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Mendacium

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-*-

 

June XX, 224X

 

The air is burning.

 

He pants and gasps for breath, the pink smog coating his throat and making it hard to breathe. Faint energy crackles harmlessly over his skin, illuminating the nearby trees in a sickly green light, casting flickering shadows that made him paranoid.

 

The ground at his feet splits again and again as he races forward, narrowly missing trees. He ramps up the speed, until his legs feel like they’re going to crack with every move and he can barely react in time to dodge branches. 

 

It wasn’t fast enough.

 

The near-deafening whisper in his ear reaches a crescendo, almost drowning out the crackling of far-off flames with hisses of faster, faster, you’re going to be too late, faster…

 

And then there are no more trees, and he’s carried upwards by his momentum, hanging there for a moment.

 

Finally, he could see what was going on.

 

The whole forest was on fire. Giant swathes of it were hidden behind both noxious, billowing black smoke from blood red fire and the ever-present pink fog; others were clear, but dead silent.

 

Sounds of a fight came from multiple locations; the one he’d just left was the loudest, although trails of smoke drifted lazily upwards from the main building. God, what had happened to the rest of his class?

 

And then he was in freefall, twisting with the motion to roll on impact and be up and running again in a maneuver that he’d seen a thousand times on his teacher. His knees creaked, the veritable crater each foot made quickly swallowed up by the sheer pace at which he moved.

 

He could hear a man’s voice ahead, cocky and full of bloodlust- too slow too slow- and his instincts slow him down, the brain that had saved him so many times in the past working overdrive to catalog each threat.

 

He crested the hill.

 

Muscular. Arm cocked back, an insane grin that split his face open from ear to ear, his mechanical eye glowing menacingly in the twilight.

 

Kouta. Standing helpless beneath him, but relatively unhurt. Face scrunched up in defiance, even with the terror in his eyes.

 

Himself. Poised between the two, without a plan and with no time to make one, probably looking dreadfully outmatched.

 

Ba-dum.

 

Everything blurred back into motion. Muscular screamed something at Kouta, his voice cracking like thunder, arm still descending. What was he supposed to do?

 

His speed launched him forward, snatching Kouta moments before that fist came down. They both tumbled to the ground, skidding against the rocks. His brain crashed like a gong.

 

Muscular laughed, or growled, or something, it was impossible to hear over the heartbeat in his ears and the ringing in his head. He figured that he wouldn’t have liked to hear it anyway, even as the ringing began to quiet.

 

“...your buddy, Katsuki Bakugou? You know where he is? C’mon, tell me.” The mechanical eye gleamed with the opportunity to kill, and he found himself vaguely disgusted. Why were they looking for Kacchan?

 

Kouta whimpered, tucked behind him. He found himself shifting forward automatically, ready to fight to the death if it meant Kouta could get back safely. To be honest, it scared him. He was going to die here, to the crazed maniac who slaughtered pro heroes for the shits and giggles, and there was nothing he could do.

 

He wasn’t crazy enough to smile, no, but the same hysterical laughter bubbled up in his throat anyway.

 

Muscular lunged, and Izuku pushed Kouta as hard as he could without hurting him, trusting him to escape, to not be an idiot and stay to help, and he braced himself as best he could-

 

And the villain howled in pain, slamming sideways into the cliff face. His eye whirred nauseatingly, locking on to the knife pinning his hand to the wall just as Izuku’s did.

 

Knife?

 

“Himiko,” the man hissed, the voice of someone who had willingly thrown themselves into the deep end and insisted on drowning. “I always knew we couldn’t trust you, you conniving little bitch.”

 

A giggle sounded from the shadows, high pitched and just a little bit familiar, as the villain wrenched the knife from his hand with a spray of blood and only a wince of pain. Muscle strands covered the wound, winding their way around like a makeshift bandage.

 

Izuku was left reeling, still in his defensive position and without any clue what was going on. Was the girl a hero? Another villain? Were he and Kouta saved or just being shipped off to die somewhere else?

 

She slinked out of the shadows, her glistening eyes just as unhinged as Muscular’s, narrowed as they were in singular focus. She held an assortment of knives, the machine on her back somehow even more menacing than the blades themselves.

 

“Muscular,” she purred. “Of course not. You think I was ever loyal to Shigaraki? No, no, he’s not cool at all. But you’re the worst…” Her eyes narrowed even further, just as a large smile spread across her face like the blood from a cut.

 

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to touch what isn’t yours?”

 

-*-

 

Jan. 29th, 224X

 

Hizashi’s voice boomed at the start signal, the sound slightly tinny over the speakers. Normally, Shota would be lounging in the back of the room, out of the other teachers’ way, but this time his eyes roamed the veritable army of U.A. hopefuls as they crowded through the gates and surged into the city from up close. 

 

Nezu had given him quite the pointed look earlier, so here he was, watching for his mystery kid in person.

 

Some distant part of his brain kept tabs on standout kids, but for the most part he was focused on scanning the screens, looking for an out-of-place golden braid to pop into vision.

 

His eyes narrowed as he caught a flash of gold hair, and he tapped on the screen, bringing up a quick bio. Kaminari Denki, huh… He made a mental note to check on the boy later, maybe put him in Class 1-A if he passed.

 

A few other people caught his eye, and he had resorted to writing the names down to look up later, but he was ultimately left feeling disappointed when it ended. Yeah, there was that one kid who’d killed the zero-pointer, which he had some choice words about- but no red coat or anything.

 

Which was honestly so goddamn frustrating.

 

And he couldn’t even swear out loud! Because All Might was in the room! 

 

Shouta wasn’t a huge fanboy or anything, but it just felt weird. The man was a living legend. Shouta shouldn’t swear in front of the symbol of peace. It was that simple.

 

Besides, All Might, no matter if he was a walking skeleton or a buff giant, had the paternal approval down to an exact science. Shota was a fully grown adult and if even he felt slightly guilty when leveled with the Dad Stare, he couldn’t even imagine the effect it would have on the kids.

 

Maybe he should ask for some pointers.

 

Thankfully, the man was far too busy looking Disapprovingly at the screens, with a slight hint of Disappointment. Which was… odd, now that he thought about it. Was he looking for someone too?

 

And then All Might looked up and caught Shota looking at him- which, shit, was not the plan, fuck- and brought out the Concerned But Earnest and- now he’d just feel guilty if he didn’t go say hi. 

 

Forget strength, any grown man who can look like a kicked puppy on command is someone to be feared.

 

Shota sighed and slouched over, fully ready to leave and go sulk at home. All Might blinked at him curiously, as if he honestly couldn’t believe that he would come over voluntarily. 

 

“Ah, Eraserhead. I’m told you aren’t normally here for this.” Which, yeah, someone had been snitching. It was probably Nemuri. It was always Nemuri.

 

He hovered a bit awkwardly at the taller’s man’s side. “Yeah, I was here looking for someone. How is it seeing the exam from the other side?”

 

“O-oh, it’s interesting…” All Might chuckled sheepishly. “I feel bad for some of the kids who aren’t suited for these tests, you know?”

 

Shota almost growled. “It’s an unfair test that puts destructive quirks over subtler ones and-... enough about that. Why are you here?”

 

All Might looked at him, confused, and Shota realised that he might have come off as rude, but before he could be bothered to fix it, the hero answered anyway.

