Chapter 1: 1914
It’s not his fault. It was nothing. It was just—a thought. Practically a challenge. Just a stupid thing that sort of occurred to him, and he figured why not, and… and it’s not like he did it on purpose.
If there is any kind of a God-like entity anywhere that doesn’t hate his sorry, shitty, twisting guts as much as the other and usually more prominent God-like entities, please let it have his back. More specifically, please let it obliterate the wall behind his back, and then he can run forever and not stop until he drops dead and returns to dust.
It was nothing.
It was just that he’d been sparring with Al out on the parade ground, because they’d been cooped up in the library throughout the thick heat of the afternoon, and sunset brought this awesome breeze, and Al couldn’t feel it, but he’s always like some kind of wonder when it comes anticipating Ed’s physical needs. So they sparred out there for almost a whole hour, and then they were both covered in dust, except that Ed was really more covered in mud because the dust had clung to his sweat. So he told Al to head on down to their room at the barracks and break out the armor polish while Ed popped off to the showers. And then he popped off to the showers, quick as you like, to scrape the coating of mud off and wash out his hair and maybe preen a little bit, because he’d landed a few good hits, but Al would take it personally if he gloated.
And then it was just a thought.
It was just this weird thought about Mustang—just this flash of an image from that morning, when Ed had been slumped on the couch, giving Mustang this (hopefully) baleful look. And Mustang had smiled at him, the usual thin, smug-smarmy-bastard smile, except that his eyes had been kind of… soft. A little bit amused, and strangely warm. And he’d steepled his fingers and then un-steepled them and stroked one fingertip slowly along the side of his pen.
Ed hadn’t even realized he’d been paying that much attention. But then there it was, revived and startlingly clear, and Mustang’s eyes were in his head as the hot water ran in little rivers down his chest. So it was almost like Mustang was watching him. But there was still that very un-Colonel-ish warmth to the look—fondness, maybe. Affection, almost.
And then Ed was profoundly horrified to find himself getting hard.
Really? Was that all it took? Somebody just had to—whatever, look at him like they thought he was only a total waste of the oxygen he was breathing half of the time?
Fuck you, Major Elric, he thought, furiously, glaring down at his goddamn traitor of a dick, which was still siding with goddamn Mustang of all people, Mustang and his dancing eyes. You are a fucking sap and an idiot and you are going to die alone.
And then that thought was so scary and rang so true that nothing else really… mattered.
Because who cared? Who would give a shit if he tossed one off in the shower, alone, quick and painless, and let the evidence swirl down the drain? It was the perfect crime. Mustang would never know. Actually, this would kind of put Ed one up over Mustang, because this amounted to using the bastard, not unlike how he tended to use Ed and Al to fix shit all over freaking Amestris whenever and wherever the citizens stirred and clamored for a hero of perfectly normal height for his age.
That settled it. And Ed settled his hand on his stiffening cock, hesitantly at first, and then with a bit more assurance. Nobody was about to walk into the showers at half-past six; nobody stuck around that long. And this wouldn’t take more than a minute or two—the water was fabulously hot, and Ed was just tired enough from the sparring that his body was tensing to unwind. To unravel. Who was he to deny it that, when he’d abused it like he had?
Deep breaths. Deep, centering breaths, focusing on the heat in his belly, on the stroking pressures of his individual fingertips, on the slow unfurling into ripples of desire. Deep, centering breaths and that flicker of something in Mustang’s dark eyes—that flicker of something new. Tightening his grip, swallowing a groan, closing his eyes, leaning his forehead against the cool tile of the wall as the hot water coursed over his shoulders and down his spine. Faster, harder—Mustang’s hands; damn, but they looked strong, and surely he’d be some kind of miracle, what with all the snapping and the scribbling of signatures and the saluting and the collar-tugging. Ed hadn’t noticed that he’d noticed, but Mustang had long fingers and broad palms, and the veins and tendons stood out just a little in his wrist; you could see them when his sleeves rode up, if the gloves were off, if he trusted you enough to leave them on the desk while he looked at you, looked at you with something new, gazing over the half-clasped hands that would feel nine kinds of gorgeous all over Ed’s body.
Yeah. Oh, fuck yeah. Mustang’s hands spread on his back, hot sparks on his skin from shoulder-blade to hipbone; Mustang’s fingertips digging into his ass; Mustang’s body pressed up against his, slick and strong and wanting—wanting him. Yeah, Mustang wanting him; Mustang could have any girl in Central groveling at his feet if he so much as winked in her direction, but Mustang wanted Ed—wanted Ed’s tortured, rebuilt body; wanted to tangle his fingers into Ed’s hair; wanted to pin Ed to the shower wall and grind against him slowly, mouth ghosting through the rivulets tracing down his neck, free hand curling around Ed’s dick and pumping hard. Mustang wanted to fuck him, but You’d be too damn loud, wouldn’t you, Fullmetal? You’d scream like an alley cat, and you’d give away our little secret, and wouldn’t that be troublesome?
