|Summary:||AU. In a world where alchemy exists, but is thought to be a fairytale, the Elric brothers land themselves in an asylum after their abilities are discovered. But this hospital has a darker purpose, and its patients must band together in order to survive.|
A good artist, one with reasonable talent, might look at the boy rocked back in the hard wooden chair and paint him as the stereotypical rebellious teenager. On the surface, he certainly looked the part. Gloved hands were crossed firmly across a compact chest. Two lips were pressed into a sullen, 'screw you' scowl. One booted foot rested on the opposite knee in an obvious display of indifference. And golden eyes glittered with a white-hot and rabble rousing sort of defiance. There was life, and breath, and movement in everything this boy did. The ordinary artist would find inspiration in this boy, certainly, because he inspired just by being.
But the extraordinary artist would see more, because if you knew where to look, there was more to see.
Truth lined the boy's actions, a subtle under layer that revealed the reasons behind each movement. The extraordinary artist would observe that the boy's defiantly folded arms ended in hands that were wrapped almost desperately around the biceps; as if the boy feared a breaking if he didn't have something to hold on to. The mouth, so firmly tightened, was bracketed by soft white lines that usually decorated an older face. The booted foot on the leather-clad knee bounced restlessly, as if the boy couldn't quite prevent the urge to run, run fast, and possibly never stop. And there was more in those eyes than an inspirational insolence; some unnamed horror darkened those golden depths almost as much as the purple bags resting underneath.
The ordinary artist would call his painting "Bad Tempered Teen". The extraordinary artist would title his "Brave Face".
But despite the steadily buckling shoulders and the soft lines that seemed permanently etched around his mouth, the boy still stared at the figure opposite him with his head tossed arrogantly back. And when he spoke, it was with a sneer in his voice. Because they both knew that there was more than one person depending on the image he projected.
"So let me get this straight," he said, in a drawl that tried to be unconcerned, but fell just a few tight inches short of the mark. "You're kicking us out."
The man sitting across from him, more than a decade older than the boy, gave a small smile that didn't even come close to touching his frigid blue eyes.
"Of course not, Edward," he said, in a voice as smooth as a purring cat filled with canary cream. "State orphanages are always open to children who lack basic familial care and guardianship."
Edward Elric freed a finger from its fist to tap it against his bicep.
"But you're asking Al and I to leave," he reminded the man in front of him. "Hey, I don't blame you. You wouldn't be the first to send us away. And it's not like I mind. I'd much rather take care of Al on my own."
The man with cold blue eyes and pale skin steepled his long fingers together.
"We've already discussed that, Edward," he said, a wealth of false gentleness in his voice. "Multiple times. You are not yet the legal age that is required to take care of your brother on your own."
The teenager tossed his hair impatiently.
"I'm sixteen," he snarled. "One year away from the legal age. If we hadn't been shuffled into the system, no one would care if I raised Al by myself."
"Ah, but you were 'shuffled into the system', as you so succinctly put it," the man parried. "And as such, it would be irresponsible of me to turn a blind eye to your welfare now."
Edward gave in with a weary shrug, looking for all the world like someone who had fought and lost this fight many times over.
"But you're kicking us out," he said, bringing the conversation back to its original topic. "So, if you're not going to let me look after Al on my own, where are you sending us? Another orphanage?"
"I'm afraid not."
The young man gave a snort and rocked back in his chair.
"What, no one wants to take us?" he asked. "Well, I can't say I blame them."
"Nor can I," the older man agreed. "What with your impressive history of hostile attitudes and fist fights with other children." Another smile curved the man's thin mouth. "Oh, and let's not forget the burning buildings and strange occurrences."
Edward visibly flinched, and the front legs of his chair returned to the ground with a hard thud.
"There was only one burning building," he snapped, but his attempt at bravado was ruined by the absolute lack of color in his face.
"Indeed; the fire that robbed you of your arm and leg. Or so you've always claimed."Blue eyes pinned the younger man to his seat. "Tell me, is that really what happened that night, Edward?"
Ed shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and wrapped protective fingers around his metal appendage. He could hide it from the other children with his long sleeves and assortment of gloves, but a physical was required upon entering every new orphanage, and so the director always knew about his deformity.
"You've read the report, I'm sure," he shot back defensively.
"Ah, but I do wonder how much of it was actual fact."
"All of it," Ed said stiffly. "It all happened exactly like it says. Al and I were living alone in the family house after our mother died. We left the stove on one night to keep warm, and accidentally burned the house down. I lost my arm and leg in the fire, and used my mother's insurance money to pay for the metal prosthetics."
The older man rested his chin on his steepled fingers, his cold eyes radiating amusement.
"Strange how your younger brother escaped completely unharmed," he purred. "And that the police reports mention the two of you babbling something about magic, and your mother's remains."
Stubborn silence. Golden eyes retreated from the older man's face and aimed themselves at the floor instead.
"You're a bright boy, Edward. The tutors here at the orphanage say that your test scores are quite astronomical. So, I'm sure you know what the word 'asylum' means."
Those golden eyes widened in shock, but still stayed fixed on the scraped and scarred floorboards.
"Yeah," he said hesitantly. "It's a place…a place where they send people with mental disorders."
"That is the more common definition."
Edward shot to his feet faster than a speeding bullet. The chair legs dragged against the floor as his sudden movement launched it back.
"I'm not crazy! Neither is Al!"
The director leaned back in his chair, eyeing the boy's flushed face and trembling fists with great amusement.
"I do not fear for your sanity, Edward," he said, in a voice that clearly stated the opposite. "Nor your brother's. But some of your…beliefs do cause me concern."
"We stopped," Edward insisted, his voice hoarse and slightly afraid. "We don't talk about it anymore."
Lazily, the older man propped his chin on his hand.
"But can you honestly tell me that the belief is gone?" he asked.
Defeated, the boy dropped his face to the floor again.
"We don't know why," he said, almost to himself. "We can't explain it. But Al can do things. He's special."
"Of that I have no doubt. But the degree to which you believe he is special worries me."
Those gloved hands fisted even tighter.
"So, you're sending us to one these asylums. Because you think we're crazy."
"As I said before, you're an astoundingly bright boy, Edward," the older man said. "However, I can see that there is still something I can teach you. Are you not aware that the word 'asylum' has two meanings?"
Edward jerked his shoulder, a helpless movement that still managed to carry an edge of defiance.
"The first is indeed the one you provided me with. But 'asylum' can also mean sanctuary, or refuge." The director's chair creaked as he leaned forward. "Something that I think that you and your brother are in desperate need of. To be honest, Edward, your mental fragility doesn't really surprise me."
"I am not fragile," the boy snarled under his breath.
The director released a small chuckle.
"To lose both your mother and your father, and to care for your younger brother at such a young age-"
"Al and I didn't lose that bastard," Ed interrupted hotly. "He ran away."
"Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that you and your brother decided to create a more magical, fantastic lifestyle for yourself," the director continued, rolling right over the young man's protests. "But your delusions have reached a point that I worry for your stability. And a problem of that magnitude and nature is not something we are equipped to deal with here."
Edward was standing completely still, but the frustration rolling off of him almost gave him the appearance of vibrating.
"We're not unbalanced!" he spat. "It's real, we know it's real!"
The director smirked as the boy bit his lip, realizing that his words were doing nothing but strengthen the older man's cause.
"If you truly believe that, Edward, then think of this transfer as an opportunity for relaxation," he said. "If everything you've told me is true, then you've certainly earned it."
For a moment, the director thought that the teenager standing before him might actually use the fists he had clenched at his sides. He could see the rage, bubbling under the boy's surface. Had he been alone here, the director had no doubt that he'd be sprawled on the floor, and bleeding from various places on his face.
But Edward wasn't alone. His actions directly impacted someone else's life. And he wouldn't, and couldn't, ever let himself forget it.
So, instead of the lunge that his body begged him for, Edward checked his forward momentum. Although the bile of it choked him, he lowered his head in submission to the director's will.
"If I'm with Al," he whispered helplessly. "You can send me to the seventh circle of hell, if you want. As long as I can be with Al."
Later, after the boy trudged out, no doubt to tell his brother of their new living arrangements, the director leaned back in his chair once again. Idly, he reached a long-fingered hand for the phone.
"It's me," he said, once the voice on the other end answered. "I have news. Tell the hospital director that I'm sending two candidates your way."
He paused for a moment, cradling the phone against his ear.
"No," he said. "Just the younger one. But the older one shows great potential to be a conduit. He's incredibly attuned to his younger brother already."
Fingers idly tapped the desk as the director paused to listen once again.
"No, it's my pleasure. Yes, convey my gratitude to the hospital director. Thank you."
With a brisk click, Frank Archer hung up his phone. Content in the knowledge that the hospital director would reward him for his find, he swiveled in his chair to stare out the window at his back. A flash of gold caught his eye, and he saw Edward, weaving through the other children scattered around the orphanage's backyard. He made a beeline for the run down swing set that sat on the dry and brittle brown grass, and tugged on the hand of another boy, pulling him off the swing and to his feet. The boy was several inches taller, and his hair glimmered, a darker gold than his brother's. Edward pulled his younger brother close, leading him away from the swing set, and the other children. Not that that was a difficult task. Many of the children jumped out of the brothers' way, because Archer wasn't the only one familiar with the reputation attached to the Elrics.
Archer watched as Edward spoke quickly and quietly to his younger brother. When the boy lashed out, his rage driving him to plant a fist in the foundation of the building, a slow smirk curled Archer's lips.
Edward hated white walls. He was used to them, of course. Every orphanage he'd ever lived in had the same hopelessly blank color scheme, as unremarkable as the masses of children it shuffled through its doors. But that didn't make his loathing any less. At least this hospital made some sort of sad attempt to liven things up; there were several plastic vases full of flowers, and large rectangles of early spring sunshine filtered in through the barred windowpanes.
But the attempts, brave as they were, couldn't completely hide the fact that the walls surrounding them were white, so white that they burned your eyes if you looked at them too long. For all their supposed purity, it really was impossible to leave your mark on walls so white; the glare of them burned away any proof of your existence in the end. They were eternal, somehow, and they were strangely mocking. They'd seen a hundred faces before, but they refused to recall any of them, and Ed supposed that was why he hated them so much.
So, he focused instead on the floor in front of him. The old wood was scarred and scratched, and those signs of life almost made Ed gasp with relief. A single thought passed through his mind, soft and dry and sarcastic.
If I wasn't crazy when Archer sent me here, I sure as hell will be by the time I leave this place.
Ed was so wrapped up in his own internal dialogue that Al's quiet voice almost sent him flying five feet in the air.
"Yeah, Al," he said, once his heart stopped trying to escape his chest.
Al's fingers, which were hooked into the sleeve of Ed's black jacket, tightened nervously.
"Why are there bars on the windows?" he asked quietly. "The windows at the orphanage didn't have them."
Which orphanage, Al? Because some of them did.
"To keep people from jumping out, I guess," he said.
Ed's voice was light, but it cost him a lot to keep it that way. Claustrophobia had started digging in its jagged claws the moment the door had buzzed at his back, letting him know that it had locked behind him. The asylum may have looked marginally more cheerful than the orphanages, but no amount of cheer could hide the bars on the windows or the metal grates on the doors.
Ed had felt boxed in at the orphanages, but he'd always retained the quiet, somewhat smug belief that if he really wanted to go, he could figure out a way. The teachers didn't call him a prodigy for nothing. In the four years he'd spent being shuffled from place to place, it had never really occurred to him to run away. At first, because he was still recovering from his automail attachment surgery; getting adjusted to his prosthetics had taken upwards of fourteen months. And after that, his fantasies of freedom were always checked by the fear that if they were caught, they'd take Al away from him. But he'd never doubted that he could get away, if he really wanted to.
Ed looked at the old iron bars covering the windows, caught a glimpse of a giant man dressed in white with keys jangling from his belt, and felt truly trapped for the first time in his life.
"This is the living area."
The nurse that they'd been following, a buxom and undeniably beautiful woman in a tight fitting white uniform, stopped and waved a delicate hand at the open room. Ed glanced in her direction, caught sight of her long black hair and sharply sexy face, and went as red as a brick wall. He decided that looking at the indicated room, a large area filled with run-down couches and chairs, was probably better for his pride.
"Cozy," he said, studiously avoiding the nurse's face.
The nurse let out a laugh, a husky, purring sort of sound, and Ed flushed all the way to his ears.
"It certainly is," she said. "Please, follow me."
She started off down the hall again, her hips swaying. Al tugged on Ed's sleeve again.
"Brother, are you blushing?"
"Shut up, Al."
Further down the hallway, the frequent windows morphed into wooden doors, all firmly shut.
"These are the dormitories," the nurse said carelessly. "Where the other children sleep. You'll meet them later."
"Later?" Ed repeated. "What are we doing now?"
The nurse's husky voice shimmered with boredom.
"You're going to meet the Director," she said. "And the doctor who will be handling your treatment."
"Treatment?" Ed's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Doctor?" Al's free hand scrubbed at the back of his neck. "Do you think we're getting another physical, Brother?"
Ed shrugged, his eyes still narrowed at the nurse's back.
"Maybe," he said. "But I don't think it's that kind of doctor, Al."
"Oh." The fifteen year old teenager made a soft humming sound. The orphanage tutors all agreed that behind those sweet grey eyes, the boy possessed a mind nearly as sharp as his older brother's. "You think it's one of those psychiatrists that Mr. Archer had come visit the orphanage? The kind that tried to get us to share our feelings?"
Ed shrugged again.
"I don't know," he said, and a small, wicked smile curved his lips. "But if I hear that question one more time, the doctor's getting a fist to the face. An automail fist."
"Brother!" Al's voice wavered somewhere between amusement, and worry that Ed would do exactly as he promised.
"What?" Ed said, turning to let his brother see his smile. "Violence is a feeling. And there's really only one way to share it."
Al's nervous giggle made Ed's smile momentarily soften into something more real. If the sexy nurse had overheard any of the boys' conversation, she didn't seem terribly concerned by it. She stopped at a large and lavish wooden door at the end of the hall, and gave it a soft rap.
"Enter," a woman's voice called.
The nurse opened the door, and ushered the two boys inside. For a moment, all Ed could do was blink, and wait for his eyes to adjust. The walls had gone from painfully white to a soft and peaceful blue. He couldn't see past them for at least thirty seconds; it was like coming inside after staring at a meadow full of snow, everything was oddly colored.
Once the odd kaleidoscope of colors faded, however, Ed was able to take in his surroundings. He was standing in the entryway of some sort of office; three glass doors were partially hidden behind a large desk. A woman was seated there, her long brown hair falling over her face as she scribbled away at some paper.
"The Director is waiting for you in his office," she said without looking up.
"Is the doctor with him?" the black-haired nurse asked.
"I believe so."
Al's elbow nudged at Ed's spine.
"She has a pretty voice," he said, speaking right into Ed's ear. "Don't you think, Brother?"
A pretty voice? His little brother picked up on the strangest things sometimes.
The nurse led them past the desk, and to the glass door directly behind it. Again, she gave that soft rap, and this time a man's voice answered.
The nurse nudged them through the glass door and into another office. This one was smaller, clearly for personal use. An older man sat behind a large wooden desk, a desk littered with books and stray papers. He wore a comfortable looking suit and a jovial grin.
"You must be the Elric brothers!" he said. "Welcome, welcome. We've been expecting you."
There was nothing threatening about the man; he looked as sweet and harmless as an overeager puppy. But something about his voice, and the extreme friendliness in it, sent a chill dancing up Edward's spine.
"Yeah, hi," he said. He gave Al a subtle nudge, pushing his brother from his side to his back, so he could step in front of him.
The man's eyes danced, as if the motion had not been lost on him.
"Please, sit," he said, indicating two wooden chairs directly in front of the desk.
"Is that all, Director?" the nurse asked, tapping idle fingernails against her arm.
The Director looked up, gracing the nurse with a smile just as wide as he'd given the Elrics.
"Actually, no. Could you run and get our favorite patient? He has an empty room; the Elric brothers can set up camp with him after we've finished here."
The nurse nodded and disappeared out of the glass door. The Director refocused his attention on the boys.
"So, you must be Edward," he said cheerfully, pointing a finger at the scowling sixteen-year-old.
The Director turned, all smiles, to his younger brother.
"And that would make you Alphonse!" he said. He dropped Ed a sly wink, as if the two were the best of friends. "Looks like your younger brother has a couple of inches on you."
The blonde went rigid in his chair. His lips pulled back in a rather terrifying snarl, and the very fires of hell burst to life in his golden eyes.
"Uh-oh," Al muttered.
Edward lunged forward, and his younger brother caught him around the shoulders with the experience of a seasoned veteran.
"Are you calling me short?" he hissed.
"Come on, Brother, he didn't say that." Alphonse winced. "Well, not exactly, anyway."
The Director didn't seem at all intimidated by the older Elric's outburst. If anything, his charming smile seemed to widen.
"What an impressive amount of vigor!" he cried, clapping his hands in delight as he watched Alphonse pin a wiggling Edward to his chair.
"Such a strong reaction to such a commonplace insult is a strong indicator of an inferiority complex, Edward Elric."
The quiet voice cut through the room like a blade. Ed, who hadn't been aware of a fourth occupant, ceased his struggles immediately and went on instant alert, his eyes combing the corners for the next potential threat to his baby brother's safety. He relaxed, marginally, when he caught sight of the well-seasoned woman reclining against the far wall.
"Now, that's not right, Doctor," the Director said mildly. "I didn't insult the boy, after all. I only made an observation."
The woman smiled. She'd been so quiet and still, standing in the corner, that Ed hadn't noticed her until now. He should have been able to classify her as a non-threat after getting one good look at her; she was old, after all, older than the Director. Her silver hair was scraped back into a soft bun, and gentle wrinkles lined her face. Her shoulders had the smallest hunch to them, the barest bending that was the byproduct of age.
But her appearance, similar to the Director's voice, sent an unexplainable chill of uneasiness dancing up Edward's spine. A single thought drifted across his mind, a burst of intuition that left him alternately on guard, and bewildered.
Everyone here has a mask.
"You're the doctor?" Ed asked.
The woman nodded, folding her hands neatly at her waist.
"Yes. I'll be handling your treatment."
Ed rocked back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.
"There's that word again," he said. "What exactly does this 'treatment' consist of?"
"I won't know until I complete your individual evaluations," the woman replied. "Depending on the severity of your condition, your treatment could consist of therapy, or medication, or possibly a combination of both."
"What condition?" Ed snapped, unfolding his arms to place a protective hand on his brother's shoulder. "Al and I don't have a condition."
Ed's harsh tone seemed to faze the woman about as much as a butterfly brushing her face. Her rounding shoulders lifted in a genteel shrug.
"Mr. Archer, the director of the last orphanage you lived in, described to us that the two of you appear to have a hard time separating fantasy from reality," she said, her voice serene. "While make-believe is fairly common, and especially in children your age, Mr. Archer wrote that the two of you are so immersed in a world of your own creation that you actually suffer from delusions. This suggests a certain sort of escapism, a need to fabricate a more fantastic lifestyle in order to block out a harsher reality." The doctor smiled into Ed's stunned and almost furious face. "That's not a complete diagnosis. As I said, I'll know more after you individual evaluations."
"That's an awful lot of words for such an incomplete diagnosis, Doctor," Ed said through gritted teeth.
That old, familiar frustration began to boil under Edward's skin. Having a tragic past didn't make him delusional. He and Al had made a promise, shortly after the death of their mother, to keep moving forward, to never let their past taint who they might become. That promise forced Ed to be strong, in both body and mind, because he'd never had the option to be anything else, not when he had Al to look after. And Ed knew that his brother had his own brand of strength, a quieter power that was all but unshakeable. They were sound, and they were sane, and they both knew it. But short of demonstrating the 'fantastic lifestyle' that had landed them here in the first place, Ed had nothing to prove to these two strangers.
In this instance, the truth really could set them free. But Ed was a jaded child; he didn't believe in Santa Claus, and he certainly didn't believe that being an adult made you benevolent by default. In his experience, reaching hands got greedier with age. If they showed them the things they were capable of, things that weren't supposed to exist in this world, did Edward really expect these adults to let such a rare gift go skipping off into the merry sunset?
He stayed silent, and clamped his hand down hard on his brother's shoulder, a warning for him to keep quiet as well.
"It is my belief that there can be no true healing without trust," the doctor said. "So please, Edward, call me Dante. Don't think of me as your doctor. I'd like us to be friends."
"Oh, yeah," Edward muttered. "That's going to happen."
The Director either didn't hear Edward's sarcastic comment, or he chose to ignore it.
"Wonderful!" he said, clapping his hands together. "It seems we're starting things off on the right foot. You'll meet the other children at dinner tonight, and we can all go over the rules of this hospital then."
"Rules?" Al repeated.
The Director beamed the younger brother a friendly smile.
"Standard procedure," he said breezily. "Just a few guidelines to make sure the sailing around here stays smooth."
"And I'll let you know the time of your individual evaluations once I take a peek at my schedule," Dante added.
"Individual?" he asked suspiciously. "Why can't Al and I go together?"
The old woman smiled again, and Ed's hand curled into an instinctive fist. Uh-oh. If she pissed him off this much in a simple sit-down meeting, then their little therapy sessions didn't have a very bright future.
"No hitting the doctors, Brother," Al whispered, giving Ed's hand a soothing pat.
"Not until they give me a reason," Ed promised.
Al rolled his eyes.
"While the bond you and your brother share is admirable, you are in fact two separate patients," Dante said, answering Ed's earlier question. "And so you will be treated as such."
"No one takes Al away from me," Ed said, his voice flat and final.
The Director and Dante exchanged a meaningful glance.
"If your condition poses no threat to the other children, you'll be allowed to participate in the group therapy sessions," Dante said.
"And of course, you'll be with Al all the time outside of your treatment," the Director added, somewhat hastily. "No one is trying to take your brother away, Edward."
A gentle knock interrupted the Director's reassurances.
The glass door opened, and a boy eased his way inside the office. Ed spun around in his chair, and narrowed his eyes at the newcomer. The kid was older than him, seventeen, or maybe even eighteen. He was tall (this inspired immediate and instinctive loathing on Edward's part), and somewhat thin. His clothes were worn, but impeccably neat, and he stood like someone had jammed a steel rod up his spine.
"You sent for me, Director?" he said softly.
The Director leaned back in his chair, causing springs to creak.
"I did!" he greeted joyfully. "Come in, Roy, and shut the door behind you."
Ed's eyes narrowed even more as they fixed on the boy's face. His skin was very white, made even paler by his dark hair. He had a handsome face, and at the moment, it was arranged into an expression of polite interest. He reminded Ed of a paper doll, something thin and frail and without motive until the owner arranged it.
But then his eyes, black or possibly a very dark blue, locked onto to Ed's golden and inquisitive gaze. And Ed sucked in a deep breath, battling back the shudder that wanted to rip down his spine. Those eyes had such weight; they burned with something else. Something that hinted at great strength, or maybe madness. Ed wondered if the adults could see it, and realized that this boy proved his earlier hypothesis, proved it irrefutably.
Everyone here has a mask.
Ed was undeniably fidgety as he and Al followed Roy out of the Director's office and back down the hall. He couldn't decide if this was because he was back amongst the white walls, or because the freakishly tall boy in front of him had yet to toss a single word in his direction. He'd talked to the Director, sure, in a perfectly polite and proper voice that completely belied the something that Ed had seen burning in his eyes. He'd even bowed before they'd left the office, not a big one, more like a little head bob in the Doctor's direction, but Ed had still noticed it because seriously, what the hell?
But he hadn't said a single thing to either Elric brother, not even when the Director had informed him that they were his new roommates. And when the Director had requested that Roy show them to their new room and help them 'settle in' (all with that gentle smile that Ed trusted less and less every time he saw it), Roy had left the office without so much as a backward glance, obviously assuming that the Elrics would follow.
"Brother," Al murmured, leaning close to the older boy's ear. "Are you…dancing?"
Ed paused in the process of shuffling from foot to foot.
"What? No, Al."
"Then why are you…shimmying?"
Ed scowled at his baby brother.
"Shut up," he suggested. "I'm antsy."
Al smothered a smile. Roy picked one of the white doors out of the seemingly endless stretch of them, and stopped in front of it.
"In here," he said, giving the wood a little push. His voice was carefully blank; he was the paper doll again. Whatever Ed had seen burning in his eyes back in the Director's office was long gone.
"Oh, look at that. He does speak!"
"Brother. Be nice."
They walked inside the room, and it was certainly more…spacious than Ed had been expecting. He was used to the cramped and often uncomfortable quarters of the orphanages, tight spaces that had faded to shades of dirty gray. This room was surprisingly open; sunlight filtered through the window bars, and tree branches tapped gently against the glass panes. There was a bed underneath each of the two windows, and a third was pressed against the opposite wall. Each bed had its own nightstand, and a little colored rug resting at its side.
"Far one's mine," Roy said, pointing to one of the window beds.
You wouldn't know it by looking. There were no tangled sheets, or cluttered picture frames, nothing at all that signified ownership. Roy's bed was just as ruthlessly made as the other two, and there were no personal effects on the adjoining dresser. The only thing that verified the boy's claim was the corner of a suitcase, sticking out from under the bed.
"Bathroom's through there," he continued, nodding at the adjoining door that neither of the Elrics had noticed.
"We get our own bathroom?" Al asked, amazed.
It had been so long that it was almost a foreign concept. A single bathroom was a luxury that neither boy had had since their home burned down.
"There's one per room," Roy explained. "So you'll have to share it with your brother, and with me."
Ed snorted. Share with two people? No problem. He and Al were used to sharing a single bathroom with upwards of fifty.
"Classy," he observed. "You and I should have pretended to be nuts a long time ago, Al."
"No pretending needed on your part, Brother," Al shot back with easy humor. "I'll take the bed by the bathroom. You can have the window."
The guilt was instant, popping against Ed's chest like hot and uncomfortable needles, and his cheerful smile vanished.
"No, Al, you-"
His little brother flashed patient gray eyes in his direction and set his battered knapsack decisively on his chosen bed.
"Take it," he said again, almost gently. "I don't mind."
It was hard for Ed to bite back the instinctive urge to give Al the better, give him the best, because didn't he deserve it, after everything he'd done? But the quiet conviction on his brother's face forced him to swallow down his protests, and give a careless shrug instead.
"Sure, Al," he said, even though it choked him. "If that's what you want."
Later, much later, it would occur to Ed that Roy had watched the entire exchange in complete silence, his dark eyes deep and assessing as he catalogued information.
Ed set his own meager sack of belongings down on the thin blue blanket covering his bed. He didn't have much; a couple sets of clothes, some basic toiletries, and a few things he'd managed to pilfer from the wreckage of his house once he'd been healed enough to go back and sift through the gutted remains.
"It looks like you've been living on your own for a while," Al said to Roy, as he started pulling things from his sack. "I hope we won't invade your privacy too much."
He pulled a battered picture frame from his bag and placed it on his night stand. The photo inside, slightly colored and curling at the corners, depicted a sweet-faced woman holding on to two grinning boys.
Al had beaten his older brother to the charred ruin of their house by about a week.
"These rooms are huge, Al," Ed snorted, flopping back on his new bed without bothering to unpack at all. "He can share his precious space a little."
For a moment, Roy didn't say anything. He just observed the older Elric with his eerily empty eyes. Then, he turned, and echoed Al's polite smile.
"I'm sure you won't be any trouble," he said, and there was just enough emphasis on the word 'you' to furrow Edward's brow.
Roy crossed to his own mattress and sat down. Although his body pointed towards the older Elric now, he kept his face turned in Al's direction.
"The beds are a bit short. You might have some problems sleeping comfortably."
Again, Roy stressed the word 'you' just enough to catch Edward's attention. Tapping his heels against the sheets, and stretching his toes to try and touch the bed frame, Ed frowned and tried to puzzle out exactly what it was about Roy's sentence that bothered him so much.
The synapses fired, the connection was made, and Ed's face flushed a bright and brilliant red as he reared up in his bed like some avenging dolphin of death.
"WHO ARE YOU CALLING SO SHORT HE COULD SLEEP UPSIDE DOWN ON A SEWING NEEDLE, YOU JERK?"
Al snickered into the stack of clothes he was dutifully folding. Roy tilted his head, his face as blank as ever as he considered Edward's outburst. Then his eyes, (which were blue, Ed could confirm, now that he was so close), filled with something completely unexpected, and a little bit unnerving.
Delight. Unadulterated and entirely unholy glee.
"My, my," he said, and his voice was the purr of a lion politely snickering at its deluded prey. "Have a bit of a complex, Elric?"
And just who the hell was this person? Roy's face was no longer empty; it was filled instead with easy and arrogant humor. A smug smirk twisted his formerly expressionless lips, and his dark eyes all but danced. The shift was so sudden, and so utterly unexpected, that Ed actually floundered for a moment, his brain stalling out like a car shifting gears.
"I-I do not have a complex!" Ed sputtered, once he finally forced his brain to function. He scowled as he recalled Doctor Dante diagnosing him with the same thing. "Why does everyone keep saying that?"
Roy tapped his fingers gently on his knee.
"I can't imagine," he said lightly, but that underlying current of humor was still there, like a snicker caught in his throat. "Perhaps we're just trying to get a…rise…out of you."
In a flash of gold and black that was almost too fast for the human eye to see, Ed went from sitting up on his bed to standing on the mattress, his hands held over his head like clubs. Roy didn't blink as Ed began to march up and down his mattress, waving his fists like flags and ranting loud enough to shake the window panes.
"What the hell is with you? First, you don't talk, like some sort of freak, and then you open your mouth and turn into an even bigger freak-"
Al stopped unpacking and parked himself on his new bed instead. He propped his chin on his palm and watched, his sweet face warm with amusement and exasperation.
"-Not like I'm even that short, you jackass, you just happen to be freakishly tall, and who cares anyway, because I could still kick your overly dainty ass if I had half a mind to-"
Roy's grin stretched wider and wider with every word Edward uttered. His dark eyes had taken on the maniacal gleam of a semi-destructive child that had just been handed a brand new toy to take apart.
"-Pain, there will be lots of pain, and your demise shall be horrible and slow, just like your stupid brain-"
Al sighed. He wondered how many ribs Roy was bruising by holding in that laugh.
"-With a giant, wooden stick and a bucket of soap!" Ed finished triumphantly, planting his fisted hands on his hips.
Roy took a moment to further contemplate the diminutive blonde still bouncing on his mattress like rage-filled pogo stick.
"…What a short temper you have, Elric."
"Ugh!" Too exhausted to continue ranting, Ed flopped back down on his bed and fixed Roy with a heated glare. "Bastard."
Al shook his head and regained his feet, turning back to his unpacking now that the show was over. But before he could get a hand back inside his knapsack, a short knock sounded on the door.
"Dinner," the nurse from before informed them in her husky voice. They heard her heels click a short distance down the hall, and she repeated the same announcement to the next door down.
"Time to meet the other patients," Roy said, pushing to his feet. Dark eyes flashed easy amusement at the older Elric. "I can't wait to show you off."
"Bastard," Ed repeated. "I'm not your toy!"
Roy's smirk demonstrated just how much he disagreed. They were late in leaving their room, because Al insisted that Ed repair the damage he'd done to his blankets by stomping all over them. So, by the time they reached the dining room, all of the other patients were already assembled. The room wasn't big, and there weren't that many people in it, maybe fifteen. But Al took one look at the sea of new faces, felt the weight of several curious stares, and reached for his brother's jacket, curling his fingers around the sleeve. Ed shifted just a little, so that he was walking in front of Al, instead of at his side.
There were only two tables, each a big circle surrounded by wooden chairs. Roy led them to the one on the left. He ignored the occupants of the other table completely.
The people at Roy's table greeted them with easy grins. Four normal-looking guys, and two…
"Hey!" Ed blurted. "There are girls in here!"
Giggles and snickers erupted from the table's occupants. Roy turned to look at Ed over his shoulder, his eyebrow so high on his forehead it was almost in his hair.
"Do you have a problem with girls, Elric?"
Ed's briefly considered curling up and dying on the spot. Especially when the pretty blonde winked one big blue eye at him.
"No," he hissed, and gave Roy a look that guaranteed a slow and painful death. "They just…we never…at the orphanages, they separated us out." Ed was aware that he was babbling, and that he was blushing, and he cursed himself for both.
"Ah. Well, never fear, Elric. I promise that they don't bite."
"Shut up, Bastard," Ed muttered, as he and Al dropped into two available seats.
"We don't bite," the pretty blonde added, gesturing to herself and to another, more somber blonde seated at her side. "I can't really say the same for Martel, though."
Ed's eyes followed the blonde's pointing finger to the other table, where yet another blonde, this one with hair chopped short and spiky, sat with a small crowd of boys. She noticed Edward's stare, and bared her teeth in his direction.
"Friendly," Ed observed, jerking his gaze back to his own table.
"She's a joy to room with," the pretty blonde agreed, her voice as dry as dust. "I'm Winry, by the way. Winry Rockbell."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Edward Elric. This is my younger brother, Alphonse."
Al beamed a shy and radiant smile, but under the table, his fingers stayed locked in Edward's sleeve.
Introductions were passed around the table. The somber blonde on Winry's right side introduced herself as Riza Hawkeye. Ed noticed right away that her solemn sherry eyes seemed permanently fixed on Roy when she thought no one was looking. The boy seated next to Riza introduced himself as Jean Havoc. Ed caught the faint whiff of smoke when he leaned forward to shake hands, and saw the way that Jean tapped his fingers nervously against his front pocket, and concluded that the guy was a smoke smuggler. Ed was quite familiar with his type; cigarettes technically weren't allowed inside the orphanages, and so the resulting black market system that had sprung up would have done any prison proud.
On Havoc's left, a boy that called himself Breda gave Ed a wide and friendly grin. He was a little larger than the others, but he was solid, more muscle than fat. Next to Breda, a boy that looked younger than the rest of them, maybe Al's age, introduced himself as Kain Fuery. He was small, thin, and shy, and Ed's protective instincts nearly went into overdrive at the sight of him. Seated next to Fuery was Falman, a boy with a stubbornly blank face who apparently had the power to see without opening his eyes.
Ed observed the way they all looked at Roy, with a quiet kind of loyalty reflected in their eyes, and concluded that the Bastard was apparently their ringleader. Although why anyone would choose to follow such a smart-mouthed jackass was totally beyond his understanding.
"So, Mustang has roommates again, huh?" Havoc said, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Mustang? Bastard, really? You couldn't think of a better nickname?"
Mustang folded his fingers on the table in front of him.
"It happens to be my last name, Elric."
Breda let out a howling laugh of delight.
"Bastard?" he repeated. "That's his pet name for you? How long have you two known each other?"
"It only took five minutes," Ed assured him darkly.
Breda laughed again, reaching over to give Falman a solid thump on the back. Falman bore this with the faintest hint of a long-suffering expression.
Ed sat back in his seat, a puzzled smile bowing his lips.
"I don't get it," he said, after a moment of quiet consideration. "I mean, none of you look crazy." He flushed when all eight sets of eyes turned in his direction. "I didn't mean it like that!" He sputtered. "It's just…this is an asylum, right? Shouldn't you all be speaking in tongues, or holding conversations with the voices in your heads, or something?"
"We leave the professional crazy to Kimblee and Greed," he said, jerking his thumb at the other table. "Trust me, it's more than enough."
Conversation flowed back and forth like water. Ed fielded questions from around the table, answering the easier ones with polite enthusiasm (How old are you? Where are you from? Do you like it here so far?), and bouncing back the harder ones with practiced ease (Orphanages? Where are your parents? Hey, why are you wearing gloves in the middle of spring?). Eventually, Al began to talk as well, hesitantly at first, and then with the warm sweetness that always drew others in. At some point, food was served, heavy dishes of actually decent food brought out by a round little man with vacant eyes and strong white teeth.
"So hungry," he moaned, as he slid a bowl of mashed potatoes under Ed's nose. "Such a waste.."
Ed eyed the food (and the server) with great unease, and made a solemn promise to avoid the kitchen like the plague.
After the food was gone, and Ed was fuller than he'd been in a long time (there was never enough to go around at the orphanages, and more often than not, Ed sacrificed some of his share to his ever-growing brother), the conversation inside the dining room shut off like a switch as the Director ambled in, all benevolent smiles.
"Good evening, children," he said, standing at the front of the room with his hands tucked behind his back. "I'm delighted to see that you've all done such an excellent job of welcoming our new arrivals."
The other table scoffed.
"Now, just as when you arrived, we'll go over the rules, so that our newest patients know what to expect of their new living arrangements. Firstly, all orders given by hospital personnel are to be obeyed without question. Remember that we are only here to help you, and that any commands we may give are within your best interests."
Someone at Ed's table snickered, very softly. It might have been Breda.
"Secondly, any outside communication with friends or family members must pass through us first. Not because we wish to invade your privacy, but because some details of your treatment become ineffective when shared."
Ed frowned a little over this one, but then gave a tiny shrug. Who did he have to write to anyway? His bastard father? No, Ed had all the family he needed here with him.
"Thirdly, you are not allowed to leave the hospital without the express permission of myself or Doctor Dante. The yard behind the building may be accessed without it, but even then you must bring at least one orderly as an escort."
Ed tapped his fingers on the table and tried not to notice that the white walls seemed suddenly closer, pressing up against him.
"And lastly, please remember that certain areas of the hospital are off limits. This includes the isolation ward, the private treatment rooms, and the adult wing. The consequences for breaking this rule are regrettably severe, so please be sure to never put yourself in a position where we must enforce them."
This time Ed's frown was full-blown. Isolation ward? Private treatment rooms? There were adult patients in this hospital? What the hell?
For some unfathomable reason, Ed looked across the table, at Mustang. The older boy caught his eye for a brief second, before looking away again. Ed turned his attention back to the Director as well, and told himself sternly that he was only imagining the sense of understanding that had seemed to pass between him and Roy.
"Follow these rules, and your stay here will be nothing but pleasant, and hopefully refreshing," the Director concluded.
Pleasant? Refreshing? This was an asylum, not some five-star hotel.
The round little man reappeared, and began clearing the plates. He was still moaning under his breath, lamenting the waste of such precious food on little brats. The Director checked his watch, and let out a quiet chuckle.
"Look at the time!" he exclaimed heartily. "I must get home to my wife and son. Children…I wish you all a very agreeable evening."
"Children," Winry repeated, shaking her head in quiet disgust as she watched the Director meander out the way he came. "Does he really have to call us that? We're teenagers!"
"Perhaps it's because some of us still retain the emotional maturity of children," Riza offered dryly, shooting a deadpan look at Havoc and Breda.
"So, now we just…go to bed?" Ed asked, tucking his hands in his pockets as the group rose from the table.
"Nope," Havoc said cheerfully. "We have to get drugged up first."
Ed and Al followed the group to the nurse's station, which was located right next to the outside door. The sexy nurse was waiting for them. Ed stepped back, confused, as the rest of the patients, even the as-yet un-introduced ones from the far table.
"Brother," Al whispered, tugging on his sleeve. "What are they doing?"
"I don't know, Al."
One by one, the patients stepped up to the little booth. They were each given a little paper cup, and after tossing back its contents like a good shot of alcohol, they were handed another little cup of water to chase it down. Finally, only the Elric brothers were left, and it was with great bewilderment that they approached the station upon the nurse's beckoning.
"So, boys, we meet again," she purred, before shoving paper cups into each brother's hand. "Here."
The nurse laughed, a husky sound from the back of her throat.
"First nights here are always rough," she explained. "These will help you sleep."
"Ah, sure. Listen, I don't really need these, and I don't think Al does either."
One perfectly plucked eyebrow arched.
"Really? You think so?"
"Ah…," Ed was on unfamiliar ground, and sinking fast, and so this response seemed to be all he was capable of.
The nurse leaned forward, resting her chin on her folded hands. Ed swallowed hard, and suddenly found himself fighting a desperate battle to keep his eyes above the nurse's neck.
"Are we going to have a problem?" she asked, her voice positively deadly. "Am I going to have to call the orderly?"
