Actions

Work Header

Reverti Ad Praeteritum

Chapter Text

"Edward," Al called from behind him, his tone finally starting to show the irritation that Ed suspected he'd been feeling since they'd dropped their things off at the inn and Ed had proceeded to take off with only a brief warning.

Ed sighed and finally stopped, turning to scowl back at his brother. "What? If you only came to slow me down–"

Al aimed a punch at him, far closer than Ed had expected, as he snapped, "I'm here because you're a careless idiot, Brother, and the last time I let you hunt down a rumour on your own, you came back with a broken collarbone."

Ed grimaced at the reminder as he dodged the punch, because broken collarbones were not fun. Even less fun had been Winry's response, and the way their son, Yuriy, had kept looking like he was waiting for Ed to keel over. (Seriously, that kid was way too fucking much like his mother with the constant freaking out over other people's health, and Ed knew that was at least half due to him breaking his leg when he was four, but seriously. Nina, their daughter, on the other hand, was way more Ed's kid, getting into fucking everything and plotting adventures all over town, which was probably why she was both his favourite, and the one most likely to give him grey hairs before he hit thirty-five.)

Al huffed and thumped his fist backwards against Ed's chest in that way that he'd picked up from Ed, back when there was an obvious height difference between them. "Nothing about these rumours say we have to rush," he pointed out, tone reasonable.

Ed sighed. Yeah, the rumours he'd heard this time sounded less like an alchemist about to rip up the countryside – which had happened, and Winry had knocked him out when he'd tried to go help, insisting that was the military's job – and more someone doing questionable experimentation. Small scale – only animals had been reported missing, so far – but who knew when it would turn into something more worrisome.

Al let out his own sigh, clearly reading Ed's thoughts from his expression. "Okay," he said, a quiet agreement, and Ed glanced over at him, raising one eyebrow. Al smiled back, a little tired and a lot resigned, then motioned towards the crumbling manor house they could see up the dirt road ahead of them. "Let's go kick some idiot alchemist's arse."

Ed grinned at him. "If it really is chimera research, can I kick out all his teeth this time?" he asked, just because he could.

Al rolled his eyes and shoved Ed's shoulder, getting them both moving forward again. "Is that the reason you refused to send up to Central for backup?"

'Again,' he didn't add, because Ed had been refusing to ask for help from the military since Mustang became the Führer, even though they both knew the bastard would send a couple soldiers or an extra alchemist to help them out in a heartbeat, should they but ask. Would probably insist on it, even, given neither of the brothers had the authority to run around Amestris bagging alchemists performing questionable experiments. (Being national heroes granted them some leeway, there, or it had under Grumman. Why Mustang hadn't come down on them for acting like Ed was still a State Alchemist yet, only he could say, and Ed didn't care to think about it overmuch.)

Ed snorted. "Like we really need that bastard's help to take out some stupid hermit," he returned. Because there was no way he was ever going to tell his little brother the truth, the reason he avoided Mustang even more now than he had when they were kids; that was one secret he was intending to take to his grave.

Al just sighed, likely long resigned to Ed's refusal to ask for help, especially from Mustang.

They slowed as they reached the clearing around the manor, both keeping their eyes sharp for any sign of arrays lying in wait; Ed couldn't purposefully activate any arrays, but he'd learnt through painful experience that there were some arrays you didn't need a personal Gate to activate. (And if he ever met the fucker who'd designed those, he was going to do a lot worse than kick all their teeth out.)

Seeing nothing, they made their way up the short staircase in front of the house and Al stepped forward to knock, while Ed stayed back and readied one of his throwing knives.

The door creaked open at Al's touch and he looked back to frown at Ed, who narrowed his eyes and shook his head in response; he had no idea, but now he was twice as glad that they'd come.

Al grimaced and gave a ghost of a nod, then cautiously pushed the door open the rest of the way and called, "Hello?" into the dark halls that greeted them. "Mr Martin?"

There was no response, and Al looked back at Ed again, defaulting to his command. And Ed knew that was because his brother's better sense was saying 'run the other way' or 'wait for a response' or whatever normal people's better sense said when they came across this sort of situation, but his gut was probably doing the same thing as Ed's was right then, screaming 'something's wrong'. And when it came down to a battle between Al's better sense and their gut instincts in the field, so long as neither of them was wounded, Al always defaulted to Ed.

Ed flashed him a sharp smile and shifted his grip on his throwing knife, then made the hand-signs he'd picked up from knowing one too many members of the military for 'careful' and 'move forward'.

Al gave a short nod, then stepped carefully into the house, Ed following two paces behind – just far enough back, he wasn't likely to get caught up in any alchemical traps, but close enough he could intervene if things went to shit.

They walked through the entire ground floor like that, lighting the small chemical lights they'd brought with them and spreading out to check darkened doorways as they found them. A large portion of the floor in what looked like it might have been the dining room at one point – not that there was furniture to be certain – was sagging, and they'd taken care to skirt around the outer edge, neither one stupid enough to test what was clearly unstable.

"Clear," Al whispered with a frown as they stopped in the kitchen, which had definitely seen some use recently, because there were dirty dishes in the sink that hadn't been sitting so long as to start stinking. "Maybe he's out?"

Ed shook his head, because everything in him – every instinct and sense tuned to danger – said this wasn't just an innocently empty house, and the light sheen of sweat he could see beading Al's forehead in the glow of their lights said he felt it, too. "Basement or upstairs?" he asked.

Al swallowed and looked towards the gaping doorway they'd found that led to a set of stairs heading down. Both of them knew that alchemists usually set up their workshops in the bottom floor of their homes – basement or ground floor, depending on the design of the house – so going down was their best chance to find out what this guy was up to. But, if Martin was upstairs, he could potentially cut off their retreat if they went down before clearing the rest of the house.

Ed knew what he wanted to do – head straight down and find out exactly what this fucker was up to, and if they had to fight their way out, they had to fight their way out – but Al was, by and large, the more sensible of the two of them, so he'd bow to his decision. (That was, after all, the reason he'd let his brother tag along with only token complaining.)

"Down," Al finally said, and Ed couldn't keep from shooting him a disbelieving look. Al shrugged. "We might as well figure out what he's up to?"

Ed flashed him a grin that made Al grimace, then stepped past him and started down the stairs with care, knife held ready to throw at the first hint of movement.

The basement turned out to be a huge open space, with wooden bracers holding up the ceiling at intervals, some of them leaning slightly. (Ed made a point to give those a wide berth.) There were tables and bookshelves shoved up against the far wall, while a massive array had been traced into the middle of the floor. The supports that should have been inside the array were missing, and the ceiling was sagging slightly; Ed would bet that was the dining room.

The basement didn't have any doors or hidden passages they could find, so it was easy to clear. Which left Ed and Al staring across the massive array in the middle of the floor.

"...the fuck?" Ed said at last, vocalising what, he was sure, they were both thinking.

Al carefully crouched down just above what looked like might be the top of the array, above the symbol for combining matter. "I don't recognise either of these," he said, pointing to the two closest...Ed didn't actually know what to call them. Miniature arrays?

Ed gingerly touched the outer circle of the array and, when nothing happened, stepped inside and crouched over the nearest of the strange...whatever they were. Circles and crescents and lines going every which way. "Not an array," he decided.

"So...what?" Al asked as he got to his feet again and started over towards the tables and bookcases. "Let me see if I can find anything about this."

"Yeah, good luck," Ed muttered as he got up and walked around the array to the bottom. There was another strange symbol down there, which looked like it was a bit simpler than the other two. It was bracketed by mirror images of the symbols for night and day, which was...a weird choice. Usually, when you were going to use those symbols as balance, you put one on either side, but Martin had put both of them together on both sides of the array. And that–

"Is he trying to overload it?" Ed muttered to himself as he turned to look at the centre of the array. There looked to be something written there – or maybe it was just the remains of one of the missing wooden supports, but he stepped forward and crouched down next to it anyway. And, yeah, that was writing. Old script. Looked like two distinct phrases, each forming half of a circle, and Ed leant in closer to try and read the small text.

"Memores acti et prudentes futuri," he murmured, then tilted his head to see the other half. "Reverti ad praeteritum."

Be mindful of your deeds and conscious of the future. Return to the past.

Something very like disbelief caught in Ed's throat, the hair at the back of his neck standing on edge, because that sounded a lot like–

He looked towards where Al was bowed over one of the tables. He'd found a lantern and lit it, using it and his chemical light to look through at least two different books. "Al," Ed croaked.

"Just a minute, Brother," Al called back, not even bothering to raise his head.

"Al-phonse," Ed stressed, his voice cracking.

Al looked up and around, then, attention most likely caught by Ed's tone. And then his eyes went wide and he shouted, "Move!"

Ed looked behind him as he tried to get to his feet, but his automail had locked up – he really should have got Winry to look at it before they left, but with the preparations for the yearly festival underway, he hadn't wanted to add to her stress – and he found himself staring at a man that couldn't have been much older than him, hair defying gravity around his head and eyes wild.

"At last," the man said, only just audible over Al shouting for Ed to move, "a human test subject."

And then he touched the outer edge of the array.

"Brother!" he heard Al scream as the array lit blue, then dark, terrible purple.

A door slammed, and Ed found himself standing in a world of whiteness. In front of him sat a white figure, haloed in shadows, and Ed shook his head, stumbling backwards, away from that figure that he only ever saw in his nightmares.

"How was it?" that terrible voice asked.

Ed turned to look behind himself and found his Gate standing tall. "No," he whispered. He'd got rid of it. He'd traded it for Al fourteen years ago. This shouldn't be here.

Return to the time past.

He turned back towards Truth, looked down at where its white-white legs were folded together. Two white legs.

Ed looked down at himself, his child's body, and felt nausea climbing his throat at the sight of his real left leg.

Truth let out a sigh and got to its feet. "Nothing to say?" it asked.

"Don't," Ed heard himself plead, his voice too young.

"Don't what?" Truth returned. And then it took a step forward and pain – so much worse than he remembered – shot through Ed as his leg was torn to pieces. "This is your toll, Mr Alchemist," it reminded him as Ed struggled vainly to keep from screaming at the agony.

Hands braced against his arms, steadying him, and Ed found himself staring into an eyeless face, its grin wide and cruel. "Equivalent exchange, is it not?"

And then Ed found himself laying on the stone floor of Hohenheim's old study. The purple light of human transmutation lit the walls in eerie shades, and Ed tasted blood and alchemy in the air, like a page from the worst of his nightmares.

Agony bled from the stump of his leg, and Ed couldn't quite bite back a sob as he forced himself into a sitting position with one hand, the other clutched tight around his wound. Panic was creeping at the edge of consciousness, and Ed forced himself to close his eyes, to breathe in deeply, ignore the dying light of the worst mistake of his life and the scent of his own blood, calm down and think.

Time travel. Impossible, yes, but no more so than the hundreds of other things Ed had seen and done over the past twenty-nine years.

No, not twenty-nine years any more. He was ten – almost eleven – when this happened.

The thing they'd transmuted let out a wet gurgle, and Ed opened his eyes to look towards it. "Al," he whispered, remembering what his brother had said about being in that thing for a moment, before it rejected his soul.

His thoughts focussed into sharp clarity: Al. He had to get his brother back, couldn't trust Truth not to just let him die out of spite, because they didn't know how long a body and soul could remain in that world before it was shunted off to death, how long their theoretical connection would let them cheat the natural order.

First, a test: Ed looked down at his leg stump, took a deep breath and envisioned the Cretan healing array he wanted, then quickly clapped his hands together and pressed them against the open wound.

The alchemy blazed bright green, the same as pretty much every other healing transmutation he'd seen performed using western alchemy. The pain faded away to a manageable level and the bleeding stopped, thick scabs stretching over the wound, exactly like was supposed to happen.

Ed could use alchemy again.

He stared at his hands for a long moment – two real hands he could press together and activate an array – then shook himself and looked towards the armour he'd trapped his brother in last time, standing tall against the wall, just within reach.

"I can't," Ed whispered, squeezing his eyes closed. He couldn't do that to Al again. He couldn't trap him in that hollow body, watch him struggle with the same, terrible distance that he had once before. (Fuck. Had Al got caught up in that transmutation? Would he remember that existence? Wouldn't it be better if he didn't?)

But, then, what could Ed trade for his brother? His Gate?

Ed let out a laugh that cracked and shattered at his feet.

No. If he was ten, that meant the Dwarf in the Flask hadn't been destroyed yet. That meant he would need his alchemy. Because maybe he'd defeated the fucker with a punch, in the end, but alchemy had done a lot more, in terms of using up his Stones quickly, than conventional weapons.

Stones.

Stones.

Ed opened his eyes and stared down at the blood-stained floor, remembering what May had mentioned, once, about how it had felt like there were people moving under the ground in Amestris. Something she'd noticed as soon as she'd stepped over the border, the first time, but which was missing when she'd returned with Al after Ling's coronation. They'd hypothesised it had been Philosopher's Stones, spread out over the whole country to serve as the Dwarf in the Flask's means for limiting Amestrisan alchemists from using the full potential of tectonic energy, as well as shutting off their access to it entirely.

Ed swallowed. He and Al had made a promise, that they'd never use a Philosopher's Stone to get their bodies back, but that was before. And–

He closed his eyes, ran through every argument for and against using Philosopher's Stones that he'd heard over the years. Ling and May and the chimeras, they'd all been for using the Stones if you had them, because what use was a weapon – or a last chance for life – if you didn't use it. Dr Marcoh, too, had said, the last time Ed had seen him while visiting Ishval, that if he could use a Stone to heal someone – to do something good – then didn't that validate those who had lost their lives in the creation of the Stone? They no longer had any control over how they were used, but at least they could be used for something good, rather than storing them up to suffer in agony until they were pulled out for war.

"Something good, huh?" Ed whispered, opening his eyes and looking towards Al's abandoned clothing. His brother was good and kind, even as an adult. He'd never made any of Ed's mistakes, never run through a battlefield and ignored cries for help because there was nothing he could do for them, never fallen into bed with a man while his wife was at home with their two kids, and then run the fuck away.

He clapped his hands together and whispered, "He deserves to live," as he closed his eyes and touched the ground, seeking the well of life energy beneath him. "Help me save him. Please."

Red lit behind his eyelids, boundless energy filling him for a long, impossible moment, before there was nothing.

"You're back," that voice said.

Ed opened his eyes to find Truth sitting across from him, wearing Ed's leg. "I came for my brother," he returned, holding out a hand that, he found, held a blood-red Stone. "This is my toll."

Truth didn't move for a long moment. And, when it finally did – when it shifted and reached forward – it grabbed Ed's wrist and yanked.

Ed couldn't keep from sprawling forward, unbalanced with only one leg and his arm held tight by the fucker in front of him. Still, he didn't stay down long, shoving his free arm under himself and glaring up at the white figure. "The fuck gives, you shit? I brought you your fucking toll, so give. Him. Back!"

Truth turned to consider the Stone in Ed's trapped hand, head tilting, completely unconcerned with how angry Ed was getting. (They both knew there was nothing Ed could do to Truth.) "There is not enough for your leg," it said.

"I don't care about my fucking leg," Ed snarled, because he'd managed with automail for eighteen years, and it was a fucking pain in the arse some days, but it was his due for his sins. "Keep the fucking thing. I just want my brother back. I know he's here."

Truth turned to him, its mouth a flat line, and Ed felt like he was being stared at, even though Truth didn't have any eyes. "You took too much," it said, sounding a bit like it was...surprised?

A chill went down Ed's spine. "Too much what?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know.

"Knowledge," Truth said, before a hand wrapped around Ed's throat.

He grabbed for it with his free hand, trying to pry free fingers that were way too strong, even as he felt himself being raised into the air.

Beyond Truth, he could see now, was another Gate, familiar in a different way from his own, and a blond boy stood there, staring with wide, terrified eyes towards Ed and Truth. 'Al,' Ed mouthed, reaching towards his brother.

"I'll take your tolls, then," Truth said, as it took the Philosopher's Stone from Ed's hand.

Across the way, Al started to be disassembled, one hand reaching back towards Ed.

"Remember, it's equivalent exchange, Mr Alchemist."

The real world crashed back into existence around him, and Ed bowed forward, coughing as he clutched at the ache of his throat. "Al," he gasped.

Or...tried to gasp. All that came out was a wheeze, but Ed had spotted Al by then, laying naked on the floor next to his empty clothes, and he just...felt the strain drain away. "Thank fuck," he whispered.

No, not whispered. Mouthed. His lips moved and air came from his lungs, but he wasn't– He didn't–

Ed pressed his hands to his throat, a distant sort of horror settling over him. 'Tolls,' that fucker had said, and, 'You took too much knowledge.'

Truth had taken his voice as payment for Ed's future memories.

'You fucking bastard!' Ed shouted silently at the ceiling.

Oh, he should have known something like this would happen. Fucking Truth. Fucking Gate. Fucking–

Ed closed his eyes, forced himself to take a deep breath, ignore the taste of blood, and just–

He had Al back. He had alchemy and two arms. He knew what was coming. He knew they could defeat the Dwarf in the Flask.

He didn't need his voice to fight.

He swallowed and clenched his fists, shot a glare towards the ceiling. 'You'll see,' he mouthed at the absent fucker. 'You can't stop me. Not now, not ever. I'm gonna save everyone.'

Hughes and Nina. And old man Fu didn't have to die. Or Buccaneer.

Ed felt his mouth stretch with a grin that ached, angry and determined, and he looked towards Al. He forced himself to crawl over to his brother's side, touched his shoulder, took a moment to watch him breathe.

Al in the flesh. Warm. He wouldn't grow up trapped in cold steel. He would never know the uncertainty of whether or not he was real, would never find himself fading in and out as his armour body started rejecting his soul. No more long nights without anyone to keep him company, or only being able to sit and watch as others ate.

No, Ed didn't need his voice. This was enough for him.

He stared at his brother for a long few minutes, content to just watch him breathe, feel his warmth.

But, eventually, he remembered the horror waiting in the middle of the array, and he looked towards it, feeling sick. Last time, Granny had handled it, because Ed had been quite literally falling to pieces and Al had been desperate to save him; cleaning up this mess hadn't been on either of their radar, and, doubtless, Granny had been happy to keep them from seeing it again. Now, Ed was already stabilised because of the Cretan healing alchemy, and he still had both arms. Al was clearly sleeping, and Ed was loath to wake him, especially since that was there, and Al didn't need to see it.

Assuming he didn't already remember it; had Al been sent back too? He hadn't been in the array, not like Ed, but if Al had been in an array while someone was activating it, Ed would have come running to try and drag or push him out, and he knew his brother well enough to bet he'd do the same. But would he have made it in time? And what did getting stuck on the other side of the Gate mean for those memories? He hadn't remembered the Gate at all last time, until whatever had happened in that pub had unlocked the block; would that be the same now? Or had that only been because of the armour?

Ed didn't have any answers, wouldn't get them until Al woke. He huffed his hair out of his face and shook his head.

Fine. Whatever. He'd go with the assumption that Al didn't know anything about the future – better for Ed, anyway; if Al found out he'd used a Philosopher's Stone and only brought his brother back, not his own leg, he'd be so dead – and that meant he was better off not seeing what they'd created. He didn't need this horror haunting his nightmares.

Ed nodded to himself and looked around for the closest thing he could transmute into a crutch for himself, coming up with one of the weapons the suits of armour had been holding. A quick clap and he had something to help himself up with. Which was...too tall, he found once he'd stood, because he was thinking of his adult body.

'Idiot,' he mouthed, hobbling over to the wall so he could brace himself, then clapping again and shortening his crutch.

The scabs on his stump pulled as he made his way back to the edge of the array and carefully broke the circle, limiting the chance of it activating while he was inside it. (Which, yeah. That would suck.) He grit his teeth against the reminder that he was far from healed, and took a moment to find the bandaging they'd left out just in case to wrap his stump, lessening the chance that the scab would just fall off when he moved the wrong way. (He was a little careless with himself, okay, not completely stupid; he knew what would happen if it tore off while he was upright.)

It wasn't hard to turn the pan the thing was mostly laying in into something he could wheel outside, and shoving the mess of bones and half-formed skin and hair, while gross, was about on par with carrying a dying friend through a warzone, and far less sickening than digging up what he'd thought was his mother.

Somehow, with much silent cursing and a break to heal his leg again when he felt the scab tear, he managed to get his load outside into the pouring rain. A clap cleared a hole behind the tree, and it didn't take much effort to shove the whole mess into it, even with mud clinging to everything. Another clap had the mud returned to the hole and, after a short, uncertain pause, Ed clapped again and formed a small headstone marker out of some rocks.

Then he stumbled back inside, the strain of multiple transmutations, blood-loss, and stress finally catching up to him.

'Al,' he mouthed to himself. 'Have to get back to Al. If he wakes up alone–'

"Brother!" Al screamed from the study, because Ed's luck was just like that.

Gritting his teeth, Ed forced himself to hobble back into the study, found Al sitting up and staring at the massive spray of blood inside the array with horror. He opened his mouth to call out, remembered his lack of voice, and let out an angry sound.

Which...didn't come out quite like he'd have expected, but it was enough to catch Al's attention, and his head came up and around, tears glinting in the lantern light.

Al could cry.

"Brother?" Al whispered, his voice shaking.

Ed nodded and held out a hand towards him, bracing himself against the doorframe.

Al scrambled to his feet, tripped over a forgotten shoe, then stumbled his way over to Ed, nearly knocking him over as he hid his face in Ed's chest.

Ed dropped his crutch and wrapped his arms tight around his brother, squeezing his eyes shut and giving himself a moment to feel his brother's warmth, smell something other than steel. Flesh and blood. Alive. His brother was okay. They were both okay.

"Brother," Al whimpered against his chest, tears soaking through his shirt, "did we–? Did Mum–?"

Ed let out a silent sigh and shook his head, tightened his grip on Al when he let out a broken sob.

(Well, at least that answered the question of whether or not Al had any memories of the future. That was okay. That was good; Ed didn't want his brother to remember their trials.)

When Al started drooping against Ed, he let out a grunt and shook his brother until Al looked up at him with a broken stare. 'Granny,' Ed mouthed slowly.

Al's brow furrowed. "Brother?"

Ed set his mouth in a thin line and shook his head, then carefully braced himself with one hand on Al's shoulder and waved towards the door.

"Ed," Al whispered, horror in his voice, "why won't you–? You can't...talk?"

Ed shook his head again.

"How? Why? What–What happened?"

Ed sighed.

"What happened?" Al cried, pulling away and turning back to the blood-stained array in the middle of the floor.

Ed barely managed to catch himself on the doorframe, gritting his teeth as the sudden movement made the scabs on his leg pull warningly.

Right, so, being able to talk would have been really fucking nice right that moment.

Keeping a firm grip on the doorframe, Ed carefully knelt and grabbed his fallen crutch, then used it to poke his brother in the butt as he stood.

Al turned to look at him, guilt and horror dragging at his expression. And then his eyes caught on the crutch as Ed lowered it to the floor to lean on, and then on the empty space where Ed's left leg should have been.

And Ed had the dubious pleasure of watching his brother crumple to the floor and completely fall apart.

Ed closed his eyes and leant back against the doorframe. Fuck. Fuck. He hadn't been with it enough, last time, to know exactly how Al had taken everything. He knew that Al had picked him up and carried him to the Rockbell house, because Ed would have died otherwise, but he didn't know exactly what had been going through his brother's steel head while Winry and Granny had been fighting to save Ed's life.

Al didn't have a body that could carry Ed this time, and he didn't appear to have suffered any of the pains that Ed was wearing so carelessly. If their positions were reversed, Ed would have been screaming threats to the world, would have done everything in his power to even the field. (Once upon a time, he had.)

But Al... Al was nine years old and fuck alone knew what he remembered of that other world, if anything at all. All he knew was that their attempt to save Mum had failed, and Ed had paid the price.

Ed grit his teeth and made his careful way across the bloody study to Hohenheim's desk. He grabbed up a quill and the nearest mostly-blank paper, then wrote, 'I stopped bleeding but I need a dr to look at my leg. I need you to either call Granny + have her come over or help me over there--I can't make it on my own.' And it fucking sucked, having to admit his infirmity, but this was Al. Younger and untried, but still the one person he trusted above anyone else.

And, well, maybe giving him something to focus on, some way to help would help settle Al a bit. Maybe. (Ed could hope.)

He brought his note over and thrust it in front of Al. And when Al didn't take it, Ed whapped him on the head, then held it out again when Al sent him a broken look.

Al took it with shaking hands and read the note, then swallowed and looked up at Ed. "Granny would b-be able to h-help better there," he managed.

Ed nodded and pointed towards Al's abandoned clothing.

"Oh," Al whispered, and shuffled over to pull on his clothing, while Ed leant back against the wall and took a moment try catching his breath.

Fuck, he ached. He just wanted to be able to lay down and sleep, but he needed–

The study wasn't clean – they'd only swept it enough to make room for the array – and he'd ended up with an infection last time, not to mention he'd lost way more blood than was probably safe; he needed to let Granny look at him before the worst-case came to pass. And he should probably write her a note explaining everything, but he–

Fuck.

He clenched his jaw and pushed away from the wall, made his hobbling way back over to the desk and grabbed for the quill and some more paper.

"Brother?" Al called from behind him.

Ed shook his head and quickly wrote, 'We were stupid it was my fault leave Al alone about it. YES I lost my voice + leg. Floor wasn't really clean lost a lot of blood closed wound with alchemy. I want automail'

That was all the important stuff, right? Well, it was the stuff that would need to get tackled head-on, at least. Everything else could wait until he'd got some sleep and they'd figured out if he was going to be suffering from another infection. (Ugh.)

He folded the paper and slipped it safely into his pocket, hoped it would survive the rain, then carefully turned back towards Al, who was standing a few steps behind him, looking about as worn as Ed felt. And maybe they would have been better calling Granny over, but she had all the equipment she might need at her place, and Ed wasn't sure he should really let Al unaccompanied in the empty house, not with the study like this.

Ed held out his free hand, and Al immediately stepped forward to take it, moved in close enough to wrap an arm around Ed's waist, take some of his weight. Ed draped his arm over Al's shoulders in return, let himself balance between his brother – pretended he didn't notice how Al's whole frame was shaking – and the crutch for a breath, then nodded and took an obvious step forward.

Al stepped with him, took great care to keep step with Ed as they made their careful way out of the house and out into the rain.

The walk to Granny's was long and exhausting, and Ed almost slipped a handful of times, gritting his teeth against Al's broken apologies, as if it was his fault that Ed had lost his leg, that the mud made the road slippery and Al wasn't fucking armour this time, capable of carrying him the whole way in less than half the time it was taking them.

When they made it to the porch, they both stopped to catch their breath, and Ed wasn't really sure if Al was shaking or shivering any more, which was freaking him out a bit, but there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do when he was equally drenched and cold. (At least the rain had washed away the blood?)

"Granny!" Al shouted, and Ed winced at how loud his brother was, standing right next to him. "Granny, help!"

The door thudded open after a minute, Granny Pinako silhouetted in the doorway. "Al?" she called back, her voice worried.

"Brother needs help up the stairs," Al said, and Ed knew from his voice that he was crying again.

"Ed?" Granny called, stepping out onto the porch.

Ed grit his teeth – no fucking way he was going to try using Granny as a crutch – and took a firm hold of the railing in one hand, moved his crutch up to the first step, and hopped up.

"Brother," Al complained, just before hands came to rest against his back, making sure he didn't fall over backwards.

Ed made it up two more steps, Al a comforting presence at his back, before Granny let out a gasp and shouted, "Winry!"

Ed groaned – just what he didn't need (as if he could actually avoid Winry) – and hopped up another stair.

Winry had probably been roused by Al's earlier call and had just been avoiding coming out into the rain, because she stepped out before Ed felt secure enough to try the next step. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Help Ed up the stairs and into the ground floor patient room," Granny ordered, before turning around and brushing past her, back into the house.

"The patient–" Winry started, before choking and hurrying forward, her eyes gone wide. "Your leg!"

Ed gave a tired nod and decided, fuck it, too late to wave her off now – she was at least as stubborn as him and Al –and tossed his crutch onto the porch, then held out his newly freed arm to her.

Winry rushed to his side and ducked under his arm. "Al, can you get his other side?" she asked, so completely her parents' daughter, it was a fucking relief. Because Ed wasn't certain he could handle both her and Al crying right that moment.

"Yeah," Al promised, sounding tired, and Ed made a point to put most of his weight on Winry when they helped him up the last two steps and into the house.

"Get him onto the bed," Granny ordered once they made it back to the patient room, and Al and Winry carefully helped Ed up the slight jump onto the patient bed. "One of you two tell me what the hell happened," Granny ordered as she dragged over some water and clothes.

"I–" Al started before his throat apparently closed up and he squeezed his eyes shut, whole face scrunching up like he was doing his damnedest not to cry.

Ed reached into his pocket and pulled out the note, sighing to find it soaked through. He unfolded it while Granny demanded, "Well?"

With a clap, he dried the paper and reformed the ink into his original message, though it was a bit faded in some places, from where the ink had bled away. He held the note out to Granny, only to find her and Winry both staring at him. He huffed and waved it at her.

"Brother," Al whispered, "can't talk." And then there was a hand folding into his, cold and shaking, and Ed glanced over to find Al standing next to him, red-eyed and clearly miserable, but not surprised. And Ed wasn't certain if that was just because he was too tired to be surprised, or if he remembered the Gate and knew he could perform clap-alchemy, now, too.

It didn't matter. Ed would find out eventually, when they were both dry and warm and had slept a bit.

"Ca-can't...talk?" Winry whispered as Granny finally took the note.

Ed snapped his fingers until Winry turned a watery stare on him, then pointed at Al and made a very pointed shiver.

Winry blinked a few times, then seemed to realise, "Towels!" and ran from the room.

"Brother too!" Al shouted after her, his hand squeezing Ed's.

"You closed it with alchemy?" Granny demanded.

Ed turned to her and nodded, while Al whispered a disbelieving, "Brother?"

Granny set the note aside and carefully shoved the leg his shorts up, out of the way, then murmured, "It's not bleeding," sounding more than a little surprised. She shook herself as Winry returned with towels. "I'm going to cut off the bandaging," she warned.

Ed nodded in understanding and held still while she carefully snipped away the soaked bandaging. And it pulled at a few places – where the scab had torn, Ed knew – as she gently pulled it away, but it looked–

"This looks days old," Granny murmured, while Al pulled his hand away from Ed to accept one of the towels from a wide-eyed Winry, then wrapped it around Ed.

Ed huffed at him, but yanked off his shirt and wrapped the towel around his shoulders all the same; the last thing he wanted was pneumonia on top of a potential infection. Ugh.

Granny looked up again, casting a glare between him and Al. "What stupid thing did you do?"

"Human transmutation," Al whispered, before Ed could motion that he needed something to write with. "We wanted...to bring Mum–" he choked, and when Ed looked over, he found tears on Al's face again.

Ed reached out and caught Al's arm, pulled him into a hug and, fuck, he could hug his brother. He could comfort him. That was worth...everything.

That said, they were both exhausted, and while Ed was fairly certain he wouldn't be able to sleep until his leg was seen to, Al didn't need to be here for that. So he made his free hand like a pillow under his hand, then pointed to his brother.

Granny narrowed her eyes at him, but agreed, "Winry, take Al upstairs and help him to bed."

Al jerked away from Ed, looking stubborn and tired and like he was about two steps from falling to pieces. "I'm not leaving Brother!"

"I need to see to your brother's leg, and for that I need silence and space. Out," Granny ordered.

Al turned a helpless look on Ed, and he nodded and pointed towards the door.

"But–"

Ed pointed to his chest, then at the bed he was on, mouthing, 'I will be right here. I promise.'

Al swallowed, looking so fucking small, and Ed almost gave in, almost agreed that he could stay. But then Winry touched Al's arm and whispered, "Come on," and Al slumped and let himself be led from the room, the door being drawn shut behind them.

Ed and Granny sat in silence for a long moment, Ed staring after his brother and, fuck, was that such a good idea? Al needed to sleep, yeah, but they could have brought in a cot and then Ed would have been able to see his brother, make sure he was still okay, that this wasn't some fucked up dream.

Granny let out a grunt, then said, "Good."

Ed tore his eyes away from the door out into the hall, turned to stare at her.

Granny met his stare evenly. "You're taking this too calmly," she informed him, and Ed felt his jaw lock. "You're still worried about him."

Ed gave a tight nod; of course he was worried about Al. The day he wasn't worried about his brother, would be the day he die–

Oh.

Granny didn't know a hell of a lot about alchemy, he knew, only the handful she'd picked up from Ed and Al and Hohenheim. She knew human transmutation was forbidden, but she didn't know the cost. All she had right then was one brother missing pieces, acting way fucking calmer than Ed had ever been as a child, and one brother whole in body, but clearly falling to pieces emotionally.

Rather than trying to find a way to explain – if he ever explained – Ed touched his chest, then flexed one arm, then pointed out the door.

"You're trying to be strong for Al," Granny translated.

Ed nodded.

She sighed and muttered, "Of course you are." She let out another sigh, then shook her head. "How dirty was the floor?"

Ed grimaced and shrugged.

"Did you sweep it first?"

He nodded.

"Fine. How long did it bleed for before you healed it?"

Ed frowned and tried to sort that one. It was difficult, because time in that other place seemed to go on for ages, though he knew, from what others had said when he'd traded his Gate for Al, that it was only seconds in the real world. He'd sat there for a bit, after, trying to screw his head back on. So...a couple minutes? He held up one finger, then four.

"One to four minutes?" Granny guessed.

Ed nodded again; she was good at this game.

Granny took a moment to consider that, then shook her head. "I'm not worried enough about an infection to rip this off," she decided, motioning towards the thick scab. "It would hurt like hell, and you'll just end up losing more blood."

Ed clenched his jaw and nodded in understanding.

She turned to collect a new bandage, then set it to the side as she started gently wiping away the blood that had leaked out when the scabs had pulled. "You want automail," she said flatly.

Ed took a deep breath and nodded.

"The surgery is agony and the rehabilitation is long," Granny continued in the same voice, even as she traded the dirtied cloth for the bandaging and started gently wrapping his leg.

Ed shoved a finger towards his leg and, when she looked up at him, scowled; like hell he'd have the patience to keep hobbling around for the rest of his life.

Granny sighed. "Stubborn shrimp."

Ed ground his teeth together and crossed his arms over his chest. So what if he was a little short now! He'd be taller than Winry in another five years, and that was with Al stealing some of his nutrients and his automail arm weighing him down!

...wait. He could be taller this time around, couldn't he? He could end up being taller than Mustang. Oh, what a glorious day that would be!

Granny patted his thigh and he glanced over at her. "We'll talk more about that once I'm certain your leg won't get infected. For now, get some sleep; Winry and I will keep an eye on you tonight."

Ed pointed up at the ceiling, because he needed them to keep an eye on Al, too.

"You're staying in here," Granny replied, tone no-nonsense, as she collected his damp shirt from his lap.

Ed sighed and nodded, then pointed up again.

Granny frowned at him for a moment, then guessed, "Keep an eye on Al?"

Ed nodded.

Granny frowned. "Is he hurt?"

He shook his head.

She glanced up at the ceiling for a moment, then sighed and nodded. "Fine." She tossed Ed's shirt over one shoulder with a wet smack, then picked up the bowl of water and unused cloths. "Lay down and get some sleep."

Ed let out a silent sigh and, as she started for the door, settled carefully on the bed, wrapping the towel more tightly around his shoulders, since there wasn't a blanket on the bed.

He was asleep before she got the door open.

-0-

Al must have snuck in at some point while Ed was sleeping, because he woke to find his brother sleeping on a stool next to his bed, his head resting in the space where Ed's left leg should have been. He stared down at him for a long moment, letting relief settle over him like the blanket someone had covered him with. He'd done it. He'd saved Al. It didn't matter that he'd used a Philosopher's Stone, he'd done it. Al was whole and safe and fucking perfect.

He was just reaching out a hand to touch his brother, ignoring the twinging of his stump as he shifted, when Al let out a whimper, his face scrunching up, and he whispered in a broken voice, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."

Ed clenched his hands for a moment, felt sick at the reminder that Al believed they'd killed Mum again, and then he reached out and brushed his fingers through Al's hair, making shushing noises, because he could do that much.

Al settled again, his expression smoothing out, and Ed pressed his eyes shut, hating himself for this, for the wretched choice that he'd made as a stupid child, for making his brother sin next to him and pay far too great a price. And maybe Ed had kept Al physically whole this time, but he'd done nothing at all for his brother's mental state.

Fuck, if Mum could see him, she'd be giving him so much shit for this.

'I'm sorry, Al,' he mouthed, running his fingers through his brother's golden hair and feeling like he was at least twice as old as his mental age. 'I'm the one at fault. I should have listened to you. I never listen to you, and you always get hurt and I'm so fucking sorry.'

He closed his eyes, hated that they were dry. But, then, he'd spent far too much of his life refusing to cry. Even for his little brother.

(He'd never had that right.)

The door creaked and he looked over to find Granny standing there with her pipe. "He keeps sneaking down," she commented, motioning with the pipe towards Al.

Ed nodded and brushed some hair out of his brother's face; if he'd been the one who was mobile, he'd have come looking for Al all the time, too. No matter what Granny said about him needing a proper bed.

"Brother?" Al mumbled, his fingers curling in the sheet.

Ed tried a humming noise, which sort of worked – he was going to be spending months trying to figure out what sorts of noises he could still make, he knew it – and ruffled his brother's hair.

Al squinted his eyes open, clearly still sleepy. " 'Kay?" he mumbled.

Ed offered him a smile and nodded.

Al blinked a few times, then his eyes fell closed and he turned away.

Ed shot Granny a worried look.

Granny sighed and approached the bed. "Back upstairs, Al, come on. Your brother needs his rest, and that position isn't good for your back."

Al let out a heavy sigh and obediently slouched out of the room.

'Al?' Ed tried to call after him, but the familiar name was little more than a gasp of air that went unheeded, and Al left the room without glancing back.

Something wretched was crawling up Ed's throat – bile or a sob, it was all the same – and he forced it back down as he leant forward and punched the bed where his left leg should have been, grinding his fist into the white sheet the way he wanted to do to Truth's face.

Granny was quiet for a long moment, before she settled into the stool Al had vacated. "I went by your house," she said.

Ed glanced at her from behind his bangs.

Granny took a long draw of her pipe, breathed the smoke in the opposite direction, then said, "I saw the headstone."

Ed gave a cautious nod, not sure what she was getting at.

"It's blank."

Ed blinked, then nodded again.

Granny turned around to collect what turned out to be a pen and some paper attached to a clipboard. "Write," she ordered, her stare hard.

Ed looked down at the clipboard. Write? Write what? An explanation for the blank headstone? 'It wasn't Mum'

"What do you mean, it wasn't your mother?" Granny asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

Ed stared down at the paper for a long moment, pen poised, trying to decide how he could explain...

He clenched his jaw, made his choice, and wrote, 'Hohenheim suggested human trans never works. You can't bring the dead back to life'

"Hohenheim?" Granny repeated, definitely shocked, now.

'He comes back when I'm 15'

Ed turned to look at Granny, his expression set, and she looked up at him, met his stare with something that wasn't nearly as disbelieving as he'd have expected. (But, then, she'd known Hohenheim for so long, watched him never age; was it really any wonder she could so easily accept time travel?)

"How old are you?" Granny asked.

Ed didn't bother misunderstanding her. '29'

Granny drew in a careful breath, then offered, "You didn't react when I called you a shrimp."

Ed blinked, then found himself letting out a rough laugh. (And it was good to know he could still laugh.) Oh, of course it would be that which gave him away. He finally managed to train himself out of reacting to people commenting on his height, and that's what catches him out. Fuck.

Granny tapped out her pipe in the ashtray next to the bed. "Have you had automail before?"

Ed nodded, then wrote, 'Left leg + right arm. Kept my arm this time'

"I see that. And your voice?"

Ed couldn't keep his mouth from twisting with disgust, even as he scribbled, 'New'

"I see."

Ed paused for a moment, then carefully wrote, 'Al suffered last time. Not this time'

He glanced over at her and found a sad smile on her face. "You boys," she murmured, gently patting his thigh.

Ed huffed a breath, then picked up the paper he'd been writing on, leaving the pen on the clipboard, and clapped, activating the deconstruction array he'd taken from Scar, leaving behind pieces so small, they'd have needed a microscope to find them in the dust specks.

"...that's a new trick," Granny offered.

Ed shrugged and nodded; at this point, he had nothing but new tricks.

"Are you going to tell Al?" Granny asked.

Ed nodded, not even having to think about it; Al deserved the truth, deserved to know what was coming, what danger lay in wait under Central.

"And Winry?" Granny pressed.

Ed frowned at that, uncertain. Tell Winry? She'd just freak out on him and–

He swallowed, reminded that she'd been turned into a hostage to force his and Al's compliance. She deserved the right to know she was going to be in danger, that Ed and Al were going to be in danger, even.

So he met Granny's stare and nodded, then looked down to write, 'Not yet. Not while I'm a sitting target'

Granny let out a laugh and slipped off the stool. "I guess I should get working on that automail for you, then," she announced, and Ed couldn't keep from grinning at her, so very grateful. "For now, though, are you hungry?"

Ed blinked, then rolled his eyes; he was always hungry.

Granny laughed again as she stepped from the room.

Ed was left with the silence and his thoughts. He stared down at the clipboard in his lap, realised that he felt a bit lighter for telling Granny the truth, even so little of it. Like this wasn't just on his ten-year-old shoulders, any more. He had someone to share the burden, who wouldn't look at him and see a child who has no fucking clue what he's walking towards.

Granny had always been a solid support for him, for all three of them, and he hadn't even realised how much he'd needed her in his corner until she was there.

'Thank you,' he mouthed to the empty room.

-0-

Miracle of miracles, he didn't end up developing an infection. Which Ed was super glad about, but he would have rather the infection if it meant Al wouldn't avoid him. Which, well, he was.

"I don't know what's wrong," Winry admitted quietly when Ed shoved his clipboard at her, his brother's name underlined a couple times. "He sits outside with Den a lot. He won't tell me anything." She threw her hands up in the air and pointed an angry finger at Ed. "You're more talkative than he is, right now!"

Ed knew she didn't mean that in a rude way, no matter her tone, and she was using anger to hide how terrified she was, but it still made him flinch, the reminder than he was struggling to find ways to communicate.

Winry's face fell and tears welled in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Ed. I didn't–"

Ed shook his head and patted her shoulder; he would get used to this disability, same as he'd once had to get used to two metal limbs, same as he'd had to get used to not having alchemy.

It was amazing, the things you could adapt to, if it was important enough.

He picked up his pen and wrote, 'I'm worried about him too'

Winry swallowed and reached up to wipe angrily at her eyes. "It's not fair!" she snapped. "None of this is fair!"

Ed looked away, couldn't bring himself to write what he was thinking: Life isn't fair.

(He, better than anyone, understood that.)

They were both silent for a long moment before Winry got to her feet. "I'm going to go find Al. Tell him you're asking after him."

Ed paused for a moment, then wrote, 'If he won't come at least make sure he's eating?'

Winry's bottom lip trembled, tears gathering in her eyes again, and she nodded. "Yeah," she agreed, before taking her chance and fleeing.

Ed closed his eyes and drooped back against the bed. Fuck. This was so fucking hard. He couldn't tell if Al hated him or was being stupidly guilty about the whole mess or what, because Al wouldn't come see him, and Granny and Winry just didn't know how to read Al when he wasn't bright and smiling, but Ed could. Ed had learnt to read his brother when he couldn't have an expression; right now, this, it would be a walk in the park. (Fuck, Al was the only person he'd always been able to read; even Winry had thrown him for a loop half the time, even after they'd married each other.)

Assuming Al would stop avoiding him.

He could go chase his brother down, of course. It wasn't easy, but he was capable of getting around on a crutch, and there was plenty of material for him to transmute into one. But, if he did, he'd get all kinds of shit from Granny and Winry. And he knew Granny. She'd hold his automail over his head if he started misbehaving, and he needed his fucking leg.

He didn't know what to do.

Swallowing against a lump in his throat, Ed turned his thoughts to planning for the Dwarf in the Flask, which he really needed to sort.

Hohenheim, much as he hated the bastard, had been somewhat necessary in fighting the Dwarf in the Flask effectively, given his own regenerative powers were equitable, so waiting until his useless old man showed his face would be helpful.

Too, they would need Scar and his brother's notes for the reverse circle, so the Dwarf in the Flask couldn't shut off his opponents' alchemy. (Ed had seen the circle, sure, but his memory of it wasn't perfect, and he'd rather have the original than try to recreate it from memory and chance screwing it up. And he could probably research it himself, if he could find the necessary resources, but why bother spending months working on that when someone else already had?) All he had to do was wait for Scar to pop up, then tempt him into a fight and...

And, what? Ed couldn't talk.

He let out a grunt and shifted, opening his eyes to look towards the open door.

Al could, though, and Ed intended to tell him as much as he could. Give his brother enough to go on, he could probably talk Scar around for him.

Scar's brother would be the key. Ed understood all too well the bond between brothers, and could make some pretty good guesses as to how to approach the issue. He and Al would figure something out.

(If Al would ever talk to him again.)

'Stop it,' he ordered himself, scowling.

They would have to wait for Scar and Hohenheim, then. So that was four years or so where they would have to cool their heels. Ed could join the military again, but he wasn't sure he really wanted to. Eventually, sure – as a State Alchemist, no one would look at him twice if he went snooping in the underbelly of Central, and he'd need the title to attract Scar – but there wasn't much reason for them to be running around the east area for three years, hunting after whispers of the Philosopher's Stone, and he didn't really want to know what horrors Mustang or Bradley would assign them without the goal of getting their bodies back.

Carving bloody crests, with Ed's luck.

So, if not the military, then what?

He sighed and rubbed at his face. Not here. He couldn't sit still here, couldn't sit still anywhere. It was something that had driven Winry nuts, but she'd always understood. May had been a little less–

May.

Ed turned towards the hallway, as though thinking of his brother's future wife would bring him running.

Hah. Yeah, right.

Still, a few years in Xing might prove fruitful. Al had managed to figure out the Dragon's Pulse, eventually, but Ed hadn't bothered, not when he couldn't use alchemy or alkahestry. It had seemed pointless, so he'd just kept to collecting arrays and hadn't bothered to learn how to manipulate the Xingan power source. But, now...

If he and Al could use alkahestry, they didn't really need to talk Scar around. They probably still would – they weren't the only Amestrisan alchemists, after all – but it wouldn't be vital.

(Not to mention, fuck, distance alchemy. Ed needed that in his arsenal. Al had been fucking unstoppable once he'd figured that trick out.)

Right, so, Xing. He'd have to figure out how to teach Al Xingan, and he should probably actually practise the written form, for once. Because Ed had learnt to read the fancy characters – May had taken great joy in ambushing him with it until he gave in and let her teach him – but writing them had never been one of his skills. And since he was stuck communicating through the written word...

Ed sighed and picked up his pen, turning his attention to the clipboard in his lap. Well, he might as well start with that practising, and writing in another language was a good way to make a list of everything he needed to remember, without chancing someone figuring it out when he didn't want them to.

.

Chapter Text

Not quite a week after Ed and Al had come limping to the Rockbells, Granny declared Ed should be sufficiently healed for her to attach an automail port. It would be another three months, Ed knew, before she would be willing to attach the leg itself – give his stump time to heal and the port to settle, let his nerves recover a bit – but since he'd requested northern automail – it was lighter, and he knew May's clan lived in a mountainous region of Xing, which meant he'd probably need the cold-resistant version before too long – she'd had to order some parts anyway.

Money hadn't come up, yet, and Ed was dreading the conversation. Without his military budget, there was no way he could cover the cost of automail, even if it was just his leg, this time. Granny would probably let it slide – she and Winry had always been a bit lax about demanding money from Ed (as much as they joked about bleeding his account dry), even when he'd had the funds – but he was making her order parts special, which was an added cost, and he couldn't, in good faith, let it go.

Not that he really knew how to approach the matter. And not that Granny was really giving him the chance; being unable to communicate verbally made it hard to push a subject.

The port attachment was painful. He remembered that part, but time had dulled the agony a bit in his memories. At least it was only his leg, this time, which made it...not really easier, but briefer.

And still, no sign of Al.

-0-

Ed woke to the sound of someone pounding on the front door. He frowned through the haze of mild pain killers; an emergency? Granny was the only real doctor in Resembool, so people always came to her when there was an accident. And Ed kind of wished Granny had agreed to letting him move upstairs before the attachment, because–

"Hey!" he heard Granny shout. "What business does a soldier have here?"

A soldier?

Mustang. He'd almost forgotten he'd have to see the bastard soon, even without joining the military right away. Fuck him. (Figuratively.)

Al was all alone out there.

Ed shoved himself up, grunting at the flash of pain from his stump, and carefully lowered himself to the floor. Winry had returned his transmuted crutch at one point, despite Granny's better sense, and he grabbed it as he heard Mustang shout, "I just came from your house! What in the world is all that?!"

Ed grit his teeth and hurried from the room and down the hall at his best speed.

"What did you make?!" Mustang shouted.

Ed made it to the end of the hallway and found an echo of a memory waiting for him: Mustang, looking far younger than Ed remembered, had Al by the front of his shirt. And his brother just sort of...let him. Drooping in Mustang's grip like he'd lost all will to live.

Ed grabbed the nearest thing to hand – an automail book, awesome – and chucked it in Mustang's general direction. It fell short – fucking pain killers – but knocked into his boot, and Mustang looked up and around, meeting Ed's glare.

'Put. Him. Down,' Ed mouthed, pointing down with his free hand.

"Edward!" Granny called, sounding somewhere between horrified and panicked.

Mustang slowly lowered Al back to the couch, where he must have been sitting when the bastard shoved his way into the house.

Since he was already up, Ed hobbled carefully across the floor – ignoring Granny's order of, "Get back to bed!" – and stopped next to Mustang, glaring up at the bastard until he silently, blinking in that way that Ed knew meant he was completely thrown for a loop, stepped out of the way.

And then, for the first time in nearly a week, Ed had the chance to ruffle his brother's hair.

Al let out a broken sob and shuffled along the couch, almost unbalanced Ed with how sudden his hug was. "I'm sorry," Al choked out against Ed's side.

Guilt, then. Al didn't hate him, he was just wallowing in guilt. That was...reassuring. Heart-breaking, but reassuring; Ed could do something about guilt.

"Shh," Ed returned, combing his fingers through the tangles in Al's hair; he hadn't been combing it, and it felt a little like he hadn't bathed since their walk through the storm that night. (Not that Ed blamed him; personal hygiene hadn't been a priority for him the first time, either.)

A gentle hand touched Ed's hand where it was wrapped around the crutch, and he glanced over to find Granny watching him with too-sharp eyes. "Bed," she ordered.

Ed shook his head and carefully disentangled his hand from Al's hair so he could move his hand in a motion for talking, then point to Mustang.

"You want to talk to him?" Granny hissed. And Ed didn't need to look to know the bastard was raising his eyebrows at that, because no way he hadn't heard her, as close as he still was.

Ed had spent the last three years of his life avoiding Mustang at all costs, but he knew the bastard, knew he wouldn't leave until he got an answer for the array and blood in Hohenheim's study. And no way Ed was going to leave Al to Mustang's not-so-tender mercies, which meant this was his job, no matter his personal dilemma.

(Well, at least this Mustang had no possible way of knowing why Ed's stomach gave a guilty heave every time he looked at the bastard. Small favours.)

He nodded, refused to look away from Granny's scowl.

Granny let out a huff. "Al, help your brother to the dining room. Winry! Get Ed his writing things."

Al shifted to the side until he had room to stand without chancing knocking Ed over. He didn't say anything, though, didn't even look up as he reached out to help Ed.

And Ed...dropped his crutch and wrapped his brother in a hug.

Al let out a broken noise that carved straight through Ed's heart, then wrapped Ed in a hug tight enough to ache. "I'm sorry," he whimpered. "Brother, I'm sorry..."

Ed was vaguely aware of Granny chivvying Mustang away, which he was grateful for, even as he tightened his arms around his brother and shushed him.

Fuck, what he wouldn't give for the ability to reassure him with words.

It took a bit, but Al did manage to calm himself. He looked like an exhausted wreck when he finally looked up, but at least he was meeting Ed's eyes, which was an improvement. (They'd be okay. Al was strong and Ed was stubborn; they'd get through this.) "Let me get your crutch," Al whispered and, when Ed nodded, he carefully knelt and collected it. As he straightened, Al mumbled, "You shouldn't be walking around so soon."

Ed gave him a flat look and, once he had his crutch back to brace against, lightly smacked his brother upside the head.

"Brother!" Al complained, looking wounded and so much more himself, it was an honest relief.

'Idiot," Ed mouthed, then motioned with his head towards the dining room.

"I'm not an idiot, you're an idiot," Al muttered as he wrapped an arm around Ed to help him hobble towards the dining room. "You're the one who's hurt."

Ed just rolled his eyes; he was willing to suffer a little pain and an extra week of healing if it meant Al would stop avoiding him.

Hawkeye had settled on the couch outside the dining room door, and, wow, Ed had forgotten what she looked like with short hair. (He knew she'd cut it short after the Promised Day, but by the time he'd seen her again, she'd grown it back out.)

He nodded to her as they passed and, after giving a quick blink of surprise, she inclined her head in return.

In the dining room, they found Granny and Mustang sitting across from each other at the table. Granny continued scowling around her pipe at the bastard, while Mustang turned a quietly considering look on Ed and Al as they made their way over to the two chairs set on one side of the table. The one closest to Mustang had Ed's clipboard sat in front of it, his Xingan notes as the top page. (And Ed had never been more glad to know that Mustang didn't understand Xingan.)

Once Ed and Al were both settled and Ed was hiding his notes at the back of the pile of papers, Mustang said, "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Mustang, the Flame Alchemist."

Granny scoffed at that, then replied, "Pinako Rockbell. These boys are Alphonse and Edward Elric. Which you clearly know."

Mustang tilted his head while Ed started writing what the bastard would want to know. "Yes. We had reports of two particularly talented alchemists in these parts. Our records were wrong about their ages, but that array..."

Ed turned his clipboard around, letting Mustang see what he had written: 'Human transmutation. We wanted to bring our mum back'

Mustang's eyes darkened and he shot Ed a hard look. "You failed, I take it."

Ed snorted and quickly wrote, 'You can't bring the dead back to life'

"Brother?" Al whispered, clearly reading over his shoulder.

Ed glanced over and shook his head.

Al's eyes were wide with a sort of horrified understanding. "But you–"

'I'm sorry,' Ed mouthed.

Al's face crumpled and he scooted closer, wrapping his fingers around Ed's upper arm and pressing his forehead against Ed's shoulder.

Ed closed his eyes and reached across his body to rest his left hand on top of his brother's head. At least Al knew, now. He wouldn't have the thought that they'd killed Mum twice dogging his steps.

"I see," Mustang murmured, and Ed looked over at him, found the bastard watching him with that old, familiar considering look.

Ed tightened his grip around his pen, then wrote, 'There's a price to be paid for breaking the taboo + I paid it'

Mustang's eyes narrowed. "And your brother?"

'I paid his price too'

Mustang glanced up, met his stare, even as Al whispered, "Brother, no."

And in those dark eyes, so familiar – too familiar; Ed was glad he'd decided to give himself more time before he'd have to face the bastard down on a regular basis – Ed saw understanding, that same kindred spirit that Ed hadn't seen, before, until after Hawkeye had told him about Ishval, until after he knew that Mustang had seen hell, too. Ed already knew Mustang, and the bastard was sharp, was probably already starting to learn him back. (Dangerous.)

Ed had to look away, down to his paper, where he wrote, for Al, 'Shut up. I'm older it's my job. Mum said'

Granny's pipe snapped against the ashtray, and Ed and Al both looked over at her, found her glaring at Mustang. "Ed needs to return to bed; say your part and leave, Lieutenant Colonel," she ordered, controlled fury in her voice.

Al shot Ed a wide-eyed look; oh, it was never good when Granny got into a temper.

Mustang straightened. "That array," he said, addressing his words to Ed and Al, "was impressive."

Al drew in a sharp breath at Ed's side, but he just narrowed his eyes at the bastard; he knew how advanced his and Al's work had been.

Something like a challenge gleamed in Mustang's eyes as he continued, "Easily State Alchemist level."

"Are you saying," Granny interrupted, while Al's hands clenched tight around Ed's bicep, "that you expect these boys to join the military?"

Mustang folded his hands together over the table, his gaze steady when he met Granny's glare (which Ed found impressive, even with knowing exactly how bull-headed the bastard could be), and replied, "I won't lie, there's a chance they'll be forced to go to war, but the position comes with many privileges: unlimited access to research materials, full funding, and the best equipment." He turned to Ed and Al, and Ed knew that look. "You might even–"

'DON'T,' Ed scrawled, holding up his clipboard between Mustang and his brother like a shield. Don't give Al that hope, don't give him a reason to believe he needs to fix what isn't broken.

Don't let Al put all his hopes on the Philosopher's Stone, just so Ed has to tear him back down.

Mustang narrowed his eyes. "You can wallow here, or you can make something of yourselves; the choice is yours to make." And then he set a business card down on the table next to Ed and stood. "That's all I have to say. Find me in East City Command when you've decided to take my offer."

Ed watched Mustang make for the door, his shoulders tense under the bulky line of his dress uniform, and Ed could only imagine how hard it must be, to walk away from an interview that felt like it had gone completely to shit. (It hadn't – Mustang had no way of knowing that Ed would fully support his ascent to the Führer's seat – but it must feel like he had.)

And, thinking about that future victory, seeing Mustang in his dress uniform... Ed couldn't help but remember the last time he'd seen the bastard wearing that, at his celebratory party, after which Ed had helped Mustang home, and then–

Ed yanked the paper he'd been using to communicate with out of the clipboard and clapped, deconstructing it with a flash of alchemy that had Al flinching backwards in surprise, while Mustang turned to stare at him, his eyes wide. And that was a good look on him, nothing at all like their last meeting, helped push away memories that Ed couldn't let himself remember.

Catching Mustang's eyes, Ed very obviously made the military hand sign for 'caution'.

Mustang's eyes narrowed. "What are you–?"

Ed made the signals for 'enemies' and then 'surrounded'. And then he pointed at Mustang.

Mustang was stiff for a beat too long for him to actually brush that warning away with the smile that he put on. "Cute," he said, forced amusement in his voice.

Ed scowled and very pointedly placed his fingers against his own shoulder, pressing each one down firmly, obviously: One, two, three, four.

"Four?" Al asked.

But Mustang clearly understood, his gaze sliding towards the rank marking on his own shoulder; only one person wore four stars.

When Mustang looked back at him again, his jaw clenched tight, Ed pointed to his own eyes, then at Mustang. And then he made the signal for 'caution' again.

Mustang spun and stalked from the room, barking, "We're leaving!"

"Brother?" Al whispered under the sounds of Mustang and Hawkeye leaving, Winry calling a confused goodbye after them.

'He's a good man,' Ed wrote, before pointedly sliding the clipboard towards where Granny looked like she might get up and chase after the two soldiers, make sure they were actually leaving.

She read it and scowled. "Intending to join the military, are you?" she returned, sliding the clipboard back to him.

'Not yet,' Ed wrote. 'I want to go to Xing'

"Xing!?" Granny returned, and Ed wondered which possibility seemed worse to her.

Ed gave a firm nod and wrote, 'Their alchemy is diff'

Granny's expression said she should have guessed alchemy would be involved.

"Is that...what that is?" Al asked, carefully tugging at the paper at the bottom of the stack, the one with Ed's list written in Xingan. "Xingan?"

Ed nodded as he pulled the sheet out for his brother to get a better look at.

Al frowned at the characters for a long moment, before saying, "Dad has books written in this, doesn't he?"

Ed blinked and frowned himself. Hohenheim had books written in Xingan? He started to shake his head, then stopped, recalling the books on the top shelf, the ones he and Al had struggled to reach as children, had almost brought the bookcase down on their heads in the process. Mum hadn't been impressed, but she'd let them look one over while they 'helped' her put all the fallen books away. They ended up putting it back because they had no idea how to go about translating the characters, and Mum had been equally perplexed.

Ed had forgotten about them.

But it...made sense, didn't it? If Hohenheim had shaped Xingan alkahestry, of course he'd have books written in the language. Fuck, the information that must be in those...

Ed shook himself and nodded. 'Yes Xingan'

Al's frown deepened. "You can read it?"

Ed nodded.

"Since when?!" Al demanded, before a sort of horrified understanding crossed his face. "Was it– Did you learn it from that thing?"

The Gate.

Al remembered the Gate.

Ed yanked a fresh paper from the middle of his stack, scrawled 'CRANE' on it, then held it out to his brother, a silent challenge.

Al stared at the paper for a moment, so clearly uncertain, before he pressed his hands together and touched it.

The light of an active transmutation bloomed and the paper slowly, carefully shaped itself into an origami crane, as perfect and crisp as every one of Al's transmutations had always been. Slower than he'd one day be, but still faster than Ed remembered he'd been as a child.

Ed let out a breath he hadn't noticed he was holding. Shit. Al remembered.

He wasn't certain how to feel about that.

"Brother?" Al whispered, worried and uncertain.

Ed stared down at his paper for a long moment, debating with himself, then wrote, 'Can we talk?'

Al glanced towards the door, and Ed only just then realised that Granny had left them. "I should get you back to bed," he mumbled, but Ed knew him way too well, could hear how much he'd rather just stay and get some fucking answers.

(When you got right down to it, alchemists were easy to manipulate, even those who already knew exactly how dangerous seeking the truth could be.)

Ed glanced down at his stump, ensured that, yes, the port was properly supported by the seat of his chair, then wrote, 'I need somewhere flat to write + my leg is supported right now'

Al peeked under the table to see, as though unable to take Ed's word for it, then he sighed and nodded. "Okay," he said, sounding like it was difficult to agree to let Ed stay where he was and explain things.

Ed shot him a flat look.

Something cracked in Al's eyes, and he started laughing. And it was a terrible laugh, the kind you make when you've reached the end of your rope and you don't even fucking know any more.

Ed reached out and dragged him sideways, took Al's weight and hugged him tight. (Marvelled, again, that he could. That Al got actual, physical comfort from this.)

"Al?" Winry called from the doorway, her eyes wide and uncertain.

Al took that as his cue to pull himself together – which was good, because Ed couldn't communicate over distances any more – and said, "Just...something Brother said."

Ed quirked a smile that ached at that, saw its mirror on Winry's face. "Yeah," she said drily, "he's a miniature riot."

Ed clapped his hands, formed a perfectly aerodynamic aeroplane out of the top sheet of his paper, and sent it towards Winry's head.

Winry ducked it, stuck her tongue out, then vanished into the hallway and out of sight.

Next to Ed, Al giggled.

Ed rolled his eyes at both of them, then set pen to paper and started writing: 'I came across unfamiliar array stepped inside not watching my back + creator activated it. Written in centre was Memores acti + prudentes futuri. Reverti ad praeteritum'

He watched as Al mouthed the old words, filtered them through the internal translator that they'd developed while pouring over Hohenheim's books. And then– "Praeteritum?" he whispered, even though it was clear from the way his eyes had gone wide that he could make a pretty good damn guess.

'Past,' Ed wrote. 'I'm 29'

Al forced a smile that quivered. "You're ten, Brother."

Ed sighed and wrote, 'Body spirit soul'

Al was quiet.

Ed glanced at him, found him staring at the paper as though waiting for more writing to appear, for Ed to expound on that.

Ed wasn't about to disappoint.

'I hypothesised once that body + soul could survive independent so long as spirit cont to connect them. This is all hypothetical but there were elements of human trans there + human trans opens THAT + it was while I was there I realised where I was. With mention of time + how fucked up that place is isn't it poss my 29-yr-old spirit crossed with my 11-yr-old spirit + there was transfer?'

(And, oh, Ed didn't want to think about the possibility that his ten-year-old self was trapped in his twenty-nine-year-old body. With automail, no alchemy, and facing an enemy who apparently dealt in time alchemy, that would be a death sentence. Hopefully it was just a memory transfer, and he was twenty-nine both here and there? That was a far more soothing thought; Ed liked that thought. It meant there was still a chance of him getting home to his kids and Winry, that he hadn't abandoned them like Hohenheim had done.)

Al stared down at the paper for a long moment, before turning towards the sheet of Xingan still laying in front of him, under the crane he'd alchemised. "I don't know," he whispered.

'I know how to read + write Xingan + Cretan + Aerugonian. I know + can work Cretan healing array. I know that man was Roy Mustang + woman Riza Hawkeye. They fought in Ishval + Mustang wants to become Führer so he can keep another war like that from happening'

Al was quiet while he read that, then he looked up, his eyes tired and too old, and said, "You know them, don't you, Brother? Both of them. Personally."

Ed couldn't help but flinch away from the memories that last word tugged at, but he tried to cover it by writing, 'I became a State Alchemist + Mustang was my CO for 3yrs'

Al read that, then ducked his head, the corner of his frown only barely visible from Ed's current angle. He was quiet for long enough that Ed almost started writing again, but he did finally ask, quietly, "Did he ever make it?"

'Führer?' Ed guessed.

"Yeah."

'3yrs ago. For me. He + parliament were working toward perm treaty with Creta when I'

When he...what? Stepped into an unknown array and got thrown into the past? Fuck, that just sounded so stupid.

"Parliament?" Al repeated.

'Mustang wants to turn Amestris into democracy'

Al turned towards the empty doorway that Mustang had walked through not so long ago, stared at it for a long, long minute, before looking back at Ed with the same determination gleaming in his eyes that Ed remembered feeling at fifteen, when he made a promise with the stupid bastard over 520 cenz. "How can we help?"

Ed couldn't help but smile, felt a sort of grim gratitude at this unquestioning show of support; they really were too much alike, sometimes.

"Brother?" Al whispered, reading him like only he could.

Ed swallowed and turned back to his paper, switching for a new sheet and quickly sketching out the Dwarf in the Flask's nationwide array, then started writing, 'Please bear with--this is long + involved but you deserve full story. As much as I know:

'Hohenheim--our father--was born over 400yrs ago in Xerxes'

"How is that–?" Al started, keeping his voice low.

Ed shot him a sharp look.

Al winced and very pointedly covered his mouth. "Sorry," he mumbled, muffled.

Ed huffed and returned to writing: 'He was born slave but his master took blood from him to create all-knowing lifeform which he calls "Dwarf in the Flask" or "Homunculus". DitF led the king of Xerxes to create array like this 1' Ed tapped the array he'd drawn 'to turn all people of Xerxes into a Philosopher's Stone (the ingredients are live humans) so the king + his ministers could be immortal'

Al let out a horrified noise, but didn't actually speak.

'DitF screwed them over. He + Hohenheim were centre of the array + each took 1/2 lives'

"Dad is–" Al choked out, sounding miserable.

Ed tightened his grip around his pen and forced himself to write, 'He wasn't aware of plan. He never wanted to hurt people'

Al drooped against the table next to him and breathed, "Thank goodness."

Ed glanced at him briefly, then went back to writing; Al would catch up when he was done being relieved that their father wasn't really a monster. 'Hohenheim went east helped Xing develop alkahestry (their alchemy--uses diff power source + healing focussed) while DitF came west. He helped found Amestris + taught us alchemy + hid himself away under Central where he leads country from shadows'

Ed looked back at Al, waiting for him to finish reading that. Al looked up at him when he had, his eyes dark with a fear that Ed knew he didn't yet fully realise.

Ed circled the bottom right connection of the array and wrote, 'Ishval'

"No," Al whispered.

Steadily, Ed filled in all the names on the array, leaving Fotset, Liore, and Briggs blank, because those hadn't happened yet.

"He's going to do it again," Al whispered, turning a horrified stare on Ed. "Brother–"

Ed looked down to write, 'He'll activate it spring 1915 during eclipse. We can stop him,' then turned a hard stare on Al and, when he looked up, mouthed, 'We will stop him, Alphonse.'

Al swallowed, looked down at the damning array, then firmed his jaw and looked back up at Ed, determination and fear warring in his eyes. "You have a plan."

Ed flashed him a grin that felt far too sharp, then turned back to his paper, pulling out a fresh sheet to write, 'Hohenheim already working on way to nullify DitF's array which will activate no matter what but I rather it not be necessary'

"Same."

Ed nodded. 'DitF has way to block Amestrisan alchemy but it doesn't effect Xingan alkahestry'

"Hence the reason you want to go study it."

Ed snorted. 'Yes. There's Ishvalan we call "Scar" who starts going after State Alchemists in some yrs. His brother created array to stop DitF blocking alchemy but I rather not depend on it if don't have to'

"Brother?" Al interrupted uncertainly, and Ed glanced over at his frown. "When you say 'going after State Alchemists'..."

'Killing'

Al just stared at him for a moment, then swallowed and asked, "Did he...come after us?"

Ed clenched his jaw and nodded.

Al took a deep breath and said, "Okay."

'I've idea about how to make him stop + listen,' Ed wrote. 'Later tho okay?'

"Okay," Al agreed, sounding a bit like he really wanted to say, "No, it's not okay!"

Ed quirked a smile at that, even as he rubbed at his wrist a bit; all this writing was making it start to ache.

Al cleared his throat, shooting Ed's wrist a pointed look. "Was there anything else important?"

Ed shrugged; there were half a dozen things he still needed to tell his brother, like them being sacrifices, and about the homunculi, and how most of the military brass were in on this bullshit.

"Can it wait?"

Ed sighed. Yeah, all that could wait. But there was one thing that couldn't: 'Hohenheim was 1 to suggest that what we transmuted wasn't Mum. Granny + I checked + it wasn't. We didn't kill her 2nd time' And then he set down his pen and held his arms out for a hug.

Al slumped and curled willingly into his embrace, pressing his face against Ed's collar and catching his fists in his shirt. "We didn't kill her again," he whispered, as though it wouldn't be real if it wasn't spoken aloud. "She didn't suffer even more."

Ed just tightened his arm around his brother, gave him whatever time he needed to collect himself.

Eventually, Al pulled away and straightened. "We should get you back to bed before Granny starts really yelling."

Ed sighed and collected all the papers he'd just written on, then clapped and deconstructed them into dust.

"...how are you doing that?" Al asked, staring at Ed's hands.

Ed glanced at him, shrugged, then picked up his pen and wrote, 'Trick I picked up from Scar. Stopping at deconstruction'

Al blinked at that, then picked up the page Ed had just written that on and, frowning in concentration, clapped his hands together.

The paper burst into perfectly-shaped, miniature square confetti.

Ed couldn't stop a snort and, when Al shot him a wounded look, he found himself laughing. It was nice, being able to laugh at something so utterly stupid and normal, and it got even better when he caught a smile on Al's face.

'Seriously,' he wrote once he'd calmed down enough that his handwriting would be legible, 'you're such control-freak'

"How rude!" Al complained, the glint of amusement in his eyes belying his tone. "Just because you can't be arsed to pay attention to details doesn't make me a control-freak!"

'My details are COOL'

(Well, okay, he'd mostly grown out of the phase where he felt the need to add skulls and spikes to everything ever – assisted, of course, by his inability to do alchemy – but it had never stopped being fun to suggest them to Al just to make him twitch.)

Al moaned.

Ed grinned to himself while he collected his papers, leaving Al's crane on the table for him to decide what to do with.

Before he could actually pick up his pen and clipboard, Al snagged them, and Ed glanced over to watch as he stood. "Come on," Al prompted.

Ed sighed and shook his head, then grabbed his crutch and levered himself out of his chair, wincing when the change in position pulled on his port.

Al was at his side in a heartbeat, expression pained. "Brother–"

Ed shook his head, then motioned towards the door with his free hand and started making his careful way over there.

Al waited until they were out in the hallway before asking, "Can you teach me Xingan?"

Ed glanced down at the top page of his clipboard, which was his Xingan list, then gave a cautious nod; he'd try. It was harder when he couldn't actually speak the proper pronunciation, but, if anyone could learn a language with substandard assistance, it would be Al.

Al helped him back onto the patient bed and settled into the stool next to the bed once he'd handed back over Ed's clipboard. He stared at Ed's stump for a long moment, his expression shadowed, before mumbling, "It's not fair."

'It is,' Ed wrote, setting his clipboard between Al and his stump, so he couldn't not see it.

Al shook his head and shot Ed a guilty look. "But–"

Ed snapped his fingers to shut Al up, which worked surprisingly well, then quickly wrote, 'I've had automail leg for 19yrs Al. I'm fine. + if I have to be mute so you don't suffer like you did GOOD. I'm HAPPY'

Al stared at that note for a long moment, before looking up at Ed, tears in his eyes, and whispering, "Like I suffered?"

Ed clenched his jaw and stared down at his clipboard for a long moment before writing, 'Your toll would have been whole body'

Al flinched.

Ed circled 'I'm HAPPY' and shoved it at Al, using his pen to point at it.

Al ducked his head. "Okay," he whispered.

Ed didn't sigh, though he wanted to; they really were too much alike, always taking on each other's burdens. He reached out and ruffled Al's hair. 'Idiot,' he mouthed when Al glanced up at him. 'I love you.'

Al jumped off the stool and hugged Ed hard. "I love you, too, Brother."

Yeah, they'd be okay.

-0-

Al hadn't left until Granny finally came to shoo him to bed. And while they hadn't really discussed anything particularly heavy – "You should rest your hand, Brother!" – Ed had passed on a few of the arrays he'd picked up during his travels, because Al would actually maybe need to know a few healing arrays, now he had a real body.

Ed didn't see Al the next day until almost dinner time, when he puffed his way into the patient room with a stack of books. He dropped them onto the bed where Ed's left leg should have been and announced, "I thought you might be bored."

Ed frowned and picked up the book on the top of the stack, opened it to a random page and found...Xingan writing.

These were Hohenheim's Xingan journals.

Ed turned a startled look on his brother; Al had gone back to the house?

Al folded his arms over his chest. "I saw the–the grave. And it's not–" He took a deep breath and set his expression with determination. "You paid both our tolls and buried the–it. That's not equivalent, Brother. So I cleaned up Dad's study and the b-blood in the hallway and I got you the books because I know you've got to be bored. And I got Granny to agree to let me and Winry go to East City–"

'WHAT?' Ed shouted. Or, well, mouthed with a forcefully-expelled breath.

Al pointed a shaking finger at him. "You made hand signs at the lieutenant colonel, right? I'm going to find books so I can learn them and be your voice, and then you don't have to write all the time and wear out your hand. Winry says she wants to learn too, so we're going to go together, because four eyes are better than two. And Granny got Mr Roberts to agree to take us when he goes with his shipment of wool and we'll have to help him with that first, but he's willing to stay in the city for a couple days and show us around to the shops, so it's–it's going to be a couple days, but you have books, now, and Granny's still here, so you'll be okay."

Ed stared at him for a long moment, not sure how to react to all that. Al wanted to...be his voice? Like...help share Ed's toll? (He really shouldn't be surprised by that.)

And, well, it was true that Ed wouldn't always be able to write to communicate, so sign language was a viable alternative. It wasn't widely known, outside of military signals for covert operations, but if both Winry and Al learnt it, that was two people who Ed could communicate with even when he didn't have paper.

He picked up his clipboard and, bracing it against his right leg, wrote, 'I only know handful of military signs'

Al blinked, then his mouth hitched up at one side with the suggestion of a smile. "So we'll all learn together."

Ed offered a smile that felt a little helpless in return and nodded; yes, they would.

Al swallowed and asked, "Was there anything I should look for? For you?"

For him? Ed glanced down at the pile of Hohenheim's journals. No, this would keep him distracted for a few months, especially if he was also going to be picking up sign language and teaching Al Xingan. (Somehow.)

East City, though... Tucker would be aiming for his licence in a couple years; could Ed rightfully ask Mustang to try and stop him? After the way he'd stormed out?

He snorted to himself; for his daughter's namesake, he would have to try. Even if Mustang couldn't save her mum, at least he would know how that bastard had made a talking chimera and could get Nina the fuck out of that house.

'Can you deliver a letter to Mustang for me?' he wrote.

Al frowned. "The lieutenant colonel?"

'Straight to him or Hawkeye,' Ed agreed, because he knew that most soldiers would snoop, and Ed only trusted a handful of people in East City Command, only two of whom Al would recognise right now.

"Is it...our answer to his offer?" Al guessed.

Ed frowned; he should probably put something about that in there, that it would be a few years before he'd be willing to join the military. And he should probably explain, a bit, that it's the military high command that are his enemies, but Grumman and Mustang's team are clean. And Hughes, although, Ed suspected there was nothing he could say to make Mustang distrust Hughes or Hawkeye.

'In part,' he wrote. 'I told him to be careful because he's got enemies all around but he should know he has allies too'

"Us?"

Ed nodded. 'His hand-picked team + his friend in Central. + East City commander'

Al nodded in understanding. "Okay. Do you still have to write it?"

Ed sighed.

Al let out a quiet, knowing laugh. "We're leaving a little after lunch tomorrow, so you've got time."

Ed snorted and nodded; it shouldn't take too much time for him to write, once he'd decided exactly how much to divulge.

Al started shifting the Xingan journals over to the medical tray-turned-bedside table that Ed usually left his clipboard on overnight, so he didn't chance losing the pen. "Can you...teach me the signs you already know?" he asked a bit uncertainly.

Ed smiled and ruffled Al's hair. When his brother looked up, he nodded, then wrote the ones he knew down, so he could point to them as he made them.

As if he could deny his brother something so simple.

-0-


Roy Mustang,
There are a few things that I feel I need to communicate to you. First, my answer: I'm happy to try for the State Alchemist program eventually, but I'm more interested in studying Xingan alchemy for the moment, which is fundamentally different from ours. (As an alchemist yourself, I'm sure you understand the draw.) Once we return to Amestris in a few years, I'll take the test, with your support. (And if you're not a colonel by then, I'll be EXTREMELY disappointed.)
I wasn't lying about your enemies; there is corruption in the military high command, and while most of the people involved are stationed in Central, their positions allow them plenty of spies looking to trade promotion or benefits for secrets. You don't need to automatically distrust everyone out of hand – there are good people in East Command, including your adjunct and her grandfather – but take care; there's a reason you were posted to East City, rather than Central, despite your combat prowess.
If you decide to go digging for information, I have three cautions for you: 1) You and your allies are replaceable to your enemies–if you're caught, they will kill you; 2) If you see someone with an ouroboros tattoo, run; 3) Beware the shadows, especially in Central City.
Last, I have a request: There is a chimera alchemist in East City (or nearby, I'm not completely certain) named Shou Tucker. He'll take the exam in a couple years, using a chimera capable of human speech as the proof of his skills. It will say "I want to die" and then starve itself. That chimera is a human-animal hybrid, using his wife. If he's not stopped, he'll use his daughter next. If you can't save his wife, please PLEASE at least save Nina. Equivalent exchange: I'll tell you anything you want to know if you can keep her safe.
Take care of yourself and your people.
Edward Elric

-0-

Ed woke with a start when the bed shifted unexpectedly, and he was reaching for knives he no longer had before he became aware of his surroundings and the warm body trying to fit on the small patient bed with him. 'Al?' he mouthed in recognition and concern.

Al didn't hear him, of course, but he let out a quiet, miserable, "Sorry," when Ed turned onto his side so his brother had space.

Ed shook his head and wrapped his arms around his brother, hating that there was no way for him to ask what was wrong.

Al pressed himself tight against Ed, his whole frame shaking enough that the transmitted vibrations made his stump ache.

"Shh," Ed whispered into Al's hair, rubbing his back.

Slowly, eventually, Al settled, his breathing evening out and his shaking melting away.

Ed sighed and closed his eyes. A nightmare, he'd guess. Not surprising, given the recent hell they'd suffered, and cleaning up the house? Ed never would have asked him to do that. Fuck, they'd just left it, the last time, since they ended up burning everything down.

Well, at least Al didn't have any memories of what they'd transmuted. That was one nightmare Ed was happy to take to his grave alone.

Still. There was no way they could do this even semi-regularly, and Ed was getting kind of sick of being stuck in the patient room, anyway. Last time, because Al had been large enough to carry him around, they'd set him up in the room that had originally been Auntie Sarah and Uncle Yuriy's, which had sort of turned into his and Al's shared room for whenever they visited. He assumed Al was sleeping up there for the moment, but since Granny had put a moratorium on him attempting stairs, Ed was stuck downstairs. Which sucked.

Well, Al and Winry were going to be gone for a couple days, which meant fewer eyes watching for Ed to do something stupid; he could just move himself upstairs and, once he was up there, Granny would have to deal. Unless she wanted him going back down them again. (And Ed was happy to tell her, from experience, that going up those stairs was a hell of a lot easier than going down them when you only had one fully-functioning leg.)

You know, he didn't remember her being such a stickler about him staying in bed last time. But, then, he hadn't been as mobile last time, his centre of balance completely skewed, and Al had been able to carry him. Too, Al hadn't been able to sleep, so he hadn't needed a bed; he'd spent the nights in the hallway or Ed's room, sitting against the wall in grim silence.

Ed pressed his nose to Al's hair and took a deep breath, centred himself with the scents of clean soap and old paper and the motor-oil smell that always clung to skin after a couple hours in the Rockbell house.

Not cold steel.

Ed smiled bitterly, wondered if there would ever be a time when he didn't find his brother's living body a wonder.

Unlikely.

Even as adults, he'd often caught himself reaching out to touch Al's shoulder or his cheek, just to check. Winry had done it too, had spent the two years before they'd gone travelling just randomly hugging Al, or catching his hand and holding on tight. They'd calmed down a bit over the years, but Ed had still, sometimes, grabbed his brother's shoulder just because it was in reach.

Al had understood. He'd told Ed, once, that their touches were reassuring to him, too. Little reminders that he could feel, that he had a real body again. And, too, that he wasn't the only one still trying to get used to it.

This Al would never suffer that, and Ed was...so fucking grateful.

Ed tightened his arms around his brother.

So what if Ed couldn't comfort his brother with words; he still had touch, and he'd always been better with touch than with words.

-0-

Granny only put up a token fight when Ed moved rooms, and Al's expression when he ran into the room and found Ed resting on the newly transmuted second bed with one of Hohenheim's books was...

Well, Ed was glad he'd done it.

Learning sign language was no easy task, but all three of them had a damn good reason to master it, and not a one of them was an academic slouch, no matter how much their teachers had always complained. (It really wasn't any of their fault that Ed and Al had been studying alchemy since well before schooling age, or that Winry had been raised on a steady diet of medical and automail terminology; they'd all been too advanced for their ages, but Resembool didn't really have the resources for three child-geniuses, so they'd just ended up driving their instructors insane because they didn't care about or already knew what they were being taught.)

By the end of the year, they could mostly communicate with each other with sign language, and Al was able to read Hohenheim's Xingan journals – which hadn't contained much new information for Ed, but he suspected Al would find them useful – though it was slow going for him.

In December, Ed also finally told Winry about his memories. She'd been more horrified than disbelieving – eventually admitted that she'd been a bit suspicious of the changes in his personality that he hadn't been able to hide – and had cried way too fucking much, but it had felt good to have everyone know. Even if he'd absolutely refused to talk about who they'd all ended up marrying; every time Al or Winry asked, Ed told them he didn't want to chance ruining their future happiness because they went into their every interaction expecting a future match. (Too, he couldn't tell Winry the truth; he'd already cheated on her once, and he knew he didn't deserve her. Better she find someone else, someone who would love her, body and soul, than to let her start dreaming their happily-ever-after and ending up with her heart broken.)

Once Winry knew the truth, it gave Ed the opening to tell all of them about Auntie Sarah and Uncle Yuriy's time in Ishval. He hadn't been certain, at first, whether he should tell Winry about Scar killing them, but she pressured him into it, then spent the rest of the day hiding in her room. (This sort of shit was why she needed to find someone else to marry. Seriously, all Ed ever did was hurt her.)

When she finally came out for breakfast the next morning, she stopped behind her chair, looked Ed in the eyes, and said, "You said I became your mechanic, one of the best in all of Amestris."

Ed gave a cautious nod, because it had been true; Winry had been the star of Rush Valley even before she'd married the former Fullmetal Alchemist and everyone knew her name.

Winry tightened her hands on the back of her chair. "How? Who'd I learn from? Granny?"

Ed raised his hands, then paused for a moment, trying to figure out how best to sign this. :Granny until you were fifteen, then a mechanic in Rush Valley. G-A-R-F-I-E-L.:

"Garfiel?" Winry sounded out carefully.

Ed nodded, then added, :You were referred by D-O-M-I-N-I-C,: before shooting Granny a pointed look.

"Dominic?" Winry repeated, frowning.

Granny looked up. "Dominic LeCoulte?" she asked, and Ed nodded, while both Al and Winry looked over at her, Winry finally sitting down. "I remember him. He was one of my father's apprentices." Her mouth twisted with something that sent a shiver down Ed's spine. "He was one of the better ones."

Winry cleared her throat. "Granny, is it okay if I go to Rush Valley when Ed and Al leave for Xing?"

Ed shot her a startled look, but he probably shouldn't have been so surprised, really; she'd always striven to learn as much as she could, so she could provide Ed with the absolute best automail possible. The first time, Granny had been the only teacher open to her, but Ed had just set a world of possibilities in front of her.

Granny let out a considering hum. "Let me make some calls," she decided.

Ed suspected Winry was going to end up learning from someone even more advanced than Garfiel had been, if Granny had her way.

Winry gave a loud sniff and rubbed her arm over her eyes roughly. "Thank you, Granny."

Pinako leant forward and patted her hand. "If automail is your passion, Winry, you know I'll support you the whole way." Then she glanced at Ed and Al. "And I'll support the two of you, as well. Even if you are heading for the military."

Ed huffed and rolled his eyes; nothing he'd ever said had changed her opinion of the military, before, and he doubted that would ever change, no matter how much he knew about the future.

"Thank you, Granny," Al said, kicking Ed's right leg under the table. "Brother appreciates your support too, don't you, Brother?"

Ed resisted the urge to roll his eyes again, somehow, and managed a grateful look for Granny.

Granny shot him a knowing look. "Beansprout."

Ed sniffed and very pointedly looked away, making both Al and Winry laugh.

After breakfast, when Ed pulled out the journal of Hohenheim's that he'd been rereading – Al had started bringing him the ones in Amestrisan when he'd complained about being bored after going through all the Xingan ones twice – Winry took it from him and quietly asked, "The man who killed my parents, is he a...good man?"

Ed frowned and shrugged. Before she could start pestering him for more, he signed, :He cares about his own people, and he did a lot of good for them. He was...hurting, though. IS hurting, now, and he's going to use that hurt to make other people miserable. There's good in him, but he's lost it.: He sighed and shrugged again. :When we lose the people most important to us, it's a fine line between vengeance and forgiveness.:

"You're saying I should forgive him?" Winry asked as she slid his book back across the table to him.

Ed considered her for a moment, took in that shine of strength and kindness in her eyes, and smiled. :I think you already have.: Then he opened his book back up.

"Idiot," Winry muttered as she got up from the table.

Since she hadn't yelled, Ed knew he was right; she'd already forgiven Scar, as if he'd ever had any doubt.

-0-

The thing about having gone through automail attachment and recovery once before, was that Ed knew exactly how far he could push himself at any given point. Too, his brain already knew how to work with the automail; it was just the process of his muscles figuring out the specifics that held him back.

All that meant that, by the middle of January, a mere eight months after Granny first installed his port, Ed was more than capable of sneaking out the house with no one the wiser and making the hike to the little cottage where Breda had once introduced him to Mr Han, the man who smuggled people across the desert to Xing. Getting the papers to travel to a foreign country, under Bradley, was a pain in the arse for normal people, never mind two kids travelling alone (especially when at least two members of the military knew they were alchemical prodigies, for all Ed trusted Mustang to keep that quiet), which made this their best option. Granny hadn't asked him, yet, how he was planning to manage the legalities, but, judging by the passport request forms he'd found slipped inside his journal a few days before, it was coming, and Ed really needed to have a solid plan before she started pushing.

He had considered bringing Al with him, for the ease of communicating, but his brother had continued to flinch away from the idea of getting his hands dirty, unless it was for less fortunate people, well into adulthood. Given the questionable legality of smuggling themselves over the border, and the fact that there was no way they had enough money to buy both of them a round trip between Amestris and Xing and still have funds to get to East City by train upon their return, Ed was going to have to resort to something a bit more 'under the table' to pay their way, and the less his brother knew, the happier he'd be.

The house that he'd met Mr Han in the last time was owned by Marcus Forster, who was well-known in Resembool for refusing to have anything to do with anyone, so Ed wasn't surprised when the door was yanked open at his knock and he found himself being glared at.

He replied with a flat look and held up a sign that read, 'I'm looking for someone who can read this:' in Amestrisan. Underneath it, he'd written, 'I'm looking for passage to Xing' in Xingan.

Mr Forster stared at the note for a moment, then let out a disgusted noise and stepped back, motioning Ed inside. "Fang!" he called as he slammed the door closed behind Ed. "Customer!"

The Xingan man Ed remembered from before stepped out of a back room, looking only mildly curious. "A customer?" he murmured, before his eyes caught on Ed. "Oh? You are quite young."

Ed held up his sign.

Mr Han blinked. "Passage to Xing?" he asked in Xingan.

Ed nodded, took a moment to find the next pre-written note he needed, and turned it around for Mr Han to read: 'Passage for my younger brother and I. We can't pay but we're both alchemists and I'm capable of forging Amestrisan travel papers'

Mr Han narrowed his eyes at him. "How old are you, boy?"

Ed didn't have a note for that, but it was easy to pull out his pen and write '11' on a blank space of the top paper.

Mr Han shook his head. "Go home to your parents."

Ed let out an irritated sound – he didn't have a note for any of this – then stalked over to the nearest table, flipped his current note over, and wrote, 'Our mother is dead + our father is travelling fuck knows where. We're going to Xing but I'd rather go with someone than try it alone for my brother's sake.' And the characters were tilting every which way, because he had enough trouble writing the Amestrisan alphabet neatly when he was annoyed and rushing, never mind the far more complicated Xingan characters, but the message was legible. Mostly.

When he turned to show that to Mr Han, he found the man standing directly behind him, and he couldn't stop himself from snarling at being snuck up on and taking a quick step back. (And it really was for the best that he hadn't quite decided to try replacing the knives he'd picked up when he no longer had alchemy to protect himself, because it meant he didn't have a weapon to reach for; he didn't think brandishing a knife at Mr Han would win him any points.)

Mr Han gave him an assessing look. "Your handwriting is atrocious," he said as he took Ed's note out of his hands, "but you know my language."

Ed set his jaw and gave a sharp nod before pulling out the note that said, 'My father had books--he travelled to Xing years ago'

Mr Han hummed in understanding before taking a moment to read the message Ed had just written. He held it back out to Ed once he was done, asking, "Why do you want to go to Xing?"

Ed had a note for that, thankfully: 'We want to study the purification arts especially the concept of the "Dragon Pulse"--unless you're an alkahestrist as well as a smuggler that means we need to go to Xing'

Mr Han laughed at that. "You have a sharp tongue, boy. Or, should I say, a sharp pen? You will have difficulty in Xing if you can't speak."

Ed pulled out a new note: 'I'm mute but my brother isn't'

"Ah. And why is it, then, that your brother isn't here now?"

Ed sighed and flipped his current note over, because he'd anticipated that question following that explanation: 'My brother cares about legalities. I can talk him into letting ourselves be smuggled across the border and providing alchemical assistance along the way but if he finds out I'm offering to forge documents he'll have my head'

Which, well, in truth, Al might not care as much as Ed was anticipating, now he knew exactly how rotten their government was, but it was hard not to remember how much of a pain in the arse it had been, before, to keep Al from making a fuss over the few times he'd needed to forge Mustang's signature on something; if Ed could keep this from his brother, he would.

Mr Han chuckled at that. "I see. And how good is your forging, then? Can it stand up to Central City military police?"

Ed shuffled his notes, looking for one of the blank papers he'd left in the pile. Once he'd found it, he cleared a space on the table, set it down, and pulled the container of ink he'd brought out of his pocket. He carefully poured just enough ink onto the paper, then clapped his hands and activated the array he needed to create a flawless reproduction of the Bradley-era travel papers –which he'd seen a few times in Mustang's office, on one of the others' desks, while waiting for the bastard to be able to see him – Bradley's signature included. (Which he'd seen more than enough times on his State Alchemist assessments and various other military documents that he could make it look slightly different each time and, therefore, completely legit.)

And then he shot Mr Han a smirk, extremely gratified to find him wearing an openly astonished look.

Mr Han looked over at him, only sort of managing to get control of his expression. "Can you do that with any document?"

Ed shrugged and pulled out one of his blank papers and a pen to write, 'Should be able to if you have an original for me to study. The more versions of a signature the more legit I can make it look'

"Marcus, bring me the document cache," Mr Han called, before turning back to Ed and asking, "You said you and your brother have some tricks for in the desert?"

Ed had a note for that: 'We can quickly build shelters strong enough to withstand sandstorms and we can draw water from the ground' (The latter was actually an Aerugonian array that Ed had come across during his travels after the Promised Day and taken pains to remember for anyone travelling through the Great Desert, like Al had done to get to Xing. Al had never got any use out of it, but Grumman had thanked him for it when he'd passed it on to the alchemy labs with the handful of other arrays he'd deemed safe to share, and he knew it had seen plenty of use in fixing dried wells all over the country.)

Mr Forester appeared with a steel box just the right size for paperwork. "Document ca– Hey, is that–?" he started, eyes caught on Ed's forged paper.

"A perfectly forged travel paper?" Mr Han suggested as he accepted the box and pulled it open. "Yes, it is. Our young alchemist here has quite a talent for it." He pulled out a paper from the box and held it out to Ed. "Can you do that one? I apologise that it is the only copy we have."

It was a writ granting a foreigner permission to be on Amestrisan soil without fear of being detained. It was signed by Bradley and both Lieutenant Generals Raven and Gardner. Ed had seen Raven's signature a few times in the past, but Gardner's was new to him. Still, two out of three looking authentic was usually enough to pass muster, so he nodded and pulled out a new blank paper to create a copy.

"Shit," Mr Forester said once the light had died down, leaving a perfect copy. "You ain't fucking around, kid."

Ed shrugged, then turned a hard look on Mr Han.

The Xingan man smiled at him and set the steel box to the side before offering a polite bow, then extending his hand. "I am Fang Han. I would be honoured to provide you and your brother passage across the Great Desert in return for your assistance with papers and the crossing itself."

Ed quickly scribbled his name on a clear space on the top paper in his stack, then offered his hand in return.

"Edward Elric," Mr Han read.

"You're Trisha's eldest boy," Mr Forester recognised, shooting him an intrigued look. "I heard you two knew some alchemy."

Ed offered a sharp smile and mouthed, 'Some.'

Mr Forester snorted at that and turned away. "I'll go find the agreement paperwork," he said before walking from the room.

Mr Han motioned towards the nearest chair at the table. "Sit, please. We'll discuss the trade."

Ed nodded and settled in to make the transaction for his and Al's passage.

.

Chapter Text

"Where have you been?!" Winry shouted when Ed finally made it back to the Rockbell house. She and Al had been sitting on the porch, clearly waiting for him, and both looked cross.

Ed winced. :Securing our passage to Xing,: he signed.

"For four hours?!"