“Oh, shit,” Ed said to the shower wall, faintly, barely hearing himself.
Perhaps later, if you’re very good. Can you be good, Fullmetal? Or should we both be very…
Shit, so close—
“Oh, fuck!” Ed heard himself that time, loud and clear. “F-fuck—” Just one more oh holy hell please yes— “Colonel!” So goddamn close he could taste it, and it tasted like white skies and lightning—
The door slammed open.
And here he is with his throbbing dick in his left hand, almost cracking the tiles of the wall with his right. Here he is looking at Mustang over the stall door, with the shower streaming down over his head and his shoulders, like it’s apologizing for the fact that he’s not soluble, so it can’t help him disappear.
Mustang stares back. “What… are you…”
“Nothing,” Ed says.
It’s not even untrue. Because it was nothing. It was no thing, no thing at all, just a weird thought that—just a—just—
He can’t think, and he can’t breathe, and it takes him a minute to identify this—to identify shame, to pinpoint humiliation. He doesn’t remember the last time he felt quite like this. Ordinarily he doesn’t have time for embarrassment; he gets up and brushes himself off and moves on, because he knows where he’s going, and every movement that’s not a step forward is energy squandered. He knows the pain of defeat, and he knows the pain of wounding Al on accident, but it has been a very long time since he met the pain of sudden and total and terrible exposure. It’s like there’s a sudden, sticky heat flaring under every centimeter of his skin; and his face must be aflame; and his throat is unexpectedly inoperable, because it’s tied itself into a complicated knot.
“I… thought…” Mustang says, and he has the grace to half-turn and assiduously look away. “…something was wrong. I… heard your voice, and then it sounded like you were—calling.” He swallows. Bastard can still swallow. Bastard doesn’t know what he has, never does, never will. “For me.”
Ed tries to say Egotistical fucker and ends up with “Fuck.” Which sums the whole thing up better anyway.
This hurts. It hurts. He’s—weak. He’s flayed and laid flat, and his insides are out in the open, and he’s bleeding onto the cork board, and it hurts. At least Mustang isn’t looking.
Where’s his towel? Shit. This never happened. He’s—dreaming. Nightmaring. He’ll sit up in a second, and Al will make soft, echoing noises of concern, and Ed will tell him it was just… needles or something. Lots of needles. Pins and needles underneath his skin, and his hands are so fucking clumsy as he fumbles for the faucet and then for the towel.
Mustang still hasn’t looked. He should just leave. He should leave, and they can pretend this never happened, and if they pretend well enough, maybe they’ll both forget.
It feels like everything is pulsing like a recent bruise, and his hands won’t stay still or stay dry. His eyes prickle, which is horrifying and frustrating and awful and wrong—Ed doesn’t cry. Not at stuff like this. But this is just so… acidic. It’s consuming and abrasive, and he’s spent his whole life keeping the nasty secrets quiet, but now his guts are all on display. He’s been torn open and rooted through. He feels… violated. Wrecked. Shaken.
“I’m sorry,” Mustang says—quietly, but the words ricochet off the floor and bounce around the way-too-fucking-tiny-all-of-a-sudden room.
Ed wraps the towel around his waist. He wishes he could keep going, keep wrapping forever, swaddling himself in terrycloth, layers on layers on layers until the end of time. He could be unreachable; he could become untouchable. He’d be safe.
He swallows once, twice, fights for the word. “Whatever.”
He expected Mustang to be insufferable—to take advantage (fuck), to rub it in (fuck), to taunt and gouge and cackle and strut and favor Ed with one of those sharp-edged little smirks. But Mustang’s just standing there, looking at the floor, which is sort of damp but otherwise undeserving of study. Maybe he’s just so surprised that he hasn’t even thought to be a bastard yet. What if he thinks of it later? He could hold this over Ed’s head for years. Forever, maybe. No damn way. They have to square this now.
Ed rustles up a breath. “Why aren’t you being smug?”
“Believe it or not,” Mustang says, and it sounds like he’s aiming for wry instead of wobbly, “I remember adolescence. It’s nothing to be… I mean, it’s perfectly—natural.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe this shit happens to Colonel Sexcapade so often that he’s bored of people getting off to him.
“Sure,” Ed says. If he can just make this end, he can run back to Al, dive into hiding, disappear for a couple days, skulk around sneakily until Mustang loses patience and mails him the next assignment, and then that could take weeks. He just needs to get through the next heartbeat, and then the next, because this can’t last forever; he just needs to stay noncommittal and uninteresting, and Mustang will leave, and the worst of this unexpected hell will be over.
So they stand there, on opposite sides of the claustrophobic box of tile. Ed drips on the floor and clutches the towel, and Mustang stares at the toes of his boots with those goddamn motherfucking hands folded behind his back.
“I’m sorry,” Mustang says again, just louder than the blood rushing in Ed’s ears. “It’s been a long day. I’ll just… Goodnight, Fullmetal.”
He glances back.
