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“The crimes of children reproduce themselves, closing their victims in cages built of nightmares.” –Miri Yu

 

There’s a story, a legend they tell in the east—it’s probably a Xingian story, really. You’d never know how big that desert is, the way stories wander back and forth across it. Stories about peacocks and palaces and princesses, stories about war and alchemy and automail. Stories about Xerxes.

This story, it’s about a guy who cuts himself shaving, and instead of blood, a couple maggots come out. And he freaks, he tries to dig them out with the razor, but the deeper he goes, the more there are. He cuts himself on his arm, and maggots come out there too, and pretty soon he’s lost it, hacking away all over, anything to get rid of them. In the end, he kills himself that way. Turns out there wasn’t anything in him but maggots.

If Ed finds it comforting to see his own blood, he tells himself that it doesn’t have anything to do with that story. It’s not like he’s worried he’s full of maggots, because humans don’t have maggots for blood, obviously. It’s just some bullshit story to weird people out.

That’s what he tells himself. But every time somebody cuts him and he sees that good, clean red, he thinks, thank god, he thinks, not yet.

He’s bleeding now, though he can’t remember how it happened. He ran into some guys in an alley, yeah? It’s creepy that that’s all he remembers, creepy that he blanks shit out now like a fucking drunk. Can you be a fighting junkie? Probably.

He hopes he didn’t kill anybody. Shit.

But however it happened, he’s bleeding all over the place, and he’s supposed to be meeting up with Hughes, and Hughes can’t handle crap like this. So he transmutes the cuts closed.

This is a trick he picked up from talking to Envy, and it’s getting to be a bad habit. He wishes he’d never figured out that he could fake medical alchemy by using his life as a source of energy; that’s definitely something people without much use for their lives shouldn’t know.

He uses it for every little injury, even though it feels like cheating. It is cheating, and Al would be all kinds of pissed off if he knew.

But he doesn’t know, he’s dead. And Ed keeps doing it.

He’s tired, that’s all. He’s tired of fighting, he’s tired of screwing up, he’s tired of trying to find a reason to get out of bed (thanks for that, Hawkeye). He’s just really fucking tired, and at least when he’s dead, he can let himself rest.

And hey, it’ll be nice to be out of options. The minute he’s got options, he fucks up.

* * *

“Ed!”

Hughes gives him a big smile. It’s even a real smile by now, and Ed’s gotta say he’s proud. Hughes’s smiles for Ed used to have a kind of death’s head quality to them; didn’t seem like he’d ever get over that. But check it out, he has. Give the man a cookie.

“How are you on this lovely morning?” he goes on, swinging his arms, gleeful.

Hughes is being a freak. More of a freak, that is, than usual. “The hell is your problem?”

Hughes laughs and reaches out to grab Ed’s shoulder. “Have you seen the paper this morning?”

Ed hates, he hates it when people touch him with no warning, and he hates it even more when people fucking grab at him. It kicks off a panic attack; he feels caught, he feels trapped, he feels…

He’s gone feral. He knows he has, but knowing you’re crazy doesn’t make you any less crazy—he still can’t deal. He jerks away from Hughes, and Hughes looks sad, and fuck fuck fuck, if it’s so hard to be around him, why don’t people just leave?

No, I haven’t seen the fucking paper. What?

Hughes rolls with it, which he’s gotten really good at doing. Because he had to. It’s just that hard to be around Ed.

“Observe!”

This paper Hughes is so proud of? Yeah, it kind of explains why the downtown is having a fucking riot right now. “Shit, Hughes. You did this?”

“I did.” His grin’s turned all wild-man. Fuck, Mustang’s gonna go ballistic.

Ed knows from riots. He started one in Liore one time. Hughes is career military, so he really oughtta be familiar with the old shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out policy on civil disturbances.

Then again, Hughes gets so dazzled by intrigue sometimes that he misses the stuff that’s really fucking obvious. Like riots downtown.

“Okay. Here’s how it is,” Ed says, determined to be as obnoxious as possible if he really has to fuckin’ explain this. “I pass a guy on the way here, he says, ‘There’s no such thing as homunculi.’ The lady next to him says, ‘You calling our Mark a liar?’ cuz, lookin’ back on it, apparently she knows the dick who wrote the article. Guy down the way from them says, ‘It’s the End Times!’ and his wife tells him to shut up, but the first guy thinks she’s telling him to shut up, so he says what’s her problem, End Times guy says don’t you start in on my wife, and then some kid throws a rock cuz he’s an asshole. Everything goes straight to hell like a fucking bar fight cuz people are scared. It’s chaos down there now.”

Hughes bounces on his heels like a little kid getting ice cream. “That’s perfect,” he says.

No joke, something really freaking serious is wrong with Hughes. “Yeah, everybody loves a good riot. I’d say let’s go get hotdogs and watch, but shit, I think somebody burned the stand down.”

“Edward Elric,” Hughes says, still with the grin. “You of all people ought to appreciate the beauty of chaos in a military state. Things are now, as you say, out of control. Out of everyone’s control!”

Ed braces himself for mad laughter, but a few seconds go by and there isn’t any. Which is a relief, for what it’s worth. “So, like, if you can’t have control, nobody can?”

“I’m just leveling the playing field,” he explains, doing that earnest loony thing he does.

“Uh huh.” Actually, Ed’s pretty sure the homunculi are past the point of giving a shit about politics. They got what they wanted from Amestris already, right? Like, if Hughes had done this fifty years ago, that might’ve been useful. Now? He might as well be pelting Wrath with long-stemmed roses.

But whatever. As long as it makes Hughes happy, hell, Ed figures he can start as many freaking riots as he wants. Odds are everybody’s gonna be dead in a couple months anyway.

Well. One month, three weeks, and five days. Ed needs to learn to stop keeping track of this shit.

“Where d’you go from riots?” he asks, idly curious about just how crazy Hughes is.

“Well, I don’t know yet,” Hughes says, all chipper.

Answer: really fucking crazy.

“Uh huh. Mustang know about this yet?”

“No.” Hughes bounces. Again. What’s with the bouncing? “Want to come with me and tell him?”

Hell no, Ed doesn’t want to be associated with any of this shit. “I gotta talk to somebody. Sorry, whatever.”

“Somebody?”

And this is the other Hughes, the one who’s not a goof. This Hughes, you can actually picture doing whatever he had to to survive in Ishbal. And scaring the bejeezus out of everybody while he did it.

Still too goddamn nosy for his own good, though. “Yeah, somebody,” Ed says. “See you, I guess. Have fun with Mustang.”

He walks off, and he can see, out of the corner of his eye, that Hughes is making little unconscious grabbing motions. Like he always does when Ed walks off and leaves him with no explanation. It’s maybe the reason Ed does it so often.

As for where he’s going, he saw the byline on that article. Turns out he knows the dick who wrote it, too. Reporters are kind of like vultures: apt to show up at a kill faster than the law. Sometimes they even run into Ed, and this one’s run into him a couple times.

Mark Rhodes, the giant moron, clearly needs a visit. Fast, before some homunculus kills him and puts him out of his misery.

* * *

Ed has to wait an annoyingly long time, but Rhodes does finally come stalking out of his office. Tall, thin guy. Big glasses. Looks like a giant stork.

Ed always has to fight the impulse to tackle him on sight. Guy like that? Begging to be knocked over.

“You’re outta your fuckin’ tree,” Ed calls down to him.

Rhodes stops abruptly, blinks a few times, then tips his head back to look at Ed. “As opposed to the Demon Alchemist,” he says, “who seems to be in my tree, indeed. I wonder why.”

Ed likes the vantage point. What’s so weird about that? He jumps down, though, because he knows Rhodes, and he knows Rhodes’ll go on being an ass about it until he does.

“Why the fuck did you write that article?”

“The Demon Alchemist reads the newspaper?” Rhodes asks, whipping out his ever-present notepad and jotting something down on it.

Among Rhodes’s (many) annoying habits is a tendency to talk about people in the third person when they’re standing right fucking in front of him.

“I didn’t know you knew Hughes,” Ed says, ignoring him.

“I didn’t know the Demon Alchemist knew members of the military, either,” Rhodes says thoughtfully, making another note. “That’s very interesting. I wonder if the military supports the efforts of the Demon Alchemist?”

Rhodes’s annoying habits are legion. “Didn’t you know that was gonna start a riot? Did you even care, or is this just another way you’re touched in the head, you fuckin’ psycho?”

“People in glass houses,” Rhodes murmurs, scribbling madly.

Poor choice of adage. People in glass houses can totally throw stones as long as they don’t give a shit about the house. Or getting cut. “What I’m saying is, you’re gonna get your idiot self killed by homunculi. Get the hell out while you still can, cuz this whole country’s goin’ down. Probably starting with you, if you keep on like this.”

Rhodes looks up from the notes and blinks his stupidly enormous eyes at Ed. “Can I quote you?”

“No, asshole. Fuck, I wish you’d pretend you don’t know I exist!”

“The people—”

“If you tell me the people have a right to know,” Ed says very clearly, “I will break you.”

Rhodes makes a note of that, and Ed can’t help it if he snarls like he’s rabid. He can’t. It’s not his fault, he was driven to it. Then Rhodes makes the serious fucking mistake of looking afraid, and Ed has to take off before he really does break the guy.

People are so freaking ungrateful. Ed was trying to help, but maybe you can’t help people who are too stupid to come in outta the rain. Fuck it, the world is ending, none of this shit matters anyway. He might as well kill Rhodes himself. What difference would it make, if he’s not gonna leave? Split his stupid bird head right open, won’t matter in the long run, might make Ed feel better for a second.

Oh, brother, he hears, an echo and a whisper. Your temper is so embarrassing.

Al’s voice.

Rhodes is more right than he knows—Ed doesn’t have a leg to stand on, talking about other people’s sanity. People in glass houses with voices in their heads, that’s some kind of extra special hypocrisy.

The voice has been there all along, ever since that day. It doesn’t have a lot to say—kind of like it was set to repeat a few extremely Al phrases over and over again—but what it does have to say, it’s been saying way more often lately.

Yeah. That’s not freaky at all.

It’s Hughes’s fucking fault, calling him Ed all the time. Nobody’s called him Ed since he left Rizembool, and he liked that just fine. Liked being the Demon Alchemist, the Demon, D. Even Elric, cuz it’s funny how Mustang calls him that like he’s doing it to prove something.

But Ed. All that name does is bring back memories of what life had been like before Ed fucked it up beyond all recognition, and who needs that? Memories that cause more backchat from the inside of his own head can’t be good.

He wonders, sometimes, if this is some kind of goal of Hughes’s. You know, to point out everything he can’t have. Like, ‘Here’s my wife and my daughter and my perfect fucking life. Too bad you’re too worthless to even have a family.’

Shit, that’s not fair. Problem with Hughes is, he thinks he’s doing Ed a favor. The stupid bastard. Ed was right all along: hanging around with people is always pointless, and it’s usually painful, too.

Anyway. Whatever, so Rhodes was a wash, he’s probably doomed, it’s not Ed’s fault. Time to go check on his job security, because that actually is his problem.

* * *

Ed fishes a bloody tooth out of his pocket and tosses it on the bar. “Both ears and the tail,” he announces.

Chris Mustang, better known as Madame Christmas, picks up the tooth and considers it. “Don’t throw body parts on the counter,” she says after a second. “It’s unsanitary. David Finch, I presume?”

“Big Dave,” Ed agrees. “Slow fucker.” Probably the reason he was always tying people down. Had a thing for keeping fingers and teeth, the asshole. Ed tied him down and pulled all his fuckin’ teeth out before killing him.

It’s not often that Ed goes into these things with intent to kill, but when he does, he tries to be quick about it. It’s sick torturing them, and besides, it doesn’t prove anything. This means Ed’s usually more humane than the law, which goes in for firing squad. Pomp and circumstance and public violence, yeah? Very Amestris. So most of the time, Ed’s doing people a favor. But something about trophies really makes him lose it. He fuckin’ hates the ones who keep trophies.

Hence the tooth. Ed’s little joke.

Chris wipes tooth cooties off the counter, then fishes a manila envelope stuffed full of cash out of the register and pushes it across the bar. Shadiest paycheck ever.

Well, okay, that’s a lie. Ed’s paychecks actually tend to be shadier, but maybe hers stand out because she obviously enjoys the hell out of how bad it looks. Oh ho ho, is he hired muscle, a rent boy, just the kid who mows her lawn?

“Wow,” Ed says. “Check this out. Payment for services rendered. It’s like you’re my boss, it’s like I have a real job. I feel all grown up and shit.”

She gives him The Eyebrow. “Don’t worry, I know how very unencumbered you are. You’re Amestris’s most independent contractor.”

Ed knows she’s making fun of him because there’s no time when she isn’t making fun of him. But sometimes it’s tough to figure out what exactly her problem of the moment is.

The door opens, distracting him, and he lets it drop. Not like it matters anyway.

The door is one of the new girls coming in with somebody. Ed doesn’t know her that well, but it seems like she’s honestly taken to the guy.