"Winry," Al cautioned, "let's take this inside." Because all of them were cautious, even though they doubted the homunculi had eyes on them.

They found Granny at the dining room table, looking disapproving.

"Ed says he was securing his and Al's passage to Xing," Winry informed her grandmother as they all sat down.

Granny turned a glare on Ed. "Without passports?" she guessed.

Ed sighed and glanced askance at Al, since Granny only knew a handful of sign language. Enough to know when there was something wrong, but not enough for this conversation. When Al gave a tight nod of agreement – he was willing to translate – Ed started signing, :There's no way the military's going to give two children passports, especially if they realise we're alchemists. I know of a man willing to take us across the desert–:

"Are you insane?!" Winry demanded, cutting off Al's translation before he could mention the desert part out loud. "You can't cross the Great Desert with automail; you'll die!"

"Edward," Granny said, her voice low and hard.

:I can handle it,: Ed insisted.

"How? You've got metal permanently attached to your skin, Ed!" Winry said, her tone turning more desperate than angry. "You've only just finished healing!"

:What do you want from me?: Ed returned, his jaw clenched. :We need to get to Xing and there's no way we can afford to cross into Aerugo and take a ship down the coast. I found someone who's willing to take us in return for alchemic assistance; the desert is our only option.:

"And what happens once you make it to Xing and you can't walk because you're so badly burnt? Then what?!"

Before Ed could come up with a good response to that, Al jumped up from the table and ran from the room, calling back, "I need to get a book!"

Ed blinked after his brother for a moment, then shook himself and turned back to Winry. :I can heal burns.:

"That's not the point," Winry whispered before covering her face, and Ed knew she was crying again.

Dammit.

"Ed," Granny said, her tone firm, "we didn't give you a leg so you could cross the Great Desert first thing and burn yourself with it. Northern automail is the same as normal automail in the heat, which you know."

Ed looked away. Yeah, he knew. There was a very good reason why he'd never gone to Xing, no matter how many formal invites Ling had sent. And, sure, he could have gone the coastal route, especially after they had a peace treaty with Aerugo, but the trip by boat was at least twice as long as going through the Great Desert, and lacked the chance to go past the Xerxesian ruins again and explore what little was left of his heritage; it just wasn't worth the waste of his time.

Al dashed back into the room and dropped one of Hohenheim's Xingan journals down on the table next to Ed. "I remember reading," he said as he leant over the book and started flipping through the pages, "about an array that could be carved onto a container to keep whatever contents you put inside below a certain temperature."

Ed felt his eyes widen, while Winry and Granny both made surprised noises.

Al flattened his hand over the journal, ceasing his flipping, and pushed it in front of Ed. "You're the better alchemist, Brother; can you adapt that to keep your automail at a safe temperature?" he asked, tapping his finger next to the array.

Ed turned his attention to the array, remembered flipping past it because electricity meant they didn't need alchemy for refrigeration, so it seemed useless to him. But, as a way to keep his automail cool?

He pulled out his pen and mimed writing. A piece of paper was almost immediately set on the table next to him and Ed signed a one-handed, :Thank you,: before starting to trace out the important parts of the array, the parts that he couldn't really change. The rest of it just sort of...slipped into place, his hand drawing the necessary lines almost without him realising, and he had a functional array by the time he let the journal flip closed.

"How do you do that?" Al complained, more admiration then disgust in his voice.

Ed shrugged and signed, :Practice,: then turned to Winry and nodded.

Winry freed her lip from between her teeth. "You're sure that will work?"

Ed nodded while Al said, "It looks like it to me."

She swallowed and glanced at Granny, who was watching all of them from behind her pipe, her eyes narrowed, but a glint of interest hiding within them. Winry took a deep breath and looked back at Ed, then asked, "Will it work even for a non-alchemist?"

Ed blinked and, oh, Winry. Of course she was trying to find a way to make this fix accessible for people all over the country; Ed had always been the willing scapegoat for her greatest innovations.

"I don't know," Al supplied. "The original had to be activated by an alchemist, according to Dad's notes, but once it had been, it would last years before needing to be recharged."

:This should work the same,: Ed offered, glancing over his array. :I didn't change the fundamentals, just fixed it to control the temperature of the object it's carved on, rather than whatever's inside that object, and changed what temperature it would keep it below, since the original was meant to keep food from spoiling.: He looked up at Winry. :You can draw it and then find an alchemist – it's pretty basic, they don't need a state licence – to activate it. Tell whoever's got it to find an alchemist to recharge it again if they notice it failing.:

Winry held out a hand for the paper and Al passed it over. "It has to be carved?" she asked, staring at the array.

Since she wasn't looking, Ed left that for Al to answer: "No, you can use chalk or paint or whatever. But, given you're putting it on automail, carving it is going to be your best way to keep it from rubbing off."

"Oh, right. That makes sense."

Ed let out a whistle and, when Winry looked up at him, signed, :I'll test it. I can send our guide back with a note about how well it works and any changes to the array, if necessary. Once you have my report, you can start offering it to other people, okay?:

"A few weeks in the Great Desert is a pretty thorough test," Al added, "and Brother and I can both heal minor burns and recharge the array, if necessary, so we've got a safety net."

Winry glanced back down at the array, then nodded. "Okay. Let me practise carving this a few times before I add it to your leg, though, okay?"

Ed nodded. :We've got time. Our guide and I agreed to wait until March before leaving, since he has a couple of people he's hoping to hear from around then.:

Winry stood. "March. Got it." Then she turned and left.

Granny sighed and Ed glanced over to find her shaking her head, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. "You two are your father's sons. Do you intend to solve everything with alchemy?"

:Alchemy isn't always the solution, but it does ease the way,: Ed signed to Al, who faithfully repeated it out loud.

Granny let out a quiet, helpless laugh. "True enough."

Ed shrugged and collected Hohenheim's journal as he stood, then motioned to his brother that he intended to head upstairs.

"Oh, is my reward for finding a way to keep you from getting burnt filling me in on all your secret plans at last?" Al asked slightly sarcastically as he followed Ed from the room.

Ed snorted; okay, he'd deserved that.

-0-

Winry came into Ed and Al's room a couple mornings later, while they were arguing over which of Hohenheim's journals they should take – Al was for the lot, while Ed preferred to travel light – holding a long strip of steel in one hand. They both turned to look at her curiously, and she held it out to Al, who was closer. "Tell me that's right."

He nodded after some consideration, then passed the steel to Ed, letting him get a look at the array that had been cut into the piece. "It looks right to me."

Ed nodded his agreement as he handed the piece back to Al so he could return it to Winry.

"Good," Winry decided as she accepted her work back. "I want to run some tests on it before we add it to your leg, though, Ed, if you two will help me?"

Al and Ed glanced at each other, then shrugged nearly in sync and stood; they weren't getting anywhere with the books right now, so they might as well move to something new. "What sort of tests?" Al asked.

"Well, you two are going to test extended heat over the course of weeks, but I'd like to toss it in the furnace and see how it holds out against fire," Winry returned as she turned to lead the way out of the room.

Ed winced; and she always used to bitch about how hard he was on automail.

"I also," she continued, "want to find out how much contact there needs to be between pieces for it to receive the same benefits. Like, do I need to cut the array into every piece, or will bolting two pieces of metal together keep them both cool, even though only one piece has the array."

"Huh. Didn't think of that," Al admitted, while Ed shook his head in agreement; just because he'd had automail for more than half his life didn't mean he'd ever paid much attention to the exact details, a fact Winry had never let him forget. (But why bother, really, when she was there to pay attention for him. Which he knew better than to ever actually point out to her. Before or now.)

Winry nodded. "And will I need to cut it special into the port, or will cutting it into the outer plate, where it's easy to access, transfer the effect through to the core and the port?"

Al glanced over at Ed, who grimaced and shrugged; they were going to end up spending all day testing this.

:Stop whining, Brother,: Al signed. :It's for your safety.:

:That's why I'm making faces instead of whining,: Ed returned.

"Stop talking behind my back," Winry called back.

Ed raised an eyebrow at Al, and he sighed and offered, "Sorry, Winry."

She huffed and spun, holding the steel piece out to them. "One of you jerks activate this."

As Ed had expected, Winry's tests took most of the day. They did manage to prove that the steel was kept cool even in direct flame, and the effect seemed to transfer to the tongs Winry was using to fetch it out of the furnace, once they made contact. Further tests showed there was only so many connections the effect would transfer between from a single piece, but Al hypothesised that just keeping the casing cool should help insulate the core against the heat, and Ed made a couple tweaks to the array to make sure of that.

Winry still insisted on cutting the array into his port, for the added security – Ed couldn't even pretend to be surprised; she'd always cared about his health more than he did – but they'd determined that three arrays – one at the front of his leg, one at the back, and one on the top of his foot (not strictly necessary, but Winry was thorough) – would been enough to keep it from overheating. Which meant Ed had to spend the next day hobbling around on a temporary, but he had automail, by the end of the day, that he could take into the desert without concern.

It was...liberating, and Ed didn't hold back from hugging her tight in thanks.

-0-

Ed and Al spent the last week of February cleaning up their childhood home and closing everything up. Granny had promised to keep an eye on the house for them while they were gone, make sure no one tried taking up residence without permission, but that didn't keep the brothers from adding their own series of alchemical deterrents, or hiding away all their research into human transmutation, as well as the handful of ridiculously rare books that Hohenheim had (which Ed hadn't known were as rare as they were until he'd needed to reference them at one point during their search for the Stone and realised he couldn't find a copy anywhere, which had pissed him off).

Ed hadn't told Al or the Rockbells that they'd once burnt down this house, mostly because he didn't consider it an important part of his story, despite it being a date he'd carried with him his whole life, having carved it into the inside of the lid of the pocket watch he'd bought to replace his State Alchemist one. There had been a few times he'd considered burning it down again – if Winry was going to Rush Valley, there wouldn't be much cause for them to return to Resembool – but it was hard not to remember Hohenheim calling him a child and saying, "You ran, didn't you, Edward?"

Ed had run from a lot of things in his life, including this house. But this was his second chance, and he wasn't afraid of the memories haunting these walls any more.

(Too, when Al had married May, Ed had honestly regretted they no longer had a house for him to inherit; this time, no matter who his little brother married, he'd have a place to bring her home to.)

Since they were leaving the house standing, Ed decided to leave a note for Hohenheim, which he hung from the ceiling in the front hallway, so the bastard couldn't miss it when he walked in. Al, as soon as he'd seen Ed setting up his letter, had scurried off to find some paper and a pen, then written his own note and got Ed to hang it up with his.

Ed suspected Al'd apologised, in his letter, for whatever Ed had written, which made him roll his eyes, but he figured their idiot father deserved to know that at least one of his sons didn't think he was a waste of space. Which wasn't to say he actually hated his father – he'd been a father himself, knew how hard it could be, and he knew the bastard had left to try and save all of them – but it was hard to shake away years of feeling like they'd been abandoned.

Maybe Hohenheim hadn't been the worst possible father, but Ed would still never forgive him.

-0-


Van Hohenheim,
Al and I are currently travelling to Xing to learn the Purification Arts, though I doubt you'll return to Resembool until after our return, in which case, you can reach us through Colonel Roy Mustang's office in either East or Central City – Granny Pinako should have the details.
We know about your history and about the Dwarf in the Flask and his plans for this country. I have a plan to take him out before his stupid Promised Day, and we'll be gathering allies on our own, but we'd appreciate your help all the same – there's only so much normal humans can do against someone who IS a Philosopher's Stone.
I understand why you thought you had to leave, but know I will NEVER forgive you for it. You left Mum to die, and you weren't here to keep Al and I from performing human transmutation and making us the Dwarf in the Flask's targets. You really are a shit father, but if you get your head screwed back on straight, you can fix things with Al.
Get your head screwed back on straight.
I expect to hear from a "Ho Elric" before the end of 1914.
Edward Elric
P.S. – Ask Granny Pinako what Mum's last words were, so she doesn't forget to tell you.

-0-

On the second of March, Ed went by Mr Gardner's place and checked in with Mr Han. There was a woman from the Shen clan looking to return to Xing, he explained, and she would get to Resembool on the sixth, so they would plan to leave shortly after her train got in that afternoon.

With a firm departure date, Ed and Al got down to the business of packing what they'd settled on taking, easily having everything ready to go in time.

Winry walked to the meeting place outside of town with them on the afternoon of the sixth, nagging Ed about taking care of his automail – :Do you have any idea how many times I've heard this?: he signed irritably, which she ignored – and reminding Al to ring Granny as soon as they got back into the country, so she could tell them where to find Winry, which Al agreed to in a far politer tone than Ed would have used. (Winry and Granny would be heading for Rush Valley after the harvest came in, when the number of potential injuries went way down, and find her someone to apprentice under, so they wouldn't know where she was going to end up until after Ed and Al were already in Xing.)

They saw the horses before any people, but Mr Han stepped out from behind one once they were in hailing range, calling, "Mr Edward!"

"Mister?" Winry repeated sceptically while Ed waved an acknowledgement.

Ed rolled his eyes. :He started that shit all on his own,: he insisted, because the smuggler had.

"And you didn't try to stop him?"

:Yes, I can see how that would work,: Ed returned, before mouthing, 'I'm sorry, Mr Han, but could you please just–'

Winry elbowed him while Al shook his head, amused. "Fine, fine. Point taken."

:The 'please' was a nice touch,: Al signed, because he was getting disturbingly good at reading Ed's lips.

Ed rolled his eyes.

"You must be Mr Alphonse," Mr Han said to Al as they met up.

"Alphonse Elric," Al agreed, offering a hand for the Xingan man.

"I am Fang Han," Mr Han returned with his short bow, then took Al's hand a shook it.

Al motioned to Winry, offering, "This is a friend of ours who came to see us off, Winry Rockbell."

"Ah. I have heard much of your family from my associate," he offered Winry, along with his hand. "He tells that your father once saved his life."

Winry smiled sadly as she shook his hand. "It was a habit of his, I guess."

"Fang?" a female voice called, before the owner stepped around the horses, revealing her to be a young Xingan woman.

"The rest of our travellers and their friend," Mr Han explained in Xingan, before turning back to the three Amestrisans and offering in their language, "This is Yan Shen, who will be travelling with us."

Al politely inclined his head towards her. "Greetings, Ms Shen. I'm Alphonse Elric, and this is my older brother, Edward."

Ed winced, because Al's pronunciation was terrible; he'd tried.

Mr Han coughed, hiding his mouth behind one hand, while Ms Shen very obviously had to look away. "Your pronunciation is as poor as your brother's handwriting," Mr Han commented mildly.

Al sighed and nodded. "I know, but there's only so much I can learn when my resources are all written. I'd appreciate any assistance you might be able to offer."

Ed rolled his eyes at how ridiculously polite his brother always was. And either Al saw him, or he'd anticipated him, because he signed, :Shut up.:

:You do remember I can't do anything BUT shut up, right?:

Al sighed.

Mr Han shook his head. "I believe we should be able to manage some assistance," he offered, glancing back towards Ms Shen, who nodded in agreement.

"Thank you."

Mr Han looked up at the sky before commenting, "We should leave soon, or we will not make the first shelter by the heat of the new day."

"Of course," Al agreed, turning towards Winry, while Mr Han stepped back to give them privacy for farewells. "Thanks for coming to see us off, Winry."

She smiled at them, a hint of sadness in her eyes. "Yeah. You both stay safe out there, okay? Don't do anything stupid."

:We won't,: Ed promised. :We've got each other's backs.:

"What Brother said," Al agreed.

"And don't got stepping into any more weird arrays!" Winry hissed, shoving a finger against Ed's chest.

Ed grimaced. :No, thank you. I have no intention in suffering automail surgery a third time.:

Al and Winry both winced.

Ed sighed. :We'll be careful,: he signed. :Learn a lot so you can make me the best automail ever when we get back, okay?:

Winry gave a determined nod. "I will," she promised, before stepping forward and pulling them both into a hug that Ed and Al wholeheartedly returned. When she stepped back, she swiped a hand over her eyes and Ed couldn't help a sigh. "Shut up, Ed!" she ordered. "I'm allowed to cry!"

:You can cry when we get back,: Ed signed, before turning away and signing over his shoulder, :Come on, Al.:

Al sighed. "We'll see you again before you know it, Winry," he promised. "Take care."

"You, too," Winry agreed.

Al fell in next to Ed as they approached Mr Han and Ms Shen. :Some courtesy, Brother,: he complained.

:You'd both think I'd lost it if I started being courteous,: Ed returned.

Al's grimace said he was right.

At Mr Han's direction, they all settled their things onto their horses, pulled up the hoods of the robes Ed had insisted on, then set off.

After about half an hour, Ms Shen asked Al, "Your brother is deaf?"

Al shook his head. "Mute. He can hear fine, but he can't speak."

"I see. That must be very hard."

:You get used to it,: Ed signed.

Al snorted and translated, "He says you get used to it." He shook his head. "Honestly, we all sort of got used to it."

:And I'm sure you appreciated the lack of yelling,: Ed signed.

Al laughed and replied, "The lack of yelling was a definite benefit. Also, you and Granny insult each other a lot less when she can't understand you."

Ed huffed and made a show of turning his nose up at his brother.

"You have not always been mute, then?" Ms Shen asked.

Ed shook his head, left it for Al to say, "It's been almost a year."

Ms Shen blinked, then asked, "You are going to Xing for an alkahestrist to heal the damage?"

Ed snorted, while Al's expression fell and he shook his head; they'd had this conversation as soon as Al had realised that alkahestry was very healing focussed. "It's too severe," Al offered tiredly, because there was no way they could explain that Ed's vocal cords were gone, stuck on the other side of the Gate; there was literally nothing there to heal.

Ed whistled to get Al's attention and, once he was looking over, signed, :We really should start saying I was born this way.: Because people asked fewer questions about birth defects than they did about wounds earned during life.

:I know,: Al signed back. :I'll try to remember.:

Ed shrugged. :Slips happen. I'm not angry with you, Al. We both said things that led to her thinking I wasn't born like this.:

:You didn't say anything. I just translated–:

Ed reached over and smacked his brother's hands before rapidly signing, :Go tell your guilt complex to fuck itself.:

"Brother!" Al complained, flushing, because Ed always used the sexual sign for 'fuck', rather than the more commonly rude one, for the sheer amusement factor.

Ed flashed him a smirk.

Al very pointedly turned his back on him, asking Ms Shen, "So, what were you doing in Amestris?"

Ed settled in to listen to the woman tell them about her travels in the western countries.

-0-

Xerxes was apparently a regular resting spot for travel across the Great Desert, because Ed hadn't said anything about stopping there, but they ended up there on the third day, all the same.

:There's something I want to get a look at,: Ed signed to Al, once their horses had been unburdened and left to drink from the fountain.

:That array?:

Ed nodded.

:Let me tell them where we're going,: Al signed, then walked over to warn Mr Han and Ms Shen that they were going to go exploring a bit.

Ed trailed after him with a sigh; he'd half expected Al to come with him.

"Be careful," Mr Han was warning as Ed reached them. "These ruins are not as abandoned as they first look."

"That's why we're going together," Al replied, shooting Ed a hard look. "We'll watch each other's backs."

Ed clapped. Not to activate his alchemy, but to make a point: They were far from helpless.

Mr Han sighed and nodded. "I cannot stop you," he allowed, before warning, "I do not like to spend more than a single day in these ruins; so please return in plenty of time to rest for the day."

"We will," Al promised, before motioning for Ed to lead the way.

Ed had only been in the Xerxes ruins that one time, but it was still all-too-easy to find the massive array that was the only thing remaining to tell the truth of the country's overnight destruction.

"Holy shit," Al breathed as they reached it, stopping to stare up at the massive carving.

Ed nodded as he continued walking. :Impressive,: he signed, :but also terrible. This was the fate of Xerxes.:

"But it won't be our fate," Al said, a world of determination in his voice.

Ed smiled at that as he reached the bottom of the wall and clapped his hands together. He touched the stone and the light of transmutation coursed up the wall to the remains of the array, melting the face of the stone so no one could see it any longer; the Dwarf in the Flask may have taken away the key parts to keep anyone from knowing what he'd done, but Ed didn't want anyone getting any ideas in future, either, which meant all traces were best erased.

"Alchemists!" someone shouted, sounding furious and disgusted.

"Stop!" Al called as Ed spun to see his brother dodging two Ishvalan men. "We're not here to fight you!"

Ed sensed and just barely dodged an attack from the side. He turned and bared his teeth at the man, quickly jumping backwards when he kept coming. A gleam lit his eyes, and Ed dropped and rolled to one side, let the man who had tried attacking him from behind deal with the one who'd been in front of him.

He really should have known using alchemy in the ruins would attract the Ishvalans living there. Fuck, the war had only ended a bit over two years ago; these morons were probably itching for a good brawl.

"Please!" Al called, still dodging attacks; they both knew that actually landing a blow on one of the Ishvalans would just cause more trouble. "I don't want to hurt you!"

"Liar!" one of Al's attackers shouted.

Ed dodged a new attacker of his own, cartwheeling away from the stick aimed at his head.

"That is enough!" a rough voice called.

The man who was attacking Ed froze, his expression caught somewhere between fury and shame.

"This is unsightly behaviour," the rough voice continued. "Are you fools trying to bring disgrace upon the name of Ishval?"

Ed looked past his attacker as the man lowered his stick, the shame winning out. An elderly woman with one eye covered with gauze had stepped into the clearing, helped by a boy who looked to be a little younger than Al. Ed realised he recognised the two: They were the ones who had stopped their people the last time, and then told him about Auntie Sarah and Uncle Yuriy.

"Mistress Shan!" one of Al's attackers complained. "They're alchemists!"

The woman looked towards the stone wall. "Who have destroyed alchemy," she returned flatly.

There was silence for a moment, until Al called, "Brother?"

Ed glanced in the direction his voice had come from and, catching sight of him, signed, :I'm fine.:

Al nodded and jumped off the ruined pillar he'd been crouched on. "Yes," he said evenly, "we're alchemists, travelling to Xing. Since we're here, my brother wanted to destroy that." He motioned towards the space where the array had been, the last word practically dripping with disgust. "The last thing anyone needs is some alchemist coming to see it and deciding to try it out for themselves."

"Alchemists who acknowledge the evils of alchemy?" one of the men asked with a scoff.

"Alchemy isn't evil," Al shot back, looking incensed.

Ed whistled and, when Al turned to frown at him, signed, :Alchemy is neither good nor evil; it is a tool. It's up to the wielder to decide how to use it.:

Al drooped and nodded. "Alchemy is a tool," he told the Ishvalans. "Just like a hammer or the sticks you're holding, it's up to the person to decide whether it should be used for good or evil."

Someone snorted, and Ed looked over toward the two who had tried to catch him in a pincer earlier, as one said, "Alchemy used for good? Alchemy is nothing but a way to mock in the face of Ishvala!"

Ed huffed and looked at Al. :Translate?: he requested, and his brother sighed and nodded, then started speaking aloud Ed's response, :You have your religion and we respect that, but you can't expect us to stop practising our way of life any more than we can expect it of you.:

"That's not what your military said!"

"We are not Bradley!" Al returned, crossing his arms over his chest. "You can't put the sins of a handful of men on the shoulders of all Amestrisans; we don't have the ability to decide who's making the laws any more than you do. If you want someone to be angry with, look to the people who started that genocide and refused to stop it when a white flag was raised, not the people who were dragged into the middle of it."

"From the mouths of babes," one of the men who had attacked Al murmured, and the rest of their attackers, almost in sync, ducked their heads.

Ed glanced at Al and found him shooting him a questioning look. He shrugged; he didn't, actually, know much about Ishvalan culture, but that sounded a bit like they were honouring his brother's wisdom? (Not a terrible plan, really; Al always had been the wiser of the two of them.)

"Go, children of Amestris," the elder woman said. "I apologise for the brashness of my countrymen and promise you safe passage through these ruined lands."

Al looked over towards the melted wall as Ed started towards him. When Ed reached him, he nodded and turned so they could leave.

"Sorry!" the boy who'd been helping the elder woman called after them, and Ed and Al both looked back to find him pointing at the wall. "Why didn't you want to let anyone else try that circle? What was it for?"

"That's the array that destroyed Xerxes," Al offered, and all the Ishvalans turned horrified looks on the blank wall. Al turned back towards their camp. "Come on, Brother."

Ed nodded and turned to follow him without looking back.

-0-

Being attacked by Ishvalans ended up being the most exciting part of their entire journey across the desert, and Ed was as glad of that as he was antsy to do something more than sit on a horse all night. They didn't even get a sandstorm, though Ed and Al did their part in repairing outposts that had been damaged by careless visitors or the weather, and pulling water from the ground to refill wells and watering holes that were getting low. Ed was willing to help with the cooking – Winry had forced him to learn when she was pregnant with Yuriy, insisting his basic survival cooking was making her ill – and both he and Al joined the rotation to keep watch, though it had required a demonstration of their fighting skills before Mr Han and Ms Shen were willing to believe they weren't kidding about being able to take care of themselves.

The two Xingans did, indeed, assist Al in perfecting his spoken Xingan, and while Mr Han made the occasional joke about helping Ed with his written Xingan, he didn't push the matter after Ed refused him when he honestly offered. Which, well, Ed could probably use some help, especially if he was going to be in Xing for a couple years, but he'd taken to keeping all his personal journals in Xingan, in part to help himself improve writing the characters, in part because it would be one more security against anyone back in Amestris getting their hands on one and trying to decipher it. (He knew, from experience, that Amestris was rather lacking in Xingan references before the Promised Day, and none of what they did have, used the actual Xingan characters, because it was unlikely enough that any Amestrisan would attempt to pick up a new language, never mind a new alphabet.) In the end, he'd just much rather try and sort himself out, than let someone who actually understood the language, but who he didn't fully trust, near his journals.

As for his leg: They kept a close eye on it – and freaked out their travelling companions the first time they realised Ed was crossing the Great Desert with automail – and the arrays didn't appear to lose any strength over the course of their journey. They did an excellent job of keeping the metal from burning him, and also helped keep him cooler than his companions – which had made Al whine, until Ed gave in and let him use his leg as a fucking ice pack, the dork – since it helped cool down the blood circulating through his stump, and also cooled any other skin pressed against it. (Hence the reason Al decided it was an excellent ice pack.)

Ms Shen dismounted before they crossed the border into Xing – the horses apparently belonged to the Han clan, and weren't for loaning out – saying, "I have no interest in trying to buy my way through the lands of the Han or Yao clans." Once Mr Han had the reins of her horse, she held up a hand to Al and, when he took it, offered, "You're both welcome in the Shen clan, should you have wish for a place to rest your heads. I'm sorry that we cannot offer you knowledge of the Purification Arts, but know you have our friendship."

"A most gracious gift," Al admitted with a grateful smile. "If we are ever in need of friends, we will come to you."

Ms Shen offered Ed a bow, which he and Al both returned, then collected her bag and left to walk along the edge of the border to wherever she could safely cross.

"Mr Han," Al called before they could set out again, "should we be concerned about 'buying our way'?"

Mr Han shook his head. "Prices vary between clans, and some will care, should you wish to cross their land, but the Han clan considers your price paid for, as part of my service." He glanced at Ed. "Your payment was more than sufficient."

"Brother," Al muttered, "what did you do?"

:If I say "sold my body," what will you do?: Ed asked, mostly just to see how his brother would respond.

Al flushed and complained, "Edward!"

Ed laughed and motioned for Mr Han to continue leading them on, then signed to Al, :Sorry, Al. Nothing like that. I just helped them with a few minor things back in Resembool.:

Al sighed and signed, :Was it illegal?:

Ed considered that for a moment, then replied, :Consider, for a moment, who is leading our country.:

:Like that would have affected your decision either way,: Al returned with a disapproving expression.

He didn't try punching Ed, though, which was really all he could ask for.

-0-

The Han clan offered them a beautifully furnished room to use for a couple days, so they could rest from the long travel – Al's expression over the rich meal the first night made it clear he was a little afraid to ask exactly how illegal Ed's actions had been – and were happy, when Al asked, to give them directions to the Chang clan, though only after making it clear that they would be perfectly happy to set the brothers up with one of their allies. (Al's excuse of, "And I'm grateful, but my brother has his heart set on the Chang clan after seeing them mentioned in one of our father's books," made Ed roll his eyes, but he didn't bother trying to write out any denials.)

Mr Han said he wouldn't be returning to Resembool for another couple months, but he agreed to take the note to Winry back when he did and leave it at the Rockbell house. And since it didn't include any trade secrets – just reports on how the array had worked and some of Ed's observations, as well as complaining about being turned into Al's personal ice pack; all things Mr Han could have observed during the journey himself – he didn't worry about trying to safeguard the letter in any way.

They stayed for three days, performing a few minor feats of repair alchemy on the last day to trade for travel supplies and some local currency, the yuan.

On their fourth day in Xing, when Ed and Al stepped out of their lodgings with their packs, they found the one of the clan elders, Jin, waiting for them. Both of them bowed to him – it hadn't taken long to pick up that custom, especially having observed it on the way through the desert between Mr Han and Ms Shen – and he bowed in response, before holding out a scroll. "This is a promise of safe passage through our lands," he explained as Al took it. "It will not be much use once you have passed out of them, but keep it as proof of your friendship with the Han clan, with our thanks."

"Your friendship we are more than happy to accept, but your thanks are unnecessary; all we did was done in friendship," Al replied politely.

Jin bowed again, Ed and Al following suit, then stepped aside so they could head out.

Once they were out of the town and the scroll had been carefully packaged away in a spot where it could be easily accessed, should they need it, Al signed, :It's probably for the best you can't talk, Brother.:

Ed snorted and agreed, :The nice thing about bowing, is it hides my 'fuck you' expression.:

Al covered his face. "Please," he complained about the sexual sign.

Ed waited until Al was looking at him, then did it again.

Al shoved him in response and muttered, "I'm not looking at you any more. You'll just have to talk to yourself."

Ed laughed and looked along the footpath ahead of them. This was familiar, journeying with his brother. This was right.

He'd missed this.

-0-

On their second day on the road, they woke to find a couple of would-be attackers caught up in the alchemical traps they'd surrounded their campsite with.

"Well–" Al got out before cracking a yawn.

Ed tilted his head, giving the nearest of the three men – caught in a massive earthen fist – an interested look. 'Idiot,' he mouthed in Xingan.

The man's face twisted with fury. "A pox on you, outlanders! This is Kui land! You will pay for this–"

Ed clapped, then reached over and touched the man's shoulder, turning his clothing into a gag that climbed into his mouth and shut him up. To Al, he signed, :I'm gonna go piss.:

Al rolled his eyes and nodded before turning back to their catch.

When Ed returned from relieving his bladder, he found that his brother had gagged the other two and was in the process of informing all three of them why attacking travellers was poor manners, especially when those travellers were unaccompanied children.

(Ed loved his brother.)

Grinning and leaving Al to it, Ed turned to start them a quick breakfast, then started packing up their sleeping bags while waiting for it to cook.

Al eventually gave up on his lecturing and went to relieve himself, returning about the same time as breakfast was ready. "I really don't know what to do with them," he admitted to Ed as he served them both food.

Ed shrugged and carefully balanced his plate on his knees so he could sign, :Take their weapons and their clothing and leave them to run home?:

"Brother."

Ed rolled his eyes. :Or we could leave them here until some kind alkahestrist frees them. Or someone comes along and kills and robs them.:

Al groaned and turned his eyes to his food.

Ed ate a few bites of his own food, then snapped his fingers a few times, until Al looked up, and signed, :Taking their weapons is a must, Al. We can leave them with their clothing if you insist, but the weather is mild enough that they won't suffer for being forced to walk home naked.:

Al sighed and slumped slightly. "I know. And maybe that'll teach them not to try mugging a couple kids on the road–"

Ed, kindly, didn't point out how unlikely that would be.

"–but it still rubs me wrong."

:Embarrassment is a good deterrent against them trying again,: Ed returned with a flat look. :There may come a time when it's between taking their clothing and taking their life; which can you stomach?: Because Ed had been forced to make that choice a handful of times when he was travelling on his own, after the Promised Day. The one time he had just let a man go without taking anything from him, trusting his word that he'd turn over a new leaf, he'd woken up two nights later to find the fucker holding a knife to his throat, and ended up having most of his things taken in payment for his earlier softheartedness.

Ed would never be able to stomach killing people – and he knew Al was the same – but he'd learnt well his lesson about letting those who attacked him walk away without punishment.

Al winced and looked towards their would-be attackers. "Can we at least leave them their shoes?" he requested.

Ed sighed and nodded.

They finished their breakfast and packed up the last of their camp, then Ed went to disarm the untouched alchemic traps, while Al informed their would-be attackers that they were letting them go free, but only after confiscating all their belongings. He didn't actually free any of them until Ed came back over, however, which was good, because the first guy he freed revealed a sword he'd had unsheathed inside the earthen fist, and immediately went for Al.

Ed used his brother's shoulders and back as a spring board, simultaneously shoving him down and out of the way, and delivered an automail foot to the fucker's face, sending him straight to unconsciousness.

"Brother," Al sighed.

Ed rolled his eyes and started divesting the unconscious man of everything except his shoes.

The second man, once freed, didn't bother fighting back, just started undressing. He had a stock of knives not unlike the ones Ed remembered May using – kunai, she'd corrected him every time he called them anything different – and he picked one of them up and gave it a careful flip. Not quite like the knives he'd taken to carrying, but he could get used to them, and they were free. (Anyway, from what he remembered about May's explanation of distance alkahestry, you needed some sort of focus at the point where you wanted to activate the array – either a pre-drawn array or some material imbued with your "sense of self," or whatever bullshit – so he might as well get some practice in.)

The third man, when Al freed him, turned to flee.

"Hey!" Al shouted, rushing to his feet.

Ed, since he had one of the kunai in hand already, flipped it around to get a proper grip and tossed it after the man, leaving a shallow cut along the outside of his right leg. Which, well, the guy probably could have kept running, but he apparently took it as a warning shot and froze.

So, yeah, practice, because that hadn't been quite what he'd been aiming for.

Kindly, Al collected the kunai while he stood over that last guy, then chivvied the lot of them – the second guy having slung the first guy over his shoulder – out into the fields surrounding them, while Ed packed up all the abandoned items and cleaned one of the wrappings with alchemy, then used it to fashion places to keep the kunai.

"Really, Brother?" Al muttered as he accepted his pack, eyeing the kunai Ed had hid against his right wrist, just far enough back that it shouldn't interfere with his signing.

Ed shrugged. :I used western-style knives for a while. Sometimes you need more than alchemy in a fight.:

Al considered the sword they'd got off the guy who Ed had knocked unconscious, which Ed had attached to his pack. It looked nothing like the sword Ling had used, more like the sorts of swords used in ancient western art, but with an oddly-shaped pommel. "I guess," he allowed.

Ed reached over and flicked a finger at the sword, then signed, :I'm happy to teach you knife or spear-fighting, but I never saw much use for swords.:

Al gave a slow nod, his expression promising trouble. "Hm. The spear makes sense, actually, when you consider your rather extreme reach disadvantage against most people."

:Are you asking for a practical demonstration of knife-fighting?: Ed demanded crossly. :Because I could use the practice.:

Al snorted and shook his head. "Nope. I'm good."

Ed huffed.

They walked in silence for about a half hour, before Al said, "You were always more comfortable with the knife Teacher gave us."

Ed grimaced and nodded; it was true that he'd had better luck with the knife on the island, and his habit of turning his arm into a short blade to fight with had helped hone the fighting skills he already had from Teacher's more combat-based training. He'd figured out spears because, yes, there were times when he needed the added reach while fighting someone, but he'd always been more comfortable with smaller weapons that would let him get inside an opponent's guard.

"Maybe someone in the Chang clan can teach me sword-fighting," Al mused.

:How about I teach you some knife- and spear-fighting and you try whatever else you can learn from the clan?: Ed suggested. :Eventually, you'll find that one weapon that suits you best.:

Al considered that for a moment before cautiously asking, "What...did I use? In the future?"

Ed sighed. :Spears are easy to transmute from whatever's nearby; when you needed a weapon, that's usually what you went for.: Though, Ed had sometimes wondered if that hadn't been a partial holdover from his time in the armour, when a spear was really the only weapon sized for him.

"Hand-to-hand, then," Al mused. "Well, it is less likely to end in accidentally killing an opponent."

:Unless you have automail,: Ed returned, and if he'd been able to speak, he knew his voice would have been flat, because he knew from long experience that it was no easy task to go all out with only three (or two) limbs, while also trying to hold back with one (or two).

"Oh, yeah. I guess using knives pose about the same amount of danger of overdoing it as using your leg."

Ed shrugged. :I don't know I'd put it that way, exactly, but I'm already weaponised, so I might as well keep weapons on me.: Well, and he hadn't had alchemy to serve as a safety net. Not that he'd explained that part to his brother, and nor did he really have any interest in doing so; at the moment, Al seemed willing to buy the idea that Ed had traded his voice for Al's part of the toll, but if he got wind that Ed had been forced to trade his alchemy, before, instead, he'd start asking questions that Ed...didn't really want to answer.

One day, he'd probably have to tell his brother he'd used a Philosopher's Stone to get him back from the Gate, but damned if he wasn't going to put it off for as long as humanly possible.

-0-

The next time they were attacked was a few days later, when they were nearing their destination, and it was by two men who wore a sash across their chests in a very familiar manner. 'Chang,' Ed mouthed to Al, right before he was forced to catch a sword aimed at his head between his crossed kunai.

"Are you members of the Chang clan?" Al asked as he dodged the other man's sword.

The man whose sword Ed had caught, who looked to be the elder of the two by at least twenty years, let up on the pressure he was exerting and demanded, "Who wants to know?"

"We are looking to learn alkahestry," Al explained, ducking another swing from his attacker. "We saw your clan's name in one of the books our father owns. It was supposedly written by the Philosopher of the West."

Technically, none of Hohenheim's books had named any Xingan clans, but Ed and Al were banking on the idea that they had journals from the man who'd developed alkahestry into the art it was now to win them some points.

Both of the Xingan men pulled back, weapons still held at the ready, but clearly willing to listen. "You have writings of the Philosopher of the West?" the one who'd been attacking Ed asked.

Ed signed, :Descendants,: where he knew his brother would see.

Al's eyes flickered up toward his face, a suggestion of a frown at the corner of his mouth, but he offered, "We are descended from him."

Helpfully, Ed pointed at his own eyes; in all his travels, Hohenheim, Al, and Ed himself were the only humans he'd ever seen with gold eyes. (Well, them and his and Al's children, but that was sort of expected.) The particular shade of their hair was also rare, but less noticeably so when there weren't any normal blonds around to compare it to.

"Gold eyes," the man who'd attacked Al breathed. "Feng–"

"I see that," the older man snapped in response, before turning back to them. "Have you proof of your claims?"

:What? That we're descended from a man said to have lived four hundred years ago?: Ed signed, rolling his eyes. :Yes, let me just take out our lineage papers.:

:Stop trying to cause trouble,: Al signed back, even as he said, "I have one of his journals in my bag." And then, proving Ed wasn't the only one looking to cause trouble, signed, :I told you it was a good idea to bring them.:

:Shut up.:

"If you could get it out," the older man said, "I would like to show it to our clan's head alkahestrist."

Al shrugged and nodded. "Sure, though it is just a book, in the end, I warn you," he said as he slipped his bag off his back and knelt to go through it.

"Explain the hand motions," the younger man demanded. "They are suspicious."

"My brother cannot speak," Al said flatly, and the man flinched.

Since it looked like they weren't going to be attacked again any time soon, Ed slipped his kunai away and glanced over his shoulder at his bag to ensure the guy who'd attacked him hadn't damaged anything obvious.

"Here it is," Al finally said, holding up one of the books.

The older man very obviously sheathed his sword, then stepped forward to accept the book, which Al relinquished with a friendly smile.

:Tell him they can keep it,: Ed suggested.

"Brother!" Al complained, before letting go of the tie he was doing back up to sign, :We're not giving away any of Dad's books!:

Ed rolled his eyes. :Not even as a gift of friendship? Where are your manners?:

"Stop being difficult," Al said as he finished doing up his pack, then stood and slipped it on. :If this is that clan and they're willing to welcome us, THEN we'll give it to them.:

Ed snorted, but had to admit there was some sense in that. (And, hey, one fewer of Hohenheim's books to lug back with them.)

The older man slipped the book into his sash, then bowed to them and offered, "I am Feng, and my companion is Jian."

Jian offered a bow as he was introduced, smoothly sliding his sword away as he did.

Al glanced at Ed and, when he nodded, they both bowed back as Al replied, "I am Alphonse Elric, and this is my elder brother, Edward."

Feng nodded. "We will lead you to the village," he said, before turning and starting down a narrow path leading towards the massive, mountain-like rock formations which, in all honestly, Ed wouldn't have thought to take.

Jian motioned for them to go ahead so, after trading looks, Ed took the lead, with Al following just far enough back that they'd both have room to move if they were attacked again.

It was a good hour before Ed saw the first signs of habitation between the rocks: a column of dark smoke, thin enough to probably be a cooking fire, reaching up toward the sky. The houses came into view about twenty minutes after, small and shabby, even from a distance; a far cry from their visit with the Han clan.

The trickle of pity making it hard to swallow told Ed that, yeah, this was most probably the Chang clan; everything May had ever told him about her clan suggested they would have died out in another generation, if Ling hadn't offered the Yao clan's protection.

(He wondered what it would take to repeat that particular bit of history. Not getting them both involved in Amestris' chaos, he hoped. Maybe Hohenheim's journal could serve as the Chang clan's gift to the emperor? Buy them some of the favour they so clearly needed.)

When they reached the village, they attracted stares from pretty much everyone they saw, and Ed saw one woman draw a child away with a distrustful look.

:Is it the gold hair?: Ed signed to Al, who had come to walk next to him when the path had widened about ten minutes ago.

Al sighed. :No. It's your face.:

:RUDE.:

Al covered a grin.

Feng led them into the largest of the houses, bowing to the elderly man and woman inside. Ed and Al followed suit, even as Feng explained, "Elders, these outlanders claim to be descended from the Philosopher of the West and have provided a supposed personal journal of his as their proof."

"The Philosopher of the West, you say?" the woman asked, stepping towards Ed and Al, while the man took the journal from Feng and opened it to a random page. She stepped slightly to one side, letting the fire in the centre of the room light Ed and Al's faces. "They do say he had golden hair and eyes, and these two do as well."

Ed's eyes were drawn to where a girl was sitting next to the fire, both she and the miniature panda next to her looking interestedly towards his brother and himself. She was way younger than Ed had ever seen her, and her hair was in two thick pigtails, instead of the elaborate buns and smaller braids that she'd always wasted so much time on in the mornings, but he recognised her all the same, something like relief blooming in his chest. :May!: he signed.

Al's shoulders seemed to relax some. :Then this is the right clan. Good.:

The woman gave their short exchange an interested look, but everyone's attention was shortly drawn to the male elder, who let the journal fall closed and said, "I would have to study this to be certain, but the handwriting is similar to the journal kept in the Imperial palace; if this isn't genuine, it's an excellent copy." He turned a cool stare on Ed and Al. "His true name is passed down through alkahestrists; do you know it?"

Al cleared his throat. "Van Hohenheim."

May let out a startled sound, while the male elder stared at Al for a long moment before bowing. "And so it is, young guests." And, by the way Feng relaxed, that was the elder's way of offering his clan's friendship.

Ed blinked, then signed, :I sort of want to tell them he's still alive.:

:I have never been more glad that you can't speak,: Al returned.

:I can write.:

:STOP,: Al signed while shooting him that severely disapproving look he'd stolen from Mum.

Ed huffed; like he'd really tell anyone in this immortality-obsessed country that the useless bastard was still alive.

"What is this?" the female elder asked, motioning nonsense with her hands.

Al cleared his throat and quickly mastered his expression. "My brother cannot speak, so he communicates with his hands."

"I see." She straightened slightly, then offered, "I am Nuo, and my husband is Qiang. At the fire is May, the seventeenth imperial princess."

Al elbowed Ed and he sighed before obediently bowing with his brother, while Al replied, "I am Alphonse Elric, and this is my elder brother, Edward." Once they'd both straightened, he added, "We came to Xing in hopes of finding someone to teach us the Purification Arts, given the differences between it and western alchemy."

"You have knowledge of this 'western alchemy'?" Elder Qiang asked.

Al nodded. "We are both alchemists, yes, but my brother is the better."

Ed shrugged and nodded; true, but only because he was technically thirty years old. Even if a large chunk of that had seen him without any way to practise, he'd still gathered knowledge and shared his understanding with other alchemists.

"Might I request a demonstration?" Elder Qiang asked, before glancing towards where May had lit up. "We have never seen your 'western alchemy' performed before."

Al glanced at Ed, who took a moment to look around the room for something he could do that wouldn't involve drawing material from the floor. He spotted a white and green ceramic vase, which had clearly been broken at least once and poorly repaired. There was enough detail left between whatever compound had been used to repair it that he should be able to fill in the missing gaps, and it looked to have been very valuable at one point, judging by the hint of gold and silver that caught the firelight. :May I?: he signed, before pointing to the vase.

Al cleared his throat. "My brother wants to know if he can use that vase."

The elders traded looks, before Elder Nuo walked over and picked it up. "A gift Princess May's mother brought back from the Imperial palace, deemed rubbish after an accident." She offered it to Ed. "Please."

Ed clapped his hands together, then took it, letting the reaction wash over the piece and returning it to its former glory, the glue compound that had been holding the pieces together falling uselessly to the ground. And it really had been priceless at one point, as it wasn't ceramic, but made entirely out of jade (which he knew, from May, had a value comparable to gold, in Xing). The vase itself was white jade, with a thin layer of pale green jade creating the long, Xing-style dragon design, gold and silver flakes edging out the finer details.

Fuck him. He was holding a fortune in his hands.

Gasps broke out around the room as the light died away, and when Ed held it back out to Elder Nuo, she breathed out something that he suspected was a benediction of some variation as she carefully took it.

Ed turned to Al and signed, :It's made out of jade.:

"What, the whole thing?" Al asked, falling back on Amestrisan in his clear surprise.

Ed nodded. :With gold and silver flakes, but, yes. A vase made completely out of jade.: He shook his head. :Only in Xing.:

"...white jade exists?" Al asked, wide-eyed.

Ed couldn't help it; he laughed.

"Don't laugh at me, you stupid brother!" Al complained, shoving Ed. "It's not my fault I don't know these things; be useful for once!"

Ed ducked his head in an attempt to hide the grin he couldn't quite help, signing, :Sorry, sorry. But your face was amazing.:

Al, very pointedly, turned his back on Ed, offering, "I apologise," to their hosts.

"Honoured guests," Elder Qiang said, a well of respect in his voice, "with such power at your disposal, I cannot understand your interest in our inferior art."

Al frowned over at Ed, clearly at a loss, and he sighed and signed, :Translate for me?:

"Yeah."

Ed looked back towards the fire pit, where Elder Qiang had sat down across from May, Elder Nuo standing next to her husband and clutching the vase to her chest, while Feng was watching everything unfold with wide eyes, from well out of the way. :There's something off about Amestrisan alchemy, and we're hoping that in studying the Dragon's Pulse of the Purification Arts, as well as your concept of sensing another's energies, we might discover what's so strange.: Ed shrugged, giving Al a moment to catch up, then added, :Also, Amestrisan alchemy lacks the distance transmutations of Xingan alkahestry, and while we can repair a broken vase easily, we have no healing alchemy to speak of.: Because the healing arrays Ed knew were all Cretan, and he knew from experience that they were far inferior to the alkahestry of Xing.

Al cleared his throat, then added, after translating Ed's signing, "We are willing to trade knowledge for knowledge, and we grew up in a farming village, so we can help with the harvest and taking care of any animals. We do not expect to be allowed to remain for free."

:Hunting and fishing,: Ed reminded him.

"Oh, right. And we can hunt and fish."

"You have many talents, for ones so young," Elder Qiang mused. "Why come to the Chang clan? Surely you would find more benefit in allying yourselves with a larger clan."

Al shook his head. "Allies you can get anywhere; we are looking for friends. And, like Brother always says," he added, looking at Ed, who raised an eyebrow in response, "bigger does not mean better."

Ed rolled his eyes.

The elders traded looks, Elder Nuo's arms tightening slightly around the repaired vase in her arms. Elder Qiang looked back at them after a beat and bowed his head. "We would be honoured to have you join the Chang clan."

"And we would be honoured to accept," Al replied politely, bowing his head in return.

Ed barely kept from rolling his eyes again.

"We will need to find them a place to stay until a new house can be built," Elder Nuo said, looking towards Feng.

Ed raised both his eyebrows at Al, who sighed, then offered, "If you show us a clearing we can build in, we can actually build the house ourselves right now."

"More of your 'western alchemy'?" Elder Qiang assumed somewhat faintly.

Al let out a slightly embarrassed laugh and nodded.

"Apologies, Elders," Feng said, before turning to Ed and Al. "Can you clear the land, too? There is a small cluster of trees which have developed rot out by the northern rice field, which we've put off clearing for nearly a full year, as it is quite labour intensive."

Ed shrugged and nodded when Al glanced at him. Depending on how bad the rot was, they could use the trees as materials, which would be nice; just because they could build a house from earth didn't mean they should. (Even if they couldn't use the trees for the house, it wouldn't be hard to deconstruct them into wood shavings so the village could use it to nourish the fields, which was what they'd done back in Resembool, when all the cherry trees had developed a disease that they were helpless to combat.)

"Of course," Al agreed.

After glancing towards the elders for permission, which was given with nods, Feng motioned towards the door. "I'll take you now."

May ended up tagging along, scrambling to her feet and scooping up Xiao Mei before Ed was out the door. He held it for her and she squeezed past him with a stuttered, "Th-thank you."

(Ah, always good to know her ridiculous prince charming obsession was alive and well. With any luck, she'd latch on to Al again once it became obvious that Ed was a rude fuck.)

A few villagers followed along after them, clearly interested by the procession, but held back a bit, probably still wary of Ed and Al.

Once they reached the cluster of trees, Ed and Al both dropped their packs out of the way and walked in close to get a look at what they were dealing with.

"This is the same black fungus as we had back home, isn't it?" Al recognised.

Ed caught a low branch and expertly flipped himself up onto it to get a closer look. :Looks like,: he agreed, before reaching up and picking a green fruit just within reach. It looked to be a plum and he blinked at it for a moment – the two plum trees they had back in Resembool hadn't got sick, but maybe this was a different strain of the same disease? – before shrugging and hopping back to the ground to check out the other trees.

"Brother?" Al asked once they met back up again after each making a circuit.

Ed considered the group of trees for a moment before signing, :There's enough for a roof, I think. If you build the walls, I'll deconstruct what we can't use, then shape the rest.:

"No. Gargoyles," Al stressed.

:What do you have against gargoyles?:

"Brother."

Ed rolled his eyes and waved at the nearest house, then signed, :I know. Better they match as much as possible.:

Al sighed and knelt to start sketching a rectangle in the dirt. "Share a room, or separate?"

Ed tugged on his ponytail for a minute, debating, then suggested, :Two rooms, but we can use the second one as a study until one of us needs space.:

"Fair enough." Al quickly sketched his lines, eyeballed the rough map for a moment, then nodded and pointed out, "We're going to lose floor height."

:So make stairs.:

"Brother."

Ed shrugged. :There's not much you can do about it,: he pointed out. :At the least, it should throw off first time trespassers, should someone try to sneak in unannounced.:

"Sometimes, I worry about what you got up to as an adult," Al complained, before clapping his hands together and pressing them against his map.

Al transmuted much slower than Ed did, which gave him plenty of time to make his way through the group of trees, separating what they couldn't use from what they could and making two distinct piles out of the way of Al's growing walls. Once the outer walls had stopped growing, he clapped again and started shaping their roof, patterning the wood on the outside so it looked like the straw roofs of the rest of the village; eventually, they'd have to add real straw, to protect the wood from rain, but this would do them for a while.

When they stepped out of the new building to grab their bags, they found what looked to be most of the village standing there, staring in disbelief.

And then Elder Qiang commented, "That is something I should like to learn."

:We should probably skip the survival training for them,: Ed signed before ducking to grab both their bags, since it looked a bit like Al would be chatting for a while.

Al coughed into his hand. "We will draw up the arrays we used. Which, I think our arrays are a bit more complicated than you are used to, but we will try our best to explain them. Will we not, Brother?"

:Yes, yes,: Ed signed over his shoulder before ducking back into the house, leaving it for his brother to make friendly with their new neighbours, since he was going to be their main point of contact. For his part, he had a house to furnish.

.

Chapter Text

It had never really occurred to Ed before, but he was beginning to suspect that Al had taught May alchemy before she came to Amestris as, first, the Xingan ambassador, and then Al's wife. Because watching the Chang clan struggle with concepts that didn't mesh with their idea of nature's flow was...hilarious and kind of pathetic, all at once.

That said, it was probably equally hilarious to watch Ed and his brother struggle with the concept of the Dragon's Pulse.

Honghui and Ru were the two clan teachers, with Ru focussing more on martial arts and the fighting aspects of alkahestry, while Honghui focussed on basic academics – especially the art of the written and spoken word – and the healing aspects of alkahestry. Honghui had welcomed them both into her classes, and was, by all appearances, completely unbothered by Ed's muteness, easily adapting to asking Al for a translation, or waiting while Ed wrote his response. She was also quite patient with them, trying to walk them through understanding the Dragon's Pulse in multiple ways, and cautioning them against giving up in a gentle voice. (Which Ed might have well chaffed at, had always kind of hated people telling him to be patient and keep at it, because he'd spent more than half his life struggling with a disability, and knew more about stubborn determination than most of those who tried to teach him about it. But Honghui was missing her right hand, even seemed comfortable with its lack, which suggested she knew a fair bit about struggling to keep on, even when it would be easier to just give up; it made it a lot easier to bear her quiet promises that they'd figure the Dragon's Pulse out eventually.)

Ru, on the other hand, hadn't seemed to have much interest in Ed and Al at all – neither in teaching them, nor in learning from them – until he'd come across them sparring in a small clearing next to their house during their second week.

"Who taught you?" he demanded when they stopped to catch their breaths.

Al flinched – Ed had noticed the lurker, but his brother clearly hadn't, and he should probably work on Al's situational awareness – then looked over and said, "An Amestrisan named Izumi Curtis. She was our alchemy teacher."

"Your 'alchemy' is taught in hand with fighting?"

"It was for us, but I do not believe that is common," Al said, looking at Ed.

Ed shrugged and shook his head; so far as he was aware, Teacher's style of instruction was far from average. (But, then, so far as he was aware, Teacher was also insane and terrifying, so maybe that was a part of it.)

Ru stared at them both for a long, silent moment, then grunted and turned away. "Be in the clearing behind my home at sunrise tomorrow," he ordered, then started away.

Ed and Al blinked at each other. :What was that?: Al signed.

:I think...he might be offering to teach us Xingan fighting?: Ed returned a bit helplessly.

Al looked back after the man and hummed. :Could be useful.:

:If he can teach us to sneak around like Ling and his idiots, it'll be super useful,: Ed pointed out.

:One of these days, Brother, I'm actually going to meet Ling and find out you've been lying about him this whole time,: Al complained.

Ed laughed as he made his way into their house.

As it turned out, Ru was, indeed, willing to teach them Xingan martial arts. Better, when Al asked him about learning to use the sword they'd taken from those bandits, Ru got him to describe it, then got a wooden practice sword of the same style, explaining, "We call this a 'jian'." Then he pointed at where the eldest of the three boys of the village – Tengfei, who was Ed's physical age – was practising with a sword that looked like the one Ling used. "That is a 'dao'."

"Ah. Apologies," Al offered, because 'dao' was the only name Ed had learnt for Xingan swords, so that's what Al had been calling it. He shot Ed a glare. "Someone taught me wrong."

:It's not my fault I only ever saw Ling's sword!: Ed signed back. :How was I supposed to know they have two different types of mid-length stabby things?:

Al snorted. "Did you just–?" he started, before covering his face and groaning. "Brother, please stop making up sign language slang."

Ed rolled his eyes and went back to the slow movements Ru had set him; apparently, he was too action-oriented and needed to learn to slow down and appreciate the fluidity of his movements, or some bullshit.

(He almost missed Teacher's way of teaching them.)

Over the course of the next four months, Al tried out both sword types, the spear (called a 'qiang', apparently), the quarterstaff (called a 'gun'), and kunai. He ended up settling on the jian sword, but he and Ed both suffered proper lessons in using spears, since they were, as Ed had once pointed out, easy to create pretty much anywhere, and Ed let himself be taught the basics of sword craft, since that was Al's chosen weapon, and it was only sensible to learn how to use the weapon his brother would be using.

And, still, Ed and Al struggled with the Dragon's Pulse, while the resident alkahestrists gave up on alchemy.

-0-

"Master Edward?"

Ed sighed and looked up from his lunch, silently bemoaning the interruption of the short break from bringing in the harvest that he'd allowed himself. 'May Gongzhu,' he mouthed in return.

She made a face. "No one here calls me that," she complained.

Ed pulled out a kunai and scratched in the ground, '+ no one calls me "Master Edward". What do you want?'

She plopped down on the ground and tilted her head at his writing. "Your handwriting is terrible."

Ed just sighed and took a large bite of his rice ball.

"Sorry," she offered quietly.

Ed sighed again and quickly brushed his foot over his message, clearing it, then wrote, 'I know my handwriting sucks but your language is complex + I'm writing sideways. Idiot.'

"Hey!"

Ed flashed her a smirk.

She huffed and slumped, tugging out her own lunch and holding out a bamboo shoot to one side, which brought Xiao Mei running from behind Ed. (He had a sneaking suspicion that panda was planning something nefarious in regards to his person, because she always seemed to be behind him, when she wasn't clinging to May. Al thought he was nuts, of course, because he had some completely incomprehensible love for the thing, which resulted in a massive blind spot.)

After a brief silence, during which Ed finished one of his rice balls and pulled out another, while May unwrapped her own and Xiao Mei attempted to murder her bamboo, May said, in Amestrisan, "I know your language, a bit."

Ed shrugged and nodded – she'd known it when she first came to Amestris, so he'd been assuming at least half the village understood it.

She eyed him for a minute, probably waiting for surprise, before huffing and taking a huge bite out of her rice ball. After swallowing, she said, "I want to learn your hand language."

Ed blinked; okay, he hadn't expected that. He should have – May'd very clearly had a crush on both of them pretty much since day one (though her approaching him suggested she'd finally started to cotton on to the fact that he was no prince charming), and learning to communicate fully with them would be of interest to her – but he hadn't.

Well, Ed didn't have anything against teaching her – or anyone else, really; it got lonely only being able to speak to Al, sometimes – sign language, and since most of the signs were based on concepts, instead of the actual words, it should be easy to teach, no matter how much Amestrisan 'a bit' was.

Still... 'Ask Alphonse,' he wrote. 'It's easier to teach if you can speak while signing.' Because they hadn't brought those books with them, and Ed really had no interest in writing out each word when he signed.

Too, making Al and May spend time together? Brilliant. (And he should probably stop trying to play matchmaker, but Al and May had been so happy together; he wanted them to have that again.)

She flushed faintly. "Talk to Master Alphonse?" she got out in a rush, sounding so very terrified.

Ed started to smile when his well-honed (and oft-ignored) sense of impending danger flared, and he let his instincts take over, pushing himself forward and catching May around the shoulders, yanking her away just before a dao sword came down where her head had been.

Letting go of May, Ed shoved himself to his feet, knocked the next swing of the dao sword aside with the kunai still in his hand from using it to write, taking a shallow cut to the arm for his trouble, and kicked out hard with his left leg. The attacker bent over with a gasp, clutching at their stomach, and Ed swung his left foot around and brought it down on the fucker's head.

They crumpled to the ground.

May caught his sleeve. "Back to the village!" she insisted, and Ed nodded and followed her while he pulled out a second kunai; this close to the fields, he couldn't chance his alchemy, or he'd ruin the crops, and they needed everything the clan had planted at the start of the spring, since they hadn't really planned for taking on two more people.

They found four more of the attackers in the village. Two of them were holding off Ru and a couple of the other village men, while the other two were getting away, one carrying Hohenheim's stupid journal, the other with the repaired vase.

Away from the fields, Ed didn't waste any time in clapping his hands together and dropping to the ground, creating a giant fist out of the earth at the feet of the person carrying the vase, grabbing him tight, while being careful not to damage the vase; just because he could repair it again didn't mean he wanted to.

The person with Hohenheim's journal sort of stumbled in shock at the giant fist that caught their ally, and May used the distraction as cover for tossing a few kunai at their feet, then sketching a quick array in front of her with her foot and tossing down more kunai at the points before activating it. A hole opened beneath the person's feet, and they shouted in shock as they fell. Another clap from Ed had earthen bars sliding into place over the top of the hole, keeping that prisoner from trying any impressive acrobatic feats to get out.

Since Ru and his lot – who had been joined by Al and the other boys he'd been in the fields with – seemed to have their two well in hand, Ed stepped forward and lightly plucked the precious vase from the one guy's hands, mouthing, 'I'll take that, thanks.'

"The elders!" May realised, before breaking out into a run towards the house.

Ed huffed – didn't the idiot princess remember she'd been a target too?! – then hurried after her, not bothering to take the time to put the vase back down.

They found Elder Nuo laying in the floor in a pool of blood, a butterfly sword in each hand, while Elder Qiang was slumped, motionless, against the far wall.

"No!" May cried as she dropped to her knees next to Elder Nuo and tried to draw an array close enough to her to activate it, but the blood was too spread out.

Ed ducked back outside and let out a sharp whistle to catch the attention of the others, making a rough 'come' motion when Al looked over.

Trusting Al to get the rest of the village organised, Ed stepped back inside and set down the vase before walking over and kneeling next to Elder Nuo. Cretan healing might not be as good as Xingan healing, but it was all he had, so he clapped his hands together and activated the blood clotting array he'd used on his own leg, closing his eyes against the flare of green light and trying, desperately, to find her wounds and close them without actually seeing them.

(Please, please, don't let her die. He was supposed to be keeping people alive this time, not watching them die!)

Hands caught on his shoulders, warm and familiar, and Al whispered, "Brother, you're going to exhaust yourself."

Ed let the alchemy go, slumping back against his brother as the energy expenditure hit him all at once.

"That was the Cretan array?" Al asked, and Ed gave a tired nod. "Gently," Al ordered someone else. "Her wounds might reopen if you're not careful."

There was the sound and rush of multiple people moving around them, and Ed assumed they were carrying Elder Nuo to her bed, where one of the Xingan alkahestrists would be able to heal her properly without fighting with the blood.

Ed forced his eyes open and found only the blood remaining in front of him; even May had vanished.

May.

He tried to lift his hands to sign, but couldn't manage more than catching at Al's sleeve and tugging.

"Brother?"

Ed turned and – so unspeakably grateful that Al had mastered reading his lips – mouthed, 'May.'

"She's with Elder Qiang; it looks like he's just got a bump to the head and a few bruises."

Ed gave a small shake of his head. 'Assassin,' he mouthed.

Al tensed – Ed had told him about the unending battle for the Imperial throne, which involved assassination attempts made on the princes and princesses – then promised, "I'll make sure someone stays with her."

Ed let his eyes close and relaxed back against his brother as exhaustion dragged him under.

-0-

As if they'd needed any more awe from the Chang clan, Ed's quick actions out in the fields and in the elders' house found them awash in gratitude.

Ed was kind of glad that his exhaustion from the healing array gave him an excuse to hide in bed for two days, but Al literally dragged him out of bed on the third day, snapping, "I'm done with putting them off. Stop acting like a kid and go face them, Brother."

Ed tossed him a cross look. :I'm twelve, idiot.:

Al rolled his eyes, clearly not about to fall for that. "You're thirty-one, stop lying. Now, go take a bath and change while I make breakfast." As he walked out of their bedroom, he added, "If I find you've climbed back into bed, I'm going to fill a bucket and dump it over you."

Ed groaned, because Al would, then got up and set about getting clean and making himself presentable. When he dropped down across their low table from Al, he signed, :I hate you.:

:I love you too, Brother,: Al signed back once he'd set his chopsticks down, his mouth full. :You'll survive a bit of gratitude.:

Ed slumped. :That's not it,: he returned.

Al swallowed, then asked, "Then what?"

Ed shook his head. :I'm tired of being celebrated for being decent.:

Al sighed. "Not everyone's going to punish you like you're always punishing yourself, Brother."

Ed shot him a sharp look. :The fuck is that supposed to mean?:

Al grimaced at the sexual sign, but gamely soldiered on: "You think I don't notice? Brother, you gave up your voice for me. And then you cleaned up the remains, like you didn't want me to see. And trying to cross the Great Desert with automail? You kept saying you'd be fine, like it's normal to make yourself suffer daily burns for weeks on end."

:Who fucking cares about a few burns?!: Ed fired back, the motions of his hands rough and jerky between them. :We need to stop the Dwarf in the Flask–:

"That's my point!" Al snapped, pointing his chopsticks at Ed. "What, it doesn't matter what happens to you, so long as everyone else is happy?"

Ed pressed his mouth into a thin line and, deciding he'd lost his appetite, got up. :I'm off.:

"Sit back down, right now, Edward Elric!" Al ordered, everything about his tone and voice and pitch one hundred percent their mother. (Fuck, and he'd thought Al did that too well after his voice dropped.)

Ed...sat. He ducked his head forward, hiding his eyes behind his bangs, and signed, :What do you want from me, Al?:

Al shifted, moving forward on his knees across the floor until he was in front of Ed, then took his hands. "I want you to stop punishing yourself for something that hasn't happened. That won't happen," Al whispered, determination and sorrow mixing in his voice. "I want you to let yourself be happy."

Ed looked up into his brother's gold-gold eyes, nothing at all like hollow red points of light. He took him in, living and breathing and so very alive. Not hollow armour, not trapped on the other side of the Gate, waiting for Ed to get his act together.

And then he leant in and pressed a kiss to his brother's forehead. 'I am happy,' he mouthed, before slipping his hands from Al's grip and standing. :Right. I'm off to be showered with ridiculous amounts of idiotic praise. If I spontaneously combust, say something pithy at my funeral, will you?:

And then he spun and rushed out of the house before the tears welling in Al's eyes could spill over.

How was it, that he always managed to make Winry or Al cry?

-0-

Things calmed down after a couple days, once the Xingans reminded themselves that Ed didn't really talk to anyone but his brother – for obvious reasons – and while he was generally pretty friendly, he'd never gone out of his way to spend time with people, unlike his brother. (Which, not that anyone but Al understood, was mostly because he was a man trapped in a child's body, and people expected him to relate to other children and be bored by the 'adult concerns' of trying to keep the struggling clan alive, and it was actually more the opposite way around.)

At some point, May must have finally built up her courage, because Ed came home from a hunt with a couple of the village men – a couple rabbits held in one hand and the spear Ru had forced him to make without alchemy months ago in the other – to find May sitting across the table from Al, who was walking her through some basic phrases. (Ed was a little sad; he'd kind of wanted to see how the alphabet would go.)

:Is she staying for dinner?: he signed after juggling everything so he could, aimed at Al, but not hiding it from May.

The princess frowned uncertainly at Al, and he translated, "Brother wants to know if you wanted to stay for dinner." He glanced towards where Ed was putting his spear away. "It looks like we'll have enough."

"If it's okay," May agreed quietly, "I wouldn't– I mean–"

Ed snorted as he came over to grab the knife he usually used for skinning off the table, turning his head and mouthing, 'Young love,' to his brother, then laughing as he dodged the swipe Al took at him. :Fire?: he signed, nodding towards the cold hearth.

"Yes, fine," Al muttered, getting up to see to their cooking set-up.

Ed left him to it, settling outside to take care of the rabbits within hearing range of one of the windows.

"That was...fire?" May asked.

Al made an affirming noise.

"Did he upset you?"

Al huffed out a breath. "He was being his usual stupid self about something he thinks is funny."

"Should I go?"

"No!" Al cleared his throat while Ed failed to quash his grin. "Ah, no, please. Brother is way better behaved around other people."

May scoffed. "He's always rude to me."

Al laughed at that. May must have made a face or something, though, because he quickly stifled it and said, "I'm sorry, May. It's just...being rude is kind of Brother's way of saying he thinks you're pretty okay. And, I mean, he did save your life and all, right?"

"I guess," May agreed quietly.

The house was silent for a moment, and Ed was just about to take his skinned rabbits back inside, when May asked, "Does he like us? The Chang clan."

"Yeah," Al returned, so fucking honest, "he does. I think, if we didn't have people waiting on us back home, he'd be happy to stay here."

Ed smiled to himself and shook his head, reminded that this Al hadn't yet been forced to suffer Ed's wanderlust. Though...

He glanced towards the twinkle of lights from the village as he stood.

Maybe he was growing up a bit, after all this time, because Al was right: this wouldn't be a terrible place to settle down for a while. He couldn't – and he wouldn't – but it might be nice.

Ah, well. They had at least another year and a half before they needed to seriously start considering heading back. Maybe, by then, he'll have had his fill of this stationary life.

-0-

As if in reward for turning eleven, Al figured out how to manipulate the Dragon's Pulse the day after his birthday. Ed was the first to know, solely because the first thing Al did was, from across the room, form a sort of fence around Ed.

Ed shot him an unimpressed look over his journal.

Al grinned. "Guess what, Brother?"

Ed sat his journal down with a sigh and signed, :You figured out distance alkahestry?:

"Yup! And I can apparently use you as my focal point!"

That...was going to get extremely irritating, extremely quickly, Ed just knew it.

And, well, he wasn't wrong; Al spent the first couple weeks randomly transmuting things next to Ed, rarely with any warning. He didn't make a fence again – Ed might have actually retaliated, at that point – but little earthen figures and flowers would grow next to him any time he sat down somewhere, and he once glanced over at the crackle of a transmutation to find a pile of kunai growing into being.

He'd sighed and picked one up once they were done, because Al was giving him that hopeful puppy look that Ed was pretty sure he'd developed just to keep Ed from killing him. After holding the kunai for a moment, he dropped it back on the pile, signed, :Unbalanced,: then went back to trying to modify the array for his leg, because a fix that had been brilliant in the desert, was causing him some trouble now that winter was setting in. (Not that he thought it would get so bad that he'd end up with frostbite, but the automail was notably cooler than he expected it to be at this temperature. And it really wasn't a big deal, especially since he had the northern automail, but since he knew Winry was developing this for other people, and he needed a break from trying to figure out alkahestry, he figured he might as well try to work out all the kinks.)

Al's next pile of kunai had much better balance, which Ed proved by throwing them, one-by-one, at his brother until Al left to pout.

Ed was proud of him, absolutely, but the cold had always made his stump achy, which in turn made him irritable, and Al's surprise gifts were more of a distraction than anything else.

(And, okay, he was a little jealous; even without his alchemy, he'd always managed to figure out new arrays faster than his brother, but alkahestry was a constant source of bafflement, and Al had picked up the extremely unhelpful 'just sharpen your senses' suggestions when he made the effort to 'help' Ed.)

Some days, Ed wished that dodging the Dwarf in the Flask's ability to shut off alchemy in Amestris had an easier fix than 'befriend Scar' or 'learn to use alkahestry'.

-0-

December brought another attempt to steal Hohenheim's journal, which Ed and Al weren't aware of until everything was already over. The village alkahestrists gathered to discuss security measures, which Al dragged Ed to after May came to get them.

Ed's first suggestion of, :We could just burn the damn thing?: earned him an unimpressed stare from his brother. Ed sighed and rolled his eyes, then leant around Honghui to grab some paper off the table the Xingans had gathered around.

"Edward?" Honghui asked, while most of the rest of the table turned to look at where he was turning to use the wall as a writing surface, pulling out the pen he always kept in his pocket.

"I think he has some ideas," Al offered, "but you should probably keep researching alkahestric solutions, since we won't always be here to help keep the arrays active."

That seemed to be enough, because the Xingans returned to debating options, leaving Ed to trace out arrays in piece.

Ed's three ideas were thus: a sort of pressure trap array that would activate when the book was removed, but which required drawing part of the array on the back of the book, and would make any casual use of it extremely complicated; locking the book up using a paired array, which would require that an alkahestrist be the one to retrieve it if they wanted to use it for anything, assuming they could translate it to actually work with alkahestry; and just generally surrounding it with alchemic traps and hoping no one in the village accidentally set them off.

They eventually settled on the lock-and-key set, and Ed might not be able to use alkahestry, but never let it be said that such limits stopped him from trying to build an array that would work, with some help.

Two hours later, the book was secure and Ed and Al headed back for their house, Ed signing, :They DO realise we have more of the damn things, right?:

Al snorted and shook his head. :I don't know. At this point, I think it's more an attempt to keep the other clans from getting their hands on the only one not under the emperor's control,: he replied, sticking with sign language, because May had finally seen fit to inform him that everyone in the village actually had at least a basic understanding of Amestrisan, which was apparently fairly common in the clans that had land on the western side of Xing (which Ed hadn't known, even if it did explain why Ling, May, Fu, and Lan Fan had all been fluent when they first got to Amestris).

:The only one, save the other eight you brought and the twenty or so still at home,: Ed corrected.

Al rolled his eyes. :Save those ones,: he agreed.

:And the ones in Amestrisan.:

"Brother," Al sighed.

Ed just laughed; he loved reminding his brother that their neighbours' most precious artefact was way more common than any of them could begin to believe.

-0-

Once it started snowing, Ed made a very obvious bid to remain indoors, where he could sit next to the fire and be less miserable. Which, really, just seemed to make Ru more determined to teach him Xingan martial arts, which meant the arse would come over and harass Ed each morning, until he gave in and followed him back to the training yard behind his house.

May would usually follow Ed and Al back to their place once Ru finally released them, so Al could help her with her sign language, and then Ed would tease his brother mercilessly after she left, because he could.

On one such day, after an unfortunate failure of a practice bout saw Ed soaked and miserable, he stormed ahead of his brother and May and retreated straight to the bedroom to change into a warm jumper that May's mum, Ai, had made him, and his spare trousers, then stalked back out into the main room and, yanking his trouser leg out of the way, prodded the fire back to life with his automail, in a bid to warm it up faster. (Well, as much as it could be warmed, anyway; at least he'd found a way to alter the array so it didn't get quite so ridiculously cold?)

That was how May and Al found him when they finally came in, and May's horrified cry of, "Edward, your leg!" reminded him that they'd actually managed to keep anyone in the village from realising he had a metal limb. (Because it wasn't that hard to keep from kicking someone with it during practice, as many years as he'd been sparring with it, and it wasn't like he made a habit of running around in anything that showed it off.)

Ed blinked and shrugged. :It's just automail.: As if she actually knew what that was; Xing didn't have automail technology, he knew, hence the reason one of the villagers – Gan – made do with a peg leg, while Honghui had learnt to manage with just one hand (and her own loss was, Ed half suspected, a large part of the reason she'd focussed on – and was so willing to teach anyone who was interested in – healing alkahestry).

"Automail," Al translated, when May looked to him, clearly unfamiliar with the sign. He gently pushed her towards the fire, which Ed had managed to abuse back into life, explaining, "It's a type of metal prosthesis that's fairly common in Amestris. It involves connecting wiring to the remaining nerves, so the wearer has about the same amount of mobility as if they hadn't lost that limb."

Ed sat down and wiggled his metal toes at her, showing off, and her eyes went wide.

And then Xiao Mei pounced on his foot and chomped on his big toe.

Ed sighed. 'Really?' he mouthed at the panda, while May tried to muffle her giggles and Al just straight-up cackled. 'Fine. Go for it. Gnaw on my toes to your crazy heart's content.' He turned to May and signed, :Carnivore.:

"She is not!" May complained with a huff, and Al rolled his eyes, resigned to this debate. "She's just very friendly."

:With her TEETH,: Ed returned, before pointing to where Xiao Mei was testing the rest of his metal toes for durability. Or edibility. It was kind of hard to tell when all her tests involved sharp teeth.

And then Xiao Mei stopped biting and sort of started...cuddling. With his foot.

Ed hid his face in his hands while the other two laughed at his expense. Seriously, how was this his life?

Well, if nothing else, at least he'd finally made friends with Xiao Mei? One up on his life before?

-0-

Planting season was busy, but also warmer, and so Ed could finally leave the house for an extended period without ending up feeling miserable.

Planting season also, apparently, heralded the return of their thieves, because another two attempts were made to get the book, with Ed's modified lock-and-key array proving its worth by flummoxing them both times. Ed bore the round of gratitude with a few tired eye rolls.

In the middle of April, Ed, Al, May, and the other children of the village who weren't deemed too young (so, Zi, Tengfei, Dewei, and May's half-brother, Bao) followed Honghui up into the rockier area of their land, while she droned on about nature poetry. Ed really sort of wished he could skip this lesson, and he could tell by the occasional yawns that Al felt the same, but Honghui's downtrodden expression when Ed had tried to politely bow out of her last poetry lesson had shut him up, and he didn't have the heart to try it again. So he kept to the back of the line, trying to look like he was paying attention, and really just musing over some of the alkahestric arrays in a book he and Al had bartered off a travelling merchant that came through the village the week before.

And then, between one step and the next, his sense of being watched sparked, a curl of unease brushing out over his shoulders, and he looked immediately to where May was walking next to Zi at the head of the line, just behind Honghui. She was clearly fine, and no one else seemed bothered, but Ed had spent years relying on that sense to keep him alive, and he quickened his steps to grab Al's shoulder.

"Brother?" Al murmured, blinking out of his own distracted daze.

:Trouble,: Ed signed.

Al frowned and cast a quick look around, then shook his head. "I don't–"

They saw the figure at the same time, jumping down from the cliff-face just above May. Tengfei shouted, "Down!" but Ed had already thrown a kunai, and Al had clapped his hands and was pressing them against the cliff, growing an arch over the rest of their party.

Ed's aim was pretty much perfect – months of target practice and Ru's stupid, repetitive slow motion drills had given him back the knife skills he'd had as an adult – and his kunai pierced the attacker's arm with enough force to upset their balance. They hit Al's arch hard and tumbled into a graceless heap to the far side of the path.

"Brother?" Al asked, while the others peeked around the edge of the arch to blink at the would-be assassin.

Ed frowned and shook his head; he still felt like they were being watched. He closed his eyes to focus on the sensation, finally pinpointed it, then grabbed one of the kunai Al kept at his waist for distance alkahestry and tossed it toward where it was coming from.

Obediently, Al clapped his hands together, and Ed finally opened his eyes in time to see a section of the cliff face a little further along and a fair distance above them crackling with the light of a transmutation as it shifted into a cage, within which was a man shouting curses at all of them.

"I thought you couldn't sense qi!" Tengfei snapped, glaring at Ed.

Ed blinked and looked to Al. :I...can't?:

Al cleared his throat and spoke aloud for the benefit for everyone else, "Brother, how did you know they were there? I didn't notice anything."

Ed grimaced. :I felt like we were being watched.:

"Being watched?" May repeated.

Ed nodded a bit uncertainly. :And not by anyone friendly. I don't know. I just...: He sighed, tried to think of a way to explain three years of having to watch his own back in hostile nations, and almost two decades of regular battles, about half of which had been life-or-death. :Battle awareness, I guess. I know when someone's coming at me with a weapon, or watching for a weakness.:

May blinked. "You're reading the qi of your opponents," she said.

:I'm not–:

Wait.

Was that what they meant by 'qi'? The way Ling had talked about it, he thought it was comparable to a human soul. But, then, Ling had once said that Al hadn't had any noticeable qi while in the armour, and that Bradley's qi had felt more like any other human's, rather than like the other homunculi's, even though he'd had a Stone, too.

Ed had been trying to fit the alkahestric concept into the alchemic body/mind/soul concept that his study of human transmutation had taught him, but his battle-sense had never really fit into that framework, it just was. It defied all possible explanation, but it had kept him alive, so Ed had just given up trying to sort it into a scientific framework, tossed it in next to that stupid, fickle 'love' and other such emotions.

'Oh,' he mouthed.

There were still parts he was missing, because Ling and Lan Fan and Fu had been able to sense the Philosopher's Stones and each other, to an extent, but at least he had a framework, and he knew the Dragon's Pulse concept was related to the concept of qi, so it was only a matter of time before he finally figured out alkahestry. That was...a relief. He was tired of banging his head against the proverbial wall.

Al just sort of hugged him around the shoulders, while May beamed.

Tengfei rolled his eyes at all of them, then pointed to the crumple of would-be assassin on the side of the path – Ed suspected they'd been knocked unconscious at some point during the unplanned fall – and said, "We need to take him back to the village." And then he looked past the arch, towards the earthen cage. "And that one."

"Brother and I will get that guy," Al promised, before dragging Ed along after him.

On the upside, their lesson in nature poetry was cancelled.

-0-

Ed spent the rest of April and well into May fighting with his battle/qi-sense, until he finally managed to pin down the elusive Dragon's Pulse. (And at least now he understood why one of the less helpful suggestions for finding it had been to be more dragon-like; Amestrisan dragons didn't flow.)

The thing about having mostly mastered qi-sensing first, was that he could now tell why Al could use him as a focus, same as the kunai that he kept close so they could pick up his personal resonance, same as Ed could use Al as his focus. More to the point, Ed and Al could probably use each other's kunai as easily as they could use their own, because Al felt like an extension of him. Not really like an extra limb or anything – he couldn't manipulate his brother in any way – but their energies were almost an exact match.

"It is a little weird," May offered when Ed asked her about it, because her half-brother and half-sister didn't have anything like the same energies as each other or her, and Zi and Tengfei were also siblings, but felt completely different to Ed, too. "It is said that twins have the same qi, and that's what I thought you were, when you first came."

:But we're not,: Ed signed, even while he recalled back to another life, when he and Al hypothesised that their souls had crossed on the other side of the Gate, which was the only reason Al hadn't actually died when Truth took his body as his toll. He knew, now, that qi wasn't really the soul, but there were similarities, and crossing paths on that side could have just as easily mixed their qi together. The minor discrepancy in their qi – not enough to affect their ability to use each other, but obvious if you looked hard enough – could be attributed to any number of things, including temperament, Ed's future memories, and Ed's automail. There was no way to really know, and the inexactness of it all was a constant source of headache whenever Ed thought about it too much.

"Well, you are much closer to each other than I am to Bao or Lanying; maybe that's it."

:Maybe.:

"Or maybe it's because you're related to the Philosopher of the West."

Ed sighed; he should have known that was coming. :I still say you lot put too much stock into him.:

May huffed. "You're just jealous he came to Xing instead of to Amestris!"

Ed snorted. :I'm really not.: Although, when he thought of it, that would have been a weird sort of reversal, Amestris getting Hohenheim, while Xing got the Dwarf in the Flask.

...right. No, better Amestris got the Dwarf in the Flask; he didn't really want to know how much sooner that fucker would have tried his array if he had a ready-made country that was in a pretty constant state of warring with itself.

"I know that look," Al said, and Ed and May both turned to find him walking up behind them. "The Philosopher of the West again?"

Ed scoffed, while May ducked her head and nodded.

Al sat on May's other side and patted her back, which earned him an adoring look that made him clear his throat in that way, Ed knew, that meant he was trying to pretend he wasn't embarrassed. "You should really just stop bringing him up, May," he said in a rush, an obvious bid to cover his embarrassment. "You know Brother's just going to be rude."

May sighed and slumped. "I know..." She tossed a twig she'd been fussing with for a while, and they all shared a quiet laugh when Xiao Mei caught it and then proceeded to gnaw on it.

"May!" they heard from the village. "Where are you, May?"

May climbed to her feet with a heavy sigh, then called back, "Coming, Mother!"

When she looked at Al, he smiled. "We'll see you tomorrow," he promised.

May flushed slightly and gave a vigorous nod before spinning and dashing away, Xiao Mei bounding after after one last squeak of goodbye to Ed and Al.

:Al and May, sitting in a tree,: Ed signed cheerfully. :K-I-S-S–:

Al smacked his hands. "Seriously, Brother, stop. Why are you always so immature?"

:It amuses me.:

Al groaned and covered his face. "I hate you."

Ed snorted and rolled his eyes, waiting until Al peeked out at him before quickly signing, :Are you blushing?:

"I am leaving," Al stressed, jumping to his feet and turning towards the house.

Ed laughed at his retreating back.

He only lasted another ten minutes or so before following Al in, led by the hopeful grumblings of his stomach. And, indeed, Al had started their dinner, which made Ed grin, even as he knelt next to the hearth to help.

Once it was done and they were sat across from each other at the table to eat, Al signed, :You know, Brother, you can tell me who YOU ended up with and not mess with my expectations.:

Ed almost choked and quickly set his chopsticks down to grab his water and take a swig. :The FUCK, Al?: he signed once he could breathe again.

Al frowned. :Your excuse for not telling me or Winry who we ended up with.:

Ed rubbed at the bridge of his nose. How had he not anticipated this getting brought up? :What does it even matter?: he signed with a scowl.

"Maybe I want to be able to tease you the same way you keep doing to me with May!" Al snapped, clearly too upset to bother with signing.

(Under a listing for the antonyms of 'subtle', you will find a picture of Ed.)

Ed grit his teeth. :It doesn't matter who I was with, Al, because it's not going to happen again.:

Al just sort of stared at him for a long moment, anger draining away to be replaced by surprise, then worry. :Brother,: he signed slowly, :did you get your heart broken?:

:No. Drop it.: He very pointedly turned his attention back to his food.

"No," Al said, because not looking at his brother didn't keep him from communicating, dammit. "Brother, what happened? Why won't you ever tell me anything?"

:I told you plenty of shit,: Ed signed without looking up.

"You told me about the Dwarf in the Flask and his people, and you told me about the lieutenant colonel and them, and you'd always go on about how I turned into some great alkahestrist and Winry became the best automail engineer in all of Amestris, but you always dodge questions about yourself." He took a deep breath, then said, "Dammit, Ed, you're my brother. I care about you, okay?"

Ed stared down at his food for a long moment before sighing and looking up to sign, :Winry. I married Winry.:

Al blinked. "But...why would you not–"

Ed clenched his jaw and roughly admitted, :Because I slept with someone else. She doesn't need that shit.:

Al grimaced at the mention of sex – and that should have amused Ed, really, because his brother was such a blushing virgin it was hilarious, but the current subject matter sort of squashed his sense of humour – then caught his lower lip between his teeth and considered Ed.

Ed looked down to stab what was left of his extremely unappetising meal with his chopsticks.

"That's it," Al said quietly, and Ed peeked up through his bangs. "That's what you're punishing yourself for, isn't it?"

Ed grimaced. :Stop psychoanalysing me.:

"No," Al returned, before continuing, "It was someone you care about, wasn't it?"

Ed blinked, lost. :What? Who was?:

"Who you–" Al winced "–slept with. You're afraid you'll do it again."

Ed scoffed. :I don't care about them.:

Al sighed. "Yes, you do. And she clearly cares about you, too."

:No, they DON'T.:

"She must," Al insisted naïvely. "Why else would she have–"

:He was DRUNK!: Ed signed angrily.

Al just sort of froze, his eyes going wide.

Shit. 'He'.

Ed shoved his way to his feet and ran from the house, because he couldn't– He didn't–

Fuck.

It wasn't his sexuality that would be a problem – none of them had ever minded that Garfiel was gay, and Ed was technically bisexual, anyway – but he'd cheated on Winry with a man. Winry, who had been legitimately upset as a child when people called her 'one of the boys' because she'd always hung out with Ed and Al and liked machinery. Winry, who had grown her hair out long so people would stop assuming she was a boy, who wore dresses and skirts like they were a statement, only wore trousers when she was working because it was a safety issue.

Winry, who had spent three hours trying on wedding dresses until she found one that turned her into a fucking goddess. Winry, who had fucking glowed while she was pregnant, had been scarily suited to motherhood, even when she'd been trying to juggle two kids and a business and Ed couldn't sit still and help for more than a few months at a time.

Ed jumped and caught at a branch growing next to the cliff face, used it to help himself swing up and reach a stone handhold, caught the next one over with his other hand, shoved himself up with his feet and just barely managed to catch the lip of the little cave Tengfei had jokingly said there was no way he could reach without resorting to alchemy, so Ed had proven him wrong.

He groaned and flopped back onto the floor of the cave, rubbing roughly at his face.

Winry aside, Mustang had been drunk. He'd been so beyond wasted, and Ed had agreed to lug his arse home because he'd only had one drink and the rest of the team were at varying degrees of intoxication, including Hawkeye. So he had, laughing the whole way at the nonsensical bullshit their new Führer was saying to lamp posts, bemoaning his lack of a camera and just generally enjoying the chance to celebrate the bastard finally meeting his goal, just like Ed had done his own.

He'd helped Mustang all the way up to his room, because he didn't trust the idiot not to trip on the stairs and crack his head open, and when he'd turned to leave after dumping him into his bed, Mustang had grabbed his wrist and said some line about Ed helping him meet a second goal that night, then yanked him down and kissed him. And Ed...

Shoving Mustang away had never occurred to him. He hadn't thought about Winry or his kids, hadn't thought about the fact that Mustang was way too drunk to be able to consent to anything... Fuck, he just hadn't thought at all. He'd let his dick take the helm and made one of the worst mistakes of his life. And when he'd woken up just before dawn, warm and content and curled up in the bastard's arms, he'd realised what he'd done and had barely taken the time to get dressed and leave the money he owed the bastard before running out.

Fuck. He'd sworn he'd never tell anyone about that, assumed Mustang didn't even remember (or, if he did, he hated Ed enough to stay away), and look at him now! A little bit of pressure from Al and he gave in. Maybe he didn't say who, but Al knew, now, exactly how much of a fuck-up his elder brother was.

The worst part of the whole thing, though, was that Al was right: Ed knew, given half the chance, that he'd do it again. Because sleeping with Mustang, even when the bastard was completely sloshed and Ed had only the vaguest of ideas how gay sex was supposed to work?

It had been the best night of his life.

-0-

Ed woke to warm fingers running through his hair and someone humming one of the melodies Mum always used to sing.

And then, apparently sensing he was awake, the humming stopped and Al said, "You're an idiot, Brother."

Ed tensed, remembering: Fuck. Al knew.

Al sighed. "I'm not angry with you, Brother," he said, sounding a little tired.

Ed felt a worm of guilt uncurling in his stomach; how long had it taken Al to find him? He hadn't been there when Tengfei had challenged him to reach the cave, and Ed had never told him about it. Mostly because it had never really occurred to him as a possible hiding place until he'd needed one.

"How could I possibly be angry with you for something that hasn't happened."

Ed...froze. Yes, it had. He remembered it happening.

But that...wasn't what Al meant, was it? He'd made this point months ago, when he'd cornered Ed about 'punishing himself', or whatever bullshit. To Al, Ed's memories were just a possible future. There was nothing saying they had to occur exactly as Ed remembered. Mistakes could be avoided, all future sins wiped clean.

Ed sat up, pulling away from the fingers that hadn't once stopped combing through his hair, which Al must have undone, because it was loose down his back. The cave was...so much smaller, now, with two of them, just barely enough room for them to move around without chancing an elbow in the face. And dark as all fuck, the half-moon letting in just enough of a glow for Ed to see his hands.

:I can't think that way,: he signed, using his hair as a convenient shield from his brother's gaze, and not caring how much his brother could make out. :It doesn't matter if it was in the future, I still remember it happening.:

Al moved, loose gravel scratching across the cave floor, and his hands curled around Ed's, forcing them still. Warm and gentle and so far removed from the harsh judgement Ed had always known he'd deserved. "Idiot," he whispered, sounding heartbroken. "I love you, you idiot brother."

Ed's breath caught, because this wasn't– Al wasn't supposed to just–

Al had always been the better of the two of them, and Ed really should have known better than to assume his brother would ever hate him for something that he had spent so much time hating himself for.

Ed curled forward, let his head press against Al's collarbone, and Al let go of his hands to wrap him in a hug, tight and warm and laced with all the forgiveness that Ed still wasn't certain he deserved.

They stayed like that for a long, impossible moment, before Al let out a jaw-cracking yawn and quickly followed it with, "Sorry."

Ed snorted and tugged away, grabbing one of Al's hands so he could pull him towards the cave entrance. Where he found...a staircase.

:Really?: he signed, turning to stare back at Al.

Al grimaced. "How was I supposed to get up here?"

Ed sighed and rolled his eyes, then turned and started down the staircase.

Al grumbled something too low for him to make out, then followed him down the stairs. Once they were both back on the ground, Ed clapped and returned the stairs to their original form. :Come on.:

"How did you get up there?" Al asked as they started back toward home.

Ed waited until they'd cleared a cliff blocking the light from the moon, then signed, :I climbed the cliff.:

"You climbed the–" Al cut himself off with a groan. "Of course you did. Potentially suicidal acts of physical exertion are your specialty. I really don't know how I keep forgetting that."

Ed shoved him. Even though it was...kind of true.

Al waited until they were back in the house before asking, "So, mystery man–"

:Go to bed,: Ed signed, before shoving him hard towards the bedroom.

"I'm going to find out eventually," Al promised.

Not if Ed had anything to say about it, he wouldn't.

:B-E-D,: Ed signed over Al's shoulder, between pointed shoves though the house and in the general direction of his brother's bed.

Once Al was tucked in, Ed rubbed tiredly at his face, silently ordered himself to just stop thinking about Mustang, and turned in himself.

-0-

Firm hands at his hips, a heavy warmth against his back, pressing in tight. And those hands curled forward around his sides, across his chest, hugged him tight. "Fullmetal," that voice breathed into his ear, "come for me."

Ed woke in a rush, his body tingling with the aftershocks of a way too real dream. 'Fuck,' he mouthed into the silence of their room, pressing his palms tight against his eyelids and trying to pretend he didn't notice the wet stickiness in his boxers; his unconscious's very own little 'fuck you'.

He couldn't quite stop a quiet snort, more a sound of helplessness than any real amusement. He should have known this would happen. Al offered his uncompromising forgiveness, so Ed's body turned traitor.

He dragged himself out of bed to go clean up and, after seeing the promise of sunrise outside the eastern-facing window, got dressed and started breakfast.

Al stumbled out to the main room just as the food was ready, and sort of plopped down into his spot and listed to one side, trying valiantly to keep his eyes open.

Ed shook his head and served his brother some tea and food; there was no point in trying to talk if Al couldn't reliably focus on his hands, so he just let his brother struggle towards the waking world in his own time.

Which, well, maybe Ed would have been better served shooing his brother back to bed, because the first thing Al said, around his second cup of tea, was, "Mystery man."

Ed barely managed to swallow his mouthful of tea without giving Al and the table an impromptu shower. :STOP,: he signed a bit desperately. :Let it go, Al. Please.:

Al considered him through sleep-crusted eyes for a long beat before huffing. "Stop about May," he returned.

Ed grimaced – he liked teasing his brother about May's crush – but nodded. :Deal.:

(He didn't, for one minute, believe that would be the end of the matter.)

.

Chapter Text

Ed slipped a couple of times and commented on May's crush, but Al always returned the favour by asking leading questions about his 'mystery man', clearly geared in hopes of being able to spot him if they ever met. (Small favours; Al didn't seem to suspect they had already met.)