Except it’s not a glance—not really. It’s a onceover. It’s quick and guilty and utterly fucking unmistakable.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Ed asks before he can bite his tongue.
Mustang blinks, and then the dark eyes narrow. “I beg your pardon?”
Heat seethes in Ed’s cheeks, which at least means it’s not directed towards the regions under the towel. “Don’t give me that. You were just—checking me out, you piece of shit.”
Mustang closes his eyes, unfolds his hands, and raises one to pinch the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “This is neither the time nor the place, Fullmetal. Actually, there will never be a time or a place. Just leave it. I apologize for the intrusion. Goodnight.”
He starts for the door, and then some fuckwit part of Ed decides it hasn’t taken enough of a beating yet today. “Do you want me or not?”
That was the thing in Mustang’s eyes before, wasn’t it? That was the spark of warmth, and the impulse making his fingers move. It must have been. It has to be. Because Ed is fifteen fucking years old and so much more than that in his head; and he’s never been kissed and barely ever been touched and he pretends that carnality is poison so that Al won’t have to be jealous; and he’s proud and isolated and lives in terror of the unbelievably weird and irrational shit his body decides to do; and he’d throttle anyone who called him cute, but if someone doesn’t tell him right this second that he’s sexy, everything might just fall apart.
“It would be,” Mustang says, “indescribably inappropriate.”
“‘It’,” Ed says. “Because there’s something.”
“If you have a crush,” Mustang says, and Ed swears to anything omniscient that’s taking note that he sees red, “I am sincerely flattered, but that is the beginning and the end of anything between us. It has to be, Fullmetal. Surely you’re not too young to see that. Given our positions, any feelings you have practically qualify as Stockholm syndrome.”
Isn’t he clever? Isn’t he the bright, brazen colonel flush with victory? He’d claim it was victory, anyway, apparently, with his final breath.
“I know more about love than you do,” Ed says, and his voice quavers a little, but it doesn’t crack. “And more about sacrifice, and more about loss, and more about the value of things. You can tell me what to do, and I’m still your fucking dog, Mustang, but don’t you ever tell me what I feel.”
Mustang runs his hand through his hair. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Yeah,” Ed says, “it is. Poor Roy fucking Mustang, tormented hero of a massacre war. So fucking haunted and tragic and maligned. Nobody feels pain like you do; nobody knows what it’s like; nobody can possibly understand your sick little secret attractions and the dreams of your twisted soul. Give it a fucking rest, Colonel. You’re not special around here. We’re all broken.”
Mustang’s eyes are fixed on Ed again, but they’re unreadable now. “I’m protecting us both,” he says, and his voice is like steel—Ed would know. “Someday I dare to hope you might even appreciate it.” He heads for the door again, and Ed can’t think of anything to say to stop him. “This conversation is over. I believe you owe me a report tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t owe you shit,” Ed shouts after him, and the echoes mingle with the banging of the door.
Al looks up from building a pyramid out of empty polish jars as Ed sidles into their room. “Brother! What happened? Are you all right?”
“Nothing,” Ed says, and he forces his feet not to stomp as he crosses to the bathroom and wrings his braid out over the sink. “Nothing happened. I’m fine. I’m great.”
There’s a pause, and then he hears the quiet click of a jar being placed. He’s used to hearing hollow things move.
“That was a longer shower than you usually take,” his slightly psychic and also slightly evil brother says slowly. “Did you run into someone?”
Ed tosses his hair back over his shoulder, steps out into the room, leans against the doorway, folds his arms, and admires his boots. He needs the comfort and the counsel more than he needs the last few shreds of dignity.
“I, um,” he says. Well, fuck dignity anyway. “I—Mustang.”
“You must ang what?” Al asks. That’s a definite yes on the ‘slightly evil’, except that Al’s faintly-ringing voice softens after that. “What happened, Brother?”
“Well,” Ed says, running his sensitive hand up and down the doorframe behind him, “I mean… do you think—you know, realistically, scientifically—that someone my age can have valid adult emotions?”
Al goes silent, and quite despite the fact that his face can’t register changes, Ed knows he’s staring. And Ed knows that he knows what all of the equivocating really means.
Roy hears the clanking and glances at the clock.
Havoc knocks peremptorily and pokes his head in before Roy can grant him entrance. Roy despises the repercussions of Riza’s morning liaison meetings with friends in other departments, whether or not the results have saved his ass half a dozen times in recent memory.
“Elric for you, Boss,” Havoc says.
“Send him in,” Roy says, and then he ducks to a file with very small type. There should be a regulation about that; he’s going to get eyestrain. He makes a mental memo to bring it up as the clanking proceeds through the door, covering the sound of almost imperceptibly uneven footsteps. Roy swallows the pang of guilt at the prospect that Edward didn’t want to face him without an ally. “Early, Fullmetal? Are you feeling all—”
“Colonel,” Alphonse says, and shuts the door.
It is only as he is blinking at the solitary figure towering over his desk that Roy realizes that he’s trapped.
He clears his throat. “Can I help you, Alphonse?”
