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build your wings on the way down

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Edward has cockroaches under his skin and leeches in his veins. He's vibrating and bursting and his body is too small, too big, doesn't fit quite right. He needs Al to know - needs to tell someone, anyone, but he will cut out his own tongue before he burdens anyone else with this knowledge.

But Al needs to know. He deserves to know.

Winry runs her fingers through his hair, and the thought of that thing he and his brother created - makes him turn his head away and close his eyes. The things hiding in his mind are even worse than his reality though, so he opens them again. Winry still sits beside him, but her hands are clasped tight in her lap and she looks like she's going to cry. Again.

"Sorry," he says, his voice still more of a croak than anything else.

She blinks the tears from her eyes, "It's okay." She settles her hand on his head again, just resting there now, and Ed turns into the touch, luxuriates in the feeling of skin against skin, and tries not to vomit when he looks over Winry's shoulder at Alphonse hovering in the doorway. The sunlight reflects off his armor; his cold, hard armor.

He risks a glance back at Winry. At least she's smiling now.

~

He can't bear to talk about it under the Rockbell's roof, or in their own home where their mother died (died twice, thanks to them). He can't go much farther than either of those places until he can manage more than just twitching his automail limbs.

So it's almost a year after the failed transmutation, standing in front of their mother's grave where all these terrible conversations seem to happen, where Alphonse says, "You're hiding something."

Ed takes a deep breath, feels the air in his lungs, the blood in his veins, feels all that there is to feel in the body he still has and his brother doesn't. "Yeah."

"I'm not a kid," Al scuffs his foot irritably against the ground, and then hunches his shoulders when he accidentally kicks up a tuft of grass with his metal foot. He carefully maneuvers it back in place. "You don't need to protect me."

"I need to tell you something terrible," he says, and he can't look at his little brother. They've built their entire lives around alchemy, lived and breathed the laws of equivalent exchange, and even after this Alphonse has such a perfect faith in it. Ed hates that he's taking this away.

He can feel the weight of Alphonse's gaze on him, but can't bring himself to meet it. "What else did it take, brother?"

Ed looks at him now, pale and hands shaking. He clenches them into fists to steady them, "How did you know?"

"A soul isn't worth an arm," Alphonse briefly touches the place where steel meets skin on his brother's body, "What else did you give?"

Edwards swallows, "Ignorance." He places his hand on Al's, "If I tell you, there's no equivalent exchange. You don't get any benefit. I don't - I don't have to tell you. We can pretend-"

Al pulls away, and Ed thinks he's going to sob until Al uses his new large hand to cup his brother's whole face and turn it so they're finally looking each other in the eye. "You cry in your sleep."

Ed parts his lips, but no sound comes out.

"Tell me everything," Alphonse demands.

~

Alphonse tries to say that they shouldn't use alchemy, if that's where it comes from, if that's the cost. Edward says with that attitude he should go live in Ishval. It devolves into the closest thing they can get to a screaming match with Granny and Winry the next room over.

Al is the one to offer the olive branch, clunking footsteps almost hesitant as he sits down next to Ed, crouched along the rolling hill. "I don't want people to die just so we can live, Brother."

"They won't," Ed says firmly. "There's more than one way to reach the same end." Al sighs, and it's odd, to hear that familiar sound rattling around the empty armor. Ed slumps to the left so that his torso is flung across his brother's thigh. "All is one, one is all. We use alchemy. When we die, our souls will fuel the alchemy of other people. As long - as long as we remember our duty, it's okay. We'll find some way to make a philosopher's stone from non-living souls, we're not going to kill anyone Al, sheesh."

"Our duty?" Al questions carefully, not like he doesn't know but like he wants to make sure Ed does too. He thinks he'd be insulted, except that this a dark path Ed's starting them down, so Al's probably right to be worried.

"Alchemist," Ed says softly, speaking to himself and to his brother and every single person who's ever drawn a transmutation circle, "be thou for the people."

~

Edward is doing one armed pushups (not the automail arm, thankyouverymuch) when Al steps into his sight. Ed uses that as a great excuse to collapse on the ground, sweat rolling down his temple as he lays on his back and looks up at Al. He quirks an eyebrow, grinning, and Al crosses his arms. "It's not enough to make a philosopher's stone, you know. That's the easy part."

Ed's elation dims. "Yeah, I know. We have to figure out how to destroy it too."

Al taps his fingers against his forearm, making an odd, rhythmical pinging sound. "It seems like such a waste, to just use it for our own gains and get rid of it."

"What else would you want to do with it?" Ed jumps to his feet and rotates his automail shoulder. His mind flashes to the other things the Gate showed him, the things he didn't tell Al about: killing machines, chemical and biological warfare, the many and creative lengths people will go to destroy one another.

"Help people?" Al says, like Ed's an idiot, and the reminder that Alphonse is good and just and nothing like the men the Gate had showed him, even after everything they've been through, is such a relief that he's almost dizzy with it. "That's what we're supposed to do as alchemists, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Ed confirms, but he rubs the back of his neck and looks to the ceiling before he can go on, "But - who are we to decide?"

Al blinks, "Brother?"

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Ed recites, "We - have to be really, really careful if we decide to do anything besides restore ourselves, Al, okay? Because with the power to do anything - there's a possibility that we'd decide to do anything."

"And the longer we have it, the longer someone bad has to take it from us," Al concludes.

He looks much smaller than a giant suit of armor should, so Ed punches his shoulder and beams, "One problem at a time, okay?"

Al nods, "Okay. We're going to have to go though Dad's books again."

Ed scowls, but doesn't argue.

~

The sweat stings as it drips into Ed's eyes, and he wipes the back of his arm against his forehead before continuing the complicated step of ducks and punches that Teacher taught him. The footsteps he hears are too light to be Al's, but he still pauses and turns on his head, hopeful. Instead it's only Granny. Ed glares and crosses his arms, "Are you here to yell at me too?"

Granny stares at him until he uncrosses his arms and his face flushes. She sits, patting the spot beside her. Ed hesitates, but joins her. She immediately grabs onto his leg, checking all the gears and connections with practiced ease, pipe unlit but clenched between her teeth. "You don't have to do this alone. I thought you'd figured that out by now."

"It's not that. Well, not just that," he amends when Pinako snorts, "but - Al can't go to Central, can't follow me to the military, not while he's all," he flaps his hand around in way that hopefully conveys what he means, "I know you don't know a lot about alchemy Granny, but you have to know that binding a soul is - not normal. He'd end up in a lab, forever. We both would."

"You don't think this Mustang guy is trustworthy?" she starts tapping Ed's metal arm, seemingly satisfied with the echo it produces.

He shrugs the shoulder that the older woman isn't currently attached too, "I don't know. Maybe? Who knows. But until I find out, I'm not risking Al. It's just a year, Granny. And I'll come visit when I can, and then - we'll figure something out, either way, if Mustang can be trusted with Al or not."

Pinako sighs, finally letting off on her inspection of his limbs, "When'd you become such a pessimist, Ed? You used to have more faith."

"Faith is for children," he says, derisive and like he's not only eleven and a child himself. Ever since that thing forced itself inside his head, he hasn't been.

Pinako raises an eyebrow and says, "Careful, dear,” but doesn’t specify what, exactly, he’s supposed to be careful of.

~

Winry and Al are standing in front of him, and his train is going to leave without him if he doesn't hurry, but he really, really doesn't want to go. The train sounds a warning whistle and Winry flinches, eyes wide and watery, and it hurts so much that Ed hugs her just so he doesn't have to see her. Winry nearly strangles him with her skinny arms around his neck, but this is the last time he's going to get to see his best friend in who knows how long, so he doesn't complain, for once. Winry buries her face in Ed's neck and whispers, "Be safe, please be safe, please, please, please. We can't lose you too. Al can't lose you too."

Ed hugs her back just as tightly, careful to be gentle with the automail arm that she made for him. "I'll be fine, don't be such a girl. Take care of Al and Granny for me." Winry pulls back and smacks his arm, scowling, but it's a much better a sight than her crying. The whistle blows again, and he needs to get on that train. He turns to his brother, looks up and up, and it's so unfair that Al is so much taller than him now. "Let me know if you need anything, okay? Money, or books to research from, or - anything. I'll get it to you. Keep me up to date on what you're working on, okay? It'd be dumb if we were working on the same things in different places-" Al puts a hand on each of his brother's shoulders, and Ed falls silent.

"Do good, and behave. I'll miss you."

Ed blinks too fast, and his breath hitches. Stupid Winry, being a girl is contagious. The whistle blows a final time, and Ed wraps his arms around his brother, even if Al can't feel him it still counts, and thumps him once on the chest before he bolts, jumping onto the train just as it starts to leave the station. He turns around and waves.