The one time Al had started it – asking when Ed was still half asleep – Ed had cottoned on quick enough to keep from signing anything more than :He has a stupid face,: which was about as useless as saying he was Amestrisan – small favours – and Ed had retaliated by tackling his brother and sitting on his stomach, pinning his wrists with his knees, to hold him still while he gave a very thorough explanation of the birds and the bees, occasionally pausing to roughly pat Al's cheek when he closed his eyes. (Which had almost been more fun than tormenting Al about May; pity it was sort of a one-time thing.)

In September and October, they suffered a rash of attempted assassinations and/or thefts of the book, only about half of which Ed and Al ended up involved in – the only problem with living on the outside edge of the village, was that they missed anything that happened after they turned in for the night. On the other hand, none of the thieves ever thought to try and find one of Hohenheim's books in their house, which meant their study was actually probably the safest place in the entire village.

:If I wasn't hoping May would give the damn thing to the Emperor when he falls ill as her clan's bid for favour,: Ed complained to Al at one point, :I'd say we should just hand a copy out to a few of the thieves and let them squabble over the lot for a while.:

Al rolled his eyes. :You would,: he signed back; at least he knew better than to expect Ed to show any amount of reverence for what their neighbours considered 'a priceless artefact', but he just saw as junk.

Fuck. It wasn't like they couldn't get Hohenheim to make new copies.

(Actually, that wouldn't be a bad way to earn a bit of extra yuan. Get the bastard to write a pile of new journals, then sell one to each of the clans for money or favour, telling them each time that it was 'one of a kind'. They'd stop fighting over the damn things, since everyone had one, and Ed would be sitting pretty in the kingdom of Xing, well away from Mustang and his stupid face.)

Al groaned and shoved Ed with his foot. :Whatever you're plotting, Brother, NO.:

...yeah, he had a feeling Al wouldn't approve. Never mind how much of a sodding pain in the rear end it would be to track that useless father of theirs down and make him sit still long enough to write enough journals.

:Yeah, yeah,: he signed a bit carelessly. :Too much work, anyway.:

Al just sighed and went back to sharpening their kitchen knives.

Ed shrugged and went to go get his spear; if he was lucky, he'd be able to catch them some game that they could throw in the Xerxesian cold box and have over the winter. (And, yes, he absolutely saw the humour in actually needing to use the old array for its intended purpose, after he'd gone thinking its only modern use would be for automail.)

-0-

That winter was milder than Ed and Al's first one in Xing, and planting more than enough crops in the spring meant they didn't have to ration any food to accommodate Ed and Al, even after one of the fields took some damage during one of the attacks in September, so everyone was in high spirits once spring started showing its colours in March.

That lasted until the fourth of April, when, just as Ed and Al were preparing to turn in for the night, their attention was caught by shouting voices and a roar of flames from the village.

Al grabbed his jian sword while Ed snagged his spear, and they both raced out of their house and down the path, finding three houses on fire, including May's.

Dark blurs raced at them as they slowed in horrified shock – the worst structural damage from any of the attacks previous had been that one partial field – and Ed barely managed to deflect the dao sword that came at his head with his spear.

"Brother!" Al shouted, a faint strain in his voice as he caught the blow of his own opponent. "Leave these to me! You need to help with the fires!"

Ed snarled and braced his spear butt against the ground, then swung himself around, delivering a hard kick with his left foot to the side of his attacker's head. As they staggered from the blow, he pushed past them, trusting Al to handle himself, and dropped his spear to pull out three of his kunai and throw them into the fires.

And then he closed his eyes, envisioned the Aerugonian water array they'd used to refill the water caches in the Great Desert – which worked way better when drawing on the Dragon's Pulse, he'd discovered – and clapped his hands, then sent the water that rose to his command towards the three bright points of his qi in front of him.

"Edward!" someone shouted in warning, just before his sense of impending danger had him throwing himself to the left, dodging the attack from behind.

"I will kill you, little alkahestrist," his attacker – a man, by the timber of their voice – snarled, before spinning and swinging his jian sword at Ed's side.

He caught the stroke on a kunai, stepping forward to deliver an automail-powered kick to the nads and sending the guy to the ground in a ball of agony.

He did so like it when idiots gave away an easy weakness to exploit while in the middle of combat.

A quick clap saw the fucker wrapped in a dirt prison, then Ed stepped over to pick up his fallen spear and looked to see what the distraction had wrought on his fire suppression.

There was a growing puddle of water across the main lane, turning everything muddy, and what he could see of the houses past the wall of steam and smoke, said they were suffering some serious water damage, but it looked like the worst of the fires were out, and the small ones were already being handled by people dunking containers in the massive puddle and tossing the water at them.

"May?" Al gasped as he stepped up to Ed's side.

Ed quickly looked him over and, upon seeing only a couple cuts in his pyjamas and no sign of blood, shrugged and pointed to where he could see the crackle of alchemy at the far side of the village, past the last of the smothered houses. He could sense a huddle of qi down there, too many all at once for him to pick out individuals, but it felt like the villagers, rather than more attackers.

Al nodded and jogged across the puddle, splashing water the whole way.

Ed sighed; he was going to need to deal with this before the other houses suffered water damage, too. He dropped his spear again, walked into the puddle and clapped, drawing on another Aerugonian array that would help the ground soak up the water faster, then knelt and pressed his hands against the muddy earth.

The puddle immediately started drying up, little shocks of alkahestric – or alchemic; it all looked the same from the outside – energy arcing along the ground and over the top of the water.

Someone sat heavily next to him as the last of the water soaked back into the ground, and Ed looked over to find Tengfei, his mouth twisted into a painful grimace, while sorrow darkened his eyes. "Honghui's dead," he said flatly.

The rush of grief left Ed struggling to breathe for a moment. Honghui had been the best healer in the whole village, had been so happy to try teaching Ed and Al alkahestry, had driven them all completely mad with her stupid poetry and her basic arithmetic and that wounded look that she got any time Ed or Al tried to beg off a lesson.

And then Tengfei held out his left arm, revealing a burn that covered the whole outside of his forearm and bloomed across the back of his fist. "Can you heal this? I don't want to distract anyone."

Ed could fully understand that, and he nodded and quickly clapped his hands, then gently took Tengfei's hand in his, closing his eyes so he could better direct the flow of healing energy. There would be scarring – healing alkahestry really just sped up the body's natural healing rate, and while Honghui had known tricks for minimising scarring, and Al had picked most of them up, Ed hadn't – but Tengfei wouldn't lose the use of his dominate arm while waiting for it to heal, or chance worse scars by getting impatient and using it anyway.

Once he'd done all he could, he let the transmutation go and looked towards where the other village alkahestrists were very likely struggling to do what they could for any burns, but Tengfei touched his arm and shook his head, then nodded behind Ed. "Help me collect those bastards."

Ed sighed and levered himself to his feet, ignoring the rush of vertigo from the excess of alkahestry and the loss of the adrenaline that had carried him through the fight, and started towards the attackers he and Al had caught in the ground, only pausing to grab his spear.

By the end of the night, they had discovered the attack had come from the Ning clan, and they'd managed to save everyone else in the village.

Ed and Al expected to be left out of the funeral preparations and burial – one of Hohenheim's books had had a section on Xingan funeral rites, but he'd written that he'd never been welcomed to attend any of the funerals that he'd been nearby for, himself, because it was a clan matter – but while they were fixing what damage they could to the three houses and the fields behind them, Elder Nuo found them and asked, "Were you not intending to join in our prayers and the ceremony for Honghui?"

Al swallowed and shook his head. "We weren't certain it would be allowed," he admitted. "We're outlanders." It wasn't hard to forget that, when they looked so vastly different from everyone else in the village, from everyone else in the country, even; gold where others were black, and tanned when others were pale. (Honghui had once talked of them being like miniature suns in the tide of shadows; Ed had scoffed, while Al had tried to find a way to thank her, even though neither of them had ever really understood her poetic metaphors.)

Elder Nuo shook her head. "You were not born to Chang," she said, "but you have become members of this clan. My sister would have wished you there, and so do I."

Al didn't bother looking over at Ed – they'd both wanted to be able to mourn with the rest of the clan – just bowed and whispered, "We would be honoured to attend."

Hohenheim may not have ever been allowed to attend any Xingan funeral ceremonies, but he did learn enough to keep his sons from committing any social faux pas, so kudos to him for that, Ed supposed.

-0-

:It may be time,: Ed told May once the period of mourning was over, when she found him during his lunch break in the fields, :to start considering an alliance with one of the stronger clans.:

She scowled at him as she brushed the burnt hairs that were too short to be pulled back out of her face. :Ally with an enemy?: she returned, her signs a little more careful than Ed's, because she didn't use sign language very often, for all that she had got to the point over the winter where she no longer had to ask for a translation of a sign. :Are you insane?:

Ed rolled his eyes. :No. Think about it: You have something your people consider a priceless artefact and everyone else wants it. These attacks are going to KEEP HAPPENING, May, and Al and I need to leave soon.:

"What?" May breathed, looking like she'd just been dealt a blow. Next to her, Xiao Mei let out a confused squeak and May picked her up to hug her, even as she pleaded, "No, you– You can't leave, Edward!"

Ed pressed his mouth into a thin line. :We only came to learn alkahestry, and we've done that. We have people waiting for us back in Amestris, and I need to get my automail looked at.: Because it was still working fine, but he'd been growing, and even villagers who didn't know anything about fighting were starting to notice the limp that said he needed it adjusted. :We were never going to stay, May.:

Tears sprung to May's eyes and she roughly rubbed at them, while Xiao Mei let out quiet, pitiful squeaks. "But... Now?"

Ed shook his head. :Maybe a couple more months,: he allowed. :I don't want to cross the Great Desert in the middle of the summer, but we need to be back before the onset of winter, or travel will be difficult in Amestris.: Okay, really, he just wanted to have his state licence before the end of the year, and one of the things he and Al had agreed they needed to do before finally checking in with Mustang, was go by to see Teacher. And that could be a quick trip, or it could end up taking a whole month, depending on how pissed she was at them performing human transmutation and Ed's intention to join the military.

May swallowed and let Xiao Mei squeeze free to curl around her knees, an action the panda was quick to copy.

Ed pulled out one of his kunai and quickly scratched in the ground. 'Try the Yao clan. Ling Yao sounds like he's okay.'

"Ling Yao," May snarled, reaching out with her foot and using it to erase the message, while Xiao Mei growled, "is a pig."

Oh, now, Ed wouldn't go that far.

"I would sooner watch my whole clan burn than ally with the Yaos!"

:Be careful what you wish for,: Ed signed grimly, :you might just get it.: Then he stood and dusted off his rear, before returning to the planting team he was with.

-0-

That night, Al asked, "Did you do something to May? She hugged me earlier and started sobbing."

Ed winced. :I told her we were leaving in a couple months.:

"Ah." Al stared into the stew pot for a long moment, before starting to stir it and asking, "When?"

Ed shrugged and, when Al glanced up at him, signed, :Middle of August?: That seemed like a reasonable time, to him. Late enough in the summer that the desert temperature wouldn't be unbearable either during the day or at night, but early enough that they'd have plenty of time to visit with people before Ed took the exam.

Al nodded. "Did you want to try getting a guide through the Hans again?" he asked, unable to keep from grimacing.

Ed grimaced himself; the Han clan had been one of their thieves during the spring last year. They hadn't hurt anyone in the village – had been overwhelmed before they'd managed to draw weapons, according to those who'd been there – but the attack had still felt like a betrayal to Ed, and he suspected his brother felt the same. :No. May managed the crossing on her own, last time; we should be able to do it without relying on any guides, since we've already crossed once.:

"We won't have horses this time," Al cautioned.

:And I TOLD you not to bring so many of those damn books.:

Al rolled his eyes. "Shut up. Maybe we can leave a few behind. As backups."

Ed shrugged. He didn't really care what Al did with Hohenheim's books, but he could see the sense in leaving them with the Changs, in case their current treasure finally got stolen. Maybe they could set up some sort of safe-box in their house and leave the key with May before they left? Then they wouldn't have to deal with the gratitude, and Ed wouldn't have to hide his disgust of Hohenheim. (Not that most of the village didn't already know he had no love for their precious Philosopher from the West, but he usually made a point to keep that opinion to himself, at least around anyone other than Al and May.)

They had time to figure it all out. For the moment, the stew was ready, and both of their stomachs made very loud comments about the delay, nearly in sync. Al rolled his eyes and smiled while Ed laughed, and they turned their attention to far more important matters.

-0-

Over the next couple months, May sort of clung to Al, which Ed found adorable and it kind of sucked that he couldn't comment on it, but watching his brother's embarrassed bafflement in silence was still pretty fantastic, so he made do.

On the day they'd planned to leave, however, May had just sort of...vanished. Ed made a show of checking both of their packs, as though looking for a stowaway – Al had rolled his eyes, but Ed had also caught him waving a stick of bamboo over their things, as though trying to tempt Xiao Mei out of hiding, so he really didn't get to judge – but didn't even find a gift snuck in.

They had been informed, on no uncertain terms, that they weren't allowed to leave the village without one last goodbye, so they shouldered their packs about an hour before Ed had determined they absolutely had to leave – to give them as much time to travel before they would have to find shelter from the heat of the desert day, doubly important without horses or taking the well-worn route the Han clan had built up – and found nearly the whole village waiting for them along the main path.

There was still no sign of May, but since her parents and half-siblings didn't appear worried, Ed assumed they either knew where she was, or knew why she was hiding. (Ed had his own guesses, none of which he was allowed to voice, for fear of Al asking about his 'mystery man' again.)

They went around to everyone, trading quiet goodbyes. To May's mum, Al gave the key array, saying, "Could you give this to May? We left something in the study that she might appreciate."

Ai took it with a bow. "I'm certain she will be most grateful," she agreed.

At last, they reached Elders Nuo and Qiang. "You both know, I believe, that it is tradition for any members of our clan, after their first hunt, to receive a tasselled sash from their parents," Elder Nuo said.

Ed and Al both nodded; they'd found out about that fairly early on, actually, when Al had asked Ru about why only the older children and not all of the adults had the sashes that Ed knew May had worn during her first trip to Amestris, and had donned any time she travelled anywhere, after she'd married Al.

Elder Nuo offered them a faint smile. "As I told you many months ago, you have become members of this clan, and, as you have no parents to bestow them, it must fall to Qiang and myself to gift you what you have long earned." She nodded to where her husband had unveiled two dark blue sashes, both with the familiar white tassels at each corner.

"Oh," Al whispered, clearly at a loss for words.

Ed sort of understood the feeling – he had never, honestly, expected to receive sashes, though he and Al had both joked about how 'then we'd be proper members of the clan' – but with his brother fumbling, it fell to him to step forward and give a deep bow of thanks, letting his qi fill with his honest gratitude; over two years living with the Changs, and the knowledge that everyone had at least some form of qi-sensing, meant he didn't always need words to get his meaning across any more.

Elder Nuo's smile was understanding as she accepted one of the sashes from Elder Qiang and they each presented one to the brothers.

Ed slipped off his pack and desert robe so he could put his on before they left, and Al followed suit after a brief moment. The dark blue sort of blended in with the black that Ed always wore – Xingan-style, right now, though he'd probably switch back to at least his familiar leather trousers, once he could get his hands on a pair – while it stood out against the tan and brown ensemble that had become Al's signature colours. The side of the sashes meant to be worn facing in had a couple of small pockets, just the right shape and size for kunai, and likely reinforced so the sharp points didn't rip the fabric. Ed suspected he could modify a couple, or just add a new one, so he could keep his journal and pen in there; far easier to keep track of it there, than hoping he could unbury it from his pack when he needed to write to communicate.

"Thank you," Al finally managed as they replaced their robes and packs over the sashes. "We'll wear them with pride, in honour of your kindness and friendship."

"And we will always remember you as such," Elder Qiang returned.

There was some more bowing – Ed couldn't even pretend he was using it to hide any sort of 'fuck you' expression, this time – and then Ed and Al made for the western-most path out of the village.

"I'm going to miss them," Al admitted quietly, once they could no longer look back and see the roofs of the houses.

Ed glanced down at his new sash, the front tassel swinging free with every step, and signed, :Me, too. Maybe, when all this is over, we can come back for a visit.:

"Yeah," Al agreed, sadness colouring his voice. "I'd like that."

Ed wondered if his brother didn't share his fears, that the Chang clan may well have been wiped out by attacks before they were able to come back.

Desperately, he sent a silent plea back over his shoulder towards May: Please swallow your pride and save our clan.

-0-

Crossing the desert on their own hadn't been nearly as simple as Ed had hoped, but they managed to make it through in one piece. And, while they ran out of food about two days before they found civilisation, they had more than enough water, and they had survived almost starving before, so it wasn't like they started panicking when they ate the last of the food they'd brought. (Well, okay, there'd been a little panicking, but it had also got them to stop arguing, so...)

The only real happening of note, while they were crossing the Great Desert, was Ed somewhat absently complaining about having the take the stupid state alchemy exam again, which had led to Al asking him how it was, which turned into Ed realising his brother was intending to take the exam, too.

And the absolute last thing Ed had ever wanted, was for his brother to become a dog of the military.

He tried refusing him outright, which worked about as well as if someone had tried to do the same to him. Then he tried pleading, which also worked about as well as expected. So he moved on to horror stories, citing Ishval as proof that the military only saw them as weapons, and mentioning some of their more dangerous missions as proof that this was a dangerous life.

"Brother," Al had stated rather flatly, "what makes you think I need a state licence follow you into dangerous situations?"

Which...okay. He kind of had a point; even as adults, Al had regularly followed him into danger, because Ed was bad about looking after his personal safety, and Al had developed the extremely unfortunate urge to play his guardian.

Ed's response to that had been the silent treatment, which Al bore with all the grace of someone who had long resigned himself to the fact that his brother had all the maturity of a five-year-old.

And then they ran out of food and Ed stopped caring about who was going to join the military and started caring about what they had that could be turned into food when they finally ran out of strength to keep walking.

A sunbathing lizard served as a brief meal, and he made Al eat most of it, shooting his brother a flat look and signing, :You have more body mass. Stop trying to play the 'who's weaker' game and eat the damn thing.: Which Al had given in to with only some quiet muttering, low enough that Ed didn't even have to pretend he hadn't understood him.

Luckily, as the sun rose behind them the next morning, it gleamed off the odd shapes that he'd almost started believing were a mirage overnight, showing them to be the smoke stacks and scaffolding of Youswell. Which, he hadn't quite been aiming for that town, but he supposed the mining town was almost a direct shot west across the Great Desert from the Chang clan's land, so it made sense they'd end up here.

He snapped his fingers at Al, who was dragging slightly, and waited until his brother had blinked up at him before signing, :We're at the border.:

Al's head jerked up and around. "You recognise those towers?"

:Yes. Y-O-U-S-W-E-L-L,: he spelt, because that hadn't been one of the towns they'd ever worked out a sign for, and the books Al and Winry had bought only had signs for the capital cities.

Al took a moment to sound that out. "Youswell," he finally got, looking back up towards the town ahead. "Mining, right?"

:Our main source of coal,: Ed agreed when Al glanced over for his response.

"You've been here?"

:Once,: Ed agreed, frowning; there was something about Youswell that was tugging at his memory, but he couldn't quite catch it. Probably too hungry. :We should be able to reach it in a couple hours, find some food.:

"And a real bed," Al said, sounding more than a little pathetic.

Ed rolled his eyes. He wanted to comment on how overly attached to his comforts his brother was, but he still couldn't quite get past the reminder that his brother could care about comfort for his own sake.

Some miracles, he knew, would never get old.

-0-

It was late enough in the morning, when they got in to Youswell proper, that it should have been bustling, but the place looked...dead.

Why did that send a shiver of dread down Ed's spine?

"Huh?" someone said, and Ed and Al turned to find a boy standing behind them, looking nearly as dirty as they did and holding a small sack in one hand. "Visitors?" His eyes lit up in a worrying way.

Fuck. Right. Now he remembered: Expensive-as-fuck inns and unfair taxation. Oh, he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with this shit again.

"Yes, we're..." Al trailed off when the kid gave him a confused look, then looked a bit uncertainly towards Ed.

:You're speaking Xingan, still,: Ed signed tiredly. :Tell him we're alchemists from Xing and we don't have any Amestrisan coin.:

Al shot him a frown, but he was clearly too exhausted to ask for clarification, because he cleared his throat and, stumbling a bit over their native language, said, "Sorry. I– We are from Xing. Alchemists. Is there an inn we could relax in?"

"Uhm..." The kid stared at them for a moment, uncertain, before he apparently decided to take pity on them, because he nodded and forced a smile. "Yeah, my family owns an inn. Follow me." He motioned with his hand for them to follow, then led the way into town, making straight for a building with a sign declaring it an inn. He pushed his way in, calling, "Mum! I found some travellers from Xing! They say they're alchemists!"

"Oh?" a woman called back, coming out of a back room just in time to watch Al trip his way in the front door.

Ed caught him, concerned, but Al shook his head and promised, "I'm fine, Brother," when he caught sight of Ed's face, pulling away from Ed's hold and making a show of standing straight.

:You're half-starved and exhausted,: Ed returned with a scowl. :Go sit down while I barter with the locals.: He pointed at the nearest table.

"You're worse off than me," Al tried.

'Now, Alphonse,' Ed mouthed, glaring until his brother slumped in defeat and went to sit down. Then, sighing, Ed yanked his journal out of the pocket he'd created for it in his sash and brought it over to the bar, where the boy and his mother were watching them with confused expressions. Opening to a fresh page, he carefully wrote, in his best Amestrisan, 'I'm sorry. We ran out of food a couple days ago + both exhausted. We only have enough cenz for 2 train tickets but we're alchemists + willing to trade whatever repairs people might need around town for food + lodgings if you can'

Then he tore out the page and held it out to the woman.

When she looked up after finishing reading, her gaze was soft with understanding. "I think we can work something out," she promised, and Ed couldn't quite keep from slumping in relief. "How about I get you both a bowl of soup, then show you up to rooms. We can figure out payment after you've had some sleep."

He'd probably been in Xing too long, because the only response Ed could think of was a grateful bow.

"Go sit down," she ordered in that gentle way that all mothers seemed to have, motioning back towards Al, before turning to her son and saying, "Go take that to your father, Khayal. And tell him we have some alchemists staying."

"For free, Mum?" the kid said, quiet enough that he was probably trying not to be heard, but Ed did anyway.

"No. Now go. Shoo."

Ed sighed and dropped into the chair across the table from his brother, bringing Al to look up from where his face was making friends with wood grains. :She's willing to wait to discuss money until after we've had a bit of food and slept.:

Al gave a tired nod. "And you tell me why we're lying," he mumbled.

Ed grimaced, but promised, :I will. And I DID tell her we have money for train tickets.:

Al huffed.

"Here you go, boys," the woman said, sliding steaming bowls in front of both of them, spoons sticking out from inside.

"Thank you," Al whispered, sounding more than grateful enough for both of them, while Ed managed a smile.

She smiled back and left them to eat, neither of them bothering with decorum, because starving. Also, there were beds waiting for them, and Ed could admit that, as much as he might joke about Al's need for comforts, he was kind of looking forward to sleeping on something other than sand and rocks, himself.

Almost as soon as they were done, the woman swooped down and picked up the empty bowls with a kind smile. "Up you get," she coaxed, before moving away with the bowls while they both forced themselves to their feet. She returned as they both managed to collect their bags. "This way," she said, leading the way to a flight of stairs that had Ed grimacing and Al sighing.

They made it up the stairs, somehow, and Ed couldn't quite articulate how grateful he was when she opened the first door on the hallway and motioned them in. "The toilet and shower are just down the hall," she told Ed, pointing at an open doorway further down, while Al gave up on politeness and made a beeline for the closest bed, falling onto it with a 'flump' and mumbling something into the bedspread. "We'll see you when we see you."

'Thank you,' Ed mouthed, and she smiled and nodded before turning to return downstairs.

Ed closed and locked the door before walking over and dropping his bag next to the bed Al wasn't sprawled on. And then he turned to his brother and let out a helpless laugh upon realising he'd fallen asleep. 'Idiot,' he mouthed, forcing himself to walk over and get his brother's pack, robes, sash, jian sword, and shoes off, then wrangle him under the covers.

Only once Al was properly settled, did Ed finally remove his own robe and sash, kick off his own shoes, and climb into bed.

He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

-0-

"Brother."

Ed grunted.

A hand pushed at his shoulder. "Brother, come on. Wake up."

Ed flailed a heavy hand at whoever was disturbing him; couldn't they see he was sleeping?

His hand was batted away. "Stop it. Come on, Brother. I need the toilet."

Toilet?

Oh. Al. He always used to do this when they were kids.

Ed sighed and shoved himself out of bed, squinting his eyes open just enough to get a glimpse of their borrowed room – still a little bit of light coming in through the windows; he wondered how long he'd slept – then tripped out of bed, catching himself on Al – who seemed to have expected that – and caught his brother's hand and led him out of their room and down the hall to the toilet that had been pointed out to him earlier.

Al waited until they'd both relieved themselves – Ed was already up, figured he might as well – before murmuring, "Sorry."

:Idiot,: Ed signed tiredly.

"Don't fall asleep until after the tour?" Al suggested, sounding way too fucking awake.

Ed glared at him.

Al covered a smile and glanced toward a sign on the far wall that said 'Showers' with an arrow pointing down a short hallway that, by all appearances, led around behind the toilet stalls. "I think I'll get some clothing and shower, if you want to go back to bed?"

Ed sighed. Bed sounded good, but his mind was waking up, now, even if his body was still sluggish, and further attempts to sleep would result in little better than messing up the bedcovers. So he shook his head and signed, :A shower sounds like a good idea,: because that should help shock his body into wakefulness, if he kept the water cold.

Al nodded and they returned to their room to find changes of clothing and a pile of towels sitting on a small table just inside the door. Which, you know, Ed didn't remember seeing those when they were led up to the room, but he hadn't really been paying attention to much beyond 'toilets, Al, bed', and it wasn't like the inn owners wouldn't have a key to let themselves in; he'd been exhausted enough, he wasn't even certain the threat of an attack would have woken him, so it was quite possible that the woman sneaking for something as innocent as leaving towels for them wouldn't have disturbed him.

The shower did help wake him up the rest of the way, with the added bonus of making him feel far more human than he had in nearly a month; if he never had to cross the Great Desert again, it would be too soon.

On the downside, being awake meant he actually became aware of the crawling sensation underground. Writhing and shifting and brushing against his qi-sense like an unending parade of ants over his skin; as helpful as his heightened senses would be for keeping tabs on the the homunculi, he was cursing them, now.

:So,: Al signed once they were both back in the room after their showers, apparently oblivious to the Philosopher's Stones shifting deep below their feet, and Ed couldn't decide if he was jealous or grateful, :what's up with the lying?:

Ed sighed. :When we first visited this town, it was run by a greedy lieutenant who was taxing the miners way too much, so any potential customers were charged out the nose. We don't have the kind of money they were asking.:

Al frowned, and Ed could see it in his eyes, that same mix of pity and fury that'd had Ed creating gold to swindle the lieutenant last time. :How much?:

:Two hundred thousand cenz, I think. Per night.:

Al just sort of stared dumbly at him.

Ed rubbed at his mouth, then admitted, :I did something slightly illegal to tip the balance last time.:

Al's eyes narrowed in interest. :How illegal?:

:I'm a terrible influence on you.:

:Brother.:

Ed shrugged and signed a bit carelessly, :I turned some coal into gold, traded it to the lieutenant for the deed to the town, entirely off the books, then traded that to the owner of this inn for the price of our stay.:

Al's mouth curled with an entirely inappropriate smile. :Did you at least turn the gold back into coal?:

:What do you take me for?! Of course I did! I'm not stupid; I know why that law's in place.:

Al snorted and tilted his head. :Can you do it again?:

Ed grimaced. :I don't know. Half the reason it worked, last time, was I was already a State Alchemist, and the lieutenant thought I'd put in a good word for him. Which, that reminds me, don't tell anyone I'm taking the exam.:

Al shot him a knowing look. :I'm taking the exam too, Brother. You can't stop me.:

Ed didn't think that deserved a response.

Al let out a huff and switched to speaking Xingan, since Ed wasn't looking at him, to say, "Okay, so, we're poor, but alchemists, and willing to pay our way with that."

Ed considered his hands for a moment, then pointed out, :We have healing alchemy. Fixing things are all well and good, but mining is dangerous work; there might be some broken bones we can speed up the healing of.:

Al shrugged and nodded. "Sure. I've got nothing against healing people so they can continue their livelihood."

:It may also attract the attention of that lieutenant,: Ed signed.

Al blinked once, then snorted. "You really are a terrible influence," he returned, before standing and catching up his sash to put it on. "Amestrisan," he mumbled to himself. "We're back in Amestris, that means they speak Amestrisan, not Xingan."

Ed laughed as he put on his own sash, slipping his journal inside once it was secure, just in case he needed to write to communicate again, as well as a couple of kunai, more for distance transmutations than because he thought he might need to defend himself here.

"Shut up, Brother."

They made their way down to the ground floor together, Al taking the lead, since he was the one who could talk. A handful of miners were already sat around one of the tables as they reached the bottom of the stairs, but their view was quickly blocked by the woman from earlier. "Good evening, boys," she said.

Al, Ed could tell from his voice, put on his best smile and returned, "Good evening, madam. I'm sorry if we were at all impolite earlier."

She laughed and shook her head. "No, you were both fine. Your...brother?"

Al nodded. "Edward. I'm Alphonse."

"Edward explained that you were just in need of sleep and food." Something must have shown in Al's face, because she laughed again and said, "Food it is. Why don't you both take a seat?"

"Th-thank you," Al said, clearly embarrassed to have been caught out.

Ed rolled his eyes and shoved his brother toward the nearest table while he shot the woman a smile in thanks.

One of the miners got up from the other table and came over to join them as soon as they'd sat down, while the front door opened and another miner stepped inside, to greetings from the miners at the other table. "I'm Halling, owner of this inn, and that's my wife, Piper," their current tablemate offered.

"Alphonse Elric," Al returned politely, giving a short bow over the table, before seeming to remember himself and offering his hand. "Sorry. This is my elder brother, Edward."

Halling chuckled as he shook first Al's hand, then Ed's. "My son said you were both from Xing."

Al winced and shot Ed an apologetic look, before admitting, "We're actually from Resembool, but we've spent the past two years in Xing. My brother made sure to save out enough cenz to get us both train tickets, should we need them, but I'm afraid we didn't really plan for an inn stay and food."

"But you're both alchemists?" Halling pressed.

"Yes, sir."

Seeming to pull it from nowhere, Halling set a scraped up, broken pickaxe in the middle of the table. "Can you fix that?"

"Halling," the woman, Piper, chastised as she brought over a tray with two bowls and two mugs on it.

Ed shrugged and clapped his hands together, then reached out and touched the two pieces of the pickaxe. A flash of alchemic light, and it was shiny and whole, all signs of previous wear vanished.

There followed a stunned silence, which Al broke by sighing and muttering, "Show off."

Ed flashed him a smirk. :Really. He would have called bullshit if we hadn't proven ourselves.:

Al just rolled his eyes.

Halling cleared his throat as he picked up the pickaxe and looked it over. "Yeah," he said, while Piper sat the bowls and mugs in front of Ed and Al, "I think we can work something out for payment."

Al took a quick sip of his soup, then nonchalantly offered, "We can use healing alchemy, too."

"Healing alchemy?" Halling repeated, blinking.

Al nodded. "Broken bones, burns, cuts, and bruises," he agreed. "We can't do anything about nerve damage, really, and if you're missing a limb, you'll still need to find an automail mechanic, but we can do little things."

Halling blinked a few more times, while one of the other miners got up and stepped quickly from the inn; Ed suspected they would shortly be awash in all sorts of business. "How long can you stay?" Halling asked.

Al gave a nervous little laugh into his mug and glanced at Ed. "Well, actually, my brother needs to go see his mechanic, which is why we came back to Amestris."

"You have automail?" Piper asked sadly.

Ed shrugged and nodded around his soup.

"Kid of few words," one of the other miners commented in a voice intended to carry.

Ed rolled his eyes, but Al's hand tightened around his spoon as he flatly said, "My brother's mute."

Ed set down his spoon long enough to sign, :Deep breaths, Al,: then went back to his food.

"Sorry, kid," the miner who had spoken said, wilting under Piper's glare. "Didn't mean nothin' by it, Pipe."

Ed flapped a careless hand in the miner's direction; he'd long resigned himself to people's responses to disabilities. It was the same as when people realised he had automail or, before, when people who'd known him as Fullmetal had found out he was no longer capable of alchemy; you either learnt to ignore the comments and stares, or you went completely crazy. Or, if you were a young Ed Elric, you hid your automail until you didn't have any other choice, and overreacted to comments about your height to hide your guilt.

Any further commentary on disabilities was set aside when a man on crutches was helped through the front door of the inn, his right ankle wrapped tight, a hint of bruising showing above the wrap.

As the man was helped to a seat, wincing as his heel touched the floor, Ed knocked his fist against Al's shoulder, then signed, :Tag, you're it.:

"Such honour you do me," Al muttered as he stood.

Ed snorted. Please, his brother was inarguably the better healer, of the two of them. He was also notably better with defensive alchemy, which had always been true, while Ed was the far better offensive alchemist (especially with water alkahestry, now), and was slightly better at repairing metal and wood objects. Their attention to detail was about equal, but Ed usually transmuted faster, while Al left fewer transmutation marks behind on his work.

All told, they made a good team, easily covering each other's weaknesses. Which, really, Ed already knew they were both far beyond your average alchemist or alkahestrist, in terms of raw abilities, and could probably take down most – if not all – of the current State Alchemists, blindfolded. Mustang might prove a challenge, but all Ed had to do, really, was toss a kunai at his feet and douse him with groundwater and he was done. And since the bastard didn't move when he was using his alchemy – kind of couldn't; no way it was simple to manipulate elemental chains with the sort of accuracy that he managed – soaking him would be easy.

Not that Ed was worried about having to fight Mustang; they'd been on the same side the last time, and the man's moral compass was too closely aligned with Ed's to see them standing against each other for anything more than a terrible idea of a battle assessment. (Although, if Ed took him out right from the start, rather than letting the bastard chase him around the parade grounds, blowing everything to hell, maybe the clean-up wouldn't suck so much. And Ed wouldn't be stuck in hospital for a week, recovering from minor burns. Fucking bastard and his trigger-happy snapping.)

Ed shook Mustang from his thoughts and pulled out his journal while everyone else watched his brother heal the wounded miner. 'When's the next train to New Optain?' he wrote, then knocked his journal against Halling's arm until the man turned back to him, looking amazed.

He took a moment to read Ed's note, then frowned in thought. "Trains come in Thursday afternoon, leave whenever the last of the coal's finished loading on Friday."

Ed blinked, grimaced, and wrote, 'What's today?'

Halling chuckled. "Monday. It's the fifteenth of September."

Ed rubbed tiredly at his face and shook his head. Mental note: Invest in horses to cross the desert. It cuts the travel time in half.

Halling leant forward over the table. "You two look a little young to be travelling to foreign countries without your parents."

Ed couldn't stop a scowl, and Al announced his return by saying, "Oh, dear. He asked about Dad, didn't he?"

"Sore subject?" Halling guessed, while Ed made a point of turning his attention to the last of his soup.

Al sighed and nodded. "He left when I was three, and Mum died the next year. We don't know where he is, though Brother seems pretty certain he's still alive."

Halling nodded in understanding, and said to Ed, "Sorry."

Ed huffed and shrugged; most of his anger any more, if he was being honest, was just because it was familiar. Yeah, he was still furious with Hohenheim for leaving Mum to raise two kids on her own and never bothering to check in – even Ed had learnt to ring Winry every week or so, when he was away for an extended trip, which was only partially because she would have killed him otherwise – and he really couldn't care less if, after they dealt with the Dwarf in the Flask, he never saw his father again, but the blinding hatred of his childhood had withered with age and his own experiences. He still fully intended to punch the bastard in the face when he saw him again – if only for the pleasure of being able to say he'd done so twice – and he really had no interest in any more fireside chats, but if Al wanted to reconnect with Hohenheim, Ed wasn't going to stop him, actually sort of approved; just because Ed had outgrown their father, didn't mean Al needed to be equally deprived.

:We're going to be here for a few days,: he signed to his brother.

:Long enough to overthrow the power balance in this town?: Al returned.

Ed couldn't quite stop a grin. :If we're lucky.:

"Cool. So– Wait. How many days is a 'few'?" Al asked.

Halling laughed.

-0-

Halling and Piper seemed happy to continue putting them up until the train, and Ed and Al were more than happy to show around some alchemy. As hoped, they managed to attract the attention of their prey – Yoki; Ed finally managed to remember his name when he caught sight of his pathetic face – and he came down Thursday afternoon to try winning them over, while all the miners were working. Which, well, Ed had never expected Al to bluff his way into Yoki's good graces, but he pulled it off, and then left with the lieutenant while Ed kept a firm grip on Khayal's shirt back.

'Al knows what he's doing,' he wrote, before holding the note in front of the boy's face.

"He's selling himself to those–!"

"Language!" Piper snapped, twisting her hands in the tea towel she'd been using to wipe down one of the tables. She shot Ed an uncertain look while Khayal finally subsided, settling back into his chair next to Ed. "Edward?" Piper asked, something that sounded a little too much like fear in her voice.

Ed sighed and put on his best reassuring look, then wrote, 'Trust us. You've been good to us + we don't return favours with betrayal'

"That's not what it looks like right now," Khayal muttered, slouching in his chair, as his mother read that.

Ed shrugged; if Al managed to pull this off, Khayal would be eating those words.

-0-

Al returned in the middle of the dinner rush, looking so fucking smug. (Ed really was a terrible influence.)

"Back, are you?" Halling asked, his eyes hard. He'd taken the apparent breach of trust as fact, and Ed had been getting the cold shoulder all evening. (He'd actually expected to be booted out on his rear, but Piper must have made her husband promise to give them a chance, or something; she seemed far more inclined to trust Ed when he'd said this wasn't a betrayal.)

Al blinked towards Ed, and he rolled his eyes.

Al sighed and stepped up to Halling's table, brandishing a few pieces of fine parchment. "Well, I was going to use these to pay off our stay at your inn, but if you don't want the deed to Youswell..."

Terrible influence. (Ed was so proud.)

"That's the–" Halling said, eyes wide, while the rest of the dining room had fallen absolutely silent.

Al turned it around for him to read. "Deed to the town and the mines, yeah. Lieutenant Yoki just sort of gave it to me."

Ed couldn't help it, he just started laughing. :GAVE,: he managed to sign.

Al raised the pages slightly and pointed to writing that was too far away for Ed to see. "No, see, it says so right here, Brother. Free of charge." He turned back to Halling while Ed attempted to shut himself up, saying, "I know we've been fixing things with alchemy to pay for our stay, but a lot of that was for other people, and I know they can't really afford to pay you our shares, even if that's sort of how we worked it. When Lieutenant Yoki offered me the deed to the town, I thought it would be about equivalent for what we still owe you. Right?"

Halling chuckled and shook his head, then held out his hand. "Mr Elric, I think that's more than enough."

"Oh, good," Al said as they shook. "Because Brother would leave without feeling bad, but I'd just feel wretched."

:Stop villainising me!: Ed signed when Al looked over, obviously expecting a response.

Al blinked. "I'm sorry, Brother. Could you speak up? I couldn't hear you."

And, because all of these miners were arseholes, they broke out into loud laughter.

Al had just sat down next to Halling to sign over the deed, when Ed sensed the wash of fury coming towards the inn. Al clearly sensed it too, because he stiffened and looked towards the door while Ed stood, pulling out a couple of kunai.

"What–?" Piper said, looking at the blades in Ed's hands.

And then the door slammed open, revealing Yoki and his two privates. "What is the meaning of this?!" he shouted, waving around a handful of dark rocks. He zeroed in on Al and took a menacing step forward.

Ed threw one of his kunai, shaving off that little tuft of hair at the top of Yoki's head.

Pretty much everyone turned to look when the kunai thumped solidly into the wall next to the lieutenant, then turned towards where Ed was idly flipping the other one through the air. He shot Yoki an icy smile and mouthed, 'I wouldn't.'

"W-wh-who–?!" Yoki stammered.

"Oh," Al said, his tone careless but his smile sharp, "that's my big brother. He's the best knife-fighter in our clan."

Ed curled his finger in a 'come hither' motion.

Yoki and his privates ran.

Al sighed as he stood and walked over to get Ed's kunai. "That was unnecessary, Brother."

Ed shrugged and, when Al tossed him his weapon back, caught it by the grip – an exchange that had taken them three months and a massive amount of energy expended on healing cut fingers to figure out – and slipped it away.

As Ed and Al both returned to their seats, someone asked Al, "How long has he had those on him?" Because none of their fixes around town had required the use of distance alchemy.

"The whole time," Al admitted. "I have some, too, but I much prefer my sword."

"You have a–?"

"Oh, yeah!" Khayal interrupted. "It's kinda a big thing with a fancy handle, right?"

Al let out a polite little cough. "Yes."

"So I guess you boys are more capable of taking care of yourselves than you look," Halling said, a well of humour in his voice.

Al was quiet for a moment, and Ed glanced up from his tea to see he was wearing a tired frown. "Xing is a hard country," he finally said quietly. "You find a way to protect yourselves and your clan, or you die."

The adults in the room all traded grim looks.

"Which isn't to say our own country doesn't have its problems," Al added, his tone gone a bit absent. "The military may help to keep some form of peace inside our borders, but we're constantly at war with our neighbours, and if Ishval taught us anything, I would think it's that it doesn't take much effort to turn a gun around and point it at the people we're supposed to be protecting." He stood and tapped the table. "All yours. Thanks for letting us stay so long without any real payment; you're good people."

Ed stood and joined his brother on his way upstairs to their room.

"I need a shower," Al muttered, going for his pack.

Ed closed the door and leant back against it. When Al looked over, he signed, :What happened?:

Al slumped and dropped tiredly to his bed. "I just...feel dirty. How could a man like that gain control of a town?"

Ed sighed and walked over to sit next to his brother. :The higher ups don't care about the people or some greedy little officer out in the boondocks. So long as they're getting the coal to keep the trains running and some facsimile of commerce is occurring, they only care about their plans for immortality. Remember, they're okay with sacrificing the entire country for their own power.:

Al leant forward, toward Ed, and he pulled him into a hug. "But why is it always good people who have to suffer?" Al whispered, a sob punctuating the question.

Ed tightened his arms around his brother; even if he could speak, he couldn't think of a single thing to say to that.

.

Chapter Text

The next day was much more cheerful, and Ed and Al got dragged into a 'celebration lunch', the miners promising the train wouldn't be ready to leave until after they'd celebrated properly. (Since they were the ones in charge of loading the coal, and Ed'd spotted the train operator and at least one of the engineers at the party, he was willing to believe that.)

"Are you sure it's okay?" Ed heard Al asking at one point, and he squeezed between a couple guffawing miners to find his brother talking with Halling and Piper. "I don't want Lieutenant Yoki to come back here and bully you lot into handing back the deed."

Halling chuckled and shook his head. "That deed has passed hands with all the legal necessities, kid. There's nothing Yoki can do about things, now."

Ed touched Al's shoulder, and when he glanced back, signed, :The miners are more than capable of taking care of themselves against that lump and his men.:

Al glanced behind Ed, likely looking at the many massive miners filling the room. "I guess," he agreed quietly.

:And we can pass on the news of corruption as soon as we see Führer Bastard,: Ed added, meaning Mustang; given how rare knowledge of sign language was, he figured it was fairly safe to refer to the bastard like that, though he would probably avoid doing so in Central, just in case. (That said, people were more likely to assume he was referring to Bradley than Mustang, unless informed otherwise. Which could suck, because, well, insult, but when had Ed ever let that stop him?)

Al sighed. "Please stop calling him that."

Ed rolled his eyes. :Habit. Can't help it.:

Al just turned back towards Halling and Piper; he'd clearly learnt that there was no winning against Ed over that matter. "I'll still worry about everyone," he admitted.

Piper smiled in understanding. "You're both welcome to come back any time."

"We may take you up on that," Al decided, and Ed nodded; maybe they would.

Once the party finally broke up, Ed and Al said the last of their goodbyes and hopped onto the waiting train while the last of the coal was loaded on. The conductor traded them tickets for some of the cenz Ed had kept, winking as he corrected Ed's change and left them to their chosen seats in the otherwise empty train.

Ed considered the remaining money for a moment before slipping it away; he knew he'd done the maths right, which meant the conductor had discounted their tickets. If questioned, he'd likely say it was because they were children – always served as a good excuse, in Ed's experience – but, more likely, he had heard what they'd done for the miners and was showing his appreciation in his own way.

Ah, well. Either way, it looked like they'd be able to afford tickets to Dublith without having to beg money off Winry, which was good, as that additional cost hadn't been part of his savings plan. They might come up a bit short for the trip from Dublith to East City, but if the station manager in Dublith hadn't changed yet, they could probably appeal to his wife and she'd bully him into discounting their tickets. They'd figure something out.

It wasn't quite an hour into the trip, when Ed realised Al kept shifting, looking uncomfortable. It was his first time on a train, Ed knew, but still. He knew his brother, and Al didn't usually get this jumpy over new experiences, no matter how uncomfortable the seats were.

He leant forward and touched Al's knee, mouthing, 'Al?' when Al looked at him.

Al swallowed and shook his head. "Can you...sense it?"

Ed blinked a few times, uncertain, before Al's eyes slid down, to the floor of the train.

No, not the train floor; beneath the ground. Creeping and crawling and squirming across the senses.

Ed closed his eyes and sat back, nodding. :Yeah. I noticed them not long after we got in.:

"What...is it?" Al whispered.

Ed set his jaw and met his brother's uncertain gaze. :Remember how I told you the Dwarf in the Flask was a Philosopher's Stone?: Al nodded. :And that he can stop our ability to use Amestrisan alchemy?:

Al swallowed. "Yeah. So, is that...what?"

:That's what's sitting between us and the tectonic movements we use to power our alchemy,: Ed explained grimly. :Tens of thousands of Philosopher's Stones.:

Al snatched his feet away from the train floor. "People?" he squeaked, horror painting his face. "That's people?"

Ed nodded. :Xerxesians.:

Al drew in a shuddering breath and turned to look out the window for a moment, something broken in his eyes. "You knew they were there," he assumed quietly.

Ed sighed and nodded again, though he wasn't certain Al saw the motion.

"How could anyone do that to people?" Al whispered.

Ed touched his brother's shoulder and, when Al glanced at him, he mouthed, 'They aren't people to him.'

Al closed his eyes and nodded. And then he took a deep breath, followed by a second. When he opened his eyes again, he looked a little less like his heart was breaking. "We'll stop him," he said with quiet determination.

Ed offered him a smile that ached, then warned, :It'll be stronger closer to Central.:

And since they were switching lines in Central...

Al looked vaguely sick for a moment, before he swallowed and asked, "Can I sit with you?"

Ed immediately tossed his bag onto the bench next to Al and, after leaving his own bag and jian sword there, Al stepped across to Ed's bench, touching the floor as little as he could. Ed tugged him into a hug as soon as Al curled up next to him, and his brother caught his hands in Ed's sash and pressed his face against his shoulder.

Ed sighed. With any luck, Al would acclimate to the sensation quickly, as terrible as that was, because it was going to be a while before they were likely to be this far from Central again.

-0-

Al had called Granny their second day in Youswell, to get the update on where to find Winry. It turned out that, somehow, Granny had talked Dominic LeCoulte into training Winry on a trial basis – because Ed had needed even more reason to fear Pinako Rockbell – and, according to Granny, she was still out there. Ed had promised he'd be able to find the place – they'd gone out there quite a few times, after he and Winry'd got married – so Granny said she'd tell Winry that she didn't need to meet them at the station.

Indeed, there was no sign of her when they finally got off the train, and Ed shrugged and signed, :This way,: before taking the lead through town and up into the mountains.

"Wow," Al huffed after a while, wiping at his sweaty forehead. "They sure are a long way out."

Ed grimaced and nodded, wiping at his own sweaty forehead; it didn't seem to matter if he was young or old, in shape or not, this journey was always a massive drain on his energy. :Crazy old man's kind of a recluse,: he signed. :Always goes on about finding the best ore out here and shit, but he really just hates people.:

Al snorted. :You two clearly got on well,: he returned, apparently deciding signing was less effort than speaking.

Ed rolled his eyes. :Winry delivered his grandson, and he was the mechanic of a friend of ours. We'd all come out every few months to visit, if his son and them didn't come down into town.:

Al considered that. :We all lived in Rush Valley?:

:Winry and I had a house here,: Ed offered cautiously. His and Winry's house had been plenty big enough for Al and May, and they'd certainly stayed there often enough, but they'd sort of moved into the Rockbell house in Resembool, after Granny fell ill, and never moved out when she died, since May hadn't minded the countryside, and the easy access to news from Xing was a nice bonus. And, well, Ed and Al had been out travelling, those last three years, almost more than they were settled down, so they just crashed in whichever of the houses ended up being closer for a week or two, then headed after the next rumour Ed had managed to sniff out.

Al snorted and took a moment to resettle his pack. :And? Did I live somewhere incriminating?:

Ed shot him a flat look. :Resembool, officially. But we bunked over with each other plenty often.:

Al grinned at that. :Of course we did.:

They finally reached the wood and rope bridge spanning the gorge, and Ed stopped at the edge to stare out along it. The number of times this bridge had broken because of a lightning strike or a rock fall was...embarrassing, but the gorge was too wide and the bridge too little used for the city government to put any real effort into fixing it up properly, so it had remained a wood and rope bridge and they'd come out to fix it every other year or so.

Al had once joked, before, that, if Ed hadn't given up his alchemy, they probably could have stood on either side of the gorge and managed, together, what neither of them were able to do alone. Al had tried with distance alkahestry, but because of the nature of the Dragon's Pulse and how it affected earth, it had been slow going, and they'd ended up deciding it would take too much time and be too much effort. (Even May coming out to help did very little; she was an excellent alkahestrist on a small scale, but she just didn't have that extra little 'oomph' that Ed and Al had been born with, which made large scale transmutations seem simple. Elements of their Xerxesian ancestry, doubtless.)

"Brother?"

Ed glanced up at his brother. :This bridge breaks a lot.:

Al glanced back at the bridge and nodded. "Me on one side, you on the other?" he guessed.

Ed grinned. :Yes. Amestrisan alchemy would be best, but we'll have to use alkahestry for the supports, first.: He stepped up to the edge and looked down into the gorge, where only a slim river was making its way through the smallest of the riverbank boundaries today; clearly, it hadn't rained recently. :They'll need to be thick and well-grounded, or the water that rushes through here will wash them away,: he signed, once he'd turned back toward Al again.

Al winced, bracing himself against the wooden support stake and glancing down into the gorge himself. "That's going to need a lot of stone."

Ed nodded. :I expect we'll be here for a couple of days, anyway. If we get the supports today, we can worry about pulling earth from the cliffs to stretch the bridge.:

"Right." Al pushed off the support and crouched down, pulling out a kunai to start scratching a rough map in the stone ground. Because he always liked to have a visual to figure out the specifics, whereas Ed just did whatever came to mind and hoped it turned out okay in the end. (Which was why he usually left the planning to Al, when they had time to do planning.) "Two, or four?" he asked, looking back up at Ed.

Ed took a few steps off the path, eyeballing what they had to work with, then sighed and decided, :Four. Then we won't have to pull as much from the cliff to support it.:

"Good point." Al scratched in the supports under the current wood and rope bridge. "We're going to have to use the space the bridge is currently in, or it's not going to match up with the road."

Ed nodded and crouched down across from his brother, signing, :Yes. If we bring the supports to just under the current bridge today, we can pull them up the rest of the way tomorrow, after cutting down the bridge.:

Al grimaced and nodded. "If we cut down the bridge, and this fails, one of us is going to be stranded."

:If we leave the bridge, it'll just get in the way.:

Al sighed, took one last glance at the map, then stood. "Right. Give me your bag and I'll head across while you place the kunai."

Ed raised an eyebrow at that, but he could see the sense in making him as light as possible, in case they damaged the current bridge in any way during this. Not that he couldn't repair it before trying to cross, but he got where his brother was coming from, so he handed over his pack, then stepped back up to the edge of the gorge and pulled out some of his kunai as Al started across.

They would need at least one focus point each, but two would be better. He could easily throw down two for himself, but the distance made a second one for Al difficult. Unless...

Ed looked down at the slim river and felt a sharp grin breaking across his face; no way in his first life could he have ever imagined he'd develop the sort of control over water that this trick necessitated, but using the Dragon's Pulse made manipulating water easy, and knowing it was Mustang's greatest weakness had made mastering it worth the effort.

So Ed rather carelessly tossed his four kunai into the gorge, waited until they were nearly to the river, then clapped his hands together and let the energy flow between him and the kunai, activating an Aerugonian array to manipulate water and turning it on the river the kunai had just splashed down into. Tendrils of water slipped their way out of the river's flow, each one carrying a kunai, and dragged them to the best possible positions, before evaporating away.

Al called something across the gorge, which Ed suspected was some variation of 'show off'.

Ed snorted and shrugged, then made the most obvious wave he could, before closing his eyes, taking a settling breath, and pressing his hands together. Energy raced out from his feet, burrowing through the rock and ores he was standing on, before twisting down under the kunai and heaving up, dragging the stone up– up– up–

Ed opened his eyes after what felt like an eternity, squinted through the sweat streaming down his forehead at the slowly rising pillars – his were a fair bit ahead of Al's, but that was to be expected – and couldn't quite stop a moan; why did stone have to be so stubborn? Why couldn't it flow, like water did?

Well, he couldn't really complain, if he was being honest; working with the earth would always be easier when using tectonic energy, but water answered best to the energy of the Dragon's Pulse, and that meant he had a fairly powerful elemental weapon, no matter which energy form he was depending on, and no one would ever suspect him of having equal mastery over two such fundamentally different elements.

And he should probably make an effort to downplay or completely ignore one of the two, once he joined the military. Against opponents like the Dwarf in the Flask and the homunculi, the more tricks he had up his sleeves, the better off he'd be. Al too; even as a civilian, downplaying his skills would keep the homunculi from thinking they were too dangerous to be left to their own devices.

Ah, there would be time to figure all that out later. Maybe Mustang would have some ideas? The man was a pain in Ed's...pretty much everywhere, but he was a damn good strategist, and Ed had learnt well the necessity of asking for help from people you'd sooner punch in the face. (Case in point: Hohenheim.)

Ed shook his meandering thoughts away as the pillars finally reached a respectable height, leaving behind wide craters in the bottom of the gorge, which were already filling with water from where his and Al's craters cut across the riverbed. That had sort of been expected, honestly, and there wasn't much they could do about it, but at least pulling from the gorge bottom would keep them from completely destroying the cliffs while trying to bridge the gaps.

He ended his transmutation and started carefully across the bridge, watching for any weak spots. Just above both of his pillars, he carefully slipped over the edge, dropping lightly onto the top of the pillar, ostensibly to test for stability, but also because distance alkahestry was hard on his kunai supplies, and he retrieved them when he could. (At least being able to internalise their arrays meant Ed and Al only needed a singular point of focus, as opposed to the five kunai the rest of their clan required?)

After also testing Al's two pillars – and collecting those kunai – he finally finished crossing the bridge, finding a welcoming party of a single person waiting with his brother.

Winry jumped forward and caught him in a hug that Ed was all too glad to return. "Thank you for fixing the bridge," she whispered into his ear. "It washed out this spring and we were all stuck in the house together for days."

Ed waited until she'd pulled back before signing, :The crazy old man and you are way too much alike, huh.:

Learning to read qi was probably a cheat, because Ed sensed her spike of irritation and was dodging out of the way with a laugh before she'd even managed to get her spanner out of her pocket.

"Edward Elric, you come back here right now!"

Ed offered her a fond smile and signed, :I missed you too, Winry.:

Winry deflated a bit. "Yeah. Idiot." She shoved the spanner away and gave him a considering look. "You grew, didn't you?"

Al, the jerk, started laughing.

Ed rolled his eyes and nodded, deciding his best bet was to just ignore his brother. :Yes. I made some minor changes to the array, too.:

"Oh! Really? Why?"

:It got a little uncomfortable in winter,: Ed admitted before catching up his pack and slipping it on. :It wasn't a big issue, but I tweaked it a bit for comfort, anyway.:

"Okay," Winry decided, motioning for them both to follow her back towards the stone house they could easily see from this side of the bridge. "Can you walk me through everything, though? The alchemist who agreed to activate the arrays for people in Rush Valley was asking me a bunch of questions I couldn't answer." She grimaced.

"We can tell you the basics," Al offered. "But some of it, I'd bet, was him fishing for secrets. Like you'd try and get tricks out of other mechanics, right?"

Winry sighed. "Yeah, Master Dominic said it was probably something like that. That alchemist lives in town, if you want to meet him?"

Al snorted and shot Ed a knowing look. "I might, but Brother should probably stay away."

:Was that a comment on something?: Ed demanded with his best cross look.

Al and Winry both laughed at him.

-0-

Dominic was as cranky as Ed had remembered, but Ridel and Satella more than made up for it, welcoming Ed and Al with wide smiles and hugs from Satella. Winry had clearly told all of them in advance that Ed was mute, because it was taken in stride and generally ignored, Al and Winry easily trading off acting as a translator for him.

Ed, Al, and Winry spent what was left of their first day, after the long journey up the mountains and fixing the bridge, catching up and going over the notes on the array, telling Winry enough that she wouldn't feel like a complete idiot next time an alchemist started questioning her about it, but would also be able to tell them, flat-out, that if they needed more information, they'd need to ask Ed and Al.

They finished the bridge right after breakfast the next morning, leaving behind a sturdy rock bridge that should hold out against any amount of rushing water coming down the gorge, and was actually wide enough for a cart, though the twists and turns of the path made using it as an alternative to the back path down to South Hood kind of a moot point.

"We're just grateful we won't have to be regularly asking them to come up from Rush Valley to repair it," Satella admitted.

Ridel grimaced and nodded. "When I was a kid, after we'd first moved out here," he told them, "there were a few times when it took them a whole month to send someone. Dad finally started going into town and harassing them until they'd send someone, so they got good about coming out as soon as we got word to them that it was down."

:If there's one thing no one needs, it's that crazy old man going ape-shit on them,: Ed signed.

"Be nice, Brother," Al chided, while Winry snorted into her tea.

Ridel shook his head. "I suppose we should actually tell the town that it's been fixed up properly, but having a bridge that gets washed out on a semi-regular basis means fewer people are willing to come up here and ask Dad for things, which I know is his preference."

"As soon as Paninya finds out, she'll probably start sending work out here," Satella pointed out with a laugh. "Dominic's going to have to stop her before she can get back down to the village, after her next visit."

"Not pointing that out to him," Winry insisted. "I refuse that job."

Satella and Ridel both let out wary laughs, then roshamboed for the dubious honour of talking to the missing member of the household. Ed was familiar with this particular song and dance and knew, from Winry,before, that Satella would eventually learn to anticipate her husband, so she'd always win. Whether or not she'd already picked up that skill, he had no idea, but she won that round, and Ridel got up with a groan to go hunt down his father.

Winry tapped Ed's shoulder. "Come on. Let's go see how many adjustments I need to make for your new leg, then install it."

Ed let out his best dramatic moan, then twisted out of his chair, smoothly avoiding the spanner aimed at his head. Al let out a snicker into his tea.

Winry shot them both glares. "I will find a way to hit both of you before you leave," she threatened, "and it's going to hurt twice as much as if you'd just taken it like men the first time."

Considering how many times she'd aimed to hit Ed so far this visit? He was fairly certain only getting hit once was going to be a lot less painful than if he'd 'taken it like a man'. :Come on, Winry,: he coaxed. :You can punish me by connecting the nerves with no warning.:

"I'll be staying well out of the workroom," Al decided. "Forever."

:Good choice.:

Winry shoved his shoulder with her spanner. "Funny. Move."

:We, who are about to die–: Ed started signing.

Al started laughing, even as Winry smacked Ed's hands and shoved him properly to get him moving, complaining, "Stop being so dramatic. You're not going to die. This time."

:Reassuring, thanks.:

As they left the kitchen, Ed heard Al filling in the blanks of that exchange for Satella.

Winry had shown them, the evening before, where she had her own private workroom off to the side of the house, in an area that Ed knew had been added on for her special, as it had never existed, before, and had a bedroom for her and a 'guest room', which had very clearly been furnished with Ed and Al in mind, though Winry had insisted that she had a couple friends from town who would stay overnight in there, when they were willing to make the journey out to her. Most of the reason she'd shown them the workroom, yesterday, had actually been because she'd needed their help to adjust the arrays she'd already had prepared for Ed's new leg, as well as on a couple of other pieces she'd been working on.

As soon as he got into her workroom, Ed removed his sash and trousers without her having to direct him, then hopped up onto the bed and stretched out on it.

"I forget, sometimes, that you've had automail for longer than I've been alive," she admitted quietly, as she picked up a measuring tape and came over to take measurements of his right leg.

Ed shrugged, couldn't really respond to that while she was fussing about with numbers and the tape measure. But, yeah, he was used to automail check-ups, was used to Winry being his mechanic, and knew how to anticipate her needs.

She got up and waved the paper she'd written the measurements down on. "Do you need me to redo the array on your port?"

Ed considered that, then shrugged and shook his head, sitting up so he could more easily sign, :The plating insulates it enough, it should be fine. Like I said, it was more an adjustment for minor comfort, than an actual issue that desperately needed to be addressed.:

She sighed and nodded. "I know. And, right now, you're the expert." She tapped his leg with the curled measuring tape. "Still. I don't like the idea that it might be bothering you."

:I once went up to Briggs, during the winter, with normal automail,: Ed admitted, and her eyes went wide with a sort of disbelieving horror. :I almost got frostbite. Trust me, if there's an issue, I will know, and I WILL tell you.:

Winry swallowed and shook her head. "Please tell me I beat you for being that stupid."

:You were so pissed when you came after me,: Ed promised. Though, at the time, finding them both in a cell had dulled her anger a bit. :The Briggs doctors chewed me out, too.:

"Well that's...something," Winry decided, walking over to her workbench. She stared at his new leg for a minute – Ed had picked it up yesterday and, fuck, she'd clearly already learnt some of Dominic's tricks, because it was the lightest leg she'd even made for him, though it being northern-make probably had something to do with it – before demanding, "Why would I have even let you go north with normal automail?!"

:I didn't tell you I was going,: Ed admitted, then ducked the spanner she threw at him.

"Idiot!"

Ed nodded; he really kind of had been.

She deflated a bit and asked, "Did it help, in Xing? Having the northern type? Granny said you'd asked for it because the clan you wanted to visit was in the mountains."

Ed shrugged. :I might have been able to get by with the normal sort, but I was a lot better off with the northern, yes. Especially since our fighting instructor liked to drag us out in the snow for practice.:

Winry huffed and rolled her eyes. "You fighting sorts are always crazy," she retorted, before actually setting about her adjustment work.

Ed just watched her work for a while, soothed by the familiar sounds and her steady pace, before relaxing back on the bed and looking up at the paper with a swirling design that someone – Winry or Satella, most likely – had taped onto the ceiling, probably meant to serve as a distraction for patients while they were recovering from reattachment. It certainly worked to set his thoughts on a meandering path, slipping through his mental store of arrays, some complicated arithmetic that didn't really relate to anything, hoping that May got her head out of her pride, and finally settling on his ever-malleable plans for the future threat. Which reminded him of the most recent upset to them.

Winry got up from the workbench, and Ed – knowing better than to try sitting up and annoying her – awkwardly signed above his chest, :Al wants to take the State Alchemist exam.:

"Of course he does," Winry agreed flatly.

Ed chanced a spanner to the head and sat up to frown at her. :You don't care?:

Winry sat down on the stool next to the bed and started pulling off the plating of his leg so she could get to the connection bolts. "I don't want either of you joining up," she said, and her tone was still mostly flat, but there was enough fear in there, too, that Ed didn't need to read her qi to notice it, "but I know your stupid plan hinges on having some of the privileges that State Alchemists are given, which means at least one of you has to join up. I don't like it, but I understand why. Granny and I are both resigned."

Ed frowned through her actually disconnecting his leg, unable to quite stop a grimace at the sudden lack of sensation that always came with disconnection. When she looked up at him, clearly expecting a response, he signed, :You don't have to be resigned to BOTH of us. I already know what I'm getting into, so just help me convince Al–:

"You think he's going to listen to me any better than to you?" Winry retorted.

Ed grimaced and rubbed at his face. Okay, yeah, there was that. But maybe if they double-teamed him?

"I can't believe you're making me do this," Winry complained as she got up to switch out his old leg for the new one.

Ed made an enquiring noise.

Winry huffed and tossed his old leg into a pile of scraps with a crash, making Ed wince in sympathy. "Logically," she bit out as she picked up the new leg and turned a glare on Ed, "Al is the more likely choice for the military, because he's not mute. And I know you think Bradley'll take you on anyway," she continued, before Ed could raise his hands to point that out himself, "because you're a sacrifice candidate or whatever, but you can't really bank on that. Logically, the only way to be certain that at least one of you gets in, is for both of you to take the exam. Since, you know, illogically, you're never going to let Al take it alone."

Ed...really sort of hated her for that. :I don't like your logic,: he complained.

"I will brain you with your leg if you don't lie down and shut up," Winry snapped.

Ed lay down.

"I can't believe I'm arguing logic with an alchemist," Winry muttered as she sat down on the stool again and set the new leg out on the bed. "Worse! I can't believe you just made me say that both of you joining up was better than neither of you! Why do you live to piss me off?"

Even if Ed could have easily responded to that, he knew better than to do so.

Winry continued to mutter insults and complaints as she got everything lined up, before finally stopping to warn, "I'm reconnecting the nerves." When Ed nodded in understanding, she muttered, "Shouldn't have warned you."

Then the burn of sensation shot up his leg, and Ed grit his teeth against the familiar pain. It took a bit to ease away, because Winry hadn't quite been at this long enough, yet, to have developed the quick connections she'd been able to perform by the time they'd married, but Ed wasn't about to complain about a minor extended shock to his system, not when he knew there was little she could do about it right now.

And then the pain died down and he let out a breath through his teeth.

"Idiot," Winry muttered, lightly patting his hip. "I'm done. Give it a minute to settle."

Ed didn't need to be told that twice, wincing as a minor aftershock flared up his leg. At least the reconnection had been pretty much right after the disconnection; it was those times when he had to wait days between having his automail removed and put back on when he really suffered, because his nerves had had the time to sort of...not really 'forget' what it was like to be connected, but they'd sort of fallen asleep, and it would take hours for everything to settle again.

(To be fair, his habit, as a kid, of almost immediately getting up and sparring with Al, just to prove he could, probably hadn't helped matters. Moving into Rush Valley and watching other people give their nerves time to settle had taught Ed a lot about the importance of giving his body a chance to adapt in its own time. Which had resulted in Winry threatening to brain him for being an idiot a little less often, which was nice, since they'd sort of slept in the same bed, making him an easy target.)

Ed sat up and glanced towards where Winry was roughly putting her tools away. She glanced up to glare at him, and he took the chance to mouth, 'Sorry.'

She didn't have Al's lip-reading skills, but she clearly knew that one, for she slumped slightly, looking more tired and worried than angry. "Tell me it turned out okay," she requested quietly. "Tell me you never did anything you regretted."

Ed considered that for a moment, then slowly signed, :There were people I couldn't always save, and I made mistakes, but, as a whole, I never regretted becoming a State Alchemist.:

"That wasn't what I–"

:I never did anything that compromised my morals while I was a State Alchemist,: Ed offered, because that was true. Sure, having to trust Scar with Winry's safety had been wretched, and living with the knowledge that he'd essentially led Hughes to his death had about broken him, and there had been times – like when he'd punched Tucker all to hell after what he'd done to Nina, or when he'd been willing to let Scar kill him if he'd spare Al – where he'd almost let himself make the wrong choice, but he'd held true to his principles to never kill and he'd got Al back, in the end, without hurting anyone.

Winry took a moment to assimilate that, then slowly repeated, "While you were one?"

Ed grimaced; that had been an unfortunate specification for her to snag on, but the one thing he didn't want to admit to, to her, was hardly the only time he'd completely fucked up after losing his alchemy. :Human transmutation,: he pointed out, and she winced. :Too, there was a civil war being fought on the western end of Creta, when I visited. I...didn't always help people, when I saw them, even when I could have, because I was more concerned with not getting dragged into it. I regret that.:

He sighed, then offered, :State Alchemists get a lot of flak, but it's possible to do good in that position. I did so before, and we can do it again.:

"Both of you?" Winry pressed quietly.

Ed closed his eyes and forced a smile that ached. :He's not giving me a choice.:

"You're not giving him a choice, either," Winry pointed out flatly. "You're right, you don't both need to become State Alchemists, and there's nothing saying you have to join up again."

Ed shot her a glare.

Winry rolled her eyes. "Idiot," she said as she returned to her tools. "You don't get to complain about Al being stubborn until you stop, too."

Ed huffed. Being a crabby old hypocrite was his prerogative, thanks.

Winry, probably wisely, ignored him. And, as soon as the aftershocks had mostly stopped, Ed got dressed and went to find his brother for a spar.

-0-

They stayed another day before saying their goodbyes. Winry understood – there wasn't much out there to hold their attention, and they had the groundwork of their plans to finish laying down – but she'd still been clearly saddened to see them leave, and insisted on walking them to the station, saying, "There's a couple things I need to pick up, and I was going to see about introducing you two to that alchemist."

So they left way earlier than they'd needed to and ended up making good time going down the mountain, leaving them plenty of time to stop past the alchemist in question's home.

The man who answered the door was probably in his early forties and had the most ridiculous 'I just smelt something unfortunate' expression etched across his face. "Ah, Apprentice Rockbell," he said with what was probably the most pompous, upper-class Central accent Ed had ever had the misfortune to suffer. (And he was friends with the Armstrongs.) He glanced over at Al and, yeah, his brother looked rather like he was already regretting agreeing to meet this guy. (Fucking wanna-be alchemists. Ugh.)

"Mr Hossenfeffer," Winry said with that 'I'm only pretending to be polite because I can't afford to offend you' tone that Ed had never quite managed to master, for all that he'd tried. "You were asking about the cooling array?"

"Ah, yes. Did you hear back from the person who created it at last?"

"I did," Winry agreed, before motioning behind her. "This is Edward and Alphonse Elric."

Hossenfeffer blinked a few times, glancing between Ed and Al. "But," he said, sounding so very confused, "they are just children!"

:I'm going to punch him,: Ed decided.

Al grabbed his nearest arm, while Winry snapped her fingers to ensure he was looking at her, then signed, :You will NOT. He's the only alchemist who lives in Rush Valley full time. I need him willing to work with me.:

Ed rolled his eyes. He wasn't really going to punch the pompous fuck. Probably.

"What is– What is this?" Hossenfeffer asked, waving his hands in front of himself senselessly.

Al cleared his throat. "My brother is mute, sir. He communicates with sign language."

"Oh how...unfortunate," Hossenfeffer offered, casting Ed a look that made it clear he was wondering about his mental functions, if he couldn't talk.

Al let go of Ed's arm, which was, from him, practically permission to punch the fucker. "You had questions about my brother's array, Mr Hossenfeffer?" Al asked politely, wearing his 'I can think of a dozen different ways to kill you using only my pinkie finger' smile, which Ed fucking adored. (He was nearly certain Al had stolen it from Teacher.)

Hossenfeffer cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable. "O-of course. Won't you all please come in?" he offered, stepping back and waving them in.

Hossenfeffer had manners enough, at least, to offer them all juice and biscuits, which they accepted. As he sat down, after leaving the tray of refreshments where they could reach them, he cleared his throat and offered, sounding more pompous with every word, "I am James John Hossenfeffer, the third. I come from a long line of alchemists, all of whom have been contracted by the military to work in their alchemy labs multiple times."

:Kill me now,: Ed signed, forcing his mouth to remain in an unimpressed line, rather than showing how much he wished he'd lost his hearing, instead of his ability to speak, right that moment.

:He'd probably make you clean up any blood you got on the carpet,: Al warned in return, while politely replying, "I'm afraid we don't have such a distinguished pedigree. We're just a couple of country kids who learnt alchemy from their father's books. He was, himself, a largely unknown alchemist, but he was well-travelled and picked up all sorts of scientific texts."

"I...see. And how did your brother find the...inspiration for that...interesting array?"

Al cleared his throat, his fingers flexing around his teacup. "We came across an old refrigeration array in one of our father's books. Brother had been interested in going to Xing, to study their alchemy, but he has automail, so it sort of wasn't feasible. He took the idea from that array and...modified it." He shot Ed a helpless sort of smile. "It's something he has a talent for."

Winry made a noise of agreement. "Yeah. It was a bit freaky, actually. He just sat there, staring at the book, and traced out a new array onto a piece of paper."

:It wasn't NEW,: Ed couldn't help but correct. :It had elements of the old–:

"I know you kept elements of the original," Winry said, rolling her eyes. "The point is, you didn't even look over as you drew the array. You just...did."

Al coughed. "Well, once you've drawn enough arrays, the motions just become rote and you don't really need to look to know it's coming out alright." He turned a smile on their host. "I'm sure Mr Hossenfeffer would say the same."

It was abundantly clear that Hossenfeffer could not say the same, very likely was one of those alchemists who still had to use a pair of compasses and a straightedge to get his arrays perfectly aligned. "O-of course," he agreed, smiling like he wasn't lying.

:Don't need to punch him any more,: Ed announced. :Feel free to keep politely telling him he's a waste of alchemic talent, Al.:

Al's smile turned slightly predatory. "You had questions, Mr Hossenfeffer?"

Hossenfeffer's questions turned out to be the sort that Winry easily could have answered, even before Ed and Al'd returned; clearly, he'd realised he was outclassed and wasn't dealing with a couple of dumb kids, despite appearances.

Once he'd shown them back out and closed the door behind them, Winry laughed and skipped down the front steps. "Did you two seriously just out-alchemist him?" she asked.

"I wouldn't go that far," Al tried, while Ed signed, :Al totally did.:

Al sighed while Winry laughed some more and hugged him.

Ed took a couple quick steps forward and spun to walk backwards, using his qi-sensing and Al's minute twitches of expression to let him know when he was about to walk into someone as he signed, :Oh, I am SO important because MY family is contracted by the military to add a bit more shine to their regulation boots.:

"Oh gods," Al moaned, while Winry failed miserably at hiding a grin.

:What I won't admit to, and you CHILDREN clearly don't know, is that the military contracts alchemists who aren't talented enough to be state certified, because they don't want to waste their VALUABLE STATE ALCHEMISTS to do pointless, menial transmutations. In fact,: Ed continued, putting on a sad face, while Al finally gave in and started snickering, :I'm hoping you aren't aware that it's an INSULT in some circles to be military contractors. Of course, since you're CHILDREN, there's no way you COULD know.:

"You're terrible," Al told him with a laugh.

Ed gave a low bow, dodging absently around a woman who was telling off a small child as he did so. :I'd say I'll be here all week, but...:

"But you're leaving me," Winry complained, hugging Al's arm.

"Sorry, Winry," Al offered, while Ed slowed down so he could walk on Winry's other side.

Winry sighed as she freed one hand from Al's arm and caught Ed's, too. "I know," she offered, voice pitched to stay between them. "You've got world saving to get on with. Just...call me every few months?"

Al smiled and nodded. "I can do that," he agreed. "And I can hand the phone over to Brother and let you remind him to maintain his leg."

:SPARE ME,: Ed signed, one-handed, so as not to upset Winry's hold on his arm, while she laughed.

"Well, you didn't completely destroy it in Xing," Winry allowed, squeezing Ed's arm and shifting her grip, so he could sign without upsetting her, "so I suppose I can spare you the lectures."

Ed rolled his eyes. :As soon as the military forks over some money, I'll pay you and Granny back.:

Winry frowned. "Ed, you don't–"

:Don't tell me what I can and can't do with my own money.:

"We know the materials for northern automail aren't cheap to come by," Al offered quietly. "Maybe up north, where it's needed, but not so much down here, and especially not out in Resembool. Granny wouldn't let Brother discuss payment with her, but we can't just let you two do the work for free."

Winry huffed and shook her head, dragging all of them to a stop in the middle of the road. "Look," she hissed, glaring between them. "You two are family. That means discounts."

:Discounts, fine, but not–:

Winry smacked Ed's hands. "Shut up, I'm not done." She narrowed her eyes on him and he held up his hands in surrender. "You know more about the south than either of us, probably; it gets hot down here during the summer, okay? And you're right about the material for northern automail not really being cost effective to use a lot of down here. That array you made? That's helping a lot of people, and I'm the only mechanic in the whole country who has the original copy, which means people come searching me out for it, even though we're up in the mountains and no one wants to deal with Master Dominic. Garfiel lets me come into town and take over his workshop once a day every other week, for a small fee, so I can add the array to people's current automail, without them needing to switch mechanics or come out and annoy Master Dominic. And Mr Hossenfeffer, as annoying as he is, pays me a commission for sending people to him, which is more than enough to cover borrowing Garfiel's workshop.

"I haven't even been an apprentice for two years, but I'm already making more money in a month, than most start-up mechanics make in a year. And that's because of your stupid-arse array." She shoved a finger against Ed's chest while he stared at her; he'd expected she'd get some interest, sure, but he knew the figures she was talking about, could make a pretty good guess as to how much she was charging for each array, and that was a lot of customers, way more than he could have ever figured. "That array has more than paid for your automail, Ed, even the tune-up. If you start doing crazy shit and breaking it on a regular basis or something, then we'll talk what you might owe me. But honestly, right now? Unless people suddenly stop asking for that array, or everyone else in Rush Valley finds a way to copy it and starts offering it, I'm not taking any money from you."

And then, proving that qi-sense wasn't fool-proof, she let go of both Ed and Al and hit them with spanners that she pulled from...Ed had no idea. He hadn't thought that dress had pockets.

"Idiots."

Al cleared his throat and, rubbing his head with a wince, offered, "Sorry, Winry. We just don't like the idea of skimping you, not when you're such an awesome mechanic."

"Flattery's not going to save you," Winry warned, though she looked slightly mollified.

Ed swallowed and admitted, :I didn't realise the array would be that popular. If you want to consider that my payment, okay. But–: he put on a hard look :–in return, if you've got any new automail tricks you need a tester for, you have to use me. Not weapons, I don't want them, but I know how to put automail through its paces, and if something's going to break, Al will be there to help me back. Deal?:

Winry made an uncertain face, like she really wanted to refuse, but she knew he'd just find some new angle. "Okay," she finally agreed. "If I come up with anything new that can be tested with a leg, I'll let Al know when he calls me, and you can come out here. But!" she added when Ed grinned, victorious. "If you break the test automail, you're not paying for it."

"How did I get involved in this discussion?" Al muttered, rubbing at his face. "Only you two would think trying to break stuff was a form of payment."

Ed and Winry glanced at each other. She sucked her lips in between her teeth, in an attempt to hide her grin, and Ed responded by raising both eyebrows at her, which got her giggling, and then he started laughing and they had to lean on each other to catch their breaths.

:Okay,: Ed agreed once he could. :I'll only try to pay you when I break something while doing something stupid in the field. Everything else we're calling square, unless something changes for you. Deal?: He held out his hand.

"Deal," she agreed, and they shook on it.

"Oh, good," Al said. "Can we go and try to catch our train, now?"

Winry glanced at a nearby clock and winced. "Whoops. Yeah, let's go. This way."

At the station, she pulled them both into a hug. "Both of you be careful, okay? And good luck with the exam!"

"We will, and thanks!" Al replied.

:You be careful, too,: Ed ordered, couldn't quite manage a smile. :If you need to go to ground, don't worry about us, just go.:

"I know," Winry whispered, sorrow in her eyes. And Ed kind of hated that he'd had her and Al both living under the shadow of this threat for three years, now, but he didn't have it within himself to stand back and watch them get hurt, all unknowing.

He hugged her tight, then turned and, catching Al's arm, dragged him into the station so they could get tickets. Which, okay, maybe it had been the armour, or maybe it was his own current disability, because this station manager charged them less than Ed knew it should have cost for tickets to Dublith, just like the one in Youswell had done for their tickets to Rush Valley.

:Brother?: Al signed as they joined the waiting crowd on the platform.

:Just thinking about our funds,: Ed offered.

Al frowned. :Will we have enough to get to East City?:

:We should. Not for a hotel, but we can see if Führer Bastard or any of his team are willing to put us up.: He shrugged in response to Al's worried look. :We'll figure it out.:

:We could have asked Winry for some money?:

:Did you just miss that argument?:

Al huffed. :BORROWING isn't the same as OWING, Brother.:

Ed rolled his eyes. :With my luck, she'll decide she owes me for making the damn array in the first place.:

:And testing it. And tweaking it for use in the cold.:

:If you'd rather walk, I'm happy to save the money on your ticket.:

:You're cruel,: Al signed, grinning widely; they both knew Ed would never take the train while Al had to walk.

Ed just rolled his eyes and shoved his brother forward as the train doors slid open to admit the crowd of passengers.

-0-

When they got off at Dublith, Al made a point of walking behind Ed toward the Curtis meat shop, which Ed tried really hard not to laugh at, and managed to keep it to sporadic snickers, which Al huffed at, but didn't hit him for, which was telling in its own way. (Not that Ed wasn't nervous, himself, but he'd done this reunion before, and he wasn't a well-known State Alchemist, yet, so she wouldn't know to be angry at them right from the start.)

He pushed the way into the shop after only a brief hesitation. Sig was standing behind the counter, his usual stern expression on, but...

:Is it just me–: he signed to Al, while Sig blinked in what Ed knew was surprise.

"His qi is really calm," Al whispered, sounding a little disturbed.

Calm, with a hint of genuine pleasure, apparently, as Sig asked, "Ed and Al?"

"Y-yes, sir," Al agreed a bit uncertainly. "We came to see Teacher."

Sig nodded, then glanced towards the doorway leading into the back of the shop and called, "Izumi! The Elric boys are here."

"Ed and Al?" Teacher asked, before appearing in the doorway. Her eyes caught on them and she smiled. "You two sure have grown."

Al swallowed. "I guess. It's good to see you again, Teacher."

"Come around back," she offered, motioning for them to come around the counter to the back room.

Al shot Ed an uncertain look and, sighing, Ed took the lead again, signing, :Pathetic,: over one shoulder.

"Shut up, Brother," Al muttered, following after him.

"So, what brings you two back to Dublith?" Teacher asked, motioning them toward a table covered in meat bones and a couple knives in need of sharpening.

Al looked at Ed again, and he rolled his eyes as he signed, :Tell her we wanted to ask about Truth.: And then he glanced over and found Teacher watching them with a slightly worried frown.

Al cleared his throat. "We wanted to ask you about...Truth."

She looked between them, and Ed knew what she'd see: Al obviously nervous, and Ed refusing to talk. She'd said, last time, that she'd noticed his steps were uneven; would she notice the same thing this time, or was Winry's ridiculously light automail making it harder to spot the difference?

"The truth about what?" she replied at last, flatly.

Ed picked up one of the knives on the table and, not looking away from her, clapped his hands, immediately sharpening it.

"Brother," Al hissed.

Teacher's eyes had gone wide, though, all too aware, and her qi churned with grief and anger aimed at both herself, and something out of reach. "You saw it," she said.

Ed set the knife back down and nodded.

"That's why you're not talking."

Ed nodded again, grimly, then caught his left trouser leg under his sash and pulled it up enough to reveal the automail.

Teacher closed her eyes briefly, before turning to his brother. "Al?"

Swallowing and ducking his head, Al admitted, "We both did. But I–" He shot Ed a frown, then looked up at Teacher with a tired expression. "Brother says he paid my toll."

Teacher looked between them for a moment, her jaw tense, then called, "Sig, we're going to the house!" and motioned for them both to follow her as he called back an acknowledgement.

Trading looks, Ed and Al resettled their bags and followed her, Al very obviously keeping Ed between himself and their teacher. Which, okay, Ed sort of understood, because they were fair game outside, but she only threw things at them while they were inside. As long as they kept her away from knives, they should be okay. And, even then, they could catch knives. Usually. When they threw them to each other with the intent that the other would catch it.

...nope. They were doomed.

Inside, she made them put their bags in the room they'd shared last time, then met them at the table with drinks. "Tell me everything," she ordered, once they'd both sat.

Al glanced at Ed, who sighed and signed, :Tell her about transmuting Mum,: before pulling his journal and pen out if his sash, so he could write out the important parts of the rest of it; just like Al and Winry, she deserved to know what the Dwarf in the Flask had waiting for them.

Al took a drink, swallowed, and then started talking, telling her, at last, the real reason that they'd been so desperate for an alchemy teacher, and what had come of it.

Ed jerked his head up, unable to keep from paying attention when Al said, "–a white...everything. I don't know. Except there was a stone gate and this sort of shadowed white figure, who was sitting there. It...introduced itself as the world and truth and all and one. And then it said it was me and the Gate opened behind me and I–" He shook his head. "There was so much knowledge, a lot of it useless, but I guess I learnt some things." He looked down at his hands, carefully folded them together and didn't look back up. "At the end, I saw– there was this figure, and I thought it was Mum, so I reached for it, but it wasn't. It was me and I was...I was grinning, like I'd won something and–"

He took a shuddering breath, then looked over at Ed, catching his eyes. "I think, for a moment, that I saw you, there. There was another Gate, and that shadowed white figure was–"

Slowly, when Al didn't continue, Ed reached up and wrapped his hand around his own throat.

Al squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. "And then I woke up in Dad's study, next to the array, and there was blood everywhere and Brother–"

Ed dropped his pen and grabbed Al's shoulder; dammit. Dammit.

Al covered Ed's hand with his own and squeezed it, then looked up at Teacher, who was watching them with sad eyes. "Brother had taken what we'd transmuted outside and buried it. And it...it took me a little bit, but I did finally realise that something was really, really wrong. That Brother couldn't speak, and his leg was gone. He wrote a note, told me we had to get to Granny's, so she could help."

Ed squeezed Al's shoulder, then withdrew his hand to write the last of his note for Teacher.

"Brother," Al called after a long moment of writing.

Ed blinked up at him, found Al watching him with an uncertain look, while Teacher frowned between them. He tilted his head at his brother in silent enquiry.

"I told her about the lieutenant colonel's offer," Al explained.

:Did you tell her that you can't transmute the dead?:

Al bit his lip and shook his head.

:She needs to hear that as much as we did.:

Al turned widening eyes on Teacher, which just made her narrow her eyes in response. "Teacher," he said, "you...did it...too?"

Teacher turned a startled gaze on Ed, then she slumped slightly and, pressing a hand to her stomach, admitted, "Yes. It took some of my insides."

Ed nodded, then hit Al. :TELL HER.:

"Sorry," Al whispered, before speaking up to say, "Brother says that what we transmuted wasn't Mum." Teacher's eyes went wide and she looked at Ed, who met her shock with a hard stare. "He said that you can't transmute the dead. Once the soul's passed through the Gate, it's beyond our reach."

"You're certain?" Teacher asked, too near to a plea.

Ed felt his expression softening without his permission and he nodded, then ripped out the necessary pages of his journal and passed them across the table to her. And then he quickly wrote one last note – 'You did a genetics test before. It wasn't your baby' – and tore that out, too, but held it for when she'd finished reading everything else, while his journal and pen went back into his sash.

Al peeked over his shoulder, so Ed turned the note for him to see. :Her baby?: Al signed, looking sad.

Ed nodded. And then, as it occurred to him, signed, :If she expels us again, that just makes us all peers, not teacher and students, so we don't have to leave.:

Al's forehead thunked against his shoulder.

When Teacher looked back up at him, she was pale. "This is a lot to take in," she said flatly.

Ed nodded and nudged Al, then signed, :Tell her she can take what time she needs, and I don't care if she tells Sig or Mason. We'd appreciate it if she'd put us up, though.:

Teacher shook her head after Al finished. "Of course you can stay. I'm hardly about to kick you out now."

Ed snorted and stood. He motioned between himself and Al, then toward their usual bedroom.

"Fine."

Ed nodded and slipped the note about her child across the table for her, then led his brother back to their room.

"Brother?" Al asked quietly, once they'd closed the door on what might well have been relieved sobs.

Ed glanced over at him.

Al hesitated for a moment, glanced at the door, then signed, :How much did you tell her?:

Ed sighed and dropped onto the bed he'd always used. :That I have memories from the future, and about the Dwarf in the Flask and the homunculi, who they are, what they're planning. What they need us for.:

:Not about us joining the military?:

Ed snorted. :What, and have her kill us right there? I'm not suicidal.:

"Sometimes," Al muttered, "I have to wonder about that."

:Shut up,: Ed ordered, rolling his eyes.

Al shot him a smirk, then lay back to test the length of the bed, grimacing when he found it too short. He got up and clapped, then transmuted it to be a little longer, but thinner.

Ed watched him lie back down, couldn't help but smile at the expression he made upon finding how much more uncomfortable it was being too thin; he'd done that, too, when they'd returned to Teacher's house, before. He'd ended up stealing Al's mattress, since he wouldn't be using it, and transmuted them into one mattress. Which, well, he couldn't do that this time, but he'd make do; he'd slept in far less comfortable places. Recently, even, given it had only been two weeks since they'd crossed the Great Desert.

He snapped his fingers before Al could decide to try transmuting the mattress back, and, once his brother had looked over, signed, :I'm sorry. I didn't know you remembered me being in that place.:

Al shifted on his mattress, grimacing. :I didn't, right away. My memories came back in pieces.:

Ed nodded. :That happened last time, too.:

Al considered that for a moment, then frowned at Ed. :When I saw you, you were...coming back for me?:

:Yes.:

Al's frown seemed to deepen. :My body,: he signed slowly, :and my soul.:

Ed's stomach started to churn; he didn't like where this was going.

:You traded your voice.:

Ed gave a cautious nod.

:That's not equivalent.:

Ed forced a smile. :Who are we to decide what is and isn't–:

"You're lying," Al realised.

Ed tightened his hands into fists and dropped them into his lap.

"What did you do?" Al asked, and there was something haunted in his voice. "What are you hiding from me this time?"

Ed shook his head, couldn't get his hands to behave, so he mouthed, 'Don't.'

Al jumped to his feet and shouted, "I have a right to know what you traded for my life, Edward!"

Ed stared up into his brother's eyes. There was anger in them, but also hurt, and Ed couldn't– He squeezed his eyes shut and mouthed, 'Philosopher's Stone.'

He flinched when their room door slammed behind Al as he stormed out.

.

Chapter Text

Someone knocked on the bedroom door about two hours after Al stormed out. Ed had, in the intervening time, dragged his mattress over to Al's and transmuted them together, then took his pillow and blanket and curled up in the corner where his bed had been to stare at the wall.

The door creaked open when he didn't respond. "Ed?" Teacher called.

Ed pulled his blanket over his head; he knew it was ridiculously childish, but he just wanted to fucking wallow for the rest of the night, okay? Stupid Al. He always pushed and pulled and found a way to get Ed to tell him the worst of his sins.

Teacher sighed and walked over, her sandals snapping against the floor with each step. She came to a stop behind him, was still for a second, then smacked the back of his head hard enough that he slammed his forehead into the wall.

Ed threw back the blanket and turned to glare up at her while he rubbed his forehead.

She glared right back. "Why did your brother storm out?"

Ed shrugged and turned back towards the wall.

Teacher grabbed his ponytail and pulled on it until he scrambled to his feet, eyes watering with pain. "Why," she said, tapping her foot loudly on the floor, while Ed pulled out his hair tie and rubbed at his aching head, "did Al storm out?"

Ed carefully put his hair back up in a much looser ponytail, then pulled out his journal and pen and wrote, 'I told him something he didn't want to hear'

"Which was?" Teacher demanded, and it was clear from her tone that she was as willing as Al had been to let this drop. "What you traded for his life?"

Oh, wonderful. She'd heard that part.

Ed grit his teeth, then wrote, 'I used a Philosopher's Stone to get him back from that place. Philosopher's Stones are made of people's souls'

Teacher took a moment to read that, then reached out to smack him again.

Ed dodged her. 'What else was I supposed to do?!' he mouthed angrily. 'He went through HELL last time!'

He didn't know how much, if any, of that she got, as her response was, "Idiot apprentice! Did you learn nothing from me?"

He scowled at her.

Teacher turned to the side and pointed towards the open bedroom door. "Go find your brother!"

Ed shook his head; no way he was going after Al when his brother probably didn't even want to look at him.

"Do you want dinner?" Teacher snapped, shoving her finger towards the door again.

Dinner? Ed wasn't particularly hungry, but Al might be. But Ed didn't need to face his brother to pass on the message.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, forcing himself to ignore Teacher's prickly qi next to him, Ed cast out for his brother's energy, found him in the general direction of the lake. Ed took another deep breath, then clapped his hands together and sent his transmutation down the line of the Dragon's Pulse that winded between them, forming a message in the ground next to his brother.

When he opened his eyes, he found Teacher frowning at his joined hands uncertainly. From experience with Al, he knew it looked pretty weird to see one of them performing distance alkahestry, since their arrays were internal. So long as a part of their body was in contact with the ground – or something through which the Dragon's Pulse could easily course, like water, or a tree, or (probably) a house – they could just stand still and clap. The energy would spark around their hands for a moment, then vanish to transmute wherever they'd sent it.

Speaking of, the floor at Ed's feet sparked and raised up slightly to form the words, 'NOT HUNGRY'.

Ed very firmly pointed to them, as though Teacher was likely to have missed their appearance.

Teacher blinked a few times, then shook her head and tried to smack him again, which he twisted around her to dodge. "Go–" she shouted, aiming for him again, and he dodged again "–find–" another hit aimed and dodged, straight out the bedroom door; shit "–your–" a kick this time.

Ed decided the better part of valour was running from the house.

He had about half a minute to stand in the side garden, before the door was pulled open behind him and Teacher shouted, "Now, Edward!"

Ed slumped and made his way to Kauroy Lake.

He found Al curled up at the end of the dock, looking miserable. He didn't look up, but from the way his qi had turned particularly prickly before Ed had made it to the land-side of the dock, it was clear his brother knew he was there.

"Go away," he muttered when Ed stopped next to him.

Ed crossed his arms over his chest and stared out over the lake; no way he was going back to Teacher empty-handed. Maybe, if he irritated Al enough by not moving–

Al rammed his body into Ed's legs, and he lost his balance and tumbled over to fall into the lake.

He'd waterproofed his journal after one too many rainstorms, so he wasn't worried about that – and, yes, that was his first concern, shut up – but his leg was metal, and while it was lighter than most, it and his kunai were weighing him down. He made one desperate grab for the dock, missed, and sank under the water.

Ed's mind went completely blank – Seriously?! This was how he was going to die?! – and all he could do was stare up past the water, towards the evening sky.

...perhaps this was his due, for everything. For Mustang and using those Stones to save Al, despite their promise, before. People knew what was coming, now; they could save themselves without him fucking everything up. Right?

The water churned around him in a rush, and then an arm was pulling at him, trying to bring them both back up towards the sky. They broke through for a moment, and Al gasped out, "Alkahestry!" before they went under again.

Ed's mind slammed into survival mode, at last, and supplied him with a water array that would essentially force them towards the shore, so he shoved his hands together and activated the array.

The water pushed them up and onto the shore, kindly pushing them slightly diagonally, so they wouldn't run into any boats or the extension of the dock, and they both took a moment to cough out lake water, once the water had receded to lap around their legs.