The boy bends down and plants both massive hands on the edge of Roy’s desk, armor creaking. “Let’s find out.”
Roy resists the urge to lean back. He folds his hands on top of the latest file, which will hopefully quell the nervous fidgeting. “This is about Edward,” he says, looking directly into the helmet’s blazing eyes. “I apologized to him repeatedly at the time. It was never my intention to cause embarrassment—by walking in, or during our discussion. I was attempting to be reasonable and mindful of our… delicate… professional relationship, which should come first and forem—”
Alphonse slams one fist down on Roy’s desk, and all the paperweights jump. “What comes first and foremost is my brother, Colonel. Do you have any idea how hard it is for him—to be who he is? To be brilliant and talented and angry and sad and scared and small? To be alone except for me, and never to think of anyone but me? Some nights I have to make him eat, Colonel, because he’s ‘making progress’ and doesn’t want to stop. We haven’t been normal, and we’ve hardly been children, since the day our mother passed away, and when he tried to share something deeply personal with you, you told him to hide himself. He spends every single day trying to hide, Colonel—trying to hide his automail, trying to hide his intelligence, trying to hide his past, trying to hide his fear and his love and his cynicism and everything else he feels. Trying to hide what he is—when what he is, Colonel, is perfect.”
The soulfire eyes bore into Roy’s as Alphonse leans in very, very close.
“You can give my brother orders,” Alphonse says, “and you can give him instructions, and you can even give him grief about his height if it makes you feel more adequate. But if you ever hurt him like that again, Colonel Mustang, you will answer to me. And I’m not afraid of fire.” He draws himself up, and the overhead lights leave Roy blanketed in his shadow. “Good morning, sir.”
He rattles demurely out and pulls the door shut quietly behind him.
Roy thinks that if he described his life to an outsider, he would not be believed.
Just as he’s managed to shake the mental image of Alphonse impaling him on one of those shoulder spikes long enough to focus on the paperwork at hand, there’s a commotion outside, and Edward bursts in. He slams the door behind him.
“I don’t need a fucking herald,” he says.
Roy is imagining him naked. The kid has been in the room for two seconds. There is no hope. “You certainly don’t seem to have trouble announcing yourself.”
Edward shoves his hands into his pockets and slouches against the door. That’s an extremely bad sign; there’s little Ed loves more than flinging himself down on the couch and pretending to be asleep, or transmuting Roy’s paperweights into ingeniously unhelpful shapes, or gazing out the window over Roy’s shoulder and nodding and “uh huh”-ing at inappropriate points during the lectures.
“So what’ve you got? I don’t have all day.”
Roy keeps Edward’s assignments in a folder he hand-labeled “Government Property: Do Not Steel”. He swivels it on the desk and opens the cover. “I am unerringly confident in your literacy, Fullmetal, and as such am disinclined to read this out to you.”
“You could just ask me to come closer,” Edward says, wandering up to the desk and skimming the introductory material, “like a human being, instead of whipping out the damn sarcasm.”
“Caustic humor is a storied and venerable tradition as old as language itself.”
Ed flips a page. “Bullshit.”
“Most likely,” Roy says. “Sometimes my inventions turn out to be true. What do you think?”
“I think we’ve got time for lunch before we catch the train,” Edward says, slipping a fingertip under the cover and snapping the folder shut. “See you around, Colonel.”
Roy could let him go—say nothing, watch the deliciously compact body disappear. Wait for communications that wouldn’t come, see the headline a few hours before the train arrived, give an earful and get a shrug.
But perhaps Alphonse is right, in some measure.
“Fullmetal,” he says, and Ed half-turns. His eyes are guarded, and his jaw is tight. Roy didn’t expect either of them to be so obvious. Edward has a way of catching him unawares. “Your brother stopped by earlier.”
Ed pauses, and then he smiles thinly. “What’d he threaten you with?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Roy says. “He left it ominously ambiguous.”
Edward hitches his left shoulder halfheartedly. “I keep telling him he should write spy novels or something. Lots of sinister dialogue in dark alleys or whatever.”
Roy knits his fingers together to still them. “I truly am sorry. For all of it. For what was done and what was said. I never meant—”
“It’s fine,” Edward says, turning his back again. “I’ve got a train to leap onto at the last second because I suck at schedules.”
He lifts his hand to the doorknob and then drops it.
“Are things gonna be different?” he asks.
“How do you mean?” Roy says slowly. Things have been different ever since you kicked your shoes off and made yourself at home in my life. And immediately started complaining about the décor.
“Later,” Ed says. “In a couple of years, maybe. After Al’s body is back, maybe when you’ve finally got enough medals on your uniform to compensate for your dick.”
It takes ninety-six percent of Roy’s willpower to stop his right hand from hurling a paperweight. “Things will be different, certainly,” Roy says. “A lot of things. I imagine that will include things between you and me.”
Edward is still for another moment, and then he nods, and then he slips out the door.
