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Deserts Away

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Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

It was bad enough Ed was late with the payment, three days late, in fact, but that damn stupid fucking pickpocket had to go and lift the coin purse from his belt and leave him with nothing to give to Aetous and no way to earn it back. He and Al were on borrowed time already and there was no way, no way Aetous would cut them any kind of slack. He had to get home and get to Al before anyone else could.

Ed hurried through the crowded marketplace as quickly as he could on his metal leg, pushing past people with muttered apologies and louder swears, winding through as the streets narrowed down into the rigid, square blocks that made up the slums of the city. Considering the circumstances, considering the taboo and the debt and the fact that they’d been on their own since they were kids, Ed hadn’t thought they were doing so bad. They had a roof, usually enough food to pull them through, and, most importantly, they’d been on time with their payments. It wasn’t the best life by anyone’s standards, but they’d been managing. At least until everything had gone wrong all at once. Al had been hit with a chest cold that left him gasping for breath more often than he didn’t and Ed had insisted he spend the week in bed. Ed had managed payments on his own before, so he hadn’t thought it’d be a problem. Odd jobs in Xerxes weren’t hard to find, even for a cripple, but a run-in with a pothole had jimmied the stump of his leg just so and left him unable to even shuffle a step for days and he’d been landed in bed himself. It was only by the grace of gods Ed didn’t believe in that he’d managed to land a large job that paid just what he’d need to pay off Aetous for the month, even if it meant they’d go hungry, but then that fucking pickpocket.

They were so, so screwed.

The sentiment was highlighted, underlined, and circled by the fact that Ed’s front door was currently hanging by a single hinge. He was too late.

Please no.

His heart was in his throat and he pushed through the door so furiously that it gave one last pitiful creak before crashing to the floor behind him. “Al!” he cried, and, thank the gods, he was too late but he wasn’t too too late. Al was being manhandled into a pair of shackles by a man who was too large to be possible, supervised by a second large man and Aetous himself whose bulbous, red face was twisted into the most disgusting smirk he’d ever seen.

Al’s resulting cry was muffled by a large hand over his mouth, and Ed saw red. Rage overcame him and before he could even think, he was clapping his hands and preparing to drop to a knee to press his palm against the ground.

“If you want your brother to make it out of this house alive, I’d reconsider,” Aetous said coolly, nodding to the man with Al in his grasp who quickly produced a knife from seemingly thin air and pressed it against Al’s throat.

Ed’s hands froze scant centimeters away from the floor and the spark of the transmutation crackled through him and fizzled out into nothing.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Let him go,” Ed ground out through his clenched teeth. “Get your fucking hands off of him you twisted, sadistic—“

“You’re late,” Aetous said with something like glee. “You know what that means.”

“Three days! Three damn days after seven years of on-time payments!”

“You knew the terms of the contract when you signed it, pipsqueak. It’s hardly my fault you weren’t able to uphold your end.” The man paused for effect. “Unless you’ve got something for me?”

Ed felt like he was falling. This couldn’t actually be happening. “I, I don’t, but—“

“Then you know the price.” Aetous nodded at the man again and he set to work fastening the rest of the shackles around Al’s wrists and ankles.

Ed was quickly losing grasp of the situation and of his fragile sanity. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t equivalent, that after everything, after everything, that Al would have to pay again for what he’d done, or couldn’t do.

The words were leaving his mouth before he even thought them.

“Take me instead.”

“Brother, no—“

“You?” Aetous’s scoff cut off Al’s sobbing objection and the firm clamp of the big man’s hand over his mouth shut it down completely. “What makes you think you’re worth what I’m owed with that metal leg weighing you down?”

“Al’s weak. He had the Wasting Sickness. He’s… he can barely work. It left him susceptible to illnesses. He had a cold and he’s been in bed for days. Look at his face, it’s, he’s not well. You’d be refunding whoever bought him before the end of the week. I have a metal leg but I’m strong. Ask anyone. My alchemy—“

“I’ve heard about your alchemy, and about how you came to possess your special skills. What reputable family would want that taint under their roof?”

“ I… I can do anything, I’ll do anything. What does it goddamn matter which of us you take anyway? We both know you’d get more for me than you’re owed regardless of my fucking leg but you wouldn’t get much more for Al because of the term limit. No one’s going to shell out for a slave they can’t keep for life. That’s bad business, and you should know about bad business.” Ed was grasping at straws but he was at his wit’s end. The sight of Al in shackles had driven him to desperation, and his muffled cries drove it higher. “Just take me instead you fucking asshole, you hate my guts anyway so don’t pretend like you won’t take some kind of perverse fucking pleasure in locking me in shackles, or are you really just so dickless that you’d rather chain up and brutalize a sick little wimp? You make me sick, you absolute fu—“

“Take him,” Aetous hissed, locking his eyes on Ed’s. “And don’t be gentle about it. If he struggles too hard, break him and take the brother instead.”

The shackles came off of Al’s wrists and ankles almost all at once and the man moved to lock them around Ed’s instead. Ed offered up his wrists and didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even blink as the large man locked the shackles onto him. It would be an easy thing to break them. A single clap could turn them to a sprinkling of dust on the floor. Aetous knew it, Al knew it, and the two brutes probably knew it, too, but Ed didn’t make a move.

“Brother, you can’t,” Al choked, making a move to go to Ed only to be stopped in his tracks by one of Aetous’s cronies. “You’re being stupid. You’re always so stupid. You don’t have to do this, I’ll be fine, it’s only thirty years and—“

“As touching as this is, I’ve got a timetable to keep and I’m not interested in long goodbyes.” Aetous snapped his fingers and the two men grabbed Ed by either arm and began ushering him out of the house.

“Al!” Ed cried, twisting his head to an almost painful angle to get one last look at his brother. “This is all my dumb fucking fault. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t come looking for me. Live your fucking life. I love you, don’t you ever forget it. I’ll coming back for you, I swear it!”

Al’s response was muffled by the men kicking the fallen door out of their way and pushing Ed out into the street. A swift blow to the back of Ed’s head forced it forward again and they rounded a corner, leaving Al behind.

Ed, as it turned out, had only been the first block on Aetous’s timetable and by late afternoon, he had been joined by five other unfortunate debtors in various states of distress. The crying he could handle, (truth be told, he felt a little bit like crying himself,) but the screaming and the endless bargaining and begging were beginning to grind on his already frayed nerves and his mood had, unsurprisingly, not improved a bit by the time they reached the slaving market on the edge of town.

He watched as the others were untangled from the long chain that had linked them all together and crammed into an over-crowded holding cell but Aetous held him back and hissed a foul-breathed warning into his ear.

“Any funny business,” he growled. “Even a hint of it, and I’ll see to it personally that you’re reunited with your precious brother well before your thirty years ends, is that understood?”

“Loud and fucking clear,” Ed growled right back. “And if I ever even hear a whisper that you’ve disturbed a hair on his golden head, there isn’t a threat in the world that will stop me from ripping you limb from limb, and I won’t need alchemy to do it. Understood?”

Ed’s answer was a sharp backhand across the face and a boot in his gut, kicking him into the cell with the others. The door clanged closed and the lock slid into place, and Aetous smiled at him through the bars. “Enjoy your stay.”

Although he doubted sleep would be possible, if it came, Ed was certain he’d murder him repeatedly in his dreams.

 

 

“…need three separate trade routes? They can’t be sure we aren’t gouging out space to funnel in troops and take over,” the translator finished, biting back a very obvious wince. The man across the table looked to his own translator who nodded, seemingly pleased with the accuracy.

Roy resisted the urge to drop his head into his hands and groan. He felt like they’d been beating the same dead horse (no pun intended, at least not yet,) for almost two weeks and he wasn’t sure how many different ways he could come up with to say that Xing had bigger fish to fry than hostile takeovers of neighboring countries, but he was sure he was running out of them.

He’d have given anything to have Hawkeye there with him, or any member of his team, really, if only for a familiar face in the sea of strangers that seemed to swallow him up in waves in every meeting he’d attended since arriving in Xerxes. He understood why they had to stay behind, why it made very little sense for the half-Amestrian ambassador from Xing to arrive with a squad of Amestrians to negotiate the future of two countries united in defense against Amestris, but their absence was jarring regardless.

“Unlike Amestris, Xing has no intention of enacting military operations on our neighbors. In fact, the emperor believes that stronger trade and travel routes between our countries will act as a means to strengthen defenses should Führer Bradley,” Roy’s face only twitched a little bit, “decide that picking fights with Drachma is a fruitless affair and turns his eye to a warmer climate. Three routes will enable aid to be funneled in more expeditiously should the worst happen, and should the worst never happen, three routes will facilitate a faster exchange of goods from all regions of Xing which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is quite large.”

The Xerxian translator made quick work of Roy’s explanation and nodded when the man across the table tumbled out another rippling flow of smooth consonants and clipped vowels that Roy wouldn’t have been able to divine the meaning of at gunpoint.

“He would like to know what sort of aid we expect in return, and urges me to remind you that Xerxes is a country of learned men, not soldiers,” the Xingese translator told him.

“Xing does not require aid from Xerxes in that regard. Our military is more than capable of defending our borders. Trade is all we’re after. Our southern region is isolated and suffered a famine two years ago that could have been, if not prevented, lessened by access to outside goods. The emperor has a vested interest in guaranteeing that, in the future, such easily avoidable disasters are, in fact, avoided.”

“He says that the emperor must be very gracious, and inquires whether we also plan to make use of their labor trade.”

It took Roy a moment to understand what ‘labor trade’ must have meant, and he had to actively work to keep the disgust from his face. Having spent his formative years in Amestris, a country that was, admittedly, not without a massive share of faults, but one that had outlawed slavery as a heinous and barbaric practice centuries ago, he always felt a bit sick to his stomach whenever he encountered it in his day-to-day. It was a common cultural aspect in Xerxes, he knew, and Xing itself, while not explicit in encouraging it, allowed it and had laws structured for the ownership and use of slaves. In the East, he was a rare and uncommon progressive, and he had long since learned to keep his opinions to himself. “When drafting the plan for the routes, we didn’t have the labor trade in mind,” he said delicately. “I suppose whether or not we allow our citizens to make use of it depends entirely on whether or not you are willing to export yours.”

The other man laughed outright as soon as his translator had finished, pounding a fist on the table mirthfully before managing a response.

“He is amused that you refer to slaves as citizens, and is even more amused by the look on your face when you spoke of them. He is impressed that you manage such cool and calm diplomacy when you clearly have such a marked interest. He inquires whether you have ever yourself had the pleasure of owning one.”

Roy clearly hadn’t managed to keep his face as carefully schooled as he had hoped, but at least his disgust had been mistaken for interest. He could feign acceptance for the sake of diplomacy. Goodness knows he’d faked worse. “I’ve never had the pleasure, no.” His skin was crawling. “I can’t deny an interest in the topic, considering slavery has been outlawed in my homeland for centuries.”

“He finds it funny that Amestrians believe themselves too high and mighty to keep slaves but are perfectly content with attempting to exterminate an entire race of people.”

“Funny isn’t the word I would use,” Roy said, a little bit of coldness creeping into his tone. That attempted extermination had cost him everything. “I think my stance on that incident has been made rather clear.”

“Very clear indeed,” the translator said after the man finished speaking again. “He says he will take this proposal to the king for review, and wishes you a good afternoon.”

That sounded a lot like progress and Roy had to resist the urge to punch the air in triumph. The talks had been dragging on for days, bouncing from one high-ranking Xerxian official to another until he was sure they were only stringing him along, only trying to see how far they could push him before he broke. This was the first assurance he’d had that the king would hear the proposal and it tasted like victory.

“Good afternoon. Thank you for your time and consideration.” He waited for the other man to stand before standing himself and offering a short bow in the Xerxian fashion, his right hand fisted and pressed to the opposite shoulder, and allowed the palace guard to escort him from the room and back to his own quarters, a short draft of the letter he would have to compose to the emperor to relay the small success already arranging itself in his head.

 

 

Sunlight was barely breaking through the barred window of the over-crowded holding cell when the door was ripped open with a jarring clang that startled a fair few of the people dozing around Ed. He hadn’t managed anything resembling a doze and was neither startled nor impressed by the interruption.

“You,” the interloper, a short but stocky man, backed up by several other taller and stronger men who seemed, from what Ed could see in the low light, to be eyeing him warily, called from the doorway, leveling a pointed finger at him. “Up.”

Ed scowled but didn’t protest, struggling to his feet and forcing his metal leg to cooperate. He hadn’t spent a night in it in years, and the hard stone floor did little to soothe the ache that was beginning to radiate from his stump to his hip. He finally managed to stagger to his feet and limp to the doorway of the little cell where he was immediately seized by the entourage.

“Aetous told me to remind you that your brother’s safety hinges on your cooperation,” the stocky man told him as he was hauled down the corridor and into a large empty room.

“For fuck’s sake, I get it, okay?” Ed snarled, actively resisting the urge to twist away from the too-tight hold on his arms that the men had as they dragged him to the very edge of a large and intricate transmutation circle, the sight of which caused Ed to fall speechless for a long moment. “What the hell is this?”

The stocky man just rolled his eyes. “What’s it look like?”

Ed’s eyes scanned the lines and the symbols quickly, trying to determine the purpose. It didn’t seem like it would kill him, but the process appeared to hinge very heavily on blood and metal and just barely brushed the edges of human transmutation. There was a pile of scrap metal, steel from the look of it, piled in one of the open circles worked within the array. “The rings,” he said suddenly, the pieces falling together all at once.

“One for every five years. You must owe a pretty penny to have earned six of them.” the stocky man said, and nodded to the men who dragged Ed to the center of the circle, careful to step over any lines and lift Ed clear of them as they moved. They planted him in the middle of the circle and beat a hasty retreat. “If I were you, I would’ve begged for a brand and saved yourself some trouble. Most slaves don’t break forty anyway. You’ll probably die before your term ends, and then all this will’ve been for nothing. If you even make it that far. I once had a man die getting five.”

“I’ll outlive you, you smug fucking—“ The rest of Ed’s words were swallowed in a cry that was ripped from his throat by a vivid, searing pain brought on by the stocky man’s activation of the array.

His blood cut through him like fire, burning and molten and acidic, pain flooding every inch of his body until it coalesced into an epicenter of hurt in his right arm. He was vaguely aware over the cadence of his own erratic pulse that he was screaming.

The pile of steel in the circle was a mass of red-hot light in Ed’s vision, pushing through the black that was seeping into it from the shock and the pain and the breath that left his body in great wailing rushes. The ball of red rose up and changed, separating out into six thick, flat stripes that flew to Ed’s right arm as if magnetized there and locked around his forearm and bicep, evenly spaced and tight around the flesh of his arm, the molten heat of the metal singeing his skin, sending his pain arcing so high that he thought, mercifully, he might pass out from the intensity of it. He was choked with the charred, acrid smell of his own flesh burning and he could barely pull in another breath to feed his body’s desperate need for air. Just as blackness began to creep over Ed’s eyes, the steel hardened and the pain died down with the bright white light of the array.

Ed was on his back, choking in stuttering breaths as little bursts of sharp, hot pain flitted through his arm beneath the still-warm steel. Even losing a leg to the Gate hadn’t hurt like this.

“They’re not actual burns, but it’ll feel like it for a few days.” The alchemist waved his hand at him and the larger men who had dragged him into the circle came and pulled him back out again. The jostling movement nearly set Ed to screaming again but he gritted his teeth and clenched them so hard he thought they might break. “The metal is blood bound, so don’t even try removing it. It shouldn’t add any extra weight to your arm, or not much, anyway. Every five years, a ring will drop off until there are none left and the labor is paid. If you live that long.”

Ed had been hauled to his feet by the alchemist’s cronies and the headrush nearly sent him into the black again but he caught the thread of consciousness at the last second and forced himself back into awareness. “Fuck you,” he managed weakly, muffling another cry as a hand locked around his still-burning right arm and yanked him back down the hallway. He was roughly deposited into the holding cell and went to the floor with something like gratefulness even as he cried out at the sharp shock of pain that radiated out from his arm when it made impact with the floor.

He turned his cheek against the stone floor, letting the coolness soothe him down into something like calm even as the alchemist’s next pick for the transmutation screamed in protest as they dragged him out after seeing the state Ed had returned in.

He’d have given anything, even the entirety of his right arm, metal rings or not, for even ten minutes on the threadbare, hay-stuffed mattress he and Al had shared on the floor of their little hut on the outskirts of the city, and it was only the thought, nebulous under the pain and vague but real, that he’d at least managed to spare Al this horror that made the burn worth it.

 

 

It was days later and fewer than twenty four hours shy of Roy’s scheduled return to Xing that he was finally called for an evening audience with the king. He could have wept for joy. It had seemed to him that his first diplomatic excursion would be his last and that all the work he’d put in to climb up from the pit he’d started out in three years before would come to naught. An audience with the king, even if it came to nothing, was enough of a start that he couldn’t be faulted for failing.

He and his translator were ushered into the throne room by a veritable battalion of guards who split to line either side of the narrow walkway leading up to the base of the dais upon which sat a gilded throne occupied by an imposingly tall man Roy knew to be King Vasyklo. The crown he wore was interwoven with braids of his golden hair and bore impressive scrollwork that Roy only recognized as intricate arrays the closer he got, though the purpose of them was lost both in distance and Roy’s own lack of knowledge. He was an impressive sight, and the raw power that radiated off of him was unmistakable and, certainly, intentional.

“Your Majesty,” Roy greeted humbly, pressing his right fist to his opposite shoulder as he bowed deeply from the waist.

His translator barely got a word out when the king waved her off. “I believe we share a common language, do we not?” he asked in Amestrian.

Roy straightened in surprise. “We do, Your Majesty. I didn’t realize you spoke my mother tongue. I admit, this is a pleasant surprise.”

“I have found that knowing exactly what it is your enemies are asking of you often pays off,” Vasyklo explained, breaking into a wide grin. “I’m pleased to have the opportunity to practice with an ally.”

The uncertainty in Roy’s chest eased at that. For a moment, he was almost certain that Vasyklo considered him to be an enemy as well. “I’m honored that you count Xing to be amongst your allies.”

“What is that saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, yes? Xing and Xerxes share a common enemy, one that could prove problematic for both of us. I think, more specifically, you share that enemy, too.”

“I do, Majesty. It isn’t much of a secret, I’m afraid.”

“No, your exit certainly wasn’t a quiet one,” Vasyklo chuckled. “Some leaders would say that makes you untrustworthy.”

They were in delicate territory, and Roy had never been more in his element. “An understandable position, considering the circumstances.”

“I say it makes you more trustworthy. It makes you an honest man. You wouldn’t represent an ideal you disagreed with, that much is clear, and you wouldn’t speak for a sovereign with amoral intentions.”

“I would not,” Roy agreed, tempering steel into his voice. “I will not sit idly by again and commit atrocities in someone else’s name.”

“You are a man of principle,” Vasyklo said, nodding down at him. “I don’t know your emperor, but I know enough of you to know that he must be a good man, with good intentions. I will grant Xing the trade routes, and I agree to all of the terms you have laid out.”

Roy was a little taken aback. He had expected discourse, some back and forth and ironing of terms until they both ended up with half of what they wanted from the start but certainly, certainly not today. He rapidly composed himself and fell into a deep and hasty bow. “Thank you, Your Majesty, on behalf of the emperor and on behalf of Xing.”

“I believe the trade routes will benefit both of our people, and I welcome the prosperity our partnership will bring,” Vasyklo said. “As a final gesture of good will, I have a parting gift for you.”

He gestured to someone near the door on the opposite end of the room that Roy had come through just minutes before and then even, measured steps of the palace guard came up behind him. For a single, terrifying moment Roy thought that something had gone terribly wrong but then the mass of guards came around the side of him and Roy could see two civilian men buried in the middle of them. They parted, allowing the men to step forward.

One of the men, bulbous and red despite the darkness of his complexion, yanked hard on a golden chain that was connected to a pair of golden shackles fastened on the wrists of the most arresting creature Roy had ever laid eyes on. Even in a room full of Xerxian gold, the young man’s hair shone with an eye-catching brightness. Amber eyes, alight with determination and fury, shone from his delicate face, browned from the desert sun and kissed with the lightest sprinkling of pale freckles Roy had ever seen. He was nearly a full head shorter than Roy but the strength was evident in the cut of his bare arms, although one of those arms appeared to be wrapped in six identical steel cuffs that spanned his wrist to his shoulder. The dull shine of a metal leg caught Roy’s attention next, and he spared a moment to wonder what sort of accident had befallen him before Vasyklo was speaking again.

“The advisor you met with yesterday mentioned your interest in our labor trade, and that you were disadvantaged in never having had the opportunity to partake. I have heard that your tastes are not as discerning, so to speak, as most western men, so I thought something beautiful would certainly please you.”

Roy had been so caught up in that beauty that it took him a moment to realize the implications of the chain and of Vasyklo’s words. The young man was his gift.

He felt vaguely sick to his stomach.

“Aetous here assures me that seven thirty five is strong and healthy,” Vasyklo continued. He said something to the red man and he prodded at the young man until he lifted his arms and displayed them to Roy. Then, much to his horror, the red man probed the young man’s mouth with his fingers and showed Roy his teeth like a show horse. The young man’s golden eyes shone with cold hatred, alternating between Aetous and Roy as if he’d had anything to do with this. “Additionally, he is well versed in the alchemical arts and possesses a particular skill that is not unknown to our people.”

The display that resulted from Aetous’s command was nothing short of the most spectacular power-play Roy had ever seen. The young man clapped his hands together and pressed them to the floor, sending a ripple of blue static radiating out from the point of contact. A slim column rose up from the stone floor, twisting with intricate ripples and vines that wrapped around it as if they had been carved into it by an artisan rather than an alchemist who, by all rights, should not have been able to transmute without an array and certainly shouldn’t have been able to transmute something so delicate, so intricate, without so much as breaking a sweat. If this was a common skill among Xerxian alchemists…

It occurred to Roy then that the only thing keeping the shackles around the young man’s wrists was the fact that he was allowing them to stay in place.

The column spun until it was halfway to the ceiling and then it disappeared back into the floor just as quickly as it had appeared and the young man straightened with a slight wince and a bit of difficulty, no doubt due to the metal leg. It didn’t look like automail, and while, from what he understood, automail was no walk in the park, Roy couldn’t help but to feel a bit sorry for him.

“Seven thirty five is new to the labor trade, and may require a bit of breaking in order to bend him to your will, although that is sometimes the most enjoyable part.”

The idea of breaking in anyone was nauseating and it took every bit of willpower Roy possessed to keep his expression one of neutral interest. “It seems to me he’s already broken,” he said, gesturing vaguely to the man’s leg.

“I am assured that he can work in spite of the prosthetic. It was lost in the commission of a crime but he is paying for it. You have nothing to fear from seven thirty five.”

Roy could only imagine what kind of crime would warrant slavery as a punishment. Had the young man killed someone? Tried to kill someone? He couldn’t imagine that the king of Xerxes would hide an assassination attempt in the guise of a goodwill gift and, anyway, he could hardly refuse the gift, even if he thought it might be dangerous, even if the very idea of taking possession of another human being was enough to turn his blood cold, no matter what that person had done to earn it.

The incongruity of all this was not lost on Roy. Vasyklo had just espoused the virtues of morality and principal, praised him for being a good man, and then gifted him another human life to do with and break as he pleased. Roy couldn’t rationalize the inconsistency, and he wondered what kind of man it made him for accepting the young man at all.

“You are far too gracious, Majesty,” he said, bowing in the Xerxian manner again. “I am truly in your debt, if only for the sake of my satisfied curiosity.”

Aetous offered Roy the chain and a small set of golden keys and he took both without a moment’s hesitation. The metal chain of the leash felt too hot in his hand but he curled his fingers around it anyway, drawing the young man closer to him and out of the crowd of soldiers.

“I am sure you have plenty to do in the face of your upcoming departure and that you are… eager to retire with your new acquisition. Please give your emperor my well wishes and that I hope our paths cross in person sometime soon. I will have my advisors send your treaty to my rooms and someone will deliver the signed document to you before you depart in the morning,” Vasyklo said, watching Roy and his ‘gift’ with interest. “You are free to take your leave.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Roy said, bowing deeply again and turning, pulling the young man along behind him like a dog on a leash as he quickly left the room behind him, the young man’s eyes burning veritable holes into his back the entire time.