"Sorry," Al whispered, his head ducked forward so Ed couldn't see his expression in the light from the lanterns by the stairs up to the street. "I forgot about your leg."

Ed flopped back onto the sand and closed his eyes, feeling...listless. Near-death experiences were hardly new, but they at least usually left him feeling angry or desperate or something. Happy to be alive, at least.

"Brother?" Al asked, concern in his voice.

Ed sighed and forced himself to sit up, to turn and face his brother. :You know the armour in the study?: he signed.

Al's brow furrowed in confusion, but he nodded.

:Last time,: Ed admitted, since Al already knew the worst of it, :I traded my right arm for your soul and attached it to the armour. You couldn't eat or sleep, and the armour started rejecting your soul, by the Promised Day. I...couldn't do that again. To you.:

Al swallowed and sat up himself, curling around his knees. "But you...got me back? In the end?"

Ed nodded. :I traded my ability to do alchemy.:

Al looked like he'd been smacked. "You what? How could you give up your alchemy?"

Ed met his brother's wide stare and mouthed, 'You were more important.' Then he swallowed and looked away, blindly signed, :I would have again, but I'd have no chance against the–:

Al slammed into him, hugging him tight, even as they both fell back against the beach. "Stupid brother," he said with a sob, and Ed suspected his shirt would have been getting wet where Al had pressed his face against his shoulder, if it hadn't already been completely soaked. "Moron," Al continued as Ed, with some uncertainty, wrapped his arms back around his brother, "idiot, complete and utter–" He choked off the rest of that and tightened his hold on Ed. "Self-sacrificing idiot."

Ed closed his eyes and tightened his arms around Al.

He didn't know how long they lay like that, before Al finally pulled away and sat up, rubbing roughly at his eyes.

Ed sighed and touched his brother's shoulder, signing, :Teacher made me come look for you,: as soon as Al looked over at him.

Al quirked a tired smile at him. "You made another cave to hide in, didn't you?"

Ed grimaced and shrugged, which was as good as admitting that was true, then shoved himself to his feet and held down a hand to help his brother up.

Once he'd stood, Al groaned and dusted at his rear. "Sand."

Ed snorted; his brother had developed, during their trip back to Amestris, the unenviable talent of ending up with sand inside his clothing while he slept, no matter what they'd transmuted to cover the ground, or even how much of the ground they'd transmuted into stone. :Come on. You can wash it out in the shower.:

Al waited until they'd got to the street before asking, "Where did you get it? The Stone."

Ed swallowed and pointed down.

Al's steps stuttered and stopped.

Ed turned back towards him, found Al staring down at the ground with a broken expression, and stepped forward to lightly touch his chest. When Al looked up at him, Ed signed, :I don't know if it means anything to them, now, but I asked for their help, first.: He sighed, then added, a bit helplessly, :A State Alchemist who made a Philosopher's Stone under the homunculi's direction once asked me if it was better to use them for something good, like saving a life, or to leave them to suffer until someone far less kind pulled them out to be used in war.:

Al shook his head. "Suffer?"

Had he told his brother that part? That being turned into a Stone was, reportedly, constant agony? :When the Dwarf in the Flask succeeded, before that bastard's array activated and reversed it, everyone who got caught up in the transmutation said it had been like existing in a sea of agony.:

Al stared at him for a beat, then looked back down towards the ground for a moment, before looking back at Ed. "Okay," he said quietly, then clenched a fist and touched it to his chest. "I think...I can accept that. That, in exchange for letting me live, they were set free." He held his fist out towards Ed, his expression set. "They're our people, our clan; it's our duty to set them free, just as much as it is to keep Amestris safe. Let's do both."

Ed pressed his fist hard against Al's and mouthed, 'We will. We're going to save them all.'

Al shot him a fierce grin, and Ed felt one stretching across his face in return.

And, somehow, Ed still hadn't lost his brother.

-0-

Teacher was so not impressed when they came back wet and covered in sand, and she ordered them both to go shower. Ed made Al go first, since he knew how his brother felt about sand.

When he finally made it out to the table, everyone else had already served themselves, and he sighed as he sat down and followed suit. He'd just taken his second bite, when Al let out a whistle to catch his attention, then signed, :Why is your mattress missing?:

:It grew legs.:

:Brother.:

:Walked right out the front door.:

"Brother," Al stressed out loud.

"What are you two whispering about?" Teacher asked, looking between them a bit suspiciously.

:Can't actually whisper,: Ed signed, mostly because he could get away with talking back.

Al rolled his eyes. "Brother's trying to tell me his mattress walked out the front door."

Mason laughed.

Ed let out his best, loudest sigh. :Okay, fine. My mattress and your mattress fuc–:

"No!" Al shouted, reaching over and smacking his hands part way through that sign. "Not at the table. Are you incapable of manners?"

Ed just grinned while Mason laughed harder and Teacher snorted.

Al groaned and covered his face. "I cannot possibly be related to you," he moaned, before very obviously refusing to look at Ed for a while.

They managed to finish dinner without any more drama, but it also lacked the back-and-forth, generally good-natured sniping that Ed usually associated with meals at the Curtis' house, especially when Mason was in attendance. Which, well, he had a pretty good guess as to why, and when he and Al rose to start ferrying the dishes to the kitchen, Teacher reached out to catch Al's arm, while Mason caught Ed's. "Sit," Teacher ordered.

Ed and Al traded looks, then did so, Ed relaxing back in his chair, while Al sat tensely.

"I told both Sig and Mason," Teacher said flatly. "Sick or not, you can't expect me to just sit this out."

"I don't think that was ever the intention," Al offered, glancing at Ed, who shrugged. "If Brother had really been determined to keep you out of things, he'd never have agreed to visiting."

Ed leant forward and touched Al's shoulder, bringing him to look at him. :That said, she's as much a liability as she is a help, right now.:

"What do you mean, 'right now'?" Teacher asked with a frown, once Al had finished translating that.

Ed shrugged. :The bastard refined Xingan healing alkahestry and is a Philosopher's Stone.:

"Wait, Dad can help her?" Al realised.

:He did last time.:

"Your father?" Teacher asked.

Al shook his head. "Brother, could we do it? If it's just alkahestry–"

:I don't know, Al, I wasn't there,: Ed signed, shaking his head. :I only know what Teacher told me after: He said something about it being Xingan alchemy, then told her he was a Philosopher's Stone. Do you really want to chance hurting her?:

Al winced and shook his head. "No." He sighed and turned back to Teacher. "Our father, Van Hohenheim–"

"Hohenheim?" Teacher repeated, blinking. "I met him before, once. I had no idea he was your boys' father."

Al nodded. "He's a Philosopher's Stone–" Teacher stiffened and shot a look at Ed "–according to Brother, and helped develop Xingan healing alkahestry – alchemy – so he was able to do something last time, I guess. Brother doesn't know the exact details, so we have no way of knowing if the Stone was a necessary part of what he did."

Teacher looked between them. More specifically, she looked between their sashes, which they'd both cleaned and dried with alchemy, rather than going without. "Xing," she said. "That's where those are from, isn't it?"

Al nodded. "We spent the last two years there."

"Why?" Mason asked. "I know you said something about healing alchemy, but..." He shrugged.

Al frowned and rubbed at his nose. "I don't know how easily a non-alchemist can understand this," he offered, and Mason put on a knowing smile, "but Amestrisan alchemy and Xingan alkahestry use different energy sources. The Dwarf in the Flask has a way to disrupt Amestrisan alchemy, and while Brother knows of someone with access to an array that can counteract that ability, since we had the time, we decided to learn Xingan alchemy, which he can't affect."

"Disrupt how?" Teacher asked.

Al turned to Ed. "Shut it off?"

Ed nodded, while Teacher cursed and both Sig and Mason frowned. :The Philosopher's Stones can block our access,: he reminded Al, pointing to the floor.

Al's expression twisted with something very like heartbreak as he turned back to Teacher. "There's a layer of...energy, I guess, between us and the tectonic movements," he explained, clearly not quite willing to explain there were Stones under their feet, which Ed fully understood. "When he wants to, the Dwarf in the Flask can turn that energy into an impassable barrier."

"And then there's nothing to draw on to power our alchemy," Teacher said grimly. "What about your Xingan source?"

"They call it the Dragon's Pulse. It runs closer to the surface, above the energy barrier, so he doesn't have any control over it." Al shook his head. "I'd offer to teach you, but it took me almost seven months to figure out, and Brother was at it for a whole year."

Ed huffed.

"I take it you're not intending to stay," Teacher said.

Al shook his head, then shot Ed an uncertain look.

Ed grimaced and nodded; they may as well get this part out of the way now.

Al winced, then admitted, "There's a couple of things that are easier to do with a military licence."

Teacher's expression went flat. "You're going to become dogs."

Ed leant forward and met her stare, giving a firm nod.

Teacher stared at him for a long moment, while Al shifted uncertainly in his seat, and Mason nervously cleared his throat.

And then Teacher sat back. "You joined them before," she guessed.

Ed nodded and signed, :For a little over three years,: for Al to translate. :I know what I'm signing up for better than you do, probably.:

Teacher turned a hard stare on Al once he'd translated that, and Ed glanced over to find his brother sitting up straight under her gaze. "And you, Alphonse?"

"I'm tired of people trying to talk me out of this," Al retorted flatly.

Ed just sighed and rubbed at his face.

"You're both expelled," Teacher informed them coolly.

"Does that mean we don't have to do the dishes?" Al asked brightly. "Because I'm good with just going to bed–"

"Get in the kitchen," Teacher ordered with a scowl.

Al hurried ahead with his armful of dishes – it was even odds if he wanted to avoid Teacher's wrath, or snicker to himself out of view – while Ed moved a little slower to collect the pieces Al had missed.

"Ed," Teacher said, and he raised an eyebrow at her, "watch him. You're the only person who can stop him from making the wrong choices."

Ed put on a tired smile that communicated, he hoped, just how aware he was of that particular weight on his shoulders, then grabbed the last fork and went to join his brother in the kitchen.

Somehow, miraculously, when they returned to their room to sleep for the night, a new mattress that was big enough for him had appeared in the corner where Ed's bed usually was, made up with the pillow and blanket he'd curled up with earlier. He gave everything a suspicious once-over while Al snickered at his paranoia, before they both turned in for the night.

-0-

Surprising neither brother, Teacher woke them with the dawn and dragged them outside to 'beat some sense' into them. By her expression, she had assumed Ed's dodging the day before to have been a fluke, but both Ed and Al were plenty able to use the signals she was unknowingly giving off via her qi to dodge her strikes. In fact, the only blows she landed were the ones she delivered to both of them when they came to check on her after she'd vomited blood again.

Mason and Sig showed up shortly after they'd managed to get Teacher to sit down and rest, and Mason said, "So I guess Ed's way better, by now, but have you got any new tricks, Al?"

Al blinked. "One or two," he agreed, while signing awkwardly behind his back to Ed, :Water effect?:

Ed smirked and leant back against the wall as Al made a big show of setting one of his kunai in the middle of the ground. When Al casually glanced towards him, he nodded, and Al flashed him a smirk in response, before wiping his expression clear as he turned back towards his audience.

"Okay," Al said as he took three large steps to one side, opposite Ed. "One of the things you can do with Xingan alkahestry, is distance transmutations."

Teacher straightened slightly, looking interested.

"It requires access to the Dragon's Pulse, of course, and also an object that you've carried on your person for a while." He motioned towards the innocent kunai. "Our clan uses these knives, since you can toss them at a surface and they'll stick, but your focus can be pretty much anything." He took a deep breath and turned to face the kunai with a deep look of concentration that, Ed knew, was all for show. And then Al clapped his hands together and closed his eyes.

A stone horse with its head thrown back and mouth open started taking shape, expectedly slow, and Ed waited until the head was mostly finished, before subtly pressing his own hands together and drawing water up through the horse and out its mouth. Just a trickle, at first, growing stronger and arcing a little higher as more of the horse was completed. When Al finally opened his eyes, Ed manipulated the water spout curving out of the horse's mouth to twirl up above it and turn into mist, catching the weak morning sunlight and sparkling.

Mason clapped, clearly awed, while Sig nodded in approval.

Teacher said, "That is quite impressive."

Al rubbed at the back of his head, grinning, and admitted, "Brother helped."

With that permission, Ed manipulated the water to give the horse fangs, horns, and bat wings.

Al groaned while Mason let out a startled laugh. "Brother. At least pretend you have taste."

Ed snorted and carefully directed the water back into the ground before ending the transmutation. :Taste,: he informed his brother, :is overrated.:

Al rolled his eyes and stepped forward to collect his kunai and return his horse to the ground.

"Ed," Teacher called, and he and Al both looked at her. "How much control did you have over that water?"

Ed shrugged and signed, :Total,: for Al to translate.

"It's an Aerugonian array, translated for use with alkahestry," Al added as he clapped and his horse vanished back into the ground far quicker than it had been formed. "Brother says they're a little obsessed with water-based alchemy down there, but since they use the same energy source as Amestrisan alchemy, they're way more limited than Brother is." He huffed and shot Ed an amused look. "Really, no one is quite as good with water arrays as Brother; I can't do half his tricks, no matter what energy I use."

Ed shrugged. He didn't know where his water affinity had come from, honestly, but a part of him – which he preferred to keep shoved in a tightly locked box – wondered if it wasn't an attempt to have something in common with Mustang; most Amestrisan alchemists focussed on earth, if they focussed on any element, but Mustang had focussed on fire, so if Ed had his focus in water–

"That will certainly interest the military," Teacher pointed out, saving Ed from his thoughts.

He shook his head. :I have no intention in letting them know how good I am,: he signed, and Al translated it with a frown. :Just having seen 'that' should be enough to have Bradley accepting me, and the less they know we can do, the less we'll be watched.:

Al considered that for a moment, leaving off his translation. "Play down our knowledge?"

Ed nodded.

"Then, no distance alkahestry?"

:Do whatever you want, but keep it simple,: Ed returned. :Let your transmutations be slow, so they think there's still room for improvement, but not so slow that they think you're crap.:

Al rubbed at his face, then tossed Ed a pleading look. "Can you help me figure out what to do? I don't know where the middle ground is in my abilities. But you..."

:I do,: Ed admitted, giving his brother a considering look. He could screw him up, here and now. Give him an idea that would make the exam proctors turn him down, no matter what Bradley thinks. He could keep his brother out of the military entirely.

(He couldn't.)

He bit back a sigh. :Let's settle on what you want to do, first,: he suggested.

Al winced and nodded, dropping to the ground for what was clearly going to be a lengthy discussion. "Sorry," he offered to the three adults, while Ed came over to join him. "It looks like we're going to be debating exam possibilities for a while."

"We need to open the shop, anyway," Sig pointed out, "and Izumi should rest."

"I'll go open up, Boss," Mason promised before hurrying around to the shop's side door, leaving Sig to help Teacher inside.

Al turned to Ed. :What did you do for your exam?:

Ed tilted his head to the side and smirked. :I transmuted a staff from the ground and ran at Bradley with it.:

"Edward!" Al shouted, horrified.

Ed laughed and shook his head. :Him and Führer Bastard were the only two people who didn't freak out. Bradley just drew his sword and cut off the top of my spear, but he said he liked my guts.: He shrugged. :He's hardly going to die from one attack, so he acts like he has a great sense of humour and everything's a joke.:

Al groaned and slumped. :I'm not attacking our current Führer, homunculus or no.:

:I would have suggested against it, actually,: Ed agreed.

Al's expression turned suspicious. :You're not intending to do it again, are you?:

Ed smiled and shook his head. :No. I have a something else in mind. Something to tweak some very specific noses, without getting guns aimed at me.:

Al frowned at him for a moment, then gave an uncertain nod. :Okay. I guess.:

:But for YOU...: Ed leant forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, which made signing a little awkward, but he was used to signing in awkward positions, after two years living with people who didn't really do chairs. :Whatever you do, your code name will be based on it, so I'd suggest picking something you wouldn't mind being known for for the rest of your life.:

:State Alchemists get code names?: Al asked, clearly curious. But, then, Ed hadn't known about that either, before he'd received his.

:Remember when Führer Bastard introduced himself?: Ed prodded. :He called himself the 'Flame Alchemist'.:

"Oh." Al nodded, then gave Ed an interested look. :What was yours?:

Rather than trying to find a way to sign it, Ed pulled out a kunai and scratched 'Fullmetal' in the ground between them, upside down to him, so his brother could read it.

"Fullmetal," Al murmured. :Think you'll get it again?:

Ed couldn't stop a laugh at that, was glad his muteness meant no one could tell how bitter it was. :That me had an automail arm and attacked the Führer during his exam,: he pointed out. :He was careless and stupid and he cared more about finding a Philosopher's Stone than helping other people.: He used his hand to erase his old name, the one that Mustang had never quite stopped using, not even that night they'd shared a bed. :I'm not that boy any more, and I'll be happy if that name never makes a reappearance.:

Al watched him, coming to fuck only knew what conclusions, before shrugging and looking down at the space where Ed had written out his second name. :Okay,: he signed. :So, something I wouldn't mind having associated with me for the rest of my life.: He tilted his head to one side. :Cretan healing array?:

Ed blinked at that, interested. :Huh. That would get their interest, and it's weak enough to pass muster, so long as you actually use the tectonic movements and not the Dragon's Pulse.:

Al grimaced. :Yeah, that'll be the trick, won't it?:

Ed gave the kunai he'd used to write his name a quick twirl, then used it to break the skin of his left palm.

"Brother!" Al complained.

Ed caught his hands before he could clap them together. 'Cretan healing,' he mouthed sternly, before letting go and holding out his hand.

"You are not cutting yourself until I get this perfect," Al muttered as he clapped his hands together.

The light was green for a moment, before flickering and turning to blue, proving that Al had ended up defaulting to the Dragon's Pulse.

Ed sighed and, once the cut had finished closing, signed, :If hurting me makes you figure this out faster, that's what we're going to do.: Then he cut his palm again while Al sputtered. :Again.:

Al clenched his jaw and pressed his hands together.

The immediate blue light said this was going to take a while. Somehow, Ed kept from sighing.

-0-

They spent almost two weeks in Dublith, giving Teacher a crash course in the Dragon's Pulse, which she was struggling with, expectedly, and letting her try to beat them up when she wasn't ordered to bedrest. Al managed to sort out the Cretan healing array, and Ed surprised him with tests over the course of their stay, much to his brother's unending irritation, but it was clear that the practice was helping Al not automatically default to the Dragon's Pulse when dealing with healing. (And if he made a point of switching to Xingan healing once Ed had smiled in approval, to finish healing what marks the Cretan arrays had left, Ed couldn't really stop him; the last thing either of them needed was him going into the psychological evaluation with marks that could be taken as self-harm all over his hands.)

Eventually, though, Ed knew it was time for them to head for East City. Mason – either on the orders of the Curtises or of his own will, Ed wasn't certain which – procured train tickets for them, then refused to let Ed pay him back from their meagre funds. Which, great for their money uncertainties, but a glance toward his brother said he wasn't the only one who felt kind of bad for letting someone else pay their way, especially when that someone worked for Teacher, and it was to do something she very much didn't approve of.

The morning of the train, over breakfast, Al said, "Brother, do you know the number to the lieutenant colonel's office?"

:Colonel,: Ed corrected.

"You don't know that he got promoted."

:His promotion never had anything to do with us,: Ed returned, rolling his eyes. :I know the number for the East Command switchboard, though, yes.:

"They have a switchboard?"

"The military," Teacher offered flatly, "tends to prefer you don't use outside lines to contact specific offices."

"Oh." Al shrugged and nodded. "Okay."

After the breakfast dishes had been washed, Ed and Al took over the phone, Ed dialling, while his brother took the handset.

Al fiddled with the cord for a moment, once had Ed finished dialling and leant back against the wall, then straightened and somewhat nervously said, "Uhm, yes. I'm calling for Colonel Mustang or Lieutenant Hawkeye, whichever is available." Which was as Ed had couched, even finally giving in and using the rank the bastard had better have achieved by now. "Oh! Sorry, my name is Alphonse Elric. Yes, I'll hold."

:Deep breath,: Ed suggested.

Al took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His qi calmed slightly, and Ed quirked a smile at him; if he could take this particular duty out of his brother's hands, he would, but the most he could do was serve as emotional support.

"Lieutenant Hawkeye?" Al guessed, the line clearly being picked up. "Yes, ma'am, this is Alphonse Elric. My brother and I are on our way to East City to take the colonel up on his offer, if it's still open?" He was quiet for a moment, smiled slightly, then frowned. "Uhm, I'm not sure. One moment." He covered the mouthpiece with a finger. "Brother, do you know when we should be getting in to East City?"

Ed frowned and tilted his head as he did some quick mental figuring; they'd only gone from Dublith to East City a handful of times, and, usually, East City was just the switch-over point for the Resembool line, but if their train was due to leave Dublith that evening... :Friday morning? The exact time depends on when we finally pull out of Central Station.:

Al nodded and returned to the phone. "My brother says sometime Friday morning. Coming from Central? Okay. Yes, ma'am. Thank you." He gently set the receiver down, then said, "She said someone will meet us at the station and bring us to the command building, so we don't have to worry about trying to get past the gate guards."

Ed blinked and nodded; that was fairly sensible, actually. :Führer Bastard won't send anyone other than his team, so I'll recognise them.:

"Assuming he has the same team," Al cautioned. "You don't know what you changed by sending him that warning."

Ed sighed. :Fine. But I ALSO know all of the people in East Command that he'd be most likely to trust, so I still say we won't have any trouble spotting them.: He rolled his eyes. :Honestly, he'll probably send Hawkeye, since she knows what we look like.:

"I guess that's true..." Al agreed.

Ed shook his head. :We'll figure it out,: he decided. :For now, are you packed?:

Al groaned. "Mostly." Then he narrowed his eyes on Ed. "Are you?"

Ed grinned. :Mostly.:

Al rolled his eyes and led the way back to their room.

-0-

Well, Ed was absolutely right about being able to recognise the person Mustang sent to collect them at the station, as it turned out.

:Why did it have to be Führer Bastard, himself?: Ed complained as they walked over to where Mustang was waiting for them, having called out to them at about the same time that Ed and Al had both spotted him. His black coat meant he hadn't stood out in the crowd of commuters in quite the same way as if his uniform had been fully visible, but no way Ed wouldn't have noticed the bastard.

"Edward, Alphonse, welcome to East City," Mustang greeted as they reached him.

"Thank you, sir," Al returned with an uncertain smile. "We didn't expect for you to be the one to come meet us."

:Probably just used it as an excuse to get out of paperwork, the lazy–:

Al smacked his hands with a sigh.

"I had a bit of free time this morning," Mustang offered smoothly, wearing that charmer's smile of his that always made Ed want to punch him. Or kiss him. (Or punch his own mutinous brain, what the fuck?) "If you both have everything, the car is waiting for us on the kerb outside."

"I believe so, sir," Al agreed, touching the shoulder strap of his bag, then the strap across his chest that held the jian sword slung across his back.

Ed shrugged and nodded when his brother looked over at him, not bothering to check his things; he hadn't left anything on a train in almost twenty years.

"This way, then." Mustang led the way out of the station, offering a polite nod to the saluting MPs standing guard by the entrance as they passed.

The only car idling along the kerb was clearly military, which didn't surprise Ed. The man leaning back against the passenger's side door with a lit cigarette also didn't surprise Ed. As the man dropped his cigarette to step on and performed a salute, Ed signed, :Second Lieutenant Havoc,: to his brother.

Al sighed. :You're going to be unbearably smug if he has all the same team, aren't you?:

Ed snorted and shot Al a grin; very likely.

"Boys," Mustang said, drawing their attention, "this is Second Lieutenant Jean Havoc, a member of my team. Havoc, Alphonse and Edward Elric."

"Good to finally have faces for the names," Havoc said, offering his hand.

Al bowed in the manner of Xing, then took Havoc's hand. "It's an honour to meet you, Second Lieutenant."

Havoc blinked. "Uh, yeah. That."

When Havoc turned to offer his hand to Ed, looking a little like he didn't know what to expect, Ed couldn't help a laugh. He almost bowed, just for the sheer amusement factor, but he'd been back in Amestris long enough, now, that the Xingan style of greeting was starting to feel weird, especially with people he already knew well enough to have in-jokes with (even if he was the only one who knew the in-jokes), so he just shook Havoc's hand.

Havoc relaxed slightly and looked towards Mustang. "Back to the office, Chief?"

"I'm afraid so," Mustang agreed with a helpless sigh.

Havoc grinned and stepped around the car to the driver's side, while Mustang opened the door to the back seat and motioned Ed and Al inside.

Mustang ended up in the passenger's seat, and he turned around slightly to look back at them. "Xing clearly agreed with you."

Al gave a slightly helpless laugh. "Yeah. Me more than Brother, I think, but he says he wouldn't mind going back, eventually."

Mustang nodded. "I believe Edward said something about their alchemy being different, in his letter?"

Al glanced at Ed, who shrugged and nodded. :I don't remember being specific about how, just that it was different,: he signed to Al.

Al nodded and turned back to Mustang. "Yes. It turns out they use a different energy source to power their transmutations than we do, which made for an interesting and – in all honestly, slightly frustrating, at times – study. Did you know, though, that the man who supposedly modernised their alchemy came from Xerxes, the same as our Philosopher of the East? Their titles are even the same, as what they call their teacher translates, roughly, to the Philosopher of the West."

Mustang blinked. "That's interesting. I wonder if they were contemporaries."

Ed snorted. :That's one thing to call them.:

"We could try matching up the years, I suppose," Al said, ignoring Ed, "though our clan didn't really have any exact dates. Elder Qiang said they should have a proper timeline in the Imperial City, but there was never any reason for us to leave our own lands."

:We couldn't have, not with all the assassination attempts,: Ed pointed out.

:And attempted thefts,: Al reminded him.

:Please. So far as the Xingan politics are concerned, it's the same thing.:

Al sighed and nodded. :I know.:

Mustang watched them for a moment, his expression impossible to read and his qi that forced calm that Ed had really only found in the best fighters, then he offered a faint smile. "I admit, I'm a little jealous of your opportunity to visit Xing; I'm told my grandfather would wax poetic about the countryside for hours, if given half the chance."

In the rear-view mirror, Ed caught Havoc shooting a vaguely surprised look in Mustang's direction. He knew the feeling; he had never once heard the bastard mention his family.

Al blinked. "Your grandfather, sir?"

Mustang nodded. "He was Xingan. A member of the...Meng clan, I believe?"

Mustang was part Xingan? Well, Ed supposed he did have the right colouring, and his eyes were a little narrower than commonly found in Amestris, but the rest of his facial structure was clearly western.

"Meng?" Al repeated, looking at Ed.

Ed blinked and ran through his mental list of the clans, something he'd cared far more about than Al. :Southern clan,: he signed when he placed the name with a specific clan. :Not quite coastal, but that area. We never had anything to do with them.:

"Brother says the Meng clan is down south, closer to the coast," Al explained. "We were farther north. A straight shot east from Youswell."

Mustang let out a thoughtful hum and turned to face front as they slowed to be waved through the carpool entrance. Once they were through and Havoc was looking for a spot to park, Mustang admitted, "I'm afraid I don't know much about the layout of Xing."

"Uh, large and sprawling?" Al blurted out.

Ed and Havoc both laughed, while Mustang sent Al an amused look.

:That was a classic me,: Ed signed. :Give me back my voice.:

:Shut up!: Al returned, clearly embarrassed. "S-sorry about that, sir. I can't tell you about most of the country, but I know some about the lands that border the Great Desert, if you're really interested."

"I may take you up on that, Alphonse," Mustang agreed with a faint smile.

Havoc finally pulled into a spot and they all climbed out, Mustang taking the lead on the way through the car park and into the command building. Ed and Al followed along directly behind him, Ed grabbing Al's shoulder so he could steer him out of the way of any traffic, which gave his brother the chance to look around without worrying about getting run over.

Havoc took up the rear – to keep him and Al from wandering off and getting lost, Ed would bet – and he said, "Been told you can't talk," to Ed.

Ed glanced back at him and nodded.

"Huh. That's shit."

Ed shot him a smile and shrugged; he'd got used to it and learnt to adapt, just as Havoc had once had to do when he'd lost the ability to walk. Not that Havoc had suffered that particular misery, yet, and Ed fully intended to keep it that way, if he could.

Mustang led the way into the outer office and stepped to the side to let Ed and Al in, Havoc slipping in behind them and closing the door. Familiar faces looked up from piles of paperwork, and it was a struggle for Ed to keep a wide grin off his face.

"These are the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse," Mustang told everyone, before looking down at Ed and Al. "Boys, this is my office team. You may remember First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye." She nodded to them in greeting, which Ed and Al returned. "Next to her is Second Lieutenant Heymans Breda, then Warrant Officer Vato Falman, and across from Falman is Sergeant Major Kain Fuery."

Al swallowed and bowed. "It's an honour to meet you all," he said.

Breda and Fuery both looked a bit helplessly towards Havoc, who shrugged, having had no more idea how to respond to Al than they did.

Hawkeye stood and walked over with that smile that she always seemed to have in store for when Al was being his most polite. "It's good to see you again, Alphonse," she said, holding out her hand.

"Oh, uhm, you too, ma'am," Al returned, taking her hand. "Though, I–" He grimaced and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't really remember you all that well, honestly. Winry's the one who told me who you were." Which was a lie, but a well-told one, and Ed wouldn't be surprised to learn that Winry had told Al something about Hawkeye.

"That's fine," she promised. "I know you were a little out of sorts that day."

Al let out a helpless sort of laugh. "That's putting it nicely, ma'am."

Hawkeye turned to Ed, then. "Edward," she said, inclining her head to him.

Ed offered her a knowing smile as he nodded back, then held his hand out, which she took. He motioned with his free hand behind his head, then pointed to her.

She blinked once, then reached back and touched her longer hair. "Oh, my hair?" He nodded. "Yes, I grew it out a bit."

He gave her a thumbs up, because he really did think the long hair suited her, though that might just be because that's what he was used to.

Her smile widened. "Thank you."

"I'm a little creeped out, now," Al muttered in Xingan.

Ed raised an eyebrow at him. :I'm allowed to think she looks better with longer hair. Also, SMUG.:

Al groaned. :I hate you.:

:S-M–:

Al smacked at his hands and quickly signed, :Stop.:

:–U-G,: Ed finished with a wide grin.

Mustang cleared his throat. "Something we should know?"

Al winced, his cheeks pinking slightly. "No, sir. Brother's just being childish," he said, shooting Ed a pointed look.

:I reserve the right to hold my awesome over your head at a later date,: Ed informed his brother.

:So what else is new,: Al signed, even as he asked Mustang, "Is there anything special we need to know about the exam, sir?"

Mustang motioned for them to follow him into his inner office, saying, "There are three parts to the exam: a written exam, a psychological exam, and the practical. From what I've seen of your work already, I'm certain you'll manage the practical portion fine, and very likely the written, especially with knowledge of Xingan alchemy." He motioned them towards the couches and closed the door as they both sat. "Are there any psychological concerns that are likely to flag?" he asked, looking between them.

Ed and Al traded looks before both shaking their head and turning back to Mustang. "No, sir," Al said quietly. "Some bad nights, but I don't think the military can really hold that against us."

Mustang shook his head as he walked around the couches to his desk. "No. They're mostly ensuring they don't give anyone looking to overthrow the government or hurt people a licence. Which reminds me." He pulled open the top drawer of his desk and pulled something out. "I have something for you, Edward."

Ed blinked and offered his brother's curious look a shrug, uncertain what was going on, but gamely stood and walked up to the bastard's desk. Mustang held out what appeared to be a single photo, and when Ed turned it around to get a good look at it, his breath caught.

It was a picture of Elicia Hughes and Nina Tucker, curled up together on what he recognised as one of the couches in the Hughes family's living room. Gracia was leaning over the back of the couch, a fond smile on her face, as she looked down at the two of them.

Nina was safe.

Ed had to catch himself on Mustang's desk as the wash of relief turned his real leg to jelly.

"Brother?" Al called, worried, while Mustang reached across his desk, like he thought he might need to catch Ed.

Ed took a deep breath and pushed away from the desk, then bowed as lowly as he trusted his shaky leg to let him, pressing the photo against his chest.

"What is it?" Al asked, shifting on the couch.

"A photo of a girl your brother asked me to help out," Mustang offered, almost sounding uncertain.

"Nina?" Al guessed.

Ed nodded as he straightened, holding the photo out to his brother. :She's with Hughes' family,: he signed, once Al had taken it, though he was watching Ed, instead of looking at the photo. :Nina's the one with the braids, and the younger girl is Elicia. And that's Gracia. She's safe.: He turned back towards Mustang as Al finally looked down at the photo. :Thank you,: he signed, though he knew the bastard wouldn't understand.

Mustang was still for a moment, then he slowly signed back, :You're welcome.:

Ed felt his eyes widening. What?

Something like victory gleamed in Mustang's dark eyes. :You owe me some explanations, I believe.:

Mustang knew sign language? How? When? Why?

Ed turned around and kicked Al's foot, bringing him to frown up at him in confusion. :Why the fuck does Führer Bastard know sign language?:

Al blinked in confusion. "Huh?" He glanced towards Mustang briefly, then back at Ed. "Uhm, well, when you asked me to deliver your letter, remember? You said specifically to him or the lieutenant, and I happened to see him while we were looking for books, so I handed it over. He wanted to know what we were looking for, and since you... Well, you trust him, so I didn't see any harm in telling him about learning sign language."

Ed moaned and hid his face in his hands. He should have seen this happening, really. No way Mustang could have been comfortable taking on a mute subordinate without an easier way to communicate than writing shit down. Or, you know, trusting in an interpreter.

Still. Ed had kind of been banking on Al being the only person in the office who understood him. Not that he'd been planning to have any really private conversations around anyone in the military, but it would have been nice to be able to have at least some conversations around Mustang without the bastard knowing what he was saying.

He sighed and rubbed at his face. Pros. He could have completely silent discussions with Mustang almost anywhere, which may well serve them in some situations, especially those that called for absolute silence. And if he got stuck without Al, he wouldn't have to try interpretive dance to get a point across to the bastard. Fuck, Mustang knowing meant there were now three people he trusted, without question, who he could communicate with. And if Mustang knew...

Ed turned and levelled a hard look on the bastard, who had settled behind his desk and was hiding behind his hands; that was something he was going to get a lot less use out of, if he wanted to respond to Ed with sign language. :Who else knows it?:

Mustang watched him for a moment. "Lieutenant Hawkeye," he said, before nodding towards Al, "and the man who took that photo."

:Lieutenant Colonel Hughes,: Ed signed, :your best friend.:

Mustang's eyes narrowed. :Equivalent exchange.:

"Brother?" Al asked quietly.

Ed glanced over and gently took the photo from his brother's hands, then walked back to his couch to sit down. He sat the photo on the table between the couches, in a place he could easily see it, then turned to his brother. :You're going to have to translate names,: he warned, because Mustang didn't know the sign-names Al, Winry, and Ed had attached to various people, likely had entirely different versions for some of them.

Al's jaw tightened. :You're certain?:

:He was one of our greatest allies against the Dwarf in the Flask,: Ed reminded him, because he'd told Al that Mustang had managed to kill Lust and fought with them on the Promised Day. :I trust him, and I need him to trust me.:

Al gave a sharp nod. :Okay.:

Ed took a deep breath and turned to look at Mustang, found him watching them with sharp, too-intelligent eyes. It was reassuring, a bit, that the bastard wasn't trying to hide exactly how scarily clever he was, for once. A little freaky – Ed hadn't realised until everything came crashing down around their heads, the first time, that his CO wasn't nearly as lazy or stupid as he all-too-often appeared – but reassuring; Mustang wasn't taking this as a joke, and he was willing to listen.

:As unbelievable as it might seem,: Ed started, and there was never a good way to break this to people without making him sound a little bit cracked, :when I was twenty-nine, I got caught up in an array that sent me back to the moment I attempted human transmutation. I look fourteen, but I don't think of myself that way. Everything that I knew when I was twenty-nine – every language, every array, every face and name that I couldn't possibly know – I do.:

Mustang's hands clenched together, and then he separated them and slowly signed, :If you had told me that seventeen months ago, I would have kicked you out. But, in your letter, you told me that man would create a chimera that would be able to talk, and then you told me EXACTLY what it said, and how it died.:

Ed gave a silent little huff of a laugh, not even a little amused. :Before, we only realised what he'd done after he fused Nina with the family dog. There was no way to separate them. I...: He looked down at the photo on the table, at Nina sleeping peacefully next to Elicia. :I never forgave myself for not realising sooner.: He looked back up at Mustang. :Thank you. Honestly.:

Mustang gave a brief nod to that, very clearly uncertain what to do with Ed's gratitude.

Ed offered him a quick, knowing smile, then sighed. :In the car, Al mentioned the Philosophers from the East and West.: Mustang nodded. :They weren't just contemporaries, they were the only two beings to survive Xerxes' destruction.:

Mustang's eyes widened. :I thought no one had survived.:

Ed couldn't help a bitter smile. :Xerxes was destroyed because the Philosopher from the East wanted to turn himself into a Philosopher's Stone.: When comprehension didn't dawn – Ed didn't really expect it to; Mustang hadn't known much about the Stones, before – he signed, :Philosopher's Stones are made from living humans.: And there it was, horrified comprehension. :Half of the people of Xerxes went into each of them. The one who went to Xing was an unwilling accomplice, but the one who came here was the one who created and activated that array, knowing exactly what he was doing.

:And, in a little under a year and a half, he intends to do it again.:

"Here," Mustang whispered, his voice cracking.

Ed nodded. :We call him the Dwarf in the Flask, but he refers to himself as Father. He sits underground in Central, directly beneath Command, and waits for his Promised Day, while the homunculi he created see to the preparations. One of those homunculi is our Führer.:

Mustang slowly reached up and tapped down four fingers on his shoulder, over his rank marking, then pointed at his eyes.

Ed nodded again. :He knows you want his seat, from what you told me, once. But homunculi are created with a Philosopher's Stone, and they regenerate from even the most grievous of wounds. It's possible to kill them, but difficult as fuck, and we never come through unscathed.:

:But it can be done.:

:You once burnt one to death, nearly did it again to another one, and the Armstrong siblings managed to kill one working together.:

Mustang swallowed. :How many are there?:

:They're named after the sins,: Ed offered, :so seven. But one of them, Greed, left the whole lot of them years ago and is currently living in a pub in Dublith. So long as we leave him alone, he'll leave us alone.: Ed swallowed. :All of them have an ouroboros tattooed somewhere on their body.:

:Hence your warning to run.:

:Yes. And they all have one extraordinary ability. King Bradley – Wrath – has what he called the 'ultimate eye', which allows him to see any attacks coming, from any angle, so long as there isn't an obstruction he can't see through in the way. Lust has fingers that can extend extreme distances and have sharp tips. Anything Gluttony swallows goes to an alternate dimension that is fucking HELL to get out of. Sloth has extreme speed and incredibly thick skin; he once took a direct attack from a Briggs tank to the stomach and it didn't make a dent.:

Mustang squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at them, and Ed stopped signing and waited him out; he knew all too well how difficult to process all of this could be. After a moment, he let out a harsh breath and opened his eyes again, signing, :Greed isn't a concern, you said, so that leaves two.:

Ed sighed and nodded. :Envy is a shape-changer.: He couldn't stop from looking over at the photo on the table again, grit his teeth, and signed, :He wanders around Central Command in disguise, to obtain information, and he was the person who shot the child in Ishval.:

Mustang jerked at that. "You're absolutely–"

:He told me himself, and then he laughed,: Ed signed with a flat stare. :He can do animals as well as people, be aware. Al and I should be able to tell when he's nearby, but consider working out some sort of hand motion or phrase with your team and Hughes, in case you need to be certain who you're talking to.:

Mustang's expression was grim. :We'll figure something out,: he promised. :But my team is clean?: There was worry in his eyes, and Ed knew it was because he didn't want to have to get rid of the team that he'd come to like over the years.

Ed swallowed and managed a smile that ached. :Those five are the most loyal military team I have ever known. They will commit treason in your name, if you give them reason to, and they will follow you straight to the top without any hesitation.:

Mustang blinked a few times in rapid succession. :Good,: he signed. :That's a relief to know.: He cleared his throat and shook his head slightly. :We're still missing Pride?:

Ed couldn't keep his jaw from clenching, while Al quietly said, "Selim Bradley."

Mustang stared between them like he couldn't quite believe that, couldn't wrap his head around it.

Ed whistled and, when Mustang looked at him, grimly signed, :I told you to beware the shadows, because his ability is to become them. He does need light to do it, and his reach is limited, but we never discovered exactly how limited. Assume he can cover the whole of whatever city he's in, and blanket yourself in darkness if you want to be certain you're safe.:

Mustang let out a quiet huff that could have almost been amusement, if not for the twisted not-smile turning his mouth. "Monsters, monsters, everywhere," he murmured, before shaking his head. :You mentioned something about military high command being corrupt?:

:The Dwarf in the Flask has told them he'll make them all immortal if they assist with his plans. He's lying, but they're desperate enough, and probably scared enough of him, they're not questioning the validity of his promises. Assume everyone in Central is corrupt.: He shrugged. :Grumman and the Ice Queen are both clean, but I don't know about anyone else.:

Mustang gave a tight nod. :Those are still some powerful allies.:

Ed managed a smile at that. :They are that.: He glanced at Al, then offered, :We'll also have the Philosopher of the West as an ally, when he finally shows his stupid, useless–:

"Brother," Al complained. To Mustang, he explained, :Our father.:

Mustang blinked once, then his eyes went wide. He opened his mouth, then apparently thought better, because he signed, :Your FATHER is a Philosopher's Stone?:

Ed huffed. :According to him, his body is unaffected, so we're normal humans, though members of an almost extinct race.: He shook his head. :I would rather as few people know as possible. I left him a note telling him to use an assumed name to get in contact with us, and to do so through your office.:

Mustang frowned at that and pulled over a piece of paper and a pen. "What's the name?"

:H-O E-L-R-I-C.:

Mustang nodded and promised, "I'll make sure everyone knows to keep an ear out for him."

Ed nodded. :There's also one other ally we're going to need to wait to show his head, but it won't be easy to get him on our side. He nearly killed me a handful of times, and I still don't quite know why he changed his tune.:

Mustang sighed. :Why do I get the feeling I won't like this?:

Ed smiled at him, and it felt wretched on his face. :He's Ishvalan.: Mustang flinched. :And he's made it his life's goal to kill every single State Alchemist.:

Mustang rubbed at his eyes again. "Wonderful." He looked back at Ed and signed, :Why do we need him?:

:The Dwarf in the Flask has a way to block the ability to do Amestrisan alchemy,: Ed signed, and Mustang's eyes went wide. :That Ishvalan's brother created an array to counteract that, but I don't know where he hid the notes. I have a general idea of what the array looked like, and I MIGHT be able to recreate it, with a great deal of work, but he's also the one who killed Bradley, so I'd rather have him on our side.:

"The enemy of my enemy," Al added quietly.

Mustang nodded, his expression grim.

Ed took a deep breath, then signed, :What I said, before, about not snooping? Hughes was killed for knowing too much.:

Mustang stiffened. "Killed?"

Ed nodded. :I'm willing to fill him in, so he doesn't accidentally stumble across the information that made him a target, but not in Central.: He sighed, then added, :Like I told you, those guys out there–: he waved towards the door to the outer office :–and Hughes, they're nothing, to the homunculi. If they're caught digging, they will be killed. If you need to fill them in, it's probably best to only tell them what they need to know, and tell them to come to you for anything more.:

Mustang clenched his jaw and nodded.

Ed took a deep breath, then signed, :If someone needs proof, or they need information I don't have, Al or I will get it.:

Mustang straightened. "You are not about to go putting yourselves in danger–"

"We won't be," Al interrupted quietly, his mouth downturned and his eyes sad. "They need Brother and me."

Ed nodded and, when Mustang turned to him, explained, :The Dwarf in the Flask needs five alchemists who have performed human transmutation to activate his array. Al and I are two, our father is a third, and, if they find out about her, our teacher will be the fourth. If they catch any of us snooping, they'll attempt to find leverage so we keep our mouths shut and our heads down, but they won't kill us.:

Mustang continued watching him for a moment and, when Ed didn't add anything more, asked, :The fifth?:

:There isn't one. The State Alchemist program was created to find alchemists strong enough to survive human transmutation or, better, who had already done it. Right now, there's only four people alive in Amestris who have attempted human transmutation, to my knowledge.:

Mustang narrowed his eyes. :Right now?:

Ed swallowed. :They will force someone to perform human transmutation, if necessary.:

"Who?" Mustang demanded, a faint tremor in his voice, his qi pulling in close and streaked through with a sort of haunted certainty.

Ed pointed at him.

Mustang closed his eyes and nodded. "I see." He drew in a slow breath and pressed his hands against the top of his desk, his qi returning to that forced calm with only hints of stress and a grim sort of fear hidden underneath. "For the exam," he said, didn't quite manage the casual business tone Ed was used to hearing while the bastard delivered orders or directions, but it was a fair attempt, "we'll be heading up to Central City. The military will pay for your train tickets there and back to East City, as well as lodgings in Central City while you're taking the exam, but everything else will need to be out of pocket. Is that going to be a problem?"

Ed and Al glanced at each other, Al biting his lip, while Ed frowned; they'd found some extra money stuffed into each of their packs on the train, clearly left by the Curtises, which would be enough to cover food and a hotel in East City for about two days, by Ed's calculations, or two to three days' worth of food in Central City. As with the train ticket, there was some uncertainty about actually accepting what had been given in spite of Teacher's disapproval of their intended course, but they really didn't have a lot of options left to them.

"How long until we leave for Central?" Al asked.

Mustang frowned and pulled a paper over from one of the smaller stacks. "There's a train leaving tonight, which I may be able to manage." He shot them a knowing look. "Limited funds?"

Al sighed and nodded. "Brother used most of what Mum left us to buy supplies for travelling to Xing. We saved enough for a couple train trips inside Amestris, once we got back, and our teacher slipped us some extra when we visited her, but it's still not much. The sooner we can get our licences, the better."

Mustang inclined his head. "Then we'll aim for tonight's train."

:You probably have work to avoid doing, then,: Ed signed with a smirk.

Mustang blinked, then relaxed back into his chair with a quiet huff, amusement glinting in his eyes and curling around the edges of his qi. "You two are welcome to remain in the outer office and distract my team, or go out into the city to sightsee, as is your preference. The train is due to leave at eighteen-hundred; I suggest you not be late."

"We won't be, sir," Al promised as he stood, then bowed. "Thank you for being so accommodating."

Mustang straightened and inclined his head as Ed stood. "Thank you for accepting my offer." He looked at Ed. "Edward, you're welcome to keep that photo."

Ed blinked and picked up the photo; it hadn't even occurred to him, really, that Mustang would let him have it. Though, thinking about it now, with as freely as Hughes handed out photos of his family, he expected Mustang had a pile somewhere, and giving this one to Ed was hardly going to be a loss. (Hell, he didn't even know for sure that the bastard actually kept the massive amount of photos that experience suggested Hughes forced on him.) He pulled out his journal and slipped the photo inside, signing, :Thank you,: once he'd slipped his journal back away in his sash.

Mustang offered him a faint smile, there and gone almost too quick to believe it was real. "Please send Lieutenant Hawkeye in for me," he requested, reaching for one of the piles of paper on his desk.

"Of course, sir," Al promised, and led the way from the inner office. "Lieutenant Hawkeye?" he called.

She stood from her desk. "You're done?"

"Yes, ma'am. The colonel asked us to send you in."

She nodded and stepped around the group of desk. "Thank you, Alphonse."

Al inclined his head, then turned to Ed. :What do you want to do?:

Ed shrugged. :We should probably let them work, so Hawkeye doesn't shoot anyone, and I wouldn't mind getting some food.:

Al's mouth quirked. :I wouldn't mind some lunch, either,: he admitted. :Do you have some place in mind?:

Ed nodded and started for the door to the hall, walking sideways so Al could see him signing, :There's a really good café about two blocks down that's pretty cheap.:

"Oh, you boys are leaving?" Havoc called.

Ed glanced over and found Al giving the man an easy smile. "Yeah. Brother says he's hungry, and we'd both kind of like to get a feel for the city before the train to Central."

"Do you need a guide?"

Al shrugged. "I'm sure we'll be fine. And if we do end up getting lost, it shouldn't be too hard to find someone willing to give us directions to the station, right?"

"I guess," Havoc agreed. "Be careful, though, okay? There's some nasty parts to this city."

Al's smile widened and he reached back to tap the hilt of his jian sword. "I appreciate the warning, but I think we'll manage." Then he turned back to Ed and motioned for him to lead the way out.

In the hallway, Al signed, :I think I understand, now, why it always annoys you when people treat you like a child.:

Ed snorted. :You ARE a child, Al,: he pointed out, and Al shoved him. :But, yes. Havoc means well, but all he knows about us is that we're kids who have been to Xing and are alchemists. And I'm mute. Not a one of them knows we've had martial arts training, to what extent, or even what we can do with alchemy.:

Al sighed and nodded. :I guess we'll just have to prove we're more capable than we look, then.:

Ed laughed. :You really ARE starting to sound like me.:

Al grimaced and shoved him again. :Just shut up, Brother.:

.

Chapter Text

Ed and Al spent the day touring East City, Ed showing his brother all of the places that had once been their favourite haunts. Because he knew the city, they had no trouble getting to the station a little after five, and Ed pointed out a reasonably-priced restaurant that had a good view of the station entrance, so they got some food and sat down to wait for Mustang and whichever member of his team he dragged along – Hawkeye, probably; she was usually the one to accompany him to other cities – to show up.

When Mustang showed up, though, he was alone, and Ed frowned at that as he and Al made their way over. :What, no keeper?: he signed when Mustang caught sight of them.

Mustang's mouth twitched. "I'm afraid the lieutenant is currently tasked with an assignment that requires she remain in East City," he said, before signing, :She's filling in the others.:

That...wasn't a bad plan, really. Anyone keeping an eye on Mustang and his team, was going to be more interested in him going with two unknown boys to Central, than in whatever paperwork his team was staying behind to work on. And Ed knew Mustang's team could be discrete. (Well, maybe not Falman, so much, but Breda, Havoc, and Hawkeye had all had some sort of covert training, Havoc had told him once, and Fuery's hobby-cum-duty to keep an eye on radio frequencies and the phone lines had taught him plenty of caution.)

Mustang picked up their tickets and they joined the queue to board, a few people shifting away when they recognised the uniform.

Al watched the reshuffling for a moment, head tilted to the side, before saying, "Sir?" When Mustang looked over at him, he signed, :Are State Alchemists required to wear a uniform?:

Mustang shook his head. :It's only required on a battlefield, or if you've gone through basic training, which is true in my case. Those State Alchemists who come seeking the licence for the grants and access attached, however, very rarely wear the uniform. You'll be given a silver pocket watch as a sign of your position–: he paused long enough to pull his out for Al to see, then slipped it away once he'd nodded :–which serves essentially the same function as the uniform, but without the expectation of military manners attached.:

Ed snorted and, when Al and Mustang looked over at him, added, :At our age, you'd almost get more weird looks for being in uniform, than being on base without. I mean, we're way too young to be joining the military through the academy, and a State Alchemist has the rank of a major, which you know is going to make some people a bit freaked out, having to listen to a kid just because he's got more stripes on his shoulder.:

Al shot him a knowing look. :So you're going to wear the uniform, then.:

Ed just sort of blinked at him, because...what? Wear a military uniform? That uncomfortable as fuck sign of the establishment? Sure, it would piss people off that he effectively had a higher rank with none of the work, but as soon as you put the damn thing on, people expected you to know how to salute and say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' in that really fucking polite tone of voice that–

Oh.

Oh.

:Enabler,: he signed.

Al flashed him a grin.

"What just happened?" Mustang requested, sounding rather like he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

:Brother just realised that wearing the uniform meant people can't treat him like he's a dumb kid, but being a State Alchemist means he can get away with being rude,: Al explained.

Mustang sighed and warned Ed, :IF you're accepted. Your difficulty communicating is far from desirable in the military.:

Al shot Ed a worried frown. :I didn't think about that.:

Ed shrugged. :As close as it is to the Promised Day, Bradley's going to want to keep close what resources he can sink his swords into. I'm banking on his need to keep tabs on me, outweighing the problems my disability will cause.: He snorted and shot Mustang a smirk. :And there IS a potential commanding officer who understands sign language, which nullifies that particular argument.:

Mustang smirked right back. :An excellent way to ensure you don't end up under anyone else's command.:

Ed snorted. :You're worse than a child with a new toy.:

"Brother," Al hissed.

Mustang, though, just chuckled and ushered them on ahead of him as the conductor motioned for everyone to start boarding.

They settled into seats, Ed and Al taking one bench together, while Mustang sat across from them.

Mustang watched with some interest while Al tried to find a way to place his jian sword in the overhead bins so it wouldn't chance falling through the slot and onto their heads if it got jostled. When Al finally sat, satisfied, Mustang said, "Second Lieutenant Havoc said you'd implied you could use that sword?"

Al nodded. "It's called a jian. I, ah, found it while we were travelling in Xing, and our clan's fighting instructor taught me how to use it."

"You 'found it'," Mustang repeated, raising one eyebrow.

Ed snickered. :Technically, I'm the one who had it first.:

Al rolled his eyes and elbowed him. "We were two kids travelling alone; a group of bandits thought we looked like easy prey, and Brother insisted it was the other way around."

Mustang blinked. "You got attacked on the road and ended up stealing the bandits' things, rather than them taking yours," he said flatly.

Ed grinned and nodded, while Al just sighed.

Mustang glanced at Ed and shook his head. "I may regret this."

:You are ABSOLUTELY going to regret this,: Ed promised.

Al sighed again and caught Ed's hands, holding them tight. "I apologise for my brother, sir. He's actually five years old."

Mustang blinked, then let out a quiet chuckle and leant back in his seat. "So I see."

'Fuck you both,' Ed mouthed, just because he could.

Wisely, they both opted to ignore him.

-0-

Al managed to fall into a restless sleep after a few hours, curling up on the bench with his head in Ed's lap. For his part, Ed just stared out at the passing scenery and combed his fingers through his brother's hair. And he knew he would be better served by getting some sleep before the exam, but his mind was vacillating between being stupid over Mustang being right across from him, and supplying all the ways this could go to shit, because there were a lot of ways their plans could go wrong.

"Edward," Mustang murmured.

Ed glanced over at him and tilted his head in inquiry.

:Why the military?: Mustang signed, looking tired. :As much as you know, and as capable as you and your brother seem, surely you could have found a different way to fight these monsters than getting into bed with them.:

Ah, yes, thank you for that particular phrasing, bastard.

Ed slipped his hands free from Al's hair so he could sign, :We need the money.:

:There are other ways to earn money, even at your age,: Mustang pointed out.

Ed sighed. :Look, I was a member of your team for three years and I hated your guts, but you kept our arses out of the fire. Consider it returning a favour.:

Mustang's faint smile looked like it ached. :One would argue you still seem to hate me.:

Ed couldn't stop a snort. :No. I hate the stupid façade you put on, trying to act like you're stupider than you are, but I don't hate YOU. Who you are, what you want to do for this country, all of that.:

Mustang had tensed as Ed signed that last bit. :You referred to me as 'Führer Bastard',: he signed carefully, his eyes almost piercing in their intensity.

Ed grimaced; so he had caught that. :The lieutenant told me about Ishval, at one point.:

"Ah." Mustang glanced down at his bare hands, stared at them for a long moment, then looked back up at Ed with those same shadows that he'd seen in Resembool in his eyes. :Did I make it, in that future of yours?:

Somehow, Ed managed a smile that wasn't shadowed by his own sins. :Pretty sure you spent your first day as Führer with a hangover. Idiot.:

Mustang coughed a laugh into his hand. "Havoc?"

Ed snorted and nodded. :The whole stupid pile of them were there. Everyone got completely pissed and I had to carry your sorry arse home. Moron.: And he probably needed to change the subject before he said anything more on that night. :We didn't quite have a full democracy, yet, but we had a parliament, and they were working with the military to draw up treaties with our neighbours.:

Mustang blinked at that a few times. :Peace before demilitarisation?:

:I seem to recall one speech or another about that, yes.:

Mustang considered him for a moment. :You retired, didn't you?: he guessed.

Ed blinked. :Yes. How'd you know?:

Mustang's mouth quirked. :In a speech?:

'Ah.' Yeah, if he'd remained a member of Mustang's team, he'd probably have had more information about what was going on. :Yes, sorry. Tearing things down is more my style than repairing them.:

:You're saying you actually ARE five?:

Ed rolled his eyes. :I'm thirty-three.:

Mustang just sort of...stared, something very like shock in his qi.

Ed flashed him a smirk. :Respect your elders, Bastard,: he signed, because he could, then turned to look back out the window, pleased with his win.

It wasn't every day, after all, that he got one over on Mustang.

-0-

They'd already had to switch trains in Central twice, but it still caught him off guard, a bit, how strong the crawling sensation was inside the city. He couldn't wait to get back to East City, and he really hoped they managed to wrap this whole thing up before Mustang got posted to Central. (He was fairly certain they wouldn't; Hohenheim hadn't shown up, before, until after Hughes' death, while Ed'd been east to see off Lieutenant Ross. And hadn't Fuery said something about the move being because of all the State Alchemists Scar had killed? Awesome.)

Al, likewise, looked a little nauseous as they stepped out of the station, occasionally glancing towards the ground, as though he really would have rather not been walking on it.

Ed tapped his shoulder and signed, :Bear it for now. We're not going to be here long.:

:I know. It's still...:

:I know.: Ed glanced down at the ground himself and grimaced.

"Roy!" a familiar voice called.

Ed felt his heart jump up into his throat, the crawling under his feet being swept to the back of his thoughts, as he turned towards the voice and caught sight of a man he hadn't seen alive in...forever. He was grinning as wide as ever, sunlight glinting off his glasses, and his uniform regulation-clean; nothing at all like the empty-eyed, blood-stained ghost that sometimes haunted Ed's nightmares. 'Hughes,' he mouthed.

Mustang let out a long-suffering sigh. "I knew I shouldn't have told you I was coming, Hughes."

"Oh," Al whispered, and his hand curled around Ed's shoulder, familiar and settling.

"How cruel!" Hughes insisted, before turning a friendly grin on Ed and Al. "You must be the Elric brothers! You shouldn't let this stick in the mud talk you into things like joining the military, you know. It's not a nice place."

Ed couldn't quite bring himself to do anything more than stare, taking in every detail of this miracle in the flesh. And he'd known that Hughes was still alive, sure, but seeing him, grinning and so stupidly happy and just–

He was alive. Envy hadn't killed him. Envy wouldn't kill him.

Al cleared his throat, squeezing Ed's shoulder. "Colonel Mustang didn't talk us into anything, sir," he offered quietly. "He gave us the option, we debated it for a couple years, then decided this was what we needed to do."

"Hughes," Mustang cautioned, grabbing his friend's shoulder. "This is their choice."

Hughes' eyes darkened and his grin wavered as he looked at Mustang and said, "Oh, is that all?"

Ed shook himself and stepped forward, past his brother's grip on his shoulder, and tapped Hughes' arm. Partially to make sure he was really real, partially to get his attention. When Hughes looked down at him, he gave him a flat look and signed, :We know exactly what we're getting ourselves into, better than you do. I know you're only trying to look out for us, but don't.:

Then he turned away from Hughes' blank stare and motioned for his brother to follow him as he continued down to the street.

"Edward!" Mustang called after him.

Ed looked back, raising one eyebrow at him.

"It's too early to go in to Command. We have rooms booked at the Central Rose Hotel."

Ed grimaced. :The Rose SUCKS,: he complained, because the food in their dining room was kind of crap, and he'd twice ended up in rooms in the back corner, which had a great view of a dirty alley and never got any sunlight.

Mustang shot him an unimpressed look.

Ed scowled at him, signed, :Fuck you, Bastard,: then ducked Al's attempt to smack his hands and turned towards the Rose.

Huffing, Al caught him up after a minute. "What's wrong with this hotel?" he asked quietly.

:Their food sucks.:

He could almost hear his brother rolling his eyes.

Just up the road a bit, someone started their car and it made a loud farting noise as a cloud of dark exhaust bloomed out behind it.

Ed blinked, looked at his brother and found him biting his bottom lip, then looked back towards the car.

The car let out another fart of exhaust, then pulled away and crept down the street like it was ashamed of itself.

"Did that just–" Al said, clearly flummoxed.

:Farting car,: Ed signed, before he had to stop and laugh.

Al stopped next to him, snickering. "You are so immature."

:You thought it was awesome, too. Admit it,: Ed returned.

Al shook his head. "Maybe a little bit."

'HA,' Ed mouthed.

Al rolled his eyes, then glanced behind Ed. "Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel."

"Yes," Mustang said in that blandly superior tone he had, "I expect something like that car would amuse you, Edward."

Al caught his hands before he could respond to that. "Please don't encourage him, sir."

Hughes let out an amused cough.

"I apologise, Alphonse," Mustang offered smoothly, stepping around the brothers to take the lead. "The hotel is this way."

"Behave," Al hissed to Ed, before letting go of his hands so they could follow the bastard.

Ed fell back slightly, glancing over at Hughes, and found the man watching him with a considering gaze. :It's not safe to talk in Central,: he signed.

Hughes was still for a moment, before making a sign Ed wasn't familiar with, followed by, :–mentioned something similar.:

Ed made the unfamiliar sign and shot him a questioning look.

Hughes started to open his mouth, clearly thought better of it, and signed, :R-O-Y,: then nodded towards Mustang's back. :What do you call him?:

:Führer Bastard.:

Hughes choked on a laugh.

Ed flashed him a knowing grin. :Shortened to 'Bastard' in public.:

Hughes just shook his head, clearly amused.

In the hotel, Mustang passed over the key to the room Ed and Al would share, and they all left Hughes in the lobby to go put their things away and – for Ed and Al, at least – change into something fresher.

Ed finished first, Al having let him take the first shower, and wandered back downstairs. Mustang hadn't shown back up, but Hughes was trying to show the woman at the front desk a couple photos. Ed caught his sleeve, then signed, :Can I see?: when Hughes looked over at him.

"You want to see pictures of my adorable daughters and gorgeous wife?" Hughes said, looking delighted.

Daughters. Plural. As if Ed had ever expected Hughes to do anything other than include Nina wholly.

He nodded, motioning toward a couple of benches against the wall, well away from the frazzled receptionist.

Hughes came with him willingly, sitting down next to Ed and holding forth a stack of photos, his eyes gleaming. And there were photos of Gracia baking and Gracia smiling and Gracia with one or both of the girls. There were photos of Nina and Elicia together, and photos of them separate, of them smiling and laughing and playing with all manner of toys.

It was abso-fucking-lutely perfect, and Ed didn't have words for the curl of warmth that settled in his chest and helped to ease his stress from...everything. Mustang, Al insisting he was going to join the military, worrying about their clan, the danger lying in wait ahead of them, the crawling from below...all of that.

And, too, seeing his daughter's namesake so alive and happy... It helped, a little, against the certainty that he'd never see that family again. Just like the hope that only a copy of his memories had gone back, that a version of him was still there to make it home.

Al joined them before they made it through half the stack, clearly interested to see more of this family that Ed had occasionally mentioned with both fondness and sorrow.

"I'd love to meet them all," Al said as Hughes finally slipped his photos away.

Hughes' eyes lit up. "I can arrange that!" he promised. "We can do dinner tonight, at my house, and then you don't have to suffer hotel food."

:Yes, PLEASE,: Ed signed.

Al laughed. "If it's not too much trouble, we'd be honoured."

"Why are you honoured this time?" Mustang asked, announcing his reappearance, though Ed was fairly certain he'd sensed his qi lurking just out of sight, a few times, while the photos had been out.

"I'm inviting you all over for dinner," Hughes informed him as he stood. "Since these two are so very determined to take the exam, they might as well get some home-cooked food to give them extra strength." Then he frowned between Ed and Al while Mustang sighed. "Not much that can be done for the written part, I'm afraid."

Ed waved a careless hand at that, while Al shrugged and admitted, "We're not really worried about the exam. Any of it."

Hughes looked askance at Mustang, who just gave a slightly helpless shrug, then said, "Speaking of food, however, we should probably stop and get something more than train food before heading in."

Al nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

They stopped at a little hole-in-the-wall place that Ed had never been to before, which was delicious and relatively grease-free. As they got closer to Command, it was clear the grease-free was a good idea, because that sense of crawling was nigh-on unbearable, by the time they reached the main entrance.

"Brother," Al whispered as Mustang stepped forward to handle the permissions to get Ed and Al onto base.

Ed caught his brother's clammy hands in his and squeezed them. 'I know,' he mouthed. 'Deep breaths, try to ignore it.'

Al squeezed his hands back and closed his eyes, then took a handful of deep breaths. His qi curled up tight around him, like that might protect him from the crawling. It wasn't unlike what Ed's own qi had done, mostly unconsciously, and he hoped it helped his brother, wished there was some way he could make it better, other than nudging his qi against Al's and trying to transfer a feeling of warmth and love to distract from below.

A gloved hand came to rest on both of their shoulders, and Ed glanced up to find Mustang standing next to them with a hint of concern in his eyes. "Everything all right?" he asked quietly.

Ed squeezed Al's hands again and his brother nodded. "I'm okay," he promised, opening his eyes again. There was still a hint of strain around his eyes, but he definitely looked steadier, so Ed let him go. :Thank you,: Al signed to him.

Ed forced a tight smile. :It's bothering me, too,: he admitted. :Let's just get this over with, so we can go back to East City.:

:Please,: Al agreed, before turning towards Mustang. "Sorry, sir. Just nerves, I guess."

"Of course," Mustang agreed neutrally, before turning and leading the way towards the bottom of the tunnel up to the entrance.

"Roy," Hughes called, and they all glanced back toward him. He motioned with his head in the direction that Ed knew both the Investigations building and Hughes' home were. "Come find me when everyone's done. Even if it's well after dinnertime, I'll make sure there's something saved for all of you."

"I certainly hope it doesn't take that long," Mustang returned flatly.

Hughes laughed and waved as he turned and started away.

:It won't,: Ed promised, because the exam had only taken him seven hours, before, because he'd still been struggling with writing with his non-dominant hand. With his right hand fully functional, he expected to finish in half that, and he suspected Al would match him; seeing the Gate made this exam child's play.

Mustang raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't ask as he led them to the waiting lift.

Getting further away from the ground helped a little bit with the crawling sensation, even as it brought them closer to where Ed knew the Dwarf in the Flask's lair was, which, doubtless, had some interesting connotations about his power base that Ed didn't really care enough to sort through right then.

Up on the parade grounds, Mustang turned just enough to sign, :What is it?:

Ed blinked, then sped up a bit so he could walk at the bastard's side. :Envy and the other homunculi aren't the only rotten things we can sense that you can't,: he offered.

:This Dwarf in the Flask?: Mustang guessed.

:He's a large part of it,: Ed agreed.

Mustang nodded and lifted his gaze to stare ahead of them, towards the windows that Ed knew were Bradley's office. And he couldn't help but wonder if, maybe, this was the sort of thing that had given him away to Bradley to begin with. Not that it really mattered, in the end; they would find a way to get rid of Bradley, and all the other homunculi, too.

Somehow.

-0-

As Ed had expected, the exam was stupidly easy, and he finished inside of three hours. Mustang just sort of stared at him for a moment over the top of the paperwork he'd brought, when Ed flopped down in one of the chairs in the empty office the bastard had borrowed. Then he said, flatly, "You're done."

Ed flashed him a smirk and signed, :That exam is so easy.:

Mustang set down his pen. "I have met men and women who have taken that exam multiple times, know exactly what questions to study for, and still can't finish it as quickly as you just did."

:I am a genius,: Ed returned.

Mustang grunted and picked his pen back up. "You still have to deal with the psychologists and the practical, genius."

Ed rolled his eyes and pulled out his journal to write in.

Al showed up about an hour later, grimacing as he rubbed at his dominant wrist. "I don't remember the last time I had to write that much," he complained.

Mustang sighed. "Of course you both sped right through one of the hardest exams in Amestris," he muttered.

Al blinked and looked at Ed. "That was supposed to be hard?"

Ed snickered and shrugged. :We're essentially geniuses, when set against normal alchemists.:

Al frowned. "We're not."

Ed shrugged again. :There are different ways to gain knowledge, Al, and we've paid our tolls for ours; get used to the label.:

:YOU paid our tolls,: Al returned, his expression tight.

Ed shot him a sharp smile. :Next time we decide to do something stupid like that, I promise you can pay the toll for both of us.:

"There had best not be any further attempts at experimental alchemy," Mustang interrupted as he stood, "or extended recoveries will be the least of your worries."

Ed snorted. :Sorry, Al, no tolls for you to pay. Führer Bastard's rules.:

Al threw his hands up in the air. "I'm not talking to you any more," he announced, before very pointedly turning his back on Ed.

"I do believe," Mustang told Ed as he walked over to them, "that that is the most effective snub I have ever seen."

:Fuck you.:

Mustang raised an eyebrow. "Alphonse, is there a reason your brother seems to prefer the more sexual signs?"

"Because he's a jerk," Al snapped.

:Because it embarrasses him and amuses me,: Ed supplied once he'd stood.

Mustang sighed and motioned for them to head out. "Please avoid using them around any children, whether they understand you or not."

Ed shook his head. :Nope. I have learnt my lesson about using foul language around children.: Winry, in fact, had been very good about making sure that lesson stuck, by whacking him over the head with the nearest blunt instrument every time she heard one of their kids use one of the words they'd picked up from him.

"That sounds like a story," Mustang muttered.

Ed shrugged and offered, :I had two children and a vindictive wife.:

Mustang stumbled.

Al turned wide eyes on Ed. :What did you just SAY?:

:I thought you weren't talking to me?:

:I'm not. What did you say?:

(Ed loved his brother.)

:I mentioned having children,: Ed explained, since Mustang's hands were full of paperwork and that wasn't really something that should be said aloud.

"Oh." Al shrugged, then very pointedly looked away again.

Ed snorted, amused.

Mustang shook his head as he overtook the two of them. "I'm giving you two to Hughes and you can drive him to drinking."

Ed laughed at that, and was almost positive he heard Al attempting to muffle snickers next to him.

-0-

Hughes was equally disturbed by how quickly they'd managed the exam, but he was all too happy to pull out the collection of photos he kept at work to show Ed and Al, while Mustang and Hughes' staff made themselves scarce. When he ran out of photos, Ed asked him about current events – he hadn't paid a great deal of attention, last time, honestly, but he had learnt the worth of keeping an eye on them as he got older – which somehow brought up Xing, and then Hughes scrambled for a very thin file of information that the military had on the country, at least half of which was a complete fallacy. Which Hughes clearly knew, because he proceeded to wheedle and plead until Ed and Al finally gave in and agreed to update the file.

"I'm keeping them," Hughes told Mustang, when he finally poked his head back into the office not quite an hour later.

Ed glanced over from where he and Al were debating how much to put in the file about alkahestry, and found Mustang shaking his head. "They're yours."

Hughes practically cackled.

Mustang rolled his eyes. "What time is Gracia expecting us?"

Hughes glanced at the clock, then jumped to his feet. "Oh! How time flies when you get to talking about foreign countries. Come along, boys. I have to introduce you to all three of my best girls!"

Mustang let out his long-suffering sigh.

(Ed was about seventy percent certain it was all for show.)

They quickly cleaned up, Al promising they could come back after the psychological and practical portions tomorrow and finish the file, then followed Hughes to his house.

Hughes led the way inside, calling a greeting, and Mustang waved Al and Ed in ahead of him. Ed was, admittedly, more than a little nervous. Seeing Hughes for the first time had been a bit of a shock, but the last time he'd seen him, he'd been alive and cheerful. But Nina... The last time he'd seen her, she'd been a chimera. And, for all that he'd always partially blamed himself for Hughes' death, everything about Nina's situation had been a massive stain of failure, and there had never been anyone like Gracia trying to tell him it wasn't his fault.

"Papa!" a gleeful voice called, right before a little girl, her red-brown hair done up in two braids, pelted around the corner and straight into Hughes' waiting arms.

Nina. A year younger than Ed remembered her, but so much more vibrant, for the extra attention that she got from two parents who didn't lock themselves in a lab all day. She looked to have settled in with the Hugheses well. Though, if Mustang had got her out as soon as Tucker had applied for his licence, she would have been two; old enough to understand that her parents were gone and been upset at it, but young enough to adapt to her new life without too much difficulty.

The last two members of the household came into view as Hughes hugged Nina tight enough to make her squeal and swat his head. Gracia was holding Elicia, who was watching her father and Nina's antics with a wide stare. "Welcome home," Gracia offered, before looking past Hughes. "Roy, I'm glad you could come for dinner."

"Your cooking is always worth it," Mustang said in that stupid smooth voice of his, before resting a hand each on Ed and Al's shoulders. "This is Edward and Alphonse Elric, here to try their hands at the state alchemy exam. Boys, that's Gracia, and their youngest, Elicia."

Gracia blinked. "A little young, aren't you, boys?" she asked.

Al let out a slightly nervous laugh. "So people keep telling us."

Hughes cleared his throat, and shook his head at Gracia, before finally letting Nina down, since she'd started trying to slip out of his arms as soon as she'd realised there were other people.

While Hughes went to greet Gracia and Elicia, Nina peered up at Ed and Al. "Hello," she offered with an uncertain smile.

Ed crouched down in front of her and offered a smile and a small wave in response.

"Nina," Mustang said quietly, and she glanced up at him, "this is Edward, and his younger brother, Alphonse. Edward can't speak, but he knows what you're saying."

Nina blinked at that, then looked back at Ed. "Edward?" she tried.

Ed couldn't quite keep from flinching, because that was way too close to how she'd said his name as a chimera. :Nicknames,: he signed to Al. :Please.:

Al crouched down next to him. "Hi, Nina. Brother says you can call him Ed, because you're special. How's that sound?"

Nina's eyes lit up. "Ed?" she tried, and Ed smiled at her and nodded; that was better.

"And you can call me 'Al', if that's easier," Al added. "That's what Brother always calls me."

"Ed and Al," Nina said, before grinning widely and announcing, "Big brothers!" and darting forward to give Ed a hug that he returned wholeheartedly.

As she transferred her welcoming hug to a laughing Al, Ed stood and signed to Mustang, :Where's her father?: Because he'd been so distracted by worrying about her, he'd forgotten to find out what had happened to Tucker.

:Imprisoned in East City,: Mustang answered, his qi taking on a dark sort of edge that Ed fully understood. :I tried for a life sentence, but some of the brass seemed to think it didn't count as human transmutation.:

Ed scowled; he really fucking hated their government.

:He got thirty years,: Mustang offered. :By the time he gets out, she'll be able to take care of herself.:

Ed snorted. :Yeah, and the first thing I'll do if I see him is break his face again.:

Al sighed. "I think," he said as he stood, holding Nina a little bit awkwardly, "that Brother needs to be hugged until he's not grumpy any more."

Nina was plenty willing to provide said service, and Ed quickly found himself holding her, which did help soothe his ire at her father, and also made it much harder for him to sign, which he suspected had been part of Al's intentions.

"Why don't you boys follow Gracia to the dining room," Hughes suggested cheerfully, before throwing a significant look towards Mustang.

Well, if Hughes wanted to harass Mustang without an audience, Ed was down with that, so he shoved Al ahead of him and they followed a smiling Gracia through the house to the dining room, where the table had already been set for everyone. Once they could spread out a bit and she'd set Elicia in her highchair, she offered her free hand to Al. "It's good to finally meet you two," she said. When Ed and Al both frowned at that, she explained, "When Roy first dropped off the sign language books for Maes, he said it was for a potential future State Alchemist who couldn't talk, so you had someone in Central you could talk to." She nodded to Ed.

"Oh," Al said, verbalising both of their understanding. "Did you learn any?"

Gracia let out a quiet laugh and shook her head. "I picked up a little bit, but Roy never mentioned how young you both were; I assumed Maes would only know you through work, and I only rarely have occasion to meet his co-workers."

Al laughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. "Surprise?"

Nina tugged on the tassel at the front of Ed's sash. "What's this?"

Ed snorted, leaving it for Al to explain, "That's the symbol of our clan, back in Xing."

"Xing?" Nina repeated blankly, while Gracia said, "You two are Xingan?"

Al shook his head. "Oh, no. We just spent the past couple years there, learning their alchemy." To Nina, he explained, "Xing is a really big country to the east. You have to cross a desert to get to it, but it's a very pretty country. Not many cities."

"Oh." Nina tugged at Ed's sash again, pulling it forward and peeking inside. "There's something inside," she announced, while Gracia admonished, "Nina," and Elicia called, "Xing!" from the table, banging something against something else.

Ed snorted and nodded, gently catching Nina's hand before she could reach in to grab the handle of the closest kunai, while Gracia went to stop Elicia's noise-making.

"Brother keeps sharp things in there," Al cautioned. "Best to let him pull them out, if you want to see."

"Sharp things?" Nina repeated, looking between them. "Can I see?"

Ed nodded and motioned towards the floor, Al translating, "Yes, but he'll have to put you down."

Nina considered that for a moment, then nodded, so Ed carefully lowered her to the floor, crouching in front of her. He pulled out one of his kunai, holding up a finger when she reached for it, and clapped his hands together to use alchemy to blunt the sharp point. Then he let her take it.

"It's safe," Al promised, almost certainly to Gracia, Hughes, and Mustang, the latter two having just joined them.

"That," Hughes said quietly, "is some impressive alchemy. Why can't you do that?"

"Be quiet, Maes," Mustang muttered.

Hughes crouched down next to Ed and Nina, who was turning the kunai over in her hands with clear interest. "Knife-fighter, are you?" he asked Ed.

Ed nodded. :Like you.:

Hughes' mouth quirked. "Spotted that, then." Ed shrugged and nodded; it wasn't hard to notice the single knife Hughes kept at the small of his back, not quite hidden by his uniform jacket, though Ed suspected it was far from the only one on him. "And I'd guess your brother uses that sword he was carrying around?"

Nina perked up at that. "Big Brother Al has a sword?"

Ed grinned and nodded. Since Al had moved into the kitchen with Gracia and Mustang, he looked to Hughes and signed, :He does, yes. He's got a couple knives, too, but he much prefers his sword. He just didn't want to take it into Command and freak anyone out, so he left it at the hotel.:

"Fair enough," Hughes allowed, before telling Nina, "Al does indeed have a sword, and Ed says he might be convinced to bring it by one time, but only if you're very good."

:You people take far too much liberty when you translate for me,: Ed complained, while Nina insisted, "I'm always good, Papa!"

Hughes laughed and gently took the kunai from Nina. "So you are. Why don't you go sit?"

"Okay!" She turned and scurried off towards the table, loudly informing Gracia that she wanted to sit between Ed and Al as she went.

Ed grinned at that as he accepted his kunai back and stood, quickly re-sharpening it with alchemy and slipping it away.

"Do you prefer 'Ed' and 'Al'," Hughes asked as they watched the table shuffling, "or 'Edward' and 'Alphonse'?"

Ed shrugged. :It doesn't matter, really. People in our home village use our nicknames, and they used our full names in Xing, since they don't really do nicknames there, so we're used to either. I just figured nicknames would be easier at their age.:

"Hm," Hughes returned, sounding rather like he didn't buy that. "Roy says you were the one to warn him about Nina's father."

Ed glanced over, finding too-sharp green eyes watching him. :I did,: he agreed.

Hughes' eyes narrowed. "I thought you were in Xing a year ago."

Ed shrugged. :We were.: And then he stepped toward the table and took the spot Nina was excitedly pointing him toward at her side.

After dinner, Mustang, Hughes, and Gracia all retired to the living room, while Al and Ed let themselves be dragged up to Elicia and Nina's room. Al played with Elicia for a while, before she fell asleep while he was reading one of the books she'd dragged over. Ed, for his part, ended up sitting back against one of the beds, holding a handful of hair decorations, while Nina sat behind him and went to town styling his hair.

Which was familiar in a way that ached, because his daughter had gone through this phase about a year before he'd come across that array. Winry hadn't been fond of it – probably because Nina thought she could do her mum's hair while she was working on automail blueprints, since that didn't involve potentially sharp parts, but she pulled a lot, which tended to ruin Winry's concentration – so Ed had been the only one with the patience – or who got distracted enough not to care – to let Nina play with his hair without yelling. She'd eventually outgrown it – Ed had come home after spending a couple weeks hunting down another rogue alchemist, to find she was no longer interested in playing hairdresser – and Ed tried not to hate himself, now, for his shame at his own sins robbing his daughter of this game; the least he could do was let this Nina have as much fun as she wanted.

"Oh dear," Gracia said when she stepped into the room well after Elicia had fallen asleep, Mustang and Hughes not far behind her.

Hughes just started laughing, muffling it behind his hand, while Mustang very obviously coughed into his fist.

"Mama, Big Brother Ed let me do his hair! Isn't it pretty?" Nina asked with all the confidence of a child who'd yet to be told to stop.

"It's pretty something," Gracia managed with a straight face.

Ed set his handful of hair decorations on the ground next to him and signed, :How embarrassed am I?:

Hughes had to retreat out of sight down the hallway, to – from the sounds of it – howl with laughter. Al, who had been watching the work in progress with a constantly widening grin, gleefully informed Ed, :You are SO embarrassed.:

Ed offered Nina a thumbs up, then held back his hand for a high-five, which she smacked with a giggle.

Gracia shook her head with a quiet laugh. "All right, my little hairdresser. Time for bed."

Nina made a pitiful noise and leant forward over Ed's shoulder, wrapping her arms around his neck. "But I wanna stay up with my big brothers!"

Mustang cleared his throat. "Your big brothers need to leave for the evening and head for bed themselves. But I'm sure they'll be back tomorrow to play with you and Elicia more."

Ed nodded; he fully intended to spend as much time with the Hughes family as he could while they were in Central. If for no other reason than having rambunctious children to keep tabs on, meant they noticed the underground crawling less. (Or, well, Ed did. And, given the way Al had relaxed over the course of the evening, he suspected his brother was the same.)

Nina huffed and let go to climb out of the bed, then turned around and hugged Ed tight. "Night, Big Brother Ed," she said sadly.

Ed hugged her back, then kissed the top of her head and motioned her toward where Gracia was freeing Al from the sleeping Elicia.

While Nina went to say goodbye to his brother, Ed stood and stretched. Then he became aware of a familiar sound and turned to find Hughes with his camera, currently aimed at Al and Nina's hug.

"Your hair," Mustang informed him drily, a sparkle of amusement in his eyes, "has been immortalised on film."

Ed sighed and shrugged. :I'll live.: To which the bastard shook his head in disbelief.

Mustang led the way out of the room, once Al was free to join them, and Hughes called, "I'll be back to tuck everyone in after I've seen your big brothers and uncle out."

As they walked downstairs and to the door, Ed carefully pulled as many of the decorations out of his hair as he could find, and Al got the last couple while Mustang got his coat, then handed them over to Hughes, while Ed put his hair back in his usual ponytail. "Nina might want these back."

Hughes laughed and slipped the handful into his pocket. "Yeah. Thanks for being so patient with them, both of you. None of us really intended to abandon you."

Al shook his head. "It was fine. There are a couple younger kids in our clan who we'd keep an eye on during the planting and harvest seasons, when we weren't out in the fields, so we've had a little bit of experience."

Hughes narrowed his eyes slightly in Ed's direction, something knowing to the curl of his mouth. "Oh, is that all?"

Ed blinked, then frowned and signed, :What did Führer Bastard tell you?:

"Language, Edward," Mustang murmured from way too close behind him.

(Sticking it out just long enough to punch the Dwarf in the Flask back to the other side of the Gate, and then running like hell back to Xing and staying there, was sounding more and more promising; he did not need this man and his temptation in his life.)

As Ed shifted slightly to the side, Hughes grimaced slightly and signed, :Time travel.:

"You don't believe him?" Al murmured, tilting his head to one side.

:And whatever happened to watching what you say in Central?: Ed demanded of Mustang.

Mustang just shot him a flat look. :Given you're incapable of acting like a stupid child and he'll go digging for answers at his first opportunity, I decided this was the safest course of action.:

'Oh.' Right. Hughes wasn't the sort to just let a mystery be, and if he didn't know exactly how easily their enemies could keep tabs on him...

Didn't think that one through properly, did he? Dammit. (This was one of the reasons he needed Mustang in on everything, because the way-too-clever bastard could spot these problem spots that Ed would miss; Ed didn't do people.)

"I don't know what I believe," Hughes admitted so quietly, he was almost whispering. "Normal alchemy goes over my head, never mind whatever weird nonsense this is. But there is a little girl back there whose father turned his wife into a chimera, and you–" he pointed at Ed "–look at her like she's the most precious thing in the world. Hell, the first time you saw me, you looked like you'd seen a ghost!"

Ed swallowed and admitted, :To me, you ARE ghosts, you and Nina. Her, I failed–:

"Brother," Al whispered.

Ed shook his head and continued, :You, I gave too many questions, and finding the answers got you killed.:

Hughes tensed. "What answers?" he demanded quietly, looking between Ed and Mustang, whose mouth was pressed in a thin line. "Roy–"

Ed snapped his fingers and, when Hughes focussed on him, signed, :Do you have a map of the country?: Because he should show this to Mustang, too, and Hughes' house was far more secure than the military. And Mustang was almost certainly right about needing to give Hughes some answers, before he went looking for them on his own; before, Hughes hadn't come to East City until they'd needed to pick up Tucker, and that wasn't happening this time. And him taking a holiday to go back east with Mustang for a few days was liable to get some raised eyebrows.

As much as Ed didn't want to discuss this in Central, they didn't have a choice.

Hughes gave a brusque nod, then led the way to what Ed had always assumed was a hall cupboard, during his rare visits with Gracia and Elicia, before, which turned out to be a cramped, windowless office with a desk covered in papers, a massive map of Amestris taking up the wall to one side, while a huge map of Central City was hung on the wall across from it. Both maps were covered in pins with coloured tips, most with pieces of paper caught on them, and many of the black-tipped ones linked by white string.

"Oh, wow," Al murmured, clearly intrigued. "What are you tracking?"

"State Alchemists," Mustang murmured, reaching past Ed – who couldn't really shift out of the way, because of the cramped quarters; fuck – and touching a red pin, "powerful non-certified alchemists–" he pointed at a yellow pin "–anyone above a lieutenant colonel–" he touched a blue pin "–and military defectors." He touched a white pin.

Hughes tapped one of the few black pins and explained, "These are unsolved or potential serial murders, the perpetrators of which have been avoiding military prosecution."

Ed blinked, his interest – thankfully – caught and asked, :Do any of them have a scar across their forehead?:

Hughes frowned and shook his head. "Not that I can recall. Why?"

"We're waiting for him to pop up," Al offered with a shrug, while Ed spotted a container of pins on the desk and used alchemy to make a handful of them stand out from the rest of the ones on the map.

Ed considered the map for a moment, sighed when he couldn't remember the exact order of the events, and just started with Riviere, since he knew it was the first, and went anticlockwise around the array.

"Ishval?" Mustang hissed when he placed that one, and both his and Hughes' qi just sort of went rigid with tension.

"And Fotset," Hughes whispered, as Ed changed two pins slightly for Liore and Briggs. "There was a massive battle there two years ago, when Aerugo and Creta joined forces, apparently acting on information that it would be an easy target."

Ed snorted. Misinformation, he'd bet.

"Those were bloody battles, with massive losses of life," Hughes continued quietly. "Are all of the rest of them–"

Ed nodded, and both Mustang and Hughes let out quiet curses.

Al had found string by the time Ed finally managed to get the Briggs pin in, with the help of the desk chair. Since he was already up there, he started the string from Briggs and quickly formed the outer pentagon. As he started connecting the inner pentagon, Mustang drew in a sharp breath. "That's an array."

Ed nodded.

"What for?" Hughes whispered, voice shaky.

Ed glanced back when his brother whistled. When he started signing the damning truth, Ed went back to connecting the last of the string.

"The whole country?" Hughes whispered.

Ed tossed the leftover string back on the desk and nodded, then snapped his fingers to get their attention and signed, :We're going to stop them.:

:Where's the circle?: Mustang signed, his jaw clenched tight. :That large, they can't wait until the last minute to create it.:

:Underground. Sloth is digging it.:

"Sloth?" Hughes repeated.

"A homunculus," Al said, before switching to signing to explain about the seven of them.

Hughes' eyes had gone wide at the mention of King Bradley, and when Al said Selim's name, he just started cursing.

"This is too much," he said finally, hands pressed together tight in front of him, as if that would hide how badly they were shaking. "This is impossible."

"You don't believe us?" Al asked, his voice tense.

Hughes looked past Ed, toward the map, his eyes tracking down a bit before stopping, and Ed knew he was looking at the marker over Ishval. "I believe you," he admitted, before letting out a cracked little laugh. "Shit. How can I not? This is so completely freakish and impossible, it can't be anything but the truth." Then he looked at Mustang, who was leaning back against the closed door, arms crossed tight over his chest and his expression held carefully blank. "This is why you've been telling me to slow down, isn't it?"

"I only found out everything yesterday, myself," Mustang said flatly, and Ed couldn't quite keep from wincing; fuck, they'd sort of just dropped the whole mess on him, then never gave him the chance to think, hadn't they? (Not that getting everything in bits and pieces, while hostages were being held over your head wasn't just as stressful, but still.) "But Edward passed on some warnings, with the information about the Tuckers. Recognising the validity of one did stress the importance of the other."

Hughes took a slow, carefully controlled breath and glanced over the map again before looking at Ed. "Is there anyone in Central we can trust?"

"The Armstrongs," Mustang offered, and Ed nodded.

"Brother once mentioned a Maria Ross?" Al offered.

Ed blinked. He had?

Hughes frowned. "Second Lieutenant Ross?" he asked, looking askance at Ed.

Ed sighed and nodded. :Yes. But she was dragged into everything by the homunculi, first.: He rubbed at his mouth in thought, while Hughes let out his own sigh and slumped slightly. As it occurred to him, Ed reached out and touched Hughes' arm to get his attention, then signed, :We never had much to do with your office, so I don't know most of your team.: He motioned towards the map behind him, then continued, :This is a sentencing for everyone in the country, our family and our friends. If you have people that you absolutely trust and can't bear to leave in the dark, especially those with people they would lay down their lives to save, there's not much I can do to stop you. But BE CAREFUL.:

"I doubt we're being watched all that closely right now," Mustang murmured, glancing at the map. "I'm not the only member of the military with eyes on Bradley's seat, and all that the military knows about you two," he continued, looking between Ed and Al, "right now, is that you completed that exam faster than most adults." He looked at Hughes, then, and met his stare. "This time tomorrow will be a different matter, but you have the chance to work out some sort of warning system with those of your team whom you trust."

Hughes' mouth quirked. "Make plans like we're being watched, but don't let that stop us?"

Mustang inclined his head, then looked at Ed. "You said you can sense them? The homunculi."

"Oh?" Hughes looked over too.

Ed grimaced. :We should be able to. If Bradley comes to the practical again, I should be able to tell you for certain after.:

"If you can, that would be a useful skill to develop," Hughes commented.

:You're welcome to travel to Xing and waste a year trying to figure it out,: Ed returned with a flat look.

"Perhaps not."

Al yawned, flushing and covering his mouth when they all looked at him. "Sorry."

"No, I'm sorry," Hughes returned, shaking his head. "You were heading out and I started pushing for answers."

Ed raised his hands to sign, but Mustang reached out and caught his closest wrist. "Apologies don't get us any closer to the hotel," he chastised, while Ed just sort of stared a bit blankly at the hand wrapped around his wrist, just tight enough to keep Ed from signing, but not so much as to be painful.

What the fuck did Mustang think he was doing?!

(And why wasn't Ed pulling away?)

"Come on, Alphonse," Mustang ordered, opening the door and tugging Ed along after him.

(Exhaustion. It had been a long two days of travelling and he just needed to go to bed. Clearly.)

Gracia came quietly down the stairs with a worried frown as they passed the bottom. "I didn't think I'd heard you leave," she said, looking between Mustang and Hughes. "Is everything all right?"

"Just passing on some information." Mustang promised with an easy smile.

Ed finally found the wherewithal to yank his hand away as Mustang stopped to open the front door. They traded a round of quiet goodbyes, then Hughes left to go tuck Nina and Elicia in while Gracia saw them out properly.

Outside, Ed fell in next to Mustang and angrily signed, :I am not a child whose hand needs to be held, you bastard!:

Mustang let out a near silent sigh and signed back, :Maybe you were happy to continue standing around, passing blame, but I intend to get some sleep tonight.:

Al caught Ed's arm and tugged him back so he wasn't walking with Mustang any more. "Stop," he whispered quietly.

Ed huffed, but obediently left off arguing with Mustang, instead staying back and serving as support for Al, which proved quite necessary when they finally made it to the hotel and he stumbled on the stairs.

"Edward? Alphonse?" Mustang called from the landing above them. And he must have been pretty fucking tired, himself, because he actually sounded concerned.

One-handed, Ed signed, :Fine. Go,: then wrapped one arm around his brother and helped him up the stairs, ignoring Al's quiet insistence that he was fine, followed by a tired apology.

In their room, they got changed for bed in silence. Before Ed could turn off the light, though, Al called, "Brother?" When he looked over, Al signed, :It's the colonel, isn't it?:

:What is?: Ed returned, putting on his best tired look in hopes that his brother would either be quick about it, or just shut up.

:Your mystery man.:

Ed couldn't stop himself from tensing, knew that was as good as a confirmation, and responded by snapping off the light, then crawling into bed.

The room was absolutely silent for about half a minute, then Ed's bed dipped and Al said, "Can I sleep with you?"

It had been a long few days, and far more emotionally draining than Ed had really been prepared for. With the crawling sensation under them a constant strain on his nerves, and knowing his brother was all-too aware of it too, the only possible response was to lift his covers, giving Al space to crawl in next to him.

Al curled up behind him and whispered, "I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

Was he? Hughes and Nina were both alive, and some of their strongest allies believed in the danger and were willing to stand with them. He was...grateful. Relieved.

Which wasn't what Al was asking, but Ed had no interest in tackling the kettle of fish his brother was worried about, so he reached over his shoulder and patted Al's shoulder, then closed his eyes.

Al sighed, but didn't push it, for which Ed was extremely grateful.

.

Chapter Text

Somehow, Ed managed to get enough sleep to at least feel functional, though a glance in the mirror after he'd crawled out of bed, showed he looked like he'd have been better served getting another couple hours. 'I hate Central,' he mouthed to his reflection, before turning to get ready for the day.

Al hadn't looked much better and, when they met him in the hotel dining room, Mustang looked rather like he'd have been better served by a few more hours, himself (as much as he ever did, at least). But Ed and Al were due back at Command bright and early for the psychological exam, so they pushed through breakfast and made their way back towards Central Command.

On their way, Ed spied a creeping vine that was still struggling to hold on, despite the nip in the air, and walked over to cut off a bit with a silent hum.

"Brother?" Al asked when he returned to where Mustang and Al had stopped to wait for him.

Ed shrugged and slipped it carefully into his hair tie, figuring that was the best place to keep it to be sure he didn't lose it.