Chapter 2: 1919
And now for something completely different. Completely. XD
In the five years since the Promised Day, Ed’s really only seen Mustang in the papers. And in the shower in their flat in East City, because Al clipped out the front-page photograph of the new Führer, wrapped it in waterproof film, and secured it to the wall tile with alchemy so that Ed can’t tear it down. There’s no longer any doubt in Ed’s mind about the evil thing; Alphonse Elric is a demon.
Not that Ed doesn’t love him to little tiny warm-and-breathing pieces anyway, but the fact remains.
“The mail came while you were getting off,” Al says today when Ed emerges toweling his hair.
“My own brother,” Ed says, “a slanderous fiend. Who would have thought? After all I’ve given, all I’ve sacrifi—”
“Postcard from Winry and Paninya,” Al says, setting it down on the coffee table and then promptly whisking it away before Cat #2 can sit on it. “And you have an unmarked envelope postmarked from Central.” He waves it, raising an eyebrow. “Care to explain?”
Ed snatches for it and misses. “Like you haven’t already opened it and then resealed the flap.”
“I haven’t,” Al says, blinking, and this time Ed nabs it. “I was going to, but you finished too fast.”
“It’s from Sheska,” Ed says as he tears it open and scans the coded note. “My hunch was right—that guy we ran into at the bazaar, who was obviously experimenting with chimera? Same ugly neck tattoo as a guy who used to work in Lab Five but disappeared before they purged the place. Apparently there was a manhunt, but obviously they couldn’t afford to draw attention to it, so they had to let him go. They also destroyed the records—other than the ones in Sheska’s head, anyway.” He taps the corner of the letter on his right palm, and Cat #3 noses at the envelope he dropped on the floor. “Now the only question is where a creepy ex-State Alchemist would keep his workshop and his wardrobe full of hooded robes.”
Al shifts Cat #2 off of his lap (Cat #2 has a weird compulsion to sit on things at the most annoying possible moment) and goes to the phone. “Do you remember the license plate on his truck, Brother?”
They did enough snooping around the ozone-tangy vehicle and its endless cages that Ed doesn’t even have to think about it before he nods. “But the transportation authority won’t tell you what address it’s registered to; we’re just civilians now.”
It’s funny how he misses the silver watch for different reasons than he thought he would. Plus he never knows what time it is.
“We’re not just civilians,” Al says, spinning the dial rotor. “We’re the Elric brothers, and we’ve taken government contracts before. Additionally, I am the undisputed master of name-dropping, as you should know by n… Hello, is this the East City records department? Lovely! Say, has Lieutenant-Colonel Hawkeye stopped by lately? I asked her to give me a call, but you know how busy she is these days…”
Demon. Wonderful demon, and Ed’s flesh and blood from golden head to carpet-tracing toe.
Turns out the man officially known as Doctor Vern Powell, the Fine Graft Alchemist—unofficially known as Zamundo, Purveyor of Exotic Beasts—has registered his truck to an extremely ordinary farmhouse out in the countryside, much closer to Resembool than Ed would like. It doesn’t take them long to find the place, and the truck’s parked in the dusty driveway. Ed adjusts his belts, and he and Al size up the premises.
“Basement?” Ed hazards.
“Always,” Al says.
“Does illegal alchemy just make you stupid?” Ed asks.
Al grins. “He’s got a track record for stupid.”
Ed squares his shoulders and starts for the front door. “Stupid it is.”
The door, as it happens, remains steadfastly locked even when he implements some rigorous handle-rattling. He glances at Al and raises an eyebrow. Al shakes his head, half-bows, and steps back, which means Let’s not risk Powell noticing the alchemical hallmarks of melting a lock—or, as Ed prefers to interpret it, Pick the fuck out of that thing, Brother.
Ed drops to one knee and busts out the picks, holding his breath so he can hear the tumblers tipping. It’s kind of amazing how dextrous you can become when you have two hands and a big swathe of open-ended hobby time.
He pushes the door open slowly, and, of course, it creaks. The room is ominously dim owing to the fact that Powell’s boarded up all of the windows, and what furniture there is looks ancient and disused, but there’s nothing especially sinister about the house just yet—so far it bears a passing resemblance to Granny Pinako’s place after a several-all-nighters job. Ed tries to avoid squeaky floorboards as he moves over to the bookshelf, which is the only thing in this room that appears to see consistent use. The vague feeling of foreboding settles into solid grimness as he skims the spines. He recognizes a number of these titles from Tucker’s library, and that alone is enough to make him want to cut this bastard’s heart out.
“Brother,” Al whispers.
Ed turns in time to watch Al lift a small wire cage from behind the couch. The cage’s occupant is a small, frightened-looking thing with glowing eyes. Ed squints and makes out what appears to be a cat shape covered in feathers.
“Oh, no,” he says. “No damn way, Al.”
“But we only have three others,” Al says.
“Three others that’d hunt that one,” Ed says, “because it’s some part cat food.”
“They would not,” Al says. “They’re much too spoiled to hunt anything.”
Ed points an imperious finger at him. “You admit it!”