Flustered, flummoxed, and flushing, Ed glanced at his brother, gave a jerky shrug, and tossed back the tiny white pills. Al followed suit without a word.
"Good boy," the nurse crooned as she handed out the water. "Now run along."
Ed's face was positively dazed as he wandered away from the counter. He felt like he'd just been steamrolled…and had enjoyed every second of it.
"You okay there, Elric?" Breda asked him, with a friendly thump on his shoulder.
"That…totally wasn't fair," Ed decided after a quiet moment, his voice still a bit vacant. "She…bamboozled me with her…assets!"
Winry and Riza huffed. Havoc and Breda roared with laughter. Fuery gave a small smile, and even Mustang smirked a little.
Falman remained unimpressed.
"Aw, don't feel bad, Boss," Havoc said sympathetically. "There is a reason we call her 'Lust', after all. No man is immune."
"Ha! As if any man would want to be immune. Have you seen the size of her-"
Before Breda could finish his sentence, he was on his back, his eyes spinning in his head. And Winry, Ed realized with a dull sort of shock, was standing over him, a giant wrench in hand.
Judging by the lack of alarm on everyone's faces, this was a fairly normal occurrence.
"Don't be vulgar," Winry stated primly, tapping the instrument lightly against her palm.
"Brother," Al said faintly. "That thing is massive! Where d'you think she was hiding it?"
"…I really don't think I want to know, Al."
There was what Ed assumed was an orderly lounging against the far wall, a truly gigantic man dressed in white, with keys jangling on his belt. But he made no move to reprimand Winry for her violent behavior. Apparently, he didn't enforce bedtime either, because the group continued to chat, standing in a loose circle, and he didn't say a word.
After about twenty minutes, however, Ed noticed with vague alarm that the walls appeared to be spinning, revolving in a gentle circle of white. He squinted, in an attempt to make them stay still, but they only danced faster, and he briefly considered throwing up. He felt Al sway against his back, and reached out a hand to steady him. Somehow, that simple movement nearly sent them both to the floor.
"Oi, Mustang. Better get your new roommates to bed before they collapse at our feet."
Havoc's voice. But it sounded muffled somehow, like Ed was hearing it through thick wads of cotton.
"We should help. They don't look good." This from Fuery.
Ed felt strong hands slip under his elbows, and they might have been moving, but the walls were already shifting, and so it was hard to tell. They traveled for an eternity that lasted less than a millisecond, and then Ed felt something soft and wonderfully cool under his cheek. He buried his face in it, but then frowned as the hands left him. Someone was supposed to be holding on to him, right? He wasn't supposed to let him go. Ed struggled against the sneaking black vines creeping along the edge of his vision, wrapping around his body and weighing him down. It hurt, and it was hard, because the vines were so gentle, and that heaviness was terribly inviting.
"Al," he croaked.
"He's here, Ed. He's sleeping." Winry's voice, still sweet even from a distance.
Oh. Well, if Al was all right, then everything would be okay. With a sigh, Ed stopped fighting, and let the black vines twist around him. He thought he felt a hand, right before he fell, stroking against his hair.
"Mom?" he murmured, wrinkling his nose.
And then everything fell away.
The nightmare started the same as it always did. Ed opened his eyes to fire, a fire that he couldn't see and couldn't fight. But he could always feel it, wrapping around his limbs and eating at his skin like tiny, fang-filled mouths. He screamed as he watched the flames chew away his arm, tearing away bits of nerve and grizzled bone, screamed for his mother, for Al. But the creature that answered his call was neither. It was a bent and blackened thing, with huge lidless eyes, and bits of wet and fleshy organs exposed on its outsides. It opened its mouth, revealing a horrible set of completely perfect teeth, and made a dry clacking sound, like bug skeletons cracking under oblivious feet.
"No," Ed whispered. "No, you're not what we wanted, not her, you're not, don't touch me, nononono…"
And then there is white, white all around him, and something cold beneath his feet, and Ed becomes aware that his nightmare has changed. He feels floaty, funny, and there is a gentle pressure on his shoulder, steering him along.
"I brought the boy."
Bright lights, swift and searing, reflecting off all that white and blinding him.
"Excellent. Move him into position."
Gentle pressure again, and something soft like dust beneath his feet, and Ed looks down, and it takes him minutes (hours, an eternity) to process the thing he's standing on.
"No," he moans.
"Oh, look at that! The brat recognizes it!"
The voice is harsh, and Ed flinches away instinctively. He wants to move, to run from the symbol he's standing on. The symbol is death, and pain, and blood, so much blood. But he's heavy, far heavier than he remembers.
"Bring the other."
Hands on his shoulders, soft and uncertain, and a trembling voice breathes in his ear.
Al, Ed realizes. He wants to ask, to scream, what did we do, Al? Blood, too much, mine and yours, and still the absence of her, and so much fear.
Al, what did we do?
Suddenly, Al's hands are no longer gentle. The fire is back, biting at him, and his brother is the one bringing it. Al is screaming, high and sharp in Edward's ear, and he knows he has to help, he has to, because Al is everything, and all he has left. But he's screaming too, because it hurts, the fire hurts, and something inside him is being pushed, down and down, relentless. And it's a force both foreign and familiar, something that he recognizes, but not as his own, because it's Al's.
And then it's gone, and it takes…everything…in its wake. There's nothing, nothing left, and Ed is falling, and a soft voice is whispering in a quiet room.
And then it's black again, the white is gone, and Ed tries to struggle because Al, where is Al, he can't feel him anymore. But he can't, he's still too heavy, he can't even reach for the water on his cheeks.
The black swallows him whole.
Ed woke to the sound of his brother's voice, soft and unsteady and calling his name.
"Brother? Ed? Please wake up."
Ed jerked himself into a sitting position, and immediately regretted it. Pain lanced through his temples, turning his vision silver white, and then a sickly yellow. Every muscle in his body tightened and seemed to tear, before going as weak as water. Ed fell back on the pillows before he even registered moving. His breath whistled in a throat that felt ripped and raw, and he could taste something foul on the back of his tongue.
Once the pain backed down enough that Ed no longer thought he might puke from the force of it, he realized that Al was still calling his name.
"Brother?" Al's voice seemed to shake, to shrink. "I…I don't feel very good."
The sudden wetness on Ed's face reached his lips, and a cautious sweep of his tongue revealed it to be blood. Hopefully from his nose.
"Yeah," Ed agreed, his voice weak and wrecked. "I'm not feeling too great myself, Al."
Ed turned his head, a simple movement that left him exhausted, in an attempt to see his baby brother. Instead, his pain-glazed golden eyes landed on Mustang, who was awake, fully clothed, sitting on his tightly made bed, and watching Edward intently.
"Bastard?" Ed asked weakly.
Roy's eyes were burning again, the paper doll on fire inside.
"Elric," he said softly. "You heard what the nurse said. The first night here is always rough."
"So, Edward. Tell me about your feelings."
Ed ground his teeth together, hard. He'd promised that the first doctor to inquire after his emotions would get an automail fist to the face. It was just the old lady's good luck that he was still completely trashed from his little dream adventure the night before, and so couldn't work up the motivation.
"At the moment, they're a little less than friendly," he offered instead, a warning.
Dante tapped her pen gently against the notebook resting in her lap.
"Really?" she asked. "And why is that?"
Because I got to relive the worst moment of my life last night, in stereo. And because your bullshit white walls morphed my nightmare into something even worse.
"Didn't sleep well."
Dante made a humming sound deep in her throat. To some people, it might have come off as a concerned sound, but Ed's intuition heard some sneaky layer of amusement hidden underneath.
"Yes, the first nights here can be difficult. Although, I think that's true of any new place." Dante's smile was soft, but as sharp as a blade. "I'm sure, as someone who has been moving from orphanage to orphanage for years now, that you'll adjust quickly."
Dante didn't seem deterred by Ed's apparent determination to answer in monosyllables.
"Was there any specific source for your lack of decent sleep?" she asked politely. "Restlessness, perhaps? Adjusting to an unfamiliar bed? Or maybe…nightmares?"
Flames, and a twisted black shape that was never what he never wanted.
Bare feet on a cold floor marked with something that meant fear, and pain, and loss.
Al's hands on his shoulders, pushing something hot and hurting and too much through his skin.
"No," he answered shortly, and Dante hummed again.
"I read your file," she said, shifting gears with a suddenness that had Ed bristling. He would've sat up (he felt ridiculous lying down on Dante's couch), but the searing headache still hot-wiring his brain kept him where he was.
"Yeah?" he said sourly. "Well, yippee for you."
"Why don't you tell me about that night."
Ed's aching body protested the entire way, but he managed to fold his arms behind his head in a studied show of complete indifference.
"Which night?" he asked, forcing an uninterested tone. "Narrow it down for me."
Dante's smile was still soft, but her eyes were glittering. It gave Ed the uneasy impression of someone so assured of their own power, that they could afford to be amused by the little games Ed was trying to play.
Squeeze it out of you, that smile said. Everything you never wanted to tell me. I'll get it in the end, Edward.
Ed bared his teeth in a smile of his own.
Like hell, Lady.
"The night of the fire," Dante clarified. "The night that cost you your childhood house, and your limbs."
"Straight to the hard stuff, huh?" Ed asked, with great irritation. He would have attempted a careless stretch, if his body hadn't just informed him that it would kill itself on the spot if he forced it to move again. "You just told me that you've read the file."
"Details can be missed when the story is told from a second-hand perspective," Dante countered smoothly. "I want to hear your version, Edward. The real version."
"You sound like Archer," Ed muttered.
For a moment, he was quiet. The light in Dante's office was dim, and the couch, for all that he felt ridiculous for draping himself over it, really was comfortable. His aching body whispered that he might be able to get out of sharing the memory by feigning (or actually falling into) sleep. But he had to kill as much time as possible, because Al's appointment was next, and his younger brother was still curled up in bed, apparently suffering from the same sort of full-body misery as Ed.
So he heaved a long-suffering sigh, and started to talk.
"After Mom got sick and passed away, Al and I lived in the house on our own. Resimbool's not a big town, so a lot of the villagers felt sorry for us, and helped us out. They left us food sometimes, and the farmers gave me jobs out in the fields, even though I was only thirteen."
"What about your father?" Dante asked, dutifully taking notes.
Ed snorted a little.
"Haven't seen the bastard in years," he said, and tried to ignore the old, familiar ache. "He took off when I was a kid. We tried to find him when Mom got sick, but he never showed."
"So it was just you and your brother, hardly more than children, and all alone in that big house," Dante said, and the sympathy in her voice made Ed want to puke. "You must have been terribly lonely."
Ed shrugged, and then winced as his body gave him the metaphorical middle finger.
"We kept busy," he said, carefully casual. He gave a grim little smile as he recalled nights punctuated by burning eyes, books with strange names, and ink-stained hands. "We read a lot."
"Brother…these books…what does this mean?"
"I think…I think it means that there's a way, Al. A way to bring Mom back."
"We lived like that for a year," Ed continued. "And we did okay. But one night, it was cold, and we were up late. Reading."
"Brother." Al's face, earnest and white with fear in the light of the flickering flames. "Are you sure? There's still so much that we don't know-"
"Come on, Al. This is our shot. The books explain it well enough. We'll be fine."
"We didn't see it at first," Ed stated flatly. "Didn't notice it. But the fire…it got out."
Hands pressed to a symbol still so new, and unfamiliar.
"You're doing great, Al. Just a little more."
"Brother…something doesn't feel right."
"It all fell apart so fast. Before we could stop it, everything went wrong."
Al's voice, a screaming plea of desperation. And Ed's certainty, underneath his terrible fear, that he has to protect the only family he has left.
"Al! Give him back, you bastard! Let go!"
"The fire took everything. But I wouldn't let it take what was really important."
Lidless eyes watching him from an endless expanse of white. Nausea and terror twisted in his belly at the wrongness of this place. But relief, at least, that Al was not here with him.
And then a smile, huge and spreading and obscene, followed by pain, unbelievable pain and a deep voice cutting through his helpless screams.
"The payment is fair."
Dante's voice made him jump.
"And then?" she prompted, and Ed realized that he'd faded into contemplative silence.
"And then Al got me out," he said, his voice flat and final. "I don't remember a lot of it, I blacked out. But he told the paramedics that I'd lost my arm and leg because I threw myself on top of him when the burning ceiling collapsed."
"Ed! What happened? Where did you go?" A moan of pain, and a horrified gasp. "Brother…your arm, and your leg, and…what happened?"
"The payment…he said the payment was fair…"
The sound of bending boards, and greedy flames.
"Brother, we have to get out! Let me carry you!"
Swinging in Al's careful hands, and blinding pain at a sudden stop. Opening his eyes to realize that Al has stumbled over the black shape on the floor.
"Brother…what…is that what we…"
"Leave it, Al. The payment…we paid for it." Smoke stinging his eyes, and black shadows dancing along his consciousness. "So we can let it burn."
A wave of pain, and despair, and terrible, crushing disappointment, followed by the sudden absence of the world.
"How noble," Dante murmured, scribbling busily on her notepad.
"Yeah," Ed said, and closed his eyes. He was tired now, achingly tired in addition to his battered body.
"And so you've been in and out of orphanages ever since," Dante concluded, putting her pen down and surveying Ed over hands that she folded neatly under her chin.
He closed his eyes and longed desperately for sleep, sleep left uninterrupted by memories of fire and failure.
"Tell me, Edward. How would you describe your relationship with Alphonse?"
Ed's weary eyes refused to open all the way.
"With Al?" he repeated blankly. "Al's important. Everything else isn't."
"I see. And would you say that you can accurately interpret Al's feelings?"
Ed yawned, and then reminded himself that he was supposed to be playing tough and unreachable, not melting into the Doctor's couch. But reliving that memory just made him so damn tired.
"Sure," he said, and forced voice away from the sleepy drawl he'd been using. "Al's an open book. He's never had a mean thought in his entire life."
"How sweet." Dante scratched her pen against paper a few more times, and then rose to her feet with a steady smile. "I think that concludes today's session. You did very well for your first time, Edward."
"Yeah. Whatever." The pain of rolling off the couch woke Ed up a little.
"Please remind your brother that his appointment is at four," Dante said to Ed's retreating back.
Ed spun on his heel (a motion that turned the dull roar of pain in his skull into a vicious scream) and managed a protective snarl.
"I'll remind him. But listen, Lady, you better go easy on him, or I'll-"
"You'll what?" Dante asked, amusement coloring her voice again. "Was our time today so grueling that you feel you must fear for your brother's safety? Do I strike you as the kind of person who would interrogate a boy that you just described as being incapable of so much as a mean thought?"
Ed scowled, and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
"Don't trust you," he muttered, and kicked at the floor.
Dante's smile spread.
"Well, we'll have to work on that, won't we?" she asked. "Perhaps in our next session."
Ed resisted the urge to bare his teeth again, and turned towards the door instead.
"I hope your dreams are sweeter tonight," Dante tossed at his retreating back.
Edward snorted, and slammed the door a little behind him, just on principle. He briefly considered sticking out his tongue, but then he noticed Roy, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and the barest hint of a smirk decorating his face.
"Was that necessary?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Ed's scowl, already in place, darkened dangerously.
"Shut up, Bastard. What are you doing here?"
Roy gave a careless shrug, and rocked himself away from the wall.
"I came to walk you back to the room," he said. "You weren't looking very steady when you left this morning."
It was nice gesture. Ed didn't trust it at all.
"What, you think I can't walk on my own?" he asked hotly.
"Quit being so prickly," he suggested.
"So, what did you and Doctor Dante talk about?"
"Why do you care?"
"It's called making conversation, Elric. Ever heard of it?"
"Jerk. We talked about my feelings, obviously. Isn't that what this stupid hospital is for?"
Roy's eyebrow arched just a little higher.
"Your feelings? I've only seen two settings out of you, Elric. Frigid, sarcastic suspicion and explosive, entertaining rage. They can't have taken that long to talk about."
Ed was totally going to punch him for that. Once his head stopped screaming.
"Frigid?" he repeated instead. "This from the guy who has not only a stick, but the entire metal pole, flag and all, shoved up his butt?"
"What lovely imagery, Elric," Roy muttered, his face twisted with distaste.
They reached the room. Ed bounded through the door first, his sudden desire to check on Al temporarily outweighing his aching body. He stopped short when he recognized Havoc, apparently playing cards on Mustang's bed.
"Hi, Boss!" the boy greeted cheerfully. "How was your first session?"
"Ah…fine. Where's Al?"
Havoc waved a hand at the bed by the bathroom.
"Sleeping," Havoc said, and sure enough, Ed could see his brother's tousled hair decorating the pillow. "Mustang said he looked a little rough, so he asked me to come sit with him while you were away."
Another nice gesture. Ed blinked, and then turned in Roy's direction, his golden eyes wrinkled with confusion.
Roy moved one shoulder up and down.
"Havoc, what time is your session?"
Havoc looked at the clock on the wall, and snorted.
"Five minutes ago," he said with a giant grin. "I'd better go before the good Doctor sends an orderly to find me."
He jumped off the bed and gathered up his cards.
"Hey…thanks," Ed said, as the boy strode past him to the door. "For sitting with Al."
"No problem, Boss," Havoc said. "Just another part of active duty." He flipped Roy and Ed a little salute. "Later."
"Active duty?" Ed repeated, once Havoc had exited the room. "Is he here because he has delusions of military life, or something?"
Roy laughed a little.
"You're not as wrong as you think," he said. "I'm going to go find Riza. You should take a nap, or something. You look terrible."
"Gee, thanks," Ed said dryly, knowing it was absolutely true. He opened his mouth to thank Roy, just like he'd done for Havoc, but the bastard turned around at the last second and that stupid smirk made the words shrivel on Ed's tongue.
Still, Roy had looked out for Al, and attention must be paid.
"We talked about my house," Ed offered instead, in a quiet voice. "It burned down a couple years ago. That's how Al and I ended up in an orphanage."
Roy halted his forward momentum. The glint in his eyes acknowledged Ed's sacrifice, and appreciated it.
"Burned down?" he repeated. "Really? How'd you pull that one off, Elric?"
And then they were back.
"It was an accident, Bastard," he snarled.
"Hmm," Roy mused, and somehow the sound was different on him than it was on Dante. Ed believed the underlying sympathy here. "Get some sleep."
Ed's body shrieked in agreement. But even as he sagged down onto his mattress, an alarm bell went off in his brain.
"Al has a session at four," he muttered, trying to stop his eyes from fluttering.
"I'll wake him up if you don't."
And with that, Ed surrendered to sleep, because he actually believed that Mustang would.
Ed woke to someone gently shaking his shoulder. His first instinct was to snarl, and spit, and possibly shove the person into oblivion. But then he recognized the soft voice next to his ear.
"Brother? Ed, are you awake?"
"Al," he mumbled, un-smashing his face from the pillow. He blinked groggy golden eyes at his brother's face, and tried to pretend that his head didn't weigh a million pounds. "You gotta session. Four."
Al, well used to interpreting his brother's barely awake language, only smiled.
"I already had it."
Ed, who was still trying to convince his face that it did not belong back in the pillows, managed a garbled; "Bwah?"
"Brother, it's a quarter past six. Dinner's in fifteen minutes."
Ed nodded along sleepily. And then Al's message hit his brain, and his golden eyes popped wide.
"What?" he nearly shrieked, and all but catapulted himself into a sitting position. "Why didn't somebody wake me up?"
Al, too familiar with Ed's morning moods to be cowed by his quasi-violent reaction, simply shifted back a couple inches so that his brother's face didn't collide with his own.
"You looked really tired, Brother. And Roy said that you needed the sleep."
"Roy," Ed hissed, and began to plot the bastard's slow demise. Preferably involving hungry rats and some sort of lighter fluid.
"I think it's pretty fair," Al continued. "I mean, I slept through your session this morning."
Ed pulled his thoughts away from the happy image of Roy Mustang being eaten by flammable rats, and bookmarked it for later. He scrubbed a weary hand over his face, and met his brother's soft gray eyes.
"Yeah, I guess," he agreed. "I would've met you at the door though, Al."
"Oh, that's okay!" Al beamed a happy smile and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Roy sent Winry to walk me back!"
Ed froze in the act of rubbing at his eyes. Ever so slowly, he tipped his head to the side, peering around his brother's head like some dumb heroines might peer around a corner in a bad horror movie.
Bright blue eyes stared back at him.
He'd mumbled like some sleep-starved idiot.
His braid was a tangled mess behind his head.
He was pretty sure there was drool on his face.
Oh yes, Roy Mustang was going to die. And suddenly rats wreathed in flames seemed like too generous an end for such a complete bastard.
"Hi there, Ed," Winry greeted, apparently blissfully unaware of Ed's semi-homicidal brain waves.
He was blushing. He was blushing, and his baby brother's sweet face was suddenly sporting a rather evil smirk. Ed's golden glare hardened, and passed a silent message in Al's direction.
I will tell her. I am a font of embarrassing information, and I will tell her. Everything. Do the words superhero bedsheets ring any bells for you?
Gray eyes widened in alarm.
Ed delivered a wide grin filled with glittering teeth.
Oh, my sweet, deluded little brother. Wouldn't I?
Al swallowed hard and forced the smirk from his face. Ed's maniacal grin smoothed into a victorious smile, and he leapt triumphantly from his bed.
"Thanks for walking Al back, Winry," Ed said, in a much more even tone of voice.
"No problem," the girl replied. "I wanted to check on you anyway. You guys looked a little beat up last night when we dumped you into bed."
Ed thought of the soft hand that he'd felt on his face seconds before he'd faded into sleep, and struggled not to blush again.
"But you look much better now!" Winry continued. "I'm glad. I'll go tell Riza that you've rejoined the land of the living, and I'll see you guys in a few for dinner, okay?"
"Thanks for walking with me, Winry!" Al called, tossing the bouncing girl a bright wave.
She bounded out the door like a ball of brilliant energy.
"She's pretty, Brother."
"Al. Don't make me hurt you."
Al snorted with laughter, and flopped down onto his brother's bed.
"You do look better," he proclaimed, from his position on Ed's pillow. "You looked pretty bad this morning."
"Your face wasn't exactly the picture of health," Ed shot back instantly. "I guess we just needed a little sleep."
Al tapped out a thoughtful rhythm on his stomach.
"Doctor Dante said that the first few nights here are always rough," he offered.
Ed snorted, and began to re-bind his hair.
"Everyone said that," he pointed out.
"I guess they were right."
"Mmm." Ed gave his braid a final tug, and then tossed it over his shoulder. "How was your first session with the old hag, by the way?"
"Fine, I guess," he said. "We…we talked about the fire a lot."
Ed picked up on the guilt in his brother's voice.
"It's okay, Al. You stuck to the story, right?"
Ed gave his brother a reassuring smile.
"Then you don't have to sound so anxious," he said. "I'm sure everything's okay."
Al bit his lip a little. A nervous habit. At their mother's funeral, Al's mouth had been in teeth-bitten shreds.
"I know, but…," Al's gray eyes were earnest on Ed's face. "I don't like talking about it, Brother. About Mom. And about that night. I almost lost you, and I don't like to remember that."
Ed's automail hand curved into a hard, instinctive fist.
"I know, Al. You don't have to talk about it. If that old hag starts asking you weird questions, just let me know." He frowned. "She didn't, right? Ask you any weird questions?"
"I don't think so," Al replied hesitantly. "I can't think of any."
Ed reached down and gave his brother's hair a quick, affectionate ruffle.
"Good," he said. "Come on, let's head down to the Dining Room. I'm starved!"
"Okay!" Al bounced to his feet.
Ed grinned and started towards the door. He stopped, however, when he realized that his brother wasn't following him.
"Al? What's wrong?"
Al's gray eyes were suddenly very far away.
"She didn't ask me a question," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "But she did offer to talk about my nightmare, if I needed it. But I never told her that I had one." Al shrugged, and the distant look disappeared from his eyes. "I guess that's weird. Right, Brother?"
A streak of insight bolted through Ed's brain, turned everything silver white and blinding.
She told me to have sweeter dreams, too.
But I never mentioned that my dreams weren't sweet in the first place.
"Yeah," he agreed, his voice very soft. "That's weird, Al. That's definitely weird."
An extremely quiet and contemplative Ed followed his baby brother out the door to dinner.
Ed sat stiffly in the hard metal chair, with his arms tightly folded, and tried to pretend that his eyebrow wasn't ticking in time with the clock. Al's quiet attempts to cheer him up, to bring him out of his stubborn funk, were studiously ignored by the older blonde.
He was sitting in what Dante called the 'Circle of Trust'.
It had already been clearly expressed that he was expected to spill his innermost feelings with great glee and enthusiasm.
Someone was going to die for this.
Probably Mustang, Ed decided. The bastard kept his face blank whenever the old hag was looking his way, but as soon as she turned her attention to another patient, that stupid, satisfied smirk curled his lips and aimed itself in Ed's direction.
Ed vibrated in his chair and calculated with great menace that it would most likely take just one automail fist to the face to banish that stupid smirk forever. Of course, that would require actually revealing that he had automail limbs, something he'd managed to avoid thus far.
"Welcome back, children," Dante said, from her position at head of the circle.
Ed almost smiled at the quiet snarl that floated over from Winry's chair.
"I'm sure that those of you who are returning to group therapy will make this experience a pleasant one for our newcomers," Dante continued.
"Ed, what are you doing? Stay in your chair."
"That. Bastard. Won't. Stop. Smirking."
Dante either didn't hear the sudden hissing whispers sounding from the Elric brothers, or she chose to ignore them.
"Now, as most of you children know, the key to this form of therapy is communication and acceptance," she said. "Together, you will share the secrets that hinder your forward progression, and it is my fondest hope that through the acceptance of your peers, you will begin to heal."
On Edward's left, Havoc let out a disbelieving snort (albeit, very softly), and Alphonse giggled a little in response. That sound alone went a long ways towards improving the older brother's mood. That is, until Dante shifted in her chair and honed in on him like an intercontinental cruise missile.
The older Elric jumped in his seat a little, and then shot Mustang a hot glare as the boy muffled a snicker in his fist.
"What?" he snapped.
Dante just smiled.
"Why don't you go first?" she asked, her eyes kind and completely unconvincing. "The rest of the children have already had a significant amount of time in which to hear each other's secrets. So why don't you give them something new to listen to?"
Ed went as rigid as a wooden board. The defiant fire that lit in his golden gaze demonstrated just how much he hated Dante's suggestion.
"Not in a sharing mood?" the old woman asked pleasantly. "All right." She craned her neck a little, peering around Ed and fixing her gaze on the boy sitting beside him. "Alphonse, how about you then?"
Alphonse froze, and his face went as white as wax.
"No!" Ed jerked back into Dante's line of vision. "I'll go, all right? Leave Al alone."
Dante suddenly resembled a cat, grinning around a mouthful of canary feathers.
"Excellent. Why don't you start with the reason why you're here?"
"Um. Because you won't let me leave?"
"No, Edward," Dante said patiently, while the other kids let loose a symphony of snorts and snickers. "Tell us why the Director of your orphanage sent you in the first place."
"You were in an orphanage, Blondie?" the patient that Havoc called Greed crowed.
Ed had had very limited contact with that group thus far, but he pretty much disliked them on principle. The glare he tossed in their direction should have sent them straight into terrified squeaking. Instead, it made them roar with laughter.
"Greed," Dante said, very softly.
The boy continued to chuckle, but the volume of it decreased almost instantly.
"Continue, Edward," Dante invited.
"Feather-boa wearing freak," Ed muttered, for good measure. Then, he gave his head an insolent toss. "That bastard Archer sent Al and me here because he thinks we're crazy. Obviously."
Dante folded her hands and rested her chin on her fingers.
"And why is that?" she asked.
Ed jerked his shoulder angrily, like it didn't matter. But his eyes continued to burn.
"Because…because he thinks that Al and I don't see reality," he said, with great reluctance.
"And why would he think that?" Dante prodded.
Ed scowled and dropped his face to the floor.
"When Al and I were pulled from our house, after the…accident…"Ed's fingers fisted in the leather of his pants. "We were disoriented. Apparently, we babbled some nonsense about magic. Archer read it in the report, and obviously decided that we're delusional."
The group on the other side of the circle snickered.
"Magic?" the girl named Martel repeated.
"You call it magic, Blondie? How cute!"
The one named Kimblee said nothing, but his smirk broke even Mustang's well set records.
Dante did nothing to stifle the other patients, simply waited with a tiny smile until they quieted themselves.
"A reality warped by a persistent and completely voluntary fantasy world," she said. "And what do you think is the cause of this…mental fragility?"
Ed ground his teeth together, hard, at the word 'fragile'. But he didn't lift his head.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Come, Edward. This is a safe space, remember?"
Ed glanced up, just a little. In between the strands of hair shadowing his face, he caught a glimpse of Mustang's carefully blank eyes, and Winry's soft and sympathetic face.
"My mother," he said slowly, painfully. He couldn't look Al in the face; he didn't dare.
"Aw," Martel crooned. "The kid's got mommy issues. How sweet." The girl rocked forward in her seat, her teeth bared in almost feral grin. "Did she smack you around a little? Call you mean names?"
Ed appreciated the glares that Mustang's crew sent on his behalf. Even the ever-stoic Riza sported sherry eyes brimming with disgust. But the trio of outsiders was unfazed, and apparently, unfinished in their heckling of the elder Elric.
"So Mommy died, and you created a little fantasy land to cope with the pain?" Kimblee asked. His voice wasn't loud, but the disdain it radiated echoed around the room. "Pathetic."
Edward's spine was rigid, and his muscles trembled, begging for him to let loose and plant a fist or a foot or perhaps a wooden chair right in Kimblee's face. He held back the urge with great effort, and settled instead on a jagged glare and hot words that should have peeled the skin from Kimblee's bones.
"Shut the hell up. You stupid bastard, I'm not the only one with problems. You're in here too, aren't you?"
Kimblee settled back in his chair, his snake eyes dark with amusement.
"Ah, but I don't play with magic, Elric. I know what real power is, and how to use it."
The entire group was watching now, in tense and uneasy silence, their heads snapping back and forth like spectators at a tennis match.
"Oh, really?" Ed sneered. "And what's this real power of yours?"
"I make people go 'boom'."
Martel shrieked out a laugh, and collapsed in her chair. Greed shook his head with a small, almost affectionate smile. The rest of the group shifted uncomfortably, and refused to meet Ed's eyes.
"Kimblee," Dante said, a quiet warning. "That's enough."
Kimblee leaned back in his seat with a wide, mean smile, and crossed his arms behind his head.
"Sure, Doc," he agreed easily. "Whatever you say."
"Edward," Dante said, turning her attention from one wayward patient to the next. "Please, continue."
"I don't know what you want me to say."
Dante smiled a little at his stubbornness. He looked terribly young, sitting there with his shoulders hunched and his golden eyes gleaming with helpless rage and hurts not yet healed. But there was a fierceness about him all the same, a sort of air about his trembling body that suggested that he'd fight forever if he had to, even though he could clearly see the odds stacked against him.
It was all so endearingly amusing.
"Tell us a bit about this fantasy world," Dante suggested, barely bothering to stifle the laugh in her throat.
"Why? It's not real anyway, right?"
"Indulge me. You said that there's magic there, correct? Why not share that magic with your peers, Edward?"
The expressions on the faces around him told Ed quite clearly that his peers in no way desired him to share magic of any sort. Winry and Riza looked soft, and somewhat sad (although Riza was much better at keeping a blank face). Breda and Havoc looked uncomfortable. Fuery's face was scrunched with sympathy, and Falman just looked blank. Martel had never stopped snickering, and smirks still stretched the faces of Kimblee and Greed.
Mustang's face was empty, but his eyes were full of fire. The burning man inside the paper doll again.
And Ed was still too afraid of what he'd see on his brother's face to look at it. So he focused on Dante instead, and the slightly smug expression of expectance on her face.
Must. Not. Make. Fists.
It is illegal to punch out old biddies.
Even if they so totally deserve it.
Resolving to take out his rage on Mustang later, Ed began to speak.
"You want to hear about our fantasy world? Fine. Imagine a place where magic exists. You summon it with symbols and sweat and hands streaked with chalk, or possibly paint."
"Does this magic have a name?" Dante asked, but quietly, almost like she was afraid to interrupt now that Ed was on a roll.
The older boy aimed a fierce grin at his knees.
Sure it does, you old bat. But it'll be a cold day in hell before I tell it to you.
"No," he said decisively.
"I see. And what can this magic do?"
"Anything you want, really. It can fix things, or break things, depending on what you're after. It can send things away that you'd rather not see…or it can bring back things that you'd thought you'd lost."
On his right, Al gave a soft, shuddering sigh.
"Sounds nice," Winry said, with a small smile. It was a gesture of support, of sympathy, and Ed appreciated it.
"It can be," Ed agreed. "If you use it right, it can. But there's a catch. The magic isn't free. You can't gain anything in this world without paying for it first. And some things cost more than others."
"Rules for a fantasy world?" Mustang asked, his voice soft.
Ed glanced at him, and their eyes locked for a moment. But he couldn't look for long, because the layers in that gaze were too numerous, and too unnerving.
The room was very, very quiet now.
"You just can't run from some things, I guess," Edward said. "And doesn't magic always have a price? It's the only way to keep things balanced. The magic will give you whatever you want, but you have to be ready to meet the fee once you have it." Ed's hands fisted, so tight that his gloves stretched and strained. "And no matter how powerful you get, there are some gifts that can never be afforded. It doesn't matter how hard you pay. Some prices are…are just too high."
There were tears rolling down Al's face. His head was ducked, and he was doing his best to hide them, but Ed could see the droplets hitting his knees, and hear the soft, miserable sounds.
His own pain shredded at his insides like vicious, steel-tipped claws. He wanted to cry too, to release some of that wild and ripping grief. But he'd sacrificed that right, paid in blood and metal, to make sure that Alphonse retained it instead.
"Surprising," Kimblee said, shattering the silence. "That a kid like you would know so much about payment and exchange."
"Kimblee," Dante said, but this time, the boy didn't listen.
"Tell me, Elric," he said, leaning forward in his chair. "What did you try to buy that cost you so much?"
"Payment can be handled in small doses," Kimblee continued, his face slowly heating with some sort of wild glee. "Balance can be established when the gift is small, and doesn't ask too much. So, what kind of selfish, too large demand did you make to send everything out of whack?"
"Kind of rude, isn't it Elric? To order something, and then not be able to pay for it in full. So, tell me, little boy. Did you taste that magic, see the gifts it could give, and suddenly think that you could play God?"
Ed leapt to his feet, his face a twisted and trembling mask of sorrow and rage. He cocked his fist back, ready to plant it in Kimblee's face, and damn the consequences anyway.
But suddenly Alphonse was there, stepping protectively in front of his big brother.
"He didn't!" Al insisted, staring down Kimblee with soft grey eyes that were still damp with tears. "Brother, he didn't…he can't…" The boy trailed off helplessly, his shoulders hunching. "It's me…I'm the one who…I never meant…"
"Alphonse," Ed whispered, a tight warning, and he reached out to squeeze his brother's wrist.
Al fell silent, and bowed his head.
"Kimblee," Dante said, her soft voice the only sound in the horrible, helpless silence. "Isolation."
A short wave of her hand brought the orderly pressed against the far wall. The man, a solid wall of muscle with a strange shock of blonde hair and bright blue eyes, descended on Kimblee like a mountain of flesh. But Kimblee didn't seem at all distressed. Instead, he started to laugh, and the maniacal peals of it bounced off the white walls.
"Look like you found a winner after all!" he shouted, as the orderly wrestled him out of his chair and off his feet. "Quite the collection you've got growing, Doc. Congratulations!"
"Take him away," Dante murmured in response. "Twenty-four hours should be sufficient."
The orderly nodded.
"She'll steal your dreams!" Kimblee shrieked, his eyes wild and the tendons in his neck standing out as he struggled in the orderly's hold. Spit flew past his straining lips. "Yours, and your brother's, Elric!"
Ed's throat went dry at the sight of the suddenly deranged patient. His nightmare from a few nights past floated to the surface of his mind, and he wanted to ask Kimblee what he meant, about Dante stealing his dreams. But the boy was already gone, and the continuous howls of his laughter were muffled by the door that shut behind him.
Everyone inside the room was still frozen, shocked by Kimblee's sudden outburst. Their eyes were still fixed uneasily on the door that he'd just disappeared from. Everyone watched the unmoving door, listening to his fading shrieks and screams.
Everyone, except one person.
Ed felt the weight of someone's gaze on his back, and he didn't have to turn to know who it belonged to.
You're always watching me, Bastard. What is it that you're looking for?
Of course, by the time he turned around, Mustang's face was nice and empty again, and his dark blue eyes were politely directed at the floor.
"My apologies, Edward. Alphonse." But Dante didn't look sorry. If anything, the smug look on her face had only been altered by the satisfaction that now accompanied it. "I think that that's enough for today's session. Don't you agree, children?"
Everyone nodded, a bit numbly. Dante rose to her feet.
"Excellent. Then I'll see you tomorrow for your personal therapy sessions. Once the orderly returns, he'll escort you to your rooms."
She left without a backward glance, and without ever dropping that little smile.
"Got better things to do than wait on some orderly," Greed said, rising to his feet as well. "Come on, Martel."
The girl jumped up, and followed him out like an overeager puppy. For a moment, there was silence again, as the remaining patients wondered which road to take from here.
Then, Riza let out a soft sigh, and stood. She walked over to the still standing Elric brothers.
"Come on," she said, and none of the sympathy that shone in her eyes flavored the tight, brisk sound of her voice. "Let's go."
"Go?" Ed repeated, still a bit dazed. "Go where?"
"The yard," Riza said. "You haven't seen it yet, right? It's a nice day; the air should be warm."
Air. Ed released a shuddering sort of sigh and realized that air was exactly what he needed.
"Yeah. The yard sounds great," he smiled, a little shakily, at the girl in front of him. "Thanks, Riza."
She inclined her head, and then spun around to lead the way.
"Won't…won't we get in trouble?" Al asked, as they entered the hallway and walked towards the outer door. "The Director said that we're not supposed to go out into the yard without an orderly."
"Don't worry, Al," Havoc said. "Armstrong's cool. He'll just follow us out when he's done putting Kimblee away."
For a moment, everyone tripped uneasily over Kimblee's name. Then, Winry asked Al a smiling question, and Breda and Havoc picked a topic to squabble about, and the moment disappeared. Somehow, Ed found himself bringing up the rear, and watching as Al allowed himself to smile again, the sadness slowly leaving his gray eyes.
"It's not what I expected," Mustang said quietly, almost to himself. He was walking at Ed's side, his arms folded and his brow furrowed.
"I thought it would be you," Mustang murmured, and his eyes were a million miles away. "I thought for sure…"
Ed shot Mustang a sharp glance.
"What? What do you mean by that, Bastard? What are you talking about?"
But Mustang didn't answer, and a sudden shout that shook the white walls rattled down the hallway before Ed could ask another question.
With slow, sudden horror, Ed realized that the orderly from before was sprinting at him like a linebacker, his hands clasped like a lovesick girl and his bright blue eyes filled with tears.
And later, Ed would swear that the guy was shooting off shiny pink sparkles like some malfunctioning rainbow as well.
"He's not serious," Edward said desperately, as he watched the man get closer and seemingly larger with every step. "Tell me he's not serious."
"You may want to brace yourself," Mustang advised, before taking a discreet step to the left.
And then Ed was being popped off his feet and crushed by arms approximately the size of his waist, while a booming voice in his ear rattled his brain with shouts of honor and nobility and brotherly love.
And in his sudden desperate quest for oxygen, Ed completely forgot the furious questions he'd had about Mustang's blank eyes and mysterious words.
