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Justifying the Means

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“Are you the guy?”

The voice came from immediately behind him, and it took all of Maes’s considerable training to keep from jumping a foot.

He turned to see a boy crouched on the ledge of a bricked-up window, staring down at him. Blond hair, cat-yellow eyes, metal arm. Visibly insane.

Well, Roy was right about something. He certainly does look feral.

“The guy?” he asked.

“The Colonel’s guy in Central,” snapped what had to be the Demon kid, hands twitching impatiently. He looked nervous, and nerves were never something you wanted to see in a person who might fly off the handle and kill everyone in sight, Maes reflected.

“I’m Maes Hughes,” he admitted.

“This is for you, then,” the kid said. He hopped off the wall and stalked practically toe-to-toe with Maes. He stared just long enough to make Maes extremely uncomfortable, then handed him a piece of paper and wandered away.

Away. Gone. Down an alley.

Maes read Roy’s note and found it not as helpful as it might have been.

* * *

“I warned you.”

“I didn’t feel warned!”

“Did you feel like screaming with terror? That’s usually how I feel.”

“This isn’t funny, Roy.”

“In a way, it really, really is.”

“How am I supposed to do anything for him if he wanders off after hello, anyway?”

“Oh, he’ll find you. Don’t worry.”

“This had better be part of the grand plan, Roy, or I’m going to be very annoyed.”

“…I’m worried that it might be bigger.”

“That was not the answer I was hoping for.”

* * *

“Lieutenant Colonel.”

Maes had been waiting for it this time. He did pretty well; his heart hardly stopped at all.

“You must be Edward Elric,” he said, smiling a big smile at the Demon kid, who was perched on the fence outside headquarters. He wondered if the kid liked high places for the psychological advantage, or just because he wanted gravity on his side when he tackled someone.

The kid looked mildly surprised. “You gonna call me by my actual name, too?”

“Ed’s a good name,” Maes said bravely.

Ed stared expressionlessly for a long, worrying moment. “Whatever,” he concluded at last. “You talk to the Colonel?”

“I work for the military, Ed,” Maes said, and noticed the slight twitch at the use of the name. “You’re going to have to specify which colonel you mean.” It seemed like a good idea to make his loved ones seem more like real people to the Demon Alchemist.

“Which fuckin colonel do you think?” Ed snarled.

Yikes, temper.

“Of course it’s obvious now, but if we’re working together, there will be all sorts of colonels, and—”

“Mustang, okay? Fucking Mustang, did you fucking talk to him, or are we going to sit here and waste my goddamn time all goddamn day?

“He couldn’t tell me much; the line wasn’t secure,” Maes said.

“Right, fine, fuck. I’ll tell you, then. In the desert I saw this guy eating another guy, it was weird. Then I killed him and he didn’t die; that was weirder. Him and this lady had ouroboros tattoos, which stands for, whatever, eternal life, or—shit, do you know a fuckin’ thing about alchemy?”

Maes shook his head. His poor, reeling head.

“He sends me to a fucking non-alchemist. Unbelievable. Fine. You know about the Philosopher’s Stone at least?”

“I’ve…heard of it,” Maes said slowly. “I thought it was more legend than fact.”

“Yeah? Do they train you guys to all say the same stupid damn thing? I thought people not dying when you kill them was ‘more legend than fact’ too, but shit, I was wrong. These creeps are based in Central. And the best libraries are in Central, and I need you staff pukes to get into some of them. So it’s a two-for-one thing.”

“You want me to help you research the Philosopher’s Stone?” Maes guessed.

“I don’t give a shit about the Philosopher’s Stone. I just want to know what these guys are, where they are, and how I can kill them. Are you gonna be any use to me, or am I gonna have to find somebody who is?”

This, Maes reminded himself, was for Roy.

Besides, he had to admit this whole undying cannibal thing sounded pretty bad. Always assuming it was true and not some kind of hallucination. It was unsettling to think how much Roy believed in this wild-eyed child. It had been unsettling back when the Demon kid was only a series of scary statistics, and it was even worse now that Maes had a face to go with them.

“What do you want me to look for?” Maes asked. Because what the hell, humoring the homicidal maniac was probably the safest option.

“In East, they say there was some fucked up human experimentation going on during Ishbal. You know about this?”

“…Peripherally.” He’d tried not to think about it, actually. He was putting all of his energy into investigating ways to overthrow this regime, rather than worrying about every fiddling atrocity they’d committed.

“Well, to start, maybe you should find out more than peripherally. Got me? Because add freaky human experimentation to people that don’t die, and you pretty much come up with the military being evil.”

“This is news?” Maes asked without thinking, then bit his tongue. The fact that Roy had sent him this kid didn’t necessarily mean he shared their politics.

“Obviously not,” Ed said. Apparently he did share their politics. Good to have some of the crazy people on their side, for a change. “But I never believed they had a massive conspiracy going. I didn’t have that much faith in ‘em. To be honest, it’s kind of depressing me that they’re with it enough to handle a conspiracy. I liked the idea that you were all just massive fuck-ups. If you’re evil, then shit, I have to respect that.”

Maes did not like the way Ed had drifted from “them” to “you” in that little speech.

“Oh yeah, and look at Lab 5,” he went on.

“Lab 5?” Maes repeated, surprised. “Is that the lab out by the prison? It’s supposed to be abandoned.”

Supposed to be, yeah. But people who think they’re gonna get sent to the jail over there, they’ll do some pretty crazy things to get out of it. Because of the rumors about the lab. Because it seems like there are a lot of people who get sent there, and they don’t ever show up again. More people than should fit in that jail, you got me?”

“People do crazy things to get out of it?”

“Crazy things. Like coming to me and confessing.”

Maes realized that this really shouldn’t be the part of the conversation that fascinated him most, but… “And do you kill them? These people who come to you and confess?”

Ed shrugged. “Depends.”

“On what?”

“On the fucking weather,” Ed snapped, face going hard. “Can you look into this or not? Don’t waste my time.”

“I can look into it.” Embrace the madness, why not. Enormous work backlog, what was that? “What are you going to do?”

Ed grinned, and it was very alarming. “Make trouble.”

* * *

“He’s claimed his first victim, Roy. I hope you’re happy.”

“Who was it?”

“The Axe.”

“…That’s prestigious. How did he find the Axe?”

“Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t shared that with me. What I want to know is what you two think I can do for him when he can find the Axe, a man I’ve been looking for for an entire year, in two days.”

“Don’t take it too hard, Maes. People who would never breathe a word to the military tell Elric all kinds of things. More than they would tell their neighbors, probably. He has a way about him.”

“A way, huh? That sounds like the voice of experience.”

“You have no idea. But this isn’t about field investigation. Elric wants access to military libraries and classified records, and he can’t get that without you.”

“And you want me to help him, knowing what a very bad idea it is. How likely is it that this man eating a guy in the desert story is true?”

“I’ve never known Elric to lie.”

“Heatstroke.”

“He’d have taken the possibility into account. I’m taking it as fact. And if it is fact, then it’s worth risking the possible court-martial. A creature like that should be alchemically impossible. And if Elric stumbled across two of them…”

“Then there are more. You’re magic to work with, Roy, have I told you that?”

“Hmm.”

“And another thing. He’s psychotic.”

“Yes, Maes. I believe that was the first thing I ever told you about him.”

“And yet you’re fond of him. You get that fond tone. I took that to mean there was something redeemable in him, but Roy. It doesn’t look promising.”

“…I realize that.”

“You sent him to me anyway.”

“It doesn’t look promising. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

“Your optimism never fails to be a pain in the ass.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

* * *

“So what have you got for me?” asked Roy’s psychotic little alchemist.

“Inconclusive,” Maes said briskly. “Almost everyone sent there is set to be executed anyway, and those who aren’t are under life sentences. It is a maximum security prison.”

Ed nodded, apparently not disappointed by this information. “So nobody’s been missing them,” he said. “Military can do whatever they want with them.”

“That would be the conspiracy theorist interpretation, yes,” Maes allowed.

“So all we got is a bunch of guys who nobody’d miss and a bunch of rumors about fucked up human experimentation. I guess I gotta go check the place out myself. Fat lot of help you are.”

The Demon Alchemist was a brat. Who knew? “Whereas you’re incredibly helpful. May I ask how hunting down the Axe was relevant to the investigation?”

Ed gave him a withering look. “Distraction,” he said.

“From what?” Maes asked.

“From you, dumbshit,” Ed snapped. “Think for a second if I am right, and this is a big government conspiracy, even though that’s the most depressing thought I’ve had all year. Guess what wouldn’t be a good idea? To have people notice you’re nosing around looking for stuff on Lab 5. For fuck’s sake. Thought you’d have a better chance of getting away with it if most of the military was trying to find me instead.”

The Demon Alchemist had been trying to protect him. The Demon Alchemist had been using himself as a decoy, for extra added surreal. “Oh,” said Maes. “Thank you.”

Ed eyed him suspiciously. “Whatever,” he muttered.

* * *

Insisting on going to Lab 5 with the Demon Alchemist had been unspeakably stupid. Maes could see that now. Actually, he’d had his suspicions in that direction ever since the idea had come to him, but he hadn’t appreciated the real depths of the stupidity.

He appreciated them now. Now that he was standing next to a crazy, snarling kid, facing a huge guy in armor holding a cleaver. There was a reason normal people shouldn’t tag along with alchemists—any alchemist, not just the wacky ones—and it was that things like this were always happening to them. They drew nutball situations like lightning rods of crazy. Maes had gone and chosen to stand next to a lightning rod.

At least he’d made sure to tell Gracia and Elicia he loved them before he left.

“You’re freaking insane if you think you can get by me,” chortled the guy with the cleaver. Of course, Ed was freaking insane, and Maes would have mentioned that to the armor man had he been slightly less horrified by his own stupidity. “Do you know who I am!?”

“The question is, do I care?” Ed asked, clapping his hands and transmuting his automail into a big, nasty-looking blade. Maes hadn’t known he could do that; what interesting information he was learning tonight. This must be what hell was like. “And the answer is, fuck no.”

“I’m Barry the Chopper!

Apparently less like hell and more actually hell. Because, among other things, Barry the Chopper was dead. Ha ha.

“Who the fuck ever Barry the Chopper is,” Ed muttered. Of course, he was too young to remember. Otherwise, Maes was sure, Barry the Chopper would be every bit as dead as he was reported to be, because Ed probably would have killed him, and Ed didn’t seem the kind to do things by half-measures.

The Demon kid looked happy. Maes had a suspicion that he was always happiest in the midst of mayhem.

Meanwhile, Barry the Chopper was deeply offended that Ed didn’t know who he was. Amazingly, Ed allowed him to go on at some length on this subject.

Or maybe it wasn’t so amazing. Maybe Ed had let him talk because he’d been waiting for the end of the story; for the bit about how an allegedly dead criminal came to be running around in armor and wielding a cleaver. It turned out, Maes was unsurprised to hear, to be the fault of mad military experiments and alchemy.

When Barry the Chopper said the words, “bound my soul to the armor,” Ed finally interrupted—with a bloodcurdling snarl. Maes stepped away before he’d given it any conscious thought. Animal instinct.

“Show me the blood rune,” Ed growled, circling closer to Barry. “Show me.”

“Oh, you wanna see it?” Barry chuckled. Clearly he thought that being a soul in armor would save him from Ed. Maes was not at all sure he was right. “Sure, you can see it. Take a good look, kid. It’s gonna be one of the last things you see before I chop ya up.” He lifted his helmet. As he’d said, there was nothing inside. And yet it was still highly unsettling to actually see it.

Ed circled close, circled away, circled close, circled away, Barry turning to try keep him in sight. Or whatever sense it was Barry used to keep track of people. Looked like his confidence in the safety of the armor was slipping.

“C’mon kid,” he said. “Ain’t you the littlest bit freaked out?”

“No,” Ed hissed, possibly not in response to the question. “That’s what I did. It’s the same. It’s the same! It’s bullshit, it couldn’t work. You can’t bring the dead back to life.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Barry said, settling his helmet back in place, which caused Ed to twitch. “I wasn’t dead when they did it. None of us were. You’re too late if you wait ‘til after they’re dead. Cuz they’re dead then. Idiot.”

Ed abruptly stopped pacing in favor of holding completely, unnaturally still. Ice and death. “Are you telling me,” Ed asked softly, “that I was too slow?

“What, you tried to tack somebody to armor, too?” Barry asked. “Oh, that’s a riot! What’re the odds, right?” He started to laugh.

And Ed laughed back. He laughed and laughed. He laughed long after Barry had stopped laughing and started edging away. He laughed and clapped, laughed and ran toward Barry, who stepped forward and raised the cleaver. He was still laughing when he narrowly dodged under the cleaver, hit Barry’s chest with both hands, and blew him to pieces. After that, he started screaming, hacking what was left of Barry the Chopper into ever-smaller chunks of scrap metal.

After a small eternity, he ran out of both breath and metal, and just knelt in the wreckage, gasping, staring at the last whole panel of the armor. The one with the rune on it.

“You can’t do this to me!” Barry the Chopper was shouting, had been shouting for some time. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am!? You’re nobody! I’m the terror of Central! I’m Barry the Chopper! You can’t do this to me!”

Ed studied the panel for a moment more, then, business-like, pulled his arm back and slammed the blade through the center of the rune. A last shriek of metal-on-metal, and the night went silent. It was the silence of post-hysteria exhaustion, and it held for a very long time.

