Edward Elric stared at the burned-out shell of his childhood home, taking in the bits of green that were finally starting to knit their way across the blackened earth, springing from the ashes like legend of the phoenix.
“Fifteen years, today,” he told the ground. “Al’s seal is stable, right now, but it’s...fragile. I need to get something more permanent. Holding him in stasis like this is just...cruel.” He ran a hand down his face. “I’m thinking I need to leave Risembool. Winry headed out to Rush Valley for her apprenticeship, so maybe I’ll head that way? ...Ugh, no, I can’t keep asking her to carry us. Her and Granny have done too much for us already. Maybe Central?”
He knelt down, dragging his fingers through the ash, remembering the day months before when he’d taken the torch to the remains of the house.
He’d been burning it, little by little, for fifteen years. Every single time, some part would survive, and a year later he’d come back and do it again. Taking every bit of wood down to dust until there wasn’t a single trace of what once was there.
When Al was back to his body, maybe he’d build a new house there. A sign of a fresh start on the death that lay behind them.
...Or, maybe not. There was too much blood in those ashes. He didn’t want to build a life on that.
“What do you think, mom?” Ed asked, softly. “Over twenty years since you died. Fifteen since I tried to bring you back.” He clenched his fist, pushing his weight onto his knuckles, feeling them sink a centimeter down in the loose dirt. “I’m twenty-six, mom, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I should have left, should have started searching right away. I thought…” He closed his eyes, letting out a breath. “I listened to Al. Dad can fix it, wait for dad.” Tears spilled down his cheeks as his jaw clenched, a grieving anger rising in him, like it always did when he thought of Hohenheim. “Five, ten, fifteen years - no sign of him. Why did I listen?” He curled in on himself on the dirt, palms down on the ground to brace him as he cried. “Why did I trust him? He left us and he had no plans of coming back, but I couldn’t see that.” He lowered his forehead to press against the ground. “I’m sorry, mom,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“...Edward Elric?” a deep voice called behind him, hesitant.
He sat up in an instant, spinning around to see a man in military blues, staring down at him with a look that suggested he was worried he’d found a madman.
The woman behind him - also military, goddamn it - had a hand on her hip, very close to a gun. Not a threat, but preparing for the worst.
“Who’s asking?” Ed prompted, standing up, using a sleeve to scrub his face dry.
“Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang,” the man introduced. “And Second Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye.”
“Mustang, huh?” Edward murmured. He’d heard the name once or twice, in the mouths of distant visitors who witnessed his alchemy. He’d been compared to a lot of big names, in the past, but never really put much weight on them.
No one’s alchemy was like his. His was unique, if not for its style, for how it was earned. All his knowledge that didn’t come from the dusty journals of an absent father came from the bright white light of Truth.
“You’re heard of me, then?” Mustang asked, and Ed noted how his shoulders squared back a bit, obviously prideful in his own reputation.
Ed looked away, toward the Rockbell house. “Heard your name,” he corrected. “It’s usually lumped in with conversation about Ishval, though, so I tend not to listen too close.”
“Many people tune out things they don’t want to hear,” Mustang said, and Ed bristled at the veiled judgement in his tone.
“Or things they don’t want to remember,” he bit out. “My friend went to the fronts with her parents as a medic. They died right in front of her. She threw herself head first into her work and as far as I know, she hasn’t come back up.”
Mustang’s lips thinned into a tight, pale line. “I see. The Rockbells, right? I heard-...”
“Save it,” Ed snapped, glaring at the soldier. “It’s not something I want a half-assed apology for, or anything else you have to say. I want to know why you’re looking for me, so I can tell you how far to shove it.”
“We’re chasing rumors of skilled alchemists,” Mustang said. “Your name came up, several times. Thirty-one-year-old alchemic genius Edward Elric, from Risembool, living with a family friend and his younger brother.”
“Check your sources, bastard,” Ed told him. “I’m twenty-six. Al’s twenty-five.”
“So am I,” Mustang said. “We’re closer in age than I thought, then.”
Ed rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. “Yeah, I’m sure we’ll be best friends. Lemme guess - you’re military, and you’re looking for alchemists, so that means state alchemists. You want me to be a dog of the military, like you.”
“The military comes with lots of benefits,” Mustang said.
“If you tell me there’s dental, I’ll stab you.”
Mustang’s lip twitched, in a sort of half-smile, before flattening again. “Research benefits. Access to restricted information, a research budget, an allowance to explore new avenues you couldn’t alone.”
Mustang shifted his weight, and Edward instantly caught what was going to come out of his mouth next, clenching his fists.
“There’s...rumors. That your brother is sick. Medical alchemy could be where you stake your research, if you-...”