After a few weeks in the asylum, Ed fell into a routine, of sorts. Al kicked him out of bed in the mornings before breakfast, because Ed would sleep all day given the opportunity. He'd eat, and then he'd wander, unless he had a session, in which case he would go to that instead. Sometimes he played cards with Havoc and Breda. Sometimes he sat and pretended to watch TV while he actually watched Riza and Roy murmur to each other in an available corner. Sometimes he sat with Fuery and Falman for silent reading time. Sometimes he talked with Winry, and tried to pretend that his face wasn't on fire. Most days, he prowled the grounds, because the white walls and barred windows made his restless. A lot of times, Mustang would accompany Ed on his walkabouts (they never talked about it; the bastard would just show up, jacket in hand). Unless Al had a session, he'd be there as well, but not necessarily at Edward's side. Now that Al knew everyone in the asylum a little better, he wasn't as shy, and no longer needed Ed around all the time. He didn't stray far, he wasn't quite ready for that yet, but he might play cards with Havoc, while Ed curled up on the nearby couch with a book and a blanket. They had group therapy three days a week, and Ed learned to let Kimblee's smirks and soft words roll off of him like rainwater. The boy was much subdued since his time in isolation, as were Martel and Greed, but that didn't stop his mouth completely.
Sometimes Ed woke up sick, and sweating, and shaking, with foggy nightmare fragments fading slowly in his mind. Sometimes he couldn't get out of bed, and he spent the entire day sleeping off symptoms that he couldn't find the cause of. Sometimes Al was struck with the same sickness, and sometimes they woke up ill together, reading each other's nightmares in their widened eyes. Sometimes Mustang woke up pale-faced and weak. Sometimes Havoc's smiles were tired and thin, and sometimes Breda's appetite disappeared for the day. Sometimes Riza walked with slow and careful steps, and sometimes Fuery fainted at dinner, sliding backwards off his seat with barely a sound. The adults would descend like insects, all fluttering hands and soft concern and gracious escorts back to bed. But they smirked a little while the helped the person limp along, and wouldn't respond to furious requests for explanations (explanations that only Ed and Alphonse demanded; the others seemed strangely resigned to it).
The nurse named Lust assured him that it wasn't the medication making them sick. Ed agreed with her, but only because nodding along like a dim-witted farm animal appeared to be all he was capable of when faced with her low-cut uniform shirts. It was only later, after he'd wandered away, and after the floaty, cleavage-induced fog faded from his brain that he was able to recall the small, wicked smile that curved her lips when she spoke to him, a smile that proved her statements to be at least a partial lie.
Ed tried to sneak into the kitchen to inspect the food, but that Gluttony guy caught him before he could do more than poke around the refrigerator. His rage when confronted with violated foodstuffs was legendary. Ed feared that the mental scarring would never go away completely, and resolved that he'd find real therapy once he made his way out of this hellhole.
The Director laughed when Edward confronted him, and patted him on the head like a simple-minded child (Ed had given serious consideration to snapping at those condescending fingers like a pissed off puppy). The next day, Dante upped his drug dosage, offering only a soft smirk as an explanation.
Edward wasn't called a child prodigy for nothing. His instincts beat inside his blood, a soft and insistent tattoo, telling him that this place was wrong, wrong, wrong, and he needed to get away, get Al out, before everything went worse than it already was.
And through it all, Mustang watched. He observed as Ed struggled and searched and fought, fought against his medication every night, and fought against Dante's silent simpers at every session. Sometimes his eyes were blank, empty and polite. But other days his eyes burned, the paper doll on fire inside, and Ed knew that he had answers. Maybe not the answers that Ed was looking for, but answers all the same. He'd take what he could get at this point.
But Mustang wasn't sharing, and Ed hated him a little for it.
One day, about four weeks in, Ed watched his baby brother struggle out of bed with legs that shook and shivered. Al's face was white and strained, and he barely made it to the bathroom before blowing his guts out, stopping in between heaves to let loose miserable little sounds that echoed in the outer room. A wall of red obscured Ed's vision, and before he really registered moving, he was stomping across the floor, and curling his fist in the collar of Mustang's shirt. He pushed the older boy back from where he'd been calmly, and unconcernedly tucking in his sheets, and shoved him hard against the wall, hard enough that he heard several bones in Mustang's back pop.
And still the bastard barely blinked.
"Tell me," Ed snarled, sticking his face inches from Mustang's own.
He could have cheerfully killed Mustang for the amused annoyance the older boy managed to muster in his eyes.
"You'll have to clarify," Mustang said, his voice cool and completely calm. "I'm afraid that I don't speak pain-in-the-ass Elric all that well yet."
Ed bared his teeth.
"You bastard," he spat, spraying Mustang's cheeks a little. "I don't give an ever-loving shit about what happens to me. I could care less if I wake up sick every morning." Ed tightened his fist and brought Mustang forward, only to shove him back against the wall again. "But that is my baby brother in there, puking his guts out. I need to know how to fix him; that's my job. And I know that you know something, bastard. You're not the only one that watches people."
For a moment, Mustang's eyes flickered.
"Perhaps you should speak to Doctor Dante about this sudden paranoia, Elric. I'm sure she'd be fascinated."
It should have sounded flippant, dismissive. But instead the words came out careful, so cautious that Ed momentarily blinked his anger aside, like a sudden spot of calm and clarity in a rain storm. But it came roaring back before he had the chance to puzzle out Mustang's unexpected tone.
"Why would I tell that old hag anything important?" he demanded, his eyes narrowed incredulously. "So she can up my medication dosage again?"
Mustang's eyes flickered again, not blank, and not burning, but something entirely different, some new emotion that Ed had never seen before. Indecision; something so foreign on Mustang's eternally assured face.
"What is it that you think you know?" he almost whispered.
And Ed stopped breathing, because it was the most that the bastard had given him, ever.
"The nightmares," Ed whispered back, his words tripping and tipping in his excitement. "They're not just dreams. They're not. The room, that dark room is always the same, and the symbol on the floor never changes, and the voices are so familiar, but I'm too tired, and I can't remember them clearly when I wake up. And sometimes its Al standing behind me, with his hands on my shoulders. And sometimes it's you, you bastard, and you always whisper something like 'sorry' before it hurts. And sometimes you're both there, and Havoc is standing next to me. Or Riza. Or Fuery." Ed's eyes darkened, became distant. "It's the worst with Fuery. Because he cries. Riza screams, and Havoc fists his hands until they bleed. But Fuery just cries, really quiet, and that's the worst, somehow."
Mustang's face was white; whiter than normal. The washed out hue of some remembered horror.
"Pretty detailed for dreams so vague," he observed, but his voice was still so soft.
Ed's laugh was humorless.
"Yeah, well, I've had them often enough," he replied. "Please, Bastard." He didn't beg very often; his pride demanded more of him than that. But he would, for Al he would, would grovel and beg and get down on his damn knees if that's what the bastard wanted.
Mustang stayed silent, but something on his face shifted, and for one wild and breathless moment, Ed actually believed that this was it. That the bastard would spill his secrets, and he'd finally have something to solve instead of invisible air to swing at.
But then Al stumbled out of the bathroom, sweating and shaking and scrubbing at his mouth, and blinked at the sight of his older brother, pushed up against the wall and snarling in Mustang's face.
And just like that, the shutter slid down, Mustang's eyes were empty again, and a frustrated scream lodged itself in Edward's throat.
"I have other things to do today than indulge your delusions, Elric," he said, sweeping Ed's fists aside with an embarrassing amount of ease. "If you'll excuse me."
And then he was gone, sweeping out of the room with a ridiculous amount of dignity, probably a byproduct of that stick up his ass, because how else could he walk so straight, and Ed was caught between shock and incoherent fury.
"He…That…I…Gah!" Ed kicked out, and caught the corner of Mustang's bed with his boot. "Bastard!"
"Um," Al repeated. "Brother?"
Ed turned. Al looked like he worried for the state of Ed's mental stability, but he also looked sick, so Ed sighed, and forced the fight from his muscles.
"Yeah, Al." He marched across the room, carefully peeling his fingers back from the fist they'd formed. "Let's get you back to bed, all right? You don't look so good."
He put a hand on Al's shoulder and gave a gentle shove that steered him back to his mattress. The clammy sweat from his brother's skin stained his glove a little, and Ed curled his fingers around it, considering it a sign of his failure, proof of his inability to protect Al.
"Why were you and Mustang fighting, Brother?" Al slurred sleepily, already burrowing back into his pillowcase.
Ed fought back the urge to fuss over his brother's bed sheets, and placed a soothing hand over his slick forehead instead.
"Because the guy's a great, big jerk," Ed reminded him. "Isn't that enough of a reason?"
Al gave a sleepy little snort, and his eyes slipped shut. Ed scowled at the dark circles ringing them, aware that identical bruises scored his own face.
"Shouldn't be so mean to him," Al mumbled, snuggling down deep. "His eyes look like yours sometimes."
Ed's scowl darkened, and he retracted his hand from where it had been sifting through his baby brother's soft and sweat soaked hair.
"What?" he asked, insulted beyond belief that his brother could think he was anything like that bastard. "What d'you mean by that, Al? Mustang's eyes don't look anything like mine!"
Al's brow furrowed a little, but he didn't open his eyes.
"Sad," he elaborated, with sleep-dulled coherency. "Like yours, Brother. But…unbreakable, too. Like he has everything to beat."
And then Al's face smoothed out and he was sleeping soundly, snuggled against his pillow. And Ed just stood there, hands balled at his sides, and frowned as he tried to un-see his baby brother's point.
Later, Ed helped Al out of bed and down the hall to the dining room. He hated to wake his brother up from a nightmare-free slumber, but Al needed to eat to shake his symptoms. The boy was pale-faced and his shoulders trembled, but he followed after his brother willingly enough.
Ed spent the dinner hour carefully monitoring Al's food intake, and giving his brother gentle elbow nudges every time the younger boy put his fork down, looking faintly green.
"Keep eating, Al," he would murmur. "You're sick. Got to keep your strength up."
Ed was also careful to avoid Mustang's face; never once during the meal did their eyes meet. Ed sort of feared that if he did, he'd be too strongly tempted to feed Mustang his fist instead of the chicken on their plates.
If the other patients noticed the strain, they didn't seem bothered by it. Winry kept up a steady stream of chatter, and Havoc's light-hearted ribbing kept the atmosphere as light as possible. Ed felt himself slowly slipping back into his sort-of routine, a routine that he'd been blown out of by Mustang's earlier almost-secret spillage. But after dinner, as they all lined up at the medication counter, ready to accept the little paper cups filled with candy colored pills, the monotony of Ed's day was unraveled once again. In front of him, Fuery, who'd been as weak and wobbly as Al all day, gave a soft, unsteady sound, and pitched forward. His head cracked against the counter, and the trajectory bounced him back instead. He slumped against Ed's shoulder, and the older boy caught hold of him instinctively.
Instantly, the other kids surrounded him, except of course for Greed and Kimblee, who stood back and quietly suffocated themselves with laughter, and Mustang, who had disappeared shortly after downing his dosage. Ed shifted from foot to foot as he stared down helplessly into Fuery's wax-white face. Underneath his glasses, the boys eyelashes were fluttering rapidly, and a thin line of blood rolled down his face, obscenely bright against his pale skin.
"Oh, Fuery," Winry said sadly, and petted gently at his hair.
Behind the counter, Lust gave a heavy, irritated sigh, and rose lazily from her seat.
"Armstrong," she called, as she sauntered her way towards the small crowd of children.
The orderly rushed over, from where he'd been relaxed against the wall, sparkling serenely at anyone that passed him by. Ed flinched back instinctively, he recalled their first encounter as clear as day and he liked his oxygen in his lungs thank you very much, but the broad-backed man only reached out to gently scoop Fuery off of Ed's shoulder and into his massive arms.
Lust pressed her fingers against Fuery's throat in a perfunctory check-up, but her face was crippled by a complete lack of concern.
"He's fine," she said, her voice as energetic as a yawn. "Take him to his room. He can sleep it off."
Breda accompanied the gigantic man and his teenage burden down the hall to the dormitories, since his drugs were already safely in his system.
"Poor kid," Havoc said, and Ed caught him shoving helpless fists in his pockets.
Even Riza's sherry eyes were troubled.
"He's much more delicate than the rest," she agreed softly.
The frustrated mutiny on their faces was a frustrating revelation to Ed, revealing because it showed that they were fighting, just like him. But frustrating because he still didn't know what against.
They downed their dosages quietly, and then retired to the living area, where the flopped on the available couches and chairs. This was routine, and Ed knew that he had approximately twenty minutes of talking time before his drugs kicked in and forced down the path of sleep and sometimes nightmares. But right around the fifteen minute mark, when the walls should have started a slow and gentle spin, Ed was surprised to find himself cognitive and surprisingly coherent. A baffled glance in Al's direction revealed that his brother felt the same way.
"Al," he hazarded, wanting to confirm, but suddenly Winry was pivoting his way, her eyes suspiciously bright.
"I'm sorry, Ed," she said, and the boy blinked at the sugary sweetness in her voice. "You must be tired, right?"
But Winry was already jumping to her feet, cutting the older Elric off mid-sentence.
"How rude of us to forget," she cooed. "Here, let us help you."
The others rose as well, Havoc with a bastard-worthy smirk. All Ed managed was a startled 'Hey!', before they were on him, and manhandling him to his feet.
"Knock it off!" Ed almost shouted, digging an elbow into Falman's side. "I'm not tired. Let me go!"
The stoic boy barely winced, and then responded by kicking Ed's knees out from under him, causing the shorter boy to slump.
"Trust me," Riza murmured, her voice smooth and unshakeable as she and Havoc caught Ed under the arms and proceeded to drag away. "You're tired."
Falman placed a helpful hand over Ed's mouth as they lugged him out of the living area.
"Come on, Al!" Winry called cheerfully, snagging the younger boy by the hand. "We'd better get you to bed too."
Stunned into silent confusion, Alphonse followed along compliantly, keeping a wary eye on his older brother's struggling form. Once they managed to muscle Ed inside his dorm room, they shoved him flat against his mattress, and then Havoc sat on him as Winry and Riza wrapped his blankets around him like full-body chains. Although, they had an easier time of it, because Ed's struggles subsided significantly once Winry's hands joined the fray.
Rubbing hand hands together gleefully, Havoc repeated the action on a wide-eyed Al. Once both Elrics were immobilized by their own bed sheets, the quartet sailed outside the room, snapping off the lights as they went.
"Sleep tight!" Winry called cheerfully, and she and Havoc's giggles created a soft chorus as they shut the door behind them.
There was a moment of completely stunned silence as both Elric brothers contemplated the ceiling from their comfortable prisons cells.
"…Brother?" Alphonse asked eventually. "What just happened?"
"I dunno, Al," Ed replied, his voice blank with shock. "But I wonder if that's what getting hit by a hurricane feels like."
"Hmm." Al gave a feeble squirm inside his soft cocoon. "I'm not sleepy either, Brother."
"Yeah," Ed agreed. "I don't get it. We took the drugs, same as always. They must have changed the dosage or something."
Ed tried to shrug, but ended up scowling instead when he realized that the sheets wrapped around him restricted his movements. A little ways away, he heard Al give another restless wriggle.
"This isn't very comfortable, Brother. Should I…?"
Alarm had Ed half lurching out of bed, flopping forward like some sort of blonde, bad-tempered caterpillar.
"No! No, Al. We agreed; none of that here. They're too interested in it; that's all Doctor Dipshit wants to talk about in our sessions."
"Okay," Al agreed, softly, reluctantly. "But it's awful hot, Brother."
Ed shifted back flat with a weak chuckle.
"Yeah. Sorry, Al. Just try to ride it out, I guess."
A few hours passed. Al fell asleep eventually, curling up in his warm cocoon. But Ed's mind was working overtime, reprocessing events and actions from the past twenty-four hours, trying to force some of his famed prodigy clarity into connecting the dots. He still didn't have any answers, about the nightmares or even why their drug dosage had been changed, but he had a theory at least about the other patients' sudden strange behavior.
So Ed waited, and listened to the sound of Al's steady breathing, extremely aware of the empty bed on his left.
Around one, according to the little clock on the wall, the door creaked open quietly, and every muscle in Ed's body went tight in anticipation. It wasn't Mustang sneaking back to bed, like he half-expected, but Havoc again, creeping silently across the floor, Riza a silent shadow at his side.
"Good," he whispered, nodding at Ed's open and totally alert eyes. "Let's go. Everyone else is already waiting."
Ed immediately began kicking off his covers, careful to avoid Riza's hands as she reached down to help.
"Al," he whispered, once he was free.
"He's sleeping," Riza whispered back. "Is it really necessary to wake him?"
Ed shot the unfazed girl a frown.
"I don't go anywhere in this place without Al," he said firmly, and turned to shake his baby brother back to consciousness.
He didn't see the indulgent look that Havoc and Riza shared behind his back.
"Brother?" Al mumbled sleepily, blinking soft gray eyes. "What?"
Ed gave Al's mouth a gentle nudge with his knuckles, and tilted his head in Havoc's direction.
"Come on," he whispered.
Blinking the sleep and the softness from his suddenly wider eyes, Al nodded and rolled his way off the mattress once Ed unwrapped him.
"It's Armstrong's shift for night watch," Havoc informed them. "So we shouldn't have a problem. But stay quiet just in case, all right?"
Ed and Al nodded silently. Al's fingers slipped into Edward's sleeve as they left the room, something that he hadn't done since their first week in the asylum.
Ed's heart pounded crazily as they padded silently down the dark and deserted hallway. This was different. This was not routine.
This…this might lead to answers. At last.
"In here," Havoc whispered, pushing open a door that read 'Boiler Room'. "Normally, it's locked, but Breda swiped a key from Gluttony ages ago."
"Gluttony," Ed repeated as they stepped through the door. "That the guy that works in the kitchen?"
"Gluttony, Lust, Greed. Cute nicknames."
Havoc smirked, and shut the door behind them. A short staircase led down to another door, and when Havoc pushed that one open as well, Ed was assaulted by a wave of damp heat, and the whirring sound of running equipment. It wasn't loud, he decided, as Riza ushered them through. But it was noisy enough that he wouldn't be able to whisper anymore.
They wove their way through several rust-covered machines. Towards the back wall, and behind a particularly large piece of equipment, they came across…a den, of sorts. An old, ratty blanket had been carefully hung between the brick wall and the bubbling machine, forming a flimsy sort of door. Havoc held it up so that the others could walk through, and inside, familiar faces rested on old, weather-beaten couch cushions and reclined on rickety lawn furniture.
"You," Edward stated, zeroing in on a single face like a continental cruise missile. "I knew it."
Mustang, lounging on a rust-covered lawn chair like a king might lounge on a jewel-studded throne, smirked.
"You didn't come to bed, Bastard," Ed reminded him. He crossed his arms, careful to keep Al's hand tucked protectively in his sleeve. "You swapped out the drug dosage."
In the dull light, Mustang's dark eyes glittered with satisfaction.
"Sugar pills," he confirmed, and reached down to tap his pants pocket. Something there rattled. "I have a friend who keeps me in supply. Most of us haven't been taking our meds for months. We've gotten very good at it." The older boy jerked his chin in Fuery's direction. "All we needed was a little bit of distraction."
Curled up on an old couch cushion on the floor, Fuery blushed.
"It wasn't all fake," he said with a small laugh, rubbing at the swollen knot on his forehead. "That counter is as hard as bricks. It almost knocked me out for real."
Ed nodded. Havoc left his side and flopped down gracelessly on an available couch cushion.
"So, what's with all the subterfuge?" Ed asked, staying firmly on his feet. "You guys have this secret clubhouse, and now you want Al and me to join?"
"Well, you kind of have to now," Breda said. "Because we showed it to you and all."
"And if I said that I didn't want to join? That I was going to run and tattle to Doctor Dante?"
The stony silence that followed was answer enough. Ed gave Al a gentle nudge, tucking his baby brother safely behind his back.
"I see," he said softly.
"Don't misunderstand, Edward," Riza said. Ed tensed instinctively; she was still behind him, which meant that she had access to Al. "We don't wish to harm you, or your brother. But we can't allow Dante, or the Director, to become aware of our activities."
Ed's laugh was humorless.
"I'm assuming that when you say activities, you don't mean club arts and crafts."
"Well, Falman did draw a really pretty picture of Doctor Dante once," Havoc said fairly. But despite his easy tone, the boy was tense, and his eyes kept shifting to Roy for further instructions.
"Please don't put up a fuss, Ed," Winry said earnestly, and Ed regretted it the second he looked into her big blue eyes. "We really don't want to hurt you."
Her words might have soothed him, if he'd been alone. But that was twice now that someone had mentioned potential damage, and just the implication of someone hurting Al was enough to get Ed's back up.
"Anyone tries to hurt Alphonse, and I go apeshit," he said, his voice a dark promise. "I'll put up enough of a fuss to bring the entire staff down on this place."
"Can't let you do it, Boss," Havoc parried, tucking a cigarette nonchalantly between his lips. But the threat of action lingered in his half-hooded eyes.
"You think you can stop me?"
"Enough." Mustang reached out one long leg and gave Havoc's cushion a kick. "The kid won't cause any trouble. He's been looking for answers since he got here, and he's smart enough to see when they're in front of him."
"Answers, huh?" Ed repeated. "What happened to this afternoon, and your suggestion of talking to Doctor Dante about my delusions?"
Mustang shrugged lazily. His face look somewhat sinister, soaked in the red-tinged light of the boiler room.
"Come on, Elric," he said. "I had to test you, didn't I?"
"Test me?" Ed's fingers locked into tight fists, and Al's soothing murmur whispered across his shoulder blades. "I've been watching my brother puke his gut out for weeks, you bastard! And you're just letting me in to your little club now?" Ed was trembling, shaking with a rage born from weeks of impotent fear and fury. "I was helpless. And desperate. And you had the answers all this time?"
"Brother," Al said softly.
"Please, Ed," Winry said, half-rising to her feet. Her face was stricken, and pleading. "Try to understand. We never wanted to…hurt you like that. But we had to make sure that we could trust you; that you hated Doctor Dante enough for us to include you. None of us enjoyed watching you suffer." And the way she said it suggested that she'd been having a harder time than most. "But one wrong step, and we lose everything. And that can't happen. Because we're the only ones who can stop this, you see?"
"Stop what?" Ed asked, his rage somewhat deflated by Winry's placation. His hands un-fisted, and fell limp at his sides.
"If you're done having your temper tantrum," Mustang said breezily, and smirked at Ed's instinctive squawk of outrage. "We'll tell you."
He waved one long-fingered hand at two available couch cushions.
"Have a seat, Elric," he invited. "And let me tell you a story."
Ed's eyes oscillated back and forth between the available couch cushions, and Mustang's still smirking face. It didn't look very reassuring, especially in the red light of the boiler room, and so Ed defiantly planted his feet.
"I'll stand, thanks," he said.
Mustang heaved a long-suffering sigh and rocked back in his chair.
"The amount of pain in my ass that you are is unbelievable," he offered. "Just sit, Elric. It's a long story." Mustang cocked his head, a silent challenge. "And your baby brother's still shaky, right?"
Automatically, Ed fine-tuned his senses to the body at his back. He was a little ashamed to suddenly realize that Al's fingers were indeed trembling on his sleeve, and his breaths on Ed's back were a bit unsteady.
Ed helped Al down first.
"Sorry," he muttered, for his brother's ears only.
Al flashed a soft, secret smile. Ed returned it, and then flopped gracelessly down on his own couch cushion. It was thin and scratchy, and smelled faintly of mold and must, but it was better than the stone floor.
"We're sitting," Ed announced, kicking his legs out. "All ears, Bastard. What's the story?"
"Once upon a time," Mustang began, and his smirk widened at Edward's insolent snort. "Once upon a time, the world believed in magic."
"Like fairies and witches and wizards?" Ed interrupted lazily.
"No," Mustang countered. "Nothing supernatural. The world believed in a magic that humans could craft, and control. A force that could be called with symbols, and used to change and create."
Out of the corner of his eye, Ed saw Al's spine go as rigid as his own. And by the sudden solemn shine in Mustang's eyes, he saw the movement as well.
"Something to share, Elric?"
Edward shook his head, a bit desperately and didn't look at Al.
"I don't believe in magic."
Riza shifted forward from her weather-beaten lawn chair on Mustang's right.
"When the police found you in the wreckage of your old family home," she said, her voice soft and serious. "You spoke of magic, and bright lights that burned like fire and brought monsters with them."
Ed's golden eyes went as hot and hard as flame-licked glass. This time he didn't even try to prevent his back from snapping straight.
"How did you know that?" he demanded.
"You talked about it in group," Winry reminded him gently. She half held out a hand, like Ed was a wild animal she needed to soothe. "The very first day. Dante pulled it out of you, the bitch. Remember?"
"And we read your file," Mustang added helpfully. "Dante keeps them locked in a cabinet in her office."
Screw Winry's soft and soothing hand. Ed's hackles rose like a hungry wolf's, and he half considered leaping from his pillow and planting his automail fist in Mustang's face. The older boy read the intent in his eyes like a well-loved book, and his smirk tightened into a condescending curl.
"Really, Elric. I don't understand why you're surprised. You're so close-mouthed that you make Falman look chatty; you hardly offer us anything in group, and God knows you're not going to talk us up in your free time. You really think we'd offer an invitation without knowing more about you first?"
"And what gives you the right-"
"Come on, Boss," Havoc interrupted, with an exasperated eye roll. "Winry already said. We're dealing with something a little bigger here than your hurt feelings."
Ed fisted his hands hard on his thighs and fell into tight, angry silence.
"So, saying that you don't believe in magic, you can see how that might baffle me, Edward," Mustang said, resting his chin on his folded fingers and observing his prey out of eyes that glittered in the faded light. "When you've already admitted that you do."
"We were injured," Ed hissed through gritted teeth. "Incoherent. Little boys living alone, seeing monsters in shadows and lucky to be getting two square meals a day. So why would you take anything that was said in that report seriously?"
He hated that Al's hands were curled into fists as well, tight and helpless and pressed against his couch cushion.
"There's just one problem with that little story, Elric," Mustang parried. "Other than the fact that you described your little magical world in detail during group. You're not the type to fear what hides in the shadows. You're the kind that seeks them out."
It was true. Painfully, shamefully true. But Mustang didn't need to know that for sure.
"Oh, yeah?" he asked, curling his lip into his best imitation of Mustang's sneer. "And how do you figure that, Bastard?"
"Because I did the same thing."
And you're like me, Mustang's eyes finished without words. Just like me, Elric, in a lot more ways than you're willing to admit.
"Okay," Ed said carefully. "And why would I seek these shadows out at all?"
"Because there are answers in them. And ways to do the impossible." Mustang tilted his head, ever so slightly to the left. "Like help two little boys in a big, empty house feel not so alone anymore."
A thrill of terror shot up Edward's spine, widening his golden eyes. The look in Mustang's eyes was so firm, so sure, that Edward's doubts were obliterated in one fell swoop.
He knows about Mom.
Ed hung his head and willed the sudden adrenaline-soaked speed of his heart to slow.
He knows about Mom. But nothing else. He would have said already.
And judging by the blank faces of those around him, Mustang hadn't told the others about Ed's biggest mistake, the one that had cost him everything. The only one who looked even remotely aware was Riza; her sherry eyes were soft with understanding. Ed was glad; he wasn't sure he could handle their reactions, now that he knew them better. He wouldn't have cared before, but now that he'd seen their faces split with smiles, seeing their eyes creased with fear and doubt and disgust would cut him more than he wanted to admit.
Ed imagined Winry's bright blue eyes shadowed with loathing, and felt something like gratitude sprint across his shoulders.
"Does this magic," he paused to lick suddenly dry lips. "Does it have a name?"
"Alchemy. It's called alchemy." Mustang leaned forward in his seat. "But I think you know that already, Elric."
He did. It had been in the books.
"It's not real," Al whispered at his left. "It's a fairytale. Everyone says."
Al's voice was soft, but the defiance in it made Ed's lips twitch into the shadow of a proud smile.
"That's true," Mustang agreed. "Everyone talks about alchemy like it's a something from a story book. But they still talk about it, and that knowledge had to come from somewhere, right?"
Al scowled through soft grey eyes.
"Stories always have some basis in reality," he said stubbornly. "Especially stories like this. But they're just footprints of truth inside a false story. So what makes alchemy different than any of the other types of fairytale magic?"
This time, the smile slipped out despite Ed's best efforts. People underestimated Al because he was quiet, and shy, and by comparison Ed was loud and brash and had been declared a genius at a young age. Most of them didn't know that behind that sweet face bided a sharp brain that rivaled his older brother's.
"Ask around," Mustang suggested. "Anyone who knows the story could tell you that alchemy is a magic rooted in science."
Briefly, Ed's eyes fluttered shut as he remembered cupping thick books in his palm, staring at the contents with wonder and confusion.
Brother…these symbols. What do you think they mean?
I don't know, Al. But I'm going to find out.
"We don't know why, or how," Mustang continued. "But something happened a long time ago that removed alchemy from the history books, and reduced its legend to nothing more than a child's bedtime story."
Lies, Ed thought instantly, even though Mustang's eyes only shifted away from his for a split second. You say you don't know why, Bastard.
But I bet you've got a few ideas.
"It doesn't change the fact that alchemy existed once." Mustang rubbed his thumb and index finger together. "And still does, for those who can recognize it when they see it."
"What does that have to do with me and Al?" Ed demanded, ignoring the way everyone was staring holes into his forehead. "Why does everyone in this hospital seem so damn concerned by a few incoherent ramblings we gave when we were injured and delirious?"
Play dumb, blow it off. No need to give the bastard any more ammunition than he already has.
Mustang held up one finger, like a teacher commanding the attention of his classroom.
"Patience, Elric," he said. "I'm getting there. Now, as I said, the idea of alchemy seems to be fairly common knowledge. But something that the general populace might not be aware of is that there are two types of people who can conduct alchemic power. The ones who wield it directly are called alchemists, and are more commonly known. But alchemy has another outlet, one that was rarely talked about even when it was an acknowledged practice."
Mustang stopped to gather his words.
"You get your jollies from dramatic pauses, don't you?" Ed muttered after Mustang spent several seconds in contemplative silence.
"This part can difficult to navigate," Mustang answered. "I don't want to explain it more than once."
"Hello." He jabbed a finger at his own chest. "Genius."
"A little wonder," Mustang agreed mildly.
Havoc and Breda snorted and snuffled, nearly choking on their laughter in an effort to stifle it.
"Oh my freaking God, I will kill you so hard!"
"Roy," Riza murmured, casting a nervous glance around as Ed's semi-shout bounced off the boiler room walls.
"Right," Mustang dropped his voice back down to an almost-whisper. "Keep it quiet, short stuff. You'll bring the entire staff running."
"Short stuff? I…Gah…you…Grrrrngh…hate you so much…"
Al slapped a hand over Ed's face, cutting the older Elric off mid-incoherent rage.
"Let it go, Brother," he murmured, dodging Ed's spastic flail of fury. "I want to hear this. We might not get another chance." With his free hand, he patted his brother's tightly balled fist soothingly. "You can try and beat his face in after we get our answers. Kay?"
Ed made a spluttering, snarling sort of sound that Alphonse translated as Brother-speak for; I will leash my fury for now, but leash it only, someday soon it shall spill out into the world and destroy pale-faced, smug-mouthed bastards those who mock such sensitive things as height. Satisfied by this, Alphonse took his hand away.
"You were saying," he prompted politely.
"Al…don't be nice to him…traitor…"
Mustang smirked at Ed's hissing whisper, but Riza's stern look prevented him from responding to it. He sighed.
"The first type of person who can wield this power is called an alchemist," Mustang dutifully repeated. "But there is another kind that can channel the power without actually creating it. These people are called conduits. Conduits act as…amplifiers of alchemic power, in a way." Mustang tapped his fingers restlessly against the rusted arm of his chair. "When an alchemist funnels his power through a conduit, it latches on to the conduit's potential alchemy, which resides in them but never manifests. Because of this, the alchemic power that is pushed through a conduit can double itself in strength, making the intended reaction of the alchemy itself even more powerful."
Ed leaned forward on his couch cushion. The anger in his eyes had all but faded, obliterated by the insatiable and constant craving in his skull for knowledge.
"I get it," he said quietly. "Make a magic wish on your own, and you might get what you want. But combine your wish with someone else's, and you get two for the price of one."
"But, isn't everyone a conduit then, in a way?" Al added, his brow furrowed with confusion. "Theoretically, couldn't you push the alchemy through anyone?"
Breda scowled, and fisted his hand around the bag of chips he'd smuggled from the kitchen.
"You could," he agreed sourly. "But the end result wouldn't be very pretty."
"Remember, Al," Fuery interjected, his voice soft and sort of nervous-sounding. "Mustang said that conduits amplify alchemic power by adding their own latent abilities to the abilities of the alchemist using them as a funnel. If you don't have any power there to start with, there's nothing for the alchemist's power to add to."
"And the body of a non-conduit can't recognize such an unfamiliar force," Mustang finished quietly. "The power burns them up inside; chews away under their skin until the heat becomes too much, and they die."
There was a beat of silence following Mustang's somber explanation. Al's eyes were wide and sad, sorry for people he'd never met, and horrified that someone would subject another human to such torture.
Ed's eyes were serious, and sorry, but they weren't sad. His eyes carried the blankness of someone who had seen horrors much worse than the ones being described, and had sacrificed something of himself in order to survive them.
"How are these conduits found?" he asked. "If most people believe that alchemy is a myth, and the power of potential conduits is never manifested, then they can't be that easy to pick out from a crowd."
Mustang's tapping fingers grew restless, his rhythm taking up an edge of helplessness.
"This is where what we know gets shaky," he admitted. "To find solid answers, you'd have to talk to someone who knew alchemy, who practiced alchemy, before it was erased from the world. But the best that we can gather is that conduits typically have some sort of emotional tie to a specific alchemist." Mustang glanced around the group. "We have this theory, that most conduits come from family groups. Riza, and Havoc, and I grew up together. Our grandfathers served together in the war, in a sort of black ops division that specialized in the impossible jobs."
"We believe this division was made up of alchemists," Riza added softly. "Alchemists working for the military."
"Gramps did have some crazy strange war stories," Havoc chimed in, from where he was slumped against his couch cushion, rolling a cigarette between his fingertips. "And sometimes, the strangest things happened when he borrowed my sidewalk chalk."
Ed watched the slim white cylinder rub against Havoc's slightly yellowed fingers, and couldn't think of a single thing to say. His brain was too busy sucking up knowledge like heat-scorched, sand-scraped mouth.
"Martel, Greed, and Kimblee grew up together too," Mustang continued. "On the streets. But Kimblee had an old military stripe stitched into his jacket when he first showed up at the asylum, so it's a pretty safe bet that his family was tied to the war as well."
Al's brow, still furrowed from earlier confusion, scrunched even farther.
"What about Breda, and Fuery, and Falman?" he asked. "What about Winry? You didn't all grow up together?"
A beat of silence.
"My pops used to make funny lights with his hands," Breda offered quietly, crinkling the chip bag in his hand and refusing to meet anyone's eyes. "He died when I was little, got real sick, and the asylum doctors came and picked me up after his wake."
Al made a soft, sad sound, but Breda's eyes stayed stubbornly on the floor.
"Fuery and Falman's files are stamped with the word 'blank'," Mustang continued, after a quick, almost indiscernible grimace for Breda's sake. "It took us a while to figure out what that meant. But once we let them in the club, and found out that they didn't have any alchemic ability in their immediate family, it sort of fell into place."
Ed's eyes narrowed.
"They're anomalies," he said. "Blank, as in, they don't belong to any alchemist. No emotional attachments formed, so any alchemist can use them."
Ed suddenly remembered Fuery's tears, made hazy from his nightmares but still unbearable to watch, and realized that someone was taking full advantage of that fact.
"Wow, Ed!" Winry said with a light, almost nervous laugh. "We sure could have used your smarts a few years ago. It would have made everything a lot easier."
Ed turned a curious eye in her direction.
"What's your story?"
"Mine?" Light, nervous laughter again. "I don't have one, really. I'm not an alchemist, or a conduit. My parents served as doctors in the war; they never came back from it. And Granny…she never really got over it, and then she got sick. Doctor Dante found me in an orphanage a few years later, and I've been here ever since." Winry's smile was so bright that it burned. Ed wanted to wipe it away; it didn't belong where her normal smiles so frequently visited. "I guess you could say I'm the only sane one in a house of freaks."
A sudden flurry of coughing filled the little nest inside the boiler room. Havoc and Breda's shoulders shook, and in between their rasping hacks, Ed thought he caught the words; "Yeah, right", and "Known you for years and still don't know where you hide that wrench".
"Winry's purpose in this is still unknown," Mustang elaborated, keeping a wary eye out for the wrench in question. Judging by the sweetly homicidal look in those big blue eyes, Winry had heard the words behind Havoc and Breda's 'coughs' just fine. "And we're not much clearer on the master plan itself. The entire staff is in on it, with a few exceptions, such as Armstrong. Riza, Havoc, Winry, and I have been here for years. Breda, Martel, Kimblee, and Greed have been here for about two, Fuery's coming up on his first anniversary, and Falman's been with us for about eight months. All that we're really sure of is that they've been funneling mass amounts of alchemic energy out of all of us, switching between conduits so as to keep the power doubled." Mustang steepled his fingers again. "Until the arrival of you two, Kimblee and I were the only alchemists. Everyone else, other than Winry, of course, is a conduit." Mustang fixed his eyes on the younger Elric. "With your arrival, Alphonse, the number of alchemists has been elevated to three." Mustang's dark stare turned to Edward next. "And Elric, I've heard Doctor Dante and the Director talking about you. Your power is immense, nearly limitless. When alchemic energy is pushed through you, it just grows and grows, multiplying itself far beyond double, until your body gives out from exhaustion. They've never seen such potential in a conduit before, and they've been giddy with excitement ever since they found that out."
"Oh, well," Ed said sourly. "Hooray for me."
"It's not so much a happy thing, Boss," he said, popping his cigarette between his teeth. "Because, you and your crazy amounts of power are bringing Doctor Elder Bitch closer to her goal at a much faster pace. We're pretty sure that's not something we want to see happen."
"And how do you propose I stop her?" Ed asked dryly. "Drool on her cardigan a little? Every time she's pulled me out to suck my power dry, she's drugged me up first. I can barely remember, let alone fight."
Mustang leaned forward in his chair.
"It's been years," he reminded the older Elric. "For some of us, it's been years, and we still haven't figured out a way to fight, really fight, without raising suspicion." His dark eyes burned in the darkness, a sudden fire, an abrupt intensity, like this was the real purpose of this meeting, finally laid before the group. "But we're fighting all the same, the only way we can, against something that most people don't even believe exists. So, I guess the question becomes; are you willing to fight with us, for a cause as pathetic sounding as that?"
Ed opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked away from those burning eyes, to take in the rest of the group.
Riza's eyes, patient and kind, but always trained on Roy in the end.
Breda's eyes, nervous and bordering on agitation.
Havoc's eyes, calm because he knew that Mustang would have orders for him to follow if Ed's answer was wrong.
Fuery's eyes, earnest and sweet and still swollen from the knot on his forehead.
Falman's eyes, inscrutable as ever, but maybe with the tiniest bit of urgency underneath.
Winry's eyes, soft with hope and something like longing that made Ed's cheeks heat.
And Al's eyes, so patient and trusting, and ready to follow Ed's decision, so sure that Ed would choose the right path for the both of them.
Ed closed his eyes for a moment, saw that sweet face stained with blood and soot from a burning house, before he banished the image and allowed Mustang's smirk to curve his lips again.
"Tch," he said, kicking out at Mustang's chair with one booted foot. "Bastard. What kind of question is that?" He crossed his arms and gave his head an insolent toss. "But I want it clear that I'm fighting with you because you so obviously need me. Not because I like you as a person or anything."
And Mustang leaned back, the black burn in his eyes banked by satisfaction.
"Perish the thought."
The sun seemed brighter the next morning. It could have been because the air was beginning to warm, but Ed knew that the sudden shift in shine had nothing to do with the transition from early to middle spring. The gradual thawing of pale white winter sunshine to the golden glow of warmer rays may have been the physical reason for the brighter day, but Ed knew that his cause for considering the morning a dazzling one had nothing to do with the aesthetic.