Ed knows a lot about sex and absolutely nothing about it, somehow at the same time. Maybe it’s that he’s channeled all his sex drive into rage, but as strong as he is on the theory…he’s got no interest in the practice. Of course, thanks to the power of first impressions, his back-brain’s decided that sex always ends with somebody getting a broken bottle shoved up an orifice. So probably this all comes back to his misspent childhood, yeah?

“Don’t sit there and brood,” says Chris. “You’re driving away custom.”

Ed thinks not. It’s a bar in the middle of the day; every last person in here is sitting around brooding. Unless they’re on their way upstairs—and those guys aren’t paying him any attention.

But he takes her point, which is: get the fuck out. “Right. Later.”

“I should have something for you next week.”

* * *

It’s a crap job, he knows that. He does know. But it’s like he told Mustang: you gotta play to your strengths. If you waste what you’re good at, then hell, you might as well’ve never been born. And Ed’s good at killing people, he’s a fucking savant. He’s so good at it, he does it even when he’s trying for the opposite.

Winry thinks he does this job because he feels, what, superior to criminals or something. That’s not it. That’s never it. Ed figures there are two basic flavors of criminal, and he’s not superior to either one. In fact, he pretty much falls into category two.

First, there are the assholes. Ed doesn’t know or care what their problem is; maybe they were just fuckin’ born evil. That kind, they’ve got purpose. They’re absolutely sure they’re in the right. It’s irritating as hell, not least cuz it’s been a long time since Ed was sure of anything. And the last time he was sure, turned out he was dead fucking wrong. The assholes are the ones he tends to kill by accident in a fit of slavering rage. Nothing noble about it.

Then there are the other ones, the mad dogs. When you kill a mad dog, it’s not cuz you feel superior to the dog, it’s because it’s plain too dangerous to have around. You’re not executing it, you’re putting it down. Sometimes it’s even a sad thing. They didn’t set out to be evil. It’s just bad shit happened, and they tried to cope with it in a really stupid way. It’s weird how easy it is to turn yourself into a monster by accident. And if you ever realize what you’ve done, it’s too fuckin’ late by then. You’re past helping.

If Mustang had any sense, he would’ve put Ed down before now. But he doesn’t have any sense. Instead he has optimism, or what the fuck ever. He seems to think Ed is still good for something, that he’s trying to, whatever, fix the ills of society. Nice that somebody thinks so. He’s wrong, though. No matter what Ed does, crazy people are still gonna do crazy things, and desperate people are still gonna do desperate things. When Ed’s done with someone, all he can think is, “That guy won’t ever hurt anybody again.”

He knows exactly how pointless it really is. And sometimes it’s worse than pointless. Right now, see, he’d kind of like to talk to that bastard, Scar. Too bad, yeah? The only dead guy Ed’s ever managed to talk to is Al, and that doesn’t count.

Killing Scar, that was a sad thing. Even taking the Rockbells into account, it was sad. He regrets it. He doesn’t regret it. He doesn’t even fucking know anymore. He was definitely gonna let the guy live until he saw Winry, but that kicked his sense of mercy to the curb.

And now that it’s too damn late, he realizes it’d be nice to know what exactly Scar’s brother was aiming at with this east and west alchemy blending. The Xing girl’s useful, but she doesn’t know shit about Amestrian alchemy. Just like Ed doesn’t know shit about Xingian alchemy. They’re teaching each other as much as they can, but it’s hard to focus when the clock’s ticking down. As for actual examples of melded alchemy, all they’ve got to go on is an arm.

Great planning, Elric.

The girl’s being a real sport about it, at least. It’s not like it’s her country. If Amestris ate itself, Xing wouldn’t give a shit, you know, as a nation. Probably wouldn’t even much notice, not in the short term. And yet here she is, working as hard as he is—it’s like she’s forgotten what she came here for. He’s not gonna remind her, though.

* * *

The girl doesn’t show at the warehouse where they meet sometimes—fair enough, they don’t have a schedule or anything—so Ed sits there and beats his head against the alchemy by himself for a while. Gets nowhere, predictably. That end of the world thing? That is gonna happen.

But here’s the twisted part: Ed’s still having fun.

It’s just, he hasn’t done hardcore alchemy for years, and somewhere in there, he forgot that he loves it. He does love it. It feels like his brain is stretching back into its favorite shape or something, like when you get back into working out after slacking for a week. Feels good.

On the one hand, his priorities are obviously fucked. On the other hand, he may as well have some fun, right? Like the man said, it’s the End Times. Time to party if ever there was one. Or, in Ed’s case, time to geek out on alchemy and do some amateur dentistry. Whatever floats your boat.

He keeps at the alchemy for like four hours before he’s too hungry to work anymore. He doesn’t want to crack into Chris’s money here on the first day he’s got it, not when he doesn’t take anything like as many jobs as he used to. So he’s gonna have to mooch food off somebody.

He picks the House of Woe because it’s fuckin’ hilarious over there, and besides, he likes to think it’s mostly their fault he’s broke.

He goes through downtown on the way, sees that the riot’s mostly petered out. Central has a bunch of pussies for rioters, is what—Liore kept at it for days. Here it’s only been a few hours, and already all that’s left are smashed windows and some burned out broken shit in empty streets, not a human in sight. Ghost town Central. Nighttime is prime riot time, too. No wonder the Father guy hangs out here, these people are lame.

The sun’s set by the time Ed gets to Mustang’s place. He usually waits ‘til dark to show up—best odds of finding them both in, and unlike the pussy rioters, he doesn’t mind being out at night. Plus it seems to bother Mustang more when he visits late. Like Ed’s some kind of boogeyman, scarier in the dark.

Huh. The boogeyman. Ed wonders if people tell their kids the Demon Alchemist is gonna get them if they’re bad. That would be awesome. He could ask Hughes about it—parent on hand, yeah?—but when he walks in the door, Hughes is On the Phone with Gracia. That’s an uninterruptable activity, and it’ll probably go on for hours.

Which leaves Mustang, who’s hunched over the kitchen table, totally hysterical. And he doesn’t fly too well with hypothetical questions at the best of times. Oh well. At least they still have sandwiches Ed can steal.

“Hey, Colonel. How’s the newspaper fallout treating you?”

“I hate you and I’ve always hated you,” Mustang mutters savagely to the newspapers strewn all over.

“Damn, that hurts,” Ed says, clapping a hand over his heart and trying not to grin. “And I thought we had something, Mustang. I thought we were buddies. Or at least, I dunno, partners in crime.”

Mustang snorts. “I believe you’re the criminal in the room.”

“Something something riots,” Ed says pleasantly.

“All perfectly legal,” Mustang insists, but he undercuts his own argument by rubbing his eyes so hard it’s like he’s trying to pop them out of their sockets. “What did you do today, Elric?”

“Nothing much.” Early morning fight, dodged a riot, chatted with Hughes, chatted with Rhodes, got paid. A little brooding, a little alchemy. Day in the life. “What brought that on? I got blood on my chin or something?”

See, the thing is, it’s just too easy. If Mustang’s gonna make that face every time Ed says something twisted, then he can’t seriously expect Ed to stop doing it.

“So!” Ed carries on, cheered up already. Free food, scaring Mustang. Life’s little pleasures. “What’re you gonna do now? Gonna save the world one riot at a time?”

“Actually, this will probably turn out well for us,” Mustang admits like it hurts him. “It does throw a wrench into the works. It’s just not…elegant.”

Hughes likes chaos, but Mustang’s a control freak like none other. This is one of the reasons there’s fucking tape down the middle of every room in the house.

“Roy spent all morning soothing upset people,” Hughes says from right freaking behind Ed, making him spin and start a lunge, then just about pull a goddamn muscle stopping himself when he realizes it’s only Hughes.

“My, aren’t we tense,” Hughes says with his eyebrows up, fake surprised. Hughes is a dick.

“Don’t sneak up behind me, you dumbfuck,” Ed snaps. Must’ve been right at the end of the Gracia call when Ed came in, meaning Hughes has been talking to her for the last hour plus, meaning he’s gonna be chipper ‘til Ed wants to kill him.

“Yes, yes. But about your saving the world question,” Hughes says, goofball supreme, “by the time this is over, Roy will be in a brilliant position, politically. On top of that, the homunculi are going to have a very hard time sneaking around from here on out. The riot was perfect! I tried to tell you this morning.”

Ed shakes his head. It’s un-freaking-believable, the way Hughes acts like this isn’t gonna end with dead bodies piled a foot deep all over the country. And Mustang’s no better. The two of them, they know it’s a house of cards, but they go and live in it anyway. Making all these plans for a future that won’t exist, the fuck is wrong with them? If you’ve got nothing, then you’ve got nothing to lose. Easier that way.

“A perfect fucking riot,” Ed snarls. “Maybe I don’t want you assholes running the country. Oh wait, yeah, none of this shit matters anyway, cuz we’re the walking dead. Never mind. Do whatever the fuck you want.”

For some reason, he’s really pissed off. Really, weirdly—fuck, he’s shaking with it, the hell? It’s just he can’t believe them. Can’t believe they’re wasting time setting this up like it matters, like it’s not all gonna be smashed and taken away in one month, three weeks, and five days and it’s bullshit, is what it is.

On that thought, he punches the shit out of a chair so he won’t punch the shit out of Hughes or something. That’d be awkward.

Chair fucking breaks. He snarls at it, piece of crap, can’t even handle one goddamn punch.

“You need to do something about your temper, Elric,” Mustang sighs. He’s trying to joke, but he’s holding his jaw so tight it’s a wonder his teeth don’t break.

Funny, Ed thinks. My dead brother just said the same thing.

But good job, Mustang. No wonder he’s a leader of men, yeah? There’s no better way to force Ed to get a grip than reminding him of Al. It’s like filling his guts with ice, calms him right down. Good job.

He claps and puts the piece of crap chair back together. Takes a breath. “Gosh, Colonel,” he says, trying to sound upbeat, probably sounding freaky instead. “I’ll try my best.”

“Stop that right now,” Mustang says, and whoa, it’s an order. Hah.

See? Mustang’s way more fun than normal people. Or maybe Ed just likes ‘em bossy, because that would explain, like. Everybody he hangs out with.

“Assume for a moment, Ed,” Hughes puts in before anybody attacks anybody else, “that we’re not all going to die. Just as a hypothetical thought! What would you suggest we do to prepare? We have the politics covered, but Roy’s not as up on alchemy as he used to be. Humor us with your expertise.”

What, now they think Ed’s just gonna lay down and give up? Hell no, he’s gonna fight. Of course you fight, that’s life. Doesn’t matter if it’s pointless, it’s what you do. The planning for afterward is what pisses him off.

“It can’t hurt to kill the homunculi,” Ed tells them. “That’s gotta rock the boat, yeah? Tough to fuck up the country if you’re dead.”

“Then you’ll have to take out their Father, too, and you don’t know where he is,” Mustang says with the pinched, queasy look he gets whenever he’s worried. Which is a lot, poor bastard.

“Yeah, but I know somebody who does,” Ed says. Mustang and Hughes put on these shocked faces that don’t make any fucking sense. Ed’s wondered this before, but, seriously, what is it they think he does with his time? Because actually he spends most of it trying to find shit out, so surely he’s bound to, you know, find some shit out.

People make this murdering-for-justice thing out to be way more time-consuming than it is. Killing people only takes up like half an hour a week. The rest of the time? Nothing but boring-ass legwork.

But hey, if they want to think his life’s all mystery, drama, and intrigue, whatever. More power to them. It’s just depressing how they never learn.

“So I’ll go see my info guy tomorrow,” Ed says. “I like it, it’s like division of labor. All the monsters play together, all the normal humans play together. Cool.”

“You’re more human than you like to think, Ed,” Hughes tells him. Ed cracks up.

Human. He loves how people say that like it’s some kind of positive thing, like humans aren’t the slimiest creeps around. Even the homunculi tend to be basically predictable. Humans don’t even manage that.

And of all people, Hughes doesn’t get how bad humans are. Now that’s hilarious.

“That’s me,” Ed says, still snickering. “One of the guys. I’ll, uh. Report in, or whatever. Sometime. See ya.”

“Take care, Elric,” Mustang calls after him.

Take care, shit. Man’s a dreamer.

* * *

The way Ed understands it, once upon a time a long time ago, some asshole decided he could make himself a country as a lab experiment. This asshole had clearly been around too long for his own good or anybody else’s, and was proposing to be around even longer.

So, next question: what’s the experiment? It’s not a Philosopher’s Stone, cuz asshole’s got those already. Something like that, though, only with nation-wide levels of bad shit instead of just building-wide. Maybe the scale’s bigger than one nation, too, what with it involving the moon.

Whatever, the theory’s all fascinating, sure. The fundamental problem, though, could be solved just by Ed killing this Father guy. Right? A lot of the world’s problems could be solved by killing the right asshole. And seeing as that’s what Ed’s good for…

Hah, like anything’s ever that easy. From what Ling says, this Father guy is no joke, a hundred times tougher than the homunculi. And Ed can’t even reliably take them down.