“You,” Ed said roughly at last, turning from the scrap that had been Barry the Chopper to Maes, who was still there only because he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself by running. “Get the fuck away from here. You’re just gonna be in my way.” There was blood running down Ed’s face where flying bits of metal had hit him, and his eyes were wide and empty. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for an argument. Luckily, Maes was not in a mood to argue.

He backed up all the way across the killing ground until he hit the wall they’d climbed over to get in. He turned and climbed it again, casting one last glance over his shoulder. Ed was still staring blankly after him.

Maes dropped down on the other side of the wall and got the fuck away from there.

* * *

“Roy, I just experienced one of the scariest nights of my life.”

“Maes? It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, what—”

“It was up there with a midnight attack. Sneaking into a building full of people who wanted to kill me. Watching you burn the world with a snap of your fingers. And so very unexpected.”

“…Maes?”

“Do you really know what you sent me?”

“What…?”

“I have to think you don’t know, Roy. I have to think that, because if you knew, and you sent him here anyway…”

“Is this about Elric? Maes, what happened?”

“What. Happened.”

“Wh—”

“Do you remember. Of course you do. Men who’ve just been fighting too long.”

“…Yes.”

“Too many years under too much pressure. And they snap. Like Armstrong if they’re lucky, like Leroy if they’re not. And even our stupid, soulless military sends them home at that point.”

“Section 239. It’s meant to be a punishment, Maes. Dereliction of duty.”

“The point is, they send you home. And Elric needs a Section 239 for his life, Roy. I don’t know what happens when you get people to that point and just keep pushing, but I have to think it’s going to be even more amazingly horrible with a boy. I don’t want to watch this happen.”

“He’s held on this long.”

You didn’t see him.”

“I’ve heard the stories, and Maes, he’s pulled it back together every time. And there have been some very bad times. Don’t give up on him yet.”

“…I’ll try not to, for as much good as that’ll do. This is a bad scene, Roy. If he kills me, I’ll haunt the shit out of you. God, I can’t even dream up a way this could end well.”

“You’re just bad-tempered because you’re tired.”

“I hate you, Roy Mustang.”

* * *

“Sir?” said the perennially nervous Private Nelson, fidgeting in his doorway.

Maes was too exhausted and drained even to find the fidgeting annoying. A sad state of affairs. “What is it, Private?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and throwing his pen down in disgust. He’d gotten approximately nothing done this morning, and held out no great hope for the rest of the day, either. He’d be late getting home.

“There’s…” Fidget, fidget. How the hell were they training these puppies? “There’s someone at the gate asking for you. He’s…” Fidget, fidget. “Bloody?”

That would be Ed, then. Maes had been expecting him. Either alive and in person, or as a body identified among the rubble that had once been Lab 5.

Leave him alone for a few hours…

Maes rubbed his temples and sighed. He’d gotten almost two hours of sleep before the phone call at 4am, the phone call about the lab exploding and people screaming and no leads. Gracia’s worried face in the sickly, pre-dawn light.

“The West gate?” Maes asked.

Private Nelson nodded. Nervously.

Maes sighed again, and stood.

* * *

Ed was just on the other side of the fence, staring defiantly at the biggest and burliest of the gate guards. Who was staring right back at him. At some point, it had clearly turned into a pissing contest.

Maes never seemed to win any points in this kind of competition for manliest man. For example, he would never have dreamt of getting into a pissing contest with someone who looked the way Ed did, even if he hadn’t known another thing about him. Survival had always been his top priority. Gracia claimed this was one of the things she loved best about him.

“Ed,” he said. “You’ve been busy since last we spoke.”

Ed jerked his attention away from the guard, and turned his eerie yellow eyes on Maes. Eyes made far more eerie by the bruises and the blood and the ash on his face. He studied Maes for a moment, then turned and spat blood onto the road.

Without looking up again, he said, “Came to take you to lunch.”

He said, “Didn’t mean to drag you into the shit like that.”

He said, “Sorry things got kind of weird.”

Kind of weird, Maes thought, was one way to describe it. But it wasn’t the way Maes would have chosen. “I’m going to expect an explanation,” he said.

Ed’s eyes briefly flashed, and Maes thought he would argue, but apparently he thought better of it. He ducked his head. “Yeah,” he muttered, almost embarrassed.

Roy had mentioned this phenomenon, but it was the first time Maes had seen it for himself. Edward Elric, at this moment, looked exactly like what he was. A lonely, confused, fifteen-year-old boy. In its way, it was as upsetting as anything that had happened during the night.

“Right,” said Maes. “Let’s go.”

Sir,” said the burly guard—Sergeant Lewis, five years of service, moderately happy marriage—in a horrified tone. “Should you really associate with this person? He’s—he’s—”

Fifteen years old and looks like he barely escaped ground zero? “He’s assisting me with an investigation, Sergeant.” It was almost true.

“Oh,” said the sergeant, and scowled at Ed with the scorn most military men had for informers. Ed scowled back with interest.

“We’re leaving before he starts an incident,” Maes informed everyone, marching out the gate and hoping Ed would follow. He really didn’t want another incident. He had had quite enough Demon kid-related incidents for one morning.

Ed did follow.

Ed, Maes noticed as they walked along, was not just covered in blood and ash. There was also mud, a fine dusting of what might have been shattered rock, and goop. Unidentifiable goop. He was also limping, but Maes suspected that any comment on that would not be taken well.

“Would you like to stop and change clothes?” Maes asked.

Ed eyed him. “No,” he said, in a you’re an idiot tone.

“You’ll traumatize the waitstaff,” Maes pointed out.

“So I’ll leave a good tip,” Ed snapped. “What the fuck is your problem?”

“Where to begin?” Maes mused. “The hostility? The unpredictable violence? The explosions, Ed?”

Ed sighed, clearly annoyed. “Well, pick one,” he said.

Pick one. Now what kind of strange code was that? “Pick one?”

“Yeah. You got hostility, random violence, and explosions, and I only got time to explain one today. I’d say go for the explosions, cuz that’s the one you actually need to know about. And I’m not explaining the hostility, you can figure that shit out on your own.”

“Does this mean you will explain the random violence?” Roy’s stories would seem to indicate that Ed didn’t part with that kind of information.

Ed huffed and shifted irritably. “I’m…you’re working with me. If you’re gonna be any use, you gotta know when I’m gonna flip my shit. That’s fair.” They’d reached Main Street by this time, and Ed scowled at the restaurants on offer. “I don’t work with anybody most of the time. I guess I forgot. People gotta know how you’re gonna act, or they’re no use to you.”

They’re no use to you, Maes thought. What an interesting way to say, They can’t trust you.

“But you can hear about that tomorrow,” Ed said, choosing a pasta place famous for its enormous servings without consulting Maes, and heading for the door. “It’s a long story, and the explosions, I admit that’s kinda important.”

“I’d really like to know about the random violence first,” Maes said. After all, Ed was less likely to change his mind about spilling information on the explosions; that seemed relevant to the investigation.

Ed was unimpressed with this decision. “Your funeral,” he muttered. “Dumbshit.”

It quickly became obvious why Ed had chosen this particular restaurant. He was apparently either a much-beloved or a much-feared customer. Possibly both. Given that Ed had been in Central for less than a week, Maes had to be impressed by how fast he worked. Perhaps this had something to do with the Axe.

As soon as Ed and Maes walked through the door, the waitress, without looking directly at either of them, led them to a poorly lit corner table not far from the kitchen, gave Maes a menu, and left. Silently. It was eerie.

“I take it,” said Maes, “that these people know you.”

Ed shrugged.

The waitress came back to take Maes’s order, glancing at Ed out of the corner of her eye, but still not looking at him straight-on. She then brought them both food, which meant that she had Ed’s food preferences as well as his seating preferences memorized.

This was a family restaurant, and the rest of the family was hovering—not intrusively, but hovering. In case Ed looked like he might, possibly, want something, Maes imagined.

Maes was having lunch with a celebrity serial killer. How special.

“About Barry the Chopper,” he said, thinking of celebrity serial killers.

“Sure, yeah. Like I said, it’s a long story. Boring.”

Maes tended to disagree.

Ed was a study in perpetual motion throughout the meal. He sat with his back to the corner, his eyes wandering all over the room. He ate, lost interest in eating in favor of staring around suspiciously, then remembered to eat again. He fiddled with his napkin. His metal fingers tinged against a water glass. He was also favoring his left arm; Maes didn’t comment.

He was making Maes tired. More tired. And that was without taking into account what he was saying.

“Equivalent exchange,” explained the Demon Alchemist, “is only a functional law of alchemy.” Pause for inexplicable sneer. “All sciences have them. They aren’t true, in the purest sense of the word, but they’re true enough to be useful in practice. Day to day. It’s only when you start dealing with extremes that they fall apart, and most people never deal with extremes.”

Maes thought it was very weird that Ed suddenly sounded like a textbook. He also wondered how he’d managed to inadvertently request a lecture on advanced alchemical theory.

“The extreme limit of alchemy,” Ed went on, “is the Gate. And once you’re at the Gate, all those rules you’ve lived by become bullshit. Equivalent exchange my ass, you’re lucky if you don’t get killed or driven straight-up insane. Conservation of Mass isn’t the problem, it’s Conservation of Natural Provenance. It’s so damn wishy-washy, nobody knows what they’re doing with it. I mean, natural provenance? Who the fuck can even really define that? Sure, it works out when all you’re doing is making sure that the elements you end up with are the same ones you started with. But what’s the natural provenance of a soul? That’s shit people have no business messing with.

“And my brother and I, we messed with it. That’s where I lost the leg. My brother lost a lot more than that. I tried to get his soul back; the Gate took my arm in exchange for it, let me figure out how it could be done. But it sounds like I was…too slow.”

He took a moment to stare straight ahead and breathe.

“You can’t bring the dead back to life,” he went on eventually. “That’s one law of alchemy that’s no fucking joke. We were trying to bring our mother back, obviously that didn’t work. And when I came to missing a leg, I didn’t even—I didn’t even think about him at first. I crawled over to see this thing we’d brought back, this thing that wasn’t our mother. I had to freaking touch it, I had to wait and watch it die, what the—”

He choked, paused, breathed.

“I always thought. I’d fucked up the rune, somehow. It was a thing when I was twelve, all year, I’d look up runes and try to figure out why. Why it hadn’t worked when it should have fucking worked. But it wasn’t that. I didn’t fuck up the alchemy. I guess people can’t live too long in the Gate, and I was just. Too slow.”

He closed his eyes briefly and shrugged. “Sorry I freaked. But you should know, any of this stuff comes up again—I’m gonna freak again. And if it happens, don’t wait around. Just get the hell out.”

Maes had absolutely no idea how to respond to this. Though Ed had held up his end: this certainly explained why he was so insane.

“Well,” Maes said, trying to keep his voice even. “That’s fair enough.” From what Roy had told him, all this loss of family and limbs had happened when Ed was about ten years old. If it had happened to Hughes, he wouldn’t have survived. No wonder Roy was convinced Ed could handle anything.

“Are you angry with the Gate?” he asked.

Ed gave him a surprised glance. “Uh, no. There’d be no fucking point. It’s not the Gate’s fault we didn’t know the rules.” He smiled a strange smile. “Can’t hate the truth.”

Right. Why would he hate the Gate when he could hate himself instead?

“You satisfied now?” Ed demanded, starting to regain his usual hostility. “Or are you gonna dump me cuz I’m nuts? This is way over your head anyway. You’re not an alchemist, and I’m not gonna be your fuckin bodyguard. You should get out while you’re still breathing.”

“I’m satisfied,” Maes said.

Ed gave him a dubious, sidelong look. “Yeah, okay,” he said, and stood. “You’re stupid. But I’ll stop by tomorrow and tell you about the lab. The explosions, right.”

“You’re not going to tell me now?” He was just going to leave it there? Tease.

“You picked,” Ed snapped. “I don’t have time to bullshit with you all day. I gotta go meet somebody, like I said.”

He marched out of the restaurant, and Maes trotted after him, somewhat disturbed by the way every eye in the place followed them. He noticed that no one had asked them to pay.

“Roy said you didn’t have anyone in Central,” Maes pointed out. He didn’t bother to point out that he himself was up to his neck in work, and didn’t really have time to be jerked around by psychotic adolescents. He figured that information wouldn’t meet with much sympathy.

“Yeah? I’m glad you’re fucking gossiping like old women over every damn thing I say.”

“Well, up until today, you’d said so little. We had to make the most of it. May I ask where you’re going?”

“Sure, you can ask ‘til you’re blue in the face.”

“Alternatively, I could follow you.”

“Um.” Ed eyed him and smiled a mocking little smile that Maes deeply wanted to smack off his face, in defiance of all sense of self-preservation. “You could try.” He limped off into an alley, still with that smile, then turned, clapped, and transmuted a wall to block the alley off from the street.

Maes added defacing public property to the list of Ed’s known crimes, sighed at the state of today’s youth, and pulled out a walkie-talkie he’d liberated from Kain Fuery the last time he’d been in East. “Jones.”

“I got him, boss,” came Jones’s crackly voice. Extremely crackly. Next time, Maes was going to be more careful about the quality of his filched equipment. “Damn, he moves like a weasel. This is gonna be fun.”

Maes approved of fighting fire with fire. Using one rooftop-loving, hyperactive brat to chase another. Besides, after last night, he hadn’t been about to spend time with Edward Elric without the comfort of backup.