He had answers. He had purpose.
Of course the dawn seemed so much lighter than the dark he'd been stumbling in for so long.
They'd snuck up the stairs from the boiler room last night, giddy and giggling like school children, except Mustang, of course, who had restrained himself to a single superior and silent smirk. The others had been boneless with relief that they hadn't made a mistake in offering club membership to the Elric brothers. It was common knowledge that Edward was a genius, and with his brain suddenly on their side, the possibilities seemed endless. The realization that Alphonse had a brain just as blade sharp as his brother's behind his quiet eyes had come as a rather breathless bonus.
The brothers were just overjoyed to have answers, of any kind, at last.
Edward stared at the sunshine blooming in the window above his head, and just barely resisted the urge to execute a happy shimmy. He hadn't checked yet to see if the bastard was still in the room, and he'd never live it down if Mustang caught him doing a booty shake against his sheets.
He sat up instead, giving his arms a luxurious stretch. The bastard's bed was empty and almost anally made, as always, but Alphonse was there, yawning and rubbing at his pillow-mussed hair. His brother greeted him with a smile that warmed his soft and sleepy eyes.
An almost stupid sort of grin stretched Ed's face.
He'd never seen such a satisfying sight in his entire life.
Alphonse, warmed by the sun and shifting lazily against his sheets, instead of horrifically pale and sprinting to the bathroom to empty up his stomach lining.
Ed briefly considered pirouetting from his bed to his brother's, in order to properly greet that beautifully normal smile by arm-barring Al back to his mattress. But he was feeling a bit lazy himself, so instead he snagged his pillow and winged it at his brother's head like an intercontinental cruise missile fueled by affection.
"Morning, Al!" he greeted cheerfully, as the flying mass of feathers and fabric smoked his unsuspecting brother right between the eyes.
Al sputtered for a moment before responding.
"Morning, Brother," he said. "You're in a good mood."
Ed didn't have to explain why. There was an answering delight mirrored in Al's smile. Ed grinned.
"It's a nice day," he offered, and bounced out of bed.
Al, being the deceptively sneaky ninja that he was, waited until Ed strolled by his mattress to access the bathroom before answering his brother's earlier assault. His pillow hit Ed hard enough to knock him to the floor with a window-rattling thud.
"It is a nice day," Al agreed, his voice dripping with innocent satisfaction. "I think I'll take a shower before breakfast."
He made sure to step over his brother as he strode into the bathroom.
Ed had never been prouder in his entire life. Of course, he'd have to sabotage Al's breakfast later; older brother etiquette demanded that he stay one step ahead of the baby in the family. But for now he could bask in the truly terrific job he'd done in fashioning Alphonse into a sort of social deviant, just like him.
Breakfast was a lighthearted affair, and almost fun for once. In the wake of having a secret to share, and a rebellious one at that, Ed could almost forget the bars on the windows and the locks on the doors and just enjoy being with other kids his age. He teased a solemn-eyed Riza, challenged Breda to an epic eating contest of destiny, and made sure that Alphonse sort of accidentally dropped the syrup jar on his lap at the end of the meal. The laughter coming from their table was so warm and honest and out of place that Kimblee, Greed, and Martel spent the entire hour shooting dirty looks in their direction.
"You have an individual session with Doctor Dante today, right Elric?" Mustang asked as they were clearing their dishes.
"Yep," Ed answered, and gave Gluttony a wide grin as the man stared sadly at his spotless plate. "Right after this. Gonna be hard not to crack the hag a good one after last night, you know?"
"We appreciate your restraint," Mustang said, his voice dryer than summer baked sidewalks.
Ed tucked his hands in his pockets.
"I won't be talking about any 'magic', either," he promised fiercely. "She's gotten enough of that out of me."
"I wouldn't worry about that, Elric. I'm sure Doctor Dante will have plenty of things to say."
"Well, it is true that she never seems to get tired of her own freaking voice," he said. "Say, can you keep an eye on Al for me again while I'm gone?"
"If he needs it."
"For my own peace of mind, he does," Edward replied. His laughter faded, his smile shifting from an open grin of joy to a sharp and bitter smile. "I'm all smiles today because I'm riding the wave of finally knowing something. But I know that answers don't always mean results. There's even more work to do now that I know what's going on." He slid sharp eyes in Mustang's direction. "I'm going to want to talk to you, afterward."
Mustang's smile was faint, but it was there. Ed stared at it suspiciously.
"I imagine you will."
"Freak. Whatever." They reached the door to the kitchen area, and Ed angled his body away from Mustang, down the opposite side of the corridor, towards Dante's office. "Al's in the room, changing. Let him know that I'm at my appointment, yeah?"
Ed bobbed his head in the gratitude that he'd pretty much rather die than express out loud, and flipped a little wave at the rest of the group behind him. Their well wishes and light laughter warmed his back as he walked away.
He tapped his fingers against Dante's door, and rolled his eyes as he stepped back to wait for her summons. She always kept him waiting, because she knew there was nothing he could do about it. Her soft smirk after he finally entered her office made his vision go red every single time. But even though he cooled his heels for a solid five minutes this time around, he still walked through her door with a smirk of his own undiminished on his lips.
Until he saw the unexpected occupant waiting on the doctor's couch.
"Al?" he asked, pausing uncertainly mid-step. "What are you doing here? Did I get our sessions mixed up?"
Doctor Dante smiled serenely at him from her own designated chair.
"No, you're correct, Edward," she said. "This is the right time. I sent Armstrong to retrieve your brother. I thought we might try a tag team type session today."
"Uh." Unsure, but game, Edward shrugged his shoulders and dropped down next to his brother. "Okay."
Dante made a pleased little sound in the back of her throat, and briefly consulted her notepad. Al took the opportunity to shoot a baffled glance in his brother's direction. Ed spread his hands a little and shrugged again, before carefully draping his body in a display of arrogant apathy. Al picked up on his cue, and arranged himself into his own expression of polite indifference.
"So. Boys," Dante began. "Tell me about your adventure in the boiler room last night."
Every muscle in Ed's body locked down tight, turning him into a rigid statue on the sofa. Cold sprinted down his spine, a cold so extreme it bordered on burning hot. His brain began to whir in frantic spins, too fast for him to follow. Above the sudden roar inside his ears, he heard Al's quickly stifled gasp of surprise.
Dante's eyes, when she looked up from her notepad, were filled with a pleasure that bordered on being vicious.
"The boiler room," she repeated. A tiny smile curved her lips. "It's wonderful to see you're making friends, Edward."
It was all Ed could manage. His brain was too bogged down by facts and figures, angles and escape scenarios. His temples began to pound under the weight of it.
"Really, Edward. You honestly think I don't know about Roy's secret club? About the little fort hidden behind the machinery?"
Ed's eyes were huge, pupils wide and dilated in shock.
"But…," he was stuttering, his brain was working too fast to formulate words. "If you…if you knew…if you know…then why haven't you…"
"Done anything?" Dante settled back comfortably in her chair. "Why expend the effort? What could such a group of children hope to accomplish?" She crossed her ankles daintily. "If it makes you all feel more settled to pretend to have some measure of control, then I am perfectly content to allow you your delusion."
Ed's fingers curled into tight fists on his knees.
"So, what," he spat. His shock was rapidly giving way to anger, something he was grateful for. He was much more comfortable with rage; it was an old friend of his. "You're just going to let us have our little club, because we can't stop you either way?"
Ed was on his feet now, fuming. The anger was so strong it was almost rolling off of him in waves.
"And what happens when you work us too hard, Doctor Dante?" he snarled. "We're sick for hours after you use us; the process depletes our energy completely. It has to be breaking us down by inches." The glare he shot the perfectly serene doctor should have peeled the paint from the walls. "So what happens when we have nothing left to give?"
Dante folded her hands neatly in her lap before responding.
"Do you think you're the only patients I've ever had in this hospital, Edward?" she asked, almost curiously. "It's true that children with your potential are hard to find, but I've never had too much trouble replacing those that are broken."
Edward imagined Al, his body bent and bowed, lying lifeless on the ground like left-behind trash. He imagined his brother's soft and intelligent eyes, open but empty of everything that made him Al.
With a roar of rage, Ed's hands started moving.
Alphonse's fingers wrapped around his wrists, forcing his hands down to his sides. For a moment, the Elric brothers strained against each other, as Ed fought against Al's restraining grip.
"Let me go. Let me go, Al. She is…I have to…"
"No, Brother," Al whispered desperately into his brother's hair. "You can't. Remember? You can't. We promised."
The air sawing sharply through Ed's open mouth burned his throat like fire. He struggled to acknowledge Al's words, to force the fury from his rigid frame.
But it was hard, so hard, when Dante continued to sit there, blissfully unconcerned and with vague amusement curling her lips.
"Wise of you, Alphonse," she murmured, her voice catching on a laugh. "This hospital, and everything in it, is run by me. You're an orphan, Edward. No one will be looking for you. If I have to keep you locked in solitary, separate from your brother, until you behave, who's going to tell me I can't? When Archer sent you our way, he signed your future over to us. The asylum owns you, Edward. And we'll use you as we see fit."
Something like claustrophobia scrambled up Edward's throat, squeezing his neck like sharpened claws, shortening his breath. He half-slumped against Alphonse, his golden eyes wide and blank.
"Although, I find your sympathy for our previous patients endearing, Edward," Dante continued. "The ones who didn't die when they were drained completely are kept in a wing adjacent to the adult one. I'd be more than happy to have Armstrong escort you there someday soon. I'm sure whatever part of them that isn't a burned out, hollowed husk would appreciate your company." Dante tapped her fingers against her notepad casually. "And you're such a smart boy, Edward. Seeing specimens of your future might appeal to you…intellectually."
"Stop." Al's voice was shuddering and strained, but still strong. "Please. Doctor Dante. Stop."
Dante shifted her gaze from the slumped over Elric to the still standing one. The amusement that Al saw in her eyes tightened his stomach into a hot, greasy fist.
"Of course," she purred. "Your brother is right, Edward. There's no need for this to be an unpleasant thing. Once you accept your purpose here, I'm sure you'll be much happier." This time, she couldn't contain the laugh completely. It rippled out, a small and perfectly polite chuckle. "As your doctor, I can tell you that such happiness can only improve your condition."
Al made a small, choked sound and dropped Dante's gaze. His own frustration, his own sense of helplessness was churning inside of him. But he couldn't let it out yet, not when Brother still needed him to be strong.
"You have group therapy this afternoon," Dante said. "Why don't you boys go rest up beforehand. You're both so pale."
Al didn't speak. He was afraid of what would come pouring out if he tried. Instead, he inclined his head, one quick jerk, and half-dragged his brother out the door. Ed stumbled along, his feet tripping and tangling together. Al braced them both against the wall outside of Dante's door and closed his eyes. The air wasn't any easier out here, but Al struggled to breathe it anyway, and willed his brother to do the same.
Al's eyes flew open at the familiar voice.
Mustang dipped his hands in his pockets and surveyed Ed with polite interest.
"He gets like this sometimes," Al explained, reaching defensively for his brother's hand. "His brain, it just works too hard. He sees things that I can't, that most people can't. It freezes him up."
"Right. Well, bring him, if you can. The others are waiting."
Al nodded hesitantly. He reached to wrap his brother's arm around his shoulders, but Ed reached out and gave him a sluggish shove.
"'M fine. I can walk, Al."
"Brother, are you sure?"
"Yes," Ed snapped, with the bite of his returning fire. The dark look he shot Mustang only strengthened his resolve. "Where are we going, Bastard?"
Mustang stepped back so that Ed could pass.
"The others are waiting in the room."
Ed stomped past him, Al following in his wake. Roy brought up the rear, and kept a careful eye out for Lust or Gluttony. He nodded at Armstrong, who was leaning casually against the wall outside the room, and made sure to shut the door securely at his back.
Winry and Fuery were perched on Al's bed. Havoc and Breda were sprawled all over Ed's, and Riza leaned stiffly against Roy's. Falman was reclined against the wall next to the window, and half staring out into the sunshine that had seemed so bright just this morning. Now Ed could only scowl at it.
"So," Havoc said cheerfully at the sight of Ed's stormy face. "Doctor Bitch dropped the bomb, huh?"
Ed let his shoulders rock back against the door.
"She's always known?" he asked.
"From the beginning," Roy confirmed.
Ed let his head smack against the door as well.
"Then what are we doing?" he asked.
"The best we can," Winry answered softly.
"Why didn't you tell us that she knew?" Al asked, after Ed didn't respond.
"What would it have changed?" Riza said.
"It might have stopped me from almost hitting her," Ed muttered.
Havoc, Breda, and Winry choked on their disbelieving laughter. Ed tipped his head forward, and fixed his eyes on the bars on the window. His eyes were huge and haunted, and terribly tired somehow.
"She knows everything," he said after a long silence. "So how do we beat her?"
For another long while, nobody answered. Then, Breda drew Ed's exhausted eyes with a whip-quick grin.
"With a stick?"
Fuery erupted into high-pitched, nervous giggles that he quickly stifled. Even the ever-somber Riza cracked a tiny smile. Ed's response was small, and barely a shadow of the grin he'd had this morning, but it was there.
"There's more to what we're doing," Mustang added quietly. "Things we can't talk about because the good doctor knows everything." His burning paper-doll desperate eyes locked on Ed's, and it occurred to him absently that his own eyes might look the same. "Or so she thinks."
Ed's spine stiffened against the door. Interest fired in those golden eyes once again.
"Thinks," he repeated.
In answer, Roy held out a closed fist.
"Take this instead of your medication tonight," he instructed. "We have sugar pills for Al, too."
Ed caught the tiny pill Mustang offered inside his palm.
"How do we fool the nurse into thinking we took our actual drugs?" Al asked.
The next half hour was devoted to the rest of the group demonstrating how to hide the pills under their tongues, and then discreetly spit them out later. By the time Nurse Lust knocked on their door to inform them that it was time for group therapy, Ed was half-sick on sugar pills.
"Stay calm," Mustang advised him in a soft murmur as they made their way down the hall. "She enjoys seeing our rage, our helplessness. Don't let her have it."
"Well, that certainly explains your bizarre behavior, Bastard," Ed hissed back, and fought to relax his inevitably stiffening muscles.
Winry came up behind him and grabbed his hand. While Ed's face morphed from restrained fury to fluster, she twined their fingers together and gave his palm a supportive squeeze. Ed heard snickers behind him, and turned to glare, only to blush when he realized that it wasn't just Havoc and Breda, but Alphonse as well.
He had to bite his lip until it bled, but he managed to keep his face mostly under control as he walked into the room and saw Dante's smug expression. Winry kept a tight grip on his palm as they took their seats, and Alphonse flanked his other side. The rest of them filled in the closest spots, almost protectively, and lapsed into close-ranked silence.
The silence reigned for a good five minutes after the rest of the kids joined them, until Martel kicked back in her chair and mustered a disgusted sneer.
"So, the brats know then? We can stop pretending."
"Martel," Dante murmured disapprovingly.
"What? I want to get back to my real therapy."
"You'll be working in pairs today," Dante informed her. "To strengthen bonds of kinship between you and the other patients."
The girl gave her golden head an insolent toss.
"You're an evil bitch, and at the first opportunity, I'm going to rip out your intestines, and make you eat them." Martel heaved a long, gratified sigh. "There. Therapeutic."
Greed and Kimblee dissolved into snorting snickers.
"That's nice, dear," Dante said with a soft smile. "Now go make friends."
Martel gave a disgusted snort and rose to her feet. She and the boys retreated to the far corner of the room. Dante eyed the remaining patients.
"Still an odd number," she observed. "Oh, well. Guess we'll have another group of three. Havoc, Falman, and Winry, you're together."
Winry and Havoc smirked at each other, and then the girl rolled her eyes at Falman's stoic expression.
"Riza and Breda, you're a pair."
Breda snorted, and Riza bobbed her head in acknowledgement.
"Alphonse and Fuery."
The two boys smiled shyly at each other.
"And Edward and Roy," Dante finished. "Play nice, you two."
"I want to kick her in the face," Ed hissed between his teeth. "I want it bad."
The groups separated and retreated to different areas. The trio took the south corner. Riza and Breda settled by the door. Alphonse and Fuery dragged their chairs to the center of the circle. And Ed and Roy retreated to the east corner, behind a large desk.
Dante stood up and announced that she'd be back in an hour, and she expected them to stay and participate the entire time.
"So, what's the point of this?" Ed asked, once she'd left the room. "Everyone knows now. Why is she keeping up the therapy shit?"
Roy reclined against the wall.
"Encouraging bonds between the patients is crucial to their plan," he explained. "Remember that most conduits require some sort of tie to the alchemist using them." Mustang's eyes drifted across the others in the room. "I've been used with Riza, Havoc, Breda, Fuery, and Falman. But I don't associate with Greed or Martel, and so they never bother to bring them down when I'm there."
Ed certainly didn't want to share a wall with the bastard, so he leaned against the desk instead.
"How long have you been here, Jerk-face?"
Roy didn't roll his eyes, but Ed could see that he wanted to.
"Five years. They brought me in when I was twelve. Riza and Havoc and I have always been here together."
"So," Ed's eyes, darkened now, shifted to the floor. "So you must have known the other kids. The ones who came before you."
Mustang stiffened. Just barely, but on his hardly responsive frame, it was as apparent as a warning sign.
"A few," he said softly. "And not very well. They weren't very responsive…towards the end."
Ed swallowed hard.
"Dante mentioned that the ones that don't die during the breaking process are stashed somewhere off of the adult wing."
Roy shot him a look that Ed interpreted as barely veiled confusion.
"You're good…at arranging stuff," Ed murmured. "Could you get me in to see them?"
There was a long pause in which Ed's eyes stayed resolutely on the floor.
"She said she'd set it up for me," he eventually added. "But I don't want anything that bitch has offered."
"I suppose," Mustang finally answered. "The others would tell you that there isn't much of a point. They're not really there anymore."
"They're still people," Ed countered fiercely, instantly. "Still human."
And then he realized that Mustang had said 'the others', and hadn't included himself. He fell silent once again.
"I'll get you in," Mustang said after a while.
"Okay," Ed said, and closed his eyes, exhausted.
That night, after dinner, Ed tucked himself into bed. He'd accepted his little paper cup, as always, and dutifully tossed back the contents in front of the nurse's station.
"A multi-vitamin," Lust had informed him with a sultry smirk. "To keep your strength up. And a sedative. It always goes easier if you're not awake for it."
Ed had barely been able to restrain himself from spitting the pills back in her face. It had taken enormous willpower to keep them tucked under his tongue.
The pill that Mustang had given him hadn't had any effect, and so Ed assumed that they were sugar, like Al had taken. He waited until his baby brother's breathing had evened out before allowing himself to slip into a restless and exhausted sleep.
The violent churning in his stomach woke him up a few hours later. He didn't even make it to the bathroom; his stomach gave a vicious flip, and suddenly he was dangling off of the edge of his bed, emptying his dinner all over the floor.
The lights in the room flipped on, and Ed gave a miserable moan as they speared his sensitive eyelids.
"Go and get the orderly, Al," a soft voice ordered. The sound of Al's retreating feet caused the sudden pain in Ed's skull to intensify.
"Bastard," he gasped in between heaves. "What the hell…" His stomach seemed bent on revisiting everything he'd ingested in the past year of his life. "…Not sugar pills."
"I am sorry about this, Elric," Mustang returned, and from the sound of it, he was maintaining safe distance. "But it's necessary."
"So going to-" Heave, heave. "-Smother you in your sleep-" Heave, gag. "-You asshole."
Suddenly strong arms were wrapping around his waist, hoisting him off the bed, and a bucket was being slid underneath his nose. With a piteous groan, Ed attached the plastic to his face.
"I'll get him to the Doctor, right away," a deep voice rumbled.
"Thank you, Armstrong."
No, Ed's mind screamed as he felt those strong arms cart him out of the room. Leave me here with Al! Don't take me to that bitch.
But the voice that greeted him when they finally stopped moving wasn't feminine at all. Instead, a smooth male tenor rang out, ripe with amusement.
"Alex," it greeted. "One of Roy's, then?"
A brief chuckle, and then the sound of rummaging. Ed kept the bucket against his face, and tried his best to swallow around the waves of sick erupting from his mouth.
"Here." Strong hands ripped the bucket away, against Ed's garbled protests, and pressed the edge of a cup against his lips. Ed swallowed instinctively, choked on it, and then gasped in surprise as his stomach smoothed fifteen seconds later. He hung in Armstrong's arms for a moment, struggling to get his breath back. Eventually, he grimaced at the sour taste against his tongue, and shoved out of the burly arms surrounding him.
"Take this," that voice said again, and Ed glanced up before accepting the glass of water and stick of gum.
The man in front of him in the white lab coat had dark hair and curious yellow-gold eyes behind thin glasses.
"I'm Dr. Hughes," he said. "You're in the doctor's office, in the adult wing."
Ed polished off the water, and eyed the doctor carefully as he folded the gum against his tongue.
"Do you always work this late, Doctor?" he asked.
The doctor's glasses flashed, and a tiny smile bowed his lips.
"Oh," he said casually. "It just occurred to me as I was packing up tonight that I have a mountain of paperwork to finish. I really would have felt terrible leaving it behind."
"I see," he said. "And I suppose you won't be sending me back now that I'm done puking?"
The man's face registered polite surprise. But those eyes behind the glasses gleamed.
"Of course not," he said airily. "You're so sick. I'm afraid I'll have to keep you here for overnight observation." He shrugged. "My duty as a doctor and all that."
"Hn. I'm Ed."
Armstrong cleared his throat.
"I'll just go inform your brother of your whereabouts, Edward," he said.
Ed glanced back at the burly man.
"Thanks," he said. "Really." His smile softened. "Thank you."
Armstrong blushed his way out of the office.
"So," Ed prompted, turning back to the doctor man.
"How would you feel about visiting one of our adult patients, Ed?" Maes asked mildly. "It might help you in understanding your own condition."
Hughes clapped a hand on his shoulder and led him out of the office, and down a darkened hallway.
"So," Ed observed as they strolled. "You're the sugar pill provider."
"You've got a quick brain."
Hughes stopped outside a heavy metal door. It wasn't like the room that Ed shared with Mustang and Al, but instead a space like the solitary quarters in the children's wing.
"This is one of our oldest patients," Hughes said as he unlocked the door. He nudged Ed inside, and then shut the door behind him, his next words muffled by the thick metal. "I'll be back in a while."
Ed caught the faint trill of his whistle as he disappeared back down the hallway. There were no lights inside the room, only the dim rectangle from the small window on the door. Ed squinted and urged his eyes to adjust, reached out a steadying hand. It came to rest against a padded wall.
"So." The voice that rolled out of the shadows was smooth, and unmistakably feminine. "You're one of Mustang's."
"I'm nothing of that bastard's," Ed muttered, before asking in a louder voice. "Maybe. Who are you?"
"An alchemist. One that's willing to impart wisdom."
Ed froze for a moment, and then began to ease his way inside the room, frantically widening his eyes in a bid to see.
He picked up the hazy image of a woman sitting cross-legged in the corner, a woman with a tightly bound waterfall of dark hair and waxy white skin.
"You're an alchemist?" Ed asked her eagerly. "A practicing one?"
There was a barking laugh, a sound that turned into a rather troubling series of coughs.
"My name's Izumi Curtis, kid. But you can call me Teacher."
Ed blinked hard into the darkness, wishing beyond belief that he could see more of the woman than a fuzzy outline.
"Teacher?" he repeated uncertainly.
"That's right." Another round of those wet, rattling coughs. "Anyone that Mustang sends my way becomes my student. It's the least I can do to protect you from that bitch."
"You mean Doctor Dante?"
Because his eyes still hadn't adjusted, Ed didn't see the long-fingered hand that stretched out through the darkness. But he sure felt it when it connected with the side of his head and knocked him into the padded wall.
"Of course I mean Dante. Are you slow, kid?"
"Grmph," Ed mumbled around the mattress-like substance his face was smashed into. "What the hell. I'm not slow, you crazy old bat."
Another hand, against his upper arm this time, curled in an almost casual fist. Ed yelped, and rubbed at his stinging appendage.
"Teacher. I told you to call me Teacher, you brat."
"Fine," Ed hissed. "Teacher. But what are you supposed to teach me? I'm not an alchemist."
"Really?" For some reason, Izumi didn't sound convinced, and Ed's eyes narrowed. "Well. A conduit, then. There's still a lot that you need to learn about your power."
Ed's brow furrowed.
"Like what?" he asked. "The bastard made it sound like my type is nothing more than a funnel of sorts, a way for alchemists to amplify and increase their ability."
There was a brief settling sound, something Ed took to mean the woman had slumped back against the wall.
"On a purely simplistic level, you're right. A conduit doesn't have active powers like an alchemist does. But the energy used to transmute is still there, trapped inside the conduit, unable to manifest. So, if a conduit is capable of suppressing that energy, what do you think happens to the power that is trying to be doubled?"
"It lessens," Ed breathed. "Can you teach me how to do that? Suppress it?"
The woman's scoff filled the small space.
"Who do you think you're talking to?" she asked. "Of course I can."
"I don't know who I'm talking to," he reminded her. "I just met you five minutes ago."
There was soft silence, and then a hitching rasp. A sudden light flared inside the darkness, and Ed winced away from the sudden assault on his finally adjusted eyeballs. He rubbed his fists against his face, and when he finally risked opening them again, a small candle burned in the corner, illuminating the room at last.
The woman reclining against the wall was surprisingly lean and well-muscled, for someone confined to such a small space. Her hair was a dark shade of brown, tinged a sickly green from the lack of sunlight, and divided into tight braids. She was pale, horribly, horrifically pale, and when she crossed her arms over her chest, Ed caught a smear of red on her fingers that looked an awful lot like blood. But her eyes were dark and sharp and brimming with the kind of intelligence that burned.
"Once," she said very softly. "I was a student, just like you. Back then, I was used for my power, as you are now, by a person that I trusted."
Ed's mouth settled into a soft, serious line. He knew a thing or two about betrayal, and the heartache that followed it.
The woman, Izumi, curved her bone-white lips into a smirk as sharp and bitter as a blade.
"My old alchemy teacher. I believe you call her Doctor Dante."
Ed's breath tripped and caught in his throat. His golden eyes stretched wide and he pressed a disbelieving hand against his suddenly sour stomach.
"Doctor Dante," he whispered. "She's an alchemist?"
Izumi inclined her head the barest bit.
"You've seen the transmutation circles on the floor when they take you down to use your power, right?" she asked. "How do you think they know which ones to use?"
Ed took a moment to process, turning his gaze from the woman across the way to the padded floor beneath his knees. A slow-burning, obliterating rage was starting to burn its way up his spine, and he curled his shaking hands into tight fists against his upper legs.
"That…that unbelievable bitch."
"No argument here, kid."
"Ed. My name is Ed."
He opened his tightly squeezed eyes just in time to see Izumi nod.
"All right." She cocked her head. "Ed. Do you want me to teach you how to hurt her?"
"I do. I really, really do."
"Okay." Izumi leaned forward, spreading her legs butterfly style and propping her elbows on her knees. "The first thing you need to learn is control. If you have control over the energy inside you, you can regulate how much you give them when they take you to that room downstairs. From what I've seen of you so far, control is something you struggle with."
Ed took in the faint smirk on her face, barely visible in the dull light.
"No more than you, I think," he offered in return.
This time, when the sharp smack knocked him back into the wall, Ed was wearing a smirk of his own.
By the time Ed left his newfound teacher in her cell and returned to his own room, the soft light of just before dawn was filtering through the windows, turning the white walls silver. Ed's head ached and throbbed from the mass amounts of new information that had been pressed into it, and his eyes felt gritty and gross, but his muscles quivered and his stomach jumped with the endless possibilities that had been presented to him in the past few hours.
"You have three hours until breakfast, Edward," Armstrong rumbled as he dropped him off at his door. "I suggest you get some sleep before then."
"Right. I will." Ed tossed an exhausted smile at the overlarge orderly. "Thanks."
The burly man inclined his head, and then wandered carefully away. Ed passed a fatigued hand over his face, and quietly opened the door, so as not to wake the room's occupants. Not that Ed expected more than one to be sleeping.
Just as he predicted, Mustang was sitting straight and alert on the edge of his mattress. Al was slumped against the wall in his own bed, folded up in an awkward sitting position that informed Ed of his younger brother's attempts to wait for his return. Judging by the still-crossed arms and defiantly folded legs, Al had actually managed to make it an impressive amount of time.
Ignoring the Bastard in the other bed for now, Ed walked to his younger brother with a gentle smile curving his lips. He gave the smaller boy's shoulder a gentle shove, propping his other hand under Al's back to help guide him to a lying down position.
"Brother?" Al mumbled, his grey eyes fluttering, even as he burrowed sleepily into his pillow.
"It's all right, Al," Ed said quietly. "I'm back. Go to sleep, okay? We'll talk later."
Al heaved a gigantic yawn, and stopped fighting to keep his eyes open, satisfied by his brother's presence.
Ed carded his fingers gently through his brother's burnt gold hair, before turning away and climbing onto his own mattress. He stretched out on his stomach, and pressed his face into the pillow.
"So," Mustang said, after several seconds of silence. "How was your first meeting with Teacher?"
Ed snorted softly, and turned his cheek against the cool fabric so that his mouth was free.
"Educational," he offered.
"How far did you get?"
Ed hummed thoughtfully into his pillow.
"I got homework."
"You won't be able to see her very often," he said. "There's no way to get you there with any regularity without arousing suspicion. And your brother won't be able to see her at all. I'll work with Al myself, and you'll just have to use that genius brain of yours to soak up and retain the information she gives you when you can."
"Right," Ed mumbled. His own eyes were starting to droop, even though his brain continued to buzz. "So, Mustang. This is the plan?"
"Part of it. I'll tell you the rest another time."
"Bastard." Ed murmured. His words were starting to sound like garbled mush. "You better."
He fell asleep to the sight of Mustang's half-formed, mostly hidden smile.
The next day at group therapy, an exhausted Ed settled into his one-on-one session with Riza. The two claimed a spot on the floor in the far corner, closest to Roy and Falman. The stoic older girl gracefully folded herself into a butterfly sitting style, her back perfectly straight. Ed eyed her proper and perfect posture, nodded, and then ignored it completely. He slumped gracelessly against the wall, blinking his golden rapidly in an effort to stay awake.
"So," he started, his voice slurring the barest bit, but Riza locked her sherry eyes on his and gave her head a minute shake.
Ed furrowed his brow, but the question he'd been about to ask shriveled in his throat as the telltale scent of a certain woman's perfume permeated his senses.
"Edward," the doctor crooned, as the boy fell silent and fixed his eyes obstinately on the floor. "Armstrong informs me that you fell ill last night. He said you were vomiting everywhere, dear." Ed didn't see the smirk that twisted her lips, but he could hear it in her voice. "Surely we aren't overworking you already. Are you breaking already, you poor boy?"
Ed gritted his teeth and stayed stubbornly silent. Dante tittered discreetly into her palm, and then moved away, once again informing the group at large that she would be leaving, but she expected them all to be there at the end of the hour.
"Yeah, yeah," Ed muttered, and wished he had the strength to smack his fist he'd made against the floor.
He didn't relax until the old woman left the room.
"So," Ed started again. "Bonding."
"You look tired," Riza said, ignoring his statement completely.
Ed surveyed her stoic face.
"Yeah," he said. "I guess."
"Learning how to regulate is hard work," Riza said matter-of-factly, settling even more comfortably on the floor. "It took me weeks to master it."
The creeping exhaustion spread even further, and Ed slumped against the wall.
"I don't have weeks," he murmured. "I have to learn now."
Riza nodded, as if this made perfect sense.
"I see," she said. "Shift over, please."
"Bwuh?" Ed asked, cocking open the eyes that had started drifting shut.
Riza shifted closer to him, and nudged him gently until he half-pivoted, presenting her with his back.
"If your body is knotted and in pain, it distracts you from reaching inward," she explained, as her thumbs dug into his back, right below the shoulder blades. "You need to be relaxed in order to master your energy."
"Ah," Ed observed, and then let his forehead scrape against the wall. He let out a quiet groan as her ruthless fingers located a particularly nasty knot right along her spine. "If it hurts so badly, then why did you force yourself to learn it?"
"Because he asked me to."
Ed grinned against the brick.
"See. We're getting to know each other after all."
When the door to their room opened two nights later, Ed was awake and alert and fighting to feign sleep. He tried to force the stiffness from his muscles as he heard the telltale tap of Nurse Lust's heels on the floor, and kept his eyes resolutely closed.
He felt horribly guilty for the stab of relief he experienced when he caught the sound of the woman's soft murmuring as she coaxed Mustang out of bed. The boy was a much better actor than Ed; he gave several very convincing groans, and when Ed risked one open eye, he saw that Mustang had perfected a sort of half-shuffle, half-slump impersonation of a drugged induced stagger.
Nurse Lust shut the door behind him, and Ed rolled over on his back. He imagined what Mustang would be going through down in that basement, and wondered who they'd supplied to act as his power funnel for the evening.
Was it Fuery, who wept silently the entire time?
Or maybe Riza, who bit back screams until her lips bled.
Ed tossed an arm over his eyes. For hours, he focused on the energy inside of him, soaking his sheets with sweat as he practiced bringing it into existence and then holding it at a small, stable level. By the time Mustang returned to the room, stumbling and half slumped over Nurse Lust's shoulder, Ed was well and truly passed out on the mattress.
"You're doing it wrong."
Ed jumped approximately three feet into the air, and turned to face the owner of the quiet voice. Falman was lounging in the chair next to him. He hadn't spoken a word since the beginning of their one-on-one session, and so Ed had been watching Al chatter comfortably with Havoc.
Ed forced his thoughts away from Havoc's fingers, and how badly he would break them if the boy so much as contemplated offering his baby brother a cigarette, and focused instead on Falman's eternally blank face.
"I'm…what?" he asked. "What am I doing wrong?"
"You're trying too hard," Falman answered. "If you try and force your energy into a stable shape that it doesn't want to be in, you're going to exhaust yourself fighting it."
"You…I…how do you even know that?" Ed exploded. "Have you been watching me?"
Falman's brow furrowed the tiniest bit.
"Of course," he said, and something in his tone implied that he was confused by Ed's confusion. "Why wouldn't I?"
Ed's eyebrows rose so high, they became one with his hairline.
"No offense. But you creep me out sometimes. Seriously."
Falman almost smiled. Well, the corners of his lips twitched, and that sort of counted.
"Instead of forcing your energy to stabilize, try soothing it instead," he instructed. "Practice calm."
"That's the secret? Well. You must be the best regulator ever."
Falman's mouth definitely tipped up this time, before he schooled his face back into its impassive mask. Shutting his eyes, he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. His entire body began to radiate calm, and contentment.
"Okay, okay," Ed said, his voice catching on a laugh. "I get it. Time to practice."
He copied the older boy's pose, scooting down to recline in his seat.
Later, Doctor Dante scolded them both for sleeping during a session. And this time there was absolutely no mistaking the soft and satisfied bowing of Falman's lips.
Armstrong's face was set and serious as he marched Ed through the hallways, towards the adult wing. The boy winced a bit at the sorrow in his blue eyes.
"Come on. Don't make that face, Armstrong," he said. "I asked for this, remember."
The man didn't smile, and his expression didn't soften.
"I just don't know what you hope to accomplish, Edward."
Ed shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. He was sacrificing his time outside for this. But it had to be done.
"You don't have to come in," he said once they reached the door.
Visible relief crossed Armstrong's face, finally softening it a little.
"Thank you, Edward. I'll wait for you out here."
Ed nodded, and then slipped inside the darkened room. It wasn't completely black, like the inside of Izumi's cell, but the drawn curtains made the light dim and drowsy.
The room smelled…misplaced. Like someone had boarded it shut and forgotten about it, and now it had aged irreversibly. It was clean, Ed could tell, but it smelled old, and overlooked.
Four beds were pushed against the walls, two on each side of the room. The soft sounds of beeping monitors created a chiming chorus in Ed's ears as he swallowed his own nervousness and stepped forward.
Against the wall to his right, two boys rested in the plain white beds. One had a massive scar across his face, and Ed's hands tightened as he realized that only something as precise as alchemy could create such symmetrical lines. His soft breaths whistled out between chapped lips. With a sick sort of churning in his gut, Ed realized that his right arm was also missing, the stump neatly wrapped in white bandages. This one had been used hard before breaking.
The one in the bed next to him was just as painfully thin, and brittle-looking. His dark hair was fanned out against the pillows in lank and greasy waves. He was paler even than the scarred boy, and his eyes were wide open. Ed almost hit the ceiling when he saw them; they were so familiar, and for a moment he thought that the boy was awake. But then he saw that those dark orbs were horrifically, irretrievably blank. Whatever spirit the body had once housed was completely gone, broken into dust and blown away.
Sickened, right down to his very soul, Ed turned to the beds on the left wall. What he saw there made him gag and stagger, and grip the post of the closest bed for support.
The two boys were blonde, and their faces were similar, might have been identical if not for the obvious age difference.
Brothers. Undeniably. Lying there on the beds, so broken and brittle, like mirror images of his future, and Al's.
Ed bent down, pressed his forehead against the hand clenched around the bedpost. The cool metal of his automail soothed his head a little, even through the thick fabric of his glove.
"Sorry," he murmured, and even he couldn't deny the sob catching in his voice. "So sorry."
His only answer was the soft sounds of the machines, the ones that beeped away the minutes remaining in four hopelessly stolen lives.
The first time they came for Ed, some five nights after his first meeting with Izumi, he was terrified beyond belief. He'd never been very good at play acting, and he knew that if they discovered he hadn't taken the sedative they'd given him, he risked exposing not only himself, but all the others as well.
His mouth was dryer than sand as he struggled to imitate Mustang's shuffling, drug-induced sidle. He kept his eyes closed, because he feared that if he looked anyone in the face, he'd get pissed and start punching.
As satisfying as it would be to see that bitch's face bending under his fist, he wouldn't chance them taking him away from Al.
So he allowed those soft, hated hands to maneuver him into place, and even attempted a few half-strangled moans. He tensed when he felt rough hands on his shoulders, but the sharp squeeze he got in response reminded him to settle the hell down.
Bastard, Ed realized, because Al would never squeeze him like that. He briefly entertained the thought of punching Mustang too, purely for the feeling of immense joy it gave him.
Another warning squeeze, and Ed had to remind himself that rolling his eyes would be a bit out of character at the moment. Stupid bastard, and his stupid mind-reading abilities.
The pain started, and Ed tried to keep calm, as Falman had instructed. He really did. But eventually the pain rolled him under, and he ended up giving them more than he should have. The next day, Mustang pinned him with a blank-eyed stare, one that conveyed both disappointment and a demand to do better.
Ed sneered. The disappointment still hit him like a velvet-lined brick, and he still acquiesced to the demand, but the sneer made him feel better about it.
"You're doing much better, Ed."
He smiled at the praise, and then grimaced as Izumi followed her words with an affectionate smack on the stomach.
"Watch it," he warned, opening his eyes to the dim candlelight. "Mustang's little vomit pills don't have the most pleasant after affects, you know. Keep poking at me there, and I might toss my cookies all over your cell."
The woman bared her teeth in something that might have been a smile.
"And if you do, your face will become my mop, and I'll clean the floor with you."
Ed rolled his eyes, and relaxed back against the padded wall. Izumi sighed and did the same.
"But really, your endurance is much better than the last time we met. I can tell that you've been working at it."
Ed inclined his head.
"Maybe. But I have to get better," he said fiercely. "I can't keep giving them what they want."
Izumi shrugged, a careless gesture, but her eyes were burning again.
"All right. Then you'll get better."
For a moment, silence softened the air, as Izumi and Ed both watched the flames cast flickering shadows on the walls. But Ed couldn't let it sit for long, because something had been curling in his gut for a while now, and he had to get it out before it killed him.