Still, Ling’s bound to have some kind of interesting news. He accidentally infiltrated the enemy camp, didn’t he? He’s a fuckin’ goldmine.

People are always looking at Ed like he’s a sad object, but that’s just because they haven’t seen Ling lately. Guy’s gone and made it so the thing he most wants and the thing he’s most afraid of are the same thing. The power to protect his country and the power to destroy it, all in one Ling-shaped package.

That’s no ordinary level of fuck-up. That takes a pro.

But that’s all Ling’s problem and none of Ed’s. For his part, Ed’s glad that Greed is around again, especially now he’s over his obedient lapdog kick. As homunculi go, Greed’s a real winner. And, yeah, predictable. Ed walks into Carl’s bar, and there he is, all right. Must be Tuesday.

“Which one are you?” Ed asks. It’s usually obvious, but not when they’re brooding. Creepily enough, they brood the exact same way.

“I’m Greed,” he snaps, indignant.

“Uh huh.” Why they both seem to think Ed should know, he can’t say. “Still haven’t learned to share, I guess.”

“If I ever so much as thought about sharing, this human would take the body back in a heartbeat. He’s not average, my host.” Greed’s all proud for some reason. “He never gives up.”

“Yeah, well. He’s only fifteen, still got a lot of energy in him.” Just like Ed’s only fifteen. Except Ed hasn’t got much energy.

Wait. Now he thinks about it, he’s turned sixteen, hasn’t he? Hell, time flies. So this makes him officially old enough to die for his country. Convenient, considering that’s what he’s about to do.

He eyes Greelin and wonders what the legal age limit is on dying for somebody else’s country.

“Speaking of him, lemme talk to him.”

“This body belongs to Greed,” Greed says.

“That body’s a fuckin’ timeshare, and I want. To talk. To Ling.”

Greed crosses his arms and puts on his total asshole expression. “The body is mine.”

Which is about the time Ed loses patience, so he grabs Greed by the ears and screams, “Lan Fan, Lan Fan, Lan Fan,” into his face for a while.

Funny thing, this shocks Greed into total lack of reaction. Ling, though? He punches Ed in the nose as soon as he gets the body back.

Hah. Ling Yao. Gotta love the guy.

“What happened to Lan Fan?” Ling demands.

“Huh? Nothing. Well, she’s worried about you, jackass, but otherwise she’s fine. She menaced me with a knife and everything.” It’d been pretty funny, actually.

“Can’t you come up with a better way to get my attention!?” Ling demands all outraged, clutching his ears.

“No, see, cuz when you flip your shit, that’s when you win. Which says something bad about you, huh?”

“What do you want?” Man, such a sour face.

“Just information, don’t be a dick. You’re an insider now, right? So if I want to kill a homunculus, where should I hang out?”

Ling huffs irritably and crosses his arms, but he has to know Ed’s right. “Well, Gluttony’s been lurking around the train sta—ngh!”

Personality flip, commence. That didn’t last long.

“That was a dirty fucking trick. Both of you!”

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Ed asks, grinning. “Thought you were taking over the world or something. We’re doing you a favor, killing off the competition.”

“They can’t become my minions if they’re dead,” Greed explains, aggrieved.

“Yeah, well, they’re not gonna become your minions if they’re alive, so…”

“Oh, but they will.”

“Oh, but they won’t. Hey, the father guy, you know where he is, right? Show me.”

“Our agreement was that you would be working for me. Do you remember that agreement? You don’t seem to remember that agreement.”

“Hey, I got my eyes on nothin’ but your best interests. You just sit back and leave it all to me. Greed for overlord!”

Greed sighs. “I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to let you live.”

Hah. That’s what they all say.

* * *

“What,” says Ed, staring into the kitchen at…at…. Look, how are these assholes gonna handle a whole country when they can’t even handle one goddamn house? “The fuck?

“It’s his turn to wash the dishes,” Mustang explains without the tiniest bit of shame. Which, okay. Fine. What that doesn’t explain is why the entire fucking room is drenched, along with Hughes and Mustang. Like, the bickering is funny, but trashing the house is just sad. You don’t trash a nice house. If you’re gonna trash your place, it oughtta be a shithole to start.

But fine. Whatever. Ed’s not gonna say a thing, not about how he’s gonna tell Gracia and Hawkeye about this, not even about how he and Al were better than this when they were little kids.

“It is not my turn. I washed the dishes yesterday,” Hughes is saying, folding his stupid, soggy arms and freaking sulking.

“Figure it out when I’m not here,” Ed snaps. “I heard where the father guy is. You wanna hear about that, or you wanna trash the kitchen a little more? I feel like the fucking grownup here, it’s bullshit.”

“Where is he?” Mustang. One minute fighting over the dishes like a brat kid, next minute looking like somebody you’d trust with your life. Sometimes the whiplash gives Ed a headache.

“Center of town. Center of Central. Cute, huh? Lab 3. Kind of explains all the weird shit Scar said he saw in there.”

Silence. Mustang and Hughes swap worried looks. Ed yawns. “So we gonna go kill this guy?”

“We might want to look into a little more strategy than that, Ed,” Hughes says. Hughes, the guy who strategizes himself into riots. And is dripping all over the floor.

“Whatever,” Ed says, and hops up onto the only dry counter space to wait out whatever meandering, waste-of-fucking-time conversation these guys feel like they need to have.

Hughes thinks they should go for the homunculi before the father guy. Hey, Ed’s down for that. But oh no, Mustang wants to go talk to some general. The fuck does he want to do that for? Neither Hughes nor Ed is particularly clear. But he just keeps talking: she’s not as vicious as she looks this, maybe I can persuade her that, and pretty soon Hughes is nodding along.

This kind of shit always happens around Mustang. Sometimes people get out of his sphere of influence and snap out of it, but more often they never recover, just wander along, dazed and obedient, totally convinced Mustang’s idea is awesome. And sometimes Mustang’s ideas are awesome, but other times, see, they’re crap. Whiplash again, and no one seems to see this except for Ed. Even Hughes, who should freaking know better, gets pulled along.

They decide Mustang’ll go talk to the general, and Hughes’ll talk to that guy…whatever…Hawkeye’s granddad (and how weird is that?). They nod at each other, pretending to be grim. Grim, hah. Yeah right. They love this scheming shit.

Obviously, this means Hughes is getting ditched with the dishes. Ed hopes Mustang knows he’s gonna suffer for that later.

“My perfect daughter,” Hughes murmurs out of nowhere, staring at a dripping dish with freaky, tranced-out eyes, “is the world’s best dish-wiper! Did I ever mention that?”

Mustang scurries out the door before he gets a dish chucked at his head. Ed grins at Hughes, who bows a little, then he follows Mustang out. Probably a good idea to make sure this random general doesn’t kill him. How annoying would that be? Hawkeye would kick Ed’s ass all the way to East, for one thing.

It takes Mustang almost the whole walk to the car to figure out that Ed’s tagging along.

“What are you doing, Elric?” he asks. You’d think it’d be obvious to a guy as smart as Mustang pretends to be.

“Just coming to watch this crash and burn. Why?”

Why?

“Hey, actually, I gotta a question. You in the mood for questions?”

“Is there any way I can persuade you not to come along? By pointing out that you’re not military? By pointing out that she’ll be more suspicious if you’re there? Violence, bribes, any method at all?”

“Nope.”

Mustang sighs all woeful. His life is so hard. “Ask your question.”

“You and Ling, you’re both doing stupid fucking things to take over your countries. Ling was born to it, so I kinda get him. What’s your deal? Why do you have to be the one to fix all the shit?”

Mustang’s quiet for a long time. Quiet and grim, for real this time. Finally he says, “It’s my duty to protect as many people as I can. It’s the only thing that will come close to making up for what I’ve done.”

Ed smiles. Like Hughes said, then. Mustang thinks he’s so bad; it’s hilarious. It’s even sort of sweet. You’d think—the guy calls himself an adult, right?—you’d think he’d have seen what bad is, by now.

But maybe not. It’s not like most people go looking for evil in quite the determined way Ed does. Then again, Mustang served with freaking Kimbley. He should know he isn’t in that league.

Yeah. It’s cute how he doesn’t.

“And you think that’s funny,” Mustang murmurs. He doesn’t know whether to be pissed off or just confused, and that’s pretty hilarious, too.

“I think your face is funny, Colonel,” Ed says. “I got no comment on your megalomania. Because we had this talk already. So yeah, question over. Can we go kill these guys now, or we gonna keep on with the heart to heart?”

“We’re not killing them, Elric, weren’t you listening?” Uh, obviously not, Mustang. “We’re trying to convince them to cooperate with us.”

“Uh huh. So like, if they won’t cooperate, we can kill them then?”

Elric.”

Too. Easy.

* * *

They run into the general right outside the base. Mustang says that’s lucky, cuz no way was he letting Ed on base. “I absolutely do not want your presence being a matter of military record,” he says. Apparently the gate guards can ID everybody if the mood strikes them. Ed’s not a fan of that idea, either. For one thing, he never carries any ID. He bets that wouldn’t make him popular with the guards.

The general turns out to be General Armstrong, the crying Armstrong’s older sister. You’d never know it, though. This lady? For sure if you ever saw her cry, she’d kill you.

She gives Ed one long look when he and Mustang show up, then nods a little, like maybe he isn’t totally useless. That done, she drops him from her attention completely (Ed can’t actually remember the last time somebody did that; it’s a weird feeling) in favor of fighting with Mustang. And whoa. Stand aside for the pros. They’re going a mile a minute: Mustang’s being a skeezeball, Armstrong’s calling him worthless, and they’re pretending not to plot the overthrow of their government with everything they got.

Bad as Hughes, both of ‘em.

It’s fun watching them do the hissing alley cat thing for a while, but it dulls after ten minutes or so, and Ed’s gotta look for his entertainment elsewhere. Lucky him, he doesn’t have to look far.

Armstrong’s number two is some guy called Miles. He’s Ishbalan, he’s in the Amestrian military, he is clearly one twisted man. Ed likes him already.

Unlike that worthless bastard Scar, Miles reminds Ed of the Ishbalans he knew in Xerxes. Tough and crazy and totally unbeatable, just like the desert. Like they’d lived there so long, they’d absorbed part of the essence of it right into them.

Ed spends a lot of time in the desert, when he has time. In winter, especially. As soon as he could move with the automail back when, he ran to the desert for reasons that were never totally clear to him. Maybe he’d had plans of death by heat stroke. Fuck knows. That wasn’t the most mentally stable time in his life, what with the death and the pain and the voice in his head.

But maybe he was looking for the ruins, for the city where everybody died in a night. Maybe he was looking for proof that, once upon a time, somebody had fucked up even worse than Edward Elric. And if that’s what he was looking for, then yeah, he found it. He stayed out there for almost a year, only leaving for library runs to try to work out how he’d managed to kill Al.

It’s a clean kind of insanity you get in the desert, always more dangerous to the people around you than it is to you. The light and heat, it makes people angry. Hot blooded, hah. Sun and dirt and scrubby plants and poisonous animals, and there’s no question that life’s a bitch and a struggle. The desert can’t be bothered to tell lies; everybody there knows the score. Fight or die, that’s all there is. And for Ed, there was always the automail, always the burning. Like punishment built right in so he didn’t have to worry about it.

(Didn’t have to worry about it, that is, until just recently when Winry saw the burn scars. God damn, the shrieking.)

When you go crazy in a city, it’s different. It turns you in on yourself first, out on everybody else later. Ed read somewhere that if you put too many rats in a cage, they lose it and start killing each other, even if they have plenty to eat. That may be why he cracks so hard in cities. Too many rats.

City crazy gets worse in the winter. Ed wonders what the hell Miles was thinking, moving up north. Or is it okay because he takes the desert with him wherever he goes? Ed thinks he’d like that; thinks it would’ve been cool to grow up in the desert himself. Although not to grow up Ishbalan, because, you know, fucking genocide.

“You’re staring, boy,” Miles says, soft and uninflected. Not making eye contact, because you don’t, in the desert. Not unless you want to start something.

Ed smiles, remembering. The first time he’d run out there, he’d always wanted to start something. Nice how they’d made it so easy.

“You remind me of somebody,” he says, and he says it in Ishbalan, not because he needs to, not because it even makes sense for him to be talking like a priest, but just to fuck with the guy. See if he can startle up a facial expression.

“I see,” Miles answers in Amestrian. And that’s a no on expressions. Ed grins.

Miles reminds him of Kael, actually. Kael had been justifiably not too shot with having a nutball little Amestrian kid show up and start picking fights with anybody who held still long enough. But Kael’d gotten used to him. Maybe Miles would too.

Kael’s the one who gave Ed the whole vigilante idea, actually. Mistress Shan is, practically speaking, the Law of Xerxes, and Kael’s the tool she uses to enforce it. She aims him at people who have it coming, and he wipes them out. Ed liked the idea, although it was annoying to have to do all the legwork himself. At least Chris does that shit now.

Mistress Shan and Kael would beat Ed to death if they knew what he’d done with their model of justice. They’d take it in turn.