 The entourage of soldiers escorted the both of them back to his rooms and Roy ushered the young man inside before closing the door firmly behind him and dropping the leash almost immediately. He fumbled with the keys and crossed as close to the young man as he dared and made quick work of the shackles around his wrists, letting them fall to the floor with a satisfied clang.

The young man was still staring at him with an unguarded mixture of red-hot rage and pure, white hatred and, maybe, just the most trace hint of fear.

“I don’t suppose you speak Amestrian,” Roy said, putting a fair bit of distance between them as he did so. The young man’s face didn’t change. “Xingese?” he tried, and got a similar response. “Fantastic.” He scrubbed his fingers through his hair, suddenly very, very tired. He supposed he could just pawn the young man off on his servants. They were only down the hall in a smaller collection of housekeeping quarters and the young man might appreciate a bed, but that would surely lead to talk. He was meant to be ‘breaking’ him, and spurning the king’s gift felt like a recipe for disaster even though every fiber of Roy’s being yearned to spurn it.

He set to work rifling through one of his recently-repacked trunks and came away with a heavy quilt. He attempted to pass it off to the young man but he didn’t make a move to take it. Roy relented after a moment, a little spike of annoyance cutting through him, and hauled the quilt to the plush chaise in the far corner of the room. “You can sleep here,” he said, defaulting to Amestrian out of habit. It didn’t much matter, anyway. It wasn’t as if the young man could understand him. He hoped context clues would pull him through.

He crossed back to the bed and collected one of the many pillows stacked there and took it back to the chaise, making quick work of arranging the bedding into something serviceable. He looked back at the young man, still watching him furiously from the middle of the room but something like confusion had twisted itself into the glare.

“You can sleep here,” Roy said again, gesturing firmly towards the chaise. Although it was in vain, it made him feel better to speak to the young man instead of just gesticulating in silence.

He blew out a breath and set to rifling though his trunk again, pulling out a spare set of sleeping clothes and offering them to the young man who, again, refused to take them. Annoyance cut through him again, and he wondered briefly what would happen if he simply dropped them on top of him. The temptation was strong, if only to illicit a reaction, but he thought better of it and just set the clothes out on the chaise.

Roy found his own nightclothes and, casting another look at the man standing in the middle of the room before slipping off into the adjoining bathroom to change and work through his evening routine, taking a bit of extra time to give the other man some privacy.

When he thought enough time had passed, he made more noise than usual near the door and then opened it slowly, peeking out to make sure the other man was decent before coming fully into the room. He half-expected to find him still standing in the middle of the room and but he had relocated to the chaise and was perched on the edge of it, still dressed in the white tunic he’d been in before and still glaring.

Roy was starting to worry that there was a very real chance he would try to kill him in his sleep.

“I don’t know what it is you’re expecting of me but there will be no ‘breaking’ tonight, or any night,” he said, working to keep his tone gentle in the hopes that, even if the other man couldn’t understand his words, he might recognize that his tone was non-threatening. “When we return to Xing, I’ll make other arrangements for you. Quarters with the serving staff, maybe, I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with this.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. “I don’t even know what to call you.” They’d been calling him seven thirty five, but Roy would die before he called another man by a number rather than a name.

The young man, predictably, remained silent. It was a little unnerving, the silence paired with that raw anger and open dislike, and Roy couldn’t help but to remember both the impressive display of the young man’s alchemical skill and that he was a criminal, although the exact nature of those crimes might never be known to him. He made a mental note to approach a tutor for him when they returned to Xing. It wouldn’t do to keep the young man ignorant of communication forever. He also made a note to approach his translator tomorrow, to see if she could help facilitate some kind of conversation between the two of them in the mean time, or, at the very least, get the man’s name so Roy would have something to call him.

A nickname would do, he supposed. He wouldn’t go so far as to actually rename him. That would be dehumanizing beyond words and Roy didn’t think he could bring himself to do it, but a nickname could pull them through until morning, or maybe indefinitely. Even if he could get his translator to lend a hand, the incessant glares and the hatred that oozed out of every expressive twitch of the young man’s face rather implied he might not be particularly compliant, and he thought it was equally as likely that he would resolve to keep mute out of pure spite.

He looked the other man up and down, taking him and again he was struck by just how lovely he was. The low light of the room caught in the braid that fell over his shoulder and in his amber eyes, setting him aglow. He was molten gold and tan skin, broken up by the gleaming silver of his leg and the rings around his arm, a collection of precious metals wrapped in white cloth.

“Fullmetal,” Roy said aloud just as the thought occurred to him.

Again, Roy got no response, but the glare had grown somewhat harsher.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. He’d known this excursion was going to be stressful but he hadn’t counted on something of this magnitude.

“We should both get some rest,” he said finally, shaking himself out of the beginnings of despair. He went around the room, extinguishing the lights before climbing into bed. Against his better judgment, he turned his back to his guest on the chaise but he pressed his hand into his pillow case and felt for the ignition glove he had concealed there, just in case. Contented that it was still there, he closed his eyes, breathed out a sigh, and willed his whirring mind to relax enough to let him sleep.

 

 

The journey out of the city was the most difficult trek of Ed’s life. Every step he took drew him further and further away from Al, further away from the little life they’d built for themselves, further away from the only thing he had ever had that was worth keeping. He’d never expected, even in his wildest nightmares about the horrors this new turn his life had taken would bring, that he would be shipped across the desert to Xing. It was one thing to imagine thirty years in Xerxes, knowing that Al lived and breathed a few short miles away from him at any given time, knowing that as soon as the last ring snapped off and Ed was free that he could track Al down in a matter of hours and everything would be fine again. It was another thing entirely, knowing how far he would have to go, how much more he would have to fight, just for the chance of seeing his brother again.

Even through the worst of everything that had happened, when his father had left and his mother had died and the failed transmutation and Al’s sickness and those months when they’d had to starve just to scrape together enough money to pay off Aetous, Ed had never felt hopeless. Now, with the endless yellow haze of the desert spreading out in front of him, hopelessness had settled in his chest like it had been there the whole time.

It would have been laughably, stupidly easily to snap himself out of the shackles on his wrists, make quick work of the armed Xingese that flanked the envoy, and make an escape back to Xerxes, back to Al and home and freedom, but the threat of Al’s safety still hung like a whip over his head and he didn’t dare. Getting Al in trouble for something he’d done was a more terrifying prospect than leaving him.

As if leaving hadn’t been bad enough, Bastard (Ed didn’t know his name and he didn’t fucking care even a little bit, and had steadfastly refused to speak to the translator that he’d been paraded in front of earlier that morning,) had seen fit to lock the shackles back on his wrists and hitch him to the saddle of his horse with the chain like a fucking dog on a leash, forcing Ed to walk along side him as they made their way through the desert. His metal leg and the rings on his arm, still sore from the transmutation as it was, were burning up in the sun, scorching the stump of his leg and the skin on his arm wherever they touched, and there was sand stuck in the gaps and ridges between the prosthetic that ground together with every step and, in the places where it had wedged in between the metal leg and what remained of his real one, was slowly wearing away his skin. It was misery, and they’d only just left.

Still, Ed wouldn’t give Bastard the satisfaction of complaining. Sure, he’d talked a good game the night before, (because of course Ed spoke Amestrian, his Amestrian mother had made sure of that, but damned if he’d ever let Bastard know it,) made it seem like he was halfway decent and even promised some kind of separation in the servant’s quarters of wherever the hell they were going, and even seemed to be genuinely opposed to the idea of using him for sex (even though Ed didn’t miss the way he’d been looking at him,) which was a definite, top-shelf plus as far as Ed was concerned, but he hadn’t hesitated to leash Ed to a horse and make him walk. Even the servants had horses of their own.

And sure, Bastard had done some vague, semi-apologetic mumbling about keeping up appearances and not looking like he was ungrateful for the ‘gift’ the king had bestowed upon him, but that only served to unsettle Ed more. If keeping up appearances was so important, what else would Bastard do for the sake of it? It had seemed to Ed that Bastard had genuine and negative feelings towards the concept of slavery, unsurprising given that he seemed to be an Amestrian himself, or had at least spent time there, but still unexpected. The fact that he seemed willing to compromise those feelings in favor of fitting in was worrying. Ed thought it was probably only a matter of time before his feelings changed.

The day wore on, and even frequent breaks and more frequent sips of tepid water didn’t relieve Ed’s torment and by the time they stopped for the night to set up camp, every movement sent ripples of agony through his over-taxed body.

The servants had already begun to set up the tents and were nearly finished when Bastard finally thought to unhitch Ed’s chain from his horse. He turned to converse with someone in smooth Xingese and Ed barely had time to wonder what the hell they were talking about and where the hell he was supposed to spend the night before Bastard was tugging on the chain and pulling him into one of the tents that had already been assembled and, he noticed, furnished with both a cot and a little pile of neatly folded blankets in the corner on one of the rugs that had been situated on top of the sand.

Bastard tugged on the chain again and urged Ed closer so that he could key off the shackles. His wrists were raw and blistered where the sun-heated metal had rubbed against his skin and he thought he saw a frown flit across Bastard’s face before he locked it down and schooled his expression into something cool and neutral.

“May I see?” he asked gently, reaching for Ed’s wrist but stopping just short of touching him.

Ed wanted to pull away, but that would have implied some inkling of understanding so he just stood there, still and glaring, and Bastard closed the rest of the distance, carefully closing his fingers around Ed’s wrist and pulling it closer to examine it. He brushed his fingertips lightly over the damaged, tender skin and frowned in earnest this time. “I didn’t even think…” he said, and then winced, presumably at his own stupidity which was something Ed could get behind one hundred percent.

There was another moment of hesitation and then those hands were on one of the cuffs on Ed’s right arm, pushing firmly against one of them in what was probably an attempt to move it out of the way and examine the skin beneath it.

Motherfucking son of a bitch,” Ed swore in angry Xerxian, ripping his arm away from those probing fingers as the pressure against the cuff sent a static pulse of white-hot pain cutting through him. His arm had been throbbing all day, still not completely back to normal since the transmutation and burning from the heated metal on top of that, and even that little bit of pressure had been agony.

Bastard blinked in surprise at the outburst and backed off a little, but not nearly enough for Ed’s liking. ”I’m sorry.”

Ed only scowled, cradling his arm against his chest and doing his best to put out a vaguely threatening aura to discourage further investigation. There was a very real chance that Ed would kick him in the face if he even so much as thought about touching his leg.

As if he’d read his mind, Bastard’s eyes dropped down to the metal prosthetic, making note of the red, angry skin around the place on his thigh just above the hinge of the knee where the metal met flesh but making no move to touch.

“Stay here,” he said after a moment, and disappeared out of the tent. As if Ed had anywhere else to go. As if Ed really had a choice.

Bastard reappeared a few minutes later with a jar and what looked like a set of travel clothes.

“I managed to rustle up a spare set of clothes from some of the servants,” he said, offering Ed the little pile. He didn’t get why Bastard always insisted on talking to him if he thought he couldn’t understand him. Probably just liked the sound of his own voice; high and mighty types always did. “They may be over-large but at least they’ll keep the sun off of the metal. I’ll just… give you a bit of privacy.”

Who the fuck did Bastard think was so small that he couldn’t fit into regular clothes? Ed could have bashed in his stupid face. Lucky for the other man, he found something to busy himself with near the little cot, very pointedly keeping his back turned to Ed, which was something at least.

Ed changed quickly and it very quickly became apparent, to his absolute and total dismay, that the clothes he’d been brought must have been borrowed from a giant. The loose pants slipped off of his hips at every hint of movement and dragged the floor behind him a good several inches, and he was absolutely drowning in the shirt. He scowled down at the clothing as if it had personally and mortally offended him.

Bastard turned back around and attempted, and failed, to hide his amused snort. Ed scowled openly. Well, if it was entertainment he wanted, entertainment he’d get. He clapped his hands and in a flash of blue light, the clothes shrank to fit him, redistributing the extra fabric (it didn’t just disappear, alchemy didn’t work like that,) to pad the areas around his right arm and left leg, adding extra protection against the heat and sun in the form of a few thin layers of fabric.

Bastard was staring at him in open shock and Ed had to admit that it was incredibly gratifying. It took the man another moment to recover himself but when he did he attempted to pass off the little jar to Ed.

“For the blisters,” he said, gesturing to Ed’s wrists and leg. “The alkahestrist wouldn’t… was too busy at the moment, but this should help.

Didn’t want to waste time on a slave, most likely. Ed eyed the jar for a moment before plucking it from Bastard’s hands. He unscrewed the top and the soothing-sweet smell of mixed herbs assaulted his nose. Curiously, he dipped a finger into the ointment and spread it around one of his wrists experimentally. Within a few seconds, much to his surprise, the burn dulled down to a quiet throb. He made quick work of the other wrist and then paused, looking across the narrow little tent at Bastard, who was watching him intently.

He immediately capped the jar and slipped it into one of the pockets of his borrowed pants. He’d deal with his leg later, much later, when Bastard was asleep. Damned if he’d intentionally cripple himself, bring himself down to his weakest parts by removing the prosthetic, in front of him.

Ed turned bodily away and limped over to the pile of blankets in the corner, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from whimpering as he settled on the ground, pain bolting through his hip and leg at the movement and the already overly-raw end of what was left of his leg grinding against the sand that had gotten stuck between it and the metal. He had to take a moment to catch his breath before even attempting to curl up under one of the quilts. It was too hot beneath it, even in the cool of the desert evening, but couldn’t bear the idea of leaving himself exposed to the other man.

He heard Bastard sigh quietly behind him and some small movement followed.

“Goodnight then, Fullmetal.”

 

Chapter Text

“Colonel Mustang! How absolutely delightful to have you back at court.”

Roy allowed a hint of a glare to slip into his bland look. He owed a great deal to Ling Yao, and was thankful every day that he and his team had been welcome open-armed into the Xingese court by his eccentric cousin who had been newly-minted on his throne and had taken a great risk in allowing so many foreign traitors under his roof after Roy’s failed coup, but he knew how to push Roy’s buttons and took an almost twisted amount of pleasure in doing so.

“Again I remind you, Imperial Majesty, that I left that title far behind me.” Roy was bone-tired and hadn’t even been given the opportunity to retire to his rooms or even freshen up before being paraded into the emperor’s private rooms for a late and impromptu audience. He really wasn’t in the mood for ribbing.

“Oh, forgive me! You know how forgetful I can be, Cousin.” He seemed a little put out that Roy hadn’t taken the bait.  “Please, sit. The messenger arrived with your letters yesterday, and we have much to discuss.”

Reluctantly, Roy lowered himself to one of the many brightly colored cushions on the floor and settled across from Ling on the other side of the low, narrow table. His back and thighs ached from days on horseback and sleeping on cots and every exposed part of his skin had sunburned so badly he thought he’d been stained permanently red, and he wanted nothing more than to sink into his bed and rest, but that was admitting defeat. “It would be my pleasure.”

Ling’s eyes were sparking in a way that Roy had learned meant mischief. “Wonderful, that’s the topic I am most eager to discuss,” he said, switching to Amestrian.

It was never a good sign when Ling thought they needed to keep a conversation safe from prying ears, for a variety of reasons, and Roy was already a little perplexed by his comment. “I’m afraid I don’t follow, Majesty.”

Ling waved a hand. “Please, we’re alone.” Roy seriously doubted that was true if the suspiciously dark shadow in the corner of the room was anything to go by. “No need to be so formal.”

“Of course.”

Seemingly satisfied, Ling nodded and carried on. “I’m referring to your gift.”

“Ah.” Roy had to resist the urge to bury his face in his hands out of pure exasperation. The remainder of the trip hadn’t done much to improve his relationship with Fullmetal, although the clothes and the salve had seemed to improve the situation with his prosthetic and the strangely immovable metal bands on his arms, and the recalcitrant man had seemed just slightly grateful, although it really was impossible to tell. He really couldn’t fault Fullmetal for his dislike. Roy was certain he’d feel the same if their roles were reversed. Still, it was frustrating beyond words that he couldn’t find a way to communicate, and that even when presented with the opportunity to do so (he’d recruited the translator several more times on their return trip,) Fullmetal refused to speak. If it hadn’t been for the curse he’d shouted when Roy had prodded at his arm, he might have assumed he was mute.

“I was under the impression you didn’t approve of slavery,” Ling said, watching Roy’s face. “You’ve never said as much, but your poker face isn’t always as good as you think it is.”

Didn’t he know it. That little flaw was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. “It would’ve been ill-advised to refuse a gift from King Vasyklo, particularly after he’d just agreed to all of our terms.”

“Ever the diplomat,” Ling said, amused. “What do you plan to do?”

Roy sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “I don’t have many options,” he admitted. “It will be fairly obvious what he is and where he came from when he’s inevitably seen by the court. All I can do is keep up the charade as much as I’m able to deter any upstarts who think that a slave is everyone’s property.” Roy had a diaphanous sort of plan forming in which he would see that Fullmetal was tutored in Xingese until he became competent enough to make a life for himself and turn him loose, but there were still far too many draw-backs than there were benefits, and there was still quite a bit to work out on that front. “I’ll install him with my servants for the time being. I’m sure he can be of use somehow. His alchemy…” Roy trailed off, reminded again of the displays he’d seen of Fullmetal’s power. “I believe that’s was a strong motivating factor in his being… gifted to me. He doesn’t use a transmutation circle and works the energy through his hands. King Vasyklo rather implied this was a Xerxian trait. It was a classic power play, but one we’d be fools to ignore if what he says is true.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Ling said thoughtfully. “Although alkahestry differs quite a bit from Western alchemy, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m rather ignorant in that particular area of study. If what you’ve said is true, we’d be wise to be wary of Xerxes.” He tapped his fingers on the tabletop, seeming to run a few ideas through his mind. “I will ask the Philosopher about it next time he graces the court. In the mean time, I’d like to see a demonstration. Where is your slave?”

Roy winced at the phrasing but very quickly recovered himself. He was going to have to get used to hearing it, or he’d give himself away to quickly to anyone who may take advantage of it. “I left him with the guard in the hallway.” He didn’t quite trust him enough to leave him alone in his rooms, and the rest of his entourage had quickly evaporated as soon as they were back on the palace grounds. He hadn’t even had time to seek out his team before he’d gotten Ling’s summons.

“Bring him in.”

Roy stood, biting back a groan as his muscles protested, but hesitated before turning to the door. “He’s… obstinate,” he cautioned.

“I’m sure you could break him of that,” Ling said. “If only for your own safety.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.” Roy went to the door and opened it, speaking to the guards in a low voice and beckoning Fullmetal forward.

He was limping again, Roy noticed, but didn’t seem inclined to let it bother him. He held his head high, despite the shackles that were still firmly locked around his wrists, and walked into the room with a lazy sort of grace that defied the limp and the metal leg, and if Roy hadn’t known better he’d have thought he owned the place.

“I can see why Vasyklo thought you might enjoy him,” Ling said appreciatively, letting his eyes roam over Fullmetal unabashedly. “If you ever tire of him, I’d be more than happy to take him off your hands.”

“Noted,” Roy said dryly. He’d seen that hungry look in Ling’s eye before and nothing good ever came of it. “You wanted to see the alchemy?” he prompted.

Ling waved a hand and Roy took that as assent, but realized rather belatedly that he didn’t know how to communicate this particular request to Fullmetal without the use of language. He tried clapping his hands but Fullmetal only looked at him like he was an idiot and Roy felt he probably deserved it.

“Well?” Ling demanded.

“I’m sorry, I don’t actually… we don’t share a language,” he said lamely.

Ling rolled his eyes and then said something to Fullmetal in Xerxian. Fullmetal’s eyes flared and his face twisted into a ferocious scowl but he stayed firmly silent until Ling said something else, that hint of mischief in his eyes again.

Fullmetal exploded and it was nothing short of spectacular. He was snarling what Roy thought were probably curses at Ling like he’d mortally offended him and, knowing Ling, he probably had. It was the most animated Roy had ever seen him and the thought just barely registered before Fullmetal was clapping and slamming his hands down on the low table. This time, Roy registered pure fear but all that happened was a shift and glow of the gleaming wooden table top, and a perfectly rendered reproduction of a particularly rude hand-gesture sculpted itself out of the wood as it reshaped and twisted in the light.

Ling blinked down at the little sculpture for long enough that it became worrying before he burst out into laughter, and Roy released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Oh but he is delightful,” Ling said, switching back to Amestrian. “Forget what I said, obstinacy suits him. Are you sure you’re not willing to part with him?”

“Quite sure,” Roy said firmly. After that explosive display, even if he’d been inclined to trust Fullmetal’s welfare with Ling (and he was dubious on that front,) he was convinced that they were liable to lose an entire wing of the palace and maybe even an emperor if the two were ever left alone for an extended period of time.

Fullmetal had taken up a furious pace behind him and was muttering something under his breath. Roy decided he was best left to it for the time being.

Ling sighed with a dramatic huff and pouted. Roy, used to this display, was unmoved. “Fine. But if you ever change your mind—“

“I believe we were going to discuss the alchemy,” Roy prompted, wishing desperately they could get back on topic.

“Yes,” Ling said, suddenly serious. “If this is, indeed, as widespread as Vasyklo would have us believe, we would do well to watch ourselves in our dealings with Xerxes. Your man also claims the skill is a common one, although I would be wary believing anything he has to say. The history between our countries goes back thousands of years, and I find it difficult to believe word of such a skill wouldn’t have made it back here at some point during that time, but I find it equally hard to believe that a slave would have knowledge of such a power if it were uncommon. Have you ever come across anything like this in your studies?”

Roy was certain he would have remembered a mention of alchemy without a circle, even if it was just a footnote. Transmutation circles were hindrances, especially in combat. His gloves were an easy solution, and they fit well with the nature of his focus, but even fixing a broken plate took almost more work than it was worth after going through the trouble of sketching out circle. “Never. Granted, my specialization focused my studies on a rather narrow range of topics, but I’ve never even heard a whisper of this.”

“I’ll consult my alchemical advisor and put him to the task of researching. It could be some time before the Philosopher’s travels bring him our way again.”

“He would know better than anyone,” Roy acknowledged. “Though, it’s worth recognizing that the Xerxian king is likely displaying this power as defensive tactic rather than an offensive one. The advisors I spoke with all rose concerns regarding the access the trade routes would give us if we decided to instigate an aggression.”

“ They’re right to be wary. If we decided to invade, they’d stand little chance even with their alchemy. Fortunately, I have no desire to extend Xing’s borders any farther.”

“Vasyklo believes that, for what it’s worth. I didn’t expect to return with a signed treaty but his willingness to trust me, and you by extension, was a surprise. He cited my involvement in the coup.”

“Excellent, I pegged him correctly, then,” Ling said, clearly pleased. “I suspected your presence might move things along more quickly. Vasyklo is known for his strong moral code. A man who lost everything fighting for a cause he believed in was a perfect choice.”

Ling was a lot of things, and more often than not he was absurd and conceited, a jokester who thrived on making the vein in Roy’s forehead strain under his skin and making his advisors grind their teeth flat. It was easy to forget his competency and the cunning that had won him the throne in the first place. “Not everything,” Roy countered. “I got out with my team.”

Most of your team, anyway.”

It was easy to forget, too, that Ling could be cruel.

“Most of my team,” Roy agreed quietly. The atmosphere in the room had changed so severely that even Fullmetal’s spitting and hissing had died down to nothing. “Forgive me, it’s late and I’ve been traveling all day. I would appreciate it if we could continue this conversation later, when I’m feeling more myself.”

“Of course.” Even Ling seemed to realize he might have gone just a bit too far. “I’ll look forward to your full report tomorrow.”

“Thank you. Good evening,” Roy said cordially, inclining his head and then turning away. “Come along, Fullmetal.”

For once, he fell into step behind Roy without even a glare and they emerged into the hallway together. Roy nodded to the guards, waving off their offer of escorting him back to his rooms. The walk across the palace was longer than he remembered it being and by the time he rounded the corner that opened into the hallway he was more than ready to collapse into bed and pray to any wayward god who would listen that he wouldn’t dream of Maes.