They wave back, and Winry's crying for real this time. Al lifts Winry onto his shoulders, and they're still waving when Ed loses sight of them, two of his most important people nothing more than specks in the distance. He stays there until a ticket attendant taps his shoulder, “Hey, you really need to sit down. Where are you parents? Do they have your ticket?”

Edward’s tired suddenly, exhausted down to his bones, and he doesn’t have the energy to be offended. “Here’s m’ticket,” he mumbles, shoving the piece of paper into the guy’s chest and snatching it back as soon as it’s stamped. He picks up his suitcase and swings it backwards over his shoulder so that it bumps against his back as he walks down the aisle, and pretends like he can’t feel the older man’s eyes on his back. He has a feeling it’s something he’s going to have to get used to. He collapses in the first empty seat he finds, kicks his suitcase under him, and curls up as small as he can manage before he falls into a fitful sleep.

~

When Roy said he’d had a surprise aboard the train, it would be a lie to say that some eleven year old child was the last thing he was expecting, because as far as Maes is concerned it wasn’t even a fucking option.

He’s about to go tell Ed to find somewhere quiet to hide and to let the adults take care of this, but – Maes has been friends with Roy too long, was in Ishval too long to not know at least the basics of alchemy. When Ed casually swings himself back on top of the train and makes a canon with enough ease that it would make General Gran jealous, he understands that this boy is talented and powerful. Maes hates himself but he is outnumbered and outmanned and he can’t afford to not use someone with the power this kid so effortlessly wields.

Ed snickers as a number of Bald’s goons go careening into the water and Maes says, “Hey, I don’t suppose you have a plan?”

He honestly is expecting that he doesn’t, is saying it as a way to bring attention to the fact that they need one, but Ed looks at the wide expanse of ocean and says, “Yeah,” like he’s a little surprised by the answer himself.

Later, with Bald unconscious on the ground and his automail crushed by Ed’s own slender metal hand, Maes puts is hands on the shoulders of the bruised and bleeding child standing in front of him, and he's going to kill Roy. "Not bad," the kid croaks, and he has a coughing fit that wracks his small frame so violently that Maes has to hold him upright.

"Jesus, kid," he kneels down so he can look him in the eye, "Are you okay?" and he immediately wants to kick himself, because he's got finger marks around his throat, a bullet grazed his waist, and he's going to be one giant black and blue bruise come morning. Roy is dead.

The kid glares, rubbing at his chest, "I'm fine. You okay?" he juts his chin at Maes's bloody hands.

"Yeah. Seriously, Ed, I'm worried about you. You took a beating back there," Maes tries to reach for the sluggishly bleeding wound on his torso, but the kid steps away from him and looks like he's seconds away from outright snarling.

"I'm fine," he presses his own hand to the wound, and doesn't even flinch at the pain. "Considering everyone on this train is alive, I'd say that we did okay. You can back off now."

Maes blinks, looks to Bald and then smirks, relaxing just enough that Ed loses his skittish tension. "I guess you're right. Good job, Ed."

Edward smiles, and looks his age, and Maes's heart squeezes in his chest.

~

The Roy Mustang of his memory was a giant, as tall as his long gone father and twice as terrifying in his anger. The slender, dark eyed man sitting across from him in this too big office is actually a relief, although he does his best to not let that show.

"In light of your impressive performance on the train, General Hakuro has agreed to back your bid for State Alchemist," and that smirk at the corner of Mustang's lips causes a lump of lead in his stomach, because - Mustang couldn't have known what Ed would do on that train, that he'd help and risk his life instead of cower in fear. Except that he's clearly not a man that would gamble on something that big, so he did know, was comfortable in the belief that he knew enough about Ed to predict his actions after barely ten minutes together. Worse than that he'd been right, and saw no problem in treating people like chess pieces - him, Hughes, General Hakuro.

Ed knew the Flame Alchemist's reputation, had seen brief flashes of his handiwork in Ishval when the Gate had split him open and crawled inside. He'd seen that terrifyingly powerful array stitched into his gloves (and what a dangerous, arrogant move, leaving the array for all to see, didn't he realized any decent alchemist could use it against him?) but with this realization he felt the first inklings of fear. Mustang was a dangerous man, and it had nothing to do with his abilities as an alchemist.

"Good," Ed says shortly, when the silence makes it clear that Mustang expects some sort of response. If he thinks that Ed's thanking him for using him as a pawn, then the old man is off his rocker.

Mustang raises an eyebrow but doesn't comment further. "I've arranged for you to stay with Shou Tucker, the Life Sewing Alchemist, for a month so that you may make use of his library in order to study for the exam."

"I don't need to study," Ed folds his hands behind his back, and bites down a grin at the frustration that flickers in Mustang's eyes.

"The State Alchemist's Exam isn't child's play, Elric," Mustang snaps, and Edward finally lets the grin out, lets his mere presence make a mockery of Mustang's words. The older man sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Regardless, you may find some interest in Tucker's notes. He's the leading living expert on biological alchemy."

Ed takes a half step closer, "Biological alchemy?"

"He specialized in chimeras," and Ed feels a wave of disgust rise from his stomach to his throat, because that's not biological alchemy, that's soul alchemy with some biological components, and it's depraved. "He made one that spoke two years ago."

"What?" he whispers, eyes wide, and he can feel the urge to run thrumming in his blood, because Mustang says this very normally, like he's impressed even, and what the hell has Ed gotten himself involved with. "And - he's still allowed in the military?"

Mustang blinks, "Of course he is. It's how he received his commission." Edward wants to vomit, wants to tear Mustang's skin from his face, because that's disgusting. Even seeing what Mustang did in Ishval, he assumed the man had some respect for human lives. "You shouldn't look so disturbed, Elric. While it's hardly the prettiest of alchemy, it's not far from what you're trying to do."

He feels like he's been slapped. Mustang is wrong, he would never - but, then again, Mustang doesn't know what he knows, doesn't know that the root of all alchemy is actually just as depraved as what Shou Tucker did to some animal and some poor human being two years ago. He doesn't know that Edward is here so he can find a different way to restore his brother to his body, and so his path must seem as bloody and awful as Tucker's. Mustang is watching him, and Ed knows Mustang's frowning behind the hands clasped in front of his face. He swallows, "What did it say?"

"Only one sentence - 'I want to die.' Then it starved itself until it got it's wish."

Yeah. Ed can't say he's surprised.

~

Ed is safely sequestered in Shou Tucker's library, studying to take the fucking State Alchemist Exam when Maes strides through Roy's office. Riza doesn't even look up as he marches past, which means she's pissed at Roy too. Good, she should be. Maes is not the slamming doors type of guy, but he's sorely tempted to become one when he walks into his office and Roy is calmly working through his mountain of paperwork.

"You better start talking. Fast." Maes crosses his arms over his chest, and growls when Roy rests his head on the palm of his hand, eyes half lidded like Maes is one of his girls and he can smirk and make the other man forget that he endangered the life of an eleven year old boy for no fucking reason.

"Is this protective streak because of Gracia's pregnancy? I know Elric's a bit small for his age, but I wouldn't put him quite at infant status just yet." Maes sees red and throws one his knives at Roy's head. He barely ducks out of the way, losing that ridiculous stance as he flails out of his chair onto the floor, "Maes! What the hell?"

Roy peeks over his desk warily, just in case more projectile knives are headed his way. Maes gestures at him with the pointy end, "You better know what you're doing."

He slams the door on his way out. It's incredibly satisfying.

~

Ed meets Nina and his heart breaks. She's small and sweet, and has no idea that her father is a monster. He can't believe the military is letting a man like Tucker raise a child, but then again if Mustang's any indication they don't even flinch at what Tucker's done.

"She's so small," Ed says down the line at a public payphone, and he clenches the cord too tight in his flesh fist, "She's only four - were we ever that small? That's a dumb question, of course we were. I just - Al, this place is terrible. The people are terrible," and he sucks in a too harsh breath, squeezes his eyes shut. His brother can't cry, so he won't. He won't.

"Brother, come home," Al says, his voice rattling around inside the armor. "I don't want you around these people. It doesn't sound safe."

"I can take them," he says, tries to sound like he means that. One on one - hell, even two on one - he probably could, but even he's not quite arrogant enough to believe he can take on a firing squad.

"Brother," Al says, and that's a reprimand, and Ed smiles in spite of everything.

"It's our best option Al, it really is. I'll be fine, really," he sighs, "It just sucks, is all."

"Yeah," Al says, and there's really not much else to say but that.

Later, Ed tosses and turns in his bed, and he hasn't had one good night's sleep since he's been here. He can't, not when he's in the same house as Tucker. He alchemizes his door shut every night, and it's still not enough. Ed knows that he can't actually hear the screams and cries of the animals down in Tucker's workshop, but his imagination is vivid enough that it amounts to the same thing. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to block out the sound of his own brain, but he hears a soft tap tap tap.