“I understand you killed one of my fellow Ishbalans,” Miles says. No judgment in it, just a statement.

Damn, this guy’s grapevine rocks.

“Yeah, he was a dick,” Ed agrees. “I’m kinda regretting it now, though. Turns out I coulda used him. But time only goes one way.” That’s a Mistress Shan quote. “Tough shit, I guess.”

Miles frowns, like he’s got no clue what to make of Ed anymore. Ed gets that a lot.

“Elric,” Mustang calls, walking away, obviously expecting Ed’ll follow like he’s on a leash. Conversation over then? Fucker could’ve just said so. Course, they are in front of a military base. Should Ed act, uh, military?

He turns and gives the general Armstrong and Miles a half-assed salute for the hell of it, then trots after Mustang. Or like, trots up right behind him and punches him in the kidney for acting all lord and master, but close enough.

He can hear Miles cracking up back there. The guy’s got a sense of humor, hey.

Mustang makes a pretty entertaining argh kind of noise, but then he bitches Ed out for ages. Still worth it for the argh.

Mustang shuts up abruptly when he figures out that this blond guy who’s walking toward them is actually walking at them. Blond guy is of the Asshole with a Clipboard variety. Watching Mustang salute him basically makes Ed want to kill everyone.

“Colonel Mustang,” the asshole says with his uptight face all pinched together. “Unusual to see you here on a Saturday. And with a…” He eyes Ed and tries to come up with a description. Ed stares back and daydreams about transmuting the ground under him into a big dragon mouth made of rock. The rock dragon would swallow the guy, Ed would transmute the ground normal, they wouldn’t even have to worry about what to do with the body. Neat. “Minor,” the guy decides.

“The son of a friend,” Mustang says, which distracts Ed from rock dragons. Hah, somebody’s scarred little teenage thug, Mustang? Yeah, sure. Though, come to think of it, Ed can totally picture people dumping their problem kids on Mustang. Straighten him up, Colonel. Make a man of him!

“Hm,” says Asshole Clipboard. “Irregular.”

Just don’t clap, Ed tells himself. You can think all the bad arrays you want. You can picture ripping the fucker apart in many and creative ways. But don’t clap.

Don’t clap, don’t clap, don’t clap.

If Mustang knew how often Ed has to have this little chat with himself, he wouldn’t be so goddamn trusting.

Mustang fobs the guy off with things to do, Saturday, you know, whatever. Calls him sir. Ed reminds himself a few more times not to clap.

They slither away in the end without having said much of anything, Mustang at his weasely best, and manage to crawl back into the car. Mustang looks like he’s heading to his own execution.

“What’s your problem?” Ed asks, because seriously what the fuck? Ed’s the one who had to watch Mustang act like he respected a total douche, he is the injured party here, Mustang needs to get a grip.

“We could be in trouble,” Mustang says, starting the car.

“That’s different from normal how?”

“That was the fuhrer’s personal secretary,” Mustang says, and peels out on a goddamn city street.

Ed thinks, Should’ve clapped.

* * *

That whole stupid thing just goes to show Ed was right, you should play to your strengths. If he can’t handle watching the weaseling, he needs to bow out for Mustang, Hughes, the general Armstrong, whoever. People who can handle it. With that in mind, he spends the next few days leaving the politics alone and thinking about alchemy instead. For all the fuckin’ good it does.

“I told you, you need to feel the dragon’s pulse,” the Xing girl says. Her face, meanwhile, says she’s starting to think Ed’s actually stupid.

“I don’t know what the fuck that means,” Ed points out for like the fiftieth time. “What’s it meant to feel like? What’re you feeling it with? Should I stare really hard at the dirt and wait for something to happen?”

Now even the cat thing’s staring at him like he’s stupid.

“You are dead inside just like your country,” the girl tells him. “Close your eyes and feel it.”

So yeah. That’s a wash.

He does figure out one thing from talking to the girl, though. He figures out why he’s got a voice in his head. Useless information, maybe, but he can’t deny it’s been bugging him.

They’ve been talking a lot about the Gate, souls, spirits, shit like that. And it gets him thinking that probably he and Al got mixed up in Gate, what with the whole blood mixing thing. Probably they ended up sort of tangled, like their spirits crossed or whatever.

And then Al died, and he went ripping through Ed on his way out.

So that’s the working theory on what the voice is. An afterimage. An echo. No way to prove anything, obviously. It could be an echo, but then again, it could be that Ed’s fucking nuts. He can’t decide which option’s worse.

* * *

Ed leaves Mustang and crew alone for a little while, and everything goes straight to hell. Apparently Asshole Clipboard was exactly as much of an asshole as he looked like he was, and seriously, Ed should have clapped.

“Hang on, you’re in hiding?

“Technically,” Hughes says proudly, “we’re AWOL.”

He’s always looking happy about things that are totally fucked up and it makes Ed want to put a fist through the wall. “Get that smirk off your face before I take it off for you. Why’re you hiding?”

“We were all reassigned to strange places. Fuhrer Homunculus made a menacing speech to Roy. We didn’t have time for all that. Hence, AWOL!”

“If you’re in hiding, why were you so fuckin’ easy to find?”

“I was waiting for you.”

Ed’s mouth drops open, because what the fuck. “There’re less boring ways to kill yourself than to sit here waiting for a military execution, you giant freak.” And that’s just one problem among an infinite array of problems, each more screamingly idiotic than the one before.

“We didn’t want you to think we’d abandoned you,” Hughes says. Smiling. Fucking smiling. Sitting at the kitchen table like this is any other day, smiling.

Ed kicks over the chair next to Hughes (it’s the one he broke before, he’s kinda hard on that chair). That done, he goes to the kitchen cabinet, hauls out all the plates (they really gotta be so goddamn high?), and dumps them on the floor with a satisfying crash. He heads for the back door dragging another chair behind him by the legs, knocking shit over with it. It looks a little like he dragged a body through the house. He slams the chair into the wall next to the door a few times, then chucks it randomly into the living room, where it makes some kind of bad smashing noise. He kicks in the glass on the front of Mustang’s big, stupid clock for good measure, then claps and blows up the doorknob on the back door. He thinks about smearing blood somewhere, but decides it’d be overkill.

Not perfect. He’d need to set some shit on fire if he wanted to do this right. But they might’ve broken Mustang’s fingers, yeah? And Ed doesn’t want to accidentally burn the place down, that’d be fuckin’ ridiculous.

“Let’s get outta here before somebody comes to see what the hell that was about,” he calls to Hughes, who’s still sitting at the table like a moron.

“Ah.” Hughes hops up, obedient. Which is good, cuz Ed didn’t want to have to knock him out and drag him. “And…what was that about? Exactly?”

“Making this confusing instead of just straight stupid,” Ed explains as they head out the back. Freaking Hughes. He looks so smart, he acts so dumb. “Now you might be AWOL or you might be abducted, nobody can tell. We’re doing Hawkeye’s place next. I’m guessing you took Hawkeye down with you.”

“We didn’t take her down—”

“Shut up. Where’s she live?”

“I suspect the Lieutenant isn’t going to approve of your trashing her house, Ed.”

“No shit. That’s why we’re gonna ask forgiveness and not permission.”

“We can’t ask her forgiveness once she shoots us to death.”

Ed shrugs. “Worse ways to go,” he mutters.

Hughes sighs, pushes up his glasses, and rubs the bridge of his nose. Like he’s the one who’s got a headache when, actually, he is a headache. “Six blocks west,” he says. “And I hope some god or other has mercy on us.”

Ed’s not betting on it.

Mustang and crew are huddled away in a house downtown that belongs to some absent friend of Hughes’s. Ed wonders if this friend knows they’re using his house. Well, whatever, it’s not Ed’s problem. He’s got a bigger problem, namely surviving this chat with Hawkeye.

“You broke what?” she demands. Her hand’s going for her holster, and, haha, Ed would feel a lot better if he thought she knew that.

“It was practically the only thing unpacked! The fuck is wrong with you anyway, what was with the boxes? Were you planning to go on the run?”

“I was really fond of that mirror, Edward,” she says.

“What th—it was just a mirror! It didn’t even have a frame! The hell?

Oh, shit, now her trigger finger’s twitching. “You’ll buy me a new mirror. And it will be exactly the same as the old one, Edward.”

Hughes has the biggest, looniest grin Ed’s ever seen on his face. It’s not right that he’s dodging this bullet completely. He stood there and let Ed break the apparently precious fucking mirror, didn’t he?

“Fine. Same damn mirror. Or, hey, I’m an alchemist. Maybe I’ll fix the old one, how ‘bout that?”

“Exactly the same,” Hawkeye says again. She’s crossed her arms tight together now, like she’s trying not to shoot him. Sweet of her. Ed crosses his arms, too, and scowls, so they’re mirror images of each other. She is so weird. He told her he dumped out all her boxes and kicked her stuff all over the apartment, and did she care about that? No. The mirror that came with the place, though, that shit’s sacred.

He was so careful with her gun cleaning stuff, too. He moved it around, yeah, but he made sure not to so much as scratch anything. And is she grateful? Does she even fucking ask? No. Hell no. But the mirror, now.

“You’re a freak,” he informs her. She’s unimpressed.

“Wait, did you trash my place, too?” The Lieutenant Havoc guy, bordering on tearful.

“Yeah, obviously. We did all your places.”

The skinny guy, Falman, sinks down onto a chair, puts his head in his hands, and moans. Ed’s not surprised. Guy’s place was so neat it was creepy. It was a relief to trash it.

Ed killed a guy once who kept like hundreds of locks of hair in plastic baggies, all labeled with a name, date, and number from one to ten, whatever the fuck that meant. He had dozens of baggies of fingernails, too—not clippings, the whole fucking nail. And then he had some test tubes full of blood. All with the labels. Thing is, Ed might never have even found out about him, except he started going for eyeballs, and that, people got upset about.

And yet the fingernails, the blood, nobody found them worth mentioning? Fucking what?

Anyway, yeah, that guy. His house was freakishly neat, even smelled of hospital. It was really fucking stupid of Ed to chase him to his house. For one thing, it’s not smart to chase anything into its den, and for another, weird nightmares forever. Ed ended up killing the guy just to make the skin-crawly feeling go away.

Falman’s place brought all those happy memories back. Ed’s enthusiasm for trashing it was maybe a little over the top.

“I rescued your mother’s china, Havoc,” Hughes puts in after shooting Falman a pitying glance. Havoc slumps. Ed can’t tell if it’s a happy slump or a well, damn slump.

“You told him to break my clock, didn’t you?” Mustang accuses Hughes.

Hughes grins. “I didn’t tell him to…but apparently I’m not the only one who hated that clock.”

Mustang sighs. What, it was a precious fucking clock, too?

“Is there a point to me being here?” Ed snaps. “Or can I go do something with my time?” He’s got no interest in standing around listening to them bitch about their furniture all damn day. He could be talking to the Xing girl. He could be chasing a homunculus. He could be—

“Since we’re past the point of subtlety,” Mustang says, “we may as well try your plan, Elric.”

Havoc just about swallows his cigarette, and Ed gives him a sour look. Jackass doesn’t know enough about Ed’s planning skills to be panicking. What’s his problem?

“So what is Elric’s plan?” the fat guy—what’s his name? Breda?—asks, tossing a chess piece in the air and catching it over and over ‘til Ed wants to break his fingers. “Is it to charge out and kill everything that doesn’t look human?”

“How did you know?” Hughes murmurs. Raising himself in Ed’s estimation all the time. Asshole.

Breda catches the chess piece and stares at Hughes for a while. Then he turns to Ed, and finally to the ceiling.

“Huh.” He shrugs and starts tossing the chess piece again. “Guess I haven’t got any better ideas.”

Breda, unlike everybody else in the room, is not on Ed’s shit list. For one thing, his place was by far and away the easiest one to trash, on account of Breda’d trashed it long before Ed got there. Plus, he rolls with stuff, even when it gets weird. It’s nice.

“The sooner the better,” Mustang says like he even knows the meaning of hurrying. “Elric, do you know where any of the homunculi…live?”

“Gluttony’s been hanging around the train station, Ling says. Why?”

“Ling?” Hughes asks, stupidly surprised.

“Yeah,” Ed tells him. “Ling. I think you met the guy. What’s with the face?”

“I thought something terrible had happened to Ling Yao.”

“It did. He’s still alive, though, lucky him. We’ll see how long it lasts.”

Hughes is giving him that look, he fucking hates that look. It’s so stupid, they’re all gonna die in a minute, it’s too damn late for Hughes to be worrying about Ed’s lifestyle.

“Elric,” Mustang cuts in before Ed can say anything hateful. “I’d like you to take Havoc and Breda to the train station.”

“Holy shit,” Ed says, mouth pulling into a half-grin before he can stop it. “I get my own little team and everything? That’s so what the fuck. I could just go by myself, y’know. I mean, look at that guy, he’s gonna have a heart attack.”

Havoc. Seriously, he’s way too delicate for the military.