Al rolls his eyes and then very carefully pokes a fingertip through the wire. The cat-bird-thing sniffs at him with damningly adorable curiosity.
“Leave it here for now,” Ed says. “We can’t carry that thing and kick Powell’s ass at the same time.”
“I’ll think of a name for you in the meantime,” Al coos to the obnoxiously cute chimera. “You just sit tight and be a good… mostly-kitty.”
Ed sighs inwardly and commences the search for the basement.
A glance into the kitchen is unrevealing, and the largest room on this floor is a study crammed with empty crates, cardboard boxes, and a few mostly-empty gasoline cans. Shifting them around a bit confirms that they’re hiding nothing, and Ed leads the way back out into the hall. He exchanges a glance with Al—he loves that he can actually see when his brother raises an eyebrow now, rather than listening for it and having to guess—and Al presses both palms together in preparation as Ed flings open the final unmarked door.
A pile of black hooded robes tumbles out, and then everything is still.
“Closet,” Al says, lowering his hands. “Surely he wouldn’t put his workshop upstairs.”
“I have an idea,” Ed says.
“Does it involve the gasoline cans? Because the answer to that sort of idea is always going to be no. You remember what happened outside of Dublith, with the guy living in the windmill—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ed says, nudging him out of the way and starting back down the hall. It’s nice that he can nudge Al now and (a) actually move him, plus (b) not get a serrated metal elbow in the eye. “That asshole should have fireproofed the damn thing better. And it’s not one of those ideas anyway.”
“It’s a pity I know better than to bask in my momentary relief,” Al says, but he follows.
Ed plants his hands on his hips and gives the kitchen a proper look this time. Between some mostly-bare shelving and an iron potbellied stove, he finds the telltale transmutation marks.
“What do you think?” he asks, brushing his fingertips over them as Al peers (with irritating ease) over his shoulder. “Is he waiting for us?”
“Only one way to find out,” Al says. He takes a deep breath, flashes Ed a reckless grin that the mirror’s long since made familiar, claps his hands, and dissolves the wall. As expected, the opening reveals the beginning of a narrow stone staircase.
Because of innumerable previous arguments won by the irrefutable logic of defensive alchemy, Brother, Al goes first—which doesn’t stop Ed from holding a hand just above his shoulder, ready to pull him out of the way and take the bullet if it comes to that. The trade-off is really tough some days—Ed gets to hear Al’s laugh unfiltered, gets to ruffle his hair and watch him squirm, gets to see him smile and roll his eyes… but Al’s so much more vulnerable when he’s not shelled in steel. And Ed can’t protect him as well anymore. That kind of balancing act definitely doesn’t make it easy to sleep.
There’s a broad wooden door at the bottom of the stairs. The light from the kitchen just illuminates Al’s face as he turns to Ed and mouths No doorknob.
Ed lifts his left arm and twines it with Al’s right. When they’re braced against each other, they each raise their inside leg and apply their respective heels to the door.
It slams open with a sound like a gunshot. The chimeras are on them before it can rebound off the wall.
Ed uses his grip on Al’s arm to drag them both to the floor, and an extremely confused combination of a snake and a bat sails over their heads—but ducking puts them right in range of what appears to be evidence that warthogs and crocodiles should never interbreed. For a second Ed’s not sure if vomiting or escape should be a higher priority.
Al’s arm slings around his neck and hauls them both hard to the left, leaving the cavernous jaws to snap shut harmlessly, grimy tusks rending nothing but air. Ed scrambles to pull them both to their feet again, kicking the croc-hog-nightmare thing’s snout aside with his metal foot. A falcon with a shark’s eyes dives at them, wings churning the air in the claustrophobic space, and Al whips them out of the way as the sinuous snake-bat rounds on them again, recovered from its collision with the staircase. Ed hears a faint rattling and glances over in time to see Powell, now much less mysterious and much more concretely assholish, unlatching another cage.
Al disentangles his arm from Ed’s, claps, and presses his open hands to the wall, which loops tendrils of liquid stone around the falcon and secures it there beside the door. Keeping one eye on the croc-thing, Ed catches the snake-bat’s tail, which is more slippery than he expected—but not too slippery to grasp, and not too slippery to swing the creature like a weighted weapon, releasing it at the perfect point in its trajectory to send it flying straight at Powell.
The bastard seems to be as good at evading projectiles as he is at evading the law. He wrenches two more cages open even as the bat-snake goes flailing into the wall behind him. Some kind of fox with a badger’s markings—and its claws—climbs almost daintily from its prison, momentarily joined by a vastly oversized scorpion with far too many legs.
“You got these, Al?” Ed asks, offering the croc-hog his metal shin as it snarls and snaps again. After a flash of consideration, he hits the clasp that releases the katana’s sheath from where it’s belted across his back—he’s got no grudge against a couple of innocent, if horrifying, chimera, and he’s not about to use the blade on them.
“I can handle it, Brother,” Al says.