 

“I was actually here to watch someone- er, a couple someones take the exam, but I’m afraid I only got to watch one of them...”

 

The green-haired kid, of course. He would have been blind not to notice the way All Might stayed mostly trained on one screen, and coughed up blood when the kid broke the zero pointer.

 

“... but I met the most interesting boy the other day, who said he was going to try for U.A., but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I hope he didn’t chicken out, he seemed quite confident.”

 

“Oh?” Shota paused. “I might be able to find him for you. What was his name and quirk?”

 

“I… don’t know, actually. But he had the most piercing golden eyes, much like Present Mic, and a strange european accent.” All Might looked uncomfortably grateful at the offer.

 

Wait. 

 

Fuck.

 

-*-

 

XXX XX, XXXX

 

Al was sitting in front of him, the armor just small enough to fit in the train seat. The whole thing rattled and clanked as the train accelerated, a familiar sound that did absolutely nothing to make Ed understand where he was.

 

“Oh, brother, you’re awake!” Al’s glowing red eyes perked up at him, and he gently put the book he was reading away. “You slept for a while. You must’ve been really tired.”

 

He… had been tired, hadn’t he? He would always fall asleep on the train, why was that sounding weird to him? “Yeah… hey, Al, where are we right now?”

 

It was hard to make out the countryscape outside the windows, so he gave up, turning back to give the train car a once-over. Why was something off? It was just a normal train car.

 

Al cocked his head in confusion. “What do you mean? We’re on our way home, right? That’s what you said.”

 

Yeah, he had said that. He chuckled, but it sounded a bit strained. “Oh, yeah, I forgot. Sorry. I must have been sleeping for a really long time, huh?”

 

“You really should stop forgetting stuff,” Al tsk ed, in a way that was very distinctly their mother. His golden eyes were soft with understanding though, so Ed assumed he was off the hook. 

 

There was a knock on the doorframe, and Trisha walked into the kitchen, smiling at them. She came over to ruffle Ed’s hair, and he frowned as hard as he could, trying not to laugh. She laughed for both of them anyways. 

 

“You boys have been getting along well, I’d hope? My little men, so much like your father…”

 

Ed found himself scowling for real. Hohenheim might’ve been their father, but he wasn’t their dad.

 

Trisha looked sad. “Of course he’s your dad. You should love him, he’s done so much for you.”

 

He clenched both of his fists as Al stood up too, only one set of fingernails digging into the skin under his glove. But he wasn’t wearing gloves? No, he wasn’t. 

 

His nails carved little red crescents into his bare hand, red dripping out of them in a steady stream as Trisha and Al just looked at him with that sad little look, Al wasn’t short and chubby with harvest-gold hair and he wasn’t tall and cold and unfeeling but he was too thin and so impossibly scared and Trisha wasn’t there-

 

-*-

 

Jan. 29th, 224X

 

The first thing Ed noticed- once he had figured out what year it was, what his name was, and what had happened- was that it was dark, darker than it should have been even with his eyes closed. The second thing was that his head hurt like a bitch.

 

His hand found its way to a solid surface, and he began the arduous process of pushing himself upright. He hadn’t even opened his eyes yet, but colorful spots danced on his eyelids like they were mocking him.

 

Head injuries fucking sucked. That was official.

 

The faint buzz of unconsciousness slowly faded into background noise once he was sitting up and unmoving, which was nice. Ed forced his eyelids open so he could look around.

 

The room was dark, but surprisingly clean. It had dark wooden walls, and he was lying on an actual bed- stripped down, of course, but a bed nonetheless. An empty doorway in the corner led to what seemed to be a bathroom, no way they would leave the exit open like that, and there was a landscape picture on the wall.

 

All in all, it was pretty nice. 

 

And really, really off putting.

 

It wasn’t like Ed had never been kidnapped before. Normally the kidnappers were less than successful in taking him anywhere, but even the ones that had managed to take him down were very upfront about their intentions. He was used to being handcuffed to window bars, tied to old wood chairs, hell, once some idiot had got the idea that he couldn’t do alchemy if they tied each of his hands to different sides of the room, which only made it a little bit harder to get free.

 

It had never been like this. Not this fake hospitality shit. He was being held for a reason, which usually boiled down to a.) ransom money, b.) he had something they wanted/they wanted him to do something, or c.) revenge.

 

He would bet every diamond in the world that it was option B this time.

 

His head throbbed again, momentarily scrambling his thoughts with white noise and pain. It passed, but he had got the message from his body. Stop moving, or else.

 

Good thing he was stubborn as shit.

 

His real leg was a bit unsteady, so he shifted more weight onto his automail and set off to explore the space he had. The bathroom had a clean mirror, and he checked for any rope marks to see where they’d tied him up before realizing, mother of all surprises, that they hadn’t.

 

Ed was either dealing with idiots, or professionals. He wasn’t sure which he preferred. 

 

Every step he took made his head pound, but it was less every time. Maybe he didn’t have a concussion? Small mercy, but it would help if he could think straight. Did he seriously have no injuries?

 

He sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, but only because he was shocked that he was physically fine. Not because his leg was about to give out or anything. Nope. 

 

So. Options.

 

He pushed his hands together, feeling around for the extra energy that always lingered in the air. It was there, but muted, and Ed got the distant feeling that if he had a quirk, it wouldn't be working. He was suddenly very glad he didn’t, and not for the first time.

 

It would be a bad idea to mess with the walls or ceiling, in case it was a trap- it probably wasn’t, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

 

He resigned himself to the dull process of waiting his captors out.

 

-

 

By the time anything happened, Ed had managed to get some rest. His head still throbbed like it was being actively bored into with a chisel, but it was better than before, so he wasn’t going to complain too much.

 

An inky black portal spiraled into existence on the wall in front of him with hardly a noise, and it was only the faint whooshing of displaced air that alerted him to it. The stone ball that he had been throwing at the ceiling fell to the floor with a dull clink as he stood up carefully.

 

Two yellow eyes materialised out of the smoke, but Ed was too stuck in the middle of another quirk-induced breakdown to pay that much attention to it.

 

He did, however, catch the words that echoed into the room. “My Master wishes to speak with you. Please step through the portal,” and he was almost relieved. Not that he had a particular fondness for life-and-death combat, but anything was better than the waiting. He didn’t even have any books!

 

Ed waited just long enough to prove that he was only going because he wanted to, and then sauntered into the darkness with only the faintest of hitches in his step. Soon enough, his vision cleared, and he found himself in a well-lit room, the contrast to the waiting room stark and probably intentional. 

 

It almost looked like an industrial warehouse, metal and concrete holding up the high roof. The inside was emptied out, instead filled with medical equipment clustered in the center of the room, doctors scurrying about. 

 

And at the other end…

 

Oh, Truth. That guy looked awful .

 

Envy had probably still been uglier, but it was a close margin. The man’s features were twisted and warped in a grotesque imitation of a human face, like someone had deep fried it and then rearranged all his facial features with a rusty spoon. The whole thing was covered in scar tissue, a latticework of angry red and white lines that did absolutely nothing to improve it. He didn’t even have any jokes, it was just…

 

“Horrifying, isn’t it?” The voice came out melodic, despite the deep scars that marred where his throat used to be. Ed wasn’t a doctor, but he was pretty sure that the man shouldn’t even be able to speak, much less speak well .