"Teacher," he said, and the woman turned, her eyes registering mild surprise over the unusually earnest tone of Ed's voice. "The other day…I…I asked Armstrong to take me to see the kids that came before."
Immediately the Izumi's face closed, became a veritable fortress of defiance and mutinous silence.
Ed knew that it meant that he was right, and his heart broke a little.
"There was a boy," he murmured, continuing his story, because it would be stupid not to now. "In one of the beds, there was a boy. He had your eyes, Teacher, and the same color hair."
"So?" the woman asked, and her voice was so tight it should have cracked.
Ed didn't say anything else, and eventually Izumi sighed again. She closed her eyes for a moment.
"An experiment," she finally murmured. "That boy…my son…he was an experiment brought about by Dante. In the beginning, when she was still unsure of where to look for alchemically gifted children, she wanted to test her theory of alchemic powers being inherent. She wanted to know if they were passed by bloodline, because then she could dig up the records for the old state alchemists, and start looking for candidates there. My boy…she took him away almost as soon as he was born, and began using him the moment he started displaying signs of power." Izumi's bitter blade smile was back, shaping her mouth like the curve of a grinning wound. "The few times I was allowed to see him, he blamed me for his entire existence. Dante told me that the other children called him Wrath."
Izumi laughed, a harsh bray of a sound that eventually evolved into a series of hacking coughs.
"For what?" she asked, once they subsided. "For me? That's foolish, Ed."
She looked down at the blood decorating her hand, blood from her insides that she'd just heaved against her outer, and held it up like evidence.
"I'm already dying. I've got it easy; I'm almost done. If you want to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for yourself. You're the one that will still be here after I'm gone."
Ed tipped his face up to the sky, and soaked in the sunshine for all it was worth. He wasn't getting nearly enough of it these days, and the warms rays felt like soothing kisses on his skin.
Al was sitting quietly by his side, his face buried in a book. Mustang was leaning against the wall a little further back, chatting quietly with Armstrong. Out in the actual yard, the others were playing a spirited game of baseball. Breda, Riza, and Falman were facing off against Fuery, Winry, and Havoc. Ed smiled softly to himself as Winry let out a howl of victory as her bat connected solidly with the ball Breda pitched, filling the air with a satisfying crack.
"Are you sure you don't want to play?" Ed asked, giving his brother a nudge.
Al glanced up, and for a second, a wistful smile bowed his lips. But then he firmly shook his head.
"No. It's all right. You're working so hard at your studies, Brother. I have to catch up." Soft grey eyes filled with determination. "I want to help too, as much as I can."
Ed shrugged, and then tipped his face back up the sky once again. Spring was rapidly melting into summer, and the warmer air felt like heaven against his automail ports, which pinched mercilessly in the cold.
It happened so fast. Later, Ed would slow the situation down and curse his instincts for being so sharp.
Warning shouts sounded from the impromptu baseball field as Fuery's ball went foul. Ed glanced up in time to see it speeding straight for his brother's face, and reacted without really thinking.
His hands clapped. Blue light flashed. A stone barrier sprang up between the Elrics and any impending projectiles.
It wasn't until Al's horrified whisper-Brother-reached his ears that Ed registered what he'd just done. What he'd so foolishly given away.
Stupid, stupid, his mind hissed as he stared in blank shock at the stone barrier in front of his face. After all this time, so stupid.
Startled shouts of alarm and confusion began to drift around the barrier, and Ed's throat went as dry as sand.
And then Mustang's face was in front of his, with an expression so dead and blank and burning, and Ed felt his heart kick and stutter in his chest like door rudely slammed.
"Elric," Mustang said, and his voice was horribly, unforgivably empty. "Is there something you've been meaning to tell me?"
When they walked through the doors the very first time, Roy wanted to reach for Riza's hand. She was so pale, after all; horribly, bloodlessly white, and Roy almost feared her fainting at his feet. He was proud though; her eyes were bare and blank. She gave them nothing but their own faces reflected there.
Havoc walked a little ways behind them. Roy had no desire to reach for his hand, but he still wanted to keep him close. Havoc wasn't as good at hiding behind blank eyes; his hands were already curled into tight, helpless fists before they even entered.
The three of them are alone. They had just been taken from their homes, both by money and by force. By the amount of belongings crammed into their suitcases, they knew that they weren't going back anytime soon, if ever, at all.
They were in the middle of their fourteenth year, and so still strangers to betrayal.
Havoc's parents hadn't cared, and Riza's had been too tainted by breeding to show emotion, but Roy's mother had snuck into his bedroom the night before his forced deportation, and curled herself around him on the mattress. She'd stroked gentle fingers over his face and wept bitterly into his thin shoulder, murmuring broken apologies against his skin. Roy had spent hours staying perfectly, painfully still and pretending to be asleep.
Shaking his head, Roy banished the lingering traces of his mother's touch from his skin. They were phantom pains now; he couldn't waste time and precious emotion aching for something that was lost, and would never return.
He glanced at Havoc, standing sullen instead of sad because he'd always assumed that his family would get rid of him somehow. At Riza, who was struggling much harder to seal away her sorrow, because she had thought that hers never would.
He had other priorities now. Other precious people to protect.
Roy was perfectly polite and pleasant, through both the meeting with the overtly jovial director, and the sit-down diagnosis with the doctor who smirked and thought that her smile was hiding it. He barely blinked when he was introduced to the other patients, a pair of brothers with tired smiles and half-shattered eyes, and a boy with long, dark hair and a smile so sharp and bitter it looked like a razor blade on his face. At dinner, he ate what the strange little man gave him without complaint, and later, tossed back the pills the sexy nurse provided him with without a whisper of protest.
"It'll be okay," he murmured, much later, after they'd been safely tucked away from listening ears.
The ceiling was spinning above his head. Whatever they'd given him had left his brain running sluggish and slow, and his throat felt thick and stuffed with cotton. He and Havoc had their own room, and Riza had crept in shortly after the nurse had shut the door to hers, to curl up on the available bed. Roy was pretty sure that Havoc was already asleep, dragged under by whatever drug they'd forced on them, but he could hear the soft snuffling noises that Riza was trying desperately to stifle. He'd given her an old silver belt buckle of his father's to cling to, because the feel of metal beneath her fingers, so reliably firm and unyielding in the face of any adversity, always worked to calm her.
"It'll be okay," he whispered again, around a tongue that flopped and felt like rubber inside him mouth, because it suddenly seemed important that they know this, understand this now. "Promise. It will. I'll look after you both."
Havoc and Roy were the first to be taken, and used. A mere three nights after their arrival, they dreamed of dark rooms with strange symbols painted on the floor, and of unexpected pain that they were unprepared to fight. Roy barely remembered it afterward, but the echoes of Havoc's screams lingered in his ears, as well as the rush of power beneath his fingertips, foreign and hot and like fire inside his skin.
He still wasn't sure how Havoc had managed to stumble his way out of the room, because Roy was pretty sure that they were both feeling the same sort of drop-dead awful, but his friend wasn't in his designated bed, and Roy refused to leave him afloat in the asylum on his own. He forced himself from his own covers, and walked the hospital halls like a man half-dead, leaning against the walls for support.
The brothers had watched him with sad and sorry eyes as he'd staggered past. The boy they called Wrath had simply turned his head.
He'd found Havoc standing in the yard, braced against the brick wall. His eyes were both furious and resigned as he stared at the barbed fence surrounding the open area, an unfamiliar object in his mouth.
"Hey, Colonel," he whispered upon Roy's approach, an old nickname from the period of their childhood in which Havoc had been obsessed with his military heritage.
"Hey," Roy murmured back, propping his shoulder on the wall with what he hoped looked like nonchalance, instead of the desperate bid for support it actually was. "Where'd you get the cigarette?"
"Bummed it off the orderly," Havoc answered, shredding the tobacco lightly with his teeth. "Guy must know what happens at night. He looked all sad and sorry when he gave it to me."
"Mm. And since when do you smoke?"
Havoc shot him a weak smile.
"You should know the answer to that; we've been friends since forever." He stared down at the tiny match sitting his palm. "But now's as good a time as any to start. Did'ya see those kids in there, Roy? I don't ever want my eyes to look like theirs." His hand curled into a tight fist. "Maybe if I smoke enough, it'll kill me before they can have the pleasure."
Roy wanted to grab him, to shake his shoulders and scream and scream that he wasn't allowed to die, not ever, until the cigarette in his mouth fell into the dirt instead. But he had seen the eyes of the kids inside, and the shadows of hope that must have existed there once upon a time.
"So. Why haven't you lit it?" he asked instead.
Havoc gave his curled fist a bemused glance.
"Pretty sure you're aware of how crappy I'm feeling right now," he answered. "My hands are shaking too bad to keep the match steady."
Roy wanted to apologize, to touch the shoulders that he'd so recently abused and whisper over and over just how sorry he felt.
Instead, he schooled his hands into some sort of steadiness, and took the match from Havoc's fist. He struck it with semi-stable fingers, and solemnly lit the boy's very first cigarette.
Havoc inhaled the smoke thoughtfully, his sputters and coughs easing after the first few drags. Roy stayed by his side and watched the fence with him.
"I'm glad it was you," Havoc eventually muttered around a mouthful of smoke. "Hurting me like that. I don't think I could stand it if it was anybody else."
Again, Roy refused to risk a reaction. But Havoc still smiled as they silently stared across the yard.
His own people had to take priority.
He couldn't afford to get distracted by outsiders.
As Roy stared across the dining room, where an almost tearful Russell Tringham begged his barely alive baby brother to eat, he reminded himself over and over that some sacrifices had to be made in order for goals to be achieved.
He couldn't waste his time and his momentum trying to save people that were already dead.
The first time Riza was taken, the boys woke from their drug-induced slumbers to find her sprawled across the vacant bed, staring at the ceiling with wide and almost unseeing eyes. Her shoulders were shaking, but her white cheeks were dry, and Roy correctly assumed that her tears had already been wasted by the pain, and so she had no more to spare at the moment.
They dragged themselves off of their own mattresses, and joined Riza on hers, curling up like protective barriers against her sides.
Later, much later, Roy would learn that she'd been the first female conduit admitted to the asylum, and so she'd been pushed to the breaking point during her very first session, because the good doctor wanted to know if there was a limit disparity between the genders.
She was whispering something, over and over, and Roy could see the dried blood on her ravaged lips, where she'd no doubt bitten down during the night to muffle multiple screams.
"I trust you," she said, again and again, her voice perfectly calm in spite of the echoes of pain still lingering in her too-wide eyes, and Roy's felt the heavy weight of responsibility buckle his shoulders even more as he realized that she was unconsciously speaking to him.
The little boy was the first to buckle. They all woke one morning to the sound of Russell Tringham's screams, echoing down the empty hallways, and by the time they skidded out of their rooms, the orderly was already hauling the body from his bed.
He was still breathing. Roy could see the shallow rise and fall of his little chest from where he stood. But the tiny spark of soul, of self, that had clung so stubbornly to the boy's eyes had finally snapped under the strain of so much alchemic power, and disappeared. His face was blank, broken, empty and smooth like the prettiest porcelain doll.
Russell had to be restrained by night orderly. He'd been clinging to the limp and lifeless body of his baby brother, and had clawed and bit at the people who had first tried to remove him. His knees were now driven forcefully into the wood floor, his arms twisted painfully behind his back.
"No, no you can't take him, you can't, he promised," the boy almost-screamed, the sound ugly and strained and shredding inside his throat like knives. "He promised we'd go together, that he wouldn't leave me here alone. Fletcher, Fletcher please. You can't."
"Poor boy," the nurse purred, and the laugh in her voice burned the ears like acid. "He went so suddenly. To think, you probably never even got to say goodbye."
Russell Tringham released the shrill and screeching sound of a dying animal, before laying his head against the floor and staining the wood a darker color with his tears.
Havoc smoked two entire packs the day after Fletcher was taken away, and snapped at anyone who tried to censor him.
Riza didn't talk at all, for almost a week, and kept a heavy metal block pressed between her palms at all times.
Roy committed himself to memorizing the image of Fletcher's face, so blank and vacant, bouncing listlessly against the orderly's muscled arms.
From that day on, whenever forced to deal with a member of the asylum's staff, Roy pulled the blank faces of the broken down over his own, a banner that he hoped worked as both a mask, and a message.
"Do you think the others even know?" Riza finally murmured, as the three sat sprawled against the brick wall in the yard. "What they are?"
Havoc rolled the cigarette in his mouth against his teeth.
"We figured it out when we were little," he added thoughtfully, catching Riza's thought and continuing it. "But only because our folks left their military papers in the attic."
Mustang shrugged. His back was pressed against the sun-baked bricks, urging their heat to soak into his skin, skin that had seemed cold since Fletcher's departure.
"Wrath, maybe," he answered. "But I don't think that Russell does."
"Which means that Fletcher didn't either," Havoc said softly. "They broke him so badly, and he never even knew why."
Riza's hands fisted in her lap, but she didn't cry. Instead, her sherry eyes gleamed with something as hard and unforgiving as the metal block between her palms, and for a moment, Roy almost imagined that her index fingers were twitching, as if wrapped around a trigger.
There were no screams the morning that Russell broke.
And no one was really surprised. He'd been more ghost than boy during the three weeks since Fletcher's unceremonious exit.
The orderly didn't even know, until Wrath, still Russell's roommate, was finally heard singing 'The Ants Go Marching' through the walls as the nurse walked by to wake everyone for breakfast.
"Is it selfish to want to be the first to go?" Havoc asked during Dante's enforced group therapy sessions.
Wrath had no one left to bond with, so Dante took him to meet with someone in the adult wing. The boy's razor blade smile was always so much sharper whenever he returned from those little visits.
"What?" Roy asked, even though he knew exactly what Havoc was talking about.
"I don't want to watch the two of you break," Havoc repeated bluntly. "I don't want to be left here on my own. So. Is it selfish for me to want to go first?"
"Havoc," Riza said warningly.
"What?" the boy asked back, but his normally teasing smile was twisted into shards. "Just being practical. No need to get bent out of shape, Lieutenant."
Riza didn't smile at the application of her own childhood nickname.
"No one is going first, or last," Roy interrupted, before the two could start an argument. "No one is going at all. Remember what I promised, Havoc. Don't you believe that I can do it?"
"Of course," Riza answered instantly, and her sherry eyes were unwavering.
"Sure," Havoc agreed, and his eyes said that he really wanted to believe, but he couldn't quite yet. "Sure you can, Colonel."
"Good," Roy said, firmly rolling over the doubt in Havoc's voice. "Because I'm going to do it. I'm going to take care of us."
His own people took priority.
He couldn't afford to be distracted by outsiders.
Roy momentarily shut his eyes, assaulted by images of blonde hair and brotherly smiles, and hoped that there were no future patients that forced him to remember that.
Once, when Ed was fourteen, he and Al had been placed in an orphanage where the director liked to ration the meal sizes given to the children so that he could make sure his own plate stayed full. And because he got more funding from the state for every child he took in, it was a lot of food missing from the table, and the other orphan's bellies. Ed, never one to believe in the heads-down, humility-up approach, had bided his time until inspection day, and then called the director an 'over-stuffed, fat-fingered, greedy, grasping stain on the tablecloth of humanity' in front of the Children's Welfare worker. The other children, emboldened by Ed's brazen protests, had lodged their own very vocal complaints, nearly bowling the inspector over with their earnest objections.
The look of rage on the director's face, as he realized that the inspector could not only see the sickly skinniness of the orphans, but was actually listening to their complaints as well, had been a terrible thing to behold. His face had burned bright and red, and had almost seemed swollen, stretched by the force of his own fury as he watched his precious funding flutter away.
That fury, possibly the strongest that Ed had ever seen, had nothing on Mustang's soft spoken and nearly silent wrath.
The older boy was currently bent over him, his dark blue eyes narrowed in what appeared to be anger. But the orbs themselves were horribly, burningly blank. Ed swallowed hard, intimidated in spite of himself, but still made sure to lift his chin in defiance.
He felt Al's hand creep protectively into the crook of his elbow, and he tugged his baby brother closer as subtly as he could. On the other side of the wall he still couldn't believe he'd been stupid enough to create, he heard the startled exclamations that spoke of confusion, and then the hushed whispers as the others figured out exactly what had just transpired.
Mustang's hands curled into tight fists, and Ed jerked his baby brother behind him as best he could, physically bracing for some sort of impact. But instead of hitting him, or firing off with some alchemy of his own, Mustang hissed only four words through tightly gritted teeth.
"Get. Rid. Of. It."
Ed blinked, thrown by words when he'd been expecting a blow.
"The wall. Get rid of it. Before someone sees and tells Dante that it's there."
"Oh." Feeling like an idiot, Ed cast a nervous glance around before giving his hands a clap and pressing them to the wall. It crumbled back to the dirt it had come from, and Ed was finally able to see the faces of those standing on the other side.
He saw shock. Some confusion. Anger. Betrayal and distrust.
It hurt more than he'd realized it might. Those faces had become ridiculously dear to him in such a short amount of time.
Ed closed his eyes for a moment, reminding himself that he'd had reasons, that he and Al had made a decision long before these faces figured into the picture, and that fondness wasn't nearly enough of an excuse to break a promise with his brother.
"Armstrong," Mustang said tightly, and Ed opened his eyes to see what was happening, and why Roy had addressed the orderly.
"Right," the gigantic man agreed, before spinning on the spot and suddenly shooting sparkles like a defective sparkler, his voice sprinting from grim to jovial so fast, Ed almost got whiplash. "Come along, children! Enough fresh air for one day! Let's take ourselves inside, and treat ourselves to an invigorating game of cards."
"Hey," Havoc and Breda instantly protested.
"Um," Fuery offered, seeming suitably cowed by the bulging muscles and blinding sparkles being beamed in his direction.
"Roy," Riza objected quietly, ignoring the orderly completely.
Falman didn't say a word. But when Ed snuck a glance in his direction, he realized that the boy's eyes were perhaps the opposite of the Bastard's blank ones. Betrayal burned there, maybe the brightest.
I spent time on you, those eyes suggested. I spent time, and I trained you, and I accepted you as a friend. And clearly it was wasted.
Shame sparked in Ed's gut like a forest fire, and he lowered his gaze to the ground.
"Go on, you guys," Roy said softly. "Elric and I have a few things to discuss."
"O…kay," Winry agreed hesitantly, and Ed absolutely refused to meet her eyes at all, because the sadness there would sting worst. "Maybe we should…Al…?"
But the younger Elric shook his head at Winry's offered hand, and latched on even tighter to his brother.
"Its fine," Riza said, urging Winry along, ever willing to follow Roy's commands.
"Yeah," Havoc agreed, and the tone of his voice twisted nastily. "I'm sure they were in on it together, anyway."
At that, Ed whipped his head up from the ground and fixed a narrow-eyed glare in the older boy's direction. He would admit his own fault in the situation readily enough, but no one took shots at his baby brother, whatever the circumstances.
Havoc returned his glare in equal measure, before stuffing his hands in his pockets and following the rest of the group inside.
After they were gone, silence stretched across the yard, because Roy seemed perfectly content to stare, and like hell was Ed going to be the one to start this conversation.
But then, Roy reached down and snagged Ed's collar in his fist. Ed let out a startled yelp as the older boy yanked him to his feet, his body tensing instinctively, but then Mustang started dragging him across the yard, sticking close to the wall and aiming for behind the building, and Ed tripped over his own feet trying to keep up. Al danced nervously after them, still clinging awkwardly to Ed's arm.
"You idiot," Mustang finally snapped, and shoved Ed back against the wall hard enough to snap his teeth together.
"Hey!" Al shouted, grey eyes flashing in a way they seldom did. "Leave my brother alone, you-"
"I thought you wanted to help us," Mustang demanded, rolling right over the younger Elric's words. "Not try and screw us over by withholding information." The older boy's fingers twisted even tighter in Ed's collar, and Ed swallowed hard as he realized that no matter how controlled Mustang's behavior, the boy was well and truly pissed. "Why didn't you tell us that you could manifest alchemy?"
Angrily, Ed slapped Roy's fist away from his shirt. No matter how much rage Roy projected through his blank-eyed scary face, Ed would not be intimidated, would not back down, especially when he believed he was in the right.
"What does it matter?" he asked back heatedly. "If I don't show it, the old lady can't use it, right? So who cares if I hid it away?" He straightened his finger-stretched collar with an angry jerk. "It's not like I lied, anyway. You-," he gave Roy a hard shove out of his personal space, "-never asked."
"I asked," Roy countered, his voice dropping dangerously.
"No. You stated. That day that Armstrong hug-tackled me in the hallway, you said that you'd thought for sure it would be me. But you never clarified, and you never posed a question. So there was nothing for me to answer. It's not my fault that you just assumed."
On his right, Al winced at the barb in his brother's words. The air between the two was growing dangerously tense. If he kept talking like that, Al was going to have a much harder time keeping Roy's fist out of his brother's face.
"Besides," Ed snapped, plowing right ahead, in spite of the danger practically rolling off of Mustang in waves. "I don't owe you anything. It might be a foreign concept to you, Bastard, but I'm a little busy actually worrying about someone other than myself, so I can't just-"
Before Ed could finish, his back was against the wall once again, and the taste of blood filled his mouth from where his teeth had clicked against his tongue.
"Stop acting like you're the only one with someone to protect!" Mustang almost-shouted, and Ed blinked in shock. He'd never heard the older boy raise his voice before.
He stayed perfectly still as the blank barrier in Mustang's eyes began to waver. Ed sucked in a sharp, soft breath as he glimpsed what dwelt beyond it. Hot frustration. Endless despair. Hard and hopeless rage. The heavy, haunted weight of someone who had seen too much, sacrificed too much.
Oh. Oh, God. No wonder Al said his eyes look like mine.
Ed remained frozen, his eyes wide and stunned, as Mustang screwed his own eyes shut and huffed out a soft breath, bending to rest his forehead against his fist. Since the fist was pressed against the wall next to Edward's head, Mustang almost draped himself over the smaller boy to do it. Any other time, Ed would have kicked the bastard's ass to hell and back for violating his personal space so vigorously.
But Mustang was shaking. Quick, helpless shivers. They may have been from rage, but Ed sensed pain there too.
So he kept his own fists planted on the wall by his sides, and stayed still, just for a minute, just this once.
"We're so close," Mustang murmured against the bricks, almost desperately. "It's been so long, and we're so close, and we can't slip now, we can't. We won't get another chance."
Ed shuffled uncomfortably to the side, away from the cage of Mustang's arm, and the older boy slowly straightened. They shifted so that they facing each other, instead of trying to wrestle each other into the wall, and Ed watched warily as Roy tried to pull his mask back down. He didn't seem capable of donning it completely; in places it was fractured, eaten away by his earlier outburst.
"I'm…not sorry," Ed said slowly, and snapped his chin up defiantly when the fire in Mustang's eyes (eyes that he couldn't keep blank now; the mask wouldn't cover them anymore) roared. "I'm not. Al and I made a promise. It's not that I don't…care, about what happens to the others. But there are…there's just…" Ed trailed off uncertainly, shrugging in frustration over not being able to find the words.
"You don't trust us," Mustang finished for him, and his voice was chillingly flat again. "At least, not enough to tell us what's important."
Ed heaved an exasperated breath, blowing his bangs away from his face.
"Please," Al cut in quietly. "Roy, it wasn't Ed's fault. I'm the one who-"
"I didn't say that," Ed snapped, cutting his brother off mid-confession, and then exploded, smacking the side of his fist against the wall. "But, really, Bastard, could you blame me if I didn't? You haven't told me anything. I joined your little group, but I still know absolutely jack about this big plan we're supposed to be working on. All you've given me is a little control training, and some sugar pills. And every time I ask you about it, you just smile like the mystery-loving jerk that you are, and say you'll tell me soon."
"And again, lack of trust," Mustang repeated. "Did it ever occur to you, Elric, that I had reasons for keeping you in the dark?"
Ed tightened the hand he had pressed against the wall, and briefly considered planting his face there instead.
"Sure," he hissed. "And maybe, if it was just me I was worrying about, I could follow you, no questions asked." He snarled at Mustang's mildly incredulous look. "Okay, probably not, but still. Did it ever occur to you, Bastard, that I might not be willing to trust Al's future to chance?" His golden glare turned hard, and demanding. "Would you be so willing to just toss your precious person's fate to someone who wouldn't tell you what they planned to do with it?"
Beside him, Al murmured a soft; "Brother", and ducked his head. Sometimes, hearing Ed's fierce protectiveness out loud made his chest tighten dangerously.
Roy's eyes sharpened in surprise, and then narrowed in consideration. For a long moment, he and Ed stared at each other in silence, neither one willing to back down, neither one willing to compromise the safety of their respective important people.
"Okay," Roy eventually murmured. "All right."
And without another word, he walked around the still-tense Ed and Al, and disappeared across the yard.
For a moment, Ed could only blink at the empty space left behind, feeling distinctly as if he'd just been caught up in a maelstrom of anger and emotion and then left stunned in the silent aftermath. It was exactly like being rocked and then abandoned by a summer storm.
"What." His voice was blank with confusion. "Were…were we done fighting?"
"I…I guess," Al answered, sounding just as lost.
Ed blinked once, twice, and then forced a shaky laugh. He brought his hands up to scrub at his face, suddenly feeling weary and sick and like the ground beneath his feet was no longer solid.
"Well, that sucks. I didn't even get to hit him."
Al didn't laugh at his big brother's joke, as he might have in a different situation. Instead, he clasped anxious hands together, and turned solemn grey eyes in Ed's direction.
"Brother? Were…were we wrong?"
Ed scrubbed at his face again, trying to pretend that the hurt and the doubt and the uncertainty in his brother's voice didn't burn his skin like scalding water.
"I don't know, Al," he answered softly, honestly, because this was his brother, and they were alone here. "I don't think so." Sighing, Ed tipped his head back, and tried not to remember the stunned betrayal on the faces of those he'd come to consider as friends. "But…maybe."
Eventually, the brothers stumbled their way inside. The only people they bumped into on the way to their room were Kimblee, Martel, and Greed, and they were too interested in their pack of cards to care about the brothers' passing by.
It almost seemed as if all the other patients had vanished. Ed had no doubt that they were meeting in someone's room somewhere, trying to figure out how to deal with two traitors.
Al crawled into bed almost the instant they reached their room, and curled up on his side, hunched protectively towards the wall. Ed was accustomed to sacrificing the feelings of those around him for his brother's sake, but Al had been a stranger to the taste of hurting others up until this afternoon. Ed pressed his face into his own pillow, and tried not to mourn that bit of innocence leaving his brother's eyes.
Later, he tried to rouse Al for dinner, with an admittedly unenthusiastic shake.
Al hunched even further, his shoulders stiff beneath his brother's hand.
"I'm not very hungry," he said softly, and Ed interpreted the 'I don't want to walk in there and watch them turn away from me' underneath his brother's words. "But you go ahead, Brother. I know how hungry you get."
"Al," Ed murmured.
"It's all right." Al squeezed his eyes shut against the pillow, and failed to keep the thick edge of tears totally from his voice. "It's all right, Brother. You don't have to…worry about me all the time."
Ed's hand tightened out of instinct, and then he ducked his head to hide the lump growing in his own throat.
"Yeah," he said roughly.
In the end, neither Elric went to dinner that night. They left the room only once, to retrieve and fake-take their pills.
And Mustang never came to bed. Once they shut it, the door stayed resolutely closed at their backs.
They spent the next few restless hours staring at the ceiling, for once unable to share their hurt with each other.
Ed finally dozed off around four in the morning, rocked to sleep by the blood-bright collage of betrayed faces replaying itself in front of his mind's eye.
He was shaken awake forty-five minutes later by a soft hand on his shoulder.
"Bwuh," he offered grumpily, only to jump like a scalded cat as Riza's face materialized inches away from his own.
"Let's go," she said simply, and Ed winced at the complete lack of warmth in her voice. She sounded neutral. Polite and vague and distant. Somehow, it hurt worse that way.
Nevertheless, Ed still jumped out of bed and rushed to wake his brother. Al woke with a start and a confused and sluggish stare. Ed traced the black, bruise-like shadows beneath his brother's eyes with his own, and his mouth tightened at the gritty, grinding exhaustion he saw deep inside those soft gray orbs.
"Brother?" Al murmured sleepily, going tense as he noticed the other occupant of the room. "What's going on?"
"I don't know, Al," Ed whispered back. "But come on."
He beckoned his baby brother out of bed, and wordlessly, they followed Riza from the room, and down the hall.
"Trial before the execution, then?" Ed couldn't help but ask, as they opened the door to the boiler room.
Riza didn't bother with a response. She led them through the familiar maze of machinery and ominous lights without a word. Ed felt his heart tug and tighten in his chest as they approached the ratty blanket flap of the secret dwelling's door. He and Roy had never really resolved their fight; he had no idea what was waiting for him behind that curtain.
He made sure Al was safely at his back before pushing his way inside.
It was very much like their first sojourn to the secret clubhouse, so much so that it seemed faintly surreal. Everyone was scattered on old sofa cushions, except for Roy, who lounged in his rusted lawn chair like some sort of country leader. Only this time, there were no hesitant smiles of welcome. Expressions varied from distrust, to anger, to uncertainty.
Ed's spine stiffened in instinctive defense.
"Reached a verdict?" he asked, and felt oddly gratified when Havoc gave a hearty twitch of anger.
"Have a seat, Elric," Mustang invited, sounding perfectly unruffled by Ed's blatant baiting.
And again, like the first time he'd ever been brought to the boiler room, Ed wanted to refuse. But he was tired, and this would be easier if it ended quickly. So he gave a stiff, angry nod and flopped down on the nearest cushion, body locked up tight in rigid defense. Al followed him, sticking close to his brother's side.
"So, what's the plan, Bastard?" he asked, feigning nonchalance. "You can't get rid of me, because the bitch doctor still needs me for her merry way, and you can't rat me out, because you'd have to expose yourselves as well. So, how're you planning on punishment?" Ed's smirk was a dangerous thing, curving his lips like a sharpened blade. "Excommunication?"
He sort of wanted Mustang to rise to the sarcasm in his voice. While the unexpected anger he'd displayed this afternoon had been mildly terrifying, it had also piqued Ed's fascinated curiosity. If the older boy had had that much buried under the surface this entire time, what would it be like if he let it out all at once?
But Mustang ignored him beautifully. In fact, his next words stopped Ed's sarcasm cold.
"We've reached the consensus that perhaps we haven't been completely fair to you, Elric."
Ed froze, baffled by what appeared to be a pardon where he'd been expecting a death sentence.
"Bwuh?" he offered, startled into sentence stupidity.
The faintest glimmer of amusement sparked in Mustang's eyes.
"Just for the record, we didn't reach a complete consensus," Havoc tossed out, apparently still smarting from Ed's earlier flippancy. "I totally voted for kicking your ass out of the group, and leaving you to deal with Doctor Bitch on your own."
"Havoc," Winry chided softly, and Ed's face flushed a helpless pink, because he'd never expected to hear her defending him again.
"This in no way means we agree with what you did, or appreciate it in any way," Mustang continued, taking advantage of Ed's startled silence. "Your actions have damaged what little trust we had begun to build." He watched the mutinous light fill Ed's eyes like hot bathwater, ready to scald, and sighed. "But….I have to admit that you weren't entirely wrong in what you said this afternoon."
Ed, who'd had a biting comeback all nice and ready on his tongue, felt it crumble once again in the face of his confusion.
"Bwuh," he repeated, and over on his left, Fuery let out a nervous giggle.
"It was unfair of us to expect complete trust from you when we didn't offer any in return," Mustang said, and to Ed's delight, he stumbled reluctantly over the word 'unfair', as if he hated giving the younger boy any sort of victory.
"Unlike Roy, Havoc, and I, the others all arrived at the asylum alone," Riza offered in that cool, quiet voice. She'd taken up her position at Mustang's right side. "They offered their trust because they only had themselves to think about. So you must forgive us, Edward, for…failing to remember how it works when someone puts the life of another before their own."
"Stop apologizing to that little shit," Havoc muttered, flashing sullen eyes in Riza's direction. "God."
"I'm giving it to him because it's owed," Riza returned serenely. "Our priorities, and the people we hold important, are not the only ones in the world, Havoc, and we've forgotten that. Edward is fighting to protect someone just as precious to him as the three of us have always been to each other."
"You'd lie for us, wouldn't you?" Roy added quietly, locking eyes with his childhood friend. "You'd hide away whatever you could, if it meant a guarantee of our safety. Right?"
Havoc didn't answer with words, but his angry silence said just as much.
"So…what," Edward said, well and truly baffled. "You guys aren't mad? Kiss, kiss and all that, and everything's forgiven?"
"No," Mustang disagreed, with the beginnings of an unhappy frown. "Admitting that we should have shown more consideration to the fact that you're fighting for someone else doesn't excuse your actions, Elric. You still lied to us."
"What we're saying," Riza elaborated, after the confusion in Ed's eyes refused to clear. "Is that, because the motive behind your lie was altruistic, we won't be angry with you for feeding it to us in the first place." Something hard and gunmetal strong flashed inside Riza's eyes, momentarily eradicating the softness. "This time."
Ed barely reigned in the urge to flinch. For some reason, seeing her normally smooth eyes go so rough freaked him out way more than Roy's near-homicidal silent rage from earlier.
"We know you lied to protect Al, Ed," Winry said earnestly, and Ed hesitated before meeting her big blue eyes. "So…that's okay. But we're supposed to be helping each other. We want to watch over Al, too." She smiled, very gently, and Ed felt the tips of his ears turn hot. "And you. We want to take care of you too, Ed."
"You don't have to do this by yourself anymore," Fuery added, looking unsure of himself even as he spoke. "We're all fighting for the same thing now, right?"
"So, you have other people now to help you watch Al's back," Breda said, ignoring the betrayed look Havoc beamed his way. "And yours."
And Ed could only gape at all of them.
Because the thought, that he wasn't alone anymore, that he didn't have to struggle so hard by himself, hadn't even occurred to him until now. He'd been too caught up in his fierce protectiveness, and his instinctive distrust.
A bit of the weight that had been resting on his shoulders like bricks ever since the death of their mother eased without his consent, and the sudden lightness nearly buckled him. The breath he sucked in was sharp, and jagged, and he had to bow his head, because the wetness in his eyes apparently couldn't be controlled, and he'd have to waste precious time and energy kicking Mustang's ass if the bastard saw it and smirked.
"Brother," Al whispered at his side, because the younger Elric had never needed to see Ed's face to know what he was feeling. He pressed his forehead briefly against Ed's upper arm.
"We aren't angry with you, Edward," Riza said, and her voice was warm again, warm and gentle. "But we can't have any more secrets, not if we truly expect to help each other. You have to tell us. Everything that you've been hiding, we have to know."
Ed's breath hitched again, and his stomach clenched in instinctive fear, and sick, swooping shame.
"It's not a one-way street, Elric," Mustang said, as if he'd sensed Ed's twist of dread and was working to soothe it, in his own bastard-like way. "You share everything you've been keeping from us, and we'll tell you what the plan is. All of our ulterior motives, and what we mean to do with the power we haven't been sharing."
Ed stiffened and flipped Mustang a shocked glance, momentarily forgetting about his dampened eyes.
"Everything?" he demanded. "No more bastard-like evasions?"
The cough that Breda smothered in his fist sounded perilously close to a laugh.
"Yes, thank you, Elric."
"We'll hold up our end of the show-and-tell," Breda offered. "But you have to go first, Boss."
Ed fell quiet, his face furrowed in thought. Al, who'd pulled away from his shoulder, brushed his hand supportively with his own.
"It's your decision, Brother," he murmured. "I'm okay with whatever you do."
Ed ignored the others for a moment, and turned to face his baby brother.
"A-are you sure, Al?" he asked uncertainly. "I'll have to talk about it. About everything."
Al's face paled, but he mustered up a weak smile from somewhere, and nodded.
"Yeah. I'll be fine, Brother." The boy ducked his head. "Besides. I…feel bad. About lying to them before."
Ed huffed out a soft laugh, and gave the back of Al's head a gentle, affectionate smack.
"Yeah," he said. "You would, Al."
He hesitated before turning to face the others again. Then, he heaved a quiet sigh, and reached for the button on his jacket.
Breda and Havoc squawked. Fuery blushed brilliantly. Falman blinked, his brow furrowed the barest bit. Riza merely cocked an eyebrow, polite interest on her face.
"I don't believe stripping was a required part of the explanation, Elric," Mustang said, and there was something like real alarm in his voice.
Winry's squeal broke several sound barriers, and she buried her face in her hand to stifle it.
Ed, who blushed only at Winry's reaction, shot Mustang a scowl before sliding his jacket off his shoulders. Even though the weather had warmed exponentially, the children at the asylum had never seen him without it, or his thick gloves. So, even as they made several sounds of protest, they all leaned forward in acute interest.
They recoiled back quick enough, though, as Ed's metal arm appeared, shooting off a dull sort of shine in the soft light.
"My left leg is the same," Ed said quietly, speaking resolutely to the slightly damp and dirty floor.
They stared, eyes wide and mouths agape, at the heavy appendages attached to Ed's body.
"Your file mentioned that you had artificial limbs," Riza said, and even she sounded shaken. "I-I assumed you wore the coat simply to cover the fact that they were different. I-We never thought…." She trailed off into sick uncertainty, her slightly widened eyes glued to the sleek metal.
Ed's laugh was harsh, and not at all humorous.
"Yeah," he said. "They're not that common, I know. Automail isn't as well known as it used to be."
Ed risked a glance at Mustang. The older boy had hid his reaction well, for the most part, but Ed knew where to look now if he wanted to see emotion. Ed caught the slight widening of his eyes, the faint sorry sickness reflected in his face.
"A-are they heavy?" Breda whispered, and he sounded almost morbidly fascinated.
"Do they hurt?" Fuery asked, and he looked horrified on Ed's behalf.
Havoc didn't speak, but there was something like distress in his face, softened by the beginnings of regret.
"I don't really notice anymore," Ed answered. "If they're heavy or not. I'm used to it. And they don't hurt, not now anyway. They, uh….they ache, I guess, in the wintertime. The cold tightens the ports."
Fuery's face crumpled in sympathy. Next to him, Winry released a series of choking, gasping sounds, and Ed's eyebrows rose in confused alarm as he turned to face her.
"Um…Winry?" he asked hesitantly. "It's okay, really. I'm fine now."
Winry shook her head, and Ed stuttered in horror, terrified that she was about to burst into tears. But then she released the same ear-splitting squeal she'd given when he'd stripped off his shirt, stars spinning in her eyes.
"Automail!" she gasped, lowering her voice in reverence when Riza shushed her insistently. "Ed, oh, Ed, can I touch it? Will you let me open it up and look inside?"
While Ed and Al gaped like they might upon spotting a crazy person, the rest of the group just shook their heads with exasperated smiles.
"You're such a freak, Rockbell," Havoc snorted.
"You and your machinery," Fuery teased with a gentle smile.
Falman gave a quiet grunt of amusement. Breda grinned, and then tipped a wink in Ed's direction.
"Well, Boss, you've definitely entered a 'full speed ahead' zone now. If she was all googly-eyed over you before-"
Winry's wrench of vengeance appeared from whatever pocket dimension she stashed it in. It connected with the back of Breda's skull and cut him off neatly before he could finish his sentence.
"Please continue, Edward," she said primly, her hands magically empty once again, while Breda groaned into his couch cushion and tried to eliminate the galaxy of stars spinning in front of his eyes.
"Ah…," In all honesty, Ed wasn't thrown by Winry's sporadic violence; he'd been around long enough by now to be used to it (and had even been even on the receiving end of a few mind-breaking blows of his own). Breda's sly insinuation, however, had thrown him for a loop. "Okay. You guys want the story, right? About where these came from, and why I can do alchemy?"
"Please," Riza said.
You say that now. But you won't want me after. You won't.