It was good to learn that Ed wasn’t quite as all-seeing as Roy had led Maes to believe he was. Although he apparently moved like a weasel even with the limp, and that was unsettling. Had the limp been faked, or was this a scary level of mind over matter?

“You want I should grab him?” Jones asked eagerly.

The only problem with Jones was his tendency to be overenthusiastic. “No,” Maes ordered. He would feel so responsible for Jones’s messy death.

“You are such a spoilsport, old ma—boss.”

“Don’t worry. When you’re finished I have an entirely new set of Elicia photos to show you!”

“Boss!”

“Just follow him until he meets someone. Make sure it’s a meeting and not a random encounter, then report back.”

“I’m not following him all day?”

“No. I’m not interested in his daily routine.”

A staticky sigh. “Okay. Out.”

Maes sat on a bench, pulled out the new Elicia photos for comfort, and pondered the merits of subordinates who were actually, well, subordinate. He’d heard that some people enjoyed that sort of thing. Maes’s people, on the other hand, generally needed to be worked to the brink of exhaustion before they would follow simple orders.

Oh, well. He liked them with spirit, and he didn’t particularly mind working them to the brink of exhaustion. It was fun.

Maes paused over a photo of Gracia and Elicia leaning nose to nose over the kitchen table. Gracia had been explaining how eyes focus. It was, of course, utterly adorable.

Maes wondered what Edward Elric’s mother had been like. A woman so amazing that her children had been willing to risk their lives to have her back. His fingers tightened on the photo. He’d never considered the danger of allowing your children to love you too much. What would Elicia do if he died? Or, unspeakably worse, if he and Gracia both died? She would go to Gracia’s sister in West City, speaking purely physically. The Elrics must have had a guardian, too. But that hadn’t saved them.

“I got him, boss,” Jones crowed.

Maes carefully put the pictures away and shelved the fit of brooding for another day. “Where?”

“Whorehouse!”

Maes sighed. “I hate to spoil your innocence this way, Jones, but there are multiple brothels in this city. Which one?”

“What’s it matter?”

Truly, Maes thought, it must be something to have subordinates who could follow orders. “He’s a fifteen-year-old, obsessive, violent murderer, Jones,” he explained carefully. “I will be very surprised if he’s there as a customer. Which brothel?

“Oh,” Jones said, light dawning. “Um. It’s that one that’s a bar, too. 16th and Del. Down in the warren. Damn, what’s the owner’s name? Something funny. Christer or Christy—”

“Christmas,” Maes said, voice blank with shock. “Madame Christmas.”

“That’s the one,” Jones agreed happily. Simple mind, Jones. Great for chases and stakeouts. “Can I go eat now? I’m starved, boss.”

“Yes. Eat something. Well done, Jones.” Ed and Madame Christmas had teamed up and neither one had told Roy. This boded ill. Apocalyptically ill, maybe. Jones might as well be allowed to eat before the country imploded.

Maes hated this week.

* * *

“You’re a lucky man, Roy.”

“…Am I?”

“Oh, yes. Today was a much better day than yesterday. Notwithstanding the work backlog and the massive sleep deprivation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Nobody died, even.”

“I’m happy for you. I hear you call him Ed, by the way.”

“What? Where did you hear that?”

“He sent me a note complaining about it.”

“…Did he, now.”

“I can actually hear the scheming sound in your voice, Maes. Should I be terrified?”

“No, no. This is the good kind of scheme.”

“Hm. I’m glad you’re up to scheming, I suppose. You sound less…”

“Ed and I had a nice, long talk.”

“What about?”

“His personal history.”

“He doesn’t talk about his personal history.”

“Ah ha, that’s where we were wrong! He only talks about it when it’s relevant to the mission.”

“It was relevant? How was his personal history relevant?”

“This is an in-person conversation; you’ll just have to wait. But I’m fairly sure, now, that he’s not going to up and kill me with no warning, which had been my primary concern.”

“You really thought I’d send you someone that dangerous?”

“Well, I didn’t think you’d do it deliberately, but you can be a little…. Oh, and one more thing.”

“Hm?”

“Call your mother.”

“…What?

“Ah ha ha!”

* * *

The dress code of Edward Elric, Demon Alchemist, was an interesting thing to observe. He always wore black on black, usually a black coat and gloves, usually a braid. That was when he was in a good mood. In a bad mood, the gloves and the coat came off. It was more than not hiding the automail; he was clearly displaying it.

If he was flaunting the automail, Hughes learned, that was a declaration of war, it was an invitation to throw down. It wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular; just at the world in general. Those were the days when all Ed wanted was an excuse to fuck somebody up.

This code must have been well-known in the southeast, and it quickly got to be known in Central, among a certain set. Maes could see it, as the weeks went by. The gloves came off, and the way people reacted to Ed on the street changed. Most backed away, others circled closer, gauging. They didn’t approach in front of Maes, but he wondered how many of those interested men ultimately went home with all their bones intact. How many went home at all.

On those days, Maes didn’t talk to Ed unless he absolutely had to. It was a lesson he learned the hard way, the day after their conversation about alchemy gone wrong. It was early October, the weather just starting to cool, and Maes found it strange that Ed had chosen this time to prance around without a jacket. He didn’t dwell on it. That was his first mistake.

To give him credit, he'd been too busy wondering why there was no sign of the limp at all.

“Ed,” he said, innocently thinking he was dealing with the same boy he’d dealt with the day before.

Ed whirled, lip curled into a snarl, before he realized who it was. Upon identifying Maes, he tried to calm down, tried to get himself under control.

Largely failed.

“What do you want?” he snapped, turning away and pacing in the direction he’d been going when Maes had called out to him.

Maes considered just walking away and leaving this conversation for another time. But no. He really did need to know; he should have found out the day before. But he’d definitely save the Madame Christmas talk for later.

“Explosions,” he said, hoping to tax Ed’s patience as little as possible.

Ed grimaced. “You can kill a homunculus, but it’s a fucking pain. I dunno how they roll, but it’s like I told the Colonel—they got a bunch of lives. Not their lives, though. There are people in ‘em.”

“People?” Maes asked, horrified.

Ed shrugged impatiently. “They make it sound like that’s what Philosopher’s Stones are. Essence of dead people. Gotta look some shit up, I’ll get back to that. You kill ‘em enough, though, and they die. Be easiest if you dropped ‘em in a fuckin volcano after all.”

“You killed a homunculus?” Maes was going to have to get used to Ed’s conversational style, sooner or later. Otherwise, he was running the serious risk of a heart attack.

“Ugly bastard. Envy, he called himself.” Ed rolled his shoulders. “Got nothing on me.”

Maes wasn’t entirely sure what was meant by that.

“Another one, Lust, she was hanging around. Seen her before; she was in the desert where the guy got eaten. Maybe hanging around and watching is her style, but Envy said he had me covered, and she went. They said they didn’t want me to die, which at least explains why they didn’t eat me last time, even if it’s fuckin weird. They called me a human sacrifice. Then I killed Envy and blew up the lab, sorry the mess. Fuck. I’m not sorry. And I’m out. Later. I can’t—”

He broke off and abruptly veered left, which was, as it happened, directly into traffic. Maes stared after him and listened to the curses, screams, and squealing tires.

Only much, much later would Maes come to understand the significance of the beginning of October to Edward Elric. At the time, he was stuck trying to make sense of Ed’s behavior and everything he’d said in an information vacuum that seemed emptier and more bewildering by the day.

Ed had just claimed—and Maes was surprised to find he had no trouble believing it—that he had killed a legendary immortal creature. Or not quite immortal, apparently. And just as Maes had no trouble believing Ed, so he had no trouble picturing what Ed would look like after about ten minutes of killing something that refused to die.

Terrifying. Murderous. Animal.

But Ed had sent Roy a note. A complaining note, like a kid would. There must still be something human there, after all. Somewhere. Buried deep. And Maes was going to cling to that with everything he had, because he knew Roy, and he knew that Roy didn’t know how to give up on anyone.

That was Ed accounted for, then: ally until proven otherwise. Which just left the problem of almost-immortal creatures running around Central for God knew what reason, made by God-knew-whom.

Shit.

* * *

“Maes, you look exhausted.” Gracia looked exhausted, actually, and Maes knew it was all his fault. “Sit down, poor man. I’ll get dinner—”

“Let’s order dinner,” Maes suggested, tugging her off balance and into his lap. “You’ve had just as long a week as I have.”

She smiled at him and framed his face with her hands. “But I got to spend all week with our perfect daughter. Whereas you…”

Maes sighed. “Well. With any luck you’ll never meet him.”

“This is Roy’s little alchemist?”

“If only I were sure he was Roy’s little alchemist, I’d feel better about the whole thing.”

She gave him a worried look. Wonderful. Now on top of depriving her of sleep, he was making her worry. Time for a distraction. “But speaking of our perfect daughter—”

“Papa!”

Gracia stood, scooped Elicia into her arms, and then dropped her, laughing, onto Maes’s lap.

“Beautiful daughter!”

“Was work bad, Papa?”

“Work was work, there was too much of it, and it took away hours and hours I could have better spent with you!”

“Papa! Your beard tickles!”

Elicia was a brilliant distraction; Elicia managed to make him think only of the best things in life for almost ten hours. She was a little ball of cheerful magic.

Then he went back to work, and everything went to hell. He was being sent to pick up a case of human transmutation in East, because apparently Roy couldn’t handle his own lunatics when Ed was away.

No, that was unfair. Central had a fondness for collecting people guilty of horrific abuses of alchemy and killing them cozily at home. It wasn’t Roy’s fault. Though, thinking of this tendency of Central’s in relation to what he now knew about Lab 5, Maes had to wonder whether this assignment was secretly evil.

But evil or not, it meant no Elicia and Gracia for days. And no one at all to keep an eye on Ed. Maes couldn’t even find him to tell him he was leaving town.

He did, however, find time to collect four of his favorite information soldiers and set them individual tasks, taking care that none of them knew about the others. One to look into records on Lab 5, one to look into execution records, one to look into the personal history of the fuhrer, just for kicks.

One to look into the use of alchemy in warfare.

And Maes hoped that no one would work out that all of these soldiers, nominally under other commands, were reporting back to him.

* * *

“How’s Elric?”

First words out of Roy’s mouth. No How’s your beautiful daughter? No I hope your lovely wife is well. No I apologize for adding, once again, to your insurmountable backlog of work.

How’s Elric?

“Roy, my friend, you have a problem.”

Roy cast him an irritable sidelong look. “You think I don’t have a right to worry?”

“What does Hawkeye have to say about all this?”

Roy shrugged, letting his eyes drift across his desk until they found Tucker’s file. He pounced on it as a distraction.

And people said he was so subtle.

“Tucker was executed yesterday,” he reported. And there was another candidate for things Maes might have liked to hear before How’s Elric?

Was he? That’s funny, because I brought a whole team all the way out here to East Nowhere to pick him up.”

Roy gave Maes an inscrutable look. “Administrative error.”

Oh, so that’s how it was. If he was reading Royspeak aright, one of the soldiers had seen what Tucker had done and had shot him in the head. And Roy hadn’t disagreed, hence execution. Ah, the east. No wonder they’d produced Ed. “What exactly did he do?”

Roy closed the file gently and pushed it across the desk to Maes. “The state alchemist examiners found it strange that Tucker’s wife disappeared when he made his first talking chimera. They found it more strange that his daughter disappeared when he made his second. They turned the investigation over to me.”

Maes deeply did not want to touch that file. But he’d done more awful things in the name of duty.

Nina Tucker had been a beautiful girl. Not as beautiful as his Elicia, thank God, but uncomfortably close. “I assume she died?”

“No,” Roy said with the professional coolness that meant he’d like to scream. “No. I suppose you could take her back to Central. But I don’t think you’d be doing her a favor.”

Maes closed the file again. “What would be doing her a favor, Roy?”

“Poison.”

Maes broke eye contact and studied the scarred surface of Roy’s desk. He was familiar with necessity, few more so. But he had a weakness when it came to little girls who looked at all like his daughter.

“Of course,” Roy said carefully, “There’s a very small—vanishingly small—chance that you might find an alchemist who could do something for her.”

Maes looked up at Roy, whose expression wasn’t promising. “Vanishing, eh?”

“Nearly nonexistent, or so I would think. But I haven’t studied much biological alchemy.”

The kid who’d tried to bring his mother back from the dead, on the other hand, had probably studied biological alchemy no one else had ever heard of. Assuming he would be willing to help.

“I’ll take her back with me,” Maes decided. It was worth the chance. “And if it doesn’t work…I’ll take care of it.”

Roy nodded grimly. “I’ll report that she died in custody.”

“I’m stuck in East until the morning train,” Maes went on, deciding that was enough depressing for one conversation. “Get a drink with me and I’ll catch you up on all the Demon kid gossip. And all the other gossip. Though I still haven’t had time to figure out what’s up with the bar.”

“Neither have I,” Roy growled. Oh, Madame was holding out, huh? Uh oh. “I’ll see you here at seven?”

“You’re on,” Maes said, pushing to his feet and telling himself he was too young to feel old.

* * *

When Maes got back to Central, Ed was waiting for him on the platform. The same platform that Gracia and Elicia were waiting on. Apparently someone (Madame Christmas?) had told Ed where Maes had gone and when he was likely to get back. And now here he was, within twenty feet of Gracia and Elicia.

Maes instantly wished he’d never left East.