 

He forced the horror off his face. Something told him that behind the mashed potato features, this guy was bad news. He would bet ten thousand cenz that this was the person Truth wanted.

 

The quiet malice pouring off of him made goosebumps flicker across Ed’s skin, even with the hoodie he’d been forced in this morning. All of his plans fled out the window. If they were to fight, right here, right now, Ed would die.

 

Play it cool.

 

“I’ve seen worse. Not much worse, but all the same.”

 

He chuckled, a low sound that felt like nails on a chalkboard to Ed’s danger senses. “That’s comforting, I suppose. What are you doing all the way over there? Come, let’s talk.”

 

It was definitely not a suggestion.

 

The portal guy had disappeared, so Ed trudged over, forcing himself to walk straight, his boots making a comforting aggressive thump on the concrete. There was a table between them, small mercies, already set up with a chess set. 

 

Holy shit, this was the most cliche bad guy Ed had ever had the displeasure of seeing in person. All the man needed was a cat to stroke menacingly. Fuck. 

 

“Ah, I hope you don’t mind playing a game with me? A round of chess for this old man.” It was a more rumbling laugh this time, like a thunder cloud about to let loose, but Ed was quite simply done with absolutely all of this playing around and waiting bullshit.

 

He sat down. “Don’t know how,” he said, happily unapologetic. “Sorry,” he tacked on at the end, just to be an ass. The guy had patience in spades.

 

All For One’s hands folded over the table, each one the size of Ed’s entire face. “You don’t?” he said after a moment, with only the faint twitch of a non-existent eyebrow to show he was annoyed. It was like music to Ed’s ears. He had always been good at pissing people off.

 

“I’m not so good at all the long-term strategy stuff, you know?” A doctor in the background flinched at his cavalier attitude, which was the whole point, and Ed already felt better! He wished he could find the nerve to actually put his feet on the table, because it’d be fucking hilarious until he was turned into a grease smear.

 

No, the villain wouldn't kill him just yet. He obviously needed something from the foreigner, otherwise he’d already be dead. And this was exactly what Ed was counting on to survive this exchange.

 

All For One finally dropped the grandfather act and leaned forward. Ed leaned back accordingly, no need to tempt fate. 

 

Yeah, Ed had never been a strategist. Not like Mustang or Riza or even Al. But he could smell the ozone in the air, the tension that made the skin on the back of his neck prickle like he was being watched, and he didn’t have to know strategy to realize he was on the edge of a knife. The man wouldn’t tolerate any more joking around.

 

The dramatic pause stretched on, far more menacing than it had any right to be. Ed resisted the urge to clear his throat, and instead kept his eyes firmly on All For One’s… where his eyes were supposed to be.

 

“I’ve heard some interesting rumors,” the man finally said. Ed didn't make the mistake of thinking he’d won. The villain was playing a four-dimensional RPG and Ed was still stuck on checkers. “You are… quite elusive, when you want to be. That comes with practice.”

 

Ed forced himself not to bristle (visibly). “And?”

 

“And I don’t just mean physically. You are practically nonexistent, here. For all intents and purposes,” he smiled warmly, like sharing an inside joke, “you don’t exist. That can be valuable.”

 

His normally clean gloves were dirty from the alley floor, Ed noted. He wisely stayed silent.

 

“It’s almost like you’re not from our little world, at all…” All For One trailed off, looking for all the world like he was discussing the morning paper with a close friend. An automail fist clenched audibly, the squeaking of servos and hydraulics deafening in the silence, although the blood rushing in Ed’s ears almost drowned it out entirely.

 

“Ah, well, I’m getting off topic. Fullmetal, you seem to be rather unique. A strong, multi-purpose quirk, yet no desire to be a hero. Like you’re sick of being everyone’s savior, the messiah, their… golden child.”

 

Oh, he had no idea.

 

All For One shook his head, the wires moving slightly. “People have never been good with saving themselves, have they? Always needing your help, never letting you rest…”

 

Why couldn’t Truth just let him and Al go? Why was he always being used?

 

And then Ed startled back, because A. What The Fuck, and B. Did he just agree with the crazy motherfucker? The world-destroying villain? Did that just really happen?

 

He kept talking, seemingly oblivious to Ed’s realization, even though it was doubtful that the lack of sight made him any less perceptive. It was almost like he knew Ed would listen, that… of fucking course. It was a mental quirk. It was always a fucking mental quirk. This man tried to brainwash him!

 

“...so maybe you can see how I can help you-” Ed banged a hand on the table, the whole thing rattling dangerously. Several chess pieces fell over. 

 

“Did you just-” he had to pause. The rage bubbling just under his skin had thoroughly burned away any better judgement he may have once had, and it was making it hard to focus on Japanese. “Did you fucking- were you trying to manipulate me?! You bastard ,” he hissed, low and dangerous.

 

The man across from him spread his hands appeasingly, but jokes on him, the fatherly act was only making Ed more and more pissed off. “I wouldn’t force you to agree! We do have a code of ethics here. I don’t want just wanton destruction. My goal is to tear apart this society, this rotten creation, this unsustainable ecosystem, and show people what heroes truly are.”

 

And, yeah, on the theoretical level, Ed could agree. But he could still feel the whispering in his head, a steady stream of say yes, you agree, go with him, join, you know he’s right , still feel the temptation to just give in, but he was nothing if not too stubborn for his own good and he would. Not. Give. In.

 

“I don’t fucking think so ,” he growled, low and with all the malice he could muster.

 

“Calm down, this is a civil discussion. I stand by the fact that I’m not going to force you, you don’t have to be so aggressive. You must’ve had a hard life, to be so angry.”

 

And then Ed couldn’t breathe around the overwhelming feeling of peace that wrapped it’s slimy fingers around his brain. It was less of a whisper and more of an order, the quiet laugh of his mother (“Calm down, Edward.”), the commanding tones of Mustang (“I said stand down , Fullmetal!”), and Al and Winry and Ed couldn’t fucking breathe.

 

His mask clattered to the floor. He should be feeling upset, he should be angry, but he wasn’t, and it was twisting up his insides and pulling him apart. Ed stood abruptly, his chair banging against the ground as the table rattled dangerously again.

 

He was breathing heavily, he knew it. Each pant came in ragged gasps; one set of fingernails dug hard enough into his fist to draw blood. 

 

Ed was done.

 

What the fuck are you doing to me.”

 

The man had the absolute fucking audacity to tilt his head in surprise, which made his face all the more tempting to set on fire.

 

“Fullmetal, I would simply like to know a few things about you. Is that so bad? We can help each other.”

 

Things?!”

 

He casually waved a hand, still relatively unconcerned. The forced apathy was quickly being used up as fuel for the all-consuming hatred that was making Ed’s head spin with the adrenaline rush. “Who you are, for one. I feel that it's polite to introduce yourself to your hosts. Maybe what you’re doing here?”

 

Ed’s eyes were narrowed into little golden slits. His hands were trembling in anger, and his teeth were clenched so hard he thought he heard one crack. “ Fuck no! Bastard. Even if I knew,” he bit back a hysterical laugh, “I wouldn’t tell you, jackass. Let me. The fuck. Go. Before I make you.”