"Big brother?"

Ed throws off the covers and crosses the room. He puts the door back with a quick clap, and opens it to Nina small and teary eyed on the other side. "Hey," he says softly, dropping to his knees so he can look her in the eye, "what's wrong?"

She sniffs and drags a fist over her eyes, and Ed feels his heart break all over again. "I - I had a bad dream, and Daddy's working, I'm not supposed to disturb him, but I -" The tears in her eyes spill over, and Edward opens his arms. She throws herself into them, skinny arms strong around his neck. He stands, kicks the door shut, and rocks her back and forth.

"It's okay, it's all okay, big brother's got you," he murmurs into her hair and he's reminded so painfully of Al for a moment that he can't breathe, but it passes, and he kisses Nina's forehead as her sobs eventually quiet. "Do you want me to take you back to your room?" Nina presses her face into his neck and shakes her head. Ed smiles, "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?"

Nina nods, and says quietly, "Please."

Ed places her on the side of the bed closest to the wall and curls around her with his back to the door, and if only protecting her from the monsters in the real world was as easy as protecting her against the ones in her head.

~

It's a bright, sunny day, so he's at the park with Nina, alchemy book balanced on his knee while she does her very best to braid his hair. He winces, and thinks that at least hair grows back, unlike limbs. Tucker is wary of him, skitters around Ed's hateful yellow gaze, but seemingly has no qualms with allowing him unrestricted access to his daughter. If anything, he seems relieved to have her taken off his hands while he does his best to cook up some new disgusting chimera that will allow him to hold on to his State Alchemist's certification.

"Edward Elric!"

Ed blinks and looks up. Maes Hughes is standing there beaming, his arm around a very pregnant and very pretty woman. "Hey Major," he smiles. Nina clutches his arm and peaks over his shoulder. Ed gently draws her forward, but she's still got a tight grip on his hair so she's mostly behind him. "Nina, this is Major Maes Hughes, he's a friend."

She tugs on Ed's hair, trying to hide behind it, and he grimaces but doesn't stop her. The woman ducks her head and smiles, while Hughes doesn't even bother. He grins wide and squats down in front of Nina, offering his hand. "Hello little lady Nina, it's a pleasure." She giggles and places her hand in Hughes's. He kisses the top of it, and she squeaks and turns bright red, snatching her hand back and burying her entire face in the back of Ed's head.

"Big brother, he kissed me!" she says too loud, right in his ear.

"Do you want me to beat him up?" he asks seriously. Hughes squawks.

The woman laughs, "Maes, look what you've done."

"I was just trying to be friendly," he protests, "Ed, Nina, this is my wife, Gracia."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hughes," he says politely, "Nina, do you want to say hello?"

Nina peaks out from behind Ed's golden hair and says, "Hello Mrs. Hughes."

"Well aren't you two the cutest?" she beams, "Do you have plans for the rest of the day? Do you want to come over for dinner?"

Ed doesn't say anything, but looks back at Nina. When she's silent, he says, "Do you want to go over to the Hughes's for dinner?" He can't see her nod, but he can feel it, so he says, "That'd be great, thank you."

After dinner, Nina is playing with Gracia, and Ed watches, and tries not to think of his own mother and fails miserably. Hughes knocks his elbow into Ed's shoulder and says, "Penny for your thoughts?"

"She's going to be a great mom," Ed says, "She's really good with kids."

"So are you," Ed blinks, startled, and turns to looks at Hughes smiling face. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I was a little surprised. You don't seem like the gentle type."

"I'm not," he says, and shrugs off Hughes's raised eyebrow. "I've had a lot of practice is all. I helped raise my brother, and there are a lot of little kids in Resembool. Me and Al and Winry would help babysit the ones that were too young for school."

"Why weren't you in school?"

Ed snorts and says, "Basic arithmetic was bit below me," and tries not to sound big headed, but he probably doesn't succeed.

"And Winry? She's an alchemist too?"

"Uh, no," he pulls up his sleeve and taps his automail arm, "she's a mechanic. She built this."

"... How old is she?"

"Eleven," he says and tries not to laugh at the gobsmacked expression on Hughes's face. "Arithmetic was a bit below her too."

"Clearly," he mutters, "How's the studying for the exam going? It's coming up."

Ed scratches the back of his head, "I was serious when I told Mustang I didn't need to study. Tucker's got some rare first editions, and I've been looking through those, but I'm not too worried."

"Ed," Hughes says, serious, "The exam is no joke. Hundreds of people send in applications every year, even to get the opportunity to take the exam is an accomplishment. They'll only choose one alchemist."

Ed opens his mouth, tries to think of a way to explain why he isn't just being arrogant without either giving too much away or giving himself a panic attack and instead just says, "I understand."

~

Edward holds Elysia before her father does, and he looks at this tiny human that Maes and Gracia created (he has a few stuttering memories of Al being this small once upon a time) and falls in love with her right there, is owned utterly, and thinks that the next time he rings Al he's going to have to tell him that they have two little sisters now.

"Big brother, let me see!" Nina demands, and he lowers the baby girl down for Nina's inspection. "She's perfect," she breathes, wide eyed and delighted.

"She is," Ed agrees, and he looks at Gracia as he says it. He goes to hand the squirming baby to her father next, but Hughes is pale and shaking, and clearly just as in love with his daughter as he is terrified of her. "She's not made of glass, you won't break her," Ed says sternly, and only thinks it's a little funny that Hughes could look down the barrel of a gun with a grin but looks like a strong wind could knock him over when faced with a baby.

"She's so small," Hughes says in wonderment, and Ed decides not to make fun of him for crying.

Ed pushes her into Hughes and positions his elbow to support her head. He presses the man's arms firmer against his daughter, because babies get nervous if you don't hold them tight enough, something he's sure Maes will figure out quickly. "There," he says in satisfaction, and decides that Hughes looks a whole lot better with his daughter in his arms than knives in his hands.

That night he rings the Rockbell’s, but doesn’t ask for Al quite yet, instead he stays on the line with Granny and says, “Women are amazing. She made a person.”

“People make other people all the time,” Pinako says, but Ed knows she’s grinning around her pipe.

“Doesn’t make it any less awesome,” Ed insists.

“No,” she says softly, “It doesn’t. Sounds like you found your faith.”

Ed pauses and repeats, “Faith is for children,” but he doesn’t mean what he meant before. Granny must understand, because she laughs.

~

When Bradley announces him as the next State Alchemist, Ed tries to feel pride in his accomplishment, but all he finds is fear and weary acceptance. These are his first steps towards the road to hell. The fact that he's already been to hell and back isn't actually any sort of comfort.

~

Ed doesn’t kill Tucker because Nina asks him not to. This can’t be allowed, the military is awful, but it can’t be this awful. So he pats Nina’s head with his flesh hand and makes a phone call.

“Hughes residence!” Gracia answers, exhausted but cheerful.

Ed swallows, and he need to make it clear that this isn’t a social call. “Mrs. Hughes, this is Major Elric. I need to speak with Major Hughes.”

He can hear her breathe in sharply, “One moment, I’ll get him right away.”

Ed squeezes his eyes shut, feels Nina tremble beneath his hand, and does his best not to cry. “Ed, what’s wrong? Gracia seemed upset.”

“I need you to get to Shou Tucker’s now. Don’t bring anyone you wouldn’t trust with your life – no, with your daughter’s life.”

To his credit Hughes doesn’t question him, just says, “I’m on my way,” and hangs up.

Hughes arrives a half hour later, Mustang and a woman Ed remembers as Hawkeye in tow. He’s locked Tucker in one of his own cages, and he’s sitting on the living room floor with Nina’s head on his knee.

“Ed, what’s wrong?” Hughes demands, bursting in.

“You better not be wasting our time, Fullmetal,” Mustang drawls, and Edward slowly stands, sliding Nina’s head off of him.

“Tell me you didn’t know he used his wife,” he says softly. “Tell me it wasn’t military approved.”

“Fullmetal, what on earth –“

Ed darts forward and grabs Mustang by the lapels, dragging him down to his own height with the strength everyone is always surprised he has. Hawkeye aims a gun at his head, but he ignores it, instead looks into Mustang’s dark eyes and spits, “It was his wife he used two years ago, I figured it was a prisoner or a foreigner, at the very least I expected the military wouldn’t allow free Amestrian citizens to be used. And now his daughter – are you so willing to build your career on the backs of children's broken bodies?"

Mustang is shaking now, his fingers poised to snap and kill them all when he snarls, "Fullmetal-"

“Ed, stop it, calm down, you’re not making any sense,” Hughes pleads.