"You already know…about our Mom," Ed began uncomfortably. "Al and I have talked about her in group. We were really young when she died, I was only seven, and Al was barely six. Our dad," Ed's face darkened in instinctive anger, "he left when Al and I were really little, and we haven't seen him since, not even at Mom's funeral. But he left all these books in his study, books with strange names and weird pictures."
"Alchemy books," Roy said softly, and Ed nodded.
"Right. We didn't know what they were at first," he continued. "But the more we read, the more we pieced it together. We were so surprised when it actually worked; like magic, like it had been there all along, and we hadn't known it. It was so easy. We started off with little things. Turning lumps of coal into food when we ran out, or fixing our clothes when they started to fall apart. Nice people from the village checked in on us from time to time, so it wasn't all bad. But then we started reading the more advanced books, the ones that contained higher-level alchemy. And we came across the chapters on human transmutation."
Only three people in the room reacted; Roy, Riza, and Havoc. The latter two blanched, their faces draining of all color. Roy's face crumpled into something set and serious; he'd known, or at least implied that he could see the clues, but even if he'd been sure, he still didn't know the details.
Everyone else just looked uneasy.
"Human…transmutation?" Fuery repeated warily.
Ed nodded, and ducked his head. He wasn't sure he could look anyone in the eyes while relating the next part in his tragic story. He didn't want the slow creep of disgust, of hate, that would inevitably fill their faces to damage him.
"It's exactly what it sounds like," he said quietly. "The alchemy books, they said it was forbidden, over and over, but I was so young and so stupid, all puffed up and arrogant because I'd managed to learn alchemy on my own. All I saw was a way to bring our mother back. All the dangers, the warnings, the ways we could royally screw up; I didn't pay them any attention." The self-disgust, the anger, in Ed's voice was as transparent as glass. "It took Al and me about three months, to finish our research, and gather the materials. I'd just turned thirteen; Al was still eleven. Our mother had been dead for six years. We should have been able to let her go; so many years later, we should have been able to move on. But we tried, we still tried, because we actually thought that we could do it."
The others were leaning forward now, their faces painted with sick fascination. They could all see where this story was headed, roughly. And even though it horrified them, they couldn't turn away. Ed's voice was still soft, but it seemed loud because of the absolute silence of the enclosed area; the others were so quiet, so caught up, they were barely breathing.
"I was so excited. We had everything set up, and I was just ecstatic. Al, he was worried, he tried to warn me. But I didn't listen. I didn't want to slow down. I just wanted to see Mom again."
"Stop, Brother," Al said, and his voice trembled dangerously. "I won't let you tell it like it's all your fault."
"Al. It's okay. I know-"
"I was there, too!" Al protested, and Ed blinked, unable to even try and regain his sentence, because his baby brother never raised his voice. "I was there, and I didn't stop you! I could have." Al's hands curled into tight fists on his knees. "You've always been so worried about taking care of me, Brother. If I'd tried hard enough, I could have gotten you to stop. But I didn't. Because I wanted to see her too." Al's teeth chewed restlessly at his lips as he spoke, tearing the skin to bloody ribbons. "It's just as much my fault as it is yours, Brother. But you paid for all of it." Al's voice stretched thin and taut, so close to breaking, as he stared at Ed's exposed automail arm. "It's not…it's not fair."
The group surrounding the Elrics shifted uncomfortably on their cushions. The obvious pain in Al's normally sweet-tempered voice, so raw and wild and ripping, made them all ache, and long to comfort. But from the way the younger boy stared at his big brother, this hurt was one too deep, and far too old, to heal with a hug and a kiss.
"Al," Ed murmured, his golden eyes wide.
"Brother and I drew the circle in the dining room," Al said, his gray eyes mutinous and determined as faced the other patients, picking up where Ed had left off. "We dumped the ingredients in the middle, and then activated it from different sides. At first, it was okay. The circle started to glow, but that was normal, so we kept pushing more power. But then something went wrong. Brother noticed it first. He started yelling, but the circle was roaring so loud, I couldn't hear him. I tried to get up, because I was scared that something was hurting him. But then something was pulling me, and it felt like I was disappearing, a little bit at a time. I must have passed out, because the last thing I remember is Brother, reaching for my hand and screaming my name."
"Why?" Havoc choked out. It seemed to be all he was capable of.
Ed's laugh was bitter, and broken.
"We didn't pay hard enough," he said. "Remember in group, when I talked about equality, and the rules of my magical world? The entire foundation of alchemy is based on the concept of equivalent exchange. You can't create something from nothing; for everything you gain, you have to give something of equal value. We thought…I thought…that a few drops of blood would be enough. Our blood for hers." He curled his flesh-covered hand into a fist, and then pressed it against his eyes. "So stupid."
In the silence that followed, Fuery was the one to ask; "What happened next?"
"The payment was imbalanced," Ed repeated softly. "I managed to pull Al away from the light that came from the circle rebound, but someone had to go, because someone had to compensate. I don't know where I ended up, exactly. Alchemy books were impossible to find once we hit the orphanages. All I know is that I was standing in empty space, all white and vacant, and the only thing there to look at was a huge door, made of stone. Something inside that door spoke to me, and smiled, and told me that the payment was fair."
"Payment?" Winry repeated, her voice barely above a whisper.
Ed rapped his flesh knuckles against his metal arm.
"My arm for my mother's body. My leg for pulling Al away from the rebound."
Al's shoulders were hunched now, his hands clenched helplessly into the cushion he was sitting on. Tears were rolling down his cheeks unchecked; he hardly even seemed aware of them.
"When I came to, Brother was lying on the ground," he whispered. "He was barely coherent, and he was bleeding so badly, it was everywhere. The house was burning; the power from the circle when it rebounded must have sparked it." Al's eyes, although filled from top to bottom with wet, were heart-shatteringly blank. As if he himself could hardly comprehend with the horror of that night. "I was so scared. I knew I had to get Brother out, but I was afraid to move him; I didn't want to make the bleeding worse, or hurt him somehow. But then the beams started falling, and I didn't have a choice. I picked him up and started pushing my way out, but then I stopped, because I…almost stepped on it."
Seven faces, bleached of all color, stared silently at the struggling Elric brothers, apparently incapable of speech.
"Our mother's body," Ed whispered. "The one we paid for. It wasn't much more than a ball of organs, some teeth, a few strands of hair. But it was breathing."
Winry made a soft, helpless sound of horror. Silent tears were tracking down her impossibly pale cheeks, dripping down to stain her clenched fists. Fuery was weeping too, his hands pressed against his cheeks as if he could stop the flow. Havoc and Breda looked sick; their hands were pressed against their stomachs as if something there was hurting them. Falman's mouth was actually open, his breath quick and distressed as he stared at the Elric brothers. Riza's sherry eyes were wide, too wide, and her hands were locked tight around the metal leg of Roy's lawn chair.
Roy's face was winning its battle for serenity, but only by the barest inch. Shock, disbelief, sympathy, they were all starting to slip through the cracks, and his skin was as white as blank paper. His hands were curled into tight, knuckle-straining fists around the arms of his chair.
"We left it there to burn," Ed finished, and his voice began to hitch dangerously as well, despite his rather desperate efforts. "The thing we worked so hard for. I didn't even know if it was alive, if it was aware, if it could feel pain. I just told Al to leave it, to let it die."
"The firemen found us a little while later," Al said softly. "Brother was bleeding so badly, they didn't ask many questions about the fire. But afterward, when Brother was in the hospital, and I saw what he'd lost, what he'd given up to save me…" Al choked, and trailed off. He pressed his face into his knees before continuing, muffling his voice. "I knew that they were going to have more questions. And alchemy is supposed to be a fairy tale, so someone was going to be mad at us for using it. I made Brother promise…I made him swear….that we'd never tell anyone that he could do alchemy, that if anyone asked, we'd tell them that I was the only one that could. He'd sacrificed an arm and a leg; the least I could do was take the blame."
Ed closed his eyes at his brother's words. It hadn't been as easy as that; Ed had flat-out refused for days to let Al shoulder the fault alone. But, in the end, Al's guilt (something Ed had been completely baffled by…because couldn't Al see that this was his mistake, his alone?), had reduced him to tears and half-frantic pleas, and Ed had caved, unable to deny his baby brother anything.
"So, it's my fault," Al said, and suddenly his face was unburied and he was staring at the group again. "You can't be mad at Brother, because I'm the one who made him promise not to tell."
"Al," Ed said, ignoring the way his eyes stung and his chest ached. "It's okay. You don't have to protect me." That's my job, he didn't say, and scooped a gentle hand through his baby brother's hair.
His arm crept supportively around Al's shoulders as he turned to face the other patients for the first time since the beginning of his story. His body was tight in instinctive defense again, ready and willing to lash out at anyone who tried to attack his brother. He would take the hits on his own character, because he deserved them, no matter how much hurt they caused, but he wouldn't allow them to injure Al.
"That's it," he said, and he couldn't keep the self-protective anger from his voice. "That's the big secret. You guys feel better, now? Still want us in your little club after finding out that I've got my mother's own blood on my hands? Or-"
None of them expected Riza to move first. Winry, maybe, or even Fuery, because they'd always been more ruled by emotion. But Riza was so stoic, so aloof in very nature, that she shocked everyone by rising from her couch cushion, and walking until she crouched down in front of the Elrics.
Ed's eyes burned with defiance, but his body flinched from her, as if expecting a blow, or a harsh condemnation. Alphonse could barely even see her through the thick veil of tears blanketing his eyes.
They both froze as still as statues when the girl reached out and drew them in close, elbows locked around their necks, tucking them against her so that their faces rested against both the left and right curve of her sweet-smelling shoulders.
Alphonse made a choked little sound or surprise, and then burrowed close, his tears staining Riza's neck as he clung and searched for comfort.
Ed's body remained rigid, and he gritted his teeth, trying to stifle the startled sobs and blink away the insistent stinging in his eyes.
But then Winry was there, her arms around his waist and her soft cheek against his back, and the soft apologies, thick with sorrow, that she whispered against his skin broke the dam deep inside of him. Ed turned his face away as the tears that he thought he'd long since sacrificed thundered down his cheeks. He hurt, everything hurt, almost as much as it had that night, and Ed wanted to wail from the pain, and the memory of his mother's sweet face.
But, in a strange way, he wanted to smile, too.
Winry's arms were still wrapped around him. Riza was whispering soft shushing sounds against his hair. Fuery was pressed against Al's shoulders, stuttering out sweet apologies in between gasping, hitching breaths. Breda was patting both of their backs, a bit awkwardly, but he was there. Falman hadn't moved, but his eyes were locked on Ed, and the warmth, and sorrow, and understanding that he saw there only brought his tears faster.
Not alone, they all said without words. We don't hate you, we forgive you, and you're not alone anymore.
Ed didn't bring up his arms to embrace them back; he couldn't, his body rejected showing that much weakness. But he gave them his tears, and knew that they understood how much that meant.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so clean.
"Hey, Boss," Havoc said, and suddenly he was there, bending in front of Ed's face. "I guess I'm not mad at you anymore."
"I'm still not going to hug you, though."
Ed blinked again. And then he began to laugh, quick and quiet snickers that brought Havoc's own smile to the surface.
Eventually, he peered across the expanse of bodies locked in the group hug, and locked eyes with Mustang. Like Falman, the older boy hadn't moved. But he was watching the scene with a tiny smile, and something that might have been softness in his face. When he saw that Edward was looking at him, he allowed his smile to curve into a smirk, one that held no mockery. He inclined his head, and Ed could read something like respect in his eyes.
Stupid Bastard, Ed thought, with a hatred that seemed suddenly comfortable and warm, and allowed his swollen eyes to flutter shut.
Ed tried really, really hard to be embarrassed, once the weeping stopped and everyone drew back to their own corner of personal space. There was a little midget version of him inside his head, flailing like a landed fish and screaming that he should never show so much weakness, so much trust, was he trying to get Alphonse killed? But the midget voice was faint already, and getting fainter by the second as it was buried under the strangely peaceful, and sort of sleepy feeling relaxing Ed's limbs into almost useless appendages. It occurred to him that he couldn't remember the last time he'd been so loose. His body was always tight with the tension of one who knows he is hunted; living on such a constant edge showed its consequences in eternally half-awake adrenaline and eager feet that were always ready to run.
But, huddled under the suddenly comforting red light of the boiler room, Ed was able to forget for a few precious seconds just how surrounded he was, just how many hunters were circling him like chains, squeezing down his running space bit by bit. For the space of three heartbeats, Ed was able to remember a time and a self that existed before his world narrowed to include only a single person.
Oddly enough, forgiveness from the others, and the subsequent short-lived freedom that followed it, smelled like his mother's perfume.
But then Al's hand crept into the crook of his elbow once again, and even though his baby brother was smiling, a huge and watery grin that warmed Ed's chest, those terrifyingly fragile fingers reminded him of the mission that he'd been forced to hone into his only purpose.
"We delivered our share of the show and tell," he said firmly, trying to regain some control through a steady voice, because his eyes felt puffy and swollen and he sure as shit wasn't getting any answers that way. "It's your turn, Bastard. Pay up."
Mustang's eyebrow arched magnificently.
"Afraid I'll renege on our deal, Elric?"
"Do you think I refer to you as 'Bastard' because I consider it a fun and lovely nickname?"
In the corner of the room, Breda and Winry muffled snickers with their fists.
"The plan, Mustang," Ed continued, growing serious once again. He was horribly vulnerable the way he was now, ripped open and weak, with wet still running from his eyes. He needed to make sure that his painful bareness wouldn't be taken advantage of. "You promised."
"I did," the older boy conceded, inclining his head. "I think you'll be disappointed, Elric, by how simple it really is."
Ed shrugged impatiently.
"Well, I can't fix your stupid with my sparkling intellect until you clue me in. So, give already."
Mustang leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his steepled fingers, and flashed the other patient a soft, dangerous smirk.
"We fight our way out."
Even as Ed's quick trigger instincts jumped and boiled in vicious, teeth-baring approval of Mustang's plan, his brain still pumped the emergency brake.
"You sound like me, Mustang," he said. "All reaction. What makes you think we can muscle our way out of here? There's guards other than Armstrong, and a door that's always locked. There's a fence around the perimeter, and geographically, I'm not even sure what's beyond it."
Mustang's smirk never faltered, as if he'd been anticipating these very questions.
"Do you remember, Elric, when we were first introduced?"
"Sure. You waltzed into the Director's office and acted like Personality Absent Barbie."
"Ha!" Havoc snorted from his seat.
"Charming," Mustang said in a voice dryer than summer scorched grass, and ignored his friend entirely. "Do you remember what the Director called me?"
Ed furrowed his brow for a moment, reaching back in his memory for a sound bite that probably hadn't seemed important at the time.
"Favorite patient," Al finally said, shattering Ed's contemplative silence. "He called you the favorite patient."
"Yeah, that. Sure as hell didn't make me want to trust you right off the bat, Bastard." Ed's brow furrowed even further. "Wait a minute. I'm pretty sure you weren't even in the room when he said that."
Mustang waved a dismissive hand.
"Doesn't matter," he explained. "I know because the Director always calls me that. Do you know why?"
"Because you're a fantastic ass-kisser?"
"Because I'm the longest alchemist capable of manifestation that they've ever been able to keep without breaking," Mustang said, with just a hint of exasperation, while Breda, Havoc, and Winry rolled with silent laughter in the background. "I've been here for years, Elric. Years. And I'm still healthy, still producing power, and my mind is sound."
"Debatable," Havoc muttered, and then yelped when Riza calmly reached over to pinch his ankle.
"They don't know it's because I've been suppressing the alchemy," he said. "They think it's because I'm a prime candidate. And because I've been here so long, a nickname isn't all that I've acquired. What else do you learn after living so long in one place?"
"Habits," Alphonse said slowly, softly, from Edward's side, and Mustang cocked a considering brow in his direction. "Patterns. Schedules."
"Exactly. I'm impressed, Alphonse."
Al blushed a bright pink and beamed at the ground.
"I've been here for years," Mustang continued. "But the people haven't changed. Lust has always sat behind the desk. Gluttony has always manned the kitchen. The woman that works in the Director's office, Sloth, she's always been here. The one that always waits in the chamber where they siphon our alchemy. Envy. He's never left, either."
Ed frowned, confused. Sloth he remembered, vaguely, as a curtain of dark hair and a soft, strangely soothing voice. But Envy was a new player on the game board, wasn't he? He was usually so out of it, but Ed couldn't remember an unknown figure from the alchemy chamber.
Oh, look at that! The brat recognizes it!
Oh, wait. Ed winced in remembrance at the harsh, cruelly excited voice that had rang through his drug-addled brain like a grating bell.
"They've never left," Mustang repeated, leaning forward for emphasis. "And after years of living with them, I've picked up on the patterns that make them weak."
Possibilities popped and brightened inside Ed's brilliant mind like bursting stars.
"Such as?" he prompted.
"Such as Gluttony sticking to Lust's side whenever he's not in the kitchen and she's not performing nursely duties. Such as Sloth never leaving the Director's office while we patients are awake. Such as all of them, including Sloth and Dante herself, disappearing to the alchemy chamber whenever there's a siphoning in process."
"Leaving us unguarded," Ed breathed. "If they're all downstairs, and in the middle of a ritual, then there's no one up here to watch us."
"Except Armstrong," Mustang concluded with giddy satisfaction.
Ed's brain spun around and all but exploded with excitement. He'd never thought….such a hole in their defenses, such a beautiful, gaping space for them to wiggle through. This could work.
"It won't be as easy as Roy is making it sound," Riza cautioned, spying the bright wheels of possibility spinning in Edward's eyes. "Alchemy will have to be utilized in order to actually breach the bars and gates. Transmutations were never meant for subtlety, and our jailers seem additionally attuned to sensing it, or they'd never have been able to gather us in the first place. The instant we attempt unauthorized alchemy for our own escape purposes, the guards will know about it."
"And they're fast," Breda said, and the uncharacteristic seriousness of his voice sent a shiver down Ed's spine. "We've pushed them before, just a little, just to see. We've picked fights with Kimblee, or with Greed, or even with each other, just to see how quick they'd react to it."
"How quick?" Ed asked, and he'd never admit that his throat was dry.
"Almost instantaneous," Mustang answered softly. "Even when they weren't in direct range, they were there pretty much immediately to separate us."
"Hence the fighting," Ed summarized.
Havoc snorted out a laugh and reached for his cigarettes. Not to smoke, because Riza would have killed seventeen different ways before the stick could even breach his lips, but because the water-stained cardboard box felt familiar and comforting between his fingers.
"Yeah. Only it isn't as easy as just tossing a few punches, Boss. You and Little Bro might be able to use alchemy as a weapon, and Roy might have a few special magic tricks hidden up his sleeve, but the rest of us aren't as lucky."
Ed took a moment to glance around the group. Fuery. Winry. Maybe Riza. Even Al. They didn't come across as those who were capable of shedding blood for freedom. That ability belonged to the desperate, Havoc and Breda, and to those who would damn themselves for the sake of others, Ed and Roy.
"Havoc and Breda are pretty good with fists," Mustang elaborated.
"We practice on each other," Breda snorted, and slapped at the hand that Havoc was using to repeatedly tap his cigarette pack.
"Riza's aim is scary good," Havoc continued, kicking out an almost lazy foot and popping Breda in the chest. Breda gave a muted squawk and toppled off his cushion. "Get any kind of projectile in her hands, and she'll hit whatever gets in her way."
Ed's eyes popped wide in surprise.
"No guns," Riza said, almost sadly. "But bricks, stones, bits of metal, yes. I'll hit my target."
Ed swallowed his surprise and reshuffled his assessment of those who would need protecting.
"Falman's good with sticks," Roy continued. "Winry's got her wrench. And if you give Fuery something with wires, he can dismantle it and make a weapon faster than most people can blink. No one here is useless."
Fuery shook his head sadly, and voiced the uncertainty that showed on Ed's face.
"We're not useless," he repeated. "But we're not a match either, not for the guards, not if we can't manifest alchemy." He fixed Ed and Al with a serious stare behind his glasses. "We once saw Lust toss Kimblee into isolation when he wouldn't cooperate. Literally toss him. She just…picked him up like he weighed nothing. They're not normal, and if we can't use the alchemy like you guys can, then we're not going to be much help."
"Which is why I couldn't execute this plan by myself," Roy concluded softly. "As the only manifesting alchemist, I couldn't fight off the guards and get the others to safety at the same time."
"But now we've got you," Havoc added, knocking companionable knuckles against Ed's boot. "And bonus, your baby brother too. The odds still aren't in our favor, but they certainly aren't as shitastic as they were before."
Ed stiffened, and snapped his gaze towards Mustang's face. This was an immediate issue, one that would need to be addressed before any sort of plan could be formulated.
"Al doesn't fight," Ed said firmly, and only for Mustang, because he would understand that this was a condition, and not a request. "I'll stay and knock skulls with you, Bastard, but Al gets out with the others."
Non-negotiable, his hard golden eyes enforced, even as Al stiffened on the pillow next to him.
"Brother," he began, but Mustang's agreement rolled right over his protest.
"Fine. That's what makes sense anyway. Since we seem to suddenly have an abundance of alchemists with manifestation capabilities, it's a good idea to have one stick with the non-hostile group, just in case they do end up in a combat situation. Alphonse can lead the others out. You and I, Elric, will give them the head-start that they need to reach a safe distance."
"But that's not fair!" Alphonse countered, and everyone turned in his direction, a little stunned by the uncharacteristic outburst and the vehemence in his voice. "Why am I automatically the one that leads everyone out? I've been working with Roy. I can fight!"
"I'm not weak, Brother." And Ed jerked back a little, eyes wide, because Al hardly every snapped at him like that. "You can't keep putting yourself in danger just to protect me. Do you know how worried I get, or how sad I would be if something would go wrong? It would be my fault. I don't want to keep looking at your back, Brother. You have to let me stand next to you sometimes."
"Al," Ed repeated, much softer this time.
There was a moment of uncomfortable quiet, as the others absorbed the emotional turbulence passing back and forth between the brothers. No words were spoken, but the air between them was so heavy with old guilt and new recognition that it weighed on the group like bricks.
"Alphonse," Roy eventually said into the silence. "It wasn't my intention to insinuate that you're incapable of fighting. It's actually quite the opposite; I know how capable you are. I've been working with you myself. That's why I'm trusting you with the lives of those we're working to protect."
"Your temperament is much more suited to subterfuge than Edward's," Riza pointed out. "A covert operation, such as helping us to sneak from the building, is much better left in your hands."
Havoc gave a soft snort of agreement.
"The Boss is all fire and no flower petals," he agreed lazily. "Flames are hard for the guards to miss, but flower petals can get past their notice easy."
"You're important to the mission, Al," Fuery said earnestly. "We need you."
The others nodded in agreement, and Al relaxed, still scowling, but with more acceptance now that he wasn't being cast in the role of the ineffectual. Ed was grateful for their affirmations, and their dedication to letting Al know he was needed, but he was perfectly aware that their explanations for his position didn't exactly line up with his own, or the Bastard's, for that matter. There was a reason that the group getting sent ahead was assembled the way it was.
Because they can live without us, if we don't make it out. Al would be sad, and he'd grieve, and maybe do some stupid things, but he'd be all right in the end. He could learn to live without me. But I don't know how to live without him. And it's not an adjustment I could ever make.
Dark eyes met Ed's, and he saw that for once, he and the Bastard were in perfect agreement, even if they had to hide the momentous occasion from everybody else.
They'll make it out, Roy's tiny nod confirmed. Even if we end up rotting in here until they break us, they will make it out.
And really, that was the convincing Ed needed in order to throw in his support.
"Another thing to consider when taking in the group formations is the element of surprise," Falman added quietly from his corner. They were pretty much his first words of the evening, and so everyone inevitably fell silent to listen. "No one outside of us knows that Ed can manifest alchemy. The guards therefore see him as a worthless fighter, in terms of power."
"So, having him there in a combat capacity could only benefit us, as they wouldn't be expecting him to fight," Mustang concluded.
"Right," Ed attempted something like a cheerful laugh, and gave Al a nudge. "See, Al? It's just because I suck at being sneaky. And I'm surprising."
Al's large gray eyes were still troubled, and far too knowledgeable of Ed's inner dialogue for his liking, but he still attempted a smile, and Ed loved him for it.
"The plan, in it's most basic form, is a bait and switch. We fight the guards up front, and hopefully distract them into thinking that the two of us are staging a rebellion just long enough for the others to escape." Roy tapped his fingertips together lightly, his eyes deep and dark with a terrifying kind of concentration. "There are several smaller factors that need to go into this in order for it to work. For one thing, everyone will need to gather in one central location so that the sneak-out can be quick and efficient."
"It'll have to be on a night when Kimblee's the alchemist in the chamber," Ed added, his eyes snapping to life like golden sparks of intelligence as his brain shifted gears to accommodate the planning. "That way, we don't have to risk invading the chamber in order to snag one of ours."
"Avoiding night rounds won't be a problem," he continued. "Armstrong pledged himself to our cause a long time ago."
"Right. We'll have to find a strategic location to hold them off. Lead them into a closed room, maybe? That way we can keep track of them."
"Mm," Mustang agreed. "Maybe...?" He gave his hand an absent wiggle, and Ed nodded.
"The family room, sure. It's close enough to the bedrooms that we can lead them there fast enough, but still far enough away that the others can make a clean break." Ed snapped his fingers to the quick, clicking rhythm of his brain. "Speaking of clean break, what do you think of-?"
"The locks on the doors?" Mustang frowned thoughtfully. "A simple transmutation could change the chemical substance of the metal, make it weak and-"
"Malleable. Yes. Perfect." Their voices were rising, in both pitch and pace, each bouncing off of the other like excited ping pong balls. Neither seemed to notice. "It's got to be equivalent, though. Can't change it into something that isn't there in equal measure." The periodic table all but shuffled through Ed's eyes as he considered their options. "Maybe if we-" Ed smacked his hands together to demonstrate, and then curled his fingers illustratively.
"Precisely," Mustang agreed enthusiastically. "And then if we heat it it-"
"It'll snap right off," Ed concluded.
"They'll sense it," Mustang pointed out. "We'll have to compensate if we wish them to remain unnoticed."
Ed hummed thoughtfully.
"Yeah." He drummed his fingers against his automail arm, and a somewhat wicked smirk curved his lips. "Hey, d'you think if we-"
"Hmm." Mustang's eyebrow arched. "Do you really think you can-"
"Contain it? Never tried. It'll be a bitch and a half, but Teacher's been working with my control. Just so long as you-"
"Pffft. The balance is simple to maintain. It's elementary. I'm more worried about you-"
"Yeah, yeah. Shut up. I can totally handle it. The theory clearly states that-"
"Ah, but this is you we're talking about, Elric. In order to properly apply, the principles require-"
"Bastard. There's no need to insult me-"
"Oh, please. I hardly insulted all. I simply reinforced the argument that should you ignore the hypothesis-"
"Yeah, and suggesting that I would is a total diss. Back me up here, Al."
He turned to his brother for support, only to realize that the entire group was gaping at him and Roy like they'd just stripped down and performed a blissful dance of naked. Eyes were wide, mouths were open, and Ed was pretty sure that he could see Breda's brain breaking in its skull.
"Um. What?" Ed asked apprehensively.
"What," Winry repeated disbelievingly. "That was supposed to be English?"
"Yeah." Ed's brow furrowed in confusion. "Wait. Didn't you guys follow that?"
"Follow what?" Havoc asked. "Your incomplete sentences full of super alchemy geek babble?"
Ed scowled, and spun to face his brother.
"You got it. Right, Al?"
"Um." The younger Elric laughed, a little sheepishly. "Most of it, Brother. You lost me right around Teacher helping you with control."
"Huh," Ed sulked, and settled into silence, unwilling to admit that banging brains with the Bastard had been like lightning zipping through his bloodstream.
"Regardless," Mustang recovered smoothly. "As I said, the plan is fairly straightforward. Elric and I will create an alchemically charged distraction on a night that Kimblee is being utilized in the chamber. While the guards attempt to reign in our rebellion, Alphonse, you will lead the others out. There are four doors between these halls and the outside, and each one is specially fixed with automatic and invisible locks. Try for subtlety when you can, and be prepared to run when you can't. There's also the matter of the gate outside, and the terrain beyond that."
Alphonse twisted his hands together, but his eyes were solemn and dry.
"Where am I supposed to take them?" he asked. "Once we're out."
"We're unsure at the moment," Riza answered. "We have a few options to consider. We'll inform you as soon as we choose the most reliable one."
"The bitch will be perfectly within her legal rights to put out a search on us, once we're loose," Breda commented bitterly. "As far as the State is concerned, we're a bunch of screwed up kids who need medical looking-after. If we're found out, they won't hesitate to stick us right back where we started."
Havoc snorted, and rubbed restless fingers over his cigarette box.
"Yeah, only if we get dumped here a second time, you can bet there won't be another opportunity for escape," he said. "Doctor Bitch will throw us all in isolation, and use us until we buckle."
"So you see why we have to take this carefully."
Ed frowned as something flitted across his brain.
"What about collateral damage?"
Mustang arched an eyebrow in his direction, silently urging him to elaborate.
"Armstrong," Ed explained. "Hughes. Teacher. The already broken kids locked up in the back room. What happens to the ones we leave behind?"
"Despite his rather lowly position, Armstrong has a strong family," Mustang said. "He'll be protected. And Hughes can take care of himself; I've never seen someone so intelligent in regards to information and how to use it."
Ed's eyes darkened as Mustang's words tapered off.
"And Teacher?" he prompted. "The other kids?"
Mustang's eyes were dark, and inscrutable, and more than answer enough. Ed snarled, and half-leapt to his feet.
"What, we just leave them?" he demanded. "After all Teacher did for us? After what those kids went through? We just let it go unacknowledged?"
"Ed," Riza began gently. "Teacher's ill. She's been used too long, and too harshly. She doesn't have much time left. Hughes, he...he estimated that she won't live to see the new year."
Ed thought of wry smiles, of biting words and uncensored blows, neither of which could disguise the genuine caring and praise. He thought of pallid, sickly skin and hair darkened by lack of sunlight, and bloodstained palms.
"So we let her spend her last few months in this hellhole?" Ed snapped. "Let her live, and die, in the place that completely screwed her over?"
"Sometimes, Elric, it comes down to a question of priority," Mustang said softly. "Of course, you would save everyone, if you could. But what do you do when you don't have the time, or the resources, to save outsiders, as well as your precious people?"
Mustang's answer was logical. It made perfect sense, and yet Ed couldn't stop the shudder that ripped down his spine at how cold it sounded.
People, his brain insisted, conjuring up images of faces only unrecognizable because of what they'd been driven to. People once. People still.
Ed sank back down on his cushion, and dropped the issue, but not because he was done believing in it. He just needed the quiet for his busy brain to work on this new problem, and could tell by the resignation in Mustang's eyes that he new it.
"A lot of factors need to align in order for this to happen," he said to the group at large. "We don't have everything quite nailed down, and so while we're close, we can't act just yet." Dark eyes flashed to the Elric brothers, now fully inducted into the secrets and schemes of the group. "Tonight's meeting brought everyone up to speed. There are no secrets left. We can move forward from here."
But Mustang was a liar, not that Ed didn't know that already. They retreated from their haven of action and answers and returned to their regularly scheduled routine at the asylum. Sessions were attended, meals were consumed, drugs were docilely accepted, and two nights after their meeting, Ed found himself down in the chamber, with Mustang at his back.
It was easier to fight the pain this time, now that Ed had a clear vision of what he was trying to preserve and protect. He gnashed his teeth, imagined kicking the crap out of the faces that he couldn't see with his eyes shut, and used the image as a sort of anchor to keep him grounded and out from under the painful power's influence. He still felt gritty and gross when he woke the next morning, with a raw stomach and screaming head, but the vicious satisfaction was there as well, validated by the memory of those hated voices murmuring their disappointment that their prodigy hadn't given as much as usual.
Ed was about to treat himself to a little victory nap, to sleep off the side-effects, when a horrible, hacking cough sounded from the next bed over. Al had gone to fetch Mustang and his brother soothing mugs of tea, recognizing the symptoms of a brutal night, and so Ed rolled on his side in order to pin the owner of such a terrible sound.
He watched, silent and solemn and strangely terrified, as Roy continued to cough, until tiny flecks of red decorated his hands.
Less than Teacher. But it had to start somewhere.
Roy's eyes met his, and for the first time, Ed felt the desire to flinch away. He'd burned before, and hidden it behind masks, but this was more than a small, carefully banked bonfire of ambition and hidden intelligence.
Roy's dark gaze burned with the greedy flames of purpose that bordered on insanity.
For someone who had never lacked something to say, especially to Roy, Edward found himself strangely without words.
"The others don't know," Mustang said, and it wasn't offered as information, but an order.
Edward watched, still silent, as Mustang swung himself out of bed, and hobbled towards the bathroom.
Once he was out of sight, he stared at the faint red drops decorating the white coverlet instead.
"Hey. Hey! Bastard, get your ass back here; I'm still talking to you!"
"Sputtering at me, more like. And I don't have the time for it, Elric. I have things to do."
"Oh, I'm sure. Slink off to a corner somewhere, make sure your jackass skills are nice and sharp. Full day for you, and everything. But I've got things to say."
"You usually do. Most of which aren't worth listening to, might I add."
And there they were. Two weeks after the unveiling of the plan in the boiler room. Two weeks after Ed's embarrassing tears and the confessions he'd never shared before.
Two weeks after Mustang had spat speckles of blood into his palm and then strolled off like the stuff wasn't supposed to stay inside his body.
It had taken Ed this long to corner the older boy; in a true display of strategy, Mustang had immediately surrounded himself with people shortly after his unplanned revelation, and kept them at his side day and night. He knew that Ed wouldn't want to upset the others by outing Mustang's affliction.
It had taken a good hour and a half of making scary, slightly insane faces at Fuery today before the boy had been disturbed enough to rise from the couch he and Mustang had been reading on and vacate the room.
And once he'd gone, Ed had popped off his own sofa like a missile, and planted himself in between Mustang and the door with stubborn determination.
"Listen, Mustang. I'm not an idiot."
Mustang's eyebrow answered; Oh, really?
Ed tried really, really hard to ignore the snark, because this was actually serious.
"I'm pretty damn smart, actually," he shot back, biting back his instinctive snarls. "And when I see someone spitting up blood just like Teacher, after you've both suffered under Doctor Bitch for years, my brain sort of says, hey. Symptoms."
Mustang folded his arms and unleashed a smirk that broke the Richter scales.
"How touching, Elric. If I didn't know you better, I'd almost say that you were concerned for my well-being."
Ed fumbled. Because, well...of course Mustang's health mattered. He was human, wasn't he, and his friend, in a strange sort of punching-bag way. Just because they liked to bicker didn't mean that Ed wanted to see Mustang on one of those beds in the broken kids' room.
Surely the bastard understood that?
"I...you...," Ed sputtered, before slamming his sarcasm down like a shield. "Pfft. Why would I care about you? You're an ass. But you start hacking up blood, and suddenly our little escape plan becomes much harder to pull off. So I'm only asking because I need you to keep the red stuff on the inside until we make it out of this hell hole."
Mustang's smile had...morphed. Turned soft and small and strange.
"Aw. And here I thought you actually cared. Not to worry, Elric," he said, and Ed didn't like the humor in his voice, like he was laughing at a joke only he could hear. "If that's your only concern, allow me to promise you that I'll keep it inside until everyone makes it out."
"And after?" Ed asked softly. Seriously. "What about after, Bastard?"
Mustang's dark blue eyes were blank save for that dark humor, empty of any real emotion. Ed could see his own stubborn face reflected in them.
"Who can say?" Mustang said breezily, and alarm bells rang like sirens in the back of Ed's brain. "Let's actually get out first, Elric, and then we'll deal with whatever comes."
"But, you are planning on it. On actually being there for the after. Right?"
Mustang sighed. Unfolded his arms and let them drop.
"I won't leave my people alone," he said, softly now, so Ed knew he was serious. "Does that answer your question, Elric?"
"I guess," Ed agreed, and wondered why the alarms in his head continued to ring even as relief sprinted up his spine. He considered his next question, took a moment to curse his upbringing for forcing him to ask it, and then spit it out between tightly gritted teeth. "Is...is there anything I can do? To help you with it?"
True humor warmed Roy's eyes now, not the sick and twisted shadow that had occupied them before.
"My, my," he drawled. "We are a humanitarian today, aren't we, Elric?"
Ed hated his face for surrendering to the bright red flush.
"Bastard!" he hissed. "I just meant that...well...the others don't know, right? So you've been dealing with this on your own. And I know you're an idiot, but it's just moronic to do that now that I saw." Ed crossed his arms and gave the floor a bad-tempered scuff with his boot. "So, whatever. I'm just saying that if you need me to do some stuff, I can."
For a moment, there was silence. Ed glanced up, scowl already fixed on his face, preparing himself to see Mustang's most bastardly smirk. But the older boy's face wasn't covered in smug for once; instead it was quiet. Contemplative. Softer, somehow.
"Thank you, Edward," he said, and the smaller boy started at the sound of his first name. "I...appreciate the gesture."
The flush on Ed's face burned even brighter. His skin felt hot and full.
"Whatever," he muttered. "Don't make a big deal about it, or anything."
"Of course," Mustang returned, before twisting his lips back into that familiar smirk. "So, now that you've shared your truly touching concern for my person, am I allowed to leave?"
And there they were. Back on familiar ground.
"Urk," Ed sputtered, with an arm flail for good measure. "I don't know why I even bother talking to you. You piss me off so much."
"I consider it a personal mission," Mustang agreed.
Ed glared as the older boy stepped past him toward the door. But he startled once again when he felt, very softly and only for a brief moment, a strong hand come down on his shoulder.
But Mustang was already out of the room, staring straight ahead with his hands at his sides.
Ed tapped agitated fingers against his shoulder and told himself he was stupid for feeling like Mustang's palm had left a brand, invisible but with great weight, against his skin.
He sank down on the couch Mustang had vacated at the start of their confrontation, and brooded so hard that he almost missed the figure that sauntered into the room.
He glanced up, shoulders already tight, to find Greed staring at him with his hands tucked casually in his pockets.
"What do you want?" he snapped, surging instinctively to his feet.
Greed just yawned and flopped down on the vacated couch cushions.
"Take it easy, short stack," he said.
Ed made a sound between his teeth that vaguely resembled a tea kettle releasing steam, and turned his tight muscles toward the door. He'd probably get put into isolation for beating Greed's face in, and then he'd have to tolerate Mustang's snide comments for at least a week. He wasn't sure which punishment was worse.
"I want to talk to you," Greed added, as Ed stomped towards the exit.
"Yeah?" he snarled over his shoulder. "Tough."
And Ed jerked to a stop like someone had yanked invisible puppet strings. He hadn't had extensive contact with Greed during his stay at the asylum; Kimblee and Martel were louder and more confrontational. The trio seemed to exist in a reality separate from Ed's own group; he had no idea how they lived or what they did when they were together. He'd certainly never spent any time alone with the older boy. But he'd never imagined that Greed's voice could sound so soft, or serious, and the reality of it brought him up short.
"You have one minute," he allowed, and grudgingly turned around.
"That's what I like about you, short stack. So willing to lend an ear to others." Greed's smile was sharp and stinging, like rusty needles. "It's going to get you killed someday, you know."
Ed's eyes narrowed.
Greed sighed and tipped his head back against the couch cushions.
"Fine. God, you're no fun at all." He peered at Ed over the tops of his stupid sunglasses so that his strange purple eyes shone out. "I need a favor."
"Uh-huh. Nice talking to you."
"It's not for me, Elric, if that makes you feel better."
"Nothing you say would ever make me feel good about anything," Ed shot back. "Why would I want to help you, Greed? We're not friends. Every time I have been forced to talk to you, you've been a total ass."
Technically, it was true. Granted, Ed did tend to spar with Kimblee and Martel more than Greed, but the boy had snuck in plenty of snide comments of his own during Group.
"You're one of the good guys, Elric," Greed said. "You wear white armor and all that, right? Things always work out for you in the end."