 

“Ah, my boy, don’t be so crass,” and Ed bit his tongue so hard he could taste the coppery tang of blood, could feel his red-hot anger ebbing away, but it wasn’t a quirk this time, it was just slowly being replaced by the much more controllable icy abhorrence he saved for people who pulled this kind of shit. “You’re free to leave at any time. Besides, it is… unwise and unbecoming of you to make threats you can’t follow up on.”

 

Threats?! He thought that was a threat?! If Ed wasn’t too busy memorizing his face so he could make a voodoo doll of it later and rip it to shreds, he would have laughed. Ed was going to shove his idea of a threat so far down his throat that it got dissolved by his stomach acid and he got diarrhea.

 

“Liar. I’m not stupid. If I leave now, you’re just going to follow me home and catch me later, maybe kill some of my friends in the process. And you’re right, I shouldn’t write checks I can’t cash. Good thing my bank account is full then, huh?”

 

All For One tsk ed disapprovingly, every bit the caring teacher. Ed wanted to carve a jack o’ lantern face into his skin and see if it glowed from all the hot air he was spewing.

 

“Hmm. True, but I doubt you have quite near enough money to cash that particular one. Looks like it will bounce after all.” He twisted his face into a gross mockery of  a warm grin, purposely a little too wide with just too many teeth. 

 

Ed was unimpressed.

 

All For One spoke again after a moment. “See? A nice, civil conversation. At least hear me out before you go.”

 

The chair underneath him righted itself, the small fluctuation in power making the circle on his back itch strangely. He sat.

 

“Let’s see… you’re a vigilante, right? May I ask why that is, before we begin?”

 

Good fucking question. Unfortunately for him, Ed had no clue. Did this man honestly look at him and think that he knew what was going on, any of the time? 

 

Uh, whatever. He fell back on the time-honored tradition of making shit up that vaguely sounds like the truth and piss off the bad guy in the process. “It’s simple, really. Becoming a hero takes too long and is far too restricting, but being a villain is very… is edgy the word? Yeah, edgy, and I refuse to kill.”

 

All For One cocked his head a little bit, the kind but confused mask slipping onto his face with the ease of a master manipulator. “I see. Well,” and here he paused to gather his thoughts, “what do you think of this society, this world, my little anomaly?”

 

Ed barely fought the flinch. Oh, this guy definitely knew something. 

 

Then again, it wasn’t like he was adverse to everyone knowing that he came from a different world. That didn’t violate the rules Truth had set out, and Ed wouldn’t be staying for very long, either; it was just that having that information public could make his future goal much harder.

 

And that was a dangerous piece of leverage to have.

 

He took a moment, trying to appear as unconcerned and dumb as possible. “I think that it’s… stifling, I suppose. Unjust. Unfair.” Which wasn’t a lie, but not the whole truth. Besides, if the villain thought that Ed didn’t understand all the hints and clues he was dropping to get a reaction, then it was even better for him.

 

“There you go.” He spread his arms magnanimously. “Now what if I gave you a way to change that, without killing? Or maybe just disposing of one person. One false symbol to create a new world. How about it? With your obvious power, you can help me fix everything. Be a true hero.”

 

A true hero?

 

Did this guy think he was dumb?

 

And then the whole game shifted in front of him as Ed finally connected the dots. That’s exactly what it was. The villain thought he was just a dumb, overconfidant, reckless kid with a hero complex who was too powerful for his own good. He’d moved from threats to cajoling to flattery in a heartbeat.

 

No. He could use this.

 

This man looked at him and saw a kid, someone who didn’t notice the people following him, didn’t notice that the same few patrons would ask the most probing questions, didn’t notice when Dabi or Ijiwaru would lean forward when they laughed so they could subtly look in the direction of anyone Ed had on his tail.

 

It was late in the game now, but this was still perfect. The guy was underestimating him, and that was the best advantage Ed was going to get, though it wouldn’t last long if he didn’t play his cards right.

 

A plan slowly began to form. It was iffy at best, half-baked, but it was all he had.

 

He forced himself to relax, adopting a slightly exaggerated thinking posture. He had to look cocky, assured in his victory, ready to fight without thinking it through. Dumb kids didn’t hold back their tempers. Not in the cold, calculated, cocky way Mustang had, but in the brash, abrasive confidence that showed inexperience and a short fuse.

 

Ed winced. He did not have a short fuse. He’d grown, dammit!

 

Just move. Don’t stop to think about it.

 

The circle he needed floated to the surface of his mind, and he readied it as he started to laugh. It was low, condescending, and far too uppity, but it served its purpose. Ed didn’t have to be a perfect actor, he just needed to be good enough.

 

“Oh, man. That was the most fun I’ve had in ages,” he said, forcing a chuckle. Another circle came to mind, and he grabbed onto that one too. “Alright. A few things to thank you for, before we begin.”

 

Tilt your cards, just a little. Let them see your worst ones. Act like you know you’re smarter.

 

“First, thank you for letting me know why you were after me; second, that you are in fact who I’m looking for; and third, telling me just how much you know about me.”

 

Alchemic energy flooded his senses, the crackling outputs tingling painlessly over his arm and other hand. The metal plate on the back of his automail extended, warping into a perfectly sharpened blade that would make Teacher proud. He leveled it at All For One.

 

“But I think you misheard me, you baked-potato looking fuckmunch. The only reason I'm not a hero is because becoming one takes too much time, and I don’t give two shits about your society. I’m here to kick your ass, drag you back to face Truth, and go home. Let’s start the first step, shall we?”

 

Ed grinned, putting as much condescension into his glaring eyes as he could, feeling the last traces of adrenaline in his system ramp up again. Boy, he would be feeling this after he got back to the bar.

 

And he lunged.

 

A shriek of pure rage sounded behind him (he had known someone was watching him), but he was already in the air, so he tuned it out and focused.

 

Was this a bad idea? Yes. Did he know his opponent’s abilities? No. Was he going to do it anyway? Yes.

 

Because overconfident kids who’ve never lost at anything don’t stop to think about that kind of stuff. So Ed prayed to the nonexistent gods that he would survive this, that his hasty and half-baked plan would work, and he fell back on ingrained habits.

 

The guy was still sitting there? Okay then. Hope he was taken off guard (he wasn’t) and change direction. Ed hit the floor, easily shoulder-checking the table to send it flying at the villain, both as an attack and for cover. 

 

The circle on his back hummed, a silent warning, and he rolled to the right. The table ended up neatly bisected, a sharp groove cut in the ground right where he’d been a moment before.

 

All For One tsk ed, quite the feat for someone with such a fucked-up mouth. “We could have resolved this peacefully, Fullmetal.”

 

Ed laughed. “Like fucking hell!”

 

The shriek sounded again, much closer this time, and Ed barely had enough time to block a strike that would have grazed his face otherwise. He flipped backwards, skidding on the ground, and took the brief lull to assess things.

 

All For One was still seated, watching the fight like one would watch toddlers playing. The newcomer was a scrawny young adult, with shaggy bluish-white hair and gleaming red eyes. For some inexplicable reason, there was also a human hand over his face.

 

What the fuck.

 

Ed had been saying that a lot today, but honestly, what the fuck?

 

Quirks were bullshit.

 

“Who the fuck are you?”

 

The new guy literally hissed . “How dare you attack Sensei like that!” which wasn’t an answer, but whatever.

