the anatomy of the human body; no amateur would be able to do such thorough work worthy of a professionally-trained masseuse.

“Are you taking post-surgical medicines?” Mustang asked after a while of quiet kneading.

It took a moment before Ed realised that he was being asked a question, as boneless and dazed as he was. “Drugs? No. Why?”

The Bastard—not so much of a Bastard at the moment, yet again—moved fingers to press at precise points on his neck. Head tipping forward, he let a sigh of pleasure slip past his lips. He desperately needed this massage. So gone was he that he barely heard Mustang say, “Don’t you think your wounds are healing a little too quickly?”

“Mm,” he had been wondering when Mustang would notice the abnormally quick recovery. He had told Winry and Pinako that he would force himself to scale the year-and-a-half—maybe even two years—of rehabilitation for his kind of injury within six to eight months. But at this rate, he was going to reach full recovery within four months or less. “I’m not really sure myself, but I have a strong feeling that the accelerated healing is also because of the Gate.” He shifted forward as Mustang dragged twin lines of pressure parallel his spine. He could feel each muscle uncoiling as the fingers passed them by, to be followed by a warm palm kneading in tight little circles. Mustang had real skill for this.

“...you mean to say that the Gate has influence on you even when you’re outside of its realm?” as usual, Mustang was very perceptive. The man grasped at his ideas with such ease that sometimes he had to wonder if Mustang himself carried a piece of the Gate inside of him. (That could explain the pure egotism the Gate and Mustang shared.)

There was a stretch of silence, within which he struggled against his persisting dilemma. He had yet to decide whether he should tell Mustang about the Gate’s existence within his mind. Because of his respect and affection for the man (which he had already given up on denying), he felt an intense pressure to be honest and forthcoming, just as Mustang was honest and forthcoming with him. He however feared rejection, not knowing exactly how Mustang would react to the news. Having a disembodied foreign voice in one’s head wasn’t exactly the definition of sanity.

Mustang’s hand nudged at the side of his neck, so he opened his eyes and lifted his head from where it came to rest on Mustang’s knee. Nimble fingers undid his hair tie and allowed his hair to fall into a cascade of gold. The same fingers slipped into the strands and began gently massaging his scalp, to which he could only reply with a sigh of bliss.

It took a while for him to regain attentiveness, even after the massage was finished. He remained sprawled against Mustang’s leg as the Bastard sipped tea and patiently waited for him to wake. When he finally did, he felt pleasantly boneless—and in his total relaxation, he threw caution into the air and simply declared, “I have a piece of the Gate in my head.”

 

In the stretch of silence, Mustang did nothing but look him in the eye. The scrutiny should have unsettled him, but it didn’t. Mustang’s eyes were dark and serene, thoughtful—Ed could see that Mustang was carefully deliberating on his words. More than likely, the Bastard was struggling to understand how such a thing could even be possible.

“This... piece of the Gate inside of you, it doesn’t influence you?”

Trust the paranoid Bastard to ask first that question.

“I wouldn’t say it doesn’t,” Ed shifted easily against Mustang’s leg. “It kind of does, but indirectly. It doesn’t have control over my movements or thoughts or anything like that—not even my alchemy. All it does is stay there, because I own it.”

“You own it,” Mustang echoed.

Ed nodded. “I rightfully gained it by surviving the Gate. I think that whoever sees the Gate is given the bounty of information that the Gate has—which is a lot, so most people don’t remember it, like Al—”

“—or they don’t survive.”

“Or that,” Ed agreed. “The information itself is a piece of the Gate that I keep, except mine kind of has a personality? I don’t know why.”

“Perhaps because you saw it twice,” suggested Mustang, much to Ed’s amusement.

“I was just thinking that earlier, when it was being cheeky,” he laughed quietly. “Those unfortunate souls who survived the Gate but went insane—I think I know exactly what drove them past the brink.”

Mustang was quiet again, deep in thought, fingers still half-tangled in his hair. Ed fought to keep his tongue still, watching a pair of birds flutter about. He itched to talk, to fill the silence, anything to divert Mustang’s attention away from the Gate, if only to delay Mustang’s rejection of him and the parasite he hosted.

“So basically, this piece of the Gate is influencing your healing—accelerating it, because your body is its host,” and Ed had to grin. Mustang really was impressive with induction.

“I think so,” Ed shrugged. “It apparently doesn’t want to die yet.”

“It doesn’t want you to die yet. Perhaps you amuse it,” his landlord only gave him a lopsided smile and gently gathered his hair all to one side.

Ed looked up at Mustang in wonder. From the day of their first meeting, this man had boggled his mind, and when it was decided that he would stay with Mustang, he had hoped to be able to unravel a little bit more of the man. But it seems he wasn’t even close to scratching beneath the surface, perplexing as the man’s behaviour was. Or was he only being fooled? He no longer knew. Summarising Mustang hurt his head; he didn’t think it was possible. This endeavour to unwrap the man would take its time.

“You don’t think I’m strange with the Gate inside me?” the question slipped his lips on a moment of thoughtlessness. When he realised what he had said, it was already too late.

But his worries were all unfounded, it seemed, when Mustang blinked, and then gave a little laugh. “Oh, Edward, you are strange, even without the Gate—but brilliantly so! I would despair if you became anything less!”

Brow twitching, Ed huffed in mock offence. It was, however, impossible for him to deny the bloom of warmth in his chest at Mustang’s acceptance of all that he was—and the underlying acknowledgement of all that he could be. The Gate’s presence changed nothing between them; no matter the circumstance, in Mustang he had somebody to talk to.

Throughout the rest of the night, he couldn’t help the smile occasionally bowing his lips at the comforting thought.

 

 

~

 

Fidgeting in acute discomfort, Ed adjusted his cuffs for the fifth time during their short ride. Beside him sat Mustang, who quelled his fiddling with the touch of a hand, attention unwavering from Hughes’ story. The two were once again engrossed in a political conversation, but he was more preoccupied with the bloody cufflinks. If only he could figure out a way to loosen them, what such peace of mind it would bring him!

Already crabby as he was, Ed harboured extreme displeasure with his situation. The bloody cufflinks were evil, and the cuffs, they wanted his fucking soul. He hadn’t gotten much sleep from last night (fucking vainglorious Bastard had had him model countless different attires for today) and this truly wasn’t helping his mood. On top of that, the Gate had thought it would be fun to give him its own version of a dreamscape joyride—he had woken early in the morning with a pounding headache from the overload of information as a response to his excitement for the event.

They were on their way to the alchemical symposium, which was to be held in an institution of learning for scientifically-attuned young men and women. A preparatory school, in fewer words, for future State Alchemists. Ed disliked the very idea.

The principle of it was flawed from the beginning. Whatever gave them certainty that they could train good alchemists through a school? The fundamentals of alchemy were better learned through singularly focused and thematically consistent individual education. Contrary to popular belief, the basics were not easy or simple. They were important—arguably the most important—of all of one’s alchemical education. The fundamentals, after all, would serve as the basis of all of the alchemist’s practice.

But of course, the military would profit more from a school, which, in contrast to individual education, could produce a greater number of alchemists at a faster rate. Never mind that they were mediocre at best, mostly only marginally capable; the military needed its cannon fodder.

Though technically privately funded, Mustang had told him that the institution attracted the favour of many prominent military men. Accomplished alchemists were also known to frequent the place to find themselves lab assistants and even apprentices. And of course, the students were always most zealous in competition amongst themselves, if for the coveted title of top student. Alumni were by far the most provident of donators.

Soon the car came to a full stop. Ed hadn’t even noticed the passing of time, distracted with his thoughts as he was. Mustang was already stepping out of the car and giving the concierge a smart nod; he quietly followed suit.

There they stood before a gorgeous Georgian structure, its red bricks vibrant against the white-paned windows. In front of the school was a primly manicured garden, a splash of verdant refreshment for the guest’s eyes. Upon the front steps were pillars, reminiscent of Riumi architecture. The grand doors were of pristine white, grim in its simplicity. Ed could not help but liken it to modern Amestrian alchemy.

Typical, he though to himself. All too typical.

Pride was not a stranger to Amestris; the country was shameless in its self-glorification. And since alchemy was its ultimate triumph and treasure, it bedecked every possible nook and cranny of itself with symbols of alchemy. This institution was no exception.

He followed after Mustang into the hall, never straying but with his eyes. And even his eyes, after having reoriented himself, eventually returned its focus to the Grand Bastard. He could not help but goggle at the sheer elegance with which Mustang carried himself. The Bastard was always graceful, true; but today was somewhat different. Today, there was not an inch unchecked, not a button out of place. No; today, the Bastard had a show to run.

“Chin up, Ed,” Hughes quietly chuckled from beside him. “It’s all about self-perception. All that Roy’s doing is puffing up his ego; spreading his feathers like a preening peacock, if you will.”

Stifling his laughter behind a hand, Ed grinned, “The other day he said he was a cat—a fat one. So not a peacock.”

Hughes gurgled in suppressed mirth. “Well. I suppose a fat cat can still preen.”

“What are you talking about? All it can do is preen,” scoffed Ed, picking up his pace so he could catch up to Mustang. He left a laughing Hughes behind and plucked at Mustang’s sleeve when he was within reach. “Why does Amestris not have a university again?”

This topic they had already discussed before, but Ed only wanted to make a point. If there was enough money to fund all of this bullshit, surely they could come up with a workable budget even for the mere beginnings of a university! If properly carried through, the benefits it would bring to the science of alchemy would be tremendous.

“There, now, Edward,” Mustang gave him an indulging smile. “I don’t think the society would appreciate more than a few of your kind. You’re an acquired taste, after all. Though I admit it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Your species is rather endangered nowadays—“

“Exactly!”

“—but perhaps that’s for the best,” Mustang chuckled, laying a hand on his neck and gently ushering him along. “Heaven knows I already have my hands full with one of you.” At that, Ed had to scowl.

Their steps slowed as they approached the main hall. Chatter and laughter were audible through the doors; self-consciously, Ed straightened himself beside, but behind, Mustang. There was no reason for him to have to lead the way.

Inside was a substantial gathering of people waiting for the programme to commence. Before him was a mélange of faces, old and young: all of them foreign. There were students in uniform, gentlemen in smart suits, ladies in dresses, and military men in full regalia scattered throughout.

Reminded vaguely of a royal court, Ed approached warily. Except he needn’t have worried: all eyes were only for Roy Mustang. A moderately audible hush swept over the occupants of the hall, and after a pause, the ladies began to titter. Some were demure enough to cover their lips with their hands, to silence themselves with a little smile. But others—the younger ones—were less so, and amongst them there was much inappropriate giggling.

Ed had to step back a measure from the swarm of ladies that began to flock about Mustang. The Bastard looked like he was thoroughly enjoying his time, though, so he allowed himself to be effectively separated from his sponsor, ushered aside by a highly amused Hughes. They were offered refreshments, but Ed declined.

“Is it always like this?” he asked Hughes, tone grim.

“Always,” Hughes replied without missing a beat. “Roy has always been the lady killer.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I, to tell you the truth.”

“What’s so great about a Bastard like him, anyway?”

“I have no idea.”

“...but you’re his best friend.”

“Ah, I’m but a mere mortal.”

With exasperation in his sigh, Ed turned away from Mustang’s scene—there were other things worthier of his attention. He didn’t have to watch the Bastard bloat his ego, so he wouldn’t. Why suffer?

As they stood by, Hughes took the time to introduce to him the more important faces in the crowd. A number of high-ranking military officials were present, and so were some members of the military police. Businessmen were also present—and of course they would be! Such a fashionable event had to be on everybody’s list as priority.

Speaking of fashion, Ed began to look around and observe how the elite and scholarly of Amestris dressed. It was a spectrum of styles from the most modest to the very epitome of extravagance. One lady had a multicoloured peacock-feather hat, which made the most painful match with her vividly pink cocktail dress. And there was also the matter of her shockingly red hair. Talk about eye-burning.

Ed himself came with an attire Mustang had handpicked for him with great and meticulous care. Hours they spent deliberating on an appropriate colour, until they finally decided on grey. (It was the best set anyhow, and Ed had thought so from the beginning. Mustang was simply a difficult Bastard.) So it was such that he and Mustang were dressed alike for the event: Mustang in full black with a waistcoat and blazer, Ed in grey with only a waistcoat over his white collared shirt. The classic tie he used was a lighter grey in colour, blending pleasantly with the rest of his ensemble. He had chosen it himself; Mustang had approved. His hair Mustang had drawn up into a high tie with a grey ribbon, and a silver wristwatch borrowed from Mustang completed the set. Hughes had very nearly not recognised him.

Naturally, this made Ed rather self-conscious—but yet again, his worries were unfounded. As he swept his eyes along the motley gathering, he could see that Mustang and, by extension, himself were among the most smartly dressed. Black suited the Bastard; he had heard from Izumi that black was ideal for hiding imperfections. (Mustang had plenty to hide.)

“Eye-catching, isn’t he,” Hughes remarked from behind Ed. The man was already finishing his first glass of champagne.

“Who is?” Ed feigned ignorance, averting his eyes.

“Roy,” Hughes smirked, “and you, too. Such an immaculate air about you today! Roy knows best how to prettify people; I have to hand it to him. You look just like him when he was younger!”

Ed shuddered.

“I suggest you observe Roy closely. You’ll learn many things today—you love that, don’t you?” the man gave him a lopsided smile. “The way Roy interacts with people—the way he plays his game—it’s an art form. He has real talent for politics. Watch it closely; you don’t get to see it up close and in action that often.” And then, with a mischievous glint, Hughes procured a hand camera and declared, “It is the beginning of your integration into what I rightfully call Roy Mustang’s Empire—also known as The Playground Where the Sly Mustang Bullies Innocent Bystanders and Arbitrarily Toys with His Subordinates’ Already Miserable Lives. I am not missing this for the world.”

Ed’s face met his palm.

He had to admit, though, that he was, indeed, curious. He wished to learn more about Mustang—and about the rest of the world—so carefully, avidly, he watched. But despite this curiosity, Ed did not wander from where he stood. Mustang had given him explicit instructions not to stray, or talk to strangers; Ed felt like a coddled child all over again, but he obeyed nonetheless. Politics was not his forte.

Of course, this issue had not gone without argument on Ed’s part. When Mustang had warned him not to talk to ‘strange and suspicious people,’ Ed had suffocated with suppressed laughter. “Who am I supposed to talk to, then? I won’t be able to talk to you or Hughes!” At that, Mustang had only given an indulging sigh. “Fine, I’ll talk to my head,” Ed had said. And then he had paused, mumbling to himself, “Oh, but I have a strange—thing in my head too…” and for the rest of the night, the Gate had been prickly and irritable.

(“I’m not strange! I’m part of you!” the Gate had snapped.)

The mere memory of it encouraged bristles of indignation from the otherwise napping Gate. It curled into itself and grumbled and hissed, much like a slighted pet. So, all the while rejecting the acute sensation of insanity, Ed began to soothe the parasite with quiet petting. It began to purr.

Continuing his ministrations, they waited until Mustang’s gaggle of otherwise money-grubbing hormonal harpies dispersed. The Bastard emerged from the swarm, shiny and fresh, truly like a fat cat after a session of preening and petting. It was not a pretty sight to behold.

“That was downright obscene, Mustang,” a familiar voice disparaged from their left as they walked around to find their reserved seats. There the Armstrong family was, congregated around a cluster of seats reserved especially for them. It was the Lady General Armstrong who had spoken.

“Why, if you were a little more sociable, I’m sure you would acquire your own following too, Brigadier General,” ever the slick conversationalist, Mustang easily evaded the Lady General’s parry. Ed scowled. The Bastard gave his warm greetings to the family, shaking hands with the patriarch and son, and, in the matriarch’s case, placing a gentlemanly kiss upon the back of a gloved hand. (The Lady General none-too-politely refused Mustang’s kiss.)

The Armstrong matriarch cut an imposing figure, a perfect fit for her husband without a doubt. Tall, slender, and stern, the Madam towered beside her husband, commanding just as much respect as her husband did. Ed would not be surprised if she, too, had a militaristic upbringing.

“I see the young Lady is missing,” Hughes noted, mimicking Mustang in greeting.

“Catherine is with her friends at the moment, though she should be returning momentarily,” the Madam perfunctorily informed them. There were, in fact, not two, but three Armstrong siblings: Mira the Lady General, Alex the Major, and Catherine, from the eldest to the youngest. Already, Ed felt sympathy for the only son stranded in the middle.

Their reserved seats were a row in front of the Armstrongs, and Mustang was already taking his seat. As discretely as possible, Ed followed suit.

“Mr. Elric!”

Ed jumped.

“We meet again!” the old General Armstrong delightedly exclaimed. “I had a hunch that the Lieutenant Colonel would think to bring you here today! What better way to acquaint you with the brilliant minds of Central than the symposium, no?” Mustang nodded along, much to Ed’s chagrin. “I’m very eager to hear what you think about our lecturer today!”

Forcefully swallowing his discomfort, Ed politely replied, “Truthfully, I haven’t read anything of Dr. Schrum’s literature, sir. Today will be my first acquaintance with his theory.”

“Ah,” the General reclined in his seat with a smile. “Then I hope his exposition today does not disappoint you. As I’m sure you’ve already read from the programme, he is one of the country’s three authorities on bioalchemy. He leads the frontier of human transmutation research, and truly, the only one I can think of who matches his expertise in the matter is Brigadier General Gran’s Dr. Tucker, who leads in chimera research.”

Ed’s face snapped tight. “...I see.”

For sure, his interest was now piqued—but he could not say with certainty that it was in an entirely good manner. Mouth set in a thin line, he turned from the Armstrongs toward the podium, where soon, the lecturer would stand before them and speak.

This, at least, he should have anticipated. Of course the military would be sponsoring human transmutation research. With its command of innumerable talented alchemists—men and women trained through varying schools and themes of alchemy, but all with the same degree of rigor—the military could easily create a team specialised only in a particular field of the science. This team, esteemed and elite, would presumably need no clearance from any other but the Fuhrer. And what Fuhrer wouldn’t like to see the dominion of death overridden? Considering the implications of any such discovery toward resurrection, immortality, or both, the Fuhrer should be most eager to sponsor the work.

The hall lights dimmed; the hall hushed. He remained tense throughout the introductory phases of the programme, lost in the chaos of his thoughts. It was not until Mustang laid a hand upon his arm that he jolted from it.

“Easy, Ed,” Mustang was not looking at him. Instead, the Bastard was seemingly enraptured by the drone of introductions carried out by the master of ceremonies. The pressure on his arm, however, was firm and very real.

Ed forced himself to release a quiet stream of air. By sheer force of will, he reinstated calm upon his thoughts. Mustang was here with him. Nobody in here knew him.

Nobody would find out.

Besides, he drily thought to himself, if they mess up and get themselves killed, they only have their collective contagious ineptitude to blame.

He studiously ignored the small part of his brain telling him that people finding out about his mother and brother was not the only one of his worries.

 

A round of applause washed over them. The Fuhrer was being acknowledged, though Edward had no idea who the Fuhrer was among the line of crotchety old men in full military regalia. He nevertheless clapped along, waiting for the speaker to be introduced.

Dr. Schrum was a wiry old man with a crooked gait and a mildly humped back. There was nothing particularly distinguishing about him, except perhaps the markedly receding hairline exacerbating the already too wide forehead. But the moment the old man spoke, Ed snapped into attention. Articulation was the man’s gift, and intelligence sat with every word. This individual was a learned one—there were no mistakes to be made about that.

As he sat in the grey-lit hall listening to the old doctor talk, it was hard to ignore the moderately uncomfortable but thrilling feeling of his horizons being stretched. With each mention of an idea, a theory, a study, a name, Ed grew more and more aware of the world around him, the world beyond him.

Somewhere along the way, between today and the day he transmuted his mother, within the two months he had stayed in Central—somewhere along the way, he had acquired the narcissistic misconception of himself as the absolute authority on all things concerning human transmutation. He was already inherently egocentric as it was, and Mustang did little to better the matter. Somewhere along the way, he had forgotten that apart from him, scattered throughout the country—and, truly, the world—there too were other minds in thought. There too were other beings in existence.

Or was it a misconception? He did have the experience of a successful human transmutation—the only successful human transmutation in history. He did perform its near entirety alone. Was that—was his ability—enough to discount his egocentrism?

He didn’t think it was. (It only meant that his egocentrism was justified, not discounted. He had learned well from Mustang that there was a fine but firm difference.)

Either way, the vertigo did not subside. It was a dizzying sensation as his horizons morphed, stretching towards reaches he could not yet understand. It was like taffy being pulled apart by a hidden hand, edges disappearing into the shadows, only to be thrown back again together and remade. Now he was realising that beyond the things he had yet to know of and understand in the world were other minds he had yet to encounter. Mustang was but one; whatever was it that made him think that Mustang was the world? (Goddamned blinding glorious Bastard!) There were plenty of other alchemists out there, and they had their own themes of thought.

He was now curious. These other alchemists, how did they think? How were they trained? What could they glean from the things Ed was researching, if they were shown the raw data? Oh, how he itched to discuss and debate!

Granted, not all of them would be brilliant. He was among one of the best, as Mustang had said, and in this he believed the Bastard’s words. For the most part, he would be looking down on people from his perch above—and this was not to be arrogant, no, because it was largely on part of the Gate. (The Gate gave a snort.) He believed, too, that Mustang was also among the best—and truly, having the man as his daily companion and complement was more than he could ask for. Ed knew that by Mustang he was spoiled; there would be few who could match Mustang’s acumen.

That, however, did little to dull his curiosity.

“How’s the doctor’s theory coming along so far?” Mustang spoke low into his ear. Ed had to resist the urge to shiver.

“Passable,” he shrugged, making additional notes. “Tell you more about it when he’s done.” He pretended not to see the wry smile the Bastard shot Hughes over a shoulder.

And indeed, the doctor soon finished, collecting an audible sigh from the audience even as the applause burgeoned throughout the hall. From behind them, out of the corner of his eyes, Ed had spied Catherine Armstrong giving several demure yawns behind her hand throughout the lecture. It had lasted for all of an hour and a few minutes more. No doubt many among the audience were similarly bored, but it was their own fault, and Ed could not be bothered with them. They knew the nature of the symposium, and they came of their own volition.

Waiting for everybody else before he did, Ed stood and stretched, distinctly feeling the knots in his upper back. He would need another one of Mustang’s massages tonight before bed, or it would be a painful morning for him to wake up to tomorrow.

People began to mill once more and around them a crowd was threatening to gather, so Ed was ushered away and through the colonnade into the wide gardens. Here was greens and open space, courtyards underscored by tasteful arrangements of flowers and trimmed trees. Far to the back were little alcoves with tables set for pastry and tea, beckoning, as if it was made just for them. They chose one such table at a secluded corner of the garden where there was a semblance of privacy for their little group.

“We have some time to spend before the commencement of demonstrations, and three alchemists are sat around this table,” the old General Armstrong declared across tea. “I would like to hear some thoughts!”

Mira Armstrong gave a quiet groan, but said nothing against her father’s wishes. Ed had a feeling that the Lady General wished she had enough of an excuse to slip away, like the younger Catherine, who had somehow escaped yet again with her friends. He could not help but wonder what the Lady General held so firmly against alchemists.

“Well, Ed?” Hughes prompted, prodding Ed out of his cocoon of thoughts.

“Faulty,” Ed murmured over his cup of tea. “The structural symmetry was faulty in his theory.”

“Truly?” said the old General, sceptically. “There are quite a number of respected alchemists who are enthusiastic about Dr. Schrum’s works,” as if that was enough proof to convince a theory into law. Ed knew he was being tested.

“He isn’t quite cutting it with the structural symmetry of the circle, but I can find few faults in his biology. He’s a very good doctor, but that doesn’t guarantee his abilities as an alchemist,” and this Ed drove home with a clarity that forbade doubt. This point he would not argue; he had seen plenty to know that alchemy consisted of more than just one discipline.

General Armstrong was regarding him with even eyes. Nonchalantly, Ed continued to sip his tea and savour his pastries, seemingly paying little attention to the scrutiny he was subject to.

“I do have to agree with Edward,” Mustang conceded. “Human transmutation, while greatly involved with it, is not entirely comprised of human biology.” Ed caught the undertone in Mustang’s words and wondered if the man truly trusted the Armstrongs—and their current setting—far enough to discuss the process in detail.

“And what else do you propose is lacking in Dr. Schrum’s theory, if he had a good approach on the human biology?”

“As Edward said,” said Mustang, “structure is lacking. He would also do well to reconsider his physiological aspects. I would highly suggest verifying his assumptions first, because at the moment, they are no more than that—just assumptions. Especially on the neuroscience.”

Amending the Bastard, Edward explained, “There is little to no evidence to back his hypothesis of the brain’s neurochemicals being the sole determinant of everything that we know is human. There are still plenty of things we have yet to understand about human behaviour, emotion, and biology to assume so. There could be a million different ways these newly discovered neurochemicals interact with each other—and there could be more of them in there, too. I personally am very wary of fiddling with a mechanism that I barely know anything of. It wouldn’t be very wise at all.”

“In summary,” Mustang quickly followed, “we are both wary that this is all an oversimplification of things. It is admittedly superficial, after all, to think that the human experience can be abridged into a very technical dance of neurochemicals and electric impulses.”

“Why, Mustang, are you implying that you believe in the human soul?” Mira Armstrong incredulously barked. “I must admit my horrified surprise!”

Ed snorted. “He might believe in it, but his possession of one is debatable.”

“Now that’s just cruel, Edward!” Mustang exclaimed, stricken. “What did I ever do to you to deserve such low regard?”

To that, Ed could only give the Bastard a deadpanned stare.

“We are running out of time,” Madam Armstrong promptly informed them, patting her husband’s arm. Together, the two of them rose from their seats, the old General looking highly entertained. “It would not do to be late to the demonstrations.”

So they walked to the courtyards back the way they came, Ed quietly falling into pace beside Mustang. Over Mustang’s words he could not help but still be deep in thought. Excepting Alphonse, Mustang was the one person who knew his human transmutation theory with considerable intimacy. The man was of course incredibly astute as well; no doubt Mustang already understood more than what Ed had shown him. For Mustang, inference came with little difficulty.

But did the Bastard truly believe in souls now? Had Ed convinced him two months ago when he had explained his experience with the Gate? Mustang had already seen the multichord circle on Alphonse’s chest, seemingly branded into the skin with blood. That, if anything, was the closest one could get to the literal symbolisation of a soul. Perhaps they were indeed reading from the same page.

At the same time, he couldn’t be certain. For all he knew, Mustang could have only argued the position for the sake of discounting the Materialistic school of thought. The Bastard harboured an intense dislike for the overly simplistic, nearly apish way Materialists viewed alchemy. They could be incredibly efficient on the battlefield, but within the realms of research, they were useless. To Ed’s eyes, they were not true alchemists. They were but mere embodiments of what the military wanted from most of its State Alchemists—machines for mass annihilation.

This was not to say, of course, that Dr. Schrum was a Materialist. In truth, Ed did not believe that Dr. Schrum was from any of the three mainstream alchemical schools of thought. Dr. Schrum was not an alchemist, but he was exactly what his title stated. He was a doctor.

He now realised the irony in his ignorance of Mustang’s beliefs concerning such things. Was he not the one who daily talked to Mustang of alchemy and all things considered? And yet he could not bring himself to talk to the man about the Gate—or even souls, for that matter. Even today, his shame still held him back.

But was it really something to be so ashamed of?

 

In either case, he didn’t know.

 

When they reached the open courtyards, there was already a substantial gathering of people surrounding some sort of display. From Ed’s vantage point (damn that height), he could not see much. But there appeared to be quite some excitement, so he plucked at Mustang’s sleeve and asked for permission to see.

Much to his delight, the throng parted easily to make way for the Armstrong family. All they had to do was follow suit. Mustang seemed determined not to lose to the imposing gravity of the Armstrongs, and paraded his own kind of charm—a stately, tasteful, and polished one. (Ed wanted to gag.) Most of the genteel seemed to be acquainted with Mustang, which Ed found without much surprise. He kept quiet at Mustang’s elbow as the Bastard expertly handled each of his acquaintances (three minutes apiece). He did not know if this was some sort of unwritten rule, but nobody seemed to take offence. Mustang simply continued sifting through the crowd, shifting from one face to the next without breaking stride.

Soon, they were at the front of the crowd, where a small group of white-decked assistants were laying out a circle before the spectators. Mustang was still busy talking to military people he was just now greeting, so the man was not paying much attention to the circle before them.

Which, perhaps, was just as well—because the circle was a dysfunctional piece of ignominious shit.

 

“This,” he declared, “is wrong.”

And perhaps he should have better held his tongue, but truth be told, at this point he could care less for reputation or propriety. In face of such a contemptible attempt at alchemy, his temperance (yes, he had temperance) was long gone. Immediately around him was an audible hush.

“This,” he declared, “is just wrong.

Dr. Schrum’s alchemical assistants gave him a look of utter affront.

He shook his head, covered his mouth with a palm, and stared at the circle in abject disbelief. ‘Faulty symmetry’—who was he kidding? ‘Nonexistent’ did not even begin to cover half of it! Glyphs were scattered about in a manner that resembled toys in a three-year-old’s playpen. The scripts themselves were smooth but their arrangement into phrases was abrupt, much like the way a chopped-up and plagiarised research paper would read. And the energy flow—did these idiots even know about energy flow?

One of the institution’s students, perhaps a fan, decided to break the ice and said to him from across the circle, “You would do well to watch your words, little boy. Who do you think you are to criticise Dr. Schrum’s work? Do you even understand what’s being done here?”

Ed snarled. “No, idiot, I should be asking you that question! Do you understand even just an inch of this... abomination before you? Do you understand what kind of catastrophic idiocy is being done here? No, you obviously don’t. So shut up and listen.” Whirling, Ed rounded on the assistant preparing the circle for demonstration. “Who is in charge of this array?”

The assistant before him, now recovering from the momentary sting of shock, began in a slow tone, “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you are, but I’m going to have to ask you to watch your words in front of Dr. Schrum.” Standing across the circle was the old doctor in quiet vigil. “If there is anything you don’t understand, rest assured that we will answer any of your questions—“

“I just asked you a question, which, by the way, you have yet to answer, assistant,” Ed drily pointed out. “No matter. Since you act as a group, responsibility is shared. You’re part of the team. So tell me, what is that glyph you’re standing on right now?”

Incredulous and uneasy, the assistant gave a weak laugh. “I’m sorry, sir, but it will take some time—time that we don’t have at the moment—t-to explain to an amateur the finer points of—“

“Answer the young man’s question, Julius,” it was Dr. Schrum himself who spoke, silencing both the assistant’s floundering and the crowd’s curious titter.

So Julius the assistant, met with the even eyes of his mentor and employer, bowed his head and took a peek beneath his feet. “It’s a Khalic ti.”

“Uh-huh. And what does it do?” Ed prompted.

“It modulates the flow of the energy to the lateral periphery of the circle’s caudal subsection with the proper modifications,” Ed had to groan at the textbook answer.

“Lavaca’s Language of Alchemy, page 166, second paragraph’s second sentence, verbatim. And do you understand what that means?”

“Of course I do! It’s a basic principle! Any alchemist under Dr. Schrum would—”

“Then why, pray tell, is the glyph on rostral subsection of the circle?!” Edward was merciless. “Look, assistant, look carefully at what you’re drawing. Where is your centre? Where is your inner orbit? Where is your midline? Which way is up?!”

“Edward,” Mustang warned, hand tightening on his shoulder.

Hissing Ed took a pause to temper his frustration from boiling over. Across the circle, Dr. Schrum still quietly stood. After a moment of tense deliberation, he gave a huff of air and turned to the doctor, “Your biological theory was very sound, Dr. Schrum, but with all due respect, you are not an alchemist. And this,” Ed flung an arm out, “is not a circle.”

That seemed to be the very end of the head apprentice’s patience. The middle-aged man, perhaps a few years older than Mustang and Hughes, walked up to him and sternly said, “That’s enough. Where are your parents, child?”

“No!” Ed snarled. “Where are your parents, idiot? I bet they aren’t here because they’re too ashamed of this idiocy you flaunt so shamelessly.” From somewhere behind him, Ed could hear Hughes’ snicker, and perhaps a despairing groan from Mustang’s side. “Don’t you dare look down on me when you can’t even construct a proper circle to save your pathetic face.”

Forgetting about the assistants, Ed addressed the old doctor. “You are just what your title says you are,” he continued. “You’re a doctor, and a damn good one. But trust me; it takes more than just sheer physiological expertise to create a fully functional human being from scratch. And you had impressive physiological theories there, but that means you will need an alchemist just as impressive who can translate the bulk of physiology into alchemical jargon for you—because you obviously can’t do it!”

“This right here,” Ed tapped his foot at the edge of the circle, “is a dysfunctional array. You cannot do anything with it, or I guarantee you will lose more than one assistant to the reaction.” A murmur of anxious tension ran through the alchemically ignorant crowd. “If you or your precious apprentices can even dare, go and try it, so you’ll see what I mean.”

Without missing a beat, Ed rounded on the Fuhrer, who was standing a ways away to the left, in front of the circle, surrounded by Generals and former Generals. The man looked him in the eye, and likewise, he didn’t look away.

“You,” he began with a hiss. “You’re the Fuhrer, am I correct.”

“Why, yes, I am,” the Fuhrer gave a beatific smile.

Mustang’s hand clenched on Ed’s shoulder. Ed scowled. “Why the hell are you permitting a public exhibition of human transmutation when I’m damn sure you know how ugly and unsafe and traumatising it is?” This time, there was an outcry upon his downright disrespectful language towards the most powerful individual in the country. He ignored it, though.

“Were you so confident of Dr. Schrum that you just signed your consent without thinking? How can you be so confident when you haven’t even seen them demonstrate it beforehand? I know you haven’t seen it yet—I know they haven’t done it yet. It’s all just theory at the moment. If it were otherwise, you wouldn’t even have anything to allow, because they would all be dead. Swallowed by the reaction. And your symposium would be shot. This was downright irresponsible—beyond disappointing. I expected better when they told me this would be a gathering of the country’s best alchemists!”

“But what have you to prove that Dr. Schrum’s theory is mistaken?” the Fuhrer calmly replied, to which Ed scoffed.

“What, so now you’re trying to prove a negative? You do know that that’s near-impossible, right? If our methods worked that way, we would get nowhere,” he crossed his arms and gave the Fuhrer a plain frown.

The man, however, had nothing but a chuckle to give him. With a—was he seeing things right?—a pleased smile, the Fuhrer turned to Mustang and asked, “I assume this bright young man is your charge today, Lieutenant Colonel?”

“Yes sir,” Mustang inclined his head with a wry little smile, thumb rubbing soothing circles into the side of Ed’s neck. It did feel good, but it wasn’t enough to distract him—not this time. “Edward is the son of one of my two alchemical mentors.”

Brows rising in enlightenment, the Fuhrer went, “Aaaahh,” and so did the crowd. Within that second, the tension dissipated, and just like that, everybody was smiling again. It was as Mustang had said: identity and credentials went a long way to reassure people of one’s reliability and authority. “I see young Edward inherits the scientific blood.”

“He will be my responsibility while he remains in Central for his studies. Do pardon his... zealous nature,” the crowd tittered. “He’s but young, and very bright.”

“I can see that, yes,” the Fuhrer nodded happily. “I do hope he will become a contributor to Amestris’ alchemical society one day. I’m sure he has great potential.”

Edward, however, was not convinced, and remained cross-armed and frown-faced. Mustang chuckled from behind him, radiating an immeasurable amount of amusement. He was given a light pat on the head, followed by candy. “I think this will help relieve some of that tension, Ed. Eat.”

Grudgingly, Ed did. He hated being coddled in public, but at the moment, sugar was very appealing to his harried temper. The crowd was beginning to disperse, leaving only the more curious bunch of alchemists and apprentices and military men. Ed supposed it was a good thing that Mustang was not angered by his blatant disobedience through his little interrupted (interrupted!) spiel. Only heaven knew what kind of consequence the Bastard could come up with otherwise.

He was about to wander off to some secluded little cubby hole and hide there forever, far away from society’s general ineptitude, when Dr. Schrum approached him. “Mr. Edward, was it?” the old man inquired.

“Edward Elric,” he introduced himself, now subdued and rather put off. He was in the middle of a nice, long, loud rant, goddamnit! Why did they always have to cut in and steal his moment?

“Mr. Elric it is,” the old doctor evenly smiled. “You sounded very certain of your critique a little while back. I must admit I am curious as to what exact portion of the circle you find poorly crafted. Would you indulge an old man’s mind?”

Huffing, he stepped back and took a good look at the circle.

All of it.”

Again, the head apprentice from earlier spoke up with a disdainful, scoffing tone, “Surely not all of it. You must be mistaken. This is a professional alchemist’s work! It’s far beyond an amateur’s scope.”

“That’s true,” Ed inclined his head. “It should be far beyond an amateur’s scope of error. Even an amateur shouldn’t make a mistake as glaring as this. If you can’t see what’s wrong with this, forget about being an alchemist, because you’ll just make yourself miserable.” He rounded on Julius the assistant. “You. This is your circle. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“...uh. Where exactly do you want me to look?” the small group of assistants looked at him incredulously, as if they couldn’t believe he had just asked them that question and truly expected an answer. Perhaps to their ears the question was insufficient—but how were they going to be good alchemists if they needed to be force fed every single inquisition?

“You don’t even know where to look? Dear god, how pathetic are you?” Ed threw his arms into the air, barely resisting the urge to tear his hair from their roots. (Mustang would weep!) “Look at it! Look at it real good! The entirety of it! Look at it as a whole, not as pieces off of your textbook!” Turning to Schrum, Ed added, “You might want to look closely too.” Then he turned back to his little group of spectators and demanded, “Does anybody see anything wrong with this circle at all? Anybody?”

“Edward,” Mustang warned again, “your horns are showing.”

“What?!” Ed whirled about, nearly frothing at the mouth. “I’m proud of them showing! These overconfident third-rate buffoons should be glad they’re showing! They need to be taught, and taught well—if anything, my horns can do that!”

At that, Mustang could do nothing else but to reacquaint his face with his palm. From a short distance, Hughes was wheezing with stifled laughter as he took numerous pictures of Ed’s flailing little yellow-headed form. Those pictures were sure to go into the Intelligence Officer’s blackmail-material boxes.

The Generals and Fuhrer too were watching from the sidelines, with a small group of State Alchemists (as he could tell from the silver watches) flocking them. They all looked very critical of what Ed was doing—perhaps some of them were good friends with Schrum or whatever—but who the hell cared about them? Ed wasn’t fazed the least bit.

When nobody from the group of assistants seemed to have the answer to his question, Ed hung his head and sighed. He tried another approach. “Okay. Has anybody read Topolsky’s Fundamentals?”

There was a murmur of assent. It was a basic book, one of Ed’s firsts, and he knew for a fact that most everybody read the book for a basic working knowledge of the processes of alchemy. Being a country that thrived on the science, it was required at the earliest level of education. The children, after all, learned the best and fastest.

“For those of you who haven’t, I wish to know which rock you’ve squished your brains under for the past century and why. For those of you who have, I will assume that all of you have been in some sort of freak accident and similarly acquired severe amnesia. I will rehash the third chapter for you, which discusses the three basic fundamentals of an alchemical circle,” Ed slowly explained. “Now, I’m sure you all are very intelligent, so you’ll be able to follow me, right? Structure. Energy. Intent. Are those words too big for you? Does anybody not know what those words mean?”

From somewhere behind him, Hughes gave a muffled cough and whispered none-too-quietly to Mustang, “Yep; you taught the kid. That’s your tongue right there, and don’t I know it.”

Ed ignored them and pointed at the circle. “Look at this piece of crap. Do you see any symmetry here at all? Sure, there’s energy. Sure, there’s intent—you want a living, breathing, thinking, eating, crapping human being. But is there any symmetry? Any structure?NO. So what do you need to do? Make a symmetrical circle!

“But there’s no way you could move the glyphs around to form a symmetrical array and still have it work the same way!” one of the assistants exclaimed.

“Then you’ll just have to find another way!” Ed threw his arms in the air. “Seriously, Dr. Schrum, you have got to get a better crop of assistants and alchemists. You won’t get anywhere with this one. They can’t even wipe their asses without being told how!”

“You’re just making it so much harder,” grumbled Julius the assistant.

“Well, why else do you think human transmutation is considered one of the most impressive feats of alchemy?” he spat back. “If it were so simple, everybody would be doing it, and we would have the dead amongst us, alive. If it were so simple, it wouldn’t be so special, and you wouldn’t be so interested in an apprenticeship with Dr. Schrum. Think, idiot. I know it hurts, but it’s actually good for you.”

“Now, Edward, I think that’s enough.”

No!” Ed snarled. “I will not stand for such incompetence! It’s shameful! Don’t you feel ashamed? You’re a State Alchemist too! Look at this mess!”

Mustang sighed. “Yes, I understand. However, I don’t think this is the appropriate way to approach the matter.”

“Sorry, I don’t do politics,” he flatly refused. “If I can’t barrel the fundamentals into their little skulls with force, trust me, no smooth talking will get it through.”

Turning away from Mustang, he beckoned Dr. Schrum closer and pointed at the circle. “Look. This here is the outer orbital. Over there is the inner orbital. The conventional way of doing it—which will work just fine for this—is to divide the circle into four parts, like a pie: the upper two are called rostral, the lower two caudal. The outer rostral represents the upper left and upper right quadrants of the human body, including the head—everything divided midline. The outer caudal represents the lower left and lower right quadrants. The inner circle is different; that part is special. All the glyphs and scripts there should be dedicated to the construction of your higher brain functions, what makes a human being human. Your theory goes like this, so your corresponding script would look something like so...”

Diligently, Ed walked the old doctor through the structuring process. It was nothing new for alchemists to have trouble with the structure of a circle, especially with a reaction as complex as this. Structure required familiarity with the jargon of alchemy; it was something one grew into through years of experimentation to find one’s own style. Each alchemist differed fundamentally and it showed within the style.

Ed had his own, developed through his father’s books and Izumi’s teaching, but he was comfortable with the common, conventional way of doing things—modern Amestrian alchemy, as Izumi called it. She had always approved of the simpler method.

So he spent his entire afternoon, systematically dissembling the apprentice alchemists’ overconfidence and guiding the old doctor through the proper process of array construction. Great care he took as he went about his explanation of how to transcribe theory into a circle. He felt somewhat guilty for setting the old man up for a failure—if they ever tried it, they were sure to fail. But this was as much as he could do. He did not bother to correct the theory; all he was here for was to show them the basics of what they were missing. Everything else they had to figure out on their own.

In any case, it wasn’t as if he could rewrite their theory for them, because that would involve talk of the Gate. Short of confusing them, he would only make them think of him a nutcase. These alchemists were far too set in their ways to consider a paradigm shift as momentous as the Gate—and truth be told, Ed didn’t know if he was ready to share the Gate with anybody else just yet. (“Aaaawwwww,” cooed the Gate. “I feel so loved!”) Maybe after he made it submit, he would.

By the time they were leaving that evening, after Mustang’s lengthy goodbyes and promises to his pretty little ladies, Ed was tired, mentally constipated, and beyond grumpy. He stomped his way to the car, grunting a goodbye to Fuhrer and company, who were standing by the doors to send people off on their way.

Mustang was lagging behind, so Ed paused a few steps down. He could only barely hear the conversation from atop the stairs; the Fuhrer was saying something to Mustang.

“I take it you will have Mr. Elric under your wings when he takes the State Alchemy exam?” the Fuhrer was asking.

Inclining his head, Mustang corrected, “If he wants to take the exam, sir, of course.”

“I’ve no interest in State matters! Now hurry up! I’m hungry!” Ed barked up at them, annoyed at the Fuhrer’s beatific little smile. That face was beginning to seriously grate on his nerves!

His glare, however, obviously could not achieve its intended goal, as the Fuhrer let out a hearty chuckle. A while back, Hughes had remarked that he was quite the adorable little flailing blond when grumpy; perhaps that was why everybody had been smiling like that at him for the past few hours?

“Do excuse him,” Mustang apologetically smiled. “He’s yet to have his afternoon nap. He gets rather snappish without it.”

Hissing, Ed stomped down the stairs towards the car idly waiting for them by the driveway. Fucking Bastard! He didn’t need to hear any more.

Once inside the passenger compartment, Ed limply sagged against the cushioned chair, willing the tension out of his bones. By the time Mustang slipped into the car, he was a mere half-step away from sleep, and when the car finally began to move, he felt himself slip into his dreams.
It had been a long, tiring day indeed.

 

 

~

 

The following day, he ignored Mustang calling him down for breakfast and slept in. He was bone-tired, and though normally that much activity shouldn’t have taken such toll, it seemed his body was still adjusting to the post-operative changes brought about by the automail. He woke up sometime near midday, trudged blearily to the kitchen, and found a small covered tray resting on the table with a note from the Bastard. Eat all of this, drink juice, and do your laps today. It’ll make you feel better, it said.

So he did, and later that night, when Mustang came home, he was in a much better mood than in the morning.

“Tired?” he grinned, watching as Mustang collapsed into the couch with a heavy sigh. He set tea for the Bastard.

Mustang gratefully savoured the refreshing aroma. “You should know that the entire grapevine is on fire with news about you.”

“Well, I can’t help it if I’m so fabulous, can I?” Ed reclined with a smirk, flapping a dismissive hand. “It’s natural talent. I was born this way.”

All that Mustang gave in reply was a smile, pleased—and the Bastard returned to his tea. Ed had to admit his surprise at the Bastard’s complacence. He had yet to receive admonishment for his no doubt “improper” behaviour at the symposium, and Mustang did not show even the tiniest hint of anger. In fact, in place of anger, Mustang radiated what seemed like pure satisfaction.

He sighed and shook his head. Each and every time, the Bastard puzzled him.

“Ah yes, before I forget,” Mustang suddenly began, “I’ll be scheduling you for a check-up visit with my doctor.”

Ed blinked. “Why? I’m not sick.”

“I know, but it’s better if we have your baseline established now, while you’re not sick, instead of waiting until you are. By then, it’d be pointless,” Mustang relinquished his cup of tea and began unbuttoning his military jacket. “Besides, it would be good to have somebody look at and keep track of your automail ports. Your mechanic isn’t in Central, after all.”

“...okay, when?”

“I’ll have to call him first and see when he has a vacancy. He’s a busy man himself. Hopefully we can schedule it on an off-day, but if not, you’re going to have to go on your own. It’s not far.” Ed watched as Mustang stood to make his way across the library. “I’m going to shower. Go downstairs and prepare the beef. Also, get some onions, potatoes, lemons, and soy sauce. And rice.”

So Ed did, and he quickly lost himself in the flurry of preparations when Mustang came down to teach him about their dish for the night (rice bowls with Xingese onion beef). Ed found an easy relaxation in Mustang’s company after their little adventure. The knowledge that this easy companionship would always be here for him to return to for as long as he remained in Central was very comforting to Ed, and he revelled in the security Mustang offered.

Later that night, as he lay in bed, he tried his hardest to think of a way to repay Mustang’s Bastardly kindness. But there was one question keeping him from even taking the first step: what could he give Mustang that the Bastard did not already have?

 

The next few days, as he followed his usual routine and resumed his research, this question hovered over his head as an unfavourable cloud would over the fields of Resembool. He bemoaned the pains of having to think of a gift for a person who had the world (well, okay, maybe not the entire world, but at least Central’s Historical District) kissing his very feet. Why did the Bastard have to be such a Grand Bastard? It was unfair.

He brought his concern to Gracia, who chuckled and told him, “You know, Riza—Riza Hawkeye, Roy’s First Lieutenant; you’ve heard of her already—she has the same problem with Roy around this time of the year, every year. I had the same problem too before I married Maes. Roy is probably the hardest person I know to think of a birthday gift for.”

“...birthday gift? I’m not asking about a birthday gift—wait a second. Do you mean to say that the Bastard’s birthday is coming up?”

Gracia was surprised. “Oh, didn’t you know? Oh, well, I guess Roy isn’t the type of person to tell somebody else about his birthday. He is quite shy.” Ed scoffed. “Well, his birthday is on the 23rd of October, a week from now. Maes already has a gift ready for him—don’t tell! Maes is quite excited about it. He’s about the only person I know who doesn’t have a difficulty thinking of what to give Roy, and I’m quite well-acquainted with their military circle. Maes never runs out of crazy ideas, the silly thing.”

Ed had to smile at Gracia’s affectionate address of her husband. Her eyes tended to soften into these tender brown orbs whenever she talked of or was with Hughes. They were the type of couple that would make any hardened heart break if they were ever separated, which Ed prayed would never happen. They were good people.

Gracia prepared lunch for them and they settled into a comfortable silence as they began to eat. His thoughts inevitably returned to the issue of the gift, plus his newly introduced deadline. Talk about an insane amount of stress; the 23rd was not far away at all! He wanted to give Mustang a presentable gift the man would appreciate, and that was definitely not an easy feat. He had some serious brainstorming to do.

So he spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in the library, whirling about in his head in an effort to come up with something—anything at all. One idea was a compilation of music sheets, which he came up with while he gazed up at the piano for about an hour—except it was more himself who needed the sheets than Mustang. He didn’t even know what kind of music Mustang preferred playing to begin with. He thought of visiting the antique shop for something, but then that felt like it lacked originality and a personal touch. He preferred making things for important people instead of simply buying them. Somehow, it felt more intimate and real that way.

Before he knew it, an entire five hours had passed without him doing a thing apart from uselessly rolling about on the carpeted floor. Mustang was set to come home from work soon, which would mean that he wouldn’t at all be able to brainstorm in peace until bedtime. He felt awful about wasting more time; one week was such small allowance for somebody so difficult as the Bastard.

He boosted himself upright with a sigh. Picking up a random journal from the table, he made his way outside, where he sat under one of the big trees to read under the waning afternoon sunlight. It was during this time of the day and year that he would climb the tree outside of their house in Resembool and sit on one of its fat branches to read. The red skies would stretch far above, the green far beneath, and his mind would whirl within alchemical theories until there was no more sunlight for reading. Those days seemed so long ago, and had passed by in a wonderfully innocent haze.

He was midway into picking apart a certain Xerxian sigil in Hohenheim’s seventh journal when his eyes came across the precursor of the salamander seal. The sight of it sent a vivid jolt down his spine.

This is it.

The Gate idly flashed him a quick synopsis of the theory behind it, and he could feel the weight of more in-depth information burgeoning behind his eyes. It sent a thrill of energy running rampant through his veins.

This is good!

He scrambled off the grass and ran back into the house with certainty that Mustang would love this gift. It would be a very useful one, something that would be kept close and revisited endless times for the years to come. But for it, he would need to comb all twelve of Hohenheim’s journals, the Xerxian book, and go through the massive amount of information the Gate had for him. He needed to see just how much he was holding so that he could begin to organise them into an outline.

He would be making Mustang a comprehensive journal of fire alchemy, and he would take immense pleasure in watching the Bastard drool over it after he was done.

 

 

~

 

The following day, after Mustang had gone off to work, he rifled through the phonebook and found the stationery shop’s telephone number. A quick talk with the owner confirmed the availability of multiple kinds of blank books and journals, all of high-quality make and paper. He needed a good, sturdy journal with enough style and flair for Mustang—but also functionality and strength to withstand wear. As he knew no other place to buy one, he had decided the previous night to check out the shop’s stock. No doubt that shop would be one of the best places in Central anyway—if not the best—given how Mustang and the Armstrongs were their regular customers.

Over his button-up shirt he slipped a long-sleeved cardigan, decided on casual slacks, and his pair of black loafers. He did not plan on staying out long—he could not afford to stay out long. He wanted to keep Mustang oblivious of this little trip out into the wilderness. (He doubted Mustang would allow him out alone in the first place.) All he took with him were his set of keys to the house, his wallet with identification, and the respectable amount of money he’d managed to save over the years. He wasn’t about to spend the money Mustang had given him on this; that would make the entire idea of a gift pointless.