Mustang thinks so too, apparently, cuz he gives Havoc this disapproving glare. “Don’t worry about Lieutenant Havoc,” he tells Ed. “He’ll behave professionally.”

“Uh huh.” Poor bastard. “And what’re you gonna be doing while all this’s goin’ on? Sitting here bossing people around?”

“Depending on how this goes, I’ll take a team to Lab 3. Possibly as early as tomorrow.”

“You can’t take down that father guy without me,” Ed says. Not an argument, just a statement of fact.

“We’ll only be scouting, this first time,” Mustang tells him. “It’s wise to understand the lay of the land.”

Ed doesn’t actually agree with that so much. “I’ll go kill this guy, then we’ll talk.”

Mustang rolls his eyes.

* * *

Ed will say one thing for Ling: getting taken over by a homunculus was the best information-gathering move he ever made, even if it was fucking stupid by any other standard. Ask Ling for homunculi and ye shall receive.

“That’s him, huh?” Breda asks.

“That’s him.” Ed claps, transmutes his arm into a blade. Changes his mind, transmutes it back. Havoc’s giving him all panicky looks.

“Is that what I’m going to look like if I keep eating corned beef?” Breda mumbles to himself, horrified.

“Nah,” Ed tells him. “You’re gonna be more flabby.”

“Kid, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to be a murderer and a brat at the same time. That’s gotta be too much of a good thing.”

“What’s your plan?” Havoc cuts in. “Do you really have a plan? Can you actually kill those things?”

“Can you stop asking me questions for ten goddamn seconds so I can get a word in edgewise?” Havoc stops talking. Miracle. “You go stand at the intersection on the north side. It’s empty cuz of all the construction; the slackers take like three hour lunch breaks. Me and Breda’ll drive him toward you, you distract him and trip him into that hole.”

“What’s the hole for?” Havoc asks. What is this, random spirit of inquiry?

“I dunno,” Ed says, kind of interested himself, now they’re talking about it. “Foundation? Quarry? Sewage tank? Anyway, once you get him in there, I’ll take care of him. Got it?”

“You make it sound easy,” Havoc said.

“Yeah? Good. Try not to fuck up and die, Mustang’ll get all pissed off.”

“Better move quick, Havoc,” Breda says. He whipped out a gun sometime when Ed wasn’t looking, which is creepy. Ed thought Hawkeye was the only one who could pull shit like that on him. “Because our boy here is about to do something…very…stupid.”

Havoc bolts off the roof faster than Ed thought he could move just as Breda shoots at the crane cable holding up a huge, metal I-beam. It takes a few shots, but he does manage to drop the beam right onto Gluttony’s head.

So it turns out that, like a lot of Mustang’s guys, Breda’s secretly kickass. Huh.

“You gonna move, brat, or you gonna sit there staring at me all day?”

Ed moves. And not a moment too soon, because Gluttony hoists himself up and heaves the I-beam at the roof just as Ed hits the ground.

There’s a lot of crashing. Breda yells. Ed hopes he didn’t figure out Breda was kickass just in time for him to die, because that’d be a waste.

Whatever. Worry about it later.

Havoc’s not half bad, either. He’s managed to distract Gluttony from going after Breda by getting himself chased instead. He turns to shoot Gluttony in the head every now and again with this look on his face like he just can’t believe that no matter how many times he shoots, it’s never gonna do any fucking good.

He gets Gluttony to chase him past the hole right around the time Ed gets there. Ed decides he’s a huge fan of Mustang’s team. He decides this right as Havoc trips like a spaz and falls on his face. Here I am, homunculus. Eat me.

Well, shit. At least the guy has lucky timing.

Ed claps and hits Gluttony from the side about a second before Gluttony grabs Havoc, knocking him down into the hole and landing on top of him. He tries to remember everything he’s worked out about breaking down Philosopher’s Stones.

It’s a little scary, this trick. The principle is basically to use your body as a ground, though it’s hopefully less fatal than doing it for electricity would be. But Ed’s never done this before, so while he’s got a pretty good handle on what ought to happen, he’s not so clear on what’s going to happen. So, yeah, scary.

That said, it looks really fucking cool.

Blue lightning. Red flashes. Gluttony dissolving like sand, all the way down to a skeleton, and then to nothing at all. The people that made up his stone go screaming through Ed, and Ed screams right back at them because fuck off, he’s doing them a favor here.

And then all of a sudden it’s over. No more screaming, no more power, no more homunculus. Ed falls down in the Gluttony-dust, feeling giddy and like he’s kind of still sparking inside, and he laughs, because, hell yes, it worked. That’s three homunculi down, plus Greed who doesn’t count. So far so good, yeah? Three to go. Watch out, assholes, I’m a fucking genius.

“Oh my God,” Havoc says. Gibbers. “You’re crazy. You are crazy.”

“Yeah,” Ed agrees, with a deranged giggle to prove the point. This should really not be news to anybody, but Havoc does give the impression of being kinda slow. Except when it counts.

“Holy shit, holy shit, what did you just…?”

“I think you’ll find I just saved your ass,” Ed mutters, heaving himself out of the hole. Why is he even answering these bullshit not-questions? Maybe it’s all the exposure to Hughes that’s making him soft. “The response you’re lookin’ for is, ‘Gee thanks, Mr. Demon Alchemist.’”

Havoc’s mouth is hanging open, and that is not a good look for anybody.

“You saved my life?”

“Seems that way.”

Havoc makes fish faces. “Uh.” More fish faces. “Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No, really.” He’s pulling it together now, frowning and looking halfway intelligent. “Thank you. You didn’t have to—I mean, I’m nobody to you. So. Really, thanks.”

Ed hates it when people get all sincere and shit. How’re you meant to respond to that? It’s not like he’s such a dick that he’d stand there and let a homunculus eat somebody. “Whatever.”

Havoc fidgets, looks at his hands, looks back up. He’s working himself up to say something really idiotic, Ed can tell. Guy’s about as opaque as glass, and to think he works for Mustang. That just ain’t right.

“You’re still crazy, though,” is what he comes out with in the end, even though his face says he thinks Ed might kill him for it. “Crazy.”

“Everybody’s gotta have a talent,” Ed says. “We can’t all be Captain Obvious.”

Havoc nods. “You got that right,” he says, happy about it for some reason. “I’m serious about defending my title.”

Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc, huh? He’s a spaz, but it’s good he’s not dead.

“Come on, let’s get back to the Colonel before he freaks the fuck out.”

Havoc lights a cigarette and starts back the way they came. “Whatever you say, Crazy.”

Ed narrows his eyes at Havoc’s back and wonders if he thinks this cute little nickname will earn him any of Ed’s goodwill. He doesn’t look that stupid.

“Funny Breda hasn’t come to meet us,” Havoc says after a few steps.

“Oh, him. He might be dead,” Ed remembers.

Havoc freezes. “What?

“Gluttony threw that I-beam right at him,” Ed says, picking up the pace as he thinks about it, leaving Havoc standing back there dithering. “Hurry the fuck up!”

Turns out Breda’s not dead, but he’s not great, either. The beam hit the roof and knocked a big hole in it, then brought down a ton of shingles and snapped the roof off at the eaves. And you’d think Breda would’ve landed on top of all that, but it looks like it all managed to land on top of him instead.

Ed checks enough to get a general impression of a fuck ton of blood and a whole bunch of tourniquets. No bones poking out anywhere, at least. At that point, he figures he can’t do anything useful, so he stops looking. Breda’s still conscious, so hey, it can’t be as bad as it seems.

Havoc, though, has to get down on his knees and start tugging at tourniquets like that’ll do any damn good. People are weird.

“I told you not to fuck up and die,” Ed reminds Breda.

Breda squints up at him. “I did it,” he gasps, “to piss you off.”

“Yeah? Well, it worked, jackass.” Ed starts backing away toward the nearest phone. “So you know who I’m gonna go call? Hawkeye.”

“You wouldn’t,” Breda wheezes.

“Oh yeah. Tell her you can’t even duck right.”

Brat.”

* * *

Bringing Breda back has basically the same effect as kicking an ant’s nest. Everybody panics and runs in circles. In the end, they all flee to a new hidey hole (how many of these places does Hughes have?) and call in Knox. Knox mutters and swears and bitches at Ed and Breda both, but eventually announces that Breda’s fine.

Which is to say, he’s fine considering a building fell on him. Not the same as being honestly fine. He’s not gonna die, which is good, sure. But it’ll take him months to get over this.

He’s out of the game. And that’d be bad enough in itself, seeing as they weren’t playing with many pieces, but Breda’s also way more than just a piece to Mustang. Mustang is, yeah, freaking the fuck out. Storming around the place snarling out orders and brooding and looking like he might set shit on fire for the hell of it. There’s no talking to the guy.

Given the dead-inside face Mustang’s making over Breda, Ed has to wonder how he looked when they found Ed after the whole Wrath debacle. Did Ed rate the dead-inside face?

He hopes not.

Once the Breda crisis winds down, Hughes catches Ed up on everything. He says Sloth showed up at HQ around the same time Breda was failing to duck. Apparently the general Armstrong and her people and some Ishbalans and two random Xingians in black took him down. Hughes says a bunch of people died in the process, which means Ed wins the fewest maimed minions contest. Pat yourself on the back, Elric.

Hughes gets this accusing look when he mentions the Ishbalans and the Xingians, like he thinks Ed knows something. Suspicious fucker. It’s somehow more irritating that he’s not wrong: Ed does know something. In fact, Ed wrote Kael a letter laying out the apocalyptic facts. He’s spent way too much time with Mustang, see, and he’s starting to think stuff like…maybe it’d be nice if the good citizens of Central saw Ishbalans kicking monster ass on their behalf.

Then, for insurance, he mentioned to Lan Fan that the faster they kill off the homunculi, the faster she can drag her idiot prince home.

But there’s no way for Hughes to know all that, so he’s got no right to be giving Ed that look.

Hughes eventually finishes with the accusing looks and gets around to mentioning that the whole team’s going to the lab tomorrow. He says, “We’re running out of time.”

Yeah. Running out of time and people. In view of which, throwing a whole herd of people at the same old problem doesn’t seem very bright to Ed. But there’s no talking to Mustang right now.

“You’re staying here,” Ed tells Hughes.

“I am?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Why? What why? Isn’t this the guy who, just a few months ago, refused point blank to get involved in anything that smacked of alchemy? What happened to that? “Because I fucking said so. What if we all get killed, huh?”

“Then Fuery will take over.”

They both look at Fuery, who’s huddled in the corner like somebody’s pet mouse, connected to a hundred different wires, doing mysterious wire-related things. Everybody’s got their gifts, yeah? But Fuery’s is for sure not orchestrating the overthrow of an evil inhuman nutjob.

“You’re staying here,” Ed says again.

Hughes sighs. “Roy said the same thing,” he admits. Which might’ve been nice to know before Ed got all worked up about it. Bastard.

* * *

In the end, they leave Hughes, Fuery, and Falman behind. Fuery and Falman because they’re better at collecting data than they are at killing people. Hughes because Ed and Mustang threatened to tie him to a chair.

Mustang and Havoc sneak into the lab first. They say it’s to get the lay of the land. Ed thinks it’s cuz they’re tired of him looking like the cool one all the time. They’re meant to check in with Ed and Hawkeye every five minutes, and they do. Twice.

“I’ll follow them,” Hawkeye says after they’ve missed the third check, calm like always, making sure all her weapons are loaded and functional. “If I’m not back in twenty minutes, please call Lieutenant Colonel Hughes.”

“And then I’ll come in after you.”

“Of course.”

Hawkeye kind of rocks. Right after they first met, she cornered him for a talk. Weird from the start, cuz people don’t normally want to get Ed alone. And the first words out of her mouth were: “If you harm him in any way, I will kill you.”

Straightforward, no fucking around. Why can’t everybody be like that?

Ed said he wouldn’t hurt Mustang as long as the guy didn’t do anything unforgivable. She said, all fierce and demented, that it was her job to kill Mustang if he did something unforgivable, not Ed’s. She stared him down ‘til he agreed, it was kinda terrifying. Then they had a surreal chat about killing people, which, again, is not a thing people generally want to talk to Ed about.

She said, I like to kill them from far away so I can forget about it later. He said, I like to kill them with my hands so I can never forget about it. And she smiled at him.

She is one strange lady. Awesome, though. Anyway, they’ve been cool ever since.

“Gotcha,” he says. “Twenty.”

She looks at him like she doubts he’s capable of tying his shoes, let alone keeping track of time. He’s not bothered, though—she looks at everybody like that. “Try not to kill or otherwise damage yourself,” she says, and takes off.

Maybe sometimes, maybe just a little, Hawkeye reminds him of Al. Sometimes he likes it, sometimes he hates it, sometimes it scares the shit out of him. It definitely makes him want to hang around with her, which is obviously gonna end badly.

Well, it’ll end badly unless they all die this month, in which case it won’t get a chance.

So yeah, Hawkeye. She may be awesome in many ways, but Ed’s pretty sure her internal clock isn’t perfect. That’s why he calls Hughes five minutes early. Who’s seriously gonna notice the difference between fifteen minutes and twenty? Nobody.