Of course, there was still the issue of Fullmetal and what to do with him. It was too late to make arrangements to set him up with the servants, so he supposed they’d have to share quarters again. It would look better to the court anyway, although Roy was verging on too tired to care what anyone thought at the moment.

Well, almost anyone, anyway.

Riza Hawkeye, currently leaning against the wall next to his door and effectively blocking his access, was both the person Roy most wanted to see and, at that particular moment, the person he least wanted to see.

“A slave, Sir?”

Despite the cool evenness of her tone, Roy knew her well enough and had known her long enough to pick out the disappointment layered in it. “Lieutenant,” he began, and backtracked. Habit was a hell of a drug, and he’d called out Ling for a similar discretion not an hour before. “Hawkeye. You know that I would never—

“But you did. I’m sure you have a reasonable explanation.” She flicked her eyes over Fullmetal, making a quick assessment.

“A gift I didn’t have the luxury of refusing is the best explanation I have.” He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “It isn’t a good one, I know that. I would appreciate your assistance tomorrow in figuring out what will be done, moving forward.”

Riza gave him a hard look, looked at Fullmetal again, whose face had taken on an air of perplexity that would have been amusing in another circumstance, and nodded. “You look like hell, Sir. Get some rest.”

She took off at a clipped pace down the hallway and Roy only relaxed when she disappeared around a corner. He’d gotten off a lot easier than he expected, but he was sure tomorrow would bring the flaying he deserved.

He ushered Fullmetal into his room and indicated a sofa in the corner before pausing to rustle through his dresser and then leading his guest to the door that led into a spacious bathroom with a generously sized porcelain tub. Fullmetal shot him a questioning look and Roy gestured towards the tub. “Have at it. You’ll have to settle for more borrowed clothes for tonight, I’m afraid. I’ll get you sorted in the morning.”

He laid out the clothes on the counter and left Fullmetal standing in the middle of the bathroom floor and closed the door behind him. Roy himself was in need of a good, long soak but he was too tired to even consider it. He’d gladly ruin his sheets with sand and dirt if it meant he could fall asleep sooner.

Once he heard the water running in the other room, he changed into his night clothes and began collecting bedding for the sofa. By the time he’d found the extras where they’d been tucked away and gotten the couch resembling something meant for sleeping, Fullmetal was emerging from the bathroom. His hair was loose and damp, gleaming with water, and the clothes he was wearing had obviously been alchemized to fit better.

Roy put a good bit of distance between himself and the couch, wincing when he straightened as the sunburned skin on his neck rippled with the movement. He touched the back of his neck lightly, wincing again at the hot skin under his fingers. Fullmetal, who had escaped the desert with only a deeper golden glow to his skin, snorted in clear amusement at Roy’s discomfort. Roy scowled at him, which only amused Fullmetal more.

He made quick work of the lights before falling into bed, into his own bed for the first time in ages and in a proper bed for the first time since leaving Xing and, unmindful of the fight Fullmetal seemed to be having with the quilt on the sofa behind him, fell into a deep and, mercifully, dreamless sleep.

 

 

In the weeks since they’d come to Xing, Ed had settled into something of a routine. Bastard, as it turned out, was actually named Roy Mustang and he wasn’t actually that much of a bastard, as far as Ed could tell. He’d made good on his promise to set Ed up with the servants even though Mustang’s reputation had suffered for it, though he still had to spend two or three days a week camping out on the bastard’s stupid fucking couch to keep down talk in the court and, more importantly, to keep any old perverts from making eyes at him or worse (even if nothing they did would stop the emperor, who was less of an old pervert or more of a young one and probably said most of what he said to rile him up and even though Ed knew that, he rose to the bait every time.)

Ed had also been meeting with a tutor twice a week and was steadily picking up on Xingese, although he pretended to know far less than he actually did and he still spoke to Mustang as little as possible. Pretending like he didn’t speak Amestrian and that his grasp on Xingese was mostly non-existent left him privy to an avalanche of information about both the court and, more importantly, about Mustang.

From what he’d been able to gather, Mustang had been involved in the failed coup against Fuehrer Bradley that had caused such an uproar a few years back and he’d been exiled as a result of it, probably because he was the pervert Xingese emperor’s cousin instead of some nobody and Bradley must’ve had enough sense not to risk an international incident by having him executed. Somehow, he’d managed to smuggle his entire team, who were decidedly nobodies and would certainly have been executed, out of Amestris with him.

He’d learned, too, that Mustang had been a key player in the Ishvalan genocide. He’d picked up from a few others that Mustang was a competent alchemist, but it hadn’t been until he’d seen him light a fireplace with a snap of his fingers that it had fallen into place. The Flame Alchemist had been a popular topic of conversation in Xerxes during the war due in part to his obvious and impressive skill but also due to the horror of what he was doing with that power. It was true that Xerxes used alchemy for all manner of things, not all of them pleasant, but no one had ever seen it used for such widespread death and destruction. Xerxes had accepted a flood of Ishvalan refugees following the chaos, and as more accounts of Flame’s power and mercilessness had poured in, the more he’d been crucified in the court of public opinion.

Ed was shocked that he hadn’t been recognized in the Xerxian court, although he supposed it made sense considering that, while news had been plentiful, photographs rarely made it out of Amestris during the fighting and no one east of the Amestrian border seemed to know the man’s name. Ed and Al, just children at the time, had taken turns making up progressively more and more horrific stories about him and where he’d come from and what he looked like, until their mother had stepped in and banned the practice all together because Ed and Al’s imaginations were surprisingly twisted when they tried hard enough.

It was a jarring realization, and for awhile it had driven Ed’s hatred of the man to new and terrifying heights, but it soon became apparent that Mustang’s involvement in the coup had had almost everything to do with the things he’d done in Ishval under the Fuehrer’s command and Ed’s ire had (mostly) cooled. There was still a lot, though, that Ed still didn’t know about Mustang and how he felt about the things he’d done and he thought it was probably possible the man preferred things that way. Mustang, he’d learned, was a man who wore a thousand masks and Ed, even though he was afforded more time alone with him than anyone else, still wasn’t entirely sure of the face he wore underneath them all.

Mustang’s team wasn’t so bad either. Hawkeye, though she was generally terrifying and walked like she was carrying a gun or five (even though Ed had never actually seen her with one,) was kind underneath it all and seemed to have a genuine and vested interest in protecting Mustang, the rest of Mustang’s people and, for some reason, Ed himself.  

Havoc and Breda, a pair of surprisingly competent idiots but idiots all the same, had taken an instant liking to him. Mostly, they called him ‘kid,’ which sent Ed’s teeth grinding, but Havoc had taken to calling him ‘Boss’ which was both infuriating and incredibly ironic considering that Ed, as a slave, was the boss of no one, not even himself. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to interact with them between the workload he’d taken up alongside the servants he shared quarters with (he was banned by court rules from communicating with any of the other handful of slaves in the palace to squash the possibility of rebellion) and whatever political bullshit Mustang needed them for, but they were always a good time despite the general lack of conversation and, through stupidly easy card games that Ed won almost constantly due to the back and forth Breda and Havoc had about their hands because they thought Ed couldn’t understand them, were responsible for the little bit of pocket money he had managed to scrounge up for himself from time to time.

Fuery and Falman were the milder members of the group. Fuery had a major interest in anything and everything mechanical and took a massive delight in Ed’s ability to clap a radio back into working order. Falman, bookish and rattling off trivia at almost every given moment, had a rusty-but-working understanding of Xerxian and spoke to Ed as often as he possibly could, although Ed steadfastly refused to divulge any personal information in the fear that it would work its way back to Mustang, and he still wasn’t sure he trusted the man enough to give him anything he could use against him, especially, especially Al.

Ed missed Al so much it hurt. It was a near-constant ache, an ever-present weight on his shoulders that pressed him down every single day. He knew he’d gotten lucky in that his life with Mustang wasn’t even a fraction of the horror it could be if he’d been possessed by someone with even a little bit less conviction, and it wasn’t that he didn’t realize just how easy he’d gotten off even though the work he did in the palace made his leg hurt like a motherfucker and that the extra weight on his right arm (not as insignificant as the alchemist who had affixed them had made him believe,) screwed up his back more often than it didn’t. Mustang, enigma that he was, had never raised a hand to him, never forced himself on him, and, in fact took an active role in making sure the work he did was fair in comparison to the work that the actual servants did. Things could have been so much worse, but life without his brother made him miserable in ways that even torture couldn’t have.

After the first card game, Ed had carefully started to hoard his money until he’d had enough to pay the exorbitant fee to have a letter sent across the desert. There was no chance of getting a return, and even though he’d have given his other leg for even one word from Al, it was enough to know that he’d been able to tell him that he was doing fine, and to remind him not to do anything stupid. 

Sometimes, Ed was able to accompany Mustang to the sprawling outdoor market just outside of the palace gates. He felt almost normal on those days. The people were different, the colors were different, and the sun was just warm rather than hot on the back of his neck, but the atmosphere was the same as the market he’d visit with Al every weekend and he could almost pretend that he was there instead.

“Don’t go far,” Mustang reminded him in slow, overly articulated Xingese when they passed through the gates of the palace. 

It wasn’t that Ed hadn’t considered running away. It was the first thing he thought every morning when he woke up and the last thing he thought before bed, but it was such a risk that he couldn’t justify it to himself. There was no guarantee that word wouldn’t get back to Xerxes, and even though he was sure Aetous had already been paid and that the debt had been settled, he wouldn’t risk Al like that. There were more practical concerns, too. Chiefly, how Ed would make it back across the desert (staying in Xing was out of the question,) and, even if he did, what he would do about the rings on his arm. They identified him quite clearly as a slave, and if he was caught running loose in Xerxes he’d be put right back into shackles and sold to someone else.

Ed rolled his eyes and set off into the labyrinth of market stalls, keeping Mustang in his peripheral just to be safe. No one knew what the rings meant in Xing and it was nice, even for a little while to be a little bit anonymous, even if his yellow hair stood out in the sea of black.

He’d pretty much gotten used to the stares, and he didn’t immediately turn around when he felt a pair of eyes burning into his back, but it got to be so persistent that he finally turned, intent on giving whoever the hell it was as big a piece of his mind as he could manage considering the language barrier, but was startled to find a kid, no more than nine or ten years old, looking up at him instead.

Ed wasn’t entirely sure of everything he said, but ‘money,’ ‘sick,’ and ‘little brother’ stuck and his heart clenched in his chest.

He crouched down to the kid’s level, ignoring the way his leg protested the movement. “How sick?”

The boy’s eyes went a little glassy and he looked away for a moment, steeling himself, and when he looked back at Ed his eyes were clear. “Too sick.”

The kid was dirty and looked far too skinny for comfort, dark eyes shining with determination, and Ed saw far too much of himself in them. He hadn’t been much older when Al had gotten the Wasting Sickness and he’d been forced to sign their lives away to Aetous with a bloody thumbprint on a loan contract so he could buy the medicine that would save his brother’s life. He’d begged, too. Begged to feed them, begged for the money they needed to pay off Aetous, begged for money that kept a roof over their head, and he knew what it felt like to have to bear that weight at such a young age.

Ed reached into his pocket and pulled out everything he had. “It isn’t much. I’m sorry.”

The boy looked genuinely shocked to be getting anything at all and he took the money gratefully just as a shadow fell over both of them. Mustang, evidently, had taken interest in the proceedings and Ed was immediately on the defensive, ready to jump in on the kid’s behalf if the bastard so much as tried to scare the kid off or berate him.

Instead, much to Ed’s total shock, Mustang reached into his own pocket and passed off an impressive collection of paper and coins to the kid, who looked like he might actually pass out.

“For your brother,” Mustang said softly, and then added something else that Ed didn’t quite catch before clapping the boy lightly on the shoulder.

The kid hurriedly stuffed the money into his pocket, babbling thanks and clearly attempting to hold back tears. It was probably more money than he’d ever had at once in his life, and Ed knew how much that meant. It wouldn’t change his life, wouldn’t right the wrongs dished out to him by fate and circumstance, but it would ease the burden for a little while and that was worth everything.

Ed straightened and watched the boy dashing through off through the crowd until the throng of people swallowed him up and he was left staring at nothing.

All of a sudden, the homesickness hit him like a wave. He’d been that kid once, filthy and starving and alone in a crowd looking for any scrap he could get to take back to Al. Al, who had suffered with him and suffered for him, for every stupid mistake he’d made from the moment he’d tried to bring their mom back and crippled himself in the process to the day he’d let his guard down and gotten pick-pocketed, landing himself in shackles and a desert away, safe and warm with a bed and three meals a day when Al might have been starving to death on his own and it wasn’t fucking fair.

 “Fullmetal, are you all right?” Mustang’s careful Xingese was heavy with concern.

It wasn’t fair that Mustang was so fucking decent when Ed deserved the worst. It wasn’t fair that he couldn’t even hate him properly. What kind of normal person just up and handed over wads of cash to some street kid, anyway? What kind of normal person broke their friends out of jail and smuggled them across a desert, and what kind of normal person got a slave and never even once caved into temptation and crossed a line? It didn’t make sense. Nothing about Roy Fucking Mustang made any goddamn sense and Ed—

 “Fullmetal.” A hand on Ed’s shoulder startled him out of his head and he turned quickly on the spot, blinking up at Mustang.

“Are you all right?” he repeated.

Ed just nodded once and shrugged Mustang’s hand off of his shoulder. Like hell he’d let Mustang open that bag of worms, and it wasn’t like he had the vocabulary for it anyway, at least not in Xingese.

Mustang looked like he wanted to press the issue, but Ed didn’t give him the chance. He turned on his heel and stalked off towards the palace gate.

While it certainly wasn’t the first time Fullmetal had stomped away from him, it was the first time he’d ever done so with such a heavy air of sadness. Something about the beggar boy had obviously triggered something in him, and Roy found himself, also not for the first time, wondering what kind of life Fullmetal had left behind him, and what sort of crime he’d committed that pulled him away from it. He knew almost nothing about him aside from the things he’d been able to observe on his own, and any attempts he made in simple Xingese to learn even the most basic information about him were met with blank stares as if he hadn’t understood. Roy quietly suspected that he understood far more than he let on and was cleverer than anyone gave him credit for, but he couldn’t exactly force him to speak.

Fullmetal hadn’t been a slave for long before Roy first encountered him, that much was clear, but anything beyond that was an unknown. Had the boy reminded him of a sibling he’d left behind? A child? Roy was certain Fullmetal was far too young to have a child of that age, even if he didn’t have the faintest idea how old he actually was. Sometimes he seemed ageless, a heaviness in his eyes betraying that he’d seen too much and a weariness in the slant of his shoulders because he’d spent too long holding too much weight on them. Sometimes, he seemed unspeakably young. There was hope in him still under everything, a brightness that hadn’t yet been dulled by the things he’d seen that haunted him, and when he threw back his head and laughed over cards with his team or when someone (usually Roy) made a fool of themselves, the childlike mirth was almost breathtaking.

Still, there was a definite and undeniable sadness in Fullmetal’s eyes sometimes when he thought no one was watching him and Roy, even though he was owed nothing of the sort, wished he knew how to talk to him. He had no illusions about the nature of their relationship and he didn’t fault Fullmetal even a little bit for the open animosity he displayed, but all the same, he would have liked even just one opportunity to speak with him on even ground.

Roy began making his way back to the palace gates after Fullmetal just as the gleaming blond of his hair faded in the distance and out of his sight. The somber turn the afternoon had taken had rather spoiled Roy’s mood for shopping and he’d given most of the money he’d brought to the boy, anyway.

He caught up with Fullmetal easily (it seemed like the leg was giving him trouble again, and Roy made a mental note to consult the court alkahestrist again, even if the woman steadfastly refused to actually examine or treat Fullmetal due to his station,) and fell into step beside him. Fullmetal shot him a look as if he expected him to say something, but Roy elected to stay silent for the duration of their short return to the palace.

Fullmetal relaxed a fraction when he realized Roy meant to leave him be but remained pensive and somber even as they wove their way through labyrinthine corridors back to Roy’s chambers. It was still a bit shocking to him, the way people behaved around Fullmetal. Roy was greeted by nearly everyone they passed, was even roped into brief and pleasant conversation from time to time, but no one acknowledged Fullmetal’s presence, not even to spare him a glance. It was unnerving and even a little rude, and Roy wondered how often he had done the same thing. Slaves were rare in the Xingese court, but not unheard of, but he couldn’t recall ever having seen one and the thought rather disturbed him.

“You can go,” he told Fullmetal when they reached Roy’s door. “The day is yours.”

Fullmetal nodded, but didn’t immediately dash off the way Roy had expected him to. He seemed conflicted for a long moment before seeming to come to some decision and looking up at Roy with something akin to determination.

“That was good, what you did for that kid.”

It was the first complete sentence Fullmetal had ever spoken to him, even if the Xingese was a little clumsy and inexpert, and it took Roy a moment to recover himself to respond. “Anyone would have done what I did.”

“No,” Fullmetal said with heavy certainty. “Not anyone.”

Roy could only stand, shocked, and watch him leave as Fullmetal turned and disappeared down the hallway.

 

 

Ed jolted awake as a cry pierced through his sleep, nearly falling off of the narrow sofa before catching himself. He righted himself quickly and peered through narrowed eyes into the darkened room, trying to determine the source of the noise and bracing himself for a fight, just in case. There was just a sliver of moonlight breaking through the window, enough to light up Mustang’s over-large bed and the floor surrounding it but not the far corners of the room. He strained his ears, listening for any sign of movement from the darkness, and jumped again when another cry broke the silence and this time the source was obvious.

Mustang was muttering in his sleep, twisting a hand in the blanket and writhing in what Ed might have mistaken for pain if the signs of a night terror weren’t so obvious. It didn’t exactly fit with his idea of the man (although that idea had been on fragile ground lately anyway,) and he wasn’t sure what, if anything, he was supposed to do, but it seemed like it would be cruel to just let him suffer, especially when Mustang had never been cruel to him.

He slipped off of the sofa and padded over to Mustang’s bedside, hesitating for a moment before reaching out to put a hang to the man’s trembling shoulder.

“Hey, Mustang—“

Mustang’s hand shot out and his fingers curled around Ed’s wrist for just a moment before he found himself being leveraged down and rolled, quite suddenly pinned to the bed with Mustang pressing down on top of him, raising a hand to snap over Ed’s head.

 “Mustang,” Ed said again, more firmly this time as be braced his hands against the bastard’s chest and pushed. “Roy. Come on, it’s just a nightmare, it’s all right. You’re safe.”

Mustang’s eyes shot open and he stared down at Ed, his face just inches away, as if he’d never seen him before in his life. “Fullmetal?” His voice was a quiet rasp, so different from anything he’d heard from the man before.

“Who else? Let me up.” Ed pushed at Mustang’s chest again and this time he moved, rolling off of Ed and leaning back against the headboard and buried his face in his hands, fighting to catch his breath. He looked like hell, even in the dark, and Ed couldn’t help the little twist of sympathy that curled in his chest. He sat up on the mattress but didn’t move to put any space between them. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Fine, I’m… I’m fine. Please accept my most sincere…” Mustang trailed off and his hands dropped from his face. He stared at Ed with unguarded shock and something else Ed couldn’t identify and he barely had time to wonder what the fuck his deal was when Mustang spoke again. “You speak Amestrian.”

Ed’s stomach dropped. “I…” It had been instinctive to revert to it, easy and practiced and he hadn’t even realized. It was a stupid fucking mistake but he could hardly deny it now. He swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

Mustang was still staring at him. “You’ve been able to understand me this entire time.”

“I mean, I really don’t speak Xingese so I haven’t understood everything, but—“

“You don’t even have an accent,” Mustang said, as if Ed’s clear ability were an affront on him personally, although given the circumstance it probably was. “No, that’s not entirely true. You have a distinctly eastern accent. How in the world—“

“My mom was Amestrian,” Ed said with a shallow shrug. “She made sure we learned it.”

“And you’ve been pretending this entire time that you haven’t been able to understand a word I’ve said to you.”

“Look,” Ed snapped, starting to get annoyed with Mustang’s line of questioning. “Forgive me for not being especially keen to have a full-blown conversation with someone who effectively fucking owns me. I mean, you’re not as much of an ass as I thought you’d be and I’m… you know, I’m not ungrateful for how fucking decent you’ve been to me, but we’re not friends. I wasn’t about to go spilling all my guts to you from the get-go. Besides, it’s been pretty handy, being able to hear the shit people say when they think you can’t understand them.”

“I can’t believe—“

“Look,” Ed said again. “Are you okay or what?”

Mustang’s face shuttered almost immediately into a careful arrangement of blankness. “I’m fine.”

“Do you… need to talk about it?” Ed had a suspicion he knew what sort of nightmare Mustang had had, and he knew that sometimes talking was the best way to make sure it didn’t recur right away.

“I’m fine,” he said again.

“Was it about Ishval?” Mustang glared furiously but Ed threw caution to the wind and barreled on anyway. “You, um, snapped.”

“I would really prefer not to talk about this, Fullmetal.”

“I thought you were supposed to talk about this kinda thing. I mean, I think it’s s’post to help.” Mustang looked spectacularly unmoved by Ed’s rationale. He blew out a long breath, blowing the bangs out of his eyes, and tapped a thoughtful rhythm against his metal ankle. “Look, you’ve been asking me questions for weeks. Maybe… maybe we can trade.”

That caught Mustang’s attention. Gods only knew why he was so fucking interested but at least now Ed was working it in his favor. “You’ll answer anything I ask?”

“Within reason. Same goes for you.” Ed tapped his fingers on his ankle again. “There are lines.”

Mustang nodded in agreement. “There are,” he agreed. “I’ll do my best not to cross any. What’s your name?”

“Ed. Um. Edward Elric, but Ed’s fine.”

“Distinctly Amestrian,” Mustang noted. “No wonder you wouldn’t tell me.”

Ed shrugged. “You were managing fine with that Fullmetal shit. Thanks for that, by the way. I definitely appreciate being reminded of my fucking gimp leg and these stupid goddamn rings every minute of every day.”

Mustang looked momentarily perplexed, like he couldn’t understand why Ed wouldn’t like a constant reminder of his failings. “It wasn’t just because of the leg, you know,” he said finally. “You’re golden, too.”

And where the fuck had that flush come from? He was suddenly grateful for the darkness, because if he’d had to explain it he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to. “Whatever. My turn. That dream you had, was it about Ishval?”

Mustang sighed and ran a hand through his hair in that tired kind of way he always did when someone asked him something complicated. “It was and it wasn’t. It all blurs together, sometimes. Ishval becomes the coup, the coup becomes Ishval.” He hesitated, looking down at his hand splayed on the dark surface of the comforter. “There is always fire. Sometimes when I wake, I can still taste the ash.”

Ed had dreams about the Gate sometimes. He never screamed, but sometimes he woke with the copper tang of blood on his tongue. “It doesn’t mean anything, you know. It doesn’t mean you’re weak.”

“I know that.” Mustang’s voice had taken on that raspy quality again. He cleared his throat before continuing. “I fear regret far more than I fear weakness.”

“We all have regrets,” Ed said, shrugging again. “It’s your turn.”

Mustang looked thoughtful for a moment, setting aside the misery that had been etched on his face just a moment before. “What sort of crime constitutes slavery as a punishment?”

Ed blinked at Mustang through the pale light, trying to divine why on earth he was wasting a question on Xerxian law. “Um. Murder, usually. Well, it kind of depends on the murder. Obviously no one’s gonna want to deal with the risks involved with keeping someone who’s seriously fuckin’ deranged but someone who snaps kills their wife is a pretty safe bet.”

“You killed your wife?” Mustang’s tone was passive but there was underlying tone of curiosity that Ed had the sudden urge to choke out of him. “How did that result in the loss of your leg, exactly?”

What the fuck?” He didn’t really even know where to begin. “Where in the name of the seven sacred metals did you get that fucking idea?”

It was Mustang’s turn to be confused. “I was told you lost your leg in the commission of a crime, and that you had been enslaved as a result.”