But no, he was being unfair. As soon as Ed saw that his family was there, he drifted away and lost himself in the crowd. Maes didn’t see him again until the next day just outside the confines of the base, where he got accosted. Ed’s social graces were just as unpredictable as everything else about him.

“While you were gone,” Ed said casually, not bothering with any kind of greeting or mention of the day before, “some guy called Scar blew into town and killed somebody.”

“Scar’s in Central?” Maes tried to work up some panic, but mostly he just felt tired and annoyed. Not least because he’d had to hear this from Ed instead of from his own network. What the hell was he paying them for? “Again? Would it be immoral of me to just ask you to kill him?”

Ed smirked and shot him a surprised, considering look. “Maybe I could take that job,” he said. “But I’m kinda torn. Word is he’s after Kimbley. Word is he’s been chasing Kimbley all over the country for the last month. And shit, if somebody wants to kill Kimbley…I don’t wanna get in his way. Right?”

Maes sighed. “Shame about the bystanders, though.”

Ed shrugged. “It was just some army guy,” he said, then apparently realized who he was talking to. “Uh, no offence.”

Maes sighed more pointedly. “I’ve been meaning to ask you a question, Ed.”

“Good for you.”

Apparently he’d used up all of his social grace for the week. “About Madame Christmas.”

Maes had been hoping for a dramatic reaction to the name. Failing that, any reaction would have done. Any reaction except, “Yeah, what about her?” and slightly raised eyebrows, which was what he got.

“You said you didn’t know anyone in Central, and yet you seem to know Madame Christmas. Why is that?”

“I’d never met her. But she’s famous, right? She’s freaky about information, kinda like you. Besides, she was pretty much bound to know me.”

“She was?”

Ed favored him with a pitying look. “Yeah. Like she’d let someone like me that close to Mustang without getting my story. She’s not fucking stupid.” His look said clearly, Unlike some people.

Apparently Ed was of the opinion that Maes had not done a background check on him. Little did Ed know.

“I’d talked to her before,” Ed went on without waiting for a response, “but on the phone. She got hold of me when I got here. So there you go.”

“What do you two talk about?”

“Retirement. Overthrowing the government. Football. Shit, did you seriously think I was gonna answer that?”

Apparently this wasn’t on the need-to-know list. And Madame Christmas wasn’t talking, either. What was more, Maes couldn’t bug her place, because she would find out, and then he would die.

“About homunculi,” Maes tried.

“No,” Ed said.

“This is not the most helpful conversation we’ve ever had, Ed.”

“I already told you what I know. You can kill ‘em. After I do more research, I’ll know more, and then I’ll tell you more. Nothin else to say.”

So Ed didn’t want to talk about the homunculus or about how he’d killed it. But why? Also, unacceptable.

“You said Envy had ‘people’ in him. What did that mean?”

Maes was getting good at recognizing when Ed was uncomfortable. It was the same body language that, in normal people, translated to ‘homicidally enraged.’

“I mean he had people in him,” Ed snapped, leaning aggressively forward, metal hand in a fist, useful for punching or stabbing. “He changed shapes. And in one of ‘em, you could see all the people—like zombies, not working right. Crying out. So that’s why they live so long, cuz they stole a bunch of people. That enough explanation for you? We gotta keep talkin about this? God, you’re such a—”

He broke off and turned away.

This might have been the most impressive thing about young Edward Elric. As off-balance as he was, as violent and unpredictable, he still had this—this ability to notice the edge just before he stepped over it. The ability to pull himself back.

This was probably the ability that went missing when Ed faced a known criminal.

He turned back to Maes abruptly, now looking Edward-standard: irritable, aggressive, and slightly insane, but not actively dangerous. “There anything else?”

Maes hesitated to bring this up after all the drama of the conversation before (shape-changing, quasi-immortal cannibals—it just kept getting better, didn’t it?), but he didn’t feel it could afford to wait. Ed had a habit of disappearing just when Maes would most like to see him.

“One more thing,” he said. “Then I’ll let you research to your heart’s content.”

He led the way away from the base (God help him, he was going to be at least three hours late to work), away from the center of town, down into the more industrial areas. He’d rented a warehouse there, and outfitted it like a girl’s room.

He could see that Ed didn’t approve. “It’s a chimera,” he said flatly.

“True,” Maes agreed.

“He-llo,” said Nina the chimera.

Ed whipped to face Maes. “Chimeras don’t talk.”

“They do if they’re part-human.” That was a horrible look on Ed’s face. “Can you fix her?” Maes asked quickly.

“Fix a chimera?” Ed blinked. “Like pull them back apart? No.”

“You seem very sure. This hack managed to put them together; isn’t there some kind of research you can do on how to separate them?”

“You can stir cream into coffee, Lieutenant Colonel, but you can’t stir it back out. Chaos always wins. It’s not really up for debate.”

“There are ways to separate coffee from cream.”

“Sure, if you take everything back to component parts. But I’m gonna give you some information for free, okay? Living things don’t like being taken back to component parts. Take it from me, cuz I know.”

They both stood in silence for a moment, watching Nina. She’d apparently forgotten all about them, and was pawing through her toys.

That was that, then. Maes had done so little for her, and yet already there was nothing more he could do.

“What is she?” Ed asked, flat and cold.

“A little girl and the family dog.”

Ed snarled, but got himself under control when Nina jumped and looked their way. “Who did this to her?” he demanded.

“Her father,” Maes answered, unsurprised to find his voice sounding as cold as Ed’s.

“Shit. Fathers.”

Ah. Roy had mentioned daddy issues. “I’m a father.”

“Yeah?” Ed cast him a cool, considering look that gave Maes plenty of time to regret having mentioned his family at all. “Well, try not to be a fuck-up. But you’ve got long odds, cuz I’d say this is typical.”

“Not typical, Ed.”

“Not unusual, though.”

Maes was too tired to deal with Ed’s psychoses at the moment. “I’ll take care of this. I’m sorry for bringing you all the way out here.”

“Yeah, you should be sorry. You’re gonna take care of it how?”

“It isn’t your problem.”

“The hell it isn’t. You can’t show me this and then just expect me to fuck off!”

The chimera made a small distressed noise; apparently she didn’t like angry voices. Ed stepped back and leaned against the wall behind him, folding his arms across his chest and tucking his head down slightly. It was the most human Maes had ever seen him look.

“Only one thing you can do for her now, isn’t there?” Ed said, quiet, flat, and low. Then, “Why’d you bring her to me? I can’t save anybody.”

“I’m betting that no one could have saved her. I didn’t really expect anything from you, Ed. It just seemed worth the chance, with your history of human transmutation.”

Before Ed could respond to that, Nina shuffled over to him, sniffed him, and decided he was her new best friend. And they said animals were decent judges of character.

Or maybe it was the girl who liked Ed.

“Play,” she said.

“How’re you gonna do it?” Ed asked.

“Roy suggested poison,” Maes said, noting distantly the emptiness of his own voice. He himself had been thinking a quick, well-placed knife rather than poison. It seemed cleaner. It wasn’t a thought he was going to share with Ed or Roy, though.

“You don’t have to poison her, for fuck’s sake,” Ed muttered, trying not to upset Nina. “And he’s supposed to be the smooth one. But you can’t…you can’t let her go to a lab, and you can’t keep her here forever. In this cage. Someone would find her, and it’d turn out the same.”

“Wanna…play…” whispered the chimera, bumping her head against his knee.

“Yeah,” Ed said to her, so softly, so kindly. So utterly unlike himself. He knelt down to scratch her behind the ears. “I can’t fix her,” he murmured after a pause. “But I can do better than poison.”

And to Nina, he said, “We can play as much as you want after your nap, okay?”

“Wanna…play,” she insisted.

“I think you’re tired.” Ed pressed his hands together under his chin gently, like praying. He reached out to pet her, and Maes could see the faint spark of alchemy. “You are, right? Take a nap, then we’ll play.”

The chimera made a childishly grumpy noise, but wobbled a little.

“Yeah, just put your head down,” Ed murmured. “I’ll be here. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Nina sank to the floor. She put her head in Ed’s lap while he petted her, whispering nothing, reassurances, what anyone would whisper to a tired child. What Maes would whisper to Elicia.

She looked so peaceful there. So peaceful that it seemed only natural for her breathing to slow, to gradually stop, natural for her to lie completely still.

“There,” Ed said after a long silence, staring down at her, voice rough as if the previous softness had scraped his throat raw. “Dirty work done.”

It was easy to forget how horrifying alchemists could be. “How?”

“Just messed with her blood chemistry.” Ed said it casually, but he didn’t look up from the body. “Death by oxygen deprivation. It’s supposed to be painless.” He hesitated, wiped his sleeve across his face. “It looked painless.”

“It looked peaceful.” Maes could give him that much. He’d taken this horrible job from Maes; he was owed that much. “Much better than poison.” Or a knife.

“Ha, yeah.” Ed set Nina’s head gently on the floor, stood, brushed off his pants. “Stick to what you’re good at, right. Well, I’m out. Sorry to ditch you with the body, but. Got shit to do.”

Maes watched him walk to the door, called out before he went through it. “Ed.”

“What?” Ed snapped, back tense, refusing to turn around.

“Thank you.”

Ed reached out and grabbed the doorframe, gave one harsh bark of laughter. “Yeah,” he said. Then he was gone.

* * *

“Roy, take Ed back to East.”

“Why? What did he do?”

“That’s just it. In this case, he only did what I set him up to do.”

“…Tell me.”

“Ed didn’t approve of poison.”

“He killed it.”

“He held her head and petted her and talked to her and pulled the oxygen out of her blood. She went to sleep.”

“He…”

“It really isn’t a goal of mine to make him more crazy than he already is.”

“Where is he?”

“And I know this because he’s so forthcoming about his plans?”

“Maes, don’t—I was the one who told you to—”

“And we were both thinking that I would be the one to handle it if Ed couldn’t change her back. I know. We were thinking of him as a real boy, which he isn’t. It was stupid. He saw through me in ten seconds flat, told me I was an incompetent when it came to killing people, and did it himself.”

“…Oh.”

“Yes. Oh.”

“Bringing him back to East won’t keep him from trying to destroy himself, Maes.”

“Is that what you think this was?”

“In part. Most likely.”

“God, Roy.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Well, that’s at least three of us.”

* * *

Ed didn’t find Maes until after work the next day. Maes had been beginning to worry that he wouldn’t see Ed for weeks, or possibly ever again.

But Ed showed up in time to walk Maes most of the way home, acting like someone who had never so much as heard of a chimera called Nina. Maes wondered how many things like this he’d had to forget in his short life. Just another day in Amestris.

“So, Scar,” Ed said, all business. “You were right. He is a fucking psycho.”

Maes cleared his throat and silently vowed to be at least as professional as the broken teenager. “Well, he’s a serial killer.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ed said dismissively. Maes supposed that being a serial killer yourself would give you an unusual perspective on this kind of thing. “But I thought he was just after the military. Shit, that’d be like a holy crusade.”

So Maes wasn’t going to go entirely unpunished for yesterday.

“But he’s takin’ down bystanders,” Ed went on without so much as a sideways glance. “Innocent ones, I mean. Just random people. And he’s sorry about it, but not sorry enough to stop doin’ it. So I’d better wipe him out. I can take down Kimbley myself, after.”

Maes digested that in silence.

“Unless you got another job for me,” Ed muttered bitterly.

This was only going to get worse the longer Maes let it go on. “Ed, I’m sorry about yesterday.” No reason for both of them to dance around the subject. “I didn’t call you there to kill her. If I’d known the alchemy was impossible, I wouldn’t have brought her back to Central at all.”

“Shit, you know, I do kill people,” Ed snarled, turning to face Maes, eyes blazing. “It’s what I do. That is what I do. Makes total sense to have me kill people, it’s my fucking job.”

“No,” Maes insisted quietly. “You kill the dregs of society. It’s not your job to kill little girls, and that’s not what you do.” Killing innocents wasn’t something he’d ever done. Maes had made sure of that when Roy started becoming disturbingly fond of him.

Ed shrugged, but some of the hysterical tension left his shoulders, and he stopped attacking passerby with his eyes. “Whatever. All too fuckin late now. I want to get into First Branch—I wanna see what they’ve got on human transmutation.”

Maes took a breath, feeling he’d narrowly avoided a tornado. For the moment. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“Yeah. But it’ll be there anyway.” He visibly considered a slur against the military, but restrained himself. “So can you get me in?”

Had Maes actually fixed things that easily? Was an apology all Ed had wanted?

Did he really have to be depressing as well as scary?

“I can get you in,” Maes said, “as long as you act like an informer.”

Ed snorted. “You can get an informer in, but not somebody who minds their own goddamn business? Fuck, that’s the military for you.”

“You don’t mind your own business, Ed.”

“No. But you didn’t tell me to pretend like I do.”

He had a point.

* * *

Edward Elric in a library was a sight to behold.

A little of the tension eased, the movements became somewhat less abrupt, the eyes a bit less wild. It was almost as if he believed, at a subconscious level, that the books would protect him. That he was safe in a library.

Which meant, when you reversed the reasoning, that he must never feel safe anywhere else. Oh, Ed.

After some wandering—because, at ease or not, Ed clearly had no intention of asking anyone for directions, and Maes generally sent his minions to fetch him books instead of coming to the library himself—they found the alchemy section.

“So you said you were planning to look up human transmutation?” Maes asked, partly because he was curious, partly because Ed had been quiet for so long that it was making him nervous.