“Wait until I get there,” Hughes says.

“Sure,” Ed tells him. Haha, yeah right, like there’s any fuckin’ way. Hughes must be tired or something, though, cuz he lets it slide.

It doesn’t take Ed long to catch up to the circus. He thought it was gonna be tough, right, cuz those labs are like mazes. But it turns out all he has to do is follow the charred meat smell and the screaming, and bam, there they are. Convenient.

Mustang’s standing over the pile of dirt and ash that probably used to be a homunculus, and Ed has to hand it to him, he looks pretty fuckin’ scary. The Flame Alchemist, huh? So this is him in action.

Ed knew he was right to like the guy.

“Yo, Mustang,” he calls out. “Maybe if you’d gotten your ass away from your desk and started helping me kill these fuckers a few months ago, we wouldn’t be in the shit like this. The hell are you so slow?”

Mustang gives him a dirty look, and hey, maybe things aren’t gonna turn out as bad as Ed thought.

Then Mustang’s eyes roll back in his head and he passes out on the floor, and that’s when Ed sees Hawkeye crumpled on the ground behind him. And notices that Havoc’s nowhere in sight.

Maybe things are gonna turn out exactly the way Ed thought. Optimism: it was good while it lasted.

* * *

Ed’s first encounter with Mustang wasn’t quite as smooth as the one with Hawkeye. In fact, you could say the whole getting-to-know-Mustang process was a fucking disaster. Mustang has no idea.

The truth about how Ed met Colonel Roy Mustang is, he heard about him from the Ishbalans.

The truth is, he’d been planning on killing him.

It’s not like he just kills people on somebody else’s say-so—fuck what other people think, he only believes what he sees himself—but he’d heard the bad news on Mustang from a lot of people. Mustang and Kimbley, those were the names that got tossed around. The guy who burned people to death by the hundreds, and the guy who blew up little kids and laughed.

He would’ve gone for Kimbley first, but the fucker was in jail; it was too much trouble for too little gain. That left Mustang.

Even with people insisting Mustang was evil in a uniform, the living embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military, Ed still wanted to check him out. Maybe he wouldn’t give him as much leeway as he would other people, but he wasn’t gonna whack the guy on sight, either.

Then he did see him, and everything he’d thought got thrown out, because this was the guy who’d come to pick Ed and Al up back when. Ed had only seen him through the window, but he had a memorable face. This was the guy who’d let Granny Pinako cold-shoulder him without a whimper, who’d let Winry punch him and yell at him and cry on him.

Here’s a thing that’s true: guys who are pure evil don’t let little girls cry on them. They just don’t.

He might still be kind of evil, though.

Ed decided he should watch for a while before he did anything he couldn’t take back.

He was thirteen then, just about, and looking back on it now, the way he stalked Mustang all over East for three months with mild intent to kill was…yeah, pretty freaking creepy. He didn’t think so at the time, obviously. At the time, he’d just thought he was doing great research.

So he was a weird kid. Shit. He still is a weird kid.

He doesn’t regret it, though, because this is how he met Madame Christmas, and she is an awesome lady to know.

Mustang tended to go out every night with one of a handful of women, and thirteen-year-old Ed thought that was disgusting, but hell, it wasn’t a killing offense. Other than that, Mustang’s life was so monotonously predictable, the wonder of it was that the guy hadn’t offed himself.

One night, maybe it was around month two, a woman dropped Roy off at home, which wasn’t the normal pattern. She was a semi-regular; Ed had seen her a few times. She was probably the prettiest, but also the dumbest-looking.

Which was why it was such a shock when she turned right to Ed, dropped the vapid look like she’d never worn it, and snapped, “What do you want with him?” And damn, she sounded just like Winry.

“I don’t want shit from any of you,” Ed told her, and bolted. But the woman was persistent. Really persistent, a little scary, and definitely a bully. Her name was Vanessa.

She reminded him of Winry a lot.

Vanessa grilled him on his motives and made him call Madame Christmas. Chris told him to get off his ass and go talk to some of the guys who’d served with Mustang in Ishbal. “Don’t you want both sides of the story?” she asked. “Or have you adopted the military’s policy of considering only the evidence you like?”

Burn, right?

Turned out, all the guys who served with Mustang thought he was mercy in uniform, the best damn thing that ever happened to the military.

It was like one of those pictures where you look at it one way, it’s a vase, you look at it the other way, it’s people’s faces. Those pictures drive Ed batshit, actually, because what the hell are they? No, seriously. What?

So what Ed knew about Mustang was nothing, and he really needed to look at this guy his own way. He had to see for himself, up close and personal, enough with the tailing.

He killed a rapist and hung around to see who cleaned up. He knew it’d be Mustang—guy must’ve pissed off some fat general or something, cuz he always seemed to pull the crap jobs. And what with the Winry crying thing, his hanging around with Vanessa, and just the fact that he knew Chris (Ed didn’t know Chris’s last name back then), Ed figured Mustang wasn’t likely to have any sympathy for rapists. Turned out Ed was right.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to jump down on the guy from a height, but, you know. He’d wanted to make a good first impression. Or at least a big first impression.

What Ed hadn’t known then, and what he knows now, is that if Hawkeye’d been there that night, Ed wouldn’t have lived to see fourteen. Small favors?

Mustang turned out to be surprisingly fun to scare the shit out of. Besides that, whatever he’d done in Ishbal, Ed could see he wasn’t a bad guy. He was trying to make up for it, even though he knew full fucking well that making up for it was impossible. Ed felt that.

And then too, when Mustang figured out who Ed was…just for a second, he looked sick.

It was the closest anyone had come to caring about Ed since he left Rizembool, and even though that was all his own fault, even though he totally didn’t deserve to have people caring about him…hell, he was weak. He wanted someone around who gave a shit whether he lived or died.

So he stayed.

* * *

“I hate being at the mercy of doctors,” Mustang gripes like a little kid. They’ve relocated again (holy fucking shit, Hughes), this time to some shack on the outskirts of Central. And they’ve dragged Knox along with them, although he bolts home whenever they let him.

“I hate visiting sick people,” Ed points out, “but you don’t see me bitching about it until everybody wants to smother me with a pillow.”

“No one is forcing you to be here.”

“Actually, someone is, in that way where Hughes blinded me with glasses glare and talked at me until I ran here just to get away.”

This is so much bullshit. Hughes has been calling people, checking facts, and prying into classified files by proxy at a dead run ever since it all went down. He hasn’t had time to hassle Ed. Mustang’s been asleep for a while, though, so he can’t know that, and Hawkeye and Havoc won’t tattle: it’s not their way. Besides, they’re smirking, so they must think the idea’s funny. Ed figured they would.

Havoc’s a mess. Ed doesn’t really get it, but apparently Lust (who turns out to be the homunculus Mustang nailed) punctured him with her stabby fingers, so Mustang thought it would be a good idea to set all three of them on fire.

Yeah. Who the fuck knows? Military freaks.

Havoc can’t be too down about it, though, cuz Hughes says he’s been fighting with Mustang nonstop ever since they got stuck in a room together. Ed didn’t know the guy had it in him; he’s proud. But when Ed’s around, Havoc sits back and lets the pro handle it, which is only right.

There’s a weird undercurrent in the room, something going on with these guys that Ed doesn’t know about. It’s not like he wants to know, it’s just…weird. To be here and not know when everybody else obviously does. Whatever. They’re not being weird at Ed, so it should be fine.

“Duty done, then,” Mustang’s muttering resentfully. “You can go away now and leave me in peace.”

“I’ve only been here five minutes,” Ed points out. “I trucked all the way out here. You better make it worth my while.”

“How? I’m hardly up for a performance, Ed.”

Ed’s breath stops even as he tells himself he’s being an idiot. This isn’t important. He knows it isn’t important; names are never as big a deal to anybody else as they are to him, he knows that.

Breathe, you idiot.

But to him, when you say someone’s name…you’re claiming them. You’re saying, I know you, I take responsibility for you, you’re one of mine. At least, that’s what Ed means when he says people’s names. Which is why he doesn’t, generally.

He’s pretty sure he picked up this particular gem of crazy from the Ishbalans. Clearly he hadn’t gotten enough screwball customs from his own culture, so he’d had to go looking farther afield.

He knows nobody but the Ishbalans are with him on this, and so whatever anybody else calls him, it doesn’t mean much of anything, not to them, not to him. Or it shouldn’t. But this is Mustang, this is Mustang calling him Ed, and his face says he knows what that means, and it’s bullshit. He can’t be doing this now.

“Speaking of health, though,” Mustang says, watching Ed close like a predator, “I did mean to ask you how you go about recuperating from injuries.”

He is not doing this.

“I’d like to be back on my feet as soon as possible, and your recovery time is always…uncanny.” Ed can see Hawkeye turn suddenly out of the corner of his eye, but he hasn’t got enough spare brain power to wonder what that means. “What’s your secret?” Mustang asks.

He knows, he knows, he knows. How the fuck does he know? And now it’s a big stupid game of I know that you know that I know, and Ed’s going to lose for sure. Hell, he’s lost already.

If Mustang knows about the name thing—and he’s sure acting like he does—and if he knows what Ed’s up to—he obviously does—then what he just said was you’re one of mine. And what he said after that was, you wouldn’t do to me what you’re doing to yourself.

The only thing that ever made this healing trick okay was that no one who cared about Ed knew he was doing it. He knows how much you can hurt people who like you by hurting yourself. He’s a goddamn expert on it. And Mustang’s such a moron that he does like Ed.

Part of him wants to fly off the handle at Mustang for messing with him like this, but hell, part of him always wants to fly off the handle. He doesn’t have any right. This is fair. He doesn’t have any right, and he can’t, he can’t clap.

“What do you want me to say?” he rasps out.

“Nothing,” Mustang says. “I want you to stop.”

Goddamn Mustang, who asked him to care about Ed, anyway? Nobody asked him, and it doesn’t make sense. Ed should be none of his business, Ed should be on his own, nobody asked him…

You asked him, brother.

I know that, Al, shut up.

Ed was the one who lurked around East forever making a spectacle of himself, might as well’ve been shouting look at me—shit, he practically did ask him, how pathetic. And it doesn’t have to make sense, that’s not how this works. Mustang is sitting there pale and wild-eyed with third fucking degree burns while the country combusts, and he’s telling Ed to take care of himself. No, there’s no logic here.

Ed turns to Hawkeye without much thinking about it, a help me out reflex thing. She’s staring at him, probably trying to tell him something, but he can’t figure what. She’s never been as easy to read as Mustang. Still, Ed may not know what she’s trying to say, but something about her…yeah, Ed’s pretty sure Mustang already had this same basic talk with her. Don’t go off and kill yourself, minion. For some reason, that makes the whole thing less…what? Weird, irritating, embarrassing?

“I’ll stop,” he says. Mustang nods at him, Hawkeye smiles a little.

Ed’s suddenly pretty sure he just got played.

“I have no idea what you two are talking about,” Havoc observes, idly interested. “But the part where it looked like Crazy was gonna rip your throat out was exciting.”

“If I’d known saving your life was going to make you insubordinate,” Mustang snipes back, “I would have let you bleed out.”

Ed did promise, though. He can’t take it back now even if Hawkeye is laughing at him.

“You call this saving my life? Ruining my life is more like it. I’m never gonna get a date like this. It would’ve served you right if Crazy bit you.”

“He wasn’t going to bite me. And more importantly, you’re raising ingratitude to an art form!”

Besides, they’d played him for his own good. He has no clue how you’re supposed to act about that. Everybody who did things for him before—they were pretty direct about it. Teacher, Winry, Al, Mom. If they were doing things for his benefit, they told him so, and then generally followed it up with a punch or a wrench or a knife.

But mind games are Mustang’s weapon of choice. Is this basically the same as Winry throwing a wrench at him?

“Ah, and here you all are!” Hughes says happily from the doorway like it’s a surprise. “I brought presents!” He whips out a stack of reports.

Military. Freaks.

“Edward,” Hawkeye calls softly, as Hughes makes fun of Mustang and Havoc bitches about how Knox won’t let him smoke. Ed heads over to her. “How were you healing yourself?”

Huh. Weird that Hawkeye’s asking this when he already said he’d stop. “What do you care?”

“I only have a theoretical understanding of alchemy,” she says, which is Hawkeye-speak for stop asking me stupid fucking questions. Ed respects that.

“There’s….” He stops and checks behind him. Sure, Mustang’s pretty much guessed what he was up to, but there’s a difference between being pretty sure and knowing, and Ed doesn’t feel like seeing his face if he knows. But he’s still arguing with Hughes about something and they look like they could go on all day, so it’s probably safe. He turns back to Hawkeye, who’s raised an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah, okay, sorry for doubting your sneakiness,” he mutters, and she smiles. “Same idea as the Philosopher’s Stone. Difference is, I was using my life, not somebody else’s.”

She blinks, and he can see her working through the implications of that. She scowls at him.

“Shut up,” he whispers. “Like you can talk.”