"An interesting fashion statement, Edward," Mustang said drily, as they started walking again. "I'm sure the psychologists will have a couple remarks prepared for it."

Ed rolled his eyes. :It's for the practical.:

"The practical?" Al repeated aloud, likely for the benefit of Mustang, since he was walking ahead of them. "What are you planning, Brother? You never did tell me, only said that it's going to 'tweak a couple noses'."

Mustang fell back to walk on Ed's other side, frowning. "I do hope you're not planning anything foolish."

:I did foolish last time,: Ed returned with a snort. :You'll see.:

Al just sighed. :If you get in trouble, I reserve the right to drag you back to Teacher and tie you up so she can beat on you for me.:

Ed coughed, his mind going an entirely inappropriate and kind of freak-out-worthy (he blamed Mustang) direction, and decided he didn't want to tempt his brother to violence by sharing. :Noted.:

They were separated for the psychological evaluation, which proved expectedly tedious. The two psychologists who Ed ended up with seemed momentarily thrown, upon discovering he couldn't speak, but he'd brought a pile of paper with him to write on, which they had a whispered debate about, before shrugging and allowing.

They had a break for lunch, then followed Mustang to the hall Ed remembered from his original practical. "I got permission," he told them, "for you to watch each other's practical exams."

Al's eyes lit up, while Ed blinked in surprise; really? Mustang had done that for them? That was...nice. Unexpected.

"Edward, you're first. Alphonse, you'll have to come up to the gallery with me to watch."

"Thank you, sir," Al said, before holding out his fist to Ed.

Ed reached out and knocked his own fist against his brother's, then nodded for him to follow after Mustang. Only after they'd vanished from sight, did he shove his way into the room.

The setup was the same, with a couple of military officers watching from the gallery one floor up, while a handful of officers watched from out of the way on the bottom floor, with two privates standing at attention in the centre of the room. One of the privates looked back and motioned him forward, so Ed let the doors fall shut behind himself and made his way across the hall. He stopped between the privates and settled in to wait, glancing up to look at the gallery when he heard a door up there snick closed. Al gave him a slightly nervous wave, and Ed returned his best confident smirk.

Because he was looking at his brother, he knew he felt it at the same time as him: A seething ball of...there was no other word for it but wrath approaching the room, so much more noticeable than any other human qi. (Normally, they'd have to focus a bit on the person, unless their qi was focussed on them, to really get a read on them, but Ed was fairly certain he'd notice that qi, no matter how distracted by something else he was.) He turned towards the door and was entirely unsurprised when Bradley walked in with his retinue of generals.

Bradley stepped up to the small platform at the head of the room and turned to face Ed, the generals spreading out to either side. "At ease," he ordered, and the saluting soldiers relaxed slightly. Bradley turned his uncovered eye towards Ed and said, "You may begin whenever you are ready."

"Oh," the private on Ed's left said, "did you bring something to draw a transmutation circle with?"

Ed rolled his eyes and pulled the leaf out of his hair, then clapped his hands together and – activating two arrays simultaneously – knelt to press the leaf against the floor at his feet.

It took honest effort to slow his transmutation down to half his normal speed – as he'd told Al, best not to let their enemies know exactly how good they were – but he managed to draw it out, sweating a bit from the effort, which should lend credence to the difficulty inherent in controlling two arrays at the same time, for all that that was almost as easy as breathing when your arrays were all internal. (Or, at least, that's how it had always been for him.)

He twirled the completed stone spear once, then slammed it butt-down between himself and Bradley, turned so the homunculus would be able to see the intertwined male and female dragons, with the symbol for god upside down above them (exactly like the array in Xerxes) at the top. And along the body of the spear, he'd alternated five suns and five moons, peeking out from behind the curling vine that had grown down the length from the single leaf he'd brought. Suns for the soul, moons for the spirit, stone for the body, and the vine for life; the recipe for human transmutation in staff form, topped with the symbol for a complete life form, and the intention to drag 'god' down and make him one's own.

Bradley met his stare around the spear, his expression a study in careful neutrality, but his qi pulling back slightly, wary, now, where it had originally been a mass of fury.

Good. Nose tweaked.

"Interesting," Bradley said blandly.

Ed gave a deep bow, then clapped his hands again and set the spear against the dent he'd made to create it. As he turned away and walked towards the doors, the spear let off sparks and melted back into the floor, returning it to its original, smooth state, the vine falling limply over the repaired floor.

On the stairs up to the gallery, he passed Al, who signed, :Whatever happened to holding back?:

Ed flashed him a smirk and shrugged; okay, so maybe his parting bit of returning the spear to its natural state was a bit more advanced than he should have done, but he'd had no interest in carrying the damn thing around with him, which meant getting rid of it, and if he was going to get rid of it anyway, why not do so in style?

Al just sighed and shook his head, clearly resigned to Ed's determination to flaunt his own rules the same way he flaunted everyone else's.

Mustang was awaiting him in the gallery, and the man standing next to him politely shifted to make room for Ed, which he inclined his head in a silent 'thanks' for.

:Should I expect an explanation?: Mustang signed as Al stepped into the hall below them, clearly nervous.

Ed leant forward over the railing and, completely disregarding any rules he might be breaking, let out a sharp whistle. When Al looked up at him, a faint, disapproving frown turning his mouth, Ed signed, :Do I need to come down there and give you something to heal?:

:Don't be an idiot!: Al signed back, before straightening and pacing forward to the centre of the room with a far more confident air.

Ed relaxed back to the floor, ignoring his neighbours and Mustang's disapproving stares, as well as Bradley's gaze, and signed, :It's from the array in Xerxes. Or what was left of it, when Al and I got there.:

Mustang let out a thoughtful hum, and they both turned their attention towards Al.

Al cleared his throat, put on an uncertain smile, and said, "Uhm, so, I promise I know what I'm doing."

Ed barely managed to stifle a snort.

Al pulled out one of his kunai, pushed back his sleeve, and used the kunai to make a shallow cut on his arm.

Next to Ed, Mustang stiffened, and he reached over and, a bit thoughtlessly, patted the hand the man had wrapped around the railing.

Al calmly slipped the kunai back inside his sash, then clapped his hands together and held one over the cut. The transmutation light flared green, proving he'd managed to stick with both the Cretan array and the western energy source. And Ed was too far away to really see, but he knew the cut would be scabbing over, the skin under it growing and knitting itself back together. Depending on how deep the cut was, Al could very well heal it to the point that there would only be a faint scar left, which was better than Ed could do with the same array. (But, then, Al was very clearly the better healer, whether he used alchemy or alkahestry.)

:You know a healing array?: Mustang signed where Ed would see.

:Cretan,: Ed agreed. :We actually know a few, for use in different situations. This one is specifically for blood clotting and skin cell regrowth.: He glanced over at the bastard as the transmutation light died down. :We can teach you.:

Mustang swallowed and nodded. :I'd appreciate that.:

"Most impressive, young alchemist," Bradley said as Al rolled his sleeve back down.

"Thank you, Führer Bradley," Al replied with a polite bow.

Bradley glanced up towards Ed, then back at Al. "You two are brothers, I believe?"

"Yes, sir. Edward's the elder." Al glanced up towards Ed and flatly added, "Not that he acts like it."

Ed rolled his eyes; Al was one to talk.

Bradley chuckled. "I look forward to both of your results. Keep up the good work." Then he turned and left the room, the generals that had come in with him filing out after.

Mustang let out a slow breath and lightly touched Ed's shoulder. "Come. I believe Lieutenant Colonel Hughes has some pictures to force on you."

Ed snorted as he joined Mustang in leaving the gallery. :Just because YOU don't like seeing pictures of Elicia and Nina, doesn't mean the rest of us have a problem with it.:

"It's not the pictures themselves," Mustang insisted, "it's the sheer number of them."

:You know, as lazy as you are, I'd have thought you'd jump at the distraction.:

"There are distractions you willingly participate in, Edward–"

:Like cleaning your windows two dozen times a day?: Ed suggested.

"–and then there is Hughes," Mustang completed, very obviously ignoring him.

Ed made a show of laughing silently at him.

Al sighed as he met up with them. "Sir, please don't engage with Brother."

:RUDE. Respect your big brother.:

:Ignoring you IS respectful: Al signed back. :It makes me want to hit you less.:

Ed snorted and held his peace until they were out on the parade grounds, headed for the eastern gate, so they could go over to the Investigations building. :You noticed him, too,: he signed to Al.

Al nodded, his expression going tight. :He was a little hard to miss. You definitely tweaked his nose, though, Brother; I hope you don't end up regretting it.:

"Bradley?" Mustang murmured.

Ed and Al both nodded, Al explaining, :We can keep track of where he is, at least, and probably the others, too. I suppose we can do a test with Selim, but there's no way to know if we can sense his shadows, or–:

:Ling could,: Ed signed, and his brother dropped his hands to focus on him. :He had some trouble with Bradley, but he always knew where the others were, and he seemed to sense Pride's shadows, rather than his container.:

Al gave a tight nod, while Mustang made the sign-name Ed had decided on for Ling, wearing a questioning look. :A Xingan Brother knew, before,: Al explained. :Different clan from ours, so we never met him, but Ed complains of him highly, so I expect he's a good person.:

Mustang coughed. :Complains of him highly?:

:Fuck off, both of you,: Ed signed with a scowl.

Al grimaced at Ed's sexual sign, even as he told Mustang, :Brother doesn't compliment people, he complains. Ling is apparently suspicious, has a bad habit of eating other people's food, and needs to learn not to get involved in the problems of other countries.:

Mustang blinked at that. :Do I want to know what I am?:

:A way too fucking smug, lazy bastard who needs to stop acting like an idiot,: Ed signed, then shot the bastard a glare.

Al coughed. :Essentially.:

Mustang hummed as he considered that, then signed, :What about Bradley?:

:Fuck Bradley,: Ed returned, using the non-sexual sign, for once. :I'll be happy when he's dead.:

"Ah," Mustang said. :I believe I understand what you mean,: he signed to Al.

Al smiled and nodded. :I had a feeling you'd figure it out.:

-0-

Last time, Ed, Mustang, and Hawkeye had returned to East City to await the results of the exams – the military couldn't just tell them right away, they had to wait – but, this time, they remained in Central. Mustang made some excuse about showing them around to all the facilities their licences would give them access to, while Hughes was quick to insist they would be cruel to leave Nina and Elicia after only two days with their new big brothers, and they used the evenings, after putting the girls to bed, to go over what Ed could remember of the coming events with a far finer-toothed comb than Ed had done previously. It didn't really turn up any new ideas, but it did give them a pretty solid timeline of events to plan around.

While all of these things proved good excuses, Ed wasn't fooled; he was about eighty percent certain the two men had conspired to give him more time with Nina, and he couldn't even pretend he wasn't grateful.

At the start of the next week, the response to their applications found them crowded around Hughes' office, Ed and Mustang arguing over visiting the alchemy labs or trying to get them into First Branch, while Al had completely given up on mediating them, and Hughes had sat back to watch them go at it with an amused grin.

Ed was in the middle of telling Mustang about a book that he seriously, truly (okay, not really that badly) needed to look at in First Branch, which was way more important than the stupid labs, when he sensed that ball of too-obvious wrath and spun to face the door of the office, while Al stiffened and said, "Bradley."

"What, here?" Hughes demanded, his feet hitting the floor with a thud as he removed them from his desk and sat up straight.

Someone knocked on the door, and Captain Marcus Fokker poked his head in, his expression strained as he shot off a perfunctory salute; he was one of the men Hughes had trusted with a heavily edited and slightly more believable for non-alchemists version of the truth, which focussed more on the high command's corruption, and avoided all mention of the homunculi, the Dwarf in the Flask, or Ed's circumstances. "Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, the Führer's here to speak with the Elric brothers."

Ed looked at Al, whose expression was tight. "The results?" Al guessed.

:Likely,: Ed returned, walking over to stand next to his brother and squeeze his shoulder.

"Please show the Führer in, Captain," Mustang requested smoothly, as he moved to stand next to Hughes' desk, while Hughes stood, himself.

"Yes, sir," Fokker agreed before stepping back out of the office.

"Behave," Al murmured as he stood.

Ed huffed. But, when Bradley stepped into the office, he joined his brother in bowing, while Hughes and Mustang both saluted.

"At ease, gentlemen," Bradley said, his tone cheerful.

Al cleared his throat as he and Ed both straightened. "You wanted to speak to us, sir?"

"Indeed," Bradley agreed, settling into one of the couches and motioning for someone to step into the office, revealing a gaunt officer that Ed knew was Bradley's personal assistant. "I wanted to be here to personally welcome two of the most promising young alchemists I've yet seen into the ranks of Amestris' military. Lieutenant Colonel Storch?"

"Yes, sir," the aide replied, before stepping forward and holding out two document envelopes, Ed's name written on the front of one, Al's on the other.

"We've been accepted?" Al asked as he took his envelope. "Both of us?"

"You have indeed, young Alphonse," Bradley agreed, while Ed accepted his own envelope. "Congratulations."

Ed already knew what the certificate said, so he looked straight to the title Bradley had given him, and couldn't stop himself from laughing.

Al looked up from his own papers, likely alerted by the amusement sparking through Ed's qi, and looked over at him. "Brother?"

Ed dropped the papers onto Al's abandoned chair, then signed, :I am the Silent Alchemist.:

Al coughed, amusement in his eyes, while Mustang helpfully commented, "How accurate."

:Go fuck–.:

Al smacked Ed's hands with his papers. "Stop it."

Ed caught the papers and turned them to read, ignoring Al's huffing. Upon finding Al's new title, he let out a silent hum and let him have the papers back. :Not a bad title for you.:

"The Mending Alchemist," Al said, for the benefit of Mustang and Hughes.

"It suits you," Hughes offered.

Al smiled at him. "Thank you, sir."

Bradley chuckled. "I'm glad my choices meet with such approval."

"Yes, sir," Al agreed, dropping his own paperwork onto the chair with Ed's; doubtless, he would be pouring over it on the train, if not sooner.

:Watches?: Ed signed, as it occurred to him that he wouldn't need Mustang to get into First Branch, now.

Al blinked. "Watches?" he repeated, clearly confused for a second, before looking at Mustang, who had helpfully pulled his own out. "Oh. Those watches."

Bradley chuckled again as he pulled out two boxes, which Storch collected from him, then brought over to Ed and Al. "The badges of your station. Wear them with pride."

Ed opened his box and pulled the new watch out, the weight familiar in his palm, even though it had been almost two decades and a different lifetime when he'd last held one.

He glanced down at his clothing and sighed; the first thing he was going to have to do, was go out and buy the leather trousers he preferred, if only because his Xingan-style trousers didn't have pockets. He slipped it loose into his sash, for the moment; he could switch some kunai around and change the shape of one of his pockets after Bradley was gone.

Next to him, Al was clearly finding the same problem, and he eventually followed Ed's lead and just let it lay loose.

"Good. And now, your assignments," Bradley said, and Storch revealed out two new document envelopes with Ed and Al's names on the fronts.

Ed frowned. Assignments? Shouldn't those go through Mustang?

"I'm afraid," Bradley said, glancing toward Mustang, his qi almost smug, under the constant feeling of wrath, before returning to Ed and Al, "that we're in danger of overloading East City with extremely talented alchemists, which seems rather unfair to the rest of the country."

Ed narrowed his eyes, while Al drew in a sharp breath; so, this was how the homunculi intended to control them, by separating them.

"Silent Alchemist, given your limited ability to communicate, you will be placed with Colonel Mustang's command in East City," Bradley continued, appearing all unaware of the affect his words were having on Ed and Al (and, Ed had little doubt, Mustang and Hughes). "Mending, you'll remain here, in Central, under the command of Brigadier General Grand."

Brigadier General Basque Grand, the Iron Blood Alchemist. He was the one who was in charge of lab five, and the last thing Ed wanted was for his brother to be tied to that hellhole in any way. Never mind the fact that there was no way he could leave Al alone in Central, not with the homunculi close at hand, not with how Al kept climbing into bed with him each night, complaining that the crawling sensation was keeping him up.

Ed snatched both envelopes from Storch and pushed past him, towards Bradley.

"Brother!" Al shouted, sounding vaguely panicked, while Mustang started to take a step forward, before stopping himself.

Ed sat down across from the Führer and dropped the envelopes into his lap so he could shoot his brother a sharp look and sign, :Sit down and shut up, Al.:

Al swallowed and collected their paperwork from his chair, carefully settling into it. From his expression, he knew what Ed was up to, and, as much as he wanted to argue, he didn't. Which, Ed thought, spoke to exactly how much his brother did not want to get stuck alone in Central.

Ed pulled out his pen and turned to write on the back of one of the envelopes: 'If you want 1 of us in Central you want me. We both know the healing arrays tho Al's a little better but I'm the only 1 of us fluent in Aerugonian + Cretan. Lt Col Hughes understands my hand signs--put me under his command'

He passed the note to Bradley, who read it, his eyebrows raising slightly. "Can you prove all of this?" he asked.

Ed nodded, then turned toward Hughes and signed, :Hughes, do you have anything laying around in Aerugonian or Cretan?:

Hughes' already tense expression tightened even further as he frowned. "Aerugonian or Cretan?" he repeated, unknowingly proving part of Ed's note. "I have a couple documents in here, sure. Why?"

"Brother can read and write both of them," Al offered quietly, and Hughes and Mustang turned startled gazes on Ed. "Xingan, too."

:We're not at war with Xing, or constantly intercepting intel written in Xingan,: Ed pointed out. :Looks great on a list of skills, not so useful to the military.:

Hughes cleared his throat and brought over a few pieces of paper. "You've been holding out on me, Ed," he said, offering him one page covered in what Ed recognised as Aerugonian, while the other was blank. "This was translated by one of my men, sir," he told Bradley, while handing the last page over to him; the translation, Ed would guess.

Shaking his head, he leant forward over the low table between himself and Bradley and got to work. It looked like a basic inventory request letter, which he quickly finished and handed to Bradley as Al gave up on sitting still and walked over to stand behind him, his qi an uneasy pillar pressing close against Ed's own tightly leashed qi.

Bradley took a moment to compare the two pages, then looked up and gave Ed a considering look. "You make a good case for switching assignments, Silent Alchemist."

Ed just watched him through narrowed eyes, pitting his stubborn need to keep his brother safe against the homunculus' well of wrath.

"Lieutenant Colonel Hughes," Bradley said, and Hughes stiffened, "is there room in Investigations for a Cretan or Aerugonian translator?"

Hughes cleared his throat. "Translators who have sworn their loyalty to the military aren't so commonplace, sir, that we could afford not to make space for one."

Bradley smiled at Ed. "Well then, my young Silent Alchemist, it appears you are better served being assigned to Lieutenant Colonel Hughes' command. Mending Alchemist," he continued, looking behind Ed, "you will be returning to East City with Colonel Mustang and serving under his command."

"Yes, sir," Al said quietly, his voice trembling slightly.

Bradley stood. "Colonel Mustang, I expect you'll be returning to East City directly, now that your business here in Central has been concluded."

"The Mending Alchemist and I will be on tomorrow's train, sir," Mustang promised.

"Gentlemen," Bradley offered, and Ed stood to join his brother in bowing to the homunculus. "Congratulations, again, Elrics, on your new positions."

As soon as the door clicked shut, before Bradley's presence left the outer office, Al punched Ed with enough force to make him wince. "You idiot!" he shouted in Xingan, swinging another punch at Ed, which glanced off his shoulder as Ed hurried around the couch. "You stupid, self-sacrificing, over-protective–"

Ed caught his fists and pulled Al into a hug, making hushing noises.

"Stupid," Al said again, weaker, before wrapping his arms back around Ed and beginning to shake with near-silent sobs.

Ed sighed and tightened his hold. They hadn't planned for this, and while Ed had no problem striking out on his own for a while, so long as he knew Al was safe, his little brother wasn't quite thirteen yet. As mature as Al always behaved, he was still a kid, and he didn't know Mustang's team like Ed did, for all the stories of them Ed had told him; it was going to be the first time in his life he was going to be stuck apart from Ed for longer than a couple days, and he was going to be doing it with people who were only a little better than complete strangers.

Ed wanted to hate himself for this choice, but it was the best of a bad lot, and Al could still run to Granny if he needed a friendly face, or ring Winry or Teacher if he just needed to hear someone's voice or get some advice. And Mustang's team were good people, had welcomed them when Ed had been younger than Al was now; Ed knew they would do what they could to help his brother settle in and distract him from Ed's absence, that Mustang would do everything in his power to keep Al safe, simply because he was under his command.

Ed could live with this choice, could almost convince himself he wouldn't regret it.

It took Al a long few minutes to calm back down, but, once he had, Ed directed him into the couch he'd just been sitting in, then sat on the low table in front of him and signed, :You know what they're doing. We've spooked them and they think separating us is going to make us weaker, but it won't. Führer Bastard and his team are going to keep you safe down east, and you can try to talk to the Ice Queen during the next battle training between East and Briggs, wait for Scar to pop up. I'll stay here and keep tabs on the homunculi for Hughes and his team, and spoil Nina and Elicia rotten, okay?:

Al managed a weak smile at that last, adding, :And you're closer to Winry, now.:

:That may not be a good thing.:

Al's smile strengthened a little. :Idiot.:

Ed nodded. :Yes. But, remember what I said? I'm the big brother. That means it's my job to take on the crap.:

:That's not even a little equivalent,: Al complained.

"I think I can even the field a little bit," Hughes said, coming over and gently ruffling Al's hair. "We have an extra room upstairs that's just being used to store junk, right now. Why don't we see about cleaning that out tonight and getting a bed and some furniture for it?"

Live with the Hugheses? That would mean he could spend all his free time with Elicia and Nina, and he'd get Gracia's cooking all the time, and he'd be able to walk to and from the office with Hughes without have to make stupid excuses, make sure Envy didn't pop up and shoot him again, just because the universe hated him or something. That would...that would be nice.

"That's a little more equivalent," Al decided.

Ed flashed him a smile, then pulled out his new pocket watch and clicked it open to check it had been wound and was correct – it had, and was – then slipped it away and signed, :Well, I don't know about you, but I'd like to get some trousers with pockets, now we have the funds.:

Mustang snorted as he collected their abandoned paperwork. "I believe there was also discussion of having uniforms fitted."

Hughes hummed. "Not a bad plan, at least for you, Ed. Investigations doesn't usually have civilian contractors or State Alchemists without military training attached to us, for security reasons, so the uniform will help ease a number of potential concerns."

Al snorted. "Brother just wants it so people won't treat him like a kid," he muttered.

Ed reached over and roughly ruffled his hair, dodging the retaliatory swipe.

Hughes chuckled. "Well, that's also a possible use for it," he agreed. "Were you planning to wear one, Al?"

Al shrugged and glanced up at where Mustang had stopped at Hughes' shoulder. "I guess it depends on what I end up doing. If I end up with desk work, it would be better to wear the uniform, I guess, but if I'm going to be going out on missions, civilian wear would be the better choice." He looked at Ed. "Right?"

Ed shrugged. :To be fair, I was travelling with a civilian, so dressing like one was my best option. If you end up on any missions, you'll be paired with a member of the military–: he shot a sharp look at Mustang – Al had better not be sent on any missions alone – and Mustang inclined his head :–so you'll be as likely to travel in uniform as without.:

"Very true," Mustang agreed smoothly. "While it would depend on the mission itself, to some extent, you will find that both Second Lieutenants Breda and Havoc much prefer to dress in civilian clothing when away from the office, while Lieutenant Hawkeye always prefers to be in uniform."

Ed glanced up and caught Mustang watching him, knew he was really saying, 'If I send your brother out on a mission, he'll be with at least one of these people'. He inclined his head in approval, already familiar with exactly how good those three were in the field; Al would be safe, and he knew his brother would never leave anyone behind, which would be a load off Mustang's mind, when he finally figured that out. (If he hadn't already; the fact that Ed and Al hadn't just packed up their things and dragged the Rockbells to live in Xing, had come back and actually made themselves targets, said a lot about them, Ed knew.)

Ed snorted and turned back to his brother. :So we'll both get one, and Hughes can take a picture, which we can send to Teacher–:

"No," Al insisted, paling.

:–and she can burn that instead of coming to kill us. Unless you'd rather ring her to let her know we got the licences?:

Al moaned and covered his face. "Can we just...forget to tell her?"

Ed laughed silently to himself.

Mustang cleared his throat. "I assume your alchemy teacher was none too impressed with your decisions to join the military?"

Ed flashed him a grin. :She expelled us, made us wash the dishes, and attempted to beat us both up. In roughly that order.:

Hughes snorted. "Well, that's better than Roy's; old man Hawkeye apparently died on him."

Ed blinked. Hawkeye? Like–?

Mustang caught Ed's surprise and raised an eyebrow. "The lieutenant's father was my alchemy master. You didn't know?"

Ed shook his head. :It never came up,: he admitted, because that had never been anything he'd thought to ask the bastard. Although, when he thought of it... 'Oh,' he mouthed, before signing, :I had wondered, a bit, why she said she'd joined the military because of what you'd said at her father's funeral.:

Mustang shifted and cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable for a moment, before putting on a smile that looked wrong, his qi pulled in tight and threaded with self-recrimination. "Not one of my finer moments."

Ed considered him, while Hughes sighed and said, "Too late for regrets now, Roy," his tone suggesting this conversation wasn't uncommon.

Ed cleared his throat and, when both men looked over at him, offered, :I have found, that any hell is easier to bear when you're not alone. Maybe you led her to the military, and maybe it was a hell she wouldn't have had to face if she'd kept to whatever path her father would have wanted for her, but at least you didn't let her go at it alone.:

Mustang and Hughes both blinked, while Al let out a quiet breath.

And then Mustang smiled, tired and far too human. "Who am I to ignore the wisdom of my elders?" he murmured, inclining his head towards Ed.

"Wait, what?" Hughes said, looking between Mustang and Ed a few times.

Al coughed out a laugh. "By Brother's figuring, he's thirty-three. Even though he never acts it."

:Consider,: Ed signed, rolling his eyes, :that you may just have too narrow an idea of how someone over thirty should act.:

Al put on a considering look for a moment, then shook his head. "Nope. Previously collected data supports the hypothesis–"

"Out," Hughes ordered, pointing at the door of his office. "No freaky sciencing in my office. Roy, go get them uniforms."

Mustang snorted. "Don't give me orders, Lieutenant Colonel."

"Sorry, Colonel," Hughes returned with a gleam in his eyes that made Ed wary, and he wasn't even the focus. "You're welcome to stay and see these pictures–"

"About those uniforms," Mustang said, stepping forward and pushing at both Ed and Al's shoulders. "Quickly, Elrics."

Ed stood, signing, :You know that just makes me want to stay, right?:

"You're welcome to," Mustang informed him, as Al also stood and they started towards the door, Al politely taking the envelopes of their paperwork from Mustang. "In fact, need I remind you, you just signed yourself up for an extended torture session, spanning months."

:I really don't know what your problem is with the photos,: Ed signed, while Al shook his head and fell back to laugh quietly behind them.

"You'll very quickly find out, I promise you," Mustang returned. "About the time he shows you the fourth photo in a row of Gracia in the exact same pose."

Ed laughed. :Be honest, bastard, you're just tired of being nagged to get a wife.:

Mustang shot him a suspicious look and signed, :YOU'RE not about to start in on me about the wonders of married life, are you?:

Ed rolled his eyes, because he was the last person to go around telling anyone, let alone Mustang, to go find a partner and live forever in marital bliss. :FUCK no. Unlike some lunatics we know, I'm plenty aware that married life isn't for everyone.:

Mustang winced. :Did I crash and burn?:

Ed grit his teeth, wished they'd never got on this topic; he did this shit to himself. :So far as I'm aware, you remained a happily unattached playboy until I ran awry of that array.:

Mustang glanced at him, his mouth turned down just slightly. :Then who?:

:No one you know,: Ed lied, before falling back to walk with Al and requesting, :Change the subject.:

Al shot him a quick worried look, but agreeably said, "After we get the uniforms, I wouldn't mind looking for civilian clothing; everything we own, right now, is Xingan. And while it's comfortable and familiar, it does get some odd looks, sometimes."

Mustang nodded. "Certainly. Did you have anywhere in mind?"

Al looked at Ed, who shrugged and nodded. :Sure. It might not suit your tastes, but there's no harm in you looking around.:

Al shook his head with a huff. "Brother has a favourite shop, but I might have to look around."

:Don't ask the bastard,: Ed added. :He always wears three-piece suits.:

"What's wrong with suits?" Al asked, and Mustang coughed ahead of them.

:From experience, they suck to fight in.:

"Oh. Well, still. It's not a terrible idea to own a nice suit, Brother."

"Quite true," Mustang agreed, and Ed resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Before they had Elicia, Maes and Gracia would go to the theatre on occasion. While you're more likely to find yourself cast as a babysitter, there's always a chance you'll be dragged along; getting a suit now means you'll avoid the hassle of having to get one fitted at the last minute."

Ed gave in to the urge to roll his eyes. :FINE. If we're stuck shopping the afternoon away, anyway, we'll go to the poncy place.:

Al snorted. "Brother agrees that having a suit would be a good plan."

The look Mustang shot back over his shoulder made it clear he knew Al was stretching that more than a little bit, and Al just offered a faint smile and shrugged.

Ed huffed at both of them. Jerks.

-0-

Hughes did, in fact, insist on taking photos of Ed and Al in their uniforms, and Ed fully intended to send one of the copies to Teacher, with a note saying she should burn it in lieu of killing them.

"I do like that style, though," Hughes commented as they sat down for dinner. "Against regulation and all, but it actually works."

Ed snorted and glanced down at his sash, which had been partially hidden by his uniform jacket before he'd taken it off for dinner. Neither he nor Al had been willing to go without their sashes, so they'd decided to wear them under their jackets, foregoing the butt-cape entirely. It was against regulation, and the sashes were much darker than the normal uniform – though Mustang had said they were about the same shade as the formal uniform – so it wasn't like they could be easily overlooked, but being State Alchemists meant they should be able to get away with the modification, and since neither of their direct commanding officers cared...

Well, they all knew Ed was only wearing the damn thing for the respect his technical rank granted him, and Al had a long history of getting away with anything, though no one in the military had quite had occasion to discover that particular talent of his, yet. (They would; Ed was kind of sad he was going to miss it.)

Al let out a slightly nervous laugh. "Well, we decided our clan symbol was more important than following regulation, and we do keep things related to our alchemy in them, not to mention Brother's journal, which is his main way to communicate with most people, so we have an excuse if anyone does have a problem with them."

"Things related to your alchemy?" Mustang repeated, frowning.

"No alchemy at the table," Hughes ordered, and Nina and Elicia both let out sad sounds, because they had already discovered the wonders of Ed and Al's alchemy. Namely in that they could repair broken toys, refresh dying flowers, and make origami animals with a flash of light; all fairly minor, useless tricks that Teacher would have yelled at them for, probably, but it made the girls happy, which was really what Ed and Al cared about.

Al glanced at Ed, raising one eyebrow, and Ed shrugged in response. :If Hughes will let us do it inside, I don't see why not.: Because showing off distance alkahestry outside was just asking for that trick to get back to the homunculi, especially since they were almost certainly under some form of surveillance, at this point, but with the windows of the house drawn against the night, they should be fine inside.

"After dinner," Al offered. Which, of course, had Elicia and Nina trying to rush the meal.

Once everyone had finished eating and the dishes were cleaned – resulting in so much whining from Elicia and Nina about them being slow on purpose – Ed picked a tin from the bin, washed it out, then brought it into the living room, where Hughes, Gracia, and Elicia had taken one couch, while Mustang had captured Nina on the other, to keep her from getting under foot. Al was standing in the middle of the room, scratching his head, but his eyes lit up when he saw what was in Ed's hand. "Oh, good. I was having trouble figuring out what to do."

Ed waved a careless hand at that, then stopped at the edge of the coffee table, between the two couches, and showed the unaltered tin around.

"No arrays," Al offered as Ed sat the tin on a handy coaster, since it was still a little wet. "Nothing drawn on it." As Ed pulled out one of his kunai, Al added, "Also clean of any weird extra symbols."

"I'm mildly concerned about why this is an important point," Hughes offered as Ed dropped the kunai into the tin with a sharp note of metal-on-metal.

Ed flashed him a grin, then took two long steps back. He glanced at Al, who shook his head and motioned for Ed to do it, then nodded and clapped his hands together. Light sparked briefly between his hands, before the tin lit up with an alkahestric reaction and slowly reformed into two flamels with short chains attached to the crowns.

"Did you just–" Mustang breathed, his eyes wide.

"Distance transmutations are possible with alkahestry," Al explained, while Ed stepped forward and picked up the two flamels and his kunai. "So long as we can reach it with one of our knives and the object is connected to the ground somehow, we don't need to touch it to transmute."

"Well," Hughes said after clearing his throat, "that's certainly something to keep under wraps for a while."

"Yeah," Al agreed, before blinking and catching the flamel Ed tossed at him. "This is–? Oh." He shot Ed a sharp look. "You really think she'd approve?"

Ed shrugged and, with a quick clap, attached it to the chain of his watch, where it was hidden under his sash. That done, he straightened and signed, :Whether she approves or not, we earned the right to them. If she complains, come up with something about using it as a reminder of what we were taught alchemy SHOULD be used for.:

Al snorted and attached his flamel in the same way. :You wore it before,: he guessed once his hands were free.

:We both did.:

"What is it?" Nina pleaded as she caught the end of Ed's sash and very gently tugged on it, apparently having finally escaped Mustang.

"It's called a flamel," Al explained, while Ed pulled his watch free of his belt so she and Elicia, who had tottered over herself, could get a good look at it. "Our alchemy teacher has a tattoo of it, which she said she got from something her own teacher wore."

"Cool!" Elicia declared, before giggling.

"Can I have one?" Nina asked.

"You know," Gracia said, "that sounds like the sort of thing you need to do lots of hard work to earn."

"I'm afraid so," Al agreed, while Ed slipped his watch and the flamel away. "We went through months of really intense training to be allowed to have these."

"I can do training!" Nina insisted.

"Training!" Elicia agreed.

Al let out a nervous laugh. "Maybe when you're older, if your parents agree, okay?"

"Okay," Nina agreed glumly.

Al looked a bit helplessly at Ed, who shrugged and offered, :They can help me finish putting clothing away?: Because they'd brought all of his new clothing and all but a few essentials over to the Hugheses, after dropping Al's new things off at the hotel. Ed fully intended to spend one last night with Al at the hotel, but it had seemed silly to make a special trip to cart all those things over in the morning, when they were coming over that evening anyway.

And, yes, it felt a little weird to have somewhere to unpack and settle in while he was a dog of the military, but it was sort of nice, too; for all that he'd always have that little bit of wanderlust tugging his feet to go travelling, he was old enough to appreciate having a place he could come home to, where the bed was always the same and smiling faces were waiting to greet him.

"That's a good idea," Al agreed, before asking the girls, "Who wants to help Brother unpack?"

"I do!" Nina declared, immediately cheering up at the reminder that Ed was moving in right down the hall.

"Yeah!" Elicia agreed, jumping towards Ed.

He caught her and swung her up into his arms, grinning as she squealed in delight.

"Come on," Al said, offering a hand down to Nina, which she ignored in a bid for him to carry her, too, which he did with a laugh.

As they made for the stairs, Ed heard Mustang say, "So, how does it feel to have gained a live-in babysitter who's probably more capable of keeping them safe than all three of us combined?"

Ed paused at the bottom of the stairs, shifting his hold on Elicia, so he could hear Hughes' grim response of, "Right now? Equal parts disheartening and reassuring."

"Big Brofer?" Elicia whispered.

Ed smiled and kissed her temple, then started up the stairs to where Al and Nina were waiting for them, both wearing curious looks. He shook his head and motioned for them to go ahead.

Disheartening, yes; he just wanted this mess to be over with so the Hugheses and Nina and Al could all be safe.

He never thought he'd think it, but he couldn't wait for Hohenheim to show his useless face.

-0-

"Are you sure you'll be all right on your own?" Al asked for what seemed like the hundredth time, as he packed away his pyjamas and toiletries and snapped his suitcase shut with a final-sounding 'click'.

Ed sighed. :I'm not alone, I'm here with Hughes and his team and Armstrong. And I DO know a thing or two about surviving the military.:

"I know that," Al said, slumping slightly. "I just...worry. Central's a horrible place to get stuck."

:I will live,: Ed promised. :I can get used to the Stones, and this'll give me a chance to test noticing when Selim's around, not to mention the others.:

"Who might not even be here," Al reminded him. "For all any of us know, they're checking on the mural in Xerxes, after you went and taunted them."

Ed snorted. :Unlikely. They've still got Liore and Briggs to set off, and I'd expect the fact that I knew about it and chose to show it to Bradley would be more of a concern than what I may have done to the array itself.:

Al sighed. "I guess. Just...try to stay out of Bradley's way for a while, okay, Brother? Do your work and keep your head down."

:Have you met me?: Ed asked before picking up and slipping on his small pack of essentials.

Al grimaced and grabbed his suitcase. "Unfortunately, yes."

:Cute.:

Al led the way from the room and had started down the stairs before warning, "It's not just me and Winry who're going to have to dodge the fallout any more, Brother."

Ed stumbled and had to catch himself on the bannister. Fuck. The Hugheses and Nina. Fuck.

He'd just stamped a massive target on the back of each of them, with the words, 'Potential hostage' emblazoned in bloody lettering underneath. And it didn't matter, at this point, if he moved in with them or not, because they'd been going over for dinner every night for nearly a week. Hell, they'd gone out with Gracia and the girls to find furniture for Ed's room just the evening before, before Hughes got home, and Ed and Al had been clearly adoring of Elicia and Nina during the trip.

Al was watching him, a grim sort of fear in his eyes. "Please be careful," he whispered.

Ed clenched his jaw and nodded.

Mustang was awaiting them in the lobby. He frowned and set down his suitcase when he saw them, signing, :What's wrong?:

Ed flashed him a smile that ached in all the wrong ways. :Al was just reminding me not to give the homunculi any reason to think they need hostages.:

Mustang's jaw clenched; he never needed these sorts of things spelt out, which Ed appreciated a lot more now than he had as a kid. :An excellent point,: he agreed, before picking his suitcase up and turning towards the front entrance of the hotel. "We should leave before we miss our train, since I did promise the Führer we'd be on it."

"Of course, sir," Al agreed, while he and Ed fell in behind the bastard.

Out on the pavement, Al sighed and said, "I'm going to have to find living accommodations, aren't I?"

:We usually stayed in the dorms,: Ed signed, while Mustang said, "Being a member of the military does entitle you to a room in the dorms."

Al laughed.

When Mustang glanced back at them, Ed signed, :That's pretty much what I said.:

Mustang coughed and fell back a couple steps to walk on Ed's other side. "And what are your words of wisdom regarding the mess hall?"

:Avoid if at all possible.:

"Excellent wisdom," Mustang agreed, while Al laughed a bit harder. "I couldn't have said it better myself. Or, actually..."

:I will punch you,: Ed warned.

"You really don't want to start off your military career with a court-martial."

Ed glanced at Al, who looked like he was considering the necessity of trading places. :I like how he thinks that will stop me.:

Al caught Ed's elbow and pulled him away from Mustang, then slotted himself between them. "Please don't walk next to my brother, sir."

Ed laughed, while Mustang coughed into his fist. "I shall attempt to remember that for any future strolls," he promised in that mild tone he had that Ed knew was masking laughter.

Al just sighed and shook his head.

Outside the station, they had to stop when Al spun and threw his arms around Ed, his suitcase thwacking hard against Ed's own pack on his back and pushing them together even closer. Closing his eyes, Ed hugged him back hard, wished there was a way to wrap up sensations like this, so he could pull it out when he needed to be reminded that his brother was flesh-and-blood. That he was alive and stupid-young and terrified out of his bloody mind, but still so heartbreakingly brave.

"Please be safe," Al whispered in Xingan. "Please, please, please..."

Ed shushed him and pulled back to mouth, 'I will be here, when you're transferred back to Central. Exactly as I am now.'

Al tried a smile. "Maybe a little taller?"

Ed rolled his eyes and pinched his brother, smoothly pulling away to avoid a retaliation. :Idiot,: he signed with a smile that he hoped didn't look quite so much like it hurt as it actually did. :I'll be fine. YOU worry about Havoc's smoking habit.:

Al made a face. "Thanks for that reminder. See if you can't find anything to help me in First Branch, won't you?"

Ed snorted, his smile aching a little less. :Unlikely, but I'll keep your suffering in mind while I browse.:

Al swallowed. "I– Okay. Then I'll..." He tried a smile that looked like it hurt as much as Ed's did. "I love you, Ed, okay?"

Ed nodded. :I love you, too, Al. Go find a space in the queue while I talk to the bastard.:

Al glanced at where Mustang had stepped back to give them space, then nodded. "Okay. Bye." He gave a short bow, which Ed returned, then turned and hurried into the station.

Ed watched after him until he passed into the building, then turned toward Mustang, who had stepped closer, his expression serious. "I'll keep him safe," Mustang promised quietly.

:I know you will,: Ed admitted, and Mustang's eyes widened just enough to be noticeable. :I'll keep Hughes and them safe.:

Mustang's face relaxed ever so slightly. "I know you will," he repeated. "If anything happens–"

:I will find a way to get in contact with you,: Ed promised. He swallowed, then added, :Take care of yourself, Führer Bastard. You'll do no one any good from a hospital bed.:

"Listen to your own advice, Edward," Mustang returned flatly, before reaching out and, hesitating for half a second, squeezing Ed's shoulder. Then he inclined his head and moved with military-care into the station.

Ed reached up one hand toward his shoulder, stopping himself before he could touch the brand of warmth he could feel through his uniform. 'Don't be fucking stupid, Edward,' he mouthed to himself irritably, turning to head for the Investigations building.

Just a year left, and then he could move far, far away from Roy Mustang and everything he could never mean.

.

Chapter Text

Working in Investigations was, well...different. It involved a lot more sitting behind a desk than Ed was used to, given he was mostly working on translating whatever got passed on to them from the battlefronts. They had translators out there, of course, but they were only used to deem if something was important or not, then translate the important documents, while the tedious stuff got sent back to Central.

Slogging through supply requests and notes home, Ed wondered why they bothered sending this stuff on to Central at all. But, then, he would be the first to admit that he didn't have the sort of military-oriented brain that made these useless requests, and it was entirely possible there was some way for Bradley or whoever to discover exactly where their next attack should be, based on the fact that the Cretan outpost just across the border and slightly north of Liberstadt needed a restocking of kidney beans.

Ed sort of hated his job.

:Save me,: he pleaded when Hughes unexpectedly poked his head into the office on Friday morning, not quite an hour after they'd got in. :I will clean out latrines in favour of this.:

"I'm fairly certain there's a rule against making State Alchemists clean out the toilets," Hughes returned good-naturedly, and one of the other translators snorted into his dictionary. (Things between him and the other translators were still in that new-hire tense phase, and Ed was in an almost constant state of resisting the urge to point out that he never needed to use a dictionary, unlike most of the other translators, only managing to keep it to himself because he didn't really want to deal with the inevitable fall-out. Also, it really was easier to resist being a jerk when he couldn't talk.) "But you're in luck! Brigadier General Grand is here to steal you away."

Ed raised an eyebrow at that, even as he stood, hooking his abandoned jacket with one finger. Why was Grand interested in him? For the healing arrays, he guessed, but he could have just as easily sketched those and passed them over whenever Grand happened to have a free minute to drop by Investigations, or even just sent them through interdepartmental post, assuming there wasn't some rule against sending arrays that way. (Ed wasn't really comfortable posting arrays, but that was more a secrecy issue than a fear that someone might accidentally set one off – as long as the envelope was secure, there should never be enough contact to do so, unless someone was snooping, in which case, they got what they deserved – and since the healing arrays were going to be military property, the secrecy wasn't as much of an issue. Sort of.)

"No use wondering," Hughes pointed out, motioning for Ed to follow after him.

Ed shrugged into his jacket and trailed after Hughes, absently freeing his ponytail from under the collar, before doing up the front; maybe he flaunted regulations a bit, with wearing his sash and leaving off the butt-cape, but he made a point to always have his jacket done up properly outside the cramped little translators' office.

Grand was indeed awaiting them in Hughes' office – not that Ed had doubted him – and nodded in response to Hughes' salute, before turning to Ed as he straightened from the bow that felt way more comfortable for him than saluting. "Edward Elric, the Silent Alchemist," he said, his voice a deep rumble. "The Führer informs me you have knowledge of healing alchemy."

Ed nodded and glanced towards Hughes. When he found the man looking at him, he signed, :I can draw the ones I know and he can take them back to the labs for them to dissect?:

Hughes cleared his throat. "Major Elric says he's willing to draw what arrays he knows and you can pass them on to the labs."

Grand looked between them for a moment, his expression completely flat, but a thread of what might have been irritation curling around the edges of his otherwise stiff qi. "While that may be to our preference, the Führer would prefer to have you set up with a workspace in whichever lab best suits your strengths, whatever they might be."

:A lab?: Ed asked, shaking his head. :I don't have a use for a lab.:

"Major Elric doesn't believe he'll find a use for any laboratory space," Hughes translated.

"Everyone has use for laboratory space, Silent," Grand informed him.

Ed crossed his arms over his chest and shot the brigadier general a flat look, because he'd never once heard of Mustang using a lab, and one had never been offered to Ed before, either in East City or after his command had been transferred to Central. No, he would bet this was an attempt by Bradley to keep better tabs on him, or maybe figure out a bit more about his skills. Right now, all the homunculi knew was that he was smart enough to breeze through the written exam and what they'd seen during the practical, which really wasn't much better than saying, 'We've performed human transmutation, read a lot (or had an excellent teacher), and know healing alchemy'.

Well, hadn't Grand said it himself? 'Whatever his strengths might be'.

Grand's moustache twitched. "Führer Bradley wants you in a laboratory one day a week, Silent," he said, which was far closer to the truth than Ed had honestly expected him to offer.

Instead of trusting Hughes not to clean up his response, Ed stepped over to the man's desk and grabbed a pen and some of the blank paper he kept to copy over what he was decoding, then wrote, 'Bradley wants to know how he can use me,' and showed it to the general.

"Ed," Hughes murmured in warning.

Right. He needed to keep his head about him so Bradley didn't start aiming at the Hugheses, because he wasn't the one standing in the queue for the executioner's block.

"You're not stupid, Silent," Grand said, his eyes far too sharp as they watched Ed.

He couldn't tell if that was a compliment or a warning, but Ed took it as the latter and took a slow breath as he turned back to Hughes' desk, let it calm him down before he wrote, 'Lab space would be appreciated sir. But I'm not familiar with the military's current alchemical research'

Grand's mouth turned down ever so slightly. "You haven't taken the time to visit the labs?"

Well, there was no way he was explaining he knew just enough about them to know he'd rather avoid them.

Hughes cleared his throat. "Colonel Mustang did offer to show Majors Elric through the laboratories while they were waiting to hear if they'd been accepted, but both of them were more interested in the libraries, as I recall."

Ed snorted and nodded; books would always be a far more tempting draw for both Ed and Al than research space. Even before, he'd only done his original 'lab tour' because he'd had some free time before their train left during a layover in Central, but Ed and Al had both known they'd miss it if they went to the library. So they'd ended up walking lab three, found it dull, and never bothered with any of the labs again, until they found out about lab five.

"And, with as much translation backlog as we have, he hasn't had much time to leave his desk," Hughes continued, a gleam in his eyes that immediately put Ed on guard. "In fact, he was just asking to do something else. Perhaps a chance to tour the laboratories and stretch your legs is exactly what you need, Major."

:I actively hate you right now,: Ed signed, and Hughes sent him a cheerful smile in response.

Grand grunted. "I need to do my weekly walkthrough, so you might as well join me. Do you need to collect anything from your desk?"

Ed sighed and shook his head; he never bothered to bring anything to work that he didn't usually keep in his sash anyway, since he knew he'd be stuck at his desk all day, and likely wouldn't even have a use for the kunai and journal that he kept with himself at all times. Some days, he'd bring a lunch that Gracia had made, but Hughes had suggested eating at one of the places down the street for lunch that day, as a sort of 'Thank fuck it's Friday' treat, and he could just as easily do that on his own between labs, for all that dealing with any part of the service industry was about ten times harder for him without a translator.

"Good." Grand looked at Hughes. "Lieutenant Colonel."

"Sir!" Hughes saluted him, then looked at Ed and signed, :Behave yourself.:

Ed crumpled up the paper he'd been writing on and tossed it in the bin, then signed, :I know. I'll see you tonight.:

He followed Grand out of the building and to the car idling at the kerb outside. "Silent," Grand said, motioning for Ed to slide in first, which he did. Once Grand was in and had closed the door, he ordered the driver, "Lab one," then turned to Ed and said, "I hope you have some way to communicate, still."

Ed nodded and opened his jacket so he could pull his journal out of his sash, then did his jacket back up.

"An unusual addition to your uniform," Grand commented mildly.

Ed opened his journal to the first pair of facing blank pages and wrote, 'Cultural preference'

Grand blinked. "I was under the impression you were Amestrisan."

'I am but my brother + I spent time in Xing. This sash is symbol of our adopted clan'

Grand clearly considered that for a moment. "You are aware it's against military regulations to make so obvious a change to your uniform."

Ed shrugged. 'State Alchemist--not required to wear uniform at all'

Grand's moustache twitched and something that might have been humour shivered along the edges of his qi. "Indeed," he agreed blandly, before pushing the door open as the car stopped, and stepping out onto the pavement. "This is lab one," he said as Ed stepped out behind him, eyeing the unfamiliar building. (He'd been to labs three and five, of course, and lab two ended up being turned into the facility for medical alchemy, once Grumman got around to sorting through the labs, so he'd been in there a few times, but labs one and four were foreign soil to him.)

As Grand led the way past the saluting guards – his pace just the right speed that Ed didn't have to rush to keep up with him, but without looking as though he was purposefully moving slower than was his wont; Ed was a little impressed – he said, "They focus on using alchemy for weaponisation, here. I'm told you created a staff for your practical?"

Ed shrugged and nodded; the markings at the top had been more than sharp enough – and he'd balanced it so as – to be used as a spear, but since no one really got a good look at it, calling it an ornamental staff was an acceptable alternative.

Grand gave a firm nod. "Those State Alchemists who create weapons during their practical and are then assigned to Central, usually end up in lab one." He cast Ed a sharp look. "But you did something else with the staff, I've been told."

Ed shrugged again as he quickly scribbled, 'Plants,' in his journal, the lettering sloppy because they were walking.

"Simultaneous arrays are nearly unheard of," Grand said, though his tone suggested he didn't expect any sort of response to that, so Ed didn't bother. (Honestly, the only real response was that most alchemists who had seen the Gate were smart enough to stay well clear of the military's grasping claws.)

Grand held the door open for him, then motioned down the hallway in the direction he wanted to go. "Alchemists with an affinity for plants usually find themselves attached to lab two," Grand commented, "while anyone with an interest in medical alchemy are for lab three; I believe you can see why there's a question of where you'd fit best."

'Wide study,' Ed wrote.

"Admirable, especially in one so young."

He resisted the urge to snort and wrote, 'L4?'

"Laboratory four deals in alchemy on a molecular level. The manipulation of individual atoms, for the most part, but there are some potentially dangerous chemical experiments going on."

'Biochemical warfare,' he meant; they'd uncovered that little secret during the post-Promised Day clean-up, and Ed had been genuinely grateful to be well out of reach in Resembool by the time that information broke to the public. Not a single Central City citizen had been grateful to know they'd been living and working near a potential catastrophe.

'Danger?' he wrote. 'In city?'

"There are securities in place," Grand replied with a careless wave of his hand.

Well, Ed hadn't been involved in the clean-up at all, and he hadn't been in a position to ask for more information, had he even cared, so he had no idea how secure the research facilities were. (He expected he'd be finding out soon enough, assuming Grand didn't deign to only show Ed the labs he'd already shown an affinity for.)

Lab one wasn't too bad, in the end, though Ed would get bored working there fairly quickly. Teacher had been the one to teach him how to make bladed weapons out of whatever materials were to hand, and making guns the same way, while useless to him, only required a few simple changes to his preferred array. Finding ways to improve on existing weapons with alchemy looked like it could hold his interest for a while, but they were very focussed on guns which, again, not something that Ed was even passingly interested in.

Which, when he'd written something to that effect in response to the Iron-Form Alchemist's boasting, the man had straightened like he thought height would intimidate Ed, and said, "You are in the military, Silent. How are you intending to be of use to anyone without knowledge of guns?"

Ed blinked at him, then sighed and sat his journal down, carefully placing his pen just so across the cover.

And then – knowing it was stupid, but he was done with this posturing bullshit, and Al wasn't there to intervene – he clapped his hands together and summoned a spear from a nearby pile of iron faster than probably anyone in this fucking building could manage, catching it and bracing it against the floor so he could swing around it and deal a solid kick to Iron-Form's chest with his right foot. While Iron-Form was still staggering backwards, Ed shifted his weight, falling back into a practised roll and swinging out with the spear, slipping it under Iron-Form's feet and sending him to the ground with a 'thud' that shook the floor.

Ed rolled easily to his feet and pointed the sharp tip of his spear at Iron-Form's throat, meeting his wide-eyed stare with a smile full of teeth.

"I yield!" Iron-Form shouted, his voice cracking.

Ed withdrew his spear and held out a hand to help Iron-Form to his feet, which he accepted with some trepidation.

"I'm aware, Silent," Grand called from the doorway, voice flat, as Iron-Form regained his feet, "that communication is difficult for you, but please keep in mind that physically attacking a fellow member of the military is frowned upon outside a sparring ring."

Ed turned and bowed in acknowledgement.

"How did you–" Iron-Form started, before clearing his throat as Ed turned back to him. "You made that spear of out iron. Pure iron."

Ed raised an eyebrow and nodded.

"How the hell are you moving it so easily?"

Oh. Ed swung the spear around and presented Iron-Form with the butt of it, letting him see–

"It's...hollow."

Ed nodded. He'd made it just strong enough to take his weight, but still light enough to allow him to use it the same way he would a wood and steel spear. The latter was something Teacher had taught them, as she had usually had them create weapons out of the ground, but Ed had learnt how thick he needed the walls of the spear through his own trial and error, once he'd got in the habit of swinging himself around on them. Which, well, he'd done that as a kid a few times, but it was Xingan martial arts that added that particular move to his regular repertoire. (Actually, most of his regular repertoire had filled up with moves borrowed from various Xingan forms, rather than Teacher's training, as the former allowed him to make greater use of the agility and flexibility his more compact pre-growth spurt body granted him, while the latter depended more on a grounded and solid stance, which Ed often lost while ducking inside an opponent's guard or dodging their longer reach.)

"That's genius. And if you hollow out only so far up, you'll have the weight needed at the tip that people are expecting, without any unnecessary embellishments. Can I borrow this?"

Ed snorted and handed the spear over; he didn't have any use for it.

While Iron-Form and his fellow researchers started gushing over the specifics of the spear, Ed collected his journal. His pen hadn't been moved, which suggested no one was rude enough to try peeking inside. Not that it really mattered all that much if someone had – he kept his notes in Xingan and switched between two different code schemes, depending on whether he intended to share it with Al or not, because he had a code his brother hadn't managed to crack, even as an adult – but it was nice to have verified these researchers had some integrity.

"So, you're trained in martial arts," Grand commented as he led the way from the room.

'Xingan,' Ed admitted.

"I have heard some impressive stories of Xingan martial artists," Grand allowed. "Such that I would have no interest in facing them in a fair fight."

Ed snorted; having faced off against Lan Fan, before, he was inclined to agree. (Of course, how he'd fare against her now, when he was as capable of qi-sensing as she was, was anyone's guess, and may well result in more than one of her little grenades set off in his face.)

That said, he wondered what sort of not-fair fight Grand would have in mind, given you couldn't really turn off your opponent's ability to sense your qi. (Not that Amestrisan fighters likely understood that's what was going on, there.) Alchemy, probably, but Ed and Al were both alchemists, too, which meant there wasn't really a good way to level that playing field for Grand, was there?

Not that Ed would complain; Grand was too close to Bradley not to know about the plot, which made him an enemy. Maybe Grand being aware that Ed was a Xingan martial artist would make him step back, but maybe it would have him looking for ways to turn any fight in his favour.

Good. Another reason to avoid letting anyone attached to the military know about his water alchemy.

Which, speaking of his water alchemy, the last group in lab one were working to try and weaponise other elements. They had a couple different water arrays, one of which clearly had its base in Aerugonian alchemy. When asked, Ed admitted to being familiar with that one, then completely flubbed it when pressed to try.

'I'm too much earth-alchemist,' he wrote. 'Metals + ores are easy but water is too hard to grab. It just sort of flows out btwn your fingers any time you try'

"That's true enough," one of the depressed researchers said, "but it's still giving us less trouble than fire alchemy."

Ed blinked at that and let himself be shown to where they were trying to get Mustang's array to work. And Ed had once thought it was stupid of the bastard to wear his array so openly, but that was before he'd realised it was more molecular manipulation than fire, despite appearances, and there had to be literal years of research behind his mastery. Research which was necessary to actually use the array.

Ed knew enough about how the bastard's array worked, as well as molecular alchemy, that he suspected he would at least be able to manage something, but he again purposefully flubbed the array when pressed to try.

'I don't guess Flame is interested in sharing,' he guessed.

"Ha! I wish," the researcher agreed, before shaking his head. "I get it, though. Once you reach a certain level of skill, keeping your secrets to yourself is a safeguard, in a way. As soon as someone else figures out Flame's tricks and is able to face him on an even playing field, he'll only have luck and his wits to keep him alive."

Something heavy settled on top of Ed's chest, making it hard to breathe, because this idiot had a point: If anyone else figured out Mustang's flame alchemy – or worse, Ed's water alchemy – the bastard was going to suffer like fuck for it; they might even kill him.

Mustang could die because someone got a little clever.

(Ed wondered if he could find a way to keep an eye on these idiots, get into their research and put them on entirely the wrong track, should they start getting too close. Because Mustang was a bastard and temptation that Ed did not need, but Ed would sooner give up his Gate again, than stand back and watch him die.)

He forced a smile and wrote, 'Guess he'd best keep holding those secrets close'

The researcher laughed and waved him on, going back to trying to dissect Mustang's array.

"So," Grand said as they left the building for the car, "it seems there is some alchemy you can't master with book-learning."

Ed shrugged, didn't try pointing out that practice was at least two-thirds of mastering any alchemy, definitely avoided giving away that he'd screwed up the elemental alchemy on purpose. 'Wind?' he wrote instead, to keep Grand from wondering at his lack of response.

"Air manipulation is more lab four's area of expertise," Grand replied.

Oh. Right. Ed should have guessed that, though the fact that he hadn't would keep Grand from wondering if he knew more about the labs than he'd suggested in Hughes' office.

Lab two was their next stop, and Ed sort of a lot fell in love with the massive greenhouse taking up most of the ground and first floors, as well as a portion of the second, where offices had been sacrificed for the trees that hadn't cared for the limits placed on how high they were allowed to grow. It reminded him of the uncultivated parts of the Chang lands in Xing, though the plants were largely different, and the ground far less rocky; it was peaceful in a way he hadn't even realised he'd missed since coming back to Amestris, with even the crawling under his feet muted by the sheer life of the place.

Ed was no plant alchemist, only knew a handful of arrays that affected plants, but he could be happy learning, just for the chance to spend one day a week curled up in this greenhouse.

Someone laughed, and Ed turned to find a slim man rising from where he'd been pruning a bush. "It's not often I see soldiers looking so happy to be in our greenhouse."

Grand let out a vaguely disgusted sound; unsurprisingly, he was one of those soldiers who didn't care for the wash of green. "He's not a soldier," he offered. "This is the Silent Alchemist, Edward Elric. Silent, this is the Blooming Alchemist, Adam Ripley."

"Ah," Blooming said, nodding. "That makes more sense. You're a fellow plant alchemist?"

Ed grimaced and shook his head, then wrote, 'Not really but I know some plant alchemy. This just reminds me of home in Xing'

Blooming blinked. "You're Xingan?"

Ed snorted and shook his head, a little bit amused that that was always the response when he mentioned Xing. It just showed how little Amestrisans know about their eastern neighbour, that they thought gold hair and eyes might be the mark of a Xingan. (To be fair, though, his colouring was foreign.) 'Amestrisan but I lived in Xing for a few yrs'

"Got it." Blooming reached out and touched the bark of the nearest tree. "Well, we do have a few researchers who sort of got tossed in here because they knew a little bit of plant alchemy and everywhere else was full-up, but unless working with plants is a passion, I'd really suggest finding a space in one of the other labs; researchers they shuffle around, but we State Alchemists get the pick of the place." He glanced at Grand. "I assume that's why he's here? Find a good space for the new State Alchemist."

"Yes. He's widely studied, and so difficult to place."

Ed shrugged at that and couldn't resist writing, 'I'm sorry I'm a genius'

Grand didn't look impressed.

Blooming coughed. "Let me show you the research we've been working on, Brigadier General," he offered politely, motioning for them to follow him out of the greenhouse.

(Ed tried not to miss the soothing presence of the plants, but it was hard, when their absence left the Philosopher's Stones to crawl against his senses again, and he grit his teeth against the reassertion of the unwelcome sensation.)

As Blooming took them through the current projects, Ed had to admit that, yeah, as much as he liked the greenhouse, there was no way he could legitimise his setting up a lab there. They had a couple interesting projects – he super approved of the one to grow crops in soil lacking the proper nutrients, if only because he would never forget how many of his neighbours had struggled during the Ishval Extermination, between the Ishvalans with their fire and poison, and the soldiers demanding their meagre crops for themselves – but plants had never been his forte. Al would probably have better luck, but no way was Ed going to suggest he let his brother anywhere near any of the labs. Especially since finding ways to weaponise plants was also on Bradley's agenda, and of a higher priority than feeding people.

(Ed couldn't wait until they could dethrone Bradley and the Dwarf in the Flask, and actually focus on helping their people, instead of piling up bodies.)

"Silent," Blooming said as Grand led the way out, and Ed turned back towards the other State Alchemist. Blooming offered him a smile and motioned toward the doors into the greenhouse. "You don't need to have a lab here to visit."

That...hadn't really occurred to Ed, even though he knew his pocket watch would always get him through the front door of any of the labs, and he was honestly grateful for the reminder.

He doubted he'd make a habit of coming – it soothed his frazzled nerves a bit, certainly, but leaving the plants' influence wasn't really fun, and the constant there-and-gone of the crawling wouldn't help him in adapting to it – but it was nice to know there was one place in Central that he could think, and he bowed low in thanks before hurrying after the impatient brigadier general.

Grand's next stop was a high-end little restaurant that made Ed so ridiculously uncomfortable – thirty-three years old, and he still couldn't do fancy restaurants, despite Winry's handful of attempts to acclimate him – but he bore it with only a small grimace, and was grateful to find the menu in Amestrisan, rather than that wanna-be Cretan that always left him wanting to shake the nearest server.

"You look uncomfortable, Silent," Grand commented as Ed wrote down his order for their server.

Ed shot him a flat look.

Grand's moustache quivered. "You had best get used to this," he suggested, and Ed narrowed his eyes. "As impressive as your alchemical knowledge is, not to mention what information you might have on our eastern neighbour, you're likely to find yourself invited to many a dinner by an enlisted officer."

Ed ripped out the page with his order and set it aside, then wrote, 'I'm fairly certain it's beyond rude to be constantly writing at places like this'

That was definitely humour whispering through Grand's qi. "True, but I suspect you'll find some courtesies being waved in light of your...difficulty."

'DISABILITY,' Ed wrote, rolling his eyes. 'Call a horse a horse Brig Gen'

Grand let out a chuckle that only sounded a little startled, and their server came over to them before he could completely collect himself.

Once their orders were in, Grand asked, "How long have you been mute?"

'Birth,' Ed wrote, keeping his expression flat in hopes that Grand not catch he was lying. 'We looked into med alchemy to see if it was repairable but I lack a voice box. There's nothing to fix'

Grand considered him for a moment, then asked, "What if there was a way to create a new voice box for you?"

Ed shook his head. 'You can't create from 0. You should know--it's 1 of principles'

"Ah, but what if there was an item capable of ignoring the principles?" Grand pressed.

Ed stared at him while he debated telling him straight where to shove that line, or playing along and seeing how much he could get out of the man, before snorting and shaking his head; any information he got, the homunculi would then know he had, and they might well feel the need to ensure his good behaviour through hostages. 'You look at me + see tragedy but my muteness is part of me. I don't need some miracle cure--I'm happy as I am'

A minor lie; being able to speak again would be nice, if only for ease of communication, but he'd learnt to live without his voice, the same way he'd learnt to live without his leg. And, anyway, it wasn't worth the cost. He'd been able to rationalise his use of a Philosopher's Stone to save Al, sure, but he knew better than to try for himself; Al had been an innocent paying for a crime Ed had pressured him into committing, but Ed himself was awash in sins. If silence and a metal leg were his punishments for everything he'd done, he would bear them, and gladly.

Grand blinked, settling back in his chair. "Happy," he repeated, clearly unconvinced.

'You prefer content? There's 0 about me that needs to be fixed sir'

Grand watched him for a long moment before saying, "You seem unusually mature for a child."

Ed snorted and wrote, 'My father abandoned us when I was 4 + Mum died shortly after I turned 5. I grew up quick.' True, even without his being mute. They'd had Granny, sure, and the villagers were always kind to them, but it had still been Ed and Al, alone together in that house, for years. They'd seen hell in that house, and Ed had burnt it to the ground, refusing to look back, and then they'd walked the world, living for other people, before finally finding a way to live for themselves.

Ed had always felt too old for his physical age, he just actually had a reason, now, that had other people believing the same.

Their food came, saving Grand from having to find a response to that, and also saving Ed from having to deal with pity that he had no use for.

They ate in silence for a bit, before Grand started asking Ed what he thought about some of the research being done in the labs. Ed was slow to answer at first – half suspicious, half aware his writing at the table was rude – before shaking himself a bit and just answering straight. Grand already knew he could transmute fast and without a physical array, and he knew Ed specialised in making weapons and knew some plant alchemy. As long as he stayed away from the fire and water alchemy, it didn't really matter what Ed said. (Though he did still try to watch what he gave away, to some extent; transmuting a singular weapon in seconds was nothing like transmuting an entire house in five minutes, though the first certainly suggested the possibility of the second.)

Grand wasn't easy to get a read on, so Ed couldn't say how he took any of Ed's comments, other than that his qi remained calm, if slightly intrigued, and he didn't try any of that 'I've been an alchemist longer and know this stuff better than you do, kid' bullshit that Ed had always seemed to get from pretty much any State Alchemist other than Mustang. Which, if nothing else, suggested he put more stock in knowledge than age. (Then again, Grand had almost certainly come into this association aware that Ed had performed and survived human transmutation, same as Mustang had, so perhaps that had something to do with his absolute lack of higher-than-thou bullshit.)

After lunch, they made for lab three. Ed spent a good hour passing along the Cretan arrays he knew, explaining what each was for and the basics behind them, then helping a couple of the researchers figure out how to work the unfamiliar designs. (Because Cretan alchemy was swirls and curves, while Amestrisan alchemy was straight edges and sharp corners; spending years studying one was not conductive to easily understanding the other, and he knew it would likely be months of trial and error before this group of morons would be able to use the arrays with any regularity, let alone start trying to find a way to translate it into the more familiar arrays that normal alchemists would be looking for. Which, well, Ed wasn't going to tell them how pointless an endeavour that was.)

Once Ed felt like he could leave those idiots without supervision, he went to hunt down Grand, because while he was happy to check in with those researchers occasionally, healing alchemy was about as much his passion as plant alchemy; he'd picked it up because it was useful, and spent time studying it because he'd needed to know enough to be able to bring it back to Amestris and teach others, but he really had no interest in devoting his life to it.

(Maybe this was his real problem with being assigned a lab space: Ed didn't focus on just one type of alchemy. His access to the Gate's knowledge had given him a certain easy understanding of some of the most complex scientific concepts, and it didn't take much time or effort for him to create a new array, or alter one already in existence. His 'research time' was better spent pouring over books in the library, gathering more arrays and studying the research done by others. Hell, in thirty years, the only types of alchemy he'd really done any in depth study of were human transmutation, as a kid, and water alchemy, more recently. One was illegal, and the other he wasn't sharing with fucking anyone, save Al, which meant he had no use for lab space for either of them.)

He heard Grand's low voice from one of the rooms along the hallway he was walking down and let out a quiet relieved sigh as he made for that door. It wasn't that he was afraid the man had left him behind without warning, or that he really felt like he needed the brigadier general there to...fuck knows. Protect him? From alchemists researching healing alchemy?

Take a moment to laugh at the mere thought.

But there was something about this building that was itching at his senses, little whispers of anger and pain and terror just on the edge of his conscious focus, joining the Stones underground in their constant attempt to drive him insane, and only getting more pronounced, now he wasn't busy with the healing researchers. Which was another excellent reason why he didn't want to get assigned lab space in this building, and Ed kind of hoped Grand was done and they could skip out. He didn't expect lab four to have any greater an interest for him than any of the others, so he'd probably get stuck with lab space in lab one, which was fine. From how Grand had put it, as long as he spent time in one of the four labs once a week, Bradley would be happy. He could alternate between threatening the weapons people and abusing the healing people, with occasional stops to hide from the world in the greenhouse, and that should be sufficient.

He pushed open the door he'd heard Grand behind and found it led to a brightly lit lab that was walled with cages. Cages filled with all sorts of weird crosses of animals: Chimeras. This was the source of those itching whispers of misery: Dozens of animals fighting within themselves, trapped in their own bodies as much as they were by the steel cages, most of them terrified out of their minds, and at least half of them in pain.

The walls must have been providing some sort of insulation, because it all washed over Ed like a breaking tide, too fucking strong, almost before he'd had time to realise what he'd just walked into.

He spun and ran, dodging around people that he wasn't even seeing, just needed to get away from that terrible...everything.

Somehow, he made it outside, and threw up in the bushes.

Fuck. Fuck. He needed to warn Al to stay well away from chimera labs, because that wash of pain and terror might well break his brother, had nearly broken him. He hadn't felt this wretched since the time he'd dug up what he'd thought was Mum.

And he'd never been a fan of chimera research, had come to truly despise it after Tucker, but this– This was a whole new hell wrapped in agony wrapped in everything he hated about humanity's need to experiment on everything.

Maybe he'd tried human transmutation, but, other than a little bit of plant alchemy, that had been the extent of what alchemy he'd used on anything living, and he never used plant alchemy to harm plants, only to help them grow, revitalise them a bit as they began to wilt. And maybe it could be argued that trading the Philosopher's Stone for Al's life had been 'using alchemy on something living', but his actions had been as much a salvation for them as a benefit for himself. (He had to believe that.)

He didn't– He couldn't even begin to understand the mental space you had to slip into to want to perform alchemy on living subjects, especially subjects that literally could not consent. That wouldn't have consented, even if given half a chance.

He hated chimera researchers, and damned if he'd allow himself to be forced to have a lab space in this laboratory.

(He could never be more glad that he'd refused to let Al be assigned to the labs here in Central, because he would have had no option but to be assigned to lab three.)

Grand came out about ten minutes later, looking around at Ed's standing height for a moment, before going lower and finally coming to rest on where he'd remained sitting on the lawn, not quite willing to trust his real leg until he absolutely had to. "Silent," he said, his tone thankfully devoid of any emotion, so far as Ed could tell.

He held up the note he'd pre-written: 'I don't like chimera research. If you try to assign me lab space in this building I will hand in my watch. I'm willing to drop by to help the med researchers but I CANNOT work here'

Grand took his journal to read the note, then politely closed it as he gave Ed a considering look, his qi remaining thankfully devoid of any overt sense of judgement or pity. Finally, he asked, "Can you stand?"

Ed shoved himself to his feet in response. And, as he'd kind of expected, his right leg was a little shaky, but his left leg managed to compensate, and when Grand handed back his journal and led the way to the car, Ed was able to follow without any real difficulty.

Still, he was grateful to sit again, once in the car.

"Lab four," Grand ordered their driver, before looking at Ed with that considering stare of his. "You're not the first alchemist in the military's employ to react to chimera research with abhorrence, though that's the most extreme reaction I've seen. You have experience with chimeras?"

Ed gave a brief nod, because that was a far more believable reason than 'I can feel the animals' pain' for his reaction, and was true, to an extent; he'd always hate chimera research because of Nina, and because of those human-chimeras he'd known who had been forced into the meshing – like the two he'd been stuck with before the Promised Day, or Al's old travelling companions – but this was a new level of disgust.

Grand hummed and, kindly, didn't press for more.

Lab four, as it turned out, had all the earmarks of a chemistry lab, the researchers there working with whatever chemicals they could get their hands on to try various molecular-based arrays on. A lot of it was trying to mix liquid or solid chemicals, or watching how heat or cold affected a transmutation, which, well, Ed had picked up his share of chemistry during his studies into human transmutation, and it had been the only science he could actively practise, after he'd lost his alchemy, so he had some interest in it. These sorts of experiments had never really been something he'd tried – mostly because Winry would have taken his leg if he'd actually tried setting up a chemistry lab in their house, so most of his work had to remain theoretical – but they were interesting, all the same, and well within his area of knowledge.

The wind alchemy Ed had asked about after lab one was in evidence here, with a group of researchers trying to find a way to control gaseous molecules to move through the air, despite wind currents; a way to suffocate an enemy with poisonous gases, without chancing it harming your own soldiers if the wind changed. Ed was, in turns, creeped out and impressed, though it was clear they had a long way to go before this particular alchemy was able to be used in a battlefield situation.

He liked this lab. This lab was cool. He'd probably end up spending his first day adding additional protections to the section with the more hazardous experiments – what securities they had weren't quite up to Ed's standards, from his brief glance, but they'd developed a lot of additional protection-based arrays, once Grumman turned their focus away from making better weapons, so Ed knew tricks that just didn't exist yet – but he could see himself with lab space in this building. He didn't really know what he'd be focussing on, mind, but he could work here without feeling like he was about to go crazy with boredom, because everyone else in the building were uninspired idiots.

After lab four, they were driven back to Central Command, and Grand led the way up to his office. There, he gestured Ed towards a small table and chairs set by the window, across from his desk, where they would have an excellent view of the parade grounds. "What do you make of lab three's healing research?" he asked once they'd both sat.

Ed blinked, then shrugged and opened his journal to answer, going through both labs three and four, the same way they had one and two over lunch. He did hint, a bit, that he wouldn't mind working in lab four, but he didn't outright say so; he'd been in the military too long to believe they'd give him exactly what he wanted if they thought he could be more use to them somewhere else.

Grand let out a vaguely thoughtful hum as he finished reading the last of Ed's thoughts on lab four. "Did this tour spark any ideas for projects?" he asked as he slid Ed's journal back to him.

Ed blinked at him, not really having expected that question. And, well, he still wasn't coming up with anything – he just didn't do research projects, okay? – so he shook his head.

"No," Grand agreed. "You're as much a research alchemist as I am. You know exactly as much as you need to to keep you alive in the field, and research – as it's performed in the labs – would just bog you down." He stood. "Come with me."

Ed frowned and stood as he collected his journal, falling in behind Grand as he led the way through his outer office and down the hallways of Command. And Ed wasn't really familiar with Central Command's current layout – it had been changed when they'd had to rebuild after the Promised Day, and that had been the building he'd spent more time in, despite no longer being a member of the military – but the growing sense of wrath told him where they were headed: Bradley's office.

He tightened his grip around his journal and narrowed his eyes on Grand's back; what was the brigadier general up to?

Storch stood and saluted Grand as they stepped into Bradley's outer office. "Brigadier General Grand, sir."

"We're here to see the Führer, if he's available," Grand requested.

Storch nodded and knocked on the inner office door, then poked his head into Bradley's office. "The Iron Blood and Silent Alchemists are here for you, sir."

"Show them in," Bradley replied, and Storch stepped fully into the office, opening the door and motioning for Grand and Ed to step inside.

"Führer Bradley, sir!" Grand barked, saluting, as the door fell closed behind them. Next to him, Ed bowed, trying to pretend he wasn't tense as fuck.

"Brigadier General Grand, Major Elric," Bradley returned, "won't you both have seats?"

Ed looked up to find Bradley motioning to the chairs facing his desk. The homunculus looked almost friendly, more curious than cross at the interruption, outwardly. But his qi remained a mass of absolute rage, only barely soothed back behind his polite façade.

(And he'd thought getting a read on Grand was hard.)

As they both settled, Bradley turned an amused smile on Ed. "An interesting change to the uniform, Silent. Shall I assume your brother is equally as disinclined toward regulation?"

Ed shrugged and nodded, because there really wasn't much point in hiding what Bradley could very easily learn from whatever eyes he had in East Command. And Ed didn't honestly expect Bradley to take issue with their sashes; he'd always given Ed a fair share of leeway, before, likely to keep him from deserting out of spite.

Bradley let out a noncommittal hum and turned to Grand. "Was there a problem with finding our young alchemist space in the laboratories?"

Grand folded his fingers together. "Not quite, sir. The Blooming Alchemist seems to be of the opinion that Silent won't fit in in laboratory two, and Silent, himself, absolutely refuses to have lab space in laboratory three–" Ed clenched his jaw at the glance Bradley send him "–but he could easily join laboratories one or four, from my observations."

"However?" Bradley asked, clearly as aware as Ed that needing to choose between two labs hardly merited the Führer's input.

Grand inclined his head and glanced at Ed. "The Silent Alchemist is not a research alchemist, sir, any more than I, or his mentor, the Flame Alchemist, are. He is better served in the field, though I understand communication will always be a hurdle, there." He shifted, leaning forward slightly. "I have mentioned, as you are aware, that the increase in my duties upon my promotion have made it more difficult to keep an eye on the laboratories. Silent is widely studied, and seems able to grasp, without difficulty, concepts I have had to ask clarification about in the past.

"If I might suggest, sir, instead of assigning him lab space, I pass on the duty of inspecting the four laboratories to him, and he can write up a report and deliver it to me on Friday afternoons, when I should have time to go over any specific concerns. That will give him a chance to regularly, as Lieutenant Colonel Hughes said, 'stretch his legs', and get him away from Investigations paperwork for a while; I received the impression it's rather tedious work."

Wait, what? In what universe did it make sense to give one of the newest and the second youngest State Alchemist jurisdiction over the research labs? What had he said, exactly, that made Grand think that was a good idea? Or was this some sort of weird, fucked up attempt to win his loyalty to the military? (It wouldn't work; he knew what they were.)

"Hmm." Bradley turned to consider Ed, his angry energy seeming to back off, rather than focussing, which was an interesting study in the oddities of homunculi (or, at the least, homunculi who had originally been human). "Yes, we wouldn't want such a bright mind to get bored," he agreed mildly.

That was it, Ed realised. He was too clever, too sharp, and working in the very military department dedicated to picking apart the secrets of others. Doubtless, one of the intentions in sticking him with lab space was to gauge his skills, but it was also an attempt to give him a project to focus on, something that would distract Ed from any explorations. And then, of course, Hughes had given away that he was more than a little bit bored with his translation duties, and if he went looking for something more interesting in his workspace...

Ed hadn't given them many options in his placement, and the homunculi couldn't afford to have one of their precious human sacrifices poking his nose where it didn't belong and discovering things he shouldn't. They'd gone to great lengths, before, to keep all of them in the dark, with Lust willing to kill both Mustang and Al to keep them silent. In the end, they'd resorted to hostages, yes, but that hadn't been their first response to the threat of their secrets being uncovered.

Except Ed wasn't the sort to be distracted by a long term research project. Hell, he and Al had managed to crack Marcoh's research notes in under two weeks, so even handing him a stack of alchemic journals from former State Alchemists would only keep him busy for so long. (Not that anyone knew that personal research journals would serve as a distraction, since Ed hadn't been able to get to the library yet, though he fully intended to tackle that over the weekend.)

They couldn't distract him with a research project, and Bradley couldn't afford him getting killed on a mission, not when they'd finally found two alchemists that met the Dwarf in the Flask's criteria, so the next best option was to...what? Let the fourteen-year-old genius think he was special because they were entrusting him with keeping an eye on other alchemists?

Yes.

And if Ed were actually fourteen, this plan would have worked.

Ed did his best to look hopeful and interested, like he hadn't realised this was intended as a trap, rather than a recognition of his genius and/or maturity.

Bradley offered him an indulgent smile, before glancing between Ed and Grand and asking, "You said there was an issue with laboratory three?"

Grand motioned to Ed who, grimacing, flipped open to his earlier note and passed the journal to Bradley.

"I see," Bradley said, before very obviously flipping to an earlier page of Ed's journal.

Grand stiffened – good to know at least someone in Bradley's pocket knew better than to go snooping in an alchemist's personal notes – next to Ed, while Ed merely smiled, secure in his certainty that none of the homunculi knew a damn thing about Xing, least of all how to read the language. (And, even if Bradley somehow did, he wouldn't be cracking Ed's personal code anytime soon.)

Ed might have to let other people handle his alchemy notes, due to his disability, but he also knew how to keep them secret.

Bradley closed the journal and eyed Ed's smile with an expression that could have been wry amusement, if the uptick of fury in his qi hadn't given him away. "Xingan, I presume," he said as he held Ed's journal back out to him.

Ed shrugged and nodded, being very obvious about dropping his journal carelessly into his lap once he had it back, like he wasn't worried about who might get their hands on it. (Okay, he wasn't that careless, but appearing overconfident was a good way to ensure these idiots kept thinking they had him.)

Bradley folded his fingers together in front of his mouth, his appearance of good humour vanishing. "To be in charge of inspecting the laboratories, you will have to be willing to deal with the chimera researchers, no matter your personal feelings on the matter."

In other words, Ed would have to go into that lab again, and ask about their fucking research while surrounded by all those animals in agony.

(He was going to be sick again.)

"You have experience with chimeras, you said," Grand offered, his tone carefully mild, and Ed allowed a quick nod. "Then I expect you're aware of the necessity in keeping a close eye on chimera researchers, lest they decide to try their hands at something a little less...humane."

Ed was going to punch Grand in the fucking face and then laugh his way through a court-martial hearing, swear to fuck.

He forced himself to take a deep breath, remember that these fuckers were willing to wipe out their entire country just for a chance at immortality; they didn't give a flying fuck about a handful of animals, wouldn't even if they could feel their agony and fear.

He didn't want to go back into that lab. More than anything, he didn't want to go back into that lab, but Grand was right about chimera researchers needing oversight, and maybe Ed could...nudge the researchers into arrays that would hurt less. (He could do that, right? Do a bit of research himself, throw up a few times at what he'd stooped to, then fix their arrays?

(For the Nina he hadn't been able to save, he could do that...right?)

He forced himself to nod, somehow sat through the rest of the arrangements to assign him the task of the inspections and set up a weekly meeting with Grand.

When he finally got out of Central Command, he made a beeline for home. And there, playing in the front garden, bundled up in her winter coat, was Nina. Fully human and laughing as she ran around, kicking a ball.

She saw him, then, and her whole face lit up. "Big Brother!" she shouted, forgetting the ball in favour of running towards Ed.

Ed caught her and hugged her tight, let the simple fact that she was alive and safe settle the churning of his stomach.

"Ed?" Gracia called, and he looked up to find her standing in the doorway, Elicia peering out hopefully from behind her. "You're home early."

Ed swallowed and nodded as he headed for the door. Looking at Nina, he pointed first at the door, then the ground.

Nina took a moment to chew her bottom lip in indecision, then wrapped her arms back around Ed's neck, quietly saying, "Sad."

Ah, the perceptiveness of children. Ed kissed her cheek as he stepped inside, Gracia picking up Elicia and retreating ahead of him with a worried frown. Ed carefully braced Nina and signed, one-handed, :I'm fine.:

Gracia gave a hum that said she didn't believe him for a minute, but left with Elicia, while Ed wrestled with Nina's coat and his own jacket, hanging them both up without having to put her down. (A skill he'd developed with his own kids, and which Elicia and Nina both seemed to think was the most fun game ever.)

Elicia joined them shortly after Ed had settled onto the couch with Nina, and he'd somehow ended up bracketed by them while they played a hand game over his lap, by the time Gracia came in with a tray of mugs filled with hot chocolate. Elicia and Nina were both delighted, letting off their hand game and obediently settling back so they could sip at their small mugs. Ed, himself, was grateful for the warm drink, accepting his mug with a look that was probably tellingly grateful.

"So?" Gracia pressed once she'd settled onto the other couch with her own mug, the tray sat on the coffee table between them.

"Where's Papa?" Nina asked around her mug, apparently only just noticing he was missing.

Ed sighed and set his mug on the table so he could slowly – Gracia was still learning, but she was a quicker study than Ed had honestly expected – sign, :State Alchemist business.:

Gracia nodded and translated, for the girls, "Papa is still at work, but Big Brother Ed got to leave early because he's special."

"Papa isn't special?" Nina asked, her mouth drawn into a confused frown.

:First week?: Ed suggested.

Gracia smiled. "Right, of course. Because it's his first week."

"Oh." Nina nodded – that clearly explained everything – and went back to her hot chocolate.

By the time the hot chocolate was finished, Nina and Elicia had both forgotten that Ed had come home upset, and dragged him down to the floor to play with the dolls Nina had unburied from where they'd apparently been spelunking under the couch. (Ed was fairly certain he didn't want to know.)

Hughes got home not quite an hour later and, after kissing Gracia, Nina, and Elicia in greeting, warned the youngest two, "I need to borrow your brother for a bit, but you can have him back after dinner."

Ed smiled at the chorus of "Aww"s, and got to his feet to follow Hughes into the dining room. Gracia followed not long after, casting them worried looks over the free-standing worktop that served as the barrier between kitchen and dining room, as she got started on dinner.

"So, how was your tour of the labs?" Hughes asked.

Ed sighed and signed, :About as expected. One's failing miserably at fire and water alchemy, two has an amazing greenhouse that I'm going to move into, three has chimera research, and four's playing in chemical warfare.:

Gracia drew in a sharp breath; either she was getting a lot better than Ed'd realised, or she'd just recognised the worst parts and extrapolated.

Hughes' expression was grim. "About as expected, indeed," he murmured. "Where did they put you? Two?"

Ed's smile ached in all the wrong ways. :They didn't. I'm not a research alchemist and Iron Blood knows it. He got Bradley to agree to have me walk the inspections in his stead.:

Hughes frowned and he leant forward. "A teenager who only joined this week?" he hissed.

Ed felt his smile widening, pulling too hard. :They don't want me to get bored in Investigations and go snooping. They can't afford to kill me, and they don't know enough, yet, to be certain they can force my compliance.:

"So it's a distraction," Hughes muttered, leaning back and rubbing at his face for a brief moment. "What did you do?"

:Exactly what I would have at fourteen: I acted like it was my due and agreed.:

Hughes nodded. "We can work with this. Keeping tabs on alchemy research is something Investigations has always struggled with, not least because we have a limited number of staff who have permission to freely enter the labs, and fewer still with the knowledge to understand what they find."

'Ah,' Ed mouthed. :So this distraction is meant for both of us. Excellent.:

Hughes' smile looked like it ached and pulled in all the wrong ways that Ed's did. "What's say we make them regret throwing us this bone?"

Ed's smile grew teeth, turning far too feral. :With PLEASURE,: he signed.

.

Chapter Text

By the second week of Ed inspecting the labs on his own, he'd realised he could tackle lab three and the chimeras, then make a beeline for lab two, where Blooming was happy to let him hide in the greenhouse until he felt settled enough to face the continuation of his duty.

The third week of this, Blooming came to sit on the edge of a planter next to where Ed was moving smoothly through one of his kata, his expression curious. Ed finished that set, then tilted his head in enquiry.

Blooming considered him for a moment, then said, "It's not that I mind, really, but I am kind of curious why you keep running in here looking like you've seen hell. Should I be worried about something they're working on in another lab?"

Ed offered him a tired look and came over to settle on the floor, leaning back against the planter and pulling out his journal to write, 'Chimera research'

"Ah." Blooming shifted, folding forward so he could glance past Ed's bangs and catch his gaze. "If it disturbs you, why go?"

Ed stared down at his journal for a moment, before writing, 'I've seen what happens when you don't watch those fuckers'

Blooming raised his head and looked across the greenhouse, though Ed suspected he wasn't really seeing it. "It was big news, a little over a year ago, I think: Some chimera alchemist impressed the examiners with a chimera that spoke. Something about it got the Flame Alchemist suspicious, I guess, because he started asking some really awkward questions, and it came out the guy used his wife." He looked back over at Ed. "It was a huge mess."

Ed shrugged and nodded. 'I heard,' he wrote. 'My brother + I were in Xing'

Blooming hummed. "You live with that man's daughter, don't you?"

'Nina,' Ed wrote as an admission. 'She doesn't remem what happened'

"That's good," Blooming decided, fiddling with his wedding ring, a habit of his that Ed had noticed he usually did when he was upset or sad, never when he was happy. "Not that she won't remember her mother, I mean–"

Ed waved a hand at him, shaking his head. When Blooming blinked at him in confusion, Ed wrote, 'She remems her blood parents a lil + Mustang saved a photo of them. It's on the mantle'

"Oh, that was nice of him. And of her adopted parents, too."

Ed nodded. 'They keep telling me I should have my brother send a pic of our mum so we can have her to remem too.' He snorted and shook his head. 'Lt Col Hughes has a thing about photos'

"Your mother is...gone?" Blooming asked delicately, and Ed noticed he'd stopped twisting his ring, was almost clutching it around his finger.

'She died when I was 5'

"Oh."

Ed peeked up at him, considering the well of old grief that was far more obvious in his qi, but still visible on his face, then wrote, 'When did your wife die?'

Blooming startled a bit as he read that, then winced. "Ah, it's that obvious?"

Ed shrugged. 'Right now,' he offered.

Blooming glanced down at where he was clutching his ring and cleared his throat, very firmly letting it go. "Six years," he admitted, at last. "My eldest was about the same age you were, I guess. Five. I was afraid she wouldn't remember her any, but she does. I'm glad. A girl should have memories of her mother." He slumped slightly. "Her sister, my youngest, she doesn't. I guess my sister-in-law is serving, but still..."

'It's hard,' Ed wrote, 'but they still have you right?'

"Yes. I'd like to think I'm...enough. I don't know that I am. I work so often."

'At least you come home,' Ed couldn't keep himself from writing. He clenched his jaw as he stared down at the words, feeling the flicker of surprise, followed by pity in Blooming's qi. 'We should get started,' he wrote roughly, before pushing himself to his feet.

"I didn't mean to upset you," Blooming apologised as Ed snagged his abandoned jacket.

Ed led the way up to Blooming's main lab, gritting his teeth against the reappearance of the Stones. Once up there, he wrote, 'I upset myself,' then motioned for the man to show him what they'd been working on of late, after he'd read it.

At least, in this, he could soothe himself with the reminder that he'd be able to punch Hohenheim in the face within the year. It helped.

-0-

Al took to sending weekly letters, updating Ed about everyone he made friends with in East City, which ended up being far more people than Ed had ever done. But, then, his brother was easy to like, and he was actually staying in East, rather than travelling all over everywhere. He'd also mentioned using the on-base gym for running through his katas, which is where he'd made friends with a fair number of people, after beating a couple of idiots – Ed's conclusion, not Al's; seriously, who was going to try taking on a kid? – in a spar. (Ed had eventually followed his example, admittedly, cutting his lunch breaks short to go run through his own katas in the Central Command gym, on days he didn't end up in the greenhouse; so far, no one had challenged him, but he'd apparently picked a time when the place was almost completely abandoned, which actually suited him, so...)

In return, Ed got in the habit of writing his brother back, telling him about any interesting research in the labs, or bitching about translating the millionth supply request, and always, always slipping in pictures from Hughes. (Some of them actually of Hughes, once the protective idiot finally agreed to show Ed how to work his precious camera and handed it over.) He'd also passed on word of the group trying to figure out Mustang's array, and when Al said he'd shared that and the bastard had laughed like the bastard he was, Ed couldn't help passing on more about them, because they had some pretty spectacular failures, and they always recorded them in exacting detail, which was Ed's favourite part. (Research alchemists were good for that, actually; he had no interest in setting himself up as one, but reading their reports were often the best part of any visit, save the chimera labs.)

At the end of December, though, Al broke pattern by calling the Hughes house a little after dinner, while Ed was washing up the dishes and Hughes and Nina were 'helping'. Gracia had been the one to answer the phone, and Ed and Hughes had both turned to stare when she said, "Oh, Al! This is a surprise! Did you want to talk to– Ed?"

Ed looked at Hughes, who raised an interested eyebrow, then motioned for him to go ahead, catching Nina when she made to follow.

Ed took the handset with a one-handed, :Thank you,: then whistled into the speaker.

Al let out a quiet noise of distress. "I guess there's no helping the feedback," he complained in Xingan.

Ed snorted.

"Yeah, well, I wrote it in my letter, but I figured I'd ring you first so you could...get everything out of your system without ripping the letter."

Ed narrowed his eyes at the wall and let out a quiet whistle that, he hoped, got across how much he did not like the sound of that.

Al cleared his throat. "So, I know you said Scar is going to show up eventually, and we need to figure out what to say to him to catch his attention, and I figured, since we didn't have a real name for him, and you said it was sort of cultural, I'd...go ask his people?"

'You did WHAT?' Ed mouthed at the wall, before drawing in a deep breath–

"Oh hell," Al said.

–and letting out the loudest, most piercing whistle he could manage, directly into the speaker.

From the kitchen, Hughes said, "That doesn't sound good," and Nina giggled before trying to whistle herself, Elicia trying the same from the living room.

"...ow," Al said. "Thank you for breaking my eardrum, Brother."

Ed crossed his arms over his chest and let his silence speak for him.

Al cleared his throat. "In my defence, you have done WAY dumber stuff."

Ed started tapping his foot, not that Al would know.

Al cleared his throat again, slightly more nervous. "Okay, it was dumb, but I was fine. No one tried anything, they were all really nice, but I went in civvies and left my watch in my dorm, so that probably had a lot to do with it, and our sashes and my jian are very clearly NOT Amestrisan, which you know, so that helped too, a bit, I think. But they were–" He coughed. "Could you please make some sort of noise so I know you didn't storm off?"

Ed let out a loud sigh and rubbed tiredly at his face; Al was right, Ed had done stupider, and he really only had himself to blame for their current situation.

"Okay," Al said. "Thanks. Uhm, so the...I guess he's some sort of religious leader, I don't know, but he's the guy who they took me to when I started asking around. He said they believe their names are given to them by their god, and if they turn from that god and his teachings, they have to give up the right to their name. In their language, they call those people 'majhul', which I guess translates loosely to 'the nameless'? I did ask, too, about alchemists, since you said he uses destruction alchemy, and he said they call alchemists 'mulahad', which he wouldn't tell me what it was, but I'm guessing it's super rude, since they sort of hate us."

Ed snorted; that was an understatement.

"Yeah, understatement, I know. I did get him to write both of them down for me, proper spellings and all, so those are in the letter. Because... Okay, I know you said you had your run-in with him here, but you said he'd been active in Central before that, and I..." Al paused and coughed. "I know you, and I know your luck. Even if you don't go looking for him, there's a good chance you'll run into him."