To his chagrin, he was just as paranoid as Mustang when he checked the house over for any crack a burglar could shimmy into. After making three rounds around the house, he finally stepped out and broke into a brisk pace. He only had to walk down this street, turn right, and walk all the way down the next street to get to East 3rd. However, since the houses and their surrounding yards were quite spacious, it would take more than ten minutes. Plus, Mustang’s street was about five blocks down from East 3rd. (Paranoid Bastard.)

He got to East 3rd just as one of the two trams was coming up his way towards Central Plaza. Mustang had told him that there were no fees for tram use. It was a free service offered by the military, taken out from property taxes. Ed flagged it, quickly hopped in, and got himself a seat. There weren’t too many people at this time of the day; he had thankfully missed the morning rush.

Busy as he was sightseeing, he almost missed his stop, and had to scramble to get off without subjecting his face to an unfortunate meeting with the streets’ cobblestoned surface. He easily found the stationery shop and quietly slipped inside. A pair of prim ladies, no more than four or five years older than him, were thanked by one of the shopkeepers as they stepped outside with their small purchases. He was the only customer left.

Perfect.

Sidling up to the front desk, he immediately called the attention of the shop owner and keeper—Marc, if his memory was not failing him. At a glance, Marc recognized who he was, warmly welcomed him, and inquired about his needs for the day.

“I would like to look at your journals,” Ed began, “specifically leather-bound sturdy ones with lots of pages, thick enough for pens and durable enough for multiple erasures. Something that would typically work as an alchemical journal.”

“Ah,” Marc tipped his head. “This way, young sir.”

Ed was ushered into the back storeroom, where rows more of journals and notebooks and stacks of different coloured papers were at rest. He was led toward the far wall, and there against it was a glass display of leather journals of different kinds and styles.

“These are among our highest quality journals, sir, and for your specific uses, I would recommend that one—“ an earthen brown one, “—the ebony one—“ surely enough with a sleek black shiny leather cover, “—and the jade journal, one of my personal favourites,” the last one was near the bottom shelf, an iridescent gleaming green. It was a curious colour, certainly not of typical leather make.

“Interesting,” he murmured with a tilt of his head. Most certainly it was eye-catching. The shop owner retrieved for perusal, and as he flipped through its pages, he could feel the durability in its make. However... “I like it, but it doesn’t seem quite appropriate for who I’m giving it to.”

“Oh, it isn’t for you, is it, young sir?”

“It’s for Mustang—don’t tell,” Ed warned. “It’s for his birthday. Rather hard to figure a gift for that man, I tell you.”

“I can imagine,” the shop owner gave a fond smile. “Well. If that is the case, then let me offer you another journal that you and Master Roy might perhaps be able to appreciate better than anybody I’ve shown it to so far. Few people recognize the preciousness of this particular journal. As it is, few people nowadays recognize the true value of anything.”

Ed thought that sentiment sounded rather familiar.

The shopkeeper retrieved a wooden box from a large drawer by another corner of the spacious storeroom. Shaped and sized about the same as a voluminous encyclopaedia, it made a quiet thud as it was set upon the table. That a key was necessary to open the box meant that whatever was inside was highly valued and more than likely monstrously priced. He mentally cursed at the Bastard.

No film of dust rose into the air when the shop keeper opened the box. However, the wafting scent of fresh and finely made paper rose into his nostrils and subsequently undid his bones.

“Such fragrance, no?” the shop keeper carefully lifted the contents of the box. “This is my finest piece of merchandise, a true work of art. The paper itself was made from a particular kind of tree that you can only ever find in certain parts of the mountain forests of Viteliu. The fragrance tells it all. The leather was painstakingly crafted and perfected to be impervious from fire—without any use of tricks or alchemy, only sheer perfection of the make. It is the only one of its kind, the only one journal bound with fire leather.”

Ed had to admit that he was impressed. Leather, just like any organic material, should be combustible by its molecular components. To trick it into becoming something resistant to combustion without alchemy—now that was some serious thinking. He did not find it hard at all, however, to understand why few people recognized the uniqueness of this certain journal. For sure it was very plain to the sight, entirely dull and without any form of decoration at all. It was of plain black leather, with a straight, stiff spine (good for support and longevity) and thick, sturdy pages. There was no strap to wrap around it, no button-on flap to close it, no security for it at all—but for some reason, more than the other options, he liked it.

“I’m taking it,” he quickly decided. “How much are you selling it for?”

“Ah,” the shopkeeper said. “But I’m giving it to you, young sir. It’s for you and Master Roy.”

Ed blinked.

“But it’s your finest piece. I’m not about to take it without paying the rightful price!”

His words made the shopkeeper smile, but the man remained unmoved. “Please, young sir, it is my gift to Master Roy as well for his birthday. I never did know when his birthday was; I don’t know all that much about him. But he is a good man, and this business would have long withered without his never-failing support. I know that you plan to transform this into something that he will treasure for life—I can see that you have plans for it. So please, take it. I am more than satisfied with the knowledge that my finest piece will be resting within good hands.”

Again, Ed blinked. Taken aback was an understatement; he was stunned. What the hell had Mustang been doing to demand such devotion from these people anyway? Bloody pompous ass of a Bastard.

“Well, if you say so,” Ed crumbled, holding the journal carefully within his hands. At that, the shop keeper approvingly smiled, closing the storage box and ushering him out to the front desk.

“Now, how about I give you a cloth to wrap that in? Keeping it from dust and water is essential to its long life. You are of course welcome to bring it here whenever you need an upkeep; we always have special discounts for you and Master Roy,” busily and with expert hands, the shopkeeper wrapped the journal in a dark brown cloth. It was then slipped into a canvas bag before it was handed back to him. Ed awkwardly shouldered it.

“...I’ll be sure to bring the journal back here when I’m done with it so you can see it,” the shopkeeper was delighted. Ed’s awkward smile turned into a smug smirk as he continued, “Maybe then I’ll come here with Mustang and we can both see him drool over what I’ll be making for him.”

Chuckling in approval, Marc the shopkeeper led him to the door and bid him a good day. With a last word of warning not to tell Mustang that he was here, Ed stepped out of the stationery shop into the streets.

The sun was now higher up in the sky, and the crowd was thickening. It was near lunchtime; it was best if he kept himself out of sight. He didn’t know if Mustang frequented the cafe across the street for lunch as well and not only for morning coffee. It would be disastrous if he was found out. He hid underneath one of the neighbouring shops’ sunshades, casually observing the crowd and scanning for a familiar face. He saw none.

As he waited for the tram, he took a little time to observe the shops around the area, never having had the opportunity to pay close attention before. Maybe he could buy a little something extra; he ended up not spending anything at the stationery shop anyway, and the journal needed a little decoration. He wondered what kind of embellishment he could add that would properly embody Mustang’s taste and personality.

“Excuse me, sir,” a mild voice from behind him spoke; he very nearly jumped out of his skin. “If you don’t mind moving, sir, you’re blocking our display.”

“O-Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” Ed ducked his head in apology, edging aside discreetly. It was only then that he realized that the shop behind him was a jeweller’s place—specifically, a goldsmith.

Cocking an eyebrow, he took a few steps back to observe the display. (This way, he did not block anyone’s sight.) With interest, he noted the intricacy of each piece’s design (and naturally, their price tags were also quite intricate as well). But there was harmony to the flow of the metal, sheen to each stone. There were few people inside the shop—probably only few people could afford this kind of luxury—but the place seemed quite well-respected despite its tiny stature.

Unbidden, the image of one of Hohenheim’s twelve journals leapt into his mind. The seventh journal had, on its front, a twisting and rather gnarled image of an upside-down tree, similar to the one that had been on the Gate’s front, but not quite as accurate. Hohenheim’s design looked like it was improvised, somewhat styled to be nothing but a design. It was elegant, though, just like everything else that was of Hohenheim’s. The sketch ebbed and flowed with the right amount of power in the right eddies and banks. Perhaps—yes, perhaps—

Stepping into the jeweller’s place, he eyed around for somebody, and jumped affright when a rough, loud voice called from beyond a darkened doorway, “Anything you want in particular?”

Rapidly blinking to adjust to the gloom, Ed stupidly uttered, “Uhh.”

“Dad, you’re going to scare him off!” Ed’s attention was quickly caught by the child—about his age, more or less—standing by one of the displays further inside the gloom. Brushing aside a long brown fringe, the kid approached him and asked, “What can we help you with today, sir?”

It was then that he realized that this was who had told him to move aside from the displays outside. It took him a moment to regain his footing, and when he did, he immediately barrelled in, “I need gold.”

The boy blinked in surprise, perhaps not accustomed to such a direct and unusual request.

“Well, you’re going to have to be more specific than that,” the voice from the doorway said. A tall, burly man stepped out from the back room, puffing on a large pipe once, and then setting it down. “Bit unusual for boys like you to be asking for gold now, isn’t it? You’re about the same age as Karl here. What do you need the gold for?”

Levelling his jaw, Ed turned his eyes to the boy’s father (and presumably the goldsmith) to say, “I am an alchemist. At the moment, I am in the process of crafting a certain something to give as a gift to a certain someone, and I need the highest quality gold I can get.” Hell knows Mustang isn’t going to settle for anything less than the best.

A rumbling chuckle bubbled from the burly man’s chest. “An alchemist, eh. At your age, that is quite an achievement.”

Ed gave a tilt of his head in concession. “Your son here seems like he himself is quite an expert in metalwork.”

“No; he still has a ways to go,” and the boy, Karl, smiled mildly at his father. “Tell me, now. What kind of gold do you need?”

Ed blinked.

“Perhaps I began with the wrong question,” the man retraced his steps. “Tell me what you want to use the gold for.”

“Well,” Ed tipped his head to the side, “I’ll be using it as an embellishment for a journal, so I need it to be malleable enough but with strength to it. I think I’ll be using it for a lock mechanism as well.”

“In that case, I don’t suggest pure gold,” the burly man began puffing on his pipe again. “Pure 24 karat is too soft for your purposes. However, you want it soft enough for your design, so we’ll try to keep as close to pure gold as possible. White gold will provide you with the best structure, how about it?”

As if on cue, Karl retrieved for him a ring of solid white gold. Ed peered down at the material without touching it.

“Mmm,” he chewed on his lip. “I like it, it’s pretty—“

“But?” prompted the goldsmith.

“—but it’s not appropriate to the person I’m giving it to. If that makes any sense,” Ed clinched his shoulders in an awkward shrug. “I was thinking of something more... yellow. You know. Like fire.”

“Maybe crown gold, then?” suggested Karl. “It’s very yellow. This one down here.”

Ed knelt and squinted at the necklace on the second shelf. “...that’s yellow, alright.”

“But wait, you said fire, right?” dipping even lower, the boy pointed to the lowest level of the shelf. “That one is rose gold. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Huh,” Ed blinked again, looking up at the goldsmith, who was watching them quietly. “How many different configurations of gold are there?”

“Seven, I would say, but most people either discount grey gold, or classify purple and blue gold as one,” the goldsmith explained. “It all boils down to composition, as I’m sure you’re well aware, young alchemist that you are. Gold alloys easily with other metals; it’s a matter of finding the right mixture to give you just the strength, colour, and malleability you want.”

All the while, Ed’s eyes were roving over rows and rows of different coloured gold, observing their sheen as his mind raced a million miles a minute. “Could you tell me the configuration for each type? Approximates are fine.”

The goldsmith gave a sharp bark of dry laughter. “Begging your extreme pardon, young sir, but I’ve been in this craft for long before you were born. Approximates don’t make my gold.” Promptly, the goldsmith began enumerating to him the different balances of alloy each configuration of gold had. He quickly snatched pen and paper from Karl, who occasionally gave his own input into the (heavily one-sided) conversation.

Within fifteen minutes, Ed was looking down at a hasty but complete list of common gold alloys. The chemistry of it was something he had no trouble comprehending; in fact, simply by looking at this list, he could already see which kinds he needed and what he wanted to do with them.

He looked back up at the goldsmith and said, “I would like one sheet of your best rose gold and one sheet of your best grey gold, please.”

 

The trip home took less time, perhaps because he was by now familiar with the sights. He stopped a little short of the road that would take him home to pick up baked pockets of bread with pasta sauce, meat, and cheese inside. And finally, when he had gotten everything he needed, he headed home.

Sigmund, the goldsmith, had graciously provided him with what he needed; the rest of the raw materials he could produce on his own at home. He carried his very light sheets of gold inside the canvas bag, wrapped around thick pieces of cloth to protect them from injury or tarnish. Not that they would tarnish that easily, but he was being cautious. They had cost him a fortune, after all.

Ah, well. At least now I know what I’ll be doing.

His uplifted mood did not last for very long, however. The moment he turned the corner into the cul-de-sac within which Mustang’s house sat, he found a military car slowing down to park in front of the house. The Bastard was home.

Shit.

The bastard would herniate a brain if his little unguarded trip outside was found out! Shoving his snacks into the canvas bag, he sprinted across the street, keeping his head low and ducking into the neighbour’s shrubbery. He skirted around the metal fence separating the neighbour’s garden from Mustang’s yard. When he could finally see the tall tree that stood in the middle of Mustang and Hughes’ joined backyards, he deftly scaled the fence’s height, leaping over and making a mad dash for the other side of the house. He forwent the back door; Mustang would probably see him if he went through.

My best bet is this.

Staring up at the immaculately painted white wall he spied his bedroom windows and hitched the canvas bag higher on his shoulder. He did not dare toy with the house’s structure and foundation by using alchemy, but luckily for him, there were ledges that even he at his height (goddamned tall people) could grab hold of and use as leverage. In no time, he was prying his windows open (this time with alchemy) and slipping inside.

Shoving the canvas bag under the bed, he shimmied out of his clothes to don his usual indoor wear. By the time he stumbled out of his room to answer Mustang’s call, the Bastard was already in the library, looking fairly perplexed at the lack of blond in his house.

“Where were you?” Mustang frowned, draping his jacket across a couch’s arm.

“Uhh, in my room?” Ed shrugged, brushing past Mustang and collapsing into his favourite spot by the table. “I was napping; you woke me up.”

Mustang made a small sound of understanding at the back of his throat. “I didn’t know napping required you to have your fly open.”

It took him a moment to process what Mustang had just said—but the moment he did, a ferocious blush slammed into his face. Spluttering in embarrassment, Ed quickly zipped his fly up and chucked a pillow at the Bastard. He scowled as the pillow was blocked by a quick arm, and the scowl only grew deeper as Mustang began to heartily chuckle. Ed could feel the redness creeping down his neck and to the very tips of his ears, painfully hot and all too vivid.

“I was not doing anything of that sort!”

“It’s quite alright, Edward, you don’t have to hide it. I understand that you’re at that age now. It’s perfectly normal. I just want you to learn to clean up after yourself efficiently.”

Biting his lip and puffing his cheeks, he tried to make himself as tiny as possible by sinking as deep as he could into the couch. A cloak of shame draped over him, growing only more formidable as Mustang passed by and gave his hair an affectionate ruffle.

He needed a diversion.

“You’re home early.”

“Yes; I skipped a meeting and ran away from Hawkeye,” the Bastard’s tone was shameless, instead full to the brim with pride. Ed had to suppress the overwhelming urge to rifle through the phonebook, find Hawkeye’s number, and call her up to tell her that Mustang was at home and not doing his job. “But if I had known that you would be busy, I would have taken a few minutes to stroll through Central Plaza. The next time I’m coming home early, I’ll be sure to call you first before leaving to give you some time to, ah, finish your business.”

Fucking lecherous son of a—

“Now, I’m sure you’ve encountered this in reading already, given your precocious nature,” Mustang sat down across from him and continued, showing no sign of relent, “but when young men—and women—of your age and a little bit older begin puberty, there begin to bud certain... feelings, if you will. I want you to understand that such carnal desires are perfectly normal, and they are nothing to be ashamed of.”

Flushing only deeper, Ed cupped his palms over his ears as Mustang, seemingly oblivious to his pitiful state, went on with what Ed supposed was an elegantly improvised version of the birds-and-bees lecture. He’d already heard this before, from Izumi, who was as shameless as Mustang, but frank and not quite as mocking. Hearing it once was more than enough.

 

“Experimentation is a common thing, and it isn’t entirely bad,” the Bastard went on. “You simply must keep in mind your own safety and propriety. Do not experiment with strangers; you never know what communicable diseases they or their previous partners might have had. The safest way is to find somebody you know quite well to experiment with—but make sure that your friendship is strong enough to withstand the initial awkwardness that will come afterwards. Remember to clean up and zip your fly when you’re done.”

Not listeniiiiing,” Ed droned, loudly so to drown the Bastard’s voice out, with his palms still cupping his ears.

But the Bastard only spoke louder. “Keep in mind that there are other ways of... achieving completion, and that not all of them require intimate contact. It’s best to keep minimal contact with a partner as much as possible, especially if you don’t know them. You will be surprised with the number of things you can pull off with just one hand.”

Not listeniiiiiiiing,” Ed droned, even louder to match the Bastard’s voice. “Fuck, Mustang, is there a limit to your vulgarity?”

“I thought you weren’t listening,” Mustang smirked, leisurely spreading his arms to assume a painfully smug and perfectly beautiful pose, the bloody exhibitionist. “And it isn’t vulgarity; I am simply stating the plain and unadulterated truth. Truth is what you prefer, no?”

Cheeks puffing out in a childish pout, Ed crossed his arms, harrumphed, and sat in sulky silence for the next fifteen minutes, leaving Mustang chuckling gaily to himself. This was the only thing he could retaliate with at this point, and it was admittedly rather pathetic; the Bastard was far too good at this, annoying as it was to accept that fact.

A few more words of much amused taunting and Mustang finally grew tired of the game—or so Ed hoped. Mustang took a few minutes to change out of his work clothes. Shortly afterwards, Ed tagged along as they stepped downstairs to prepare dinner for the two of them, plus Gracia, Hughes, and the baby inside Gracia. Tonight was their turn to be the host, Mustang said, and so they were going to make something extra-special.

Not once throughout the rest of the night did Mustang make mention of his little “nap” again, and much later, when he was fixing to sleep, Ed gently toed the edge of the canvas bag under the bed. Tonight, he had clenched his teeth under Mustang’s wicked teasing, but it was all for a good cause. He could not wait until Mustang’s birthday, when he would finally get to see the Bastard’s face grow slack at the gift. It would be downright precious.

Hughes would bring the camera.

 

 

~

 

The rest of the week and a half before Mustang’s birthday passed in a blur of preparations, blackmail, and bribing. He was quick to learn that Hughes was not someone he wanted to have a friendly blackmailing match with, let alone an unfriendly one. Hughes had an undeniable talent for observation. Coupled with his blade-sharp intuition, it was no wonder how he became the perfect partner-in-devilry for Mustang. The two of them were peas in a pod; brothers by soul, if not by blood. Mustang was the master of exploiting information; Hughes was his reliable source. Needless to say, he failed in his attempts to discover what Hughes’ gift was.

On the day of the occasion, Ed languished about, his grumpiness multiplying tenfold after Mustang left for work again without telling him about the event. The man acted like it was just any other day: Mustang woke him up, fed him breakfast, trumped him in a quick game of chess, and then, with a pitiful groan, left for work.

Why did Mustang not tell him at all that today was his birthday?

Granted, he was yet a guest in this house, and they had only known each other for such a short span of time, but he fancied himself quite close to Mustang, especially when compared against other people who were mere acquaintances and knew nothing of Mustang’s hidden faces. Even Hughes, who knew Mustang better than any other in this world, repeatedly remarked at how affectionate Mustang was with him. He failed to understand why Mustang was hiding something as simple as a birthday.

The Bastard probably doesn’t want me to feel obliged to get him anything, so he doesn’t tell me at all.

That was what Gracia had told him, and that was the most likely explanation. Still, he felt rather put out. Why did the Bastard have to get shy about the oddest things? It only ever made things more awkward. How was he supposed to act later for the party? Would it be more appropriate to feign surprise, or should he act like he had known all along? Suffice to say, his mind was full of these quiet concerns throughout the day.

By the time he descended from the library, he could already hear a gathering of voices from the great hall. Gracia had warned him to get ready by a certain time, and he was glad he that did. His attire was something he had chosen for himself, something simple but stately. His confidence, however, was flagging at that moment, so he ended up dawdling inside the kitchen.

Just then, Hughes emerged from the basement cellar, carrying with him three bottles of prime wine. “There you are! General Armstrong was just asking for you,” shifting his burden into one arm, Hughes ushered him into the formal dining. “Roy, here he is!” and he was taken by the shoulders to the centre of the room where Mustang stood entertaining guests.

But he was not paying attention to whatever Mustang was saying, occupied as he was looking up at the people gathered around the table. There was but select few of them—Mustang’s team, Hughes and Gracia, and the Armstrongs. Giovanni, the owner of the park restaurant, was present and in charge of the majority of the menu. The cafe owner was present with his wife, and so were the tailor and the shoemaker, a couple of other people Ed didn’t know but were most likely also business associates, and much to his pleasant surprise, the stationery shop’s owner, Marc.

Soon, the guests began settling into their places around the long formal table. Ed found himself shuffled to sit right beside Mustang—which, unfortunately, also put him right beside General Lucas Armstrong.

“Ah, young Mr. Elric,” boomed the Armstrong patriarch. He could not help but curse Hughes to hell and back for placing him in such an awkward position. “We seem to be seeing each other plenty often these days. You must entertain me with more of your alchemical theories tonight, yes?”

“Of course, sir,” he nodded along.

“He’ll be more than happy, I assure you. Alchemists are always such insatiable exhibitionists,” Mustang remarked from his other side. The Bastard was sitting at the head of the table, and for that the Bastard deserved a venomous scowl.

“I believe that rule applies solely to you, Bastard. And you didn’t even tell me about your birthday, shame on your exhibitionist nature! I had to hear it from Gracia!”

Mustang only smiled, tilting his head in what Ed supposed was half an apology and half an acknowledgement.

“Don’t hold it against him, Ed; he just gets shy about the oddest little things,” Hughes winked playfully.

“Yes, well, it’s illogical and therefore annoying,” declared Ed.

General Armstrong’s laughter was hearty. “He has such a strong scientific streak!”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Mustang chuckled.

The happy banter was interrupted when Giovanni and another person whose name he did not know carted into the room a towering cake lathered with the richest kind of chocolate one could ever crave. Ed knew it from the wafting smell: this was first class, shit expensive, handmade Coatl chocolate. The cake had sculpted sugar candles at the top for Mustang to blow—twenty-two of them, arranged in several concentric circles, except Ed was not sure how Mustang would reach that height. The cake was roughly about a meter tall, mounted on a base a foot tall, on top of the cart that was as tall as the formal dining table. All in all, it was rather the impressive thing.

Ed plucked at Mustang’s sleeve. “That’s pure Coatl chocolate, right?”

Mustang smiled. “Well, why don’t you ask Marcel—he’s the one who made the cake.”

Ed turned to the person beside Giovanni. Near-salivating, he echoed himself, “Coatl chocolate, right?”

“Yes; it is pure Coatl chocolate,” Marcel spoke with a distinct accent Ed thought was perhaps Francian. He had heard that the finest patissiers came from Francia.

“But—isn’t that expensive?”

“Ah, but nothing is too expensive for the Monsieur,” and Ed had to blink and pause to realize that Marcel was talking about Mustang.

When everybody had been poured each a glass of ice wine, they all stood to prepare for a toast and the blowing of the candles. A wish was given in a second of silence, and soon enough, Mustang was blowing on his candles. Easily, all twenty-two flames flickered and faded into thin trails of smoke.

Beneath applause and laughter, Ed sat and leaned into Mustang to ask, “What did you wish for?”

But Mustang was a wicked Bastard and said to him, “Wishes die if they’re spoken, Ed. I see you haven’t been read your fairy tales as you should have.”

Ed scowled. “Fairy tales are for children. I’m not a child.”

“Of course you aren’t,” and there again was that indulgent little smile. Though it was Mustang’s birthday, it was him who was being coddled—a strange yet not entirely unwelcome feeling, he thought. He would simply have to make up for it with his gift.

The flameless cake was wheeled aside to now make way for the food. As Ed had expected, tonight was a Vitelian dinner, Mustang’s favourite; Giovanni began laying out the salads and antipasti, only the appetizer but truly enough for a modest meal. But since when did Roy Mustang ever settle for modesty?

“Well, I must say this is quite the spread, Lieutenant Colonel!” General Armstrong remarked, and Ed was inclined to agree.

Before them was a wide variety of nearly everything that Ed could think of that could constitute a crostini. For the cheeses there was fontina, gorgonzola, herb-crusted goat cheese, parmigiano, and fresh mozzarella. For the herbs and spices, basil, sage, oregano, caper, thyme, roasted garlic and peppers submerged in extra-virgin olive oil, lemons, and pesto. For the vegetables, eggplants, fresh and roasted tomatoes both, artichokes, grilled red onions, torched peppers, mushrooms and lots of fresh olives. For the cold cut meats, genoa, salami, anchovies, prosciutto, mortadella, capocollo—so much of everything that Ed had difficulty deciding where to start.

Following Mustang’s suit, he built himself a simple crostini of mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh onions, and a smattering of basil on top. Laughter carried around him, and over the food, conversation was carried out. As always, Mustang was discussing military politics with Hughes and the Armstrongs, while his associates were busy talking business on the other side of the table. Anya the antique seller was having an intense discussion of history with Marc the stationery salesman; Giovanni was busy making rounds and ensuring everybody’s satisfaction with the food; Gracia and Madam Armstrong were both laughing at one thing or another—

Ed paid all of them no attention.

Giving it much-deserved justice, he focused on nothing but the spread of food before him, and barely noticed whenever his name was mentioned within discussion. General Armstrong was most likely talking to Mustang about him, but at this point, his input was unnecessary. All he cared about was the food.

The main course had three parts, the first of which was chicken breast in rich marsala sauce, with mushrooms and cavatappi, accompanied by marsala wine. The second was beef bolognaise with carrots, onions, bacon, celery, garlic, mushrooms, pancetta, and the light lace of white wine in it which Ed was proud of himself for having caught. The third and last one was the richest crab Ed had ever tasted in his life, with lobster ravioli and trout in pink sauce—no doubt a dish that cost a small fortune. Seafood was special fare in Amestris, a land-locked country with little direct access to seawater. All of their sea fare had to go through trade routes crossing Aerugo to the south. By the time it reached Central, the taxes on it were sky-high.

“Giovanni is a very good cook,” he remarked, content as he sank into his seat after finishing his meal. Mustang gave him a fond smile, so he continued tongue-in-cheek, “And since I caught that white wine in the sauce, I think I should get a reward, yes?”

Brow rising, Mustang only sipped on his wine.

“Oh, come on! Doesn’t that mean I’m learning your culinary lessons well? I deserve a reward, and you know it,” so he smugly declared.

“You learn your lessons well precisely because you have a very good teacher, Edward,” Mustang retaliated, but Ed was not going to be defeated by such egotism.

So he plucked on Mustang’s sleeve and said, “My very good teacher will reward me precisely because he is a very good teacher, yes?”

Hughes laughed, and so did the rest of the table. “Touché, Roy! Ed’s too good for you.”

Admitting his defeat, Roy acquiesced. “Very well, Edward. You can have the first slice of cake.”

“Yes!” Ed shot up in his seat, triumphant as the signal for dessert was given. Watching Marcel retrieve for him the honorary first slice of cake was a sweet torture Ed savoured, only half-listening to the explanation that was being given.

“This cake I made especially for Monsieur Mustang’s birthday; it is a new recipe I have yet to put out for sale. It is the Monsieur’s cake, a decadent triple Coatl chocolate sponge and mousse cake.”
Ed picked up his fork and looked up at Mustang only once.

“Go ahead,” the Bastard said.

For the following few minutes, it was all of Ed’s capacity to make little sounds of absolute bliss from the back of his throat. He savoured the stunning depth of flavour that burst forth with each mouthful of rich chocolate cake. Even the Gate, usually but a quiet participant in his daily sensations, squirmed and purred in the rear shadows of his mind. It was cake good enough to make the Gate squirm; it was very good cake.

“I think his brain short-circuited, Roy,” Hughes said from somewhere across the table.

“It’s okay,” the Bastard casually dismissed. “Ed’s brain rewires fast.”

“It is indeed an exquisite delicacy,” Madam Armstrong remarked, savouring her own modest slice. “Of course, Marcel’s confections are always the best of the best. I would most certainly like to see this in your shop. I’m sure Anita and His Excellency the Fuhrer would love this, don’t you think so?”

Mustang chuckled. “I imagine young Selim would love it more. From what I hear, he has quite a monstrous sweet tooth.”

“Oh yes, he devours the snacks I bring from Marcel’s shop every time I go to visit,” Madam Armstrong was apparently quite the influential lady. Ed should have expected nothing less.

“Could you please tell me what this cake is called so I could tell my friends about it?” Catherine Armstrong, the youngest of the family, timidly in her sweet voice. It was the first time Ed had ever heard her speak.

“Ah, I’ve no name for it yet, my lady. I’ve only just completed it, and to be honest, I’ve no idea what to name it.”

“The Roy Cake,” Hughes declared.

Mustang gave his best a friend a flat stare.

“Mustang Cake doesn’t really sound very appetizing,” Havoc remarked from further down the table.

“Why can’t it be just chocolate cake?” Fuery frowned.

“You’d be a miserable businessman,” Breda snorted.

“Epicurean Delight?” Anya suggested while licking her fork clean.

“The Hedonist’s Cake,” Hughes declared again.

“Why, thank you, Maes.”

“You’re welcome. It’s a good name!”

“It won’t sell very well,” warned Breda.

“Are you saying I won’t sell very well, Breda?” Mustang raised a brow.

“Yes.”

The table erupted in laughter.

Reclining in his seat, Ed imperiously brandished a forkful of cake at the table. “You all know that I should be the one to name it since I got the first slice, right? Besides, you all suck. Zero naming sense. Quite pathetic, if you ask me.”

“Hey, my name was nice!” an indignant Anya retorted.

“My name was nice too!” a look of betrayal was on Hughes’ face. “I would have thought you would have liked The Hedonist’s Cake, Ed.”

Ed ignored both of them. With a flourish towards the meter-tall confection of pure chocolate glory, Ed declared, “From here on, I dub thee the Devil Cake.”

And, amongst much laughter, so became the name.

 

Dessert was soon finished, with the remainders of the cake packed away into the kitchen for later consumption by none other than Ed. There were actually other things laid out to complement the cake (fruits, brie and other cheeses, feta with nuts and honey) but Ed had been far too preoccupied with the Coatl chocolate to notice them. Bastien, Mustang’s wine merchant associate, stood to circulate shots of limoncello afterwards; when Ed asked Mustang what it was for, he was told that it cut through the rich aftertaste of their meal. And so it did, offering his tongue a refreshing respite.

It was now time for gift-giving. Mustang’s business associates chose to go first, excepting Giovanni, Marcel, and Bastien, whose gifts were their exclusive services for the day. Bastien had an additional gift of a handful of bottles of exquisite wine and self-made limoncello to add to Mustang’s cellar. Each associate had a thing or two to offer, perhaps prime produce, or a one-of-a-kind find, like the antique shopkeeper Anya’s gift.

She had for Mustang an exquisite Albert chain made of white gold, dating from a century ago during the early-middle period of the Victorian era in Ailia. It was made by a craftsman long deceased but whose name remained among the best goldsmiths in Ailian history. Ed was willing to bet that the chain would fetch quite a fortune if put on the market—but few people would be able to afford such a thing anyway, and with Mustang, it would be in very good hands.

When the business associates finished with their gifts, everybody turned to Mustang’s motley crew of military men, who all turned to each other with a wide grin, and subsequently presented Mustang a small golden envelope, sealed.

If only the tiniest bit apprehensive, Mustang slit the envelope open to peek inside. Hughes was listing off the possibilities: money, a girl’s calling card, a blackmail-worthy photo of Bradley, a gift card to an upscale burlesque theatre—and sure enough, Mustang took a photo out.

Hughes’ eyes bugged. “Holy feathery birds in heaven, you didn’t really get a blackmail-worthy photo of Bradley in a dress, did you?!”

Havoc was seized by a flurry of coughs, while Fuery flushed a brilliant beet red from beneath his collar. Breda was forcedly nonchalant about the entire matter, but Falman struggled to maintain a straight face.

“Well, their reactions certainly are suggestive,” the former General Armstrong watched with much amusement.

But Ed was leaning into Mustang’s space to peek at the photo and found no Bradleys in dresses. “What’s that?”

Mustang smirked and flipped the photo over for everyone to see. There within the frames was the image of a big hunk of metal sitting on a table, in what Ed assumed was Mustang’s military office, or part of it, at least “It’s a cappuccino machine, Ed. I see you got tired of Hawkeye’s coffee, yes, Havoc?”
Hawkeye, who apparently did not pitch in with this gift, settled a glare upon the men.

“That’s actually quite ingenious,” Hughes nodded. “It’s a gift for Roy, but you get to use it too. Double investment. Very nice.”

“It was Breda’s idea, actually.”

Havoc cleared his throat and made a point to avoid Hawkeye’s eyes, but Breda kicked his leg under the table and hissed: “Don’t you lie and make yourself look good!”

“Well,” Falman tried to amend, “it is a fact that Major Hawkeye’s coffee is rather stale.”

The table hushed under Falman’s words. Mustang’s face was wiped clean of any expression, while Hughes was torn between horrified glee and pity. Havoc, Fuery, and Breda were all simply frozen in fear.

There stretched a few tense seconds—until Gracia chuckled and gave Hawkeye’s arm a pat.

“Don’t mind the boys, Riza; we’ll just make sure not to include their portions the next time we bake our apple pies.”

This was met with a communal gasp of horror, while Ed quipped, “Can I have their portions instead?” Protests rang from Mustang’s men, while Mustang sat back and shook his head with a chuckle. Hughes shamelessly cackled at their misery; he wasn’t nearly as conscientious as Mustang was.

When the raucous mess finally quieted down, it was Hawkeye’s turn, and she slid across the table a cylindrical tube wrapped in decorative paper. It was about a foot and a half long and quite heavy. Mustang thanked her and began carefully unwrapping the tube. Inside was a long rolled sheet of pyrogenic leather.

Mustang’s mouth formed a tiny ‘o’ and he turned to her with a smile. “Thank you. This is quite a find.”

Ed learned that while pyrogenic cloth was relatively easy to find, pyrogenic leather was a rarity. There were very few species of animals able to produce natural high-quality pyrogenic leather, and even fewer within the continent. This was most likely an import from across the sea to the south.

The roll of leather was covered back up with wrapping paper and put aside, away from the table to prevent any spills on it. Next up were the Armstrongs, and Ed had to admit that he was quite curious about their gift too.

Alex Armstrong stood to retrieve a very wide cloth-covered frame from a corner, brought it over, and held it up for Mustang to see. The Armstrong patriarch drew the cloth back to reveal a captivating painting of an ancient city—was that Xerxes?—lit up by a massive alchemical charge. By the degree of it depicted in the image, it had to be a sizable, very powerful array—perhaps bigger than even the city shown on the painting.

Anya gave a low whistle of admiration, shifting forward in her seat to see. Ed, too, was riveted.

“A brilliant work of art, this one is. The Vanishing—such a title the artist gave it from the epic that inspired its creation. It is the best interpretation of the Xerxian collapse I have seen so far, if I might be so bold. You did mention that you are conducting research on Xerxian alchemy at present, so I thought you might appreciate this piece.”

Mustang looked rather stunned. “General, this piece is priceless. Are you sure—“

“Quite, Lieutenant Colonel; I have no qualms in relinquishing this piece to your care,” the General effectively forestalled any protests Mustang could have voiced. “With you, I can rest assured that it is in good hands.”

Tipping his head, Mustang smiled. “Your words are wasted on me, General. Thank you. I shall take good care of it.”

“See that you do,” the General motioned for his son to put the frame safely away. “It is quite hard to find you a gift, you know that, Mustang?”

“I have been told that, yes,” Mustang chuckled.

Beside the Bastard, Ed grumbled to himself. ‘Quite hard’ was an understatement; it was fucking impossible to find the rich ass anything as a gift! He mourned having to make a new gift for every single one of Mustang’s birthdays in the future. Surely there would come a day when he would run out of options! The man already had everything.

“Well, Ed! It’s your turn!” Hughes grinned happily, pulling out his camera, the overeager paparazzi. “I know you’ve been working on a gift for the past week! Cough it up!”

Mustang smiled. “Aww, Edward, you didn’t have to! How sweet of you.”

“Shush, you,” Ed narrowed his eyes at Mustang, before scowling at Hughes and slamming a fist on the table. “You first.”

“Oh, no no no, you first,” Hughes refused.

“Well, my gift is still upstairs, so you first.”

“Well, my gift is still outside, so you first.”

“What does it matter who goes first anyway? You first!”

“If it doesn’t matter at all, then why are you arguing? You first!”

“Because you go first.”

“No, you go first.”

Children,” Mustang pushed Hughes and Ed apart with a long-suffering sigh. “Please behave yourselves. We are at the table, and we have guests.”

“Now, Maes, why don’t we let Roy choose who goes first?” Gracia offered, to which Mustang grimaced.

“Oh, fine, Maes, you go first. I don’t see the big deal, anyway. You’re probably going to give me a list of eligible ladies for marriage or something equally ridiculous like last year.”

“Noooo, my gift this year is perfectly appropriate! I was being considerate of you!” Hughes wailed. “Why did you choose me first? Don’t you love me anymore?! That means you’re putting Ed as your most special person because you’re saving him for last! I feel so betrayed!”

“It’s because I deserve it. I’m special, so deal with it, and get your gift!” Ed declared with much relish.

Still bemoaning his betrayal, Hughes trudged out of the house. Highly amused chuckles went around the table, but they were all curious, because apparently, no one, except Gracia, has seen what Hughes had prepared for Mustang. Ed craned his head around General Armstrong to see as Hughes stepped back into the house with something in his arms—

“Arf!”

—and blinked when Hughes dumped an armful of fur into Mustang’s arms.

“Happy birthday, Roy! He’s my gift for you!”

The thing in Mustang’s arms wiggled and squirmed and turned to lick at Mustang’s cheek.

“Dog,” Ed deadpanned.

“Arf!” it wagged its tail.

“Puppy, to be more exact,” Hughes explained, though the dog was far too big to be a puppy in Ed’s eyes. As if cognizant of his exact thoughts, Hughes continued, “It’s a purebred Golden Retriever, about three months old. They’re naturally large even when young. Easily trained, very smart dog.”

“Hughes, whatever made you think that it’s a good idea for me to have a dog in my house?”

“Well, think about it this way! Ed is very lonely when you’re away—“

“I am not!”

“—but now, he will have the dog to keep him company while you’re at work! You need to give him a name, by the way.” Hughes began to pet the dog, and, pleased, it turned to nuzzle into Hughes’ hand. “Look, I even bought him a collar! All you have to do is bring the tag to a metalworker so they can inscribe whatever name you decide for him.”

And sure enough, around the dog’s neck was a brown leather collar, sturdy but light, with a golden plate on the back reading, ‘Property of Roy Mustang,’ and a blank golden tag dangling at the front.

“It seems to like Ed well enough,” the dog was squirming to get into Ed’s lap. Ed was busy trying to push it back into Mustang’s arms. “How about we name you Sebastian?”

The dog turned its head at the name, thumping its tail against the table. “Arf!”

“Trust you to choose some old-style, clichéd name,” grimaced Ed. “I’m not going to be cleaning up after this dog!”

“By the end of the month, he’ll know enough not to make a mess, I assure you,” the Bastard sounded confident of his ability to train the dog. Ed sincerely hoped there was some solid experience behind those words, because he sure as hell had none. He began to earnestly fear for the library. What if the dog mutilated his precious books? No, he would not stand for that! He had to guard the books—with his life, if need be!

“Now!” Hughes slammed a hand on the table, as Ed had done a while ago. “Time for your gift, Ed! Come on!”

Puffing his cheeks, Ed menaced at the dog and declared, “I am not bringing my gift out while this dog is here. I am not about to let it slobber all over my hard work!”

So Mustang relinquished the dog to the floor and let it scuttle under the table. It seemed intent on sniffing at everybody. Ed did not nearly mind that as much as having it sit on the table while he brought his gift.

“Your gift?” Hughes heckled.

Ed rose from his seat with a grunt, by all rights stomping up the stairs. Having to stand up was a pain, what with a full stomach. Oh, what he would not give to simply sit, rest himself, and fall asleep! He could have brought the gift downstairs earlier, except he did not want Mustang seeing it beforehand. Such an inconvenience the Bastard was, as always.

He could still hear chatter from downstairs as he slipped into his room. He had kept the item under his bed, bundled up in cloth. It needed no wrapping, the beautiful and convenient thing; it was bare as he hefted it into his arms. Checking for the sheet of grey gold in his pocket, he made his way down the stairs and back into the dining room, drawing everybody’s attention.

With much glee, he walked up to Mustang and relinquished it atop the table: seemingly an innocuous solid block of gold. “Happy birthday, Bastard.”

Mustang could only blink.

“Well, it’s certainly very... shiny,” noted Hughes.

“Curious,” the Bastard was peering at it as if to try and find a seam. “How do you open it?”

The wide grin stretching Ed’s lips then was Gate-worthy in its catty deviance. “Well, it depends.”

“On?”

“On what kind of jewellery you would like to wear. Necklace? Ring? Bracelet? I highly suggest necklace; it’s the hardest to lose. Trust me when I say you won’t want to lose it. Necklace it is, then.”

Happily, Ed retrieved the sheet of grey gold he had in his pocket and, with it in between, he brought his palms together in a clap. Blue and white sparks of energy crackled into life as he drew his palms apart. Gasps were drawn as he raised his hands. They revealed the sheet of gold twisting and moulding itself into a beautiful chain, one link after the other, until finally the centrepiece, the pendant, was formed. It was an intricate circular network of strands of gold only a little fatter than pieces of thread. One could say the design was somewhat floral; in truth, it was a series of interlinked tangents forming an alchemical circle. At termination, the beautiful design gave birth to a ball of strands of gold the size of a penny.

Satisfied, Ed handed the chain to Mustang, who took a moment to peer closely at the pendant’s framework.

“Those—are those scripts, Ed?” Mustang gave him an incredulous look. “Those are tiny. Are you sure they’ll work?”

Scowling in offence, Ed slapped Mustang’s hand aside and seized the necklace. “Quit your complaining and just open the damn gift!” but he ended up opening it himself, showing Mustang how to align the pendant to a small dot-like divot on the surface of the golden box.

Red sparks promptly spilled outwards from the centre. Blooming like a flower, the ball-shaped pendant unfurled to reveal a smaller ball inside. Its petals flattened against the golden box, and upon contact, the scripts ignited a subsequent reaction. Bright orange lightning ran across the box’s surface, splitting it open.

The separated sections began to thin into tendrils twining around each other, vines of gold charting a path along the book that was revealed underneath. They wrapped around it to hug it in an intricate tangle that even the best of metalworkers would be hard-fought to mimic. Offering no slip by which the book could be opened, the vines began to settle. And, as they did, the last of the reaction caught fire, a bright yellow fire, seemingly tugging at the pendant’s grey gold chain and absorbing it into the vines. Like the skies and sun approaching dusk, the vines’ colour turned into a vibrant fiery mixture of rose and crown gold—a gradient of yellow and red. The product was a visual illusion of fire, seemingly living and liquid as they shimmered under light.

When the reaction was finished, but the inner ball of the pendant remained, attached to the centre from where the vines spilled and stemmed. Ed gave it a light twist, and with a quiet slither, the vines parted to allow for the book to be opened.

“There,” Ed pushed the book towards Mustang, who was still quite dumbstruck with his little display. “I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

With a disbelieving note, Hughes echoed, “Disappointed? I don’t think it’s quite possible to be disappointed after that.”

Ed’s grin was both smug and cheeky as he turned back to Mustang. “The paper is top quality Vitelian, and the cover is made of handcrafted fire leather. And inside—“ he nudged Mustang to flip the book open “—is an organized compilation of the theory of fire alchemy over time, through different approaches and schools of thought. It includes everything from the most archaic form to the most modern, Hohenheim’s postulations—and also mine.”

There was no need for him to attach extra weight to his words for Mustang to understand the implication. In this book was information extracted with painstaking effort from the Gate, and it could prove disastrous in the wrong hands. It was one of the reasons he had gone through such trouble to create an intricate locking mechanism for the book. (The other reasons were of vanity and experimentation, but regardless.)

“How do you lock it back up?” and Ed nearly thought the Bastard would never ask.

With a deliberate press-and-squeeze, the inner ball snapped open into a six-point star, flattening its script-laden surface against the vine roots beneath it. He gave it a turn, and following the cue, the necklace began to unspool itself from the rest of the vines. The grey gold began to separate itself, turning the vines back into their original rose colour.

It was like watching the reverse bloom of a flower as the six-point star curled itself into its former spherical shape. Similarly, the strands of grey gold began wrapping itself back around the smaller ball, forming the original intricate web engraved with now deactivated scripts. The vines around the book began to widen and flatten, returning to its original box shape. Soon, the necklace’s chain was once more whole, and with a tug, Ed plucked the pendant off of the surface of the box, promptly terminating the reverse reaction.

Ed was actually somewhat relieved that Mustang resolved to look at the book later instead. The last thing he wanted was a leak of information. He disliked the idea of this many eyes glimpsing the very private pages of that book. Granted, these were trustworthy people, but even then, he felt uncomfortable. Mustang probably felt the same, or even more so, paranoid Bastard that he was.

“I think his gift trumps yours, Maes,” Gracia stage-whispered to his husband, who promptly crumpled into a heap of dismay and betrayal. Mustang ignored him in favour of listening to Ed’s explanation of the alchemical process.

“It’s basically just a two-part reaction joined into one,” Ed was explaining to the Armstrongs. “The first part is a transfiguration reaction, which consisted of forming the vines around the book. The second part consisted of a recombination reaction, which was the absorption of the grey gold into the rose gold to form streaks of crown gold in the vines.”

Streaks of crown gold, you say,” said the old General.

“Yes,” Ed fiddled with the pendant now hanging from Mustang’s neck. “This necklace came from only that small sheet of grey gold—not nearly enough if you ratio it against the amount of rose gold needed to securely box that journal. But I didn’t want to transform the entire box of into crown gold from the beginning. If I only had streaks of crown gold against the rest of the rose gold, then it would create an illusion of fire. It was the perfect effect that I wanted.”

Ed grabbed a pen and paper and drew a triangle for them.

“The middle of this triangle here is pure crown gold. To the far right of the spectrum is the reddish gold, like rose gold—an amalgam of gold and high amounts of pure copper. To the far left is white gold, like grey gold—an amalgam of gold and silver. Grey gold in particular also has elements of manganese and copper, which gives it the telltale darker burnished colour in comparison to white gold’s almost-silver sheen.”

“So if you combine grey and rose gold at the right ratio, you can produce crown gold.” Mustang saw the logic.

“That’s right, because technically, crown gold is a subset of rose gold, in that it has copper as well—but not nearly enough to turn it so red. So if I dilute the red of the copper with the white of the silver, I would trick the metals into assuming a crown gold colour—except it’s not really pure crown gold, but much stronger than that. The manganese, silver, and copper make sure that the structure of the vines will stay intact. At the same time, I produce the fiery effect. It’s quite ingenious, if I may say so myself.”

Laughing, Mustang ruffled Ed’s hair and then rested a hand behind his neck. The man was giving him a little look of fondness and adoration. “That is quite ingenious. I would like to see the scripts you used. The components would have to be reversible, if I understand this correctly, and that’s not something you see all too often.”

“It’s not that hard,” Ed relaxed into his chair, kicking his feet under the table. “The trick with reversibility is that you have to shape your forward reaction so that the second half of it is actually the reverse reaction.”

“Easier said than done, Edward,” and after a moment’s consideration, Mustang added with an indulgent smile, “for most other alchemists, that is.”

“But who feeds the reaction its driving energy? The person who uses the pendant as a key, I take it?” General Armstrong was an astute observer.

At this, the Gate-worthy grin returned to Ed’s face. “Not quite. The person who initiates the reaction has to already have seen the book’s front cover design and the cover page’s design sketch. Otherwise, the circles won’t initiate properly and the book won’t open.”

Hughes blinked. “Is that even possible? That the circle can know the user’s thoughts?”

“It sounds really difficult, doesn’t it? But it’s actually a very common glyph! Almost every circle I know of, with a few notable exceptions, makes good use of it. It’s just that few alchemists realize the glyph’s purpose and meaning,” Ed said. Mustang nodded along; the Bastard knew which glyph he was talking about for sure. “But if you think about it, it makes sense. Wouldn’t a good alchemist first have to know how exactly he wants a reaction to go and what exact results he wants to get before he begins transmuting? Every circle has a built in glyph that adapts that thought and uses it as a blueprint.”

Hughes gave a thoughtful hum. “It just sounds a far cry from the solid natural sciences most of your kind so covet. What you were just talking about sounds suspiciously like magic. Alchemy works on a plane of equality, where one thing is traded for another, yes? Well, how do you determine the value of thoughts? How do you even factor it into an equation, if it can’t be quantified?”

“A good question to which there is surely a good answer, but this good answer I do not know. Neither does anybody, for that matter,” Ed sighed. “This is the one reason why human transmutation will forever be impossible. Unless you know what you can exchange for somebody’s mind and soul, you can’t get them back.”

Hughes’ eyes narrowed, and Ed thought then that perhaps he should not have said that. Hughes knew of his little debacle back in Resembool; no doubt the man was already wondering about it, and his words only further fanned the fire. But Hughes had more tact than to raise the issue now—and Ed had been honest when he had said that he did not know the answer. What had happened with his mother’s transmutation was but an accident.

Ed turned away from Hughes’ piercing gaze and found that the other side of the table, with Mustang’s associates and men, had long since stopped listening to their conversation. It was only Anya who had moved and intently followed Ed’s explanation, which was to be expected. From what Ed could make out, she seemed to be highly educated in art and alchemy. He would not at all be surprised if she too was an alchemist.

Settling easily into his chair, Ed found his knees occupied by the puppy’s head. He fiddled with the dog’s ears as everybody laughed at a jest or another. Ed was in truth not catching much of it, satiated and heavy as he felt because of the food. But he did hear true and clear Mustang’s words as the man leaned into him and spoke, “Thank you, Edward; it’s a lovely gift. I’ll treasure it. But please, the next time you plan on stepping out of the house, do tell me at the very least, okay?”

 

 

~

 

Autumn was upon Central, outside the city seemingly bursting into flames as the leaves began to wilt and fall. Not that Ed had any intention of stepping outside; he no longer had a reason to wish to leave the library at all, despite the beautiful weather. He was all of disinterested; Resembool boasted brighter colours.

For the rest of the week, he remained indoors, perusing the books he had forsaken the past seven days for Mustang’s gift. The Bastard seemed to enjoy the journal fine, so he was happy, but it truly did take its time being made, and such time he could not have afforded if the gift had not been for Mustang. (The Bastard was his landlord, after all; he needed to give some sort of payback.)

Mustang had started translating the Persian text for him to read, and already it was proving to be a handy source for a fresh perspective on the theories. With what little he could glean, he could already see that the Persian notes were but mere variations on the original Xerxian theories, simplified and trimmed down. However, they seemed to be developing towards a slightly different direction than Amestrian alchemy, which had been similarly developing around the same time in history. The Persians were trying to introduce their own touch into old Xerxian alchemy.