“Big brother?” Nina says behind him, voice a horrible mix of little girl and grown dog. Hawkeye gasps, Hughes goes horrible silent, but it’s Mustang he’s watching. He sees those eyes widen with realization and his face drain of all blood, and for a moment Ed’s not pulling him down so much as holding him up. “Big brother.”

“I’m right here, Nina,” he says calmly, and Hughes gags. “You didn’t know,” he says to Mustang, letting him go and straighten, “You really didn’t know?”

“You did?” the older man asks.

Ed shrugs, “The only way to make a talking chimera is to fuse an animal with a human – and to do so poorly. Well – I mean, maybe with parrots you could get it to make something that sounded like speech, but it wouldn’t be real intelligence.”

Something bumps into the back of his thighs, and he turns, bending down so he can go back to petting Nina. “Big brother,” she says, “big brother, it hurts.”

Ed kisses her furry head, “I know, I’m sorry.” He doesn’t looks at the adults in the room, “You’re sure the military didn’t know he’d used a human? He’ll go to jail for this?”

“Of course we didn’t know,” Mustang says, “That’s – disgusting.”

“I believe you didn’t know,” Ed says, and as terrible as all this is he is horribly relieved that Mustang isn’t the monster he thought he was, “but are you sure the military didn’t?”

Mustang presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything. Hughes, finally finding his voice, asks, “Can you put her back?”

“No,” Mustang says at the same time that Ed says, “Maybe.”

“You can’t undo a perfect transmutation,” Mustang snaps.

“Does this look perfect to you?” Ed asks, “I’m not saying it’d be easy, but –“

“They are biologically joined, you can’t –“

“Do you know nothing of soul alchemy?” Ed asks, and at Mustang’s blank look he rubs at his forehead. “It’s – a soul isn’t attached to a body, it’s a body that’s attached to a soul, okay? So chimeras are by necessity soul alchemy, with aspects of biology. Therefore to make a true chimera, you need to fuse souls, and then bodies. But instead what people do is fuse bodies and leave the souls to battle it out, or attempt to occupy one body. Now Alexander and Nina’s bodies are one, but their souls are still separate. And I use the term ‘one’ loosely here, because it’s more a patchwork fusion than a true one. I’d need to run a few tests, but I assume at least for a while both their souls are still in the body, but because Nina’s soul is stronger it’s the one in control.”

He’s pretty sure Mustang only got half of that, but what he asks is, “Could you make a true chimera?”

Ed’s face shuts down, and he snarls, “I won’t.”

“But you could,” Mustang confirms.

Ed runs his hand through his hair. It gets caught in the braid, and he yanks it out, irritable, “You could, okay? Once you know the basics, it’s not hard.”

“How many people would you say ‘know the basics’?”

Ed opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Me. My brother, if he took the time to think it out. My teacher, maybe, and maybe my father, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I suppose I don’t have to tell you to keep this knowledge close to your chest?” Mustang asks.

“No sir,” Ed rolls his eyes. But then he sighs and tries to adopt at least a little deference, “Can you keep this under wraps for a while? Give me some time to try?”

Mustang lets out a slow breath, “What is it that you expect me to do?”

“Just – keep Tucker locked away. You have people you trust to keep an eye on him, don’t you? And give me some time to try to put Nina back.” Ed swallows, “Please. She can’t – she can’t live like this forever. And if you report Tucker then you know she won’t live like this for long, either, because she’ll be carted off to some lab and dissected. Don’t tell me she won’t, I’m not dumb.”

“No,” Mustang says, “If there’s one thing I couldn’t accuse you of being, it’s dumb.” Ed wants to take offense at that, but he needs Mustang to do this for him, so he holds his temper and holds his tongue. “I can give you two weeks, at most.”

Ed lets out a breath, and that’s not enough time, not nearly enough time, but he’ll manage. “Thank you.”

“What do we do with the girl?” Hawkeye speaks for the first time.

Edwards puts a hand on Nina’s head, and says, “She can’t stay with Tucker, and I can’t take care of her and work on a way to save her at the same time.”

“It’ll be easier to keep an eye on both her and her father if they’re in the same place,” Mustang says.

No,” Ed glares.

Before Mustang can say more, Hughes offers, “She can stay at my home.”

Both Ed and Mustang are startled, and Ed says, “You really don’t have to do that, with Gracia and Elysia there –“

“She can stay in the attic,” Maes says firmly, “I’ll talk it over with Gracia, but I can’t believe that she’ll object. It’s just for two weeks.” His voice softens, “I won’t begrudge a girl two weeks of my time for the chance to save her life.”

“I will save her,” Ed says, and hopes Al will forgive him two more weeks in the armor to save a little girl’s life.

~

The light reflects like diamonds against the amber liquid inside his glass, and Roy wants to do nothing but sleep, sleep, sleep. Who knew that the brat would end up being this exhausting?

“Well that was a fun conversation,” Maes announces, throwing himself down besides Roy at the bar. He steals his drink and downs it all in one motion, and Roy almost smiles. “She cried, Roy, I haven’t made Gracia cry since coming back from Ishval.”

“I don’t think this one’s on your shoulders,” he mutters, flagging down the bartender for more drinks.

Maes sighs, slumping against the bar top, “Do you think he’s going to do it?”

“No,” Roy says immediately, almost before Maes has finished asking the question. His best friend raises his eyebrow at him, and he sighs. “I’m not going to pretend I understand everything Fullmetal was saying about soul alchemy – frankly, that’s so far out of my depth as to be laughable – but poorly completed transmutation or not, it was completed. What’s made cannot be unmade.”

“I would have said that a twelve year old couldn’t pass the State Alchemist exam, and yet here we are,” Maes pointed out.

Roy shook his head, “It’s not the same. Even if Ed can take Nina and Alexander apart – and that is a big if, while it’s not impossible I would be shocked – he won’t be able to put her back together again. It’s human transmutation.”

“Then why the hell,” Hughes says, furious, “are you letting him do this? He’ll blame himself forever if he kills Nina, you know that, this will fucking ruin him, and if you don’t think he can do it, why the hell are you adding to his guilt like that?”

“He has to learn,” Roy says softly, “Edward is – terrifying in his power, in his arrogance. I thought he’d learned, I thought trying to bring back his mother and losing two limbs and his brother’s body had taught him something about hubris, but I guess I was wrong. And he has to learn, he’s too powerful not to know his own limits. He needs to understand that he can’t save everyone before that same arrogance ends up destroying everyone around him, Maes. He, he needs to fail and break apart so I can put him back together again, and make him into – something less terrifying.”

“Well,” Maes says after a long moment, “that’s depressing.” Roy laughs, and it sounds like glass breaking in his throat. Maes clinks his glass against Roy’s and murmurs, “To all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.”

The next day when Scar’s gone underground again and Shou Tucker’s skull is splattered against the floor, Roy looks quietly amused in that way that means if he had it in him to cry, he would, and says to Hughes, “At least this will make it easier when Ed fails. Nina’s already been declared missing and possibly dead.”

Maes grasps Roy’s shoulder because it’s the only comfort his best friend will allow Maes to give him.

~

“Please don’t be mad,” Ed says down the line, “It’s only two weeks, I won’t – this won’t be a habit, we will get your body back, okay? Don’t be mad.”

There’s silence on the line, and Ed swallows, because if Al is mad it won’t stop him, but it will destroy him, so. “Brother,” Al says, “I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t try to help, of course I’m not mad.” Ed breathes out. “What do you need?”

Ed twirls the cord around his fingers, thoughtful. “The reconstruction part should actually be fairly simple – the soul knows it’s body, I just have to guide it.”

“It’s still human transmutation, brother.”

“Yeah,” he sighs, “and I’m running low on limbs. I’ll have to figure out something for the Gate to take. The biggest issue is deconstructing Nina and Alexander and not getting them messed up with each other, or splitting atoms that I really shouldn’t. If I had a spare decade or so I could probably construct an array that would do it all for me –“

Al snorts, “A spare lifetime maybe. And a really big circle.”

“And a really big circle,” Ed confirms. “But I’ve got two weeks and a circle that can have maximum a three meter diameter.”

“I’ll do some research,” Al sighs. Ed beams. He has the best little brother ever.

~

It’s been a week, and he’s no closer to discovering the secrets of precise and controlled biological deconstruction. He’s lived half in the Central Library, the other half in his sad, allotted military dorm room that’s so far from his home in Resembool that it’s almost depressing. It’s almost one in the morning, but no matter how much Ed tosses or turns he can’t sleep. He punches his pillow until it’s almost comfortable and bounces back into bed. He recites chemical formulas, trying to lull himself to sleep. But that’s never worked, it always just makes him think more, and it doesn’t work now, he didn’t know what why he even bothered.