“That and some other stuff.” Ed reached out to touch the spines of the books and looked…wistful. “Haven’t done real research for years,” he muttered, likely more to himself than to Maes. “Got all kinds of catching up to do,” he added with a scowl. “Dunno about any new research. Mostly did biological stuff back when, much good it did me. Haven’t even looked into rumors about the Philosopher’s Stone—just saw it in passing and thought it was bullshit.”

“So this will take you a while,” Maes said.

“Take me freakin months, and by then, probably the world will’ve ended. Shit.”

For all that, though, Maes noticed that he didn’t look too upset by the prospect of months in the library. At this moment, it was hard to imagine that Ed and the Demon kid were the same person.

Of course, most of the time it was all too easy.

* * *

“Well?”

“Things have been shockingly smooth since…shortly after I came back from East. Research, research, research. I’ve been carefully not introducing him to Major Armstrong.”

“You don’t think the Major would approve?”

“I think the Major might try to hug Ed, and then everyone would die. However, he does say he needs another alchemist around to bounce ideas off of.”

“As long as you explain to the Major that Elric was beaten as a child and is afraid to be touched, I think he should be able to keep himself under control.”

“…I don’t believe you just said that.”

“Maes. It will work.”

“You’re not even a general yet, and already you’ve got a diseased mind.”

“It hardly takes a diseased mind. That story isn’t far from the truth.”

“Hm. Speaking of disease, how secure is your phone line?”

“It’s a payphone.”

“…How close to HQ is this payphone?”

“There’s paranoid and then there’s just plain crazy, Hughes.”

“This is very worthy of just plain crazy. Actually, I should be having this conversation in person, this is not at all a phone conversation, how secure is your line?

“It’s nowhere near the base. Halfway across town, the one outside Melissa’s.”

“…Melissa’s? It’s the middle of the day, Roy. Does your First Lieutenant know where you are?”

“Yes, actually. Did you need a secure line to harass me?”

“No. Thanks to Ed, I’ve been doing some digging of my own. In my copious spare time.”

“Oh, of course.”

“The fuhrer…had a very mysterious early life.”

“Mysterious?”

“I can’t find any information on it whatsoever. Mysterious. He abruptly appeared after Academy, and there is no record of his life before that.”

“Was the record wiped after he became fuhrer?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it never existed in the first place.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ed’s conspiracy theories are contagious. And talk of them really is in-person only. But this much…you should keep in mind. It’s so depressing, Roy. So depressing. Unlike my beautiful Elicia!”

“I have work to do, Maes.”

“Really? At Melissa’s? Did I tell you Elicia can add now?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I am horrified by your doubt. Horrified! My beautiful daughter is a mathematical genius! Also beautiful! And did I tell you about the wonderful cake she baked? Beyond description! I’ll send you a picture!”

“Don’t think I won’t hang up on you.”

* * *

Maes took to visiting Ed during his library phase. Maes could bring work and stay for an hour, and there was no guarantee that Ed would even acknowledge his existence apart from the initial suspicious glare.

It was fun, in a strange, Eddish sort of way. But it went on and on and on. Weeks. Months. Progress was not being made. The homunculi were running around loose. Scar was running around loose. Chaos, madness, despair.

“Not that I mean to question the value of your research, Ed, but are you really planning to hunt down Scar? Because if you’re too busy, I need to step up my investigation.”

Maes reflected on the deeper meaning of the words that had just come out of his mouth. Had he really just asked Ed why he hadn’t gotten on the ball and murdered somebody?

Yes. Yes, he had. Did this mean he was internalizing Ed’s moral code? “Wait. Can we pretend I didn’t say any of that?”

Ed smirked at him. Things that Ed would find amusing were highly unpredictable. “I’m gonna tell Mustang.”

“Do not—”

“Gonna say, ‘Shit, you sent me to a psycho.’”

“I just wasn’t think—”

“‘Man’s got a hitlist.’”

Maes heaved a sigh and rubbed his face and God, the stress was getting to him.

“Scar’s not in Central anymore, anyway,” Ed informed him. “He went off north someplace. The hell have you been?”

“When I’m not slaving at my desk, spending a fleeting moment with my gorgeous wife and daughter, or indulging in far too little sleep, I am…in the library, Ed.”

Ed didn’t seem to have registered the accusation in that statement. Of course not. His head was tipped to the side, and Maes could tell just by looking at him that he was thinking about something Maes didn’t want him thinking about. He said, “A daughter, huh?”

Maes had never said anything about his family to Ed. Very unusual for Maes, to treat a potential ally as an enemy. A potential ally he’d researched at length, and allowed to get quite close to Roy.

But trusting Ed with Roy’s life was not quite the same thing as trusting him with Elicia’s life or Gracia’s. There was a depth of irrational, protective panic between the two.

If he wanted Ed to trust him, though, he was going to have to give a little. At least now it seemed he had a chance of earning Ed’s trust. There had been times when that particular goal had seemed like shooting for the moon.

“A perfect daughter,” he said, and refused, refused to remember Ed’s Barry the Chopper face. “A beautiful, fabulous, amazing daughter. But why take my word for it? I have pictures!”

Hughes whipped out a stack of photos, and only then did he allow himself to check on Ed.

Yes. He’d been right, thank God. Ed wasn’t looking at those pictures like someone planning to use them against Maes. He was looking at them like they might catch fire, and then at Maes with an expression indicative of his belief that Maes was actually an alien.

“You’re showing me pictures of your family.” Incredulous.

“Ed,” Maes said gravely. “It will make you a better man.”

“You carry around pictures of your family?”

“I can only survive the day by gazing at their beauty!” Maes cried, then studied Ed’s uncomprehending face. “This isn’t the way you feel about your loved ones?”

“Uh, my loved ones are mostly dead.” Ed blinked. “Besides, if they were alive, I definitely wouldn’t carry pictures of them. What if somebody saw the pictures and then killed ‘em because they knew—”

“Please try to be less insane,” Maes interrupted. “Just a little less.”

Ed huffed and hunched over the book Maes had distracted him from. “Do whatever the fuck you want. Not my problem.”

“On another topic, how goes the search?”

“Pointless. Everybody keeps sayin the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t freakin exist.”

“So it’s not just Roy.”

“Yeah,” Ed murmured, running affectionate fingers down the spine of his latest eight hundred page treatise on obscure alchemy. “But people been trying to make ‘em for forever. So why isn’t there any research on ‘em? Why does everybody think they’re a myth when actually they’re real?”

Maes propped his chin in his hand and gazed at Ed in some fascination. This side of him never got less entertaining. Researcher Ed. The Demon Philosopher. “What’s your theory?”

Ed made a wavy gesture with his left hand. “I’m makin shit up.”

“So share. I promise not to tell the academics.”

Ed snorted. “You want the bad thought or the really bad thought?”

“Let’s work up to really bad.”

“Right. The bad thought is, they weren’t actually Philosopher’s Stones in the homunculi. They were some other fuckin weird thing made of dead people, and they just called ‘em Philosopher’s Stones to screw with me. In that case, there aren’t Philosopher’s Stones, and this’d be somethin’ new.”

“You have a worse thought?”

“Can always get worse. The worse thought is…I told you I’m makin this up, right?”

“Ed.”

“Okay, so. Like. If someone’s been making sure that nobody figured out how make Philosopher’s Stones, then nobody’d know about ‘em. Because they’d kill people who knew too much. Those books’d never get written.”

For a guy who claimed not to believe in conspiracies, Ed had an awful lot of conspiracy theories. And they were getting steadily more bizarre with time. “Well,” Maes said diplomatically. “That’s true.”

“Don’t act like you don’t think I’m crazy when I know full fuckin well that you think I’m crazy,” Ed sighed, pulling the book closer and trying to push Maes away by ignoring him very hard.

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Maes said. It was…occasionally true.

“Fuck you. Like you even got a right to an opinion—you’re no alchemist.” He huffed and tucked his book even closer, like a comfort blanket. “I should be so lucky.”

“Ah. Actually, that is the reason I came to see you today.” Before he’d been sidetracked by research and Scar and conspiracies and the madness in general that always surrounded Ed.

“You don’t make any goddamn sense,” Ed informed the book. “You better do somethin’ about that.”

“So…you’ve been saying you’d like another alchemist around.”

Ed’s eyes flicked suspiciously to Maes’s. “…Yeah.”

“I’ve found you another alchemist. And Roy approves! His name is Major Alex Armstrong. He’s a good guy. He hasn’t, ah. Obsessed. Over alchemy the way you have. Still, Roy promises he’s a good alchemist.”

“There’s a ‘but’ somewhere,” Ed said suspiciously. “Spit it out.”

“The Major is a good man,” Maes said.

“Don’t make me throw a fucking book at your head,” Ed snapped.

“He’s a big innocent,” Maes went on, gesturing at random. “He’s very…delicate. Look. Just don’t make him cry.”

There was a weighty pause. “Did you say cry?” Ed asked incredulously. “I’m not gonna fuckin make anybody cry!”

“You say that,” Maes said, “because you don’t know the Major. Sometimes he bursts into tears and there’s nothing anyone can do about it—it is what it is. But if you could avoid, oh, being disturbing. That would be best.”

Ed stared. “What. The fuck.”

* * *

“Edward Elric!” Armstrong boomed. “I have heard so much about you!” And promptly burst into tears.

“What the hell just happened?” Ed asked Maes. “You want me to work with this guy? How the fuck is that gonna happen if he’s gonna be like this all the time?

“It won’t be all the time,” Maes said.

“Oh, Edward Elric!” wailed Armstrong. “So young! So abused! So traumatized!”

Luckily sobs drowned out anything else he might have said. Or maybe the sobs came too late. Ed was already giving Maes a look of enraged betrayal.

“And what all did you tell him about me?” he asked with false calm. Maes hated Ed’s false calm very much. He’d seen it segue into killing rage once, which was definitely one time too many.

“Hardly anything,” Maes insisted. “And we’d better discuss it later.”

“I think we’d better discuss it now.”

“Edward Elric!” Armstrong cried, quite possibly saving Maes’s life. “If there is any way in which I might be of use to you, please let me know!”

Ed hesitated for a moment, clearly torn between murdering Maes and having a good, long, alchemy-geek conversation with the Major.

Alchemy won.

“You ever seen a transmutation circle like this?” Ed asked abruptly, sketching a circle-and-pentagon thing on a paper and sliding it over to the Major.

Armstrong studied it for a moment, then shook his head, looking somewhat crushed. “No. It seems simple.”

“It is and it isn’t,” Ed explained, pulling it back and tipping his head at it. “Basically, it’s a life for a life.”

“…A life for a life?”

Maybe Armstrong was going to spend all of his time with Ed crying. Maes wondered if he should bring in water to ward off dehydration.

“If that guy was telling the truth, then I think this is how they make Philosopher’s Stones. Which is whatever. The question is, what kind of scale are we talking? Like, how big could you make this? Could you rework it to do other things for you? And—here’s the big one—can you undo it?”

“Reverse the transmutation?”

“Yeah. Like if, say, you have a homunculus—”

“Edward Elric, homunculi do not exist.”

“Funny how I killed one, then.”

Armstrong cast an alarmed look at Maes, who really couldn’t do better for him than a helpless shrug. Armstrong, bless him, tried hard to take this in stride. “I see.”

What Maes knew, and what Armstrong didn’t know, was that Ed was trying equally hard to go easy on Armstrong. So far he hadn’t screamed, glared death, or even used especially menacing body language. He must have taken the crying thing more deeply to heart than Maes had realized.

Then, too, he was an exceptional geek, and he clearly didn’t want to frighten away his best shot at a research partner.

“So if you fight a homunculus,” Ed was saying, “do you really hafta kill them a thousand or whatever times, or can you just…unmake them?”

Maes had wondered what Ed was taking all this time to research apart from the mythical Philosopher’s Stone. He really ought to have guessed mass destruction.

“And if you did unmake them,” Ed went on enthusiastically, “where would the energy go? Because that’s a freakin lot of energy. I don’t want to kill one and have the world blow up in my face. Can you channel life energy somewhere? Has anybody even researched that? Cuz, I mean, who the fuck would, right?”

Armstrong blinked slowly at Ed, then plucked one of the scattered books off the table and read the title. “Physical alchemy,” he said. “Have you looked into biological alchemy?”

“Not yet,” Ed said with shocking brightness. “You wanna do it?”

Maes crept away and let the alchemy freaks be. At last, something he was looking forward to telling Roy.

* * *

This was not to say that Ed found no time between research projects to be really creepy.

“Ed?” Maes whispered so that Armstrong wouldn’t hear.

“What?” Ed whispered back, widening his eyes in his patented are you stupid look.

“You’ve got blood on your sleeve.”

Ed blinked, then inspected his sleeves. The left one was indeed caked in dried blood from the elbow down. It hadn’t been immediately obvious on black cloth, but Maes had been looking at it for a while, and he was quite sure.

“You should see the other guy,” Ed murmured, then stood and headed for the toilet. Maes sighed and put his head down on the table. How had this become his life? How? War, conspiracy, mayhem. Edward Elric. It wasn’t fair.

And Amestris was surely the only country that could produce all of these things at once. It was so absurdly war-torn. Sure, Drachma had its problems, Aerugo got slammed on two fronts, but Amestris? Nothing but war. Nothing but war on all sides.