Such an interesting progression kept both him and Mustang earnestly engrossed in discussion for nights and days on end, reflecting ideas against each other to further them into proper forms. Mustang had a remarkable knowledge of history and culture across the continent and beyond, and Ed found it an immense help. He would never have understood the implications and cultural connotations of the text on his own.

It was a strange feeling whenever Mustang left for work, the twinge of frustration mingled with sadness in his chest. He sorely hated being left alone in the house now with so much information in his hands—so much to discuss but nobody to discuss it with! It was the bane of every intellectual’s existence. He however refused to talk to the dog; he was not so desperate that he would stoop so low. No; the dog stayed where it was, by the fireplace, curled quietly upon a pillow, watching him work with large imploring canine eyes.

 

He ignored it.

 

The clock chimed ten and he broke from his reading stupor, laying his book on the table and marking the page. Today was different from his usual routine; today he had an appointment to keep. It was Thursday, the first of November, and Mustang had scheduled him for a visit to the doctor.

Why the Bastard had to bother was beyond his capability to comprehend—it wasn’t as if he was particularly unhealthy! But Mustang was insistent upon the issue, and Ed saw no good in trying to resist. The Bastard could make his life hell, so he obeyed.

Getting ready took little time, because he was not the Bastard, and when he left, he secured all doors and windows with alchemy just once, because he was not the Bastard. The doctor’s office was on East 2nd, a main street running from Central Plaza and extending in a southwest-northeast direction. He could, in reality, access it through the inner residential roads instead of taking East 3rd, but with Central, he had little confidence in his navigation skills. Plus, he had an appointment to catch. It would not do to be late, so maybe later, he would explore the inner roads on the way back.

It took exactly twenty minutes to get to the office by tram, just as Mustang had said. He had had to switch cars, but surprisingly it did not cost him that much time. He was almost regretful as he stepped into the threshold’s relative gloom, beautifully gentle as the sunlight was outside.

Since he was a new patient, the nurse explained that he had to go through a full preliminary work-up to establish his baseline. So, quietly, he followed through the basic examination. They weighed him, measured his height (damn that height), had him fill out a health and family history questionnaire, and guided him through a 24-hour diet recall. They gathered his vitals, after which they led him to a quiet room, where he was instructed to sit on the bed and wait for the doctor to arrive.

The room was painted a neutral pale brown, calming to the eyes—a surprising variation from the traditional pristine white. There was a landscape of woods and a path on the wall, spare decorations to make the place comfortable, a neat row of examination equipment, and a sink with liquid soap and tissue paper on the side.

Somehow it all felt wrong.

He never was comfortable within a hospital—or even just a clinic—and his past experiences with them did not help. In his memory, a sick bay meant amputated limbs, Granny Pinako’s hands dirtied with blood, and the pained cries of once strong unshakable men ringing against his ears. In his memory, a hospital bed meant his amputated limbs, Granny Pinako’s hands dirtied with his blood, and his pained cries echoing in the warm burgeoning darkness.

Uneasily, he fidgeted in his seat.

“Mr. Elric?”

Startling, he took a while to gather his wits before him. “Uhh, yes sir.”

The doctor—a tall man with pale skin, dark eyes, and a mild smile—stepped into the room. “I am Dr. Robert Geralds. I believe this is the first time we’ve met, but Lieutenant Colonel Mustang has told me briefly about you over the telephone.”

“Yes,” Ed was quiet, his unease keeping his answers trim.

“From what I understand, you are under his guardianship, yes? We do have some paperwork that we need him to sign for you.”

“I’ll be sure to pass the message on,” Ed said, watching as the doctor laid out a fresh pad of paper and a pen, all in a neat line. “I’m afraid I haven’t had a primary physician before. I’m not sure what you want me to do.”

“That’s quite alright; I’ll tell you what you need to do,” and again the doctor gave him the mild smile, a tired echo of what once would have been bright and full. Being a doctor was painful and demanding work; at times, it took more than what it gave back. This he knew from Winry’s family. “For now, just sit back and relax. We’ll go through some basic questions about your recent health status—if anything has changed at all, I would like for you to tell me. And I want you to know that everything is, of course, confidential.”

Ed kept his answers succinct. Establishing a medical baseline, he now realized, was a lengthy, bothersome process. Necessary though it was, after a while, it was tiring—just like establishing a baseline for an alchemical theory. It involved a lot of tedious work: things that he already knew and understood, but had to be restated for the sake of definition. Tedious.

The doctor was very kind, however, and knew how to carry a conversation. Impressed with his intellect as most people were, the doctor never talked down at him as if he was a child, which he liked. He was also praised for his good health and workout regimen, apparently something few people did. The doctor seemed quite surprised at how clear and healthy his eyes were still, considering his hobby of relentless reading. It was a good thing the doctor encouraged, however; education was something the doctor strongly endorsed.

He felt no qualms about sharing his family history—though of course he skirted the part about his mother and stuck to his confabulated story of a train track accident about his arm and leg. The automail was something he still felt awkward talking about, regardless of whom he was talking to.

But there was no harm here; the doctor did not judge. Surely he was not the first automail-attached patient the doctor has had. Surely there were others. So as the doctor quietly examined the ports, he held himself still.

“They are healing quite well, I must say. Two months ago? It hardly seems like it,” the doctor moved behind him.

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Oh, yes; quite stunning, that’s all. The speed of its healing, I mean.”

Mustang had said that too.

“There’s one other thing that’s quite stunning about you, young man,” the doctor sighed from behind him, as Ed felt the lightest touch of the stethoscope against his back.

“What’s that?” he fervently prayed for no more medical complications; Mustang was already enough of a worrywart as it was. Nonchalant as he seemed, he was quite concerned about what the doctor would say about his general status.

“Your eyes,” the doctor said.

“Sorry?”

“Your eyes, they are quite the stunning colour. I never knew that golden eyes survived to this day. They were said to have gone extinct long before Amestris was established, did you know?”

Ed’s nostrils filled with the tang of chemical—

“Ah, of course you wouldn’t. I didn’t expect you to.”

—and, overwhelmed, he sank into darkness.

 

 

~

 

tbc
arc II chapter 07 ver. 3-08
first draft: 2009.06.08
last edited: 2010.07.05

Chapter Text

 


II : Debut
08

“A simple child,
That lightly drew its breath,
And feels its life in every limb:
What should it know of death?”
( William Wordsworth )

Roy Mustang first encountered Edward Elric through a letter. The envelope was beaten, worn at the edges. The ink spelling his name was faded by its travel. There was no return address on the back or the front; the letter was meant to be a sink or swim.

Inside was a short missive, quick and abrupt, almost as if whoever wrote it feared inconveniencing the recipient. The script was neat, small, and industrial; the paper, immaculate and clean. There was not a single line out of place, and the letter would have been perfect, if not for the twin names signed at the bottom. It said, Edward and Alphonse Elric, sons of Hohenheim, in somewhat disjointed script. Roy thought about how old they would be. From the sound of the letter, fourteen, maybe fifteen—but he knew from Hohenheim himself that the eldest, Edward Elric, was exactly nine and a half years younger than him. Which would make made the boy barely eleven years old.

No less could be expected from the son of a brilliant man who had pioneered a great number of things in the history of alchemy. Hohenheim was no State Alchemist, not even a published researcher, but he was a well-connected man, with plenty of influential friends within the alchemic circles of Amestris and beyond. Roy was acquainted with a fair number of these friends: every last one of them only had words of high regard for Hohenheim’s alchemic brilliance. It would only be logical if that brilliance carried on to the sons.

He looked again over the letter and closely studied the tone of the script. There was agitation, excitement, and fear—all tempered, of course, by a curt politeness that seemed a bit forced. Hohenheim was always a mild-mannered person, peace-loving and never given to war, but perhaps some of his underlying passion had passed on to the sons without enough of his restraint. The very thought sent a shiver down the back of Roy’s neck: Hohenheim’s brilliance combined with an unstoppable intensity for the pursuit of knowledge—indeed, his ideal alchemist.

At first, he did not act upon the letter. Though his curiosity was piqued, there was nothing he could give these two young boys. He had neither the knowledge of Hohenheim’s whereabouts nor the intention to find the man, not when Hohenheim exerted such effort to disappear; he refused to make the trip to Resembool if it would only ruin the family’s peace. It was something Hohenheim had left to protect. So Roy restrained his curiosity and kept busy with his work, thankfully now reposted to Central and far away from the temptation of an easy train stop to say hello. East City would have been too close; his control (already admittedly undermined by his frustration at the lack of worthy intellectual stimulation in the abysmal backwaters of the East) would have inevitably crumbled.

It wasn’t until Maes found the letter on his desk at home that he took action at all. Over the days it had become his pastime to study the ink on the paper as if it held some hidden message he needed to decode. Ever the nosy bastard, Maes had read the letter for himself, subsequently took great pleasure in deriding Roy’s new “obsession” (whatever the man was talking about, he of course had no idea), and then said, “Are you sure you want to sit here and do nothing about these kids? If they’re half as smart as they seem, they would have sent letters out to Hohenheim’s other associates. Even the seedier ones~”

Suffice to say that Maes’ sidelong remark unceremoniously shoved him off of his comfortable spectator’s perch. Hohenheim had several questionable contacts, not all of them confined within the familiar political cesspits of the military. Roy wasn’t keen on these boys being exploited by the hands of power-hungry mongrels like them. Not to say that he himself was not power-hungry, because he was; but he prided himself with a more refined taste—a certain amount of finesse—which most of his opponents he found in desperate need. He would not sully Hohenheim’s sons for the sake of the pursuit of petty power.

The following day, no doubt much to Maes’ great amusement, Riza would find the Lieutenant Colonel Mustang’s office desk vacant if for a short notice of temporary leave. His men, of course, were loyal and true, and could implicitly be trusted to valiantly face the temper of the woman’s guns in his stead.

 

Bloodshed.

He had immersed himself in enough war to notice it from afar. Such things were unforgettable, staining old memories with futility and its accompanying despair. The thickness of it hung around the prim house, muting the off-white fences and red-rimmed windows, a warning and a beckon all at once. The skies responded to the beckon, inking the landscape in a darkness that bled into those unfortunate enough to bear witness. The winds were howling—a low and whistling rumble underneath the quiet, riotous roll of the thunderclouds. As the summer storm brewed over Resembool, so did it under Roy’s skin.

What he found upon arrival in this small, idyllic corner of the countryside was at once a nightmare, at once a miracle: an event with two facets, with two possible paths— and the decision rested on little Edward Elric. Edward, the older boy, was Hohenheim’s son indeed; all doubts were shorn from Roy’s mind by the boy’s overwhelming will and alchemical brilliance. But what that brilliance had just achieved was something Roy’s mind, even clear of doubt, found hard to grasp.

He stood over the last step leading down into the basement, now tasked with the chore of removing the evidence of Edward’s mess. On the floor were pools of blood cloaking precise white lines. He walked around them, around the massive and purposeful array, observing the symbols of Edward’s theory. What was it about this circle—what special aspect or innovation—that made the transmutation succeed? What was unique about this particular reaction that eluded hundreds of years’ worth of research by brilliant alchemical minds? Something apparently so unique and perhaps so unexpectedly fundamental an eleven-year-old could wholly comprehended while wizened old researchers struggled under its weight—and Roy could not see it.

He couldn’t see it. He had seen plenty of experimental human transmutation arrays, even engineered a fair share of his own in his darkest moments after Ishbal, but this particular piece was no different from all of them. (At least, as he understood it in its basic composition, this circle comprised of the same fundamental building blocks—but then again, he reminded himself. Then again, his understanding—along with the rest of the alchemical world’s—has already been undermined by one dismembered child at present restive a few houses away.)

Roy paused. Standing there in the gloom, he felt a great presence, tasted it in the very air he breathed. There were no words to describe it, only the easy and heady crackle of his alchemy feeding the lamplight. His most recent acquaintance with residual energy of such palpable substance, not to mention sheer mass, was on the fire-scorched and blood-soaked streets of Ishbal. This comparison gave him no comfort.

Every alchemist of any worth to his title knew of residual energy, knew that the size and scope of a reaction was proportional to the amount of its detritus. The energy hung in the atmosphere and remained for a period of time relative to its total mass. If the reaction in question was of respectable quality, the energy was as heady and pure as honey; if otherwise, the refuse became comparable to slugs depositing slime.

In the great conquest of early Amestris to secure and construct the Briggs fortress of the north, the military had used (simple and unimaginative) alchemists who were proficient in large-scale mass-production transmutation (such as the making of steel from mined ore and the preparation of edible food from available organic material) in the efforts of the war. These alchemists were conscripted to efficiently supply the infantry with supplies and rations by performing the transmutations as close as logistically possible to the battleground. Whichever combat-designated alchemist posted on the battlefield then drew upon the residual energy resulting from these massive processes to enhance their own reaction. The results, of course, were stunning—alchemically. These processes radiated such power that it was commonplace to find combat alchemists undergoing withdrawal when removed from it. (Roy knew a handful who suffered symptoms after the war.) But little could be done toward prevention, for alchemy customarily siphoned surrounding energy into its purposes, sometimes as if the alchemy itself was sentient.

Such was what Roy’s alchemy invariably did in the presence of Edward’s genius. The energy met him eagerly when he had snapped at the top of the steps to light a fire. The fire had sparked into being with the most minimal of efforts, and to maintain it cost him none. If such energy was visible, Roy knew it would have hung around the room, heavy as a roll of thick white fog.

Drawing more of it into his fingers, he snapped. Ropes of fire scorched the floor, bathing his nose with the scent of burning blood. He snapped and snapped again, letting the finest of tendrils incinerate the symbols beneath his feet. He hoped Edward knew this circle by heart, knew its theory and could reproduce it, because he intended to leave nothing behind. Roy refused to risk the discovery falling into unknown, unfriendly hands.

When he finished, he took a slip of paper from the nearby desk and scribbled a quick circle. It felt silly drawing such an unrefined and simple array after having been stunned by Edward’s genius within these four walls, but he did it anyway, placing it on the floor. It activated with a push of a finger. The floor shone smooth of scorch marks, clean as if a little boy hadn’t lost his arm and leg on its very innocent surface. Vision always lied; plenty of things were never as they seemed.

Roy supposed he should go back now, before the little boy woke again. But he did not feel ready. He was only now beginning to feel the visceral shift of his perceptions, his view of the world and its possibilities. Shock approached with the acceptance of what Edward Elric had achieved.

Human transmutation was reality. And he was there to see its results.

As he walked away from the house, having locked its doors and sealed its windows, the skies convulsed around him in the throes of a storm. For the moment, he hunched and hurried towards cover, but he felt a kinship with the tempest as he began to chart his plans. This downpour would pale in comparison to the storms this event would awaken—and he intended to be right in the very midst of it all.

 

“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
( Friedrich Nietzsche )

He returned to Central and gave the situation some meditative thought. By the window he sat all night, nursing a glass of whiskey even as the evening smouldered over Central. There wasn’t one whiff of a breeze outside.

Against the pane of glass, thrown open to ventilate his rooms, he watched his reflection and he remembered the boy. He kept on seeing himself in Edward’s eyes, suspended in two shining pools of gold, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if the boy’s eyes were two pieces of amber that might capture and hold him intact. It was suffocating; their sheer intensity burned, so much like the fire he controlled—except unlike his flames, this he was not certain he could tether.

He glanced back out at the city, a city of shadows outlined in grey. How like a mirror Edward’s face had been. He remembered himself in the boy, when he was yet young and full of the optimism that came with innocence. That innocence was shed, now. One’s eyes had to peel open when faced with the horrors of war.

How long had he stayed with the boy? A day, maybe two? But it seemed so much longer, so much larger a span of time. Now Edward was an immense figure invading his thoughts, and for the life of him, he could not figure out why.

All he knew for certain was that one day, in the near future, the boy would come to him, and he would open his arms. Despite the inconveniences of having a dependent, Roy knew he was not going to resist. (Maes, if he were present, would question his very ability to do so, faced with the current set of circumstances.) He had already planted the seed of doubt, that one seed that awakened in Edward an awareness of the world out here in its entirety, entirely accessible and all too tempting. The alchemist in Edward would never be able to resist. One day, Roy told himself, one day he would have the opportunity to know Edward Elric in and out.

Throughout his thoughts, he refused to acknowledge the guilt disquieting his heart, for if he did, he would send the boy back home where he truly belonged. He would tell Edward to stay with his brother and mother, rebuild their family, and remain as Hohenheim left them and wanted them to be.

But no. No. Edward was much too precious an investment for that. Should Edward want for guidance, Roy was equipped to provide that. Should Edward want for companionship, Roy thought himself an excellent friend. And should Edward want for someone to call family, Roy would offer his presence—and should they truly become a family, well, Roy didn’t think that was such a bad idea.

 

The day came far sooner than he had expected, when he received a missive on the dull hours of work. He had been dozing over the papers, when a puzzled Havoc walked in, a slip of telegraph transcription in hand. It read, “I’m coming to Central,” and if he were not accustomed to thinking fast on his feet, he would have missed the cue. It could only come from one conceivable source, the only person that should ever bother to inform him of a trip to the city, and already he could feel the tingle of anticipation low in his spine. There was nothing he could do to help the unbidden smirk blooming over his face.

“Crosscheck train schedules for trips arriving from Resembool through the fastest possible route,” he instructed Havoc, shaking the cloak of sleep from its perch around his shoulders. Rest was elusive these days, if for the memory of Edward’s screams. They were shaping up to be as bad as the night terrors he brought home from the desert. Only his extent of experience with such dreams gave him leverage not to fall into the trap, and the thought of how much more the boy should be suffering this ordeal humbled him enough to stem all complaints. He had no right, none at all.

Escaping from Riza was Hard Work, but most definitely worth the reward of watching the little blond boy step off the busy train. The boy’s hair was done up in a simple tie uncannily reminiscent of the missing Van Hohenheim, and Roy could not help a small smile. Edward looked, for all extents and purposes, a lost child with nowhere to go. That the boy considered him a trustworthy enough of an ally to run to engulfed his chest in the same blooming warmth he had puzzled over for so many nights after returning from the countryside. He watched the boy for a moment longer—aimlessly stepping about, weaving to and fro between clumsy human bodies and strewn luggage—before he approached.

“Well, this is certainly earlier than I’d expected,” he said when Edward lingered within earshot. The boy stiffened, alarmed, as if caught in some untoward activity. Roy thought of precisely how the boy could have afforded on his own an express ticket from Resembool—the thought was tucked aside.

Edward turned sullenly on his spot and gave him a scowl, formidable and hawkish despite the small stature. “Hello to you too, Lieutenant Colonel Bastard.”

Roy heard Havoc choke back a startled laugh. There weren’t many in this city willing to offend with such crude language a military officer of Roy’s station and calibre.

But Roy himself was delighted beyond measure. “Come, follow me,” he beckoned with a little smile, making for the north side exit where they were closely parked. It was visible how Edward assessed the situation, lightning-quick golden eyes passing over Havoc and the exit and the station and the people around him. Perhaps the boy had had some combat training, after all. “It is best if we don’t linger outside for too long. We can talk later, at my house.” After a short pause, out of consideration, Roy added, “Unless you have someplace else to go?”

Quietly and almost meekly, Edward said, “No.”

Again, the bloom of warmth. Roy nodded. “You can stay at my place for as long as you need. In fact, it’s probably better that way.” If anything, he refused to have the boy lodge at some inn or board where he was at risk. Talents like Edward needed careful cultivation, and Central was not a place conducive to such—or, at the very least, not the side of Central Edward would no doubt have to acquaint himself with if the boy was forced to survive on his own.

No; penniless students and wandering apprentices were best kept away from the boy until he developed his own form of thinking. They hung around the cheaper renting rooms on the backside of the academic parks. Roy expected Edward to gravitate toward the libraries and colleges, and the students there brought naught but trouble. They were poison to new growth, laden with a conglomeration of old and new ideas learned but never fully understood, with anarchists and socialists and sophists among them plenty. They would foul Edward’s freethinking. For now, the best recourse was to have the boy absorb as much information as he wanted and was able, free to explore the world for what it was. Roy would take it upon himself to teach the boy how to critically think.

When they settled into the car, he introduced Havoc. “He was the one who delivered your telegram,” Roy explained. “It was almost thrown into the bin—you should put a name next time.”

You told me to be discreet,” argued the boy. “I was trying to be discreet. It’s not my fault if your staff can’t even recognize relevant messages from irrelevant ones.”

“’I’m coming to Central’ is hardly enough to tell anyone anything, Edward. Most especially without a name,” Roy smirked, shifting in delight at the boy’s spirited conversation. “If I hadn’t anticipated that you would come, I would have totally ignored it.”

“What—you anticipated that I would run away from home?” the boy was incredulous now, and Roy as incredulous as he.

“Well, no—but I did know that you wouldn’t be able to resist visiting Central for long. I hadn’t expected you would run away from home. In fact, I would’ve thought that would be the last thing you would do.” The very idea sounded ludicrous to Roy—but as the boy pressed lips together and gazed outside, understanding dawned. It was sudden, but it made sense: if Hohenheim was capable of leaving all that he loved behind to chase after some mirage of his alchemy that only he could see, why should his son be incapable of the very same thing?

Roy did not want to presume, of course, that this was the reason Edward left his family. But it was a hard battle not to do so. The questions he itched to ask stumbled into each other at the back of his throat, but he held them and allowed Edward his silence, at least for now. Running head first into such spirited discussions never brought desirable results; even he, master of words and his composure, has in the past lost himself in the whirlwind of uncontrollable confrontation. Such treatment was not something he wanted to dispense Edward, not with so much promise and potential at stake.

Fingers laced and reclined in his seat, he followed Edward’s eyes outside. As ever, the growing obsession consumed his awareness: what did the boy think and see, Roy wondered, looking at Central’s streets, so removed, so alien, from Resembool’s small farmland lanes? The scene was, to Roy, worn and familiar; beloved, but common. But Edward had never seen this before. What a privilege it would be to be able to hear Edward’s thoughts and ideas! He would work hard for the one day that would come when they would be comfortable enough with the other, as friends, to approach such things in the fashion of words.

He resolved to ask the boy about his reasons for leaving home over dinner. It would be a start—a big step for a start. But big steps were better suited for personalities like theirs. If Edward truly did leave home for his alchemy, Roy’s respect and adoration would only kindle further, because he fully believed in alchemy as a just cause—and, once upon a time, long ago before the horrors of Ishbal, he himself left the comfort of home to pursue a dream of fire and power.

 

Work the following day brought narrow inquisition from the eyes of a hawk. She stood beside him as he relinquished his coat, wordless inquiries burning at her fingertips and, if not addressed, at the point of her gun.

“He’s a guest,” he surrendered, raising his voice for the ears of his men, too. “A most esteemed one. Son of one of my mentors in the day. You’d know the name,” he told Riza. “Edward Elric, son of Hohenheim.”

Riza retreated, implications tight within her grasp. Her father, Berthold Hawkeye, was Roy’s primary alchemical mentor. Berthold Hawkeye had also been, in life, one of Hohenheim’s closest and most trusted friends. During the span of time that Roy had lived with the Hawkeyes to learn about alchemy and the world, he had seen more of Hohenheim than he wagered Edward and Alphonse ever saw of the man. Hohenheim spent many days visiting with Berthold and his small household of three. It was at that time when Roy had acquainted himself with Hohenheim’s brilliance and thus kindled the dream to be as powerful and wise. After the war, he often wondered if he had gone about it the wrong way around.

“The boy’s an alchemist, of course,” he said, continuing his explanation. “He’s here to learn; staying at my place for the while.” He prepared for coffee himself before Riza could venture to try. She was better to brew tea, as her coffee was a tad stale and a touch too bitter—not that he’d ever say. Again, certain opinions were better left unsaid when in the presence of potentially punitive powers.

“Better than letting him lodge up North 1st,” Falman remarked, echoing Roy’s exact thoughts the previous day. “That place has some nasty corners.”

“The young ones are always the fiercest, as they say.” Maes swept into the workspace, heading straight for Roy. “What is this I’m hearing about a stray kitten you’ve picked up from the streets?”

“He’s hardly so tame,” Roy scoffed. “The boy’s got himself an excessively sharp tongue in exchange for all his shy bones. I’ll bring him over for a meal sometime soon; he’ll like Gracia, I think.”

“Of course he’ll like Gracia! Everyone likes Gracia! She’s everything likeable about the world!”

“Yes, of course, Maes—but more importantly,” he cut into his friend’s impending tirade, “I need you to keep this quiet.” He turned to his men. “All of you. I can’t have top brass hearing about Edward’s background. Hohenheim is quite famous among the alchemic trade. The younger ones might not know him, but the older ones surely will. I’d like to keep him away from such things until he’s ready and willing to take it on. It’s nothing particularly top secret—but you understand, I’m sure. The military doesn’t much care for age weighed against an alchemist’s usefulness.”

Maes could only smile. “Oh, it does care for age, dear old friend; I rather think it prefers them young.”

“Precisely,” Roy pronounced, heavy and slick as the fall of an axe. Sharp, it sheared away further points of dispute. Maes’ sidelong jab at his military debut—far too early, at far too young an age—fell severed, unacknowledged, to the side.

The rest of the day was a humdrum of the mundane, made only faster to pass by the business of his thoughts. They meandered, for the most part, but eventually returned to Edward, like trains crisscrossing the country but at night returning to the station to rest. He thought of the previous night and this morning; he thought of Edward’s awe. It was a startling change—a welcome one, for it did a wonder to refresh his nerves. Most people, when they saw his house, were struck with the envious kind of awe. On his few friends’ part, there was no awe at all; only a resigned, or sometimes appraising, indulgent smile.

But Edward—Edward—approached all things the same. Edward approached everything with the fiercest and most sincere hunger for knowledge, openness and alacrity few souls could boast to possess. The awe that fluttered, unashamed, on Edward’s face was the type of wondering, delighted awe that a child with a ravenous sweet tooth might put on, were he positioned in the midst of a prime confectionery. Edward held nothing of envy, of disdain or disregard. No; Edward was truly and honestly in awe of what he kept and collected at home.

The people who understood what he had spent years and fortunes to attain books, relics, scrolls, and such items—were as few and far between as trusted lifelong friends. Edward was now among them. To don the same kind of awe as Edward required a keen appreciation for the value of knowledge and the effort it demanded to manifest. Roy could not have wished for a better person to invite into his home; Edward understood him, or at the very least was geared towards understanding, and Roy would be lying if meeting that understanding was not a relief.

It had been a long time, he thought to himself as he left the office that afternoon, since the last time he had been so eager for company at home.

 

When he arrived, what he found was quite expected. Edward was there, supine on the couch, face half-concealed by the squared edges of a book. The tome was familiar, no doubt a piece of his library. Hardbound and thick with pages of aged papyrus, they looked perfectly at home within Edward’s young hands. The boy, however, failed to notice his arrival until Roy stood close and prodded for attention.

“Do make sure to lock the doors if you’re going to be floating off into your own world like that,” he relinquished his jacket on the chair by his desk.

“Yes, Mommy.” Roy could easily conjure Ed’s exasperated face.

“I’m serious, Edward. Central is a far cry from Resembool. There are troubled souls here who are not above breaking and entering,” and he knew it, quite intimately, from his short time renting a space outside of military barracks. Some people liked to think that being employed as a soldier meant trunks stuffed and full of gold. Not that he was particularly poor even then, but his money was in the bank, as most persons with command of logic would have their money kept. There weren’t very many of them, logical folk. Fortune had smiled upon him as always; only the few of his possessions that were cheap and dispensable were taken by the thieves. They had no notion of the value of his antiques and rusting relics and piles of books strewn about the place. They were not alchemists.

“Let ‘em come,” Edward petulantly grumbled, grounding Roy’s peripatetic thoughts with gravity only the boy could command at such an age. “Not like I can’t defend myself.”

And such mettle! Few would be so confident. Perhaps it was his youth, but Edward had a fierce and daring spirit. It also affirmed Roy’s suspicions that Edward had received combat training. All for the better, he thought to himself, mindful of the dangers lurking Central’s streets. Plenty would be willing to swallow Edward whole if they knew of the promise his talents were worth.

“You know,” Edward began, “this book has some rather interesting theories.” The book in question was the same lighter tome, gold-gilded and beautiful upon closer inspection. Roy could not remember ever reading the thing; higher up in the military’s pecking order meant he was getting very busy (not that the slave work ever varied). Such was evident now, as he stacked paperwork on the table where he could find space. “It talks about sub-atomic theory,” Edward was explaining, “but this thing had to have been written before the age of common sense and healthy handwashing. Makes absolutely no sense except for the part where it really does.”

“Hm,” Roy paused. “This is... a Persian book? Or Xingese?” The papyrus pointed Persian.

“Persian, I think,” Edward confirmed, fingers—almost lovingly—tracing the inked lines barely faded by age. “Golds and greens. Where in the world do you find these books?”

“I have contacts.”

“Introduce me.”

Roy had to smile. “One day,” he promised, indulgence brimming over with familiar warmth. There were very few things he could resist the boy. He wondered, half in contempt of such gentle sentiment, if this was how it felt to have a favoured son. Leaving his children as he did must have given Hohenheim unimaginable grief. “I don’t have education in the old Persian language, but this looks faintly similar to old Xingese.”

“You can read Xingese?” again, the awe. “Teach me,” the boy demanded, eyes both set upon what he wanted. Roy had to admire that will, that focus.

“We’ll make time for it,” again, another promise. Perhaps he was getting ahead of himself; time was scarce enough as most his days went. But Edward needed him and the guidance he could offer. Roy took it as repayment for Hohenheim’s patience with him when he was Ed’s age, for he was just as inquisitive, and relentless, even ruthless, for knowledge. (He could recall with much fondness, for instance, several incidences involving himself, Hohenheim, some notebooks detailing sensitive forbidden alchemy, and a handful of exquisite photographs as his pitiless blackmail material.)

They ate and over dinner talked about the book. Ed was a true scholar from the way he picked theories apart. Roy was continually amazed by the boy’s aptitude for alchemy; basic theorems and concepts he skipped while most students would take time to digest them. And even as he skipped steps, he kept an unshakable grasp of the big picture with but instinct inborn. There was no other word for it: Ed was a natural.

Still a child, though, Roy told himself as Ed frowned upon the felling of Persia as an empire and along with it its alchemy. Or perhaps entirely unconcerned about politics and its trappings. If it were so, Roy would rejoice.

Power and greed, more than anything, drove the world as Roy saw it. Some romanticists would beg to differ and insist on love, pure and simple. But what was greed if not love unbound and overabundant? What was power if not the capability to command love, and through it, obedience? Indeed, most dictators who elbowed their way into power failed to command much of love from the people around them and the people subject to them. But the desire for power arguably stemmed from the one common root each dictator and ruler had within themselves: love. Love for money, love for fame, love for glory, for destruction, for excitement and adventure. Love for others, which often equated to love for oneself. It was simple.

Perhaps because of this simplicity, Ed failed to see it. Ed seemed to have a hard time of grasping small, simple things. But Ed himself was driven by the very same substance. Indeed torn, instead of merely driven, by this substance Ed could not see. His love for his family and his love for his alchemy: two forces overwhelming when united (as was the case with his resurrected mother), but now directed towards different goals. One won out when pitched against the other.

“By the way,” Roy broke the relative silence over one of their dinners on another day, “I’m visiting a friend tomorrow. You’re coming with me.” Now that Ed’s alchemy had driven him to be with Roy, it was only appropriate that Roy begin providing for him as a responsible adult should provide for a child. If Ed was to keep Roy’s company, Ed would need his own things: new clothes, new shoes, new accessories, notable among them new pens and paper and journals and other such scholarly necessities. A shopping trip was overdue; besides which, Roy also needed to restock his own stores. He parried Ed’s queries with a simple, “I want you to learn,” which (for now) stymied the boy’s relentless need for justification. However, the boy drove the conversation towards an entirely new direction.

“So if your gloves get wet, what do you do?”

Roy paused and regarded Ed. Ed looked back: open, steady, eager, true.

This boy is practically ignorant in the ways of alchemical etiquette! One doesn’t simply ask another alchemist for their secrets, silly child; it is not done. Only fools would stoop to such flagrant disrespect of privacy and intellectual property. Only fools, which in other matters you may not be, but in this you apparently are. Not that Roy would ever say this aloud, but his thoughts were veering and the wine was dampening his otherwise sharp control. He would have to do something about this.

“You need an initial spark to set off the fire, right? That’s why you use that cloth. But what if they get wet? I’m just asking.”

And since you’re Edward, I’ll believe you, Roy resumed his meal. “A smoother and altogether better attempt at subversion, Edward, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Don’t hope to beat me at this game anytime soon.”

Ed scowled. “Answer the question, Bastard.”

“Spares,” Roy had to chuckle at the ease with which Ed’s ire was ignited. “I have spares on hand. In a waterproof case.”

Roy could practically see the cogs turning in Ed’s brain. It certainly wasn’t a fail-proof backup, especially in the most emergent instances, but Roy had methods. He had survived this world far too long not to have methods.

“Can I see your circles?”

Again, no etiquette. Roy resisted the urge to click his teeth and instead handed a glove over. Immediately, the boy began poring over it, over the deceitfully simplistic dual-glyph circle. After a moment’s silence, the boy said, “Have you ever thought of adding a drying component in the circle? It would be really easy to add, since you already have the molecular manipulation part down.”

“Good idea,” Roy hummed in quiet assent. “I’ll consider it.” He tucked the glove away. They both resumed their meals, Roy tingling in acute anticipation. His senses were attuned to Edward, watching the boy deep in thought, watching and waiting if the boy would notice anything else.

But soon dinner was finished and the matter of his alchemy was left untouched. Roy felt somewhat disappointed. Ed had been given a close look, a chance to dissect Roy’s alchemy, but he had missed the important clue. Did the boy think that the thought of a drying component never crossed Roy’s mind before? Of course it had; but the very nature of his technique prevented him from excessive additions. If Ed had looked closer, he would have surely noticed.

Not tonight, perhaps; and it was too early, anyway. It was too early to divulge trade secrets with each other, with barely a week behind them in this new life together. Roy was keeping his silence, but he had noticed that Ed himself had yet to show alchemy in action. For all that they discussed theories every night, as if to quench a long-denied need for such intimate intellectual companionship, Ed had yet to show any form of actual practice. Which naturally only beckoned to Roy’s budding and unhealthy obsession. Ed was hiding too.

Roy almost wanted to ask, except he held his mouth in check. He refused to set a terrible example; alchemists did not ask other alchemists for secrets like so. He would have to be patient. He would have to wait. It was only polite to wait for one such opportunity to observe the alchemy in action from the sidelines, without directly asking, without confronting Ed with the uncomfortable decision of what and what not to disclose. Even though Ed had just confronted him with it a little while earlier. Roy fancied himself the bigger man (as he should be, with nearly a decade of experience, and a foot and some inches, over Ed’s young little head).

Perhaps, he told himself, he doesn’t intend to hide, like how I don’t truly intend to hide. Perhaps, he told himself, he has only yet to find the right time and manner to show me, to make me understand. Or perhaps he is waiting for me to figure it out myself—like how I am expecting him to figure it out himself.

It would be a few more days until Roy would see Ed’s alchemy—a few more days until he would discover that try hard though he might, he would never have come close to an accurate guess.

 

Roy had to keep himself from forcefully re-inspecting the boy’s hands; there had to be a trick, some sort of catch, like his gloves, or tattoos, or a slip of hidden paper. But he knew Edward. He knew that Edward spoke the truth. A seemingly impossible truth—but was it not this boy who had performed the impossible and brought a dead human back to breathing, beating life? There was neither trick here nor catch. It was alchemy without a circle.

Without a circle!

Or a physical one, at the very least, from how he’d explained it. His thoughts were still ricocheting around the insides of his cranium, and rank adrenalin-surging confusion coursed through his veins like some vile drug. I can’t stand this, Roy thought to himself. I must do something. He was not one to pace, but he now battled with the unbearable urge to do so.

Returning upstairs was a short affair. With zeal returned after a long time of torpor, he made for the bookshelves, titles on his tongue. Vividly he could recall the little room in which he sat with Edward back in that house in Resembool. At the time, he had felt this itch as well, unrelenting until he had burned through two days of extra leave to immerse himself in research. Riza had been furious, and he had only found crumbs for clues, but it was such a refreshing feeling to return to the grind of alchemy once again that he barely minded. The Gate was that much a fascinating and elusive topic.

That Gate, he thought, should have something to do with this. It was at present the most feasible explanation. Edward did not mention it this time, but had spoken of it the first time after succeeding in Trisha Elric’s revival from the dead. Perhaps the boy was attempting to protect information, the same way that Hohenheim had done when Roy had known him. But no matter; Roy was capable of researching on his own. Ed would tell him in due time if the boy wished for him to know, but for now, Roy was on his own.

From the handful of things he had managed to find—a smattering of Persian whisperings, Xingese folklore, and disperse Romanesque sorcery—the Gate was capable of many impossible things. Being a conduit for power, it never ran out, and over time acquired a store of knowledge so vast the best of all alchemists easily drowned in its depths. Perhaps, upon meeting this Gate face to face, Edward had managed to glean information and now put it to use. It was not impossible. (At the moment, Roy reflected, very few things were impossible.)

It was strange to think of this Gate as a being with a voice and a face. It was even stranger to think of how it would have been to meet such a... thing. (Should he call it a god? A deity? A supreme supernatural being? Roy could very well be illiterate in face of such theistic faith.) But the knowledge—the knowledge¬¬—and to think that Edward seen it—twice—

Roy’s toes curled into his carpet, plush and soft underneath his feet. Somewhere in between the Gate and gods, he had gotten lost in his thoughts and failed to notice that he was sat. He had a book in hand but his eyes weren’t reading; he was storm-shaken and taken with the ideas spinning round his head. How long had it been since he felt this sort of excitement? He had stopped searching—stopped longing—for knowledge the way he used to, the way an alchemist was always supposed to. Since Ishbal, he had stopped being a true alchemist, his love for the science having lost against the horrors that he’d seen.

But Edward was reminding him of the other side. That other side of alchemy that Hohenheim had shown him with his simple transmutations, simple efforts to turn useless things into useful things. Broken things into a working whole. How had he forgotten? Alchemy was also capable of wonderful things. No—alchemy was a wonderful thing, at the very heart of it; alchemy was life.

How had he forgotten?

One is all, and all is one.

From the depths of memory, Berthold Hawkeye’s eyes stared straight into his soul. Until you understand this, his master had told him, you are not an alchemist. Until you understand this, Roy.

He looked across the room at Edward, who was sat on the floor drawing a circle. Edward knew nothing of Ishbal, of his past, and of his hardships coming in the future. But he had no right to say that Ed knew nothing of horrors that could freeze a man’s soul; Ed had his own fair share, much fresher and deep-set than Roy’s old scars. And yet here this boy was, single-mindedly forging through near-indecipherable centuries-old theories, seemingly without a single care in the world but for his pursuit of knowledge and the dissolution of the mystery.

Roy was a proud man, but before this boy, Roy was thoroughly humbled.

 

“You match each other well,” his friend said from somewhere behind him. Maes was echoing his wife, it seemed, but with a more deliberate and malicious approach. Maes liked peeling at Roy’s ever-present façade—especially when Roy shrieked and struggled like a cat whose tail had been pulled. (In return, Roy took great pleasure in the veritably rare chance to hold precious information—usually Maes’ territory—over his best friend’s unsuspecting head. At least, in his indignation Roy shrieked like a cat, which was an infinitely more elegant animal than the monkey Maes, when out-informed, aspired to emulate.)

“So your lovely wife has told us,” Roy replied, unwilling to let Maes take the lead yet again. The nosy bastard already knew far too much. “I won’t deny her words. After all, a woman knows best.”

“Yes, Gracia knows best!” Maes exclaimed. Roy wanted to tell him there were other women in the world, but refrained from doing so. His friend was as blind in this respect as Roy was not. Roy was caught between amused and thankful. “In fact, since Gracia knows best, you should probably let her talk to Ed more; that ought to ease his transition, don’t you think? Poor kid’s been through quite a lot from what you’ve told me.”

“I was about to ask of you the same thing,” Roy put a dish away and began rinsing another one. “It won’t do for him to become a complete recluse; he needs people if he’s to grow.”

Maes laughed. “Look at you, old friend! Such a model parent! Why, if I’d have known you’d beat me to it, I wouldn’t have wagered a bet with Breda!” An elbow found its way into Maes’ side; the Intelligence officer barely rescued a plate from shattering. “Oy, this thing cost a good fortune, you know!”

“Then be sure to handle it with steady hands, old friend. We wouldn’t want your gorgeous wife missing her china now, would we?” Roy smiled as he rinsed his hands under the tap. He turned and leaned against the counter as Maes dried the rest of the dishes, listening to Ed and Gracia’s quiet laughter coming from next door. Ed needed this, he knew; Ed needed companionship beyond one person. Human beings needed community to thrive, so Roy would give him this. Maes and Gracia were both trustworthy; Roy would trust Maes with his life. If it was in their hands, he could be sure that no harm would come to Ed. He could be sure—

“There’s that face again,” Maes said, “that grim face you like to wear when you’re contemplating on the sacrifices you need to make to ensure that you don’t lose any of your pieces on the board.”

Roy cursed the heavens for giving him such a meddlesome best friend.

“How do you intend to survive as the King with his kingdom still intact if you intend to cover for all manner of harm that will, despite your best efforts, come upon your subjects?” Maes crossed arms and frowned at him. “Beyond that, how do you intend to run your kingdom if you don’t let the people around you grow into their roles and learn to do their job properly? Roy, there’s no need to protect everyone from everything. Truly. You can have faith enough in us to do our jobs if you can have faith enough in yourself to protect all of us alone.”

Roy sighed and shook his head.

“Come on, start talking,” Maes prodded. “You know I’ll eventually drag it out of you. Make it easier on yourself; spare both of us the blackmail battle.”

That engendered a grimace. Blackmail battles were the worst with Maes as an opponent. He should have never introduced Maes to his most frequented establishments. “Fine, damn you,” he seized the glass of blue-label scotch from Maes’ hand. It was too bright and warm an afternoon for scotch, but he could not care. He deserved the alcohol; here he was being bullied, after all! “I’m worried about the boy. He’s too damn precious—and too damn blind. I’m wondering if luring him to Central was too premature an action.”

“And if you hadn’t, where would he be?” the ice in Maes’ glass tinkled as he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Ed’s happy chatter was audible through the open door. “I doubt he’d have stayed at home, seeing how much of an alchemist’s soul he has. He’s just like you when you were younger, back in our Academy days: single-minded and stubborn to a fault. I think that’s why you match so well. We always retain the child we were inside of us, you know.”

“And that part of me is screaming caution into my ears, Maes, that’s why,” Roy said, looking out. Central sprawled around and away from them, a world so wide it had drowned Roy in its depths years ago. “Ed reminds me of myself. I don’t want him to go through what I went through. You and I both know there are things in this world that are better left alone.”

“He reminds you of you, but he isn’t you, Roy. And no matter what you do, you can never change the fact that he needs a world to live in. As highly as you think of yourself, you can’t be that world on your own. You have to let him grow.”

Roy downed his scotch and bit at the ice that met his lips. It felt good against the waning summer heat.

“Or will you sacrifice his growth for his absolute safety? Because if you will, I’ll have to pay Havoc a fine sum of money, and that would cause me troub—ow! That hurts, you wicked old man!”

“One of these days, you will have to stop making me a thoroughbred for your betting games,” Roy retrieved his foot and turned to the table for more scotch. “No, I won’t sacrifice his growth. You can collect your money from Havoc tomorrow, rest assured.”

“Actually, from both Havoc and Fuery—ow, damn it, Roy! How do you suppose to make a good parent with such abusive habits?” Maes hobbled and nursed his throbbing foot. Roy knew one precise spot where if he stepped on it hard enough, the pain would shoot straight up to Maes’ spine. Such were the benefits of having gone to war together: he knew Maes’ old wounds very well.

They lapsed in silence for a while, uninterrupted but for occasional laughter next door and Maes’ mumbled whines. Outside, their unified backyard simmered under the heat. Summer aspired to colour everything in the various hues of the sun; the grass had long since surrendered its green to the vicious invasion of yellows and browns. Sweat was pearling on Roy’s neck as it did on his little glass of slow-moving poison. If they were not to die of bullet or blade, he and Maes would surely suffer the painful death of a failed liver. Though perhaps not quite as failed as Havoc’s liver would be; for one, they weren’t dumped quite so often.

“He’s a smart boy; he should do fine,” Roy said now, more to himself than to Maes or anybody else. “And if he needs any help, I’ll be here.”

That, my friend,” Maes said, “is the burning spirit. You and I both know there are things in this world a person will face no matter the path he takes. Part of the growing pains, Roy. Perhaps it’s best to let him ease in with guidance into what he cannot avoid.”

“A tall order, Maes.”

“Not any taller than becoming Führer,” and Roy had to curse again for Maes’ infallible sense. One could only be so annoying, surely! For a little while, he contemplated on scorching Hughes’ head. It was a very entertaining image. “Besides, looking at that kid, you’d have to be death himself to be able to keep him from the things he wants to see.”

Roy had to laugh. He put the empty glass down and smiled knowingly at his friend. “Somehow, Maes, I doubt that even death could stop him.”

 

“Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.”
‘Unless you believe, you will not understand.’
(
Isaiah 9:7, The Holy Bible )

It was one of those rare days when he retired from work early. He left Headquarters ahead of Maes and most other men, unconfined by traditional working hours. The very thought was enough to put a shimmer on his smile. Riza was away for the day, and the rest of his subordinates were only too happy to leave ahead of schedule, so he rightly found himself heading for one particular store.

To the passersby, the place was no more than a hole in the wall, a bar, a corner where tired souls drowned. But to Roy, it was open heaven, the beckoning fragrance of flowers wafting from inside. Roy was a warm-blooded male; there was no reason to resist.

He entered, unmindful of his uniform and the declaration it made. There was nothing for him to hide here; it was conventional wisdom that Roy Mustang loved to visit his brothels at the end of an arduous workday. None could cast on him any blame at all, since the military was known to work its soldiers long and hard. Any man would want reprise at the end of a day’s toil.

He gave a passing girl a rakish smile and watched her swoon and stagger away: stupefying women with his bare charm never got old. There was only a small handful of women able to resist him even in his topmost form—Riza, Mira Olivier Armstrong, Madam Christmas—and such exceptions he amounted to indeterminate anomalies in their basic psychological makeup. In cases otherwise, he made good use of this advantage upon the fairer sex. Necessity was a secondary motive; vanity was the prime.

He never even managed to reach the bar; Emilia, most stunningly dressed for the evening, took him by the arm and led him to the stairs. With a wry wave of a hand, he gave his greetings to Madam Christmas, the store’s proprietor and a long-time business partner. The older lady gave him a gruff, knowing smile.

“You’ve been a while, Roy, I’ve missed you,” Emilia coyly beckoned, leading the way to a sequestered bedroom at the end of the hall. “I was beginning to think you’ve forgotten all about me.”

“Never, beautiful,” Roy followed after her and appraised the creamy length of a leg. It was always Havoc who fell for the ample breasts; he was a modest man who didn’t ask for quite so much. A gentle voice and plenty of smooth, beautiful skin was more than enough.

They slipped into the darkened room and Roy pushed her against the wall, pressing a soft kiss against her scented neck. She laughed and pushed him away. “Now, Roy. Nothing you won’t be paying for.”

Hands raised, he retreated and sat on the bed. “I take it you have quite a bit for me tonight?”

“This won’t come cheap at all,” she sat across from him on one particular chair Roy had very fond memories of. Crossing her legs (she did that on purpose), she began: “Not much has come up on your little killer friend, apart from a lot of talk underground. Even they don’t know who’s doing it.”

“Likely not a cult, then,” Roy sighed.

“Likely not a cult,” she nodded. There went their first hypothesis. “Secondly: Brigadier General Gran let it slip that Shou Tucker’s evaluations this summer did not go well; Tucker has one more year under his contract with the military until he’s stripped of his grants and dismissed. A picture of the chimera he constructed and all the details of the work are in here; I haven’t looked through them, that sort of business is bad for my skin,” she handed him an envelope, looking well pleased to be rid of its contents. Bioalchemy was rarely pretty. He was going to have to pay her a high price for this catch.

“Also, General Spahn was recently in Central,” she continued; Roy nodded, he’d heard of the arrival. “He came to present new research to the Führer and his advisors. Apparently, he’s harnessed a young alchemist to work for him, though this alchemist has yet to take the State exam. Rightly so, he’s just a boy. Details are also in the envelope. Maybe you know him: Tringham. Russell Tringham.”

That Tringham?” Roy had to pause. “I heard Nash Tringham disappeared a few years back.”

“Nash Tringham’s elder son, apparently. Brilliant, from what I’ve heard. You’ll have to be the judge of him; I know little of alchemy to understand what he studies,” Emilia shifted in her chair and uncrossed her legs, but Roy was too distracted by Russell Tringham’s picture to notice at all. The poor boy had to be no more than ten or eleven, too young to be working for the military. Strongly reminded of Edward, he slipped the picture back into the envelope. Emilia gave him a few seconds, idly remarking, “You’ve got tough competition coming there. The young ones are always the most vicious.”

Roy laughed. “I’ve heard that from somewhere. You haven’t been seeing Hughes while I was gone, have you, beautiful?”

She smiled. “I make it a point not to talk to my patrons about other sources of income, darling.”

“Right, sorry,” he wryly smiled, his apology contrite enough to satisfy her disapproval. “I haven’t been in a while; you might need to refresh me on the rules.”

“I can see that,” she chuckled, reaching over and pushing a fringe of his hair aside. Emilia was a great admirer of Xingese culture and rightly so became fond of his eyes. “Lastly, rumour has it that General Ivan has fallen from the Fuhrer’s favour. We don’t know exactly what he’s done, but it seems like he made the same mistake your old friend General Grumman did before he was demoted to take care of the East.”

Roy had to blink. “When was this? I wasn’t even aware Ivan was here.” The world seemed to like churning whenever he was distracted; since Edward had arrived, plenty had happened and Roy had not even noticed. This was unacceptable.

“Just a few days ago,” Emilia told him. “His arrival was kept quiet. I’m not quite sure if he came as a civilian—highly unusual for you flashy military men—but he got into Central somehow without turning heads. He’s on his way back to the North in a few days; maybe you can catch him and ask him yourself.”

“Highly doubt it,” Roy shook his head, already deep in thought. Though he considered himself a good friend and ally to the old man, Grumman never did tell him what that entire fallout had been about. Grumman was an excellent soldier and a model politician; Roy could not fathom what kind of offense the General must have dealt the Führer to be demoted to such an arduous job as the East. Anything short of an outright attempt at assassination was an unlikely cause for such blatant expulsion. The Führer liked to keep his best men in Central, under the watchful eye; such strategy deterred coups and ensured loyalty by familiarity among the brass. It also allowed the Generals to maintain the highest quality of living with the least amount of hard work possible; satellite posts were never quite as stable and prosperous as Central. Roy understood this very well, and so wondered whatever could have happened.

“So,” she said, “that’s about all I can tell you for this period.” Roy thought that was plenty enough; his pockets were already beginning to ache. She knew this and crossed her legs the other way, as if to mock him; she was gazing at him with a smile he only knew too well. “Now, my Princeling, how about you tell me about this rumour I’ve been hearing about you taking care of a child?”

Roy groaned. “Emilia.”

“Roy, a child!” Emilia exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air and then settling them on her knees. She leaned forward. “What have I told you about safe sex? And who is the mother? I demand to know. None of our girls were pregnant recently—I would’ve known, to be sure—so he must be from someone else. Who?”

“Emilia, he’s almost twelve years old, surely—”

She gasped. “Roy! You’re telling me you sired a child when you were—when you were ten?!” and she actually paused to count. “Heavens, how many more do you have of these hidden children?”