“Would it work on me?”

Ed’s mind totally blanks out for a second, but of course it doesn’t do him a favor and stay that way. Hawkeye wants him to transmute her better, but he knows how Hawkeye feels about alchemy. She hates it. So if she wants him to transmute her better, then…

Then she’s fucking dying.

“Whoa, what? You look fine!” he hisses. This is no time for Mustang to be overhearing them; he’d flip his shit for sure.

“For now,” she says calmly, quietly. “But not for long. Medicine never seems to progress as quickly as weaponry in Amestris. I seem to have an infection. Dr. Knox doesn’t think I’m going to survive.”

“Fuck!”

“Quiet!” she snaps, checking behind him. Luckily, Hughes is crazy loud. “Will it work or won’t it?”

“On an infection? I don’t fucking know, Hawkeye, cuz I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Usually I just patch up holes, okay? It’s not like I’m a goddamn doctor, I kill people for a living.”

“Will you try?”

Will he try? Shit, he doesn’t even know where he’d start. When he maims himself, it’s pretty straightforward—if there’s a hole where there shouldn’t be, he fills it in. Veins connect to veins, arteries to arteries. Wrath did him the favor of not actually cutting through his intestines that time, thanks for that. Organs are a bitch, but as long as they don’t get his heart, he figures he should be fine. (If they ever do get his heart, he’s fucked, because that shit gets serious way too fast). But infection? He’d have to know what’s supposed to be there and what isn’t, he’d have to figure out how to clear bad stuff out without taking the good stuff—and there is good bacteria, he remembers that much. Shit, shit. He knows a hundred ways to kill a person organized into ten distinct degrees of painful, but only the most basic first aid. And if that doesn’t say it all. If he had Winry here—no, hell, if he had Knox—

Hang on. He does have Knox.

“How long do they think you got?”

“Not as long as I’d like.”

And he thought he was good at slithering around questions. “I gotta talk to somebody. I’ll know tomorrow.”

Hawkeye nods, still calm. “If I die,” she says like it’s nothing, “someone will need to look after the Colonel.”

“Yeah, and you’re telling me this why?”

She shoots him an eloquent look.

“No, Hawkeye. No. No fucking way, you can’t be serious, this is—”

“Breathe.”

Shut up, you’re crazy, you’re insane—”

“‘Like you can talk,’” she quotes back at him, which is totally cheating. Hawkeye cheats. “Promise me you’ll look after the Colonel.”

“I’m not promising you shit—”

“If I die, you’ll feel like you owe me, won’t you? Do this, and we’ll be even. Promise me.”

Ed closes his eyes and thinks about how Hawkeye really is the evilest jerk he’s ever met, and damn, she reminds him of Al. “Fine. Fuck you. I promise.”

“What are you two talking about?” Mustang asks suspiciously. Ed gives him a look, then turns back to Hawkeye in time to see that she’s giving him pretty much the same look.

“Uh oh. Looks like they have joined forces, Roy,” Hughes says, cheerful and nuts as always. “Hobble for your life.”

* * *

“Oh, wonderful. It’s you.”

Knox drags him inside, leans out to cast a paranoid glance up and down the street, then slams the door shut.

“When I said, ‘Never darken my doorstep again,’” he hisses, “what did you think I meant by that?”

Ed shrugs and grins.

“Stop with that face or I swear to God I’ll throw you out into the street.”

Ed freaking loves his scar. When he got it, he sat in front of a piece of mirror for like an hour, testing out how it made even totally sweet expressions look psychotic. The scar is awesome.

“I got a question,” he says. “Kind of urgent. You’re totally tainted by association anyway, who’re you kidding?”

“Elric,” Knox sighs, pulling him further into the house and turning him to face left. “This is my son.”

Holy shit, Knox has a kid.

Well, kid, hell. He’s probably got ten years on Ed. But he’s so fucking normal. And you look at Knox—he’s obviously done a lot of bad shit and seen even worse. Burned out and burned down, just like Mustang and Hawkeye and Hughes. And Ed. But this guy, the son, he’s got a face like he’s never seen a bad thing.

Knox protected him. How the hell did he manage that?

“Pleased to meet you…Elric?” The son holds out his hand.

Ed turns to Knox. “I wouldn’t have come.” It’s for some reason really important that Knox understand this. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have.”

The son’s hand drops awkwardly. Let him be awkward—he doesn’t know what he’s asking for.

“You wouldn’t have come?” Knox asks, arms folded, stubborn chin jutting. He’s such a belligerent bastard. “Why not?”

Ed seriously considers saying because I have maggots for blood to see what Knox would do. He restrains himself, though. Hey, check it out, he does have some self-control. Up yours, Mustang. “Because you’ve got family here, asshole. Look, just answer my question and I’ll get out, stop darkening your doorstep, whatever.”

Knox sighs and rubs at his forehead. “I see what Hughes meant,” he says. Being cryptic on purpose. Fucker.

“You gonna answer my question or not?”

“Should I leave?” asks the son.

“No, dipshit, this is your dad’s goddamn house,” Ed cuts in before Knox can say anything stupid. “If you want me out, I’ll go, but you shouldn’t be going anywhere—this is so fucked up. What’re you supposed to do for infection?”

“You have an infection?” Knox asks, alarmed. Once a patient, always a patient?

Ed says, “No,” and leaves it at that, because it shouldn’t freaking matter whose infection it is. Why is everybody so goddamn nosy?

“Is it a kid?” Knox goes on. “Did you pick up another stray?”

“I don’t pick up fucking strays, what the—look, are you gonna answer or am I gonna leave?”

“Then it’s Havoc? No, he would’ve told me. Mustang? No. It’s Hawkeye, isn’t it? What are you two up to? If you kill my patient—”

“If you’d fuckin’ talk to me, I wouldn’t kill your damn patient!”

“It was my understanding that Amestrian alchemy was mostly good for blowing things up. Was I mistaken? Is our alchemy actually a healing thing of beauty? Do tell.”

“Fuck you, this wasn’t—” Ed closes his eyes and rubs them for a second before he realizes that probably makes him look upset and shit. He drops his hands and glares. “Look, just, back to theory. How do you take care of a basic infection? Like, what do you kill? How do antibiotics know what to kill?”

“I don’t like where you’re going with this, kid,” Knox says.

“Antibiotics don’t, um, ‘know what to kill,’” the son pipes up. Halleluiah, another country heard from. “They inhibit processes the bacteria need to survive.”

“Yeah?” Ed says, mildly interested. “And that’s not working why?”

“Hypothetically?” Knox asks like the bad-tempered shit he is.

“In one more minute, asshole, I am gonna tell your son about that time you tied me to your bed.”

“What!?”

“It was medical!”

What?

Brother!

Ed thinks hanging around with Chris has probably killed the few social skills he once had. It’s not his fault she’s got an infectious sense of humor.

Speaking of infection. “Antibiotics aren’t working why?” he repeats impatiently.

“Sometimes antibiotics just can’t do enough, young doctor-assassin,” Knox tells him. “Since we’re clearly talking about Hawkeye, I’ll tell you that I’m not sure what her problem is. But if she’s really, really unlucky, she’s got peritonitis.”

“What happens when you get that?”

“Secondary peritonitis, presenting this late? Generally speaking, you die.”

“What do you do about it, jackass? I’m guessing you don’t stand around and weep.”

“It sounds like it would take surgery at this point,” the son says. Clearly Ed should have walked in, abducted the son, and interrogated him in private. Fucking Knox. “But if the patient—”

“Don’t encourage him, son,” Knox snaps. “What you need to understand, kid, is that if you try any idiotic theories out on my patient, I will hamstring you.”

“So I’ll just sit back and watch you let her die,” Ed says.

It was not, he reflects later from his position on his ass on the sidewalk, the most diplomatic comment he could’ve come out with.

You gotta respect the guy’s balls, though. Last person who violently threw Ed out a door was Izumi Curtis.

Ed stands up and brushes himself off. He passes under the open window (‘Dad, was he a patient? Did you help him before?’ ‘That kid is beyond help’) and out into the street, and he thinks, Well. The good news is we all die someday anyway.

Hawkeye’s ahead of her game, is all.

* * *

It takes Ed a few days to get back to the safe house. He figures since Hawkeye’s pretty much fucked and there’s nothing he can do about it, he might as well take the time to check in with Greed. Greed, maybe not surprisingly, freaks out about Ed going off and almost getting murdered—and with Mustang’s crew, what a traitor.

Takes Ed ten minutes flat to convince Greed he’s just buttering Mustang up to eventually be Greed’s minion. Ed can’t believe that actually worked. For a guy who wants to rule the world, Greed’s surprisingly dumb. (Or maybe you have to be dumb to want to rule the world. Mustang.)

Whatever, Ling is so gonna win the fight for that body, it’s not even funny.

When Ed does get back to the safe house, he finds it all quiet and Havocless. Hawkeye says Havoc’s way more broken than they thought, like as in he can’t fucking walk. So he’s out of the game, too. She says Havoc’s mom came and dragged him home, which must’ve been some show. Mustang, meanwhile, has Knox’s permission to stagger around outside a little; that’s where he is. So for now it’s just Ed and Hawkeye.

“I’ve been reading a ton of stuff on peritonitis,” Ed tells her, arms folded, scowling. “And expert medical opinion is that you should really try not to get stabbed in the gut, because that way, right, you probably won’t get it. You fail, Hawkeye. Come on, let’s see the damage.”

“I’m not sure that would be proper,” Hawkeye says, and Ed honestly can’t tell if she’s messing with him or not.

“Yeah, you know me,” says Ed. “I get all hot and bothered by older women who’re rotting on the inside.” Broken bottles. “Show me.”

“Hm,” she says, and pulls her shirt up over her stomach. Mostly there’s not much to see but bandages, but it gives him a feel for where the jab through the gut is, and the slice along the ribs. Once he’s taken that in, she tugs the shirt down a little and he can see she got nailed through her right shoulder, too. Those spear fingers had a hell of a range.

“You right-handed?”

She nods, and demonstrates, now he’s paying attention, that she can’t even make a fist.

“Gonna be a real bitch to learn to shoot with your off hand,” Ed mutters. He has no idea why that makes her smile. Well, maybe because she thinks gut rot is the pressing problem and everything else is just funny.

“It’ll take some time,” she allows. “You’ll look after the Colonel in the meantime.”

“I will, huh?”

“I was tired of waiting for you to find a purpose.”

She was tired of waiting, so she just assigned him purpose. That is so totally her. Bossy.

And the sad fact is that if she’d just do everybody a favor and not die, Ed would trail around after Mustang like a dog forever if she asked. Not that he’s gonna come out and admit that, but. Yeah. He would.

Equivalent exchange, right? Ha ha, fuck.

“You better relearn to shoot fast, because if it goes on too long, I’ll kill him myself.”

“You promised,” she says, which is a pretty shitty thing to point out.

“Lift your shirt again,” he orders, ignoring her.

“…All right.” She looks amused like the wacko she is.

Sometimes it seems like everybody Ed knows is crazy. Maybe like attracts like. Then again, maybe it’s just that everybody’s crazy, you know, in the world. That would explain a lot.

Hawkeye hoists her shirt up again, and he touches the edge of the bandages. She better not be hot to the touch, because if she is, then she’s a dead woman, as far as Ed can tell. He doesn’t know what he thinks his research is gonna accomplish. It’s not like Knox is wrong. All Ed’s good for is killing people.

She seems normal temperature. But hell, does an infection of the innards even make it to the skin? Ed has no fucking clue. He stares at the stumps of his fingers against her bandages. They are both unbelievable morons. “Look, if you’re leaning on me for this, you’re fucked for sure. You know that, right? Because asking a murderer to heal you is the stupidest thing I ever heard and I have heard some stupid things.”

“Calm down, Edward.”

“Easy for you to say! If this goes to shit, you’ll be dead, so what’ll you care?”

“Well, I won’t care. I’ll be relieved of all cares. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Ha fucking ha. Asshole.”

Mustang chooses this moment to hobble in, because he’s that kind of guy. Ed realizes he’s blatantly standing there with a hand up Hawkeye’s shirt, and despite the fact that they were in the middle of a totally depressing conversation, he has to grin.

“Wow,” he says. “Awkward.” He pulls the hand back and refuses to let himself laugh hysterically. Or to look at Hawkeye, whose expression will definitely make him laugh hysterically. “Same time tomorrow?” he asks, glancing sideways at her so he can’t really see her face.

“Always a pleasure, Edward,” she answers, voice dry.

Ed bites savagely down on his lip and saunters past Mustang with a little wave. They’re a good team, him and Hawkeye. Not just anybody can stun Mustang into silence.

This is why Hawkeye can’t die. She can’t. That’s all there is to it. They’ll figure something out.

He wishes he knew where the Xing girl went off to.

* * *

The problem with looking for the Xing girl is, he’s got no idea where to even start. When you’re looking for serial killers, you start with places that cater to their, whatever, weird obsessions. When you’re looking for a little girl who doesn’t seem to have an obsession (or at least, not one people can make money off of), then fuck, Ed has no idea what you do. Put up a missing poster?