On all sides but not in the center, now Maes thought on it. Central had never seen any action—just the occasional crazed murderer, and all cities had those. Edward Elric was the most exciting thing to happen to Central in a while. Wasn’t that strange?

Of course, there was Lab 5. Research into Lab 5 had turned up so classified that Maes’s men doubted the fuhrer himself was allowed to know. But executions did seem to come in clumps. Twenty executions over two months, none over the next six. Thirty executions over the two months after that.

Rinse and repeat.

And then there was the personal history of the fuhrer, or lack thereof. Maes tried hard not to sound like Ed in the privacy of his own mind, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. And that was without getting into the investigation of alchemy and warfare.

It hadn’t been a particularly productive line of investigation, but it had been incredibly disturbing. Alchemists had been at the center of almost every clash in Amestris since its inception, which meant that Amestrian alchemy was focused on killing people to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Alchemy and war, in Amestris, were all but synonymous.

This was at least in part because all of the warfare and every petty battle that didn’t get such a lofty name had been state-sanctioned, and the state did love to use its alchemists. Seemed the military couldn’t see blood being shed without wanting a piece of it. War was what Amestris did. First the battle of Riviere in 1558. Then there had been Cameron in 1661. Then Fisk. Then, then…

Well, why was he straining his brain on this when he had untold generations of noble Armstrong family ability to remember random historical facts sitting right next to him?

“Major, do you remember where the really bloody battles in Amestris have been?”

Poor Armstrong. After all these weeks of Ed, he didn’t even seem surprised by the question. He just set down his book and answered it. “Well. In 1835, General Augustus Armstrong led the defense of South City. In 1811, Lieutenant Anne Armstrong died while battling the rebels in Wellesley. In 1799—”

The Armstrong family’s version of history. Yikes.

And yet…and yet there was something about these towns. All around the edge of Amestris. The edge, never the interior. It made a certain sense with the border wars, but it was as often civil strife as not. Like Liore, most recently, which had been local strife between two competing cults. Now Maes thought back, he was sure Liore had once been one big cult town, but the Demon Alchemist had killed the leader, hadn’t he?

He’d never thought to ask Ed about it. He kept forgetting Ed was the Demon Alchemist, despite the bloodstained sleeves. Dangerous.

“Major,” Maes said, cutting into the litany. “Do you have a map of Amestris handy?”

He did not, but he drew one. Maes often wondered what Alex’s childhood had been like. Whether it had involved beating lessons into him with sticks, that sort of thing.

Ed came back while Maes and Armstrong were consulting a history book and circling Amestris’s most famously bloody towns. It only took ten minutes or so.

“Oh, shit,” said Ed. Maes could not find it in him to disagree.

They stared down at those equidistant dots circling Amestris for a long time. One city on the border, one slightly back from it, alternating all the way around. Nine cities total, and one suspicious gap.

It had been one thing to suspect a government conspiracy. It was another thing entirely to suspect that all of Amestris had been founded as part of an incomprehensibly huge plot.

Another, far more terrifying thing.

Ed jerked his head up abruptly and checked every visible corner of the library. He slammed the books closed, hid the map in his shirt, and dashed frantically around the shelves, slamming books into their places. As soon as he finished, he spun to face them and snapped, “Let’s get out of here.”

“What…?”

Ed leaned close and hissed into Maes’s face, “Is it or is it not a safe bet to figure they’re fucking everywhere?

It was. It really was.

* * *

Maes took a pale Armstrong and a twitching, muttering Ed to a hideout he’d planned with Roy in mind. It was just a little run-down house in a nothing neighborhood. He locked them in and closed the curtains. He checked for signs that anyone had been in the room any time within the last several months and found none.

He assured Ed that it was virtually the safest place in Amestris, and coaxed him to pull the map out again.

“So there’s one point missing,” Ed pointed out, peering suspiciously around the room despite all assurances. “Are you sure this place is safe?”

He’d asked that question every thirty seconds since they’d arrived.

“Their spies are everywhere. I suspect the spiders,” Maes responded. “And yes. A point missing in the north. The center would be…”

“Briggs,” Armstrong said. “Fort Briggs."

Maes tapped erratically on the map for a while, then kept doing it once he saw that it was driving Ed crazy. Ed had it coming. And Maes was pretty sure that he wouldn’t murder anyone over it. Probably. “Your sister is the commander of that base, isn’t she, Major?”

“She is.”

“Stop that or I put a fucking knife through your hand,” Ed snapped.

Maes stopped tapping. “I worry about your long-term health, Ed. You’re so high-strung.”

“Here’s a weird thing,” Ed said absently, having moved on to ignoring Maes. “Check this out.”

He circled Briggs, then drew the complete circle around Amestris. Next, he drew a pentagon within a pentagon, connecting alternating cities on the circle.

“That,” he said, “was the array on the floor of Lab 5. I showed the Major that one before.” He looked up with eyes as blank and glassy as a doll’s. “Funny, huh?”

Maes wished very much that Ed would stop looking like that. “Do you know what the array was for?”

“Heh. Chatty armor guy with a sword said it was for transmuting the Philosopher’s Stone, but then Lust punched a hole in his runes, and that was all he had to say about that. I thought he was full of shit.” He wiped a hand across his mouth and grinned a truly deranged grin. “But hey. Maybe not.”

“You never mentioned a chatty armor guy with a sword.”

“Didn’t think it had anything to do with you. My bad.”

Armstrong was displaying the surprising Armstrong family talent for sitting very still and being inconspicuous; a not unimpressive talent for a man as massive as the Major. Unfortunately, that meant he was trusting Maes to come up with a plan of action. And also to deal with Ed.

Maes could do with a little less trust, actually.

“Ed, I’m at a bit of a loss, I confess. What’s the next step after discovering that your country is a Philosopher’s Stone manufacturing plant?”

Ed turned his alarming grin away from the map and toward Maes. “Gonna hafta catch a homunculus,” he said with inappropriate cheer. “Only this time, it’s gonna hafta stay alive long enough to talk.”

* * *

“Roy, how secure is your line?”

“Why is that lately all of our conversations start this way?”

“Because Edward Elric.”

“It’s my home phone, Hughes. You’re the one who called it.”

“Yes, but I don’t know how secure it is these days. I want a phone, Roy, that there isn’t even a passing chance that the military is tapping.”

“Mm, I could tell this was coming. I had Fuery check the line for bugs last week. It was clear then.”

“Last week…should be fine. I hope. We’re in trouble, Roy.”

“I gathered.”

“Remember when I said the fuhrer seemed strange? Forget the fuhrer. This is an artificial country.”

“…You’re not making sense.”

“The country is an array. Ed says it’s probably an array for making a Philosopher’s Stone.”

What!?

“I’ll have him write you a letter explaining it, but this is—God, I wish they would transfer you to Central. They’ve been talking about it for months, talk talk talk, no action. I need you here.”

“What—the country? I need to see—I don’t—”

“You need to talk to Ed and Armstrong. I can’t help with the alchemy—I didn’t understand much beyond we’re screwed.”

“What’s Elric doing?”

“He says he’s going to catch a homunculus and make it talk.”

“He’s insane.”

“But of course.”

“…I wish I were there, too.”

* * *

“Major Armstrong is paying his sister a visit up North,” Maes informed Ed, who had, thank every deity listening, finally calmed down a little. It had only taken him three days.

“Good idea,” Ed allowed. “Maybe he’ll get to kill Scar, too. Multitasking or some shit.”

“I’m thinking of moving my family to Creta.”

Ed shrugged. “If you seriously think that’ll help ‘em any. If these guys win, I mean.”

Ed had an unfortunate point. “And do you have a method in mind for your plan?”

“I figure I just gotta be obvious about prying into stuff they don’t want me to, and they’ll have to try to stop me. They don’t wanna kill me.”

“Don’t they?”

“No, and I fuckin know I told you this: they said I was a ‘human sacrifice.’ So they can’t kill me, I guess. Otherwise I’d be dead three times over by now.”

“But how exactly—”

“Hey, D,” cut in a voice Maes had never heard before, and he and Ed both whirled to face it.

Maes wished very, very strongly that random adolescents would stop sneaking up on him. He’d been in a war zone, for God’s sake. Random adolescents shouldn’t be able to sneak up on him, even if they were freaky, wildly suspicious adolescents.

It was a girl. Around Ed’s age, clearly one of Ed’s kind, if Ed could be said to have a kind. She was grinning at them. At least, Maes thought, she didn’t look homicidal. She didn’t look like she had a particularly firm grasp of right and wrong, either, but Maes was coming to appreciate small favors.

“News?” Ed asked, unfazed, because obviously he’d heard her or seen her or sensed her with his bat sonar or who knew.

“No ‘hello’?” asked the girl. “No ‘and how have you been; any good hauls lately?’ No introduction to your friend?” She had the look of someone who was skipping along the edge of a cliff and enjoying the hell out of it.

“No knife in the back, no fist in your face,” Ed said, wide eyes and a smile and a faint threat of violence. “You’re luckin out so far. Keep up your bullshit, though, and I can’t promise you anything.”

“I’m Paninya!” the girl informed Maes with reckless glee. “I gotta say, I never thought I’d see D hanging out with a military guy. No love lost, y’know? You must be somethin’ special.”

“Don’t fish,” Ed snapped before Maes could respond. “Do you have something for me or don’t you? If you’re only here for the pick-pocketing opportunities in Central, don’t waste my fucking time talking to me.”

“You are so ungrateful, D,” she huffed, crossing her arms. “After I came all this way. And you know I like my own mountains and my own automail mechanic and my own pawn shops. I’m not the traveling kind.”

“You have automail?” Maes asked. Must be a leg; it wasn’t visible. Though you’d never know it to watch her move.

“Shut up,” Ed snapped at Maes. Maes was inclined to be offended. “Spit it out,” he ordered Paninya.

“I stole a thing,” she said, not put off in the least. “Check it out.”

She threw something at Ed. Maes thought that throwing things at Ed was probably a very bad idea, but maybe he was used to this kind of behavior from Paninya the madwoman. He didn’t even twitch.

“You stole matches from a bar?” he asked, bored.

“I heard a rumor you wanted to know about people with a snake tattoo.”

Ed’s interest abruptly sharpened into something terrifying. “The ouroboros,” he hissed.

“Guy had it on the back of his hand; I pulled this out of his pocket,” Paninya said lightly. “Check out these fast hands.”

“‘Devil’s Nest,’” he read. “So where’s that?”

“You want me to wipe your butt for you, too?” Paninya scoffed. “I stole it, you find it. That’s fair.”

Ed sighed, but didn’t argue the point, which Maes found interesting. “Notice anything about the guys he was with?”

“Sure,” she said, plopping comfortably to the ground and crossing her legs. Ed crouched next to her, poised ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. “They were all weird.”

“Weird how?”

Maes didn’t think he’d have been able to answer or even think if Ed had been looking at him like that, but maybe Paninya was immune.

“They moved funny. Looked funny. Acted funny. Weird in pretty much every way I can think of.”

“God, you’re a crap informer. Pick one guy and tell me what he was like, can you handle that?”

“Don’t be mean to the messenger, D, or I’ll break your foot. So this one guy, he kind of darted around. You know?”

“No.”

“Shut up. He walked slow sometimes, then darted—he was like an animal. Not like normal people running. And then he kept smelling things; that was weird. Like, sniffing the air. And he had yellow eyes that didn’t look right. He was just off. They were all like that.”

Ed stared straight ahead, eyes going out of focus. “Huh,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Maes asked him.

“Huh? I dunno. But people acting like animals, that’s…right, impossible alchemy. You saw what human chimeras are like.”

Maes nodded grimly.

“They’re always all screwed up, that’s the way it is. Human mix chimeras shouldn’t work. But impossible alchemy is trendy lately.” Then, “Hey, don’t be a bitch,” seemingly apropos of nothing.

“D,” Paninya whined. “It’s my job.”

“If you’re messing with my people, then you need to get a different fucking job.”

Paninya sighed, shrugged, and pulled a wallet out of her shirt. A wallet which, after a moment of study, Maes recognized as his own. Unsettling. Not only were they sneaking up on him, they were stealing things from him. Clearly he’d lost his edge.

Also, had Ed just defended him? Had Ed just called him my people?

“Anyway, I gotta go ask the guy at Carl’s if he knows where this Devil’s Nest is. Bet he does. Crazy bastard knows from bars.”

He walked away, leaving Maes alone with Paninya. It was an opportunity Maes was planning to make the most of. No sense in wasting time commenting on the wallet.

“How did you come to be doing this work for Ed?” He thought it was a fairly benign question. Apparently it wasn’t benign enough. Or maybe, with these children, no question was considered benign.

“You’re askin’ me about D?” She smiled fiercely. “You sure that’s a good idea? Cuz, I mean. He finds out you were askin’ about him behind his back…D’s not a guy you wanna make unhappy with you, right?”

“Are you afraid to tell me?” Maes asked seriously.

“Me?” Paninya clearly thought that was the funniest question she’d heard all day. “My problem is, I’m not afraid of anything. Hey, if you wanna know, I’ll go with it. The short answer is, he looks out for us bottom feeders like just about nobody else except my mechanic.”

“Bottom feeders,” Maes repeated blankly.

“Pickpockets and small-time thieves,” she said. “Pawn brokers and hookers and just poor people generally. You know. We’re not always on the up and up, but we don’t hurt anybody much. We’re totally under military radar. If somebody’s going around killing us, not only do you guys not care, you don’t even notice. But D, he notices everything. Scary bastard, right?”