“Emilia, he is not my son,” Roy firmly said, steadying her arms with a solid hand and solid, charcoal eyes. She stopped. “His name is Edward Elric, son of my old mentor Hohenheim. You know the man, you’ve seen him once. Tall—“

“—blond, golden-eyed, yes, I remember,” Emilia’s face was opening up now, brightening like the dawn of day. Hohenheim was a hard figure to forget. “Quite the dashing man, I must say. His child, I see. He’s married, then? That’s too bad. So why is his son with you?”

“For his studies,” Roy relaxed, reclining now. “Very intelligent child, a most worthy investment. I can’t with good conscience let him wallow in the backwaters of the South, my beautiful, not with that brilliant mind of his. So he’ll be staying with me. I’ll be teaching him.”

“Well, then,” Emilia declared, legs uncrossing and back straightening to its full, “that’s as good as having sired a child, isn’t it? You’ve fashioned yourself a father, Roy! Why, I do hope you enjoy it. Nasty business, children are—from what I’ve heard, at least. They seem to bring about nothing but trouble.”

“Trouble, indeed,” Roy had to give a chuckle, undoing buttons even as he pulled Emilia closer and into the bed. “But if anything, I specialise in handling such things, don’t you agree?”

Emilia could only laugh then, and even that was lost as they tumbled into the sheets, lost in the scent of pine and cinnamon and scotch and smoke. Talk of Edward was very soon forgotten, which was just as well; Roy wasn’t about to share him with this part of his world just yet.

 

Roy was coming down the stairs when he felt it, the prickling up and down the back of his neck. A telling, an omen, an instinctual urge to stop and listen. Emilia’s words echoed within his head, and it was Edward standing in the kitchen over the morning’s paper that made him murmur her words under his breath. “Trouble, indeed,” he said, half in helpless fondness over the boy that was now his charge.

Edward brought the papers over and asked of the murders. Roy kept a stone countenance. Before Edward came along, these cases were his passports to power, his stepping stones to glory. His superiors—often Douglass—saw fit to encumber him with the cold, hard cases, long-drawn and often entangled in exceedingly delicate webs of politics, power, psychosis, and blood. For the most part they did so to stall him, an attempt to thwart his “too-fast” ascent through rank, but he routinely turned it against them, solving case after case with meticulous handiwork through his team and Hughes’ information. When one had the right friends in the right places, one would have to actively try to fail at such endeavours. (Plenty seemed to be successful at trying, but Roy never understood the logic of spending energy that could otherwise be conserved.)

But now that Edward was here, Roy had gained something to protect. A potential collateral, a strength that was his weakness—what Gracia was to Hughes, what Edward could be to him. It was no longer advisable to be thrust head-first and fast in these cases, dangerous and murky as they could be. There was a high possibility of Edward getting involved—of which Roy had no doubt, and neither did he of Edward’s ability to attract trouble—and Edward was too precious to endanger in such petty, trifling cases.

That was what most of them were: petty, trifling cases.

“I would prefer if you remained here at home, Ed. Safe.”

“You know I can take care of myself,” the boy insisted, quiet and certain with steadfast confidence. Where Edward found such bastion of security, Roy had to wonder. It was as if Edward was thoroughly convinced that he could face down an experienced killer.

“I know that very well,” Roy nodded. And he did; Edward was an accomplished alchemist, with visible combat training and the instincts of a born fighter. Hohenheim’s blood was in the child, this much was undeniable; but still. Still. “But I’ve seen these murders, Ed, and they aren’t something I’m sure I want to expose you to. Furthermore, we have established steering clear of the military for now, and getting yourself involved in something like this will throw that idea out of the window. The military has good intel; Hughes can attest to that.”

If they were to begin exposing Edward to the world, it would be by his terms, under controlled circumstances. Roy was a firm believer in well-wrought plans. Entropy be damned, he would carve the lines of his life as an alchemist should carve the lines of a circle—firm as a guide for the chaos of energy.

Perhaps seeing his unmoving stance, Edward left the argument for now. To be sure, this wasn’t the last Roy would hear from him about this, but for now, Roy had dodged a bullet. For now.

Roy managed to leave the house with minimal trouble, but he was already unsettled. Edward was beginning to stir. Roy could practically taste the trouble brewing from afar; feel the turbulence promising to come. It was only a matter of time, really, before Edward began to emerge from the temporary numbness of leaving home. It was only a matter of time before Edward began to take notice of Central’s goings-on and ask about them—most prominently about Roy’s work. Because what else did the boy have to occupy himself with but a very long list of books to read and his own thoughts for idle company? Edward’s vast intellect was thirsting for a challenge; books were hardly enough. Roy needed to find a distraction, fast.

He was contemplating his options when Havoc pulled into the Headquarters. As it was everyday, the walls were forbiddingly grey and mingled indistinguishably into the overcast skies; only the banner bearing the insignia of their small country gave life to this dull hulk of structure. Roy was terribly partial to the banner’s shade of deep forest green and had specific plans to tailor the military uniforms in such a colour when he ascended to Führership. He was of the opinion that the current standard of royal blue did terrible things for his complexion, and at any rate blue was too peaceful a colour for the military in the first place. For a country such as theirs with a long and tremulous history of bloodshed and open strife, deep scarlet or the less anaemic colour of green was more suitable.

Fervent murmuring was what removed him from his ambitious fancies, visible by the huddle of soldiers heading for and away from the cafeteria. Breakfast and coffee here were similarly atrocious, so Roy couldn’t quite fathom why these men would bother at all; that was none of his business until he was Führer and could replace the current kitchen staff with properly educated chefs. (He never ate at the cafeteria.) For now he walked slow and watched them, Havoc following lead behind him as they neared the soldiers.

“...Führer and them brass are booting Ivan out permanently, from what I hear. Shady business Ivan must have been doing. Can’t help but feel rather sorry for the man, but his fault for getting caught,” one soldier gossiped. Roy did agree that tracks were best covered and thoroughly if doing things untoward, but he knew Ivan’s stolid principles; the man would never stoop to crime or conspiracy.

“Nah,” another soldier dismissed. “If there’s any shady business being done, it’s on the brass’ side. Absolute power corrupts and all that. Y’know them, they never tell the truth about nuthin’.”

“Why d’you even work here, Gus?” the men laughed, jostling their companion cynic. Havoc huffed behind him, perhaps in acquaintance with cynical Gus. Roy thought there was a valid point. The military was very rarely (if ever) clean.

There wasn’t much else of the gossip that Roy needed to hear, so they picked their pace up and made for their office. Riza was armed to her teeth with paperwork and the day’s agenda when they walked in. Maes was sprawled in his chair, boots canted upon his desk.

“News has broken! Ivan’s gone!” his friend announced, throwing arms up if for theatrics. Roy swatted at Maes’ boots and removed his jacket. The day was muggy enough to demand him only in his white shirt.

“I heard. He was here, did you know? Never showed face, but he was here,” and Roy received the rare pleasure of having a piece of information above Maes’ head. Upon an insistent glare, and to deter headache-inducing loud noises such as the yowling of ill-mannered monkeys this early in the morning, Roy surrendered and tipped his cup of coffee towards Maes. “Emilia; she’s formidable.”

“Ah, well,” Maes reclined, rocking slightly and threading his fingers together. “A man can never best a woman and her wiles.”

“I was under the impression you’d met with her lately; she was talking an awful lot like you,” Roy told him.

Maes was aghast. “I would never,” he brandished his left hand at Roy and his right that carried his Pocketbook of Gracia™. “Married, my friend! Happily so!”

“Right, how could I ever forget,” Roy drily said, setting his coffee on his tabletop to shove Maes off his chair. “Now if that’s all for this morning, I’d like to get started on my paperwork. Busy day; off you go, my friend!” Such was how he sent Maes off (who wailed heartily for the lack of love in the world) and began the day, very much to Riza’s approval.

He successfully played deaf and blind to the ominous atmosphere he seemed to have attracted today, until midday when he no longer could. Louis Armstrong crossed his path in the lavatories where he couldn’t quite escape. Roy cursed his luck.

“Major Armstrong,” he acknowledged his fellow alchemist, taking care to be respectful despite his discomfort with the other. Armstrong was a good man with a sharp mind and solid morals to support his alchemy. They were both veterans of Ishbal and therefore quite familiar with each other’s practice—along with it each other’s wartime pitfalls and tragedies. Such things either brought great respect or equally great abhorrence of one another.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang, what a pleasant surprise!”

Roy couldn’t say the same, but returned the sentiments anyway. In truth, he was far more comfortable interacting with Louis Armstrong’s elder sister, Mira Olivier, likely due to her unmistakable gender. She had the loveliest length of blonde hair he’d ever met until he laid eyes on Edward—not that he’d ever say so.

“I trust you’ve heard of the recent shift in seats?” Armstrong kindly twinkled at his own reflection in the mirror beside Roy. Roy focused on the valuable task of washing his hands. “General Ivan is gone, and now the seat must be filled.”

Gone, Roy thought. Just yesterday, Ivan was merely in disfavour, and now he was gone, the seats already shifting. “His second, perhaps?” Roy voiced, unless of course Ivan’s second was also involved in whatever mischief Ivan must have done.

“Nothing’s official as of yet, but I’ve heard of a missive from the Führer for Lieutenant General Scott,” Armstrong told him in a hush.

“Not Hunter? Interesting,” Roy had to admire the Führer’s strategic genius, putting the lesser powerful but more gullible Lieutenant General Scott on the seat. Lieutenant General Hunter was too attached to the north, too attached to the region’s independence to be a good fit. Hunter would be more capable of rallying the region into rebellion, which was a particular evil the brass did not desire to see from the north (Amestris’ ultimate defence) or the east (Amestris’ ultimate offence). Roy would have done the same thing. “Then they’ll soon be in need of a new Lieutenant General. Promoting Beltran, likely?”

“Yes,” Armstrong nodded, “and to replace him, they’re promoting Sister to be a Major General after her training concludes in eight months.”

Roy struggled to hide his flinch.

“...I see,” he said, closing the tap and wiping off his hands. He kept his eyes down, daring not to look up and let the world see the shock in his eyes. Mira was moving faster than ever, and here he was, motionless, trapped by his own great game, too close to the Fuhrer and yet all the same too far.

He was envious.

Jealousy was nowhere near powerful enough a word—this was envy, pure and strong, running in his veins as molten heat. She was going to be one step away from Generalship—one step—and how far was that, in all reality? Not very far at all, he thought, close enough to snatch away. Away from somebody else—Mira was not going to have an easy time of it, taking away somebody else’s promotion as she did. She was going too fast, like he was going too fast, the two of them both, and people would require proof.

But proof is always easy when you’ve already got the seat, this he knew. He fixed his lapel and regarded his hair. In the mirror, Roy Mustang was the very definition of collected perfection.

“Congratulate your parents for me, Major Armstrong,” Roy told his comrade, “for doubtless they must be proud. I will send my regards to your sister myself. Shame will befall me should I let go of such a fine and rare opportunity to test her tempers.”

If Louis Armstrong paled, Roy feigned ignorance. It was not very hard. His entire force of mind—his entire mortal being—was burning with envy, envy, green and mighty envy, green as the high banners bearing his country’s dragon in white. Years have passed since Ishbal and the last time he felt this boil in his blood. At the time, he had stood beside Hughes and looked up at the Führer—looked up at that high-handed tyrant who had made them all into mass murderers—and swore upon the graves of the thousands he’d killed that he would build his kingdom too: a kingdom that would spiral upwards like a tower in a delicate arch reaching for heaven, just as this Führer’s kingdom spiralled downwards like a fortress facing hell.

He mused, as Riza settled him back into paperwork, that perhaps he shouldn’t tailor their uniforms in Amestrian green, after all.

 

Wanting not to frighten his guest upon returning home, Roy used the well-worn excuse of paperwork to while time and temper away. Headquarters at night was agreeable to his ire; the halls were devoid of soul, rooms dark and desks bare. Workflow was efficient in this office; Riza ensured that there was ample space on their desks for the morning wave of paperwork. Truly, Roy was the only one who often required extra time to finish, his subordinates being timely and having a reasonable load. An alchemist first and an officer second, he was a perfectionist by nature—he had the ugly habit of wanting to do everything by himself. In truth, a great portion of his paperwork was available for delegation, but to ensure that his reports were flawless and congruent, he did it all by himself.

And that was his problem, was it not? He knew little of compromise and was stubborn in his ways. He mounted a good facade, but underneath he relied on very few and trusted even fewer. Roy Mustang was independent, free, and needed no one’s help. And though he understood the disadvantages, he refused to surrender his pride, for it had undergone such upset and damage through the wars of his life that it now shied from any encounter that could ruin its fortress walls.

So here he was, stuck. He was alone, scrambling for ideas to progress forward and up, stagnating at tasks he needed to complete, and idle while Mira tore her way through the hierarchy. The very thought rankled. He took pride in the fact that he rose through the ladder without riding on the coattails of bloodline or name or pedigree, like Mira Armstrong had done, but it was hard, very hard, not to yearn for the same advantage when he looked at her back pulling farther away. She was the one person he considered a worthy rival for Führership, the only one in their generation capable of toppling him should she deign to try. Never mind insulting; her advancement was dangerous if not addressed.

“I need a promotion,” he groaned into the darkness, leaning his head against the wall. But what do I have to be promoted for?

Outside, moonlight washed over Central in shafts of silvery brilliance upon a slumbering metropolis. It offered him no answer.

 

Soon, there was no more paperwork to clear from his desk. There was none of his ire left, either. The boil that had sat in his veins now echoed an emptiness which he knew as defeat. He disliked the feeling. He disliked being empty. It reminded him of Ishbal, of Berthold, of too many things he lost or had to leave behind in his past.

Sensing the train of his thoughts, he took it as a signal to go home. It was time for rest now. These thoughts were perilous thoughts to follow; it was best he went to bed and closed his eyes to sink the disappointments of the day into the murky darkness of dreams.

The ride home was cool and lonely at best. Havoc was long dismissed and he had to drive himself home. No cigar smoke to distract his senses, no idle chatter, not even sights as the streets were daubed only in a silvery half-light. During the full moon, the street lamps of Central were dimmed, some even doused, to conserve precious energy.

At home, all the lights were off apart from a faint flicker upstairs. He expected to find his house guest labouring on notes under dismal lighting when he ascended, but found the boy sprawled on the desk instead. Clutching a pencil between lax fingers, Edward was fast asleep.

Roy could not help but smile. Such simple, straightforward living—Edward could afford it. Edward thought nothing of the world that was not involved with his alchemy; to Edward, a world without alchemy did not exist, could not exist. Edward’s world was alchemy, plain and simple as day and night.

Roy envied him.

He shook off the feeling and gathered the boy into his arms. Having an armful of Edward like this, it was easy to forget about such perilous feelings and thoughts. Having an armful of Edward filled his mind with bright flashes of gold and the heady fog of power in that basement and the crackle of active energy and the Gate. Since arriving in Central, Edward had mentioned nothing of the Gate. Strange; he would have thought Edward would have been more preoccupied about its nature.

But perhaps he was yet again underestimating his young charge. Perhaps Edward was working out a theory, only the boy kept it behind those blazing golden eyes. Edward was transparent about most things, but that hardly discounted his ability to keep a secret. In fact, Edward probably used the façade of transparency to hide his secrets. Nobody would suspect such a straightforward little boy to be hiding knowledge shattering enough to crumble the very foundations of what the world knew of alchemy.

This boy was in his arms right now, this boy who held a theory of something so improbable and yet if it were true, it would explain an innumerable things about their science and its mysteries.

And it was in that slow and dawning second that a traitorous thought crossed his mind: what other brilliant reason to be promoted for but alchemy?

 

This was a dangerous thought. Dangerous beyond what he had accepted as the boundaries he would never cross. He would involve an innocent—something he had promised never to do again—and it would not be fiddling things they’d be involved in, but great things. Great and potentially terrible things.

But, he thought! But.

He laid Edward in bed and made him comfortable. The hair tie came off to let a cascade of spun gold spread upon the pillow. Edward curled towards his warmth, an instinctive seeking motion, and went back to the stillness of deep sleep. Roy watched the little puffs of air escape from the boy’s barely parted mouth. He sat there for a while before he pulled the blankets up and left the room to fall into darkness. In the privacy of his own quarters, he drank.

 

His last thought before sinking into his own slumber was an apology to Hohenheim. Heartfelt and sincere, a true and telling apology—because Roy was going to use his son.

 

“Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favour by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil.”
( Walt Disney Company )

Some obscure divine providence was in his favour. The call came to his office just as Riza was preparing to put him through a round of harsh scolding followed by a merciless pile of mundane paperwork. Something about having orchestrated—a brilliant and cunning, might he add—shortcut through security and customs to smuggle a potentially dangerous and entirely illegal piece of extremely rare research specimen from Haxamanishiya, which was once a part of the old Persian empire. Riza was displeased about as much as Roy was pleased, for Haxamanishiya was nowhere near friendly to Amestris. It was an achievement, if he might have said so himself!

He concluded his work business with a final tug on his jacket. The cloth fell quite dashingly around his shoulders. Swift and efficient, he parried Riza’s protests as he stepped out the door. Havoc followed him, eager for any excuse to remove himself from her presence. It was difficult to restrain a smile.

“What’s the kid up to now, boss?” Havoc asked as they pulled out of the Headquarters. Central’s streets were bustling today. They drove up the way they had come earlier in the morning after having dropped off Edward for his first day of school. The very same boy had given them an escape route from Riza’s temper today, so Roy couldn’t summon much displeasure or disappointment at being summoned by the principal within mere hours of leaving Ed in their care. In fact, Roy was rather looking forward to the show.

“Knowing him, Jean, it could be a hundred different things,” Roy told him. “I could never presume to know.”

Havoc gave a sidelong snort. “Shaping up to be a handful, isn’t he?”

“Yes, well,” Roy demurred with a smile, eyes trained upon the preparatory school’s main building. “Maes likes to say he’s a chip off the old block.”

Havoc could only chuckle.

It was a quick drive and soon they were pulling through the school’s tall gates. Roy instructed Havoc to wait; he didn’t expect to stay for longer than half an hour. (He was counting on Edward’s ever-timely appetite, as it was about lunchtime. The boy would doubtless keep this short.) The secretary escorted him the moment he was spotted coming down the hall; lo and behold, inside the headmaster’s office sat his petulant-looking charge.

Ah, Roy thought at once. They must have challenged his absolute intellectual authority. Nevertheless, he asked, “Edward, what did you do?” with the appropriate amount of dread in his tone.

The boy nearly doubled over in indignation. “It’s not my fault! He was teaching the wrong things! He said that an atom is the smallest unit of matter. And after that, he said that an atom is indivisible, the misinformed old fart! Misconstrued, I tell you!”

By alchemy, were little Edward’s lungs atrocious beasts! Roy could not have made his voice echo louder. The ceiling was quite high in this room.

He had already figured that these moments would be rare in his life heretofore, so he relished the chance to say, “I told you this school was a bad idea,” with a sigh. Yes, Roy thought. It felt good to say that.

But Edward, being Edward, returned it right back. “I told you I didn’t actually want to go to school! And no; you said it was a good idea!” the boy scowled his hawkish little scowl. It was very formidable; if Roy weren’t Roy, he would be intimidated.

“For you to socialise, not for you to learn from a school,” Roy added drily. This much was true. Roy had been hoping that Edward would find some friends. It likely wasn’t good for a young boy of Edward’s age to be locked up through all the hours of daylight and to only have adults for regular company. It wasn’t normal.

But then again, since when was Edward ever normal?

“No preparatory school would be fit to accommodate you,” Roy said, running the high risk of offending the headmaster. “You need a university.” They were offended, Roy noted through Edward’s enthusiastic shout of praise. No matter; they were acquaintances through Hakuro. Moreover, once they understood the level of Edward’s genius, they would be obliged to admit their folly—which, true enough, was a folly. How could anyone miss Edward’s intellect? (Another one of those details Roy thought people would actively have to exert effort to miss.) Perhaps they were as narrow-minded and misconstrued at this school as Edward thought. But the teachers likely had to struggle with mediocre minds, in which case a narrow-minded and simple approach might better befit the situation and yield timely results (for some results were better than, heaven forbid, none at all). Such were the pains and foils of standard education.

Roy spent the next few moments concluding the affair with succinct explanations of Edward’s delicate situation. The boy, of course, found it necessary to flaunt his alchemy; Roy let it slip for this one occasion. He felt that the predicament warranted a little display to drive their point.

When the two elderly men were sufficiently befuddled, Roy and Edward made their way out of the preparatory school’s vicinity, Roy all the while contemplating on the next course of action. As he had expected, traditional tactics refused to work with Edward’s disposition. The boy was simply too talented—too advanced, too much of a prodigy—to leave in the company of mediocre, navel-gazing minds. He had suspected as much, but it was his policy to always give a valid method a try. In any case, the experience would instil in Edward—or reinforce, if the boy had ever attended formal education in Resembool—the realisation that most minds were ill-equipped for a lifetime of true learning and discovery. Furthermore, the experience allowed Edward to appreciate the intelligent company which already surrounded him, and most importantly, to comprehend how much power knowledge held over the common minds of common men.

Many would call him a corruptor, a tyrant, taking over the poor boy’s mind and dictating the directions it should dance. (Indeed, Maes made a habit of it.) But Roy could hardly care. Those parents who thought to give their children absolute freedom in daily choice and opinion were the parents who fell into despair as they watched their children squander away that which they worked hard for with years of life in labour.

The increasingly prevailing notion in Roy’s common society was the glorification of open inquiry for all men: or, that every man was capable of making the correct choices for himself and therefore should endeavour to use his capacity for pure reason to free himself from the shackles of prejudice, so that everything should be judged only against one’s own standards. Such unprecedented and ignoble egotism it fostered! It was a prejudice against prejudice, one of the most imbecilic and destructive frameworks of philosophy Roy had ever met.

People often failed to understand that there were dire consequences—not only for those within direct relation to the involved party, but also for others entirely removed from the scenario—should elders fail to inculcate the right kind of prejudices in a child. It was necessary to instil productive prejudices in a child, such as manners of conduct and discipline and respect, for the child to be able to flourish safely until the age in which he can begin to form his own thoughts and pass his own judgments about the world. To assume that children were capable of this on their own at the age of six or ten or twelve would be most unwise. (Some people, for lack of something in their being, whether it be education or character or purpose, were unfit to shoulder this responsibility even in adulthood. Roy saw it all too often.)

Anyhow, it was difficult not to set an influence upon Edward. There was something terribly enthralling in this practice, even more so with such a precocious boy. No other activity was like it, and Roy wondered if Hohenheim or Berthold had ever felt this with himself. To project one’s soul into another’s form and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s own temperament to another, as though looking upon a mirror: there was a real joy in it, perhaps the most satisfying kind of joy, the kind that tied fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. There another prejudice he disliked: were he Edward’s true father, people would look the other way and disregard the attention he paid the boy. But that he was a military man and Edward an alchemist complicated matters for both of them. Society’s eyes were critical and oft unforgiving.

Edward nudged his elbow then and barked, “I’m hungry. Let’s go to Giovanni’s.” The boy turned to Havoc. “We’re going to Giovanni’s. You can come with us too. I’m sure the Bastard won’t mind another person, since he’s filthy rich and deserves to be ripped off from once in a while.”

Roy gave a light laugh at Ed’s abrasive word. “Such a charming lad you are, as always.”

“I learn only from the best,” said the boy, tongue in cheek, with a sidelong smile. Then he crossed his arms and began to frown again. “I should hope the symposium is better than that tripe you forced me through. Wish I had the last six hours of my life back. Miserable old fools cooped up in their narrow little skulls! If I hadn’t known any better, I’d say they were ignorant men who could care less for academia! The likes of them shouldn’t even be allowed to step in the halls of a library! If I’d written even one book in whatever library they walked into, I’d be so insulted by their very presence I’d rise from my grave and strangle their fat necks with my bare hands! That is, if I could wrap my hands around them—that pudgy one had quite the jowls...”

Roy was laughing now, a hearty laugh at the little boy who was beginning to talk so much like him. Maes would be so proud! Havoc, who was driving, failed to stifle chuckles and choked on the smoke of his own cigar.

“It’s pure blasphemy, I tell you! Such an insult to the essence of intelligence! If only I weren’t such a nice person—ah, Giovanni!” Ed hopped off the car and made a beeline for the chef, who was at the doors having just seen another prized customer out. The chef was positively delighted when Roy stepped out after Edward and made for the doors. Ed was saying, “I need meat today. Don’t really know how to pick between different kinds of steaks yet but I need meat, medium-rare, smothered with those mushrooms and onions from last time. Those were good. Can I have some bread too?”

“He’ll be having ribeye, Giovanni, thank you,” Roy smiled, ushering his chattering charge into the store. Edward, when irritated, turned into a veritable box of crackling energy. Much like a circle when its flow was blocked; the energy remained within the confines of the lines, summoned yet unused, restless in its cramped boundaries. Edward was not one for boundaries.

Havoc followed after them, having put out his cigar and parked the car outside. The lieutenant looked happy and was more than willing to indulge Edward’s talkative spell; it was a rare occasion that he was afforded free, upscale lunch by his superior. Roy never minded providing for his subordinates’ meals—during holidays, they would gather at either his or Maes’ house to celebrate together—but his subordinates were always careful to maintain decorum between them otherwise. It was a good precaution; they were friends, but they also existed in rank. A little distance helped maintain the status quo.

Edward darted to the display counter that showcased the available desserts as Havoc and Roy were guided to a table. It was then that Havoc remarked, “The kid’s terribly energetic today.”

“Because he’s itching for a challenge,” Roy smiled, ordering for some salad, bread, and light wine. “His curiosity is rather hard to satisfy at times.”

“You sound far too happy for that statement, chief,” Havoc plainly stated, perusing the menu with distracted eyes.

“Yes, well,” Roy smirked, “his foils do bring me such pure joy.”

“What brings you pure joy?” Ed asked, hopping most childishly into his seat. He held a small sample of treacle tart within his hands. “Wait—do I even want to know?”

“Well, Edward, that depends,” Roy began, parrying the little inquisitive mind even as he began constructing a careful framework for his plans. This little incident, though disqualifying one way to distract Ed, proved the boy’s capacity for inciting significant uproar. If all went well within the next six months, he would be one rank higher, closer to his goal. All he needed was a curious Edward under his fold—even better as a State Alchemist under his command—and even Mira Olivier Armstrong’s money and pedigree would fail to stand a chance.

 

Four days after Edward’s eventful first and only day at school, Roy attended a private gathering of State Alchemists and Generals at the Fuhrer’s residence. Dubbed the Palace, it was one of the most defensible structures in Amestris, preceded only by Central Headquarters itself and the Fort of Briggs, and perhaps paralleled by the most infamous Armstrong Manor (of which’s dogged resilience against the biggest mass rebellion in their history was near-mythological). The Fuhrer’s Palace was situated quite conveniently upon the peak of a tall hill a mere twenty minutes away from the capital. As such, it was visible and quite magnificent at night from the winding road that led towards it from the city. This plan of house was rather confounding to most visitors, for such visibility crippled defences when one could aim with a sniper from afar. But all windows and walls were reinforced with alchemy; bullets and bombs were ineffectual tools against this fortress masquerading as a palace.

Trees populated the surrounding acres from the first gates to the innermost gate, but the tree line ended there. The hill was shaved clean of shrubbery to afford from inside complete visibility of whoever was approaching the house. A wide expanse of trimmed lawn and carefully manicured gardens spread in tasteful symmetry around it. Peacocks, a particular fancy of the Führer, were scattered artfully over the green, as if to dissuade suspicion of arrays and glyphs hidden in the patterns. (So artful their scattering was, in fact, that Roy had to wonder if their feet were glued into position.)

Traps were aplenty in those gardens—particularly the hedgerow mazes, which he always made a point to avoid whenever he visited. He was no mediocre alchemist; he could feel the thrum of energy just waiting to snap beneath his feet. He had engineered similar mechanisms for his own residence, of course much more unassuming due to their lesser power and harder to pinpoint (except, apparently, if one was a genius eleven-year-old with the curiosity of a very experienced cat and a propensity for detailed exploration).

The Palace’s structure itself was of the Victorian style, genuine in its age and holding much history within its walls. Roy always enjoyed his time within this house, never mind the perpetual tension in the air as prominent personalities of the nation clashed against each other. He would be a fool to succumb to the Führer’s subtle tricks, one of which was this regular ritual of inducing petty grievances between powerful guests (all alpha males, and, with Mira Olivier Armstrong’s rare exception, alpha female) such that they would all be otherwise occupied running circles around each other, instead of forming cohesive units capable of neatly overthrowing the current ruler. So he relaxed and enjoyed himself, making the best of his short stay within the Palace by learning as much as he could about its history and mysteries. The Palace had many mysteries.

He was one of the few capable of such unprecedented calm. Being the youngest of his rank, and the only State Alchemist apart from Brigadier General Gran at such a lofty position, Roy was afforded leverage and relieved of some worry. He had a comfortable perch. Though his position could be threatening to those above him, he was not so easily destabilised. He had State Alchemist certification, war hero status, years of military experience, and a long list of achievements credited to his name. (Oh, and Maes for an ally.) They would have to work hard for a convincing case to present to the Führer (who, for some reason, appeared to favour him). Such was evident now, as the Führer stood beside him and most curiously asked for his opinions regarding the subject of the day’s gathering.

In face of such authority, it was always safe to be humbly honest. Roy therefore conveyed his admiration in quiet, steady tones, careful to keep the conversation between only the Führer and himself. He knew, of course, that the picture they painted—talking in low tones, with an agreeable mood, and with Roy’s reputation—would strike unrest in even the steadiest of these military men. Roy was a master at manipulating his opponents’ perceptions and took full advantage of this situation.

It was only when the item of the day’s event came into view that attention was diverted from his quiet discus with the Führer. The boy was surely no older than Edward, perhaps even a tad younger, with flaxen hair blonder than Riza’s and blue eyes brighter than winter. Roy paid close attention.

“Gentlemen, this lad here is our guest of honour for today: young Mr. Russell Tringham, a talent one only sees once in every generation.” And of course such an exaggerated introduction was necessary, for it was General Spahn making the pronouncements. Or perhaps it was only Roy who saw fit to contradict the General’s statement, for only he knew of two more boys, one a little older and one a little younger, both able to make a match against this Russell Tringham. Nothing this boy was capable of would quite be able to usurp the Elrics’ ultimate achievement of human transmutation.

But of course, he kept his peace.

They were led down to a wider room where glass flasks were prepared for a demonstration. The boy made for them without hesitation, lifting two flasks in either hand. His right held a Büchner flask, which in turn held a gently luminescent blue-white fluid within it. His left held an Erlenmeyer Bulb, its round bottom swirling with a viscous liquid so violently red it was painful to look at. Roy was strongly reminded of freshly spilled blood.

“We call this red water,” young Russell Tringham began, lifting the round-bottomed Bulb with no preamble and no pretence. The red liquid within it lurched with the movement. “You might be familiar with it from literature, or perhaps from having personally seen my father’s research. This compound is easily created from a mixture of highly reactive alchemical amplification substances—the formula that you see here is the final product of the last leg of my father’s research before he died. The most stable and viable form of the substance, I have named it Formula 5.5. Now, some of you will be aware that the formula for the Red Stones used during the Ishbal conflict was Formula 4.0. This is because my father had secreted away a large part of his final research, being a man who largely disliked showcasing incomplete works.”

Roy, who had been acquainted with the late Nash Tringham, here began to doubt the extent to which this child knew his own father, for Nash Tringham was a strongly moral man. Tringham had refused the military—at the cost of his life, of course—in a desperate effort to protect innocents from the horrors of which his alchemy was all too capable. In fact, if Roy remembered well, Nash Tringham only ever publicized his research to revive his economically ailing hometown of Xenotime, in hopes that the abundance of the minerals necessary for red water in the nearby mines would attract military investment and subsequently ease the endemic poverty. Now, looking upon this young, bright child, Roy felt nothing but pity for Nash Tringham’s science. Russell Tringham, so eager and so young, stood there and spoke the secrets his father had died for.

“F5.5 is more stable than F4.0 by 2.63 times, and has 89% higher reactivity potential. In lay terms, F5.5 will be twice as likely to crystallise into viable Stones, which will have near double the amount of amplifying capacity for any alchemist wielding it.”

The generals began rustling. Roy did not like this innovation.

“However, despite its stability, F5.5 is still highly volatile. It has doubled its chances of crystallising, but that only brings it to a total of 45%. The need for usable Stones will be too high for a mere 45% to meet. This will result in a higher demand for a greater amount of red water, which while easy to gather the ingredients for, is not easy to make. It is not expedient for the purposes of most alchemists, least of all the military.”

The Führer was nodding as he rested his hands upon the arm of a settee. General Spahn then wrestled with a smile, surely a vicious one, as was visible to Roy by the old man’s working jaw. One would think he’d be a little less transparent, given his age and supposed experience, Roy thought.

“Now, this,” the boy continued, “is of my own making.” In his right hand, the flat-bottomed Büchner flask contained its swirling white-blue contents. Its luminescence threw Russell’s face into a study of light and shadow; Roy was sharply reminded of Edward’s pale face against the dying crackle of a magnificent and bloody circle. “My particular solution of the red water, as you can see, isn’t red at all. It has a higher concentration of radium than most alchemists would deem safe.” Upon this claim, alchemists present shifted away. Roy did not bother; exposure was already done. Radium was not to be deterred by a mere few inches of added distance. It was a remarkable substance, from what little current science knew of it. It was indeed very potent.

“My rationale posits that the added radium increases the water’s stability without compromising its instability.” Roy smiled for a statement well-put. “That is, radium, being an earth metal in its purest form, lends structure to the liquid that it would otherwise lack. It also helps that a large portion of the chemical base within the original solution comprises of nitrate,” and, as if suddenly realising that his audience might not be aware of it, he added, “...radium easily bonds with nitrate.”

Russell relinquished the red flask to handle the white-blue one with both hands. Using careful technique, the boy poured most of the liquid radium into a second similar flask which was already connected to the first one under vacuum. The process left only a viscous dollop of glowing liquid resting at the first flask’s bottom. He sealed the second flask, now nearly full, and then with gentle hands unstopped the first flask, holding it up for eyes to see. As the vacuum broke, the dollop of liquid inside visibly hardened to a glowing piece of Stone.

The quick process drew gasps and murmurs from the small, privileged crowd. Roy himself pressed his lips in a stern line; he began to see future wars, bloody conflicts encouraged by this alchemy. It was not a reassuring innovation, this new Stone. But Nash Tringham would have been so undoubtedly proud.

“This Stone, with radium strengthening it, will have a half-life of approximately 575 years if left as it is. If used, it will sustain one average alchemist for all of his basic and intermediate reactions for the span of nearly ten years.”

Roy could feel all eyes settle upon the Stone. Major Alex Armstrong, off toward the back, murmured his quiet disbelief. Roy could not help it; he had to ask.

“Mr. Tringham, if you please,” Roy began. “Excuse the interruption, but I must ask.”

“Of course, sir,” the boy welcomed.

“Do elaborate upon ‘basic and intermediate reactions.’”

Russell blinked. “Well, basic reactions would comprise of commonplace molecular manipulation, such as repairing broken china, where there is no necessity to transmute one molecule into another, since all the original molecules are present and sufficient. The alchemist has only to reunite the molecules into its former shape.” Roy nodded. “Intermediate reactions would comprise of real-time molecular transmutation. Modifying bonds and recombining atoms, for example, to make hydrogen peroxide from hydroxide and water. Usually such reactions are warranted for the more complicated procedures that advanced practitioners such as you, sir, are likely to perform. Flame alchemy comprises largely of volatile molecular transmutation and manipulation at the same time, and the larger the scale, the more so it requires a high level of skill and control. This would place your alchemy on the higher end of advanced intermediate practice by my reckoning, and likely, you will use up this size of a Stone in battle within less than a year.”

Roy then saw fit to grace the boy with a gracious smile. “You are well-informed, Mr. Russell. That is a good trait to keep if you are aiming for State Alchemy.”

The boy ducked as if to physically avoid the compliment, a light flush dusting his nose and cheeks. “I try to keep myself abreast of developments in Amestrian alchemy at large, and Lieutenant Colonel Mustang is the current leading pioneer in flame alchemy. In all truth, I would put your practice at a higher level, sir, than mere advanced intermediate—except I’d like to reserve the classification of advanced reactions for the truly complicated and labour-intensive ones, such as Mr. Tucker’s research with bioalchemy and chimerae. The synthesis or recombination of a living being using alchemy is a highly advanced procedure requiring intimate knowledge that I do not yet possess, though I will aim to be so skilled one day that I might be able to contribute within that field.”

“And I have no doubt that you should succeed,” the Führer kindly added, nodding his approval at the alchemist boy. “When you finally step into the threshold of bioalchemy, the military will be present to support your efforts, as it always is present for its State Alchemists.”

Roy had to blink. It took a moment to register what he had heard. For the Führer, if he was not mistaken, had just affirmed the boy’s admission into State Alchemy ranks, and with such a blessing, the tests were reduced to mere formality! He had never heard of such a case before. Of course, the Führer’s word was not enough to grant the title; the tests were still necessary. But the Führer’s approval was priceless. Roy thought of Edward and began to revise his plans.

“Russell intends to finish his research with the Stone within the next year, complete with the publication. It is afterward that he intends to partake of the State Alchemy exam, yes?” General Spahn was glowing more than half as bright as the Stone in Russell Tringham’s hand, such pride was it that he felt. The boy could have very well been his own son.

Russell confirmed and added, “I’d have liked to take the exam this year, but I feel an obligation to finish what I have begun. And—and I would like to enlist as a State Alchemist only after I have closed the book of my father’s legacy and remove myself entirely from his name. I wish to become my own alchemist and not a mere shadow of my father. I will pioneer greater things in time; I’ll make sure of it.”

Such conviction, such verve in those words! Roy’s spine tingled with them as they echoed naught but pure truth. He lamented the boy’s lack of good supervision. It was evident in the way the boy held himself, the way he spoke, the things he spoke of, and how he discussed them. At least, Roy told himself, Ed would be the wiser. At the very least, Ed would never divulge such things—because one did not recite one’s motivations in pure truth before potential enemies! It was no wonder, then, that General Spahn was possessed of such happiness, for he had acquired the perfect, unsuspecting pawn.

 

The next day, before work, he retrieved a slim and cared-for volume from his bedroom shelf. Brushing away imaginary dust, he took it with him to the library, where Edward sat sprawled on the couch with his books and his papers and his flask. When he wordlessly handed it to his charge, Edward frowned. “...it’s not some fairy-tale, is it?”

On its front read The Prince in embellished silver lettering; it had served as Roy’s introduction to political philosophy, and he felt a great gratitude towards the text for all that he had learned—and still learned—through it. So Roy was duly amused when Edward thought it a fairy tale, for fairy tales were the farthest things from this book. “Do I seem like the type who reads and collects fairy tale books, Edward?”

“Yes,” the boy deadpanned, taking the title and rifling through its pages.

“It’s a book on political philosophy,” Mustang coughed, “and you’ll gain much from it, I’m sure. Every good and sane politician must and probably have read it. I deem it essential to success.”

“So you’re letting me in on trade secrets?” Edward sounded genuinely surprised. “How unnaturally trusting of you, Bastard!”

“Ah, but that’s just it,” Roy smiled and said, thinking of poor Russell Tringham and his abject lack of anything resembling a true mentor. Such bright minds were a waste to be left like so. “They aren’t secrets at all,” he continued. “In fact, most of that book is common sense expanded into scenarios. The philosophy in that book is nothing new—it has been around for centuries before that was written, and will continue to exist onwards. But the catch—”

“Let me guess,” his boy cut in. “Not everybody can do it.”

Roy glowed brighter than Spahn with his version of the proud fatherly smile. Edward was learning.

 

Edward was learning too fast. The boy had easily deduced that Roy and Maes were both being called out to look at the latest development in one of their grislier cases. Ed had shown interest in this particular case, Roy distinctly recalled, perhaps due to its alchemical nature. The perpetrator was an alchemist of an unspecified level of skill; this was enough to cause top brass unease. Such unease in the higher echelons filtered to below to the ranks as a crystal of potassium permanganate dissolved to colour a beaker of water. It rapidly spread its influence throughout the system and very soon had the lower ranked officers magnifying the tension in their clamour to please those above them.

Roy was not immune to this process; in fact, it was precisely what he utilised in his campaign to power. However, the item of his eye, the superior that he wished to please, was much higher than his direct commanding officer, Douglass, or for that matter, any general in the military hierarchy. In fact, this authority was much higher than the Führer himself. This authority he respected and sought to satisfy was the authority of the people. Few, of course, realised this.

When Douglass had assigned him this case, Roy was of the distinct impression that the man wished for him to struggle and fail. If Douglass was not so alchemically disinclined, Roy would truly have reason to suspect that Douglass was behind this himself. But the alchemical circles involved here were too detailed—too arcane and, in fact, exotic—to be the doing of someone so ignorant. No, the perpetrator was surely an alchemist, and herein was the one sole reason Roy agreed to have Edward tag along.

He had known that should Edward truly insist to come, he would never be able to resist. He would try, but Edward’s insistence was if anything unrelenting. It gave him reassurance, however, that Edward sought to verbally convince him first, instead of resorting to some foolish act of rebellion. The boy truly looked ready to comply if Roy should put his foot down and refuse. Roy was heartened that, though their time spent together was still short and friendship premature, Edward now looked to him as a figure of authority, and would seek his permission first before engaging in any major decision. When he had first said no, his voice echoing finality, Edward’s steps had stuttered as if physically restrained by some invisible force. All the while the boy argued his case, but moved not one step away from his spot, until Roy had relented under those insistent golden eyes and under Maes’ heavy hand on his shoulder.

Upon hindsight, of course Maes was right. (Here Maes would insist that he was always right, but of course Roy would ignore him.) Edward was invaluable to any case even remotely related to alchemy, as evident by the progress their investigation had made in one night. Their new leads rendered his and Maes’ core workforce insufficient to cover all the ground, and were it any other case, Roy would request assistance. However, they were unlikely to receive any aid from the military, and Roy preferred not to waste his time. As it was, Douglass was already working hard to waste it for him.

“Maes, I’m leaving you to it,” Roy bid his friend as he fixed his cuffs. “I’ve already sent Falman and Fuery to help crosscheck the list of names; Riza should be plenty of help for you should you need her. I wager this’ll take a while.”

“Roy, old friend, have you forgotten? We don’t wager on military affairs,” said Maes’ voice from behind a wall of papers. Maes’ smaller team was currently represented by said wall, accumulated quickly overnight; his men and women were faster at gathering information on the field, leaving Maes and Roy to play analyst and Roy’s team to wrap up the loose ends.

“Says the man who ripped me off five grand last month,” Roy muttered, walking out of the office to Maes’ chortling.

It was Roy’s team quarters they routinely used, due to its more spacious nature, and also owing to the delicate nature of their arrangement. Team operations were best kept away from the Intelligence wing, given their rarity and subsequent tendency to attract much unwelcome attention. Intel was, by nature, a highly independent and aloof department: the only cooperation between their forces and Central command took place at higher ranks, where commanders would be fed information to contemplate and decide upon. Roy and Maes’ arrangement was peculiar and rare, only made possible through their combined influence (otherwise known as Roy’s fetching charm and Maes’ blackmail material) upon certain well-placed people. Douglass, naturally, did not approve of such an arrangement and sought to destabilise their order with every chance he got. Here was another such chance.

Roy rapped smartly upon the door and was let in by Douglass’ stern lieutenant. Everything about this office was torturously stern, as if to convey its resident’s inability to achieve sufficient gravity without the help of his environment. Even then, Douglass failed to intimidate Roy.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” Douglass began, “I hear you have had some good news last night.”

“Sir,” Roy saluted and then stood at attention before Douglass’ desk. He kept his hands folded behind his back, of course: a little tactic that seemed to upset Douglass whenever Roy was doing it. “Another victim is hardly good news.”

“But because of this victim, you have gained plenty of new leads.” Douglass was eyeing him with intensity. “Leads that were given to you by a consultant you introduced into the case last night.”

Roy hid his displeasure. It was barely seven in the morning, and yet news had already spread. He wished to keep Ed’s existence a better-protected secret than this, at least until he was made Colonel, but he knew it was impossible. No matter. All was within his plans.

“An alchemical colleague, sir,” Roy answered, “an expert in the older forms of alchemy.”

“Well, well,” Douglass reclined in his seat, the intense light fading from his eyes. “Roy Mustang, asking for the help of an expert. Whatever happened to independent investigations with your sole expertise, soldier?”

So predictable, Roy dismayed. Douglass always attempted to debase him by little insults such as this. But Roy was unfazed, for he was a soldier, though ranked and distinguished. It was a perfectly applicable title. “I am an expert of modern alchemy, sir, but the ancient art is considered among even our best State Alchemists an entirely separate and most difficult pursuit. If I were privy to any State Alchemist capable of decoding these circles, rest assured I would have already consulted them. If they are capable without our knowing, then I would begin to question their reasons for withholding assistance per their duty to the state.”

Douglass frowned. “This does not excuse you from introducing some random civilian into a state investigation, Mustang!” and then, forcibly composing himself, Douglass said, “There will need to be appropriate documentation of their involvement in this case. You stretch your jurisdiction, Lieutenant Colonel. I advise you be careful.”

No, you don’t, thought Roy even as he dipped his head in acknowledgement. Douglass dismissed him with the wave of a hand.

As he had expected, Douglass was now disinterested with Edward. Expertise in ancient alchemy was not the most profitable alchemical specialisation available, at least to the military. What use did they have of booklovers who insisted upon antiquated and laborious techniques? They were more eager for the cutting edge science of Tucker and Tringham, or for the strategically valuable battle skills of Gran and Armstrong and himself. The military was, if anything, highly practical.

Just as well; until it’s time, I get to keep Edward to myself. The symposium would be the first exposure, but it would be public, effectively cementing his name alongside Edward’s. It was this way that he would be able to avoid having Edward stolen from underneath his very nose to be put under the command of another higher-ranking officer. In these matters, the Fuhrer was fair almost to a fault and did not tolerate the theft of alchemical research, advancement, and innovation. Under Bradley, what was one man’s contribution was his and his alone, although no explicit law existed to dictate it so, and Edward would remain under his command until Roy himself declared otherwise. It mattered little his rank and his competition: so long as he was the one to introduce the boy to society, the boy was his. All in two weeks’ time, he thought. It was with a smile that he walked out of Douglass’ office.

 

“Could you have taken longer!” Maes exclaimed, shooting from his perch and ushering him right back out of the room. “I am starving, Roy, and Gracia made us some delicious breakfast! She called up here just now—why, I didn’t even get to kiss her for her scrumptious dinner last night, much less kiss her goodnight—I have to be home to kiss her a good morning!”

“I have no desire to talk or think or even imagine anything about you and kissing—”

“Edward’s waiting for breakfast to be served!” Maes shoved a binder into a book bag, grabbed their coats, and shut the door. “Come on, old fellow, move your creaky bones!”

“The investigation—”

“I left Riza in command! I believe you; she is very capable!”

“The files—”

“I left Riza in command! She is very capable!”

Maes—“

“Riza!” Maes repeated, shoving Roy into the passenger seat. “Gracia, I’m coming home!” his friend sang as they pulled into Central’s streets. They happily drove for a few minutes to Maes’ delighted little rants until they were well away from Central command and Maes shut up.

“You have got to cease using these random fits of longing for your wife’s lips as an excuse to leave work midday, Maes,” sighed Roy.

“Hasn’t failed me yet, my friend! But no worry,” Maes assured him, “for by February, I’ll have the excuse of longing for my baby daughter’s chubby little cheeks!” Roy could only groan as they pulled in front of Maes’ house.

“Bastard! You’re late! Hurry up! My food is cold!” Edward’s little blonde head disappeared from a first floor window, which subsequently slammed shut as Roy stepped out of the car.

Maes gave him a pat on the shoulder. “I am most heartened to see that even in suffering our children, we fight together, old friend.”

Roy fashioned himself the better man per his custom and only gave Maes a withering look as he walked up to the door to give Gracia a peck on the cheek. He shook his head as Maes caught his wife in the promised good morning kiss in the hallway and retreated to the dining to give the couple some privacy. Edward sat sullen at the table, utensils in hand, poised and ready to devour his food.

“May I eat now?” the boy demanded, fingering his fork.

Roy smiled. “You may.”

Thank you!” Edward exclaimed, digging into his meal with the usual gusto. Roy removed his jacket and draped it over a chair before settling into a seat beside the boy. Edward was still in sleeping clothes, though his hair was straightened and his person presentable. Manners existed in Edward but only whenever he deemed his company worthy of such effort. Gracia, for her unfailing and timely provision of good food, was more than worthy.

Husband soon ushered said wife into the room and sat her at her seat, insisting upon serving himself and the guests to give Gracia some rest. She was getting bigger by the day, Roy noticed; children grew like weed. He could only hope that the birthing would not be too difficult for her delicate little hips.

“So,” Edward began in between big bites, “what was it you couldn’t talk about at Central command that you had to come home?”

Roy almost laughed. “Do we disrespect Gracia’s cooking so blatantly?”

“Her cooking is the smaller incentive,” Edward said. “Spit it out, old men. You aren’t fooling anyone.”

“Well, he grows up fast, look at him!” Maes cackled, spearing a sausage. “Did you give him The Prince yet?”

“We finished it a while back,” Roy said. “I’ll have him read it again later; at the very least once a year.”

“I’m right here, you know!”

“Ah, excuse us, Edward,” Roy smiled, “we were conversing at eye level.”

Who are you calling so short he—

“These files,” Maes mentioning the binder and ignoring Edward, “are of individual State Alchemists currently in presence within Central. I wanted you to start looking over them, Roy, and consider their possibility as suspects. You know them and their alchemy better. Falman came back while you were with Douglass to let me know a little something that Fuery noticed: half the books Edward had listed are only accessible through the First Library. All of them reference other works, most of which are also exclusive to personnel with level three security clearance. Of the team, you’re the only one with that kind of access; being no State Alchemist or high-ranked officer, I only have until level two.”

Edward swallowed hard. “Are you telling me that the killer is a State Alchemist?”

“The level of alchemical skill narrows the profile down by a lot, Ed,” said Maes. “It’s a good possibility—and these things are better left unsaid within Central command’s walls.”

“If so, then they’re a pretty pathetic State Alchemist,” Edward huffed, clearly unimpressed.

Roy poured Edward more juice. “Not necessarily, Ed; they can be exceptional in modern alchemy but with a limited knowledgebase on the ancient art.”

“Hence pathetic,” the boy insisted, stabbing his omelette with vicious conviction. “One does not learn the variations and stop at that; one learns the origin and then studies the variations. How do these people study alchemy?! I hope your teacher was a good teacher, Bastard. Mine taught me the truth.”

“The truth?” Maes probed.

Roy blinked. You are not an alchemist, Berthold had said to him, as long as you do not understand this truth, Roy.

“The truth!” Edward declared. “One is all—“

“—and all is one,” Roy finished.

Edward actually paused his meal to give Roy an appraising look and said, “Look at you, you’re actually decent!” Maes broke into laughter. “It seems our teachers were from the same philosophy; no wonder, then. What was your teacher’s name?”

“I am always decent, Edward,” Roy admonished, “and my teacher was known as the Alchemist of Air.”

“Air?” Edward echoed.

“His name was Berthold Hawkeye.”

“Hawkeye—wait, wait,” Edward blinked and grabbed his arm. “Is he related to your lady lieutenant? The lady who was giving me the evil eye last night.” Maes broke into more laughter.

“She is Berthold’s daughter,” Roy smiled, “and you’ll be best advised not to let her hear these little thoughts, young man, if you don’t wish to be peppered with bullet holes.”