 

Then the moment ended, and the newcomer surged forward, hand outstretched, a raspy and ear-splitting scream heralding his arrival. Ed bent backwards at the waist so the hand went over him, then wrapped both of his hands around the guy’s arm, pulling him closer to deliver a brutal boot kick to the dude’s stomach. Metal fingers still firmly grasping his wrist, he turned before his opponent could recover and bodily threw him across the room.

 

Damn, he recovered fast. But he made no move to charge again, only warily settling back into a loose, but ready, stance. For a moment, it was still, then Ed realized that something felt… off. He looked down.

 

His jacket?

 

This guy had the nerve to pull a Scar on the Fullmetal Alchemist’s fucking hoodie?

 

But there it was, the dark red material disintegrating into nothingness before his eyes. Ed warily eyed the other’s hands as he tore the ruined material off. That was quite the power. If he had managed to graze Ed’s face with that first strike…

 

He suppressed a shiver. Don’t get caught, message received.

 

The guy really was like Scar. Homicidal intent, check, disintegration, double check, even the red eyes and pale hair lined up. Ed reached down to pull a spear out of the ground even as the blade on his arm melted back into just a cover plate.

 

He would need the distance advantage.

 

And what was with the shrieking? Yeah, Ed was angry too, but he wasn’t out here rasping away like an asmhatic pug who’s chainsmoked for seventeen years. Yeesh.

 

Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to fight the guy for much longer. He could easily see now how outmatched he was, against All For One, especially since he wasn’t ready to openly expose his alchemy quite so fast.

 

Disintegration…

 

Ed’s plan shifted slightly in his head. It was loose, but hopefully it would work.

 

Time for some provocation. “Hey, Fuck Hands McGee! What’s with the hand? Got a finger fetish or something?”

 

And, ho boy, when Ed says this dude screamed, he screamed. 

 

The other man tensed, ready to attack again, and Ed took a second to subtly clap, as if he was tightening his gloves, and bring his hands to the ground in a maneuver that almost looked casual.

 

One done, eight more to go.

 

It was times like this when he fervently wished he knew that Xingese distance alchemy Mei had been so fond of.

 

In their circling, they had shifted to the next spot, and Ed was forced to multitask as he was suddenly under attack again. The equation shifted sluggishly in his mind as he made sure it was balanced. Another clap and roll sent the array crackling unseen through the concrete, up into the specific point he’d been targeting...

 

Then he had no more time to think, because he was twisting out of the way of an incoming hand, quickly ducking to avoid the other one. He pushed out of his crouch, springing upward to knee the villain in the chin, but he leaned back to just narrowly miss it.

 

Okay then. Ed changed his model of attack. The next swipe pushed Ed into a hasty backbend, which he turned into a handstand and flipped the full distance. His combat boots dug into the concrete for leverage, and he dealt the man a glancing blow to the side of his head with the handle of his spear. 

 

They spun away, Ed planting the butt of the spear into the ground and using it to change directions. For a moment, he was completely lost in the rhythm of the fight, the simple block, parry, attack, dodge Teacher had quite literally beat into him. 

 

One moment saw him bouncing off of the other man’s outstretched arm, the next he was coming close to slam the heavy shaft of the spear into his stomach. Nothing could quite compare to that thrill- as much as he hated it, hated what it stood for, hated the life or death aspect- the feeling of moving, of finally getting to do something that wasn’t sitting around on his ass and waiting…

 

It was intoxicating. Ed laughed, a startled, slightly hysterical sound that followed his opponent kneeing him in the side. He fell back, wheezing, only to spin in place and nail the guy in the kidneys with a well-placed heel strike. That heady feeling made him light, like the whole fight was a dream.

 

Someone yelled something, maybe it was him. His jaw twisted sideways as Handsy got a lucky strike in, throwing him to the side. He landed on all fours, quickly turning it into a roll. His palm ached as he pushed himself up, and he wiped away the blood from his newly-split lip.

 

Ed dropped back, snarling, and called forth a different array, before managing to clap and touch his hands to the ground through a seemingly unplanned cartwheel away from the Scar-knockoff. 

 

Almost there…

 

All For One suddenly reminded them he was there. “Tomura!” he barked, somehow still managing to sound kind and fatherly. “Do not hurt him badly, he is a guest!”

 

Tomura, apparently ( truth, maybe it was just the language barrier, but why were these names so hard for him to pronounce?) grumbled in grudging agreement and lessened up on the hits.

 

Which was appreciated, but not quite enough.

 

Ed’s gloves were torn up and bloody from the concrete. His flesh ankle ached from a tumble he’d had to pull in order to get away, and the possible concussion from earlier made his head scream. Why was this guy so damn fast? His plan wouldn’t work if he passed out before it finished.

 

The multitasking with arrays Ed had never used before was taking its toll (Teacher would slaughter him), and he was just a bit too slow dodging out of the way of one strike. The pain lanced up his side, an eerie callback to the feeling of the gate itself, even as he felt every atom and bond in his skin cells split apart, flaking away as Al screamed his throat bloody beside him...

 

He landed a distance away, shaking away the phantom pains in his arm and leg as the decaying spread faster and faster, and hastily applied a skin-healing array he’d received from Truth. 

 

Mother of all surprises, the array stopped the spread of the disintegration, but it did nothing to replace the skin and fabric already lost. A steadily-bleeding wound was the absolute last thing he wanted, shit .

 

“Now look what’s happened. You’re hurt.” All For One didn’t sound as concerned about that as he should have been, considering he just said that Tomura shouldn’t hurt him.

 

“Not as badly as you’re about to be!” Ed shot back, although he was no longer smiling. He took stock.

 

He had two more arrays to apply and a steady countdown to get away before he collapsed from blood loss. He also had to fight Tomura while giving no intention that he was planning on escaping, otherwise the main supervillain would step in and limit his options.

 

It was… not looking good.

 

Ed blinked blood out of his eyes (when had he gotten a head injury? Or was it just that damn fucking scar again?) and carefully shifted backwards, brushing a hand along to ground to stabilize himself and apply the next array. Everyone had cleared out except for him and the two villains, which was nice. Tomura followed him.

 

They had migrated to a back corner now, and Ed let himself be boxed in, even as his side throbbed in warning. Nothing better than letting the other person think they had the advantage.

 

Everything was counting on the fact that All For One wouldn’t intervene, why would he? Ed was clearly not winning, and there wasn’t a door to be found in the place.

 

And Ed felt himself grin, a real one, as he activated the last array.

 

The split second of shock on both of their faces was worth every cenz in the world, especially through his blurring vision. Ed rocketed upwards on a pillar of stone as the ceiling creaked dangerously, all the major supports having been demolished by the pulse of alchemical energy he’d sent through them.

 

There had been no exits. So he’d made his own, and in the most obnoxious and over-the-top way possible. He still had no idea where he was, but a building this large suddenly collapsing would draw police and military like moths to a flame. All For One and his crew would have to leave.

 

Meaning they couldn’t chase him.

 

It was simple, but it was functionally perfect! Getting kidnapped was bad, but getting to implode a building would be the highlight of his week, he knew.

 

“See ya, fuckers!” 

 

Tomura shrieked in fury, and Ed mockingly saluted him and smiled before the dust covered their view. The concrete roof finally collapsed inwards, followed by the walls, burying the whole thing under a mountain of rubble.