Ed brings the sheathed katana down hard on the misshapen skull of the croc-hog, and it whines piteously and releases his ankle to retreat. Animals know when they’re outmatched, and they respect a fair victory. It’s a pity the same can’t be said for most people.
A swipe of the covered blade sends the fox-badger flying with a high-pitched yelp, but the scorpion is sizing Ed up as Al makes short work of the others. Ed glances over again, and Powell’s opening more cages still, and then the scorpion curls its tail and strikes.
The barbed tail tip clangs resonantly off of Ed’s metal knee—it was aiming for the vein inside his thigh in order to inject its venom directly into his bloodstream, which means it’s way too goddamned smart for Ed’s tastes. Where have all the dumb monsters gone?
“Bad abomination of nature,” he says, and clubs the exoskeleton with the katana.
Evidently they don’t call that shit exoskeleton for nothing—there’s a dull noise, and then the unruffled scorpion goes for his other knee with its freaky pincers, and only a quick leap backwards saves him from getting a chunk taken out of his favorite leg.
“How you doin’, Al?” Ed calls, not risking a glance over his shoulder.
“Fine, Brother,” Al says. “Doctor Powell, I advise you not to do that.”
Ed gives the scorpion an even more vigorous smack and sends it skittering and toppling, its half-dozen limbs jackknifing as it careens into the cages—the whole stack of which wobbles dangerously. Close enough to a solution; he spins on his heel and catches Powell bending down to chalk the last of an array.
A quick transmutation to slam a stone fist into this guy’s face would be awesome right now.
But a well-aimed throwing knife to pin his dramatic robe to the wall behind him does not go amiss.
Powell’s gasp lowers to a hiss, and he tries to wrench his shoulder to free himself, but Ed’s been practicing. The knife blade is buried in the mortar between two stone blocks, and the guy’s cloak is too thick to tear away. His eyes widen as Ed strides over, the sheathed katana his right hand, his left settled on his belt beside the next knife—just in case.
“You worked with Doctor Knox, didn’t you?” Ed asks, trying to stifle his delight at the fact that he can actually loom over people now… at least when they’re cowering. “So why—” Al traps another chimera, which howls. “—are you such—” Ed bats some kind of growling porcupine-dog out of the way with the katana. “—a dumbass?”
“Brother!” Al cries.
Ed swivels just in time for the snake-bat to launch itself at his chest, and his reflexes are the only thing between its fangs and his throat—his reflexes, and the katana they bring up sharply just in time to avert a collision. The snake-bat’s momentum winds its body around the sheath, and it makes a bizarre mewing noise, and then Ed half-turns and sees Powell smearing a few chalk lines out with a fingertip and scraping one more into place.
There’s time to stare at him in disbelief, and then he’s flattening his hands on the finished array.
Ed knew the function from the sigils that he’d been able to make out, but some part of him is still surprised as the walls start caving in.
The noise blots out every shred of coherence in Ed’s head except for one shrill and circling thought reduced to three cycling words: get him out get him out get him out.
He remembers the positions, because he’s a genius; he can judge the trajectories, because he’s a genius; he drops everything and dives across the room and throws his body over Al’s as stone crumbles and the world collapses, because he wouldn’t have to be a genius to understand brotherhood. He squeezes his eyes shut and buries his face in Al’s dusty hair and tries to harden his spine against the imminent weight of the whole building.
But it doesn’t come. The ambient roaring of pulverized stone and shattering beams fades into a strange combination of clattering and creaking.
Ed cracks an eye open and peeks. Debris is still raining down from a massive cleft in the ceiling, and most of the wall that was behind Powell has crumpled and buried him in rubble, but the destruction has been halted—frozen, almost. Al shifts slowly, lifting his filthy palms from the pockmarked floor, and Ed steps back from beneath the small stone umbrella Al had drawn out from the wall, because there’s definitely something… new.
His first impression is that this bit of alchemy is unusually artistic. It’s the same basic trick he always used to use, which Al still does, of pulling the fabric of the room out into supporting arms. They’re scored with transmutation marks, but these limbs are elegant and slender. They arc gracefully up to hold the ceiling, and the way they twine and curve around each other, spreading from a central point, almost makes them look like… flames.
Ed follows the line of them to their single spot of origin near the doorway. Roy Mustang stands there blinking through the gray dust, unbowed and unchanged, one hand splayed out on the wall.
He’d really just been curious. Perhaps there had been a sliver of a scheme in it, but he likes to think he’s entitled. With politics as they are, Amestris would be in dire straits if its Führer couldn’t machinate a bit.
Roy has been intent on cleaning up the mess that Father left as thoroughly as possible—that means picking up the pieces, and it also means coming clean, insofar as they can without alarming the squeamish populace. It means transparency and accountability. And it means tracking down every last escapee and defector of the Ishval era.
Powell’s case is of twice the import given the dubious legality of his work and the increasingly strict regulations the Assembly is demanding for the State Alchemy program. If Roy had noticed the occasional missive or newspaper article noting an incident in which a certain famous pair of brothers targeted a creator of chimeras—if Roy had recalled that a certain famous pair of brothers has cause to hold a grudge against chemeric alchemists in particular—such speculative details won’t bear mentioning in his official report.