“So she’s an alchemist too?! Holy—crap!” Edward caught himself mid-cuss at Gracia’s sharp upward glance. “What is she doing in your team?! Don’t you know that lady alchemists are deadly?! They are vicious monsters, I tell you! Vicious!” Maes howled in mirth, slapping the tabletop as Edward continued, “They always have filthy ulterior motives and seek to control your very soul and they’ll lord it over you that their way of alchemy is better than your own, never mind that you’re the one using your alchemy—oh, and what’s worse, they actually are stronger than you! Physically, too! Even if they should have ten percent less muscle mass!”

Roy was laughing when he said, “I see that you are acquainted with the female variation of humankind, even at your tender age. But as far as I know, Riza is not a practicing alchemist. She had neither interest nor aptitude for it. She took after her mother; a mighty woman in her own right, but not an alchemist, no.”

As far as you know?” Edward echoed, dubious. “Not good enough. She’s an alchemist, and don’t I know it. I’ll stay far away from her. Far away.”

Maes was attempting to say something that sounded like, “Wise choice, Ed!” except his laughter overpowered his entire body. Roy only shook his head. Trust Edward to reduce his unflappable friend into a veritable heap of giggling child.

“Anyway, my teacher’s name is Curtis,” Edward told him, “Izumi Curtis. She lives in Dublith; my brother and I both trained with her. We lived there for two years.”

“Your mother?”

“She let us go,” Edward shrugged. “It was harder to convince Izumi than to convince Mom. Izumi didn’t want apprentices—especially not two young boys. I was eight and Al was six, turning seven. I don’t think she was very comfortable with the idea of imparting her knowledge to two boys so young; powerful knowledge, at that, and capable of killing. People aren’t very fond of alchemy that close to Ishbal, you see; people think of alchemy there in terms of war.” Roy only nodded. “Anyway, we managed to talk her into it, through sheer stubbornness. We would come home every few months or so and spend a week in Resembool, but that was it. Training took all of our time, and there were fewer distractions in Dublith. Since Izumi’s husband was supportive of alchemy, we could live with them. Since we lived with them, we could live with alchemy. Live it and eat it and breathe it, everyday. That was how we learned. That’s how real alchemists should learn. Not at some fancy school for spoiled brats of well-to-do families.”

“And you finished your training in—what, a little less than three years?” Maes voiced disbelief. “Surely not; most alchemists I know of, even the more prodigious ones, take more than that. Roy took near seven years to finish his!”

“I wouldn’t say finished,” both Roy and Ed protested at once, and then looked at each other. Roy returned to his meal and allowed Ed to resume his story. The boy said, “We’re hardly finished. We’re both fast learners, Al and I, and her teaching methods are very, err, effective, shall we say—so we’re already at advanced levels. We’ve also been studying alchemy from Hohenheim’s notes since we were young, so we had good background.” Roy clearly heard the grudge in the boy’s voice upon mention of the missing father’s name. “But she hasn’t taught us any of her own techniques. We haven’t gone into her research; so far, we’ve only studied general alchemy, survival, and combat.” Ed paused to pick at a cube of bell pepper, before continuing in a more strained tone, “And—and after what we—I’ve done, I don’t think she’ll be very happy with us. I don’t think she’ll even take us back. If anything, she’d likely beat us black and blue. She explicitly warned us away from human transmutation, and I explicitly disobeyed her. Al had more sense. Al has always had more sense. He’s very sane.”

Roy chuckled at the apt description.

Edward turned to him. “So? You said you weren’t finished, either.”

“With my training, yes, I wasn’t,” Roy acknowledged, inclining his head.

“Even though you had almost seven years?” Ed echoed Maes’ disbelief, only in the opposite. Roy could almost hear the added thought of, You must suck.

“I did not begin early with my alchemical education as you did, unfortunately,” Roy patiently explained. “My lessons began when I was about eight, almost nine years old, through Berthold, who was short-lived tutor to my half-brother. This half-brother of mine had no aptitude for alchemy, but much to Berthold’s surprise, I did. I was younger, and only included in these lessons because I insisted. They weren’t quite looking at me.” They never did, at anything, he thought. “Berthold soon left the employ of that household, but through certain arrangements, I began studying alchemy in earnest under his wing. It was very fortunate that you had Hohenheim—his notes—as your elementary instructor, Ed, because I had subpar books written by subpar alchemists as mine. I would look at them when I was a child, whenever I had a chance, at the house library. A very poorly equipped library, if I recall correctly. When Berthold finally took me as an apprentice, there were many things to unlearn.”

Edward gave a long and drawn-out sound of understanding. Unlearning was always the hardest part. It pleased Roy how quickly this boy processed implications. Excellent material he was given. Roy would have to send his regards to this Izumi Curtis in Dublith.

“Also, my study under Berthold was frequently interrupted by his recurrent battle with tuberculosis. He would be interned at the local hospital or bedridden for long stretches of time, while I was left to books and experimentation,” Roy continued. “In addition to this, I worked to earn money and studied other arts, such as political science, history, and rhetoric. Berthold had many intellectual connections; I made good use of them.”

“Of course you did.”

“I did, and my making use of them led me to where I am now,” Roy wryly smiled, putting aside his utensils as he finished with breakfast. He sat back to enjoy some finely brewed coffee. “One of them introduced me to the idea of State Alchemy. –Oh, I was aware of it before then, yes, but I never did consider it until I was exposed to all of its potential benefits, if I played the game right. The idea of having access to the First Library—was irresistible. I’m sure you understand.” To Roy’s satisfaction, Ed gave a tight nod. “So I enlisted and passed the examination when I was fifteen. The military cares little for age.” Maes only smiled and sipped his coffee. “Berthold was far from impressed; he forbade me from returning to his house until I was ‘rid of taint and corruption’.” Ed gave a snort. “Yes, indeed. That August was the last I saw of him alive; he passed away the following winter. With his loss, I also lost contact with Hohenheim. The last I saw of him was the spring of that year. March, I believe—he had just returned from the north after a journey to another one of his friends. The passages are hard to traverse that far in the winter; he was forced to stay until first thaw.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Ed growled. “Couldn’t have been. If he had alchemy, he would be able to traverse any kind of ice or snow. He had his reasons for staying up there. Asshole never tells anyone anything; you’d think he was involved in some worldwide conspiracy with as much secrecy as he keeps around him.”

Roy laughed, standing to help Maes clear the dishes before Gracia could even venture to try. “Indeed. Hohenheim is a very secretive man, for which I am sure he has his reasons. Now, up you get, you’re helping to clean up! Equivalent exchange, Edward; Gracia cooked for you, no?”

Edward nodded and made pointless, happy chatter throughout the rest of their stay. Soon the two of them left Maes to his wife for some rest—as both Roy and Maes and their respective teams had yet to sleep since last night’s debacle—and Roy retreated to his house with his charge in tow. The boy was mostly quiet, in step beside him as a living and breathing reminder of what Roy had been, before the military. What innocence Roy had lost.

Once upstairs, he retreated into his rooms, where he took a quick shower and then went to bed. For a few hours, at least; he was needed back at work by the afternoon. This case was not the only case they were assigned; life should be so perfect. After a quick shot of gin, Roy nestled himself among soft, expensive covers within his spacious, expensive house—things he had toiled for through the past six years of his military life. His sore dislike for remembering things long past was for good reason. When he closed his eyes, he sank into disturbed dreams of smoke, fire, and his own wide and terrified eyes on the night of his first kill. He shortly woke and then fell back into even worse dreams of himself behind Edward on the night of the boy’s first kill. It would come, he knew. Eventually.

Roy’s only comfort was that he would be there behind Edward, because on the night of his first kill, there was nobody behind him.

 

 

“Without doubt princes become great when they overcome the difficulties and obstacles by which they are confronted, and therefore Fortune, especially when she desires to make a new prince great, who has a greater necessity to earn renown than an hereditary one, causes enemies to arise and form designs against him, in order that he may have the opportunity of overcoming them, and by them to mount higher, as by a ladder which his enemies have raised. For this reason many consider that a wise prince, when he has the opportunity, ought with craft to foster some animosity against himself, so that, having crushed it, his renown may rise higher.”
( The Prince, Twentieth Chapter: Are Fortresses, And Many Other Things To Which Princes Resort, Advantageous Or Hurtful? ~ Niccolo Machiavelli )

If on a vibrant, sunny day one walked the streets surrounding Roy’s house, one would not have to walk very far to realise the house’s singularity. It was the sort of house that a common person would attribute to a wealthy man. This was not entirely false, as Roy was a wealthy man, all things considered. But things were not always such. A mere eight years ago, Roy was poor.

The house was naturally older than eight years, with its distinct red bricks hailing from a specific era of Amestrian architecture dating more than a century ago. Its details, foundation, and surroundings were altered in moderation for added strength and practicality over the years, but enough of its personality was maintained such that a learned eye was able to easily detect its noble origins. But age was not the sole contributor to the house’s imposing air. The surrounding houses were mostly of the same era, and yet failed to elicit the same repute. As with plenty of distinguished places, Roy’s house was famed for their original owners, Roy’s predecessors: the Amsels.

Newcomers to Central would not be familiar with the name. But mention it to persons with interests in business or politics or history, or any persons who lived in Central before the socio-political turmoil of the last four decades, and one would learn that for near a century or so, the Amsels were indubitably amongst the city’s most respected and influential families. What was now Roy’s house used to be their residence whenever they were in Central for the season, participating in functions and other similar social events.

Like the Armstrongs, the Amsels owned vast acres of land outside of the bursting metropolis. The Armstrongs were native to the north-northeast territories of Amestris, reportedly closer in ancient blood relation to the Drachmans than they would like to acknowledge. The Amsels, however, hailed from the opposite direction, owning land in the south-southwest of Central, toward Creta’s seldom tremulous borders.

The two families held a lot of bolstering characteristics in common, such as industry and charisma, but in their differences rested the story of the Amsels’ demise. While the Armstrongs were stringent, indeed almost vicious, in their inculcation of strong personality traits in their children (necessary given their proximity to Drachma), the Amsels were more permissive and allowed their children freer rein over personal character and line of work (permissible due to their secure placement). The result was an astounding variety of vocations within the scions of the Amsel lineage, in comparison to the Armstrongs’ near-perfect brood of intelligent, decisive, and ferocious soldiers.

But instead of fostering a cogent and well-rounded clan, the Amsels’ diversity led to incongruity that was left unresolved and assured them a slow but steady decline. The last strong child of the family—a headstrong, industrious lady named Evelyn Louise Amsel—tired of her family’s lack of leadership and found her refuge in one man who in time became her husband, a certain Lucas Olivier Armstrong. Her defection from her family line was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.

Evelyn was a woman, obviously, so according to Amsel tradition, she was ineligible to inherit. However, her two brothers and three male cousins destroyed themselves one by one through an impressive line-up of altercations, accidents, tragedies, and hideous public scandals. Four of them died with the last one landing in prison, leaving the family beholden to five girls. In an ideal world, Evelyn would have inherited, being the most educated and capable of all five. But she was only the second eldest of the girls. Through Amsel tradition, the eldest of them from the last line that hailed a male heir—her cousin Miranda—was in line to inherit before her.

The situation could have been manageable; Miranda was never a decisive person and would have been easy to control. But by then, Miranda was already wedded and pregnant by Landon Markham, the second son of the old and prestigious Markham family. Thus, by Amsel tradition, the inheritance went into slippery Landon Markham’s hands. Suffice it to say that they were not fastidious hands.

Quickly she grew tired of his management. Though they were provided for in every necessity and never had to starve—indeed, her cousins were endowed well enough that they could still afford their blissfully ignorant high-society lifestyle in Central—Markham’s management of the family’s assets was acutely deficient. The deficiency became so pronounced that the expenses fast began to run over what they could afford. Thus in a final attempt to save what she could of the family business, she implored Markham to sell some of their summer houses, which should make sufficient money to revitalise the system. On the account of her gender and supposed subsequent ignorance of business and management, Markham vetoed her suggestion and sold the farmlands instead.

What horror and shame Evelyn must have felt for her name then! The acres of ancestral land that the Amsels had owned since the beginning of Amestris were summarily divvied up and consumed. Markham felt justified in his decision after acquiring such an enormous amount of quick money. “Land sells quicker than houses, woman,” he extolled, “and they sell for so much more!” But of course the land would sell quicker; the farmlands they used to own were prime soil for a wide variety of crops and cattle. It was also the one asset in their arsenal that still hauled robust revenue. But because of Markham, it was theirs no more.

This momentous loss served as the trigger for the confrontation that alienated Evelyn from the rest of her family, but her permanent departure was not until later, when Markham and her cousins, having again burned through their money, were in need of more assets to sell. It was at this time that Markham chose to heed her old and by now outdated suggestion of selling the summer houses for profit. Being so removed from her cousins, Evelyn was never notified of Markham’s decision, and only knew of it when she visited the old Central house and saw it being evacuated to be refurbished by its new owners.

Outrage was insufficient a word to describe what she felt at the slight dealt to her family. Precious history was being wasted, merely thrown away like some piece of rubbish! The old Amsel house in Central—or what was now Roy’s house—was the second oldest Amsel property after the ancestral home in Karmi. Historic banquets and summer functions were once held within that hall; Generals and even a Führer were once guests within those rooms! Yet there was little else she could do to save her family’s heirlooms. Through age-old Amsel traditions, she was rendered powerless.

It was at this time that Lucas Armstrong at last approached her with an offering of marriage—with promises of a bright future for her and her children. “You are a strong woman,” said Lucas Armstrong, “intelligent and highly resilient. Together, we will build upon the legacy of the Armstrongs. Our children will be the magnificent leaders of Amestris’ future.” Evelyn had been fighting this temptation for long time—she met Lucas through her work as a businesswoman in Central—and so finally she succumbed. There was nothing else for her family; she had done all she could. It was but a matter of time before everything—even the ancestral home—was squandered and lost.

What she was unaware of at the time of her engagement was the wedding gift Lucas had prepared. Having watched her for a long while, Lucas knew of her familial plight and acted accordingly. After a moderately wealthy business family bought the old Amsel house from Markham, Lucas pounced upon them and bought it back. The family only wanted for a pleasant residence in a section of the city that was stylish, safe, and accessible, so Lucas then apprised them of another property for sale on the opposite side of the Historical District. It was of equal beauty as the Amsel house, but bigger and newer, which meant fewer potential issues with disrepair. They were persuaded easily enough after Lucas offered them a generous sum that would cover their costs and still leave a small portion for furniture shopping. On the night of Lucas’ wedding, he presented the reacquired Amsel house to his new wife, who, for the lack of words, simply stood there and cried.

The house remained an unoccupied Armstrong property until nearly three years ago, when a certain Maes Hughes decided he was going to marry and began looking for a suitable house. By this time, the old Amsel house was the last remnant of the Amsel legacy in Central, and also the final connection Evelyn Armstrong had to her old family. She had been attempting to sell the property for a while, but appeared to encounter frequent difficulties with her buyers. By then, she was infamous for her stringent standards, but Maes placed his name—and Roy’s—as potential buyers nonetheless.

Kept in the dark as he was about the arrangement, Roy only knew of it when the Armstrongs sent the two of them an invitation to discuss the terms over dinner.

“Terms, what terms?” Roy had demanded of his friend, highly alarmed as he looked over the name signed at the bottom of the expensive card. Lucas Armstrong, it spelled. The Lucas Armstrong. “Maes Hughes! You will explain yourself!”

Maes did, in between sporadic bursts of incoherent laughter. Roy caught ‘it’s a business deal!’ and ‘I’m getting married’ and ‘we’re buying a house!’ but not much else. That afternoon, before their dinner date at the Armstrong’s Central residence, Roy took Maes to visit said house (or houses) so that he would at least be privy to the nature of the investment he was about to negotiate. When they left for their appointment afterwards, Maes was triumphant as Roy found himself having fallen in love. The fireplace, it was massive, and it extended upwards to the second floor!

They met the Armstrongs, both of them for the first time, and were indeed impressed by the presence they were in. Ishbal and its dirt, blood, and sand were still fresh on their minds and hands; they were unused to such opulence and elegance. Moreover, they were young then and barely established; Roy was eighteen, Maes twenty. So Roy expressed his surprise at receiving such personal attention from a family of such distinction, “as I’m sure you have plenty of other buyers eager to purchase the house,” Roy cautiously said.

The Lady Evelyn Armstrong went on to explain that over the previous years, a fair number of enquiries had been received for the house, but she had in the end decided to refuse all of them, not for their inability to cover the cost of the house, but on grounds purely of character and achievement.

“It is of great importance to me,” she explained, “that the house of my ancestors pass on to an owner they would approve of and deem worthy. Of course, we are obliged to consider the financial aspect, but it is strictly secondary. A fixed price has therefore been set,” she finished with an intent and quiet tone, as if to impart a deep secret of her soul to them.

At this point, former General Lucas Armstrong, who had barely spoken, presented Maes and Roy with an envelope, and watched sternly as Maes opened it. Inside was a single sheet of paper, blank but for one figure written upon it in elegant calligraphy. Roy was about to express his sheer astonishment at the low price (and for both houses main and second!), but then caught sight of the Armstrongs’ faces and thought better of it. Further discussion of finances would have been distasteful.

“We are not interested in receiving anything beyond the quoted price. What we mean to do from here on is to conduct an auction of prestige.”

The true aim of this meeting, she explained, was to ask formally for the both of them—and Maes’ to-be-wife—to submit themselves to a formal and closer investigation of their background and credentials to discern whether or not they would be suitable owners of the property. It was rather an eccentric procedure, but Roy saw nothing objectionable about it, and neither did Maes; indeed, they both felt somewhat flattered to be considered as candidates by this hidebound family. Besides, there was much to admire in the idea of ‘an auction of prestige,’ as Lady Armstrong put it. Roy had to wonder why things were not settled more often by such logical means. How so much more honourable was such a contest, in which one’s conduct and achievements were brought as witnesses instead of the size of one’s purse!

When they gave their consent and expressed their gratitude, the former general addressed them for the first time, and said: “I am a curious soul, Major Mustang, and I have much respect for men of science. For alchemists, in particular, who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of worldly knowledge. You will know this, of course, from my work in the past with the military. I have frequently expressed interest in and sponsored the work of numerous State Alchemists in my career. Indeed, I know of your work, Major Mustang—the famous Flame Alchemist. You could say that I am an honest admirer of alchemy.”

Clearly, the former general was responsible for convincing the Lady Armstrong to consider them as candidates. By some miraculous fortune that they were both wary to upset, Maes and Roy acquired the property after a month of the Armstrongs’ scrutiny. The low price still bothered Roy (a problem which he would resolve in the course of a few months by pouring major investment into a business guild that the Armstrongs were in the process of creating) but the house was so beautiful that he found it hard to object.

What became Maes’ house was a detached extension of the original old structure, built on the same property after the necessity for more space and a separate guest house became apparent. Though the second house was bigger, with more rooms and statelier accommodations for the Amsel guests in the past, in Roy’s opinion, he got the better end of the deal. (His house had a two-floor massive fireplace. Not to mention a hall. A great hall.) And as per agreement with the Armstrongs, Roy maintained the original structure of the main house, modifying only the second floor by removing several walls and unifying the two hind rooms to form his spacious library and study. The Armstrongs approved of the modifications upon visiting two months after they settled in.

Thus began a tentative but promising alliance. Their fortuitous interaction gave birth to the most important political alliance of Roy’s career. (Maes, having engineered the entire thing, forever held it over him.) He took great care to establish himself as a valuable and loyal friend to the Armstrong family, and his earnest efforts were repaid in droves by Armstrong assistance in business and politics. It helped to impress the former general, of course, that he was well-renowned in the military for his achievements and respect amongst the soldiers who knew him. On top of his military achievements, he was cultured, well-rounded, and economically savvy; he was the perfect guest to have over for entertainment, companionship, and advice. To their eyes, he became increasingly worthy of their time.

The Armstrongs invited him frequently to functions and dinners, introduced him to many important persons, and widened his circle of influence to create a bigger and more lasting mark upon Central’s political fabric—and these things were but beginnings! Though Roy reinvested into the Armstrongs’ business guild money worth enough to pay the Amsel house’s price in full, he understood that he would never be able to fully remove himself from being indebted to the Armstrongs. They gave him opportunities no amount of riches could buy. The one thing that Roy could do in return was to hold them in the highest respect and treat them as he would family. This was why, when he acquired Edward, he immediately sought an opportunity to present him to the Armstrongs. If Edward was to be introduced to Roy’s society, it would be to the Armstrongs first.

Seeing Edward’s need for his own research supplies, Roy fixed for them to make a shopping trip on the day that he knew the Armstrongs would be at the stationery shop. All went accordingly and indeed Lucas Armstrong was present, though with his children instead of his wife. Just as well, Roy introduced his new charge (Edward naturally gaping) and explained the circumstances to the Armstrongs. As he had expected, the old general was very delighted by Edward’s alchemical talent (which, as heretofore established, blatantly glared at everyone in the eye) and approved of Roy’s choice in an apprentice. Roy noted Mira looking decidedly jealous as she made several disparaging comments about alchemists, never minding that Alex was there. (Mira never minded Alex at all.) This easily elevated Roy’s mood for the rest of the day. It never hurt to be reminded that despite all of Mira’s advantages, Roy held one thing over her that she would never be able to take away: alchemy.

Upon their return home, the two of them adjourned to the library, where Roy nursed a cup of tea over a book (an alchemy text, since he was in the right motivation for it) while Edward took to the floor with a map of Central spread under his hands. Roy watched him for a moment with a smile. Edward carelessly sprawled with ease only a child can manage. The boy’s eyes were intently tracing lines upon the map; what he could see, Roy could not even begin to fathom. But he need not know such things to understand the rarity of Edward’s mindless focus upon whatever he was learning. At that moment, Roy was hit with a sudden throat-clenching sensation. He missed alchemy.

Edward abruptly straightened, bones popping in his back. The boy rolled a shoulder and let out a long hiss.

“Is your arm paining you still?” Roy asked, and Edward gave an absent hum. “Come here,” he beckoned, putting down his book and patting his knee. “Come on.”

Once the boy was situated before him, he placed his fingers upon Edward’s back, probing with care and earning an immediate groan of relief. Unbeknownst to plenty of people, quite a bit of tension was released with the simple act of touch. After a while of mapping Edward’s back, Roy decided that it would be wise to set Edward up with his doctor as soon as possible. He also added a mental note to introduce Edward to his masseuse; the knots in the boy’s back were horrendously tight.

A short while was spent in restive silence as Roy parted, straightened, soothed, and unknotted tense muscles underneath Edward’s skin. He took care not to exert too much pressure around the automail for fear of dehiscing the edges, but in truth, as he examined them, they looked well-approximated and far from danger of reopening. Roy frowned. He had encountered his fair share of automail wounds; these were healing a little too quickly. “Are you taking post-surgical medicines?” He’d heard of such cases before, where the recovery was accelerated by aggressive rehabilitation aided by internal medicine.

But Edward said no.

“Don’t you think your wounds are healing a little too quickly?” Roy pointed out. Surely Edward would have noticed, as it was his own body. Surely Edward knew that automail should take longer to heal. Roy had been fully prepared to have to assist Edward in daily living when the boy first arrived, but Ed’s mobility was exceptional for such a recent surgery. Roy did not know what to make of it.

“I’m not entirely sure myself,” Edward said after a while of deliberative silence, “but I have a strong feeling that the accelerated healing is also because of the Gate.”

There.

Edward finally said it. This was the first time, since Resembool, that Edward ever talked about the Gate. Roy had been waiting—impatiently waiting—and finally, Edward was discussing it.

“You mean to say that the Gate has influence on you even when you’re outside its realm?” Roy clarified, continuing his gentle massage. He was working on a knot precariously close to Edward’s automail, the muscle fibres being pulled upon by the weight of the metal it was now connected to. Underneath his finger pads, the scars felt the same as unscarred skin, the only difference being that it was lighter in complexion than its immediate surroundings.

Edward remained silent for a while. Roy could sense the turmoil in Edward’s head, could feel it in the slow tensing of the muscles in Edward’s shoulders. He passed his fingers over them again to ease the pull. Slowly, wordlessly, Roy worked his way up the neck and into the base of Edward’s head, kneading deep and gentle until Edward was resting his entire weight against Roy’s leg.

It was then that Edward said, “I have a piece of the Gate in my head.”

 

First: note to self: massage is the most effective way to extricate information from a hesitant Edward.

Second: the Gate is where?!

Roy was tempted to blink in incredulity, but he kept on staring Edward straight in the eyes. His boy was not lying. No; his boy was telling the truth. Bells of caution rang loud in Roy’s head, however, because Edward’s fear and uncertainty were visible on his face as well—on his too-young and too-open face. Edward was afraid of being shunned, of course, that much was obvious. Oh, deities of alchemy, whatever was this boy to do without him? Roy gave an inward sigh.

“This... piece of the Gate inside of you, it doesn’t influence you?” Roy asked a most relevant—though not his most pressing—question.

Something—perchance a sliver of fear—dissolved away in Edward’s eyes. “I wouldn’t say it doesn’t. It kind of does, but indirectly,” the boy shrugged, shifting against Roy’s leg in a sinuous manner that belied his physical condition. And then, rushing as if to reassure him, “It doesn’t have control over my movements or thoughts or anything like that—not even my alchemy. All it does is stay there and tell me things, because I own it,” at this, Edward sounded smug.

The very idea was so alien to Roy that he had to blink and repeat after Edward’s words. “You own it.”

“I rightfully gained it by surviving the Gate. I think whoever survives the Gate is given the bounty of the information the Gate has—which is a lot, so most people don’t remember it, like Al—”

“—or they don’t survive,” Roy finished for him, a little discomfited by Edward’s postulation. Edward might be closer to insanity than Roy had first realised. All the more reason to keep the boy under close watch and protection, for there was no telling what amount of further trauma could push Edward over the edge. Anything could be his breaking point. Roy did not want to imagine that scenario; he pushed it out of his head.

“The information itself is a piece of the Gate that I keep in my head, except mine kind of has a personality? I don’t know why,” Edward went on.

A personality, he says. Roy was beginning to have doubts here.

“Perhaps because you saw it twice,” he suggested, playing along without much understanding why. The more he dissociated this little confession from the societal standards of sanity, the easier Edward’s words were to believe. For now, that was what he had to do: believe.

This is the boy who performed a successful human transmutation, Roy told himself. An amateur like yourself has no business judging over him what is true and false. At the moment, if he says pigs fly, you can expect Breda to be sailing out of your office window. At the moment, with regards to everything alchemy, this kid’s word is truth—or the closest humans ever get to the truth.

Said boy was of present giggling quietly against his leg. “I was just thinking that earlier when it was being cheeky!” It took Roy a while to realise that by ‘it,’ Edward meant ‘the Gate.’ When he did realise it, it was at that moment that Roy began processing: holy shit, went his ineloquent thoughts, he has a separate sentient being in his head! Holy flying mother of all— “Those poor souls who survived the Gate,” Edward mused aloud, “I think I know what drove them insane.”

Roy’s hands froze in the motion of combing through Edward’s hair. He did not even notice he had been combing through Edward’s hair. It was a calming, repetitive motion; a coping mechanism he had developed in childhood and worked hard to eradicate. (The presence of Edward’s beautiful hair entirely trashed his efforts there, of course.) It was as he thought of his childhood that an unbidden memory of Berthold rose before his eyes, hazy in image but with words crisp as the bite of a winter wind: “At the end of all things,” Berthold had said, “there exists a judge. It sets the equivalence and equates the transactions. It funnels the energy. It exists. But no one can prove it.”

Edward is the proof, Roy thought, but his statements are mere testimony. They cannot and will not be taken for fact.

No one can prove it, Berthold had said. Perhaps because the only way to do so—to ascertain its existence—is to see it for oneself. Roy was not going to perform human transmutation. On this count, he would have to trust Ed.

And this is only the beginning! Roy realised with a start. This is the first of many instances I will have to take his word for truth, if I am to truly use him—if I am to back him as a State Alchemist. Never before had he needed to confer to someone else’s expertise with regards to alchemy. As Douglass had said, he was an expert in alchemy. Except with Edward; he knows more. He understands more. And I have to trust him.

Roy pursed his lips. “So basically, this piece of the Gate is influencing your healing—accelerating it, because your body is its host.”

“I think so,” Edward replied. “It apparently doesn’t want to die yet.”

“It doesn’t want you to die yet. Perhaps you amuse it,” Roy mused, a sentiment not entirely foreign and difficult to grasp. Edward amused him; it seemed he and the Gate already had solid common ground. In an instant, Roy felt better about it. He could deal with a Gate if he factored it as an ally, instead of a wild card. Control agreed with him.

“You don’t think I’m strange with the Gate inside me?” Edward asked him, incredulous and uncertain, with just the right amount of adoring awe that Roy had to laugh.

“Oh, Edward, you are strange, even without the Gate—but brilliantly so! I would despair if you became anything less!” Roy said; may you never become anything less than what you are, dearest child. A rare and overwhelming wave of affection converged over Roy as he gathered the boy’s hair back into its tie, his hands lingering upon the fluid slope of a neck. Edward thought himself unworthy of affection, felt guilty for having committed a miracle of alchemy to save his mother. Roy did not know how to convey it to his boy, but he understood one thing well: the use of alchemy for the returned life of another person was an infinitely more forgivable sin than the use of alchemy for the destruction of life itself.

He gave Ed’s shoulder a pat and stood from his seat. “Come, let’s fix you a snack.”

 

 

“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”
( Seneca )

“Will you be alright, introducing Edward to society today?” Maes asked, standing still as Gracia fixed the jacket around his shoulders. Roy himself was adjusting his cravat while running through the symposium’s schedule in his head.

“Today is perfect,” he said to Maes’ contrary, “as we’ll both be there to fend people off despite Edward being eye-catching enough that all the old crows will be caught and naturally enamoured.”

“Naturally,” Maes echoed drily, thanking Gracia with a playful peck on her lips. She smiled, a radiant glow about her enhancing her eyes: a glow that Roy could only attribute to her burgeoning pregnancy. It was due to this that she was most appropriately excused from today’s political gathering. Otherwise, she too would be dressed in her finest to take her place beside Maes, as she had always done until very recently when she could no more. Roy could not help but smile at the sight of them.

The past two weeks had been fast-paced and busy and not entirely too positive, given their puzzling repeated encounters with dead ends by false leads. Suffice to say, the investigation was far from productive, and with preparations for the year-end drills (supervised by the generals) hindering their timely progress, his superior was not very pleased. Then again, Douglass was very rarely pleased with anything that bore his name; this pressure was age-old. The pace with which they worked was punishing, nonetheless, particularly since people were beginning to talk.

Roy’s team had initiated a slow and cursory reconnaissance of State Alchemists who were probable suspects in the case. Their probing, careful as it was, had elicited some reflexive jerks and jolts from places better left alone. He was garnering some glances, most speculative and some suspicious. It was this pressure, and not Douglass, that made Roy anxious for Edward’s distraction—for he had no reservations about his charge’s ability to attract attention. Edward would give people something else to talk about whenever Roy Mustang’s name was mentioned.

“Bastard,” said charge now called out from up the stairs, “I can’t figure out this stupid fucking tie.”

“Language, Edward,” Roy sighed, much amused, “and come down so I can fix it for you. Maes is already here.”

Edward pattered down the stairs, fitted dashingly with attire Roy himself had handpicked. The grey suited Edward well. Long blond hair pulled up high behind the head highlighted sharp cheekbones under bright golden eyes. Roy admired his work with a silent smirk. The boy scowled.

“What,” Edward demanded, presenting him the offending tie.

“I believe he’s admiring the dashing young man before us, Edward,” complimented Gracia. “Look at you! Fit to face royalty.” At her words, a wild flush bloomed beneath Edward’s cheeks.

“Watch,” Roy said, looping the tie underneath and around Edward’s collar to bring it before the boy’s eyes. “I expect you to be able to do this on your own next time. If you’re able to braid your hair by yourself, this should be simple work.” Ed scowled fiercer, nevertheless attentively watching the motions of Roy’s hands.

“I don’t think I’ll be wearing the blazer,” remarked Edward as he watched, “because then I’d look too much like you.” Maes chortled. “In any case, it looks very uncomfortable.”

“Only if you aren’t used to it,” Roy contradicted lightly.

“Which I’m not,” Edward declared with finality. “No blazer. It’ll hinder my elbows, and won’t do anything to hide my automail anyway—which, incidentally, I’m not trying to hide. You are.”

“My wisdom, Edward, and your folly. Can’t you see that it’ll serve you an advantage in battle if they remain unaware that you are with automail limbs? Here, smaller sized gloves. Wear them. They’ll fit quite well with the attire.”

“Will there be no end to your uncomfortable clothing inventions?” the boy complained with much fervour, to which Roy replied, “They are not my inventions; they are only uncomfortable because you make them so; and, if you continue to be most unpleasant about them, they will indeed be endless.”

Such was how Edward’s mood acquired a sour note, which, Roy was later to discover, would only be further perpetuated by certain unsavoury encounters. Their ride to the preparatory school at which the symposium was to take place occurred in grumpy silence on the boy’s part. But all was well within his plans, for it was best to keep Edward irritated and subsequently alert. Roy had noted through his short time with his charge that such frustration built up a veritable charge of energy around the boy that forced inevitable attention from those around him, which was precisely what he needed. Edward needed to shine today, and while he had belief in Edward’s innate capabilities in this endeavour, it never hurt to put in place certain precautions of his own.

Upon arrival, the proceedings were of the usual. Pleasantries and charm have always been Roy’s strong suit, such that polite company was as easy as breathing. Women, of course, converged upon him when he entered the hall, and he smiled for them; Roy knew his standing with women and was not modest about it in the least.

Quite predictably, Edward fanned to the side. Easily carrying five simultaneous conversations at once, Roy watched his charge seek refuge in the relative safety of the shadows between the windows. Maes followed the boy with such merry disposition that only served to further grate at Edward’s nerves. Roy had warned Maes not to push Edward too hard. The boy needed to conserve some of his wits and composure for the day’s speaker. Roy had done his work and knew that Dr. Schrum’s theories would be found much lacking against Edward’s own genius. After all, what Dr. Schrum was yet stumbling about in the darkness with, Edward had already achieved—and Edward had a tendency to be quite intolerant of ordinary minds. They would have to wait and see.

“Such a young lad you bring to this symposium, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” was Brigadier General Gran’s greeting to him, the man as tall and imposing as ever in his full military regalia. Having witnessed Gran’s prowess in war, Mustang knew that such stature was not only for pose. But he had also witnessed Gran’s gullible nature, a quality perhaps as enduring in the man as his courage in battle. Hence Roy was not impressed. There were very few things with which Roy was impressed.

“Brigadier General,” Roy saluted smartly, “and Colonel Staurenberg.” Staurenberg was a good man most unfortunate to be under Gran’s jurisdiction. Were it another world, Roy could think of a number of other places the colonel would be most helpful, free to exercise a reportedly creative and steadfast command.

“He looks ten, no more than twelve,” Gran remarked, looking upon Edward above the small multitude of people. His charge was still within his corner, jostled side to side by Maes. “Surely we mustn’t put children like him into the paths of alchemy and war.”

Roy had to stifle a sudden laugh, one devoid of mirth. He so despised how for some people, those two words—alchemy and war—came together with such ease. “He is eleven, Brigadier General, and if we were truly worried for the preservation of our youth’s innocence, I would question the military’s decision to hold this year’s symposium at a preparatory school such as this.”

Gran, to his credit, remained unblinking, even faced with Roy’s deliberate lack of subtlety. Little of the same could be said for some of the ladies and gentlemen milling about them within hearing distance.

“But I, for one, am supportive of an early exposure to alchemy. This is how excellent practitioners and researchers are made.” Roy engendered a charming smile. “I like to believe that alchemy and war are not and will not become so symbiotic that the presence of one is inclusive of the other.”

“Unnaturally optimistic of you, Mustang,” Gran only murmured in response. Past a few more moments of stretched silence, Gran inclined his head and turned to find his peers. Roy turned to do the same.

“Lieutenant Colonel,” Staurenberg stopped him, voice quiet but eyes alight. “Those were well-spoken words.” With a short nod of his own, Staurenberg then retreated after his superior.

Before he could be detained any further, Roy extricated himself from the mill of people and returned to Edward with a smile. Roy hoped Edward was faring well; the boy looked a little peaky.

That was downright obscene, Mustang,” remarked a very familiar voice approaching from his left. He turned with a plastered smile on his face.

“Why, if you were a little more sociable, I’m sure you would acquire your own following too, Brigadier General,” and Mira Armstrong would remain a Brigadier General to him until she was no longer one, despite the certainty of her impending promotion. Some would call his bitter behaviour childish mulishness; he preferred to address it as justified tenacity.

Mira Armstrong watched him as he greeted the entire Armstrong clan, all present. Yet again, he met Mira’s eyes with a steady smile and offered a kiss to the lady’s hand. Consistently, Mira refused.

The unspoken near-hostility between them was beginning to grow uncomfortably palpable, but an unwitting Edward, simply by being present, dissolved the tension. Whatever words were beginning to form between him and his rival fell away underneath patriarch Armstrong’s heavy voice. The old General was growing ever fonder of Edward by each encounter, and though Edward would be much obliged to differ, Roy knew this as a good thing. The favour of the Armstrong family was highly sought after, hard to earn and keep—but once had, priceless. Roy himself had had to earn it through quite unorthodox methods and had succeeded, despite—and perhaps because of—his requited infamous rivalry with Mira Armstrong. Until today, they remained the two youngest and fastest-rising political figures within the military, and the marked differences between them—direct force against guile and charm, rich pedigree against common man, human soldier against State Alchemist, woman against man—only gave the great game so much more depth.

The introductions had begun and the Fuhrer was the first in line. Old General Armstrong had ceased his talk and now Edward, for one reason or another, was strung tight as a violin. Nerves, he thought, or perhaps the issue to be discussed by the lecturer. Roy laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Easy, Ed.” The boy relaxed.

With a satisfied smile, Roy resumed his seat and turned his ears toward the programme. For now, they were set. Edward was sufficiently enraptured throughout the entire lecture and remained deep in thought even after the doctor alchemist finished speaking. Dr. Schrum was a kindly old doctor with good reputation throughout the significant circles, but Roy had never been a follower of such research. Roy’s primary school of alchemy was one at great odds with the school Dr. Schrum hailed from; it was very little wonder they did not converse often despite the small world they all danced within.

“The generals have been eyeing you, in case you’ve been too busy to notice,” Maes muttered for his ears only, “and Douglass will make his way around in a short while if we don’t retreat soon.”

Most eager to avoid his superior, Roy turned to invite the Armstrongs to a cup of tea in the gardens, now—as they stood in applause to the lecture’s conclusion—before anyone else could. He had noticed the generals, particularly General Spahn, who was generating quite a bit of negative air around him as the symposium wore on.

Much to his dismay, teatime proved Edward to be even more strung. The blond was practically humming with energy, unable to stay quite still in his seat for more than a handful of seconds. Roy could see an effort being made, however; Edward restrained his person and indulged only in a tap-tap-tapping of his foot.

“Faulty,” Edward told the old General when asked about Dr. Schrum’s work. “He’s a good doctor, but that doesn’t guarantee his abilities as an alchemist.”

Well, of course, Roy thought. What else was one who had achieved human transmutation supposed to say when faced with an emaciated half-incarnation of his own theory? But Roy was quick to corroborate Edward’s criticism with points of his own, to assure old General Armstrong, and to draw attention away from the true reason behind Edward’s unshakable confidence. About Trisha Elric, the military must not know.

They concluded tea with a little banter and retrieved themselves from the gardens in time for the demonstration. For the purposes of this specific event, Roy was surprised that a demonstration was even approved. Not all of the national alchemical symposiums have had demonstrations after the lecture, for some theories of alchemy were better left as they were, untouched. Excuses of danger to the audience were often made to cover the true reasons behind halted entertainment. Civilians and non-alchemists were always eager to witness alchemy without understanding how very messy they could become. Roy was immensely grateful that Shou Tucker was a soft-spoken, timid man, and highly unlikely to agree to speak at one of these functions. Roy shuddered to think the kind of demonstration his chimeric studies would yield.

They came to a stop before a massive circle, eerily similar to something he had seen only over a month ago. Roy could close his eyes now and still feel the rolling energy in that tiny basement; the crackle of it, sharp and tangy against his tongue; the heavy scent of blood, smeared on the floor; the naked woman, alive; the two boys, one soulless, one drenched in his own blood—

This,” Edward said, “is wrong.”

Roy simply had to smile.

This is just wrong!” Edward declared, voice spearing through Roy’s thoughts. Roy folded his hands behind his back allowed the boy some space. Keeping an ear to the burgeoning rant, he scanned the crowd—ah, there you are—and found a cluster of the generals coming to view the display. Whether they were attracted by the showcased array or by Edward’s dulcet tones was another matter entirely.

Roy kept scanning and found a handful of State Alchemists clustered around Dr. Schrum. No doubt the old doctor already had to field questions in advance before the demonstrations even began. Their kind tended to be a tad overeager at times. Brigadier General Gran was present and attentive from a little ways behind them, view unimpeded by the grace of his sheer height. Shou Tucker, much to Roy’s surprise, was there beside Gran, quiet and unobtrusive as always but present nonetheless. Seldom was Tucker seen out of the walls of his house as of recent: the grapevine was of the largely unified opinion that the military was keeping the poor man under wrap because of sensitive research material. Biological weaponry, were among the whispered words. Forbidden alchemy and live human testing and Drachma.

“Across, to the right, he just turned and left,” Maes muttered beside him again; Roy turned to catch a glimpse of a tall, ashen-haired man. “Islenhov. He’s back.”

Roy’s eyebrows rose slow in surprise. There was a figure he had not seen in years. Former Major Islenhov, otherwise known as the Venom Alchemist, specialising in the spontaneous production of a veritable range of poisonous agents with the means of alchemy—a long-lost but unforgettable acquaintance from the war. “Didn’t know he was, but I wouldn’t have wagered on him being here today,” Roy mused, “given his grievances with the state.”

“Alchemy is alchemy,” Maes shrugged, “or so you like to tell me.”

Look, assistant, look carefully at what you’re drawing!” Edward then yowled, exhibiting admirable lung capacity for someone with such a small frame. “Where is your centre? Where is your midline? Which way is up?!

“Edward,” Roy tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder. It was effective; Edward simmered for a moment and then resumed in a considerably calmer, less scathing tone.

“Your biological theory was very sound, Dr. Schrum, but with all due respect, you are not an alchemist. And this,” the little blond threw his arm about, “is not a circle.”

Or not, Roy thought in creeping worry. Edward remained plenty scathing. Roy could not help but savour the near-theatrical horror settling upon the audience, though this was thin ice they were treading upon. He had hoped to momentarily slip away, but Islenhov would have to wait until later; Roy could not afford to leave Edward here alone. He knew that if he did, the boy would tear the symposium apart into pieces. He had to be here to be the anchor.

“That’s enough,” interrupted Schrum’s head apprentice. Roy recognized this man as Major Timothy Tabard, a fellow war hero and the acclaimed Bone Alchemist. Tabard was not known for his patience. “Where are your parents, child?”

“No!” Edward then snarled, once more losing rein over his temper. “Where are your parents, idiot? I bet they aren’t here because they’re too ashamed of this idiocy you flaunt so shamelessly.” Roy groaned, quietly. Edward so very loathed being called a child, and particularly in matters of alchemy. “Don’t you dare look down on me when you can’t even construct a proper circle to save your pathetic face!”

“You,” his boy now turned to the doctor, “are just what your title says you are. You are a doctor, and a damn good one. But trust me; it takes more than just sheer physiological expertise to create a fully functional human being from scratch. And you had impressive physiological theories there, but that means you will need an alchemist just as impressive who can translate the bulk of your physiology into alchemical jargon for you—because you obviously can’t do it!”

Roy kept his hand upon Edward’s neck. He could feel the flush of energy under the boy’s skin; his charge was straining, no doubt, with indignation and fire. Roy understood, he did, truly; but this was a delicate situation. They were still before an audience, a very powerful and yet delicate audience. And the Führer—

“You’re the Führer, am I correct,” Edward began with a hiss. The crowd was quiet as the Führer confirmed. Roy’s fingers clenched upon their perch, a firm warning that he knew was to be left unheeded. A great dose of summoned willpower was all that prevented him from grimacing in dismay. Everything else was wonderfully in place, but Edward—Edward—was uncontrollable. Edward was not shining; he was burning, and too brightly.

Roy had miscalculated.

Why the hell are you permitting a public exhibition of human transmutation when I’m damn sure you know how ugly and unsafe and traumatising it is?” The crowd reeled from Edward’s sheer disrespect, but the boy ploughed onward, heedless and unrelenting. “Were you so confident of Dr. Schrum that you just signed your consent without thinking? How can you be so confident when you haven’t even seen them demonstrate it beforehand? I know you haven’t seen it yet—I know they haven’t done it yet. It’s all just theory at the moment. If it were otherwise, you wouldn’t even have anything to allow, because they would all be dead. Swallowed by the reaction. And your symposium would be shot. This was downright irresponsible—beyond disappointing! I expected better when they told me this would be a gathering of the country’s best alchemists!”

The Führer is still smiling, Roy reassured himself. No need to worry for Ed’s life, not yet. Not yet. The Führer is still smiling. Still smiling, Roy. He’s still smiling.

“But what have you to prove that Dr. Schrum’s theory is mistaken?” Bradley inquired with what seemed to be sincere curiosity.

Edward only scoffed. “So now you’re trying to prove a negative? You do know that’s near-impossible, right? If our methods worked that way, we would get nowhere,” and the boy even had the gall to cross his arms and give the Führer a plain and hawkish frown.

The Führer only laughed. Some tension unknotted from Roy’s stiff spine; he began to thank whatever deity for Edward’s indispensible charm. The boy’s contrary attitude attracted favour from the most unlikely places, and in this scenario, it was playing out for their benefit. Roy knew that they would not always be so fortunate.

“I assume this bright young man is your charge today, Lieutenant Colonel?”

“Yes, sir,” Roy acknowledged, giving the Führer an apologetic smile. He rubbed gentle circles with his thumb at the nape of his boy’s neck, contemplating on what he should say next—but truly, there was only one option. To neutralise the offences Edward might have dealt today, Roy would have to levy his own status. “Edward is the son of one of my two alchemical mentors,” he said, and watched as the statement took its palpable effect. A good number of Amestris’ high society softened upon this fact. Roy was very well-received within their numbers; and even amongst his contemporary alchemists, he was considered an accomplished practitioner and expert of his field.

“Ah,” nodded the Führer, also an open admirer of Roy’s intellect, graces, and alchemy. “I see young Edward inherits the scientific blood.”

“He will be my responsibility while he remains in Central for his studies. Do pardon his... zealous nature,” Roy once more apologised with a smile. “He’s but young, and very bright.”

“I can see that, yes,” the Führer was nodding happily along. “I do hope he will become a contributor to Amestris’ alchemical society one day. I’m sure he has great potential.” Roy saw hints of the Führer alluding to Amestris’ other new addition to its alchemical ranks, one certain Russell Tringham. According to Maes, Spahn had allowed Tringham to return to Xenotime to tend to his research and what remained of their family. Roy had at first been slightly disappointed that Edward would not be introduced to a contemporary, but after this event, Roy saw Tringham’s absence as a windfall. Edward would have been entirely irrepressible had he a direct and active adversary. Schrum was, at least, old enough to know and excuse the follies and passion of youth, but Tringham! Roy had seen determination in those blue eyes of his, of the cold and brittle sort, the penultimate opposite of Edward’s kind. Imagining the two boys crossing paths here gave Roy renewed appreciation of his everlasting luck.

This was made evident as the old doctor now approached Edward, presumably to hear further thoughts. Roy hovered for a while, but eventually decided that the brunt of Edward’s temper was effectively neutralised. Either way, Edward seemed to behave in the calming presence of old Schrum, thusly relieving Roy of babysitting duty. As if to sense his reservations upon allowing Edward out of his reach, patriarch Armstrong smiled and reassured him, “He is in good hands, Lieutenant Colonel. I think I shall sit here for a moment with my wife and watch him. Mira and Alex are milling about, and so should you, for opportunities such as this are never to be missed. Go, now! Society too is important! Allow your charge his freedom with alchemy while you still can, and tackle society for him. Go!”

Knowing better than to refuse, Roy assuredly floated away. He passed a nearby pillar sculpted in the Riumi style and threw Maes, who had been abusing said pillar through the entire length of Edward’s tirade, his most disappointed and withering glare. Maes was still half-clutching and pawing at the pillar in abject stomach-squirming glee, but duly relinquished his post and followed after his friend.

“Temper your disappointment, old friend, and engage with me in a little laughter!” Maes cajoled.

“I don’t see why,” scowled Roy, “as I have only been through one of the most harrowing social entanglements of my life. I thought we had agreed that you would help restrain him should his temper take him! What happened to ‘of course, Roy’ and ‘why, I’d never let anything happen, or Gracia would kill me’? I should notify her of this lapse in your attention. Perhaps I can even persuade her to curtail your petting sessions with her belly.”

“I’ve procured pictures!” Maes dangled a camera before him. “And I’m even willing to share them with you. I’m sure you’ll be most pleased! If you had a moment to detach yourself from your paranoia and notice the boy whose shoulder you were clutching hard enough to dislocate, you would have seen how adorable he is when he gets all hissy and starts flailing! Especially, you know, with his height—”

“Oh, Maes, I’ll tell.”

“No, you won’t!” Maes brightly countered. “Besides, nothing really happened to Ed. It was just a little bit of—excitement, shall we say. Brightens up his day! Ah, Gracia will be most pleased that I’ve managed to record it all!”

“Maes,” Roy asked in mild horror, “exactly how many pictures did you take?”

Maes only grinned and retrieved three exhausted rolls of film from three different pockets. Roy could only raise his brows and pass a disbelieving hand over his face. Roy would sincerely worry for the Hughes family’s state of expenses had he not known that Maes developed his own pictures in an upstairs darkroom in his own house. The sheer number of pictures Maes took of everything and nearly every day would cost a fortune to have professionally developed.

“In any case, I managed to hold up Islenhov,” Maes informed him, still with a smile and a camera in hand. “He’s waiting out front by the gates. He seemed most eager to leave but he likes you enough to stay until you were done babysitting our dear Edward. I’ll let you run along now and go back to take more pictures!” True to his word, Maes careened away in enthusiastic search of the next lurid scandal procurable. Roy sighed and turned towards the hall.

Once having navigated through the veritable obstacle course of famous persons and attention-seeking insects present inside the building, he made a beeline for the gates and sought out Islenhov. With what he found, he was somewhat impressed.

The last he saw of Islenhov was not much of a view, both of them having been shrouded in half-darkness and grey fog as Central sat in the grips of an early, grim winter. It was on one Thursday morning when Islenhov met with him briefly before leaving the city (and consequently the military’s employ) to wander Amestris in search for some intangible, elusive purpose, of which most of them, particularly the younger State Alchemists, were deprived by the war. Nobody knew what they were doing anymore, Islenhov had told him, least of all us. We are all lost, Islenhov had told him, and the state is taking advantage of it. Roy was powerless to deny him then.

I still am now, Roy mused, at least on the latter part. The state does take advantage. I should know. I’m doing it to Ed.

As if in commune with his thoughts, Islenhov’s eyes darkened. “I see you have a new recruit,” said the man. Islenhov, even long ago, highly disapproved of the military’s disregard for an alchemist’s age. But these opinions were barely aired, as the man was never one for overt confrontation, somewhat evident by his more discreet and deceitful alchemy. Moreover, Islenhov used to be a fragile slip of a person, thin and bony, white-skinned and sallow, quiet and barely conversant if at all. But always very intelligent conversation whenever one could entice him, and Roy had been one of the few who could. Roy never knew the man well enough to confidently call him an ally, but Islenhov easily gained Roy’s respect with his few well-chosen words and his attentive mastery of alchemy. Now, the Islenhov before him stood tall and strong, echoing a more solid confidence and purpose behind dark eyes.