 

Ed hopped down from the pillar, legs almost buckling and sending him dangerously close to face planting into the dirt. His metal leg wobbled, making some alarming creaking noises. He really should’ve oiled it. He blinked blood out of his eye again, and his vision swam.

 

His side ached, and the arm he had gripping the wound was starting to drip with blood, absolutely ruining what was left of his hoodie. He took a step forward, fully intending to disappear into an alleyway, clean himself up, and find his way to the bar.

 

And his leg collapsed.

 

The metal one.

 

He fucking knew he should have oiled it! Shit! How in the fresh hell was he supposed to walk? The adrenaline was fading now, pretty much for good, he was already about to crash, and this was not good.

 

He dragged himself a few alleys over, far enough from the crash site to be reasonably safe, then a bit farther just so the cops couldn’t get to him. It was lucky he was still in the city, albeit the industrial section, so at least he wasn’t one hundred percent lost.

 

The metal creaked dangerously, the servos and hydraulics locking up. Ed said fuck it to whatever deity made his life this difficult and hastily transmuted the outer covering together, acting as a stilt so he could still move the leg (He readily ignored the fact that it took him several tries to get the equation right.).

 

The next few side streets were deserted, anyone who had been living here had made the wise decision of fleeing the moment he brought the building down. 

 

The possible concussion had come back in full force, and he was still bleeding out, but any healing arrays required concentration and Ed could barely focus his vision. He stumbled as he turned the next corner.

 

No! He absolutely refused to just lay down and die here! If he could make it back to the bar, they could fix him up, he’d be fine. So Ed grit his teeth with a small growl of determination and kept walking forward.

 

He lost track of time. The sun was still rather high in the sky, although everything looked way darker than it should be (maybe it was just him losing consciousness, he thought, then quickly discarded it.) 

 

Ed needed a moment to breathe. He had to keep moving, but just a second couldn’t hurt, right? He leaned against the cool bricks, his hand leaving a red handprint as he panted for breath.

 

He wasn’t about to die here!

 

When had he ended up on the floor?

 

All of the willpower in his body got him back up off his knee, the metal leg dragging behind him and weighing him down. He managed to get a bit farther before the other leg buckled on him. His vision was fading in and out.

 

Ed was going to die here.

 

And then he blacked out.

 

-

 

A set of cat-yellow eyes stared down, unblinking and confused, at the unconscious body laying in the alley.

 

For once in her life, Toga Himiko had no idea what to do.

 

 

The place was demolished.

 

If Naomasa wasn’t currently being yelled at, he’d almost be impressed. 

 

Supposedly, the now-a-pile-of-rubble warehouse had been owned by some big shadow company, the kind that were legit on paper but definitely illegal in practice. But the legal part was more of the problem right now. 

 

“...And then their representative comes up and starts bitching about propery damages and a lawsuit as if it was my fucking fault…” He winced and held the phone a bit farther away from his ear, eyes still fixed on his team combing the ruins for survivors, clues, or, god forbid, bodies.

 

The head commissioner sighed on the other end of the line, cutting off his own tirade. “Tsukauchi, you need to find something. Evidence of a fight, hopefully. I don’t know why the police should be blamed for a villain turf war, but we can’t even prove it was that right now!”

 

“Hey, boss, you might want to come look at this!”

 

Naomasa frowned. “...I think my team found something. Can I call you back, commissioner?”

 

The phone line crackled. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, sounding rather defeated. “Just keep me updated, you hear?”

 

He hung up and began to walk over to the cluster of his men. The news helicopters were already circling in like vultures, only further impeding his job. Great.

 

His work boots scuffed across the scattered concrete as he hauled himself up. His team parted for him, and… it was underwhelming.

 

At first glance, he thought it was a piece of rebar sticking up, or maybe a corner that just hadn’t collapsed, and then he got a little closer and realized that it was in the wrong spot for either of those.

 

Sansa hurried over, whiskers twitching. “It’s some kind of stone pillar, but it’s not natural. It’s almost perfectly square, and there’s these weird markings at the base…”

 

Naomasa leaned it closer. Where had he seen something like this before? The pattern was vaguely familiar, and some distant memory struggled to come to the surface, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

 

Then, one of his officers shouted from across the building. “Blood!”

 

Everyone dropped what they were doing and hurried over. Sure enough, there was a small puddle of the stuff, barely soaked into the concrete. It was recent, then.

 

“Nijimia, test it,” he barked out, and the woman in question came to the front. Her DNA quirk was valuable in cases like this, but someone else came forward with a bag to collect the rest if possible.

 

They waited a moment, then she shook her head. “It doesn’t come from any well-known villain or hero, and no one else we have on record matches.”

 

Naomasa cursed under his breath. Luck of all luck.

 

“Spread out!” Sansa ordered. “Look for the trail, the body, anything.”

 

The search kicked up, and it was quiet for a couple of minutes as everyone focused on hunting through the rock the old fashioned way. 

 

A quiet gasp sounded from his left. Sugara slowly stood upright, face going pale. The thing in her hands was dented, twisted, and grimy, but it was still plenty recognizable. 

 

It was Fullmetal’s mask.

 

-*-

 

Jan. 30th, 224X

 

Ed woke up feeling like shit.

 

Which really should be a new record, he thinks, three times in as many days? (Had it been days? He didn’t know anymore, and it terrified him.)

 

The ceiling was pale, and obviously old. Ed felt every twinge of pain from… pretty much everywhere, so he just laid there for a moment, regretting his life choices. 

 

He felt rather light.

 

Weren’t you not supposed to sleep with a concussion? Did Ed have one?

 

Did unconsciousness from blood loss count as sleep?

 

And then a door slammed, somewhere out of his range of vision, and his face was covered by unblinking yellow eyes. He flinched backwards involuntarily, sending a wave of pain coursing through him. 

 

The girl smiled. “Oh, you’re up! It was real tight for a few hours, you know!”

 

Fuck. It was the weird girl who’d tried to stab him.

 

Had she saved him?

 

Okay, new question, how the hell had he survived?

 

Only Ed couldn’t ask any of that, because he was busy breathing and trying not to throw up. His throat was dry. This may not have been a hospital, but it was just as detestable. He stared resolutely at the ceiling and silently cussed out everybody he could think of that led him to this position.

 

The girl got tired of waiting for him to respond, and she pouted. “Not even a thank you, Haga-chan? I thought we were friends…”

 

She probably wasn’t about to kill him, right? Ed hoped not. That could get messy.

 

He sat up, slowly and very carefully. The sheets slipped off of him and pooled at his waist, and- fuck! 

 

The cool metal of his automail was on full display, surprisingly not covered by the precisely-wrapped, relatively clean bandages (and didn’t that raise some questions- both how she knew to apply bandages well and how Ed could tell.)

 

He patted himself down quickly; everything for his arm seemed to be fine, but it was hard to believe that she wouldn’t have poked at it a little. Hell, Ed would’ve.

 

His eyes met hers, which were once again pulled into a smile. He wet his lips, his voice dry and a bit raspy. “I thought… you said that you wanted me to bleed, earlier,” and then cringed, because why was his first thought to remind the blood-crazed maniac what she wanted.

 

“Silly!” She laughed. “I wanted you to bleed, not die! If you die, then you stop bleeding, and that’s just no fun!”

 

Ed felt his stomach crawl up into his throat. Yeah, she probably saved his life, but she also probably took some of his blood for her services.