“You’ve spent this whole time thinking I’m a fucking criminal?” Ed was torn between shouting and laughing. “I’m enslaved because I owe a debt you stupid jackass!”

Mustang appeared taken aback and was blinking in almost comic confusion. “A debt? But your leg—“

“My leg is the punishment for the crime I committed to lose it, and that was a crime against nature, not man.”

“A crime against nature? What—“

“Why do you fear regret more than weakness?” Ed interjected, hoping to derail Mustang’s train of thought before it arrived in a very unpleasant station.

For a second, Ed thought Mustang wouldn’t answer and would instead press the issue of Ed’s crime. He saw the exact moment Mustang filed it away, correctly guessing that he was verging very closely on crossing a line. “Regret makes you helpless. You can’t change what you’ve done, and sometimes what you’ve done means you can’t change the future.”

There was a lot there, Ed knew, and he felt a little guilty for shifting focus from his own deep secrets to Mustang’s. “You don’t have to unpack that if you don’t want to. I think I get it.” There was a definite progression in Mustang’s future, a chain of cause and effect that landed him where he was today. “Your involvement in the coup means you can’t redeem the things you did in Ishval.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever redeem myself for those crimes, no matter what I accomplish. All I could ever hope for was the chance to make sure something like that never happened again. When I planned that coup, it didn’t even occur to me that I would fail. I couldn’t fail. Everything hinged on my success, my entire future and the future of my team hinged on it.”

That the coup had been Mustang’s idea was new information. Ed had only thought he’d been involved. It gave him a whole new respect for the man. It was one thing to hop into a pot that was already boiling; it was another thing entirely to light the fire beneath it yourself. Mustang had put everything on the line to do the right thing, gambled his life away for the prospect of saving others and lost. Bradley was a bastard and everyone knew it. A war-mongering, smooth-talking, greasy fucking prick and he deserved the worst for all the death and destruction he’d brought into the world, his equivalent exchange for everything he’d done, but he’d escaped consequence and as a result, a decent man was suffering. “This world is so fucked,” Ed said with gusto.

That startled a laugh out of Mustang. “It is,” he agreed. “Although I was a little bit older than you are when I realized.”

“Who the fuck are you calling a kid?” Ed demanded.

“How old are you?”

“I’m nineteen, asshole.”

Mustang laughed again. “Not a child, but young all the same.”

“Fuck you. I’ve been old my entire life. And I’m counting that as your question, you know.”

“Of course.”

Ed fell silent for a moment and tapped another rhythm against his ankle. “Are you feeling better?” he asked finally.

“Yes, I think so,” Mustang admitted after a pause. “I’ve never done this.”

“Yeah, well, the people who say talk’s cheap are wrong.” Ed worked his way across the mattress rolled off of the bed with a wince and a quiet curse as a shock of pain cut through his leg when he landed on his feet.

“Are you all right? I’ve noticed it’s been giving you trouble lately.”

Really, the damn metal leg gave Ed trouble more often than it didn’t. He generally tried not to make a habit of sleeping in the thing, but his abrupt immigration to Xing and his abrupt installation in unfamiliar environments meant that he’d been sleeping in it, both to avoid drawing attention to it by removing it and to avoid being caught off-guard and, no joke intended, disarmed. “S’fine,” he grunted. “Just sore.”

“I’d imagine it’s cumbersome. Why don’t you have automail?”

“Because automail’s fuckin’ expensive.” And because the downtime he’d suffered as a result from losing the leg at all meant that he hadn’t been able to work, hadn’t even been able to beg, and he and Al had suffered as a result and nearly fucking starved to death. Al had gotten the Wasting Sickness not long after that, and Ed was sure that if he’d been healthier and fatter, he might not have fallen ill at all. Automail surgery was even more debilitating than just losing a leg and they’d never have been able to afford to lose Ed’s labor for that long, even if they’d somehow managed to scrape together enough money for it. “Keeps bein’ expensive, too. Wouldn’t last more than a year or two ‘till I outgrew it.”

“I think you’re probably done growing,” Mustang pointed out.

“Who the fuck are you calling short, you bastard?” Ed snarled, face red with a hot and immediate rage. “And for your information, I am still growing!”

“I’m fairly certain that by nineteen, you’re as tall as you’re going to get.”

Mustang was fucking lucky there was an entire bed between them and that Ed’s hip hurt too much to make a lunge for his goddamn throat. “Y’know, I’m already a slave. It’s not like they could enslave me again for fucking murdering you.”

“I think my cousin would probably take exception to it all the same.”

“Like I give a shit what your pervert fucking cousin would take exception to.”

Ed could just see Mustang roll his eyes through the dark. “Yes, Fullmetal, you’ve made that abundantly clear.” He slid out of the bed and grabbed for the heavy robe hanging over the end of it. “I’m not going to be able to sleep again after…” he trailed off and cleared his throat. “If your leg is bothering you, I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to take the bed.”

At first, Ed didn’t process what Mustang had said and he must have looked like a right fucking moron standing there staring at him like he hadn’t understood. Was the bastard really offering up his bed? His larger-than-possible, feather-soft (and Ed hadn’t even really been laying on it,) over-the-top, decadent, rich stupid asshole bed? “Are you insane?” Just his luck that his first productive conversation with Mustang would also be his last once they carted the fucker off to whatever passed for an institution in Xing.

“People think we’re sharing a bed anyway,” Mustang said, tying the robe around himself. Ed could feel himself flushing again. It was one thing to catch the furtive, judgmental glances from the other courtiers whenever Mustang paraded him around but acknowledging it was something else entirely. “I’m not going to be using it. There’s isn’t any reason why you should suffer on the sofa.”

If Ed were honest with himself, there really wasn’t a reason, and every fiber of his irrational mind was crying out for him to take the offer. If the bed didn’t help his leg, it’d help his aching shoulders and his back, at least. “You… actually don’t care?”

“I truly do not, Fullmetal,” Mustang said, clearly exasperated. “I’m going to the study down the hall. Do what you like, but I urge you to accept an opportunity to ease your misery when it’s being offered so freely.” With that, Mustang made his exit.

Ed stared at the bed for a long moment before giving in and climbed back into it with another quiet curse as the movement jerked at his screaming nerves. He settled against the pillows, softer than anything he could ever remember laying his head on, and drew the heavy comforter up over himself. It was bliss, total and absolute, and the tension was leaking from his body already.

He closed his eyes and shifted further down into the pillows and noticed the spicy, smoky scent that clung to them. He was drifting already, but the part of him that was still reasonable recognized that it was distinctly Mustang and, if he’d been a little bit more aware, he might have questioned why it was, exactly, that made him feel so safe, but he was already too far gone, lost in the comfort of the bed and the pull of his own exhaustion, and within minutes he was asleep.

 

 

Truth be told, Ed didn’t really give a fuck about some Xerxian ‘philosopher.’ Emperor Asshole had evidently gotten word that the fabled philosopher was finally going to be making an appearance at court and had called everyone, everyone, into attendance meaning that Ed had been standing behind Mustang’s left shoulder at his spot at the stupidly long fucking feast table for over an hour waiting on the jackass to grace them with his presence.

He’d heard more than he could handle about the idiot Philosopher in the few months he’d been in Xing, starting with Emperor Asshole’s first mention of him when Ed had been goaded into showing off his alchemy (and that cat was long out of the bag; once he and Mustang had starting speaking regularly, Ed had admitted the clapping was a unique skill and if anyone else in Xerxes knew how to do it, it’d be news to him, and steadfastly refused to tell him how he’d acquired it,) and culminating in Mustang’s belabored attempts at persuading him to be on his best behavior while the man himself was in court. Ed didn’t think he actually gave enough of a shit about the Philosopher to be on any kind of behavior at all and was endeavoring just to stand still and shut up until he was free to get on with his day, even if the prolonged standing was murder on his leg and he was about five seconds away from just sitting on the goddamned floor like everyone else, station be damned.

The fact that the man was apparently Xerxian was of absolutely zero interest to him at all. Mustang had talked it up, like he and Ed would sit down and share a few laughs about desert life and reminisce about the good old days or whatever, as if Ed would garner even a passing glance from someone as allegedly important and wise as the Philosopher was supposed to be, and even if he did, the rings on his arm would preclude him from any kind of chatting at all. Not that he’d even want to. The Philosopher was evidently some kind of alchemical mastermind and Ed, a mastermind himself, had had enough interactions with jackass Xerxian alchemists to last him his entire life.

The creak and slam of a door pulled Ed from his rather unfavorable thoughts and he could just barely make out a shock of yellow hair across the hall being escorted in by a handful of palace guards and he only just managed to control the urge to roll his eyes as a ripple of quiet, excited chatter broke out among the seated courtiers.

His vantage point, standing up behind rows and rows of seated people, gave him a clear view of the man as he passed by, and he took in the muted browns and creams that made up his outfit, the familiar sharp curve of his jaw, and the trailing blond tail of hair that snapped as he walked. For a second, he couldn’t actually believe it but then rage, burning and cold all at once, was cutting through every single inch of him and the pain in his leg was completely forgotten.

For a moment, everything went white, whiter than the fucking Gate and the stupid empty outline of Truth, and then everything was red. Of course the fucking Xerxian Philosopher was his stupid, asshole, deadbeat fucking father. Of course he’d be here, where Ed needed him and wanted him least, where Ed, for once, was managing just fine on his own. Of course he’d be here when Al was still alone, probably starving, maybe even fucking dead, listening to Emperor Asshole’s gushing attempts at compliments, smiling and laughing and saying something Ed didn’t catch over the hot rush of his own blood through his veins, pounding a steady rhythm of anger until it was as if Ed had never felt anything but anger in his entire life.

His heart was pounding so fast that Ed thought there was a very real possibility he might pass out and he realized, belatedly, that he should probably start breathing again if he didn’t want that to happen. He sucked in a hissed breath through his teeth, clenched so tightly together it was a wonder they hadn’t cracked.

Ed wasn’t sure how long the conversation between Ling and Hohenheim lasted and he couldn’t be sure, between the language barrier and the roaring in his ears, what they even talked about but it felt like decades had passed when Hohenheim, his voice no different from when Ed last heard it, said something along the lines of ‘retire’ and ‘manage unaccompanied.’ He gave a short bow to Ling and took his leave of the reception hall, pushing through a door that Ed knew for a fact led to a long hallway that was generally bare of courtiers and guards.

He moved to action as soon as the door fell shut behind Hohenheim and the courtiers, including Mustang, began to stand. The tension in his body held strong as he detached himself from Mustang’s side and strode very, very purposefully towards the door Hohenheim had exited through, steeling himself for a fight if anyone, anyone tried to stop him, but for once his relative invisibility played in his favor and he made it to the door without incident. He vaguely heard Mustang calling for him over the roaring in his ears but he let the door slam hard behind himself with a very decisive snap.

Hohenheim was only about halfway down the hallway when the sound of the door caused him to turn towards the source of the noise, and Ed was already storming towards him.

Recognition sparked in Hohenheim’s eyes and he took in the rings on Ed’s arm, only partway visible through the rolled up sleeves of his shirt, and the metal gleam of his ankle peeking out between the hem of his pant leg and his shoe. “Edward,” he greeted, disappointment lacing his tone. “What have you done?”

The sound of his name in Hohenheim’s mouth sent him over the edge and he lunged across the few feet of space that now separated them, landing a punch square in the middle of the fucker’s face with his right arm, throwing the weight of the metal rings into it. The crunch of his nose was the most satisfying thing Ed had ever felt.

 He fisted his left hand in the bastard’s shirtfront as he stumbled back to keep him from running away, which was his mode of operation as far as Ed was concerned. “Fuck you,” he snarled. “Fuck you, you stupid fucking asshole piece of shit.” He landed another punch before Hohenheim could even start a response and the second crunch was as satisfying as the first. There was a commotion sparking behind them and the thudding echo of footsteps in the hall but Ed paid it no mind. He was going to kill Hohenheim if he killed himself doing it and no one was going to stop him. He thought he might have heard Mustang calling for him again, but he was well past caring.

“Alphonse and your mother—“ Hohenheim began, but Ed cut him off with another blow.

“She’s dead! She’s been dead for years and where in the fuck were you?” He reared back, readying himself to land another hit on Hohenheim when his wrist was seized rather furiously from behind. He snarled and twisted in the assailant’s grip, spinning to the left with the intent of landing a blow with his left hand when it, too was caught and he was staring up into Mustang’s dark, furious eyes.

“Fullmetal.” His voice was low and cold and Ed had never heard anything like it from Mustang before. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

Ed was struggling against Mustang’s hold but the bastard was stronger than he looked. “Fucking let me go, bastard, you don’t have any idea—“

“I will not,” Mustang said firmly, doubling down on his evident resolve to keep Ed from twisting free of him. “You have just attacked an esteemed guest of the emperor. Do you have any idea the sort of trouble you are in? You are to go back to my chambers immediately while I attempt to smooth things over, do you understand me?”

If he could just bring his palms together. “Fuck you, who do you think you are? You don’t get to just fucking—“

“I think,” Mustang cut in, his voice taking on an air of command that must have been a throwback to his military days, “I can do whatever I please with you, Fullmetal. Do not forget that I own you.” A hint of ice had laced itself into his tone and that, more than the firm command, gave Ed pause. More than that, Mustang had never said anything like that to him before, never reminded him that he was a slave, probably even forgot that he was sometimes, and the shift was enough to startle Ed down a notch or two from the adrenaline, hatred-laced high he was currently riding. “I suggest you do as I say before you land yourself in deeper trouble.”

Ed wasn’t struggling anymore and Mustang loosened his grip, apparently trusting that he wouldn’t attempt another lunge at Hohenheim. Ed snatched his hands back, rubbing his wrists where Mustang’s fingers had dug craters into his skin.

Go,” Mustang said again, if possible even more firmly than he had before. “You landed a few good blows, that ought to be enough to satisfy you and whatever hare-brained reason you had for assaulting this man.” When Ed opened his mouth to argue, Mustang cut him off again. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say right now, Fullmetal. You’re lucky you didn’t manage to draw the attention of the palace guard, or else you would be getting escorted to a jail cell rather than being allowed to walk back to my rooms on your own. If I were you, on that walk back I would consider just how fortunate you are that is the case.”

Ed glared and bared his teeth at the bastard in a silent snarl and shot another at Hohenheim for good measure before stomping off down the hallway so furiously that he could feel the clang of his metal leg trembling through his entire body.

 

 

Roy could hear Ed’s furious pacing through the door before he pushed it open and braced himself for attack, just in case, but Ed stayed well away from the door and from Roy as he stepped inside and closed it behind him. Ed was, as far as Roy could tell, still spitting mad and he was trembling so hard with quiet rage that he thought he could even hear his teeth chattering. It was only due to a thin thread of self-control that Roy wasn’t in a similar state.

“The Philosopher has declined to levy charges against you,” he began, letting a hint of anger tint his voice so that Ed had no illusions about where he stood. “I believe I have smoothed things over with the emperor for the time being, a fortunate turn of events for the both of us. You do realize, don’t you, that your poor behavior reflects not just on you, but on me as well? I don’t know what possessed you to act so rashly, but you should be eternally grateful that nothing came of this. Did you know that you can be put to death for attacking an esteemed guest of the emperor? You’re a slave, Edward. You wouldn’t even have gotten a trial. If the Philosopher—“

“He’s not a fucking philosopher,” Ed snarled, turning furiously and pinning Roy with a rather impressive glare. “His name is Van Hohenheim and he’s my deadbeat fucking father.”

Of all the things Roy had expected Ed to throw in for his defense, this certainly hadn’t been one of them. The Philosopher had been suitably vague in explaining the connection he had to Ed, saying only that they had history in Xerxes ,and Roy had assumed that the man had played a part in whatever debt-related saga had culminated in Ed’s being enslaved. “Your father?”

“Only in the loosest sense of the word.” Ed eyed him warily, some of the fire gone from his eyes, but not much. “Are you gonna beat me or fucking what? Can we just get this over with? I’m not fuckin’ sorry, I won’t apologize, and I don’t feel bad about it so if that’s what you’re expecting to hear, you better steel yourself for disappointment.”

Roy sighed and scraped a hand through his hair. “I wouldn’t beat you, Edward.” He hadn’t really been expecting an apology, either, just an acknowledgment that he’d done wrong and that he’d gotten lucky neither of them were going to pay for it, although that entire plan was rather falling apart in the face of this new information about the identity of the Philosopher.

“Yeah? Sure seemed to me like you suddenly realized I’m your fucking slave and decided to treat me like it.” There was a definite trace of hurt in Ed’s voice that he didn’t quite manage to hide.

“You know that I couldn’t allow you to continue. You might’ve killed him.”

“I meant to fucking kill him!”

“You didn’t,” Roy said with more confidence than he felt about the statement. “You would have come to regret it, I think.”

“Wouldn’t’ve,” Ed muttered. He seemed to have cooled down a little and Roy drew a little bit closer to him, still on the defensive but less so than before.

“Ed,” he said quietly. “Have you ever killed anyone before?”

“Have you ever slept in a fucking gutter before?” Ed countered, all of a sudden furious again. “You ever had to beg and lie and steal just to keep the hunger at bay long enough that you could squeeze out a few hours of sleep? You ever had to sign your whole goddamned life away in exchange for someone else’s? Not that I’d take it back, not that I’d ever take it back, but the point is that I never shoulda fucking had to but he walked out on us and after my mom died we…” he trailed off, suddenly glassy-eyed and right on the verge, Roy thought, of total collapse. It was the most information he’d ever volunteered at once and, although he’d been craving to know him, he wasn’t quite sure how to handle a fragile Edward Elric.

“Come and sit down, take the edge of the bed, that’s fine,” Roy said gently, closing the space between them and carefully steering Ed with a light hand on his elbow.

“Don’t need your damn pity,” Ed said, but allowed himself to be guided all the same. “’m not fuckin’ fragile.”

“You’re many things, Ed, but never that.” Roy maneuvered him down to sit on the edge of the bed but didn’t move to join him, recognizing that he might prefer a bit of space. “I would like to understand, if you’d allow it, but you don’t have to talk to me. I will take your word for it that your actions weren’t unjustified and I will never speak of it again if that’s what you want. I don’t expect you to trust me, and I don’t begrudge you that.”

“I made you talk to me about the dreams,” Ed muttered, looking down at the dark smudges that were beginning to form around his wrists where Roy had held him. “Guess it’s only fair I return the favor.” He took a shuddering breath, and Roy could still see that he was trembling although he suspected this time it had less to do with latent rage. “I guess he travelled a lot, I don’t really know. Met my mom abroad and brought her with him to Xerxes after they got married. She was completely cut off from her family and from anyone who could help her, so when he left us things were… hard. We got by, and I guess he left a little bit of money, but things weren’t the best. Then she got sick.”

Ed swallowed hard, looking back down at his wrists. “I was nine when she died, and me n’ Al, my brother, he’s, um, a year younger, we didn’t have anyone. The neighbors were nice enough and did what they could but things were pretty tough all around we ended up on the street before long.

“Sometimes when we had some spare time, we’d sneak into the library or into a bookstore and study what we could about alchemy. It was somethin’ to do, I guess, and it kept us under a roof sometimes when we could scrounge up a little chalk or charcoal to draw a circle and transmute something. Then I, um, had an idea.

“It was fucking stupid. The stupidest goddamn idea I ever had, really, and I knew it was stupid so I didn’t tell Al because I didn’t want him to get it into his head that he should stop me or, even worse, help me with it, but I really, really thought I could do it. It took me forever to find the right information and I musta got thrown out of the Great Library a hundred times but two years after my mom died, I… I tried to bring her back.”

It took Roy a moment to understand what Ed was admitting to. Horror broke over him like a wave.  Human transmutation was the ultimate taboo, rightfully illegal almost everywhere alchemy existed, and far, far too difficult for an eleven year old child to attempt on his own. Edward was lucky to be alive. It occurred to Roy then, too, and not for the first time, that there was much more to Ed than met the eye. It was obvious and evident from everything he’d seen that Ed was a competent and powerful alchemist, but to attempt human transmutation at eleven years old and live to tell the tale was a startling testament to his power.

“It didn’t work, obviously. I… I don’t think it ever works. I don’t think it’s possible. There’s this thing. This… place, kind of, this gate that we draw power from when we use alchemy, and the Gate holds Truth. H-human transmutation takes so much energy and demands so much of an exchange that you kind of get… sucked in. You see everything, everything flash through eyes like you’re dying. Maybe you are dying, I don’t know, but that’s how I can do alchemy without a circle.

“Here’s the thing about equivalent exchange, though. It’s really not all that equivalent. The gate took my leg, and the thing that came back through with me wasn’t my mom.”

“Ed…”

“Al knew something was up. He found me, I still don’t know how, and got the Night Guard to help him get me somewhere safe. They patched up my leg and left us there on the street. Human transmutation is technically illegal in Xerxes but the law doesn’t generally step in ‘cause, ‘cause I guess whatever you lose is punishment enough. I… I thought for sure I was gonna die. If not from the pain, then from an infection but Al did everything he could to make sure that didn’t happen.

“I couldn’t really work or beg while I was recovering. Al managed okay on his own, but most of what he made went towards medicine for me and I know he was giving me an unequal share of the food because he dropped so much weight, too much weight. Right after we got my first metal leg, he got what’s called the Wasting Sickness in Xerxian. I don’t know if there’s a name for it in Amestrian. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

“The Wasting Sickness is usually fatal if it’s not treated, but the treatment’s expensive. Too expensive for two street kids, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t gonna let my little brother die. Not when it was my own fuckin’ fault he got sick in the first place. I went to the merchants and took out a loan with the only one shady enough to lend to a kid. I had to put myself and my brother up as collateral.

“I really don’t think he ever thought we’d pay him back, but we worked our asses off and made regular payments to him for years. But then Al got sick and I got hurt and we couldn’t work for a little while. I managed to make just enough to pay him his due that month and then some low-down fucking pickpocket stole it right from under me. They were taking Al when I made it back to the house, and I offered myself in exchange.” He tapped the rings on his right arm. “One’ll drop off every five years until it hits thirty and the debt’s repaid. And… and it’s such shit because I’m here and I’m probably going to fucking die in this stupid fucking country before I even get the chance to go home and it seems like such a goddamn waste.” Ed was shaking again, trembling as he tried to hold back the flood of emotion Roy could see welling up in him. “All he had to do was fucking stay. All he had to do was believe we were good enough and just fucking stay.”

“Edward,” Roy said softly, settling on the edge of the bed next to him and reaching out, settling a hand on his left shoulder. “I can’t tell you why he left, but I can tell you that it had nothing to do with you. You are good enough, of course you are. You were just a child. None of this was your fault.”

The look Ed turned on him was haunted. Even the bright gold of his eyes seemed dull. “Even if that were true, the transmutation was still my fault. My leg was my fault, Al’s sickness was my fault, that stupid fucking loan was my fault. Al’s alone now, and it’s my fucking fault.” Ed’s breathing had kicked up a little bit and the trembling was becoming more and more violent by the second. “I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. I don’t… I wrote to him but it’s not like he can write me back. He couldn’t afford it, and he, where’s he going to send it? Xingese Royal Palace, special attention Roy Mustang’s fucking piece of shit slave? Not like he could write anyway because he’s probably fucking dead. He was never strong after being sick and he could never work like I could, even with the leg, and he probably starved to death in that rundown hovel I left him in and I’m here in a castle sleeping in real beds and getting three square meals and fucking pocket money from your idiot fucking team who couldn’t win a game of poker with knives to their throats and you treat me like a person instead of like shit like I fucking deserve and—“

Ed was spiraling very quickly into what Roy thought might have been the beginnings of a full-fledged panic attack. It was a wonder he was even managing to pull in any air at all between his fractured and dry not-quite-sobs and the stream of unbroken curses coming out of his mouth. Roy did the only thing he could think of and yanked Ed into his arms.

He was expecting a fight, or at least a bit of resistance, but Ed was surprisingly pliant and buried his face in his shoulder. It jarred Roy a little bit, this passive acceptance of comfort, and terrified him, too, to see Ed so off-balance. Carefully, he stroked a hand down his back, trying to ease the tremors and soothe him back into something like calm.