“Shut up,” Ed hissed. “You shut up. Don’t you dare use Alphonse against me, you bastard.” He crossed the field, shoving a finger into Mustang’s chest, glaring at him up close (and scowling deeper at the few inches he had to look up to do so). “Al is not sick, he’s not injured. Not in a way you can fix with medicine or automail or anything else. I’ve been keeping him stable for fifteen years with alchemy, you asshole, and if there was something more permanent I’d already have my bags packed to go after it. My brother is everything to me, and don’t you dare imply otherwise.”
Mustang blinked down at him, and Ed reeled back as he heard the other soldier’s gun click, shifting his stare to look dead into the barrel of the pistol aimed at him.
“Stand down,” she said, voice steel. “You are threatening an officer of the Amestrian military.”
“And you’re threatening a pissed off older brother,” Ed told her. “Wanna find out which one gets you into more trouble?”
Her fingers shifted on the gun, only for Mustang to dart a hand out between them, waving her down.
“Edward,” Mustang said. “Have you ever heard of the Philosopher’s Stone?”
Ed thought of a diagram deep in his father’s books, of a massive array, the circles the only thing in the book ever drawn unevenly. His hands would have been shaking as he sketched it, no doubt. A note in the side, doing the math. How much alchemic energy was needed to activate it, how much would need to go in to get anything out.
His father had written down 5,000Ss as the key to one small stone, in a deep press of pen that told Ed he didn’t want to know what ‘Ss’ meant.
Ed never burned anything so fast.
“I’ve heard of it,” he said. “But they don’t exist. They’re a theory. They’d take way too much energy to actually make, if they’re strong enough to tip the balance of equivalent exchange.”
“Sometimes we get rumors, in the military,” Mustang countered. “Potential stone use, here and there throughout the nation. Not to mention you could research how they’d work, see if you could make one yourself.”
Five thousand units, his mind whispered. What are the units? What would he need to collect?
Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he looked to see a metal suit glint in the sun, his brother peeking out of the Rockbell house to see what was taking him so long.
Ed grit his teeth. It doesn’t even matter, does it? What wouldn’t you do for Al?
He let out a low breath. “Alright, fine. You want me to sign up? Show me the dotted line.” He pointed at Mustang again, glare fierce. “But I’m telling you right now, I’m doing this for my brother. Do anything, anything that breaks this deal, and you won’t know what hit you.”
Mustang gave him a small, controlled smile. “You missed the last test. The next is at the beginning of next year. I’ll meet you in Central, should you choose to come.”
The man saluted, then, and then turned on his heel, heading off. The woman followed close behind on his heels, and Ed watched them leave with a strange feeling in his chest.
“Well, mom,” he whispered. “Looks like we’re leaving. Hopefully we’ll come back whole.”
Well, it couldn’t very well get worse.
Oh, shit, he thought to himself. I just fucking jinxed myself, didn’t I?
“You’re going to Central?”
Ed looked up from packing his bag, turning to Granny. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “If this ‘Mustang’ guy thinks we could find something useful in the military, then that’s where I’m headed.”
“Brother, you shouldn’t have to sell yourself to them,” Alphonse argued. “I’ll be fine.”
“No, you won’t, Al.” Ed turned to his brother, face tense. “How many times have I had to modify that seal? The blood keeps wearing itself out. I need to find a way to get you back to a body - or, at the very least, make that seal last more than a couple years.”
“You’re walking into death, kid,” Granny Pinako said. “No way the military isn’t gonna look right through you.”
Ed bristled at her dismissal. “What choice do I have? Sit here in Risembool and wait to die? I’m tired of doing nothing. I got us into this, I’m gonna get us out.”
“We both chose to do what we did,” Al argued. “Don’t punish yourself for both of our choices.”
Ed grit his teeth. “You wouldn’t have done it, even considered it, if I hadn’t brought it up. The transmutation, the backlash, that’s all on me. Hell, Al, I’m even the one who was selfish enough to trap you in a suit of armor so I wasn’t alone.”
“I would have died, otherwise.”
Ed let out a low, harsh breath. “Listen, Al. I’m not changing my mind.” He shut his suitcase with a final snap. “I’m going to Central, and I’m taking the stupid test. If the military wants my soul for your body, they can have it. I gave two limbs for my sins - the rest of me is fair game.”
Al bowed his head slightly, before looking back up, the tiny alchemic glow marking his ‘eyes’ locking on Ed. “Then I’m going with you.”
“You can’t join up,” Ed said. “They’d realize you weren’t physically human.”
“I can keep an eye on you, though,” Al said. “That’s what brothers are for, right?”
Ed blinked, and then smiled, scooping up his suitcase by the handle. “Yeah, I guess it is.” Turning to Pinako, he told her, “Thank you for letting us stay here, and helping us so much over the years. We owe you.”
“You don’t owe me a damn thing,” she said. “You’re family. Just make sure you remember that when the military gets you on a leash, okay, brat?”