Ed flops spread eagle on the bed, blankets tangled about his legs, and it doesn’t take him long to decide that he’s just got to get out of this room before he loses his mind. He’s already throwing on his jacket and stomping out the door when he realizes that he has no idea where he’s going. It’s too late to call either Al or Winry, too late to go to the Hughes's, no cafes will be open, and while with the watch at his hip he’s technically able to go into bars, he doesn’t particularly want to.

So he’ll walk. He’s been in this city for over a month, and he still doesn’t know it very well. He’s used to knowing his surroundings, and so early it’s still night means that there won’t be as many people to get in his way. And anything’s better than staring at his wall. At first it’s quiet, and he doesn’t see anyone besides the night watchman whom he offers a cocky salute. But if Ed wanted quiet he would have stayed inside, so he finds the loud streets, the ones spilling over with people and yelling a music. With the chaos surrounding him, his mind finally starts to quiet, and now he’s in what Pinako would probably call a bad area, graffiti’d walls and throbbing music, and everyone he bothers to look at is a little too skinny, and hungry for something that isn’t food. He trails his fingers against a particularly dirty wall, reading the creative curse words when he trips, stumbling over someone’s splayed legs and barely righting himself instead of falling on top of them.

“Watch where you’re going,” Ed’s staring down at a girl who’s older than him, maybe seventeen or eighteen. She’s got dark blond hair and blue eyes, and a cigarette held loosely in her fingers. Her legs are covered in torn jeans, and her tank top is small enough that as soon as he realizes it, Ed turns bright red and looks away.

She doesn’t sound angry, more like she’s offering genuine advice, and Ed swallows and says, “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She shrugs and take another drag of her cigarette, and it glows bright orange. “Those things will kill you, you know,” he says, and is instantly mortified.

Instead of making fun of him though, she looks at her cigarette and says, “Yeah, you’re probably right,” and snubs it out against the wall. She looks up at him and smiles, “What’s a kid doing around here at this time of night? It’s dangerous.”

Ed grins, “I think I’m okay.” He takes out his watch and shows it to her, and when her face remains blank he thinks that she doesn’t know what it is and he’s just made a fool of himself.

But she sighs and tips her head back against the wall. Ed can just barely hear the pulsing, thumping music on the other side, and it has to be some sort of bar or club. “Man, the military just keeps on getting more and more fucked up. No offense,” she adds.

“None taken.”

“You didn’t answer my question, you know,” she says, “Why are you out so late?”

“I,” he hesitates, but she’s been nice so far and if she laughs he can walk away and never see her again, “My dorm room was too quiet. I’m not used to being alone.”

She smiles again, and she has a really pretty smile. She pats the ground beside her, and Ed thumps down, suddenly desperate for any human contact he can get. “I know that feeling. I grew up in a big family, and now that I’m away from them – I didn’t realize how much I’d gotten use to a little chaos.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Ed asked, jerking his head to blasting music. He also has the urge to offer her his coat, because he’s a little chilly, and he’s wearing a lot more clothes than she is.

She snorts, shakes her head, “No, one of my friends wanted to go, so I came. Well, she’s not really my friend, but we’re in the same class, and I guess I was hoping going out with her would make us friends. Instead it’s just made me tired.”

“Oh,” Ed says, not sure what to say to that, “So you’re in school?”

“I go to Central University,” she tosses her head in the general direction of where Ed supposes her university is, “What about you, what’s your life story? It’s bound to be interesting. Or your name, I’ll settle for your name.”

“Edward Elric,” he offers her his hand, and she shakes it, “What’s yours?”

“Gabby,” she smiles, “Nice to meet you, Edward Elric.”

He’s about to say the same to her when a man stumbles out the club and towards them, yelling. Ed goes to stand, but Gabby puts her hand on his arm and shakes her head. He gets closer, and Edward can make out the red eyes and white hair, which probably means the language he’s shouting in is Ishvallan. He’s not sure whether he should get in between them or not when Gabby opens her mouth and responds in the same slow, rounded Ishvallan, grinning and eyes half lidded. The man huffs, but has seemingly calmed, crossing his arms over his chest and asking, “Where did you get the kid?” in Amestrian, with only the barest hint of a desert accent.

“This is Edward Elric, he’s a State Alchemist. Edward, this is Aviv Seif.” Edward waves, slightly intimidated. Because Aviv is skinny, but he's way past six feet, and seems even taller with Edward sitting on the ground. The burn scars covering half his face make it looks like he’s always scowling. “He was nice enough to come with me tonight. I ditched him a little bit,’ she admits, the corners of her mouth almost a grin.

“I am her boyfriend,” Aviv glares at Edward, who raises his hands, because he wasn’t making a move, he was just talking. “And you ditched me a lot a bit,” he directs at Gabby, who laughs.

“That’s not a phrase in Amestrian, babe, but nice try,” she holds out both her hands, and he grabs them and hauls her up so fast that she stumbles into him, which going by the smirk on his face was the whole point. She smacks his chest, but she’s smiling when she looks down at Ed. He smiles back, prepared to say his goodbyes and wander back to his bleak dorm when she holds out her hand and says, “Do you want to come to our place? State Alchemist or not, it seems irresponsible to leave you alone sulking in the worst part of town.”

“I wasn't sulking!” he says, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yes you were,” she says cheerfully and waggles her outstretched fingers, “but that’s okay, I was too. I’ll make cookies, I think we have all the ingredients?” she directs the last part at Aviv, who nods.

“I’m not a kid!” Edward glares.

Gabby laughs, “You totally are, but we are too. Are you coming or not?”

Edward hesitates and looks to Aviv. After a moment he sighs and smiles, and that smile transforms his whole face, makes him handsome, “She makes very good cookies.” Ed grabs her hand, and she tries to pull him up but he’s a lot heavier than she expected because of the automail, so she stumbles and almost falls on top of him. Aviv grabs her around the waist, and with one tug they’re both on their feet and falling into him. Ed looks up, and Aviv is just as tall when he’s standing, damnit. “We do not live far,” he promises, one arm around Gabby’s waist and putting the other one on Ed’s shoulder as they start to walk away from the throbbing club.

“Do you like chocolate chips? I think we have peanut butter too,” Gabby says, leaning around her boyfriend’s torso to talk to him.

“I like chocolate chips,” he says.

“Good!” she beams.

Their apartment is on the fourth floor of a crumbling building, but the inside is neat and well kept, with blankets seemingly folded and available in every corner of every room. “Do you want hot chocolate or adult hot chocolate?” Gabby asks after plopping a bowl of ingredients in front of him with stern instructions to mix it.

“What’s the difference?” he asks around a bite of cookie dough, which is delicious, and he’s tempted to not let Gabby actually bake them and just eat the batter.

“Alcohol,” Aviv says, taking down three chipped mugs from the cabinet and a dark bottle.

Ed kind of wants to say yes out of curiosity and so they won’t think that he’s a kid, because he’s not, but he’s tasted Granny’s moonshine and its gross. “Can I try it first?”

“Yes,” Aviv pours a couple of ingredients together and then mixes them vigorously. He exchanges the mug for the bowl of batter, and Ed takes a tentative sip. He grimaces, because it’s not as bad as Granny’s, but he still doesn’t get why people would drink that for fun. “Normal hot chocolate?”

“Yes, please,” Ed says, relieved when the older boy doesn’t tease him, just swaps out the mugs and claims Ed’s rejected one for his own. Gabby slams the oven shut, cookies baking inside and the clanking oven slowly heating up the apartment as well, although by the looks of it Gabby doesn’t feel the cold.

She sits down at the table between him and Aviv and gratefully accepts her own mug of adult hot chocolate. She turns to Ed and asks, “So what kind of alchemy is your specialty?”

That gives Ed a pause, because he’s not really specialized, but he has his name for a reason, so he says, “Metal,” and before they can question further he asks, “What are your majors? You’re both in university, right?”

“I’m a linguistics major with a specialty in desert languages, so a couple of dialects of Ishvallan and a few of Xingese. I’m working on my Cretan, and my written Xerxesian is pretty good,” she says proudly, and Ed knows that it was kind of rude of him and he should have known better, but he wasn’t expecting that from her. “Aviv is getting his degree in Amestrian law, he’s going to be a lawyer.”

“Oh,” he says, blinking, “What are you going to be?” he asks Gabby.

She shrugs, “I have no idea, but people always need translators for things, so I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Aviv places his hands over hers and says warmly, “You will be fine.” Gabby blushes and beams at him, and Edward drinks his hot chocolate and tries not to laugh at them both.

~

It’s just past dawn. Maes is staring down at a sleeping Elysia when Gracia comes up behind him and wraps her arms around him. “Good morning,” she yawns.

“Good morning,” he turns in her embrace to kiss her properly.

She leans against his chest and says, “Did you feed Nina already?”

“Yes,” he sighs, and looks down at Elysia and is honestly baffled how any father could do that to his daughter, how any parent could not love their child with the unshakable, terrible intensity that he feels in his heart every day.