The silence between them was broken every now and then by Ed’s ragged gasping, which only seemed to disturb him more and increase the violence of his trembling. Roy continued the soothing little motions on his back and, after a moment, he began to speak in what he hoped would be a successful attempt to distract Ed from his own demons by sharing some of his own. Ed had lain himself bare and in doing so, showed a near-breathtaking amount of trust in Roy and it felt equivalent, even if, by the man’s own admission, equivalent exchange wasn’t actually equivalent, to return the favor.

“I lost my best friend in the coup,” Roy said into the mass of golden hair that had worked its way into his face. “We went through the academy together. I was following in my late father’s footsteps and very eager to prove myself and reclaim a bit of respect for my name. He’d been assigned to a protection detail during a state visit from the Xingese emperor and several of his children. He met my mother, they fell in love, and were married in secret under the nose of both the emperor and the Amestrian military. Once they were found out, my father was dishonorably discharged and the emperor all but disowned my mother for both marrying a foreigner and doing so without his permission. She died giving birth to me, and my father drank himself to death two years later and I was taken in by my aunt.

“I was perhaps a bit over-eager and, as a result, made several fast enemies. Maes came to my aide in a fight and, as I suppose is the way of things, we became fast friends. I qualified for my State Alchemist position not long after we graduated and Maes turned his focus to intelligence. The Ishvalan war raged on longer than anyone thought it would, and they were desperate for soldiers by the time Bradley issued to order to send the State Alchemists to the front, and as a result we were deployed together.

“I… didn’t quite manage the aftermath of the war with anything like grace. Maes stopped me, several times, from doing anything rash or regretful. I suppose the irony of it all is that he encouraged me to stage the coup, which turned out to be my biggest regret of them all.

“He was shot by one of Bradley’s men, and by the time anyone could get to him, it was too late.”

Ed’s trembling had mostly stopped now and his breathing had begun to even out, and it was only that which kept Roy from trembling himself.

“Everything went downhill quickly after that and we were taken into custody. I was exiled shortly after, but managed to break my team out and smuggle them over the border with me in one last act of defiance.  I never got the opportunity to offer my apologies to his wife and their daughter for dragging him into it, and I am not permitted to send correspondence to Amestris at all in the fear that doing so will upset the careful and quiet peace between the two countries. I owe my cousin a great deal for agreeing to accept me into his court, and I have no desire to let my need for repentance spark another war.

“I would be lying, however, if I said I never thought of going back, of trying again, of knocking Bradley down once and for all and taking his place. I am owed a rather large favor from a very powerful man in Xerxes due to a business deal I took part in negotiating for him after my arrival in Xing and I think, sometimes, of all I could ask for that would push me towards that goal in the correct circumstances. It was my dream for far too long to die so easily, but I lost my courage in that coup, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be fool enough to try again, no matter how desperately I would like to.”

Ed shifted a little in his arms and tipped his head back, peering up at Roy through the yellow curtain of his bangs. “Why’re you tellin’ me this?” His voice was a quiet rasp but his ragged breathing had died down into something almost normal, and the shaking had stopped completely.

“For equivalence, partially,” Roy said, never faltering in the rhythmic strokes up and down Ed’s back. “And because I want you to understand that I know what loss tastes like, and that you aren’t weak for missing your home.”

“Home isn’t a place. Home’s my brother, plain and simple. Every shit thing that ever happened to me happened in Xerxes, and if I never see the fucking desert again it’ll be too soon. Al is what home is. I miss him like, like a fuckin’ hole in my chest. Like a limb. I’m not whole without him. Never will be, no matter what I do. Everything good that’s ever happened, happened with Al or because of him.” Ed turned his head back into Roy’s shoulder. “Well. Mostly with Al.”

Roy wasn’t entirely sure he understood what Ed meant by that addition and didn’t much want to unpack it at the moment. They’d done enough heavy lifting for one evening, and he could hear the exhaustion in Ed’s voice that betrayed just how much the emotional outpouring had cost him. “I think you might benefit from a bit of rest.”

“’M fine,” Ed mumbled into Roy’s shirt.

“I didn’t say you weren’t fine,” Roy reminded him gently. “Just that you should rest. It’s early still. Why don’t you take the bed? If you haven’t woken up by nightfall, I don’t think a night on the sofa will kill me.”

“Really?” Ed sounded a bit more warmed to the idea, just as Roy thought he might. He’d sung praises for days after the last time he’d spent a night in the bed, and even if Roy had been pulling long blond hairs off of his pillows for weeks now, seeing Ed walk without a limp had been more than worth it. “I mean, fine, I guess that’s… fine.”

Carefully, Roy extracted himself from Ed and stood, leaving him to shuffle and toss until he’d gotten himself comfortable, dwarfed (though he knew better than to utter that thought aloud,) by the expanse of the mattress on either side of him as he settled himself in the middle of it.

 “Hey, um. Thanks,” he said quietly as Roy turned to leave him in peace. “Thanks for… I mean, Al was the only one who ever knew how to…” he sighed. “Just, thanks.”

“Of course, Edward,” Roy murmured. “Sleep well.”

He dimmed the light on his way out and closed the door behind himself as quietly as possible, even while the wheels in his head were turning in a furious cacophony of noise, fitting together the new pieces of Ed and comparing them to old notes. The way he’d blinked when pressed about the clapping,  the way he always seemed to eat too quickly, his perplexing behavior at the market the day they’d encountered the beggar boy, and a litany of other things that spoke to his experiences that Roy had noticed, but hadn’t understood.

Hadn’t understood, the way he hadn’t understood the lingering sadness etched into Ed’s face when he thought no one was looking, a sadness that had, if Roy were honest, been lingering for months almost since the first time he’d met him. There was a hollowness, a wrongness, somehow, that Roy had first attributed to dissatisfaction with his situation and later had attributed to culture shock or guilt or homesickness. That last one, he supposed, hadn’t been far off but it was deeper than that.

Roy had never understood what singularity was between two people, didn’t understand what it meant to dedicate one’s life to the welfare and protection of someone else’s, even at a detriment to your own. He hadn’t understood what it meant to love so utterly and so completely, but when Ed spoke of his brother, when Roy looked into the darkness in the corners of Ed’s eyes, he knew.

Separating Edward Elric from his brother had been the cruelest blow fate had ever dealt him.

And, he thought, retreating down the hall towards his study, there was a very powerful man in Xerxes who owed him a favor.

Chapter Text

Sir,

Per your request, I have looked into and ascertained the whereabouts of one Al (Alphonse) Elric. It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that, following an altercation with the man to whom he and his brother once held a debt, the younger Elric has followed his brother into slavery.

I was able to get into contact with the woman who purchased him, and she is understanding of your desire for a matching set, so to speak, and will gladly part with him and arrange to have him shipped to you after proper payment is made.

I have included her contact information and have forwarded yours to her as a courtesy.

I consider this exchange to be equivalent, and our dealings from this point forward closed. I thank you for a final time for the assistance you provided me in the past.

Regards,

Alddes Talos.


 

“Sir.”

Roy startled at the sound of his former lieutenant’s voice and looked up from the spread of papers on his desk. He’d been working out the details of the exchange for weeks, his progress impeded by the snail’s pace of mail delivery between Xing and Xerxes, but he was in the final stretch and the composition of his last letter which would, of course, require translation later, was giving him far more trouble than he’d anticipated. The woman who had purchased Alphonse was under a certain impression regarding his intentions, and Roy was struggling to maintain the façade, even in text.

From the look on Riza’s face, Roy gathered that she’d been standing there quite awhile.

“Sorry,” he said, a touch sheepishly, and pushed the papers off to his side to clear the space. “I’ve been a little caught up.”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Roy was pretty sure that wasn’t actually the case but he knew better than to argue it. “I know that you’ve been buried in work lately. It’s unlike you.”

“Some causes are worthier than others.”

“I’ve noticed you’ve been receiving quite a few letters from Xerxes.” Riza paused delicately, watching him carefully. “Doesn’t someone there owe you a favor?”

There it was. Roy sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. “It isn’t what you’re thinking.”

“I know it isn’t my place to question—“

“Of course it is,” Roy interrupted. “You put your life on the line for me once and narrowly escaped with it. You all did. If I were scheming again, you’d be well within your rights to question me. I meant it, though. It isn’t what you’re thinking. You’re correct in thinking that I have reached out to my contact, but my goal is significantly more simple. I’m coordinating the acquisition of Edward’s younger brother.”

Riza blinked in surprise, clearly taken aback. “Edward’s younger brother?” Then, her expression darkened. “Acquisition?”

“Also not what you think,” Roy said quickly, recognizing that nothing good ever came from that particular expression. “Initially I only meant to bring him here but apparently he followed Edward into shackles shortly after his departure. In order to reunite them, I have to… purchase him.” The very idea left a bad taste in his mouth.

Riza seemed to roll the idea around for a few moments. “You aren’t worried a gesture like that would raise eyebrows?”

“Not really. The Xerxians are surprisingly – and disturbingly – understanding of my desire to complete my collection, so to speak, and if Alphonse is half as beautiful as Edward, I’m sure no one here will question my motives either. Anyway, let them raise their eyebrows. I don’t particularly care what anyone will think.” Roy shrugged and began gathering his scattered papers. “Edward agonizes over his brother. If I can do something to ease that agony and erase that haunted, miserable look off his face for good, why would I hesitate?”

“It could affect your chances for advancement.”

“Advancement to what, exactly?” Roy was lucky to have the prestige he held now. It was fragile, and like anything else in the fickle Xingese court, fleeting, but he was comfortable, secure, exceedingly well-monied considering the circumstances, and most importantly, his team was safe. The only thing he could concern himself with now was keeping everything from falling down around him. “My chances for advancement died in Central.”

Riza reached out and deftly plucked a letter out of the haphazard stack on his desk. He recognized Alddes Talos’s flowing handwriting peeking out from between her fingers. “And your chance to return to Central died with this letter.”

“Well,” Roy said, flicking his eyes away from the paper in her hand. “It’s like I said, some causes are worthier than others.”

The full force of Riza’s heavy gaze lingered on him for almost too long before she nodded once very sharply. “Very well, sir,” she said. Then, with just a hint of a smile tinting her voice, “Good luck.” She inclined her head again and strode from the room, seemingly satisfied.

Roy got the distinct impression that he had just been tested, and somehow managed to pass.

 

 

“I can’t believe you’re readin’ that shit,” Ed said, eloquent as ever, from his sprawl on the sofa. He was casting a disparaging look at the book in Roy’s hands and his gold eyes were all but radiating his distaste in the lamplight. “Rodinad’s a moron.”

“I happen to think Rodinad’s symbology is incredibly useful,” Roy said, not looking up from the page.

Ed scoffed and sat up, his glare sharpening. “Then you’re a moron, too. Those fancy symbols are a waste of fucking chalk. They don’t actually do anything.”

“On the contrary, Edward, they strengthen the array and focus the energy. I’ve had quite a bit of success when integrating them into elementary transmutations.” Roy had looked up from the book and was pinning Ed with a glare of his own. “Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not valid.”

“They don’t strengthen shit! All they do is make a feedback loop, and you fuck around with that shit too long you’ll pass out just trying to transmute dirt into marbles. Here, look,” he said, rising up to kneel on the sofa. He braced a hand against the stone wall and tilted his head slightly, considering it. “What do you think this is? Limestone?”

“I haven’t the foggiest—“

Ed clapped his hands and pressed them to the wall before Roy could finish, extracting a thin piece of chalk. “So,” he said, apparently unmindful of Roy’s radiating disbelief. He sketched out two perfect circles (budding more disbelief on Roy’s part but this time with just a trace of envy hovering at the edges,) and began drawing the lines for a simple deconstruction array.

“Edward, please, not the wall,” Roy pleaded.

“I’ll put it back, don’t worry.”

Roy found that all he could do was worry. God only knew if the wall was a load-bearing one, and while he trusted Ed’s expertise at alchemy, he did not trust Ed’s luck.

Nevertheless, he watched with interest as Ed sketched out two identical arrays, working desperately not to take in the sweep of his waist or the arch of his back as he leaned up to complete the top portion of the symbols and failing. It seemed the closer they grew, the more difficult it was for him to ignore the fact that Ed was an exceedingly attractive young man, not just in body but in soul, too. There was a chance, one that Roy didn’t much like to explore but that weighed heavily on his mind anyway, that there was far more at work in his attraction than just lust.

In another world, Roy might have acted upon those feelings but, as it stood, he didn’t dare upset the fragile understanding that had grown between them, and he didn’t dare risk the chance that his coming on to Ed would seem like an imperative given their power imbalance rather than a choice.

Ed finished off the arrays, adding a symbol he recognized as Rodinad’s to one and leaving it off of the other. “Okay, so look,” he said, indicating the arrays. “If your hard-on for Rodinad’s merited, this array,” he indicated the one with the extra symbol, “should erode the wall more quickly and more powerfully than the other, right?”

“It doesn’t always work exactly that—“

Right?

Roy sighed. “Right.”

Ed slapped his hand against the array without the extra symbol and the perfect circle of the outline, along with the wall beneath it, disappeared almost instantly. “Easy. Barely any effort, and look at those results,” he said. “Now this, with the feedback loop.” He hit the second array and there was a definite delay in the resulting bloom of light, even if the wall and the array did disappear in exactly the same manner as the first. “Took three times as long, and used up three times as much energy in exchange. Does that seem like a smart tool to you, Mustang?”

“No,” Roy said, gritting his teeth. “But—“

“Then it follows that Rodinad’s a fucking moron, doesn’t it?” Ed’s eyes were gleaming triumphantly and the smirk on his face was infinitely infuriating.

No, not necessarily. There are instances in which a feedback loop might be warranted and useful, particularly in reconstruction where the flow of energy produces a more even and strong transmutation.”

Ed cocked an eyebrow and clapped his hands together, pressing them to the wall again and filling in the holes. “Look at that,” he marveled with fake enthusiasm, leaning back to survey his handiwork. “And with no feedback loop!”

“Not everyone is as gifted as you are in the alchemical arts, Edward,” Roy said dryly. “What works for you may not work for others.”

“Fine, this calls for further experimentation,” Ed said, going for the chalk again. Once again, he sketched out two identical arrays before adding the extra symbol to one. “C’mon then, bastard.” He turned to beckon Roy over.

Roy groaned quietly and closed his eyes, pressing his head back into the mound of pillows. “Edward, while you may still be in the throes of tireless youth, we are verging on well past my bedtime and I’m quite comfortable where I—“

“If you can read, you can walk your ass over here and activate these arrays,” Ed said impatiently, slipping off of the sofa and making a face as his metal leg made jarring contact with the floor. He strode across the room to Roy’s bedside and turned the comforter down triumphantly, making a grab for Roy’s wrist and giving him a sharp tug. “It won’t even take five minutes.”

Reluctantly, Roy allowed himself to be pulled out of bed. He nearly crashed into Ed as he stumbled and lost his footing but Ed caught him around the waist and steadied him.

“What’re you drunk?” he asked, pulling hastily out of the contact as color rose to his cheeks.

“Unfortunately I’m tragically sober. Far too sober to participate in the destruction of my own bedroom wall.”

Ed rolled his eyes and climbed back up onto the couch, kneeling off to the side to give Roy room to join him. “I put it back once, I’ll do it again.”

“How many times do you think you can deconstruct and reconstruct limestone before it starts to show signs of having been transmuted?” Roy countered, kneeling on the sofa next to Edward and reaching up to hover a hand over the first array.

“My repairs are perfect, thank you very much,” Ed huffed.

Roy pressed his hand to the array, focusing his intent and feeling the electric shift and the buzz of transmutation under his palm as the stone began to melt away. It was, he had to admit, a very clean and simple transmutation, even without the extra symbol.

“Next,” Ed promoted before enough time had even passed for Roy to reposition his hand.

Roy repeated the process on the second array, and he had to admit there was a bit of a pull this time, bits and pieces of what remained of his energy funneling into the exchange and only after a few seconds of that did the wall melt away, taking the array with it.

“See?” Ed said smugly, and Roy must have looked as winded as he felt because Ed’s eyes were sparkling with unspoken victory and Roy didn’t even bother trying to ignore the fact that he found it beautiful. “You look like you’re about to keel over.”

“You did drag me out of bed for this,” Roy said, slipping off of the sofa and making his way back to the warm confines of his bed. “I was hardly at my best and brightest.”

“Sounds like an excuse to me, Mustang. You just won’t admit you’re wrong.

Roy clicked his tongue and shook his head. “You’re insufferable,” he said, just a touch fondly.

“Yeah, maybe, but I’m also right.” Ed transmuted the chalk back into the wall and settled back down on the sofa with a little wince when he straightened his metal knee, and Roy frowned.

“Is it bothering you?”

“It always fuckin’ bothers me,” Ed muttered, going for his blanket and throwing it up over himself. “Not a whole lot I can do about it.”

“Surely sleeping in it doesn’t help.” Roy, in fact, couldn’t remember a single instance in which Ed had relieved himself of the burden of his metal prosthetic.

Ed, however, was visibly uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, not a whole lot I can do about that, either.”

“You could take it off.”

“No offense, Mustang, but you don’t know the first fuckin’ thing about it so just… don’t.”

Roy closed the book and set it aside, turning his full attention on Edward and taking in the marked lines of discomfort that cut across his body, trying to glean the purpose of their origin. “Do you not feel safe here?” he asked finally. “No one will harm you here, Ed. Not under my watch. Not in this palace and certainly not in my room.”

“It ain’t just about safe,” Ed said, his voice wavering slightly. “It’s not pretty, that’s all. It’s… I mean… y’know, sleeping in it really isn’t that bad. It doesn’t matter. You worry too fuckin’ much.” With a decisive little huff, Ed turned his back to Roy very pointedly. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore. It doesn’t matter.”

“Very well,” Roy said softly. “Goodnight, Edward.”

 

 

Ed’s arms were laden with books when he burst into Mustang’s study. “Hey bastard, just cause I’m functionally illiterate in this stupid fuckin’ language doesn’t mean you needed to start me off with ‘Alkahestry for Zygotes.’ I coulda— Oh.” Emperor Asshole was lounging in the chair on the other side of Mustang’s desk and his menacing, metal-armed body guard was watching them like a hawk from the corner like Mustang was just waiting for the opportunity to whip a scimitar out of his desk and cut Ling in half. “Uh, I’ll just come back later.”

Ever since the Incident with Hohenheim, Ed and Mustang had developed an easy, almost borderline friendly companionship. The wall had been slowly coming down on its own, but trembling in Mustang’s arms (and god if he didn’t still feel like an idiot for letting himself be so stupid and weak, even if being locked in the solid heat of Mustang’s hold was the safest he’d felt since he left Al, which was a terrifying prospect on its own,) had torn it down completely. There were times when even Ed forgot the nature of their dynamic.

And it was… nice, almost, to feel like he belonged somewhere without his brother there to ground him. He still missed Al like a an aching fucking wound and would until the day he died but things were… good. He knew that Mustang was a big part of that and he’d grudgingly come to accept that Mustang wasn’t just decent but was actually pretty fucking tolerable in certain doses and maybe just the tiniest bit infuriatingly attractive. Sometimes. When the light hit him just right. Maybe.

Not that it mattered. Not that Ed would ever act on it, because no matter what Mustang was still a bastard and Ed was still just a slave, even if he almost never felt like one.

“That’s quite all right, Fullmetal, we weren’t discussing anything important.”

Except for when Mustang threw out that Fullmetal shit. He was always a slave when Mustang called him Fullmetal, and it was almost always because he was showboating in front of his stupid fancy friends.

“Yeah, I’d really rather not.” He crossed over to Mustang’s desk and dropped the stack of books on the corner with a quiet little thunk. He’d come find him when he was done being an ass for his company.

“Shouldn’t you put those away, Fullmetal?” Emperor Asshole interjected. “Your job is to serve, isn’t it?”

Asshole’s bodyguard must have seen the way Ed’s shoulders tensed if her mirrored tension was any indication, and the atmosphere in the room was suddenly so thick and oppressive that even Mustang, usually so cool and collected, seemed uncomfortable. Ed tilted his head and met his eye, challenging. Waiting.

“You heard him, Fullmetal,” Mustang said quietly after what felt like an endless stretch of silence. “Put them away.”

Ed’s heartbeat was roaring in his ears and it was just… too fucking much.

“Or what?” he ground out.

Mustang, at least, had the grace to look startled. “Pardon me?”

“Put them away or what?”

Ling’s hands coming together in a thrilled clap cut through the weight of the room and Ed half-jumped out of his skin. “Yes, Cousin, or what?” He sounded like someone had just informed him his birthday was coming twice this year. “You need to keep him in check. I knew you’ve been too easy on him.” Somehow Ling’s grin grew impossibly wider. “I wonder why?”

Ed was advancing on him before he even knew he was moving. “The only thing you’re gonna be fucking wondering in a second is why you ever opened your idiot mouth you—“

Metal Armed Bodyguard made a grab for her weapon at the same moment Mustang slammed his hands on his desk and snapped to his feet.

Fullmetal!

Don’t fucking call me that,” Ed snarled, turning on Mustang and meeting his eyes furiously across the desk. “That’s not my goddamned name!”

“I don’t know that you deserve your name just now, Fullmetal.”

And what kind of shit was that? “What the fuck?”

“Gracious, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Ling interjected from somewhere across the room, out of reach now and that was for the best because Ed had begun to tremble and there was a very real chance he would tear the first thing he got his hands on limb from fucking limb without a second thought.

“Don’t you dare talk about my mother.” Ed was spinning on his heel and he didn’t realize he was moving to clap until Mustang’s fingers curled around his wrist to stop him.

“I think it would be for the best,” he said lowly, tilting his head to address Ling in the doorway, “if you would do us the honor of granting us a bit of privacy.”

“You’re no fun, Cousin, but if you insist. Enjoy your chat.” Ling said with a put-upon sigh. “We’ll discuss this later, of course,” he added, beckoning for his bodyguard and breezing out of the study.

Ed yanked his wrist out of Mustang’s grasp like his fingers were burning him. “You’re a piece of fuckin’ work, you know that?”

Mustang’s eyes were cold and the set of his jaw betrayed his clenched teeth. If Ed’d had the capacity for it, he might have been intimidated. As it stood, he just wanted to clock the bastard in the face. “I fail to see how any of this is about me. You lost your temper. You forgot your place.”

That was the whole fucking problem, wasn’t it? Just when Ed thought he had it figured out, when things started to settle into a rhythm and he began to find solace in Mustang’s stupid fucking company instead of just contempt and uncertainty, he’d turn around and lord himself over him and reduce Ed right back down to the ground.  “What place would that be, exactly? Because I can’t seem to fucking figure it out and half the time I don’t think you even know yourself until I do something that pisses you off or makes you look bad in front of some courtier and you suddenly remember that you own me and start acting like it.”

Mustang’s impassive, angry façade cracked slightly. “You know good and well I have only ever spoken to you as less than my equal to protect my reputation, and to protect you from those here who might wish to take advantage of your position.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. You’re not protecting me from anything because your stupid fucking reputation is too important to you and you’d do anything to save face. You treat me like shit the second someone says you should. How much are you willing to bend your conveniently flexible moral qualms about slavery if it means you fit in? Would you beat the shit out of me if someone said you oughtta? Would you fucking rape me?”

Mustang’s demeanor changed completely as a look of abject horror overtook his features and his shoulders slumped. “Edward, I would never—

“Fantastic, guess I’ve earned the honor of my own fucking name back after my deplorable behavior,” Ed said with mock-cheerfulness. “D’you know you only ever call me ‘Fullmetal’ when you’re treating me like a slave? Everyone else in this stupid fucking court calls their slaves by their own given fucking names and they treat them like the lowest specks of shit.”

“Is that how you’d rather I treat you?”

It wasn’t as much of a threat as it was a nearly genuine question, but it infuriated Ed all the same and it took him a moment to will enough of the tension out of his jaw that he could even open his mouth to respond.