“Edward, and no, he’s not a recruit,” Roy easily replied, knowing where this conversation was headed. “He’s the son of one of my mentors, and I’m paying back my dues by teaching him as his father taught me.”

“Of course,” Islenhov remarked drily. There was silence between them for a while.

“You seem to have found your purpose,” Roy remarked, “or something very close to it.”

“Very close to it,” Islenhov echoed.

He liked to do that, Roy noted, as an affirmative to a question or remark. Roy also noted the slight modifications upon the tattooed arrays on the backs of Islenhov’s hands. Tattooing was a common trick for plenty of the combat alchemists the military employed during the war. Kimblee and Islenhov were among the more notable examples of the trend. It was possible to pinpoint the veteran alchemists of Ishbal with near-unfailing accuracy by simply observing their hands. Alex Armstrong and himself were among the few exceptions to the rule.

“I will leave Central later today, so please do inform Raven of the futility of attempting to find and reemploy me. I have had enough of the State to last a lifetime and more.”

Roy inclined his head with a slight smile. Islenhov was being generous by handing him an opportunity to visit with a general, particularly one so close to the Fuhrer. Roy was quite certain of Islenhov’s ability to communicate his own message in clear, succinct terms without help from an outsider if he so wished.

“I hope you know what you are doing, Roy Mustang,” Islenhov met his eyes, piercing Roy with the same cold-hot stab of gravity he felt the first time he saw eye to eye with this man a lifetime ago. “You have always been a very reasonable man. That child you have in your hands is as brilliant as the sun; any man can see and be blinded by the bright future ahead of him. I hope you do not destroy it in the same manner that our future was destroyed.”

“Our future was destroyed, yes,” Roy remarked, “but I am building something out of the ruins of mine. I still believe in alchemy, and, I think, so do you.”

Islenhov turned and made to leave, pocketing his hands as if to squirrel the evidence away. Useless; the arrays were already burned into Roy’s mind. “I no longer believe in this State,” Islenhov said as a parting, already walking away.

“Yes; but maybe you can believe in me,” Roy said. Islenhov gave no reply, no indication that he even heard, save for a tiny hitch in his step and faint turn of his head.

It was a while before Roy moved from his spot and back into the arms of the populous gathering.

 

As promised, he visited General Raven’s offices the following morning. First Lieutenant Roget, known to Roy as Elena the Graceful, made him welcome with an offering of coffee (which he declined, having already had some with Edward at breakfast over chess) and the day’s paper to read (which he accepted, having made this stop before reporting to Hawkeye first). Upon sighting the first page, however, he wondered if perhaps he should have reported to Hawkeye first.

There on the front pages of Amestris’ most widely circulated (and certainly Central’s most popular) newspaper were his and Edward’s profiles, pictured from the left, himself with a hand on Edward and Edward with both hands thrust wildly about. The irreverence of its angle was worthy of Maes (the detestable little snit!) and the sheer sensationalism of the article positively stank of a certain journalist’s handiwork. Roy knew good old Hank Fitz’ work when he saw it.

 

BIG SCANDALS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES!
A young new alchemist publicly disassembles renowned Dr. Albert Schrum’s theory!
The event rekindles long-standing debates about Amestrian military ethics.

CENTRAL—The annual National Symposium for Alchemical Advancement concluded with unexpected but perhaps not entirely unwelcome developments within the alchemical society of Amestris, after yesterday evening’s invitation-only lecture, demonstration, and function at the Amestrian Trinity Academy, a nine-time host of the venture.

War hero and nationally-acclaimed alchemical pioneer Lt. Col. Roy Mustang (pictured above, right) took yesterday as his opportunity to introduce his new apprentice to the alchemical society of Amestris. Or, as those who were in attendance will agree, Lt. Col. Mustang’s new apprentice took the opportunity to introduce himself. The enterprising child in question is Edward Elric (pictured above, left foreground), age 11, from an unknown elementary alchemy education and similarly unknown city of origin. The Lt. Col. in charge of Mr. Elric during his tenure in Central could not be reached for a comment after the Symposium.

Young Mr. Elric, with his striking blond hair, diminutive stature, and antonymous liberal tongue, barred no holds as he systematically disassembled Dr. Albert Schrum’s demonstrated bioalchemical array for advanced human transmutation. Mr. Elric praised Dr. Schrum for having “biological theories that are very sound” while simultaneously decrying his lack of “strict alchemical expertise.” According to the young alchemist, the bioalchemical circle, constructed by Dr. Schrum himself in coordination with a team of expert alchemists (two of whom are notably State-licensed), had “no balance or structure whatsoever.”

Dr. Schrum, titled the Anatomist, is renowned within the Amestrian academic and military circles for his valuable contributions to medicine and bioalchemy. An alumnus of the prestigious Firat Academy of Medicine and liberally trained as a resident by the Amestrian State Hospital, Dr. Schrum showcases a solid background in human physiology honed by years of active experience. It is worth noting that Dr. Schrum held the Headship of Surgery for nearly a decade at the State Hospital before clearing the State Alchemy exam and embarking upon his career as a bioalchemist. In his time as an alchemical researcher for the military, he has redefined the platforms of bioalchemy through its thorough and methodical integration with his expertise in human physiology.

In stark contrast, young Mr. Elric is unknown, untitled, untested, and unfledged. The only measure of competence afforded by the mysterious new celebrity is his connection with prominent State Alchemist and well-loved socio-political figure Lt. Col. Roy Mustang. While the Lt. Col. has stated that Mr. Elric is the son of one of his alchemical mentors, the specific details of their association remain unknown.

At yesterday’s demonstration, Dr. Schrum appeared to readily accept and even appreciate Mr. Elric’s unexpected hand in improving his allegedly “skewed” circle. Under the assumption of Mr. Elric’s prodigious alchemical aptitude, it is easy to conceive the next steps of his alchemical career in Central. The public may now expect the military to recruit his talent in the near future—an expectation which is throwing into renewed sharp relief some old-standing rifts between the martial and liberal factions of Amestrian politics.

Celebrated liberal politician and former lawyer Aaron Steinberg remarks on the issue: “Mr. Elric’s talent is evident—and yes, I do mean talent. It is difficult to describe to those who were not present during his spirited—and admittedly rather entertaining—little spiel, but one could sense an authenticity to Mr. Elric’s words. We did not see a demonstration of his alchemy, but it was not necessary to witness his encompassing comprehension of the subject. Whoever has taught him seems to have done very well. But the obvious fact of his untapped potential—exemplified by the disparity between his age and talent—will inevitably become an incentive for the military to employ him as a State Alchemist, under the well-worn excuse of the furthering of the science. He will certainly not be the first minor to be employed as a State Alchemist if he clears the exams—his caretaker, Lt. Col. Mustang, began his State Alchemical career at age 15, for one—but Mr. Elric will be the youngest in the entire history of Amestris. It has been a while since any alchemist below the age of 18 has enlisted in the military; as those informed will be aware, it was common practice during the war to employ any capable alchemist above the age of 13. [...] It is not a secret what State Alchemists are tasked to do for the country in time of conflict; I question whether there still remains an ethic to the military’s methods. It will certainly break my heart to see such a brilliant young mind be thrown into the violence of war at such a tender age.”

At this time, Mr. Elric is not registered to undergo the State Alchemy exams taking place in the upcoming spring. (Story continued on page A6)

 

Roy wanted to faint. Or even close his eyes and sink into a silent moment of despair. But misery demanded his company in the forms of General Gardner, Major General Hakuro, and Lieutenant General Edison walking into the office. At once, he put down the paper and snapped into a smart salute. Only skill combined with the best and most harrowing political experiences (the likes of which he had suffered through yesterday) afforded him his composure as order fought to re-establish itself in his head. Hakuro sighted him; Roy viciously shoved thoughts of damage control into a corner of his mind.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” Hakuro frowned, stopping short of striking range. A man with solid survival instincts, Hakuro was. Not that distance would ever stop Roy. “You seem to be everywhere recently. I see you’ve read the paper. Your child alchemist’s performance has made quite a stir.”

Roy gave a discrete but telling smile. “He is rather a handful, sir.”

“Indeed; the boy has managed to charm an old man’s little heart,” mused Edison with lips wrapped around an unlit cigar. The general shuffled a little too desperately for a light that Roy had to take pity. He produced a small flame at the tip of his finger. “Ah, yes, I forget, the Flame Alchemist. Hm, yes. Very good, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“You were talking of an old man’s heart, sir,” Roy prompted, much familiar with Edison’s deplorable lack of concentration. Most people dismissed it as advancing age, but Roy knew it as growing complacence. Being one of the most secure generals in the brass, Edison no longer saw the need to remain in constant vigilance and practice his faculties as a commander. Having many State Alchemists under his extended command—among them Dr. Albert Schrum, Basque Gran, and through Gran, Shou Tucker—only served to dull the old man into impotence.

“Yes, yes, yes. I was, wasn’t I. Well, Dr. Schrum has taken quite a liking to your young one, Lieutenant Colonel, quite a liking indeed. I believe he will be personally contacting you soon to arrange further consultations, perhaps to share theories, hmm? Or whatever it is you alchemists do! Indulge him for me, Lieutenant Colonel; it isn’t often we see him as spirited as he was in his prime,” Edison said. “Ah. And when the young one decides to jump the hurdle, I will not object to a commendation from Dr. Schrum, should he choose to give it. Of course, you know well that I encourage the active mentorship of alchemists to alchemists, so you can expect me to vouch for your appointment as the young one’s acting superior. It would only be fair.”

“Much honoured, sir, thank you,” Roy smiled, and you shouldn’t be so complacently nice.

“So long as you keep him tight on his leash, Mustang,” Hakuro sighed, knowing a lost battle when he saw one. The general rubbed his wrist, a vague motion of discomfort. Hakuro disliked being in the minority. “The boy seems to have too explosive a temper for his own good.”

“He’s young,” Roy offered, “and inexperienced. Temperance will come with time.” I hope. But it won’t be soon, and if he sees those papers, it definitely won’t be today. I have to keep him from seeing the paper. Deities of above and below, let him be drowned today by the crashing waves of his own thoughts...

“But you have vicious competition, Lieutenant Colonel,” Gardner abruptly remarked, and here Roy listened. Gardner was among the few of the brass Roy could say he truly respected. “If you hope to best Spahn’s new pawn—and quite a pawn that one is—then your Mr. Elric will have to present quite an impressive front. He might clear the exams and perform alchemy, but Russell Tringham has pedigree and sponsorship in addition to decisive research work. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Elric will need a miracle.”

Roy was quite sure Gardner’s choice of words was entirely accidental, but he was delighted nonetheless. Face threatening to split into an entirely inappropriate smirk, he replied, “Edward will manage. I have confidence in his skills. While I cannot deny Russell Tringham’s talent, he lacks the philosophical conviction that drives Edward in his study. And Edward has a unique brand of alchemy that I have never seen before.”

There, he thought winningly, let them stew on that. The generals were among the few at the forefront of the academic and political circles of Amestris and were by far the best channels through which to pass intentional leaks of information. Their title gave weight to words that would otherwise be weightless when whispered through other lips. Roy figured now that the only viable method to prevent society from frowning upon Edward’s underage status was to counteract the political surge with strong but subtle whispers about Edward’s mysterious genius. Strengthen the cult of personality, Roy thought, and human fascination with the curio will overpower everything else.

As if to cooperate with his ploy, General Raven swept in at that most opportune moment, side by side with the Führer. Once again, Roy snapped to smart salute.

Raven gave cursory nods to his three peers, apparently privy to the reason for their presence today, but gave Roy a disgruntled eye. “I do not recall summoning you, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang.”

“No, sir,” Roy answered. “I come bearing a message, sir. From Islenhov.”

All four generals turned to him at once. Only the Führer seemed unsurprised. Roy never failed to marvel at the man’s near-omniscience. Much as he hated the man’s politics, he could not help but admire his methods.

“Well, speak, soldier!” Raven barked, never a patient person.

“Sir,” Roy acknowledged, stone-faced and bolt upright. “I met with former Major Islenhov yesterday at the symposium; he was present to listen to Dr. Schrum. He wishes to let General Raven know the futility of searching and attempting to reemploy him, as he has left Central yesterday night and will not be returning in the near future. He did not speak it, sir, but the threat of violent retaliation under military pressure was implied.”

Raven might as well have swallowed a dead rat from the mottled puce colouring of his face. The prideful commander severely detested being thwarted by those he considered beneath him, especially multiple times by someone as lowly as a deserted ex-Major who failed to even qualify as one of the glorified combat alchemists of Ishbal. Islenhov was relegated to undercover work and assassination, which were poor choices for popularizing an alchemist. He was not helpful to Raven’s campaign to power.

“If that is all, Lieutenant Colonel, then take your leave and get on with your day. Your paperwork is waiting on your desk and will not be done by another hand,” Raven spat, and thus Roy found himself duly dismissed from the brass’ presence.

On his way out, he shot a genteel smile at Elena, who demurred with a dip of her beautiful eyes. Raven might be the military’s most bloated toad, but at the very least, he knew to surround himself with beautiful women. That, Roy could admire.

 

The rest of the day was a blur of much the same. People passed him by in the hallways and asked questions of Edward he was careful to divert, subvert, or sidestep altogether. It was not hard to keep his story straight, but it was taxing to have to repeat the same thing to so many faces over and over again. At the end of the day, Roy was on the verge of kneeling in thankful praise to the deities of alchemy (deity? He didn’t know whether to treat the Gate was singular or a plural consciousness) for his hour-early release. As he fastened his coat by the door, Riza approached him with his bag—stuffed to its seams’ limits, of course, with paperwork—and a demand for a promise that he would use this hour to go to his doctor as he had scheduled, instead of stopping by at Madam Christmas’ or “galloping off to be a waste of space elsewhere,” in her exact words.

“But of course, milady,” Roy gave her an admittedly tired smile. “I think I should be turning in early tonight anyhow.”

“Oh, don’t bother cooking!” Maes barged in without a greeting. “Gracia’s making dinner for all four of us, so just bring yourself and your pet over. And no, you will not be turning in early tonight; we need to discuss your birthday party.”

The entire office perked at the words. Roy had to sigh. “Maes...

“If we don’t, I’ll take matters into my own hands, and the entire event will be the single most embarrassing night in your entire life,” Maes flatly informed him. “Even when counting that night in Aquroya.”

Dread smouldered in his chest at the very mention of the memory (and was he glad it was but a memory!). “Maes, please, not tonight. I’ll talk to you about it, but how about tomorrow? Tomorrow morning,” Roy offered, hopeful. “And Edward already has instructions to prepare dinner’s ingredients—a little too late for not cooking. The beef will already be out of the freezer by now.”

Maes gasped. “You refuse my wife’s cooking?!”

You refuse mine,” Roy pointed out.

“Well, that’s because you’re not a woman! I don’t see womanly bits! Where are your womanly bits, eh? I will take a woman’s cooking over a man’s any day! Tender loving care packed in every cubic inch of your food—”

Roy shook his head and simply walked out. “Tomorrow, Maes. I’ll come over to your house and you can feed me Gracia’s dinner for breakfast then.” He left his best friend blithering more words of inanity and made for his appointment. He was going to be just in time; Dr. Geralds’ beautiful nurse did not appreciate tardiness.

He took to the streets and hailed the first tram he spotted. In all truth, he had forgotten about his upcoming birthday. He had no plans for this year, which was why he delayed his conversation with Maes. If they talked without him having a direction, Maes would run him over and the entire night would be a mess. Aquroya was one fine example; Roy was banned from an entire section of that city—or at least, from the bars in that section of the city.

Usually his birthday celebrations were held at public locations—last year being at Giovanni’s, for example—where people could gather easily and go about their own way home whenever they wanted. Those gatherings were also usually more populous, tumultuous, and, well, adult. This year, however, he had his little charge to worry about; it had to be a milder, more presentable celebration than the past few years to accommodate the child.

Roy should resent his having to work things around Edward, but found that he could not. He liked the boy far too much. Shaking his head at his own foolish fondness, he sat and began to compose a guest list in his head. It would have to be smaller and more private. His subordinates, of course; Maes and Gracia; the Armstrongs; the Steinbergs, if they would come, though he doubted it, what with their three children all fallen ill; his business associates—now there was a long one. Anya and her brother, if he was back from Xing; Andrew, Anthony, and their families; Marcel, Bastien, Justin and his brother; Giovanni would insist on providing the food, no doubt, which would delight Edward to no end...

He nearly missed his stop and hopped off just in time after an old lady whom he assisted to the side of the road. Just as he thought, he arrived on the dot, the beautiful nurse—Marjorie—raising a sharp eyebrow with a half-smile.

“Nearly missed your mark, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang,” she said. “It’s good to see you keeping healthy, however. You always work yourself a little too hard. Maybe you’re learning to relax a little bit now, hmm?”

Roy gave a little laugh. “If you say so, my dear,” though you would be sorely mistaken. The mere thought of Edward alone had enough potency to make Roy tired to the bone. Maes was right; the boy was a chip right off the old block. Roy could not remember being this tired (and alive) since his daily (futile) debates with Hohenheim, during which he tried to disprove the older man’s theories on fire alchemy using his own ‘superior’ understanding of the art. (He was a conceited little piece of shit back then. Well, much more than he was now, anyway, and in a much less refined manner.)

“Dr. Geralds is ready to see you,” Marjorie informed him after he was signed in. “You’re our second to the last patient for the day. Sit down; let me take your blood pressure.”

Her hands were cool and firm, handling Roy as he sagged against the back of the chair. She was always quick and efficient with her work, her vitals done in minutes, her paperwork signed off and handed in before Geralds could even ask for them. Roy liked her; she reminded him of a medical version of Riza, brunette-issue.

Soon, he was ushered into the medical examination room, where he took a seat by the desk and waited for less than a minute. Geralds came in with his usual mild smile.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang, always a pleasure,” the doctor bid him, also tiredly taking a seat. It seemed both of them were having particularly horrid days.

Perhaps it was the slight chill in the clinic, but the fatigue was beginning to set into Roy. He knew this by the small and extraneous details he began to notice in his environment that he would otherwise ignore: the crooked cut of one of the doctor’s nails; a line of bottles ordered from tallest to smallest set against the wall; the minute cursive letters on the doctor’s souvenir pen spelling ‘Cottonwood Place’; a droplet of water clinging to the mouth of the faucet. “What can we say,” Roy only smiled, earning a chuckle from Geralds.

“Indeed, what can we say, or do, but take it with a smile.” Geralds was an old acquaintance, older even than the Armstrongs, one of his first in Central. A military man was well-advised to find a primary doctor in his city as quickly as possible, to ensure coverage and continuity of care in the case of certain extenuating circumstances. Theirs was not precisely the safest of professions. “Have there been any changes, Lieutenant Colonel Mustang? Or are we here for formality today?”

“Formality, mostly, and then some paperwork.” He added, “Sorry,” with a wry smile.

“Taking it with a smile still,” Geralds laughed, tapping his pen against his worksheet. “How are you dealing with sleep? Any improvement from last time? You should still have a few weeks’ worth of the pills.”

“I do, and they’re better, thank you,” Roy nodded. Sleep was a most elusive thing after Ishbal, though these days, he found himself dreaming of different things. Equally horrifying, but concerning a certain little blond instead of faceless Ishbalans with their blood-red and accusing eyes.

“You do avoid taking them with alcohol?” Geralds prompted, and then rejoined, “Let me rephrase that. You are avoiding taking alcohol at night for sleep altogether?”

Roy laughed, a guilty laugh this time, dipping his head. “I might have slipped a night or two.” Geralds gave him The Stare. Roy bowed his head. “But I’ve been very careful never to take the pill and alcohol anywhere near each other.”

“Good, let’s keep it that way,” Geralds nodded. “I don’t think I have to tell you the amount of damage you can deal your liver if you overdo it, not to mention the possibility of a coma—or death, even, if you overdose on depressants. And I don’t think I need to emphasize the importance of rehabilitating yourself to sleep without the help of these agents, either.”

There was a stretch of silence as Geralds scribbled a little note. And then, “How are your—what was it?—story sessions with Cairns coming along?”

Roy laughed. Geralds was usually good at making him laugh, as opposed to Cairns, his psychotherapist, whose manner and humour reminded Roy of dog teeth gnashing and grinding away at dried bone. “Horrid, as usual. I lie through my teeth every time; he swallows it all with a nod every time.” Maybe he should invite Geralds to his celebration this year. Last year it slipped his mind; they didn’t see each other very often.

“I should be appalled at your outright disregard for honesty, Lieutenant Colonel, but considering your line of work, I will rest my case,” the doctor shook his head.

“A most wise decision.”

“I’m sure,” Geralds chuckled, scribbling something again. Roy was always curious about what these doctors noted about him. Considering his longstanding disregard for his therapist, it should not come as a surprise that he had developed an ability to read medical shorthand upside-down, and even reconstruct entire paragraphs by watching the motions of the pen (useful if the paper itself was not visible to him). Geralds relinquished the pen and looked him in the eye. “Now. What about this paperwork you were bringing me?”

“A new patient,” Roy smiled, “a charge of mine. I’ve recently become his official guardian, and it’ll likely be that way until he comes of age. His name is Edward: feisty and intelligent and all of eleven years. He’s a good kid, but he’s suffered a train track injury when he was younger—automail, recently attached.”

“Ah,” Geralds said. A medical doctor of his calibre needed no help grasping the implications.

“I wanted to set an appointment for him, and also to ask you to prescribe for him some analgesics after you’ve seen him for his check-up. I guarantee you he won’t ask for them; he tends to neglect such things. Charges, of course, on my account,” Roy arranged.

Geralds was already flipping through his schedule book. “I have... ah, enough time for a complete baseline workup on the morning of November the first, if that’ll work. I’d squeeze him in the previous week, but I’ve unfortunately scheduled my one free afternoon for a much-needed reprieve from this.” The doctor cast a wayward hand about, never looking away from the details of the appointment which he scribbled upon the back of a business card.

“Any specific plans for your afternoon?” Roy inquired, taking the business card. Geralds was an enthusiastic connoisseur of art and often spent his days wandering the museums, libraries, and historic walks of Central. It was how Roy first met the man, at an exhibit the Armstrongs had sponsored. If Geralds had an entire afternoon cordoned off for leisure, then it must be for a fine specimen indeed. Roy exerted some effort into remembering any mention of a notable artistic conquest or discovery of late and found himself stymied. His other worries have pressed all extraneous matters so far and hard into the corners of his skull that they seem to have fused into it and disappeared altogether.

“You must be truly busy, Lieutenant Colonel, if you have yet to hear,” chuckled the doctor. They exited the room together as Geralds apprised him of the artistic community’s recent developments, notably the surfacing of two distinct Xerxes-themed oil paintings, both of the same artist and three hundred years old (or thereabouts), to be auctioned off this month to the highest bidder. (One was dubbed The Jewel of Xerxes, predictably depicting a beautiful maiden, while the other suffered an ever more dramatic name, The Vanishing, rumoured to be among the most evocative renditions of Xerxes’ untimely and mysterious demise.) Geralds’ most enduring grievance, of course—as was with any connoisseur of humble means—was his inability to bid upon most of the precious artefacts himself. Despite being a doctor, bidding would be a pointless venture for him, as other more affluent persons such as the Armstrongs, or one of the Generals, or even Roy, would only perfunctorily outbid him. Geralds was by all means far from poor, but against military precedence combined with inherited wealth? Suffice it to say that certain items with certain ascribed values only ever fall into certain hands. “But a man must at least be entitled to look upon the item of his passion, if he cannot own it,” Geralds remarked, engendering from Roy a small smile.

Indeed, Roy thought! Of course, Roy made it a point never to bid for artefacts; he much preferred either discovering them himself, or buying them from a trustworthy source. Nevertheless, on his short and uneventful journey home, Roy thought about the art auction and fervently hoped that it would be the Armstrongs who would acquire the treasures. It was the only conceivable way for him to be able to show the pieces to Edward, who would no doubt fawn over them, owing to their theme.

Further thoughts of the art pieces were shorn away from his mind when, upon arriving home, he found Edward welcoming a most unwelcome visitor (Maes) who still insisted upon sharing Gracia’s dinner with them (despite Roy and Ed preparing their own meal) in the hopes of later trapping Roy in discussion about the logistics of the birthday party. Thus was how Roy spent the rest of his evening, sat outside on the grill deck with Maes, a notepad, and a bottle of brandy, nipping away at a long guest list for a private at-home event (the first of all his parties!) engineered to accommodate Edward. The boy remained blissfully unaware, ensconced upstairs in his words and figures. Outside, Central settled for a cool and inky night.

 

On his birthday, as with every year, he woke just as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Autumn was coming upon them, however, and the morning was not as early as it seemed. He went through the motions of his routine, preparing a light meal for Edward and himself: egg salad sandwiches, with milk (or juice for the boy) and cheese and a cupful of assorted fruits. Then he saw to the task of waking Edward, an activity requiring fifteen minutes (at the least!) of gentle persuasion, so that the boy would surface from slumber in a peaceable manner. Upon the odd mornings were nightmares, during which Roy took additional time to coax him into wakefulness. They never talked of these nightmares, but Roy needed no telling. He had had enough of them himself to understand; besides, Edward had incredibly expressive eyes. Healing would take effort and time.

Today, the nightmares were elusive, much to Roy’s relief. Edward easily woke, washed up, tidied the bed, and followed him downstairs to break their fast. Time was available for a quick game of chess as he nursed his freshly roasted coffee. Roy had to crack a smile as Edward triumphantly seized both of his bishops: the boy was invested in multiple gambles with Havoc and Maes (both of whom were irresponsibly introducing very unbecoming habits to his charge) regarding his ability (or lack thereof) to capture at least half of Roy’s eight ranking pieces within the course of one full game. So far, the boy had only managed three.

Making a note to introduce Edward to Breda later that night (for Roy would like to see Maes lose some money after a while of having lost some himself), Roy set off work. Edward looked decidedly perturbed when they parted without ado, as Roy kept his peace about the day’s occasion. He knew through Maes that Edward was aware of his birthday through Gracia; the boy likely wondered why he never spoke of it himself. Well, Roy was never keen on advertising his personal milestones unless otherwise unavoidable, even to his closest friends. (Maes and Riza almost always knew about them without being told anyway, so what did it matter?) Shy though he was about the oddest things, he was entitled to his little quirks and secrets. Besides which, birthdays never were such special affairs for him until after he met his cohort and other friends. It was they, not Roy, who necessitated a celebration.

 

The workday, though far from dismal, was trying at best. Riza was dogged in her attempts to complete all of their duties within their limited amount of time. Roy’s entire staff was to leave early for the party, the preparations for which Maes and Gracia (and Giovanni and Marcel, both of whom would have already arrived at the house to ready the foods) were attending to in his stead. Maes was far-sighted enough to always schedule an off-day on such significant occasions, as Roy would likewise be, had he only considered the day significant.

After seven rounds of case paperwork, two heavy waves of budgeting, a command meeting, and cumbersome repartees with Douglass and company, Roy was much relieved to finally head home. It was shortly after four when they commandeered two cars and drove the short distance to his neighbourhood, alighting on the steps of his front path when the first of his guests—the Armstrongs, ever timely—pulled into the driveway. He escorted the Armstrong couple into the house, seating them in the Great Hall where a prompt Giovanni offered appetizing morsels and refreshments all around.

Maes and Gracia walked into the hall just as the Armstrongs settled into their seats. After another round of greetings, Maes dutifully informed him, “Your little blond one is still a-nap upstairs. I believe he set an alarm; you should expect him to be prickly tonight. You never even told him! Bad, Roy; bad!”

Roy gave Maes a withering look.

More guests arrived, notable among them Anya, remarking at the rarity of The Roy Mustang, Flame Alchemist and War Hero Extraordinaire, opening his much-coveted and hideously opulent dwelling for semi-public view. Few of his business associates were privy to his house in the past; Giovanni and Anya, being older acquaintances (and also owing to the nature of Anya’s business with him), were exceptions to the invisible rule.

“It has been a while since we last visited, has it not, husband?” the Lady Armstrong remarked, eyes curious and alight. “There have been a number of changes to this hall, if my memory does not fail me, but everything appears to be exceptionally well-cared for.” The Lady gave Roy a sweet smile, which Roy naturally had to reciprocate. “I believe our decision to bequeath this house to you was a most wise decision, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“Indeed, indeed,” her husband rumbled from beside her, neck craned to admire the wide expanse of the Xerxian tapestry against the long wall. Anya was also perched in front of it, mouth open and pulled in a young smile, fingers curling a breath away from the surface of the circle. Roy had acquired this piece from her brother, Alistair, two years ago shortly after purchasing the house. Both of them often came over on Sundays to sit in front of the tapestry and appreciate it, but at present their shop was in the midst of expansion, which prevented them from visiting as often as they would wish. (Alistair, in particular, was still far removed from Amestris, scouring the desert with his friends for more relics to bring home.) Anya was, in fact, most delighted to be viewing the tapestry once more; so delighted that Roy did not expect her to be conversant until dinnertime.

Roy soon excused himself to change into suitable clothes upstairs. “Edward has supposedly devised a special gift for you,” Maes then informed him as he made to leave, “so try to snoop while he’s still asleep!”

“That would ruin the surprise, Maes,” but even as Roy laughed, he was intrigued indeed. A special gift, from the young child who performed the first successful human transmutation! Roy could not wait. No doubt it would be alchemical in nature, but try hard as he did, he could not fathom what form it would take. Edward had done well to keep it quiet over the past weeks. Not a single word from the child, even with their close quarters and daily conversation—only further proof that Edward was well and capable of keeping his secrets from the world.

Upstairs, the library was cast in shadows and stained sunlight. Edward’s notes and books crawled upon each other in neat narrow piles that bore no threat of toppling aside. Not a sign of stray papers upon the couches, or array blueprints spread bare on the floor, or notebooks strewn on the table: everything was in place. Roy had to smile. Perhaps he’s beginning to understand the importance of presentation.

Said young alchemist was indeed fast asleep, curled upon his bed atop the covers around a soft pillow. The window drapes were beginning to cast long shadows across the room, but a stray beam of sunlight caught a glint of something metallic shoved underneath the bed. Roy toed it, thoughtful.

Maes’ voice broke him from his temptation. Roy removed himself from the room. He had but fifteen minutes before the rest of the guests gathered; Edward’s gift could wait. Leaving the boy in sleep, Roy tidied himself up and descended once more into the company of friends. With skill from years in politics, Roy removed Edward from his immediate thoughts. It would have been a barefaced lie, however, if he denied his delight when the boy finally woke to mingle. This celebration, after all, was more for Edward than for himself. Risking severe sentimentality, Roy recognised that his true gift for this year was to have met Edward Elric, because for the alchemist inside of him already devoid of Berthold and Hohenheim, Edward was the only companion.

“I hope all of Fitz’ ridiculous leftist blather will not convince you into halting young Edward’s progress into State rank,” Lucas Armstrong beseeched Roy, drawing him aside to discuss a matter within which the old General was translucently invested. “Such potential must not be left untapped, and despite its faults, the system still offers maximum mobility and support for our alchemists. You know this well; in fact, you know it so well I am sure you can devise a way to circumvent the system to protect him, if that becomes necessary.”

Maes’ grin was lightning-quick, there and mocking him one moment, gone the next. Everyone appeared to be conspiring against Roy’s protective tendencies these days! Roy could only fathom Edward’s indelible charm as the ultimate perpetrator.

“I still remain by my original stance,” Roy explained. “Should he express a desire to enter the ranks, I will assist him in doing so. As of present, he has yet to utter a single word.”

“It would help, you know, if he knew about all of Central alight with talk of him,” Maes rejoined, “and I don’t mean in passing. You haven’t told him what they’ve been saying.”

Roy gave his friend a withering look. “Never mind productive; do you foresee anything remotely polite coming from his awareness of this mess?”

“He,” Maes grinned, “will blow it up!”

“My precise concern,” Roy drily said, eyes seeking the little blond across the hall. Edward was clustered with Anya, Bastien, Falman, Fuery, and Louis Armstrong around the now mounted newest addition to Roy’s oil painting collection. The Vanishing fused into the hall’s motif seamlessly and without effort: a noteworthy piece, doubtless fetching a noteworthy price. But another item to tally to his long list of debts to the Armstrongs.

“I understand that you thrive in order, Lieutenant Colonel, but trust my words: a little chaos goes far when one is in need of a significant change in the status quo,” General Armstrong advised. “His alchemy is one of a kind, as I have heard you tell the Generals—“ Roy smirked, “—and it would be a damn shame to let it go to waste. Imagine the possibilities! He is yet young. These are your words, you realise.”

“They are mine, yes,” Roy acquiesced. Those were his precise words to the Führer at the symposium. “I will find the right time. He comes from a troubled background as it is; I have no wish to permanently scar him. The military is not renowned for its kindness. He will grow at his own pace,” and, throwing a glare at a glib Maes, he added, “and Maes here will ensure that I will not interfere.”

“Spoken like a good parent!” the old General declared. Roy’s shoulder locked under the weight of Lucas Armstrong’s hand descending upon it; he hid a wince. Maes reclined in his chair and gave another cackle.

In the kitchen, Giovanni, Marcel, Breda, Gracia, and Riza were in an involved discussion about the appropriate method of preparing a glazed crust for pot pies. Havoc was toying with a whining puppy.

“I have a proposition for you, Lieutenant Colonel,” General Armstrong began once more, after a stretch of silence. Roy noted those words, and the weight behind those words. Propositions from an Armstrong were never to be taken lightly, as both he and Maes learned well in the past. He canted his body toward the General to indicate his interest. Lucas Armstrong continued, “Contrary to the current generals, all of whom are craning their fat necks to peek at your protégé over there, I have had the privilege of witnessing an example of Edward’s alchemy. Back at the stationery shop, yes—that was a little slip on your part, was it not, hmm? Let us both be thankful that we were then in the company of friends.”

His nod was wholehearted, his smile like a knife. Roy knew the shape of a veiled threat no matter what sort of veil it tried to lurk behind. Let it never be said that an Armstrong ever truly retired from the political arena. Simply bearing the name was a political statement in and of itself.

“Now,” Lucas Armstrong, the Lucas Armstrong, continued, “if young Edward decides to, as they like to say, jump the hurdle, he will rank a Major under a superior officer of alchemical supervising capacity. This will, of course, be you.”

Maes chortled from his cushy chair, eyes dancing in the firelight. The nights were becoming cold enough for Roy to allow the fireplaces to fully radiate their warmth into the house. “No moron would assign the kid elsewhere, not when the entire nation knows about his connection to Roy. Everybody will be expecting it. It would be perceived unfair were Ed positioned under someone else—about as bad as stealing another alchemist’s research and getting caught for it.”

Roy canted his head in agreement. It was the one overwhelming windfall from the near-incoherent mess following Edward’s antics at the symposium. Mass awareness of the link between the two of them ensured Roy a prime position for protecting Edward from within the system.

“The child does seem to have unnaturally good fortune, doesn’t he?” General Armstrong remarked.

Well deserved good fortune, Roy mused as he considered the track record of Edward’s life. The last four months in particular were horrendous enough to be worthy of nightmares from hell.

But General Armstrong was oblivious to his thoughts. “In this eventuality, I am sure you are aware of the conflict of interest if you are to be his sponsor and his superior officer at the same time. I have a solution to offer you.”

Roy had actually been attempting not to think about this tender issue, as he was at the moment very far from trusting anyone (other than himself and Maes) with Edward’s well-being in any form and capacity, be it physical, mental, emotional, or—as was most pertinent in Edward’s case—alchemical. Maes was smirking again; yes, yes, pride be damned, Roy was being a mother hen! But how was he to help himself? This was Edward in question.

“You can rest assured, Lieutenant Colonel, I wish you and all those under your protection no harm,” Lucas Armstrong quietly said, resting a hand on Roy’s arm. It was heavy with promise: of what kind, Roy was both terrified and anxious to explore. “In fact, I wish to share in your investment in young Edward. Only do I ask that you, per proper procedure, share the profits of said investment. Though I may be growing old, I am not growing blind. I can see his potential. As you alchemists prefer to put it: equivalent exchange.”

“If I may be so bold, Lord Armstrong,” Roy swiftly responded, “you have retired from the military. While it isn’t uncommon for a civilian of sufficient means to sponsor an alchemist, and while I’m sure Edward would be a grand addition to a long line of Armstrong-sponsored State Alchemists, I fail to see that this endeavour would be of much positional benefit to you.” Lucas Armstrong nodded and smiled, satisfied. Roy tightened his jaw. “You cannot possibly be suggesting—“

“My Mira will be ranked Major General in a handful of months, Lieutenant Colonel,” the old General said, “and it is not done for any person in so lofty a position to be devoid of a sponsorship—so much more for an Armstrong! No; she must sponsor an alchemist, never mind her ill disposition towards alchemy.” The old man reclined in his chair and rumbled in a manner that easily betrayed his pleasure at the thought of his daughter achieving such heights of power. (Or perhaps he was pleased at the opportunity of rankling Mira Olivier’s stout composure by saddling her with a child prodigy. Despite his reservations, Roy was pleased with this, too.)

“What of Alex?” Maes asked. “Mira refuses to sponsor him?” How Roy could have ever forgotten his presence, he would never fathom, but Maes’ profile was now far removed from his jovial and at times mocking mask. Contemplative hazel eyes looked upon Edward across the room. The boy in question was in the throes of a heated debate with a much enthused puppy. Whatever their quarry was, it seemed a worthy one; Lady Armstrong looked much entertained.

“Mira refuses to sponsor anyone unless it is decided for her, hence my proposition,” General Armstrong frowned. “She is a stubborn one, Mira. Bred and learned by the mother, I’m sure.” Roy begged to differ! “But it is a good proposition, is it not? You take the boy under your wing and benefit directly from his exploits. I foresee rapid promotions for you, Lieutenant Colonel. All the while, Mira sponsors him for afar, amending his needs whenever necessary, be it financial, social, political, or otherwise. She benefits by fulfilling the expectation of a sponsorship and, per your words, by adding another excellent alchemist to the long line of those sponsored by our family. Between the two of you, young Edward should flourish beyond all of our expectations! He shall have your protection from the inside, and our protection from the outside. You know well and true that we treat our friendships with gravity and great respect.”

Roy looked into the hearth and thought. Tendrils of fire leapt and twirled around each other, evoking the vivid memory of his gift from Edward. A fine work of alchemy and artistry that book was—and to think he had yet to peek into its contents! Softly, a smile came to his face. The gift reminded him of Edward in every sense.

“Roy,” Maes implored, abrupt and if a little too intense. Roy had to blink. Maes’ eyes were rarely ever so bare. “I know you and Mira are bitter rivals to both of your respective brazen deaths, but the old General’s cutting a good deal. Better than good, actually—of which you wouldn’t need my meagre skills to point out, if you took a moment to step back from your hopeless case of attachment from the boy. Remember what I said to you a few weeks back?”

There’s no need to protect everyone from everything, Maes had told him over scotch, in the warm sunlight from the kitchen window. You can have faith enough in us to do our jobs if you can have faith enough in yourself to protect all of us. Roy then realised that Maes, through those eyes of his, must be seeing something worthy in this strategic little step. (Little, hah.) Whatever it was, Roy would likely never be able to fathom it until it slapped him in the face. He and Maes complemented each other very well in such a way that they each saw what the other failed to notice. Roy looked into the fire again. Well, it’s neither the first time nor the worst situation in which I follow through Maes’ words in blind faith.

He turned to the old General, and pulled up a most pleasant and engaging smile. “May I have the privilege of heralding this news of a ceasefire to your daughter, sir?”

General Armstrong broke into raucous laughter, thumping at the arm of his chair even as the entire room jumped at his loud voice. Maes cackled along, calling for a refill of ice wine and exchanging a little toast with Roy. Their eyes met, and Maes became actively complicit in Roy’s machinations on Edward.

Much later, Roy would discover that Maes was already there and moving far ahead of him long before he even considered it.

 

 

“You may not control the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
(
Maya Angelou )

High above the earth the crow soared, a noble bird, its dark feathers iridescent against the pale autumn sunlight. Roy imaged the wind whistling through the hooks of its claws, the feathers at the tips of its outstretched wings. What freedom, what a life these birds possessed! Roy ached to be one of theirs. They had none of his worldly concerns: no nagging threat of death by bullet in the workplace every day, no wayward young genius to care for, no superiors to please, no expectations to fulfil.

If only, he thought with a sigh.

He cupped his chin in one hand and dangled the other out of the window. Paperwork was strewn across the large table behind him, along with the frustrated faces of his subordinates still poring over unyielding data. Their investigation was going nowhere.

Ordinarily, when one was tasked to track a serial killer down, the idea was to work upon the fresh leads on the most recent of the killer’s excursions to try and prevent a repeat performance. Often one was granted a set amount of time between each kill, the exact length of these intervals varying from case to case. One had to work fast and hard to chase the fresh leads, as these things were highly liable to dry up with record speed. But there came times when no amount of effort on the part of a team can bring a perpetrator to light. Some devious little devils sometimes simply refused to be caught. Roy loathed to admit that maybe, just maybe, they would have to wait until the next victim to gain further ground.

It isn’t even an issue of having too little to work on, Roy despaired! They had enough, they should have more than enough, to catch the perpetrator—they had multiple profiles to work from. Except for as comprehensive and detailed as these profiles were, it seemed that they were profiling shadows in the night. No one person in Central existed to fit their boxes.

A crisp gust of wind buffeted his hair and reddened his cheeks. Papers rustled behind him. It was midmorning with fair weather over the city, certainly a perfect day to be outdoors. Edward would be leaving soon for his doctor’s appointment. The thought of Edward beckoned Roy’s memory of the gift. He ached for more time to explore it, ached to have it here with him instead of having to work, but he daren’t risk the object; it was too precious. Besides which, its covering—a polished box of gold—was too prominent to be tactfully hidden.

A box.

Roy blinked.

A crow landed on the windowsill beside his arm, but he paid it no attention, now absorbed in a sudden epiphany. Edward had explained how he had engineered the gold to become the container for the book in the shape of a box. The book was never intended to fit the box; instead, the box was made for the book.

Roy straightened, startling the crow away from the window, and swivelled his chair to face once more toward the table. The sudden movement jolted Breda from a light snooze, and Fuery nearly voiced a question if not for Havoc’s quick hand on his shoulder. Havoc knew Roy’s habits by now, being the second longest under his employ after Riza: when he was deep in thought, it was best to keep him undisturbed.

First, he considered the profile. Roy and Maes had both agreed that the perpetrator was likely aesthetically attuned, with a definite eye for theatrics. This agreed with Edward’s eye collector theory. Furthermore, the perpetrator had yet to collect two pairs of eyes of the same colour. The first victim had brown eyes, but the specimen was destroyed due to a botched circle. The second victim had brown eyes, which were successfully excised from the head. The third had blue eyes, the fourth grey, the fifth a startling albino-red, the sixth hazel, and the seventh—Edward’s young and most unfortunate acquaintance—had green eyes.

If the perpetrator’s sole aim was to complete his collection of colours, then the seventh victim should be the last victim; the collection was already complete. This was the most problematic factor: just as it had the potential to narrow their possibilities down, so it had the potential to spread them wide open. The perpetrator could either stop (less problematic), or he could continue to collect the same eye colours now that the excision array was improved and posed less threat to damage the specimen. To make matters worse, the perpetrator showed no preference for age, sex, socioeconomic background, or location of origin. Apart from their grossly mutilated bodies, the seven victims held nothing in common.

Roy closed his eyes at the thought. He sorely detested slow cases. The god-awful drag began enticing him to second-guess himself where he truly shouldn’t. With but sheer force of will, he discarded his sinuous doubts and forced his thoughts back on track.

The recent round of their investigation began with Edward’s help that provided them with their initial leads from the library logs. None of the names they crosschecked from those lists were viable, as they had discovered shortly after—but upon review, there were two specific names that stood out.

First of them was Elmer Roget, a businessman and art collector, who had signed out a copy of not one but three of Edward’s listed books from the Second Library a few months ago. Roget was known within certain circles to be filthy rich, in a near-literal sense of filth. Roget had several shady connections with underground spies from Drachma and illegal smugglers from Aerugo. Notable among them was his acquaintance with certain enthusiasts from the underground market for human and chimeric body parts. The man was no professional alchemist, of course, which would have made him their prime candidate—except for the small but significant detail of his whereabouts on the 20th of May, the night of the third victim’s demise.

Elmer Roget was brother to Elena Roget, a most beautiful and efficient secretary under the service of General Raven. For some unfathomable reason, she tolerated her brother’s presence enough to introduce him to her superior and invite him to the occasional State-funded public function. (Naturally, in these situations, Elmer Roget’s money talked. It was the one other thing the man had that the military could want, aside from his aforementioned connections with some shady Drachman characters.) On the night of May 20th, Roy and Maes were both in attendance at a State function where they both witnessed Elmer Roget’s presence. Roget had stayed around the entire night, and would have never been able to execute the third murder. Maes and Roy severely doubted the involvement of a second hand in the killings, so they were forced to accept Roget’s alibi and rule him out.

Their second (less likely) suspect went by the name of Noah Bauer, a seemingly humble young historian currently employed as a teaching assistant at one of the colleges in north Central. Bauer’s background check came back clear of any anomalies, and in truth he would be no suspect at all, if for his untraceable whereabouts on the days of the murders. Every single one of the seven murders occurred on an off day for Noah Bauer, and on those days none of his neighbours, friends, acquaintances, and workmates were with him. Bauer had no workable alibi to cover himself with, claiming that he habitually took his bicycle and rode out of Central into the surrounding hills to be alone and breathe fresh air.

Simply to be thorough, Roy kept him in the books. It was too large a coincidence to ignore, Maes had said. But Roy remained staunch in his disbelief. Bauer did not feel like a killer, did not have the character to even attempt to become one. Roy had interviewed the man himself; he could tell. His gut could tell.

If only gut instinct was enough, he groaned, things would be so much easier in life! One suspect had the perfect character but also had an alibi; the other had no alibi but a mismatched character. And so far, these were their two only options. This case was impossible! He had the sore temptation to simply give up.

“Juicy developments!” Maes announced, trouncing into the office space and flopping disgracefully upon Roy’s couch. “The most recent on the ethic wars!”

Roy shook his head. “Not another ignoramus blathering about their entitled opinions, Maes, please.”

Most of Amestris’ intelligentsia and its media have by now contributed their own word or three to the surging controversy about the ethics of the military employing an eleven-year-old alchemist, except of course, the concerned parties: Roy, and Edward himself. Edward remained blissfully unaware of the roiling political clamour around his name. Roy had had to use one of his most prized blackmail specimens over Maes’ head to keep things quiet around the house, but with Edward’s ire considered, the sacrifice was worth it. He consoled himself by resolving to gather even better specimen in the future.

“No, no, no! This is actually good! It has to do with the superstars.” The final bit was stage-whispered, as Roy’s best friend was always given to ridiculous theatrics.

As of current, the most noteworthy participants of the discussion (in Maes’ lexicon known as the ‘superstars’) were the Armstrong patriarch, former General Lucas Armstrong, and the well-placed younger contender, Major General Hakuro. This was less in part by the strength, eloquence, or validity of their arguments as it was more of the oxymoronic contradiction of their positions. Armstrong, hailing from one of the staunchest liberal strongholds in Amestris, was vouching for Edward’s admission as a State Alchemist, never mind the ethics of his age. Hakuro, a devout proponent of the martial regime, was denying the rectitude of Edward’s ‘premature’ admission into the ranks of the military.

Roy never would have imagined even in the most surreal and improbable of his dreams that he would ever hear Hakuro argue for the rectitude of a matter, any matter. Even Maes lost that bet (and they all gained new levels of respect for Breda’s oft underappreciated strategic mind). Far be it for any proponent of the martial regime to even consider the rectitude or ethic of any major decision, but Hakuro, of all people!

“Well, then, what is it? Hurry and finish your gossiping so I can return to my paperwork. I have to stop by at Dr. Geralds’ clinic to pick up Edward today, and I still have to get home in time to cook for the kid. He’s asking for my homemade pasta.”

“Such a good parent!” Maes crooned. Predictable. “Anyway! The media is being hilarious again—”

“Another blunder? Wonderful, just when I thought they couldn’t get worse—”

“—no, no! Well, yes, in a sense. But not really. I guess it depends.”

“Out with it, Maes!”

“You need to be taught some patience, my friend! Maybe Riza can—”

Maes.”

“Right, story. Well. The media is declaring old General Armstrong the winner of their little tug of war,” Maes declared, much to Roy’s suprise.

“Is this tongue-in-cheek, or did Hakuro give in for real?” Roy thought it highly unlikely. Hakuro was not Raven, but he was still very proud.

“Well, that’s what I meant: it depends on who you ask!” Maes cackled, always too happy for such scandalous events. “Apparently, Armstrong outbid Hakuro again, last night, at the State Museum’s art auction, and the media are blowing it up. The sane ones know that it’s just Fitz’ sensationalism at work again, but most will be taken in by the current. They’re saying that by outbidding Hakuro in an art auction, Armstrong is declaring his political superiority. Never mind that it’s an art auction, because everything is a competition.”

“You mean to say, everything is a pissing contest.”

Grinning, Maes put his elbows on Roy’s desk and leaned forward, as if to divulge a conspiratorial secret. “Beautiful piece, though, from what I hear; you’d like it. You should ask Armstrong for a viewing, and maybe take Edward so he can see the manor. Actually, Ed might like the painting too, or at least it’s history. The piece itself might be too simple for him. Here, a picture, see? Pretty girl.”

Maes thrust a picture underneath his nose, making Roy have to recoil a few inches to properly view the item in question. Framed by intricate golden filigree was a moderate-sized painting, oil from what Roy could see, of a fair-haired girl with burnished golden eyes. The girl was wearing an ancient style of clothing, old Amestrian, possibly Persian—

“She’s called the Jewel of Xerxes,” Maes provided, “and yes, she’s supposedly of the purest possible Xerxian descent. The line died up a couple of hundred years ago, of course; that was around the time period this painting comes from. The painter was allegedly fascinated with the unique colouring of her eyes—gold, you know, very rare, almost nonexistent these days—”

A painting I’d wanted for a while... a girl with the most beautiful colouring. Fair hair, golden eyes—simple, but elegant in its simplicity. I’ve no money to buy it of course, Dr. Geralds had laughed, Dr. Geralds had laughed

But a man must at least be entitled to look upon the item of his passion, if he cannot own it.

Roy burst out of his seat, pulling on his gloves and nearly giving Maes a heart attack. “Riza, call Dr. Geralds’ clinic, inquire of his whereabouts—”

“Sir, what—”

Now!” Roy snapped, reaching for his own phone and hastily dialling home.

“Roy, what the hell are you—”

It rang, and rang, and rang—Roy looked at the clock. 11:45.

“Shit. Ed’s gone—Riza!”

Riza bid a hasty goodbye to the clinic desk and reported, “Dr. Geralds was not in the clinic, sir, I—”

“Edward? Where’s Edward?”

“—not in the clinic either, the nurse was very confused—sir, I—”

Damn it! We’re moving out. Get yourselves up, up—

“Roy, slow the fuck down and tell me what is going on,” Maes snapped, hand on Roy’s shoulder holding him down and back.

“The eyes, Maes, gold!” Roy exclaimed, frantic. They were wasting time, Edward could be in danger—and it was only his gut instinct, but it was more than that— “Geralds—he’s an art enthusiast, don’t you remember?! He talked to me about the Jewel of Xerxes too—he mentioned it—Maes, Ed’s eyes are gold!