Ed laughed, waving her off. “Yeah, yeah, you old bat. I’m not gonna abandon you, I promise.” Then, more seriously, he nodded to her. “No matter what I end up becoming, no matter what things I have to do, I won’t lose myself to them. I’m doing this for Al, and if I can’t hold onto anything else, I’ll hold onto that.”
“You better,” she said. “Now get out, shrimp, you have a train to catch.”
Ed bristled, but Al dragged him out of the house before he could make the last thing he said to Granny a series of colorful insults.
Damn it, it wasn’t his fault he was tiny. He’d barely grown since their transmutation. The difference between his height at eleven and his height at twenty six was a mere five centimeters. It had to be part of his punishment from the Gate, or something.
Al insisted it was his hatred of milk stunting his growth.
Al could eat a dick. He was plenty tall enough to kick ass.
Central was exactly what Ed always imagined it’d be: fucking gross.
There were way too many people, way too many buildings, and a general sense of too much. Too much noise, too much metal, too much trash in the streets and too many cars on the roads and…
“You look like you’re gonna throw up,” Al told him, unhelpfully. “Does it smell bad?”
Ed sniffed. “No. Well, yeah, but that’s not it. I just don’t like there being this many people around.”
“You’re antisocial,” Al said. “Of course it bothers you. I don’t think city people talk to strangers, though, so you should be okay.”
Ed sure hoped so. People sought him out in Risembool all the time for alchemy orders, but they were all fielded through Granny Pinako. He rarely ever spoke to anyone directly, if he could help it. He’d never been great with people, but the longer he stayed holed up in Granny’s house in Risembool, the harder it was to talk to people when he came back out again.
He was sort of dreading the amount of conversing with strangers he’d have to do to join the military, but he’d deal with that when he got to it. Doing things for a reason was always better than doing them just because, so he could probably stomach being social for the sake of getting the research access he needed.
If not, he’d just make Al talk to everyone for him. His brother was always far more keen on conversation than he was.
“Do we know where we’re staying?” Ed asked. “The bastard is probably not gonna be around until the actual exams get here, so we're on our own.”
“Edward?” A voice called, from the crowd in train station. “Edward Elric?”
“Oh no,” Ed muttered to his brother. “Someone knows me.”
The man calling them waved his arms wildly to get their attention, and Al immediately made to head over to him, leaving Ed scrambling behind him to catch up.
“Oh, you’re Edward, then?” the man greeted, when Al got close, launching forward to shake his large armor hand. “I’m Maes Hughes! Roy asked me to keep an eye out for you.”
“I’m Edward,” Ed corrected, strolling up to stand behind his brother. “That’s my brother, Al. Mustang sent you? What’s he want with us? I’m taking his stupid test, but that’s all I agreed to! He can shove any other favors right up his-...!”
“Brother!” Al interrupted. “You don’t have to always be so suspicious!”
Ed scowled. “You didn’t meet that guy. He was skeevy. I don’t trust him.”
The man in front of them - Maes, right? - started laughing. “You really did meet Roy! He grows on you, I promise. He mentioned that you probably didn’t think very much of him.” The man reached out, dropping a hand down on Ed’s shoulder. “I’m not here to sell him to you, though! I wanted to extend an invitation. Stay at my house tonight! Eat dinner with my lovely wife and daughter. I’ll introduce you to Central tomorrow.”
Ed narrowed his eyes, suspicious, because this guy was... really friendly, in a way that reminded him of the ‘sweet’ people out in Risembool who would call you endearments and coo at you all while thinking you were the biggest idiot in Amestris.
He hated those people. Which, to be fair, he didn’t really like anyone else any better.
Maybe Al was right. Maybe he was getting to be a shut-in.
“We’d love to,” Al accepted, not giving Ed time to say anything rude, leaving the elder brother sputtering. “We were just wondering how we were going to hunt down a hotel on such short notice. An extra day would be amazing.”
“Come on, then,” Hughes told them, his smile still eerily wide. “Come with me. I’ll show you pictures on the way, so you know who you’re meeting! You’ll love them. My darling daughter-...”
Ed watched the man start walking away, quickly followed by Al, and sighed. Looks like he was going to have to socialize, after all.
As he went to take a reluctant step, moving to follow the other two, he caught sight of something.
The tiniest wrinkle in fabric, just at Hughes’ back, marking an almost perfectly hidden weapon. A knife, probably - too flat to be a gun, too small to be anything exotic.
Ed’s eyes snapped across the length of Hughes’ military uniform, instantly on alert.
There, at the shoulder. There, at the calf. There again, a glint in the fabric of his boot.
At least four knives. Probably more.
Ed was right - this man wasn’t the goofball he was making himself out to be.
He’d only been in Central a few minutes, but he was already getting the sinking feeling that he was in over his head.