“I’d like some consistency. If that means you treat me like shit all the time then fine, it’s what I fucking deserve anyway, but do you have any idea what it’s like going one second to the next not knowing if you’re gonna treat me like a person or your fucking property? Do you know how much it—“ Ed cut himself off abruptly, choking down the rest of what he’d meant to say before it had a chance to escape, because admitting that it hurt was weakness, and Ed couldn’t afford to be weak. Not right now, with Mustang staring him down from across the desk looking for all the world like he wanted to reach across it and yank Ed into his arms like he had the night he’d decked Hohenheim.

The worst part was that Ed would have gone into them willingly, would have allowed himself to be soothed into forgetting the hurt. And what kind of sick fuck up did that make Ed that he could be so easily comforted by the man who owned him? What kind of pathetic piece of shit felt safe in a slave owner’s arms?

There was too much mixed up there, too many feelings for Mustang and too many stray thoughts and stupid fucking daydreams that wouldn’t pan out, couldn’t pan out, because Ed was just a slave and would be a slave for so long he’d probably forget what it meant to be truly free by the time the last stupid ring dropped off, and by then he’d be old and even more broken and who’d even want him? He didn’t even deserve to be wanted, not after everything he’d done. Not after he’d left Al behind. Not after all the times he’d fucked up and pushed them further down into the dirt.

 “You don’t deserve to be treated poorly, Edward.” Mustang sounded like be believed it, like he lived the truth of it every day of his life and couldn’t believe that Ed didn’t. “You have so much to offer. Allowing your talents to be squandered in servitude would be a disservice to you.”

“You think I don’t how much worse off I’d be with someone else? I’m not stupid. But at least I’d know what to expect. At least I’d know where the line was. At least if you were tying me to your bed every night I’d know to be ready for the fucking rope.”

“I would never—“ Mustang began moving around the desk and Ed took an instinctive step back and towards the door, keeping as much space between them as he could.

“How do I know that?” Ed demanded. “How the fuck can I be sure when I run into a different version of you every time I walk back into a room? What if you decide some day that you would? No one here would blame you. They do that shit all the time, it’s normal. Expected. They think you’re doin’ it anyway so what difference would it make?”

“I would blame me,” Mustang said quietly. “It would make a great deal of difference, I imagine, to the both of us.

“At least I’d be able to hate you,” Ed said before he could stop himself. “Hate you fucking properly instead of thinking… something. Thinking fucking whatever. Thinking that I’m worth a shit to you or that you want to be worth a shit to me or that any of this is fucking symbiotic instead of just you tolerating me because you have to and giving me a little kick every time you remember.”

“Ed—“

“Stop.” Ed shook his head and retreated a few more steps back from Mustang, not even angry anymore. He was just… tired. “I’m done talking. All we fucking do is talk and I don’t… I can’t keep doing it, do you fuckin’ understand that? I’m not gonna spend all night talking alchemy with you just so you can turn around the next day and tear me a new one in front of some stupid court asshole for doin’ shit we do in private all the time. I’m not gonna play your stupid board games and cackle over perverted Xingese love poems and argue with you about the relative merits of dumbfuck Rodinad’s Twelve Sacred Symbols just to have you turn around and drag me down the hallway by my bad arm when I say somethin’ wrong in front of your friends so just… stop.” Ed rubbed absently at the rings on his arms, dropping his eyes down to avoid looking at Mustang. “It was nice, y’know, thinkin’ I had someone here I could trust, thinkin’ that I could fit into something even though I don’t have Al anymore. Your team’re all great, even if it’s a hell of a lot harder to cheat at cards when they know I can understand ‘em, and Hawkeye’s great, but you’re just…” Ed shook his head again. There was too much there. “ I’ll still help the servants with your fuckin’ laundry and whatever and see your stupid tutor and crash on your lumpy fucking sofa so you can pretend that you’re just as bad as they are but… just do me a favor, and keep fuckin’ pretending.”

Mustang looked like he was going to say something but Ed couldn’t listen to anything else. He beat a hasty retreat from the study and didn’t slow until he’d reached his own tiny room in the servant’s quarters.

 

 

The following weeks passed so slowly that Roy was sure almost no time was passing at all. He’d been in the Xingese court for three years with only his team and his eccentric royal cousin for company and he’d been absolutely fine. How was it that Edward had managed to work his way in to so many aspects of Roy’s life in so short a time? He was a fireball, a force of nature that could not be ignored, illuminating everything in his wake so vividly that it was difficult to imagine ever having been in the dark at all. Now, bereft of that light, Roy could only long for it.

His days were long and unbroken by the slam of his study door being thrown open with the weight of Ed’s ringed arm, unbroken by friendly arguments and laughter and impressive displays of alchemical competence, unbroken by Ed’s ferocity and his wit and his sharp, profane tongue cutting down anyone and everyone he deemed worthy of his ire. It was like the early days before Ed spoke at all, except this time, Roy knew exactly what it was he was missing.

He rarely saw Edward outside of those few nights a week he spent the night in his rooms and the few court functions he was required to attend. He’d stand behind Roy’s seat, silent and stoic, never saying a word to Roy or to anyone else. He’d received frequent congratulations from various courtiers regarding the shift in Ed’s behavior and praise for having finally ‘broken’ him, and part of him thought that was absolutely true.

He was a fool. A blind and inconsiderate fool and it had cost him the fragile trust of the only person from whom he’d ever longed to earn it.

Worse, the absence had brought into sharp and startling clarity just how much he cared for Ed outside of the normal confines of easy friendship. If the chances of anything coming of it had been low before, they were non-existent now and, he supposed, it served him right. His heartache was just another form of retribution for everything he’d done wrong.

Any attempts he made to speak to Ed were quickly shut down, and, much to Roy’s disheartenment, no one on his team seemed willing to pass messages to Edward for him, and even though they didn’t quite seem angry with him (Riza was another story and Roy had been doing his best to avoid her,) tensions were definitely high.

It was into this atmosphere that Alphonse arrived.

Roy received the letter from the courier late one evening saying that his parcel –and he’d shuddered at that – had arrived and was awaiting retrieval from the city center at his convenience. Ed, of course, was nowhere to be found and Roy had been careful to keep his evenings clear in preparation.

He slipped out of the palace with little difficulty, waving off the offer of an escort by the guards, and set off towards the cargo center that was set off to the edge of the market place outside of the palace walls.

“I’m here for a pickup,” Roy said, unfolding his letter and passing it off to the man at the reception booth. “I trust I’ll find it in good shape.” There was a part of Roy that was terrified at the prospect of receiving a battered, traumatized Alphonse.  

The man behind the counter looked over the letter and his entire face twisted into a smile. “Of course, Sir. We’ve even had it washed up for you.” He gestured to someone behind him and passed off the letter. “Just one moment while we collect your parcel.”

Roy could hear some sort of small commotion from the stall the other man had disappeared behind, and then the man reappeared with his cargo in tow. Alphonse Elric was a good head taller than his brother and the family resemblance was remarkable, although his hair was a touch more sandy and his eyes a touch more hazel than gold, betraying his Amestrian heritage. He was dressed in a simple and clean white tunic, his obvious weariness and slight pained limp the only sign that he’d spent a majority of the last week traveling across the desert.

“Enjoy,” the man said, handing the chain, which was attached to a ring on Alphonse’s ankle, over to Roy. “And keep your wits about you. This one’s spirited, although I hear that some prefer that.” He shot Roy a wink as he took the proffered chain and he only just managed to suppress a shudder.

“I’m certain I’ll be able to handle anything he might throw at me,” he said easily. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, gentlemen.” He nodded to the two men and pulled lightly on the chain, taking his leave and making his way back towards the palace.

He could feel Alphonse’s glare on his back as they walked, and he could feel the tension in the chain, as if he were following as far behind as possible. Roy longed to reassure him and to explain himself, but getting him into the palace and safely tucked into the servant’s quarters was the priority, and there would be time for explanations later. He didn’t know what to expect from Alphonse, wasn’t sure how much of Ed’s temper and inclination for dramatics he shared, and he didn’t want to risk causing a scene in such an insecure area surrounded by people who could do him harm.

The guards at the gate shot each other knowing looks as Roy passed, but he didn’t pay them any mind. He could feel Alphonse’s agitation and he tightened his grip on the chain a little bit, just in case, but they passed into the palace with little difficulty and the journey to the servant’s quarters took no time at all.

Roy unlatched the chain from Alphonse’s ankle cuff, surprised to note that the single ring seemed affixed to his ankle in the same manner Ed’s were affixed to his arm, and he ushered him into the little room. As soon as he saw the bed he whirled around viciously, glaring at Roy with a fierce combination of heated disgust and quiet, animal terror. In a way, it was almost a relief. A reaction that violent meant he wasn’t used to the kind of treatment he thought he would be subjected to, and that, paired with his seemingly whole and well physical exterior, set Roy’s mind at ease. He only hoped he could set Alphonse’s mind at ease, too.

“Relax,” he said gently in Amestrian. “I’m not going to touch you. These are your quarters. You’re free to use anything that you’d like, and you have full access to the washroom down the hall. No one will bother you here.” Well, almost no one. Ed would almost certainly make himself a nuisance. “There are clothes already in the dresser, and I’ve left a bit of chalk so that you can transmute them to fit.”

Roy thought he might have seen a flash of surprise cut across Alphonse’s face, but he locked it down quickly and stared at Roy as if he hadn’t understood him. Apparently that particular game was a family trait.

“I know you can understand me. Your brother told me that you’re both fluent.”

That got his attention. Whatever front he’d been putting on dissolved almost immediately and the years seemed to fall away from him, highlighting the boyish roundness of his cheeks. “My brother? He’s here?”

“He is,” Roy confirmed. “And he is safe and well, and he’s missed you terribly.”

A litany of emotion flickered across Alphonse’s face as if he couldn’t quite figure out how to feel about that. Roy nearly balked, thinking he’d made a horrible mistake, but Alphonse was speaking again and the reason for his uncertainty became clear. “If you’re planning to use me against him, it won’t work,” he said firmly. Confidently. “I won’t allow it.” Alphonse’s tone was ice and there wasn’t a single part of Roy that believed he was bluffing.

“My plan has only ever been to reunite the two of you. Your brother is my slave in name only and it doesn’t… sit right with me, that you two should be separated. I only ever intended to send for you, but when I found out you’d been enslaved, purchasing you was my best and only option. Believe me, I would have done anything I could have to avoid it.” Roy still had a bad taste in his mouth from the whole thing.

Alphonse nodded in understanding. “I’m sure the expense was inconvenient.”

Roy was a little bit taken aback. “It isn’t the money,” he said when he’d recovered himself. “It’s the principal I find distasteful. I would have paid double the asking price if I had to. Getting you here was more important than my budget.”

It was Alphonse’s turn to be startled and he stared at Roy for a hard moment and the appraising look reminded him of Riza’s almost too much for comfort. “Why is that, exactly?

“Edward has been worried, and it isn’t right that the two of you should be separate. He’s told me quite a bit of your shared history. That the two of you should be apart because of circumstances outside of your control, circumstances that never should have come to pass, is an unspeakable cruelty but fortunately, it was one I was able to remedy.”

Alphonse moved to settle on the edge of the narrow bed and Roy didn’t quite miss the way his shoulders sank in obvious exhaustion. “That isn’t much of an answer.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Pushing aside the fact that Brother obviously trusts you enough to share his secrets with you, it seems a little unusual that anyone would go through so much trouble. Are you and my brother close?”

Roy hesitated. While it was true that Edward knew more about him than most in the Xingese court with the exception of his cousin and his team, and while it was true that he knew more about Ed than anyone else did, he wasn’t sure if ‘close’ was an appropriate descriptor ever since the catastrophic dissolution of what might have been called a careful friendship. “We haven’t quite been on speaking terms lately,” he admitted, a little bit pained. “We were nearly friends once, I think, but I was ignorant and things got… out of hand.”

“So you’re not even friends and you spent a small fortune to have me shipped across the desert because Brother was worried about me?”

Alphonse’s tone betrayed his incredulity but Roy thought that his logic was fairly straightforward. “That’s the crux of it. Do I need a better reason? Edward is bereft, and I had a contact in Xerxes who owed me. It was a simple thing to reach out and find you. Banishing the darkness from your brother’s eyes is well worth the cost of the favor I cashed in, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it over again. I’ve done so many wrongs by the people I care about. This was a chance, for a change, to do something right.”

“I think,” Alphonse said, his eyes a heavy weight on Roy, cutting him to the quick. He felt laid bare, his layers peeled back for those inquiring hazel eyes to explore and catalogue and mark for a purpose that Roy couldn’t begin the fathom. Now, face to face with that cool and near-predatory gaze, he wondered how he ever could have thought that Alphonse and Edward Elric would be the same manner of beast. He was cold where Ed was hot, calculating where Ed was impulsive, observant where Ed was reactionary, and Roy, who had faced death and had brought it, had never been more terrified. “That the people you care about are very lucky.”

“Well,” Roy said, a bit of the tension leaking from his spine as the cold drip of dread passed down it and away. “I wouldn’t dare presume to speak for anyone.”

“No, of course not,” Alphonse agreed easily. “Not for Brother, certainly.”

“No. I’ve done quite enough of that.”

“I just have one more question, if that’s all right?”

“You’re free to ask anything of me that you’d like, Alphonse.”

“What was the cost?”

“I’m sorry?” Roy asked, startled. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d been expecting but the question caught him off guard.

“The price of your favor. What did it cost to bring me here?”

He suspected that Alphonse wasn’t asking after a literal price tag. “A pipe dream,” he said with a slight shrug, suddenly unable to meet Alphone’s wide eyes. “A chance to go home.”

The silence stretched out for so long that Roy thought maybe Alphonse wouldn’t deign to acknowledge he’d said anything at all, and he chanced a glance back at him. He seemed to be working something out, and Roy had a terrible, sinking feeling that he was coming to the same realization that Roy had come to on his own some days ago.

“Home is where you make it,” Alphonse said finally. “You grow it yourself with friends, memories,” he paused significantly before continuing, “love. It seems to me like you’re off to a fine start.”

“Perhaps,” Roy agreed quietly. “Feel free to make yourself at home. I’ll go and track down Edward.”

It had been a long time since he’d been so eager to take leave of a conversation. Lately, it seemed, layered and unfathomable conversation had become the norm for him and he was far more used to dishing it out than he was receiving it. Between Ling’s apparent intentional torment of Edward and that stupid line Roy had been turning over and over in his head,  -You’ve been easy on him, I wonder why? - and Riza’s hard and leading questions, now with Alphonse’s own perplexing conversation on top of it, Roy wondered if maybe he wasn’t the only one who had figured out a little something about his feelings towards Edward Elric, and thought that, perhaps, he wasn’t as good at hiding them as he’d thought.

 

 

Ed had been making himself as scarce as possible ever since he and Mustang’d had their falling-out. It was too hard keeping up a façade of cool indifference around him, even though Mustang had given him plenty of examples to work from, and it was a strain on Ed’s already tired and fragile resources to have to keep ignoring the little nudges and suggestions Mustang tried to make towards conversation or reconciliation.

It was miserable enough spending day after silent day that sometimes bled into awkward and silent nights laced with a hint of the fury Ed still felt. If any of that could be avoided in the hours he didn’t have to spend by Mustang’s side, the better. It was easier not to miss him and the easy camaraderie they shared when Ed didn’t have to look at his stupid, apologetic face. Even if the aching loneliness he’d been off-setting – when he wasn’t being a massive dick – had started to creep back up on him, despite Mustang’s team acting as a fall back and despite the change in atmosphere.

Just down the hall from Mustang’s study was an empty library that didn’t look like it had seen use in decades, and it had quickly become Ed’s favorite place to steal away. It was dusty (although he’d managed to alchemize most of it away,) and deserted, but there was a massive west-facing picture window with an old-but-serviceable cushion in front of it and on warm nights, he could throw it open and every now and then a stray push of wind would carry in the scent of the desert, and Ed could pretend that he was home.

Ed wasn’t sure how Mustang found him there but didn’t really care that much, either. He spared a scowl in the general direction of the doorway when the man called his name, making his intention to stay, he thought, crystal clear, and dropped his attention back to the book in his lap.

“Ed, you need to come with me,” Mustang said, a little forcefully this time, and Ed raised his eyes again, leveling an unimpressed glare.

“Are you askin’ me or tellin’ me?”

“Since I have a feeling you would refuse if I asked, I’m afraid I’m telling you. You can be cross with me later.

Ed scowled and closed his book with a decisive little snap and stood, brushing the dust off of his pants. “Better be fuckin’ important,” he muttered, and followed Mustang out of the library without another word.

Thankfully Mustang kept his stupid mouth shut the entire way to wherever the hell he was taking him, which turned out to be the servant’s quarters.

“If you wanted me in my own room, you could’ve just—“ Ed’s complaint died on his tongue as Mustang gave his shoulder a gentle nudge and turned him into the open doorway of the room right next to his own.

“Brother!” Al was off of the bed like a shot and Ed was halfway across the room before he even realized he’d moved and they met in the middle in a tight, heart-stopping embrace.

“Al, what, how—“ Ed didn’t even know what to say. Blood was rushing in his ears and the entire room faded away until all that was left was Al, real and solid and there.

“He bought me,” Al said, still clinging tightly to Ed and it took him a moment to process that ‘he’ meant ‘Mustang’ and that the word ‘bought’ had just been used in relation to his little brother. “After you got taken, I thought if I could get taken, too, we’d at least have a chance to stay together since siblings are so desirable, but by the time I got to the slaver’s market, you were already gone.”

“You thought what?” Ed took Al by the shoulders and took a step back to look him up and down. There was a ring around Al’s ankle, denoting a life-long slave, and Ed was sure if he ran his fingers over the back of his brother’s neck he’d find a brand. “Didn’t I tell you not to do anything stupid? What did you do? Life-long?

Al shrugged under his hands. “I attacked Aeotus.”

“Attacked,” Ed repeated. “Did you kill him?”

“No,” Al said with a serious twinge of disappointment coloring his cool tone. “The city guard stopped me before I managed it.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Ed breathed, pulling Al back into another tight hug. “And Mustang, he—“

“Bought me, because he knew you were worried.”

Ed pulled away from Al just a fraction, giving himself room to turn. “You—“ but Mustang had already gone. For the best, probably, because he was having trouble making sense of any of this at all. It all still felt like a dream.

“Brother, come sit down, you look like you’re going to collapse,” Al said, tugging Ed towards the bed. Ed followed without complaint and collapsed onto the edge. He thought he might be trembling, but Al took his hands into his own and steadied them. “Are you okay?”

“I c-can’t believe you got yourself enslaved, you stupid little shit,” Ed said, forcing his voice into something resembling steadiness.

Al just rolled his eyes, and, god, Ed had even missed that. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same thing. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t have done worse.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not supposed to do what I would do. You’re supposed to do something sensible.”

“Are you saying that you don’t do sensible things?”

Ed couldn’t take it anymore and he choked on his response. “Fuck,” he managed, pulling Al into another tight hug, and if his eyes were a little wet, well, Al wouldn’t mention it. “I thought I was gonna die in this stupid goddamn country without ever seein’ you again. I was afraid you were starving, or sick, or fucking dead.

“I thought the same thing. It didn’t bode well that you were gone from the slaver’s market so quickly. I thought the worst. I thought something had happened, that you hadn’t survived them transmuting on the rings or that they’d taken you somewhere to break you. I guess I shouldn’t have worried, though. It looks like you got pretty lucky.”

“I tried to write to you,” Ed said, drawing the last bits of his composure together and pulling away from Al again, keeping his hands firmly on his shoulders, as if letting go would make him disappear. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to write back but I wanted you to know I was okay so you wouldn’t do anything fucking stupid like getting yourself enslaved but I guess that was a wasted effort.” Ed hesitated, weighing his next question carefully. “Are you okay? I mean… did anyone ever—“

“I’m fine, Brother. I got lucky, too. The woman who bought me mostly used me for show and occasionally I had to help with the housework, but no one ever hit me or… anything else.”

Ed felt the tension leak out of his body and it left him feeling a little bit boneless and exhausted. “Thank fuck. If something’d happened to you because of me, if something else had happened to you…”

“None of this was your fault.”

“Bullshit it wasn’t. If I’d never done the stupid transmutation, you might not’ve gotten sick and I never woulda had to take out that stupid fucking loan and none of this ever would have happened. I know you think you’re protectin’ me by pretending like you don’t blame me, but for fuck’s sake, I deserve to shoulder some of it.”

Al heaved a very put-upon sigh and the familiarity of it made Ed’s chest ache. “I don’t want to argue about this again. It’s all behind us anyway, right? We’re together and we’re safe and that’s all that matters.”

Ed really couldn’t argue with that, because that’s all that counted, wasn’t it? They were together, and no matter what else had happened or would happen, that was all that mattered. “Still wish you hadn’t gone and gotten yourself fuckin’ branded,” he muttered. “But you’re right. It’s all behind us.”

“You know Brother, my being enslaved made it a lot easier for… did you say his name was Mustang? It was easier for Mustang to bring me here. It’s a lot easier to arrange for the shipment of a slave than it is to arrange passage for a citizen.”

Truth be told, Ed had mostly forgotten that part and he was no less stunned at the revelation the second time around. It didn’t make sense. Sure, Mustang had been pretty sympathetic to Ed’s crippling worry and had tried to talk him through it and just had, in general, been less of an ass about it than he could have been but that he would go through so much trouble and so much expense just to ease Ed’s anxiety and bring Al to Xing… it just didn’t make sense. Especially not after they’d fallen out so spectacularly. “How did he even find you?”

Al shrugged under Ed’s hands. “I’m not sure, exactly. We didn’t really have much of a conversation before he went to find you. He said he cashed in a favor from someone who owed him.”

It felt like the whole world had tipped on its axis and Ed’s stomach sank to the ground at the same time his heart jumped into his throat. Mustang was supposed to use that favor to go home. “He what?”

Al’s eyes had taken on a particular sort of gleam that Ed knew to associate with danger and if he’d been more sure-footed, he might have even noticed. “I don’t know the whole story but I’m guessing you do. It seems like he forfeited his only chance to go home just to bring me here. Why do you think he’d do that?”

Ed didn’t have even the faintest idea. “I don’t… I mean, we had kind of a, a fight a couple of weeks ago I guess and maybe he felt bad but—“

“I was informed I was being sold almost a month ago, it’s not because of the fight.” Al paused and watched Ed’s face, apparently waiting for something, and then heaved another sigh. “It’s because he cares about you, Brother.”

“He doesn’t,” Ed said automatically. “He’s a bastard and he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

“Then why bother to bring me here?”

“I don’t fuckin’ know, okay?” Ed snarled. “I don’t know how his bastard brain works and I don’t know why he’d go through all this trouble for his stupid fucking slave and I don’t know what he thinks he’s gonna get out of it and I just don’t know, okay?”

Al was doing that thing where he somehow managed to make Ed feel like a child and an idiot all at once, but that gleam was still in his eyes and Ed had finally started to scent the danger. “I think you do.”

“I think you’re extrapolating from incomplete data. You just got here. You don’t know what he’s like. He’s infuriating and superior and he acts like he can’t stand the idea of having a slave but doesn’t hesitate to treat me like one to save face, and maybe he’s fucking gorgeous and smart and funny even if he’s a goddamn nerd and he… I mean…” Ed trailed off helplessly, casting a desperate and pleading look to his brother, who seemed stupidly pleased with Ed’s rambling and didn’t seem at all like he was going to let it go.

“You should go thank him,” Al said, crossing his arms decisively. “Or go and talk to him, at the very least.”

Ed was affronted at the very idea. “You just got here, I’m not gonna leave you by yourself.”

“Brother. It’s getting late, I’m exhausted, I’m sore, this is the first bed I’ve seen in longer than I care to think about, and you’re being rude. Go say thank you. And you know I’ll know if you don’t so don’t even think about sneaking off somewhere else.”

There were definite drawbacks of having a brother who knew you better than you knew yourself. Funny how fast Ed had forgotten that. “Al…”

Go.

Reluctantly and far more slowly than was necessary, Ed stood and turned for the door. “I’m only saying thank you,” he said. “It’ll be ten minutes, tops.”

Al was already stretching out on the narrow bed. “Whatever you say, Brother. Get the light on your way out.”

 

Mustang was already dressed for bed when he opened the door to Ed’s hesitant knock.