"I don't know what delusion you've been having, but you know that I'm stuck in the same asylum as you, right?"
"I'm not a good guy," Greed continued, as if Ed hadn't spoken. "There isn't any higher power pulling for me, Elric. My chances of surviving this place are pretty slim."
"And you want me to what? Tell Doctor Bitch to stop using you because you believe that the universe is in my corner?"
Greed's eyes were serious over the tops of his sunglasses.
"I know about your little plan."
Shock dropped down in Ed's stomach like a bomb, and detonated, filling his limbs with lead and ice.
Now Greed picked idly at his sharpened fingernails.
"You should tell Mustang to check around corners before he decides to spill his guts."
The boiler room. He'd been in the boiler room that night, which meant that he'd also heard...
"You fucker," Ed whispered.
"Yeah," the older boy agreed. "Survival of the fittest, Kid."
Ed struggled to push back his growing horror that someone else knew his secrets now. Someone he didn't trust had heard him cry, and seen his metal limbs. Couldn't think about that now; wasn't important.
Mustang. He had to find the Bastard, and tell him. And Al. He had to get to his brother and keep him safe.
He was already wheeling toward the door when another thought penetrated his panic-saturated brain.
"You know about our little plan," he repeated slowly. "You do. But Dante doesn't."
Greed nodded, still nonchalantly scraping at his fingers.
"I told you, Elric," Greed explained. "I need a favor."
Ed gritted his teeth and turned back around, crossing his arms across his chest.
"What could you possibly want?" he snapped. "From where I'm standing, it looks like you have all the ammo."
Greed sighed again and said, "Martel."
"What about her?"
"I want you to take her with you when you go."
Ed blinked. Blinked again. Then exploded.
"You heard me, Elric," Greed said, and annoyance creased his face. "Whenever your little group busts out of this place, I want you to bring her along. Don't leave her here."
"Bring her along," Ed repeated, with a tongue that felt numb and stupid with shock. "But not you? Or Kimblee? What the hell, Greed?"
"Look, Kid," Greed said, and he seemed uncomfortable now, rolling tight shoulders against the couch in a parody of a shrug. "I may look hale and hearty to you, but I'm not doing so hot. I'd slow you down, and then none of you would make it out."
"Not doing so hot?" Apparently, all Ed could do was parrot Greed's words. "You look fine to me."
"My eyes weren't always purple, Kid."
Ed went still and stared at Greed's eyes. Purple. Why hadn't he noticed them before, really noticed them? Purple wasn't an ordinary eye color.
"What were they before?" he half-whispered, horrified and desperate to be proven wrong. Because the theory boiling behind his eyes was too terrifying to contemplate.
"Blue," Greed answered calmly, and Ed's hands tightened into knots of angry, straining flesh.
Purple. That made sense. Because when you mixed blue with red, purple was what you ended up with.
Greed's body was rejecting the alchemy, just like Teacher's, and Mustang's. Only his blood wasn't coming out of his mouth.
"Shit," Ed whispered weakly, swaying on his feet and slightly nauseous.
"Yeah," Greed said, the very portrait of serenity. "Scared the hell out of Martel when it first happened." He tapped the glasses on his face. "That's when I started wearing these."
What was he supposed to say to that? Was he supposed to apologize? Ignore it and continue on with his anger? Ed didn't know, and so he said nothing at all.
"So," Greed continued. "What did Mustang call it that night, at your little clubhouse? Alchemy? Yeah, I have more of it than Martel. So they use her less. She doesn't have a lot more time than me, but she's got some. Enough. And they might be able to fix her on the outside, right? So that she can live the rest of her life the way she's supposed to?"
Ed thought of Mustang, and the bags under his eyes, and his palm decorated with red flakes. Determination spiked through him like lightning.
"Right," he said firmly.
"Good," Greed said. "So I want her out. Tell me you'll take her with you when you leave."
"Why her?" Ed asked. "Why not Kimblee, too?"
Greed's eyes, those horrible eyes, slid shut for a brief moment, as if he was categorizing how much he hurt on the inside, and filing it away. He must have succeeded, because when he looked at Ed again, his face was blank.
"No point," he said, voice flat. "He's already broken. Just in a different way."
Ed thought of Kimblee's eyes, burning with a fire that wasn't banked like Roy's. It wasn't something fed by ambition and nurtured by friends. It was something sparked by being used too hard, too often, and impossible for anyone to control anymore.
"He...he wasn't always like that?" Ed asked.
Greed barked out a laugh.
"Don't start making up fairy tales, Kid," he said. "Solf's always been a bastard. The only thing that's changed is that he used to be able to hide it better. Used to be slick, you know? Could talk people into letting us crash for the night, or giving us food."
"But, what about you?" Ed asked, and scrubbed frustrated hands over his face. He was tired, and his brain was bending as it struggled to find some equation, some scenario, that could get everyone out alive. "You're not insane, Greed. Just a gigantic bastard, and we've got one of those in our own camp. If Martel can be saved, why can't you?"
Greed sighed again, and tipped his head back against the couch.
"I'm not going to ruin her chances by tagging along," he said. "I'm not moving so good these days, Kid. Survival of the fittest, remember? You leave the weak behind."
"I don't. That's your policy, Greed. I don't leave people behind."
"I've already come to terms with it, Elric," Greed said, with a strange little smile that seemed somehow familiar. "Martel, now, she's going to be harder to convince. She's going to fight you when you try to take her out without me or Solf. But I don't care if you have to pop her one and then drag her out by the hair. You get her out of here."
Ed stared. He could only stare. Because...it was like something he would do for Al.
As long as his brother made it out alive.
"Kid? You're being quiet when I kind of need a promise out of you."
"They could carry you. Greed, the others could get you out."
"Elric. Promise me."
Ed shut his eyes tight.
Greed sighed like weight was being lifted off his shoulders, and peace filled those purple eyes. He climbed to his feet, and tucked his hands back in his pockets. Ed continued to stare at the ground as Greed strode past him, moving towards the door.
"You know, you really are a good guy, Kid," Greed said softly, stopping at the threshold. "It's a rare person that would offer to carry a dying man out on his own back."
Ed didn't say anything in response. The knot in his throat was too tight.
"Mustang may have been here longer, but I've learned some secrets of my own," Greed continued. "Dante's office; the cabinet underneath her desk. Wait until that Armstrong guy is on night duty."
"What's your real name, Greed?" Ed whispered. Hoarsely, and with great effort.
Greed tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the door frame.
"I had one, once," he said. "But that's never who I was in this place. He died on the outside, and I'm glad he did." He turned, shot Ed that rusty needle smile over his shoulder. "Besides. It's an appropriate nickname. Don't you think?"
And then he was gone, sauntering away like he had absolutely nothing to worry about in his life. And Ed squeezed his burning eyes shut again before the horrible pain building in his insides could spill out onto his cheeks.
Because it wasn't an appropriate nickname.
Not at all.
Ed had to wait two whole days before Armstrong returned to night duty. The man preferred to be there during the day, so that he could actually interact with Mustang and his crew. But Dante didn't want him getting to close to the children, so she insisted that four of his weekly rotations happened during the evening hours.
Mustang was busy sleeping off the after-effects of being brutally used the night before, and Al had dozed off hours ago, so Ed tip-toed out of the room with zero trouble. He kept a wary eye on the space around him as he crept down the hall, and nearly had a heart-attack when he heard Gluttony crooning to the food in the kitchen. But he made it to Dante's office with little incident, and knelt to pick at the lock. Would've been easier to open it with alchemy, but Mustang had said that they'd know if he used it. So, Winry's hair pin would have to do.
"This is foolish, Edward," a voice whispered at his back, but he didn't jump, because it was Armstrong.
"Can't ignore a gift, Armstrong," Ed whispered back.
There was a long pause. And then Armstrong sighed.
"She keeps her cabinet keys in the bottom drawer of her desk."
Ed flashed him a grateful look.
And then he muffled a cry of victory as the lock gave. The last thing he saw as he snuck inside was Armstrong settling against the wall outside the door in order to keep watch.
Ed closed the door on a burst of affection for the burly man.
Being inside Dante's office should have filled Ed with trepidation. It should have made him nervous, and paranoid, and eager to escape as quick as possible.
Instead, he found himself biting back maniacal chuckles and the checking the strange urge to locate a wild rodent to lock inside her desk.
"So it could spring out and eat her face," Ed muttered under his breath, basking in the beautiful fantasy. "Oh, yeah."
But playtime would have to come later. For now, he had a job to do.
With as little noise as possible, and doing his best not to displace anything, Ed fished around in the bottom drawer of Dante's desk. The little brass key was buried all the way in the back, under a neat collection of paper clips.
"Gotcha," he murmured, and crouched down next to the file cabinet hiding under Dante's desk.
It wasn't big at all; a perfectly simple file cabinet with three drawers and a glossy black finish. But Ed's hands were shaking as he twisted the lock because he knew something important was inside.
He found files. In all three drawers, row upon row of manilla folders, each with a name stamped on the outside. In the very bottom cabinet, the folders pressed against the very front were stamped with his name, and Al's. Falman and Fuery, they came next, followed by Kimblee, Martel, and Greed. Mustang, Havoc, and Riza were right behind them. They were the most recent. But the top drawers were full as well, with folders identical to the ones on the bottom.
Just how many kids had been funneled through this asylum?
Ed reached for the very first folder in the top drawer. The ink on the outside was fading, and the folder itself was starting to curl up at the edges, but he could still make out the name. Robert White, aged fourteen, had been found in Central, because his father worked as an alchemist for the military. After his father's death, the asylum had procured him, and his friend Gregory (who's father had also worked for the military), by convincing their mothers that they were sick with grief. Both boys had barely lasted a year.
It sounded, horribly enough, like standard procedure. Ed had heard similar stories from the others when he'd asked how they'd gotten here. But then his eyes strayed to the top of the page, and he very nearly dropped the file in shock.
The recorded date of acquirement was nearly one hundred and twenty-three years in the past.
And Doctor Dante's name was still listed on the file as the primary therapist.
Family business, Ed's brain insisted, even as his instincts screamed that he was wrong. Has to be her grandmother, she can't be that old, it's impossible.
But she was an alchemist, Teacher had told him that Dante was an alchemist.
And Ed began to wonder things that made his stomach churn.
But his knowledge was incomplete, and without it, he couldn't formulate a theory. So he tucked Robert White back into the cabinet and kept digging. Name after name after name. Mostly boys, but every twenty folders or so, a girl's name would crop up. Ed would reach for those, flip them open, compare them to folders for the boys.
They were different.
On the boys' folders, the files were stamped with the date of acquirement, the ability they possessed (active or passive alchemy), as well as the date of their breaking, and decorated with little charts that mapped the boy's contributions. But the girls' folders were empty of that information, save for the date of acquirement. Instead, they were stamped with two simple words.
And right underneath it; Complete.
Teacher, Riza, and Martel's folders were the only female files with actual information in them.
Brow furrowed, Ed flipped back to the most recent female file that didn't belong to the three alchemically charged women he knew now. The girl's name was Sonja, and her acquirement was dated seventy-six years in the past. Although she was obviously young in her profile photo, Sonja was obviously destined to be a striking thing. Long chestnut hair rippled down her shoulders like glossy ropes, and her eyes were wide and dark, and uncomfortably familiar somehow. Ed stared hard at those eyes, trying to figure out where he'd seen them before, and why they left a sour taste in the back of his throat.
And then it hit him.
And the sour taste disappeared as his throat clicked shut completely.
Those eyes. Those dark, damnable eyes. He had seen them. For months now, he'd been hating them. In Sonja's photo, they came across as wide and innocent. But Ed had seen them fill with cruel humor, and crease with victory.
The face, he realized as his brain began to knock against his brain like impatient fists against a door. The similarities were there, even though they were harder to see under the age lines now dotting Dante's skin. The bone structure was the same; the curve of the lips identical.
So, how had little Sonja, with the vulnerable eyes, become the smirking, sadistic Dante?
The answer left Ed clapping a hand to his mouth to keep the wave of sickness in. He gagged on it, and forced it back. Couldn't throw up in here, Dante would smell it tomorrow morning, and then she'd know that someone had been in her office, and the others would be at risk-
Ed's eyes widened impossibly in his pale and clammy face.
The others. Oh, God.
He dove for the bottom drawer of the file cabinet again, and pawed frantically through the folders, no longer caring what he displaced in his wild and desperate effort to prove himself wrong.
Because it made sense, a horrible, hideous sort of sense, and Ed had never wanted to be wrong so badly in his entire life.
There was one female folder he hadn't paid much attention to, because it didn't contain charts of descriptions of alchemic ability. Stupid, so stupid, Ed had assumed that it meant she was safe.
But it wasn't true. She was in more danger than all of them, because of her lack of ability.
With shaking hands, Ed flipped the file open. And let out a small, muffled sound of denial at what he saw.
Name; Winry Rockbell. Date of acquirement: Three years ago. Alchemic Ability; None.
But stamped over her picture, so fresh that the ink smudged under Ed's hands when he reached out to touch it, was a single word.
To say Armstrong was startled when the older Elric came bursting out of Doctor Dante's office like a small tornado was an extreme understatement.
"Edward!" he exclaimed in whispers as the boy allowed the door to bang shut behind him. "The others, my young friend, you must not-"
His words clicked to a stop as Edward turned to face him. The boy's eyes were glazed and glassy, filled only with a ferocity that frightened Armstrong into silence.
They were the eyes of an animal, caged and angry and ready to attack.
"Wake the others," the boy hissed. "Get them to the boiler room. Now."
And Armstrong, still unnerved by those empty, angry eyes, could only nod and hurry off to do as he'd been ordered.
Ed woke Al first. The walk back to his room was a blur; everything after the file folders was. He shook his brother's shoulder as gently as he was able, and struggled to lessen the fury and the fear enough to speak his brother's name.
"Brother." The boy turned over, and blinked bleary eyes at his older sibling. "Brother? What are you doing up? Did they-"
"No," Ed snapped, and then shut his eyes for a moment. "No, Al," he said, softly this time. "Just. Get up. Please."
Silently, Al obeyed, studying the look in his brother's eyes with real alarm. Ed couldn't stand it, couldn't tolerate the worry in those soft gray eyes, not now. He spun away, towards the older boy who was already struggling his way out of bed.
"Elric," he said, and his voice was raw and rough. "What's going on?"
Ed took note of the deep, dark shadows under his eyes, and the pale, pallid cast to his face. Underneath the fury, sympathy stirred. It helped keep his voice soft as he answered.
"Get up, Bastard. The boiler room. Armstrong's getting the others."
To his credit, Mustang never questioned. He just rolled out of bed and gained his feet. He made it all of three steps before he stumbled, his breathing coming fast and sharp as he slumped against the wall. Alphonse rushed to his aid, sliding his shoulder under Roy's arm to support him.
"Brother," Al whispered. "What's going on? Please. You're scaring me."
"It's okay, Al," Ed whispered back, and it cost him a great deal to keep his voice soft, to keep the terror and the panic contained. "Just come on."
So they stumbled their way to the basement door, and hobbled down the stairs at an achingly slow pace. By the time they reached the little den of blankets, everyone else was already waiting, looking mussed and half-sick with worry. Riza gained her feet immediately upon seeing Roy hanging weakly off of Al's shoulder, and rushed to support his other side.
"What is going on?" she said, and it was as close to a snap as Ed had ever heard from her.
Ed wanted to scream, and swing, and scratch his way out, but he clenched his fists against it. They didn't know yet, they didn't see.
"Ed," Fuery whispered as Riza and Al hauled Mustang to his chair and got him situated. "What's going on?"
"Yeah, really," Havoc agreed, sounding mightily harassed. "What's with the rude wake-up, Boss? You couldn't wait until morning to drag us all out of bed?"
Ed squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on breathing.
"Quiet," Mustang said to the group, his eyes on fire as he leaned forward in his chair. "He has a reason."
Ed opened his eyes and looked only at Mustang. Easier to talk only to him, to phase everyone else out for the moment.
"The files," he bit out. "Under Dante's desk. You've seen them, I know; you said that you'd read mine."
"Didn't you notice...didn't you see...," Ed took deep breaths and fought to force his words into coherency. "The other girls, Bastard. You saw their names?"
The first stirrings of bafflement filled Mustang's eyes, dampening the flames a bit.
"Yes," he said again. "But there's nothing we can do to save them now, Elric. Many of them are long past dead."
"Exactly," Ed hissed. "They're dead. They should be dead. But they're not. Not really. That bitch."
"Roy," Fuery said, and he sounded scared now. "Is he okay? He sounds-"
"Quiet," Roy said again. His eyes were burning again. He didn't know yet, but Ed's fire, it fed his. "Go on, Elric. What about the girls?"
"Their faces," Ed whispered, and underneath the fury, he wanted to weep. Sonja's eyes, so vulnerable and being used to display such cruelty. "She stole their faces, Bastard."
"That's it," Havoc said, his voice soft and firm. "Roy, he's not stable. Maybe he's breaking already. Let's-"
This time, Roy didn't speak. Just held up a halting hand.
"Every fifty to seventy years," Ed gasped. His words were pouring out, tripping over each other in their haste to be heard. To explain. "The folders are all boys, but every fifty to seventy years, a girl's name crops up. But she's not alchemically gifted at all; it says so in her file. Riza, Martel, and Teacher are the only exceptions."
"There are only two words in their files," Mustang added softly, as if in remembrance. "'Pending' and 'Complete'."
"Didn't you wonder about the dates, Bastard? Dante's first file goes back one hundred years, and she's still listed as the acting physician."
"Now, Ed," Breda spoke up uneasily. "A lot of times medicine is a family profession-"
"No," Ed snarled, cutting the other boy off mid-word. "Listen. Bastard, think about the last girl. The one from seventy years ago. Her name was Sonja. Think about her eyes." He was pleading now, could hear it in his own voice, begging him to remember, to not leave Ed as the only one aware. "Bastard, her eyes."
For a moment, Mustang's face went blank. Ed nearly sobbed in frustration, nearly reached up and yanked out his own hair.
Then, the flames kicked back to life in the bastard's eyes, so much stronger, fueled by rage and sudden, sick understanding.
"Every fifty to seventy years," he repeated, and his voice was as shaky as Ed had ever heard it.
Relief was a beautiful surge of lightning in Ed's veins, so strong he gasped with it.
"Yes," he said, and spun to face the others. "Listen to me." Al's face was darkening, he wasn't there yet, but the implications had started to set in. Everyone else just looked confused, and afraid. "Think about my mother. Think about what I did. The thing was breathing when I left it in the house to burn; it was alive. To perform alchemy on another person, to fuck around with their soul, it's possible." Ed was pacing now, tight and agitated steps inside the circle of his friends. "Every fifty to seventy years. The average life expectancy for women in today's society is eighty." Ed stopped pacing and pinned the other patients with a furious, golden stare. "If you were an alchemist," he hissed. "If you had the power, how would you live forever?"
Al gasped. Awareness began to creep into Riza's eyes. Falman's mouth opened slightly. But the others only traded uncertain looks.
"It would take energy," Ed continued. "Mass amounts of energy. But it could be done; it's possible."
"Mass amounts of energy," Alphonse repeated, and stared at his own hands.
"And the girls," Ed ranted, ignoring his brother's horrified whisper. "They're beautiful. Every single one of them. Damn her, damn her to fucking hell, she's so arrogant."
"Oh, God," Fuery whispered, and Ed knew that he'd gotten it, or at least had an inkling.
"He must have known," Ed said, and turned to Mustang again. "Greed. He knew that you'd seen the folders, but he must have known that you hadn't figured it out yet. You'd never have stayed so long if you'd figured it out. You'd have risked the break out, even without the second alchemist." Ed shook his head as if to clear it. "You wouldn't have known. Wouldn't have made the connection. The ink was still fresh, Bastard, it only happened in the past few days."
"Greed," Havoc repeated, startled. "What does he have to do with-"
"You're right," Mustang interrupted. His voice was quiet; dangerously soft. In his eyes, the fires were burning out of control. "I wouldn't have stayed, had I known."
"Known what?" Havoc burst out, confused and slightly afraid. Everyone around him was starting to descend into the same madness as Ed, only Breda still looked as lost as he felt. "Colonel...what's going on?"
Ed spun in his direction, and Havoc shrank back in spite of himself. The kid looked possessed, driven wild by the sheer strength of his agitation.
"We're the power," he said, in that horrible, grating way that suggested he was almost too furious to even get the words out. "It says so in our files, Havoc. We're the power. But she-" And for the first time since the start of this impromptu meeting, glazed golden eyes actively sought blue ones, found them wide and horrified and framed in a colorless face. "She's the product."
"Winry," Al whispered.
An automail fist impacted against a plank of old and rotting wood, causing it to splinter and strain under the force. Breath heaving, eyes wide and wild, Edward Elric cocked his fist back for another blow.
"Shit. That wasn't supposed to happen!"
Another punch. The wood cracked in half with a wet-sounding creak and collapsed. Ed followed it down, sank to his knees and pressed his forehead against the wood that remained. His clothes were ripped and torn, streaked with dust and blood. His hair was a tangled mess behind his head, darkened by dirt.
Over his shoulders, Ed heard the soft sound of weeping. Somebody was crying; maybe all of them were. He knew he should get up, should go to comfort them. But he was too raw, his stomach a mass of twisting knots and heavy waves of sick.
"We have to go back," he whispered, and closed his eyes against frightened and frustrated tears of his own.
Twelve Hours Earlier
Edward Elric was a wreck. Despite getting zero sleep the night before, he stumbled around the cafeteria like a caffeine addict riding the high. Adrenaline buzzed under his skin like beetles, but he lacked an appropriate outlet, and so even though his skin itched with the urge to move, to run, and maybe to fight, it showed itself only in the restless tapping of his feet and fingers, in the wild shifting of his eyes, and the jerky movements of his limbs.
It had been three hours since his revelation in the boiler room. Three hours since he forced his friends out of bed, and brought the tiny bit of stability their world provided crashing down around them.
Perhaps because of this, the rest of the group looked barely better than the oldest Elric, despite the fact that they'd at least gotten a little sleep. Havoc was tapping at his cigarette box with restless, twitching fingers. Breda stared at the plate piled high with food in front of him, his mouth screwed shut against what looked like a nauseous stomach. Fuery was ghost pale behind his glasses, and almost completely silent. Falman sat still and quiet, and when he moved, the action seemed slow and painful. Riza had her hands locked tight around a metal belt buckle that Ed had never seen before, and she refused to put it down even to eat. Al's lips were bitten to bloody ribbons again. And Mustang was a statue, a dead thing made of stone, but with shockingly vibrant eyes that scorched.
And whether it was subconscious or not, they formed a protective circle around Winry, covering her with their bodies like they thought Dante would simply stroll by and snatch her by the hair.
Ironically enough, it was the girl they were so desperate to protect that seemed to be holding up the best out of all of them. She was pale, yes, her skin white and waxy and sickly looking. But her lips were pressed into a thin, determined line. And the fear in her eyes had been diluted by fury, a rage sparked by the survival instinct and built to a burning blaze.
Ed thought that she was beautiful like this, with a mouth ready to snarl and fists clenched tight and angry.
"We've run out of time," he'd said, back inside the boiler room. "Dante must have been waiting for Winry to grow up enough, but apparently she's decided that sixteen is an acceptable age. And we don't know how long she'll wait now that she's made up her mind. It could be today, it could be tomorrow."
"We have to act," Riza had agreed quietly, and her hands had been locked around the leg of Roy's lawn chair again. "Now."
"But we're not ready!" Havoc had argued, and underneath the anger in his eyes, anger that had developed after Ed had finally calmed down enough to explain the situation, there was a horrible fear. "We haven't talked everything through, and these two aren't nearly trained enough, and we still have no idea where we're going once we get out, or even how to get away!"
"Ready or not, our planning window has closed," Roy had countered, and the soft, terribly sane cadence of his voice had seemed terrifying somehow, echoing in the small space. "The risk factor has grown to an unacceptable level; a slow drain is one thing, but this new threat is immediate. We have to react accordingly."
"But what do we-"
"Tonight," Roy had said, and the fire in his eyes had seemed somehow eager, leaping forward like greedy mouths.
And now the adrenaline was building inside Edward like a fire of its own. He didn't want to wait. He wanted to run, to fight, before Dante and the others could come for the people he was trying to protect. He wanted to bare his teeth, and tighten his fists, and use them. This sitting still, especially knowing that the bright and brilliant flash of action was waiting at the end, was driving him crazier than anything else in this asylum had managed up to this point.
But it wasn't time yet. So they all forced themselves to stay as quiet and still as hunted animals hiding in the tall grass, and did their best to ignore the biological urge to run, run from the danger.
As Gluttony came around to clear their plates, eyes gleaming at the sight of all the food they'd left untouched, Mustang's flame-filled eyes darted upward. Lips pressed tight, he offered Ed a nod, barely there, more like a jerk of his chin. And then he pushed upward and away from the table, and stopped dead.
It was an impressive piece of acting. An old trick of theirs, but still somehow more masterfully executed than Fuery had ever accomplished. Mustang's knees knocked, and then crumpled, those fire-bright eyes fluttering rapidly. His skin was so pale already, and seemed paper thin, as his throat worked frantically.
"Uh," he offered, before collapsing to the floor in a boneless heap.
Riza was on her knees beside him almost before he finished falling.
"Roy!" Havoc shouted, and twisted out his seat to reach him.
They all rushed to his side, perfect examples of panic and worry and fear painted across their faces. Riza and Fuery had tear tracks streaking their cheeks, and Ed thought that it was particularly well done, a perfect way to use the adrenaline to their advantage.
"Move aside," Lust said lazily, nudging the others out of her way with the tip of her shoe. She bent over Roy with a disgruntled sigh, as if his sudden collapse had pulled her from the favored past time of actively not caring. "He's fine. Exhausted." A slow, dirty smile curved her lips. Ed wanted to wipe it away with his fist. "Looks like our favorite boy might be breaking a little. Such a shame. He lasted so long, too."
The look of hatred that creased Riza's face was raw, and wild, and in no way make-believe. Ed almost smiled to see it, a feral grin of approval and echoed sentiment, before he remembered that they were acting now, and ducked his head instead.
"I'll take him to his room," Armstrong said quietly, appearing on the scene like magic, his eyes soft with sadness and concern.
"You do that," Lust said, rising unconcernedly to her feet.
Across the cafeteria, Martel and Kimblee and Greed were howling with laughter, banging their fists against the table like Mustang's collapse was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. But as they exited the room, crowding around Armstrong and the boy in his arms like a little knot of anxiety, Greed caught Edward's eye. His mouth never lost its needle-sharp smile, but his eyes were serious as he nodded, and then tipped his head in Al's direction.
Ed fought the urge to reach for his brother's shoulder, and nodded back. He wandered away with the group, and watched as Armstrong tucked Mustang into bed with all the care of a parent. His blue eyes sparkled with what appeared to be frustrated tears, until he bent down to adjust Roy's pillow, and the boy whispered a single word into his ear.
"We can't risk trying to free whoever ends up in the alchemy chamber," Roy had said. "We have to make sure that its Kimblee tonight, and not any of us."
"And Martel," Ed had murmured. "She's coming with us."
"What!" Havoc and Breda had exploded, and Ed had pinned them with a burning glare of his own.
"Greed risked a lot…everything…in order to get me the information about Winry. All he wants in return is Martel's freedom."
"But not his own?" Mustang had asked quietly.
"He's dying," Ed had explained, appalled by the tightening in his throat. "Says he's past the point of saving. But he thinks that Martel still has a chance."
"He's sacrificing himself for her," Fuery had said quietly, realization on his face and tears in his eyes, and Ed had wanted to hug him for it. "He knows about our plan, but he's giving up his advantage for Martel's sake."
"Protecting his precious people," Ed had whispered. "Apparently, it's a universal thing."
"Unless you're Dante," Havoc had spat. "And you only care about your own damn self."
"We'll have to knock her out," Winry had said, her first spoken words since Ed's revelation. Her eyes had been dry and furious, focused firmly on Roy's face. "She won't come willingly away from her boys. We'll have to carry her."
Mustang had nodded.
"Martel, too," he'd agreed. "So, it has to be Kimblee and Greed in the chamber tonight."
Al ate his lunch slowly, resignedly, his face screwed up in displeasure. In any other situation, it would have been funny, watching him shovel food into a face twisted with palpable reluctance. But it wasn't funny, and Ed struggled not to stare in obvious concern, as he swallowed down his own food (he'd need the energy that those calories created).
Al was only halfway through his mashed potatoes when his face spasmed. He dropped his fork (it clattered loudly against his tray) and spun around in his seat, clutching his stomach as he emptied it all over the floor.
"Alphonse!" Ed cried, and he didn't have to fake the worry in his voice. Seeing his brother so sick made it natural enough.
He all but hurtled the table to reach his brother's side, and stroked his sweaty hair as Al heaved miserably. The others crowded around them, crouching down and patting his brother's back, hovering like worried birds. Across the room, another fork clattered, and Kimblee's voice filled the room, shouting; "Martel, what the fuck?"
A quick glance over revealed that Martel was emptying her stomach just like Alphonse, heaving onto the white tile. Kimblee jumped back in surprise and disgust while Greed went to her side, wrapping a soothing hand around the back of her neck.
"You're all so annoyingly needy today," Lust said, her pretty nose wrinkled in disgust as he eased her way into the cafeteria, skirting puddles of vomit.
"Nurse," Fuery said, eyes wide and lips trembling. "Nurse, please, can you-"
"I'm not touching either of them," Lust snapped, shooting Fuery a glare filled with annoyance. "They're disgusting. Armstrong can take them to see Doctor Hughes."
Alphonse wretched again, sweat dampening his skin where Ed's fingers touched it, and heaved a miserable moan.
"You're a nurse," Fuery whispered, and he looked terrified to be speaking, but determined to get his words out all the same. "Please. You have to do something."
Lust made a sharp, short sound in the back of her throat, and moved. One second she was standing carefully on a clean patch of floor, and the next she was looming over Fuery, the dagger-sharp nails on her right hand pressed against his cheek.
Ed, who'd only heard about their unnatural speed, almost choked on his strangled sound of surprise.
"I wouldn't be so foolish as to pin me with the stereotypes of my profession, if I were you," Lust murmured, intimate as lover, into Fuery's ear. "I don't feel compassion, and especially not for the condemned."
Fuery's eyes were impossibly wide, glossy and fixed on the Nurse's face. She tapped her nails against his cheek, and he flinched away.
"Remember that," she whispered, and pulled back with a smile like poison.
She left behind five crescent-shaped bits of blood on Fuery's face, from where her nails had pierced the skin.
"Armstrong," she said lazily, already strolling her way out of the room. "Take care of this. I'm bored with it." As she passed through the doorway, they heard her ask in a laughing purr, "What did you do to the food? Naughty, Gluttony."
Armstrong already had Martel cradled against his chest, apparently unconcerned by the fact that she was still heaving, and ruining his white shirt with it. He reached for Alphonse next, and draped him gently over one giant shoulder.
"I'll go with you," Edward said, shooting to his feet. This was still acting, in a way, but that didn't mean he was comfortable with letting his baby brother go off completely on his own.
"And me," Greed said, loping up to Edward's side. "Solf's in the bathroom, scrubbing at his jeans. Looks like Martel got him good. So, I'll play escort."
Ed didn't look in his direction, didn't even speak as they made their way down to the doctor's office. Hughes took one look at Armstrong's patients, and their escort, and those tiger eyes went bright.
"I'm popular today!" he exclaimed, ushering the ill inside and onto recovery beds. "It's nice to see you again, Edward. How's Roy doing? I haven't heard from him lately."
"Actually, Doc, he's a little under the weather at the moment," Ed replied.
Hughes never turned away from his patients, but Edward saw the little smile all the same.
"Oh?" he asked. "Well, that's unfortunate."
"Yeah," Ed sighed, and scratched at the back of his head. "Not sure how much longer he'll last, you know?"
"I see," Hughes said quietly. "Well, send him my regards, would you Edward?"
"Sure thing, Doc."
"Brother," Alphonse groaned, and Ed hurried to his side.
"Yeah, Al. I'm here."
Al squinted open soft gray eyes, hazy with sick, and offered his brother a weak, sweat-soaked smile.
"You can go back. I'm sure Doctor Hughes will take very good care of me."
"Of course!" Hughes sang out merrily from the other room.
"You sure, Al?" Ed asked, ignoring the other man completely. "I don't like leaving you alone."
"I know," Alphonse said, and his steady smile grew a little. "But I'll be fine. And I'll see you later. Right?"
Ed blinked, and then returned his brother's smile.
"Sure, Al. Of course."
"Then get going. And get some rest, Brother. You look tired."
Ed laughed, an exhausted exhalation of sound, and grabbed his brother's hand for the briefest moment.
"All right, Al. If you say so."
Al squeezed his palm, and when Ed let go, he watched his brother's fingers curl around the empty space with satisfaction.
"You coming?" he asked Greed, who was bending over Martel's bed and stroking her sweaty brow. The girl was staring at him with soft eyes, and her fingers were locked tight into the sleeve of his jacket.
Ed looked at the floor instead, because it hurt to see them both so vulnerable.
"Yeah," Greed answered. He flicked Martel's nose and laughed when she snarled at him. "There's some teeth. Get some sleep, Blondie."
"Bastard," she snapped, but she was still smiling when she burrowed underneath her blankets.
They heard Hughes re-enter the room as they left through the front entrance, with a cry of; "I know what will make you better! PICTURES OF MY ADORABLE DAUGHTER!"
Greed snorted out a laugh.
"He's a strange one," he said, before flashing that needle-sharp smile in Ed's direction. "Good taste in drugs, though."
Ed didn't respond, because the soft rattle of Mustang's nausea inducing pills in his pocket seemed like answer enough.
The rest of the day was disturbingly serene. The evening meal in particular seemed like a somber affair, with Al, Martel, and Mustang missing from the tables. The only sound the dining room had to offer that night was the soft scrape of forks.
If the guards were at all perturbed by their patient's silence, they didn't show it. In fact, the way Dante laughed during Group Therapy, and the curve of Lust's lips as she administered pills after dinner seemed to suggest that if they were feeling anything at all, it was smug.
Bitch. Bitch. Just you wait, Ed thought, with his head down and his pills hidden under his tongue.
After dinner, they all retreated to their rooms. Ed stared at the ceiling above his bed and counted minutes until his brain was numb.
What time do they take us to the chamber? He'd asked.
Around two, Mustang had answered.
And they send us to bed around eleven, Riza had reminded him. So we'll have to wait.
And so for hours, Ed fidgeted against his sheets, and counted minutes, and knew for a fact that none of the others were sleeping.
"You think we can do this, Bastard? Really do this?" he asked, about two hours into their waiting period.
Mustang didn't respond for a while, but Ed knew he wasn't sleeping, so he watched the shadows shift around the room and waited.
"They'll get out," Mustang eventually answered softly. "Probably me. Not so sure about you."
Ed choked on his own snort of laughter.
"Yeah, whatever. Jerk."
Finally, at twelve minutes after two, they heard the sound of clicking heels and shuffling feet outside the door. They listened as Lust coaxed Greed and Kimblee down the hall, and waited until the soft murmur of her voice had faded before sitting up in bed and tossing back the covers.
The others were already waiting for them in the family room, faces pale and tight with worry. They were wearing dark clothes and sensible shoes, and looked ready to run until their feet fell off. They weren't carrying any packs; they couldn't afford the weight. But Ed saw Havoc's cigarettes sticking out of his jacket pocket, and Riza's belt buckle curled inside her fist.
"Al should be here any second," Ed whispered.
"Here, Brother," a soft voice whispered back from the darkened doorway.
Al appeared, with Armstrong and Hughes hot on his heels, the recipient of Ed's unspoken message and the instructions he'd left curled in Al's hand back in the hospital wing. Martel was cradled in the doctor's arms, as expected. But Armstrong's burden had the group sucking in a surprised breath.
"I'm sorry," Al whispered, and pressed the boy called Wrath against his chest. "I know we never planned for this. But Brother and I don't leave people behind. Not ever again."
Ed shot a look out of the corner of his eye and noticed that Mustang looked less startled and more resigned.
"They're very light," Armstrong whispered, and they all caught the catch in his voice as he rocked the older blonde boy against his chest. "They shouldn't be difficult to carry."
It was true. They looked like little more than skeletons in his arms, frail and small.
"I medicated them as best I could," Hughes added quietly. "Martel won't wake up for hours yet. And the others, well…they'll last at least a little longer."
For a moment, there was only silence, and Ed was afraid that everything was about to blow. But then, surprisingly, Havoc stepped forward and held out his arms.
"Load me up," he whispered, and managed a little smile.
Ed's heart swelled with warmth and gratitude as Armstrong passed him the boy with the scar on his face.
In the end, Falman took the elder blonde brother, and Fuery took the boy called Wrath. Riza took the younger blonde brother, because he was the lightest, and Breda took Martel, because she was the only one with any weight on her still. Al remained unburdened, because he'd need to move quickly if the fight caught up to them.
"I can barely feel him in my arms," Fuery whispered, staring at the pale and sunken figure in his arms with tears shimmering in his eyes. "I just…how can they do this…"
"Just get them out, Fuery," Mustang murmured. "That's the best we can do for them now." He straightened, and looked around at their little group. "You all know what to do. Wait until Elric and I start the fight, and then get the door open. Our alchemy should cover yours. Once you hit the outside, head for the trees, and stay hidden. Don't stop for anything, and stay away from the roads. Got your compass, Havoc?"
"Right here, Colonel."
"Good. Your target is on the other side of the forest."
"We don't know where to go," Havoc had repeated.
"There's a house," Mustang had answered. "Hughes told me about it. It's abandoned, but it used to belong to the asylum's overseer. I didn't want to use it, because of its ties to this place, but it appears that we're out of options. We'll use it, at least as a place to regroup. I'll get the coordinates from Armstrong."
"Stay low and keep quiet once you reach it," Mustang whispered. "Elric and I will meet you there."
"Stay safe, you guys," Ed added quietly. "Don't do anything stupid. I'll be too worried about the Bastard's stupid to mess around fixing yours."
They shared a quick, apprehensive laugh. Which was good, that they were still capable of it. And then Riza marched forward, shifting the paper-thin body in her arms in order to crowd Mustang's personal space. She juggled the boy so that she could reach out and wrap one firm hand on the back of Roy's neck.
"Hawkeye," he said.
"We will see you later," she answered, and this time the fire was in her eyes instead, firm and unwavering.
Mustang laughed, and their faces were so close, and everything in Ed screamed that they were about to kiss, that they should be kissing. But then the Bastard laughed a little and wrapped his long fingers around her wrist, pulling it gently away.
"Sure," he said easily. "You go ahead. I'll catch up."
Riza's lips tipped in the barest hint of a smile, and then she stepped back, securing the body in her arms once again.
Ed was about to shoo them out the door, when he felt fingers creep into the crook of his arm.
"Alphonse," he whispered.
There was a long, painful pause, and then his brother said; "I'm not saying goodbye to you."
Something in Ed's stomach bottomed out hard, and so his whisper was a little hoarse when he replied; "Don't be an idiot."
Those fingers on his arm tightened, and spun him around. Al's eyes were wide and deadly somber.
"I'm serious, Brother," he said. "Don't you dare die. I won't forgive you if you do."
Ed swallowed the lump in his throat, and mustered a smile from somewhere. He reached out with his free arm and ruffled his brother's hair.
"I'll see you later, Al," he whispered, and his brother smiled for him again.
"Be safe, you guys," Breda whispered as Alphonse melted back into the group.
"Yeah, I know you're a showoff, Colonel," Havoc said lightly, but his green eyes were sharp with concern. "But let the kid do some of the heavy lifting, okay?"
"Go," Mustang ordered with a smile.
As they marched out the door, Ed felt someone grab his hand and give it a hard squeeze. Startled, he looked up, to see Winry standing last in line, burning him with a stare that reinforced everything Al had said.
Don't you dare die.
Heat filled Ed's cheeks like fire, and he nodded. Winry's stare softened into a smile as she stepped out the door.