“Amen,” Maes murmured.

“There was a guy killed some friends of friends of mine a few years back. You guys, I bet you never even heard. And D came in and did his magic. After that, seemed like a good idea to have him on my side. So I do stuff for him, when it’s not too much trouble. I mean, I was teasin D about it, but this is kinda fun. Hell, I’ve never been to Central before. Definitely not for free.”

“Free?”

“Yeah. D pays good money for information. What did you think, I was doing it out of the kindness of my heart? I like the guy, but there are limits.”

“You like him?” This conversation was not going remotely as anticipated.

“Sure.” She blinked. “Don’t you?”

Maes had never really considered that question. Did he like Ed?

The answer should be simple. Ed was violent, unpredictable, and paranoid. He was freakishly intelligent, and that gave him a sense of superiority that Maes didn’t care for at all. Nor did he care for Ed’s influence on Roy; it was making Maes feel like a father whose son was determined to fit in with the bad kids.

However.

Ed had a certain cockeyed charm. And for all that he seemed willing to kill anything that caught his eye, in practice he only killed for extraordinarily good reason. Maes knew: he’d investigated Ed like he’d investigated no one before, and over a span of years. If Ed knew how much time Maes had spent investigating him, he would fly into a rage—not because of the investigation, but because Maes had wasted so much time that could have been spent on homunculus research.

“I do like him.” There had been far too many awful realizations lately.

“Well, good. Here he comes. You can spend quality time. Me, I just caught a look at his face, and you know, thinking about it? I’ll catch up with him for my money tomorrow. Bye!”

She gave Maes a parting grin, then turned and darted down the nearest side street. Maes considered the look of Ed as he approached, and seriously thought about following her.

But no. This was the high cost of curiosity.

“Where is she?” Ed snapped.

“She says she’ll catch up with you tomorrow,” Maes reported in a nice, neutral tone. “Did you find out where the Devil’s Nest is?”

“Yes,” Ed snarled. And in typical Ed fashion, that was clearly all he was planning to say about that.

“So where is it?”

Dublith.”

“Ah.” Maes had never heard anyone pronounce Dublith with the same inflection as, say, The Mouth of Hell before. “Are you heading that way, then?”

“I’m not going to fucking Dublith!”

“Okay,” Maes said. And then, fatalistically, “Why not?”

Ed scowled at him, scowled at the matchbook, still clutched in his left hand, scowled at the world in general. Decided that this information would affect Maes’s ability to work with him, and spilled. “My teacher lives there.”

Edward Elric. Had been taught by someone.

Well, of course he had. Alchemical genius fighting machines didn’t spring fully-formed from the minds of generals. Someone had to have trained him. Still, it seemed unnatural. Unnatural that anyone had ever exercised control over Ed.

“And you don’t want to see him?”

“She’ll kill me,” Ed muttered, low enough that Maes suspected he was talking mainly to himself. “She’ll fuckin kill me, and she won’t be wrong. But I don’t have time right now. Can’t die yet. After this, maybe. After this. But I can’t die now. I can’t go to Dublith. Shit, I can’t.”

Maes had no wish to see what Ed would be like when hysterical. On the other hand, the gods had graciously provided them with a homunculus when they most needed one, and it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. “Could I go?” Maes asked.

Ed jumped, unexpectedly kicked from his spiral of misery. He tipped his head to study Maes with a strange, birdlike motion.

“No,” he said. “You stupid asshole. You’d die in five minutes.”

“Your teacher would kill me?”

“The homunculus would.”

“Could Roy go, then?”

“The Colonel?” Ed was looking increasingly horrified as this conversation went on. “You wanna kill the Colonel?”

“Roy can handle himself in a fight, Ed. I have confidence.”

“Shit, I’m glad one of us does,” Ed said. “No way.”

“Well, Major Armstr—”

Fine!” Ed shrieked abruptly. “Fine, I’ll fucking do it, shut up! No, shut the fuck up!” He violently patted himself down, eventually finding a wallet and pulling out an appalling amount of cash, which he threw at Maes’s face with a snarl. “Give that to the thief when she comes around. I’ll be back in a week unless my teacher kills me, which is pretty fucking likely. Oh, and fuck you.”

He spun on his heel and marched in the direction of the train station, twitching occasionally and shouting obscenities at random bystanders.

It was very odd, but Maes had to admit he found all of this endearing. Ed had been worried about them. Aw, it was so twistedly adorable.

He bent with a smile and started scooping up stray bills for Paninya.

* * *

Maes tried to be good. He tried so hard. He tried not to do anything that would cause Ed to kill him, tried not to do anything that would make Roy murmur “invasion of privacy” and “power corrupts.”

He did try.

But a week turned into two, and two turned into three, and he couldn’t help it. He started cold calling random people in Dublith. If Ed had wanted to avoid this, he should have sent Maes a message to let him know he was alive. Maes didn’t ask for much! Ed had brought this on himself, dropping off the radar now of all times.

Dublith was a very small town, and, as Maes had expected, it didn’t take more than five calls before someone responded to his questions about an excellent alchemist with, “Oh, you must mean Mrs. Curtis!”

Would this obliging person pass along Mrs. Curtis’s phone number? But of course. Maes loved small towns; there was no need for espionage in them.

Whatever Maes expected, it certainly wasn’t for the voice answering the phone to sound young, cheerful, and male. And to be announcing that he’d gotten hold of a butcher shop.

Perhaps the obliging person had been messing with him.

“I’d like to speak with Mrs. Curtis,” Maes said like someone who knew what he was talking about. “Is she available?”

“Oh, sure!” the voice said brightly. “I’ll get her in just a sec!”

Ed’s teacher…owned a butcher shop? Visions of hacking the bodies into pieces and concealing them in sausages danced before Maes’s mind’s eye.

“Who is this?” snapped a woman’s voice. The voice of a woman Maes never, ever wanted to anger.

“This is Maes Hughes.” Many people didn’t care for the military, and who could blame them? On the chance that she was one of those people, he thought he’d just leave the rank out of it. Because if she didn’t like the military, she sounded like the kind of person who might hang up on him and then smash the phone with a hammer.

“I don’t know any Maes Hughes,” she said suspiciously.

“I’m a friend of Edward Elric’s.”

“Uh huh. Really? Because my stupid apprentice is in a line of work that doesn’t make him a lot of friends. And I’d prefer it if the friends he has made would stay the hell away from him; they’ve obviously been useless from the start.”

Now was this a reference to criminal friends, or was this a reference to the military? Or just a random, angry shot in the dark?

“But has he told you about my adorable daughter?” Maes asked.

She sighed. Such a complicated sound: long-suffering, weary, still somehow filled with irritation. “What do you want?”

“I want to know that he arrived in Dublith alive, that he remains alive to this day, and that he’s planning to come back to Central. If I could also know when he’s coming back to Central, that would be nice, but I can live without it."

“Well, he’s alive. For the moment.”

This was not the most encouraging comment Maes had ever heard. He was trying to think of likely ways to request elaboration when he heard her say, somewhat muffled, “Some idiot called Maes Hughes. You know him?”

And then a very familiar voice in the background. “What!?

Thunk, clack, the phone changed hands. This was so exciting. “How the fuck did you get this number? How the fuck did you even know where I was, you freaky crazy stalker? Holy shit.”

“Hi, Ed!” Maes said happily. “I miss you!”

“Oh. My God.”

“You never call, you never write!” This was way more fun when you weren’t staring into his homicidal little face. “I thought you were dead! You could at least have sent me a bloodstained telegram!”

“A bloodstained—what the—for fuck’s—I wrote Mustang, isn’t that good enough? Shit, I gotta tell you both everything, now? I gotta write about where I am and who I’m with and what I freakin had for lunch—twice?

He’d written to Roy? He’d written to Roy, and, from the sound of things, Roy had mother-henned the hell out of him?

…And Roy hadn’t told Maes? Oh, he would be made to suffer for this.

“All you need to tell me is that you’re alive. And I can hear that you are—problem solved! When are you coming back to Central?”

“Why do you care?”

Ah, so mistrustful. “It’s an emptier place without you.”

“Don’t bullshit me.” Voice gone cold and Demon Alchemist, yikes. Apparently he didn’t even need to give you the Look to scare the hell out of you.

“Things are a little on hold until you get back, Ed,” Maes pointed out. “Major Armstrong, bless his well-meaning heart, is having epic family warfare with his sister up North. I don’t have Roy here. As far as alchemy goes, I wouldn’t notice the world was ending until it did, if you see what I’m saying.”

Ed gave that due consideration. “Are you saying the world’s ending politically?”

“Well.” Well, no line in Amestris was that secure, but actually, the fuhrer-with-no-history had been wandering the country an awful lot lately. It was making Maes sickeningly nervous. “When are you getting back?”

“I can be back in another week,” he allowed grudgingly. “This had better not be stupid.”

“How has your glorious reunion with your teacher been?” Maes asked.

Ed hung up on him.

* * *

“So, Roy…in a given week, how often do you correspond with Ed? Approximately?”

“No more than twice.”

“Twice a week.”

“Approximately.”

“I see. And you did not see fit to tell me this because…?”

“…”

“That wasn’t actually a rhetorical question, Roy.”

“It didn’t seem…relevant.”

“You’re starting to sound like him, you know.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“Less the swearing. I thought he was dead. I had no idea whether he’d made it safely to his teacher’s place or not. He didn’t tell me, you didn’t tell me. What was I supposed to think? Now of all times?

“Maes, I assumed that if he was writing me, he was also writing you.”

“Apparently I don’t rate. Keep this in mind. And while we’re on the subject of things that annoy me, have you ever gotten any information whatsoever from your mother on the subject of Ed?”

“She laughs at me.”

“She laughs.”

“Laughs.”

“Roy. I would not call this a laughing matter. And I’d say my sense of humor is generally quite good, occasionally even sick.”

“There’s sick and then there’s my mother.”

“And Ed.”

“Exactly.”

* * *

Maes met Ed at the train station with flowers. On the one hand, he really had missed Ed, in a strange, strange way. On the other hand, he thought it would be hilarious.

Instead, it turned out depressing.

Ed spotted him instantly, the way Ed did. He made his endearingly neurotic way over, eyed Maes and the flowers, and said, “What, you meeting someone?”

Maes blinked a couple of times before that sank in. “I’m meeting you, Ed.”

Ed sighed impatiently. “Right. None of my business. Catch you tomorrow, I gotta—”

“I thought I’d take you to dinner.”

Ed hesitated, and for the first time since Maes had met him, he looked completely at a loss. “Whoever you’re waiting for’s coming with us?”

“Ed. I was waiting for you.”

“Uh, no you weren’t. You got flowers.”

“I bought them for you.”

“Bullshit. No fucking way did you—that’s—” He stopped and shook his head. “People only buy me flowers when I kill someone for them.”

Ed should have had emotional trauma warning labels plastered across his forehead. “Well then this is a first,” Maes said with determined cheer. “I bought them because I missed you and I thought you’d make a strange face, but I was wrong. I got the yellow ones because they match your eyes and the red ones because they match your temper.”

Ed scowled, but he reached out and took the flowers. He held them at a distance, as if expecting a trick or poison. “What am I supposed to do with them?”

“Decorate?” Maes suggested.

“Decorate what?”

“Your place?” Where did Ed live, anyway? Maes was afraid to ask.

Ed eyed the flowers dubiously. “Can I give them to somebody?”

Ed had someone he wanted to give flowers to? “Sure. They’re your flowers.”

“Huh.” Ed dropped his suitcase to the ground, popped it open, and stuffed the flowers into it, probably crushing them irreparably. He hoisted the suitcase back onto his shoulder and gave Maes an expectant look. “Food?”

“Food!” Maes led the way to his favorite restaurant, where he hoped to God no one knew Ed. “So what do you normally do with flowers when people give them to you?”

“Leave ‘em on graves.”

Asking Edward questions: mistake, mistake, mistake. “I see.” Time to violently change the subject. “So Roy rates letters and I don’t? I’m wounded, Ed. Wounded.”

Ed shrugged. “Aren’t you gonna ask about the homunculus?”

Maes wondered if Ed had originally picked up the habit of question-dodging from his teacher, or if Maes had Roy to thank for that one. “Do you want to talk about the homunculus?”

“Don’t you want to hear about the homunculus?”

“Don’t answer a question with a question, Ed.”

“You started it.”

“It’s your first night back! We should talk about what you want to talk about. I can grill you about the homunculus tomorrow.”

Ed gave him the you’re an alien stare. “What if I die before tomorrow?”

He was such a cheerful kid. “Then I’ll ask your teacher.”

“What if I want to talk about…transmuting water into ice sculptures?” Testing the limits of Maes’s tolerance? “Like, all fuckin night?”

“Then I will tell you all about my beautiful daughter in return! All night.”

Ed snorted. They walked to the restaurant in surprisingly comfortable silence, and nobody working there engaged in any bizarre behavior around Ed. All good things.

Once they’d ordered, Maes said, “So who are you going to give the flowers to?” because he worked in intelligence for a reason and couldn’t help himself.

“Thought we were only talking about what I want to talk about,” Ed grumbled, looking feral and nervous and unhappy with how brightly-lit their table was. And Maes had gone to the trouble of asking for a corner table, too. There was no pleasing some lunatics.

“You’re right,” Maes admitted, and bit his tongue. He had said that, after all. It was only fair. No matter how much he wanted to know.