“Edward,” he said, surprised, and stood aside to admit Ed into the room. “I thought you’d be with your brother.”

“Yeah, well,” Ed muttered, pointedly not looking at Mustang. “Little shit banished me. Told me I should come and thank you for what you did and, um, well. Thanks, I guess.” It was the most he’d said to Mustang in days and it almost felt like he’d forgotten how to talk to him.

“It was nothing. I was glad to help.”

“It’s not really nothing, though, is it?” Ed asked, a touch furiously as he finally lifted his head enough to look Mustang in the eye. “You used up your favor with that powerful friend, didn’t you? You gave up your only chance to go home.”

It was Mustang’s turn to avoid eye-contact. “It was a foolish dream,” he said. “An old dream, and a selfish one.”

Ed didn’t bother hiding how absolutely fucking perplexed he was by all of this, not that it mattered since Mustang wouldn’t look at him. “I don’t get it. I really fuckin’ don’t, Mustang. You didn’t owe me anything, why would you do this?”

Mustang was quiet for so long that Ed thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then, just as Ed was considering going for the door, he flicked his eyes back to Ed’s and smiled a rueful smile that seemed so far out of place in the context of their conversation that it was almost frightening. “Would you like the truth?”

“Truth’d be fuckin’ nice,” Ed said, even though he wasn’t sure at all that that was what he wanted, not with the way Mustang was looking at him.

“I wanted to make you happy.”

It was such a simple statement, but somehow Ed couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Mustang was so startlingly sincere, so stunningly honest and fragile in his confession, that Ed was afraid of crushing him in his hands on accident and the smile was still plastered on Mustang’s face transformed into something almost self-depreciating, as if Mustang expected that Ed would. Why?

“Because you’re extraordinary and you don’t deserve the lot in life you’ve been given. Because you’re always hovering just on the edge of sadness, always just shy of sick with worry, and I thought if there were anything I could do for you to ease that misery, I would have finally done something good.”

“I am, you know,” Ed said before he could think better of it. “Happy.”

Mustang’s eyes were piercing and Ed thought it was possible that he was being taken to pieces and examined, and it wasn’t as terrifying of a thought as he might’ve expected. “I’m glad, Ed,” he said softly. “That’s all I want for you. I’ve been terrible to you, and I know that my not having done so intentionally doesn’t erase the fact that you’ve been hurt, but for what it’s worth, I am sorry.”

There was a part of Ed that wished he didn’t believe it, that wished he could just hate Mustang and be done with it. It would be so much easier to just disregard him completely, to get his fill of human interaction from Al and the team and forget as well as he could that Mustang even existed, but he couldn’t. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” Mustang insisted. “You were upset, and with good reason. Of course it matters.”

“No, it really doesn’t, because I know you’re sorry and I’m sorry for blowing up the way I did. We shoulda… talked about it or something. Whatever. It… our situation isn’t going to change, y’know? And I understand why you have to act like that sometimes, it’s just that it’s kinda hard to be reminded that we’ll never be on the same level.”

“You know that isn’t what I think, don’t you? The fact that you’re mine on paper doesn’t mean that I think you’re less than me.”

Hearing the word ‘mine’ in Mustang’s warm tone should not have sent his heart racing. He chalked it up to the after-effects of his emotional reunion with Al and did his best to push it aside. “I know. You’ve always been, um, kind. To me. At least when no one’s looking. And honestly I’ve kinda… missed you,” he finished lamely. “I mean, we have good talks and, and whatever.”

“I’ve missed you too.” Mustang’s little smile made something in Ed’s chest ache. “I’ve gotten used to having you around. I suppose I didn’t realize exactly how used to it I’d gotten. You’ve become exceedingly important to me, Ed. I don’t know if I could have withstood your silence much longer. Knowing I deserved it was little consolation.”

“It didn’t console me much, either.” Ed shrugged a little. “I was pissed, but I still… I mean, it didn’t feel right, y’know?”

“I know,” Mustang said. “Believe me, I know.”

“Yeah, so, if you wanted to start hanging out again or… whatever, that’d be. Fine. And you can get to know Al if you want. He’s patient and quiet and basically everything I’m not. You’ll probably like him a lot more than you like me. Everyone does.”

“I may like him as much as I like you, Edward, but I doubt I’ll like him more.”

Ed scoffed. “You don’t know that.”

“I do, actually.”

Ed met Mustang’s dark eyes and as soon as he did he realized he’d made a mistake. There was something there, something heavy and compelling and something that called to the same stupid something he’d been tiptoeing around for too damn long. Resolve, strong and sure, that he didn’t realize he’d been pushing crumbled, and if his tumultuous emotion could be blamed for the way his pulse beat against his throat when Mustang had said mine, then it could certainly be blamed for the way his hands shook as they reached up to seize the front of Mustang’s sleep shirt. It could certainly be blamed for the way he leaned up as he yanked Mustang down and met his lips in a messy and inexpert kiss.

Mustang’s shocked little gasp was lost to the frantic pounding of Ed’s heart in his own ears, but the arms that slid around his waist and pulled him closer cut through the shock of what he had done and sent Ed flying to pieces. His fingers tightened in the fabric of Mustang’s shirt and he let out a quiet gasp of his own as one of Mustang’s hands crept to the back of his head and tilted it, fitting their mouths together more expertly and coaxing Ed’s mouth open with gentle little scrapes of teeth and light flicks of his tongue against the seam of Ed’s lips, gently correcting Ed’s own attempts through example as his fingers brushed the fine hair on the back of his neck that had sprung loose from his braid.

Ed was helpless against the onslaught, and it was fucking criminal how good it felt, how good Mustang tasted, how good he smelled, spicy and hot and Mustang, and he was dangerously close to hitting the floor if the way his legs were going to absolute mush had anything to say about it. Mustang, luckily, seemed to have a solution and he steered them back towards the bed – the fucking bed – and settled on the edge of it, pulling Ed down with him until Ed was nearly straddling his lap.

His body reacted immediately and violently and he broke the kiss with a sharp little inhale, fighting to get enough air. Mustang didn’t even miss a beat and proceeded to mouth down the line of Ed’s throat and bit oh-so-gently at his pulse, pulling a noise out of him that he hadn’t even realized he was capable of making.

“Mustang, shit,” he managed, breath hitching as he struggled to retain enough sense to keep breathing.

Mustang’s only response was a soft purr against his skin and Ed was lost. He pushed at Mustang’s shoulders until he let up on his assault of Ed’s neck and Ed kissed him again, more sure of himself this time, and leveraged himself against him until Mustang relented and pulled Ed down on top of him as he lay back into the bed properly.

The full-body contact was almost too much for Ed. Mustang was so warm and so solid and the hard heat pressing against his thigh was both thrilling and terrifying in equal measures. He’d never really had the time for this kind of thing in Xerxes, between working his ass off and trying not to starve and trying harder not to let Al starve, and he was so far out of his element that he was sure it must be obvious to Mustang, who kissed as easily as he breathed but a thousand times as passionately.

Ed hardly had time to worry about his own pressing issue before Mustang was flipping them and pinning Ed to the mattress beneath him. His hands were immediately snaking under Ed’s shirt, fingertips scraping lightly against his stomach. Ed, wide-eyed in surprise, met Mustang’s eyes and nearly choked at the way he was looking at him.

“You are so beautiful,” Mustang whispered, ardency lacing every word.

“And to th-think,” Ed managed breathlessly. “I’m yours.”

This, apparently, had been the completely wrong thing to say. Mustang’s fingers stilled on his skin and the warmth in his eye faded into something like cold, animal terror. “Edward,” he began slowly, “why are you doing this?”

“W-what?”

Mustang rolled off of him and sat on the mattress beside him, looking down at him with that same cool fear. “Are you doing this because you feel obligated?”

Ed had no absolutely no idea what was going on. “Why the fuck would I feel obligated?” he asked, struggling to sit up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m afraid you may be allowing me to take liberties for the wrong reasons.” The impassive Mustang mask had well and truly settled over his face and Ed didn’t have a chance of reading him. “If you’re grateful, or sorry, or anything, you don’t have to express that this way. I don’t expect it of you. I never have. God, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I thought even for a moment that I had taken advantage of you.

Ed blinked across the mattress at Mustang in disbelief. “This is because I said I was yours, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t untrue,” Mustang said. “Why are you doing this?” he asked again.

“Because I fuckin’ want to,” Ed said furiously. “Or did you not get that ‘cause I’m so shit at this? Well I’m sayin’ it now, in case there was any confusion, I want to.

“Why do you want to, Edward?”

“What the fuck is this, a therapy session? I just do. You… you’re… I mean, I just want to. Is that allowed?”

“Of course it’s allowed,” Mustang soothed. “What I won’t allow is for you to let me use you because you think you ought to.”

“That isn’t what this is.”

“What is it, then?”

“I don’t fucking know, okay? I can’t… I don’t know how to explain it.” Ed knew as soon as he said it that, yet again, he’d said the wrong thing and he felt like he’d been pushed over the edge of a cliff. His stomach felt like it had dropped to his feet and his heart was in his throat and everything was just falling the fuck apart.

“Until you can, if you can, I think it’s for the best if we don’t attempt anything like this again.”Mustang’s voice was as cool and impassive as ever and every word made the ache in Ed’s chest worse and worse.

Rejection. Ed felt sick with it, dizzy with it, and it was a good thing he’d managed to sit up or else he thought he’d have never been able to manage it now. “No, it’s, I get it,” he said, and if his voice was shaking, he hoped Mustang would have the grace to ignore it. “I get it, I’m inexperienced and sloppy and bad and you don’t want to waste your time. I’m a freak with a metal leg and an arm that might as well be metal and I’m just a stupid slave anyway. It’s fine, I, understand.”

“Ed,” Mustang said softly. He began to reach out but seemed to think better of it at the last second and his hands fell to his lap. “Ed, it’s nothing like that. I’d have you in a heartbeat if I could be sure that doing so wouldn’t hurt you in the long run. I’m just afraid that you’re making a rash decision, a reactive decision, and I don’t want you to regret it later. Why don’t you go back to your brother? Spend a few days with him and get used to having him back, and if you decide that this is still something you want…” he took a breath, steadying himself. “If you decide that this is still something you want, I would rather die than turn you away.”

“Whatever,” Ed muttered, sliding out of the bed and landing on his metal leg with a clang and a wince, and wasn’t that just fucking unattractive all around? “It’s fine. It’s okay. I get it.”

“Ed—“

“G’night, Mustang.” Ed made his way to the door and left without a single look back.

He wasn’t sure which was more pressing, his stupid damaged pride or the prickling, uncomfortable anger he felt at having been, he felt, strung along and spurned. It was a terrible combination, and one he’d never had to deal with before.

He didn’t even think twice about barging into Al’s room. He settled on the edge of the bed and began unstrapping his leg, difficult in the dark but he was well practiced.

“Brother?” Al asked, obviously struggling into wakefulness.

“Go back to sleep,” Ed said as he finally got the leg off and laid it on the floor. “And scoot over a little.”

Al did so without complaint, making room for Ed to swing around and settle down next to him on the narrow little bed. “I thought you’d still be with Mustang.”

Little shit. Of course he’d known. “Yeah, well, so did I for a minute,” he mumbled. “He threw me some bullshit line about not, um, taking advantage of me or whatever and sent me on my way. Told me I need to think about it. Fuckin’ whatever, like I don’t know what that means.”

“Sounds to me like he wants you to think about it,” Al said, and he actually had the audacity to sound impressed.

“Sounds like he was trying to let me down easy,” Ed countered. “Whatever. He’s an ass. I don’t even care, it’s not like I… y’know, it’s not like I care about him or anything.”

“Of course not, Brother,” Al sighed, sounding far more put upon than he deserved to sound. “Goodnight.”

“Night, kid. ‘M glad you’re here.” Ed said, drawing the blanket back up over them both.

“Me too.”

 

 

Unsurprisingly, Al’s first reaction to his father’s presence in the Xingese court was significantly less dramatic than his brother’s. Ed, upon being informed earlier that day by Mustang that ‘the Philosopher’ – their ‘worthless’ father, Ed had quickly explained – had steadfastly refused attend the reception, sparking a very put-upon but still somehow relieved sigh from Mustang who then readily agreed that Ed should, in fact, stay behind and then rather nervously questioned Al repeatedly until he relented and agreed that he could join him. Evidence indicated that his brother and their father had already been reacquainted, so to speak, and Al was more than a little bit glad that he wouldn’t have to moderate that encounter.

Hohenheim was saying something to the emperor and Al hadn’t even had a chance to pick up any Xingese in the handful of days he’d been in the court. The emperor laughed at something Hohenheim said and then seemed to excuse him, but instead of leaving, Hohenheim, much to the surprise of the gathered courtiers, approached Mustang.

“I’m going to assume that you’ve been apprised of mine and Edward’s situation after our last encounter,” he said in Amestrian. The nearby courtiers who were very pointedly attempting to eavesdrop had the good grace to look disappointed. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a word in private with you and my younger son.”

“Of course,” Mustang said easily, although Al was observant enough to note the slight tension in his shoulders when he stood. “Alphonse?”

Al didn’t bother with a response. It hadn’t taken him long to learn that the role of a slave in Xing didn’t differ all that much from one in Xerxes, and he’d had plenty of practice.

Mustang led them to his own study on the other side of the palace, nearly as far away, Al noted, as it was possible to get from where the other courtiers were gathered, and shut the door firmly behind them.

“Please, sit,” he said, gesturing to an arrangement of comfortable looking chairs in the corner. He himself did not deign to take one of them. “I’m assuming that you didn’t actually want to speak to me.”

Hohenheim smiled a little bit sheepishly. Al was startled with how much it reminded him of Ed. “Forgive me. I thought it would raise eyebrows if I only asked for Alphonse.”

“Of course, I understand completely,” Mustang said with a short nod. He looked between Al and Hohenheim appraisingly one last time, taking in Al’s posture before nodding again and removing himself from the study.

“Brother attacked you, didn’t he?” Al asked as soon as Mustang was gone.

“He did.”

“Figures. He’s been talking about it for years,” Al drawled. “Don’t worry, I’m not going follow his example. Although if I were, you wouldn’t be able to stop me,” he added.

“I didn’t think you would, although I’m certain I’d deserve it if you decided to change your mind.”

“You do deserve it,” Al affirmed. He didn’t see a point in mincing words. “We went through a lot of hardship that we didn’t have to go through because of you. Ed lost his leg to that stupid transmutation and then lost his freedom to the loan he had to take out to keep me alive because I got sick living on the streets. We didn’t have anyone after mom died, and we could have had you.

“I know.” Hohenheim’s voice was a little bit strained and that was something, at least. “I know that it isn’t worth much now, but I am sorry.”

And he really was. Al could see it in his eyes, in the slant of his shoulders, in the curl of his lip, the same way he could always see it in his brother. “I know,” he said simply. “I forgive you.”

Hohenheim seemed taken aback. “You… what?”

“I forgive you,” Al repeated. “Staying angry at you isn’t going to change anything that happened to us. Maybe being angry helps Brother, but it doesn’t help me, and getting even doesn’t help anything.”

“No?” Hohenheim asked, a trace of amusement cutting across his face. “That’s not what I hear. I hear you did quite a number on your lender. You’d have had to, to earn that shackle.”

“That’s different,” Al said with an elegant shrug and an easy smile. “I had a more immediate motive, and a more immediate goal. Everything worked out in the end.”

“It seems it did,” Hohenheim agreed. “Albeit indirectly. You and Edward are both incredibly fortunate, I hope you realize that.”

“Roy Mustang’s a good man. Not perfect, maybe, but I don’t think anyone really is.” Ed had let it slip not long after Al’s arrival that Mustang was the infamous Hero of Ishval. Initially Al was horrified and furious that this man, this murderer had tricked he and his brother into believing the best of him but cooler heads – Ed’s more specifically, which was uncommon enough of an occurrence that Al had shut up and listened – prevailed and Al had come to terms with Mustang’s shortcomings and was enlightened to his redeeming qualities. That Mustang had been the driving force behind the infamous Amestrian coup attempt had surprised Al and worked to further soothe any misgivings he might have had about a man who had indiscriminately and systematically taken more life than could even be accounted for.

“He is,” Hohenheim agreed. “And I am glad, all things considered, that the two of you ended up here, if you had to end up anywhere at all. If you and Edward choose to stay here, I hope you know that you will have made a good decision.”

“I don’t think there’s much to choose,” Al said. “We aren’t really free to leave. I’m sure Mustang would let us go if we wanted to, but where would we go? I’m branded, and Brother has the rings. Even if we left, we could be captured and re-sold at any time. We wouldn’t have any money, nowhere to go. We’d be just as bad off here as we were in Xerxes.”

Hohenheim stood and crossed over to Al, offering him a hand. Al took it and stood, nearly eye-to-eye with him. “That last part may be true,” he said, laying his hands on Al’s shoulders as a spark of something crackled through them, and he cried out in shock as something burned across the back of his neck and the ring around his ankle snapped in two and fell off. “But you aren’t branded anymore.”

What—“ Al started, bringing a hand up to the back of his neck. Where there had once been the rough, raised outline of burned scar tissue was smooth, unmarked skin.

“The laws regarding slavery are different in Xing than they are in Xerxes, but you can rest assured that you are no longer in danger if you leave.”

Al was speechless. Nothing, not even alkahestry or any variations of biological alchemy, could remove an alchemized brand or a blood-bound ring. He had known their father was a powerful alchemist, but this was beyond words and beyond his understanding.

“Do you know where I might find Edward?” Hohenheim asked, stepping back to give Al a little bit of space.

That, Al understood a little bit better. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

“I’m afraid so. I’ve spent long enough in Xing. It’s time I turn my attention elsewhere, but I suspect we’ll meet again soon.”

Al closed the space between them and pulled his father into a tight hug. Hohenheim, very clearly surprised, hesitantly moved to return it. “Brother’s in his room in the servant’s quarters,” Al said, his voice muffled in Hohenheim’s shoulder. “I’d be on my guard if I were you. He got you once, but that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with it.”

“I’ll be sure to take care.” Hohenheim patted Al’s back once more and drew away. “As should you, until we meet again.”

“I’ll do my best,” Al said, smiling just a touch bit sadly. He was less confident than his father that the universe would draw them back together.

Hohenheim clapped Al on the shoulder and walked out of the study, and Al could only stand and watch him go.

 

 

“That little fucking traitor,” Ed snarled after Hohenheim’d walked into his room. Al was responsible, no doubt. He shot to his feet and crossed his arms, standing in the middle of the room, challenging him. “You got about five seconds to get the fuck out of here before I make you.”

Hohenheim put his hands up, which did nothing to soothe Ed’s rage. “Edward, I only want to talk to you. Ten minutes of your time, and I’ll go, I promise.”

Ed looked at him hard, narrowing his eyes and taking in as much as he could. He hadn’t really looked at him last time. He’d been too busy with the punches to really even see where they were landing. He didn’t look much different than he did the day he’d left, not really even older, and Ed thought, at least, that boded well for his own advanced age in the very distant future.

There was a big part of him that didn’t give a shit what his piece of shit father had to say, and that part of him also happened to be the loudest and the most vocal. Still, a smaller part, the part of him that was and always would be a lost and lonely child, craved to hear anything his father had to say.

“Five minutes,” he said at last. “And you bet your ass I’m counting.”

“Thank you,” Hohenheim said, and Ed rolled his eyes. “You know, I was a slave once.” He gestured to the rings, completely visible under the short sleeves of Ed’s shirt.

What?” Ed demanded, incredulous. “When? What?”

“A very long time ago. I was born to it.”

Again, Ed could hardly believe what he was hearing. “There’s no fucking way. How the hell are you free?”

“That’s a story, I’m afraid, that would take far longer than five minutes to tell. I will do my best to abbreviate.” Hohenheim’s smile made Ed want to double up and deck him again but he restrained himself, interest winning out over the urge for violence. “My master was one of the most renowned scientists of his age. He was talented beyond words and had a flair for, shall we say, questionable research topics. I was cleaning his lab one day when I came across a peculiar creature in a flask on his desk. The creature spoke to me, and, it seemed, had been created from some of the blood my master had seen fit to take from me in the weeks before. It called itself a homunculus.”

“Bullshit,” Ed said automatically. “Homunculi don’t exist. Everyone fuckin’ knows that.”

“I can verify the existence of at least one,” Hohenheim said. “The homunculus named me, and taught me alchemy. Using this newfound power, I was able to free myself from the confines of my station and rise to power in the court of king Lichas. The h—“

“Bullshit,” Ed said again. “The last king Lichas died four hundred and fifty years ago.

“May I please finish?” Ed scowled but fell silent, allowing Hohenheim to continue. “The homunculus had a sinister purpose, one that I am fortunate to have discovered the nature of before any serious damage could be done. King Lichas was obsessed with immortality, and he had been bargaining with the homunculus to help him achieve it with my alchemy. The homunculus planned to trick him, to use the transmutation to create a philosopher’s stone and gain a human body for itself.”

“Bull—“

Hohenheim held up a hand. “Edward, please.”

Fine.

“The transmutation would have destroyed Xerxes. Every living human within the country’s borders would have been killed, their souls transmuted to create the stone. I reasoned with the homunculus and offered my own body in exchange for the body it wished to create.

“Transmuting the homunculus into my body was a simple task, as it was my blood that had been used to create it. What I didn’t expect was the fight. The homunculus attempted to take over completely, to force my consciousness, my soul into a box and to carry on in my stead. I expected that the struggle was going to kill me, but I overcame it and conquered its power.

“It lives in me still, speaks to me still, but it does not control me. I can harness its power whenever I choose, and as a result, I can neither age nor die. I have spent the last four centuries constantly moving, constantly changing, throwing the weight of my power behind worthy causes and shaping what history I can, I hope, for the better. I cannot, you understand, stay in one place for too long or people will begin to grow suspicious of me. I suppose I forgot what it means to be human, to be mortal, and it was too difficult for me to stay with your mother, watching her age, watching you boys grow, knowing that one day I would be burying all of you.

“I know it doesn’t excuse what I did, but I hope, at least, it explains it. My leaving had nothing to do with you boys or your mother, and everything to do with me, and I accept the full brunt of that responsibility. I know that nothing I do will ever make up for everything you have lost even if I have the rest of eternity to do it, but I hope this, at least, eases a bit of your burden.”

Hohenheim reached out pressed his hand to Ed’s right bicep before he even had time to react and yank it away. He yelped in surprise as a jolt cut through him and all six of the rings broke and fell to the floor in a collection of individual clangs that rang through the room like shots.

Ed was staring down at his bare arm, wide-eyed and shocked. He’d thought Hohenheim’s whole story was some stupid bullshit lie he was expected to buy and croon over in sympathy, but this was something he couldn’t deny. Breaking the rings should have been impossible. They were bound to his blood, tied to every breath and beat of his heart as directly as if they’d been his own flesh. To break them was something beyond Ed’s understanding.

“You’re entitled to your anger, Edward,” Hohenheim said, filling in the silence Ed was unable to fill. “I don’t begrudge you your feelings. If you never wanted to see me again, I wouldn’t begrudge you that, either. I’m not planning to stay in Xing much longer, and I will be out of your hair.” He paused, seeming to roll his thoughts carefully before he spoke again. “I’ll be turning my attentions west. The current leader of Amestris presents too great of a threat to this world to ignore any longer. I believe your Roy Mustang might understand that a bit better than you do, isn’t that right? It’s high time I throw the considerable weight of my power into aiding resistance. He won’t be the first would-be dictator I’ve overthrown in four hundred years, and he certainly won’t be the worst.

“There’s just a bit of difficulty. You understand that I can’t, for obvious reasons, present myself as the driving force behind his downfall. I certainly can’t take over ruling a country, nor can I take the credit. I’ll need someone to back, a figurehead, if you will. A new leader to install. One who can be trusted not to take things too far, and who has the best interests of their people at heart.”

Ed could only blink in shock, trying to figure out just what the fuck his piece of shit dad was implying.

“Ah well, I suppose it will all work out in the end. It almost always does.” He tipped Ed a sly smile. He reached out to clap him on the shoulder but thinking better of it at the last second. “Take care son,” he said, nodding to him once before turning and walking swiftly from the room.