If Roy had felt a startlingly powerful urge of longing the last time some quick-snapping news photographer caught the glint of Edward Elric’s triumphant grin, well… Isn’t every Führer permitted a couple of secrets?
Powell’s last-ditch efforts largely backfired, but the paramedics are fairly sure he’ll live. Edward is much more worried about a cut on Alphonse’s cheek that won’t stop oozing, which has unsurprisingly distracted him from the fact that he himself is limping—to say nothing of the way the leader of the country is watching bemusedly as he berates the medics.
Then again, Edward’s priorities have always been in the right order. Roy never expected that to have changed.
When a scrap of gauze has been taped to Alphonse’s cheek, and Edward has finally ceased haranguing the medical professionals, Roy invites them to stay the night in the rooms he’d rented for this expedition, which—thanks to their semi-legal intervention—turned out to require rather less reconnoitering than anticipated.
“If it means we don’t have to camp out again,” Alphonse says, pushing the heel of one hand at the small of his back, “we certainly will. Thank you very much, sir.”
And because it’s about his brother’s comfort, Ed has no objections.
The moment Roy’s dropped onto the fauteuil in the sitting room, Alphonse yawns mightily.
“All of that alchemy wore me out,” he says. “I’ll just pop into the other room and take a nap while you two catch up. Thanks again, sir.”
He’s off like a shot, taking the cat chimera he seems to have adopted along with. The door shuts securely.
Edward pauses, and then he plops down onto the couch on the other side of the coffee table. He blinks. Roy looks at the curtains and vaguely observes that they’re hideous.
The silence swells for the better part of a minute before Roy clears his throat, brushes the last of the dust off of his uniform, and scoots his chair closer to the table. He and Ed stare at each other as the sunset dwindles beyond the windowpanes.
“Been a while,” Edward says.
“It has,” Roy says.
“You’re going gray.”
“What? I am not!” He isn’t. But he finds himself reaching up to pat helplessly anyway. “That’s ludicrous. Where? I’m doing no such thing.”
Ed’s grin is sharp-edged and gleaming and beautiful in the low light.
“Little rat,” Roy says. “Someday several years from now, you’re going to realize that that was extremely unkind, and you’re going to regret having said it.”
Edward shrugs languidly—luxuriously—and crosses his legs. They’re unmistakably longer now. He hasn’t stopped smiling, and it makes Roy’s heart strain with a fervor so obsolete it feels foreign. “How are things?”
“Things are delightful,” Roy says, which is sometimes true and sometimes heinously mendacious.
Edward studies the fingernails of his own right hand, then reaches across to catch Roy’s left—lightly, deftly, but irresistible—and tugs off the glove. He examines Roy’s fingers interestedly. “No wife?”
“I am blissfully wedded to my public office,” Roy says, which is heinously mendacious all the time.
“Girlfriend?” Ed asks without releasing his hand.
“That would be cheating on the Führership.”
“You just made that word up, asshole. Vengefully jealous fuckbuddy?”
“That is a tawdry term for a tawdry excuse for an interpersonal relationship,” Roy says. “And the Führership would be absolutely livid.”
“I can’t believe they let you out without the dress,” Ed says. His gaze spends longer than strictly necessary attempting to parse the shadows that have settled in Roy’s lap.
“First of all,” Roy says, “when I promised to change the country, I was including the dress code. For instance, as of yet I cannot make miniskirts mandatory for legal reasons, but they are readily available. Second, to say that they ‘let me out’ in this particular raiment posits an acknowledged allowance and, even more basically, an awareness.”
Edward smirks slowly. “You ran away from your retainers.”
“Yes,” Roy says.
“I can’t believe you’re even better at bullshitting than you were before. I thought you’d peaked.”
“It’s an art,” Roy says. His hand is still cradled in Ed’s curled fingers. “I am obligated to practice daily, you understand.”
Edward’s smirk has tilted into a soft, almost fragile smile. “Things are different,” he says.
“Extremely,” Roy says.
Ed’s hand tightens around his. “What do you think?”
“I think,” Roy says, twisting their hands and lifting Ed’s to breathe against the knuckles, “that I have reached a point in my life at which it is no longer necessary to deny myself anything that might be dangerous.”
“Do you want me or not?” Ed says, eyes huge and bright in the dim room—which dims further, to absolute insignificance, with him in the foreground.
“I’ve always wanted you, Edward,” Roy says, reeling him in by one tantalizingly muscled arm. “The only difference is that now I can have you.”
“You’re even fucking smugger,” Ed murmurs against Roy’s mouth. “I owe a lot of people money; I didn’t think it was possible.”
“You, of all people,” Roy says, tasting him, thrilling, tasting more— “…ought to know that anything is.”
And if, as their tongues meet and their hands spread and they arch into each other’s warmth, they both hear a “Finally” sighed just a little bit too loud, neither of them bothers to comment.