Ed sighed impatiently at his pleading expression. “Country kid I know. Likes flowers. Kind of a strange guy. Figure he’ll show up in a day or two. They’ll still be okay, right?”

More information than Maes had expected, actually. “I see. They should be fine if you keep them in water. So what do you want to talk about?”

Ed fidgeted in that particular, alarming way he had. The fidgeting encompassed, among other things, stealing Maes’s knife and fork and fanning all the weapon-like silverware into an easy-to-throw configuration. “Guess I’ll tell you about the homunculus.”

“Ed. You’re sucking all the challenge out of my life.”

“Oh, shut up. D’you wanna hear this story or not?”

Maes allowed that he did.

So Ed told the story of a homunculus named Greed. This story turned out to be surprisingly fascinating. A twisted family, an ominous father, dissension within the ranks. Mass destruction. Ultimate shield, ultimate spear, etc., etc. Extermination of all life in Amestris.

A fine story. If only it were fictional.

The story ended with their only source of information and nearly all of his followers dying under mysterious circumstances of what appeared to be spear-wounds.

“I’m guessing Lust,” Ed said, matter-of-fact. “She’s got these spear-fingers. And you’d think the homunculi would be pretty evenly matched, and she was way the hell meaner than Greed. Makes sense. Although…this one guy wasn’t quite dead when I got there, and he said something about…shadows. I dunno what the fuck that’s about.” He paused to eat some of his food, or at least to push it around his plate. “I led her there.”

“What?”

“I led her there. They didn’t know where Greed’d gone. I guess she was following the human sacrifice or something, and…I took her right fuckin to him.”

This was the same kid who stood over corpses and laughed. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Guy was a dreamer, anyway,” Ed muttered unhappily, stabbing viciously at a carrot.

“The homunculus was a dreamer?”

“Thought he could keep all his people with him, keep ‘em all safe, what freaking planet does he think this is? Well, did he think, I guess. He’s dead now and no damn wonder.” Ed continued his assault on innocent food. “I kinda liked him. Even if he was stupid.” Stab stab. “You would have liked him even more than I did.”

Maes allowed a decent interval to pass, then said, “I wonder why they want human sacrifices.”

“Yeah…” Ed looked up from the plate, eyes in distant research-mode. “A massive Philosopher’s Stone wouldn’t take sacrifices. I mean, not special ones. Not apart from, like, everybody in the country.”

He cut himself off to scowl savagely at the poor waiter who came to collect his plate. This caused the waiter to flinch and nearly drop the plate onto Ed’s lap, which might well have ended in death.

Maes silently promised to leave an enormous tip.

“So we got Envy, who’s dead,” Ed said once the waiter had fled back to the kitchen. “Lust, who killed Greed. The fat guy. Greed said there were six of them, and then there’s this Father guy, who’s somewhere in Central, how fucked up is that? He’s been here all along.”

“Creepy,” Maes agreed.

Beyond,” Ed insisted. “Then we got a transmutation circle of doom, and I’m a human fucking sacrifice. I don’t know why I even get up in the morning.”

Maes knew that laughing in response to that was very, very wrong. There had been no good news whatsoever in that story, and Ed was being weird and morbid.

But still. Still, Ed had uncovered more information on the government in the last six months than Maes and Roy had in their entire careers, and that was pretty hilarious, from a certain point of view. That, and the fact that Ed responded to near-certain death and dismemberment with nothing but irritation.

He didn’t explain any of this to Ed, of course. He just laughed.

“And people think,” Ed said resentfully, “that I’m crazy.”

* * *

The key to this plan’s success, Maes knew, was to act far more confident about it than he actually was.

“Ed! You must be hungry!”

Ah ha, Maes thought. So this is what prey feels like in its last few moments on earth.

“I myself am not food,” he pointed out, in the hope that Ed would stop looking at him like that. It more or less worked. It was just that Ed couldn’t help looking a little nuts; he came that way.

“Thought you had food with you,” Ed muttered, eyes wandering back to his book. “The fuck are you asking if I’m hungry for?”

“I thought I’d invite you home for dinner!” Cheer, mindless cheer. That was key.

Ed’s eyes were still on the book, but he definitely wasn’t reading. He was practically humming with tension. “You have a kid,” he said, voice husky and horrified.

“My perfect Elicia!” Maes cried. “True! I’m not surprised you remember; she is the most adorable creature ever to have graced the planet.”

“She’s gone for the weekend,” Ed assured the book.

“Send my dearest daughter away!?” Maes gasped. “Never!”

Ed abruptly slammed the book closed and flowed over the table. He went from a table-length away to in Maes’s face with a speed and grace that would have made a lesser man than Maes wet himself.

“You,” Ed growled, “are not seriously going to put me in the same goddamn building as your daughter.”

He settled back into his chair, grabbed the book, and stuck his nose back in it. It was cute the way he was so sure he’d won.

“Why not?” asked Maes.

Crazy yellow eyes stared over the top of the book. “Are you fucking for real?”

“I’m serious, Ed.” Maes sat down and gave him a grim look over the glasses to prove how serious he was. “You only kill the bad guys, and my wife and daughter are like angels fallen to earth. You’ve never in your life killed an innocent—except for that one time, and it couldn’t be helped—and given the sheer volume of stuff you’ve blown up, that’s very impressive. If my girls were given to murder, then I wouldn’t invite you home. As it is, I feel perfectly safe.”

“Why do you know stuff about me?”

“Intelligence, Ed,” Maes said, and smiled his favorite worrying smile. “I know you better than you know yourself. It’s my job.”

Most people, at this point in this particular conversation, gave Maes a deeply frightened look. Ed just searched his eyes dispassionately. Probably wondering how true that statement was, and whether it could be quantitatively measured.

Ed was one messed up kid. This was not new data, but damn. It hit a little harder every time Maes was reminded.

“It’s not just that.” Some of the anger was creeping back into Ed’s voice. “It’s not that. Obviously I’m not gonna fuckin’ murder your family, that would be…shit, I’d have to go all Demon Alchemist on myself. But I’m.”

Dirty. It was amazing how loud some unspoken words could be.

“Edward,” Maes said softly. “I would be honored if you would come home with me and meet my family.”

Ed’s head jerked down, the book suddenly the most fascinating thing in his world. His hair hid his expression, but Maes thought he could guess at it.

“Okay,” Ed said roughly after a long moment. “But you’ve lost your fucking mind.”

* * *

“You must be Edward,” Gracia said with a welcoming smile. “I’ve heard so much about you!”

Now, it seemed a perfectly normal greeting. It was a perfectly normal greeting. What was impressive about it was that she’d managed to give it to Ed, who was lurking to the left of the doorway, eyes darting wildly everywhere like ninja monkeys might attack from the azaleas at any moment.

But then, Maes had married the most wonderful woman in the world.

Ed turned far enough to examine Gracia warily out of the corner of his eye. “Hey,” he said, then jerked back to give those evil azaleas his full attention. Maes was proud he’d managed a greeting without cursing in it.

“Is Elicia awake?” Maes asked, and noted Ed’s nervous shifting.

Of course Elicia was awake. If she’d been napping at this time of day, everyone would be awake all night. But he and Gracia had agreed that Elicia’s usual (adorable) greeting at the door might be too much for Ed to handle at one throw, and given the squirming, it would appear they’d been right.

Elicia had agreed to pretend to be asleep. She was going to grow into an amazing actress, if that was what she wanted to be.

“Come in and I’ll check on her,” Gracia said, stepping away from the door and disappearing into the house.

Ed stared into the doorway like a man looking at a snake pit. But he gritted his teeth and walked in. Brave kid, the Demon Alchemist.

“Papa!”

Ah, Elicia could only be restrained for so long. And as she ran toward them, even though Maes trusted Ed and knew, knew he was right to—he had a moment of blind, unthinking panic.

Then Elicia was in his arms, and the panic was gone, his breathing evened out, and he informed himself that he was an idiot.

“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Gracia said, but it was a question, really. She was asking if it was safe to leave Elicia, or if she should take her along.

Maes nodded, and Gracia disappeared, after a final backward glance.

Maes turned to Ed, and could tell that Ed had managed to see that moment of panic, and that it hadn’t surprised him a bit. Surprise and disappointment were different things, however.

“This, Ed, is my gorgeous, wonderful, fabulous, amazing daughter, Elicia. And this, Elicia, is my good friend, Edward Elric.”

Ed tipped his head, acknowledging the attempt. “Hey,” he said to Elicia.

“Hello,” Elicia said with shy (adorable) interest. “How old are you?”

Ed blinked. “I’m, uh. Fifteen.”

“Wow! That’s old.”

“Huh. Depends how you look at it.”

Maes set Elicia down and watched her wander over to Ed, chattering happily. After a few minutes of this with Ed showing no sign of impatience, Elicia ran to the kitchen to fetch some of her drawings. Ed didn’t look to Maes to save him. Ed didn’t look irritable or uncomfortable at all.

Maes had anticipated any number of reactions Ed might have to Elicia. Mostly he’d anticipated Ed hiding somewhere and refusing to touch her. But no. No, this was something else again.

“It’s a doggie!” Elicia announced, holding a(n adorable) drawing up to Ed.

Ed knelt down to be eyelevel with her, just like a normal person. More than that—like a person who was good with kids. He said, “I like it. You trying to talk your dad into getting you a dog?”

“He says it’s not fair to have a dog in the city.” Elicia made a sad face, which tore at Maes’s heartstrings, it really did. But they weren’t getting a dog.

Ed shrugged. “So get a little dog.” He turned his scary eyes to Maes. “A kid should have a dog.”

It sounded like a threat. “Thank you for your support, Ed,” Maes sighed.

Elicia recognized an ally, and gleefully flung herself at him. She hung off Ed's arm, talking a mile a minute about pomeranians and pugs and terriers and how very much she’d like at least ten of them. Ed had only flinched a little when she’d touched him, and he was smiling at her now with a soft expression that Maes had never imagined on his face.

Of course, he hadn’t seen Ed’s face when he’d killed Nina.

Gracia was standing in the kitchen doorway, raising her eyebrows at Maes. “Where is this dangerous lunatic you were warning me about?” she was silently asking.

Maes didn’t know.

The dangerous lunatic continued his absence throughout dinner. Ed was a little abrupt, yes, but in this house, surrounded by familiar, comforting things, Maes found himself entertaining the insane notion that this might be because Ed was feeling awkward, shy.

He cleaned his plate. He offered to help with the dishes. He played with Elicia when he was refused. He waited a decent interval before suggesting he should head home, and accepted the leftovers thrust on him with fair graciousness, for a teenaged boy. Maes could feel Gracia’s bewildered gaze on the back of his head as he walked Ed to the door.

Benign Ed disappeared as soon as the door shut behind them.

“I’m not doing this again,” he announced, eyes wandering up and down the street, not just with his usual suspicion, but with an edge of hysteria.

“Elicia will miss you,” Maes said. “Are you going to break my daughter’s heart?”

Ed twitched violently. Maes cursed himself for spitting out comebacks before he’d thought them through; that had been unnecessarily cruel.

Ed recovered quickly. Ed always, always recovered quickly. Or at least, he was good at giving that impression. “Fuck you,” he muttered quietly, so that they couldn’t hear him inside the house. “I don’t need this. You can’t—I get what you think you’re doing, and you’re. You’re not helping.”

No wonder Roy found him so hard to control. He paid too much attention. “I’m sorry.”

Don’t be fuckin sorry. See you tomorrow, whatever. Go home, Hughes.”

He walked away down the street, looking even more high-strung and feral than usual. But he’d come all the way to Maes’s house, and he’d been so good.

After all this time, Maes still wasn’t sure what to make of Ed. But he was worryingly fond of him anyway, and it was getting worse by the day.

* * *

“Well?”

“You’re so impatient, Roy! What will we do if you give yourself an ulcer before you advance beyond Colonel? What a waste.”

“Maes. Did Elric find what he was looking for?”

“He did. I’ll tell you about it later…or maybe I’ll have Ed send you a letter. I had him over to dinner last night!”

“…”

“…”

“…You what!?

“I had Ed over to dinner. It took you 45 seconds to respond to that, Roy. It’s a new Roy-silencing record, up from 43 seconds that time we found the naked general tied to a clock-tower.”

“Have you lost your goddamn mind!?

“Ah ha ha! That’s exactly what Ed said!”

“What…how…?”

“Of course, my gorgeous daughter charmed him to pieces.”

“…Pieces?”

“Not those kinds of pieces. He was perfectly well-behaved. From subsequent evidence, I’d say it was real strain, but he was perfectly well-behaved.”

“And Gracia let you do this?”

“Gracia, though perfect in every way, does have her moments of madness. She married me, for one thing.”

“Maes…”

“You’re the one who wants to believe in him.”

“Your house.”

“He and my beautiful Elicia talked about dogs.”

“You hate dogs.”

“Yes. I think Ed realized that.”

“I can’t believe you did that.”

“Yes, yes. Did you have another reason to call me, or did you just want an Ed update?”

“I…actually, I called to tell you I’m being transferred to Central.”

“Finally. Congratulations on your promotion.”

“You already knew, didn’t you? You can be very annoying, Maes. I mention it as a friend.”

“Bringing the team along, I hope?”

“Of course.”

“Ah, perfect. Hawkeye, Havoc, Breda, Falman, Fuery…and Ed. Roy. This is going to be so much fun!”

“You’re a sick man, Hughes. Sick.”