Oh, Al...

"So I thought you, well, you could use something to catch his attention, since you can't talk, and maybe something in his own language would help? I mean, you have some tricks up your sleeves, I know, but we're trying to keep that stuff secret, so...yeah. That. Sorry."

"Ed?" he heard from behind him, and turned to find Hughes standing a few paces away.

"Well, actually, I'm not sorry, really, because I don't want you hurt and all–" Al continued rambling.

Ed signed, :Can you tell my brother he's an idiot and I love him?: to Hughes, before holding out the handset.

Hughes smiled in understanding and took it. "Al?" he called, then let out a quiet chuckle at whatever Al said in response. "Your brother says you're an idiot and he loves you."

:Also, I'm going to murder him when I see him again,: Ed asked.

"Oh, and a promise of violence. Should I ask?" He laughed outright and shook his head. "Okay. Do you want to talk to Ed again?" He glanced at Ed, who shrugged. "Okay. No, he's shrugging. Yes, I'll tell him. Take care of yourself. We will. Goodbye, Al." He reached past Ed to hang up the handset, saying, "He says he loves you, too, and that if you die, he'll do something stupid."

Ed scoffed, even though he was actually sort of willing to believe that. (He didn't intend to die. It would be fine.)

"So, what did he do?"

:Took a page out of my book and put himself in danger,: Ed signed, and Hughes grimaced. He sighed and shook his head, adding, :I guess it turned out okay, but I'm still going to beat him up next time I see him.:

"No," Hughes muttered, shaking his head and turning to return to the kitchen, "I can't see the resemblance at all."

Ed just rolled his eyes.

-0-

In January, Ed found out about the first Scar killing when he overheard some assistants in lab four whispering about it while he was heading out. Rather than ask them for more information, he picked up a paper on his way to lunch, which turned out to be useless, then spent an hour annoying the shit out of Hughes until he gave him the details.

"It's weird, but hardly something to be worried about," Hughes insisted as Ed read over the sketchy details. They had no cause of death, no idea about who the killer was, or their motive, just that the victim had been a State Alchemist. One Ed had never met, and couldn't quite find it within himself to care about.

:I know who's doing it,: he signed once he'd handed the file back, and Hughes went very, very still. :I'm not worried about him, but you might consider putting a guard on every State Alchemist in the city.:

Hughes swallowed. :This is him. The scarred man who you want to ally with.:

Ed nodded.

Hughes caught the file and flipped the folder open, staring down at the photos of the crime scene – Ed knew those had been the real reason Hughes hadn't wanted him to see the file, but Ed was hardly new to images of death, and this wasn't the goriest, though it certainly made the top ten. "Be careful," he called as Ed made for the door.

Ed offered him a smile that felt too old. :I'm not going looking for him, if that makes you feel any better.:

"A little," Hughes allowed. "Are you going to let me put a guard on you?"

:No,: Ed admitted. :If I run into him, they'll just end up collateral damage.: Then he left the office to return to the pile of things waiting to be translated on his desk.

-0-

February started out with another State Alchemist dead. They still had no hints, but Hughes was finally able to push through the suggestion that all willing State Alchemists be accompanied by at least one guard at all times, given that two State Alchemists had now been killed in the same inexplicable manner.

A third was killed mid-February, and Bradley responded by ordering that all State Alchemists were required to have an armed escort outside of military installations and their homes. Hughes shrugged at Ed's irritated look when he passed on that announcement.

Ed decided to train his ninja skills by escaping his escort as often as possible. Hughes was resigned, his guards were beside themselves, and Grand, when he reported in about the labs that Friday, said, "The Führer would like me to remind you that all State Alchemists are required to be accompanied by a guard."

'Not my fault they're slow,' Ed wrote in response.

Grand's moustache twitched in that way that Ed was nearly positive meant he was trying not to laugh. "Silent, you were reported, and I quote, 'scaling a four-storey building like a monkey'."

Ed couldn't hide his grin. 'I wanted to know if I could'

(Spoiler: He'd managed it. It was awesome. Waving down at the aghast faces of his escort had probably been too much, but he hadn't been able to help himself. The fact that they hadn't been there to see him immediately trip over an exposed pipe and land on his face, had also been awesome. The 'not seeing it' part, not the 'landing on his face' part. That part had sucked. Also, it had required healing alkahestry and a lot of water to clean off all the blood from his abused nose.)

Grand coughed. "Please avoid being obvious about losing them in future, Silent."

Ed raised an eyebrow at him, Grand raised an eyebrow back.

They were both trained as martial artists, using their alchemy to augment their fighting abilities; having to be followed around by guards no doubt irritated Grand as much as it had been irritating Ed, and he would be honestly surprised to discover he was the only one receiving a formal reprimand from Bradley.

"Do we understand each other?" Grand asked.

Ed bowed. Yeah, he got that one pretty clear: Stop being obvious about ducking your guard, but I don't care if you keep roaming free, even though I'm supposed to.

(For being in Bradley's pocket, Grand was pretty okay.)

-0-

Ed had managed to dodge his guards again with the old double-back manoeuvre – you'd think they'd know better, but they kind of didn't, or Hughes had finally told them to just stop trying – when he heard yelling and gunshots from the next street over, accompanied, to his qi-sense, by feelings of terror and horror from more than one person, and absolute fury from a singular person, though nowhere near Bradley's level. Cocking his head, he headed in that direction, popping open his jacket so he could more easily reach into his sash for his store of kunai. He kept one in a wrist guard – courtesy of Hughes – but he always preferred to walk into a potential fight with easy access to his full store of weapons, not to mention having the ability to shrug off his jacket if it got in his way.

As he rounded the corner, he caught a flash of that yellow coat that he'd almost forgotten, dodging the bullets being shot by one of Ed's own guards. As he watched, something like horror crawling his throat, Scar darted forward and grabbed the man's head in his right hand.

'NO!' Ed shouted silently, as the guard was deconstructed.

Shit.

Shit. This was why he'd said no guards.

The other guard was clearly terrified, his shots going way wide, and Scar threw the body of the first guard at him before turning to a figure Ed had missed before, too distracted by the death of the guard. Even at a distance, Ed recognised that stupid moustache of Grand's, and the horror crawling his throat made a bid for his mouth when he realised the brigadier general's left arm was pinned by rubble.

Ed let out a sharp whistle, drawing Scar's and his remaining guard's attention. "Major, run!" the guard shouted, even as Ed pulled out his pocket watch and let it swing from one finger, before motioning Scar forward.

Scar glanced back at Grand's prone form, then clearly decided Ed was the better target for the moment – same as he'd once done when Mustang had approached while Ed was down, before – because he raced towards him, right hand drawn back.

Ed shoved his watch away and did a backflip, dodging Scar's first strike, and managing to land a hard kick to Scar's right shoulder with his automail. Before the man could grab for him again – with his left hand, since his right was hanging suspiciously limply – Ed was back on his feet and dancing backwards, waiting to see what Scar would do.

With a snap and a pop of bone, Scar shoved his shoulder back into place without his expression changing, then made a slow, careful roll of his right shoulder. Apparently deciding it was fine, Scar came at Ed again, reaching out with his right hand.

Ed dodged again, springing out of the way, then spun and started pelting down the street, aiming for the nearest uninhabited, cleared space he knew of, both because he didn't want to deal with the clean-up, and because he didn't want witnesses to him making friendly with a serial killer.

Being sure Scar was following him was easy – his qi was a very focussed arrow of hatred and rage, aimed straight at Ed, nearly overpowering the life-energy of other people nearby – so Ed didn't have to worry about glancing back to make certain, which meant he didn't have to slow down, which was fantastic.

Ed led them through one of the civilian warehouse districts, dodging between buildings, keeping Scar away from any overly-helpful afternoon guards on patrol. He nearly stumbled on the train tracks that marked the edge of the city proper, had to duck himself down into a roll and jab the kunai in his hand into the ground to use as a pivot to keep away from Scar, who was way closer than Ed had thought he was.

He kicked out with his right foot, caught Scar in the back of one knee with enough force to make him stumble, then nimbly twisted away from his reaching right arm.

There was a line of trees just ahead, likely marking the boundary of some rich, distinguished family's property, and no human life within the range of his qi-sense. The trees would serve as a good screen against anyone looking their way from inside the city, so Ed lurched to his feet, almost stumbled from a wash of dizziness – he did not have the stamina for city-wide chases, dammit, and he probably needed to work on that – and forced himself to run for the trees.

Scar let out an angry sound behind him and followed.

Ed tossed a kunai out ahead of him as soon as he cleared the trees, clapping his hands together and summoning a dirt wall as soon as it hit the ground, with writing on the front that spelt, 'I just want to talk!'

Ed vaulted over the growing wall as he reached it, tossing another kunai to start another wall – 'Do you really want this to be your brother's legacy?' – not really trusting his luck to only one of them.

Scar had burst through the first wall with a shower of dirt as Ed was vaulting the third wall – 'Majhul! Stop!' – and he quickly tossed down a kunai for a fourth wall – 'Mulahad!' (Al had given him the unfamiliar words, he might as well try them, right?)

Scar burst through the second wall, same as the first, and Ed was just tossing out a kunai for a fifth wall – 'Fucking STOP!' – when he sensed Scar...hesitate for a moment, before blowing apart the third wall. He stopped at the fourth wall, though, and called, "How do you know these words, alchemist dog?"

Ed jumped back down in front of the fifth wall, stumbled a few steps before he caught himself, then finished walking forward and clapped his hands together, pressing them against the sod of the fourth wall to change the message to 'There's an Ishvalan camp outside East City--my brother asked.'

When Scar didn't respond by blowing up the wall, Ed warily clambered to the top and peered down at him, found the man had removed his sunglasses and was glaring up at him with the blood-red eyes of his people. Ed clapped his hands together again and changed the message to, 'Can we talk? There are things you don't know about the genocide of your people.'

"Why should I listen to one of Amestris' dogs?" Scar demanded, though the very fact that he hadn't tried attacking again suggested he was willing to listen, at least some. His qi, likewise, had pulled back a bit, rage and hatred tempered by a sort of wariness that Ed fully reciprocated.

Ed sighed and again changed the message to, 'I know about your brother's journal. He was studying eastern alkahestry & western alchemy.'

Scar's eyes narrowed, definitely wary, now. "How do you know that?"

Ed shot him a tired look and changed his message again: 'I'm not coming down there until you promise you're not going to try killing me again.'

Scar took a step back and pressed his left hand against his chest. "I swear, on the spilt blood of my people, I will listen to you in peace."

That was good enough for Ed, and he mouthed, 'Oh, thank fuck,' as he hopped down from the wall and drooped back against it, exhausted. He gave himself a minute – relieved when Scar's qi remained more wary than angry, with a faint twinkling of curiosity – before clapping his hands together and changing the message to, 'I'm afraid I'll have to write everything down--bear with me.'

"You cannot speak," Scar said, his flat tone making it sound like more of a statement than a question.

Ed shrugged and nodded, pulling out his journal and giving in to his right leg's demands that he fucking sit already. He waved the journal at Scar, then opened it to the first blank page and started writing the pertinent details: he'd travelled in time, which was how he knew what he did; the Ishvalan Extermination was started purposefully as part of a far greater and bloodier campaign, which was coming to a head soon and would mean the end of them all if not stopped; Scar's brother's research could give the alchemists of Amestris a chance to fight back; and, whether Scar helped or not, Ed knew for certain of a handful of Amestrisan soldiers who were just waiting for the chance to help rebuild Ishval for his people, soldiers who just wanted the chance to repent for the crimes they were forced to commit.

Scar had come to sit across from him while Ed wrote, and Ed tore out all the pages he'd used and handed them over once he was done, then rested back against the sod wall behind him, closing his eyes and stretching out his senses, watching for any sign of 'reinforcements'.

He may well have fallen asleep, because it seemed like only seconds between closing his eyes and Scar saying, "What evidence do you have of this truth?"

Ed sighed and opened his eyes to write, '0 save knowledge I shouldn't have. I know your brother's journal is hidden in N but I don't know where--you'd already retrieved it by the time we caught up'

Scar stared at him for a long moment, after reading that, before looking down at the papers in his hands. "The only people who know my brother gave me his notes are dead," he said flatly, before crumpling the papers in a fist. "And I am the only person who knows where I hid them." He turned narrowed eyes up to Ed. "I believe you, dog."

Ed grimaced at that particular title and wrote, 'Edward'

Scar's expression didn't change. "Your Amestrisan names are useless to me."

Ed sighed. 'I had noticed that issue of yours. I was given the title Silent Alchemist which I much prefer over "dog"--I didn't accept this watch with any intention of coming to heel'

Something that felt suspiciously like amusement sparked through Scar's qi, though his expression didn't change as he flatly stated, "Clearly."

'Mental note,' Ed mouthed to himself, 'never play poker with Scar.' Then he wrote, 'Do you prefer "Scar"--the Amestrisans will call you that--or "Majhul"?'

Scar blinked. "I don't care. Call me what you want."

Ed rolled his eyes – some things never changed – and nodded. 'There's an abandoned house in some woods on E side of city where you can lay low if you need + can serve as meeting point. Most of slums outside city won't go out of way to report your presence + I know of Ishvalan camps in N--about 20 miles E of Ft Briggs-- + East City slums + group living in Xerxes ruins'

Scar considered that information before looking up at Ed with his poker-stare. "Why are you telling me this?"

'Because if homunculi/military find you right now you will be killed,' Ed wrote, shaking his head, '+ I know of wanting familiar when your world no longer is'

Scar ducked his head in acknowledgement. "Yes." He looked away, toward the trees hiding them from the edges of the city. "I thought my people gone."

'Scattered,' Ed wrote, for when Scar turned back around. 'Humanity is far more tenacious than homunculi believe. They underestimate us--there will always be survivors'

"Beware your arrogance, Silent Alchemist," Scar warned.

Ed was just about to write a response to that, when they both heard the dogs in the distance, coming from the city; reinforcements. Awesome.

They needed some way to call off the search or, better, for the dogs to lose Scar's scent. Ed's water alkahestry could serve the latter, but Scar would need to go now.

Ed clapped his hands and quickly changed the message on the wall, because that was quicker than writing, 'Give me your jacket & run. I can stop them.'

Scar frowned, but obediently shrugged out of his jacket, tossing it into Ed's lap as he got to his feet.

Ed nodded his thanks and pulled out a kunai to add some slices to the fabric, nicking his own palm to add blood along the edges and give truth to the lie. His own appearance – dirty and sweaty from the long run and jumping the growing dirt walls – would serve his story, but he added a few nicks to his bare hands and face, where a flung stone could have caught him.

And then he looked up, realising Scar was still standing there, watching his preparations, and glared. 'GO,' he mouthed, pointing away from the city.

Scar grunted, politely deconstructed the wall Ed had been sitting against, then the last one beyond it – erasing any signs that Ed had tried to get him to stop and talk; he'd have got them eventually – and started jogging for a copse of trees in the distance.

Ed turned back to the issue at hand: How was he supposed to convince the cavalry that he hadn't had any choice but to let Scar escape? Well, some broken weapons would help – those were easy to transmute and scatter around the place – and a couple of traps that looked like they'd been broken out of – also easy – and something Winry was going to fucking murder him for.

Ed took a deep breath and, wincing, used alchemy to blow out a couple of the connections in his leg, turning it into a dead weight.

As he dropped back to sit on the ground, left leg flopping uselessly out in front of him, Ed clapped again and pressed his hands into the grass, seeking ground water he knew would be there. It was the work of seconds to flood the entire field, following after Scar and hopefully erasing his trail, then let it all filter back underground, another array helping to evaporate any traces.

And then he tossed Scar's jacket in the general direction of the nearest 'prison' and settled back to scowl at his lot in life. (It didn't require much of an act; Winry really was going to have his head for breaking her precious invention.)

He didn't have much longer to wait before the dogs were racing into view around the trees. He knew a couple of them – working in Investigations meant they got visits from the military police about current court cases fairly regularly, and they sometimes brought their dogs, when they were on a patrol – and they came right up to him, clearly following his scent, rather than Scar's. He offered them a tired smile and ruffled some ears while he watched the other three dogs go over to Scar's jacket, sniff it all over, then give confused little whines and look in Ed's direction.

Oh. Awesome. He'd used his blood for the rips, which had probably confused the dogs, given they wouldn't have had much – if anything – to go on at the start. That was...a stroke of luck. Cool.

"Silent Alchemist!" someone shouted, followed by a familiar voice yelling, "Ed!"

Ed shoved a couple of the dogs away, then drew in a breath and let out a loud whistle.

"Over here!" someone called.

A pile of people in uniforms – military police and regular military – dodged through the stand of trees, guns out, but lowered. Hughes was one of them, and his shoulders slumped with relief when he spotted Ed in his circle of dogs. While the others started shouting varying orders – search for Scar, collect his jacket, what are those dogs doing, etc – Hughes hurried over to Ed.

:I broke my leg,: Ed admitted. :It was my best excuse for letting him escape.:

Hughes sighed and knelt in front of him. :I'll call your mechanic as soon as I can find a phone,: he promised. :Did you at least manage to talk to him?:

Ed nodded. :I don't know if he'll help, but he should stay out of the way.: He sighed. :I'm sure we've got a description now, sort of. Add to it that he's got tattoos on his right arm, but I'd rather avoid admitting he's Ishvalan and making them targets.:

Hughes nodded in understanding. :And his weapon?:

Ed looked over the mess he'd made, and the MPs and Investigation personnel looking through it. :No one would believe me if I said I didn't recognise it as alchemy.:

Hughes grimaced. "Good point," he muttered, before turning to look over his shoulder. "Major Armstrong!" he called.

Ed groaned and hid his face in his hands.

"Edward Elric!" Alex Armstrong exclaimed as he reached them, sounding like he was trying very hard not to cry. "It fills my heart with gladness to see you alive!"

Hughes let out a quiet chuckle, because he sucked, and said, "I'm afraid Ed's leg is broken and he could use a lift to hospital."

:Hate you,: Ed signed, just before Armstrong picked him up ever so gently.

"A broken leg?" Armstrong repeated, sounding honestly concerned.

Ed huffed and yanked at the leg of his trousers, pulling it up enough to show the metal underneath.

Hughes cleared his throat. "Automail, Major," he said quietly, because they'd – somehow – managed to keep the fact that Ed had a metal leg something of a secret from the military. The Hugheses knew, of course, and Mustang and Hawkeye, at the least, if not the rest of the bastard's team, but Ed had never made a habit of showing it off or bringing it up with people who didn't know, and physical exams weren't really required for State Alchemists, even ones who actually worked in a military office, doing official military work, so it wasn't even noted in his official file. Which seemed like a massive oversight on someone's part, but since Ed had made a habit of collecting what advantages he could – and having an automail-enhanced kick that very few people knew about definitely fit that bill – he wasn't about to point that out to anyone.

Armstrong's eyes widened very briefly before narrowing. "I will ensure he is seen to by a trusted doctor, Lieutenant Colonel," he promised, before carrying Ed away from the scene.

Ed blinked at that, before huffing and forcing himself to relax back in Armstrong's hold. There was very little he could do to make the man put him down, especially since he couldn't really walk without assistance right now.

When Armstrong brought him to a small clinic, rather than the military hospital, Ed couldn't even pretend to be surprised; Hughes had filled Armstrong in on both the military corruption and the plans in store for their country, so he knew the military wasn't to be trusted. Armstrong didn't really know Ed's part in all this – Hughes had decided that keeping Armstrong in the dark about Ed's actual maturity would help keep their cover, and they all knew the best-kept secret was one that remained unshared – but he knew Ed was firmly against the homunculi, and if they were keeping his automail a secret, there was probably a good reason.

(There wasn't, really, beyond it being a potential advantage and easy to keep a secret.)

Ed assumed the doctor was either employed by or owed the Armstrong family a favour, because he showed them in without questioning the visit, was quick and efficient about checking Ed over and bandaging his minor wounds, then showed them back out without any mention being made of payment.

Armstrong took him home to the Hugheses' afterwards, and Ed bore being fussed over by Gracia and worried over by Elicia and Nina with a tolerant smile, eventually falling asleep on the couch, with Elicia sitting next to him and watching to make sure he was still breathing, while Nina used her play doctor's set on Ed's automail leg. (He half expected to wake, finding she'd got into the real medical supplies and put plasters and such over the scar of the arrays carved into it.)

He woke to gentle fingers combing through his hair, and blinked blearily up at Gracia.

"Good evening, Ed," she offered quietly. "Maes and I just finished putting the girls to bed and wanted to know if you needed help getting upstairs."

Oh, right, fuck. Stairs. He did not want to deal with fucking stairs while his leg was a deadweight. :Can I stay on the couch?: he signed a bit hopefully.

Gracia smiled. "Of course. Did you want dinner? You slept right through it."

That...didn't actually surprise him, really; facing off against Scar had always taken a lot out of him, whether he was actually fighting him or trying to stay out of his range. He nodded and shifted to sit up, reaching out to shift his leg before it could catch against the cushions.

Hughes settled on to the arm of the couch while Gracia left to get Ed food, offering, "Passed on the information about the tattoo and that he seems to be using some sort of alchemical attacks, but said I didn't bother grilling you for specifics, since you were wounded. I put in for a couple days off for you – Armstrong's doctor friend was happy to offer his medical opinion that you needed a couple days to recover from trauma."

Ed snorted as he accepted the reheated food from Gracia. Trauma, please.

Hughes' mouth turned with a strained smile. "I know, but it'll keep the higher-ups off your back for a few days. I did call your mechanic and she said she'd be on tomorrow morning's train, so she should be here by dinner tomorrow."

:Was she angry?: Ed signed.

"She sounded more worried," Hughes offered, shrugging. "I didn't tell her you'd done it yourself, however."

Ed grimaced.

Hughes let him eat a few more bites before leaning forward and saying, "You saved Grand's life. It's going to be a while before he can fully use his left hand again, and both of his gauntlets need to be repaired, but he survived. By all witness reports, if you hadn't drawn Scar off right then, he would be dead."

Ed stared down at his food, torn between relief and regret; Grand was in Bradley's pocket, which made him one hell of a strong opponent to leave standing opposite them, but Ed actually liked Grand, after months of reporting to him about the labs, and, enemy or no, a life saved was still a life saved, and that was something to be proud of.

Wasn't that very mentality the thing that held them apart from the homunculi and the other fuckers willing to sacrifice the whole country for their own gain?

"By all accounts, the first thing he said when the MPs showed up on the scene, was that they needed to get after you, and my sources say he was visibly relieved to hear you were found alive."

Ed shook his head. :How the–: He grimaced, shaking his hands to stop himself from signing a curse; Elicia and Nina in bed or not, the fewer curses he signed in the house, the less likely he was to slip up around them (which was especially important, since they'd both started picking up some sign language, as often as they saw it). :I don't understand how he can work with the homunculi. He isn't the sort to sit down and sob over someone lost on the battlefield, but he's never struck me as the sort to write off a subordinate just to save himself, either. Not like those other slimeballs sitting with Bradley.:

Hughes rubbed at his beard. "You said the State Alchemist program was created to find those alchemists capable of surviving human transmutation, and they refer to you as 'sacrifices', and potentials as 'sacrifice candidates'. It's possible they're keeping him in the dark about the truth."

:But he's marked as being in charge of lab five,: Ed reminded him.

"After he died, you were told he was in charge of lab five," Hughes pointed out.

Ed paused, then turned to stare at Hughes as facts rearranged in his mind: Grand was killed before Scar showed up in East City, well before Ed had got the hints that led him to lab five and Bradley telling them Grand had been in charge of it. And, when Ed really thought about it, being in charge of the lab that created Philosopher's Stones and who knew what other horrors, didn't mean he was aware of the truth about the Dwarf in the Flask. After all, hadn't Marcoh been in charge of making the Stones? And he'd only guessed about the Nationwide Array later, and then fled.

Being a member of the brass didn't automatically mean being part of the corruption, even while stationed in Central; hadn't Grumman been a major general in Central before being thrown out to East City with a promotion as his consolation prize?

Ed...didn't know what to think. It was hard to get a read on Grand half the time, anyway, and Mustang taking a chance on a possible ally among the brass had ended up with his team being taken hostage, before, but Ed liked the brigadier general, and they could use all the help they could get.

But the risk.

:All these lies,: he signed tiredly, closing his eyes, :everyone hiding who they are, is what I hate the most about all this. I hate not knowing who to trust.:

Hughes was quiet for a long moment, before saying, "I'm hurt."

You're an IDIOT,: Ed shot back, opening his eyes to give him a flat look. :You and Führer Bastard and your teams, you're the only people in this stupid military I don't have to go around double-guessing. That's a really small group of allies.:

Hughes rubbed at his beard. "Hm. The Flame Alchemist and the Hawk's Eye," he mused. "Yes, I can see how they're not up to scruff."

Ed rolled his eyes. :You know what I mean.:

"I do," Hughes agreed, dropping his hand and slumping slightly as he looked over at Ed, his eyes just as old and worn as Ed felt. "Thinking in terms of numbers and what they can do for you, though. Isn't that how the homunculi view us?"

Ed blinked, and then he felt himself smiling, remembering what he'd told Scar about the tenaciousness of humanity, and the Ishvalan's response. :Scar told me to watch out that I didn't become too arrogant.:

"You? Never."

Ed shoved him with his right foot.

Hughes chuckled and pulled off his glasses to clean them, offering, "Don't think of it as being arrogant, then. Think of it as being human, and putting faith in the strength of your fellow humans."

Ed stared down at his hands, plaster-free because he'd healed all of his self-inflicted cuts before he'd fallen asleep. :That's harder than you think,: he signed after a long moment.

"Yes," Hughes agreed, his voice too tired, too old, "it is."

Ed sighed and returned to his meal.

And, when he finished and Hughes took it, he couldn't even pretend to be surprised by the hug he received. "Get some more sleep, Ed," Hughes murmured.

Ed offered him a smile that ached, but obediently laid back down to get what sleep he could; he was going to need to be well-rested to face down Winry.

-0-

Hughes must have skipped out of work to pick Winry up at the station, because the front door opened a good hour before he usually got home, and he called ahead, "I brought a guest!"

It was definitely Winry – Ed had recognised her qi before Hughes had opened the door – and Ed shot Nina and Elicia – both of whom were sitting in the living room with him – a reassuring smile, while Gracia called, "Welcome home. You must be Ed's friend, Winry, right?"

"Oh, uhm, yes. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"I'm Gracia. He's right through here, being guarded by our daughters."

Gracia led Winry through to the living room, and Ed offered her a smile and a wave. Her shoulders, held as tensely wound as her concerned qi, loosened with relief. "Idiot," she said. "You had me worried."

:Sorry.: Ed glanced at the two girls clustered around the coffee table, who were watching Winry with wide eyes. :This is Nina and Elicia.:

"Nina and Elicia?" Winry repeated, familiar with their sign-names, offering a smile for them. "Al's told me about you two."

"You know Big Brother Al?" Nina asked.

"Big Brofer Al," Elicia repeated, her whole face lighting up.

Winry laughed and nodded. "He and Ed and I grew up together. They're like brothers to me, too."

Nina's mouth formed a perfect 'o' of understanding, then she scrambled to her feet and stumbled over to tug on Ed's arm until he leant towards her. "Can she be our big sister?" she whispered.

Ed grinned and nodded, loving that she was willing to accept Winry into her ever-expanding family, but loving even more that she'd checked, first. Because Ed and the Hugheses smiling at a visitor didn't mean they trusted them alone with Elicia and Nina. Nina, at least, seemed to have got that concept when Hughes and Gracia had tried explaining it to them shortly after Ed officially moved in, and Elicia seemed content to follow Nina's lead.

Nina took that as permission to walk over to Winry, who crouched down as she approached. "Hello," Winry said. "I'm Winry."

Nina nodded like she already knew that, though Ed was fairly certain she hadn't connected the name Gracia had used in the hall to her face until then, and asked, "Big sister?"

Winry blinked a few times. "Oh," she said, before smiling. "I can be, if you want."

Nina gave a very determined nod and stepped forward to hug Winry, which she willingly returned.

And that seemed to be Elicia's cue to come over and introduce herself, grinning wide and bright.

Gracia eventually managed to lead both of the younger girls from the living room with promises of a snack – suggesting they might like to greet Hughes had resulted in no interest, which had made Ed laugh and Hughes, himself, make pathetic noises in the hallway – which left Winry and Ed alone.

"You don't look hurt," Winry said after a silent moment, collecting her toolkit and bringing it over to drop heavily on the coffee table, which she then pushed back so she had room to kneel next to Ed.

Ed shook his head and grimaced as he had to fight with the blanket to get it out of the way so she could work; Gracia had brought down a pair of shorts for him to change into that morning, after he'd asked, so he didn't have to fuss about undressing once Winry arrived. :Minor scratches. I would have been fine, but I needed a reason for letting Scar escape.:

Winry narrowed her eyes, her qi taking on a decidedly violent vibe. "You broke your leg on purpose?" she hissed.

Ed nodded.

At close range and with one leg a deadweight, he couldn't have dodged the spanner she whacked him with if he'd tried.

Ed clutched the forming bump on his head and whimpered while she switched out the spanner for a screwdriver so she could take off the cover of his leg. "Stop being pathetic," she ordered.

:Next time,: Ed signed crossly, :I'm going to let HIM destroy it.:

"I will hit you again," Winry warned.

Ed returned his hands to their far more important duty of cradling his aching head.

They were both quiet as she finished getting the casing off, then she let out a quiet, surprised noise. "Oh. This isn't anywhere near as bad as I was thinking. You just shorted out a couple of connections." Ed nodded and she shot him a glare. "You've done this before, haven't you?"

Ed shook his head; by the time he'd learnt enough about automail to know exactly how he could damage it so it would be a quick fix, he'd already lost his alchemy, and he knew better than to try using anything he couldn't actually control. (On himself, at least; he'd used what he knew to put a quick halt to someone who'd tried taking him on with two automail arms, before.) :I haven't, but I did go looking for the information, just in case.:

She let out a disgusted noise and turned back to her toolkit. "Idiot. Don't go looking for ways to break my hard work."

:You're my favourite automail mechanic?: Ed offered when she looked over at him again.

She huffed and knelt up slightly so she could start disconnecting the ruined connections. "At least you didn't try fixing it on your own."

Oh, no, Ed knew better than that. He could have, sure, but if Winry found out, he'd get a lot worse than a single spanner to the head.

It didn't take long for Winry to switch out the connections and replace the casing. "How is it?" she asked as Ed carefully swung his legs around and stood.

He tried a couple careful stretches, then signed, :Perfect, unsurprisingly. Thanks.:

She flushed and ducked her head over her toolkit, shifting things around. "Idiot. You owe me a tour of Central, since you dragged me up here."

Ed snorted and crouched down so she'd see him sign, :Sure. I've got tomorrow off to recover from trauma, anyway.:

Winry let out a disbelieving snort. "Trauma? You?"

Ed grinned. :Hughes' fault. It's not really military knowledge that I've got automail, so he used that to excuse me not coming in for a couple days while we waited for you.:

Winry rolled her eyes and slammed shut the cover of her toolkit. "You know, normal people are proud to show off their automail."

:You've been spending way too much time in Rush Valley,: Ed informed her. :There is nothing normal about those–:

Winry swatted at his hands. "Oh, please. Like there aren't people in the military who like to show off their automail."

:I'm going to walk you through my department and you tell me how much automail you see.:

"You work in Investigations. They barely count."

:I'll take you through the labs.:

Winry snorted. "Don't even lie, first off, there is no way I'd be allowed in the alchemy labs. Second, alchemy freaks don't count either."

:You realise your definition of "normal" is shrinking.:

"Shut up," Winry ordered as she stood. Almost before Ed could finish getting to his own feet, she hefted her toolkit and shoved it at him, and taking it was automatic. "Is there somewhere I can stay here, or are you going to make me charge you for a hotel room, too?"

Ed rolled his eyes and motioned with his head for her to follow him, before leading the way up to his room. Once he'd set the toolkit down, he signed, :You can have my bed while you're here; I'm fine taking the couch.:

Winry frowned, tightening her fingers around the strap of her overnight bag. "I don't want to put you out."

Ed shook his head. :I would rather you not get a hotel by yourself in Central.:

Winry's mouth tightened and she stepped rapidly past him to toss her bag on his bed. Then she spun and pointed a finger at him. "Overprotective idiot! Fine! But don't blame me when you end up with an achy back tomorrow!"

Ed rolled his eyes. :Thank you.: His eyes caught on his stack of correspondence with Al, then he asked. :Can you call Al and pass on a message for me?:

She blinked, confused for a moment, then realisation bloomed. "About Scar? Is he going to help?"

:He's not going to hinder,: Ed offered. :Reinforcements arrived before I could press him for any answers. I'll get them eventually, but, for now, I just want to tell Al I've spoken to him and we've agreed to a ceasefire.:

Winry huffed. "You're using their hand signs, I hope you realise."

Ed frowned. :Whose?:

"The military's." Because Al had taught her those sometime between when Ed taught them to him, and them coming back from East City with the sign language books.

Ed rolled his eyes. :Phone's downstairs,: he signed, before turning and leading the way back down. :He might still be at East Command,: he offered once she joined him by the phone, and she nodded in understanding, so he quickly dialled the familiar number, then held out the handset.

"Hello, yes, my name is Winry Rockbell. I'm calling for Alphonse Elric, if he hasn't left yet. Oh, uhm, Colonel Mustang's office?" She shot him a questioning look and Ed nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'll hold, thank you." She shifted her hold on the handset so it was balanced between her ear and shoulder, and signed, :You couldn't have asked Mr Hughes to do this?:

:You're not really complaining about the chance to talk to Al.:

:I talk to Al every other week, because he knows how to pick up a phone.:

Ed rolled his eyes. :Please take a moment to imagine me ringing you.:

Winry choked out a laugh, her cheeks pinking. "Oh," she squeaked, before hurriedly clearing her throat. "Your brother."

Ed blinked at that, confused for a moment, before he realised Al must have picked up.

"Yeah, he made me come up to see him, because he's an idiot who taunts murderers, apparently," Winry said, delivering the lie disturbingly easily.

(What had Ed's knowledge of the coming danger done to them, that the people of his childhood could so easily lie to pass messages over a phone line that they all knew might be tapped? Would they have been better if Ed had left them innocent?

(No. He knew the answer to that. Better they suffer with knowledge, than suffer in ignorance.)

"Well, he doesn't look injured, so I guess he got lucky. Or everyone's blowing this guy completely out of proportion and he's really not that dangerous."

Al laughed loud enough that Ed could hear him.

Winry made a face, then rolled her eyes and said, "Al wants to know if there was an arrest."

Ed shook his head. :He escaped, and the dogs lost the scent.:

Winry relayed that, then listened for a moment before snorting. "He's taking me out to show me the city tomorrow. Apparently, he's been given a few days off because of trauma."

Al laughed ridiculously loudly again, and Ed rolled his eyes. :You two are going to be laughing about that for MONTHS, aren't you?:

"Try years," Winry returned, before telling Al, "Laughing about his trauma." She flashed Ed a smile and promised, "Decades."

:I hate you both.:

Winry snorted, then said to Al, "No, that was all. Ed just wanted me to pass on that he wasn't dead." Her expression gentled. "Yeah, I'll pass that on. Yeah. I'll talk to you later, Al. Take care."

Once she'd hung up the phone, and before she could open her mouth, Ed guessed, :I'm an idiot and he loves me?:

She blinked once, then let out a quiet laugh. "Yes."

Ed smiled. :Dinner?: he asked, because he could smell something cooking.

"Not train food? Yes, please."

Ed laughed and led the way into the dining room.

..

Chapter Text

Ed spent his day off showing Winry around Central, serving as part-pack mule, part-pocketbook, which he'd actually sort of expected, because he knew her. His escort – because not catching Scar meant he still had to put up with guards, urgh – seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious, and Ed was seriously going to punch one of them for all the knowing smiles and winking, and not feel even a little bad about it.

Hughes and Gracia dragged all of them out to a small carnival just outside the city on Saturday, miraculously escort-free, and Ed got dragged on pretty much every single ride by either Winry or Nina, while he and Hughes traded off at winning things at various stalls – Ed had greater strength, Hughes was better at spotting patterns to exploit, and they were both fucking excellent shots, though Hughes was markedly more comfortable with the play guns. All told, everyone seemed to have a lot of fun, even if they did have an interesting time fitting the pile of stuffed animals into the military car Hughes had borrowed for the weekend.

"So, Ed," Hughes asked as they reached the lit streets of Central, "how's your trauma?"

Winry snickered and buried her face in the large bear she was holding.

:You're so lucky I have a policy against hitting the driver of the car I'm in,: Ed signed with a flat look.

Gracia helpfully passed that on, since Hughes hadn't caught all of it, and he responded by laughing.

Once they'd carted Nina, Elicia, and all the stuffed animals inside and both girls were tucked in, the rest of them retired to the dining room table, where Gracia put out tea for them and they could all take a few minutes to recover from the excitement of the day.

Hughes yawned and leant back in his chair. "I think I forgot to tell you, Ed," he said, "but Grand passed on word that he wanted your report of the labs on Monday."

Ed groaned and rubbed at his face, because he still needed to walk through lab three (and two, but he liked lab two) and that was absolutely the shittiest way to start a week off. :Isn't he still in hospital?:

"Word on Friday was he should be back to light duties on Monday."

:Should have let Scar kill him,: Ed signed with a scowl.

"Ah, but then you'd be reporting to Bradley, instead," Hughes pointed out.

Ed groaned and dropped his face into his hands, because that was an excellent argument for saving Grand, if ever there was one.

Winry hummed. "I should probably plan to take tomorrow's train, then," she announced.

Ed frowned up at her. :I can hold off on the labs for a couple hours to see you off, Winry.:

She smiled at him knowingly. "Oh no, Edward Elric, I won't be your excuse for dodging those labs. I know you're always complaining about them to Al." Hughes, the jerk, started chuckling, while Gracia hid a smile in her mug. "I don't even know why you're always complaining about them, you alchemy-freak. I'd have expected them to need to pry you away."

Ed wasn't really interested in tackling the truth of that particular issue, so he put on a pathetic face and signed, :Because I look fourteen and they're all idiots?:

Winry sighed. "I should have known."

Ed rolled his eyes. :Like you're not tempted to spanner people in the face for the same reason when they say you're too young to be an automail mechanic.:

"I–" Winry paused, finger up in the air for a beat, before curling both hands around her mug. "Okay, yes. And there's a reason I don't tell people that someone my age designed that array until after they've seen it works fine."

Ed shrugged. :Well, you can tell them a State Alchemist designed it, now.:

"I'm not actually certain that would be any better."

Ed huffed. Fucking shitty reputation.

"At least you're guaranteeing up front that the creator is good?" Gracia offered. "I know people think State Alchemists are little better than human killing machines led around by the military, but no one can argue that the requirements for a licence are ridiculous."

:I hold to that that exam was easy,: Ed signed, mostly because Hughes always tossed him a disgusted look and scoffed, and he didn't let Ed down this time, either. (According to Al, Mustang had an equally amusing reaction, though it was always Breda or Havoc who brought it up, because Al was way too fucking nice.)

Winry rolled her eyes at him, but agreed, "I suppose that's true. And you did create it before you joined the military. Sort of like a legacy that's not wrapped up in the military." She glanced at Hughes. "No offence."

"None taken," Hughes promised, steepling his fingers over his mug. "If all goes to plan, with three State Alchemists at the head of this coup, and at least one other following in line, perhaps their image will change."

:Maybe,: Ed allowed. Though, before, it hadn't been until Grumman shuffled the labs around and they started caring more about helping the people than making better weapons, that people started to consider State Alchemists as anything better than rabid dogs on a leash, there only for the whims of the military. And, even then, it was still all too obvious that becoming a State Alchemist held you to the military first; that, Ed knew, wouldn't change until their government was no longer headed by soldiers, or the State Alchemist program as a whole was abolished.

Winry sighed, clearly of the mind that leading a coup wasn't going to help the State Alchemists' image. "All that aside," she said, looking at Ed, "you're not the only one who should be back at work on Monday."

:Good point. I wouldn't want to leave that old grouch alone with your Monday crowd, either.:

"You think you're funny, but you're not," Winry informed him. "And Dominic's fine."

:After a galleon of coffee?:

"Be quiet."

Ed raised his hands to point out he literally couldn't do anything but be quiet and Winry pulled out a spanner. His hands went up in a show of surrender, which made both Hugheses laugh.

Once the spanner was away again, Ed offered, :I can't wait until he has a grandkid and he goes all doting grandfather. It's creepy, but amazing.:

Winry blinked. "Oh. I'd completely forgotten to tell you Satella was pregnant."

Ed laughed. :There's a reason I fixed that bridge.:

She winced. "Did it get washed out when the baby came?"

He nodded. :Yes. Old grouchy-face had to take the back way and you got stuck with the birth. Which you aced, so don't panic if everything goes sideways again.:

Winry eyed him, ignoring Gracia's impressed look. "I always love the way you compliment me," she deadpanned.

Ed grinned. :You're awesome, and don't let anyone ever tell you different.:

She cleared her throat and ducked her head, hiding behind her bangs. "Thanks, Ed."

Ed waved a careless hand at her and finished the last of his tea. :I think I'm going to head for bed,: he signed before standing.

"Oh, yes," Gracia agreed, shooting a startled glance towards the clock. "Maes, do you happen to have a copy of the train schedules in your office, or should we plan to ring the station in the morning?"

"Uh..." Hughes scratched under his chin a bit uncertainly. "I don't know. Ed, could you–?"

Ed nodded and set his mug in the sink before going to track down the train schedule that he remembered seeing half-hidden under some papers on the desk last time he'd been in the tiny, windowless office, updating something on one of the maps.

There was a train leaving for South City in the late afternoon, which meant she'd get in to Rush Valley late, but Winry said, "That's fine. There are people I can stay with in town overnight, so you can stop worrying." Then she shoved Ed.

He rolled his eyes and tugged her ponytail, then dodged out of the way of her spanner with a wide grin. :Good night,: he offered, before leaving for the couch.

-0-

Winry insisted on revisiting a couple of shops before her train, and Ed somehow ended up with a pair of boots which, she swore, were much tougher, so he wouldn't wear through the left one as quickly as he usually wore through his footwear. They all caught lunch together, then parted ways at the station, Gracia taking the new boots and telling Ed and Hughes, "You two have the girls for the day so I can do some shopping in peace."

Nina and Elicia turned pitiful eyes on Gracia, which she just stared flatly at – Ed had heard more than enough stories about how both girls always seemed to talk Gracia into buying them sweets when she took them with – before they got smart and turned towards Ed and Hughes.

"Uh-oh," Hughes said, which was pretty much his way of saying he'd already lost against them.

Ed offered Gracia a helpless shrug, and she shook her head and left with a wave, resigned to her husband's inability to say no to their daughters.

They ended up with ice cream in a park near the house, Ed's guard detail politely staying out of the way with their own ice cream, and when Nina saw some of her friends, she dragged Elicia along to run off their energy, which Ed knew he appreciated, and suspected Hughes did too. Hughes wasted a few good minutes trading greetings and catching up with the other parents who were there, Ed smiling politely in the background and keeping a sharp eye on where Elicia and one of the younger boys were chasing a squirrel around a tree.

Finally, Hughes led them over to a bench with an excellent view of the space where the children were playing, and commented, "Good wife material, that Winry."

Ed closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe for a minute – he should have known this would happen – then shot Hughes an unimpressed stare and signed, :I begin to understand why the bastard wants to set you on fire all the time.:

"If Roy would just settle down..."

:One of these days, he's actually going to flambé you, and I am going to stand back and let him.:

Hughes snorted. "No, you won't."

Ed huffed; okay, he wouldn't, and Mustang was beyond unlikely to actually use his flame alchemy on Hughes, but still. :Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that she is HALF MY AGE–:

Hughes winced; he'd clearly not run those numbers.

:–she's my best friend, practically my sister, and I want her happy. And I? I will not make her happy.:

Hughes shot him a look that was far too sharp. :You don't know that,: he signed back, clearly deciding this conversation was better kept in complete silence. (Which was good; Ed's guard detail were back far enough they shouldn't be able to hear much, but still.)

:I won't make her miserable,: Ed allowed, :not right out, but I won't make her happy, either. She needs to find someone who loves her and shares her stupid automail passion, which is not me.: Then he shot Hughes his own sharp look. :And DON'T start trying to push her and Al together. I like who Al ended up with. They were fucking ADORABLE together. Still are.:

Hughes blinked, watched Ed for a minute, then took the bait. :Still? Anyone I know?:

Ed allowed a smile, tried to pretend it didn't feel too tight. :She's a member of our clan, back in Xing. It took about two seconds for her to develop a crush, and I know he thinks of her fondly, too, even though I'm not allowed to ask.:

Hughes raised an eyebrow at that. :Not allowed to ask?:

:I may have teased him one too many times.:

Hughes grinned. :Matchmaking is fun.:

Ed narrowed his eyes. :Stay the fuck out of my love life, kid.:

"Ouch." :I don't think Winry's teacher is the only old grouch in her life.:

Ed got up. :I am going to go chase a squirrel, because that is somehow less embarrassing than being seen with you.:

Hughes laughed as Ed went to go help Elicia and her new friend chase squirrels.

-0-

Ed spent the first half of Monday tackling labs three and two, then wrote up his report while he ate lunch at the little hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop down the road from lab two, which Blooming had suggested to him at one point and he decided he liked it enough to catch lunch at whenever he was over there for it. (And, hey, there was something to be said for becoming a familiar customer, since he could just walk in and sit at his usual spot and Jerry or Rosie, whoever had the floor that day, would bring over his usual order within a few minutes, without him having to fuss about with writing anything down.)

After lunch, he trudged his way into Command and up to Grand's office. Grand's adjunct, Second Lieutenant Wesson, smiled at him when he stepped into the outer office. "Major Elric. Go on in; he's been waiting for you," he said, before turning to direct Ed's guards to sit and wait with Grand's own guard detail.

Ed raised an eyebrow at the greeting, but walked through to Grand's office without attempting a reply, giving a polite knock before pushing the door open and stepping inside.

"Silent," Grand said by way of greeting, getting up from behind his desk with a faint grimace, so he could move over to the small table and chairs set they always sat at, for ease of communication. The brigadier general's left arm and hand were in a sling, the bright white of a fresh cast peeking out, and he had a couple plasters on his forehead and cheek, but he otherwise looked surprisingly good, for having gone a round with Scar and lost. "Have a seat."

Ed settled into his usual chair and set his journal and report on the table in front of him, then leant back to wait for Grand to speak, since the rapid swirling of his qi suggested he wanted to speak, but something was holding him back. To his shame, Ed had become far better at the silent waiting game than most people, for obvious reasons.

Grand sighed and rested his right hand on the table for a moment, before frowning and lowering it to his lap – Ed understood; it was hard to know what to do with one hand, when you were used to having two – then said, "What you did, leading that man away, was extremely dangerous. You could have been killed, and very likely would have been, had the MPs not managed to track you down."

Right, Hughes' little twist that the barking dogs had scared Scar away, and Ed had collapsed from exhaustion and relief. Which made Ed sound kind of pathetic, but he was only supposed to be fourteen, and the story still had him holding out against Scar for over half an hour, which was over three times as long as Grand himself. (Of course, what even Hughes didn't realise, was that, alone and trying not to hurt Scar because he wanted him to listen, if the Ishvalan hadn't stopped when he had, Ed wouldn't have lasted much longer. He could and had managed against Scar for that long when he had Al as backup, but Al hadn't been with him, and he'd desperately needed that breather that Scar had given him.)

"If you find yourself in such a situation again, lead him towards Command, where you will have support and we'll be able to catch him." Grand shifted in his seat, his eyes narrowing. "That is a direct order from Führer Bradley, and you will be obeying it."

In other words, this isn't like the game of skipping their guards; Grand knew exactly how dangerous Scar was, now, and he wanted to make sure Ed wasn't going to pull any more stupid, potentially suicidal stunts.

Well, since Ed didn't have any more stunts planned involving Scar, he stood and bowed in acceptance of that order. (Because saluting was still uncomfortable, and writing 'Yes, sir' lacked the sincerity that Grand was looking for. So, bowing.)

"Good," Grand said as Ed settled back into his chair. The man shifted uncomfortably again, then grunted and said, "Reckless as it was, thank you. He nearly had me."

Ed paused for a moment, then flipped open his journal and wrote, 'I know. You're welcome'

Grand considered him for a moment, then nodded and relaxed a bit. "I'm sure you've already been cross-examined by Lieutenant Colonel Hughes–" Ed allowed a wry smile, because he sort of had "–and you will likely find yourself facing a squad of military police looking for answers of their own very shortly, but did you figure anything out? It almost seemed like he was using alchemy, but..."

'Stopping at deconstruction,' Ed wrote, and Grand let out a noise of comprehension. 'I think I can figure out way to combat but I don't know how much good it would do any1 other than Al/me + I can't say for sure that's all he can do'

Grand frowned as he read that. "Combat it?"

Ed shrugged and nodded, because this was actually fairly common sense, though extremely difficult without the Truth-given ability to form arrays internally, and sidling along the boundary of human transmutation. 'It should be poss to neutralise his destruction by turning back on him--2 arrays aimed at each other intending to do exact same thing should cancel each other out'

Grand frowned. "The arrays would have to be in contact with each other," he murmured.

Ed nodded. 'Which is why I don't know that any1 outside Al/I could do it--our ability to transmute without external arrays gives us advantage'

"Hm." Grand sat back slightly, before wincing and carefully resettling his left arm. "Let's avoid actually testing it."

'My plan as well,' Ed admitted.

Grand nodded, his qi suggesting at the relief his expression didn't show. "Anything else useful?"

'He'll bleed if you cut him?'

Grand's moustache twitched. "As one would expect of anyone, I think."

Ed snorted and shrugged. 'As much trouble as he is it's nice to know it's poss to land a hit on him + it'll stick'

Grand let out an uncomfortable breath. "True enough." He shifted again and almost managed to suppress his wince when he had to reposition his arm.

Ed squeezed his fingers on his pen, then offered, 'I do know an array to speed up healing of broken bones'

Grand grimaced. "Not broken, crushed," he admitted.

Ed winced, because he'd never quite suffered that particular damage before, but he'd broken enough bones to have a pretty good idea of how much that was going to suck to let heal, and how much it had to hurt in the process. 'The healing should be the same if you want me to try?'

Grand took a moment to debate that, but his qi gave him away, so Ed was completely unsurprised when the man reached up with his good hand to slip the sling over his head so he could carefully rest his left arm on top of the table. "I doubt you can make it any worse," he said flatly.

Oh, Ed didn't know about that, because there was a certain level of anatomy knowledge necessary for any healing alchemy, which held doubly true for broken bones. Ed, being accident prone as he was, and having lived with an automail mechanic, knew more than enough about human limbs and extremities, so he wasn't worried about his own ability to do this, but he would have strongly suggested against Grand asking anyone else, even Al. (For broken bones, sure, Al should be fine, but not when they were crushed.)

That said, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, taking a moment to centre himself and envision what a human arm was supposed to look like on the inside. Then he very firmly reached for the tectonic energy at his disposal, rather than the much more effective Dragon's Pulse, and pressed his hands together, letting form the Cretan array for broken bones, before opening his eyes and lightly touching his fingers to Grand's thumb where it was sticking out of the cast.

Green lit between them, proof that he hadn't slipped and ended up using the wrong something, and Ed allowed himself a grim smile before closing his eyes again, chasing after the alchemy to help it nudge the shattered bone pieces back into the proper alignment, coaxing tissues to form around gaps and hold everything in its proper places.

Once he'd done all he could with the energy at his disposal, Ed withdrew, opening his eyes and wincing as he noticed, first, the warning signs that he was either going to need a nap or something to boost his flagging energy before he tried walking back to Investigations – the more energy you drew through yourself, especially tectonic energy as tightly reined as Ed had just done, the more it exhausted you – and then the lines of pain across Grand's face. 'Sorry,' he mouthed, before forcing himself to write, 'Had to shift fragments back into place'

Grand very carefully replaced the sling over his head. "So, the doctors weren't lying about the possible need for automail."

Ed allowed a smile that felt all twisted and shook his head, because, from what he'd seen, Grand would have struggled to make a fist if it had set the way it was aiming to, which would have interfered with how he did alchemy. 'It should set fine now but automail is still going to give you better mobility in long run'

Grand considered him with some interest. "Know something of automail, then?"

Ed shrugged and nodded. 'The woman who raised us after Mum died is mechanic'

Grand let out a snort, grimaced when it moved his arm, then carefully stood. "Stay put," he ordered, before leaving the office.

As if Ed really had the energy to go running off after the brigadier general right then.

Grand came back after a couple minutes with a cup of military grade sludge – also known as coffee – and set it in front of Ed with the order of, "Drink that before you fall over, Silent."

Oh, good. That should help him get back to Investigations so he could steal one of Hughes' couches for a power nap.

He passed over his report, then huddled around his coffee, downing it as quickly as he could stand – it wasn't hot, particularly, but the taste and consistency left a great deal to be desired. When Grand finished reading his report, they went over two minor points, then Grand waved him out with the reminder of, "I'll see you again on Friday, Silent."

Ed grimaced – lab three twice in the same week? Oh joy – and offered a nod in response, then slipped from the office.

Second Lieutenant Wesson stood as Ed walked out, and quickly stepped around his desk with a thick paper cup in one hand, and a banana in the other. "The brigadier general said to make sure you took these with you on your way out," he explained when Ed just sort of stared at the offerings, thrown.

Dammit. This sort of shit was what made Ed question how deeply in Bradley's pocket Grand really was. And, sure, it could be argued that he was just doing his part to keep one of their precious sacrifices from keeling over, but Ed had seen him order a member of his staff home when he'd thrown up from what they'd later diagnosed as food poisoning from the mess – there was a reason Ed never ate there – and he'd spent enough time sitting in Grand's outer office, waiting for him to finish a phone call or a meeting with another general, to have heard praises sung by his office staff.

He accepted the banana and coffee with a small, grateful smile, and Wesson quirked a smile in response, shooting off a quick salute before stepping out of the way to let Ed leave, his guard detail falling in behind him with quick salutes toward Wesson.

He did end up taking a nap in Hughes' office, mostly because it gave him an excuse to dodge the MPs looking to grill him for a little bit longer, but the coffee and banana had helped a lot, and Ed figured he was going to be torn over that for a while.

(At least until he walked back into the chimera lab in lab three, again. Something about that place always left him hating Grand nearly as much as he hated Bradley.)

-0-

Grand was all business when Ed stopped by to deliver his report on Friday, and he looked far less uncomfortable with his every motion. It would clearly still take time for him to heal, but he seemed to have settled into that stage where he'd got used to the steady ache and learnt to move so he wasn't constantly jostling it.

After his report to Grand, Ed nimbly gave his guards the slip and made his way out to check on the abandoned house outside the city limits that he'd told Scar about. His directions hadn't been great – they'd sort of got side-tracked, and then run out of time – so he wasn't surprised to find a distinct lack of habitation. Still, in hopes that Scar would find it eventually, he left a note for him inside, similar to how he had done for Hohenheim, and carved a portion of the man's tattoo into the outfacing wood of the doorframe; the military might know of Scar's tattoo now, but Ed was still the only one who actually knew what it looked like, which made that a fairly safe sign that this was the place Ed had meant.

He got home after Hughes, who raised an eyebrow at him once he finally made it into the kitchen, dragging two giggling girls who had latched onto his ankles and insisted they weren't letting him go. He shrugged at Hughes and signed, :Leaving a note for Scar.:

:Stop dodging your guards, before Bradley takes a page out of their book,: Hughes returned, before pointing down at Ed's two human ball-and-chains.

Ed snorted and rolled his eyes because puh-lease. They both knew he could get out of this in a heartbeat, if he actually wanted to.

Hughes waited until after they'd put Elicia and Nina to bed, before catching Ed by the shoulders and saying, "Let's talk," then leading him out into the back garden while Ed tried to get his defence in order.

And, really? Hughes was going to pick now to get on him about slipping his guards all the time? Or ignoring Bradley's orders? Or...trying to open a firm line of communication with Scar?

(Okay, so Ed wasn't really sure what this was about.)

Hughes sat them down at the table and chairs set out back, facing each other, with a small hand lantern lit on the table between them, so they could actually see each other signing. :What you said, over the weekend...: Hughes started before pausing, clearly struggling to...something.

Ed frowned, confused. :You realise I've never actually SAID anything to you, right?: he signed, because joking about his inability to speak had become something he could fall back on when things got awkward.

Hughes shot him a tired smile. :What you SIGNED, then. About Winry.:

Ed couldn't stop from tensing. :Don't,: he warned, because this wasn't a conversation he wanted to get into with anyone. Al had been good about dropping it – other than asking about his 'mystery man' before he and Ed had settled on ignoring each other's respective relationship prospects – for which Ed was supremely grateful.

Hughes watched him for a minute before signing, :I don't care if you punch me, Ed, but I'm not going to sit back and watch you be miserable. SOMETHING happened.:

:I'm not MISERABLE!: Ed signed angrily. :Why is it that you arseholes always assume that my wanting Winry to find someone else to marry makes me miserable?:

Hughes tilted his head slightly, interest glinting in his eyes. :More than just me?:

Ed glared at him and pointedly crossed his arms over his chest.

:Al,: Hughes decided. :You wouldn't sit still to let anyone else pry into your personal life. I'm kind of surprised you're sitting still for me.: He raised an eyebrow.

Ed clenched his jaw. He knew this tactic, this attempt to gently prod him into talking again, because then he might accidentally answer the questions Hughes really cared about. The worst part was, it was going to work for the same reason that Ed hadn't just got up and walked away: :We live in the same house and you're my direct superior. Avoiding you is an effort in futility.:

:Something we agree on,: Hughes agreed with a smile that made Ed seriously consider taking him at his word about not caring if he got punched.

Ed tightened his hands into fists for a moment, then took a careful breath and forced his hands to relax, held them up to sign, :She's extremely passionate about automail, and I've always cared more about alchemy. We got along fine, but we didn't always fit quite right. And, besides, I liked to travel. It drove her nuts, but I don't have the patience to sit around in Rush Valley for more than a couple months in a row. We work well as friends, but not spouses.:

Hughes considered that for a moment, then gave a slow nod. :I can see that, I suppose,: he allowed. :You two argued a lot, and I've seen how quickly you can get bored with something.:

Well, that was certainly the truth; Ed may officially be on the Investigations staff as a translator, but Hughes had taken to passing along all sorts of weird or interesting cases, in an attempt to keep Ed from snooping through his desk or taking a nap on one of his couches to get away from his translation work. Because, fucking hell, it got really boring translating the same things for days at a time, and Ed needed something unrelated to keep his brain from turning to mush. And, no, abusing the alchemy researchers didn't count, because he didn't have to think during his inspections, beyond those few occasions when his brain jumped ahead of the researchers, saw their maths were all fucked to hell, and he had to find a way to explain their error in a manner that their tiny brains would understand.

(Like anyone was really surprised that Ed had issues with some of the alchemy researchers.)

:But you also said she needs someone who loves her, which is not you.:

Ed frowned. Had he said that? That was a stupid slip. :I love her,: he returned. :She's my best friend.:

:Practically your sister,: Hughes signed, nodding. :But I don't think you'd have married her if you'd thought that way from the start, so something must have changed.:

Ed stared at him, flailing a bit internally; fucking Hughes and his perceptiveness. :I told you, our passions–:

:You're both already passionate about two different things,: Hughes signed, something about his expression leading Ed to just sort of...drop his own hands into his lap. :You said you started studying alchemy as a young child, and she grew up with automail, knew enough to help make your leg. You've had different passions almost as long as you've known each other; that never changed.:

Ed shoved himself out of his seat. :I'm going to bed,: he declared, because he needed time to figure out how to handle Hughes. He should have just walked away from the start, taken some time to get everything straight in a way that would make sense and shut the prying arse down, but he hadn't and now he was regretting it. He started back toward the door into the house.

"Did she cheat?" Hughes asked quietly, resorting to speaking because Ed wasn't looking at him.

Ed spun to stare at him in disbelief. Winry? The one to cheat? :NO!:

:Did YOU cheat?: Hughes pressed, like a dog on the hunt.

(There was a joke there, probably.)

Ed couldn't bring himself to do anything more than stare, because how had Hughes even reached that conclusion? How the fuck had he jumped from 'different passions' to 'someone cheated'?

Hughes shifted, the light from the hand-lantern casting long shadows across his face, giving him a vaguely sinister air. :Another alchemist,: he signed. :That's why you're so caught up on her finding someone who shares her passions, because that's what you did.:

Shit.

:You realised that you loved someone more than you love Winry.:

Nope. He couldn't– He wasn't–

Ed shook his head and very firmly turned around and walked into the house, straight past Gracia's concerned, "Ed?" and upstairs to hide in his bed.

He had just long enough to start thinking he should get up and change into his pyjamas, before someone knocked lightly on the doorframe. "Ed," Hughes said, unmuffled because Ed had forgotten to close his room door behind himself, dammit.

Maybe if he pretended he was asleep...

Hughes sighed. "People fall in and out of love. It happens, and I'm sure Winry understood–"

Ed couldn't stop a snort.

Hughes was quiet for a moment before asking, "She didn't understand, or you never told her?"

He wasn't going away, clearly, and he wasn't going to let this go. Which, well, Ed had heard plenty, over the years, about how Hughes kept on after Mustang, even going so far as to try setting him up on blind dates a few times...

He sighed and shoved off his blankets so he could sit up and shoot Hughes a disgusted look. :What am I, your new charity project?:

"Yes," Hughes decided. "Though I find I prefer 'happiness project'."

:You're full of poop.:

Hughes' mouth tilted up at that child-friendly sign, but his qi was a curled mass of concern, laced through with curiosity, and there was so very clearly no way he was letting this go.

Ed ran his hands through his hair, tugging out his hair tie, and sighed again as it fell to his shoulders in a loose mess. :I never told her,: he admitted, after tossing the hair tie in the general direction of his dresser, not caring when it fell short.

Hughes' mouth turned down and he stepped into the room. "As much as you hate liars, you were having an affair and–"

:It wasn't a fucking AFFAIR,: Ed signed angrily. :I slept with him ONCE.:

Hughes paused, his eyebrows raising. "Him?"

Oh, fuck. How the fuck did he slip again? :Is there some sort of 'pry into Ed's life' alchemy?: he complained.

"Doing alchemy would be a first for me," Hughes commented, catching the chair shoved under Ed's tiny writing desk and pulling it out to sit on. "Male alchemist," he mused, his eyes way too sharp behind his glasses. "Should I start guessing?"

:Why does it even MATTER?: Ed demanded, irritated. :I slept with someone once, it was a shit fucking life choice, and like Al's always reminding me, it didn't actually HAPPEN.:

Hughes considered that for a moment, before nodding. "I suppose that's true." And then he caught Ed's gaze, his own too aware, too knowledgeable. "So that means you can start fresh, right? If you don't have Winry weighing on your conscience–"

Ed laughed silently, let his expression twist into something that wasn't even a little bit happy. :You really are far too attached to this dream of a happily ever after. He was drunk and I was stupid; he doesn't love me, I was just a ready body.: He looked away, feeling a bit like the Gate had somehow opened in the centre of his chest.

"You know," Hughes said quietly, "I keep running through all the alchemists I know."

Ed snorted. :You don't know him.:

"I think I do," Hughes corrected, and Ed barely stopped himself from shooting him a panicked look. "Because if I didn't, you would just use his name-sign."

:Or,: Ed signed with an irritated look that felt false, :I know you're going to meet him eventually and just don't want you matchmaking.:

Hughes nodded. "Could be," he agreed, but Ed knew he wasn't buying it. Hughes looked like he was thinking about it for a moment, then he leant forward, intent. "I'm willing to bet real money that you weren't just a 'ready body'."

Ed forced a smile that ached. :Right,: he managed, his hands feeling heavy.

"I'll bet he used your name, too," Hughes continued, "and, as drunk as he might have been, he kept asking if it was okay."

Ed's smile just sort of...failed, and he found himself staring at Hughes in disbelief, because how did he know?

Hughes smiled at him, then, entirely too kind. "You told me so yourself, that there's only one State Alchemist you trust without reservation, other than Al."

Fuck.

Hughes sat back in Ed's desk chair, the light from the hallway throwing a glare across his glasses and hiding his eyes from sight. "You bought into the lies, didn't you?" he guessed. "Roy Mustang the womaniser, has more notches in his bedpost than he is months old."

He really did know. Fuck.

"Always a different woman, every night."

Except...

"He wines them and dines them, and then he takes them home. And they take that walk of shame with pride."

Hughes wasn't...angry. His qi was calm, almost...happy. And Ed had spent enough time around him to know that, even when Hughes managed to control his face, his qi would give him away. (Which held true for Amestrisans in general, in Ed's experience, likely because they just didn't know there was anything else to control.)

"I bought into it too, at first," Hughes continued, humour in his voice, "even though I met him at the academy, and he was way too serious about his studies, then. Women didn't seem to figure in to...anything. When you talk to cadets, they always have one or a handful of people to protect – family, friends, a lover – and I was the same, but Roy – and I think you know this already – he wanted to protect everyone."

Ed shifted and nodded, pressing his fingers tight against his thighs, uncertain what else to do with them. Even if Hawkeye hadn't told him Mustang's trickle-down protection plan, it had become pretty obvious when his first act as Führer was to drag parliament out of their hovel and demand they start writing up peace treaties with their neighbours.

"It was the same in that desert. He didn't have anyone back home – or, at least, no one he'd talk about – and he never talked about women. I thought I just needed to find him someone, and I knew of another alchemist out there who pretty much kept to herself, so I dragged them together. And they got on well, debated your freakish science over dinner, then kicked me out of the tent on those nights we were all in the same general vicinity." He raised his eyebrows at Ed.

:I really will punch you in a minute,: Ed warned, glad that he didn't have to speak to communicate, for once, because his mouth was as dry as the Great Desert.

Hughes' mouth quirked, but there was a sadness to the curl of it. "After it was over, she requested a reassignment north, where the climate was completely opposite. I thought Roy would go after her, but he didn't. When I asked, he said it was her choice, and then he started on about finding new women in Central and I walked away. It took me months to realise he'd done that so I'd drop the topic and, by then, they'd exchanged a few letters and he'd just start talking about her recent news when I brought her up."

Hughes shifted forward slightly, the glare from the hallway light only hiding one eye, now, showing the other to be... Ed wasn't sure what that emotion was, and Hughes' qi wasn't helping him figure it out, was still too overwhelmingly calm.

"When we got back to Central, he started dating around. I had no idea how he found so many dates, one right after another, almost as soon as we got in, so I stalked them a bit."

Ed couldn't even pretend to be surprised.

"And, what do you know, it was always the same fifteen or so women."

Ed blinked. Wait...what? But he'd seen Mustang's date book once, when Havoc had got his hands on it and passed it around the office, and it was a freaking journal of women. There were some repeat names, sure, but they were common ones. Ones that had been popular around the same time.

"I finally cornered him about it," Hughes admitted, definitely amused, "and he took me to this little run-down pub and introduced me to the proprietor, a Madam Christmas. It turns out she runs something of an underground intelligence network, using women – often prostitutes, but pretty much anyone who's positioned to overhear useful information – to gather and pass on intelligence to sources she trusts."

Ed's brain just sort of stopped for a minute, before flipping around and eyeballing this new information, looking for flaws and not finding any.

He knew all-too-well how scarily brilliant and resourceful women could be, and how easily they were overlooked. And Mustang had always known things that Ed had left out of his reports, local knowledge that, asking around, none of his team had known. It had always irritated and confused Ed, as a kid, that Mustang had managed to keep such close tabs on him.

But all that had vanished when he went up to Briggs and fell off the map. When he'd asked, way later, Mustang had admitted that he'd heard some whispers, but Greed's determination to avoid any of Bradley's spies, had also managed to evade Mustang's, apparently despite the homunculus' unfortunate habit of picking up partners for the night whenever he could.

Hughes sat forward, elbows on his knees. "He's charming and he honestly cares about people, which can look a lot like flirting, if you don't look too hard, and he does occasionally go out on real dates, when I've set him up, or when it's a chance to get in good with some higher up, but those rarely seem to go home with him." He offered Ed a knowing smile. "Roy doesn't sleep with just anyone, Ed, and I doubt that's going to change in future."

Ed forced a smile that felt hollow. :Thanks for reassuring my stupid teenage hormones that they're not getting excited about a whore.:

Hughes tilted his head. "I don't understand why you and Roy both refuse to try for a relationship that clearly makes you happy."

:There was nothing happy about what I did!: Ed signed in an angry rush.

Hughes reached forward and caught his hands. "What you did," he said quietly, "is only in your mind. And maybe it's real to you, but I think you've already proven that you have the power to change those things you regret. Why can't you change this, too?" He squeezed Ed's hands once before letting go.

Ed swallowed, had to ask, :Why aren't you angry?:

Hughes blinked, and then he sighed and shook his head. "Why would I be? Ed, I know you, and it's pretty obvious that you've been beating yourself up about this ever since it happened. We all make mistakes, and maybe that one was kind of ugly, but you can't punish yourself forever because of one incident. If you want to make amends, then buck up and make amends, and don't be surprised when Roy says you can apologise by letting him take you out on a date."

Ed huffed. :He can't date his fourteen-year-old subordinate!:

"You're not fourteen, as you're so fond of reminding us," Hughes returned with a smile, "and you're not his subordinate, you're mine."

'Oh.' Ed had forgotten about that. A part of him would always be a member of Mustang's team, but he technically...wasn't, any more, was he? He'd slotted himself into Investigations under Hughes, and Mustang was general administration. The bastard would work with their department when it suited him – and Hughes being his best friend meant it would suit him more often than not – but he didn't have any more control over Ed than any colonel would.

And the age thing...yeah. Everyone who they would struggle to hide it from, already knew Ed was over twice as old as he looked.

...he was actually considering this. What the fuck? He was only sticking around until the Dwarf in the Flask was tossed back to the Gate, then he was going to go bury his head in Xing.

"You're trying so hard to make everyone else happy, why can't you do the same for yourself?" Hughes asked, apparently invoking some weird alchemy to read Ed's mind.

Ed threw him his most vicious glare.

Hughes smiled and ruffled his hair, unconcerned by the silent promise of violence. "Tell you what," he offered, his eyes catching the light from the hall and gleaming, "I'll make you a deal: You write Roy a letter, which I can send through secure channels, and I promise not to pester you about relationships again."

That was... That should not have been tempting. The last thing Ed had ever wanted to do was share that secret with anyone, let alone Mustang, but he'd heard plenty about how obnoxious Hughes could get when he and Mustang only talked over the phone once a week, and he really didn't want to know how much worse he'd be when Ed couldn't escape from him.

But telling Mustang.

Well, on the up side, it should be a few months yet before Mustang was transferred to Central, so if he was angry, he'd have time to cool off before Ed had to deal with him in person, which was far preferable to Hughes pushing things after Mustang was back. And they were both professional enough – Ed hoped – that they could work together long enough to take down the Dwarf in the Flask, and then Ed could resign and head back to Xing. And, once Mustang told him where he could shove it, maybe his brain would stop with the stupid wet dreams shit, or just get stuck on someone who wasn't a walking problem.

The pros were vastly outweighing the cons. Dammit.

:Fine,: he signed. :I'll write Führer Bastard.:

Hughes' smile widened, lit with victory. "Good. I'll leave you to your writing things, now," he announced, standing and patting the chair he'd been sitting in.

Ed turned a flat look on him. :I'm going to bed. Get out.:

"Good night, Ed," Hughes replied, unbothered. He flipped on the room light and closed the door as he left, leaving Ed in brightly lit privacy.

Ed found his eyes drawn to his writing desk and he sighed before getting up to put the chair back. Fucking Hughes. Fucking Mustang.

He changed for bed, managed about twenty minutes of twisting around under his covers, then gave it up as a bad job and got up to write the letter so his brain would shut the fuck off and finally let him sleep.

-0-


Bastard,
I take back every mocking comment I ever made about your need to avoid Hughes--I may actually kill him myself. Related: This letter only exists because I'm being bribed with Hughes not pestering me about fucking relationships any more.
I told you that I had to carry you home after your celebration party, because you were drunk as fuck. (Seriously, you were talking to lamp posts. I think you saluted a couple, and I distinctly remember you flipping one off. You might have thought it was one of the other generals.)
Whatever. Fuck.
What I didn't tell you was you asked me to stay, and I did. Even though I was married and you were drunk and I should have fucking left.
And I fucking KNOW nothing like that happened, really, okay? Al and fucking Hughes keep making that point, except it DID happen. I remember it.
Fuck, I don't even know if that you remembered anything about it. I didn't see him--I didn't see you again until you burst into Granny's house.
I'm fucking rambling in a letter because Hughes is a fucking jerk and I should be sleeping.
I'm sorry. That I used that other you and that I'm dragging you-you into it.
Fucking Hughes.
E. Elric

-0-

Monday morning, as he was setting his breakfast dishes in the sink, snickering at Hughes' retelling of the weird-arse dream he'd had the night before, Ed's qi-sense caught on something wrong.

He froze, turning in the direction of the wrongness and trying to figure out what it was. It seemed like it was approaching the house, almost.

"Ed?" Hughes called.

And then the thing crossed some sort of intangible boundary and Ed realised what he was sensing: an innumerable crowd of souls, pressed so tightly together, it was impossible to separate them out. And everything about them felt...muted. Maybe because there were so many, so tightly packed together, each one drowning out the others?

No, Ed realised, as he shoved away from the worktop and started towards the front of the house. It was far more likely they were muted because they were trapped in a Stone, which was hidden in a host.

"Ed? What is it?" Hughes called again, clearly concerned.

:Homunculus,: Ed signed over his shoulder.

There was a pause behind him, then Hughes ordered, "Everyone into the cellar."

"But, Papa–"

"Now, Nina."

Ed caught the front-facing curtains with one hand and pulled them out of the way so he could look outside, looking in the direction of the homunculus. He couldn't tell which one it was, beyond it not being Bradley, which kind of unnerved him.

Well, it did explain why Ling and Lan Fan hadn't recognised Bradley for what he was from the start. If Bradley was a human-turned-homunculus, it was possible that his human qi had filled with the Dwarf in the Flask's wrath, and that had overpowered the sensation of the Stone. It was also possible he just had a smaller Stone; it's not like Ed had ever been in a position to compare between the seven.

He felt Hughes step up to his side shortly before a military car started up the street, apparently carrying the homunculus. Ed glanced towards the clock on the wall, spotting the gun in Hughes' hand out of the corner of his eye, and opened his mouth in a silent 'ah' as he realised this was about the time his guard escort usually showed up.

:Part of my guard, I guess,: he signed to Hughes.

"Bradley's obviously tired of you giving them the slip," Hughes murmured as he flipped the safety of the gun back into place.

Ed snorted. :He just made it way easier.:

Hughes snorted himself. "Let's stop striking at Bradley's nerves for a bit, anyway, before he tries something more drastic to keep tabs on you."

He grimaced and peered back out the window as the military men stepped out of the car. He didn't recognise either of them, which meant there was only one homunculus it could be: :It's Envy. Disguised.:

"You did say he would occasionally run around Command," Hughes pointed out, before holding out the butt of the gun to Ed. "Put this away while I tell the girls it's safe to come back up."

Ed made a face, but accepted the gun and returned it to the false book that was high enough up the shelf to be out of Nina and Elicia's reach, but easily within reach for Ed and Gracia. Not that Ed had any intention in using the thing, but he understood and appreciated that his ability to reach it had been part of the placement consideration.

They said their goodbyes inside, for once, then Ed and Hughes went out to meet Ed's escort and head for the Investigations building.

Usually, Ed's guards took up positions by the main door of the building and trusted that he would use that door, instead of slipping out the back, which Ed had been good about all but once – honestly, losing them in the city was slightly more challenging, and therefore more fun – but Envy followed him up to the translation office and took up a position outside the door, then proceeded to follow him any time he left to use the toilet, or go anywhere else in the building.

Clearly, he wasn't fucking around. (Ed kind of wanted to lose him just to piss him off.)

At any rate, by the time they made it home and Envy had left, Ed felt more than a little wrung out. He was so unspeakably grateful that Nina and Elicia were willing to sit on either side of him on the couch while he performed minor acts of alchemy in his lap, their happy qi soothing away the strain on his nerves.

About an hour before they'd usually put Nina and Elicia to bed, the phone rang, and they all looked towards the doorway leading into the hall, trepidation spiking through Hughes and Gracia's qi, while the girls were just generally curious. (But, then, Elicia and Nina didn't really understand why they'd been taken down to the cellar that morning, or why they hadn't been allowed outside to say goodbye to Ed and Hughes.)

Hughes went to go answer it as the second ring died away, saying, "Maes Hughes." And then his qi soothed out with fondness and relief. "You never call me, Roy."

Oh, wonderful. Mustang. Just what Ed didn't need to add to his day.

Hughes' qi picked up an uncertain note, and he called, "Ed, could you come here for a minute?"

Ed sighed and carefully slipped out from between Elicia and Nina, ruffling the former's hair when she complained, "But playing."

"Your big brother will be right back, sweetie," Gracia soothed.

Ed stepped into the hallway, raising an eyebrow at Hughes, who had the handset cradled between his ear and shoulder. Frowning slightly, Hughes signed, :Roy wants to know if he hurt you?:

:What?: Ed signed a bit thoughtlessly, before he realised the bastard had probably got his letter. And Ed couldn't really remember what he'd written – he'd known that if he read it back over, he'd have talked himself out of giving it to Hughes to send – but he'd apparently given Mustang the impression that he'd been the screw up? :No! Is he a fucking moron? He didn't do anything. What the–? No!:

Hughes' mouth quirked. "That was an extremely emphatic 'no'."

Ed grimaced and turned away to go back into the living room.

"Actually," Hughes said, and Ed glanced back in spite of himself, "it's good you called. Envy has been set as a member of Ed's guards, we assume because he keeps ducking them. So, yes, he and Al can definitely sense them." He frowned and glanced at Ed. "Roy wants to know what they feel like. To you."

Ed shook his head. :I'll put it to Al in my next letter.:

"Ed says he'll let Al know." He paused a beat, then shot Ed a considering glance. "He's not asking for Al, and, I admit, I'd be interested to know, myself."

Ed blinked at that before frowning. Well, okay, so if someone said they could sense things he couldn't, he'd kind of be interested in the specifics, too. Had been, even, which was how he found out about the Stones underground from May. Ling had never made much sense when describing the homunculi, just said they felt different inside, which... Helpful, Ling.

But couldn't Mustang ask Al?

No, he couldn't, because Al would only have second-hand knowledge about the other homunculi.

He sighed and drooped back against the wall. :Bradley just feels like this huge mass of anger to us, I guess because he started out human, but the others...: He frowned, trying to figure out how to word this so it would make sense, while Hughes relayed that first bit. Once Hughes was quiet again, Ed signed, :I told you they have a Philosopher's Stone as their core?: Hughes nodded. :They feel like this...huge crowd of people, all squashed together and...there's not a good word for it, really. Muted, I guess. Like someone's screaming at you from the other side of thick glass, except it's THOUSANDS of people:

Hughes swallowed and quietly passed that on, then asked, "Are you okay? I know he followed you everywhere today."

:I'll live.: He snorted and shrugged. :It could be worse, he could feel like the chimera labs.:

Hughes frowned. "The animal labs?" he asked, using the kid-safe term they'd settled on for use around Elicia and Nina. "I know you hate them..."

Ed smiled. :Let's just say they suck,: he offered, before leaving Hughes for his comfortable position between Nina and Elicia.

By the time Hughes hung up from the rest of his much quieter phone call with Mustang, Ed was flipping through a picture book with Elicia and Nina. Nina would sound out a word, or point to a part of the picture, then she and Elicia would look to Ed for the sign language equivalent, both of them adorably determined to learn to understand him.

Fuck, he was going to miss them when he returned to Xing.

.

Chapter Text


Edward,
I have no intention in attempting to invalidate whatever happened, simply because it occurred in a future that you are aiming to change. Memories and perceptions are complicated things, and just because Alphonse or Maes or I didn't experience the exact same thing, doesn't make your memories of an event any less real. (I admit to some surprise that you haven't punched one of the two of them yet, as violent as your brother always says you are; I would have long since.)
That said, it seems, to me, that you're blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault. Or, at the least, not wholly your fault. (Do allow me to expand before you start penning what will, no doubt, be a most impressive and scathing response.)
You said I was extremely drunk, celebrating a particular victory. But – and Maes will verify this, if you aren't already aware – I don't drink unless I'm with people I trust, something which is clearly true of you. And, unless you literally had to carry me home over your shoulder, which I doubt, I was likely nowhere near as drunk as you're assuming. (Again, something Maes will be happy to verify, likely with a great many stories that I forbade him from sharing: I don't start making the truly stupid decisions until I have trouble controlling my extremities.)
If I asked you to stay, I meant it. Likely, I would have done the same were I sober, save for your marriage. (And I am sorry if that suffered; I assume this event is the reason behind your comment that not everyone is suited to marriage.) That you stayed in spite of your wife, yes, that is on you, but please don't believe you "used" me.
I'm grateful I didn't hurt you. As I believe I mentioned to you before, you often come across as hating or being constantly angry with me, which your brother is always quick to assure me is not the case, that "rude and snappish" is your default setting, but it did make me wonder, in retrospect, if it wasn't because of something I did that night.
It has occurred to me, however, that I don't know a great deal of you. That you're protective of your brother, certainly, and of Nina and Elicia; that your knowledge of and skills with alchemy almost certainly far exceed my greatest guesses; that you are a martial artist of considerable skill; and that you married and had children. Alphonse will sometimes make mention of events in your childhood – alchemy incidents, for the most part – or friends he had made in Xing, but they are always happy stories, and, expectedly, focussed on him.
So I'm curious: Who is Edward Elric?
Roy Mustang

-0-

Ed...didn't really know what to do with Mustang's letter. So he shoved it into his writing desk and tried to forget it was in there for the rest of the week.

On Friday, after meeting with Grand, he handed his second guard a handful of cenz to 'miss' him going down an alley when Envy's back was turned – the guy was game; Envy was a dick and a higher rank, so losing Ed would be on him – then took to the roofs. He took a meandering path through the city, fixing any broken tiles or pipes he spotted, and helping one woman restring a laundry line on her balcony that was fraying, winking in response to her confused thanks, before nimbly hopping back onto her narrow railing and pulling himself back onto the roof of her building.

It was freeing, and kind of fun. He understood a bit better why Lan Fan and old man Fu had always gone to the high ground, other than because no one ever thought to look up. (Fuck, the first few of Ed's guards had seen him climbing up to the roofs and using that as his escape route, but the idiots still didn't think to actually check above ground level for him. Which, okay, to be fair, his manner of ascending to the roofs was so not common in Amestris, and by the time they'd managed to find an easier way up there, Ed was long gone.)

When he finally reached the edge of the city on the side nearest to the abandoned house, he made his way down to the ground, then set off for the house.

There was still no sign of Scar, but Ed shrugged it off and returned to the city, heading towards the Hugheses via the ground and waving to those people he was starting to get to know, between his skipping out on his guards and walking between the labs all the time. And, too, they hadn't done it since the Scar threat, but Hughes had taken him out on a couple information gathering rounds, which he disguised as slacking off work to 'find the perfect gift for each of his girls'.

Envy caught up with him about three blocks from the Hugheses' house, his face twisted with rage and still wearing his soldier disguise. Ed couldn't sense his intentions – any hint of a qi was hidden behind his Stone – but it wasn't hard to follow his motions, as obvious as he was to Ed's qi-sense, and he absently dodged the grab Envy made for him.

"You little–!" Envy snarled, grabbing for him again.

Ed wasn't even looking at him, just stepped easily to one side and stopped, letting Envy stumble past him. When Envy spun to glare at him, Ed raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest, using the motion to cover him releasing a kunai from his wrist sheath.

"Do you want to get killed, you little brat?" Envy demanded.

Ed rolled his eyes and motioned between himself and the general direction of the Hugheses' house with his empty hand.

Envy's eyes narrowed and his mouth curled with a cruel little smile. "Would you rather I kill the–"

Ed didn't make the conscious decision to move. One heartbeat, he was standing there, listening to Envy's threat, and the next, he had the fucking homunculus slammed up against the nearest wall with enough force for cracks to form in the bricks, one kunai held to his throat, another to his crotch. 'Try me, Second Lieutenant,' he mouthed, slow and obvious, so even a moron like Envy would get it.

He could see Envy's internal debate: Fight Ed and chance him finding out the truth, or swallow his pride and let it go.

As if he actually had a choice in the matter.

Envy raised his hands in a show of surrender. "You need to stop running off, kid. That's how that murderer almost got you the first time."

No, Scar had almost got Ed because he'd led him away from any form of help, and Hughes had slowed down the reinforcements a bit so Ed had more time to talk to the Ishvalan. (Though Ed hadn't found that last out until he'd been grilled by the MPs once he got back to work.)

He pulled his weapons away from Envy, slipped them away, then clapped his hands together and pressed one hand to the brick wall next to Envy's head.

Envy flinched.

Ed flashed him a smile that was all teeth as the bricks repaired themselves, then turned and continued toward home.

Envy fell in behind him, and Ed didn't need to look back or feel his qi to assume he was sulking. Or, perhaps, giving Ed a far more assessing look.

Well, it wasn't like he hadn't already proven that he had a temper – see his reaction during his first visit to lab one, or when Bradley had announced Al would be the one remaining in Central – and anyone could watch him run through his katas and beat on a punching bag in the gym. Being a fucking boss martial artist with epic reflexes was hardly going to be his hidden ace when it came to actually fighting the homunculi, though it would certainly help a fair bit. He could deal with that.

He didn't bother looking at Envy again as he walked into the house, just let out a whistle to warn Gracia and the girls who was home, then put on a grin when Nina and Elicia both came running.

He didn't mention the altercation until after Elicia and Nina had been put to bed. Gracia wrung her hands, looking worried, while Hughes wore a grim expression. "We can report him to Bradley," he offered. "Not so much the part where he threatened us – that's unlikely to matter to them – but he made two goes at you and verbally threatened you; hardly a preferable person for a guard."

Ed shrugged. :He'll probably just change his form and still be stuck as part of my guard, but I won't say no to ruining his afternoon a bit and getting him in trouble with the Dwarf in the Flask for chancing discovery or threatening a sacrifice or whatever they wanna yell at him about.:

Hughes nodded. "We'll handle it Monday, then. We should be able to head straight to Bradley's office first thing in the morning, drag our little shape-changer along with us."

:I'm almost looking forward to Monday, for once,: Ed announced, and Gracia let out a worn little laugh, while Hughes managed a lopsided smile. Ed shifted, then signed, :Don't worry about Envy for now. Getting him in a sore spot with the Dwarf in the Flask should hold him back for a bit, and once Führer Bastard and Al get transferred to Central, we'll have plenty of eyes watching out.:

"Well, so long as Envy's a member of your guard, he can't be here," Hughes pointed out.

Ed grimaced. :Does that mean we shouldn't get him in trouble?:

Gracia let out a quiet snort, while Hughes shook his head and said, "As soon as I found out he'd tried attacking you – and I would have, information is my job – I'd have dragged you in to report it to Bradley. Act suitably brattish and disgusted with the fuss, and it should turn out with Envy remaining as part of your guard."

Ed nodded; he could do brattish and disgusted with the fuss.

Hughes leant forward, something about the turn of his mouth putting Ed on guard. "Speaking of brattish, were you going to respond to Roy's letter?"

:What ever happened to keeping your nose out?: Ed demanded, torn between irritation and what might have been panic.

Hughes gave an innocent blink that was obviously false. "I'm just trying to keep from fielding any more phone calls from my best friend."

Ed scowled at him.

Hughes' smile widened. "Go on. If you have a response by breakfast, we can spend a few hours in that bookshop you're so enamoured of."

The big one on the other side of town, he meant. The one with the massive sciences section, which Ed had, over the course of his life, before, found three stupidly-rare texts in, and at least a dozen harder-to-find resources that he'd no longer had access to once he'd handed in his pocket watch. He'd only managed to visit once, so far, between settling in with the Hugheses and then the mess with Scar, and Hughes had had to resort to telling Nina and Elicia they had to get Ed out of the building or there would be no sweets to make him leave. (And Ed had still ended up walking out weighed down by the start of his own personal reference library.)

:He's bribing me with books,: Ed complained to Gracia.

Her eyes fairly sparkled. "It's going to work," she pointed out.

Ed groaned because, yes, yes it was going to work. Fuck him.

He shoved himself out of his spot and signed, :I'm going,: before making his slow way upstairs, while Hughes and Gracia called out partings to him.

In the end, though, it only took him four crumpled attempts and two hours to settle on a response, then he turned in for the night.

-0-


Bastard,
You want to know who Edward Elric is? Fine.
I'm the boy who was arrogant enough to think he could do what decades of adults had failed and bring the dead back to life. Who saw hell and wanted more, right up until he realised what it had cost him. I'm the boy who sold his soul to the military, because he thought they could help him find a way to give his brother back his life, who realised he was hunting after the devil's research and kept on anyway, who didn't realise he'd begun to piece together Amestris' darkest secret until it was too late to walk away. I'm the boy who, when faced with the choice between his brother and his alchemy, picked his brother.
That boy grew into a man who travelled west of Amestris in search of friends, and found a civil war instead. I'm the man who married his best friend and thought it was true love, who built a family that he never spent any time with because he couldn't fucking sit still. I'm the man who betrayed his family and a man he respected, and then ran away.
Edward Elric is the person who got a second chance to fix what he fucked up the first time, and damned if I haven't learnt from my mistakes. Al is whole, Nina and Hughes are alive, and I'm going to punch the Dwarf in the Flask in the face before he can drag everyone in this country through another storm of agony.
Edward Elric is nothing more than a pathetic human being. Which, when you're fighting monsters, may be the best thing to be.
Was that gloomy enough for you?
E. Elric

-0-

Hughes hadn't come up with a response letter from Mustang by the following Friday morning, and Ed was left somewhere between hopeful that he'd scared the bastard off, and hurt by the silence.

Teenage hormones were a fucking pain in the arse. (That's all this was. Had to be.)

Envy had, indeed, switched faces after Hughes had 'dragged' Ed in to report him to Bradley. He'd looked a bit sullen for a couple days, before apparently shaking himself out of it and settling back into stalking Ed. Or, well, stalking Ed as much as he could; his sullenness had translated to not following Ed all the way up to the translation office, and he kept to that even once he'd recovered a bit. So, while Ed could still sense him in the building, he was no longer constantly right there, which did his nerves a world of good.

Not that it mattered if Envy was on his best behaviour or not, Ed still lost him Friday afternoon, after meeting with Grand, and took his meandering rooftop path out to the abandoned house.

Which was, he sensed as he approached, no longer abandoned.

He recognised Scar's qi – still so fucking angry, but tempered by the same sort of calm that Ed had noticed in the warriors of the Chang clan – but not the other person, who was a little ball of perfectly calm, laced through with a deep-set sort of sorrow that Ed had never before sensed, himself, but Al had described something like it in most of the Ishvalans he'd seen in the East City slums when he went looking for names to call Scar.

Given that the only one who seemed at all violent was Scar, Ed didn't bother hiding his approach, just walked right up and knocked on the door.

There was a long pause, then the door was pulled open by an Ishvalan man Ed had never seen before – which wasn't saying much, as Ed didn't have a great deal of experience with Ishvalans – who offered him an uncertain smile and asked, "Silent Alchemist?"

Ed nodded.

The man stepped back to let him in, closing the door behind Ed once he was through. "Majhul!" he called, before facing Ed. "I am Zouheir," he said, signing it at the same time.

Ed couldn't stop his eyebrows from raising. :You sign?: he asked.

Zouheir's smile tightened. "Yes," he said, still signing as he spoke, which was kind of weird. "My brother was deaf. I haven't had much cause for practice since he died, so I apologise if I mis-sign."

Ed blinked at that, then looked towards where Scar had stepped from one of the back rooms. He nodded to him in greeting, then turned back to Zouheir. :My condolences for your loss,: he offered, then added, :I'm not deaf, only mute, so you don't need to use sign language. I assume he brought you to translate, so I didn't have to write everything down.:

"Yes, I believe that was the intention," Zouheir agreed, continuing to sign as he spoke. "I admit, however, that he has told me little. Only that he is meeting with a State Alchemist in regards to a matter of some importance, and that the State Alchemist couldn't speak." Zouheir tilted his head slightly. "I would not think the military would wish a soldier who has difficulty communicating."

Ed snorted. :Officially, I'm in Investigations and keeping an eye on the alchemy labs, neither of which require me to be in a situation where I won't have time to write. And my commanding officer knows sign language.:

"He says he's assigned to the Investigations department, and watches the alchemy labs," Zouheir said to Scar. "Also that his commanding officer can sign."

"The one with the glasses," Scar said, and Ed looked over to find him watching him with that poker face of his firmly in place. "I thought I had seen him motioning with his hands."

Ed shot him a flat look. :Checking to make sure I didn't turn around and betray you to them after all?:

Zouheir cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable, and relayed, "He's asking if you didn't trust him?"

Not exactly; Ed resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"I don't make a habit of trusting dogs," Scar returned flatly.

Ed used the less sexual 'fuck you' sign, just because it was commonly recognised.

"Oh dear," Zouheir murmured.

Something a little like amusement flickered through Scar's qi as he turned away. "My brother's notes are this way."

Ed looked at Zouheir, who frowned after Scar's retreating back for a moment, before turning back to Ed. :He didn't tell you anything?: he guessed.

Zouheir's frown deepened slightly and he shook his head.

Ed nodded. :The military is being controlled by an artificial lifeform looking to turn everyone in this country into energy so he can become a god,: he signed without preamble, and Zouheir's eyes went wide, horror streaking through his qi. :That artificial lifeform has a way to keep Amestrisans from using alchemy, but his brother found a way to combat that, which gives us a far better chance of stopping this.:

"The whole...country?" Zouheir whispered, not signing, for once.

Ed offered a grim smile. :Everyone within the borders. There's still time to run for one of our neighbours or the Great Desert, if you'd rather not be involved.:

"Run?" Zouheir repeated, shaking his head, his mouth twisting with displeasure. "Are you calling me a coward?"

Ed shrugged. :No. But helping right now does mean helping not just one State Alchemist, but EVERY alchemist in Amestris, and I know our alchemy goes against your people's beliefs. I won't ask you to do something you find uncomfortable, and I don't expect ANYONE to put themselves in danger when they can just as easily gather their family and escape.:

Zouheir swallowed and straightened slightly, his expression settling into something a bit more firm. "You know one of our beliefs, Amestrisan, but not the most important: To those of Ishval, all are worthy of life, even the mulahad. To turn my back on those in need, would be a greater sin than believing oneself equal to Ishvala and altering this world."

Well, that explained why so many Ishvalans had helped last time, and, perhaps, why Scar had helped, before, and seemed willing to do so again.

He bowed to Zouheir and signed, :Thank you.: Then he stepped past the man, to follow Scar.

"Why don't you run, Silent Alchemist?" Zouheir asked after him. "As you have said, there is still time, and you are far too young to be facing down death."

Ed turned back to him with a smile that ached. :I already gave up my only chance to run,: he admitted, before continuing to the room Scar had vanished into.