Maes stood stunned. In a heartbeat, his team scrambled up and readied their weapons, Havoc already sprinting out the door to get the cars. As a group they raced through the hallways, scattering people left and right as they went. Maes gave apologies and left commands for Falman to organise a bigger search party in the off chance that they should need help covering more ground. Fuery was tasked to relay an order to Maes’ team to secure the clinic, search its premises, and interview the inhabitants. All the while, Roy had his heart in his throat, a tight band of anxiety constricting his mind into one sharp focus: find Edward.

They commandeered a car and sped through the city toward Dr. Geralds’ listed home residence. During the tense ride, Maes made it plain, “Half the facts here don’t add up, Roy. If this doesn’t fly, we’ll be in for some shit.”

“Gut,” Roy hissed. “I can feel it.”

That was enough to satisfy Riza and momentarily silence Maes. Both of them were well-acquainted with Roy’s gut instincts. They did not come about often, but they were scarcely wrong.

“Geralds is a doctor; he should certainly know anatomy well enough to slice out an eye,” murmured Breda.

“Why not do it himself, then, instead of using a circle?” Havoc asked.

“Because alchemy will always be more precise than human hands,” answered Roy, eyes grim. He still dreamt of Edward’s screams on some nights and recalled with clarity the clean shear of Edward’s wounds.

Maes sighed. “We never considered the fact that our perpetrator doesn’t have to borrow the books from the library if they already owned them. Terribly remiss of us.”

“It was our only lead for the while,” Breda shrugged, “so we focused on it. Ironic that the kid who gave us that lead becomes the true lead.”

Havoc pulled to a screeching halt in front of an average-sized house in a quiet, secluded street of the affluent south-west Central. About them were upper-end homes of hard-working citizens, which meant that at this time of the day, most were devoid of life. Havoc and Riza panned around the back of the house, guns out and aimed at the ground as they stealthily leaped over brush and flowerbed. Maes, Roy, and Breda approached from the front, checking through the windows for any flicker of life from inside. There was none.

A sharp snap from Roy made an explosion small enough to only damage the front door’s lock. Pushing inward, they panned around, checking the living room, the dining room, the sitting room, the bathroom. They met Havoc and Riza midway; Roy’s group took the second floor while the other two took the basement. Moments into clearing the first bedroom, a yell from Havoc had Roy scrambling back down.

“Chief, you wanna see this!” Havoc insisted, voice muffled from his location.

Roy slipped into the tight staircase leading down to a dimly lit wine cellar. He had to look around before he found the false door in the wall, artfully hid by the wooden panelling underneath the staircase. He ducked under it and came into a more spacious room containing two desks, a chair, books, papers, and shelves of—

“Holy hell,” Maes breathed.

On the wall shelf were seven glass bottles, each labelled and dated, each holding a pair of eyes. They were suspended in liquid—a preservative, Roy was sure—and cast large circular shadows on the wall behind them. The seventh pair, vivid emerald greens, was by far the best maintained.

“The house’s clear, chief,” Breda called from behind. “The kid’s not here.”

A tight hiss made it past his teeth. Roy’s fingers ached from the sheer effort of keeping them still. He had a gun in one hand and a glove covering the other, but both his arms were by his sides, powerless as he struggled to think of a clue. Maes was already at the two desks strewn with papers, so Roy followed, eyes wandering. Searching.

“These are all the circles,” Maes pointed out. “Here’s the most recent one, and here’s the fifth one… I think this is the third one here…”

“Anything that would tell us where the boy is?” Riza prompted, ever refocusing their efforts. Roy was already looking.

“As far as I remember, the doctor doesn’t own any other property apart from this house, unless he acquired one within the last two years,” said Maes, shuffling papers about. “We did a background check when we first met him, but I haven’t revisited him recently. I honestly wouldn’t know.”

And that is the crux of the issue, Roy thought. None of them knew. None of them even suspected someone so close to home, someone so trusted was their perpetrator. Roy fought the urge to scream his fury. He hated, hated, hated missing a step. He despised it!

Roy turned away from the shelved glass bottles and put a hand to his face, breathing deep to centre himself. Rerunning the facts in his head would work better if he could calm his frazzled nerves, but all he could think of was Edward, unwittingly put in the way of danger by none other than himself.

“Breda’s using the home phone to call the clinic and see if Falman and the others found anything,” Havoc reported. “Maybe they’ll find something there that’ll help.”

Maes shifted a small pile of books to the opposite side of the desk to clear some space, scattering some papers and sending pens rolling off the side. One of them rolled right up to Roy’s foot, a small blue-bodied pen, with white markings on the side. Roy picked it up and made to replace it on the tabletop, when he caught sight of the markings—cursive letters, ‘Cottonwood Place’

“Do any of you know a Cottonwood Place in Central?”

“No, sir,” Riza replied with Havoc. Breda was still upstairs.

“Maes,” Roy nudged.

“Huh, what? Oh, Cottonwood Place, let me see,” his friend muttered, eyes zipping through papers in search for a clue. “I think it’s a new housing development just outside of south Central, if you head straight down South 1st—wait, why, how did you—”

Roy simply handed him the pen and turned on his heel, Havoc already taking the stairs two at a time. They all hopped back into the car just as two teams of soldiers pulled up to the house. Breda was left in charge as Roy took one of the teams with them, speeding down the city street against the early lunch crowds.

Cottonwood Place was far beyond the old boundaries of the city, an extension brought about by a higher demand on the housing market as the population thrived after each year. Parts of the subdivision were yet sparse stretches of grass and bare earth, but a cluster of houses could be seen every now and then. Most of them were only half-finished and still for sale. The few that were finished were the ones seemingly occupied.

“Pan out,” Roy ordered, “and check every house, every room, every basement. He has a hostage, a child; be careful when you engage. I want the perpetrator alive if possible, but the safety of the victim is top priority. Move!

The men—far too few of them to cover the large area—jumped at his order and spread out in a circle, taking it house by house. Roy made for the nearest one and grit his teeth, hoping that he would make it in time. Maes had the foresight to leave their location with Breda so they could call for the reinforcements Fuery was supposed to pull together at the headquarters. But Edward. Edward.

It was neither the first house, nor the second. The third was occupied by an alarmed gentleman and his wife; the fourth, a young woman. By the time Roy exited the fifth—small, single-floor, all rooms bare and a windowsill home to a bird’s nest—his fury had mounted to a terrible proportion. All of his fear for Edward’s safety—all of his frustration—transformed into a white-hot and furious surging fire, deep in his belly, waiting to be summoned, wanting to burn.

Ishbal, he realized in a flash, it hasn’t been like this since Ishbal. This sort of roiling energy was a ghost he knew well from his bloody past. Not for the first time, Edward reminded him of things that were best laid to rest.

But he refused. He would not let Edward suffer injury under his care. He would not let Edward die like those children he had murdered in the sands. The thought sent his feet into a faster sprint toward the next cluster of houses. His soldiers were far to his left as he scaled the empty street, panning away to search more houses, showing no sign of having found anything valuable.

The next cluster of houses was small and largely uninhabited, the area being newer and farther away from the mouth of the subdivision. He chose the nearest house to investigate and was about to bust the door open when a movement caught the corner of his eye. His gun found its holster once more as he tugged on his other glove. The sensation of familiar leather against his skin hardened his nerves into steel. Ducking out of the front patio, he ran past two houses until the corner, around which three houses sat facing each other in a cul-de-sac. No sooner had he turned the corner when a flash of light, violent and blue, illuminated the windows of the house in the middle.

Edward!

It was brief, but it had Roy running. He sent a bright red ribbon of fire zipping through the air to call for reinforcements, but wasted no time waiting for them. It was by pure luck to find anything here; Geralds could have seen them scouring the first few houses and made his escape. But that light—only a circle could produce that sort of light. Roy knew alchemy when he saw it, when he came close to it, and he could feel it now, as he eased past the front door and slipped into the house.

Unbidden memories of Resembool came to him. His eyes easily found the door to the basement situated under the stairs, but it was closed and showed no signs of having been opened. No; the light came from ground floor. Roy sucked in a quiet breath and stalked briskly down the hall.

In the living room, Geralds was crouched. His jacket was creased, his forehead shining with perspiration. An uncapped jar rested upon the floor beside him, clear liquid vibrating within it as the array sang with energy. Edward—still whole!—lay still and sleeping within its lines. Geralds noticed him the moment he stepped into the room, eyes widening and hands tightening around a gun.

Both hands gloved and ready, Roy took aim.

 

 

“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”
( Thomas Pynchon )

When his soldiers burst into the gloom, Roy was on his knees. Ginger fingers rubbed at the circle’s limit, blurring it until the glow was no more. It took practice and special attention to be able to deactivate a circle once it was already activated: the alchemist had to wait for the glow to dim a certain degree before attempting to blur a hole through the limit. Dimming light was indicative of lost intent, which happened whenever the alchemist removed his hand from the circle. Had Roy dallied two seconds longer, Edward would be dead.

“Do we have a medic?” was his response to Maes’ presence, voice as steady as his heartbeat was not. Edward was breathing, which calmed Roy somewhat—but the breaths were deep and smooth, too smooth for the norm. Drugged, he deduced, of course. Edward would have never let himself be taken without a significant fight. He must have been caught off his guard. And why not? Patients are supposed to be able to trust their doctors.

“The reinforcements just got here, they have a pair,” Havoc said, always quick to respond. “I’ll get them.”

Roy gathered the boy into his arms, taking care from smearing the circle any further. Scorch marks already obscured its far edges, near where Geralds had knelt. On that very spot smouldered a blackened mass, once human, now only vaguely so. Ashes from the doctor’s clothing danced like snowflakes around the room, waltzing gently until they settled upon some unsuspecting surface.

From the floor underneath the far window, Riza retrieved a far-flung six-shot revolver. “Did you get hit?” Maes asked, looking him over, knowing that Roy would prioritize others over his own health. “Did he use that gun?”

“He tried,” Roy said, “but I was faster.”

“Good,” Maes nodded, shoulders loosening a measure. “It’ll make it easier to explain why we have a corpse instead of an apprehended murderer to be tried and imprisoned.”

“He deserved it,” Fuery frowned, an intense expression of anger on his youthful features. “All those people, dead because of him. He deserved it.”

Looking back upon the scene, Roy felt an intense surge of the same white-hot fury. “No, he didn’t,” he said. This was not enough. “I should have let him live. Let him live and be sentenced to life in prison.”

Fuery’s anger morphed into confusion, but Riza and Maes understood what Roy meant. There were rumours underground, rumours of the Fifth Laboratory beside Central Prison. Roy understood some rumours to be truer than others.

“Roy,” Maes warned, but he was already headed out with his armful of sleeping child. Outside, the light was white and soft, as if in tune with his numbed heart. He should feel some remorse for having just taken a human life, but there was nothing in his chest save bone-deep relief—Edward was safe. Edward was whole.

He deposited the boy into more capable hands: a pair of medics he remembered to be recently placed under his command. Personnel from Intelligence met him as he exited, one of them staying to document Roy’s report as he sent the others inside to regroup with Maes. To the back, behind the cars, media flocked like bees to honey—or, as would be more appropriate, like vultures to a corpse. There were flashes and a handful of shouted questions, but none of them dared approach, kept in line as they were by the sight of a glove on Roy’s left hand.

“Go on ahead with Edward to the hospital,” Maes urged, reappearing behind him and encouraging further flurry from the media. “I can hold this down. Besides which, you’ll be useless here preoccupied with the boy. Just try not to fry anyone else today.”

’Fry’ is a tad mild, Maes,” Roy scoffed as he slipped into the ambulance after Edward.

“Don’t I know it,” smiled Maes, a tight expression with only his lips. His eyes remained dark and deep, a sure sign of a later conversation for which Roy would need some alcohol. Just as well. “Try and send Knox over, would you? He’ll be useful for identity confirmation. Minor detail, I know, but we better cover this thoroughly. Douglass will be on you for this. Even if we solved it, they won’t like how we handled it.”

Removing his remaining glove, Roy gave a sigh and flicked his eyes to the clamouring media. “Use them, then. You’re good at it.”

If he had waited any longer before shutting the ambulance’s door, he would have heard Maes utter an ironic little laugh. As it was, they needed to deliver Edward to better care; the ambulance eased its way through the gathered crowd and sped through the half-hashed houses toward the heart of the city.

Roy took a deep breath. It was high time he reordered his head.

 

SERIAL KILLER KILLED IN ACTION
Previously undisclosed details of the murders released!
Lt. Col. Mustang’s young apprentice somehow involved?

CENTRAL—On Thursday, November 1st, the unnamed serial killer responsible for seven murders within the past year was reported to have been killed in confrontation with the deployed investigative team. The perpetrator was identified to be Dr. Robert Geralds, 49, a physician in private practice and graduate of the Firat Academy of Medicine. Evidence of having committed the murders was discovered in the basement of his residence, located in the south-west suburbs of Central.

Investigators are now combing through files to find the links between Geralds and his seven victims, but are convinced that most of them—if not all—are either past or current patients. In order of death, the victims are (pictured to the left, in clockwise order): Caroline Braun, 23, lady of the night; Alfonz Werner, 30, former lieutenant and honourably discharged after sustaining a war injury; Rachel Chablis, 17, prominent high-born socialite and third daughter of the Chablis family; Mischa Wagner, 49, miller; Viktor Johanssen, 6, born with mental disabilities and resident of the Sinclair Orphanage; Amica Freud, 26, secretary; and Timothy Rutherford, 12, student at the Aschgart Alchemical Preparatory School. Apart from the first two, each victim had a different eye colour.

Further details regarding the purpose of the murders were also revealed at a brief conference held shortly after daybreak today. According to the team spokesperson, the perpetrator’s primary aim was to collect the victims’ eyes with the use of alchemy. A more ancient form of alchemy was used in the process, giving the case a higher degree of difficulty. Geralds has been found to own several books pertaining to the use of this older alchemy; however, the investigators maintain that he was not a full-fledged alchemist and merely dabbled in the arts without know-how of the proper construction of his arrays. This was cited as the reason for the progressive changes in their structure as he moved from one victim to the next.

Geralds was apprehended near noon at his newly acquired property within Cottonwood Place, a new housing development south of old Central. The investigative team was led by renowned State Alchemist and war veteran Lt. Col. Roy Mustang (pictured above, foreground left), who left with his young protégé, Edward Elric (pictured above, unconscious, foreground), shortly after journalists arrived at the scene. The team spokesperson has clarified that Mr. Elric had previously been consulted regarding finer details of Geralds’ arrays.

Our informed readers will be familiar with Mr. Elric’s name from his highly controversial public deconstruction of Dr. Albert Schrum’s human transmutation theory at this year’s National Symposium for Alchemical Advancement. Despite the clamour he had caused, Mr. Elric became well-known and well-spoken of as a prospective State Alchemist among the academic and military circles. His tender age of 12, however, has been the cause for high concern from a number of parties, most prominent of which are Major General Hakuro and politician Aaron Steinberg.

Mr. Elric was retrieved from within the house unconscious but has been cleared for discharge from the State Hospital today. No specific statements were disclosed regarding Mr. Elric’s involvement with the confrontation. Geralds was in possession of a six-shot 9mm revolver from which two shots were fired. First on the scene, Lt. Col. Mustang was forced to use his alchemy in self-defence, which resulted in Geralds’ quick death.

Further investigation is being conducted on Geralds’ potential involvement with other murder cases, but Lt. Col. Mustang thinks it highly unlikely due to Geralds’ self-serving reason for the murders. Lastly, it is worth noting that Lt. Col. Mustang was also himself a patient of the doctor. No official statements were made, but this humble journalist believes that we owe Geralds’ discovery to his own fortuitous close association with the very head of the investigative team hounding his tracks.

Geralds’ private practice clinic will be terminating its services within the month with promises to inform the patients of the steps to take to reclaim all private medical information. An option of obtaining referrals to alternative general practice physicians within the city will also be made available. (—Hank Fitz, senior correspondent)

 

When Edward woke, dawn was fast washing the night away. Roy saw him sat on the bed, eyes bleary, hair dishevelled. It was as if yesterday had not happened, as if Roy was only once more waking the boy for breakfast without the weight of what-ifs weighing upon his head. Edward saw him enter the room and took a moment to reorient. And then, “The doctor!”

“He’s dead,” Roy said.

A breath, sucked inward. Edward blinked, fisted a hand into the sheets. “Did you kill him?”

His voice was steady, a testament to his will. But Roy already knew this, knew this child’s strength of mind. Such was why Roy did not tarry with gentle words, why he stripped his syllables bare until they bled of painful honesty. If he were to be judged, so be it. He had no regrets; he had killed to save Edward.

“Yes,” Roy said, “I did.”

Edward swallowed, eyes wide and now very awake. For a moment there stretched between them a thick silence, an interminable tension—and then the boy gave a nod. “Thank you,” Edward said, fingers unknotting, shoulders sagging. “For saving me, I mean. Again.” His hair, a curtain of honey lit now by the slanted morning sun, fell loose about his face, obscuring his eyes from Roy. Again, Resembool, the image fleeting and sudden in memory: an image of Edward, no arm, no leg, hair fallen around young shoulders, eyes lidded in the aftermath.

Back then—only two months ago—Roy had been too wary of hurting Edward, too conscious of the injuries. He had not reached out. But now, he sat at the edge of the bed and placed a hand over the boy’s head. So they stayed for a solemn minute, sitting side by side under a bath of sunlight from the high windows of Roy’s bedroom. Roy had placed the boy in his own bed the previous night, unable to let him out of sight. His neck and left shoulder ached from having slept in his reading chair, but the mild pain was well worth his peace of mind and at least three hours of true rest.

“Are you feeling well enough to get up? We need to get some food in you, and you need a bath, young man.” Mundane things were always best for the most awkward of situations, as experience has shown Roy over and again.

True enough, Edward perked. “Food?”

“Food,” Roy smiled. “Gracia’s downstairs with your breakfast; I came up to wake you. The doctors cleared you for light meals and moderate activity as soon as you woke.”

An expression of distaste crossed Edward’s face. “More doctors?”

“I stayed with you the entire time,” Roy laughed, rising from the bed and tugging the boy with him. He hovered close as Edward tested his balance, tottering unsteadily toward the bathroom. “You might be lightheaded for the rest of the day; you were given high doses of two different anaesthetics. One of them should have already been metabolised while you were asleep, but the other will have lingering after-effects.”

“Specific compounds, please,” Edward grunted, clumsily working the faucet to warm the shower. Roy placed a set of clean clothes and towels on the counter.

“Isoflurane and nitrous oxide for the inhaled anaesthetic, which I’m assuming he used to knock you out.” Edward gave a grunt. “Controlled periodic doses of intravenous sodium thiopental to maintain it.”

Edward spluttered, arms tangling in the process of removing his shirt. “Thiopental? Intravenous?! What sort of moron uses that on a human being these days?! It’s used for dogs and shit. Dogs! Do I look like a dog? –No offence, dog.” Sebastian, having insinuated himself into the bathroom, was in the process of slobbering over Edward’s leg. “No wonder I can’t even get my arms to work properly. That shit takes forever to wear off! It’s redistributed to fat, did you know that? Granny Pinako taught me that. Then when you stop the infusion, the drug redistributes back into the blood, which makes it last longer.” Finally ridding himself of the shirt, Edward huffed in distaste. “He could have used diisopropylphenol, you know, like any normal human being with any command of common sense would! And he calls himself a doctor.”

“I see that our damsel-in-distress has woken!” Maes grinned, head peeking into the bathroom.

“I’m not a girl!”

“Yes, yes, woken indeed, and healthy!”

A wry smile fixed itself upon Roy’s face as he stepped back and allowed Maes to parry with the boy. Though initially unsteady, Edward was fast regaining control over his limbs. Roy assured himself that it would be alright to leave the boy to shower, dress, and get to breakfast on his own. He and Maes would be due at the Headquarters in short order; Douglass was their first appointment. Tardiness would not at all be fashionable.

“So you’re leaving now?” Edward’s voice pierced Roy’s thoughts, a shade more uncertain than usual. Roy took a letter from his pocket and placed it on the side table, trusting that it would be enough to distract the boy’s attention for the day. “Will you be back tonight?”

“We will,” he said, “and I’ll make you dinner. In the meantime, stay with Gracia and try not to get into trouble.”

“Or at least wait until Roy’s home,” Maes jested, earning a dry look. “Here’s the paper for today; should be pretty interesting for you. We’ll be going now.”

Edward nodded, still clutching his shirt in one hand and petting the dog with the other. The boy was frowning, troubled, and Roy hated to bear more grief to the child, but he had to bear the news. “On the side table’s a letter from you from Resembool. From your brother. It arrived early this morning.”

A plethora of emotions clashed underneath the boy’s young face. Perhaps too much too soon, Roy thought, but what could he do? He would not hide the letter from the boy, would not deprive him of his brother’s words. Even if those words will likely be hurtful ones.

Roy knew the splintering of bridges when they burned, knew the crackle and groan of its structure as it fractured into pieces. He had had his more than fair share of them in life. This was one of them, but the bridge burning was not his own.

“I’ll see you tonight, Ed,” he bid with a light hand on the boy’s shoulder. “If you need anything, call the office.”

Edward nodded, frozen in place. Roy left him there, standing half-naked, a dog at his knee, a light in his eyes. Perhaps it was hope.

 

At work, Roy wore his hubris, an arrogance that scraped at the very stars. It belied the quiet churn of his heart, full of an awful and unjustified dread. He had not read the letter, but he knew. He could feel it, deep in his gut, a forewarning.

“Might want to tone that down a bit; it won’t help make Douglass any kinder,” urged Maes, perhaps noting the tilt of Roy’s chin, or the brazen line of his shoulders, or the keenness of his eyes.

“Nothing will help make Douglass any kinder, old friend, you know this.”

“Yes, but,” Maes sighed, “it’s at least proper form to be polite.”

“Oh, I’ll be polite,” Roy airily replied, adjusting his collar as they strode in for their appointment. One lieutenant promptly escorted them into Douglass’ office, where the man himself was waiting poised to strike.

“Mustang,” Douglass grunted. “Hughes.” Both of them snapped into sharp salute and remained standing before the colonel’s desk. “You lot are certainly quite the celebrities. All this fuss you make on the papers; what drivel! You deliver me a corpse, barely recognisable! How do I know you’ve apprehended the true perpetrator?”

“Keyword: barely,” Maes helpfully pitched, tongue in cheek. Now who’s being irreverent, Roy thought. But Maes continued in a more succinct tone, “Dr. Knox is the best in his area of expertise and gave a positive match for the body’s identity. He’s also very experienced with Roy’s victims; fellow war veterans, you see.”

Douglass scowled. “So I saw in your report, along with your highly unorthodox methods of finding this perpetrator. It seems to me that you were acting on pure gut, no? Wasted precious manpower on guesswork!”

“Except it wasn’t wasted,” Maes pitched again, “and sir, with all due respect, glorified guesswork is the extent of what we all do. We never truly know for certain until we see it with our own eyes, but as the alchemists like to say, to begin to understand, we must first build on the most logical of assumptions.”

“Logical!” scoffed their superior. “Tell me where logical fits between your gut and your pride. You jumped at a possibility that had an impossibly slim chance of being true. This is not how we are supposed to operate! I cannot dream of passing these reports up to my superiors and let them see that my subordinate breaks protocol and procedure without so much as a by your leave!”

“Had I dallied seconds longer, we would have ourselves an eighth victim and a perpetrator still at large, Colonel Douglass,” Roy declared, his words heavy as stone. “Though I see that you would prefer I abandon a child’s life to protocol and procedure, I stand by my decisions and regret nothing of my actions.”

“Not even having killed another person,” Douglass said, face tilting backward, eyes assessing. Challenging.

Roy only smiled, sharp as a knife, and held his hands behind his back. “I am first an alchemist, sir. I aspire towards equivalent exchange. Would that I could, he would have died six more deaths for the six other lives he took.”

It was enough. His words were enough to remind Douglass of his presence, of what he was capable, of what he had done. Momentarily, his superior was cowed.

“Your protégé,” Douglass began once more, eyes darker, voice rougher. Roy’s shoulders remained even, but the muscles in his back began to tense. Perhaps Douglass knew he was treading upon dangerous waters now, for the man spoke slowly. “What was his business there?”

“As I stated in my reports, sir, we found him to be the eighth victim. I only had a suspicion, but my fear was realised, most unfortunately.”

“Your fear for the boy, yes? And how do I know Geralds’ death was not your act of revenge upon the doctor, your own premature intervention instead of an act of self-defence?” Douglass leaned in as an animal anticipating the kill. “You didn’t even wait for reinforcements before stepping foot inside the house: a clear breach of protocol, Mustang. How am I to know that you weren’t lost to your own emotions then?”

Eyes narrowing, Roy parted his lips to begin his retort. But before he could, a voice from behind him said, “What does it matter if he was?”

The three of them started at the sudden intrusion, before snapping into hasty salutes. The Führer strode in with his secretary, a stately woman whose face Roy almost always forgot.

“Sir,” Douglass saluted, “excuse the lack of preparation, I was not informed of your visit—”

“No, no, quite alright,” the older man chuckled, waving a hand in dismissal. “No formalities necessary, I’m here for only a minute. I was on my way to find Lieutenant Colonel Mustang here to commend him on his fine work and was duly informed by his subordinates that he has an appointment with you.”

Roy dipped his eyes in quiet deference. “I am honoured, sir.”

“Also, a bit of paperwork—yes, yes,” muttered the Führer, taking a few sheets of paper from his secretary and handing it to Roy. Unsure of what to expect, Roy took them with careful fingers. “Let me offer my congratulations, Colonel Roy Mustang. You’ve worked hard and steady against odds since your last promotion; I believe your excellent display of discipline and determination deserves another one.” Thinly veiled surprise washed over Roy’s face, just as despair began to dawn in Douglass’ eyes. “Do not concern yourself about the technicalities of this previous case. Soldier or not, any man will find it difficult to remove himself from emotion when a friend or loved one is in danger. Besides which, ballistics retrieved bullets from the wall of the house and matched them to the requisitioned gun, did they not?”

Maes nodded, clearing his throat. “Yes, sir, they did. The trajectory was consistent with both parties’ position in the room as well.” He would know best, having directed the clean-up himself.

“Well, then,” the Führer smiled, expecting no further arguments. Not that they would, or could, have made any; this was all far too unexpected that none of them quite knew where to place themselves and how to respond. Turning back to Roy, the older man continued, with more relish than was appropriate, “Further details are in the packet, but to summarise, you are now placed under the command of Lieutenant General Edison. You will take your men with you and command six battalions; Lieutenant Colonel Hughes may continue to be your liaison if you wish. Given your exemplary performance with alchemy-related cases, we’ve decided to put you in charge of the Priority 1 batch.”

Douglass blinked, despair dimming from his eyes. Maes took a slow inhale.

Apprehensive, Roy ventured, “Priority 1?”

“Mostly cold cases: plenty of longer-running serial murders, some still active; a handful of unsolved research thefts; also the occasional anarchist alchemist, rogue ex-State, or fake State Alchemist.” It took all of Roy’s willpower to prevent his shoulders from sagging. “You will also be placed in charge of some investigations into foreign alchemical developments, mostly from Xing and Drachma. Sensitive work, but it requires teams like yours. There are fewer State Alchemists high enough to command these cases as we would like, so you see how important it is for the system to have you in this position. Your personal alchemical expertise is much desired.”

Roy gave a nod, exchanging a quick darting glance with Maes. As they had suspected, Roy’s title played a large role in the rapid succession of his promotions. Above his skill for command, being a State Alchemist was his great advantage. Nevertheless, he would remain vigilant. At this high of an altitude, he could not afford carelessness. The bets were too steep, the payment for failure too high of a price to pay.

“I understand the work will be challenging, but I have confidence in you resilient young lads. It is very heartening to see that the new generation does hold promise for the future,” Bradley said. “Between you, your protégé, Mira Armstrong, and that young Tringham lad, I should say we are looking to see some exciting years ahead. I have always had high expectations of you, Colonel Mustang. You have great potential.”

“Your words are wasted on me, your Excellency,” Roy demurred, dipping his head. I need no telling to know my own potential.

Behind him, Maes made an aborting motion with subtle fingers, cautioning Roy to stop his talking. The Führer only chuckled. “Modesty does not become you, Roy Mustang. Proud confidence more befits a challenger like yourself.” Turning toward the door, Bradley bid, “Edison has already been notified. Let me know if there are any further concerns. Good day, gentlemen.”

Saluting, Roy stepped aside to let the Führer pass. Maes held the door open for them and remained respectfully postured until the door was once more shut. The three of them stood in silence, rather thoroughly stunned. None of them were yet able to digest the swift and sudden turn of circumstance. Promoted, Roy thought. Wasn’t it only three weeks ago that I wished for this?

Maes cleared his throat again. “Well, there goes our plans for today, I suppose. Plenty of things to do now. Reassigning ranks, moving into the new office, filling out the paperwork for the promotions… Colonel Douglass, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be removing ourselves. You’re a very busy man yourself; we shan’t take any more of your time.”

Douglass sank back into his seat, fingers unsteady. The man was unable to decide whether or not he was pleased with what had just transpired within his four walls. Nevertheless, he was unfailing in his practised disdain: “Enjoy your new post, Mustang. Priority 1 will drill into you all the humility that you lack.” Shutting the case folder containing Geralds’ murders, Douglass dismissed them. “Go.”

But Roy paused at the door.

“To answer your earlier questions,” he said, “of how to know if I was lost in my emotions, and if I truly acted in self-defence: you don’t. Sometimes, you never do. But filling that gap is what trust between superior and subordinate is for.” And then, to convey his years of spite, Roy smiled. “You might try it once; it works like a charm.”

The look of fury in Douglass’ face—the pale blotches on his cheeks, the incensed eyes, the thin lips—was a trophy of indulgence that Roy would keep without shame. Maes looked upon him with a resigned sort of reproach, but they were both guilty men, guilty and men. They rejoiced in their victories and revelled in their wits. These victories came at a high price, but in the end it was all worth it—worth the hardship, the danger, the tedium—for the taller the cliff to climb, the higher the ground he would then stand upon.

Ominous though Priority 1 was, Roy thought, challenge accepted.

 

When the sun hung low, Roy arrived home. He was glad to be back within the embrace of familiar silence. The house was darkened, with but a faint light from the kitchen. The library was empty, prompting a brief flash of anxiety, but Sebastian’s barking could be heard from outside. Removing his jacket, he observed as Edward sat under the backyard tree, book in his lap, face turned to the sky. The boy paid no attention as the dog attempted to hoist itself upon the swing.

Something about the view captivated Roy’s attention such that he remained standing by the window watching the boy for a span of time. It was only upon a slight breeze that ruffled the fiery trees and dappled the blushing light that Roy understood what he saw. Light flickered upon the boy’s face, catching to glisten at his cheeks.

Edward was crying.

He had never seen Edward cry. Not in mind-rending pain, not at his mother’s disregard, not at the loss of a home—never. Edward never cried.

Except who was he fooling? Edward was a child. A child. How often had he used the very word? Edward was strong, to be sure, but even the strongest, even the most resilient…

Roy stepped outside and crossed the backyard, sinking into the spot beside Edward and placing a hand on the boy’s head. Edward turned his face into his palms now and scrubbed with great fury. It was an attempt to cease the tears, but the more that tears were denied, the more they insisted. Roy knew this. Roy saw it, saw the stutter in Edward’s ribs, the shuddering breaths and the tense neck.

“They don’t understand,” the boy croaked, voice thick with meaning. “They don’t understand. Why can’t they see?

Roy’s jaw tightened at the thought of Edward’s mother. He put an arm around Edward’s back, hand tightening against the flesh shoulder. But was this not a letter from the younger brother? Were they not good companions?

“May I?” Roy asked, hand hovering over the folded letter resting in between the pages of Edward’s book. With permission, he unfolded the pages and, drawing the quaking child close, began to read.

Dear Brother, wrote Alphonse Elric. I hope this finds you well…

Under the dying sunlight, Roy continued to read, page after page, until there was no more. Edward fell asleep against his side, tired face turned into his shirt. In the muted evening, the words from the letter rang loud in Roy’s ears. And so did Edward’s words.

They don’t understand, Roy agreed. But I do, Edward. I’m here.

 

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
(
The Little Prince ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery )

tbc
arc II chapter 08 ver.2-07 20
first draft: 2012.07.02
last edited: 2012.07.04

 

FOOTNOTES

 

(1) This chapter was inspired by a handful of novels, essays, and philosophical texts. Notable among them are: “In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas” by Theodore Dalrymple (ch. 5-8, 14); “Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde; “Cinderella” by the Brothers Grimm; “Artist of the Floating World” by Ishiguro Kazuo; “The Prince” by Niccolo Macchiavelli; and “48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene.

 

(2) Russell Tringham’s scene was heavily inspired by an excerpt from “48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene (Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions, p.16): “Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defence. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelop the in enough smoke, and by the time they realise your intentions, it will be too late.”

 

(3) Roy’s characterisation is also inspired heavily by another excerpt from the same book (Law 21, p.178): “The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtiers and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.”

 

(4) Another note from Tringham’s scene: the making of hydrogen peroxide from hydroxide and water (H2O2 = OH- + H2O) is a simplification of a process that is more complex to perform in real life. Alchemy, however, is capable of doing this.

 

(5) On molecular manipulation vs. molecular transmutation. This might be a confusing concept for some of you, but it is really quite simple. If you are familiar with the nature of a molecule, you understand that it is a combination of multiple atoms configured in various ways. This configuration (positioning and types of bonds between atoms, which influence the behaviour of the resulting molecule) is specific to each one. For example, a water molecule (H2O) consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen connected by a covalent bond. The molecular manipulation of water would mean that the alchemist is moving the water molecules around each other—let’s say in a block of ice—to change the shape of the ice. Note that he only changes the shape of the ice, but not its nature. It’s still ice (which is still water, only in a solid state). The word ‘transmute’, however, implies a change of something’s very nature into something else. So if the alchemist tried molecular transmutation on the molecule(s) of water, he would be destroying the covalent bond to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from one another (requiring significantly more energy than simply moving them around as a whole molecule). He can then use the hydrogen and oxygen atoms to form other molecules (such as the hydrogen peroxide mentioned above) or use them individually. This sort of separation and recombination is possible in real life (the chemistry geeks will attest to this!) with the use of the right kinds of solutions and a controlled environment.

 

(6) Radium is a highly radioactive chemical element, decaying aggressively and oxidising quickly upon exposure to air. Its original colour is actually a “colourless” salt-white, but due to its radioactivity, it is luminescent. The “glow” that Tringham refers to is the proof of active cold body radiation. We posited that the Stone is considered highly valuable by the Gate due to the amount of energy it possesses from the compounds that comprise it, so we thought that radioactive materials would be a good ‘substitute’ for amplifying effects of alchemy and the Gate. The original materials used for the red Stone in canon are likely other highly radioactive materials as well, which would explain its detrimental effects to those who were exposed to it for certain lengths of time.

 

(7) Regarding the eye colours, we said that the murderer had acquired all possible colours (brown, blue, hazel, grey, green, red/albino) but did not mention black eyes. This is because ‘black’ eyes are actually nonexistent within the human spectrum of eye colours. ‘Black’ eyes are actually very dark shades of brown due to a high concentration of melanin in the stroma.

 

(8) Sodium thiopental and 2,6-diisopropylphenol are two anaesthetics that do exist in real life. Sodium thiopental (Sodium Pentothal / Trapanal) is a rapid-onset ultra-short-acting barbiturate administered intravenously. It used to be a standard for inducing medical comas / unconsciousness for procedures such as Caesarian sections (the mother falls unconscious, but the baby remains unaffected). However, since it metabolizes very quickly, large doses are necessary to maintain unconsciousness, which makes it inadvisable for prolonged use. 2,6-diisopropylphenol is otherwise known as Propofol in our world and has now replaced thiopental for general anaesthesia. It is widely used for all sorts of procedures, but has side effects that linger after administration, such as muscular twitching, lack of coordination, and vasodilation (dilation of the blood vessels) which can cause dizziness. Additionally, both drugs are used for veterinary purposes, but thiopental is more popular for certain breeds of dogs that have less body fat and recover faster from its effects. Isoflurane is a halogenated ether used for inhaled anaesthesia, and is often mixed with nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) when given to patients.

 

Chapter Text

They had been on the island that day with their master. Pain lanced through his leg as he tried to move it, exhausted though he was. Brother was still standing, but Alphonse was already down on one knee. Air slipped past his lips as he swallowed breath after breath after breath, naught but sheer force of will keeping him from crying out in pain. The spit would not come out of his throat to wet his parched mouth. Master had made a point to be merciless with their sparring that day.

His leg was broken at an alarming angle and so he barely registered her voice when she began talking. Alphonse knew, though, that every word she said was another step forward to excellence. She was their one authority, their alchemy’s lifegiver—her every last word was sustenance to their science. So when she spoke, his mind emptied of all unimportant concerns. He listened. He remembered.

“There was once a young man,” she said, “who lived with parents he thought were truly his own but were not. As a babe, he had been torn from his mother’s breast, stolen away under cover of night, given to another family to raise. It was said by an oracle that he would grow up to be his father’s bane, and the father, a mighty lord, was afraid of being dethroned. So he threw his son to the four winds of fate.”

Brother lunged forward—three jabs blocked, an elbow thrust pushed aside, an uppercut dodged, a roundhouse kick turned against him.

“The boy grew as boys do to become a loving son—a respectful one,” she continued. “When he came of age, his foster parents told him of the partial truth: that he was not theirs, not by blood. That he was born to another woman of another man. That an oracle had foretold his fate—which, when he learned of it, frightened him. So he took to the streets and disappeared from that house to dissociate his misfortune from his beloved foster parents. He was running away from fate—or so he thought.”

Alphonse pressed a finger to the circle he had scribbled in the sand, sighing at the tingle of sparks crawling across his flushed skin. His broken leg realigned itself as a makeshift cast of packed earth surged up to encase it.

“But one often meets one’s fate on the road one takes to avoid it. On the road to another city, dressed as a filthy slave, he came upon a four-ways crossroad, where a wagon came at him at full tilt. Mounted on it was an old man, richly dressed and fully intent on thrusting him off of the road, or else crushing him with the wagon. In anger, the wanderer—once a boy, now a grown man—struck the driver even as the old lord tried to strike him. He knocked the old lord out of the high seat and killed both men.”

Brother was still trying, limbs silhouetted against the setting sun. The lake glimmered all around them, the leaves rustling in a very gentle wind. Alphonse rested his weight against his arms and imagined how the wanderer had unknowingly brutalised his own father.

“The two of you are privileged boys,” she declared. “What do you know of death? But this is how life proceeds. You will see this when you begin to walk your own paths in the world, out there where I can no longer protect you. This image of a wagon with an old man bearing down on you young ones, trying to remove you from the road—it will happen. Life asks such questions. Who will stay on the road? Who will go? Who will move forward? Who will give way?”

“The old always has to give way to the new!” Brother yelled, somehow managing to wrench his arm out from a lock. Alphonse watched as the sun caught in golden hair and flying limbs. Brother did not know how to give up. Brother had to be made to give up.

“Always?” she scoffed. “And yet here I stand, after an entire day of us sparring, still untouched. Have I taught you nothing?”

“Well, this match is unfair, you’re stronger than us!”

“Does the world seem fair to you, Edward Elric? I would have thought you of all people would understand. Is it fair that you had to grow up without a father, your mother without a husband? Is it fair that your friend Winry was robbed of her parents by a war that is not hers or theirs? Is it fair that I can no longer have a child?”

Alphonse blinked, sucking in a short bit of air. He hadn’t known.

But Brother was still trying.

“Recall my story. Is it fair that a lord who has lived in luxury fight against a penniless wanderer? The opponents are mismatched: the old rich, the young poor. The lord’s body is frail; the wanderer, though starved, is still strong. Where is fair? Tell me, Edward.”

“But,” Brother panted, spinning away from her to regain his breath, “equivalent exchange.”

“An illusion,” she said, “a phantom image that alchemy creates. Have you ever considered that though every circle operates within equivalence, we are never told how the values are decided? Oh, you both are very intelligent young boys; if I asked you what a compound consists of, you can rattle it off without your books. Water is worth oxygen and hydrogen. Salt is worth sodium and chloride. But tell me, Edward, Alphonse. What is time worth?”

“Time?” Alphonse said. “Time’s not a compound. Time is... time is…”

“No, time is not a compound. But there exists alchemy that can manipulate time. Those who are fool enough to try it forget that one cannot easily quantify time. If you cannot quantify what it is worth, how can you know what you must give in exchange?”

She spun Edward in her grip and then shoved him backwards to sprawl upon the sandy shore. Her face was cast in shadow as the sun dipped below the mountains behind her. But her eyes shone with a vast depth of wisdom, something that was visible even in the falling darkness.

“When you go out there, Edward, Alphonse, there will be those who will seek to harm you. There will be many. Some will be your contemporaries, but in the beginning, they will be the old. The established. You two are bright—for them, you may be too bright. They might seek to destroy you before you can realise your potential. The young does not always prevail; permanence is an illusion. Think about how many other wanderers the old lord has already pushed off the road or crushed under his wagon before he came upon the one that undid him.”

In the distance, Sig was rowing toward them. This was to be one of their last days out here on the island, for winter was coming. Days shortened minute by invisible minute as the year came closer to its end.

“The young, if it wants to remain, must burst through and conquer. The young must make the old yield and abandon the road. There will be blood. And most often you will find that motivation is irrelevant: whether it was merely self-defence or a true thirst for power and murder on the son’s part; whether the lord was on an urgent and proper business or simply desired the road for himself alone; what does it matter? In the end, there is fighting, yielding, dying, killing. This is the nature of life, growing up and growing old, coming into your strength to eventually move out of it for the others to take over.”

Her hands were warm when she placed them against Alphonse’s knee. They both watched as she put her palms together to summon her alchemy. The pain disappeared, the bleeding abated, the bruises dispersed. He would keep the cast for near a month to allow the bones to reset, but he would be able to bear some weight upon it. She had done this for Brother too, when Brother had broken his right arm.

“Most people make it easier; they create for themselves a cocoon wherein they will not be rocked by these truths. But as an alchemist, you seek to fix your eyes upon the truth. You relinquish the rights to safety, to ignorance, to simple happiness. As an alchemist, it is your responsibility to always aspire to equivalence, no matter how hard the struggle is to ascertain the worth of things. When you perform your alchemy, you obey its laws, so be sure to first search for the value of that which you seek. Alchemy already knows. It will take what it is owed—fair or not.”

That night in their beds, they sank and drank the darkness. Alphonse was tired, his eyelids more than happy to surrender to its own weight. But from the other side of the room, Brother began to talk.

Search for the value of that which you seek,” Brother mouthed into the space between them. “Alchemy already knows. She makes it sound like alchemy can think, or something. I don’t get it. I don’t like not getting it. And of course I’ll not turn away from the truth! I want the truth. I want to know. That’s why we’re here, aren’t we, Al? We both want to know.”

Alphonse smiled into his pillow. Brother was still trying. He should have known from then that Brother would keep trying.

~


“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”
( Marcel Proust )

~

Above them had stretched a beautiful sunset as they walked home from the town clinic. The clouds were pulled pieces of cotton with edges dipped in the warmest of colours. The sun inked the sky with itself in a vain attempt to leave behind a memory of its heat. Now that the storm was past, Resembool shone, washed clean and watered plenty. It was only when he found the hastily scribbled note on Brother’s desk did he remember that the skies had been this beautiful too when Mother had died, and when Father had left.

I’m leaving, Al, the note read. I can’t stay. Mother is forbidding me from doing alchemy. I can’t not do alchemy. I have to leave. I’m sorry.

He had howled for Mother then and brandished the note at her. Alphonse rarely if ever lost his temper, but this was a rare day. His weakness of body, his lingering shortness of breath, vanished in a furious fit of panic. What did she mean by forbidding alchemy? What did she think she was doing? What about training with their master? What about Father?

He ran to the Rockbells that night and sat crouched on the porch until the sun began to climb, spilling brilliant yellow rays over Resembool’s rolling hills of green. Nature was mocking him.

None of them dared speak with him that day, or the day after—not even Winry. He was furious, and lost. Was Brother also this furious, and lost? They had always had each other for as long as they could remember; everything they set out to do, they did together. Now they were separate, now each on their own.

It felt alien without his constant companion. It was difficult to reorient. Even the simplest of decisions—what to read today? What to practice?—he found hard to make. He would turn and attempt to address a figure that was not there. After drawing a circle, he would seek his brother’s advice; after realising a new tangent of a hypothesis, he would tell his brother about it. Except Brother was gone. He had checked the train station that evening, but the last train heading for East City had already left. Brother was gone.

It was a whole week before his mother approached him again. Alphonse wanted to cry at the irony of their situation. Had they not sacrificed their flesh and blood and souls and innocence to bring her back? Yet now that she was once more living and among them, it was as if she did not exist. The true cost of what they had done was not their sacrifice, Alphonse now realised. The true cost of it was their relationship. It, too, was gone. What if—

“I had asked him to explain,” Trisha said, settling in the grass beside him. Above, the tree reached over them toward the blue sky. “I had asked him to tell me what he had done.”

“What we did, we did together,” but no more, Alphonse thought. He crossed his legs and closed his book.

“You have always been his anchor. I can’t bring myself to think that you had gone along with his plans from the outset.”

“But I did,” he smiled, but more to himself, and out of spite. “I helped him with everything. I shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t have. But what’s done is done. We argued at the last moment—tried to back out—but we did it anyway.”

“Did what, Alphonse?” He could hear her eagerness, see it in the cant of her shoulders, the tilt of her head. Mother was beautiful—so very beautiful that Alphonse began to wonder if she had ever been this way before. He began to wonder if, beyond simple life, they had given her something more.

A sudden pain speared between his eyes, making him grimace and duck his head. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he took a deep breath and centred himself. The pain went away. It always did, after a short moment.

“Human transmutation,” Alphonse murmured, “and you can’t tell anyone that we did, because they’ll take all of us away and lock us in labs to study and experiment on. Stick to our story. No one can know.”

Trisha recoiled, her slim fingers curling into the fabric of her skirt. She only barely understood alchemy, but she knew of what was forbidden. Her eyes went wide, her lips thinning until they were no more than a line.

“You were dead, Mum,” Alphonse told her, “cold and dead. We wanted you back. That was all.”

“I—I have no memory of this,” she said.

Alphonse only shook his head. “We barely understand what we did. We don’t even know how we succeeded. We were supposed to fail. I was supposed to die, but Brother somehow brought me back. I don’t know how it’s possible, he doesn’t know how it’s possible—but here we are. We want to study how we got it right—what part of it is different—we were planning to visit the City libraries when we went back to Master to train. We just—we wanted to know.”

Trisha was wordless and sat there as a statue. From inside, he could hear Winry hammering on metal for their new customer from two towns over.

“We were arrogant, you see. We really thought we could do it and walk away without injury. We wanted you back so badly and didn’t want to acknowledge the truth. So we tried to use alchemy to undo it. But it doesn’t work that way, and what’s worse, we’ve been taught that it doesn’t. We tried anyway—and alchemy forced us to face the truth that we had turned from. It brought you back, but we had to pay for it. All because we had turned our eyes away.”

Alphonse did not know why he continued to explain despite knowing that his mother would not understand. But anything to fill the silence. Anything to stave off her rejection. He was beginning to understand how Brother must have felt. He was beginning to feel the burden of their price.

It was ages until she spoke again. The hammering from inside the shop had stopped. “I’m scared,” Trisha whispered, reaching over to clutch Alphonse’s hand. “I don’t understand anything that’s happened, and I’m scared. I wake up and my eldest has lost two limbs, my youngest unconscious at death’s door. I’m not an alchemist, Alphonse, I don’t have your knowledge. It’s never bothered me before, even with Hohenheim, but now—now I realise how frightening it is to be in the dark.”

Alphonse wanted to tell her that it was equally frightening to be in the light.

“He warned me, you know,” she said. “Your father—he warned me before we married. He told me that if I really wanted what I was asking for, I should be prepared of a life in darkness, because there were things that he knew and he lived with that he could never tell me.”

“I think he only wanted to protect you, Mum. Brother, too.” He took her hand and squeezed it back. “But they’re not that good with words, and sometimes there are no words. Please try to understand.”

They sat there under the tree for a while, holding hands in silence. To Alphonse, it was to reaffirm in flesh the presence of his mother. To Trisha, it was to steady her fear. But too soon Trisha was withdrawing, her hand leaving a cold space in between Alphonse’s fingers. What if the true cost was greater? Alphonse did not try to hold on.

~

The happiest life is a life without thought.
( from inscriptions on Michel de Montaigne’s ceiling )

~

Brother would have gone to Central, not Dublith. Brave though Brother was, he did not have the fortitude required to face their Master after what they had done—and neither did he. Alphonse worried for his alchemical training now. It would be difficult to proceed alone. He had only vague ideas where to start. They were at the phase of their alchemical learning when they needed a solid mentor to guide them through the transition from the basic practical alchemy into the foggy fields of experimentation. Suffice it to say that after their debacle with human transmutation, Alphonse was not very eager to experiment alone.

It was not a written rule that a master had to expel the student if the student committed an act of forbidden alchemy. Truthfully, no written rules for apprenticeship existed in Amestris. Apprenticeship was widely practiced beyond the alchemical trade, and every single instance of it was a private contract between master and student. Theirs was a lax one by comparison to common standard; their master had no other students and intended to have no more. The only stipulation they had to follow was to give every activity, every endeavour, their entire and unfailing focus whenever they were at work. Otherwise, their master encouraged freedom of mind and action.

Forbidden alchemy was declared forbidden by the books, not society. Scholars of the past warned future practitioners to beware certain things, not for propriety, but for their safety’s sake. Alphonse and Edward both wondered before why there was even any area of alchemy forbidden if they were to be true followers of science in search of the truth. Nothing should be forbidden, they had said. Everything should be put under question.

How young and foolish they had been.

Alphonse felt as though he had aged a decade. It could be his imagination, but there were times when he felt a leaden quality in his limbs, a tightness in his chest. There were times when it was hard to form a thought, times when sensations felt dim, and yet other times when he froze in motion or could not go into motion at all.

Earlier today he had studied the multi-chord circle seemingly tattooed into the skin of his chest—sketched it, even, into one of his notebooks. The skin was smooth if he touched it. The circle was of a deep burned red, the colour of blood. It was drawn in his brother’s blood, painted with fingers, steady despite the pain, despite the panic, despite the darkness. Alphonse once more felt a renewed surge of admiration for his brother.

Mother used to often say that Brother was their father’s son. Brother had hated it whenever she did, but she did anyway. Unlike Brother, who remembered enough to resent Hohenheim, Alphonse had very little memory of the man. He remembered a shadow, the glint of firelight against glasses, silken golden hair, and a deep voice—but not much else. He did not even have words. Which was why he liked to look at his Brother sometimes to try to see what their father was like. If Brother was very similar to Father, then Alphonse could use him as a window. It was his little secret.

As they grew together, Alphonse was quick to realise how different they were from each other. It began to make sense what people said when they likened him to his mother. He had her calm temperament, her gentle smile. While little Edward was spitfire and all of Hohenheim’s famed spontaneity, little Alphonse was the grounding anchor and steady bank.

He never resented their differences; he revelled in them. They complemented each other. Whereas Edward learned his alchemy by immersion and practice, Alphonse learned by a systematic and thorough replication of structure. While Edward came upon discoveries and ideas through leaps of intuition, Alphonse approached the world with eyes open to patterns and causation. Together they covered each other’s weakness: Edward made up for Alphonse’s relative lack of (mad) ideas to try out, and Alphonse made up for Edward’s (irresponsible) disregard for procedure and detail.