Ed could only stare in shock at the empty doorway.

 

 

Ed spent the rest of the day lost in thought. Hohenheim had apparently broken Al’s shackle, too, and cleared the brand from his neck. Functionally, they were free. They could go anywhere, do anything, without risk of being recaptured and sold off to someone worse than fucking Mustang. Without the marks of slavery, they could even go back to Xerxes and no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Unfortunately, fucking Mustang was becoming a major issue. Sure, there were practicalities to consider – money, shelter, food, transportation – but he and Al had weathered worse and he was sure that, even though Al had misgivings, if they were to leave they’d still come out on top. But it wasn’t that simple, even though it should have been. They’d both been brought to Xing against their wills, and it should have been as easy as throwing some clothes into a bag and going. Of course, nothing in Ed’s life was ever anything like easy. Every time he turned his thoughts to leaving, they immediately turned back to Mustang.

Mustang’s stupid dark eyes and his soft fucking hair and the way he smelled and the way his hands felt on his skin and his dorky fucking smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and his warm, rich laugh and the way he tasted and fuck.  

Ed was lost.

It was verging on too late when he finally made a choice. Darkness had stolen through the palace and Ed crept silently, or as silently as he could given the metal leg, through the hallways towards Mustang’s rooms.

He didn’t bother with knocking. The bedside lamp was on and Mustang was already in bed, but Ed could tell from the rhythm of his breathing (and wasn’t that telling,) that he was asleep, a book forgotten under his right hand on the sheets. He crept to the edge of the bed, just taking in Mustang’s sleeping form for a moment before the utter fucking weirdness of it forced him into action. Carefully, he took the book from Mustang’s hand – Rodinad, fucking figured – and set it on the bedside before very slowly reaching out to push at his shoulder.

“Mustang, hey,” he said quietly. “C’mon, wake up.”

“Ed?” Mustang’s eyes cracked open and he looked up at him in quiet confusion. “Is everything all right?”

“No.” It wasn’t really, was it?

Mustang seemed more awake than he had just seconds before, sharp and alert in the face of potential disaster. “What’s wrong?”

“You are, you bastard.” Ed lifted his right arm, indicating its bareness in the pale lamplight. The skin that had been hidden by the rings was a little paler than the rest of him, and the contrast was sharp in the light. “Do you know what this means?”

Roy had managed to sit up and made a grab for Ed’s wrist, holding on to it lightly as he slid his fingers carefully up the length of Ed’s arm. “How?”

Ed’s nerves were alight from those gentle touches and he had to restrain himself from shuddering. “I guess my piece of shit dad was good for something after all.”

Mustang’s hand stilled on Ed’s arm and he looked up at him through the strands of sleep-mussed hair that had fallen into his eyes and Ed’s fingers itched to push it back. “You’re leaving.”

Ed shook his head. “No, I’m not, and that’s the fuckin’ problem, Mustang. I have my brother back, and I know that it doesn’t mean shit in Xing but with the rings and the brand gone, we can have our freedom back, and we could be miles away from here by fuckin’ morning and it’s such, such bullshit, because despite all of that, all I can think about is you.” He could feel himself going red with embarrassment but he was too far in pull back. “And thinkin’ about what you said, about how… how you’d rather die than turn me away, and I wondered if you, um, meant it.”

“I meant it, Edward” Mustang’s voice was soft and still a little rough from sleep, and it rolled through every inch of Ed.

He didn’t quite manage to suppress the shudder this time. “I was thinking, too, that maybe it’s not so bad that I’m yours if you’re mine, too.”

The hand on Ed’s arm curled around his elbow and tugged him closer until his mismatched knees pressed against the side of the mattress. “It would be my absolute pleasure.” Mustang tugged him down further and his free hand cupped Ed’s cheek gently to tilt his head and kiss him.

It was a good as it had been before, maybe better since Ed remembered the quick and impromptu lesson Mustang had given him the last time they'd done this. Mustang’s mouth was as warm and soft as he remembered and he parted his lips in quiet invitation.

Mustang purred, sending another little shudder biting through Ed’s body, and took the invitation immediately, teasing Ed’s mouth open with his tongue and licking his way inside. Suddenly, the distance was too much and Ed climbed into the bed and took to his knees in front of Mustang, close enough to feel the heat of his body through the thin material of his sleep shirt.

Humming in quiet contentment, Mustang proceeded to kiss him senseless as a hand wandered to the back of his head and began undoing his braid. After a few moments, Ed’s hair fell in a cascade around his shoulders and Mustang didn’t waste a second before running his fingers through it. It was Ed’s turn to purr as Mustang’s nails scratched lightly across his scalp and he broke the kiss to lean into his hand, panting.

“I should’ve known you’d have a h-hair fetish,” he managed.

Mustang smiled and kissed him again gently, his hand still lingering in his hair. “What I have is an Edward Elric fetish.”

Ed wrinkled his nose. “Mustang, that was bad. I mean, bad-bad.”

“Please, call me Roy.”

Somehow, that was even more intimate than the prospect of falling into bed with him (metaphorically, since technically he was already in bed with him,) and the weight of the request wasn’t lost on him. “Roy, then,” he said.

Mustang – Roy – smiled again and something clenched in Ed’s chest. “It sounds better in your mouth than I imagined.”

“This is the part where I make some kind of suggestive comment about what else is better in my mouth, right?” Ed quipped, masking his own uncertainty behind the joke. He was very, very far out if his element. Kissing was one thing, a thing he could handle, but he didn’t know how to deal with talking like this and he certainly didn’t know how to deal with what would follow.

Roy, of course, saw right through him. “You don’t have to say or do anything you aren’t comfortable with, Edward. This goes as far as you want it to, and no further.”

Suddenly Ed found himself unable to meet Roy’s eyes. “What if I want everything?”

Very gently, Roy brushed Ed’s bangs out of his face. “Then I would be happy to oblige.” He curled a finger under Ed’s chin and tilted his face back towards him, leaning in to press a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. Ed thought it was entirely possible he was having a heart attack.

He curled his fingers in the front of Roy’s shirt and pressed forward, turning the light kiss into a full-on assault. Roy’s muffled, surprised gasp only encouraged Ed to claim more of him, memorizing the shape of his teeth with his tongue and the ridges on the roof of his mouth.

Roy’s hand on his waist served to ground him from the heady, dizzy desire and he pulled back a little, letting Roy respond to his ministrations in kind as the hand on his waist found the hem of his shirt.

“May I?” he asked breathlessly, breaking the kiss and pressing his forehead against Ed’s.

“You fuckin’ better.”

Roy laughed and pulled the shirt off in one quick movement, leaving Ed bare-chested and a little cold.

Roy wasted no time in warming him up. He trailed kisses down over Ed’s shoulder, teeth scraping against the ridge of the bone before soothing it with his tongue. The sensation was overwhelming and Ed was having trouble staying focused. It took him a moment to realize that Roy was gently urging him backwards, urging him to lay down, and Ed quickly followed his suggestion, sprawling backwards on the spacious bed, his head landing on one of Roy’s decadent pillows.

Roy reared back, looking down at him in open admiration. “You look just as good sprawled out on my sheets as I thought you would.”

Ed couldn’t stop the flush that spread out over his cheeks. “You’ve been thinking about this?”

Roy settled over Ed, kissing a little line down the front of his chest. “I’ve thought of little else.”

“God,” Ed breathed out in a choked gasp, his breath hitching as Roy’s lips moved against his skin. “You know you don’t have to s-say shit like that, I’m kind of a sure thing.”

The flat of Roy’s tongue ran across Ed’s stomach and he thought he might have actually whimpered. It was weird and warm and wet but it was Roy and it was exquisite. “Just because you’re a sure thing doesn’t mean I shouldn’t woo you anyway,” he murmured. “You deserve to be wooed, Edward. You’re a thing worth cherishing.”

Ed didn’t even know how to respond to that, how he was supposed to respond to that. No one had ever said anything like that to him in his life. He was agonizing over it, because he was sure he was supposed to say something, but he wasn’t good at this shit, not like Mustang was, and even if Roy maybe kind of knew that going into this, Ed was desperate to impress even though he didn’t have the slightest clue what he was supposed to do.

Luckily, he was saved by Roy’s fingers brushing very, very lightly over the waistband of his pants. “Is it all right if I take these off?”

“You don’t have to keep askin’,” Ed said, even though his heart was currently beating so quickly that he thought it might break through his ribs and take flight. “Just, um, I mean…. You know about the leg… thing. It’s not… pretty.”

“I don’t care about scars, Ed. I have my own fair share of scars.” Roy kissed his hipbone gently. “I won’t think any less of you because of a few superficial cosmetic details.”

Ed wasn’t quite sure he and Roy had the same definition of ‘superficial’ but, well, he’d have to see soon enough and it wasn’t like he didn’t already know about the metal leg. “Go ‘head.”

Roy began working his pants off and Ed, suddenly struck with a wave of self-consciousness, threw his arm over his eyes to keep from having to see the look on Roy’s face when he saw his leg.

It felt like a lifetime passed before the pants were gone and Ed was completely bare to Roy’s eyes. The cool air of the room pricked at his skin and he kept waiting and waiting for Roy to touch him, for Roy to say something, but the touch never came and neither did his voice and as more seconds slipped past him, the sting of rejection got more and more unbearable until he couldn’t stand it anymore and dropped his arm from his face, glaring up at Roy furiously. His fury died almost immediately upon seeing the look of open awe and admiration etched across Roy’s features.

“Forgive me,” Roy managed roughly. “I am just trying to understand what I have ever done right in my life to deserve this.”

The knot of anxiety in his chest eased and his hand shook when he reached up to take hold of the front of Roy’s shirt. “You say the dumbest shit,” he whispered, pulling Roy down into a rough kiss.

The press of Roy’s clothes against his nakedness sent a beat of arousal coursing through him and he made a quiet, needy sound. Roy smoothed his hands over the curve of his waist and he shuddered under them, heat tracking across his skin wherever Roy’s fingers made contact.

Suddenly, Ed felt like he was at a disadvantage. He found the hem of Roy’s shirt and began tugging it up and over his head, breaking out of the kiss. He was immediately assaulted by the warm press of Roy’s chest against his own and he moaned raggedly, verging already on over-stimulation as Roy tangled his fingers in his hair and kissed him again.

“’S not fair,” Ed murmured against Roy’s lips. “You’re still wearin’ pants.”

Roy laughed, low and rich, and pulled back, giving Ed an eyeful of his bare skin. He’d seen naked men before, too many to count, really, in the public bath houses in Xerxes, but this was the first time he’d ever really looked. He certainly hadn’t ever cared, but he sure cared about Roy. He reached out, trailing fingers over the expanse of skin and muscle and the knot of scar tissue on his side, about a hand’s width in diameter.

“What happened?” he asked quietly, tracing the outline of it.

“The coup. I was stabbed.”

“This looks like more than a fuckin’ stab wound.” It was way too big to be a stab wound, and the tissue was rough and puckered under Ed’s hand. “This is from a burn.”

“I had to cauterize the wound myself.”

“Fucking hell. How the fuck—“

Roy put his hand over Ed’s on his side and laced their fingers together, squeezing. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about that now.”

The little squeeze brought Ed slamming back into the present. “Sorry,” he croaked. “Not good bed conversation, I get it.”

“Not particularly,” Roy agreed, bending down to brush a kiss against Ed’s lips before straightening back up and starting in on his pants. He made quick work of them and soon he was as bare as Ed. “Is this better?”

“I-it’s… um…” Ed didn’t think he was capable of speech at the moment. He was knocked absolutely breathless, choked by desire, at the image Roy made above him. Pale skin gleaming in the low light and framed by the dark backdrop of the room, Roy was a vision of black and white, nearly otherworldly in his beauty, and Ed had never wanted anything more.

He reached up to him and Roy met him willingly, easing down on top of him and kissing him reverently before breaking to kiss a line down Ed’s throat, down his chest, across his hip, perilously close to Ed’s cock. He kissed the dip where his thigh joined his hip, trailing hands gently over Ed’s thighs. He paused when he reached the strap that kept his metal leg in place, considering.

“Would it be more comfortable if you took this off?”

“You don’t want that,” Ed said immediately, defenses flying up. “It’s weird and you won’t like it. It’s fine. I don’t mind.”

“Ed,” Roy murmured, pressing soft little kisses against the line where metal joined flesh. “Nothing about you is weird. I understand if you don’t want to, and I won’t question you about it anymore, but I want you to know that it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t think less of you just because there is less of you. It isn’t a problem.”

Really, Ed could almost believe him. And, yeah, the leg was heavy and it was cumbersome and he really didn’t have as much control over it when he was on his back as he did when he was standing thanks to basic physics, and it would have been so, so much easier if he didn’t have to deal with it but there was something disarming about letting Roy see him so weak and incapable, about letting Roy see him handicapped. Even in the face of what they were about to do, in the face of their mutual nakedness, it was like being laid bare all over again and felt so incredibly intimate. No one but Al had ever seen him without it. Still, Roy was… not just anyone, and he knew that despite the masks and the trickery that he didn’t just say things and make empty promises in private the way he did in his role as a courtier. If he cared enough about Ed not to be bothered by the leg, then it was hardly fair that Ed didn’t trust him to see him without it. “If… if you want,” he said finally. “There’s, um, there’s a buckle on the back.”

Roy’s fingers slid around to the back of his thigh and he heard the snap of the buckle and then the leg was being lifted away from him. He had to close his eyes again while Roy turned to set it carefully on the floor, leaning it against the edge of the bed, because he was afraid of what he would find on Roy’s face if he looked. He didn’t see Roy turn back but he felt the lips on his thigh, kissing across the divots left by the strap. He almost couldn’t stand the thought of opening his eyes and seeing Roy, perfect and beautiful and whole, showering affection on the ugliest part of him but he forced himself all the same.

Roy met his eyes and smiled, pressing one last kiss to the stump before working his way up the inside of what remained of Ed’s thigh. He’d softened a little in the face of the prospect of removing his leg but Roy’s hot breath on him rekindled the hot ball of need in his gut. “There you are,” Roy purred, so close that Ed could almost feel the vibration of his voice on his dick.

Anything Ed might have thought to say was immediately wiped from his mind by the flat of Roy’s tongue sliding up his shaft, followed immediately by the hot, wet heat of Roy’s mouth. Ed cried out and his hips jerked, exquisite pleasure flooding through every inch of him and wiping his mind completely blank of everything but the feel of Roy’s mouth around him, his talented tongue, the fingers stroking at the insides of his thighs and then moving to grip his hips, to hold him down as he began bobbing his head, working his tongue over the head of Ed’s cock on each upstroke, purring and humming and squeezing his throat around him as he took him deeper and deeper.

His hands came up to tangle in Roy’s hair, seeking something to ground him, to hold him in his body as Roy took him to pieces.

“R-Roy,” he gasped. “Roy, I—“

There was no way he was going to last. The sensation was too new, it was too much, and he felt the heat building in his stomach so rapidly he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to choke out a warning.

Roy flicked his eyes up to meet Ed’s and it was clear that he knew but he just kept going and within seconds, Ed was crying out and coming so hard that he nearly blacked out from the force of it. Roy was still swallowing around him, and Ed was still twitching with the aftershocks when Roy pulled off of him.

Vaguely, he was aware that Roy was moving him, bending his knee gently with one hand and pushing up his stump leg with the other, exposing him to dark, hungry eyes. Ed had scarcely even registered that he should be embarrassed before Roy licked a firm line down his perineum.

“W-Wh… haah, R-Roy—“

Ed’s voice died in his throat when Roy’s tongue began probing at his hole and he howled, hands fisting in the sheets, hips jerking forward into Roy’s face as he continued working him open.

It shouldn’t have been possible for him to get hard again so quickly but by the time Roy pulled away, Ed was harder than he had been before and trembling with renewed need. “R-Roy,” he managed.

Roy caught Ed’s face in his hands and kissed him, and it should have been disgusting, should have been terrible, but the taste of himself on Roy’s tongue awakened something primal in him, something animal, and he fell into the kiss with a fervorous frenzy, tightening his fingers in Roy’s hair.

Roy’s cock was hot and heavy against Ed’s thigh and it slid against his skin as he leaned over him to rifle for something in the drawer of the nightstand. He came away with a small bottle and settled back over Ed, rolling it in his hands to warm it.

“Are you ready for more?” he asked. “If you’re not comfortable—“

“Fuck me,” Ed growled, hooking an arm around Roy’s neck and hauling him back down for a rough kiss. “I swear on all that’s good and holy that if you stop now I’ll destroy you and everything you love.”

“You make a very compelling argument,” Roy said, amusement rolling in every syllable. He kissed Ed again briefly and reached behind his head for a pillow. “Lift up.”

Ed complied and Roy situated the pillow under his hips, leaving Ed exposed once again.

“Unfortunately, this part isn’t always the most pleasant,” Roy said, settling between Ed’s legs. “Bear with me. I promise it gets better.”

“I know how this works,” Ed said, swallowing down the fit of nerves that was threatening to well up. “Just do it.”

He watched Roy slick his fingers and he tilted his head back, closing his eyes in anticipation.

“It’s all right,” Roy murmured. He leaned down and kissed Ed deeply, teasing teeth against his lip and flicking his tongue against Ed’s, kissing him to distraction, as he pressed one finger slowly inside.

The sensation wasn’t like anything Ed had ever felt before, and it wasn’t bad as much as it was wrong. The slight burn was nothing, he knew, compared to what was to come and he worked to keep relaxed, allowing Roy to explore his mouth as he twisted and curled his finger inside Ed.

A second finger followed, and it was harder, this time to stay relaxed. Ed’s body was fighting the intrusion with everything it had and he thought he was going to fly to pieces until Roy crooked his finger and hit something inside of him that made him buck his hips and cry out. He’d heard talk, of course, but no one had ever mentioned that.

“There you go,” Roy murmured. “Relax, it’s all right, I’ve got you.” Ed’s body, shocked by the pleasure, relaxed enough to allow Roy to began spreading his fingers and opening him even further, sliding against that spot over and over again until Ed was an incoherent mess. He hadn’t even noticed the addition of a third until Roy was pulling his hand away and fumbling for the bottle again.

“Roy, R-Roy, please, I c-can’t, I need—

“I’ve got you,” Roy said again, catching Ed’s hips in one of his hands and stilling his frantic, aborted jerks as he sought out stimulation. “I need you to breathe for me, Edward.”

Ed struggled to comply but he managed to suck in a deep breath as Roy guided himself forward. The breath stuck in his throat as Roy pushed in, the burning stretch overtaking everything as he went in and in and in until at last the press stopped and Roy stilled against him, breathing hard.

“Keep breathing,” Roy murmured shakily, leaning down to press his forward to Ed’s. “Even breaths. I won’t, I won’t move until you’re ready.”

Ed was barely managing his rapid pant and a deep breath felt completely beyond him. Roy pressed little kisses to his face, his hands trembling against his sides as he stroked soothing lines up and down the length of Ed’s flank.

Little by little, the burn turned into something more bearable and the need that had gotten tossed to the wayside in the face of his discomfort began to ripple through him again. “O-Okay, I’m… you can m-move.”

Roy kept his eyes locked on Ed’s as he began rocking his hips very slowly, experimentally, watching Ed’s face for his reaction. Ed choked out a little gasp at that first little thrust, his arms reaching up automatically to lock around Roy and hold on for dear life as he worked into a slow and careful rhythm.

“You are… so breathtakingly beautiful,” Roy panted, pressing messy kisses to Ed’s face and neck. “You have no idea how long I—“

Ed cried out, interrupting Roy as one of those slow thrusts hit against that spot.

“There?” Roy asked, locking his hips in place and rolling them again. Ed’s resultant whimper made Roy groan. “You’re going to be my undoing, Edward, I know it.”

“You’d b-better fuckin’ get to doing or I’m gonna kick your ass,” Ed managed.

Roy’s startled laugh sent a tremor straight through his body and into Ed’s. “As you wish,” he purred, and rocked his hips hard, sending another exquisite shot of pleasure up Ed’s spine.

Ed tightened his arms around Roy as he worked into a rhythm of long, fast strokes that forced Ed to frantic desperation. He clung to Roy, digging his fingers into his back and met him thrust for thrust, the bed and the room and the world falling away until all that was left was Roy, Roy, Roy and Ed was moaning and whimpering and gasping and crying out, helpless to stop the noises that tore from his throat each time Roy’s hips crashed into his own.

Roy’s hand on his cock nearly brought him to tears and within seconds of the first touch, he was burying his face in Roy’s neck and coming with a cry.

Vaguely, he was aware of Roy crying out above him and slamming hard into him one last time before everything went white.

The next thing he was aware of was Roy’s arms around him and a hand smoothing over his hair. He blinked up at Roy, and Roy smiled down at him.

“All right?” he asked softly.

“Nngh,” Ed responded.

“A paragon of eloquence, as always.” Roy pressed a kiss to the top of Ed’s head. “I lost you there for a moment.”

“Then you outta know just how all right I am, you bastard.”

“He speaks.” Another smile and another kiss, this time to his forehead.

Ed huffed and nuzzled further into Roy’s shoulder. “Is it always like that?”

“Like what?” Roy was combing his fingers gently through Ed’s hair, carefully pulling out the tangles.

“Intense.” He closed his eyes, letting the soothing slide of Roy’s fingers against his scalp lull him. “Like everything else disappears and all that’s left is what you’re doin’ and who you’re with.”

Roy, seemingly satisfied with the job he’d done on Ed’s hair, moved his hand to the back of his neck and across his spine until he was stroking over Ed’s right arm, back and forth against the tan lines left over from the rings. “It certainly can be.”

Fuck. You’re gonna kill me, d’you know that?”

“Am I to infer, then, that this wasn’t an isolated incident?”

Ed frowned and lifted his head to meet Roy’s eyes. “What the hell did I do to give you the idea that it was?”

Roy’s hand paused on his arm, warm and heavy. “I didn’t want to presume. You’re not beholden to me anymore. You never really were. I had thought that, perhaps, now that your curiosity had been satisfied—“

“Idiot,” Ed said, smothering Roy’s words with a kiss. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did.”

“What’re you trying to talk me into it? I’d hold it against me. I want… I mean, this is…” He huffed again. “I wouldn’t have done something like this if I didn’t want to stay with you.”

Roy’s hand started moving again, caressing his bare arm with a sort of quiet reverence. “You don’t do anything halfway, do you?”

“That’s not my style, Mustang. You should know that by now.” Ed settled back down against Roy’s shoulder. “Is it okay if I stay here tonight?”

“I’d like nothing more,” Roy murmured, reaching for the edge of the blanket and drawing it up over both of them. He turned slightly and reached for the light next, plunging them both into a comfortable darkness. He settled back down, pulling Ed in a little bit tighter and resuming the slide of his hand against his arm. “Maybe in the morning you can tell me what happened to the rings.”

“Mmh, ‘s pretty straight-forward. Hohenheim pulled some kind of weird alchemy and they dropped right off. He did the same for Al, too. Of course, now he’s doing what he does best and fucking off somewhere. Said something about going west and kicking up some trouble there.”

“Is that so?” Roy asked absently, still petting Ed’s arm. Ed couldn’t see him in the dark, but he thought he might be beginning to drop back off into sleep.

Ed rolled the conversation he’d had with Hohenheim around in his mind, considering. There was a lot there, a lot of layers and a lot of implications and maybe just a little bit of a challenge. Well, Ed was never one to back down from a challenge. “That dream you mentioned about somehow kicking Bradley’s ass sideways, and becoming Fuhrer. D’you ever still think about it?”

“Sometimes.” Roy’s voice was a little bit distant, heavy with sleep. “Just as a passing fancy. It’s a lost cause. It’s a dead wish.”

“Yeah, well,” Ed mumbled, closing his eyes and shifting against Roy’s side as he made himself a little bit more comfortable. “I wouldn’t give up on that dream just yet if I were you.”

Roy was silent, breathing evenly and softly, lost in sleep.

Well, that was fine. They could talk about it in the morning, or the next day, or any day after. Ed wasn’t going anywhere, and they had all the time in the world.