 

Well, at least she wouldn’t kill him.

 

“Uh, then, thanks, I guess?” He tried, ready to backpedal at the slightest hint that she was mad. It wasn’t needed though, she simply grinned wider and skipped out of the room.

 

There was an empty IV stand off to one side (where the fuck had she gotten that?), but only the remnants of a needle in his arm. Even the thought made him cringe. He turned to complain to Al...

 

He’d failed.

 

And that was it, wasn’t it? Ed had charged in unprepared, almost died getting his ass back out, and had absolutely nothing to show for it except another damn scar. He’d almost died. Al had almost been lost forever.

 

The sheets crumpled in his fist. Tears welled up in his eyes. He’d almost killed Al. Him dying here, failing here, was a death sentence for the one person who kept him going. How could he be so careless with his own brother’s life?

 

Fuck. Fuck.

 

He let it wash out of him all at once. The rush of emotions left him feeling dizzy when they left, and he breathed in deep, held it, and let it out slowly.

 

Yeah. He’d almost died. But there was no use crying about it. He had to get up while he still could and keep walking. If he couldn’t even do that, he’d be the biggest kind of hypocrite there was.

 

( Al would smile, that sad little one he’d stolen right from Mom, with those soft golden eyes that weren’t red and cold and unforgiving and a constant reminder of every mistake Ed had ever made. “It’s okay, brother,” he’d murmur. “It’s not your fault. You’re doing your best. You can’t just blame yourself with this, it’ll be okay.”)

 

(Bullshit. It was always his fault.)

 

Another couple minutes passed, and Ed cautiously began to stand up. The wound wasn’t as big as it’d seemed, back when he was bleeding to death in an alley, but it still hurt when he poked it experimentally and he flinched back, hissing through his teeth.

 

Truth…

 

Ed was cocky, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d gotten really smashed up in that fight, and it wasn’t even the main villain himself that had done it. Yeah, he’d beaten Father, but he had quite literally had an army at his back and even then it had been real close. 

 

So either this guy was less powerful than Father (by a lot), or Truth had some other plan for him being here. Ed wasn’t prideful enough to beat his head against the wall that was All For One, so he couldn’t just charge in blind again.

 

Mustang floated to the top of his mind. Okay. He could do this. First, he needed information. Ed left that thought blank for now. 

 

Next came allies, which… was a bit complicated. His allies back home were all people he trusted with his life. 

 

He wouldn’t trust Dabi to use a can opener without supervision.

 

Moving on. After those came a good plan, which Ed was really drawing a blank on right now, and then a base of operations. Would the bar count? Probably not. Just about every base they’d had back home was both temporary and easily replaceable, which was good because they got destroyed. A lot.

 

Ijiwaru might not like it if her bar imploded. He scrapped the thought.

 

Okay. So maybe he was a bit behind. But he could work on it! 

 

Information, okay, All For One or his successor or something was building a team, right? He needed a spy there. Allies, he was working on, and that’s what the hero school was for…

 

“Fuck!” (Ed had been really getting good use out of the language barrier these past couple of days.) He had missed the U.A. exam!

 

He let his head slam into the nearest hard object, then immediately regretted it when his possible concussion pulsed into a migraine.

 

Could he just get a break? Please? Ed didn’t even know what day it was. This was a nightmare.

 

Knife-girl bounced into the room, holding a glass of water and a fresh roll of bandages. She grinned at his face. 

 

Wait. “Where are we?” She seemed like a villain, but more than that, she looked like a high school girl, so where were they that she could get clean bandages and purified water? Whose house was he in?!

 

She answered readily enough. “This is my friend’s house, duh. My parents might be mad if I tracked blood into their own!” She giggled at an inside joke. Ed was pretty sure she had killed someone and stolen their house.

 

It made him a little nauseous. 

 

No, no he had to focus. Where had he been… U.A.! Heroes, yeah. If he could get into U.A. and get people to believe him (Truth’s warning flashed through his head), then maybe they would help fight All For One. If anything, he’d be doing them a favor by taking down a big-name villain.

 

Or at least that had been the idea. Before he got kidnapped and couldn’t take the exam.

 

Fuck.

 

She seemed to notice his mood change. “Aw, Haga-chan, what’s wrong?”

 

On second thought, maybe she could help him a little bit. She already seemed inclined to like him, as psychopathic as it was. 

 

“... What’s your name again?”

 

Her buns bounced as she huffed, overdramatic even as her eyes shined. “I’m Toga Himiko, dummy!”

 

“Toga,” he nodded. “What can you tell me about U.A.?”

 

-*-

 

Jan. 31st, 224X

 

The water ran down the sink, sending streams of color into the drain as it gurgled cheerfully. Ed sighed, letting his head rest against the cool ceramic.

 

It had been his idea, at first, to change his appearance a little bit, especially if he was going to go back to the bar. Toga had oh-so-helpfully informed him that Eraserhead, the underground hero who he had talked to that one time, actually taught at U.A.

 

What a bullet he had dodged.

 

So she had happily gone out to buy some hair dyes for him. He would’ve made his own, but it was nice to at least have a base to work off of. All of these synthetic dyes and plastics were not good for his blood pressure.

 

His hair dripped on the floor, so he grumbled lazily, calling his water array and drying his hair in a cloud of steam. He debated leaving it down, but eventually just gave in and deftly pulled it into a ponytail.

 

No one to say he looked like Hohenheim now. 

 

Toga had originally vied for the black die, partly because it was the most common in Japan, and Ed hadn’t really been able to argue with the striking image of the gold eyes and black hair. Sue him, he could be dramatic if he wanted to!

 

She had offered contacts as well to change his eye color, but that had been an immediate no from Ed. Plastic. That went into your eyes. Not a chance in hell.

 

To which she had gotten sad, pouty, and generally irritable, then proceeded to tear a stuffed animal, two pillows, and a curtain into shreds.

 

Edward had learned a lot of things about Toga Himiko, very few of which were good, and none were of his own volition.

 

After his third failed escape attempt, she had started bursting into his room at random hours and trying to stab him, something he was very much not a fan of. She never succeeded, and though he had the faint idea that she was toning it down for his still-healing injuries, it was still not appreciated.

 

He had to persuade her to not attack someone on the street twice so far, which was quite the accomplishment, seeing as he’d been banished to the guest bedroom until he healed.

 

He’d pouted and asked why, and she had hummed thoughtfully. “Well, if you go out before you’re healed, you might die. And I’d be sad. Plus you’d be wasting all of this good blood I got for you!”

 

Ed had promptly freaked out over the fact that she might have murdered someone for their blood, but eventually found out that she had simply robbed a hospital. Which, while still horrible, was by far the better option.

 

Then he’d spent another hour freaking out over the fact that robbing a hospital was now considered the good standard.

 

But despite the occasional homicidal tendencies, her strange fascination with blood and knives, and the fact that she was quite literally keeping him here by force , something in her reminded Ed of back home. 

 

Maybe it was the way that her blonde hair and gold eyes made her look like Al in his peripheral vision, maybe it was the way she laughed a bit like Winry, maybe it was the happy-go-lucky attitude that reminded him so much of Ling.

 

Truth, Al…

 

Was he watching, right now? Could he hear Ed? He hoped not. If Al could see him, how much he was failing, how he was so, so far from succeeding… 

 

Ed clenched his teeth. Time for sad thoughts later. 