The longer he looks, the more this seems like a fucking waste of time. Ed knows what death looks like, and Hawkeye looks like death. He should be cutting her loose and getting used to the idea of not having her around. Spare himself some pain later.

Except he never has known when to quit.

“Ed! Where are you headed on this fine, sunny day?”

You have to hand it to Hughes, his timing’s so bad it’s almost superhuman. “Fuck off.”

“Now, now, don’t be like that. I saw you going for a stroll and I thought to myself, what a nice day for a stroll!”

Ed sighs and tries to control a twitch (no dice). He keeps walking and Hughes trots along beside him, talking nineteen to the dozen about random shit Ed doesn’t bother tuning in to. He always talks about the same crap anyway: his kid, his wife, overthrowing the government. Whatever.

No little Xing girl here, there, or anywhere, but as they get to the downtown, the streets are all blocked on account of Civil Unrest. The good people of Central may not have the staying power for a proper riot, but goddamn, they will hang around in the street and bitch ‘til hell won’t have it.

Ed looks up. It’ll probably be easier to go by roof than to go around. That’ll get him to the slums on the west side, which may or may not be where the Xing girl is. Who the fuck knows? Worth a shot. He starts to climb.

“Rooftops, Ed?” Hughes whines. “Do we have to?”

“You don’t have to do shit. I’m going by rooftop.”

Hughes grumbles to himself but climbs up anyway. Ed does not get Hughes at all. Like, not at all. The fuck’s he thinking, following Ed around? It’s not like it hasn’t burned him before, the idiot.

Except he’s not an idiot, not really. That’s the puzzling thing.

“I’m happy you and Lieutenant Hawkeye are friends,” Hughes announces out of nowhere once they’re on the roof and he’s gotten his breath back. This could mean a lot of things, depending on whether or not he’s talked to Mustang lately. He could be serious. He could be fucking with Ed. Impossible to say.

“Shut up.” Always a safe response with Hughes, and there’s the vague possibility it’ll work. It does every once in a while.

Ed doesn’t want to talk about Hawkeye when she’s dying and he’s not doing a thing to stop it. On top of the shitty timing, Hughes has a real sixth sense for Topics Ed Doesn’t Want to Touch.

“I can almost understand the appeal,” Hughes is saying, thoughtful. “You’re both so talkative, you must talk constantly when you’re together. No one else could put up with the din.”

He thinks he’s funny. Great. “You got it. How’d you know?”

He answers, but Ed’s not listening. There’s somebody down on the sidewalk, a guy, not the Xing girl. Ed isn’t especially on the lookout for any men right now, but something about this one, something…

Blond guy. Very familiar blond. And even from above, those shoulders, that walk…

The man squints up at the sun for a second, giving Ed a good look at his face. Ed claps before his conscious mind has a chance to register what he’s seeing.

“That man looks enough like you to be related,” Hughes whispers. “Closely related. God, Ed, please tell me you didn’t just take one look at your father and transmute your arm into a weapon.”

Ed doesn’t get why Hughes is so into denying obvious reality.

“My father is a dick,” he says. “And he’s up to something. What the hell’s he doing in Central now? Fucker burned through any benefit of the doubt I might’ve given him years ago.”

“Ed, for the sake of my sanity, please talk to him before you attack him. Please. Do it for me as a member of the League of Fathers.”

Ed considers ignoring that, but despite what his crazy mouth is saying, Hughes has on his serious face. A serious Hughes is no one to screw around with. Ed claps his arm back to normal, for now. “Whatever, I guess it won’t hurt anything. But you stay here. Stay the fuck out of it. I mean it, Hughes. Stay out of it.”

Hughes nods reluctantly. Ed’s got no doubt he’d love to be down there between them making happy fucking families, but this isn’t gonna be like that.

Ed runs along the rooftop until he’s level with his worthless dad, then drops down right in front of him. Bastard doesn’t even have the decency to look surprised.

“Long time no see, Van Hohenheim,” Ed says with a smile that isn’t very friendly, probably wouldn’t have been friendly even pre-scar—but hey, Hughes can’t say he didn’t try.

Hohenheim blinks at him. “Edward?” he asks.

Congratulations, buddy. You know your own goddamn kid. “That’s right, I’m Edward. You’re quick on the uptake. Then again, I come down off the roof in front of you, and you don’t so much as jump. The hell’s wrong with you? Apart from the obvious.”

The dickhead says, “I’m a monster,” and Ed laughs in his face.

“Well,” he says, “you sure as shit bred one.”

“So I hear,” Hohenheim murmurs, like he’s got a right to comment on anything Ed’s ever done. “Edward. You’ve grown up very wild, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, well, you should’ve known I couldn’t be trusted on my own,” Ed snarls. “What the fuck were you thinking? No, you know what? I don’t give a shit anymore. What the fuck’re you doing here?”

“I had some business in Central,” Hohenheim answers, totally unruffled. “You burned down my house,” he adds as an afterthought.

“What, you want an apology?” Son of a bitch is unbelievable.

“I’d like to know why.”

“I’d like Mom and Al to be alive. We all got problems, asshole.”

He stands there quiet, and Ed’s getting more pissed off with every breath. This is the guy who left them, he left them, and he comes back now. Now that Mom is dead and Ed was stupid and Al died and Ed should have fucking died and there’s nothing left. And it’s like he doesn’t even care. Ed wants to destroy him so much he can already taste the blood.

But Al-voice doesn’t want him dead. He is our father, it says. Like that ever counted for shit with Hohenheim. But Al’s right, Al’s almost always right, even when he’s just a hole in Ed’s psyche. Hohenheim’s their father, doesn’t matter if he sucks at it. Ed grits his teeth and forces himself not to clap.

Don’t clap don’t clap don’t clap.

“Trisha promised to wait for me,” Hohenheim says, and Ed’s so busy picturing a gaping, bleeding hole in his chest that he almost misses the fact that the bastard sounds disappointed. But not quite.

“You’re blaming her for dying?” Ed demands. “She only died because you ditched her and she had to raise us alone. You practically killed her yourself, asshole!”

Hohenheim gives him this look, a father look. And, annoying as fuck, there’s some tiny part of Ed that feels it, that’s still the kid who wouldn’t share candy with Al or whatever. He’d thought that part of him was totally dead, and the proof that it isn’t throws him off as bad as Barry the Chopper. “What?” he all but screams.

“You say I killed your mother by leaving her,” the bastard says, “but you left Pinako and her granddaughter and never looked back.”

It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t, they didn’t need him, couldn’t want him after everything he’d—

But Winry’d come to see him and she said—

But that’s because Winry doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about, she should’ve stayed away. He was doing them a favor, he’s human goddamn poison, it’s not the same. He’s not like fucking Hohenheim!

Brother, stop!

“I, at least, always planned to come back,” Hohenheim says, cool and untouchable like he always fucking was. He was always perfect. Always big and tall and strong and far away, and Ed had actually thought that was what a dad was supposed to be, he’d thought Hohenheim was the goddamn be-all and end-all, but he left them, and—

And Ed feels the break, that cold, calm snap in his mind.

It’s about time.

“You’re too late,” he says, and smiles, and Hohenheim would never see this coming. “Maybe it runs in the family. You’re worthless and I’m worthless and there’s nothing left. And hey, I knew that already, but thanks for coming back and pointing it out.”

Al’s voice never bothers him when he goes cold. Not even when he’s about to kill their father.

It’s a good feeling, smooth, quiet, and everything’s sharp and clear and black around the edges. He can barely hear the clap of his hands or the crackle of the transmutation. He can barely hear Hughes’s shout, and shit, how had he managed to forget Hughes was even there?

Oh well. Doesn’t matter now. Hughes won’t make it in time.

He runs for Hohenheim, and Hohenheim must not realize he’s serious, because he never lifts a hand to save himself. Ed slams an automail blade right into his chest.

It’s like slamming it into fucking granite, and it hurts like a bitch all the way up through his shoulder. They both fall over, Hohenheim onto the ground and Ed onto Hohenheim, and some crazy part of Ed’s brain thinks, Well at least gravity works on him.

The dust settles.

“You would have killed your own father?” Hohenheim asks sadly. Apparently this is disappointing, but not a huge deal.

“You were never a father to us!” Ed shouts like it even matters now. “And what the fuck are you?”

Hohenheim blinks up at him. “I’m a monster.”

Ed pushes himself up and claps to transmute the blade back into an arm, then punches Hohenheim in the chest for all the good it’ll do. “Don’t give me a bullshit answer! Not even a homunculus could sit there and fucking blink at me after I tried to put my arm through him. What are you? And what am I, cuz you’re my dad, aren’t you?”

Shit, I’m babbling. Ed shuts up and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and tries to get a grip. He doesn’t know what the hell’s going on anymore. The world is ending, his worthless dad isn’t human, and Ed actually tried to kill him, which is just not—you don’t kill your own dad, what the fuck?

And now that he thinks about it, he’s kneeling on the guy’s chest having hysterics, which can’t be comfortable even if he isn’t human. Ed slides his hands away from his eyes back to his temples. Hohenheim’s still staring at him like an idiot. Ed moves off to the side and tries to figure out what you say to your estranged inhuman dad when you just sort-of-accidentally almost impaled him.

He’s pretty sure this isn’t covered in normal etiquette. Fuck.

You could always apologize, brother.

Al-voice thinks it’s more helpful than it actually is.

“No, for—I didn’t mean to kill my own dad,” he announces, even though that question was way back there. “You don’t kill your dad, that’s evil. Insane.” Which says I’m evil and insane loud and clear, doesn’t it? “Sorry.” Sorry for freaking everything. No joke.

No response for a while. Hell, Ed wouldn’t know what to say to all this either. But then Hohenheim’s hand comes up, slow, unsure, and he acts like he’s gonna touch Ed’s head, but he doesn’t. His hand just hovers there, and Ed wishes—shit, he wishes he hadn’t tried, he wishes he’d never seen Hohenheim again in his life.

“Can’t touch me, huh?” Ed laughs, because in a way, it is pretty damn funny. Guy let Ed try to stab him and punch him and sit on him and whatever, and now he can’t even bring himself to touch him. Where’s the logic? “Guess I can’t hold it against you.” And he can’t. There’s the other thing that’s funny: Ed’s brain. Funnier than a barrel of monkeys.

But Hohenheim gets a determined look Ed recognizes from the mirror, and he runs his hand over Ed’s hair like he has to, like he wants to, like he’s afraid to. And the little kid part of Ed wants to cry, and if he cries, then he’ll die of embarrassment and it’ll all be over, freaking finally.

“You’re crazy,” he mutters, but doesn’t move away. “I just tried to fuckin’ kill you.”

Silence for a long time. Not a chatty guy, Hohenheim. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there,” he says after like an hour, and Ed has to slam his hands back over his eyes before he disgraces himself. More than he already has.

Sorry I couldn’t be there. What good does that do after all this time? None. And something stupid like that should definitely not be making Ed feel this way.

It’s too much, that’s all. This year’s been way too fucking much. End of the goddamn world, for one thing. And then Mustang and Hughes and Hawkeye, all pushing at him and pushing at him, refusing to leave him alone. Teacher, who talked to him even though he is what he is. Winry, who found him and treated him like he was normal and it was too weird. Now this. This. And he may hate the bastard, but God, he’s the only family Ed has left. And Ed tried to kill him.

“Ed?” Hughes. Ed had forgotten he was there again. This is such a shit day. “Ed, are you okay?”

“No, Hughes, I am not freaking okay,” Ed snaps, and drops his hands, because it looks like he’s not gonna cry after all. Maybe he’s forgotten how. “I’m pretty sure I’ve lost it. What does it look like?” Before Hughes can answer, Ed pokes at Hohenheim’s chest with an automail finger and says, “Lose the shirt. Let’s see it.”

Hohenheim unbuttons the shirt without a whimper. Ed’s amazed by all this cooperation. He sure as hell wouldn’t be this cooperative if he were in Hohenheim’s place.

Not a mark on the guy. Seriously, what the fuck?

“So what are you? And if you say monster, I am gonna do my best to beat the shit out of you.” Should relieve his feelings, if nothing else.

Hohenheim’s giving him a measuring-up look. Ed doesn’t know what’s left to measure. Seems to him he’s already failed by every conceivable standard.

“I’m a Philosopher’s Stone,” says Hohenheim.

A Philosopher’s Stone. Hang on, what? Can people even be Philosopher’s Stones?

Can people get hit in the chest with an automail knife and walk away without a scratch? Hell no. Okay. So working from the impossible, then.

Philosopher’s Stone. A pure substance, can’t be destroyed, or so the books say. Philosopher’s Stone: essence of dead people.

His dad is essence of dead people. What does that make him and Al? Half-living? Is this better or worse than maggot blood? Al seemed so normal, though.

It’s a goddamn joke. What do you get when you cross a Philosopher’s Stone and a human? Him and Al. What kind of lame punchline is that?

“Keep talking,” Ed says, and Hughes settles next to him, wide-eyed and grim.