“Does Roy really think that Ed will fail?” Gracia asks, and Maes rubs his hands up and down her back.

“Yeah.”

“What do you think?”

Maes shrugs, “Up until Ed, Roy was the most talented alchemist I knew, and he thinks that the fact that Ed even thinks it's possible is insane. But – Ed is a genius. Not like Roy is a genius, or I’m a genius, but a real prodigy, who’s likely to turn the known laws of the universe on their head. This might be one of them.” He remembers big brown eyes hiding from him under Ed’s golden hair and admits, “I hope it is.”

Gracia sighs and nods, says, “You should go see him today, see how he’s doing. Swing by the dorms before you go to work.”

“Yeah, okay,” Maes agrees, still looking at his daughter, and thinking of Ed.

It’s a little past eight when he bangs on Ed’s door, and when there’s no reply he considers that maybe he’s sleeping in. But Ed has been at the library the second it opened at nine sharp for the past week, and that doesn’t seem likely to change. He knocks again, calling out, “Ed, I know you’re up!”

“Major Hughes?” Maes turns on his heel and sees Ed, clothes rumpled like he slept in them and clearly just getting in. “Is something wrong? Is Nina –“

Ed’s gone pale, and Maes grins and holds up his hands. “Nina’s fine! Nothing’s wrong, just checking in. Did you sleep in the library last night?” he asks, raking his eyes up and down Ed.

“Uh, no. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I walked for a bit. Ended up on Canal Street.” Ed yawns, and Maes is going to have a heart attack thinking of tiny, twelve year old Edward walking down Canal Street in the middle of the night. “I met some people, and stayed at their place last night.”

“You what?” Maes says, and there’s a fist around his heart. He looks Ed over for signs of abuse or rough treatment. He’s been a soldier for a decade, spent a year in a warzone, and has never actually wanted to kill someone, but if someone touched Edward –

“We were talking really late,” he explains, oblivious to Maes’s emotional crisis, “They go to Central University, and Aviv is really quiet, until you get some alcohol in him and get talking about Amestrian citizenship laws,” Ed’s mouth quirks up at the corners, “Then he is not quiet, and Gabby speaks Ishvallan, but I don’t, and he’d forget that, then remember it, and have to repeat it in Amestrian for me, which meant almost all his rants went twice as long – well, anyway, we were up late. They have a comfy couch though.” He yawns again, and actually, almost looks like a kid when he adds, “Gabby made chocolate chip cookies, they were really good.”

Maes lets out the breath he hadn’t realized he’s been holding, because of course Edward goes to the place with highest concentration of prostitutes and gang violence and drug rings, and walks home with two overly political, multi-lingual students who feed him cookies. Of course. “Well, it sounds like you had an interesting night. Why don’t you let me buy you breakfast and you can tell me all about it?”

“Thanks, Major, but I really need to get to the library,” he says, slipping his key from his pocket. His leather pocket of his leather pants that he wore while walking down Canal Street. Maes almost wants to have a heart attack on sheer principal.

He puts a hand on Edward's arm, and the boy looks up at him, confused golden eyes, and he says, "Just a quick breakfast, just an hour of your time, okay?"

"Okay," he says slowly, "Let me shower and get changed. You can wait inside, it's kind of a mess, though."

"That's fine," he says, and mess is an understatement. He delicately sits in the rickety wooden chair while Ed disappears into the bathroom. The bed makes it clear that Ed at least tried to sleep last night, or he just never makes it, which is a possibility. The walls are covered in papers, with diagrams and formulas on them too complex for Maes to even start to follow. All the furniture has been shoved back against the wall, and in the middle of the room is a large chalk circle with arches and curves and precise angles sketched on the inside. Maes stands and doesn't quite touch the circle, but he gets as close as can. There are parts that are smudged out and pieces that look too blank to be complete.

"I'm ready!" Ed bangs out of the bathroom and walks over to his suitcase, bending down to put on socks. He's in those damned leather pants, but hasn't put on a fresh shirt yet. Maes tracks the scars over his young body, and Edward is skinny, but the swell of muscles he'll one day have are clear. The metal arm almost looks grotesque on his frame, and his scars are still a deep, dark red that will hopefully fade to white in a few years.

Ed pulls a black tank top on and then a fresh pair of gloves, and Maes clears his throat, "Socks on both feet?"

"The metal's hard on the leather too," Ed explains, "socks help it last longer. I always go through twice as many right boots than left."

"Right," Maes says, "of course. What do you feel like for breakfast?" Ed runs a comb through his hair, absentmindedly braiding it with impressive speed. Maes is going to have to make Edward teach him that for Elysia.

"Pancakes?" he says, "I haven't had pancakes in a really long time."

"Pancakes it is," Maes says, and Edward bounces on the balls of his feet.

~

Edward rings for Alphonse, because they only have three days. "Rockbell Automail."

"Hey Winry, is Al around?"

"Edward Elric," and Ed swallows because Winry's not yelling, she's quiet, which means he's in real trouble, "You better have a good explanation for why Al has been looking through those books again, a really good reason, because I know you two are stupid, you're both the dumbest boys I know, but you're not that dumb, are you?" Her voice is thin at the end and Edward closes his eyes and drags his hand over his face.

"Winry, Winry, no, okay, no. There's this little girl here, Nina, I told you about her, right? She's in trouble, and we're trying to help her. That's it, Winry, I promise."

The girl takes a deep breath before saying, "Okay, I believe you. I'll go get Alphonse."

"God," Ed mutters, and then his little brother's on the line, "That was horrifying. What did she catch your reading?"

"I needed to double check something in Gregory's symbology texts," he says, and Ed resists the urge to groan because those books are utter nonsense unless you're messing around with human transmutation, and not for the first time Ed wonders what the hell their old man got up to in his spare time, "but that doesn't matter, brother."

"Winry definitely thinks it matters."

"Brother, focus. You can use Adronge's reverse half circle for deconstruction -"

"Have you lost your mind?" Ed scoffs.

"-as long as you use the red lion as the anchoring point. I can't believe the red lion actually has some sort of functionality at all, by the way, but I'm pretty sure here it'll work. I don't know what you'd balance it with on the reconstruction half of the circle, but red lion and Adronge's half array should take care of the deconstruction, if you are very, very careful."

Ed's mouth is actually hanging open, "Al, you're a genius! That's - I mean it's insane, but it'll probably work, yeah -"

"Brother, we still need something to balance the red lion, if we don't balance it, it will tear you apart -"

"Gold," Ed says, seized with a lightning understanding, "we can balance it with gold."

"... That's going to be a rough transmutation," Al says, but he sounds more thoughtful than disapproving.

Ed shrugs, "I'll edge it with the river stabilizers, that'll help. And with the chemical gold against the red lion, it'll be a functional transmutation, that's all that counts."

"Yeah," Al sounds quiet again, "Have you figured out what you're sacrificing to the Gate?"

Ed grins, and shrugs, "Yeah, I have an idea."

~

Gabby's eyes are starting to burn, and the words are all beginnig to blur together to the point where she's not sure what, exactly, she's supposed to be translating. Aviv puts his hand on her shoulder, and she says, "Five more minutes and I'll come to bed, babe, I promise."

"You are a liar," he says fondly, and places a newspaper on top of her notes.

She has to blink a few times before she start to recognize words in the swim of Amestrian, "Fucking hell."

"You make interesting friends," he's totally laughing at her, and she reaches back to hit him. Ed's face stares up at her, announcing the youngest State Alchemist to date, and she already knew that, but it looks like the newspapers have decided to make Edward Central's newest celebrity.

"Do you think he's still coming over on Friday for pizza?" she asks, "We never did get to finish our discussion on how citizenship and taxes are connected."

"I think he is a child still, and children need friends," he bends down to kiss her forehead, "You are a good friend."

Her eyes scan the article, "Should we introduce him to some people his own age? I mean, I don't mind, but maybe he does?"

"When you were twelve, you would have been very happy to have seventeen year old friends," Aviv says confidently, "Besides, normal children are not military and do not have such strong opinions on custody rulings."

"True," Gabby concedes, frowning still.

~

Roy won't admit that Riza's presence at his side is a comfort, but luckily she knows him so well that he doesn't have to. Maes is on his other side, crouched low so as to keep a calming hand on Nina's back. Edward is in the middle of the room, on his hands and knees, gloves off as he carefully sketches out the circle in chalk. It had gone past Roy's ability to understand about ten minutes ago, although when he sees Fullmetal draw out the red lion he almost wants to laugh at how ludicrous this whole thing is, how pointless.

"Okay," the boy says finally, dusting off his hands and running a critical eye over his circle, "I'm ready."