Scar was waiting for him, holding a hand-bound book and looking slightly cross. "Have you finished wasting time?"

Ed rolled his eyes and undid his jacket so he could pull out his notebook to write, 'I apologise for giving your countryman chance to leave'

Scar just stared at him for a long moment after reading that, before glancing past him as Zouheir stepped a bit uncertainly into the room. "My brother's notes," he announced, holding the book towards Ed.

Ed nodded and slipped his journal away, then turned to Zouheir to sign, :We'll need a large, clear space.:

"The front room," Scar decided, once Zouheir had translated, and they all moved to the mostly empty front room.

There, Ed explained, :From what I was told, we need to break the binding and lay the pages out, clustered by similar phrases for immortality. That will form the current array. Flipping everything over will form the array his brother created.:

Scar stared down at the book for a long moment, his qi quivering with an internal battle, before he very firmly snapped the string holding it all together and knelt.

Ed and Zouheir joined him on the ground and, together, they managed to get all of the pages laid out quickly enough. Ed connected the array, just to make sure everything was in the proper place.

"This," Scar said before Ed could start carefully turning the pages over, "is the array they have built. The one meant to steal souls."

Ed nodded. :It's not complete,: he offered, Zouheir translating shakily. :The outer circle isn't finished being dug, and there are still two points they need to bleed, but they're on schedule.:

Zouheir cleared his throat once he finished translating that, then asked, "Sorry, 'places that need bleeding'?"

Ed blinked and looked down at the array between them. :Each of these points–: he signed, pausing to point at a couple on the array :–are places in Amestris where hundreds of people suffered and died.:

Zouheir looked like Ed had just stabbed him. "Ishval," he breathed.

Ed gave a grim nod.

"What are the places that are left?" Scar asked, his qi rolling with fury that was, thankfully, not aimed at Ed.

Ed pulled out his journal to write, 'Liore in the E + Ft Briggs in the N'

Scar nodded and started turning over pages without any further comment, Ed quickly helping him. When they were done, he traced out the new circle. And, yup, that matched his vague memories of the array. Awesome.

He opened his journal and traced it out, adding a few notes in Xingan. He didn't like having arrays in his journal, since other alchemists handled it fairly regularly, but he wanted to make sure he had everything exact, and he could tear out the page once he got home and slip it in with his other hidden documents.

He flipped to a blank page and, refusing to take anything for granted, wrote, 'Will you help?' and showed it to Scar.

Scar stared at him for a moment, then pointed at the array between them. "You specified this would allow Amestrisan alchemists to use alchemy."

Ed gave a cautious nod, narrowing his eyes.

"My brother was studying the differences between western and eastern alchemy, the energy they each draw from. I recognise those symbols–" he pointed to Ed's journal "–from some of his books; they're the eastern writing."

Ed nodded again.

"You can use the eastern alchemy?"

He nodded again.

Scar looked down at the array again. "You have allies who will need this?"

Ed looked down at his journal, but Zouheir spoke up before he could pick his pen back up, quietly reminding them, "I can translate."

Ed looked over at him, paused for a moment to figure out how to respond when Zouheir didn't know any of his sign-names, then signed, :My alchemy teacher, who isn't a State Alchemist, and both the Flame and Strong Arm Alchemists.:

Scar narrowed his eyes at Ed as Zouheir translated those titles, then icily stated, "The Flame Alchemist. I know his name from his crimes against my people."

:Then you know how terrifying he is in battle,: Ed returned, undeterred, and had to wait a moment for Zouheir to get that out; clearly he'd also heard stories of Mustang. :We're not facing regular humans; our enemy will regenerate even the most grievous of wounds, up to a point. Guns can eventually kill them, but alchemy is faster, and will result in fewer casualties. You may not care if soldiers live or die, but I DO.:

"You consider me so unkind?" Scar asked.

:Recall how we met,: Ed retorted, and Zouheir passed that on in a tone that said he kind of wanted to ask, but wasn't sure it was a good choice.

Scar looked down at the array again. "You would have me activate this," he said.

Ed clenched his jaw and nodded, then signed, :The best place is inside their stronghold. My brother and I can distract them from your movements, but there are chimeras–:

"I don't...know that sign," Zouheir interrupted, wincing when Ed and Scar both looked over at him. "Sorry."

Ed shrugged. :My brother and I may have created that ourselves,: he admitted, before scrawling, 'CHIMERA' in his journal and showing it to both of them.

Zouheir whispered something that must have been Ishvalan, while Scar sneered and waved at the journal. "Your precious alchemy."

Ed turned a glare on him that made Scar blink, surprise flaring in his qi. :Don't you DARE start lumping me and mine in with the fuckers who mess with that shit.: He closed his eyes against the following silence – Zouheir hadn't translated that comment; probably for the best – and took a deep breath, let it ease away his anger, then opened his eyes again and signed to Zouheir, :There are chimeras guarding their stronghold, which I can't do anything about, but I suspect he can handle them on his own. There are a couple of non-alchemist soldiers who I can ask to go with him, if he wants someone watching his back, or he's welcome to bring along your people.: He glanced at Scar. :Assuming you're willing.:

Scar watched him for another moment, after Zouheir had fallen silent, then inclined his head. "I will assist you in this, Silent Alchemist."

Ed gave a short bow in response. :Thank you. The tunnels are confusing, but I'll see if I can't build a map of some sort, once they stop with the fucking guards.:

"G-guards?" Zouheir finished, looking towards the front of the house.

Ed snorted and snapped his fingers at him until he looked back. :I ducked them to come out here.:

Zouheir shook his head. "But why do you have guards?" he asked, signing as he spoke, again.

Ed raised an eyebrow at him. :Did you miss the part where he–: he jerked his head in Scar's direction :–is wanted for murdering State Alchemists?:

Zouheir blinked, his eyes tracking to the gold braiding and rank marking on Ed's right shoulder, as if only just then seeing them. "Oh."

Ed snorted again, glanced toward Scar – who was watching them with his poker face on – and then looked back at Zouheir. :I'll try to come by every Friday, in case anything comes up, but was there anything either of you need?:

"Anything we need," Scar repeated flatly, once Zouheir had translated.

:Blankets, food, whatever. I can get supplies easier than either of you, I suspect, and I can make a run out here sometime this weekend. Although, my commanding officer might talk his way into accompanying me, fair warning.:

"How would your commanding officer know to come?" Zouheir asked, in lieu of translating that last bit.

Ed shrugged. :Given my disability, living with him and his family is far easier than the military dorms.:

"Ah, fair point," Zouheir allowed, before sharing Ed's explanation with Scar.

Scar gave a sliver of a nod, then said, "There is nothing I need from the city." And then he narrowed his eyes on Zouheir.

Zouheir slouched slightly. "I, too, am fine."

Ed huffed and shoved his journal away, then stood. To Zouheir, he signed, :Don't let him walk all over you. He's got a scary face, but I very much doubt he'd attack one of his own people.:

Zouheir quirked a smile at him. "I will remember that," he promised, and Ed sensed Scar's spike of irritation at being left out. "Thank you for your candour, Silent Alchemist."

Ed shrugged. :You deserved to know what you've got yourself into,: he replied, before turning to Scar and bowing.

Scar blinked, then inclined his head in return.

With that, Ed left, walking around the outer edge of the city to the nearest slum, then entering by the road next to it, ignoring the distrustful looks his uniform garnered. He didn't see Envy at all on his trip back home, but he did sense him in the general direction that he'd come from last time, so he assumed the shit had gone up the road from where he'd met up with Ed the last time and had hoped to get a better idea of where he'd gone.

(That sort of thinking was pretty much the entire reason he'd come in by a different route.)

Dinner was on the table by the time he got home, and he slipped quickly into his seat, grinning in response to Nina's, "You almost had no dinner. Papa said."

Hughes raised an eyebrow at her. "Papa doesn't remember saying that."

Nina shot him a look. "Yes, you do."

Across the table, Elicia giggled.

Hughes put on an understanding expression and gave her a very obvious wink before turning to Ed. "Right. If you miss dinner, we'll have to give your share to those poor guards of yours that have to spend the rest of the night trying to track you down."

Ed considered that for a moment, then signed, :Let me get something from lab two for you to slip into Envy's share.:

"Pretty sure this is intended as punishment for your inability to make curfew, rather than a way for you to further torment your least favourite guard," Hughes deadpanned.

Elicia and Nina both giggled, while Gracia made a pointed cough into her cup.

Ed blinked. :I have a curfew?:

"No," Gracia promised, while Hughes said, "We're considering one."

:Caught your lie, liar,: Ed signed to Hughes.

Hughes stuck his tongue out at him, and Gracia sighed, while Elicia and Nina both stuck their tongues out at each other, except theirs had food on them. "Table manners," Gracia reminded them, and both girls quickly withdrew their tongues and slouched in their seats.

"So," Hughes said, once they'd all returned to their food, "I assume your friend is back?"

Ed nodded. :He brought another friend with him, who can sign,: he replied.

"Huh." Hughes nodded. "Did he bring that book you were interested in?"

Ed nodded again. :Let me look up the information I needed and everything. Said he'd probably stick around for a while, in case I need anything else.:

"Big Brother was visiting a friend?" Nina asked, looking between the Hugheses and Ed.

"Yes," Hughes agreed with a smile. "But his friend is super shy, so it'll be a long while before he'll come by to meet the rest of us."

"Papa hasn't met Big Brother's friend, either?" Nina realised.

"Not yet," Hughes agreed, glancing at Ed. "Your big brother's working on him, though."

Nina nodded like that was obvious and returned to her food.

"Speaking of friends, though," Hughes said, eyeing Ed, "you have a letter upstairs."

Ed frowned. :Al?:

Hughes shook his head, his eyes glinting in that really freaking worrying way that could only mean one person.

:Führer Bastard.:

"Exactly."

Dammit.

-0-

Edward,
It sounds, to me, as though Edward Elric is a good man who puts far too much of the blame on himself when things go wrong. Your brother insists you're a die-hard pessimist, but you almost sounded optimistic for a minute there. Should I be concerned?
Shall I return the favour? Some I'm sure you know, or have guessed, but I suspect you don't know it all.
I am the boy who grew up among prostitutes, who saw too many good people forced to do shameful things, and thought I could find a way to help them. I am the young man who joined the military because he thought it would be the way to protect his country, who wielded fire against his people in the daylight, and spent his nights trying to remember how to cry.
I am the man who never stopped wanting to save his people, who looked towards the top and decided that was the only way. I am the man who, when he heard about other alchemists, went to convince them to join up, even though he knew the hell they would face, simply because their accomplishments would fuel his ambitions. I am the man who found two boys who had gone through hell and thought, "They'll do".
I am the man who saved a single girl because it wasn't hard, and was rewarded with knowledge of a huge conspiracy and two allies who know more about alchemy than he could ever hope to understand. I am the man who has realised he's in way over his head, but doesn't have the sense to walk away.
Do you still respect me?
Roy Mustang

-0-

Ed...hadn't really known how to take the bastard's letter – how was anyone supposed to react to something like that; seriously, crying? – so he'd gone to bed, tossed and turned until he finally managed to get to sleep, then was up before dawn, staring blearily down at it again.

He got out a pen and a fresh sheet of paper without really thinking about it, and was partway through writing, 'You're an IDIOT' before he realised he was actually penning a response without having to be pressed by Hughes.

So he shook himself, shoved Mustang's letter into his writing desk, then crumpled up the started letter and tossed it into the bin. And then he left to take a shower, because that sounded like the only possible course of action.

-0-

When Ed dropped by lab four that week, he was met by a bouncing State Alchemist: Max Magnus Norman, the Colourway Alchemist, was the only State Alchemist assigned to lab four, and Ed suspected that was simply because Bradley and Grand didn't know what else to do with the man, rather than because he had any real skills in chemistry. He was the picture of eccentricity: His hair constantly looked like a rainbow had thrown up on it, and he wore outfits of at least half a dozen different colours, usually clashing, and in at least two different patterns; Ed had never seen him in the same getup twice, though he was fairly certain he'd seen elements paired off differently a few times. Even his eyes were two different colours – brown and blue – which Ed only believed was genetic simply because they never changed.

Colourway seemed to swing between hyper as all fuck, and sullen over the fact that he wasn't allowed to colour the walls – or floor, or ceiling, or tables and chairs – of his lab. Grand hadn't seemed too impressed with him, and Ed had almost written him off as an old crackpot, himself, but his inability to respond to people verbally, and the fact that everyone knew he'd follow along in silence as they showed him around the various projects in progress, unless he had a concern, meant he had a lot of time to just look around and watch people. And he didn't quite have Al or Mustang or Hughes' abilities when it came to understanding people, but he was more than capable of spotting when someone was clearly more intelligent than they were letting on, and he'd seen too many considering looks on Colourway's expressive face when he'd thought no one was looking. Not to mention his qi, which did fluctuate between gleeful and sullen, sure, but it wasn't as extreme, and there was something almost...watchful about it.

Act or no, Colourway was clearly excited that day, jumping at Ed and grabbing his hands with a wide, slightly crazed grin. "Come! Come! No time to waste!"

"Maxie," Ed's usual guide, a researcher by the name of Hermes Maximus, chided, grabbing for Colourway's arm and scowling when the man dodged him with a perfectly-timed expectant bounce. "Major Elric will reach your lab in–"

"Time is being wasted!" Colourway sang out, before tugging on Ed's hands. "Come, Silent, come. You have to see."

Generally entertained – Ed had the patience of someone well-used to dealing with children, and Colourway acted like an adult-sized child, most days – Ed shook his head at Maximus and let himself be led up to Colourway's lab.

Maximus followed, huffing and muttering the whole way about schedules and crackpot old alchemists in need of retirement.

Once in his lab, Colourway pulled Ed forward a few paces, then squeezed his hands once, before letting go and dashing across the room to a covered easel, which he quickly unveiled with a loud, "Ta-da!"

Maximus sighed. "Another 'masterpiece'? What are we calling this one? Blue splotches?"

Maximus might only see dark blue splotches, but from the spot Colourway had left him in, Ed could make out what looked like–

'Fuck me sideways,' Ed mouthed as the array came into focus, the paint splotches taking on shapes and lines that were...inspired.

It was an elemental manipulation array, not completely unlike the dozen or so others lab four had under research at any given moment, focussing entirely on manipulating argon to form shapes. Given that argon was colourless on its own, most people would find that wholly useless, but a secondary effect of the array was to manipulate the energy discharge that occurred with any active transmutation and use it to charge the argon, which Ed knew would make it visible as a pale violet light.

In daylight and under the harsh lights of the laboratories, the outcome would be nearly invisible, but in a dim or completely dark room – in those places where Ed struggled to communicate – it would be all too obvious.

Ed hurried forward and – because he looked fourteen and could fucking get away with this shit – hugged Colourway.

Colourway responded with a delighted laugh and hugged Ed back, calling to Maximus, "He likes my masterpiece. You just have no taste in art."

Maximus let out a disgusted noise.

Ed pulled away and reached to undo his jacket, but Colourway picked up a piece of paper and a pen that had been set out on the table next to him, his grin bright and wide. Ed shook his head in disbelief – how the fuck could anyone believe he was an old crackpot for more than a few weeks of knowing him? – and took the offered supplies to write, 'You realise you're a mad genius right? That is AMAZING. Thank you'

Colourway shifted slightly, standing between Ed and where Maximus was grumbling to someone out in the hallway, and his smile eased into something less manic, more real. "Consider it a gift from one who sees too much to another," he murmured, looking toward where he had a few dozen paintings resting against the wall on the floor. Ed had seen them plenty of times, had always assumed they were simple splotch paintings, too, but now that he knew the secret, he could see whole and parts of arrays in what he could see of them. Some were likely new inventions – all of those were hidden behind others, only parts of them visible – but a number were basic arrays, or copies of the arrays lab four had completed.

But, front and centre and done in blood-red, was an array that made Ed's stomach sink: The nationwide array.

He brushed past Colourway and stalked up to it, very firmly turning it around. Then he returned to the supplied paper and pen, ignoring Colourway's confused qi, and wrote, 'If they find out you know about that they'll kill you. HIDE IT'

Colourway's eyes widened slightly and he looked towards the back of the canvas. "They?" he whispered.

Ed took a moment to debate, torn between his need to keep as many people safe as he could, and his general distrust of everyone tied to the military that he hadn't fought beside, before.

Well, he'd already shown his hand, hadn't he? And Colourway's qi suggested honest confusion and maybe a little fear? Nothing at all like this might have been a test to find out if Ed knew too much. He clenched his jaw and wrote, 'The brass. From 1 who knows too much to another: Shove that in dark closet + shut door + keep your head down'

He waited until Colourway had read that – his qi laced with such a deep well of fear, Ed was fairly certain even someone with complete control over their qi wouldn't have been able to fake it – and had turned a shaky smile on Ed, before clapping his hands together and deconstructing the paper into dust particles.

Colourway looked down at the empty space where the paper used to be, then Ed's hard stare and nodded. "Be careful," he whispered.

Ed shot a pointed look at the painting he'd turned around, then raised an eyebrow at Colourway.

Colourway grimaced.

"Major Elric," Maximus called, his qi a mass of irritation, but his tone attempting to be polite, "if you would, we have some exciting new research to show you which, I promise, is far more interesting than Maxie's paint splotches."

Oh, Ed didn't know about that, but he lightly patted Colourway on the arm, then stepped past him to join Maximus on his super important tour.

Ed was right, there wasn't anything particularly interesting. Well, nothing interesting to him; they had discovered a way to direct a particular airborne toxin against an air current and were ready to test it outside of the carefully regulated test environment of the lab. Ed was disgusted by the whole thing and fully intended to suggest more and varied tests be run before they actually took this mess outside and chanced endangering lives, when he turned in his report to Grand, but it really depended on whether Bradley was willing to take the risk or not, and Ed knew he didn't care about the loss of lives, so he suspected the test would be performed, but Ed would be kept well out of it. (He didn't know if that counted as a good thing or not; at least if he was there, he might be able to find a way to mitigate the damage if things went to shit, but not being there meant he would be safe, and couldn't feel too guilty if things went to shit.)

On his way out of the lab, he found Colourway waiting for him by the entrance, holding one of his paintings, covered for its safety. Maximus, still walking at Ed's side, let out an irritated sigh once they spotted him. "Maxie–" he started.

Ed held up a hand and shot the researcher a tired look, because, really? He would never understand what Maximus had against Colourway, but he had a feeling it was childish and trivial, and Ed only had so much patience for the researchers in any of the labs. The State Alchemists he didn't mind so much (once Iron-Form had stopped thinking of him like an idiot child and actually made a point to interact as something approaching equals), because they, at least, already had all the status they could want and didn't need to pretend to kiss up to Ed, but the researchers all-too-often thought he was their ticket to status. At least months of familiarity had mostly done away with the talking down to him, which was good, because Iron-Form wasn't the only one who he'd been tempted to physically attack for thinking his apparent age and muteness meant he was stupid, but that didn't mean he could actually stand the researchers.

Colourway huffed, then turned the painting around, the sheet shifting just enough to show a glimpse of dark blue paint. "Since you liked it so much," he said with his brightest smile, "I thought you might like to have it!"

"You were told that anything you made in the lab wasn't allowed to leave it," Maximus snapped. "I was there for that conversation, Maxie."

Colourway's expression took a quick dive down to sullen and his fingers tightened around the covered painting. "Not being allowed to hang them in my gallery and share them with everybody is entirely different from giving one to a fellow State Alchemist. It's not like he's never seen it before, and everyone needs a bit of their favourite colour to keep at home." He nodded to Ed's crotch.

No, not his crotch, he realised, looking down, but his sash, because it was the exact same colour as the array Colourway had made for him. Which, well, it wasn't really Ed's favourite colour – he would always prefer to wear black, and he generally liked red more than blue – but it was the colour that Colourway would associate with him – was the colour most people associated with him, he expected – so it made sense that he would assume the colour was Ed's favourite. (It's not like Ed was going around saying, 'Oh, no, actually it's the piece of fabric itself that I'm attached to, not the colour, and I didn't change the colour because of who gave it to me and because Al has one exactly like it, so we match'. There was also some Xingan cultural beliefs about the colour red, which Ed didn't put much stock in, but he knew better than to thoughtlessly change the colour of what had been a gift.)

Maximus threw up his hands and turned away. "I'll not be party to this. I reminded you of the rules, I did my part. You're on your own when the formal reprimand comes through." And then, quieter, as though he thought Ed was far enough away not to hear him, or wouldn't care, Maximus muttered, "Maybe we'll get lucky and the Führer will finally sack you. Waste of lab space."

The last thing Ed wanted to do was get Colourway in trouble over a painting, but there was a drag of desperation to his qi that made him step forward and press his hands over Colourway's own, cocking his head to one side in silent enquiry.

Colourway swallowed, fear flickering briefly into sight in his eyes. "I don't have a closet," he whispered.

And then Ed understood: Colourway couldn't take any of his array paintings out of the building, and he didn't have anywhere in his lab to hide the nationwide array. He could destroy it, but Ed suspected Colourway was as inclined to destroy his paintings – even when they depicted arrays created by other people – as Ed was to destroy his own alchemy notes, no matter how completely useless a train of thought ended up being.

Ed was the only possible chance Colourway had to get the damning array out of the lab without raising a massive red flag.

He gave the slimmest of nods, and relief rushed through Colourway's qi, while his sullen expression morphed into something more hopeful. "You'll give it a good home?" he asked, loud enough that Maximus should be able to hear, but not loud enough to be obvious that had been intended.

Ed quirked a smile and shifted his hands down, so he could take hold of the painting himself; he didn't actually have anything on the walls of his bedroom, which Gracia had commented on a couple times, so this should appease her. He nodded, far more obvious.

Colourway's expression bloomed into a massive grin and he declared, "A gift! For my favourite State Alchemist!"

Ed couldn't quite stop a laugh at that, while Maximus scoffed and muttered something that could have been 'suck-up'. (As if he wasn't constantly trying to buy Ed's favour.)

Ed stepped back, taking the painting as Colourway let it go, and bowed in thanks.

Colourway bowed back, going way too low and almost overbalancing. He gave a nervous laugh at himself. "You're welcome! I'm just glad someone appreciates my hard work."

Well, that had clearly been aimed at Maximus, and Ed took it as his cue to escape, nodding once to Colourway before hurrying from the lab.

Envy shot the gift a curious look, but seemed generally unconcerned about Ed removing one of the paintings from the lab. Which could mean he didn't know why Colourway had been ordered to keep them in there, or he just thought the orders stupid and arbitrary. (Or both; Ed was fairly certain that Envy would rather be pretty much anywhere other than following him around Central.)

Hughes looked askance at the covered painting on their way home, but waited until they were actually in the house and Ed was heading toward his room to put it safely up, before asking, "What have you got there?"

Ed shrugged and carefully removed the cloth cover, revealing the dark blue array.

Hughes tilted his head to one side. "It's certainly...unique," he offered, sounding a bit uncertain; clearly, he didn't see the secret hidden in the paint splotches.

Ed smiled, then left him for his room.

Upstairs, Ed took a moment to look the canvas over, and it didn't take him long to realise Colourway had layered the newer array over the Dwarf in the Flask's; two paintings on one canvas. It was an ingenious way to keep the damning array hidden, but since Ed didn't know why Colourway was ordered to keep his paintings inside the lab, he had no idea if he'd be ordered to return it.

So, with great care, Ed removed both paintings from the wooden frame, then replaced the newer one. The nationwide array was carefully folded up and slipped into the alchemically sealed and trapped case that he kept his important documents in, where no one was likely to find it, and it would be safe until Ed could return it to Colourway.

The dark blue array, he hung over the head of his bed, after some deliberation. It would be the most eye-catching thing upon entering his room, but a couple careful tests gave him the perfect height to keep anyone from noticing the array. Once you knew it was there, it was hard not to see it, but there was only one very specific angle where it was obvious that you were looking at an array, and any other line of sight would leave viewers with the impression of a bunch of dark blue splotches, unless they knew what they were looking for.

Colourway was, without a doubt, a genius. He'd found a way to paint arrays and leave them out in plain view, yet no one seemed to realise they were anything other than the work of an old crackpot without a lick of artistic talent. Ed couldn't decide if he was more impressed with Colourway, or disgusted with everyone he'd fooled – including Ed, himself – who hadn't bothered to look below the surface.

Over dinner, Hughes commented, "Ed brought home a painting."

"A painting?" Gracia repeated, while Elicia and Nina traded curious looks. "Now, whatever possessed you to finally start looking into art?"

Ed snorted. :It was a gift from one of the State Alchemists,: he insisted, before touching his sash where it crossed over his chest. :It's not really a painting OF anything, but he used this colour. I guess he thinks it's my favourite?:

"I wonder why," Hughes muttered, rolling his eyes.

Ed shrugged. :I didn't have the heart to tell him no, and Gracia HAS been trying to get me to decorate, so... It worked out, I guess.:

"You'll have to show us after dinner," Gracia insisted.

:Sure.:

He did show it off to everyone after dinner. Nina declared it weird and wandered off, Elicia following suit, while Gracia settled on 'interesting'.

No one noticed the array or seemed to think it might be hiding any secrets, and Ed smiled and shook his head, a little disbelieving, then left to hunt down Elicia and Nina, before they came for him.

-0-

On Friday morning, Envy was nowhere in Ed's sense radius, and Gracia made the executive decision that she and the girls would be remaining inside all day for a quiet day, if only to soothe Ed and Hughes nerves.

:We can do lunch here,: Ed suggested, because they lived close enough to the Investigations office that they could, conceivably, go home for lunch, and had been known to do so, before Envy joined Ed's guard detail.

Hughes gave a tight nod. :Sounds good. And if you want to swing by on your way to visit your friend...:

Ed snorted, but that was certainly an idea, and then he could lose his guards a little later than usual, which would throw everyone off. (And Ed was always looking for reasons to fuck with soldiers' heads.)

They did come home for lunch, but Gracia reported nothing strange, and Ed still couldn't sense Envy anywhere.

Once he finished his meeting with Grand and left Command, however, he did sense Envy. It took him a moment to spot him, but he eventually thought to look for animals and spotted a pale golden dog huddled in an alley just ahead of them, looking way too intently at Ed.

Well. That explained why he'd been missing, to keep Ed from wondering at a personnel change while he was in Command, or a strange dog following him all day. That was reassuring.

In other news, he was going to enjoy this so fucking much.

Since he'd already told Gracia he'd pop by before heading out to check on Scar, he held to the original plan of waiting longer than usual before stealing down an alley. (And, seriously, his guards were clearly just waiting for him to skip out, glancing back at him every once in a while, their qi fluctuating between hope and trepidation. He wouldn't be surprised to discover they used his vanishing act as an excuse to take the rest of the day off. He hardly blamed them if they did; most of the Central-based State Alchemists stayed put all day, save for lunch, but Ed didn't, which meant guarding him had to be one of the more tiring shifts. He did feel a little bad, but at least he gave them an excuse to go home early on Fridays?)

He let Envy follow him for a few blocks, after losing his guards, before heading into an apartment building with the main entrance on a busy street, so Envy couldn't easily shift form and walk in after him. He found an empty flat, unlocked the door with alchemy, and slipped inside. After ensuring he could get up onto the roof from this flat, he locked the front door, then swung out the window, barely taking the time necessary to close the window behind him by hand, and climbed up onto the roof.

He peered back over the roof at Envy and found him sitting next to the steps into the building, his tail snapping impatiently against the pavement.

Grinning to himself, Ed turned and started for the edge of the city and the not-so-abandoned house.

-0-

After Elicia and Nina had been put to bed, Ed shared a laugh with Gracia and Hughes over Envy's misery.

"You should tell Roy," Hughes said, sending Ed a knowing smile. "Since I'm sure the only reason you haven't written him back is a lack of things to say."

Ed groaned; he'd known this was coming. :Isn't two letters enough? Why are you making me write him?:

"Because your misery amuses me," Hughes returned, deadpan, and Gracia snorted and ducked her head to hide the smile Ed knew was there.

Ed glowered.

Hughes sighed and offered him a slightly helpless smile. "Because you seem to have this idea in your head that you're not allowed to even try to be happy."

:I'm happy,: Ed insisted.

"In love."

:Your obsession–:

Hughes threw a pillow at him. "Go write Roy before we stick you with the girls for the whole weekend."

"A weekend holiday does sound nice," Gracia chimed in.

Hughes looked towards her with that adoring look that Ed couldn't decide if he hated or loved. Before he could start praising her, Ed tossed the pillow back at him and signed, :Traitors and cheats, the pair of you.:

Gracia smiled at him. "Good night, Ed."

Ed huffed and waved as he made for his room, leaving them to their couple-things.

His rubbish bin hadn't seen any action since he'd tossed the start of the letter he'd written the weekend before, and he pulled out the crumpled paper, considered it, then shrugged and sat down to finish the response.

-0-


You're an IDIOT.
First off, water makes you useless, so fuck off about the tears. Second off, as an expert on human transmutation, I am here to tell you that there is no equivalent exchange for a human life, so don't even fucking start about Nina.
Third off! I may kill your best friend, fair warning. He keeps nagging me about these fucking letters. Is he doing it to you, too?
That other you once said something about how it's so much fun to watch idiots flail around stupidly. Or, well, something like that. I don't remember the specifics, but I remember wondering why you were a massive dick, right up until you clarified that you meant homunculi in particular. (You were talking to Envy.) Anyway, I absolutely agree. It's a lot of fun, and Envy makes it easy.
E. Elric

.

Chapter Text


Edward,
Actually, it's your brother who checks in with me. He's always polite about it, yet I get the sense he's plotting ways to torture me if I don't comply. I suspect he and Maes are in collusion, but I do believe you got the less terrifying opponent.
As I have never had occasion to torment any homunculi, as of yet, I will simply have to take the word of yourself and that other me, though I will admit to finding some pleasure in watching human idiots dance to my tune. (Please don't ever repeat that to Maes.) Am I to assume this amusement is related to your habit of losing your military guard? (Which I feel as though I should tell you to stop, as a ranking officer, but I'm aware you have nothing to fear from Scar. Also, your brother laughed in Falman's face when he suggested someone needed to remind you the guard detail was for your own safety.)
Are you an expert on human transmutation? I only know of the one occasion. Though, I do recall a mention of trading your alchemy for your brother, which I assume would count? (And, I admit, I couldn’t really comprehend, until I substituted Maes or Riza, and concluded that, yes, they are far more important to me than flame alchemy. However, I suspect that alchemy is a far greater part of your life than it is mine, from observing your brother.)
Roy Mustang

-0-

Mustang's response letter arrived sometime on Tuesday, and Ed had caught himself laughing at how perfectly stupid the bastard was when he wasn't trying to be some untouchable dick. He liked this Mustang.

Dammit.

He actually started to work on a response right away – Hughes was going to be pushy, he might as well – but stopped partway through when he realised how late it was.

The next day, of course, he got a letter from his brother, wherein Al admitted to using a trip down to see Granny to disguise a stop to hunt down Dr Marcoh. Ed wanted to go out to East City and beat his brother around the head, he really did, because pulling stupidly dangerous shit like this was Ed's bad habit, not his brother's; Al had always been the well behaved one.

But, as with the Ishvalans, he'd come back with invaluable information, and Ed felt his irritation melt away as he stared down at the included array – something that Marcoh had apparently been working on for years – which would free the lives trapped in a Philosopher's Stone all in one fell swoop, without using them for any other alchemy, good or ill.

'We can use it on the Xerxesians,' Al had written, 'after the DitF is gone.'

More than that – what Al hadn't needed to write – they could use it against the homunculi. They could use it against the Dwarf in the Flask himself.

They'd still wait for Hohenheim to show up, because there was nothing wrong with going in with more power than they'd need, and they'd still have to get close enough to use the array, or make a kunai stick on one of their opponents for long enough for Ed or Al to activate the array through the Dragon's Pulse, assuming it would work with it. (Not all arrays would, and Ed didn't really have a Stone handy to test it on, unless he wanted to start yanking them from the ground again, and he wasn't certain that was wise, as close as he was to the Dwarf in the Flask's base of operations.) Still, this was the sort of priceless weapon that Ed would have considered worth nearly any risk to get his hands on.

But he was kind of annoyed with Al for making Ed's own bad life choices. So, in a rather backwards attempt to spite his brother, he finished the letter to Mustang and took it down to Hughes, instead of writing Al.

"I'm kind of freaked out," Hughes admitted as he accepted the envelope. "Why doesn't this feel like a victory?"

:Al's being stupid and I need Führer Bastard to yell at him for me,: Ed returned with a flat stare.

"Oh dear," Gracia murmured.

"Is he channelling you again?" Hughes guessed.

Ed scowled and left before one of the two of them could start pointing out he was a hypocrite. (As if he didn't already know that.)

-0-


Bastard,
My brother may be terrifying, but your best friend uses children against me. Also, bribery. And I'm pretty sure blackmail would be involved, but I've been doing my best to avoid giving him anything to use. I'll trade you.
Alchemy has its uses, yes, but Al is my only family. I can live without a great many things, but Al has never been one of them. Even when he was in Xing, while I was in Aerugo and Creta, I felt better knowing that at least he was alive somewhere, and I'd see him again. I told you, suffering through hell is easier when you're not going at it alone--he has always been my security blanket, as childish a concept as that might be. (Don't tell him that, or I'm telling Hughes about you making idiots dance to your tune.)
But, yes. Only counting our attempt to transmute Mum once, and counting soul alchemy--which is related, for obvious reasons--I've performed human transmutation 5 times. Mum is the only one I consider a failure. (Which is as much as I ever intend to say on the topic, no matter how secure the communication.) I believe that makes me an expert.
Last, please find some minor crime to charge my brother with so you can lock him up until you're all transferred back to Central? I'm tired of hearing about him pulling stupid-arse stunts.
E. Elric

-0-

On Friday, Envy didn't bother with the animal duplicity, apparently realising that there was no way he could track Ed as anything other than a human. Not that Ed gave him the chance to do that, either, slipping silently into an open shop when Envy was distracted by a loud bang across the street. He slipped out the shop's side door with a nod to the grinning proprietor – the father of one of Nina's friends, who had heard about Ed's escape trick and offered to let him use his shop, should he ever have the occasion – then scaled the alley wall using his kunai and a drainpipe.

Down on the street, Envy seemed to be going from shop-to-shop and alley-to-alley in an attempt to find him, from the movements of his Stone.

Ed snorted to himself, fixed the rusty pipe the shop's proprietor had mentioned over the weekend and Ed had happened to overhear – he honestly had no idea if it had been on purpose or not, but considered the fix fair trade for letting him lose his guard via the side door – then started towards the city limits.

He'd made it about four roofs over, when he became aware of a rush of souls – wrapped in a sense of absolute darkness and shaped as a wide, fast-moving blanket at ground level – spreading out in his general vicinity.

He stumbled to a stop, turning in the direction of the nearest drop down to street level. It felt a little like Envy, but not, and it wasn't until he crept up to the edge of the roof and peered down into shadows that were shifting unnaturally, that he realised what it was.

Pride. Selim.

'Well,' he mouthed to himself in Xingan, sitting back on his heels, 'this is a complication I didn't expect.'

To be fair, a part of him had sort of been hoping that Selim would continue keeping to himself – or whatever task he was running for the Dwarf in the Flask that had made Envy the better watcher – but it was clear they considered keeping tabs on Ed far more important. (Probably because they couldn't; one of the things none of the homunculi enjoyed was being outsmarted by a human.)

He'd probably be better off just heading for home and trying to find a way to sneak out to Scar and Zouheir on Saturday. If not for Selim, he'd go overnight, but he didn't want to chance running across the shadow homunculus when he was at his most free; once it was his 'bedtime', he wouldn't have to worry about Mrs Bradley or any guards wondering where he'd gone off to, and he could easily hide his child form from humans in his own shadows.

Although...

Thinking about Selim's freedom, it occurred to Ed that he'd been curious about his reach, and he was unlikely to be able to come chasing after Ed right that moment. He didn't know where Selim's physical body was, but it was a pretty good assumption that it wasn't far from the presidential manor and the centre of the city.

Ed allowed himself a wide, toothy smile and climbed to his feet. 'Let's play, little idiot,' he mouthed, before backing up just enough to take a running leap across the alley part of Pride was currently in, then kept on running straight, nearly at a ninety degree angle to Scar and Zouheir, heading for lower roofs and not bothering to keep quiet.

It took a couple jumps, but Pride did finally notice him on the roofs. There wasn't really anywhere for him to hide as part of the shadows above street level, but he came rushing after Ed as best he could down below.

Ed kept his pace steady, wasn't trying to stay just ahead of Pride like he had been Scar – in fact, he doubted he could, since the homunculus didn't have a physical body in need of those annoying little necessities for movement, like breathing – just trying to find his limit quickly enough that Ed still had a chance of stopping by the hideout.

Pride stopped about three hundred yards from the city boundary, which was a fairly respectable range, assuming he was in the city centre, and plenty dangerous when fighting him, but it was good to know that he wouldn't be following Ed to the hideout any time soon.

He kept moving until he was well out of visual range of the edge of the city – in case Selim had managed to move or his shadows had resorted to climbing to the roofs and he could see further – then turned to skirt the edge of the city towards the hideout.

"You're later than usual," Zouheir said when he let Ed in.

Ed shrugged and turned to face him to sign, :They set a better guard on me today, so I had a bit more trouble losing him.:

Once Zouheir had translated that for Scar, who had stepped out of the back room once the front door was closed, Scar said, "It's time to move on."

Ed raised an eyebrow at that.

"Majhul," Zouheir explained, as Scar retreated to the back room again, which was normal for him, "has been saying he should meet with others of our people, for their help in placing the outer edges of the array, as you have discussed?"

Ed nodded in understanding. :Not a bad plan. I'm not expecting to hear from my father for a few months yet, but he's all we're waiting on.:

Zouheir nodded himself; it wasn't the first time Ed had mentioned they were waiting on Hohenheim. "I think he also intends to be seen away from Central City, so you can make that map you mentioned."

'Ah.' Ed started down the hall to Scar's room, stopping in the doorway to watch him throw his meagre supplies into a worn sack. When Zouheir had caught up, Ed signed, :The military knows about his facial scar and the tattoo on his arm, but not that he's Ishvalan. I'd like to keep that from them as long as possible, to avoid any potential backlash against your people.:

Scar didn't look up, just nodded at Zouheir's translation, but Ed could sense both of the Ishvalans' gratitude – it was so much easier to communicate with Scar when he had more than his words and poker face to go on – and Zouheir's, "That's an excellent plan," seemed to speak from both of them.

Ed shrugged. :Too many Amestrisans already hate your people because of Bradley's warmongering, best not to give them any more reason; State Alchemists may not be popular, after all, but we ARE Amestrisan, and I think this country's seen enough racially motivated wars.:

"Well said. Or, well..." Zouheir grimaced.

Ed snorted and patted his arm. :I joke about my disability all the time. You're fine.:

"I had noticed that you're quite comfortable with being mute, despite your age. My brother railed against the unfairness of his deafness until he was far older."

Scar snorted, likely because he knew Ed was much older than he looked. (He was also under the impression that Ed had been born mute and so had spent all thirty-some years getting used to his disability; there wasn't really any benefit to correcting the impression, and bringing the dangers of alchemy into any conversation with the Ishvalans was more trouble than it was worth.)

:A matter of mental maturity, perhaps,: Ed suggested a bit carelessly, :or simply personality quirks. Or just the disability itself; I don't know that I would be quite so blasé were I deaf.: Well, maybe. Muteness sometimes seemed like such a small price to pay for his knowledge of what was coming, of the chance to save Nina and Hughes and keep Al from being trapped in that armour, but he wasn't certain deafness would have fit, especially since that wouldn't have stopped Ed from communicating, either.

"There is that," Zouheir agreed. "Not having a voice is one thing, but to never be able the hear anything has always seemed wretched."

Ed offered a smile, then signed, :I guess there's no point in asking if you want me to bring you anything this weekend?:

Zouheir coughed and shook his head. "I'm assuming we'll be leaving tonight or at first light tomorrow, so no."

"I don't need you to come," Scar said flatly. "Stay here if you want."

Zouheir frowned at Ed, who shrugged and reminded him, :Pretty sure he only dragged you into things on my account. You're welcome to continue using this house, and I can come out every Friday, or you can see if one of the slum areas are okay with Ishvalans. They don't tend to care as much, but I don't know that any of your people have dared to settle this close to the military's stronghold.:

Zouheir quirked a wretched little almost-smile. "I very much doubt my people would be too interested in settling near those that wanted us dead, no. However, if this plan is to succeed–" he looked over at Scar, who seemed to be ignoring them "–we will require a presence." He looked back at Ed. "Could you show me to the southern-most slum once I've packed my things? I would like to see about setting up a place for those coming to wait."

Ed frowned. :You really want to be seen with a member of the military? We're kind of distrusted in the slums, and I don't have anywhere to stuff my jacket so they won't notice it.:

Zouheir shook his head. "To see a member of the military friendly with an Ishvalan would be quite the statement, don't you think?"

:They might think you're a spy,: Ed warned.

"Then they will aim to scare me away or avoid me, not kill me outright."

If they were lucky.

Well, it was true that setting up a safe space for the Ishvalans would help them settle around Central with limited fuss, and Ed's friendship should, with luck, keep any military patrols from harassing Zouheir – Ed could handle any potential backlash from the higher-ups, for his part – and soldiers were far more likely to react to and Ishvalan with violence than the residents of the slums.

He hadn't entered the city from that far south, yet, so... :Sure.:

Zouheir left to collect his things with a small smile.

Ed shrugged out of his jacket – not wearing it suggested he was off duty, while also giving him easy access to the bulk of his weapons, and he could turn it inside out so it was less recognisable – then pulled out his journal and wrote, 'Safe travels + good luck,' for Scar.

When Scar finally stopped fussing with his pack and Ed showed it to him, he frowned. "I am not the one with monsters holding the end of my leash; keep your luck."

Ed smiled at him and bowed, then turned to head for Zouheir's room to see how close to ready he was.

"Silent Alchemist," Scar called, and Ed glanced back at him. "You said my people will be allowed back into our holy land."

Ed nodded, then wrote, 'Most of the officers in East want that–' Al had passed that news on, after asking around on a whim '– + a number in Central–' according to Hughes, who could be trusted to know these things '–but Bradley + them won't let you. Once they're gone your people can go home'

Scar looked up from the journal after a moment, his expression unchanged, but there was a curl of hope in his qi made Ed smile. "I will take that as a promise," Scar said, his tone threatening.

Ed just smiled a bit wider and bowed again, then left to find Zouheir.

Once Zouheir had finished collecting his things and said his goodbyes, they left the hideout, Ed taking the lead south.

"Your sash is of the eastern nation, correct?" Zouheir asked after a bit, glancing over at Ed.

Ed nodded. :It's specific to the clan my brother and I were adopted by.:

"You seem young to have travelled so far. You said your father–"

:That trip had nothing to do with my father,: Ed signed, before Zouheir could continue down that thought. :We wanted to learn their alchemy, so we found someone willing to get us across the Great Desert. We only stayed two years, but we learned what we'd gone for, and we have a home to return to, if we don't want to stay in Amestris.:

Zouheir was quiet for a fair few steps, watching the ground ahead of them, before he finally looked back over at Ed and said, "You told me you'd already given up your chance to walk away."

Ed nodded. :I knew what was coming before we left for the east.:

"You are brave, to have returned."

:Or stupid,: Ed returned, shrugging.

"Perhaps," Zouheir agreed, though he didn't sound so certain.

When they were in view of the slum Zouheir had asked after, Ed reached out and touched his shoulder, stopping him. :I need you to keep quiet about what you know,: he signed with a serious expression. :I trust your people – you already hate and know to fear our military – but I cannot trust these people to not go to the nearest soldier and sell what they know.:

Zouheir frowned. "You do not trust your own people?"

Ed shook his head. :Have you met my people?:

Zouheir winced.

Ed sighed. :There are many good Amestrisans, but there are also too many who will do anything to change their station in life, even if just for a few months, and if word reaches the wrong ears, Bradley will kill everyone he suspects knows anything. For their safety and your own, keep your silence.:

"Yours must be a lonely life, Silent Alchemist."

Ed shrugged. :Maybe. But there are people I trust. My commanding officer, for one.:

Zouheir managed a smile at that, a little sad at the edges. "At least you do not live in secrets," he decided, before touching Ed's shoulder before he could turn to continue walking. "It occurs to me that I do not know your name."

Ed snorted. :He doesn't like Amestrisan names,: he signed of Scar, before pulling out his journal and writing, 'Edward Elric. Ed to friends'

"Are we friends, then?" Zouheir asked with humour.

'Accomplices,' Ed wrote, since he still had his journal out.

Zouheir let out a laugh that sounded slightly startled. "I expect that does necessitate something akin to friendship."

Ed flashed him a smile as he slipped his journal away, then motioned that they should continue.

No one seemed to pay either of them much attention, though a couple people 'whispered' slurs aimed at Zouheir's heritage – which he ignored, while Ed turned a cold glare on the culprits until they ducked their heads and shuffled off. It took them a good fifteen minutes to find someone willing to show them to a place where Zouheir could sleep, and Ed made sure he was settled in – ignoring all attempts to wave him off – before finally leaving for the city.

"So," Hughes said when he finally got in. "What's your excuse for missing dinner?"

:Are you my mother, now?: Ed asked.

Hughes blinked. "You mean your father?"

Ed snorted. :The one who abandoned us? I'm pretty sure he's a crap comparison.:

Hughes cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Right." He shook his head. "Yes, fine, I'm your mother–" two someones giggled from the living room "–so you need to explain yourself, or no dinner."

:Cruel,: Ed signed, and Hughes frowned. He sighed. :I had to dodge Pride, and then–:

But Hughes darted forward and caught his hands. "Pride?" he hissed, panic tightening the skin around his eyes and weighing down his qi.

Ed nodded and gently extracted his hands to sign, :I'm fine. Determined that he's pretty much stuck in the city, which is good to know. Scar's decided to head south, so I walked his translator friend to one of the slums and helped him get settled in.:

Hughes drew in a slow breath, still strained, but a little calmer. "Be careful," he whispered.

Ed offered a tired smile. :I know.:

Hughes took another breath and nodded, then turned to lead Ed back to the kitchen, where a plate had been left, covered, in the cooker. As Ed sat down to eat, Hughes offered, "You have a letter, by the way."

Considering he still hadn't written Al back – which he needed to do, if only to tell him about Pride and about Scar moving south – there was only one person it could be. :Führer Bastard?:

"You're getting better at this game," Hughes praised.

Ed waved a fork threateningly at him and scowled until he left with a laugh.

-0-


Edward,
I did warn you about Maes' devious ways. You, on the other hand, forgot to mention that your little brother is not nearly as gentle and innocent as he acts.
I'm not certain Alphonse would remain in a prison cell if I stuck him in one. I did have words with him when I found out he'd made a side trip while visiting Resembool. He apologised for the duplicity, and has agreed to take a member of my team during any future visits back home. I'm willing to trust him, as he has yet to show any inclination towards dodging guards, though he was notably reticent to explain his detour. All I got out of him was that he was visiting an Amestrisan with knowledge of medical alchemy.
I admit, that was more information about your familiarity with human transmutation than I had expected. However, yes, I do believe that makes you an expert. Which, considering the subject matter, I should be far more terrified by than I am.
Given your warnings, I've kept my ear out for any whispers of miracles in the north-east, and I did finally hear something. It's not yet to the point where it would be audible to the less attuned ears of East Command, but once it is in a couple weeks, I will be asked to send someone, as 'miracles' often translate to 'alchemy'. Alphonse is the obvious choice, but I can find an excuse to keep him well out of it and send a few soldiers with some limited alchemical knowledge, instead, if you'd prefer.
Roy Mustang

-0-

Ed had made himself respond to Al before even opening Mustang's letter, and he was trying to pretend it wasn't a struggle.

And then, of course, the bastard had to be perfect and gentlemanly and just...

'Fuck,' Ed mouthed, rubbing at his face.

Mustang hadn't assumed, he'd asked. He knew Ed was stressing out because his stupid little brother was picking up the worst of his bad habits, so he was leaving it to Ed to say either yes or no. And Ed knew the bastard would make it happen. If Ed said no, he would send someone else. He would fucking go himself before he let Al go out there.

This shit was why he'd started to actually like the bastard. Because, once he stopped being all high-and-mighty and 'I know best', he was better than decent; he was human. He was just a man who wanted to do the right thing, who'd tried to cry himself to sleep while in hell, and had to be talked down from killing his best friend's murderer because he cared too much.

And maybe that didn't mean much to some people – fuck, most people would see that shit as a weakness – but to Ed, who dealt in monsters and the stark white Truth, that was everything. That was the sort of person he wanted leading their country, who he would trust to take them in the right direction, without flinching away from consequences. Maybe, a little bit, that was the sort of person Ed had always wanted to be, but felt he was carrying too many sins to manage. (And Mustang could spin poetry about how Ed was a good person all he wanted, but Mustang had been used, in Ishval, while Ed's crimes were all his own.)

'Respect' and 'trust'. They were the words Ed used to create distance. They sat clustered with 'crush' and 'hormones'.

Excuses.

He hadn't fooled Al, and he hadn't fooled Hughes.

He wasn't sure he was strong enough to stop lying to himself.

-0-


Bastard,
As much as I want to keep Al well away from that mess, there are only so many people I trust around a Stone, and I wouldn't want a non-alchemist facing off against someone with access to one. Unless you can find a good excuse to pull me from Central, or old man Grumman's willing to let you go, it'll have to be Al. (This actually isn't a bad test run for that array he picked up on his detour. If he hasn't shared it with you by the time you get this letter, corner him and remind him that you're already in their sights and need to have it, just in case.)
A certain friend of mine is heading south and intending to get seen at least once, so it sounds like I'll be losing my envious guard. I'm a little sad, because it HAS been fun leading him along while he tries to keep tabs on me, but since they pulled out the big shadows, it's probably a good thing. Which, honestly, doesn't mean they'll stop watching me fully, but I should have a bit more freedom to go on a few minor "detours" of my own.
Stop freaking the fuck out. I know what I'm doing.
E. Elric

-0-

Word that Scar was seen in South City spread like wildfire around Central City as soon as the news broke Monday afternoon. Bradley made them wait until Tuesday before he removed the mandatory guards from the State Alchemists, and Ed celebrated his newfound freedom by making a stop, on his way back to Investigations from lab one, to pick up way too fucking many sweets. The other translators had given grateful laughs when he offered part of his purchase around their office, and Elicia and Nina had been over the fucking moon when Gracia gave in and agreed they could each have a few pieces from what Ed had brought home.

On Wednesday, after work, he shrugged off his jacket and handed it to a clearly curious Hughes, then shouldered the rest of his sweets haul and made for the southern slum on his own.

Without his jacket, and with his pocket watch chain and the slightly distinctive waist of his uniform trousers hidden under his sash, he looked like a normal civilian with a thing for military boots. (Which was actually fairly common, given they weren't completely ugly, held up fairly well under harsh conditions, and – like most of the uniform – the making of them was sourced out to civilian warehouses, so the military resources could be more firmly focussed on warmongering, which meant it wasn't uncommon to see overstock in shops in the capital cities.) So he didn't get any weird looks from the locals, and was able to make for Zouheir's tent without any fuss.

The Ishvalan was inside, meditating, but he looked up when Ed whistled and smiled when he recognised him. "Unusual for you to come during the week," he said, signing at the same time, as he so often did when his hands weren't otherwise occupied; Ed was almost used to that weird tick.

:My guards got dismissed, so I'm celebrating,: Ed admitted, before pausing to slip his bag of sweets off his shoulder and set it on the ground in front of himself. :I brought sweets to share with kids or adults or whoever.:

"Sharing your good fortune around?" Zouheir guessed.

Ed smiled and shrugged. :Something like that.:

Zouheir shot him a speculative look. "Trying to help me make friends?"

Ed couldn't quite help a silent laugh, a little embarrassed, because, yeah, actually, that had been how the idea originally presented itself to him. :I guess that was a little transparent.:

Zouheir shook his head. "As rarely as I understand the direction of your thoughts, it's almost reassuring."

:I'm not THAT mysterious.: Ed frowned. :Am I?:

"Perhaps it is simply that you don't match my expectations. You are young for the choices you bear, yet you wear them without shame. And," he added with a helpless smile, "I do have some poor preconceptions to overcome."

Ed grimaced. :Yeah, I'm sort of all the things your people have come to hate in Amestrisans.:

"Perhaps," Zouheir allowed, "we have simply learnt to hate the wrong things."

Ed considered that for a moment, then shrugged. :Perhaps. Want to make friends with the local kids?:

Zouheir chuckled and allowed Ed to lead him out to where he'd noticed a group of kids playing on his way through the streets. The children and the two watching adults all eyed Zouheir with some uncertainty, but Ed rolled his eyes and dropped down onto the ground with the bag, opening it up and pulling out a butterscotch sweet, which he tossed into his mouth before signing to Zouheir, :I can't talk, you're my super awesome translator, do they want sweets?:

Zouheir let out an amused chuckle, folding his hands carefully in front of himself. "Hello," he offered politely. "I am Zouheir, and this is my friend, Ed, from the city. He wanted to bring sweets to the children down here, in celebration of some good fortune of his own, but he cannot speak, so asked that I come along to translate for him."

One of the adults shot Ed a sympathetic look, while the other adult remained suspicious, but one of the kids approached, looking at Ed, rather than the bag of sweets, which he thought admirable restraint. "You can't talk?" she asked.

Ed shrugged and signed, :Not with my voice, but I can talk with my hands, to those who know how to understand.:

Zouheir faithfully translated that as one of the other kids crept over and snatched a sweet from the open bag, moving fast, as though afraid Ed would take them away. Ed smiled at him and pushed the bag a little further away from himself, where he'd have a harder time taking it away from them, but keeping the ankle of his automail leg caught up in the strap, so no one could try running off with the whole bag. (He'd brought the sweets to share, and he didn't intend to go home with any, sure, but that didn't mean he wanted them all to go to one person.)

"So this–" the curious kid waved her hands around a bit nonsensically "–means stuff?"

"It's called 'sign language'," Zouheir explained, crouching down next to Ed, while the other children picked out a couple of sweets. "It was created by the deaf community – those who cannot hear – over a century ago. My brother was deaf, which is how I know it; my parents travelled to your East City to find us a teacher, so we could communicate with him, and she lived with us in Ishval for almost three years while we learnt from her."

"Ishval," the girl said, as though tasting the name on her tongue. "My papa says terrible things about Ishval."

Zouheir gave a grim nod. "As my people say terrible things of you Amestrisans. Ed finds great joy, I think, in giving lie to the hatred we have been taught."

Ed scoffed. :Don't make me out to be some do-gooder. I'm an alchemist; we believe in searching for the truth, no matter how painful or unpopular.:

The kid looked at Zouheir, clearly waiting for a translation, and Zouheir cleared his throat before saying, "Ed says he is an alchemist, so he uncovers the truth, no matter what it might be."

That caught the attention of a number of kids, as well as the adult who was still looking at Zouheir with suspicion. "You're an alchemist?" one of the kids asked, clearly delighted.

Ed grinned and nodded.

"Can we see?" another kid pleaded, mouth full of sweets. "I've never seen real alchemy."

"Shut up," yet another kid muttered sullenly, shoulders hunching. "I tried."

Ed glanced questioningly towards Zouheir. :You don't have to stay if it makes you uncomfortable,: he offered.

Zouheir grimaced. "I'm resigned to your people's disregard for the divinity of creation."

Ed offered him an apologetic smile, then motioned to the sullen kid. :What array did he try?:

Zouheir cleared his throat. "Ed asks what array you used."

"Just one I saw in a book someone had thrown out," the kid admitted.

Ed shifted up to his knees, catching the sweets bag and sliding it out of the way and slightly behind him, then motioned for the kid to draw the array in the dirt.

"Oh, uhm..." The kid sort of shuffled forward and knelt across from Ed, then sloppily drew one of the basic arrays, with the symbol for working with wood.

Ed tilted his head. :He tried this on the ground?:

Zouheir translated that and the kid nodded. "Is it wrong?"

Ed quickly drew the symbols for wood and earth next to the array, writing what each were next to it.

"Oh," the kid whispered, while a couple of the others made understanding noises, or translated for those who couldn't read.

Ed flashed them all a smile, then quickly brushed the dirt clear and pulled out a kunai to retrace the array far less sloppily, switching the wood symbol for earth.

"He's good," someone said.

:What should we make?: Ed signed.

"Ed asks what he should make," Zouheir translated.

The kids immediately started shouting ideas, most of them far more complicated than a normal alchemist could manage with this simple array (though Ed could pull off some of them, and he could cheat for the rest), but Ed kept watching the kid who'd tried this once already.

"I wanted," he said quietly, and the other kids shut up, "to make my mum a pot, because ours broke."

Ed drew a couple pot designs, until the boy pointed at one with two handles. Ed nodded and added the symbol for iron to the list of wood and earth, then switched that in the array while a couple kids whispered about that. And then, he pressed his fingers lightly against the outer circle of the array and dug deep into the natural minerals below them, easily coming up with enough iron to create the pot. (Not surprising, when you realised Central City had been a battleground in the days when they'd used far more primitive weapons, and those had been as likely to be buried, as they were to be recovered and turned into something useful again.)

"Wow!" his audience called as the energy died away, leaving behind a perfect iron pot.

Ed held it out to the wide-eyed, alchemist-hopeful sitting across the array from him.

"Th-thank you," the boy stuttered, hugging the pot close to his chest.

"Is there an array for fixing things?" a girl who looked to only be a little older than Al asked.

Ed swept the current array clear, then quickly sketched the requested array and looked in her direction.

She cleared her throat and said, "I'll be right back," then fled among snickers.

"Are there other symbols?" the super curious girl from earlier asked around a sweet.

Ed nodded. :Which ones do you want to know?: he signed, and was honestly a little surprised when Zouheir translated that; his calm qi had sort of been lost in the rush of excitement from the kids around Ed.

That seemed to be the cue for the children to start calling out elements.

Ed crossed his arms over his chest and looked up at the sky in a very obvious plea for patience.

Someone laughed.

The kids fell quiet for a moment, before they started trading off who would ask. They got through the major elements fairly quickly, followed by the most common metals. Then the kids started trying to stump him with things like 'pickles' and 'clouds', which he just rolled his eyes at and responded with an amused look.

The girl finally hurried back over, coming to kneel across the array from Ed, where a space had been left for her. "This was my big brother's," she said, revealing a military medal that had been attacked with something; the gold disc was dented, while the cloth ribbon was cut in two and badly frayed. "It was the only thing of his I could save," she added, blinking away tears.

Around them, their audience had gone deathly quiet; soldiers weren't particularly well liked down here, but most everyone understood loss.

Ed held out his hands and she carefully dropped the pieces of honour into them. He set them in the middle of the array and quickly traced out the necessary symbols, then pressed his fingers to the outer circle.

When the light died away, it revealed the medal, as perfect and shiny as it had probably looked when it had first been awarded. Ed recognised the colours of the ribbon and the design on the disc; this had been awarded for service in Ishval.

He picked it up and handed it back to her, offered an understanding smile when he caught sight of her tears.

She accepted it back with a quiet, "Thank you."

Ed inclined his head and watched her get up and shuffle away.

A few other people came along with household items that had broken and they were hoping to get fixed, word having quickly got around that there was a visiting alchemist. Ed was happy to do so, continuing to use the drawn array for his audience of curious kids, who kept sneaking sweets from his bag and watching on with interested eyes.

:I believe,: Zouheir signed at one point, when Ed glanced back to see if he was still there, :that you are more of a do-gooder than you give yourself credit for.:

Ed rolled his eyes at him; this shit was easy and cost him nothing, save a little time. In return, other people's lives were a little easier, and Zouheir's neighbours were less inclined to avoid him; equivalent exchange.

He was just thinking it was about time he started for home, before he missed dinner again, when there came the sound of booted feet stepping heavily in sync and someone shouted, "Now see here! What are you degenerates gathering around for? Trouble, I'll bet!"

The crowd shifted back, a few turning and running, while the children all ducked behind the nearest adult, including one behind Zouheir, who Ed stepped up next to once he'd stood.

A squad of eight men were approaching in a lazy formation, the leader a corporal. Most of them had shotguns slung over their backs, while two of them had theirs in their hands and were using them to shove at people.

"Here, now," one of the older men in the crowd said, stepping forward, "we're just having a bit of fun. A young alchemist was showing off some tricks. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

But the corporal's eyes had lit on Zouheir, and he reached for his handgun, shouting, "Ishvalan scum!"

"No!" a couple young voices shouted.

Ed took two quick steps forward and snatched the gun before the corporal could raise it all the way, releasing the clip and clearing the slide with easy efficiency – he didn't use guns, but Hughes had made him learn to disarm them, 'just in case'.

"Ed, stop," Zouheir called into the following stunned silence.

The corporal's eyes bugged. "You little shit!" he snarled, reaching for the gun strapped across his back.

Ed dropped the handgun and yanked out his pocket watch, holding it up between them like a talisman to ward off evil.

"State Alchemist," someone whispered, a few others cursing.

Well, there went any points Ed had won with the sweets and fixing things.

"S-sir," the corporal stuttered, looking more than a little boggled. "What are you doing out here?"

Ed slipped his watch away and pulled out his journal to write, 'Visiting a friend'

"A friend? Among beggars?" The corporal smiled, as though offering him the chance to join in the joke.

Around them, a couple of the slum residents shifted uncomfortably.

Ed gave the man a flat look.

The corporal's smile fell away. "Whatever you say, sir." He looked past Ed and called, "Ishvalan, your kind aren't welcome here. Get out."

"And yet," Zouheir returned calmly, "I was invited by my friend, your Silent Alchemist."

Ed put on a smile that was more teeth than anything else, then waved for the soldiers to leave.

"We're leaving," the corporal said to his men, tone making it very clear that he didn't want to do so. His men looked equally disgruntled, but obediently turned to leave, while the corporal knelt to collect the fallen pieces of his handgun.

Ed turned back towards Zouheir and signed, :I should probably–:

The flare of violent qi wasn't as much of a surprise as Ed would have wished it was – Zouheir had been the only one with calm qi during that entire altercation – and the fact that it was one of the soldiers and aimed at Zouheir was even less of a surprise.

Ed clapped and dropped to press his hands to the ground. Just as one of the civilians called, "Watch out!", a hand burst from the ground and wrapped tightly around the soldier who'd turned and aimed at Zouheir, covering the muzzle of the gun and pinning his arms to his sides.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then Zouheir blandly commented, "I didn't know you could do that."

:The reacting without looking, or the lack of a physical array?: Ed asked once he'd stood up.

"Mostly the lack of array," Zouheir admitted. "I have seen Ishvalan warriors react without looking before, though that usually involves more violence."

Ed shrugged. :Hate on alchemy all you want, but we don't always need to bloody noses to stop an attack.:

Zouheir's mouth quirked. "You'll forgive me if I continue to regard alchemy with distrust and disapproval, despite what pros there may be to it."

Ed snorted, amused, and turned towards the trapped soldier. The corporal in charge had gone pale and was clutching the pieces of his gun to his chest, looking between Ed and the trapped soldier like he wasn't sure what to do.

Ed paced over to the soldier and pulled out his journal to write, 'Try to shoot my friend again I'll get violent. Don't be stupid'

"You're protecting an Ishvalan," the man spat.

Ed shrugged and wrote, 'So?'

"I was in Ishval, boy. I know what those demons are capable of!"

'So was he but you don't see him pointing weapons at Amestrisan soldiers'

The man sputtered.

Ed sighed and wrote, 'Unless a new law forbidding Ishvalans to live here has been drafted + passed in last 3 hrs he's fine. Hold your peace or I'll leave you here'

The man clenched his jaw and nodded, so Ed clapped and freed him. As he stepped back, the man snarled, "I'll see you reported, sympathiser."

Ed smiled and gave a mocking little bow; oh, yes, he was certain Hughes was going to care about this. Fuck, even going to Grand wasn't likely to result in much worse than a light reprimand for attacking soldiers – the fuckers totally started it, and it wasn't like Ed had hurt any of them – and that was assuming a freaking private could even get an audience with the brigadier general.

He stood and watched as the soldiers left, not taking any chances this time, and was just about to turn towards Zouheir after they were out of sight, when a hand caught his and he glanced down to find the super curious girl from earlier turning his hand over, like she was trying to find something.

'Ah.' Ed shook his head, amused.

"Where's the circle?" the kid asked at last, frowning up at him.

Ed pressed a finger to his lips and winked.

"State Alchemists and your secrets," a woman snapped, stepping forward and grabbing the curious kid's arm to yank her back. "Your kind isn't welcome here, dog."

Ed held up his hands in a sign of surrender, then signed to Zouheir, :Send word to Investigations for me, if you need anything.:

Zouheir offered him a crooked smile. "Unlikely, but thank you."

Ed bowed, then turned and followed the soldiers out of the slum and back into the city proper.

He made it in time for dinner, for once, to much teasing from everyone else in the house, which he bore with, if not good, then at least reasonable, grace.

After the girls were in bed, he did warn Hughes about what had happened in the slum, so there wouldn't need to be a game of cat and mouse if Hughes heard about it while Ed was out in the labs or meeting with Grand.

"I'd ask if you're incapable of keeping your head down, but I suspect I know the answer," Hughes said a bit helplessly.

Gracia elbowed him. "As if you wouldn't have been right there helping him."

"Maybe," Hughes tried.

"Ha!" Gracia raised an eyebrow at Ed, one hand curled around the corner of the cushion next to her.

Ed grinned back and grabbed the pillow nearest him and tossed it over the coffee table at his idiotic commander, while Gracia used hers to whack Hughes in the side.

Hughes performed some theatrical flailing, while making quiet pathetic noises.

Ed leant over and grabbed the next closest pillow.

"I concede!" Hughes called quietly, raising his hands in surrender. "I would absolutely have been telling those soldiers to go away. Just with less impressive alchemy."

:More like no alchemy at all,: Ed signed, once he'd dropped his pillow back to the couch next to him.

Hughes pointed a warning finger at him, but his grin sort of ruined it. "Don't make me ground you."

Ed raised both eyebrows at him in disbelief, while Gracia dissolved into muffled giggles against Hughes' shoulder.

Hughes coughed. "That didn't come out right..."

Gracia patted his arm.

Ed shook his head and stood. :I'm going to bed before we actually manage to wake the terrors.:

"Probably for the best," Gracia agreed, laughter in her voice.

"Aren't you supposed to be on my side?" Hughes complained to Gracia as Ed left the living room, lingering just outside because he could.

"Not quite, dear."

"Then whose side are you on?"

"My own."

"How did I miss this?"

"My side does often match up with your side."

"Except when Ed's involved. Do you like him more than me?" Hughes demanded, as if his qi wasn't a mass of humour.

Gracia snorted. "Yes. We're going to elope as soon as this mess is handled, and you'll be stuck with Roy."

"I knew it!" Hughes exclaimed in a hush.

"You're ridiculous," Gracia informed him, followed by a great deal of kissing.

Smiling and shaking his head at the pair of them, Ed made his way upstairs to sleep.

-0-

When he wandered into Hughes' office at the end of the day on Thursday, so they could head home, his commanding officer shot him an amused look and said, "Consider yourself formally reprimanded for attacking another member of the military yesterday. Don't do it again and so on and so forth."

:I have been formally reprimanded,: Ed promised, before flopping into his favourite of the two couches. :Did one of them come themselves? Or...:

Hughes snorted. "It came in with the afternoon paperwork. Formal complaint, filled out in the best military-grade form." He waved a flimsy piece of paper at Ed.

:Feel free to bin that,: Ed suggested.

Hughes did so, then signed off on one last paper and slipped it into his outbox. Once he'd capped his pen and set it in the holder, he stood and stretched, letting out a loud groan that Ed was becoming all too familiar with hearing all over the place, including from himself; anyone who said working in an office was easy, had never spent eight hours hunched over a desk, squinting at lines of text and writing out corrections or translations.

"So, what do you think's for dinner tonight?" Hughes asked as he collected his jacket and Ed pushed himself up out of the couch.

:Stew.:

"You say stew every day."

:I live in hope.:

"Speaking of hope," Hughes said, pulling an envelope out of his jacket and holding it out to Ed.

His name was scrawled on the front in familiar handwriting, and Ed scowled as he took it and slipped it away, then signed, :How is hope related to that?:

"I live in hope," Hughes insisted.

:You live in a twisted little–:

Hughes swatted his hands to shut him up. "Hush. No mocking my happy place, you old grouch."

Ed snorted, but held his peace.

-0-


Edward,
Why is it that your reassurances aren't even passingly comforting? Can you at least take Maes with you on your "detour"?
Once I hear about the brewing incident through the proper channels, I'll go ahead and send Alphonse out there with Havoc or Riza. (More likely Havoc; this sounds like the sort of town Riza would stand out in.)
Your brother did pass on the array on his own, as well as your update about those shadows. With luck, they won't decide you need a full-time covert watch, simply because you were always managing to dodge the obvious one.
Roy Mustang

.

Chapter Text


Bastard,
No, I can't take Hughes. I can sense when danger's coming, which is fine for getting myself out of the way, but since I can't whisper any warnings, a second person is more likely to be a hindrance than any form of help.
Like I said, stop freaking out, I know what I'm doing.
So far, I haven't sensed any additional guarding attempts.
E. Elric
EDIT: Never mind. They're still trying to stalk me on Fridays. I took Envy on a lovely tour of the city just for the sheer amusement of it.

-0-

Ed didn't bother trying to go back to the slums, since it was clear he was less than welcome, and he didn't really want to push anyone, for the sake of Zouheir and the potential incoming Ishvalans, mostly. If Zouheir needed him, he knew where to reach him, so it wasn't like Ed had gone and abandoned the man. (Not that he'd promised anyone specific that he'd keep Zouheir safe or whatever, that was all for his own peace of mind.)

He got through the whole weekend and Monday without a sign of any additional guards, save for Friday. (Clearly, for once, setting a schedule for misbehaviour meant they only expected him to act out on a specific day. Ed and Hughes were kind of both laughing their arses off.) With that in mind, he headed out for lab one on Tuesday, timing his arrival so he'd have just about enough time to run through his usual inspection before lunch – no one asked, but he had a ready excuse about a translation that had held him up, if they wondered why he was later than usual – and then used the cover of everyone leaving to slip into the only lab room that was off limits.

As he'd expected, there was a stairway leading down, which had a padlocked gate in the way; no problem. He'd filched a lock picking kit from Investigations pretty much as soon as he realised they had them – he'd had to learn how to use them after he lost his alchemy, and a few practice runs ensured he hadn't lost his touch – because there were times it was better not to go pointing fingers at alchemists, and this was one of them. (Also, no one, not even Al, knew about this skill of his – why would he need it? He was brilliant, headstrong, and happy to show off his alchemic skills – which made him the last possible culprit.)

Once he was in, he pulled out the graph paper he'd folded up and hidden in his journal, stretched it out over the clipboard he'd picked up earlier and 'forgotten' to put back, then started down the hall, counting his steps between objects of interest and sketching his map by feel more than sight, given the pervasive darkness from the lack of ready light source. The crawling sensation from the Stones underground was a lot stronger down there, becoming obviously noticeable again, despite the resistance Ed had been building up over the months he'd been staying in Central. He grimaced and headed toward the sensation, somewhat morbidly curious, and found one of those massive doors – he suspected they could be opened by alchemy, but hadn't had the chance to test, before, and wasn't really interested in mucking about with it right that moment – then walked back the other way, through some abandoned labs with broken equipment, until he reached something of a T-intersection; the outer circle of the city's array, he suspected. He did a quick consideration of direction, then started in the direction that most likely led to lab two.

He knew he'd picked right when he sensed the calming balm off the greenhouse. Blooming had admitted, at one point, that they'd had to make some minor repairs to the floor around some of the older trees, because their roots had broken through the concrete to the soil beneath them. Ed hadn't told him, but he'd suspected, that the trees had actually broken through to the parts of the lab that had been closed off, if not the tunnel circling the city. And indeed, when he climbed the stairs to what should have been the access point to lab two, he found it overgrown with roots.

Lab two was completely impassable, note made.

He noted down the position of the large door for that lab, then returned to the outer circle.

Lab three's entrance was probably the most poorly hidden of the lot, which Ed had known coming into this, as he saw it regularly during his inspections. It was padlocked, same as lab one's had been, to keep the curious from proceeding downwards, and queries about it had been met with uncaring shrugs, wild guesses, or vague warnings about the area being condemned, depending on whom he asked.

Uninterested in spending more time than necessary near the chimera labs, and leery of being spotted from the other side of the gate, Ed made quick work of mapping the path to the large door, made some educated guesses about the entrance from the lab, then returned to the outer circle.

Lab four's entrance was in another unused lab, down a hall in the 'hazardous chemicals' section, which Ed had only ever been allowed into with Grand; all of his personal inspections had involved the three researchers assigned to that section coming out to meet him and give their report in Maximus' lab. They cited his safety as the reason, and Ed tried not to make a bigger deal than would be expected of a teenage boy who considered himself a genius; he was only fourteen, to them, and they hardly expected him to know what not to touch.

At any rate, it had only taken one glance for him to guess where that hallway led, and since he had the opportunity for some careful snooping, he verified it. He also added some additional protections in the areas that the three researchers weren't, to make himself feel better. The main storage cupboard was the most important, and he managed that, but he figured it couldn't hurt to up the protections in the unoccupied labs, too, since he finally had unaccompanied access to them.

Having done his good deed for the month, Ed went back down into the underground tunnel and marked that large door, then continued around the circle.

Lab five was worryingly busy, but Ed didn't try sneaking up to check it out, since he sensed a homunculus up there. Instead, he marked what he dared, then continued back to lab one. He relocked the padlock, slipped his map away, left the clipboard on an empty desk – no one was likely to coming looking for it in here, and misplaced materials were often just marked as having got caught up in a transmutation, in lab one; Ed had seen plenty of replacement requests with that reason given – and made his way out of the building.

It had got late while he was underground, and by the time he made it home, dinner was just being set out.

Hughes waited until Nina and Elicia were in bed before cornering Ed, at least: "Whose noses were you tweaking today, then?"

Ed sighed and motioned for him – and Gracia, who wasn't overt about listening in, but had made it clear that she wasn't going to be left in the dark, not with something this big, not when any one of them knowing about it put all of them in danger – to follow him to the little windowless office with the maps. There, he signed, :I was mapping the tunnel system,: before pulling out his map and starting to, very carefully, mark the curve on the map of Central City, with liberal use of plain pins and string that he changed the colour of.

Hughes stepped up to help him after a moment, taking part of Ed's map, though it wasn't really necessary once you saw how one of the labs was connected to the tunnel, since they were all pretty much the same, save for some minor differences that didn't matter for this map.

Once they finished, they stepped back to get a look, and Hughes whistled. "Damn. Who knew this was hidden under the city."

Ed grimaced at that – they all knew exactly whom – and focussed on the large doors, all of which seemed to be directly under the moat that circled Command; he'd known where the Dwarf in the Flask was headquartered, certainly, but this painted a far more definitive picture.

"Why map it?" Gracia asked, picking up one of the pieces of graph paper and looking over how painstakingly detailed Ed had been.

:Scar's array needs to be activated at the centre of the nationwide array,: Ed explained when she looked back up at him. :That's the middle of the parade grounds, or somewhere underground. He'll be shot before he can activate it at the parade grounds, so it'll have to be underground.:

"And that means someone needs to map the way," Hughes murmured, looking up at the map. "I know no one's going to question you vanishing into one of the labs for a while, which doesn't hold true for most of us who know, but can't you at least take someone with you? Alex?"

Ed shook his head. :I just had this argument with Führer Bastard,: he complained, and both Hughes and Gracia let out strained chuckles. :I know Al and I have never really explained our ability to sense the homunculi, but it's related to that. I'll know if someone's coming, and I'm agile enough to find somewhere to hide before they're in view. But the minute you add someone else to that equation...:

"You would have to find some way to warn them and both find places to hide," Hughes finished with a sigh. "I just don't like the idea of you going down there alone. Which isn't a comment on your combat abilities!" he added, as though expecting Ed to call him out. "I've heard enough about your swift takedowns when someone irritates you, and I know you're in the gym regularly, but everyone needs backup sometimes."

:If Al were here, I would take him, but he's not.: Ed shook his head. :This isn't my first time being stuck in hostile territory alone, and I'm far better prepared, now, than I ever have been before.:

"And they don't want you dead," Gracia pointed out quietly.

"That doesn't really make it better," Hughes commented with a grimace.

:If I'm caught,: Ed signed grimly, :you lot become targets. Trust me, I prefer it when they're aiming to kill me.:

Gracia swallowed and ducked her head. "That sounds a little terrible."

Ed turned away, back towards the map. He'd have to either go in through lab three, antsy as all fuck, or wait a week and go back through lab one to get through those large doors.

Well, he had thought it might be a good idea to see how difficult it would be to get past the chimeras Scar had mentioned were down that sewer passage, before. Having multiple approaches to pick from were better, especially since getting Scar into one of the labs without bringing all the homunculi down on their heads was going to be a trick. (On the other hand, sending him through lab three and telling him he could kill any chimeras, free them from their misery, might be cathartic.)

"Ed?" Hughes called, and he glanced back at the man. "Is there more you need to map?"

Ed sighed and nodded. :The tunnels under Command are the really confusing place, but I'll wait until next week, since lab one has the easiest entrance. There's another entrance that I know of that I'll look into tomorrow, probably. I don't expect much though; it's guarded by chimeras.:

"Be careful they don't warn anyone about your presence," Hughes warned.

Ed nodded again. :I know. I don't intend to get close enough for them to smell me. Or, if I do, I'm getting out before they can pass on a warning.:

"Okay. Let me know when you decide to go? Both times."

Ed frowned at him.

"If someone comes looking for you, I can cover for you," Hughes pointed out.

"And if you don't come home," Gracia added quietly, her expression shadowed with concern, "we'll know you might be in trouble."

Ed huffed and shook his head. :Don't start sending people in after me.:

Hughes smiled the sort of smile that promised he was going to do the exact opposite of what Ed had just said. "I'll keep your warnings in mind."

Ed threw up his hands in a sign of surrender. :I am going to bed,: he decided, before collecting his scattered maps and leaving the pair of them with the new markings on the Central City map.

-0-


Edward,
If you end up dead in a ditch somewhere, I'll assume it's because you danced Envy into a murderous rage, as opposed to having something to do with your mysterious "detour".
Consider that my "freaking out" is less to do with distrusting your abilities (which, as a reminder, I don't know much about, other than that you can track the homunculi and their maker), and more a simple fact that I care about what happens to you.
Roy Mustang

-0-

Ed had spent what felt like hours staring at that last line, alternating between a hope he refused to acknowledge, a weird ache in his chest that had no real cause, and a simmering fury.

He shoved the letter in his desk and, by the time he woke up in the morning, his fury had solidified, leaving everything else to curl up in a box with whatever other emotions he might or might not feel towards Roy fucking Mustang. Mr All-I-Know-About-You-Is-My-Own-Idealised-Bullshit-But-I-CARE. Mr I've-Listened-To-Your-Brother's-'He-Only-Insults-People-He-Likes'-Bullshit-One-Too-Many-Times.

If Mustang knew anything real about Ed, he wouldn't be sticking around. He was a fucking wreck who made a mess of everything he touched. Al was stuck with him because of that unfortunate blood relation, and the Hugheses had to put up with him because Ed had been stuck under Hughes' command, but Mustang didn't have shit for throwing around lines like 'I care about you'. What the actual fuck?

He was sour about it for the rest of the week, and if Hughes thought that was actually because he'd deemed the sewer line too much of a risk to map, well, good. The man seriously needed to stay out of his...whatever the fuck this was with Mustang. (Nothing. There was nothing with Mustang.)

The next week was better, with Ed starting it off with a relatively good run through the underground tunnel system. He managed to find his way from lab one to the centre – following the strengthening of the crawling sensation was disturbingly good for that, as it turned out – and from the centre to lab three, with only some minor detouring, which gave them the two best routes. He was still kind of interested in filling in the rest of the map – just in case – but if something went wrong, at least he had a path, now.

-0-

"This is like pulling teeth," Hughes said, leaning against the doorframe of Ed's room.

Ed shot him a confused look; what was? Matching his underground map up with the detailed Command blueprints he'd found and stolen from the intel library? It was kind of a pain in the arse – his maps didn't really show where he'd switched floors, since it wasn't always obvious while he was down there, so some of the paths overlapped weirdly – but it was hardly 'pulling teeth'.

"When are you going to write Roy back?"

Oh. This shit.

Ed sighed and set his work down. :I am not going to keep a letter exchange going just to sate your weird voyeuristic need to see us dating. Or whatever your brain is doing in there.:

Hughes considered him, gaze way too fucking intelligent. "He said something that upset you," he decided, and Ed couldn't stop a scowl. "It's probably stupid and you know it, and you're punishing him by not writing him back."

It wasn't stupid, but Ed was absolutely punishing the bastard by not writing him back.

He wanted to be back in Xing. Xing was easy. (Okay, Xing had not been easy, but at least things were pretty straightforward there: You hunted, you farmed, you listened to stupid poetry and practised whatever alkahestry made you happy. And if someone attacked your clan, you beat them over the head until they cried 'Uncle'. Or whatever the Xingan equivalent was. No one tried to force Ed into any relationships that were clearly not going to work out.)

"Bookshop," Hughes said.

Ed couldn't quite help an irritated noise. :That's not going to keep working forever,: he pointed out.

"I have two little girls held in reserve for when the bribes stop working," Hughes promised.

:Fine. I'll write Führer Bastard. But it's under protest.:

"Noted." Hughes smiled at him, then left.

Ed huffed to himself a bit and pulled out some paper for a quick note, then went back to his maps.

-0-


Bastard,
I'm only writing this because I'm being bribed with books. Or threatened with children. Pick.
E. Elric

-0-

"Major Elric?" Captain Fokker said from the doorway of the translator's office.

Ed glanced up toward him, took in his worried expression, and jumped to his feet.

"Lieutenant Colonel Hughes is asking for you."

AL, was Ed's first thought, because he hadn't received a letter from his brother since he'd left for Liore over a week ago. Which he'd expected, but it still made him antsy.

He followed Fokker back towards Hughes' office, realised he'd forgotten his jacket part way there, and decided he didn't care; everyone in Investigations, and most of the regular MP visitors, already knew his interpretation of the uniform was, at best, very loose.

Hughes was on the phone when Ed stepped in, his expression tight. :Al?: Ed signed before Hughes could open his mouth.

A sort of pained amusement flashed across Hughes' face. "Are you telepathic?"

:What happened?: Ed asked in lieu of an answer.

"Ed," Hughes said, clearly into the phone, before pushing the handset a bit away from his mouth to explain to Ed. "He was on his way back to East City from another detour–"

Ed was going to kill his brother.

"–but it turns out the train he's on has been hijacked."

Train hijacking right after visiting Liore? Ed blinked. 'Oh.' He remembered that event. One of the members of the brass who quietly retired after the Promised Day had been involved. Hacker or Hawker or something that started with 'ha'. :He'll be fine,: he signed to Hughes, before leaving to go sit in the loo and try not to hyperventilate.

They'd been fine, before. Al was smart, and far less inclined towards the 'punch first, ask questions later' way of life than Ed would ever be. And he wasn't alone, he had Havoc with him. He'd be fine.

Ed had to believe that.

-0-

"He's fine," Hughes said when Ed walked into his office at the end of the day.

Ed snorted, as if he hadn't been trying not to panic for the past three hours, and signed, :I told you so.:

Which seemed to be the end of it.

-0-


Edward,
Was it something I wrote?
I'm sorry about the train mess. I'm sure you were more worried than you were letting on.
Roy Mustang

-0-

Al and Mustang's letters arrived on the same day. Al reported that, no, the Philosopher's Stone destroying array didn't work with the Dragon's Pulse, but it did with the tectonic movements. He hypothesised its ability to destroy may well come from the fact that passing the energy through or around the Stones underground was the key, as though there was some secret only another Stone could know. Ed was certainly welcome to try rebuilding the array to work with the Dragon's Pulse – they both knew he was the better at that – but at least they knew it worked, and they'd have to depend on Scar's brother's array to use it against the Dwarf in the Flask, unless they surprised him with it.

As for Al's 'detour'... He'd just wanted to swing back past Youswell and make sure everyone was okay, which Ed sort of understood, and Havoc had okayed. He'd got some flak for joining the military, but since he'd already proven himself good folk previously, he wasn't thrown out on his rear end. Too, Mustang had, upon returning to East City with Al after they'd first become State Alchemists, passed on their little adventure to Grumman, who had put out a warrant for Yoki's arrest, and sent a slightly belated contact out to Youswell to write up a new trade agreement with Halling, so the miners got fair pay for their work, and the military still had access to their coal, despite the bad history.

Ed'd written his brother back, demanding details about the train incident – the postmark showed he'd sent the letter from New Optain, before the hijacking – even though Ed half expected there was already another letter on its way from East City with those details, but putting a demand in writing made him feel better, and he knew Al would read it for what it really was: 'I was terrified, but I'm trying to pretend I wasn't'.

He agreed to try and reshape the array to work with the Dragon's Pulse, but he would need Marcoh's notes – if they were in First Branch, that was easier and Al could just ring Hughes to pass that on, so Ed could get them sooner – to do so, and he wouldn't be able to test the completed array, very likely, until they started the fight. He also pointed out that Scar's brother's array bypassed the Stones underground, so if the array needed access to some Philosopher's Stone-only knowledge, it would become useless as soon as that array was active. Hohenheim should still be able to use it, however, so it wasn't a complete waste of an array if they didn't manage to surprise anyone with it.

Only after his letter to Al was ready to post, did Ed open Mustang's letter, and, even then, it was probably only morbid curiosity that kept him from binning it, unopened. (Seriously. Morbid. Curiosity. That was it. Nothing else at work.)

He tossed it into his desk after he read it, scoffed because it didn't take a genius to realise that Ed had been putting on an act. Hughes had just been too kind to call him on it, unlike some bastards. Ed didn't like people trying to comfort him, or whatever the fuck that junk was. He didn't need or want Mustang's platitudes.

(Ed liked to pretend he could lie to himself.)

-0-

Ed was just getting up from his desk to head out for labs three and two on Thursday, when one of the main entrance guards knocked on the doorframe. "Major Elric? Got a kid downstairs for you. Says a Zoo-hair sent him?"

Ed frowned and grabbed his jacket before heading to follow the guard back downstairs. Zouheir? It had been well over a month since the last time they'd spoken, with Ed keeping away from the slums to keep from freaking out the man's neighbours. If he was sending someone now, it didn't bode well.

There was, indeed, a child standing in front of the security desk. He was probably eight or nine, dressed in the well-loved, oft-patched clothing of the slums, and covered in what looked to be soot. Ed didn't recognise him, but, by the way his shoulders slumped in relief as soon as he saw Ed, he recognised him. (That, or he had an excellent description, which wasn't hard, considering Ed's rare colouring and altered uniform.)

"Mr Silent Alchemist!" the kid called, ducking around a guard who moved too slow to catch him and careening into Ed, gripping tight to the bottom of his uniform jacket. And then he began to cry.

"I didn't do anything," the slow guard insisted, looking panicked.

Ed shook his head at him, had enough experience with kids to recognise sobs that were more of the 'relieved to find someone else to handle this' sort than the 'he was a mean jerk to me' sort. He did mime blowing his nose and pointed toward a box of tissues behind the desk, however, then herded the kid towards one of the visitor chairs and sat him on it while one of the guards collected the tissues.

Ed gently cleaned off the kid's face, finally placing him when most of the soot was cleaned away: It was the kid who had tried alchemy, who Ed had created a new cooking pot for his mum for.

Finally calming down a bit, the kid managed to get out, "There's a f-fire. Mr Zou-heir said t-to ge-et you.

"A fire?" the guard who had come to get Ed repeated. "No insult to you, Major, but that's a job for the fire brigade, not a State Alchemist."

"M-Mr Zouheir s-said," the kid insisted, before looking desperately towards Ed.

Ed offered him a small smile and nodded, then got up and walked over to the security desk to grab the pad of paper and pen he knew would be there. 'He's from south slum where I've Ishvalan friend. I'm heading out there--please take him to Lt Col Hughes to see if he knows anything more'

The guard's expression tightened as he read that, and he looked back up at Ed with a grim frown. "You think it's racially motivated?" he whispered.

'I intend to find out,' Ed wrote in reply, before leaving the paper and pen and walking back to the kid, who was watching them with a sort of hopeless air. He motioned between himself and the door.

The kid's eyes lit up. "You'll go?" he pleaded.

Ed nodded, then motioned to the kid, to the guard, and then up into the building.

"The Silent Alchemist asked me to take you up to see his commander," the guard explained, voice pitched like he was speaking to a frightened animal. (He probably wasn't far off; a fire in his home, followed by navigating the city to find a soldier? The kid had to be terrified; Ed was honestly impressed he hadn't done more than sob a bit.) "He'll have some questions for you, see if we need to send anyone else down after Silent, help him out any."

The kid looked towards Ed with an uncertain stare, and he put on his best reassuring smile and ruffled his hair. That seemed to help, because the kid nodded and said, "Okay. But you're going to help, right? That's why Mr Zouheir sent me to get you. He said you'll help."

Ed gave a bow, which seemed to be enough of an answer, because the kid took the hand the guard was patiently holding out towards him and hopped off the chair.

"I've got him, sir," the guard promised Ed. "Watch yourself down there."

Ed flashed him a sharp smile, then hurried from the building, breaking into a run as soon as he cleared the doors.

Bonus of the uniform: When people saw a soldier running in their direction, they moved the fuck out of the way, whether they were carrying a weapon in their hands or not.

The fire brigade looked to have been there for about eight minutes when Ed arrived, breathing hard from the extended run, and pushed his way through the crowd of gawkers. One of the firemen running crowd control reached out a hand toward him when Ed ducked the barriers set up, but he pulled back when he recognised the uniform. "Just a little fire, sir," he said with a reassuring smile. "Not gonna reach the city, so no worries."

Yes, because the only thing he could possibly be worried about, would be whether or not the fire would damage Central City at all.

Ed reached awkwardly under his jacket for his journal, then wrote, 'Residents?' in large letters and held it up for the man to see.

The fireman blinked a few times, clearly thrown. "The, ah. Uhm, o-over there, Major," he replied at last, pointing toward a huddle of undamaged tents that were bustling with activity.

Ed nodded in thanks, then started over that way, waving off another fireman who tried to call out to him and slipping his journal back away.

Everyone in or around the active tents were residents of the slums, and all of them were covered in at least some soot. Cots and blanket piles had been set up inside the two largest tents, as well as on the ground outside, and all of them were filled with people with burns, while other residents dashed between them with cool compresses drawn from a hand pump just at the edge of the clearing.

It wasn't unlike a hospital waiting room right after a major catastrophe, except these people didn't rank doctors or nurses, and they knew it.

Ed clenched his hands into fists and stepped forward, fully willing to just start healing, when he was stopped by a tired-eyed woman with streaks of dark skin showing through the layer of soot on her face, as though she'd brushed some off while trying to get singed hair out of her face. "You the Silent Alchemist, then?"

Ed nodded, jaw clenched tight.

She nodded back. "Zouheir's this way."

She led him to where the Ishvalan – almost impossible to differentiate from his neighbours, for once, with his white hair hidden under the same layer of soot as everyone else – was gently spreading salve over a burn on the arm of a young man who looked to be doing his damnedest to keep from making a sound. Zouheir didn't look wounded, but the soot could hide a lot, Ed knew.

He looked up when Ed's guide called his name, gaze drawn almost immediately towards Ed, and slumping in what might well have been relief; it was hard to read his qi under the wave of everyone else around them, heavy with hopelessness and grief, laced through with pain. "Ed," he said. "Thank Ishvala. I've been assured that no doctors will come, but I had hoped you might be able to get a few."

Ed stepped closer, his jaw clenched too tight for him to get words out, if he even could have. He forced his hands to unclench and roughly signed, :I left the kid with my commanding officer; he'll do what he can, but until then, I know healing alchemy.:

(Let me help. Give me something to do, because I can't sit here, useless.)

Zouheir's eyes widened. "Healing alchemy?" he breathed, and someone drew in a sharp breath. "Such exists?"

Ed forced a smile and nodded. :In the east, and in Creta,: he explained.

Zouheir stared at him for another moment, before shaking himself. "My people won't let you use it on them, but there are Amestrisans we had worried we might lose."

:Show me.:

Zouheir rushed to his feet and stumbled, one hand going up to touch his head as his eyes squeezed shut in pain.

Ed caught his elbows as gently as he could, but firm enough to help him balance. His hands itched to clap, see if he couldn't find what was wrong and fix it – he didn't like watching anyone in pain, let alone someone he genuinely liked – but he knew it wouldn't be welcome.

For the first time in a long time, he honestly hated that the Ishvalans refused to give alchemy a chance.

"I'm fine," Zouheir promised, slipping from Ed's hold, could likely read how much he wanted to use alchemy on him from his expression. "I was well away from the fires when they started, but we all inhaled smoke."

Ed pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded; there wasn't a lot he could do about smoke inhalation, since he'd never studied the lungs, beyond a cursory 'they're here, they look like that', when he'd gone through a phase of wanting to know which of his organs had been damaged when he'd been impaled.

"This way," Zouheir said, leading him away from the man he'd been putting salve on, whose red eyes said he wouldn't be accepting any of Ed's help. The woman who had led Ed over knelt next to the cot and picked the salve back up, clearly intent on finishing what Zouheir had left.

The worst off were a group of six adults, men and women, all of whom had what looked, to Ed's – admittedly – inexperienced eyes, to be really fucking bad burns, skin blistered and clearly painful. Two of them were thrashing, attendants kneeling next to them and trying desperately to calm them, dripping water from wet cloths over the burns. The other four were deathly still, and in the silence of their qi, Ed could pinpoint which ones were the closest to death.

"They were the ones who kept running back into the fire to save others," Zouheir said quietly, respectfully. He pointed to one of the women and added, "She is Ishvalan, but the others are Amestrisan."

Ed gritted his teeth and nodded, then walked over to the man who was the closest to death and knelt next to him. He forced himself to take a deep breath, to find a calm centre – rage did not help control the Dragon's Pulse, and he would need control for this; damn the danger of being watched, he could not leave these people to suffer to keep a fucking secret – then pressed his hands together and laid them gently on the nearest unburnt patch of skin, closing his eyes.

The burns, to his alchemy, felt like bright, burning patches, not entirely unlike the steady gleam of a cut. In response, the Dragon's Pulse turned pale and cool as it rolled through him, and he directed it out through his fingertips, towards those burning patches, watched it soothe the heat and settle in against the skin. As the burning died away and the energy became more...room temperature, almost (since this was dealing in temperatures, why not), it morphed into energy to regrow skin, to stretch like scars over the damaged spaces.

Ed pulled away as he reached the limits of what he could do – far more than he was used to; perhaps he'd learnt more from Honghui than he'd realised, or perhaps it was simply being, for once, the only one able to help – and blinked open his eyes to find the man, who had been so badly burnt only a moment ago and standing at the edge of the Gate, breathing a little roughly from smoke inhalation, but with surprisingly limited scarring where the burns had been.