But now that they were apart, Alphonse was beginning to understand that being together had allowed their weaknesses to persist despite gruelling training that was supposed to have corrected them. Alphonse was having difficulty kindling the spark of a new idea in his study, a job that had always been his brother’s. He wondered if Edward was having difficulty structuring his thinking, and hoped that it did not get his brother into any trouble.

It was something that they would both learn to compensate for in time, something that they would learn to balance out through experience. Alphonse, however, could not help but resent the necessity of learning it in the first place.

He picked up his pen and returned his focus to his notebook, reading through the notes he had written down. Equations jumped out at him with startling clarity, but his sketches needed work. Brother had a knack for the images; they always divided the work of making notes between them by letting the other do what they were better at.

Alphonse sighed. This is going nowhere.

“Can’t think of what to write?” Winry asked, coming up behind him from inside the house. At her heels trotted Den, stick in mouth.

“It’s usually Brother’s job to come up with the ideas,” Alphonse smiled. “I’m usually stuck with trying to make them work.”

“Be glad,” Winry nodded. “It means you’re the sane one.”

Alphonse cracked a light laugh, his first since his brother left. In two days, it would be three weeks since.

“What was he like?” he asked after some silence. “The Lieutenant Colonel who found us.”

Winry shrugged, settling beside him on the porch steps after throwing the stick out for Den to fetch. “Well, he said he was your father’s friend.”

“I know,” he sighed, “but what was he like?”

“He was nice, I suppose. Very polite,” she mumbled, fiddling with the hem of her dress. Still walking under the shadow of her parents’ sudden demise, Winry was acutely discomfited by the military. “I didn’t talk to him very much. He only really talked to Ed and Granny. Sorry.”

Alphonse nodded, throwing the stick back out for Den. The dog barked and bounded away toward the tree. “Brother said he refused the State Alchemy offer. I got kind of mad when he told me. Once in a lifetime chance, you know.”

“Are you really alright with him being in the military?” Winry asked, somehow managing to be hesitant and firmly indignant at the same time. This was a tender topic for her. The last time they had talked to her about anything remotely related to the military was the day she had received news about her parents’ death. She had refused to talk to them for a whole week.

“I think he’ll do fine,” Alphonse murmured. “To be honest, if Brother doesn’t want to do something, nobody can make him do it. So I think he’ll do fine. If the military asks him to do something awful, he’ll tell them to stick it up where the sun doesn’t shine and run away if he has to.”

“You don’t run from the military!” she scowled. “You get killed!”

“You forget that we’re alchemists,” Alphonse reasoned.

“Alchemists, not immortals!” she insisted. “And they have alchemists too! Lots more of them, and with lots more experience! He’ll only get himself hurt!”

Alphonse had to laugh again. “When did that ever stop Brother?”

So Winry was stymied. For a few heartbeats they sat side by side, the thin tension hanging between them like an invisible drape. Then she sighed. “I suppose he’ll never be satisfied with just being here, studying alchemy on his own. Neither will you. Granny told me that the first time you left to train at Dublith, you know. I still don’t get it very well.”

“You will, one day,” Alphonse told her, “when you find that you’ve exhausted what you can learn here from Granny and you want to see the rest of the world. You know that there’s an entire city of automail mechanics in Rush Valley, don’t you? Doesn’t that excite you? It excites me, thinking of the City libraries, the alchemical symposiums and colleges and schools. There are so many things out there. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

She hummed under her breath, scratching Den under the chin as the dog sprawled over their feet. “So why don’t you follow after him, then? See the rest of the world together, instead of being miserable apart like this?”

Alphonse had to blink in surprise. He turned to look at her, but she only gave him a knowing little smile.

“Or maybe,” she continued, turning Den over to rub his belly, “maybe you like being apart. It’s something different, right? You’re sad that you’re away from each other, but at the same time, you have to learn all sorts of new things that you never had to do before, and it’s kind of fun, in the challenging way.”

The very idea was so foreign to him that Alphonse had to sit there for the rest of the afternoon, notebook untouched in his lap as he stared into the horizon. Did he like being apart from his Brother? Was he enjoying the challenge of having to work on his own? And—and if he was, did that count as a betrayal of their brotherhood?

“It’s okay, you know,” Winry told him later that night after dinner. “I felt the same way when Granny started to leave me to construct my designs alone. She said it was part of growing up as a mechanic. I had to learn how to fully function on my own, because one day she won’t be there and I’ll need to know my stuff.”

Alphonse went to sleep with those words. Maybe our ‘one day’ just came a little too soon.

~

It would be a full month before Brother’s first letter came. During that whole month, Alphonse devoted himself to the chase for his own elusive style, for what else was there to do? He was at a loss otherwise.

Their last term with their master had been fraught with her displeasure at what she had dubbed Edward’s first fit of early adolescent rebellion. Brother had begun melding modern alchemical techniques with bits and pieces of old Amestrian and Xerxian alchemy they had weaselled out of Father’s books and notes. Though Alphonse had warned him over and again, Edward had insisted on using it every day, running the risk of incurring their master’s wrath. It had resulted in a very rocky term, but Alphonse had been happy for his brother. Edward always reached the alchemical milestones first, which gave Alphonse a point of reference.

In any case, a little experimentation upon the multi-chord circle on his chest made the pursuit of his new direction much easier. He postulated that the odd sensations that kept plaguing him—the spontaneous headaches, the sudden dimming of his senses, the difficulty with movement and thought—were due to a slight misalignment of the ‘soul’ with the body. Brother had been in a hurry when he had made the circle; it came as no surprise at all.

But for all his certainty, it took him an entire day of sitting in the basement in the middle of a circle he had drawn, guessing and double-guessing as his fingers hovered over the activation. When he finally did it, it took less than a minute: a very slight adjustment, albeit highly disorienting. His perception bent, for the lack of a better word, as the circle crackled into life. Sound distorted and dipped, vision blurred and blackened, tingles ran up and down his skin, the ground fell away from his feet, and for one frightening moment an intense pressure came bearing down upon his chest, crushing until he felt like his sternum was beginning to crack—and then it was gone.

Afterwards, he examined the circle on his chest and found its lines thinner, sharper, as if they were drawn by a pen instead of smeared on by a finger. The minute gaps that had been there at the end of each smear were now replaced by straight, steady lines that properly sealed the ‘soul’ into place. Alchemy demanded precision as a science: a hairline gap in the outlines of a circle could mean the difference between failure and success.

His triumph there, albeit small and private, gave him confidence to move forward with his own thoughts. It also gave him a returned clarity: he felt whole again in a way he had not felt since before the transmutation. The sensation was hard to describe: like a key fitting into the right lock, like the last line closing the outline of a circle. His vigour was renewed, his mind reimbursed its keen edge. He felt ready.

Alphonse decided to start at their most recent escapade, where he already had a few ideas to play with. Some of them were particularly sharp, and ones that he knew his brother would likely not have considered. Brother was self-centred, which doubled as strength and flaw. It gave him a boundless supply of confidence to chase his own paths, but all the while threatened to box him in his own point of view. Alphonse was the complement: he found it easy to slip into other perspectives.

Having it all written down made things so much sharper in Alphonse’s mind. Their attempt, he now realised, was actually easier than most other attempts at human transmutation. For example, they had the original body with them, which disposed of the need to construct a new one. This was the first roadblock that most alchemists tried to overcome, and failed. The full composition of a human body—or any complex living creature—was too involved for the current level of alchemical science available in their country. (With regards to alchemy, if Amestris did not have it, no one else had it. Alphonse could safely assume that the rest of the world was just as clueless as they were.)

If the Gate that Brother had seen truly decided the equivalence, then what they had paid in return for what they received must have been the just price. Brother had hardship accepting the fact that his one limb was equivalent to one soul, but Alphonse thought that Brother had hardship differentiating between equal and equivalent. The latter implied a value judgment, a job seemingly fulfilled by this Gate. Alphonse remembered his master’s words with crystal clarity: it was very difficult to ascertain the worth of things. Now he knew that it was because they did not understand the functions of the Gate; few even knew—or would believe—that it existed.

But it makes so much sense, he thought to himself, flipping to the next page as he ran out of space on the previous one. The Gate filled the missing piece of the puzzle: a piece that most people did not even realise was missing.

Alphonse also had a hypothesis on how a limb would be of equal value to a soul, and this idea he owed once more to their master. She had spoken of things that were hard to quantify, such as time. Another thing that would be hard to quantify would be the future—that is to say, potential. Trisha was not an alchemist and would likely live her life as a normal citizen of Amestris, aging and eventually passing in this peaceful town. But Edward and Alphonse were both young alchemists, their father being a prominent one. If—if they were destined for greater things—if their potential to impact the world was greater than Trisha’s—would the Gate then not value their soul, their life, worth more?

This was all guesswork, of course. He did not truly know. He would have to refer to older records of other attempts at human transmutation, research the circumstances and study the techniques used. He would have to gather his data in order to even call it a hypothesis. The problem, of course, was with proof; he was not going to try it out again. Once was enough.

A dull pressure began to throb behind his eyes, so he closed them, relinquished his pen, and took a deep breath. After a few heartbeats, the pain went away.

“Still having those headaches?” Granny asked from her rocking chair. He was sat on the Rockbell’s porch again, scribbling the afternoon away.

“Yeah,” Alphonse said, “but they’re easing over time. At least they don’t cripple me anymore.” Those terrible ones had ceased that since his successful experiment with the multi-chord circle.

“Well, good,” Granny nodded, puffing on her pipe. “Just try to stay away from too much excitement for now and let your body recover. I know you young ones are always impatient for the next new adventure, but it’s also important to know when to rest.”

Alphonse turned toward Granny, observing her little hunched frame ensconced in her chair. They were worlds apart, Granny and his master, but they had the same deep wisdom in their eyes. Alphonse had to wonder how much pain and grief they had both gone through to acquire those eyes.

“Granny,” he began, “I need your advice.”

“Mmm, good, you’re seeking advice this time,” Granny chuckled, smoke trailing from her lips. Alphonse had to duck his head.

“Well,” he bit his lip, “it’s about Mum.”

“Ah.”

“I want to tell her that I’ll be returning to train with master, but I don’t know how—I mean, how she’ll take it.”

“She’ll be sad, but she’ll take it as she has to,” Granny told him. “Just like when Hohenheim left, and just like when the two of you went to Dublith the first time. She knew this was coming; you are both his sons, after all. His blood runs strong.”

Alphonse gripped the wooden step underneath his hand. “Should I leave her? Do you think I should?”

She puffed on her pipe again. “It matters little what I think, Alphonse. You will anyway. Your alchemy calls you.”

“But,” he murmured, “we’d done all of this just to bring her back. It seems wrong, somehow, to just—go.”

“You would have never been able to go and meet the world if you hadn’t done this,” Granny reasoned. “You see? Reviving her was necessary for both of you. Reviving her allowed you your freedom. If you had allowed her to pass away peacefully, both of you would have had a hard time severing your ties to this town. Ironic, yes, but life often is.”

He fiddled with his pen and looked at his notes, mind cantering alongside Granny’s words. So many decisions! He envied Brother’s self-centred certainty, that ability to leap headfirst into the unknown. He had to build that sort of courage too, but he was the ponderous one by nature, cautious where Brother was not.

“The blood is strong, Alphonse,” Granny said over the creaking of her chair. “It is what calls you to your alchemy, just as it gives you the inner strength to answer. You have followed it this far together; now you need to follow it on your own. You can do it. You are his son too.”

A few days later, the letter from Central came.

~

“He takes nearly two months to send us word, and he has the gall to write us about his adventures?!” Winry shrieked, startling Den from a light doze. Alphonse had to wince at the sheer volume of her voice. “How hard can it be to send at least a telegram telling us he’s still alive? And how much of an inconsiderate meathead can he get, boasting about his new friends and new stuff like shit hasn’t happened because of him? What the hell!”

“Winry,” Granny said. “Language.”

“Sorry, Granny, but this is just too much! I want to hit him and I can’t because he’s not here! Why is he not here, damnit!”

She was wielding her wrench, a lethal weapon revealed to her but a year ago. Alphonse recalled being on the wrong end of it once and winced again. Brother received its fury more than he ever had, but that was Brother. Alphonse’s head was not quite as hard, so he had right to worry.

“And—and what was that bullshit he said at the end? Tell Mum I’m sorry. Tell Mum I’m sorry! He can’t even be bothered to write a letter to Auntie himself?!”

Winry,” Granny said. “Language.

Granny!” she shrieked again. “Scold Ed, not me!

“Edward isn’t here to be scolded, but you are, young lady,” Granny frowned. “Now sit down and let Trisha read the letter in peace.”

“He probably didn’t even want Auntie to read it,” Winry grumbled, stomping to where Den was resting and taking the dog into her lap. “Stupid Ed. Why does he have to be such a meathead? And he calls himself smart!”

“A universal trait of men, my child,” remarked Granny from where she was polishing a newly finished thigh plate. “Be thankful he even sent a letter.”

Paper rustled as Trisha moved from one page to the next, sat on a chair by the window as she read by sunlight. Alphonse had gone over that letter so many times by now that he had the words by heart. He understood why Winry was incensed. That letter was meant for him; Brother was more callous and forthcoming when it was just the two of them. She would feel offended by the lack of pleasantries and politesse.

But it was his brother, and he understood in a way that they would never be able. Winry saw a boasting boy rambling through those pages, but Alphonse saw a new adventure unfolding before his brother’s eyes. Alphonse saw the challenge shining through the pages, beckoning to him, calling him. The first time he had read the letter, his heart had raced as if he were sparring with his brother on the island again, eager to see what’s next, eager to know more. Brother was already seeing the world; Alphonse—Alphonse wanted to follow.

When Trisha finished the last page and handed him back the letter, he took her hand. “Mum, I’m going to go see Brother in Central.”

Her eyes widened, hand tightening around his fingers.

“I just need to talk something over with him, but I’ll come back,” Alphonse explained. He had a feeling that Edward’s new world might not be for him. “I think I’ll stop by at our master’s place to talk to her first, maybe take her with me to Central to see Brother. We have some things we need to clarify with her too.”

She was wordless, and Alphonse wondered if perhaps he had asked too soon, pushed things too fast. But he could not hold himself. He wanted to see his brother—they needed to talk.

“Also,” Alphonse continued, “also, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to continue training my alchemy with our master. It’s—we’re at a point right now when it’s very difficult to move forward without a proper mentor. I need her guidance. I think Brother has found himself a new mentor in the Lieutenant Colonel, but I’ll continue with her. I can learn a lot from her; her alchemy matches mine more than Brother’s. If it’s okay with you.”

It took Trisha a while, but when she gave her consent, an invisible burden lifted from Alphonse’s heart. He sagged in relief.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting me go.”

She put a hand to his cheek and smiled a watery smile. “You are your father’s son.” It was the first time she had ever said that to him instead of his brother. Alphonse had to smile.

~

He left after a few days to allow each of them to pen their respective replies to Brother’s lengthy monologue. When it was time to fit the papers into the envelope, he fought the temptation to take a peek at his mother’s letter. Unlike with Winry (who would scold Brother) and Granny (who would give advice), Alphonse could not fathom what Trisha had to say about Brother’s new adventures. She had sat up at the kitchen table all night, burning out the oil in the lamp twice before she finished. Her pace had been slow, her script full of pauses, but her face was set in a grim sort of determination Alphonse was used to seeing in the mirror. It kindled within him a near-destructive fire of curiosity—but in the end, he left it alone.

Trust was what was expected from him, and so trust he gave. Alphonse meant well. The postman took his money and stamped a seal on the envelope, which went into an outbox designated for letters and parcels to Central. In two days, the letter would be in Brother’s hands; in two days, the letter would break Brother’s heart. But Alphonse knew nothing of this, and all actions must be judged by their motive.

Bidding the postman a good day, he stepped back outside. Winry, Granny Pinako, and Trisha stood by the steps in wait. They walked as a group to the station, Winry unloading her cargo’s worth of reminders to eat well, call when he arrived, hit Brother on the head for her, “and for alchemy’s sake, please try not to kill yourselves again so soon after your last try!”

“I don’t think we’ll run into another one of those situations again,” Alphonse laughed, reaching over to give her a hug. Behind her, he saw Trisha stiffen and frown.

“Pass the sentiments on anyhow, Alphonse,” Granny said, her old hand reaching up to pat his cheek. “You’re the level-headed one. Talk some sense into your brother. Let him know that there wasn’t a need to run away, and that he has a place here should he like to come back, even for a short while. Life in Central is fast and full; there’ll come a day when he’ll need a break.”

Alphonse only nodded, wondering to himself why they never sought more of Granny’s words. She was old and had some outdated ideas, but she had seen so much of life, having travelled all of Amestris and beyond when she was younger. Surely she would have seen the folly of their youth before it ever could harm them like it had. Surely, he thought.

Trisha came forward and gave him a soft kiss on his forehead. Alphonse closed his eyes and for a moment pretended that nothing had changed.

She drew back. “This was your father’s. He told me to hand it to you when you came to understand what alchemy meant. I am no alchemist, but you are. I trust you will know when the time is right to open it,” and then, holding her arms around herself, she gave him a sad, slow smile. “Go and be careful, Alphonse. Send your teacher my regards, and—stay for as long as you need.”

Alphonse was young, but he was not blind. Trisha made neither mention of her other son nor any further farewell. With only those words, she took a step back and allowed him space. He swallowed the tight knot of emotion in his throat and took his bags in hand, striding away from them with a false confidence that he summoned from somewhere deep within. He hadn’t realised that he was capable of this sort of deception, but new things were beginning to emerge in him, a harbinger of heavy changes to come.

And who was he to say that these changes were not to be good changes? Pain was often a sign of truth, their master had said. True and lasting changes were often painful, their master had said. They had already once forgotten their master’s words; it would not do to repeat the same mistake again. Most men would rather deny a painful truth than face it, their master had said, but you are an alchemist.

Watching Resembool retreat into the far, clear distance, Alphonse pressed his forehead against the window and murmured to himself: “I am an alchemist. I am an alchemist. I am an alchemist.”

~


Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
( Søren Kierkegaard )

~

His carriage remained empty until Fergana, where he stepped off to transfer to a bus headed west for Rheos Falls. The train he had left would continue cutting north across the arid badlands of the East, passing East City and New Optain to eventually rest at the small northern city of Risslett. Alphonse had no business that far north, where the cold had a life of its own and crept into a man’s lungs to turn his breath into frost.

Granny had plenty such stories of her travels in the past and Alphonse now tried to recall each of them in the finest detail he could manage to offset the anxiety that was beginning to gnaw at his chest. He had resolved to do things this way—what he believed the right way—and yet even the strongest of his resolutions could not bear to stand against the prospect of facing their master after what they had done. The shadow of her impending wrath had Alphonse, a calm and reasonable boy, fretting like a maiden at the wedding night.

Stories, he told himself, Granny’s stories. Plenty of stories of her own adventures, of other adventurers’ adventures, of the legends left behind by famed names in their country’s history—she had them all. She had visited many places in her youth for no real purpose but to see what the world had to offer while she could. She was no stranger to time, having been taken care of by her elderly parents until their death. She knew that one day her eyes would begin to smudge her sight, her knees would begin to buckle and her back begin to hunch. She wasted no time and feared no danger. Even the prospect of days on foot and nights on the dirt road gave her no pause. She was young, and ready. She had people to meet, things to learn, and places to see.

The Crossroads fast became her friend. Brother had once asked her why they were called the Crossroads, and her answer was simple: because they formed a cross. They were the four roads and railways that extended outward from Central City, like arms reaching for the very edge of its territory. All four of them met the four great peripheral cities of their country at one point and went past those until the railways ended a couple of dozen kilometres short of the border. From there, only the roads remained, which was a good security measure to prevent hostile foreign forces from using the trains to gain quick and easy access to the heartland. Central City, said Granny Pinako, had never once been invaded by enemies. Amestris was simply too prepared.

But it isn’t a cross! Brother had complained. Edward was no more than four years old, Alphonse three, but the both of them were already speaking in straight sentences coupled together, Edward fast mastering the art of speaking in whole paragraphs. The books began to hold their attention then, Alphonse recalled. Little Edward, in his mind’s eye, sat surrounded by a handful of open books with a map of Amestris spread on their living room floor. Granny Pinako was knitting matching winter scarves for them on the couch while Trisha taught Winry how to prepare a dish in the kitchen. Alphonse himself was sat across from his brother, eyes roving the map in search of the cross. It isn’t a cross, insisted little Edward, because look! The road that goes to East City points down and to the right from Central! You said the four roads go to the other cities, but this one doesn’t and this one does! It should be the other way ‘round.

The road and railway that shot straight as an arrow to the east of Central did not, in fact, meet East City, but instead crossed the dots of five small towns until it came to its end at the prosperous mining town of Youswell. There were no big cities along this route, with the only other prosperous town being New Optain, a wealthy military town bringing in luxury merchandise from Xing, cattle and crops from the Northeastern prairies, and refined ore from Youswell. Since the outbreak of the Ishbal War, it flourished as the safer route for trade, effectively crippling East City’s already suffering economy. The more anarchy reigned in that southwestern corner of their country, the more lucrative New Optain became.

Well, it is true that the eastern leg of the Crossroads leads downward instead of eastward, Granny Pinako explained, but little Edward was quick to cut her off.

It’s not a cross if one of its arms is broken! It’s hanging down, see? Alphonse smiled at the memory of Brother, so little and so bright, tracing lines with tiny fingers.

Says who? Granny Pinako had chuckled. A cross is still a cross even if a storm breaks off an arm.

No, little Edward replied with gravity, because a cross comes from two perpencular lines crossing each other, which is why it’s a cross.

Perpendicular, Granny Pinako corrected with a laugh.

And lines can only be lines if they’re straight lines, and the line from—from West City to East City is not a straight line because it bends here, little Edward insisted, finger resting on Central City. You see? It’s s’posed to make a right angle with the line from North City to South City, but it makes an obsuse angle. It’s not a cross!

Obtuse, Granny Pinako corrected again, and you’ve been reading Hohenheim’s books some more, I take it?

They’re hard, little Alphonse confessed then, voice small and soft. Little Edward had given him a grin.

But they’re fun, Brother had said, grabbing the nearest book and rifling to a particular page. See? We were learning this one and this one this morning…

Sketches of arrays and glyphs and structures flew before Alphonse’s eyes, years upon years of dedicated study in an art that once was the pillar that held their family together but now became the torrent that tore it apart. He took to his notebook and propped his feet against the opposite empty seats, scribbling under sunlight until his next stop.

It was past noon when he disembarked at the twin riverside cities of Rheos Falls and took a bus to take him the rest of the way to Dublith. He was taking the closer route by opting to take a secondary road instead of keeping to the railways, which would take him north only to go south again. It was a little less safe going the back route, but they had always preferred it, disliking the bustle of stations and the waste of time. They were always eager to meet their master again after a short break at Resembool, but this time, Alphonse was not.

An old lady took the seat next to him two towns over, and by mid-afternoon when the bus arrived at its destination, it unloaded a full crowd of travellers into town. Fortress Castell was Alphonse’s last stop before Dublith, where he would once more take the train, this time heading south. It took him true conviction to step onto the train—for once he stepped foot in Dublith, master would know, and master would find him. There would be no hiding from her. There would be no lying, either.

He leaned against the divider behind him and closed his eyes. It was a small matter of twenty minutes from Castell to Dublith by train. There was no point in finding a seat. Alphonse closed his eyes and focussed on his breaths.

When he opened his eyes, Dublith sped into view. Mere minutes and the train began pulling into the station, which was emptier than it would be during daytime. Night had fallen early, a signal of the coming winter. He briskly stepped onto the platform and secured the scarf around his neck.

Out of the station he went, navigating the streets of the midsized town with familiarity that used to be reserved for countryside Resembool. Small hordes of children, most of them only a little younger than Alphonse, trailed the streets, voices bright with laughter. Two boys his age were duelling with sticks, encouraged by loud yells and catcalls from their friends. A handful of soldiers were scattered about, prowling for a drink at the end of the day, some eyeing young women as they walked past. Civilians were on their way home, exhausted faces set with the knowledge that it was only the middle of the week.

As he turned into Market Street, the gaggle of voices washed upon him like a warm afternoon rain. Stores left and right boasted produce, vendors enticing the handful of customers with bellows of, “Apples, cheap apples!” and “Watermelons, sweet as honey, the last of the summer!” and “Onions, turnips, roots over here!” Near the end of the street where the meat shops stood was their master’s house. Alphonse stalled by returning the neighbours’ greetings with a thin smile.

“Alphonse!” called Sig’s voice, loud and true as it carried down the narrow street. “Is that you there?”

Alphonse stiffened, but turned anyhow, facing the inevitable. He hefted his bags over his shoulder and returned the greeting. Sig seemed to be preparing to close up shop. “It’s me. Is master home?”

“She should be getting dinner ready inside,” the man replied. “Bit early for you to come, no? You should have called ahead. Where’s that brother of yours?”

“It’s just me today,” said Alphonse, voice small and soft. “We… ah, I need to talk to master about it, you can come too.”

Sig was struck with visible surprise, but said nothing about the unusual arrangement. “Go on ahead, then, I’ll follow after I finish this. Good thing you came before dinner was made or we’d have nothing ready to feed you.”

Alphonse took his bags and did as he was told. The front door was unlocked, as always, and the living room tidy. He removed his shoes and set his bags by the couches, following his master’s voice from the kitchen.

“Did you finish already, honey? Well, that was fast. I ran some water for you to take a bath,” she was saying as Alphonse ducked into the small kitchen. It was homely as ever, filled with warmth and the scent of spices.

“Master, it’s me,” said Alphonse, paused at the doorway.

Izumi turned to meet him with pleasant surprise, but her smile quickly fell into the sharp lines of a frown. Her eyes were deeper and darker than Alphonse had ever seen them. There was no conceivable way for her to know what had happened, and yet she did, because the first thing she asked was, “Is your brother alive?”

~

The stars were clear that night, even through his tears. He saw the thin slivers of silver spearing from their hearts into the dark. It had taken him all night to finish telling the story with as much exhausting detail as he could manage. Catharsis had left him drained and weak, resting his head against his master’s shoulder as she held him while muttering oaths under her breath.

“Stupid boys,” she had said, holding him like a woman would hold a son. “You are a pair of incredibly stupid boys. For all that both of you are brilliant, you are stupid,” she had said. “How lucky you were, you have no idea. And how difficult it must be.”

The next morning, as she tended to his cuts and bruises she had dealt with her own fists and knives, Alphonse asked, “How did you know?”

“The same way I can perform alchemy without a circle,” she said, tilting his face to the other side. He could feel his jaw protest at her handling, but it was nothing he had not endured before. Alphonse knew he deserved the beating. He should have known better. They should have known better.

“Which is?” Alphonse prompted, wincing at a rough dab of a cotton ball.

Izumi’s hands stopped as she settled him with an even stare. “The Gate that Edward said he saw—it contains a world’s worth of information and only ever appears with exceptionally large transmutations that involve foolish meddling with things that should not be meddled with. Space and time, dimensions and reality, life and death—these things that are bigger than us, things that should be left alone. I’ve seen it, just as Edward has seen it, just as you have seen it—“ Alphonse frowned, “—though you don’t remember. When you remember, you will find yourself able to perform alchemy without a circle as well. It is part of the information that you were shown.”

“But,” Alphonse said, “you—master, did you—”

“My first and only child,” she plainly stated, “was a boy, stillborn. I couldn’t accept it, and in my grief tried to revive him. I failed, of course, but I must’ve done part of it right, since it didn’t take all of me.”

From behind her, Sig placed a large hand on her shoulder. Izumi’s answering smile was gentle, mournful, as she returned the touch. After a short moment, he walked out of the house to leave them to talk.

“But it took part of you,” Alphonse chanced, “like it took part of Brother.” Then he blinked as something clicked. “Is that why you’re sick?”

Putting the first aid box back together, she gave a tight nod. “It took several of my organs, leaving me with just enough to function. I had to undergo multiple extensive surgeries to salvage what had remained—to rearrange them into a form that would continue to work. I would have died within an hour had it not been for Sig who had followed me into the island. Now I can never even bear us another child.”

Alphonse could only sit there and gape. He never knew.

“It is a thing of the past,” she sighed, rising to return the box to its place on the kitchen shelf. “We’ve moved past it, though that does not mean that it is a mistake we’ll repeat. You should bear this in mind as well, Alphonse: you are fortunate to be alive. You do not survive the Gate twice.”

“I know,” Alphonse said, acquiescence and apology rolled into one. Now I know.

After a moment’s silence, she turned back to him with a fierce look and declared, “I want to talk to your brother. I should hope that you know how to get a hold of him. Let him know that we will be leaving for Central in two or three days. That’s likely the soonest there are open seats on the train. Everybody seems to have business in that city these days…”

Thursday and Friday were spent preparing for the trip. Arrangements were made for the house and shop to be watched by Mason while they were away. Sig insisted on coming just as much as Izumi insisted against it. She soon conceded, as she always did whenever Sig argued for any matter, and three tickets were bought. Her predictions were accurate: their train was to leave Dublith early Saturday morning for a four-hour ride with a layover of an hour at Rush Valley. They were to arrive in Central at an hour past noon.

The only one problem was getting a hold of Edward, which turned out to be more difficult than it should have been. Alphonse had a telephone number to the Lieutenant Colonel’s house and tried to call five times on Thursday, but received no answer. He tried again three times on Friday, but received no answer. Izumi dismissed his concern and assured him that they would be able to find him somehow; they were not going to delay. Tickets to Central were rather costly, she said. If they gave their seats up, they would be hard pressed to get another train until well into the next week.

Before going to bed that Friday night, Alphonse trekked out to the public telephone booth and tried one more time. Already a wintry chill blew through the streets, forcing him to pull the collars up to shield his neck. One of Izumi’s neighbours exited the booth just as Alphonse approached it. The man held the door open for him and Alphonse found himself grateful when it finally closed behind his back. He lamented not bringing his scarf.

He stuck his free hand back into his pocket after dialling the number. A few seconds of silence was heard through the line before the telltale tone signalled that it connected and was ringing. Miraculously, the phone was picked up on the first ring. “Mustang,” came a man’s voice from the other side.

Alphonse stuttered. “Um! Um—um—may I speak to Bro—I mean, Edward, please? Er, this is Alphonse… ah—I’m sorry to disturb you so late at night—”

The man began to chuckle, his voice now warm and welcoming. “No need to apologise, it’s no problem at all. I’m pleased to hear that you’re up and about; you were still asleep when I left.”

“T-Thank you,” Alphonse replied, still with a frustrating stutter.

“If you’ll hold for a second—Edward!”

From the background, Alphonse could hear, “Busy!”

“Edward, will you please cease shouting and come down this minute?”

“I said busy!

“Too busy to talk to your brother?” the man called out, voice removed from the phone. A minute of silence and then some unintelligible murmuring before the phone was picked up again.

“Al?”

It was Edward! Alphonse broke into a grin. “Brother! How are you? I’ve been trying to call you yesterday and earlier today! For some reason, nobody was answering—I guess you were out?”

“In a manner of speaking, I suppose,” Brother drily replied, but the irony was lost on Alphonse.

Nevertheless, he ploughed on. “Listen, Brother, I’m in Dublith right now—”

“You’re where?! Are you suicidal?! I just saved you! Get your ass out of there this moment, Alphonse, or I swear I’ll—”

I’m fine!” Alphonse yelled into the receiver, holding the earpiece away from his head. At the very least, it was good to know that Brother’s lungs were faring well. “Master already knows! She hit me but I’m still alive!”

“She—you—she—what the fuck, Alphonse!”

“I had to, it’s a long story, listen—” the line began to beep, so Alphonse fed the payphone two more coins, “—master wants to see you and has already bought tickets for us. We’re leaving tomorrow morning, we should be there by early afternoon.”

On the other side, Brother audibly swallowed.

“I’ll tell you the story then, alright? I’m at the market payphone right now so I can’t tell all of it here, and besides, it’s probably not safe—“

“—no, it’s not safe at all,” Brother cut, “and we’ll stop talking of it now. I’ll meet you tomorrow at Central Station, then. How’s—How’s Mum?”

“She’s fine,” Alphonse said, biting the soft inside of his cheek. “I—have a bit to tell you about her, too.” A pause, before he confessed: “I yelled at her after you left.”

Brother hissed. “Tell me she didn’t throw you out of the house too.”

“No, but—” Alphonse bit his cheek again, releasing a burst of coppery taste into his mouth. “She said I could stay at master’s place for however long I liked.”

The line beeped again.

“I’m out of coins, Brother. We’ll talk tomorrow?”

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Brother affirmed. And then, “Al, did you read Mum’s letter? The one you sent with yours.”

“No, why?” Alphonse answered with a growing sense of dread. Had he been wrong to give his trust like so? He had the most disturbing sense that he had made a big mistake when she said her farewell at Resembool’s small train station. What had she done?

“…we’ll talk tomorrow,” Brother reaffirmed. “Afternoon?”

“One o’clock.”

“One o’clock, see you then.”

Alphonse opened his mouth to respond, but the line gave one last long beep, before terminating with a final click. Slowly and with a sigh, he relinquished the telephone.

Tomorrow, he drew his arms around himself and walked back to the shelter of the Curtis’ home. The chill draft made him yearn for his mother’s warm comfort, but she was many miles away, and he had little desire to return to Resembool at the moment—not to her unnatural beauty, not to her awkward smile and trembling hands. No. That was not what he wanted, or needed.

The gallop of his heartbeat kept him from falling asleep. Winry’s words returned to him as he lay in bed. This was a new challenge, and it was his. There was no reason for him to not claim it.

And then there were his master’s words from that day long ago on the beach: This is the nature of life, growing up and growing old, coming into your strength to eventually move out of it. And his master’s words from that night of the sharp stars when Alphonse had confessed everything: You will never be able to turn back. What is done is in the past, and upon it you must build a new life. Now that you understand a little better, Alphonse, you must learn alchemy over again, learn how to search first for the value of that which you seek.

Alphonse closed his eyes and let the words lull him into slumber. Tomorrow. It will all begin tomorrow.

In the dead of the night, within the arms of a dream, Izumi’s words were as chill as the wintry breeze. Never again forget, she said, her eyes dark as a promise, dark as the night. Never again, for alchemy already knows.

~


“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”
( Hellen Keller )




tbc
arc II interlude ver.1-01 05
first draft: 2012.07.24
last edited: 2012.07.27

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Arc III : Growing Pains

09

:

“Sorry,” Edward set the telephone down and turned to give his host a sincere apology. “That just sort of happened. If you want, I can go tomorrow to the station by myself and—”

“Nonsense,” Mustang responded: a straight dismissal. “I’m not letting you out of my sight so soon after yesterday’s... excitement. And before you attempt to ease your way out of my hospitality, I will tell you now not to bother. It isn’t any trouble providing lodging for Alphonse and your master for as long as they intend to stay.”

Edward had to fidget in discomfort. “Izumi will probably come with Sig, her husband,” he said, kneeling to tidy his clutter of books. “He always travels with her everywhere she goes since she’s sick.”

“Mm, no matter; they can share the guest room downstairs,” Mustang once more dismissed while in the process of signing a report with the customary Mustang flourish. Ed’s lips twitched at the sight, eyes tracing the elegant strokes of the pen. Mustang’s regular handwriting approached calligraphy in its evident grace; it was truly quite a sight, considering the nature of the man’s work. Ed made a mental note to buy for himself a medium italic nib the next time he happened upon the stationery shop. He only had a basic set of extra fine nibs for writing from their last trip. “I’m sure you can share your bedroom with Alphonse? Or would you prefer staying in my bedroom for the while that he’s here? That way he can have your room to himself.”

“It’s fine, we can share,” Ed quickly reassured. “Sorry for imposing so much. I don’t remember insisting on monopolising your bed after the doctor got me, but—”

“I put you there myself,” Mustang said sharply, “because I couldn’t settle unless you were within my line of sight.” The older man lifted pen from paper and peered at Ed, eyes deeper than winter’s night. Ed failed to understand why people likened Mustang to fire: this Mustang had the steady unstoppable tread of a glacier coupled with a mind pointed and deadly as a shard of ice. “I am not fond of putting my people in danger, and now that you fall under my care, you are one of them.”

“You didn’t put me in danger,” Edward scowled, “because you didn’t know. He was your friend, wasn’t he? Geralds, I mean.”

He could not quite place if it was a tightening around the eyes or an angling of the jaw, but something changed within Mustang’s face, and the sight of it dropped a stone in Edward’s stomach.

“He was,” Mustang sighed, “unfortunately. And that is precisely my point: he was my friend, I should have known, or at least noticed. I would have saved us a whole lot of trouble.”

Neither one for self-recrimination nor any tolerant of it in others around him, Edward huffed and gave Mustang’s leg a prompt kick. “Well, you didn’t, and no one’s perfect, not even you, so get over yourself and deal with it. I’m fine, you’re fine, no one died—well, technically the doctor did, but at this point I doubt he counts—so quit the moping, it’s very nauseating when poured over your overlarge ego.”

That snapped a grin on the older man’s face. “Well, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been called nauseating in any context.”

“Is it?” Edward drily remarked, hands on hips. “Well, don’t you worry. I’ll make sure to do so. Lots. And I won’t be lying when I say it.” Seeing that Mustang was sufficiently engulfed in laughter, Ed turned to the back stairs. “I’m going to make me some of that chai before I go to bed. No sugar for you, right? I don’t understand how you can drink it with that much cinnamon and no sugar...”

It was November now, the nights darker and colder and longer than Ed ever knew them to be. Farther south around Resembool and Dublith, winters were far shorter and more temperate, making for perfect cold-weather farming conditions while the northern highlands crusted over with frost. With any luck, Ed would witness his first true white winter here in Central, for snow was a relative rarity down south.

Ed felt a slither of movement from the Gate in his head, seemingly at the thought of snow. –and there it went again, a delighted little squirm at the mere mention of the word! He grinned to himself as he went about the half-darkened kitchen for two hot mugs of chai. Times like these were small repayments for the difficulty of having another consciousness in his head. Though intrusive, the Gate sometimes exhibited quite an adorable personality.

Yesss, it hummed, preening at the attention and naturally beckoning for more. Ed would have obliged—the cinnamon smelled of heaven and put him in the happiest of moods—except his ears noticed a distant scratching sound.

He blinked. Perhaps it was Dog.

Wait, Edward thought. Where is Dog?

Inhaling in mild distress, Ed realised that he had forgotten Dog. It was trapped outside and would no doubt be cowering against the house in fear of the shadows! Quite pathetic in Ed’s eyes: his only experience with the canine species was with Den, and that dog was a fighter. Den never quailed from shadows; nothing in them could scare her.

Brave dog, murmured the Gate as Ed followed the sound. It led down the main hallway to the front doors; small wonder it sounded so very faint to his sharp ears. Through the doors’ side panels—tasteful and classic frosted squares of glass—he could see Dog’s jittery behind as it scuffled and pawed at the entrance. Ed sighed.

“Coming, coming,” he grumbled, unlatching the triple locks and easing the door open. A soft tendril of winter air touched at his nose. Dog waffled and barked and waffled some more, scampering in circles around his legs. Its fur was cold to the touch and it moved in a manner suggesting exhaustion. “Tired, are you? That’s what you get from playing too much. You’re still a puppy, you shouldn’t be overexerting yourself. Here, come here,” and Edward turned to close the doors after Dog slipped inside when a brief flash of motion caught his eyes.

Ed looked up. The lamp-lit street was empty.

Frowning, he stuck his head out and craned around, attentive eyes catching at the corners where the night folded darkly upon itself. The breeze was barely a breeze, stirring a few strands of his hair when he stepped off the patio and down the front walk.

“Who is it?” he called out. “Hello?”

The gas lamps flickered but there was no reply.

Of course there’s no reply, he thought to himself, because it’s probably those stalker news people. Wasn’t Mustang talking about them earlier? Something about giving him and Hughes a hard time at work. Stupid people. Why would they lurk around at this hour of night? Nobody—

Traitor!

An invisible weight slammed into Ed’s chest, knocking him breathless and motionless all at once. It took seconds of frantic blinking and disorientation before he realised that he had stopped moving, his feet planted flat against the ground, his legs and arms frozen in mid-motion. His head was heavy as stone.

It dares! the Gate howled in his head: an encompassing and layered sound that at once was a tolling bell, at once a crashing wave, at once one thousand needles on sandpaper, at once a scream. It dares, the traitor, it dares!

Ed’s heart hammered against his ribs, eyes seeking out the item of the Gate’s rage. There was nothing, nothing but shadows on the street. Yet he had the distinct sensation of being closely watched.

Its eyes are in the dark! It’s a traitor, hissed the Gate. It was once whole but now in pieces! Disgusting, unnatural infidel! Away with it! It is not legitimate!

“Edward,” Mustang, Mustang, Roy placed an arm on his shoulder. “Edward, what are you doing out here? It’s cold out, come back inside.”

Breath huffing out from him all at once, Edward collapsed into a crouch, hands bracing his weight over his knees. The Gate hissed and roiled in his head but it no longer held his limbs in stone, perhaps content now that he would not go any further and engage with—with what?

The shadows, the Gate told him. Don’t go into the shadows. You can’t fight it, not yet. Wait for your origin. Only the Light can fight it, only the Light.

What?” Ed puffed in disbelief at the Gate’s incomprehensible drivel.

“What?” Roy echoed, still beside him, still with a hand on his shoulder. “Edward. What’s wrong?”

“The... it’s... it’s being confusing again, it just started yelling all sorts of shit when I stepped out here, I—I saw something move out there,” Ed retreated behind Roy’s frame. The small motion calmed the Gate somewhat. Only now did he notice that Dog was still behind them, whining, scuttling uneasily just beyond the front doors. Later he would pick out the small detail of Dog’s scuttling paws: they never crossed outside of the threshold and always remained in the light.

A sharp snap! made Ed’s eyes whip forward to track the thin ribbon of blue fire that erupted from Roy’s fingers. It danced over the street and briefly illuminated all of it’s the darkened corners, chasing the shadows away. Never fully, though. Under the surreal fire, the shadows bent, its edges dancing, swaying, and then spreading once more. The fire only lasted a few seconds.

“No one there,” Roy stated, but Ed heard the generous shred of caution in his tone. “Come on inside. Your chai will get cold, and it’s bedtime for you soon.” Ed allowed himself to be ushered along, Roy’s hand on his neck a warm and steady anchor. The Gate was still unsettled. There was a cold, dead weight deep in his chest.

As if by instinct, he put his palms together in a clap and then pressed them against the doors. Sparks ran along the walls, scaling the entire house. “I’m adding an alchemical lock. If someone tries to break in, we’ll know. If someone tries to use alchemy nearby, we’ll know. It should also strengthen your older defences against bullets and such. Just to be safe.”

“What is this about?” asked Roy with a frown. They collected the chai from the kitchen—still very warm—and retreated upstairs. They sat by the fireplace after Ed retrieved a comb for Dog. “You were saying something about the Gate.”

“It was angry,” he said, “very angry. Scared too, I think.” The Gate hissed. “Or unsettled, that’s the word.” Dog was docile and allowed the combing to proceed. Large dark eyes gazed up at them with clear adoration. “If only animals can talk, then we’d be able to ask Dog what he saw, if he saw anything. He was out there for a while, with—whatever was out there that angered the Gate. It called whatever-it-was a traitor and an infidel.”

Both of Roy’s eyebrows quirked, chai seemingly forgotten though it was cupped between his palms. “Traitor and infidel. Those are some strong words.”

The Gate hissed again; Edward shrugged. “Dunno. It’s still pissed for some reason. I don’t really understand it very well, like I told you before.” Outside, beyond the windows, the shadows now looked as if they rippled in a soft and subtle motion that resembled breathing. Ed hunched toward the fire. “Can I, um, stay in your room for tonight? I can sleep in the reading chair.”

A smile began to play upon Roy’s face.

“N-Never mind, I was just—I can sleep in my room, it’s fine—”

“No, it’s quite alright, you can stay in my room,” Roy said before taking a sip of chai in between. “The bed is very big—the biggest available on market, actually. We’ll sleep on either ends. We’re neither of us shifty sleepers. If you’re uncomfortable with that, I have a nice long body pillow we can put as a barrier in between.”

An embarrassed flush bloomed from beneath Ed’s skin. He was asking for company the way a three-year-old would demand to sleep in his parents’ bed. It was juvenile and should have been beneath him, but—but I can’t sleep on my own like this, he thought, looking out through the windows and feeling a fluid chill spreading over his back. And I need my sleep for tomorrow. Al & Master will be here tomorrow. What the hell is with all of this rotten timing! What is your problem, anyway? he poked at the Gate, but it only turned over and continued exuding negativity. He sighed. Yet another imposition on the Bastard.

But there was a deep light in the older man’s eyes, a light that echoed acceptance and patience. Understanding was absent, but Edward barely understood the Gate himself, and he was the one who lived with it. Roy had yet rebuke him for his behaviour—though truth be told, rebuke should be the least of his worries. A disembodied consciousness in one’s own head was a very dim reassurance of one’s sanity. Ed hesitantly wondered when, if ever, he would finally cross the man’s ire.

“If I may ask the Gate,” Roy began, a sudden disturbance of the silence between them. “Whatever it is displeased at, whatever was out there—does it pose an immediate threat to you?”

Not Edward, it murmured, not yet. Ed relayed this answer.

“But it will, someday?”

Someday, it murmured, and to you, too. Warily, Ed relayed again.

“What sort of threat is it?”

Ed sat waiting in silence, but this time, it took a while. He took a sip of chai and waited.

For me to provide you all of the information will cost a steep price, the Gate said, but there is no need for that. You will see. But you must discover it for yourself. Because if I provide you a faster way through, it will destroy you, and I like being in a vessel like this. Do you know how rare this is? Only six people—six!—having ever seen the Gate and lived and remained sane. Among them, only one having given more than what was required and in turn acquired a piece of the Gate. Only this one. Understand?

Ed relayed it with a frown. “Spoiled piece of—it’s even more self-absorbed than you are! And here I didn’t know that was possible.”

Roy only laughed, leaving Ed to murmured repartees with his invisible companion. Against his leg, Dog began dozing. For a long time, Roy was staring into the fire. Finally, after a while of warm silence, Roy urged both of them to rest, placing the body pillow barrier in between them as promised. The man was thoughtful enough to leave the master bedroom’s fireplace burning. The night was cold enough. Ed fell asleep with one thread of thought persisting through his murky dreams.

Among them, only one having given more than what was required, the Gate had said. More than what was required. To the Gate, Edward’s limbs and Alphonse’s blood were worth more than their mother’s body and soul: but another thing to add to a long list of things he did not understand.

:::

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
( The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot )

:::

Ed found the next morning incredibly attuned to his mood. He woke in a manner that was slow and yet paradoxically sudden, fostering a period of disorientation that was only enhanced by his unfamiliar surroundings. It took him near ten minutes to recall that he had asked to stay with Roy the previous night, owing to their little encounter with the shadows.

Mention of it sent the Gate into a veritable fit of hisses, which had the tendency to unbalance Ed. This sent Roy, who came from the kitchen to wake him up, into a similarly veritable fit of (s)mothering fuss.

“M’fine,” Ed said, “just sleepy. Be down in a bit.” To justify his excuse, he cracked a large yawn.

Roy left Dog to presumably watch him (it was now capable of obeying basic orders such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay’) but Ed shut his bedroom door on the puppy while he tidied up. It took Dog a while to realise the existence of the other door that Ed had transmuted into the wall after his first night in Central.

That’s right, Ed thought to himself, that was two months ago. How fast time flew. It seemed as though it was only yesterday that he was furiously toiling in their basement in Resembool in the effort to create the array that served to change their life forever. It was an achievement, what he had done. He truly thought it would allow them to continue living their simple, easy life.

Instead it tore that ideal into pieces.

How very naive of him to think—to even briefly consider—that performing such scale of alchemy was that simple. Alchemy was a science, yes, and its processes could be broken down into steps so small that a pair of toddlers could leap through them like he himself and Alphonse had done years ago. But simple actions, he now understood, could precipitate far-reaching repercussions, like a pebble precipitating far-reaching ripples. This was a truth of life: every action amounted to a result, and each result was equivalent to an action. It was foolish to attempt to separate alchemy from life as if it existed in a world of its own, exempt from the rules that governed the universe. Whenever an alchemist performed alchemy, it was never only a simple reaction. It always meant something, always affected someone, even by a mere spectator who happened to pass by at the opposite end of the lake from where the pebble was thrown.

Master had once mentioned similar things as she talked in passing about alchemy that meddled foolishly within things ought to be left alone. She was going to be so displeased.

“Edward,” Roy called from downstairs, “breakfast is getting cold. Everything alright?”

“Coming, yeah, I’m fine,” Ed replied, straightening his person and striding across the library in a manner more decisive than he felt inside.

Roy was already rid of the blue apron and sat at the table, stirring cream into his coffee. “What kept you?”

“Morbid thoughts about my impending demise at the serrated teeth of a scary she-wolf,” he grumbled, earning a chuckle from the Bastard. “At least someone is pleased by the prospects. I might not live to inherit your library after all, Bastard. Maybe give it to Anya; she could take care of it.” Ed finished preparing his own coffee and set to the food.

It was simple fare today: scrambled eggs with sliced bell peppers in green and yellow and red, with skillet-seared potato cubes and a small serving of tomatoes on the side. The eggs were topped with a generous dusting of cheese Ed now recognised to be parmigiano. Considering how recent his induction was to the luxurious life and times of the Grand Bastard, the sensitivity and accuracy of his palate was already quite impressive.

“I was just thinking,” Ed began, taking his time as he wove together the correct words, “about how alchemy is never just alchemy; how it comes to mean much more when you perform it. And—and not just in the large scale, but on the smaller scale as well.”

Roy nodded, as if the concept was already a familiar companion to him. “And what brought this on?”

“Well, you know,” Ed shrugged. “What we did with Mum, human transmutation—it was more than just one reaction, more than just a simple procedure to go through. Alchemy is more than just a tool.”

“Berthold once told me that the reason I failed to fully grasp the breadth of his alchemy was because I failed to see beyond what you just said,” Roy confessed. “It took me years to understand, years full of pain and failure. Alchemy is not a tool; it is a way of life. It would interest you,” the older man suddenly smiled, “to know that Hohenheim explained to me once that it was for this very reason that he left his family behind.”

Ed’s hands stilled at those words, his breath momentarily catching at his throat. A jumble of thoughts tripped over themselves in his head. Did Hohenheim feel the same way he had felt, afraid that his alchemy would never flourish or progress in that little idyllic town, suffocating in the lack of other alchemical minds to spar with—and maybe guilty of having ruined—of having abandoned—

“I hope you aren’t taking that to mean that Hohenheim did not hold you and your brother and mother close to his heart,” Roy cautioned, placing a hand on his arm.

“No, I know we’re important,” he said, resuming his meal. “It’s just that alchemy was more important.” A frown flashed across Roy’s face, so Ed amended: “Don’t try to say that it’s not true, because I know. I did it too, remember? Left it behind, ran out, put my alchemy above all else. It was more important. I couldn’t imagine never being able to do alchemy anymore, never being able to study it. It felt like drowning. I couldn’t stay there. Master will probably try to say that I ran from guilt, and that’s probably true too, but I clearly remember what my mother said, what ultimately drove me out of there. I remember what I felt.”

There was a momentary silence, during which Ed made short work of his potatoes. As he speared the last one with his fork, he gave Roy a wry smile. “Ironic, isn’t it? I willingly threw away what I had sacrificed a leg and an arm for to retain my freedom to continue chasing after things that might, in the future, require more sacrifices of legs and arms.”

“Oh, worry yourself not, young one,” Roy wagged a finger, “for you aren’t going anywhere