Ed walks over to Nina and squats so he can look her in the eye. He swallows, and says, "Big brother is going to try to fix you, okay? And it - I'm going to do my best, I'm going to do everything I can to fix you. Understand?"

"Big brother," the thing that used to be Nina Tucker moans, "it hurts."

"I know," Ed says softly, "I know." He puts his arms around her, and stands, heaving her up with that deceptive strength that Roy knows isn't due to just the automail. He puts her into the center of the circle with the stern instruction, "Don't move," and then retreats to the outside. He takes a deep breath before looking at Maes.

"Just do your best," he says, and Ed's face firms.

"Here goes nothing," he drops to his knees and places his hands on the circle. After a minute Roy doesn't think that anything's actually going to happen, and this will in fact be the most anticlimactic moment of his life, but then he senses it. A pressure beneath his feet, a buzzing in the air, and with no warning the array comes to life, an intense golden light so bright as to be blinding. It's give off so much alchemical energy that's some of it is being let out as heat, and the room is warming up to uncomfortable levels.

Maes stumbles into him, and Roy steadies him, but can't take his eyes off of Fullmetal. He's breathing evenly, his face is calm, and it remains that way even when the screaming starts. "Dear god," Riza whispers, the guttural combination of little girl screams and dog howls something that Roy is sure will haunt his dreams alongside Ishval, but still he can't look away. The screaming cuts off, and Roy can see dark, liquid masses shifting and moving inside the array, and is struck dumb with the realization that Edward actually managed to take apart a completed transmutation, and that is - staggering, unheard of, and now Roy hopes that when the light dies down he can run forward fast enough to cover Ed's eyes before he can see whatever's left of the little girl. The light flickers, dims, and Roy takes a step forward because the knowledge of his failure should be enough for Ed, the remains of Nina's body isn't something he need to so see.

"No!" he growls, and Roy pauses because he can't breathe suddenly, there's enough power gathering in the air around him that he's choking on it, the alchemical energy is so thick and cloying he's surprised that the air isn't sparking. Maes grabs at his elbow, and how can he not feel that, neither of them can, Maes or Riza judging by the confusion on their faces, and Roy needs Edward to do whatever the hell he's going to do before he passes out, and he doesn't dare to even let his fingers touch in this, because if his array went off with this much alchemical energy he would level all of Central, at least.

It's gone just as suddenly, leaving Roy stumbling and gasping in the clean air as the array shines so bright that even with his eyes closed he's afraid it'll burn his retinas.

Then it's gone, and Edward's calling out, "Nina!" and Roy opens his eyes and goes to grasp for Edward, because he doesn't need to see -

But when he looks in the array he sees a pale little girl's body and long reddish brown hair. Ed tears off his coat and covers her with it before he drops to his knees. "Nina, Nina, Nina, little sister, please be okay, please, please, please," Ed presses a clumsy flesh hand to her throat and his eyes are wide with fear as he chants, "No, no, no," pressing down on her thin chest and leaning over to tip her head back and trying to force air into her lungs. Roy should stop him, should do something, but all he can do is stay on his knees and stare are the little girl that Ed tore apart and put back together.

Ed's crying, and it's been over a minute, and Roy needs to stand, needs to do something other than sit here in dumb shock. Ed presses his mouth to Nina's, breathes, and tries to massage her heart into beating, and Roy will never forget this moment for the rest of his life, will think of it when he need to chase the nightmares of Ishval away.

Nina gasps, and coughs, and her eyes open. Ed gives a strangled cry and scoops her up in his arms. She's dwarfed by Ed's red coat around her body, and she clings to him, each of her coughs rattling her small frame. Ed stands, his metal arm under her thighs and flesh arm around her back and getting tangled in her long hair, and he's grinning so wide staring down at her that his whole face is going to break in half. "Big brother?" she says, finally all little girl and no dark dog growl, face red and exhausted from her coughing fit. "I - I had a bad dream," tears well in her eyes, "I had a really bad dream, I was - and Daddy -" She throws herself into Ed, wrapping her arms around his neck and sobbing.

"It's okay, it was only a dream, big brother is here," Fullmetal croons. He walks out of the circle and drops to his knees in front of Roy, who opens his mouth but has nothing to say. Edward grabs one of Roy's hands and places it on Nina's back. She's warm even through the jacket, warm and breathing and alive. Roy rubs her back, slow and dumb, and looks down into Fullmetal's triumphant golden eyes. Riza and Maes crowd forward, drop to their own knees and hesitantly reach for Nina, feel her warm skin, and Ed eventually transfers Nina into Maes's arms, who holds her like Ed has just handed him the world. Edward claps his hands and erases all evidence of the array, takes one long look around Shou Tucker's basement, and says, "Time to go, I think."

~

The news of finding Nina Tucker two weeks after her father's gruesome murder runs rampant through the city, and the military is so desperate to give the populace some good news, something good to look at, that the proceedings to give Maes Hughes full custody over her are sped through. A picture of the Hughes family - Maes, Gracia, Elysia, and Nina - makes the front page.

Maes throws himself down next to Roy at the bar, "Gracia cried again, but it was pretty great this time. Nina's going to be an awesome big sister, she talks to Elysia all the time, it's adorable."

"Of course, think of the role model she's had," Roy says, smiling in spite of himself at his friend.

"Glad you think so, we listed you as her godfather in the paperwork," Hughes says cheerfully, and Roy very carefully doesn't have a panic attack over being listed as the godfather for both of Maes's children. "Now I have two daughters, you know what that means? Twice as many cute little girls to take pictures of!" Maes grins and knocks their shoulders together, "Why the long face? So you were wrong about something, but hey, what a great thing to be wrong about!"

Roy swirls his glass so the ice cubes knock against each other and says, "I'm sending Ed away, to the East."

"Jeez, isn't it a little soon?" Maes blinks, "I thought you wanted to keep him close, at least while he was young."

Roy snorts, "You didn't feel it in there, in that basement - Ed can't be in Central, can't be any one place for too long, because if any of the higher ups figure out what he can do," Roy pauses, because the idea of a power like Ed's leashed under the military's command is staggering in its horror. He knows he'll lose sleep thinking of what Ed could have done in Ishval. "I'll keep him moving, never in the same place for too long. It's the safest option."

Roy doesn't say anything for a while, lost in his own thoughts, and Maes allows him his silence until he says, "You were planning on Ed to fail, to show him that he wasn't as good as he thought he was. But he succeeded."

"The most terrifying thought in all this," Roy says softly, and can't look at Maes while he says it, "is that Fullmetal might actually be just as powerful as he thinks he is. And - that would be bad enough, if all Edward would ever be is what he is right now, that would be one thing. But he's twelve Maes, he's a child, and this is only the beginning."

"You worry too much," Maes says, and Roy's eyes snap up to his, "So far Ed's used his skills trying to help people, Roy, and even if he messes up sometimes - well, we'll be there to put him on the right track."

Roy wants it to be that easy, wants intent to be the most important part, but when he was a budding alchemist, when he enlisted in the military, when he puzzled out the array on Riza's back and leashed flames to his hands, he thought he was going to save people, to help them, to work towards the greater good. Instead he got the smell of burning flesh, and he became not a savior but a crematorium. Maes knows all that already, though, so all Roy says is, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and knocks back the last of his drink.

~

Alphonse slowly puts the phone back on its hook, and Winry is so nervous she's practically vibrating. "Well?" she demands, and crosses her arms defensively when it comes out as a squeak. Al turns - and she can't read his face anymore, and she hates that.

"We did it," he says, and he says it so normally that it takes Winry a moment to process, "We actually did it, Nina's back in her old body."

Winry screams and Al startles, but doesn't have time to react before she throws her arms around his metal waist and screeches, "You did it, you did it, you did it! I knew you could! If you guys did this then you can do anything!"

Al knows that what they've done is worlds easier than getting his body back, but it's proof that they can work with the Gate, that it can be predicted and quantified, and Al knows what is cost his brother to face the Gate again, and Al thinks he loves him so much that he'll burst. "Brother's being sent on a mission, he says he can stay for a day since we're on the way," he's got his big hands on Winry's back, finally used to how much pressure he can exert without bruising.

"Good! He needs a check up, I bet he's got food in my finger joints, he always does, it's like he's driving me insane on purpose," Winry rants, but doesn't try to move away, only falls more heavily against him, and Al cradles her close while she tells him all the ways she's going to kill his brother. He doesn't laugh, but only because not having a real body means Winry's started throwing wrenches at him when she's mad. He has a couple of dents in his armor that Ed can hopefully get out.