Zouheir said something in his language, quiet and almost reverent, and Ed huffed and pushed himself to his feet, pleased to find that had barely touched his own energy stores; this was one of the pros of using the Dragon's Pulse, as opposed to the tectonic movements, for healing. He walked over to the next worst-off person, another man, and set about healing him just the same.

Only once all the Amestrisans had been healed, did Ed turn to Zouheir. :She's going to die within thirty minutes if I don't help her,: he signed with his best flat stare.

Zouheir shook his head, looking pained, his arms crossed tight over his chest. "It isn't my right to decide how she will end her life. You know that is our way."

Ed knew. He hated it, but he knew. :I don't enjoy sitting back and watching people die because some heartless deity decided their life wasn't worth saving,: he signed roughly.

The skin around Zouheir's eyes tightened, his eyes darkening with anger. "You think I enjoy this any more than you?" he snapped. "She saved lives and is to be repaid with death. That is the way of this world! Stealing the power of the heavens does not give you the right to decide who lives and who dies, Mulahad!"

Ed remembered that Al had said that word was not meant in kindness, and he closed his eyes, forced himself to take a deep breath, because he wasn't angry at Zouheir, and it wasn't fair for Ed to take out his anger at an entire religion on one practitioner.

He opened his eyes again and signed, :I'm sorry, Zouheir. I meant no disrespect.:

Zouheir deflated, looking lost for a moment, before he rearranged his expression into something a little closer to the calm Ed was used to seeing from him. "Your alchemy is an impossible gift, but you cannot save everyone all the time. You will learn this, in time."

Ed smiled and it felt wretched across his face. :I wouldn't be human if I didn't try,: he returned, and Zouheir's brow furrowed slightly. :Can you show me to others I can help?:

Zouheir nodded and motioned for Ed to follow as he turned to lead the way.

Ed glanced over at the dying Ishvalan woman one last time, clenched his jaw, and turned to follow Zouheir.

-0-

He didn't really know when the doctors and Armstrong had shown up, only that he stood at one point and saw three people with medical bags being shown around by soot-covered slum residents, while Armstrong helped repair a partially ruined tent, so they could move some people in there. The muscled man offered Ed a grim nod when he caught him looking, and Ed nodded back.

"He is another State Alchemist?" Zouheir murmured.

:Strong Arm. His family is distinguished and rich; I expect he's the one who called in the doctors.:

Zouheir nodded in understanding and led Ed to the next person.

About two people later, Ed heard his name being called and looked up to find Hughes walking toward him. He gave a tired wave – even the Dragon's Pulse would wear him out eventually, and he knew he was approaching his limit – and forced himself to stand.

"You," Hughes told him as he reached them, "look like shit."

Ed rolled his eyes. :Fuck off,: he signed, using the sexual sign, because he always did with Hughes, though he didn't with Zouheir.

Zouheir let out a slightly startled laugh. "That's not how that sign is used," he pointed out.

Hughes quirked a smile. "He knows. You must be his signing friend."

"Zouheir," the Ishvalan agreed, offering his hand. "You are his commander?"

"Maes Hughes," Hughes agreed, and they shook hands. "It's good to finally get a face to match to your name-sign, though yours is a bit sooty, right now."

Zouheir let out a quiet, tired chuckle. "It has not been an easy day."

"I don't expect so." Hughes' expression turned serious. "I got what information I could out of that young man, and he's currently being looked after by Major Armstrong's youngest sister, but I was hoping you could fill me in on a bit more? Everything I've heard makes it look like this was intentional."

Zouheir folded his hands together in front of himself, the picture of external calm. "If your fire brigade will let us through, I can show you where the fire is said to have begun."

Hughes nodded. "It should be fine. There might be a few small fires left, but we can dodge them or take buckets or something."

Ed huffed and snapped his fingers a few times, until they both looked at him, then signed, :I can put out small fires, easy. It's just basic oxygen manipulation.:

Hughes covered his eyes. "Basic oxygen manipulation," he said drily. "You and Roy, I swear. There's nothing basic about what you freaks do."

Ed snorted and waited until Hughes looked at him again before signing, :You mean there's nothing basic about what the BASTARD does. Putting out fires is basic.:

"Alchemists," Hughes muttered, shaking his head, and Zouheir let out a grunt that was a clear agreement. "Fine, you can come along and play fire extinguisher." Then he shot Ed an assessing look. "Assuming you're able."

Ed sighed and admitted, :I'm going to need to stop healing soon, or someone's going to have to carry me home. In terms of energy usage, putting out fires is on the low end; I'm better off going with you.:

Hughes nodded. "I'm taking your word for it," he warned. "If you collapse, I'm ringing your brother."

Ed rolled his eyes. Al would hardly blame him for working himself to exhaustion while healing people.

Hughes got the necessary permission for them to go into the smouldering ruins, then Zouheir took the lead, carefully picking his way through the remains of lives. Ed had to put out a couple small flames, but the fire brigade had done their job well, and while it was still hot as the damp embers clung to existence, it was tolerable.

"This is where my people have settled," Zouheir said, slowing to a stop in a small clearing, ringed with ashes and bits of metal. He pointed to a patch of ash to one side. "That was my tent and, I am told, where the fire originated."

Ed clenched his fists and he looked away, eyes passing over the rest of the ruined circle.

"Where were you?" Hughes asked in his interviewer voice; devoid of suspicion or blame, but intent on dragging out the clearest possible picture of events.

"Some of the Amestrisan children had interest in sign language–" Ed frowned; that was a curious thing to take an interest in "–so I have been teaching them. I was on the edge of the area that was spared the flames."

"Did you have anything in your tent that could have produced a flame if left unattended?"

"Such is against the rules here; there is too much that would burn too quickly, so all items that produce flame are to be left near the designated fire pits."

Hughes let out a hum and Ed glanced back to find him stepping carefully around the space where Zouheir's tent had been. "Ed, I don't suppose you can rebuild this? Maybe give me an idea of what started the fire?"

Ed blinked a few times and moved to the edge of the ashes. They were damp from the fire brigade's efforts, and still a little warm. There wouldn't be much of the cloth left to reconstruct, but some of Zouheir's belongings had likely survived. And, unless their culprit had just lit the edge of Zouheir's tent on fire and run, hoping everything would catch, there should be something. Maybe. (Although, the person should have realised Zouheir wasn't there, in that case. Or maybe Zouheir wasn't the target, specifically, but the Ishvalans in general?

(Running possibilities without facts wasn't going to get him anywhere.)

Ed turned to Zouheir, all too aware of the argument they just had. :Is it okay?:

Zouheir carefully folded his hands together, his qi flickering with indecision for a moment, before he admitted, "Perhaps I wish against my beliefs, but I do not have so many belongings that I would not appreciate the return of some lost, even when returned through alchemy."

Ed quirked him a smile. :I'm a bad judge, there.:

"You are," Zouheir agreed a bit drily.

Ed nodded and motioned for Hughes to step back, then took a moment to eye the ashes, remembering what he could of the tent and belongings he knew had been Zouheir's. He took a careful breath and clapped, envisioning the array he'd need, then knelt and touched the edge of the ashes.

The transmutation lit blue for a long moment, struggling to make sense of what little remained, before something almost seemed to wake, and the light changed to red.

Ed broke away from the transmutation, mouthing curses, but the tent kept rebuilding all on its own, already given what little direction had been necessary.

"Ed?" Hughes asked, sounding a bit freaked out. "I thought alchemy stopped when you stopped touching it."

Ed shoved himself to his feet and dodged around the fading energy, ignoring as it sparked against his skin, leaving behind drops of restored energy. He traced it to the tent behind Zouheir's and kicked the ashes out of the way with his left foot, finally coming across a small red rock that was an unfamiliar shape.

'Fuck,' he mouthed as he bent down to pick it up.

As soon as he touched it, though, the Stone broke and disintegrated, leaving Ed energised and filled with a sense of satisfaction; the souls that had made up that Stone had chosen their own end.

"Edward!" Hughes called, sounding rather like that hadn't been the first time he'd called Ed's name.

:A Philosopher's Stone,: Ed signed, pre-empting what was certain to be the next question. He stood and looked past Hughes, who looked rather stunned, to Zouheir, who looked confused; Ed had never introduced him to that sign. :Who lived here?:

"An Amestrisan man, recently arrived. He walked with a limp, answered to Mar. Many of the children were afraid of him," Zouheir offered.

:They were right to be,: Ed signed grimly; anyone with a Philosopher's Stone among their belongings very likely had a dark history.

"Have you seen him since the fire?" Hughes asked.

Zouheir shook his head. "None of those who were known to have been so close to my tent survived, and he rarely left his tent. What is it that has you so disturbed?"

Ed kicked carefully at the ashes some more, leaving it for Hughes to ask, "Do you know what a Philosopher's Stone is?"

Zouheir said something that Ed suspected was an Ishvalan curse.

Ed stopped as his right foot knocked against something rather more solid than ashes, and grimaced upon discovering it was the hand of a burnt corpse. He turned back towards Hughes and Zouheir, who were both looking in his direction. :Not all who keep Philosopher's Stones are bad people, though the vast majority are. Either way, I believe he's dead.:

Hughes came to see and grimaced himself upon spotting Ed's find. "Likely. I'll send the morgue out here to pick up what bodies they can, but the likelihood of getting a positive identification on any of them is slim, especially someone we only have what's likely a partial name for." He sighed and looked back towards Zouheir's perfectly reformed tent. "So, what happened there?"

:The Stone wanted to help,: Ed signed, before starting around to the front of the tent.

"They have wishes?" Zouheir asked.

"Unfortunately," Hughes agreed, enough sorrow in his qi, Ed suspected it was showing on his face. "You'll have to ask Ed for more information; he's the closest thing to an expert that we have."

"I don't believe that's something to be proud of."

"Ed has a habit of knowing terrible things. I think you have an idea what I mean."

"I do," Zouheir agreed, something like grief in his voice.

Ed sighed and set about looking through the tent, ignoring anything he knew was Zouheir's. When he found something clearly out of place, he gave a whistle, and Hughes hurried in to come see, Zouheir stopping in the doorway.

Hughes picked up the object to look it over, his serious expression edged with anger. "This is military paperwork," he murmured of the paper wrapped around the object. "I'll have to let the technicians have it, see if they can't narrow down the department based on the typewriter keystrokes, or whatever magic they use."

Ed snorted.

Hughes shot him a faintly amused look, before turning serious again and carefully peeling a corner of the paper away to reveal what looked to be wax filled with wood. "We were never meant to find this."

Ed shook his head; this evidence would have been far past his own ability to reconstruct from the ashes. :They wanted to help.:

Hughes' mouth pressed thin for a moment before he said, "They did."

Ed nodded.

Hughes got to his feet. "I need to get this back to Investigations and sit on the techs until they come up with answers. You should probably come with me, get some food."

Ed shrugged. :I suppose. I'm feeling better, though. Just needed the break.:

Hughes' gaze said he knew better, that he suspected Ed's returned energy was due to something else entirely, but didn't debate it as they joined Zouheir and started back toward the bustle of the undamaged tents. "Zouheir, you're welcome to collect your things and move them to another location; we shouldn't need anything out of them."

Zouheir offered a strained smile. "More survived than I was expecting." He glanced at Ed. "I may have to re-evaluate."

Ed quirked a smile at him. :I started the transmutation, but I wasn't the one to finish it; for all any of us know, your god directed this creation.:

"Careful, Mulahad," Zouheir warned. "Only the foolish guess at the ways of the divine."

Ed snorted. :I never said I wasn't foolish.:

"That's the truth," Hughes muttered, and Ed lightly swatted his arm.

A rush of grief-threaded rage aimed at Ed warned him, and he dodged out of the way of the attack coming from behind. He saw a gleam of silver in his attacker's hands as he stumbled past, and he had a kunai in one hand without even thinking about it.

And then his attacker spun, revealing angry red eyes, and Hughes breathed out a curse from just behind him, Ed having stepped protectively in front of the man automatically, even though he was clearly the target. (He was paranoid, okay. No way he wanted to stand over Hughes' grave again.)

"Amir!" Zouheir snapped, voice cracking like a whip and making the attacker flinch. "What is the meaning of this?"

The attacker – he couldn't have been more than a few years older than Ed's physical age – waved his short knife at Ed. "He killed her! He killed Hala!"

What? Ed hadn't killed anyone. (Well, an argument could be made for starting the chain of events that had brought the Ishvalans to this slum, where some soldier with a grudge tried to set them all on fire, but Ed really was trying not to think that way; he had enough sins without adding this mess to the top of the pile.)

"The fire killed your sister," Zouheir replied evenly.

The young man shook his head roughly. "He saved the Amestrisans! Why didn't he save Hala? It is because we are worth less to his kind!" He spat in Ed's direction, falling well short. "Mulahad."

Yeah, definitely not a polite term.

Zouheir stepped forward and grabbed the young man's wrist, squeezing tight, likely in an attempt to get him to drop the knife. "He did not heal your sister because I would not let him; it is not for us to decide who lives and who dies."

"It should be!" the young man shouted, yanking at his wrist to try and free it from Zouheir's hold. "She was good!" He turned to Ed again, eyes burning with anger. "You mulahad always leave such destruction. Even when you try to create you do it wrong."

There was something in Ed, curled up in the darkest parts of him, which started laughing; he didn't need to be reminded that everything he touched fell to pieces in his hands eventually.

His smile felt wretched on his face, and he slipped his kunai away before signing, :Yes, I do.:

Then he turned and motioned for Hughes to follow him back into the city; he wasn't needed here, and he had labs to see to.

-0-

Lab three gave him something unrelated to his own fuck ups to focus on, and lab two gave him a chance to calm down a bit, so he was actually able to smile with some honesty when he came to find Hughes so they could head home, and the man passed on, "The Armstrongs have offered to put up any of the Ishvalans who wish it on their own property, in the house or within the fenced-in boundaries of their land, as they prefer. Since all signs point to this being a racially motivated attack."

:Zouheir?: Ed asked.

"He was the first to agree," Hughes said, smiling, and Ed smiled back, grateful that his almost-friend would be safer than he had been. "A couple refused, but most of them are taking the offer, and those that are remaining in the slum agreed to give any that come after the same options."

:That's good,: Ed signed. :Any news on that paperwork?:

"The techs have it." Hughes huffed a bit. "I was kicked out and ordered to stay out until Monday, so I assume they intend to have something solid for us then."

:But only if you keep from hovering?:

"So it seems," Hughes admitted with a quiet laugh.

-0-

Ed's dreams, that night, were awash in charred and rotting remains, his unconscious kindly extrapolating from the handful of charred corpses – or fake corpses, in one case – that he'd seen over the years, and added them to the Cretan warzone he'd stumbled through when he was nineteen.

He sat up in bed for a long while after he'd dragged himself from the clutches of those nightmare images, before he walked over to his desk to write a letter that was long overdue.

-0-


Bastard,
You look at me and see something good, for reasons I don't pretend to understand, but I have a history of things that I touch falling to pieces in my hands. I care too much about you and the future of Amestris to let that happen to you. Just walk away. Please.
E. Elric

.

Chapter Text


Edward,
Perhaps this is a failing we share; I don't consider myself a particularly good man, but you seem intent on believing the best of me.
You say things you touch fall apart, but I don't quite know to what you're referring. From what you've said, your marriage, while weakened, never fell apart, and the country obviously survived. I can only assume Alphonse survived, since you've never suggested otherwise, and from a comment Maes made in passing, he was married to someone you approved of.
You keep saying this is your second chance, that you get to fix everything that ever went wrong, but not everything that needs to be "fixed" was necessarily "broken".
You said you ran away, last time; this time, why don't you try staying?
Roy Mustang

-0-

Ed should have known Mustang wasn't about to give up, but he hadn't expected quite so rapid a response as he received, almost as though Mustang had known exactly what to say, he'd just needed proof that Ed was still listening.

And what he'd said...

This wasn't just exchanging letters because Hughes and Al were pushing them, or because Mustang had a mission for Al and wanted to be certain Ed was okay with it. This wasn't some inane 'I care' tripe. This was 'I want to try a relationship with you'.

This was political suicide, for Mustang, and the massive part of Ed that decided it didn't care, sort of scared him.

So, even though he couldn't keep from slipping the letter into his journal, like a good luck talisman, Ed tried one last time to dissuade the stupid bastard.

-0-


Bastard,
Never mind career suicide, you've gone straight for a prison sentence! You can't be in a relationship with someone who's underage! Idiot.
Edward

-0-

The techs did have the requested results on Monday, and it led them straight to Brigadier General Clemin's own secretary.

"We aren't claiming that Second Lieutenant Harris is involved in the attack at all," Hughes told Clemin, once he and Ed had been admitted to his office, "but the form originated in this office, which means it is likely someone under your command."

Clemin scowled. "It was just a slum, Lieutenant Colonel. Let it go."

Hughes shrugged. "It was a racially motivated attack against a group of Ishvalans who had settled there, one of whom is Major Elric's friend. He cares, as does former Lieutenant General Philip Armstrong and his family, as they have offered to house the Ishvalans for their safety; I'm afraid I cannot simply 'let this matter go', sir."

Clemin shot Ed a disgusted look and he met it with the flat stare Hughes had warned him was as belligerent as they could chance, if they were hoping for Clemin's cooperation.

Because it was true, it was just an attack in one of the slums, and no one in Central Command – outside of Ed, Hughes, and their Investigations team – gave a damn that the targets had been Ishvalans. Philip Armstrong's name carried some power, enough to get them through the figurative front door, but if they couldn't gain Clemin's permission, there would be no investigation.

Ed despised military politics.

"Fine," Clemin said at last, turning back to Hughes. "Do your investigation of my command, but stay out of my office; some of us are trying to do important, classified work here and don't need your kind sticking their noses in."

"I understand, sir," Hughes agreed, saluting. Next to him, Ed bowed. "Thank you for your cooperation."

"Tch. I don't know why we even have your department," he muttered.

Hughes touched Ed's arm and they showed themselves out.

:I wonder what he's hiding,: Ed signed with grim humour.

Hughes shot him a knowing smile. :Don't go borrowing trouble.:

Ed snorted. :I don't need to. He'll find out what we're for once we blow this whole conspiracy wide open, and it's left to Investigations to put together the details.:

:Don't remind me,: Hughes signed with a grimace. :I think I'll plan to take a nap during your freak-show battle, so I'm well-rested for the clean-up.:

Ed made a show of laughing at him, until Hughes very pointedly refused to look at him any more.

-0-


Edward,
Are you suggesting you're incapable of keeping a secret?
The only people who are likely to notice any change in my behaviour already know you're not a minor, intellectually (which is what really matters, in the end), and I suspect the same will hold true for you.
What are your favourite flowers?
Roy

-0-

Ed just sort of stared at that letter for a while, torn between amused-as-fuck and disbelieving.

"Ed?" Gracia called, poking her head into his room. "Are you coming down for dinner?"

:Führer Bastard is fucking insane,: Ed couldn't stop himself from signing.

Gracia let out a quiet laugh and stepped properly into the doorway. "Is that why you came running up here when you got home? To read one of his letters?"

Ed startled – crap – and shot her a scowl. :Don't tell Hughes.:

Her smile widened. "I promise. Dinner?"

Ed huffed and stood; he could write his response after dinner just as easily. (It was unlikely to change.)

-0-

If you buy me fucking FLOWERS, Roy Mustang, I will shove them up your arse.

-0-

Unfortunately, disliking Ishvalans was something of a popular past time, and knowing how to build a fire starter like the one they'd found, was a part of basic military training, which should have put them right back at square one – no leads, hundreds of suspects – but Ed remembered that squad of men who he'd had the run-in with in the slums, and, once they'd realised what the Investigations personnel were looking for and that they wanted to help, both the Ishvalan and Amestrisan residents of the slums had been willing to pass on descriptions of other soldiers they'd noticed looking a bit too interested in the Ishvalan presence.

So it was, by the end of the week, they had a list of ten men and women to interview. It probably would have been sooner, but Ed still had the labs to take care of – Grand supported their endeavours to find the culprit behind the fire, but he was too busy to take a tour through the labs himself (and there were parts of the research that he just trusted Ed's word on, not having the time to fuss with something that wasn't his speciality) and he didn't have to explain why they couldn't be left for a week – and there was still plenty of necessary paperwork crossing Hughes' desk, a lot of which his team could – and did – power through for him, but there was always something that he couldn't delegate.

Rather than let everything sit for the weekend, and in an attempt to keep Clemin happy – he didn't like the regular disruption to work output the investigation was proving, but he didn't care what happened outside of work hours – Ed, Hughes, Armstrong, and the rest of the investigation team that Hughes had gathered, came in on their days off and ran the interviews.

Armstrong had explained to Ed, as they set up two interview rooms, that they usually had one or two people at the table, asking the questions, and one 'threat' standing by the wall. Armstrong was the most obvious 'threat' on the team – hulking physique, not at all quiet about his combat prowess, and an alchemist – but Ed would be serving as a second. Which had surprised him – he had none of the infamy that he'd earned as a kid, before – but Armstrong had assured him it would be fine.

It was fine. Ed didn't really have to do much more than stand there and watch everything with a glare – his speciality – and occasionally clean out under his fingernails with one of his kunai, if their interviewee was being difficult. He might not have been known for leaving destruction in his wake, now, but he was a regular at the gym, and eight months was apparently plenty of time to spread rumours about the mute State Alchemist who didn't need arrays and had survived a run-in with the killer that even Brigadier General Grand had nearly succumbed to. (The killer who, while still at large, given he'd been spotted down south, and been rumoured to have been in the west, since then, hadn't made another attempt on a State Alchemist in almost three months. According to one particularly talkative interviewee, who'd wanted to make sure he knew who Ed was, rumour was that Ed had spooked the guy into good behaviour. Ed'd had to leave the room so he could laugh in the hallway for a minute; if only the rumour-mongers knew how close they were.)

Irritatingly, their interviews didn't give them anything, and Ed and Hughes had dragged their way home in a slump Sunday night.

Which lasted until about nine-thirty, just after Ed had left the living room for bed, when the phone rang. Ed stepped out of the way of the stairs, letting Gracia past to check on the girls – the ringing had probably woken at least one of them – while Hughes picked up the phone and quietly offered, "Maes Hughes speaking." He fell very, very still for a moment before a sharp grin pulled across his face. "We'll be there in ten minutes." He hung up, looking toward Ed. "We caught a break: Someone just tried to attack the Ishvalans living on the Armstrong property, and Catherine caught him."

Ed felt a grin creeping across his own face. He'd met the youngest Armstrong daughter on a few occasions, both before and more recently, and could say, with relative certainty, that she was probably the only member of the family he wouldn't mind spending time with, socially, but was just as terrifying as her eldest sister. If only because Catherine was sweet, naïve, and had a rather innocent air about her, but she was also a terrifying powerhouse who didn't quite seem to realise her own strength. Which meant that when something spooked her – like a bee, on one memorable occasion – she would pick up the nearest object – like the café table they'd been having coffee around – and use it as a weapon.

They'd both changed out of uniform when they'd got home, tired of being stuck in it on their days off, and, in silent agreement, they only bothered to collect their uniform jackets (and Ed his sash) from upstairs, Hughes pausing to let Gracia know where they were headed, before hurrying out to the Armstrong estate.

Most of the city was dark, due to the late hour, but the Armstrong estate was lit up like it was trying to ward away the long hours of darkness during Yule. Ed appreciated that, for ease of communicating – he still hadn't let slip about the array Colourway had gifted him, not even to Hughes, for no other reason, really, than that keeping everything he knew a secret until it became absolutely necessary, had become something of a second nature – but he suspected their handful of neighbours close enough to get the light through their windows were less than pleased.

Major Armstrong met them at the gate with a crisp salute, then led them onto the property, explaining, "Catherine likes to wander down and check on the encampment before turning in, and she was just heading back up to the house when she saw movement on the lawn. She threw the book she was holding at the movement and managed to knock out what turned out to be a man in uniform. He had another fire starter, as well as his service pistol on him, one in each hand."

"Making sure he didn't screw up a second time," Hughes assumed grimly. "Is he awake?"

"Not yet," Armstrong admitted with way too much pride, in Ed's opinion. "We did manage to identify him, however: Sergeant Major Richard Hawker. He's a member of Colonel Gloster's office staff."

"And Gloster is under Clemin's command," Hughes finished for him. "Good. He wasn't one of our original suspects, though."

Ed nudged him and signed, :None of that office was. Most of them seemed pretty ambivalent about Ishvalans in general.:

"The office was mostly ambivalent," Hughes agreed, worded for Armstrong's benefit; the man knew some signs – most of the people that Ed worked with in Investigations had learnt a handful, likely just from seeing him communicate with Hughes all the time; being able to pick things up via context clues tended to be a skill you either had before joining the department, or developed quickly – but not enough for all that, so far as Ed was aware. "Gloster wasn't, was very clearly against Ishvalans. And didn't he come out to glare at his staff while they were answering?"

:He did, didn't he? Think he knows anything?:

"He might know something, but I don't have the power to call him out about it without evidence," Hughes admitted.

"Then let us see if we might get some," Armstrong said as they entered the house. "The sergeant major is this way."

Someone had procured smelling salts from somewhere and, once Ed had (somewhat grudgingly) healed the gash from Catherine's book, they were used to bring their culprit around.

Ed couldn't say if it was the sight of Ed and Hughes' uniform jackets, or the hulking forms of Alex and Philip (who had come to join them) Armstrong standing behind them, but Sergeant Major Hawker opened his eyes, stared at his welcoming committee with something approaching horror for a beat, and said, "I'll tell you everything!"

"That," Hughes said with a lion's smile, "would be wise."

There was a fair bit of stammering and backtracking involved, but the picture that formed was thus: Colonel Gloster had heard about the Ishvalans settling in the southern slum through the grapevine and decided, when it was clear nothing was going to be done about them, that he needed to take matters into his own hands. Except he needed to keep his hands clean of the matter – Ed, Hughes, and Armstrong all agreed that the man very probably had an air-tight alibi for both the first fire, and this attempt – so he'd ordered his office team to handle the problem for him. Whoever managed to wipe out all the Ishvalans would receive a promotion, and refusing to try would be met with a termination of their military contract.

Second Lieutenant Westland had been the one to set the first fire, and while he would absolutely be serving a sentence for manslaughter, Hughes suspected they would lighten it, since he'd been following orders, and this was the military. Sergeant Major Hawker would be getting off light with charges of trespassing – Philip had been willing to let that go, but Hughes suggested a couple nights in lock-up would be the best way to keep Hawker out of Gloster's way – which would allow him to continue military service, unlike the second lieutenant.

As for Gloster...

"If Roy was here, this would be easier," Hughes muttered as they watched the MPs walk Hawker out to the waiting car. "I can hand the writ for Gloster's arrest up to Gardner, but he's not likely to sign it before Gloster skips town."

Knowing Lieutenant General Gardner – who was in charge of the Investigations department, but avoided the building as much as possible – he might well wait a few days to sign the writ just to irritate Hughes; Ed didn't know exactly what had happened there, but he'd heard and seen plenty of evidence to suggest that Hughes and Gardner had a falling out over something, and the lieutenant general was incapable of letting it go, so he would regularly ignore requests from Hughes' office for days.

:Do we need Gardner specifically?: Ed asked.

Hughes gave him a considering look. "Not necessarily. What are you thinking?"

:I'm thinking I might have a favour to cash in with Grand.: Saving him from Scar; neither Ed nor Grand had acknowledged that that had earned him a favour, but it was something of a time-honoured tradition in the military, that if you saved an officer's life outside of your own duties, you were owed one. And besides, they were both alchemists, and that meant equivalent exchange.

Hughes frowned and scratched at his beard. "You're sure? Favours from the brass aren't something to use lightly."

:I know, and I'm not. If he's on the run, he doesn't need to keep his hands clean. I'm not going to endanger the lives of countless Ishvalans for a chance to have Grand in my pocket. Especially since there's a chance he's in with the other conspirators.:

"A good reason to hold on to favours," Hughes murmured. "You might be able to at least stop him fighting us."

:I don't intend to put faith in a flimsy concept like 'favours' when the whole country's at risk,: Ed returned, his expression flat. :This is just one life. There's no reason for him to refuse.:

Hughes nodded. "It's your favour," he admitted. "You'll have to go by his office first thing tomorrow morning."

Ed frowned at that, looking toward the main gates of the estate, where a handful of curious locals – probably unable to sleep because of the light and excitement, or just naturally night owls – were trying to look uninterested in the proceedings. No one out there should have got a view of Hawker's face as he was taken out, but they might have seen him in the car, and if Gloster knew enough to have an alibi, like Ed and Hughes assumed, as soon as he heard there was an arrest made, he would suspect foul play.

:I know where he lives,: he signed, because he'd memorised the addresses for all the Central City brass, since knowing where your enemies lived was good knowledge to have, in his experience. :It's on our way home.:

"You can't wake a brigadier general in the middle of the night, Ed!" Hughes hissed.

:Maybe YOU can't,: Ed returned, because he looked fourteen and could get away with a faux pas like this.

Hughes groaned, but readily fell in next to Ed as he started toward the gate.

Ed hadn't been joking about Grand's place being on the way; his townhouse was only about four blocks away from the Hugheses', and only a one-block detour from their route from the Armstrong estate.

Ed was a little surprised, admittedly, when the door was opened by Grand less than twenty seconds after he'd knocked, and the man was clearly unsurprised to see them. "I suspect this visit is related to the military police vehicles that have been going past for the last couple hours?" Grand said as he stepped back, motioning them inside.

"Ah, yes, sir, it is," Hughes agreed as he and Ed took the invitation.

Grand closed the door and turned to face them, a light down the hall casting just enough illumination that Ed would be able to sign. "Your Ishvalan killer," he said, not even pretending it was a question; there weren't that many active cases with bearing in Central, and this was the only one Ed was officially a part of.

(He consulted on other cases, certainly – he was fluent in five languages, counting sign language and Amestrisan, arguably the best alchemist in Amestris, and had knowledge and experiences that most of the Investigations department couldn't comprehend – but between his disability and his duty with the labs, he couldn't really commit full-time to any formal investigations. Indeed, he shouldn't be so deeply involved in this one, except it was personal, and Hughes had been willing and able to plan around his State Alchemist duties.)

Hughes cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. It turns out Colonel Gloster charged his office staff with handling the problem for him. As you are no doubt aware, I require permission from or the assistance of a ranking officer to arrest anyone above the rank of a lieutenant colonel."

Grand nodded; that was common knowledge, and probably one of the few securities that the brass had against Investigations and the MP sticking their noses too deeply into military command's misdeeds. "And you're here instead of harassing Lieutenant General Gardner because?"

Hughes shifted and clasped his hands behind his back. "Lieutenant General Gardner doesn't always consider my requests in a timely manner."

:Gardner's a fucking dick with a chip on his shoulder,: Ed supplied, and Hughes' mouth twitched, but he clearly had no intention in translating that.

"Yes," Grand said drily, "he does occasionally complain about how much paperwork you give him."

Ed snorted, because Major Dornier and his team put out way more paperwork than any other team in Investigations, then signed, :I was hoping you'd be willing to support us on this. As a favour.:

Grand gave him a hard stare once Hughes had finished translating. "Is a life in trade for an arrest equivalent?" he asked, clearly meaning it to be rhetorical.

Ed smiled, knew it was a little too sharp, but couldn't figure out how to soften it any. :There is no equivalence for a human life, but I consider stopping these attacks on the Ishvalans a fair trade.:

Hughes kindly translated that without rolling his eyes or muttering about 'alchemists and their equivalent exchange', which Ed had heard often enough when the man was translating for anyone in Investigations or a civilian. (Armstrong had developed the habit of only asking Ed alchemy-based questions when Hughes was around, and Ed suspected it was intentional, and probably an attempt to get him back for all the photos of his family.)

"One day, Silent Alchemist, I will meet this Ishvalan friend you are so loyal to," Grand said, shaking his head. Then he turned to Hughes. "Do you have Colonel Gloster's address?"

"Not on me, sir, but we keep a record at the front desk in Investigations, and I'm fairly certain he lives across town, so it's on the way," Hughes said. Ed knew the man only knew that much because he kept such careful track of where officers who might get in Mustang's way were, especially those in Central City. And Gloster was clearly one of the quieter ones, or Hughes would have memorised his home address.

Grand nodded. "Then I will meet you at your building." He glanced down at Hughes' house trousers. "You may also consider a more thorough change into uniform, Lieutenant Colonel."

Ed snorted; his own trousers were partially hidden by his sash as a regular matter of course, so no one would really notice if he wasn't wearing his uniform pair. (He always did, during normal work hours, mostly because they were slightly more comfortable to sit in for hours than his preferred leather trousers, and they were about on par for mobility, when it came to scaling buildings and jumping across roofs.)

Hughes put on a helpless smile. "You may be right, sir." Then he glanced at Ed. "Since Major Elric is enjoying himself so much, and no one cares if he breaks the uniform regulations, perhaps he can go on ahead and find that address."

:You're kind of an arsehole,: Ed informed him, and Hughes snorted. :Yes, fine. I know where the binder is. Do you want me to grab a couple military police on my way?:

"A couple MPs would be helpful, yes," Hughes agreed, before turning to Grand and inclining his head. "Thank you for being willing to do this tonight, sir."

Grand shook his head. "I, too, would like this matter put to rest." He looked at Ed, amusement in his qi, though his expression remained poker-flat. "And there's something to be said for setting to rest one of the favours I owe you, Silent."

Ed frowned. 'One of?' he mouthed.

Grand raised his left hand in response, wiggling the fingers; he didn't have perfect dexterity, any more, but he could make a fist and grasp things, which was better than he would have ended up with if Ed hadn't interceded.

Ed quirked an understanding smile; one favour still owed it was, then.

Grand nodded and opened the door. "I will see you both at your building shortly."

"Sir!" Hughes replied, saluting, while Ed hid his eye roll with a bow.

Hughes waited until they were outside and Grand had closed the door behind them, before saying, "You'll have to tell me what else he owes you for, when we have light again."

Ed snorted and shrugged.

He did stop by the MP office on his way, and was rewarded with a sergeant and two privates, who followed him to Investigations and waited patiently while he looked up Gloster's address and copied it down. They had unrolled a map and were tracing the quickest route when Grand arrived, Hughes not far behind.

They took cars over to Gloster's house, a well-appointed two-storey not far from where Brigadier Generals Clemin and Edison lived. The sergeant knocked, then stepped back so Grand could take the lead.

Ed sensed a spike of curiosity in the house, which slowly approached the door. Gloster must have looked through the peephole and seen more than just Grand – or having any member of the brass at his door spooked him – because panic flashed through his qi, and then he hurried back toward the back of the house.

:He's running!: Ed warned Hughes, who had stayed back with him, near the streetlight.

"Back door!" Hughes called, and both privates, who were stationed at either side of the house, jumped the fence and vanished into the back garden.

They came out through the gate about two minutes later, Gloster walking between them with an expression that couldn't decide between anger and fear.

"Well," Grand said, as the trio reached them by the streetlight; he and the sergeant had joined Ed and Hughes as soon as the privates jumped the fence, "I guess no one has to explain why you're under arrest, then, Colonel."

"Bunch of Ishvalan lovers," Gloster spat, apparently settling on anger, even though his qi was still a giant mass of terror.

Ed rolled his eyes because, yes, arresting a man who had threatened his own command into attempting acts of arson to wipe out a handful of people made them all Ishvalan lovers. Absolutely.

(Ed was actually pretty okay with that, given he considered himself something of a humanitarian, when he bothered with labels. Mostly just because he didn't like watching people die or suffer, and he refused to kill.)

Grand's expression didn't change, but his qi took on a definite note of disgust aimed specifically at Gloster. "Colonel Roald Gloster, I'm putting you under arrest for the crime of inciting others to commit murder. Until the conclusion of the investigation against you, you are formally stripped of your rank. Should you be found innocent by a tribunal of your peers, you will be reinstated." And then Grand's mouth turned with a very much not nice smile. "I wouldn't hold my breath for that eventuality, if I were you."

(Nope. Ed still liked Grand. Dammit. Please let him be a candidate for sacrifice and not a member of the inner circle selling their morals for a chance at immortality.)

Finally climbing into bed that night felt like a victory, even if he was only looking at three hours of sleep.

-0-

Monday was spent interviewing Gloster's office staff and getting confirmation about the bribe and threat, as well as other minor details. Second Lieutenant Westland was arrested with no complications and readily confessed in return for the promise of a lighter sentencing than he was due for the fifteen lives lost in the fire he'd set. Gloster, on the other hand, attempted to talk his way out of trouble, at first – insisted he'd only run because of temporary panic, that his office team all hated him and they were lying – apparently unbothered by Armstrong's hulking form in the corner.

So Armstrong bowed out and found Ed in one of the interviews with Gloster's staff, tapping his shoulder. "Trade."

Ed raised an eyebrow at that, then shrugged and made his way down to the other interview room.

Hughes blinked at him when he stepped in, and Ed shrugged.

"You think a child is a better enforcer than that soft-hearted major?" Gloster asked with a scoff, his qi a mess of belligerence and disgust; clearly, he was familiar with Investigations' interview practices, as well as the fact that Armstrong wasn't nearly as inclined towards violence as his physique suggested.

Ed smiled and pressed his hands together, letting his alchemy spark across his fingers and watching Gloster narrow his eyes. And then he pulled them apart and, carefully keeping the prepared reaction in check, scratched at his nose with one hand, while flicking out a kunai with his other.

Gloster yelped as the weapon flew past the side of his face, fluttering his hair and barely missing his ear. He twisted in his chair to look back at where the kunai had embedded itself in the wall, then joined Hughes and First Lieutenant Blackburn in turning to give Ed slightly disbelieving looks.

:My hand slipped,: Ed signed, before stepping around the table to collect his kunai. As he got in range, he let his hand brush against Gloster's arm, letting loose the transmutation and sparking him with a rather nasty electric shock.

Gloster yelped again and jerked away from him, his qi sparking with fear.

Ed crossed back to the other side of the table as he slipped his kunai away, then leant back against the wall and smiled.

Gloster apparently decided it was time to start talking.

Once Gloster had been led out by a couple MPs, Hughes and Blackburn both turned to Ed, Hughes more obviously amused, but humour was sparking in Blackburn's qi, even though her face was an unimpressed mask. "What did you do, Ed?" Hughes asked.

Ed shrugged. :It was just a little static shock.:

"You...alchemised a static shock?" Hughes asked.

:You have seen how much electrical charge an average transmutation lets off, right?: Ed returned, rolling his eyes.

Hughes sighed. "Let me guess, another one of your 'basic' arrays?"

Ed couldn't quite stop a silent laugh because no, not even a little bit. For all that alchemy looked like it would let off a lot of electric shock, it actually didn't, which was why it wasn't actually a danger to the user (so far as they remained within their personal limits and avoided human transmutation, which was a whole other kettle of fish). Electricity arrays were actually pretty complicated, and required some sort of insulated metal to use effectively without seriously harming yourself.

Creating a static shock, though, dealt very heavily in manipulating electrons, which was subatomic alchemy and only possible, so far as Ed was aware, after seeing the Gate. Mostly because atomic science had been left behind in favour of alchemy, and looking into what made up chemical elements wasn't a priority for anyone, save those non-alchemist scientists who were considered crackpots and shunned by most of the scientific society. Since a part of being able to perform any array was comprehension of the component parts involved, that left subatomic alchemy far beyond the skill of normal alchemists, so the idea of an array to create a static shock was met with a great deal of scepticism and some mocking, as Ed had found out when he'd tried to pass it on to the military's researchers and State Alchemists, before. (Al had been extremely sympathetic for about two minutes. Then he'd burst out laughing and wouldn't stop until Ed beat him into silence. Jerk.)

"Laughing is a no?" Blackburn suggested.

"Laughing is a no," Hughes agreed. "How complicated are we talking here?"

:Al is the only other military-employed alchemist who will believe it's possible,: Ed admitted, trying to get a handle on his grin.

Hughes blinked at him, then turned to Blackburn. "This conversation never happened."

Her mouth twitched. "What conversation, sir?"

"This is why I like you, Lieutenant," Hughes announced as he stood. And then he signed to Ed, :No more impossible alchemy in my interrogation rooms.:

:You realise that's the best kind, right?: Ed returned. :No one would believe him if he claimed that was intentional.:

Hughes huffed and very pointedly turned away from Ed. "Don't you have translations to be doing, Major?"

Ed shot the better-known 'fuck you' sign at his back, and Blackburn coughed to suppress a laugh, her qi practically dancing.

Ed really was quite fond of Hughes' team.

-0-


Edward,
Not flowers, then. Dinner? Something disgustingly greasy and certain to make us both regret our life choices for the next twenty-four hours, I suspect.
Roy

-0-

Ed spent a day huffing over Mustang's letter – first flowers and now dinner? Fucking romantics – before he did his run through lab one and found himself faced with some ridiculously excited fire and unimpressed water alchemy researchers.

"Do you think he'll come here?" Victor Krane – one of the fire researchers and self-declared 'biggest Flame Alchemist fan ever'; Ed had almost broken something, he'd laughed so hard – was saying excitedly as Ed stepped into their lab.

Aspen Matthews, one of the water researchers, scoffed. "Please. He doesn't have the time for your sorry arse."

"Maybe he'll let you lick his shoes, if you beg enough, and some of his genius will wear off on you," Josh Newman, another water alchemist, added sarcastically.

"You're just sore there's no Water Alchemist you can pester for tips," Elizabeth Sherman, one of the fire researchers, said, before sticking out her tongue.

Ed whistled; he'd already seen these two groups come to blows twice over stupid shit, and he really had no interest in healing any of them again, just because they were fucking children.

All six of them stiffened, a couple shooting him vaguely panicked looks.

And then Victor, bless his sad little soul, gave Ed a hopeful look and asked, "Is it true Colonel Mustang is going to be transferred to Central?"

Ed blinked because, well, yes. Eventually. He wrote, 'Where did you hear that?' in his journal and held it up.

Aspen huffed. "It's just some stupid rumour that started circulating. Some colonel or another got arrested, I guess, and they're talking about who to shove in his office. Mustang keeps coming up."

That would be...nice, actually. Ed had no idea what stopping Scar had done to Mustang's chances of being moved to Central because they'd lost too many State Alchemists, in truth. He'd been working under the assumption that they'd want as many sacrifices and sacrifice candidates as possible in Central by the end of the year, and then crossing his fingers and hoping for the best.

'I can verify a col was arrested,' he wrote, 'but I haven't heard anything about Mustang.'

Victor crossed his fingers, closed his eyes, and started mouthing what looked like, 'Please, please, please'.

Ed wasn't the only one to roll his eyes.

Once he finished with his run through lab one, though, Ed bought lunch at a reasonable café across from Command, then took it to sit in the mess near a table of enlisted soldiers who he had learnt months ago were horrible gossips. And, indeed, rumours had Mustang as the top pick for Gloster's soon-to-be vacant office.

Of course, most of the rumours from this group tended to be the "I heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend, who heard it in the hall from someone who works in so-and-so's office" variety, but Ed had found that they actually tended to be pretty good about keeping tabs on the brass and the goings on in their offices. Likely because, when the brass decided to go fuck some shit up, it affected everyone.

Well, he supposed that was something worth passing on to Mustang, if only to dissuade him from his romance bullshit.

-0-


Bastard,
Greasy food is fucking DELICIOUS, shut your perfect face. And you can't take me out to dinner, you paedophile.
Hughes has probably already passed it on, but a spot opened for a colonel here at Central. Rumour is the brass are thinking to bring some of their eastern powerhouses to heel. Give Havoc some warning this time, won't you? (Though I suspect it's already too late.)
Edward

-0-

On Friday, after Ed and Grand had gone over his report on the labs, Grand sat back and shot him a considering look for a long moment, his qi a muddle of curiosity and caution and suspicion, though the latter didn't seem to be aimed at Ed?

Ed raised an eyebrow at him.

Grand mimed writing, then pointed at Ed's journal.

Ed blinked at him, thrown, then shrugged and slid his journal across the table to the man.

'Office bugged,' Grand wrote, which Ed had sort of expected; his muteness very likely played all kinds of havoc on the military's monitoring efforts, which was one pro he hadn't considered at the time it had happened. 'You knew when Gloster ran. How?'

Ed considered him for a moment, debating; this was one of those moments he desperately wished he knew which side of the conspiracy Grand fell on, because Ed's qi-sense was one benefit they didn't want to give the homunculi too much warning about. (Not that they could do anything about it, but best they don't start wondering if that was how Ed was always able to avoid their tails.)

'You don't trust me,' Grand wrote, and there was no surprise in his qi or face, but there was a faint whisper of what might have been regret in the former.

'I don't,' Ed wrote back, because he deserved that much.

'You're afraid I'll find out you attempted human transmutation.'

Ed snorted. 'Please,' he mouthed, before leaning forward to write, 'No way I was the 1st arrogant fuck to try that + sell my soul to military. I'm sure you have records that any1 doesn't use external arrays broke taboo'

'I could have you arrested for that,' Grand wrote back, his gaze piercing, but humour in his qi.

Ed smiled at him. 'I'm useful in military's pocket + we both know it'

Grand's qi flared with amusement, his expression unchanging. 'Then why do you distrust me?'

Ed considered those words, head tilted slightly to the side, before he wrote back, 'I don't trust ppl whose demons I don't know'

"Demons?" Grand repeated out loud, his confusion actually showing on his face, for once.

Ed smiled at him, a little too sharp.

Grand frowned and wrote, 'And what are your demons? Or is that a secret, too?'

Ed shrugged. 'My demons are a white world where sits a stone door + a pale shade who mocks me with my own voice while my brother screams for me to save him'

Grand let out a sharp breath at that last, shock, and then pity rolling through his qi.

Ed took his journal back and slipped it away as he stood, then bowed and turned to leave.

"Silent," Grand called, and Ed stopped with his hand on the door handle, not looking back. "You ask a lot."

Ed snorted and left; he knew exactly how much he asked, but he had the lives of fifty million people resting on his shoulders, with those who were the most important to him already lined up before the firing squad.

Not even Ed's sins were worth that.

-0-


Edward,
That is some rather good news. And Havoc was already aware we were expecting to be moved to Central City within the next few months--what tragedy were you hoping to avoid on his behalf?
My face is perfect, is it? Can I quote you on that?
I'm fairly certain I can take other people out as well, to disguise the date. Or we can do dinner in. I'll manage the setting, you get the (greasy) food?
Roy

-0-

Ed was seriously going to punch the bastard. Right as soon as he stopped being embarrassed at his own slip.

Also, date. Fuck off, hormones.

-0-

"Is there a reason," Hughes asked on Monday night, "that Roy is asking me to make reservations at your favourite restaurant for this Sunday, Ed?"

Ed dropped his fork. Wait...what?

Gracia frowned and glanced toward Ed. "Isn't that your birthday?"

Elicia and Nina both perked up. "Big Brother Ed's birthday is soon?" Nina asked, clearly delighted.

Hughes gave a slow nod. "Right, right. But I'm not quite sure why he specified I make the reservation for seven people."

Nina, adorably, scrunched up her face and slowly mouthed numbers as she pointed at each of them.

:Transfer order?: Ed managed to sign, his heart climbing his throat, for some inexplicable reason.

"But there's only five," Nina reported, confused.

"I think," Gracia offered, "that your Uncle Roy is coming for a visit. And he's bringing Al, your other big brother."

Elicia let out a gleeful squeal, while Nina went back to looking delighted. "When?!" she demanded, squirming in her seat. "When, when, when, wh–?"

"Nina," Gracia interrupted with a smile.

"Uncle Roy didn't specify, but definitely by Sunday," Hughes offered.

"But that's forever!"

Hughes tapped his chin, expression thoughtful. "I dunno. Seems like just about enough time for you two to clean your room. Properly."

Cue much whining.

"Ed?" Gracia whispered, leaning over so she could be heard over Hughes' loud comments about cleaning everything and the girls' whining. "Are you okay?"

:I'm going to punch him in the face,: Ed signed, almost signing 'kiss' instead of 'punch'. That would have been a stupid mistake. Or an honest one. Which, when you lived with Maes Hughes, were pretty much the same thing.

Gracia smiled at him. "Maes, or Roy?"

:BOTH.:

Gracia's smile widened and she glanced back at the loud debate. "Act fast; I think you can incite them to rebellion."

Ed couldn't quite stop a laugh.

-0-

Hughes somehow got hold of the official transfer orders on Tuesday, and he passed them to Ed when he got back from lunch, looking so fucking pleased.

Mustang and Al and the whole team would be starting in Central on Monday, and would be taking Gloster's emptied office, serving under Clemin.

Ed passed the orders back and signed, :Glad I'm not in their office right now. Mad house.:

Hughes' expression did that thing where it couldn't decide between amused-as-fuck and more than a little horrified. "Seconded," he announced, before his eyes took on a speculative gleam and his face settled on something decidedly mischievous. "I should ring him and see if he'll tell me which train they're on."

:And that is my cue to go translate shit. If he crisps you, don't come crying to me.:

"Cruel!" Hughes called after him as Ed made his escape.

-0-

On Friday, Hughes was waiting for him when he got out of his slightly strained meeting with Grand, and Ed raised his eyebrows at him. "We have a train to wait for," Hughes told him, grinning like a stupid kid.

Ed blinked. :They're getting in today?: he asked, something that might have been excitement bubbling to life in his stomach. (No, wait, it was totally excitement. He was about to see Al again!)

"The train is due to arrive in an hour. Come on," Hughes ordered, catching Ed's wrist and dragging him out of Grand's outer office.

The crazy idiot did eventually calm down and let go of Ed – before Ed resorted to hitting him, damn – falling even with him to sign, :Al rang me about two hours ago. Apparently, Roy finally let it slip that he hadn't told us when they were due.:

:Bastard probably wanted to surprise us,: Ed signed back, rolling his eyes. :Joke's on him; I take an early day on Fridays.: Because taking his homunculus tail of the day on a tour of the city never quite got old, especially since he still made certain to lose them every other week, so he could go check the abandoned house for signs of Scar.

:Well, now WE can surprise HIM.:

:Al will have told him he rang.:

:Stop ruining my moment.:

Ed rolled his eyes.

Hughes took them down to carpool, where he checked to see if cars had been requested at the station, and neither of them were surprised to discover they hadn't; likely, this was another measure to keep Hughes from finding out when they were arriving, because Mustang was a moron. Hughes requested two drivers with cars and took a car for himself and Ed, then they all made for the station.

With the detour to get the cars, they didn't have much time to wait before the train arrived, and sensing Al's qi again, after months without it, was like coming home.

He led Hughes unerringly to the correct train door, and grinned widely when Al rushed out almost before the train stopped, jumping at Ed with a happy shout of, "Brother!"

Ed caught him in a tight hug, was grateful that Al's return grip was just as tight.

"That," he heard Hughes say, "was just eerie. Adorable, but eerie. Hey, Colonel Mustang, I think I found something even more freakish than your special show."

"Thank you for that, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes," Mustang replied drily. "I always appreciate your particular brand of disregard."

Someone – it sounded like Havoc – coughed a laugh.

Ed finally got himself to let go of Al and look past him at where Mustang stood, while Hawkeye, Havoc, Breda, Falman, and Fuery unloaded a small pile of personal belongings and file boxes from their train car. As though he sensed Ed's eyes on him, Mustang turned towards him, his gaze entirely too warm, and said, "Hello, Edward."

:Nice try keeping us in the dark, Bastard,: Ed replied. :Pity you suck.:

Al sighed, while Havoc and Breda both broke out into loud laughter; clearly, Mustang's team had received a crash course in sign language since the last time Ed saw them.

Mustang just offered him an amused smile and said, "I forgot how refreshing your unapologetic insubordination is."

:I can remind you with a punch to the face?:

Al caught his arm in a steel grip, clearly determined to keep Ed from actually punching the bastard.

"We're keeping him," Havoc declared, before stepping forward and holding out a hand. "Ed, right?"

Ed nodded and accepted the offered hand for a shake, taking a turn greeting all of Mustang's men again.

Hawkeye cleared her throat. "Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, I hope you had time to request transport, since someone apparently forgot."

Mustang sighed, while Hughes snorted and agreed, "There are cars waiting out by the kerb. We might have to take a couple trips, though; I wasn't expecting quite so much stuff."

"Oh, we can rig up a trailer or something," Al offered, glancing over at Ed. "Right?"

Ed shrugged. :Sure. Give us a couple minutes to find a patch of ground no one will miss.:

"It worries me when he says things like that," Hughes admitted, while Ed turned and started leading his brother from the station. "Don't do anything illegal!"

Ed laughed, heard Al laughing just behind him, loud enough for both of them, and remembered why he loved his brother.

Once they were out of the station crush and looking for a suitable plot of land, Al fell in next to him and asked, in Xingan, "So, how long until you move in with him?"

:With whom?:

Al let out a very loud, very obvious sigh.

Ed clenched his jaw and turned on his brother as he realised what he meant. :Would you STOP? I get enough of this meddling shit from Hughes!:

Al smiled. "Equivalent exchange, Brother. You did this to me for almost two years."

Ed moaned and covered his face; he should have known Al would hold that payback in reserve until he found a romantic prospect for Ed.

Al patted his shoulder. "Come on. Let's put this together so I can get to plotting with Lieutenant Colonel Hughes in private."

:I didn't raise you right,: Ed complained.

"You raised me perfectly. Come on."

Ed huffed, but returned to the task of finding materials, then transmuting a trailer that should be large enough for everything, which they pulled back to the cars together and helped load it up.

"Well, we're to the dorms," Havoc said once they'd loaded the last box and Al had secured the trailer against bumps in the road. "I expect Al's going to stay with you?" he asked Ed.

Ed nodded. :We can stretch the mattress.:

"No," Al returned, grimacing. "I've done the stretched mattress. That is so insanely uncomfortable."

Ed snorted. :I have extra materials.:

"Why doesn't that comfort me?" Al complained, and Havoc laughed before clapping him on the shoulder.

"I'll see you in the office on Monday, Al."

"Yeah, see you, Jean," Al returned, letting himself be led up to the front car by Ed, where Mustang and Hughes were waiting. "Brother says I can share his room," he told the two, "at least until we get sick of each other and one of us moves out."

:That will be the day,: Ed signed, because he seriously doubted he could ever grow 'sick' of Al. Annoyed enough to shove him out of the bed, maybe, or move down to the couch for a couple nights, but not 'moving out'.

"Moves in with someone else, then," Al corrected.

Ed took a swing at him, which Al ducked with a laugh.

Hughes clapped Mustang on the shoulder and murmured something that had Mustang's qi flaring with embarrassed irritation and him growling, "Maes."

Hughes grinned at him, then clapped his hands together and announced, "I know of two darling little girls who have been very good about keeping their room clean in hopes that their uncle and second big brother would come pay them a visit."

Ed snorted. :They were bribed with ice cream.:

Hughes shot him a scowl that was so very obviously false. "Don't give away my secrets."

"Some of us already knew bribes were your weapon of choice, followed closely by blackmail," Mustang said drily.

Al glanced at Ed. "Books?"

Ed offered a helpless smile. :I'll have to take you past the bookshop some time soon.:

"And First Branch," Al insisted as they finally climbed into the car, Mustang pushing the brothers a bit, while Hughes laughed uselessly next to the driver's door. "You promised me a week-long tour years ago, and I am absolutely cashing in."

:Avoiding the office unpacking?: Ed suggested.

"Possibly," Al admitted.

"Perhaps I should drive," Mustang said as Hughes started laughing again.

"I'm good," Hughes insisted, closing his door and slipping his keys in the ignition. "Sadly, Ed can't really vanish into the libraries for a whole week, but he can probably take you through the labs."

:NOT THREE,: Ed signed before Al could open his mouth.

Al's mouth pressed into a thin line. :You can't protect me from them forever, Ed.:

:Yes, I fucking CAN.:

:And what about if I come across one on accident? What if I come across MORE than one? I should be prepared–:

Ed smacked his hands. :You can't fucking prepare for that! I go in there every week and I still leave sick to my stomach!:

:Better I know what they feel like!:

:I said NO.:

Mustang leant back over the seat back and caught Ed and Al's nearer wrists. "Explain what's going on," he ordered quietly, then let them go.

"The chimera labs," Al said when Ed just crossed his arms over his chest.

When Al didn't continue, Mustang glanced at Ed. "I know you've said you don't like them."

"Technically, he said they 'suck'," Hughes offered with false cheer, his qi a wave of concern.

Mustang's own qi was laced with concern, too, but he was holding it in a stiff pillar of forced calm, which Ed kind of...needed, right then, and he took a deep breath, forced himself to settle.

Al's eyes darted from Ed to Mustang and then back to Ed, before raising one eyebrow.

Ed shot him a scowl, then turned back to Mustang and admitted, :One of the things we can sense is emotions, to an extent. Human and animal. And we can't turn it off.:

Realisation streaked through Mustang's qi, his eyes going wide. "Emotions?" he repeated, before a second realisation went through his qi. "A chimera lab," he breathed, before closing his eyes. "They must be miserable."

:Miserable. That's a pretty word,: Ed signed, before casting his brother a glare.

Al scowled back. "You can't protect me forever, Edward," he pointed out flatly.

Like Ed really needed to be reminded of that.

"Let's save this debate for tonight," Hughes suggested, his voice tight.

Ed glanced up and realised they were almost home. :Fine,: he signed, slumping back in his seat.

Al sighed and sort of fell over sideways, until he was resting his head on Ed's shoulder. "I love you, you overprotective dummy."

Ed huffed. :I love you and your stupid face, too,: he returned.

"Your face is stupider."

:Yes, it is.:

Al snorted and straightened, amusement in his qi. "You're impossible."

They piled out in front of the house, Ed grabbing Al's bags before he could, while Hughes snatched up Mustang's, ignoring his glare and taking the lead up the walk.

Almost as soon as he had the door open, Hughes called, "I found a couple strays at the station!" And then he ducked to one side of the hall, leaving the way clear for Mustang and Al, while Ed brought up the rear.

As the two newcomers were tackled with stupidly excited girls, Ed shared a knowing grin with Hughes – that may have been planned – and closed the door.

Gracia eventually came to redirect Nina and Elicia with the offer of, "I suppose we can have pie now, but only if everyone's sitting at the table by the time I get back to the dining room."

"Pie!" Elicia called, tugging on Al's uniform jacket from where he was holding her. "Big brother, pie. Hafta go."

"Yeah, come on!" Nina added, tugging very determinedly on Mustang's hand. "If we don't go, Mama's gonna make us wait 'til after dinner."

"That," Mustang said with all due seriousness, as he let himself be led down the hall, "would be a real tragedy."

Hughes and Ed shared a laugh at Mustang and Al's expense, made sure their bags were carefully out of the way, then went to join everyone, while Gracia brought up the rear.

Nina and Elicia might not realise it – and not a one of the adults or Al was going to tell them otherwise – but pie before dinner had been the plan all along.

.

Chapter Text

Topics over pie were kept light: Updates on friends and acquaintances, edited stories about some missions that went well – Al's trip to Liore and the train hijacking, Ed and Hughes managing to track down and drag in Gloster – and a few plans for the weekend.

"Mama said," Nina told Mustang as the pie slices were seriously dwindling on everyone's plates, "that Sunday is Big Brother Ed's birthday."

"It is," Al agreed helpfully. "Is he going to let us celebrate it this year?" He shot Ed a knowing glance.

:A particular fire hazard isn't giving me a choice,: Ed signed with a scowl towards Mustang.

Hughes coughed and ducked his head, his qi a wave of amusement, and Ed couldn't have said if he was amused by his child-safe term for Mustang (which Ed didn't usually bother with, admittedly, even around Nina and Elicia), or his expression.

Mustang sent him a considering look. "Oh? Not a fan of your birthday, Edward?"

"He says he's 'too old' to celebrate his birthday," Al reported, catching Ed's hand without looking when he moved to cover his mouth.

"The horror!" Hughes declared, before turning to Mustang. "The reservations have been made, and it's not nearly as grease-heavy a place as you were expecting." Because there was a place two blocks over from Investigations that made stew almost exactly like Mum's, and Hughes had been there the first time Ed had found that out. That being the closest place Ed regularly stopped at that served a sit-down dinner, had made it pretty easy to settle on, even if Ed had only done so grudgingly.

(Okay, maybe Ed wasn't 'too old' to celebrate his birthday, really. His leg had been aching all day for the first one he'd had after coming back in time, which had put him in a bad mood, and he didn't really see the point when it was just him and Al in Xing. It felt a little less lonely, now, and far harder to ignore the excitement that practically poured off Elicia and Nina while the plans were being made. Their birthdays were always big deals, so Ed's had to be, too, clearly.)

Al's mouth curled with a smile that made Ed rethink sharing his room. "Brother has a date!" he sang, slipping out of his chair to avoid Ed's not-quite-so-gentle punch.

Mustang coughed, his qi a warm hum of amusement. (And how the fuck did he make his qi do that? Tricky, secretive bastard.) "Less a date, more a family outing," he corrected, looking towards Nina and Elicia. "After all, everyone deserves the chance to sing Edward happy birthday."

Their eyes lit up and they both started nodding really hard.

:I hate you so much,: Ed signed, slouching in his seat.

"Sourpuss," Al said, lightly smacking his shoulder from behind him. "Come help me take my things upstairs. I want to see how utterly unchanged everything is."

Gracia helpfully offered, "He hung up a painting," as she started collecting empty plates.

Al blinked at Ed as he stood. "You think art's pointless."

:It was a gift,: Ed signed in his defence.

"You like someone enough to hang up their pointless gift?" Al shot back, which apparently caught Mustang's attention, if the focussed edge of his qi was any indication.

"He said it was from one of the State Alchemists," Hughes added helpfully, mischief in his qi.

"It's weird," Nina declared, apparently deciding they needed her two cenz. "It's all splotchy."

"Colourway?" Mustang guessed, because he apparently knew something about the State Alchemists in Central. (Ed couldn't really pretend to be surprised.)

"Isn't he the one you think is only pretending to be crazy?" Al said.

"Pretending?" Hughes repeated, because Ed didn't really discuss anything about the labs or the State Alchemists with him, unless it was important to an on-going Investigations case, had the potential to turn into an Investigations case, or might have some bearing on their plans against the Dwarf in the Flask and the homunculi.

Ed rolled his eyes and walked from the room to collect Al's bags, since being mute meant he couldn't get a word in edgewise. By the time he'd got back to the stairs with them, Al, Mustang, and Hughes had all settled in at the bottom of the flight to wait for him with varying degrees of curiosity. He rolled his eyes at them again, earning him a smile from Al, then led the way up to his room.

"I see the 'weird'," Al decided, looking up at the painting.

"I see the 'pointless'," Mustang offered drily, "and I usually like art."

"Brother," Al said, "you have blue splotches on your wall."

Ed snorted and then – mostly because this was Al, and he'd eventually spot the secret anyway, and then hit Ed for not telling him sooner – pulled the picture down and turned around with it held in front of him at just about the right height for the other two alchemists.

Al's eyes went wide. "Oh, wow," he breathed, completely honest in his awe.

"That's an array," Mustang murmured, qi shimmering with interest.

"No, it's–" Hughes stepped forward and stopped, his eyes widening. "How have I not seen that for months?"

Ed flashed him a smirk, then turned and put it back up.

"Have you tested it?" Al asked.

Ed considered the ambient light for a moment, then clapped, focussing on making the argon form the words he wanted, before letting the excess energy light them up: 'Of course I have.'

"The problem," Hughes complained, while Al grinned and Mustang stepped further into the room so he could look at the painting from a better angle, "with not having any interest in alchemy, is I miss things like this. How many other little tricks do you have hidden in those sashes?"

Al opened his mouth and Ed darted forward to clap his hand over it, because he knew that spike in his brother's qi. 'Shut up,' he mouthed with a glare.

Al rolled his eyes and caught Ed's wrists, pulling his hand away from his mouth. "Seriously? How long are you intending to keep that a secret? I mean, from the homunculi and the military in general, sure, I get that, but from the colonel and lieutenant colonel?"

Al clearly trusted people way too easily.

And then Mustang said, in Cretan, "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours."

The surprise and lack of understanding from both Hughes and Al was actually sort of a balm; Mustang had clearly been keeping that close to his chest. Ed slipped his hands from Al's slackened hold and signed, :Since when have you spoken Cretan?:

"I second that question," Hughes piped up.

Mustang's mouth quirked with a smile that was only a little smug. "I started learning when I was six."

Ed raised an eyebrow at that, while Hughes walked over and shoved him; tricky, secretive bastard.

Mustang raised an eyebrow right back at him, ignoring Hughes.

Well, Ed supposed that was worth a little bit of showing off, so he pressed his hands together and activated an array to gather water from the air; more than a little difficult, and admittedly a little dangerous indoors, since there was a limited amount of oxygen and hydrogen to work with, but Ed had a half-full glass of water on his writing desk, and it wasn't hard to draw what he needed from there.

Once he had enough, he let the little sphere of water spin into a flat disc and tossed it towards Al, who hurriedly clapped his hands and caught it, the shape wobbling a bit because he just didn't have Ed's control.

:Cup on desk,: Ed offered, and Al offered him a slightly strained smile as he turned to drop the water into the cup.

"You're water alchemists," Mustang breathed.

Al let out an embarrassed cough. "Well, Brother is. I can do a little bit, more if I concentrate, but he makes it look easy."

:You make healing alchemy look easy,: Ed signed, shaking his head.

"Wait," said Hughes, looking between Ed and Mustang with a kind of worrying gleam in his eyes, "steamy."

It took Ed a moment, but then he got it and pulled out a kunai, while Mustang just sighed and rubbed at his eyes, clearly resigned.

Hughes dodged out of the room, laughing at his own 'cleverness'.

Al apparently decided following suit was a good plan, because he left with a knowing smile, pulling the door shut behind him.

Which left Ed alone with Mustang and his contained qi, forcefully calm, save for a tiny note of nerves that was kind of reassuring.

Silently mouthing curses at his interfering brother and commander, Ed slipped his kunai away and shrugged out of his uniform jacket, turning to hang it up.

When he turned back toward Mustang, he found the man was still standing on the other side of the room, eyeing Ed like he was... Ed didn't know. Waiting for him to run? To start making more excuses? To just flat out say 'no'?

Sure, a part of Ed still wanted to run – this had 'bad idea' stamped all over it, and not just because of Ed's history of destroying things – probably always would, but there was a much larger part – swayed by Mustang and Hughes and just the simple fact that Ed wanted something with Mustang, even if it destroyed them both – that wanted to stay.

Mustang raised his hands partway, paused for a moment, then signed, :You can sense emotions?:

Ed sighed. :We're going to discuss this now?:

Mustang cleared his throat, a glimmer of discomfort becoming obvious under the forced calm. :I'm a little curious exactly how much you can tell from being in the same room as me.:

Ed considered him, then shrugged. :It's not mind-reading, Führer Bastard. We can sense two or three of your strongest emotions while you're feeling them, but we do have to focus a bit, unless you're seriously projecting, and then it's usually showing on your face. And if you step into a crowd, the only emotions we'll notice are the ones aimed at us, like an intent to attack, unless everyone in the crowd is feeling the same sort of emotions, like at a celebration, or a panic, which can be a little overwhelming if you're not prepared for it.:

:Like the chimera labs.:

Ed grimaced. :Can we NOT talk about that when we're alone in my room?:

Amusement flashed through Mustang's qi. :Was there another topic you had in mind?: he signed, his mouth turned in a smug little smirk that was completely belied by the tiny note of nerves still in his qi.

:Fuck you,: Ed signed, using the not sexual sign to avoid misunderstandings, as he stalked across his room to the bastard.

:Not while–: Mustang, the smartarse, started signing in response.

Ed smacked his hands out of the way, then grabbed the front of his button-up – his jacket had been left on one of the dining room chairs – and used it to drag him forward and slightly down. He stopped just as their noses brushed, narrowing his eyes and leaving it for the bastard to decide what to do, because Ed couldn't. Not again.

Fondness curled out from Mustang's qi and the man reached up to cup Ed's face between his hands. "Yes," he murmured, before tilting his head and pressing his lips to Ed's.

Warmth flowed through him, pushing away old regrets and recent uncertainties alike. He didn't even try to stop himself from reaching up and threading his fingers through the back of Mustang's hair, stepping in closer to him, even as he pulled back just enough that he could lick at the bastard's mouth. Because this was awesome and all – way more that he'd let himself think about seriously, even with talk of dates and shit – but he didn't do slow. And Mustang–

One of Mustang's hands left his cheeks to wrap around his waist, pulling Ed in so close, he could feel the heat of the bastard all down his front, and pushing his way into Ed's mouth, like he intended to conquer him or some shit.

(Yeah, Mustang didn't do slow, either. Awesome.)

He let Mustang have his way for a couple rapid thuds of his heart, but then Ed tightened his fingers in the bastard's hair, used his grip to change the angle of his head a bit, and chased his tongue back into his mouth.

Mustang let out a quiet, startled sound, but then his arm tightened around Ed, and the hand that had remained on his cheek slid back to thread through Ed's hair, loosening his ponytail.

Ed pulled back when his lower body started getting a little too interested, because the reasons to stop far out-numbered the singular reason to just say 'fuck it all' and repeat before. (Okay, not a real repeat, because they'd avoided the alcohol and a certain automail mechanic was very much not an issue this time, but still. He was almost thirty-four and not a slave to his hormones. Honest.)

That said, Mustang was holding him tight, way-too-warm, his qi curled around him like a fond, almost protective second hug, which Ed kind of, a little bit, maybe...liked. He pressed his face against the bastard's shoulder, vacillating between pleased he was tall enough to do so without standing on his toes – he distinctly remembered his cowlick being the only part of him that passed the bastard's shoulders, before – and annoyed that Mustang was still notably taller.

Mustang carefully removed the tie from Ed's hair, and it dropped against his back and slithered over his shoulders. "I shouldn't be surprised that you know what you're doing," he murmured as he combed his fingers through Ed's hair.

Ed snorted and turned to rest his cheek against the bastard's shoulder, looking up at him through his bangs. 'Idiot,' he mouthed when he was certain Mustang was watching his mouth.

Mustang's mouth turned up slightly, while a sort of mocking humour curled through his qi. "It's harder to remember how old you are when I can see you," he admitted.

Ed frowned and tried to pull away.

Mustang's free hand left off combing through Ed's hair and joined his other one around Ed's waist, holding him fast. Around Ed, the bastard's qi mirrored his more physical motions; Mustang very clearly didn't want to let him go. "I wouldn't have kissed you if that was a problem," he hurried to say, apparently reading Ed's thoughts. "Are you going to take everything I say as a reason to run away?"

'Shut up,' Ed mouth at him, scowling. He wasn't...running away. He was...trying to give Mustang space.

(Yeah, he didn't really believe himself, either.)

Mustang's mouth quirked again, a definite sense of fondness in his qi, and he loosened his grip on Ed so he could cup his face again with one hand, thumb brushing along Ed's cheekbone. "Hello," he said quietly, leaning in slightly and completely filling Ed's view, "I'm Roy. You realise you have the most stunning eyes?"

Ed hit him, but lightly, and tried to ignore the way his cheeks had heated up; stupid bastard and his stupid, fucking charm.

Mustang's smile widened, and he let go of Ed to catch his hand between both of his own, then brought it to his lips to drop a stupidly-light kiss to his knuckles, like he was some sort of fucking girl in need of wooing; if Ed hadn't been able to sense the bastard's sincerity, he would have thought he was being mocked.

Ed yanked his hand away and took a quick step back, hating the telling heat in his cheeks, as he roughly signed, :Stop fucking romancing me!:

Mustang let him have his space, his qi pulling back into that calm pillar, as he signed, :Why?:

Ed swallowed and forced himself not to look away as he replied, :It's unnecessary and weird.:

:If you think it's weird, then it's necessary,: Mustang returned without any hesitation.

'...the fuck?' Ed mouthed, because...what the actual fuck was the bastard on about? He had to be all mushy and shit because Ed found it weird?

Mustang's smile took on a hint of sadness and he stepped forward to catch Ed's hands between his, wrapping them in warmth. " 'Romancing', as you call it," he said quietly, "is all about showing that you're interested."

Oh.

"So," the bastard continued, "until it stops being weird, I'm going to romance you. And then–" his eyes took on a decidedly worrisome gleam "–I'll probably keep doing it simply because I want to."

Ed really, really wanted to hit him, but his hands were...comfortable where they were.

Bastard.

Mustang squeezed his hands. "So, flowers?"

Ed suddenly found the energy to free his right hand and took a swipe at the bastard's face, moving slow and telegraphing enough that Mustang was able to duck him, surprise and then amusement flickering through his qi.

Mustang caught Ed's freed hand again, bringing it up to his lips for another stupidly-light kiss. "No flowers," he promised, his dark eyes almost seeming to sparkle. "Chocolates?"

Ed rolled his eyes and tugged until the bastard freed his hands. :I'll share any sweets I get with Nina and Elicia,: he warned, because, as much as he liked sweets, he liked seeing their faces light up when he shared far more.

"Of course you will," Mustang murmured, not even pretending at surprise. His gaze shifted to behind Ed, towards his little writing desk and the shelves of books there. "Rare books," he realised, eyes focussing on Ed again.

:Rare knowledge,: Ed corrected, because he could almost see the stupid bastard spending a fortune on some stupidly rare book in his quest to...whatever this was. Prove he actually wanted a relationship with Ed? (It sounded kind of stupid when you put it like that; the fact that he hadn't run like hell made it pretty fucking obvious he was interested in something.)

Mustang blinked and glanced down at his hands. He was still smiling, just a bit, but there was a barely-there crease between his eyebrows, one that Ed recognised from when he'd been a kid, which he hadn't understood the meaning of until he'd grown up enough to admit that the bastard had actually cared about him; Mustang was trying hard not to let a worried frown show, was also doing an admirable job keeping it out of his qi. (Seriously, he was freakishly good at managing his qi; if Ed didn't know better, he'd think the bastard actually knew about it.)

Ed had a pretty good idea why the bastard might be worried, and he stepped forward to take Mustang's hands, squeezing them lightly when the man looked up, then letting go so he could sign, :I have no interest in flame alchemy.:

Relief rushed through Mustang's qi, followed by resignation. "I need to remember you can sense my emotions," he murmured, sounding more amused than anything else.

Ed shook his head and admitted, :I didn't sense anything; you get a crease between your eyebrows when you're worried.:

Mustang let out a startled laugh. "I really can't hide anything from you, can I?" he said, and there was something almost...tired, in his voice.

Ed swallowed and looked away. :Sorry,: he signed.

Mustang took his hands – again – and murmured, "There aren't many people I can't lie to: Maes, Riza, my aunt..." He was smiling when Ed glanced up at him, confused by how...peaceful his qi felt. "It's sort of a relief, that you're one of those people."

Ed frowned at that, even more confused, now. Mustang was...relieved that he couldn't lie to him without Ed knowing? What sort of fucking weirdo would want someone to know when they were lying?

Mustang's smile widened slightly and he leant in and pressed a chaste kiss to Ed's mouth, before pulling back a bit, letting go of his hands. "Do you know any flame alchemy?" he asked.

Ed huffed and shoved his confusion back; he wasn't likely to ever understand Mustang's oddities. :I know the basic principles,: he admitted. :Manipulating oxygen atoms around a specific target and between a spark or a small flame to set them alight.:

Mustang blinked, looking a little surprised. "Did I explain it to you?" he asked.

Ed shook his head. :No. I've just seen you use it.:

Mustang shook his own head, fond disbelief curling around the edges of his qi. "Do you have any idea how many alchemists have seen me use flame alchemy and don't understand half as much as you do?"

:I keep an eye on the idiots in lab one,: Ed replied, rolling his eyes.

Mustang coughed, his eyes bright. "Flame and water alchemy," he said, barely controlled laughter obvious in his voice. "No wonder your brother's always laughing when he passes on the most recent update on them."

Ed couldn't stop a smile at that. :I push them in the wrong direction, sometimes,: he admitted, because he had made a few extremely unhelpful suggestions, when one of the groups looked like they were approaching a breakthrough.

Mustang started laughing, so open and happy, nothing at all like the man Ed had served under, before. That Mustang had always kept himself in close, even after Ed had quit the military and they could almost call themselves friends, had kept his smiles small and shared them in moderation, only laughed aloud when he'd been drunk, and, even then, it had been quiet, barely passed the edges of their party's corner table. And even when they'd slept together, there had been a sort of distance in Mustang using Ed's old code name; the only person Ed knew who had categorically refused to retire it.

Once burnt, twice shy; that Mustang had lost his best friend while Ed still believed his masks, had had everyone else ripped away from him while they'd all been struggling with the secrets they'd started chipping away at. When that Mustang had most needed his support base, he'd had nothing.

This Mustang...he'd suffered none of that, and he and Ed didn't have that commander/subordinate relationship to get between them. All that lay between them was the field that Ed had forced level, secrets laying uncovered on the grass. They had trusted each other with the people most important to them; it seemed almost logical that the next step was trusting each other with themselves.

Something inside of Ed eased, and, for the first time, he could believe that he wouldn't make the same mistake again. That, maybe, their...whatever this was, would end in something other than 520 cenz left on a bedside table and the memory of a night that should have been a bright spot of celebration, shadowed with shame and regret.

Without really making the conscious decision to do so, Ed found himself making the sign-name that Hughes always used for Mustang, the one that meant 'Roy', rather than the more familiar 'Führer Bastard'. Because this man wasn't the same, and he was kind of ashamed to realise it had taken the bastard laughing to recognise the difference.

Must– No, Roy's amusement shifted to curiosity. "Edward?" he asked in return.

Ed flexed his fingers, then signed, :We should head back downstairs, before Al starts on about needing to wash the sheets.:

Roy's mouth turned up at one side, but when Ed turned to leave, he caught his arm. "There's a slight imbalance here," Roy commented, wry humour in his voice. "I'm practically an open book to you, but I have no idea what you're thinking."

Well, there was another difference between Mustang before and Mustang – Roy – now: Before, he'd practically known Ed's thoughts before he did himself, but he'd also watched Ed grow up, had known him before he'd learnt to guard his expressions. Roy would likely develop that ability in time – just because Ed had learnt to guard his expressions, didn't mean he was always successful, especially if he was trying to hide anger – but he'd only had sporadic contact with Ed, so far, and most of it had been through letters.

Ed could lie. He could brush the question aside, or give some bullshit line of thought that had him using Hughes' sign.

But that seemed like a shit idea, completely unfair, because the bastard was right: Right now, everything between them was unbalanced simply because Ed could read Roy, could generally catch him in a lie, but Roy had only his intuition and general knowledge of people to help him read Ed. Which was a formidable weapon, certainly, but fallible.

So Ed turned back to Roy and admitted, :I realised you aren't him.:

Roy frowned. "Him?"

:The other you. I can't remember ever hearing him laugh like that.:

Roy blinked a few times, surprise and grief chasing each other through his qi for a moment. He started to lift his hands, paused to stare down at them, then brought them the rest of the way up to sign, :You said Maes died.:

Ed nodded.

:He must have been very lonely,: Roy signed.

Lonely, yes, but also mad with grief, hunting doggedly for the culprit, and nearly losing everything else on the way.

Ed reached out and caught Roy's hand, used it to lead him from the room – ignoring Roy's confused, "Edward?" – and down to where everyone else was gathered in the living room.

Hughes looked over at them with that wide, bright grin of his. "Look who decided to grace us with their presence!"

Gracia, kindly, threw a pillow at Hughes. Which seemed to be permission for Nina and Elicia to both grab pillows from the other couch and run over to start beating Hughes with them. Which won laughter from...pretty much everyone else.

"I surrender!" Hughes shouted, laughing.

Roy's qi was notably calmer, the reminder of grief for another him pushed aside by the proof that it was unnecessary, and Ed smiled as he walked over to join Al on the now throw pillow-less couch.

Al offered him a considering look. "Are you okay?" he asked in Xingan.

Ed let his smile widen, knew Al would know it was completely honest, and nodded.

Al relaxed back against the couch with a smile of his own, turning to watch Nina and Elicia list their 'demands' for accepting Hughes' surrender, as guided by Roy, while Hughes himself attempted to cry foul.

-0-

Dinner conversation was kept light, same as the conversation over pie had been, and the post-dinner conversation ended up involving a lot of discussing what horrors they could inflict on Ed for his birthday, while Ed tried to convince everyone he was perfectly happy to just stay inside. Al eventually captured his hands, with Nina and Elicia's help, and informed Ed, "You don't get a say." Which was rude.

Once Elicia and Nina had been put to bed – with far more difficulty than usual, which both Hugheses and Ed fully blamed on Al and Roy – conversation took a far less cheerful turn.

"I think," Hughes said, leaning forward and looking between Ed and Al, while Roy ensured the curtains were fully closed, "it's time you two explained this ability to track the homunculi."

Al glanced over at Ed with a frown.

Ed raised an eyebrow in response; Al had been the one telling him off, earlier, for keeping his water alchemy from them.

Al sighed and turned to the other couch, where Hughes and Gracia had taken up their usual positions, both of their qi swirling with curiosity, but Hughes' had an added note of concern. "It's an ability we picked up in Xing, related to their way of doing alchemy. It's..." He made a face. "It's based around the idea that every living thing puts off energy, and that every living thing – or humanity, at least – has the ability to sense the living energy around them. Which ends up translating to strong emotions, really."

"Edward suggested there were limits?" Roy said from the chair he'd settled in, his qi that pillar of forced calm that was clearly his default.

Al raised an eyebrow at Ed, even as he shrugged and nodded. "Stronger emotions are easier to sense, like anger or happiness, especially if they're at extremes, and the more people there are, the harder it is for us to pinpoint any one person."

"Ed found you at the train station," Hughes was quick to point out.

Ed huffed and signed, :It's not unlike finding a familiar face in a crowd; the better you know someone, the easier it is to spot them.:

Al let out an amused cough. "Brother and I are a little unusual, too, because we...feel like each other. Which Brother thinks is related to the night we attempted human transmutation."

Ed nodded when the Hugheses and Roy looked at him. :You'll forgive me if I don't try to explain my hypothesis?:

Hughes let out a laugh that only sounded a little strained, while Gracia grimaced. "It would probably go right over Gracia and my heads," Hughes admitted, before glancing towards Roy.

Roy gave a careless shrug, as if his qi hadn't formed an arrowhead of interest focussed in Ed's direction. "I don't pretend to know anything about human transmutation."

Ed snorted, because the man had known enough to recognise their array as something terrible, and some of the missions he'd sent them on, before, had left Ed suspecting the bastard had more than just a basic understanding of biological alchemy.

Al sighed and went on to explain, "I could probably find the colonel or a member of our office in a medium-sized crowd, but I would have trouble finding one of you two, whereas Brother would likely have the opposite problem." He glanced at Roy, who raised an eyebrow. "Well, for most of the office."

Ed swatted his arm and mouthed, 'Shut up.'

Across from them, Hughes chortled, while Gracia politely covered her smile.

Al flashed him a smile, before opening his mouth, his qi laced with mischief.

"Alphonse," Roy said, his tone flat and a very obvious note of disapproval in his qi.

Al grimaced and slouched slightly. "Sorry, sir."

Well, it was nice to know that Al's unfortunate respect for authority was good for something.

Ed huffed and straightened a bit in his seat, drawing everyone's eyes. :Have you ever known you were in danger?: he signed, looking between Roy and Hughes. :You sensed someone coming up behind you with a weapon, or ducked just before a shot was fired that would have hit you otherwise?:

Roy and Hughes traded grim looks. "Yes," Roy replied quietly, very obviously didn't go into any detail.

Ed nodded. :What we can do is sort of an advanced form of that sense.:

"Or, at least," Al offered while Roy and Hughes traded looks again, "that's how Brother figured it out. And, well, our Xingan fighting instructor, Ru, once told me that most of the great Xingan warriors are also known for their ability to sense and read the qi – the life energy – of others."

Ed tilted his head as something occurred to him. :Something Zouheir said to me, at one point, makes me think Ishvalan warrior monks might have a similar battle awareness.:

Al frowned and made Zouheir's sign-name. "Your Ishvalan signing friend?" he guessed, and Ed nodded. "Cool."

"It would make sense," Hughes murmured, wearing a troubled frown, his qi far more reserved than Ed was used to. "Ishvalan warrior monks did seem to have a sort of sixth sense about danger, which made fighting them far more difficult, especially in one-on-one combat."

"But not qi-sense?" Al asked, looking at Ed.

Ed shrugged and shook his head. :Scar doesn't guard his qi like someone trained in the art, so I assume it's just battle sense.:

"Scar is a warrior monk?" Hughes asked, grimacing, and Ed nodded. "No wonder he was proving so difficult an opponent."

:Sorry,: Ed signed. :It never occurred to me to tell you. Most of my interactions with Scar involve more fighting than talking.:

"I assume that's changed," Roy said.

Ed shrugged. :Sort of. Scar doesn't really TALK, but there's been less fighting.:

"Small mercies," Al murmured.

Ed swatted him.

Gracia cleared her throat. "Why are you finally asking about this ability?" she asked, looking between Roy and her husband. "It's been months." She focussed on Hughes. "You weren't nearly so determined to get answers, even when Ed was being stalked by Envy."

Hughes grimaced and he glanced at Ed. "There was an argument about letting Al into lab three."

Gracia blinked.

"The chimera labs, specifically," Roy added quietly, his posture relaxed, but his eyes tellingly-sharp. "Edward said they can feel animal emotions, as well as human."

"Oh," Gracia whispered.

Al gave an uncomfortable shrug. "Plants too, to an extent. I mean, they don't have emotions, really, not the way we think of them, but they have a life energy, all the same."

"Your love of the greenhouse suddenly makes so much more sense," Hughes muttered, shaking his head.

:It's soothing,: Ed signed with a scowl. :They're happy there, for the most part, so it's kind of like walking into a crowd of smiling people who all wish you well.:

"...you know, that almost makes me want to go for a visit," Hughes decided.

Al laughed. "Try walking through a field of crops at the height of a good season, before the harvest starts. Those are happy plants."

Ed snorted, because Honghui had liked to hold their lessons in the fields or walk them through the mountain paths on nice days; Ed hadn't understood why she always ended up teaching happy poetry on those days, until his qi-sense had developed to the point that he could sense the calm of the plants.

"Lab three," Gracia murmured, recalling all of their attention to the original topic. "Isn't that where they're working with healing alchemy?"

The sinking feeling in Ed's stomach was inversely proportional to the rising sense of victory in Al's qi.

"If Bradley tries to get Al into the labs, same as he did you," Hughes said, looking at Al, "that's where he's going to end up."

"Mending Alchemist," Al agreed, shooting Ed a look that was way too fucking pleased.

Anger bloomed in Ed's chest. :Fine,: he signed. :Do whatever you fucking want, but don't come crying to me when you realise I was right.:

"Brother–" Al started, his expression distinctly hurt.

Ed shoved himself to his feet and signed, :I'm going to bed,: in the Hugheses' general direction, then hurried from the room.

Al didn't come after him, and Ed couldn't decide if he was grateful or not. On one hand, if Al had come after him, it would have been a sign that he was rethinking his stupid bravery bullshit – or whatever stupid thing made him think going into that lab was a good idea – and that he didn't, meant he had no intention of bowing to Ed's wisdom.

On the other hand, Al's absence gave Ed the necessary space to widen his bed so they could both fit comfortably, and go through his usual evening routine in peace.

When he climbed into bed, still with no sign of his brother, Ed squeezed his eyes shut and tried to convince himself that he didn't care any more, that a huge part of him wasn't terrified for his brother. He tried his damnedest to hold on to his anger, because that kept it from hurting.

For the first time since he'd got proof that Al was coming back to Central, he wished his brother had stayed away.

-0-

"Big Brother Ed!" Nina called.

Ed flashed her a bright, wide smile. "Nina!" he called back, crouching down and holding out his arms for her.

She ran towards him, her movements unsteady, lurching–

"The progress of medicine..."

Nina's hair grew, lengthened to cover her face and her misshapen legs.

"The progress of human knowledge..."

The field around them faded to the clinical white of a lab, and Ed reached for Nina, desperate to–

"That's the result of experimenting on humans."

A cage clanged into being around Nina, other cages stacking up all along the walls, dozens of animals just as terrified, just as hurt, staring out at him, looking to Ed to save them.

"You and I," that voice said as Ed turned around to look towards him, "are just the same."

Ed was standing at one side of a massive array, Shou Tucker on the other. And, between them, lying bleeding in the centre–

"AL!" he screamed as Tucker knelt.

The soothing darkness of night washed over him as Ed finally got his eyes open, the nightmare fading back into the box of horrors it usually lived in.

Someone was breathing evenly next to him, and it was telling that it took him way too long to recognise his brother, sleeping peacefully. Not trapped in the middle of some array in lab three.

Ed swallowed and slipped carefully out of the bed, grateful when Al's breathing remained steady. He knelt in front of him for a moment, using what little light snuck in through his curtains to stare at Al for a bit, reassure himself that he was okay. Then he slipped from his room and into Nina and Elicia's room, resettling the blankets Nina always kicked off and smiling when she mumbled something about ice cream.

Kid had her priorities in order.

He checked on Elicia, too, gently tugging a lock of hair out of her mouth, then slipped back out of their room.

Usually, he would sit up in his room and work on translating Marcoh's array to alkahestry – it was being especially difficult – or create or refine one of his own, or study the tunnel system under Central a bit more, until he felt like he could get back to sleep. But, with Al sharing his bed, trying any of that would just wake him, so Ed sighed and made his careful way downstairs, ducking into the kitchen. Figured he could make himself some tea and snoop through Hughes' paperwork in the downstairs office until he felt tired enough to head back upstairs to bed, or fell asleep on one of the couches.

"Edward?" someone murmured, voice quiet and edged with sleep, while Ed was filling the kettle with water for tea.

Ed spun and was surprised to find Must– No, Roy, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, wearing a well-worn t-shirt and loose trousers, his hair even more of a mess than Ed was used to seeing.

...right. He'd forgotten the bastard would be taking one of the couches for a couple nights, until he found a house to buy.

:Go back to sleep,: he signed, before turning back to filling the kettle and setting it on the hob to heat.

Roy didn't move for a long moment, judging by his qi's stillness. When he finally did, it was toward Ed, rather than back toward the living room, and he turned to frown at the bastard.

Roy offered him a smile that looked a little more awake than Ed had been expecting, as he stopped next to him and reached up to pull down a mug from the cupboard Ed had just opened. "Tell me you made enough water for two."

Ed blinked at him, confused, but nodded and quietly pulled down his own mug, then closed the cupboard.

Roy moved to the cupboard with the tea in it, only pausing for a brief moment when met with more than just one option, then pulling down the chamomile, which was the same tea Ed would have gone for; either they were worryingly similar in their midnight tea preferences, or Roy could read him a hell of a lot better than he thought he could.

As he set the tea bags in their mugs, Roy quietly offered, "The only reason I ever make myself tea at two in the morning, is because of nightmares."

Ed nodded; he should have guessed experience, clearly.

Ed poured the water into both of their mugs once it was boiling, then picked up his and made for the office. He couldn't even pretend to be surprised when Roy followed him.

"That's new," Roy said almost as soon as the light was on, staring at the Central City map.

Ed nodded, looking over the string circle that marked the path between the labs and to the large doorways leading into the underbelly of Command. He set his mug on the desk so he could sign, :Part of my detour. It's a tunnel.:

"Connecting the labs and Central Command," Roy murmured, stepping a little closer to the map. He tapped a finger on Command and looked at Ed. "What does it lead to?"

:A maze of tunnels between Command and the Dwarf in the Flask's hideout. I've mapped most of it.:

"Only most?" Roy asked, a note of humour in his voice, while relief curled through his qi.

Ed quirked a smile at him. :There's a few doors I couldn't open, a stairwell that I'm nearly certain connects Bradley's office to the Dwarf in the Flask's lair, one between the Führer's residence and a path that leads down towards his lair, and a lift shaft, which I know connects his lair and a broom closet in Command, not far from the gym.:

Roy blinked. "That's specific."

:I took it last time,: Ed admitted. :And I know about the staircase from Bradley's office because the Ice Queen took it.:

Roy looked back at the map on the wall, his hands wrapped tight around his mug. "Nice to know we have options when it's time to meet him," he said drily.

Ed considered him for a moment. His qi was...not calm, but not really afraid, either. A little expectant, maybe...hopeful for the future?

Ed turned to collect his mug, allowing himself a silent sigh; the only real problem he had with using his qi-sense to read people, was that it required some familiarity with emotions to know exactly what you were getting from someone else, and Ed had spent way too much of his life denying his own emotions. The general set – happiness, anger, love, hatred, calm – those were easy, and he could usually figure out their relatives, but the weirdly specific things – or, well, a lot of things related to hope, as odd as that might seem to some people – tended to trip him up.

(Ed wasn't a fan of hope. Hope made you complacent, made you willing to wait for a solution to come to you. Determination was better, meant you were striving forward, aiming to grab a solution with both hands and make it yours.)

Roy was looking at him when he turned back around. "I don't suppose your maps are down here?"

Ed snorted and shook his head; he much preferred keeping his maps in the alchemically locked case under his bed, where a surprise raid was unlikely to look for it, given how obvious this intelligence centre was. And if someone did find the case, well. They were going to regret trying to open it without the correct key array.

"I wouldn't mind getting a look at them," Roy admitted.

Ed quirked a smile and nodded before he took a sip of his tea; he'd actually intended to let Al and Roy look at the maps that night, but, well, things had happened.

Roy glanced over at the country-wide map, the internal lines of the array drawn out with red string – a colour change that Ed had done after he'd moved in, to keep it apart from the string connecting serial murders – still in place, then back at the Central City map. "Another array?" he guessed, tapping the string circle around Command with one finger.

Ed set his mug back down as he nodded. :It was used to transport the sacrifices down to the Dwarf in the Flask on the Promised Day.:

Roy grimaced slightly and returned his hand to his mug, pressing his fingers tight against the ceramic. "Lovely."

They both stood there for a long moment, Roy sipping at his tea and looking at the Central City map, while Ed tried to think of a topic, something that wasn't quite so...glum. Which, well, they had a lot of nightmare fodder in common – bad topics – and the Hugheses and Al – which Ed didn't, necessarily, want to talk about.

And then it occurred to him: Roy had mentioned an aunt, earlier, one of the very rare times he'd ever made mention of any blood family. Ed clicked his tongue and, when Roy glanced over at him, signed, :I don't know anything about your family.:

Roy blinked a couple times, clearly surprised, before putting on a smile that was both fond and a little sad. (Old sadness, like a long healed wound, judging by his qi.) "Let's go sit," he suggested, motioning with his head out the door.

Ed shrugged and nodded – he didn't really have any particular need to be in the office, other than it being something to do until he could go back to sleep – then grabbed his mug and followed Roy out to the living room, flipping off the light and closing the door as he did.

Roy turned on one of the smaller lights and they both settled on the couch that hadn't been slept in. (By the look of his blankets, Roy's rest hadn't been a particularly restful one, which made Ed feel a little better about waking him.)

"My family," Roy murmured, thumb tracing over the handle of his mug. "I told you my maternal grandfather was Xingan?"

Ed nodded, though he was fairly certain Roy hadn't specified that it had been his maternal grandfather, before.

Roy nodded himself. "My maternal grandmother was originally Aerugonian, but her town was annexed by Amestris in 1830...something. Border conflict."

Ed grimaced slightly and balanced his mug in t