 

Ijiwaru was either out of her mind with worry or completely uncaring. There was no middle, and he honestly wasn’t sure which one was better. Either way, he’d be going back to the bar in a couple days, and hopefully she hadn’t already had Dabi burn his stuff.

 

Not that he had much, but still.

 

He had asked Toga about a landline, to which she had simply stared at him until he bristled and walked away. He could’ve called the bar if he could find a phone.

 

What kind of ass-backwards country didn’t even have phone booths?!

 

...Oh.

 

Ed was such an idiot.

 

He groaned, slowly walking out of the bathroom to his now-repaired hoodie and fishing around in one of the pockets. Sure enough, the mobile phone was in pieces, and wouldn’t turn on when he pushed the little button on the side. 

 

Why would they make phones so fragile? Ed’s original walkie-talkie had been practically indestructible. At some point or another it had gotten submerged in water, set on fire, crushed, smashed, lost in the woods, tinkered with by Fuery, and just about everything in between, but it still worked fine!

 

He flopped back on the bed. Oh, they were totally going to think that he’d died.

 

-*-

 

Feb. 9th, 224X

 

Shota couldn’t help but scan the classroom the moment he got in.

 

It was a habit he’d never quite learned how to break. U.A. might be one of the safest places in the world, but his eyes still roamed the students, the walls, the ceiling and vents. His yellow sleeping bag was unceremoniously shoved under his teachers desk, and by the time it was fully put away, every eye in the room was on him.

 

Some looked nervous, others were excited, and a few looked perfectly calm. Pretty normal.

 

Shota started up his spiel, tugging out a box of brand new gym clothes and tossing one to a student. His mouth moved on autopilot.

 

That had been his last chance, and nothing had happened.

 

All Might had given him more of the story: he’d met Fullmetal at a convenience store, then a bit later at that trash dump of a beach. The kid had professed interest in going to U.A., or at least trying out, but had never even shown up.

 

Had someone tipped them off? There should have been no way that knowledge of Shota’s status at the school should’ve gotten out, but it was disconcerting all the same. 

 

And then there was that warehouse.

 

Tsukauchi had called him in a panic, saying how there was a newly-demolished building in the industrial sector, and that Fullmetal’s mask had been found under a mountain of rubble next to a puddle of blood at around the same time the exams had been going on. Which may have been why there was no vigilante present at the exams, now that he thinks about it.

 

None of it made any sense.

 

He blinked, and suddenly he was at the outdoor sports field. The students hadn’t gotten here yet (he’d have to work on that with them. Heroes needed to be able to change fast.) and he huffed at the empty space.

 

Faint snippets of noise blew in from the opening ceremony, the useless thing. Shota took a moment to enjoy the momentary silence. He hoped that Tsukauchi could find and catch the kid before something happened and the media caught wind of Musutafu’s newest vigilante.

 

He silently bemoaned the fact that all these difficult cases had to end up in his area.

 

The voices of the faster students echoed in from the building, and Shota sighed. 

 

“Took you brats long enough…”

 

-*-

 

Feb. 2nd, 224X

 

“We thought you had up and died!”

 

Ed hissed as the air around him thickened in response to Ijiwaru’s stormy gaze. “Careful!” he snapped back. “I’m still healing.”

 

Her face speedran the five stages of grief. “Healing?!” she shrieked, her voice cracking in the middle.

 

Shiruko laughed from behind the counter, obviously just here for the free entertainment. “Looks like little Eddy’s got a new momma bear.”

 

They both glared at her in unison. Iji huffed and crossed her arms. “Well maybe I wouldn’t be so protective of my workers if some little bitch hadn’t gone and gotten herself arrested last time she didn’t come back.”

 

“It was one fucking time!” Shiruko’s face darkened in a blush, but it was hard to tell if it was the alcohol or the embarrassment. “And don’t you even try to say that you weren’t worried for the kid.”

 

“Like you weren’t too.”

 

“At least I had a good excuse. Look at him, he clearly can’t even be trusted to go outside without getting beat to hell and back.”

 

Ijiwaru whirled on Ed again, who’d mostly been standing there in shock. “ And you!” she thundered. “Don’t you ever fucking disappear like that again or I swear to god I will tie you to the damn door- and what in the fresh hell did you do?! You’re half dead!”

 

Ed bristled. “I got kidnapped, that’s what happened. Maybe next time I plan to get abducted I should just let you guys know beforehand, just a quick little ‘oh, just for the record I’m not going to be back for dinner tonight, I’m just- just gonna get knocked out in an alley and almost killed-”

 

She took a step back at his near-hysterical tone, then quickly strode forward again. “Maybe that would be helpful, maybe you could’ve just called when you got out instead of driving me close to insane. We thought your dead body would show up on the news!”

 

He withered under her stare. She sighed, rubbing her forehead in that tired way Lt. Riza, Mustang, Lt. Ross, and Teacher had all somehow shared. Maybe it was an adult thing.

 

“I’m too young to have kids,” Ed heard her murmur. “This thing is going to give me a heart attack someday.” She turned on him again, and he cringed under her gaze, not meeting her eyes.

 

He felt more than heard her take a deep breath. “Go get some rest.” When he looked back, she was looking at the ground, fidgeting with the towel in her hands. “You’re no use to anyone with injuries like those.”

 

Feet swinging from her perch on the counter, Shiruko just giggled. "Now that that's over, is anyone gonna mention the hair? 'Cause it's freaking me out. And aw, looks like you've got a soft spot for him, Typhoon."

 

Ryōsei crowed from a back room. “Told ya she really cared! Gimme my 200 yen, ‘Ruko, don’ be a coward.”

 

Ijiwaru settled back into a false calm. Her fists clenched audibly around the towel. “I’m sorry. I thought that I was the boss here. Was I mistaken?”

 

Shiruko scrambled to get off the counter, practically diving back over it, despite her tipsy laughter. Twin shrieks echoed from the back rooms, and the mad scramble to escape carried on for the next few seconds as everyone in danger fled.

 

Ed took his chances and escaped up the stairs, leaving the door swinging behind him.

 

Dabi was standing in the hallway, and he gave him a Look as Ed turned the corner. It said ‘we’ll be talking about this later’, most prominently, and honestly he would just rather not, but whatever. 

 

“They were worried about you, you know,” he said after a moment. At Ed’s confused look he elaborated. “The workers here. This is one of Shiruko’s days off and she's in here. Ryōsei hasn’t left for two days.”

 

“...Oh.” And then Ed did feel a little bad, because being gone so long was a little bit his fault, after the kidnapping part. “...I didn’t know.”

 

Dabi gave him another look, but this one was just plain concerned. Ed had never really had people, other than Al, who would really be worried when he went missing. Mustang’s crew had enough faith in him to get back, but they still cared. Winry and Pinako were fully used to him disappearing, and Al never left his side… until the Promised Day stuff.

 

Ed felt sick. Was this how they’d felt, when they heard that he was missing, presumed dead? Or had they known that he wouldn’t go down so easily?

 

Enough. If he kept thinking about back home he was going to drive himself off the edge. He slipped past Dabi with a muttered apology, who watched him go silently, and gently closed the door to his room once he was inside.

 

Ed just wanted his brother, and he wanted to go home.