~

Ed kicks his boots against the sidewalk, these streets at least now familiar to him. He's been smiling constantly for days it seems, and mostly it's because of Nina, because she's safe and alive and happy, but also because -

He'd faced the Gate again. He spoke to it, and it didn't crack him open this time, and he traded Alexander's body and soul as the price for performing the transmutation. Angry, spitting black tendrils that want to drag him into them and tear him apart, but can't because the Gate is bound by the laws too. Snarling fury in his brain, claiming equivalencies. But he knew better, knew this was not a deal, was not a bargain, it was a transaction with set prices. An animal's body and soul for some measly energy, and maybe with another alchemist that energy would have destroyed them, but the Gate had given him the knowledge to control it from the first go around, and if it hadn't wanted Ed to be a worthy opponent it shouldn't have weaponized him with knowledge.

He grins and twirls in the street so his coat flares out around him, and enters a building just as someone is leaving it, taking the stairs two at a time. Getting Al's body back won't be nearly as easy, since they actually need to retrieve it from beyond the Gate, but if they have the philosopher's stone - well, laws are laws, and not even the Gate is exempt from that.

He knocks twice on the door, is about to knock a third time when it's yanked open and Gabby's dragging him inside. Aviv is wearing a yellow, frilly apron and Ed doesn't even try to stifle his laughter. "The pizza is almost done," he says, red eyes warm at Edward's giggles.

"You, you're an alchemist, you're good at math, right?" Gabby asks, pushing him down into a seat at the table.

"I'm okay," he says, blinking, and smirks when Gabby plops a book of trigonometry in front of him that he may or may not have read when he was seven.

"I will make you so many cookies if you make this make sense," she says, scooting close to Ed and pouting, throwing an arm over his shoulders.

He blushes and scrubs a hand over his face to hide it, "Yeah, sure, no problem."

~

"Try not to draw too much attention to yourself," Roy says, leaning back in his chair as Fullmetal stands across from him and scans the file on his mission. "I'd prefer if you could get in and out without causing a scene."

"I'll do my best," the boy says, frowning while he looks over the pages, "Suppose these sightings are chimeras, and I do find the person making them - what should I do with the chimeras?"

"Gather and contain them, then turn them and the rogue alchemist over to General Grumman at Eastern Command," Roy says, but Edward only hums in response, and he can feel a headache building behind his eyes and the kid hasn't even left yet. "Fullmetal Alchemist, are your orders clear?"

"Transparent," Ed says, but Roy has the distinct impression that the boy is laughing at him. "Will that be all? My train leaves in an hour, and I need to swing by the dorms still."

"One more thing," he lets his voice soften enough that Edward actually deigns to look up at him, "Really do be careful - I don't need to tell you that your abilities are extraordinary, you know that. But - there's a thin line between gods and monsters, Fullmetal. You don't want people to - you don't want people to be forced to place you as one or the other."

Edward is silent for a long time, that deep golden gaze staring into Roy and choking him anytime he tries to break the silence himself. Finally Ed looks away, and asks, "What makes you think gods aren't monsters too, Colonel?"

Roy doesn't have an answer to that, but thankfully Fullmetal doesn't wait for one. He offers Roy the sloppiest salute he's seen since the last time the boy saluted him, and leaves, slamming the door shut behind him with an impressive bang.

~

Nina squirms on Maes's shoulders, tilting her body so far to the side that she'd have fallen off if not for Maes's firm grip on her ankles. "I don't see big brother!"

"Are you sure you got the train times right?" Gracia asks, bouncing Elysia in her arms.

"Yes," he says firmly, then lets go of one of Nina's ankles to scratch at his forehead, "I think."

Gracia laughs, and Nina hits the top of his head and scolds, "Papa!" and Maes grins even wider, because this could have been a lot harder than it was, bringing this little girl into their family. It would have been if not for Ed's patient coaxing and explanations, that Daddy was gone just like her mother was, but Gracia and Maes would be her parents if she wanted, and Elysia could be her little sister for real.

Nina was insistent that she would only have one daddy, but seemed shyly accepting of Maes as Papa. One day, Maes knew, they would have to sit Nina down and explain what had happened to her, how she had come to be their daughter, but for now she seemed to content to accept her two weeks as a chimera as nothing more than a bad dream.

"There he is!" Gracia points, and Ed is indeed making his way through the crowd, a small figure of red and gold. "Edward!"

"Big brother!' Nina screeches, and Maes winces. Ed turns towards them and waves. Nina kicks his shoulders, "Down, down, let me down!" Maes does, partially out of fear of bruising, and she's off like a shot, darting in between adults' legs to tackle Ed to the ground. By the time Maes and Gracia make it over to them, Nina's dangling from Ed's throat like a necklace.

"Hey Mr. and Mrs. Hughes!" he greets, apparently giving up on detaching Nina and putting an arm around her legs to support her. "What are you doing here?"

Gracia leans over to kiss his forehead, and he turns bright red but doesn't protest. "Why we're here to see you off, of course!"

Ed blinks and says, "Oh," as Gracia hands over Elysia so Ed's got Nina on one arm and the baby on the other.

"Smile!" Hughes says, snapping a picture, "Now one with you, honey!" Gracia stands behind Ed and bends down so her head is on top of his, and Ed smiles through his blush.

"You didn't have to," he says, handing Elysia back as Nina lets go and jumps down.

"I don't think Nina would forgive us if we didn't say goodbye," Gracia snags the camera from her husband, who pouts but doesn't protest, "Okay, now one with you two."

Maes stands behind Ed and puts his hands on his shoulders, beaming. "I have to catch a train," Ed says, trying to tug away. Maes bends so their faces are level, and another flash goes off.

"Okay, okay, if you have to," Maes says.

Nina runs forward and wraps her arms around Ed's legs, "Be back soon, okay big brother?"

"Okay," he grins, hauling Nina up and squeezing her tightly before handing her back to Maes. "I seriously have to go guys -"

"ED!" Maes blinks and looks toward the screaming, sees a teenager with ripped jeans and blonde hair running towards them, "EDWARD!" Maes squints, because she looks oddly familiar.

Ed turns, "Gabby?"

The teenager launches herself at Ed, who stumbles but doesn't fall. "I thought we were going to miss you!"

"Hello Edward," a deeper voice says, and Maes looks behind them and sees a tall Ishvallan teenager coming to stand beside Ed, a basket balanced on the crook of his arm. "I told you we would not be late," he says to the girl.

"We almost were," she insists, finally letting go of Ed so she can take the basket from the other boy and hold it out to him, "Here! I baked them this morning, that's why we were late."

"Almost late," the Ishvallan says, and Gabby scowls.

Edward looks in the basket and grins, "You made me cookies?"

"Of course," Gabby goes back to focusing on Edward, "You'll write us, won't you? These military missions always last longer than they're supposed to, who knows when you'll be back, it could be months."

"I don't think it'll take months," Ed grins, "but yeah, I'll write, if you want me to."

"We want you to!" Gabby swears, "Right Aviv?"

"Right," the boy says, and he rolls his eyes but he's grinning too. He bends down to hug Edward, and it's then that Maes sees the burn marks and his stomach goes cold. People get scars all sorts of different ways, he tells himself, just because he's an Ishvallan with burn scars doesn't mean Roy is involved at all. "Be safe. Come home soon."

"I will," Ed says, and the train lets out a piercing warning whistle, "Okay, I really have to go. Bye everyone! Thanks for the cookies, Gabby!" He hops on the train, but a moment later he pop his head out a window, to Nina's delight. The train starts to pull away, and they all stand at the platform waving to Edward until he's out of sight.

Maes is still staring at the blond teenager who's waving at a speck in the distance, and it finally clicks. He blurts, "Catherine Armstrong?"

Her hand freezes in the air. Aviv coughs. She lowers her hand and slowly turns to face him, her lips forced into a polite smile. "I'm sorry, have we met?"

"I, uh, was at Briggs for a few weeks for an inspection," he says. "I met the General. You look a lot alike." He pauses, then questions, "Gabby?"

"A nickname, which I use because I don't enjoy being recognized," she hisses, and Hughes flinches. "I suppose my sister and I do share a few similarities." she continues pleasantly, "I also suppose you work with my brother as well. Next time you see him, do kindly tell him to go fuck himself."

Maes's mouth drops open. Gracia coughs to hide her laugh. "I'll ... keep that in mind."

"Great," Gabby says brightly, "well, I'll see you around." She spins on her heel and marches away. Aviv gives them a sheepish wave before jogging after her.

"You could try to act a little more scandalized, she swore in front of our children," Maes sighs.

Gracia kisses his cheek, "Sorry honey, your face was worth it."

~

Ed watches Central pass by, and he has at least a day on the train before it hits Resmebool. He opens the basket and stuffs one of Gabby's cookies in his mouth. Edward flips open the file Mustang had given him, and no way is he actually turning chimeras over to the military, the Colonel has to know that.

He grabs another cookie, getting crumbs all over the file, and wonders if a six legged three hundred pound beast could be taught to plow farmland.