"Ready to get this party started, Bastard?" Ed asked, after they'd given them a few minutes to get to the door.
The fire was already in Mustang's eyes, burning out of control. He snorted in Ed's general direction.
"Just try to keep up with me, Elric," he murmured. "I've been waiting to do this for five years."
And then he pulled a goofy looking glove out of his back pocket.
"What the hell is that?" Ed hissed, sprinting after Mustang as the boy strode out into the hallway. "Is it really necessary to accessorize for a fight?"
"This was Riza's grandfather's," Roy explained calmly. He was moving away from the main entrance, where the others were gathered. Instead, he was headed toward the staircase that led to the alchemy chamber. "She found it in the attic of her old home."
"Oh, yeah?" Riza's grandfather had been an alchemist in the military, Ed remembered. Still, the glove didn't look that impressive. "Well, what's it for?"
"This," Roy said with a smile that was nowhere near sane, and snapped his fingers.
The floor in front of him exploded.
"What the fuck!" Ed yelped, jumping away as ropes of fire filled the hall in front of him, gobbling up the floor and walls like greedy mouths.
He'd known that the bastard had fire inside of him. It was visible in his eyes. But he'd never thought it would manifest itself so literally.
"Dear me," Roy said, watching the fire with quiet eyes and a small smile. "I do believe the entrance to the alchemy chamber has been blocked."
"You crazy fucker!" Ed replied, but he was laughing, laughing till tears rolled down his cheeks. "Let's block it a little more, then!" He had to shout, because the roar of fire and the screams of collapsing wood filled his ears.
He clapped his hands and slapped them against the floorboards. Jagged spikes filled the fire-wreathed doorway.
"Take that!" he whooped, and laughed again. The power was like flying, like freedom; it had hurt something deep inside to keep it locked away so long. He was giddy with the release of it, like the lightheadedness that follows holding a breath for too long.
But then there was something like a snarl from the blocked off staircase, and the spikes he'd created exploded into bits of the wood and dirt he'd shaped them from. Lust, Gluttony, and man Ed had never seen before stepped out from the mangled doorway, apparently unconcerned by the flames licking at their heels. Their faces were hard and sharp in the flickering light, their lips curved and their eyes empty.
Monsters, Ed's mind supplied, shrinking back with instinctive snarls from the unknown. Unnatural. Wrong.
He didn't know how he'd missed it before. The green-tipped skin, the eyes frosted an unnatural purple, the sharp teeth behind their smiles. But the alchemy in his blood was beating out their perversion like a silent scream.
"What's this? Little brats out of bed?"
Ed stiffened at the voice. Envy; he was the unidentified man. Ed had never opened his eyes in the alchemy chamber, not extensively. And so he'd never seen the man's face. But that voice; the familiar sound of it grated against Ed's skin like knives.
"Out of bed!" Roy bellowed in agreement. "And ready to kick your ass!" And then he whooped like a little boy playing pirate.
Ed momentarily tripped over his own brain.
The hell? And who is this supposed to be?
But then he caught on to Mustang's plan of attack.
Right. They don't know that the others are out of bed yet. Playing crazy might buy time.
"Yeah!" he shouted in agreement, pumping his fists over his head. "You bastards have nothing on our mad skills!"
On his left, he heard Mustang offer a hastily smothered snort.
"Oh, look," Lust purred. "They're crazy. How cute."
"Kiss my ass, Jiggles!"
This time Mustang didn't even try to stop the laugh. Never let it be said that Edward Elric didn't know how to embrace balls to the wall crazy when the situation called for it.
'Seriously, Bastard?" he took the time to mutter. "This is the first time I hear you laugh?"
"Jiggles," Mustang gasped.
"You're wrong in the head."
And then Envy rushed Mustang and Lust went after Ed with an offended pout, and Gluttony stood in the doorway with glazed eyes and drool on his chin.
"Naughty, Edward," Lust cooed, her eyes wide in surprise as she watched Ed fashion a blade out of his automail arm, ripping through the leather glove. "Hiding your real power like that." And then she lunged.
Things dissolved into stop-action flashes of memory from there. Ed had trained himself to take a hit and then hit back harder, but the fight was difficult, and deadly serious. This wasn't a scrap in the schoolyard like Ed had indulged in at the orphanages. It became clear very quickly that Lust and Envy, at least, possessed some sort of alchemy of their own. The daggers on Lust's fingertips extended into actual blades of lethal sharpness, and Envy seemed to possess some sort of super strength, batting Roy around like a bath toy whenever his blows landed.
They didn't want to kill them; that was probably the only thing that actually kept Ed and Roy alive. They didn't want to destroy their precious power sources, just dent them a little. And seven minutes in, Ed was feeling the damage. His automail felt busted and bent; Lust's blows had weakened it exponentially. Blood was stinging his eye from where Lust had dragged a jagged scrape across his forehead. He had his free hand pressed against his side, where Lust's blades had lanced off several layers of skin. And every inch of him felt bruised and battered.
The hallway was in shambles; the combined force of blows and Roy's continued blasts of fire was buckling it. Wooden panels groaned in protest, and charred chunks of plaster littered the floor like little meteorites.
Have to end this soon, Ed's brain supplied breathlessly. Keep this up much longer and they'll damage us beyond any hope of running.
His lightning quick mind began to shuffle through scenarios like a deck of cards, struggling to find the one that would bring them through this in one piece. But then he braced himself grimly instead when a wild, ravaged scream sounded from the staircase.
A curled fist burst through the still hovering Gluttony's protruding gut, spraying bits of blood and gristle. The drooling creature offered a high, keening whine, and toppled to the side.
Kimblee burst through the shattered door, his eyes bugged wide and those horrible, ripping screams still echoing from his lips. He listed to the side like a Saturday drunk, and clutched desperately at his hair, tearing it out in long, bloody chunks.
"Greed!" he gibbered, still screaming. "Greed!
He beat his bloodstained fists against the wall, and then spun around. His eyes were terrifyingly blank; not the absent emptiness of the other broken kids, but the feral hollowness of someone who'd lost everything and was still drowning in the scent of death.
"Fucking bastards!" he screeched, spit flying from his mouth, and then he clapped his palms together.
Tattoos on his hands, Ed had time to think, before Kimblee rushed Envy like a stumbling, lurching wild man, and slapped his hands against his sides.
Envy's eyes popped wide as his skin stretched and swelled, ballooning to gross, bloated proportions, and he blew like a firework at Fourth of July. Lust screamed as the impact knocked her off her feet, and through the adjacent wall.
Ed, who'd missed the blast path by mere inches, could only gape, his eyes the size of dinner plates and the sour taste of sick in the back of his throat.
In the middle of the suddenly silent room, Kimblee swayed like he was dancing to silent music. Tears slipped from eyes he'd fluttered shut, and a strangely peaceful smile curved his lips.
"Beautiful," he rasped, before collapsing like a sack of bricks.
"Shit," Ed whispered. There was blood spattered on the walls, and bits of skin and gore. They didn't have time for it, this was their chance, but he still couldn't stop himself for vomiting in the corner as quickly and quietly as possible.
"Bastard," he croaked, when he was done. "Where are you?" He limped up to Kimblee and dropped to his knees. Everything ached, and the blood was warm and sticky on his forehead as he fumbled at Kimblee's wrist for a pulse.
"Shit," he whispered again. Tears stung his eyes, brought on by exhaustion and fear, and he stumbled back to his feet. "Bastard, please."
Across the room, a quiet cough sounded, and Roy emerged from a pile of rubble. He looked like absolute hell; he was bruised and bleeding everywhere, and one of his arms was crooked at an unnatural angle. He was rocking gently on his feet, like Kimblee had, and Ed could tell that he'd caught some of the blast by the blackened areas of his skin.
But the fire was still burning in his eyes, and that comforted Ed like nothing else in this situation could.
"Kimblee?" he rasped.
"Dead," Edward whispered back. "Come on, we've got to go."
They were stopped only once on their way out. By Envy's torso, dragging itself across the floor, by arms that had been blown to bloody stumps.
"Guh," it gibbered, from a mouth half missing and bearing bits of bleach white bone. "Guh." And then it's remaining eye (the other had been melted by the blast, running down his cheek like warm candle wax), fixed on Ed's frozen form. "FACE!" It screamed. "His FACE!"
"Oh, God," Ed moaned helplessly, and the soft gray of unconsciousness began to dance at the edge of his vision.
Mustang shoved him hard from behind, forcing him away from Envy and back to the current situation.
They started off down the decimated hallway, moving as fast as their injured bodies would allow. More than once, Ed saw Mustang stop, and shudder, but he never offered help. The bastard wouldn't have wanted it.
He also didn't seem surprised by Ed's apparent destination. Instead of leading them towards the front door, Ed limped his way down to the adult wing, heading straight for one of the solitary cells. It was unlocked, as Ed had instructed Al to guarantee before leaving the hospital wing.
"Teacher," he croaked into the darkened room.
"Ed?" the woman whispered back, and crawled out of the shadows. "Roy? What's happening?"
"Come on," Edward said, too tired and shaken to explain.
The woman looked like Wrath, like death. She was barely more than a thin layer of skin over a structure of bones. But she climbed to her feet and strode through the door like the strongest woman alive.
"I see," she murmured, after taking a good look at the two boys in the proper light. "Foolish, Edward. I'm dead anyway."
"Come on," Ed repeated, and they moved toward the front door of the adult wing.
Ed had just finished transmuting the lock, Mustang suspiciously silent at his back, when the roar of fire filled his ears once again. His adrenaline spiked painfully, boomeranging around his body, screaming that the creatures were back, that Envy had been crawling across the floor in pieces, oh God.
But when he spun around he saw only Mustang. And the wall of fire he'd created between them.
"Bastard?" he shouted, over the twisting flames. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Mustang's smile was thin and sharp and somehow sad, and Ed realized where he'd seen it before.
Clarity ripped up his spine like knives.
"NO!" he screamed, stumbling towards the fire like he might run through it. "NO!"
"Go, Elric," he heard Mustang say over the flames.
"NOT WITHOUT YOU! DAMN IT, BASTARD, YOU FUCKING BASTARD, THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO NEED YOU, REMEMBER?"
"I kept my promise. I got them out. And that's all I have to give; there's nothing left in me for anything more."
Tears were streaming down Edward's cheeks, but he didn't notice them.
"I'm tired," Roy added, and his smile softened a little.
"You're Roy Mustang!" he shouted. His voice was raw and wrecked. "You don't get tired. You scheme and you smirk and you piss me the fuck off, but you don't get tired."
"I am not leaving you here!"
Again, Mustang smiled. Ed recoiled from it. The bastard's eyes were empty; the only flames filling them now were the ones dancing in front of him. Peace had overtaken them instead, a kind of calm filling them like water.
"I'm glad you came," he whispered, and then he snapped his fingers once again. "I'm glad you came to take care of them."
The last thing Ed saw before the ceiling collapsed in a pile of dirt and debris that blocked the hallway completely was Mustang coughing, coughing until he doubled over and fresh blood puddled on the front of his pants.
"Bastard!" Ed screamed, clawing at the obstruction until his remaining glove ripped and his fingers bled. "Bastard! Roy!"
Ed would never remember the mad dash through the forest following his escape from the asylum. Eventually he'd recall flashes of dark mud beneath his feet, the sting of tiny tree branches scraping across his skin, Teacher's voice in his ear, urging him to run and keep on running. But the entirety of his flight would be forever lost under the screaming, smothering tattoo in his brain, drowning his senses in a never-ending beat of Bastard, Roy, don't leave people behind, don't ever leave people behind again.
By the time they reached the old and rotting house, some seven miles away on the forest's outer edge, the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon, and Ed's senses were starting the slow crawl back into his brain. He moved carefully through the trees, Teacher at his side, as smooth and subtle as he was able. But he couldn't stop the helpless hunch of his shoulders, the slight drag of his feet, the symptoms of someone bleeding out on the forest floor even as he ran. Could barely remember to scratch the code they'd established on the peeling wooden door, instead of just bursting in.
"Ed," Teacher said softly, while they waited for an answer. "You know he wouldn't want-"
And then the door inched open, and grasping hands shot forward, twisting in Ed's jacket and dragging him inside. He stumbled through the entryway and into warm and waiting arms that wrapped tight around his waist. A soft cloud of yellow hair swept around his face, and something hot and wet slid down the skin of his throat.
"Ed! You're here!"
Winry. Al. The floor turned to liquid beneath his feet.
He could hear the others as well. Blurry and buzzing, in the background, but they were there.
"I think he's fading out on us. Teacher! How badly is he hurt?"
Those warm hands and steady arms led him to something moderately soft and smelling strongly of mildew. Soft fingers petted at his hair, his face.
"Hush now, Ed. You're bleeding. Shut your eyes. It's all right."
"No," he croaked, and felt those gentle fingers jump at the sudden timber of his voice. "Not all right."
"He's delirious," a quiet voice explained. Fuery. "He's beat pretty bad, and he must have run the entire way here."
A symphony of soft, distressed noises filled the air, and then those roaming fingers pressed against his shoulder blades, urging him to lie back.
"No," he said again, and struggled.
"Ssh. Lie back now, Ed. You're safe here, you can sleep."
They weren't listening; he couldn't sleep now, not when things were so wrong.
"Brother, please, let us take care of you-"
I'm tired. I'm glad you came to take care of them.
Ed rocketed off the decaying couch, and out of the circle of warm and pressing arms. The air seemed thinner here, safe inside the house, and so his hurts crowded close to the surface, slowing his forward momentum to a stuttered slump against the far wall. The sounds hushed at his back, stilled and suffocated, and Ed squeezed his eyes shut as he heard the silent headcount that had been forgotten in the wake of his battered appearance.
He'd been waiting for it, tense and ready, but he still jerked at the sound of Riza's voice. Like a lash across his shoulders.
"Edward," she repeated. "Where is Roy?"
Ed's automail fist hit the wall in front of him with a resounding crack. His already aching ports screamed in protest, and the wood in front of him made a soft sound, wet and rotten as it fell apart.
"Brother," Al whispered, his voice soft and shaken.
"Shit," Havoc said, and he sounded so angry. Angry and anxious and afraid. "What happened, Kid? Where the hell's the Colonel?"
Ringing silence filled the room, heavy with the weight of realization.
Edward couldn't answer. Because all he could see was that place. Panic and pain and Envy dragging his mutilated carcass across the floor, his skin swollen and sagging like a deflated rubber balloon.
"Teacher?" Fuery prompted, in a tiny voice. "Teacher, do you know-?"
"Only what happened after I was retrieved," she answered, but not unkindly. Her eyes, dark and steady, stayed fixed on the golden boy shivering in the corner of the room, streaked with dirt and blood. "I could hear the fight from my cell. Screams and shouts and rumbles of collapsing walls. But all I actually saw was Edward and Roy, once they came to get me out. We walked together to the main entrance. And then Roy used his alchemy to bring the ceiling down between us. To block the most accessible exit and stop the others from following, I believe, and to provide enough distraction for Edward and I to get away."
"So, he's not…," Breda struggled with own words, sounded incapable of forcing them out. "He didn't…?"
"He's not here," Ed rasped, and pressed his face against the splintered wood. An uncomfortable pressure was expanding inside his chest, crushing his lungs. "He didn't come. He's an idiot."
He knew what the pressure was. But he wasn't going to give it a name. Not with so many people watching.
"Brother." Al was at his back, speaking gently. Like he knew that the pressure would snap if his voice hit a certain volume. "What happened?"
Ed wanted to snap. To scream I told you what happened, he didn't get out until his lungs ached and the pressure went away. But this was Al standing behind him. And the others deserved an answer. So he breathed deep against the rotten wood for a moment, and then turned to face the room.
The room was washed in pre-dawn shadows, since they hadn't dared to switch on any lights. Slender silver fingers of shimmering light inched through the window, illuminating the ring of faces around him in various shades of grey. Havoc and Breda's shoulders were tensed and their fists were tightened. Fuery's eyes were wide and stunned and sad behind his thick glasses. Falman's mouth had thinned to a single, flat line. Winry looked caught between concern and anger, blue eyes set and serious.
Riza's face was perfectly blank and empty and horrible to look at.
"After you left, Roy set the hallway on fire," Ed said. Slowly, because each word made the pressure tighten like a fist around his insides. "Brought those bastards running pretty quick. Lust and Envy, they came out of the basement. We fought them; they were so strong. Knocked us around like we weren't even worth it. Lust, her fingernails turn into spikes. And Envy, he punched walls hard enough to shatter plaster. But we fought them. Gluttony was there too, watching us from the doorway. Guarding it maybe, I don't know. But he's dead, he has to be dead, because Kimblee came running up the stairs and shoved his hand through his chest."
"What?" Havoc demanded sharply.
"Oh, God," Fuery whispered, and in the muted light, his face went white as wax.
"Something happened to Greed," Ed continued, the words rolling out of his mouth like poison. "Must have, because he didn't come up the stairs, and Kimblee was screaming his name. After he gutted Gluttony, Kimblee clapped his hands together. He had tattoos on his palms, transmutation circles. He set off some kind of alchemic explosion; turned Envy into a human bomb. It missed me, but Lust got caught in it. The wall between the family room and the corridor was completely taken down. I didn't see Lust again, but I did see Envy. Dragging himself across the floor in pieces. Kimblee was on the floor where he'd been standing. Dead with a smile on his face."
"And…Greed?" Al asked softly.
Edward shook his head, rubbed at his burning eyes with the heel of his flesh-covered palm.
"I don't know," he repeated. "Didn't see. I think he's dead, though. Because something had to set Kimblee off, and he didn't come with him up the stairs."
"But the Colonel didn't get hit?" Havoc insisted. "By Kimblee's human bomb?"
"A little bit, I think," Ed continued. "He was injured when I pulled him out of the wreckage; walking funny and being really careful with his arm. Not to mention bleeding, everywhere. But I couldn't tell what was from Kimblee, and what was from fighting with Envy."
"But he was walking," Havoc said softly, insistently. Like a mantra. "He was walking, so he was okay enough."
Ed shrugged wearily. The exhaustion was starting to creep up on him, the full weight of his hurts swimming to the surface as the last of the adrenaline faded.
"I guess," he said. "No one was moving anymore, except for Envy. He was crawling across the floor in pieces, dragging bloody stumps and screaming bullshit out of a mouth blown half-off."
His FACE! His FACE!
Ed shuddered helplessly as the memory of Envy's screeching voice rang inside his skull like a bell. Someone, sounded like Breda or maybe Fuery, made a soft retching noise, quickly stifled.
"But we were the only ones left upright, and we walked away. He didn't talk much on the way to Teacher's cell. Should've tipped me off; that bastard always has something to say. But I was tired, and I still needed to get Teacher out. So I didn't notice, until we got to the door, and he brought the ceiling down. I was tired, so tired, I didn't even know he was the one who did it at first." His words were slowing, and yet speeding at the same time. Tripping, slurred and soft, out of his mouth as the lethargy and the pain and the weight of failure pressed down on him like bricks. "But then I saw his eyes. And I knew. All that fucking fire was gone; he'd used the last of it to put that wall between us. I screamed at him, told him to get his useless ass back over the fire and outside the asylum. But he just smiled and told me to take care of his people, like I could just take his place, like he doesn't have his own fucking promises to worry about, and finished it. Brought the rest of it down so that I couldn't see him, and couldn't get through to drag him out on my own."
"Ed," somebody said gently. Winry.
Ed dug the heel of his hand even harder into his eyes, hard enough to ache.
"He was coughing blood," he whispered. "Like Teacher, and Greed. He told me not to tell, because he didn't want everyone else to worry, and I should have known that he was going to leave himself behind."
"Ed." Soft hands touched his arm, but Ed shook them off. Spun back toward the wall.
An automail fist impacted against a plank of old and rotting wood, causing it to splinter and strain under the force. Breath heaving, eyes wide and wild, Edward Elric cocked his fist back for another blow.
"Shit. That wasn't supposed to happen!"
Another punch. The wood cracked in half with a wet-sounding creak and collapsed. Ed followed it down, sank to his knees and pressed his forehead against the wood that remained. His clothes were ripped and torn, streaked with dust and blood. His hair was a tangled mess behind his head, darkened by dirt.
Over his shoulders, Ed heard the soft sound of weeping. Somebody was crying; maybe all of them were. He knew he should get up, should go to comfort them. But he was too raw, his stomach a mass of twisting knots and heavy waves of sick.
"We have to go back," he whispered, and closed his eyes against frightened and frustrated tears of his own.
"Ed." It was said firmly this time. Gentle still, but unyielding. Silk wrapped over steel. Small hands caught at his shoulders, pulled him to his feet. Other hands encircled his wrists, pressed against his back, urged him away from the wall and onto the couch again.
Winry. Al. Maybe Fuery at his back, or Falman.
"We have to go back," he repeated, even as gentle fingers wiped the wet away from his cheeks. "I don't leave people behind. So we have to go back."
"We know, Brother," Al said, and it sounded far away. "But not right now. Sleep first."
And it sounded reasonable, because Ed's eyes were already shut, and he was drifting away before the words had even finished being spoken.
When Edward woke again, the sun was fully up and streaming through the dust-streaked window panes, warming the air around him. He sat up slowly, extremely aware of the radiating pain pretty much everywhere in his body. In particular, the ports above his automail arm ached and throbbed from battery and overuse, and the muscles in his legs screamed from the fighting, and then the running. Constriction around his waist revealed that someone had bandaged his side while he'd slept, where Lust's claws had done the worst damage. He traced his fingers over the matching bandage wrapped around his forehead, and wondered if he could blame the wound there for the steady pounding inside his skull.
He swung his legs over the side of the couch (a couch that was riddled with scarred wood and sun-bleached pillows, he could see now that the light was shining) and caught the acrid burn of cigarette smoke on the air.
"Your turn to keep watch?" he asked.
"Looks like," Havoc replied. He was seated on a crumbling chair across the room, close to the window. The cigarette dangled listlessly from his fingertips, sending lazily swirls of smoke curling into the dust and sun sprinkled air.
Ed nodded, and rubbed careful fingers against his aching head.
"Gonna punch me?" he asked into the quiet.
Havoc shrugged, and brought the cigarette to his lips before replying. His green eyes were glass-bottle sharp over the wall of smoke he expelled.
"Maybe later. It's hard to be pissed at someone who looks as bad as you, Boss. Or someone whose fingernails were broken and bleeding from clawing at chunks of burning ceiling."
Ed sucked in a sharp breath, and glanced down. The blood had been cleaned away, probably by the same helpful hands that had bandaged his hurts, but the evidence was still there in the ragged tears in the tips of his fingers.
"Havoc. I never would have left him there by choice."
"I got that, Boss. I wouldn't be looking after you if I thought different."
It meant a lot, to hear him say it. Havoc had been with Roy since the beginning, since before the Asylum. He'd nearly punched Ed's face in before, when he'd thought that Ed's secrets were endangering Roy's success. Ed had convinced himself, during the adrenaline-fueled and despair-soaked dash through the woods, that he'd never be able to meet his, or Riza's eyes again after informing them that their precious person was still trapped in the place that they'd suffered through together.
At least one out of two didn't hate his guts, although it was Riza's condemnation that he really feared. He could deal with Havoc's harsh words and bitter fists. But Riza's silence would crush him more than any punch ever could.
"Where's everyone else?" Ed asked, pushing aside his fear impatiently. There wasn't time for it right now. "Al?"
"Scattered around the house," Havoc said. "Breda and Falman are looking around for something edible. Riza and Al are up in the attic; they said something about finding boxes full of paperwork from the Asylum. Teacher's looking after the other kids, and Martel. And I think Winry and Fuery are exploring, digging around in the old bedrooms and stuff." Havoc blew another cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. "This place is huge, Boss, and completely wrecked. Nobody's lived here for years, but the guy that did didn't bother to take anything with him when he left. There's a lot to look at."
"I guess," Ed replied. "I'm just glad everyone stayed inside; we don't need to draw any attention to this place." He climbed carefully to his feet, wobbling a little as his legs screamed and his side throbbed in protest. Instantly, Havoc was there, sliding a steadying hand under his elbow. "Um. Thanks. Teacher's with the other kids, you said? And Martel, she hasn't woken up yet?"
Havoc shook his head, pulling his hand back and stuffing it in his pocket.
"Doctor Hughes gave us some stuff to keep her under for a while," he said. "He figured it'd be easier for us to move if she wasn't fighting us, or trying to get back to her boys. Teacher took over giving her the doses."
Ed closed his eyes, and forced away the image of Kimblee, flat on his back and covered in blood and quiet with a smile on his face.
"Good," he said roughly. "And the other kids?"
Havoc hesitated. He rubbed his cigarette between his fingers and refused to meet Ed's eyes.
"They…shit, Boss. They're not doing too hot." His restless fingers tapped ashes onto the carpet. "They just don't have much left in them anymore, you know?"
"Yeah," Edward said roughly.
"You were right. To get them out of that place. It's…better that they go like this, away from there."
Ed breathed deep.
"Yeah," he repeated. He turned and moved toward the staircase he vaguely recalled seeing after being dragged through the door so many hours ago.
"You going to go see them?" Havoc asked, trailing along at his back.
"In a bit," Ed replied, taking the stairs slowly, and ignoring Havoc's blatant hovering. "I want to talk to Al first."
"Sure," Havoc said, and his words were easy, but his voice wasn't. "And then we'll talk, right Boss? Talk about how we're going to get the Colonel back?"
Ed never paused in his upward momentum, and his answer was as hard and unyielding as stone.
"Yes. Then we'll talk about rescuing stupid bastards with delusions of martyrdom."
Behind him, Havoc laughed, and the sound of it was drenched with relief.
The house around them was old, and buckling. The wooden walls and banisters were slick beneath Ed's questing hands, wet with mildew and sometimes swollen with rain that came through the holes in the roof. Curtains were moth-eaten and what little glass remained on the windowpanes beneath them was clouded with dirt and dust. On the second floor, one enterprising tree had reached its branches through one of the broken windows, and so half of the hallway was lost to tangles of leaves.
Ed ran his fingers over the faded paint of a city landscape and wondered why he could almost hear familiar voices echoing off the walls.
"It's quiet here," he murmured, watching as warm summer wind gently rattled the branches twisted against the walls.
"Creepy, you mean," Havoc corrected, and Ed shrugged in agreement.
On the third floor, they found Winry and Fuery crawling around on the soggy and dirt-covered carpeting of an abandoned bedroom, covered in dust and grime. Their eyes lit up when they say Ed standing in the doorway, and Ed almost shied away from what he felt like he didn't deserve.
"Ed! You're awake!" Winry cried, and the touch of her warm hands on his face stopped his backward momentum.
"Um," he offered.
"How do you feel?" Fuery added over Winry's shoulder, smiling bright enough to make Edward's chest ache.
"Fine," he answered. He scanned them both with anxious eyes, focusing more on Winry than he'd ever admit out loud. "I guess…I wasn't….not-crazy enough last night to check, but is everyone else okay? You guys made it out alri-,"
Winry cut him off mid-word.
With her face.
It took Edward five full seconds to realize that yes, Winry was kissing him, and yes, he appeared to be having a slight brain aneurism because of it.
Her lips were soft, and warm, and her blue eyes never closed, stayed laser-bright and focused on his face. And Ed kind of wanted to pull back and shriek really, NOW and when did we move past the bickering and wrench-throwing but apparently the only thing he was actually capable of was bringing up a hand to settle on her waist. Her palms cupped his cheeks for another moment, and he had time to significantly deteriorate his IQ by thinking her hair smells really good before she stepped back, taking the warmth with her.
"Um," he repeated helplessly, and gradually became aware that yes, Havoc and Fuery were still in the room, and they were both snickering hard enough to strain something.
The blood rushed to Edward's face really impressively fast, and he began sputtering incoherent sounds at the room in general.
Fuery looked like he might actually suffocate under the weight of his own laughter.
Still, Winry's eyes never left Edward's face. And for all his sputtering and flailing incoherence, he couldn't look away either.
"I fixed your automail," she said. "Alphonse is upstairs."
And then she smiled, completely unrepentant or embarrassed, and meandered toward the closet. While Edward watched, slack-jawed, she pulled open the door and began to rifle through the contents found inside, totally unconcerned.
"You…I…," he made several grabby motions with his hands before giving up completely. "Everything is stupid."
Fuery collapsed backward on the sagging mattress, setting off a small explosion of dust, tears rolling out from underneath his glasses.
Ed briefly considered the merits of smothering him in the thick blanket of dust, but ultimately stomped out of the room with a bad-tempered snarl, cheeks still red enough to pass as strawberries.
"Shut the fuck up," he snapped at the silent Havoc, as they climbed the next staircase.
"Pink is a real pretty color on you, Boss," he replied, smirking wide enough to bend his cigarette.
If his legs hadn't been hurting him so bad, Ed might have kicked him back down the stairs.
Havoc continued to snicker at his back all the way up to the attic, and by the time they reached the hot and musty room, the vein in Ed's temple was twitching away underneath his carefully wrapped bandage.
"My pain," he informed Havoc, as they maneuvered toward the sound of soft murmuring in the far corner. "I will make you feel it."
"You're just fucking adorable, Boss."
Ed snarled and kicked a box out of the way with just a bit too much enthusiasm. But all of it, the blushing, the bantering, dropped from his mind like a stone when he eased around a full-length mirror and saw Riza, crouching over a curled-up Alphonse, and running soothing hands down his back.
"What the hell happened?" Ed snapped, rushing forward, his fear of Riza's eyes completely eclipsed by her concern for his brother. "Al? Alphonse?"
Soft grey eyes peeked out from a bone-white face.
"Brother," he whispered.
"Al." Frantically, Ed patted his baby brother down for injury. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"We were going through boxes," Riza interrupted, and later Ed would acknowledge the river of relief that thundered down his spine at the lack of anger, or terrifying blankness in her eyes. She looked as serene as she always did, constant and steady. "The overseer of the Asylum lived here; he kept a great deal of paperwork. We've been going through it, trying to gather clues about our situation, and the hospital's past."
"Yeah, and?" Ed demanded, fingers locked tight around his brother's wrist.
"There's an article," Al said, and his voice was shaking, but he appeared to be rallying as best he could. "From a newspaper, an old newspaper. They did an article, covering the charitable acts of the Asylum."
"Oh, right," Havoc muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets once again, unnerved by the scene before him. "They're the patron saints of good deeds."
Riza silenced him with a patient look.
"What about this article, Al?" Ed asked, ignoring the both of them.
"There was a picture, Brother. Of the staff. The Doctor, the Director, and the Overseer."
"Of the Overseer, huh?" Edward said. "Well, what's he look like?"
Something like a hysterical laugh bubbled out of his brother's mouth, and then Al shoved the paper he'd been clutching into Edward's hands. It was old, dated almost ninety years ago, and yellowed with age. Ed skimmed it quickly, baring his teeth instinctively at the image of Dante in a different woman's body. The Director was different, too, a smarmy smiling face that Ed didn't recognize. But the Overseer.
Ed did recognize him.
The breath backed up in his lungs, and something thick and red settled over his vision.
"That's impossible," he heard himself grind out between furiously clenched teeth.
Beside him, Alphonse shook his head.
The floorboards squeaked in protest as Ed threw himself down the stairs, bending and cracking beneath his furious footsteps. Several of them broke at the bottom of the attic steps, defeated by his automail foot. The newspaper was crumbling inside his tightly clenched fist, but he hardly noticed.
He'd barely remembered to ask Havoc which room he was looking for before he'd taken off running.
Anger was pumping through his blood like poison. Rage, and confusion, and a childlike hurt that he'd never admit to out loud, a hurt he thought he'd buried with his mother's body.
"Ed!" he heard Havoc shout, following him down the stairs. "Ed, wait!"
"What's going on?" he heard Fuery add, no doubt startled out of his exploration by Ed's pounding footsteps.
Ed ignored them both, and threw himself down another flight of stairs.
She was the oldest person connected to the asylum, other than Dante herself. She was the closest chance he had to answers.
She could tell him why he'd found his father's face inside this house.
"Teacher!" he called, and banged the door open.
He wasn't sure what reaction he'd been expecting. Surprised gasps, maybe. Or a roundhouse kick to the face for disturbing the impromptu sickbay, that was more her style. But whatever he'd been expecting, he knew that dead silence wasn't it.
The air inside the room was dark and still. He could see Martel curled up on one of the beds, breathing much more quickly than the other occupants of the room. The soft grey of clarity began to curl around the red obscuring Ed's vision as he took in the scarred boy, and the two brothers, breathing soft and slow (and barely at all) on the beds nearby. He managed to calm his pounding blood a bit, and look for Teacher without shouting her name in the quiet air.
He found her in the corner. Lying on top of the fourth and final bed inside the room, curled around the boy who shared her hair color. She'd pulled the boy against her chest and wrapped her arms tight around him, resting her cheek on his.
Ed didn't have to touch them to know that neither was stirring the sparkles of dust in the air anymore.
By the time the others caught up with Ed's fury-fueled dash, he was leaning against the wall outside the room. The newspaper was curled loosely against his palm, all but forgotten, and his eyes were full of flint.
"Ed?" Fuery asked, stepping forward. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Ed took a moment before speaking; seemed to need the time to gather his words.
"We're going to get that stupid bastard out of that place," he said slowly, carefully. "And then…then I'm going to fucking burn it down."
They worked well into the night.
Maps were discovered tucked inside the attic, and spread across the table to be studied. Riza found an old firearm in one of the dusty bedrooms, and set herself to fixing it, scraping away layers of dirt and rust. Fuery gathered together every bit of electrical equipment he could find, and started twisting wires and tapping sockets, attempting to create some form of communication. Winry worked on Ed's automail, tightening screws and strengthening metal, while Ed sat and ran schematics with Falman.
They lost the scarred boy a little after midnight. The brothers followed shortly after, the smaller one first, quickly followed by the bigger. The air inside the room became very still, and Martel was moved to a mattress on the dining room floor. They stopped slipping her the needles that Hughes had provided, and stationed Alphonse in the hallway between the living room and dining area for when she woke up.
A little after three, they moved the bodies out back. The others stood and watched as Ed and Al used alchemy to dig three separate holes in the dirt, at the base of a sprawling oak. No one spoke as the bodies were settled within the earth (Wrath and Teacher still wrapped around each other, the blonde-haired brothers pressed together, and the scarred boy alone), but Havoc helped Winry carve the words 'They Deserved Better' into the oak tree with his pocket knife after the holes had been re-buried.
The hours rolled by, the sky outside black as pitch around them. There was very little conversation, outside of the occasional murmured words and mustered smile. Across the board, eyes were burning and ringed with exhausted bruises. Shoulders slumped and fingers knotted, and if single units occasionally slipped away to stand by the freshly disturbed dirt out back, the others never spoke of it. And shortly before dawn, Edward took his turn, stepping away from the old asylum map and heading towards the door.
Fuery had nodded off over his twisting pile of parts. Havoc was dozing with his head against the wall, unlit cigarette caught between his fingers. Winry was on the couch, cheek resting against the coat Edward had removed in order for her to fix his automail. Breda was asleep at the kitchen table, head pillowed on his arms; Ed had seen him the last time he'd gotten up for water. Alphonse was tucked up against the hallway wall, knees drawn up to his chest like a child, and something so thick and desperate had filled Ed's throat upon seeing him that he'd been forced to turn away.
Riza and Falman looked over as he stood, eyes dark and dragging, but still so bright.
"You can sleep," Edward said softly, as he started for the door.
They shrugged, and returned to their tasks (Riza, digging the last bit of grime from the gun barrel, and Falman tracing roads on the map until his fingers were flat and stained with ink). Ed didn't push. The sun was down, and someone had to keep the lighthouse.
The sky was beginning to go grey and palest pink, once again painting the woods around him in shades of silver. Ed turned his back on the graves he'd dug, and stared out at the expanse of trees instead, resting his shoulder against the trunk of the oak. He was as numb as the blanket of grey around him; dimmed inside by exhaustion and the constant run of adrenaline. He was quiet inside, and still, and thought maybe that he could shut his eyes here, but not for the sleep that the others were enjoying.
He wasn't terribly alarmed when the figure of his father stepped out of the trees, because hallucinations brought on by exhaustion were funny things, and they happened sometimes.
"You're not here," he said, and pressed his temple against the tree bark.
The figure hesitated. He looked the same, exactly the way Edward remembered from the day he'd left. Long blonde hair pulled back into a loose tail, bright golden eyes hard and soft at the same time. Dressed in a faded suit with a briefcase clutched at his side. Ed briefly entertained the idea of punting that stupid briefcase across the trees, because in his sleep-starved brain, it seemed like a really excellent idea.
"Edward?" the figure said.
"You're not here," Ed repeated. "You're never here. Except when appearing in old newspaper clippings, apparently."
The figure winced.
"You found those?"
"Weren't hard to find," he explained tiredly. "And let me tell you, it's all kinds of awesome to see your dad for the first time in years in implausibly old newspaper articles that kind of reveal him to be an evil mastermind. Just amazing, really."
The figure stepped forward, making his way towards Ed's tree.
"Edward," he said softly. "I know that this may be…difficult for you to understand, but-"
"See, let me stop you right there," Ed interrupted. "Because I have absolutely no desire to hear excuses from my actual bastard father, and even less desire to hear them from hallucinations. So, flutter off, would you? I was really just looking for a little quiet."
"I'm not a hallucination, Edward," the figure said, frowning as he stepped forward. "I know it's been…some time since you saw me last, but I assure you-"
Ed interrupted him again. But with his fist this time. Automail knuckles right to the jaw, and then adrenaline screaming up his spine because he'd punched something solid.
"You'd better be a hallucination, old man," he said, and his voice was no longer soft, or steady. It was quaking with the beginnings of rage and disbelief. "You'd really better be, because you don't want to know what I'm going to do to you if you're not."
The figure climbed back to his feet, hand cupped around his swelling jaw, and his golden eyes were so sad. So sorry.
All traces of quiet exhaustion imploded inside Edward's mind and body, leaving only a rapidly widening whirlpool of rage behind.
"You're here," he said. "You're here now? Really?"
"I'm so sorry, Edward."
"No, no, shut the hell up. Sorry is not an explanation. Sorry doesn't explain where you were when Mom died, or when Al and I burned the house down trying to get her back, or when we got shuffled into foster care. It doesn't explain where you were when Al and I got stuck in that fucking asylum in the first place. The one that you apparently helped create."
His father glanced past him, toward the house.
"Alphonse is here?" he asked quietly, a small smile curving his lips.
Edward punched it loose, knocked his father back into the dirt. He felt blood fly across his silver knuckles, and it didn't bring him the vicious satisfaction that he wanted. Only further disgust.
"Listen when I talk to you," he said, and he'd never known his voice was capable of sounding so cold. Subzero and scarily blank. "Of all the things I just said, Alphonse is not the one you get to focus on. Try again."
"I understand that you're angry, Edward," his father said, as he pulled himself to his feet yet again. "You have every right. But Alphonse is my son; you're both still my sons."
"I'm not talking to you about this," Ed fired back. Still so calm and cold and frightening. "As far as I'm concerned, you don't get to exercise parental rights. You gave those up when you walked out the door. So, let's talk about other things. Like where the fuck you've been and what you have to do with the asylum."
Hoenheim sighed, and set his briefcase on the forest floor.
"The asylum was a mistake," he said, and he was the one who sounded tired now. "A mistake I walked away from once I realized how many people it was hurting."
"Oh, brilliant," Edward said. "Really ingenious, walking away like that. There's only one problem, though; you forgot to take the people still suffering inside with you when you went."
"I thought that-,"
"You didn't walk away, you ran," Ed interrupted, rolling right over his words once again. "There's a difference, old man. You ran like a coward, and left the ones actually hurting behind."
"I thought," Hoenheim repeated, golden eyes hardening the barest bit. "That it would end itself once I left. I thought that she wouldn't be able to work it without me there."
Ed folded his arms.
"You mean Dante," he said.
"Yes," he said. "Her alchemy was strong, but not nearly as strong as mine. Only by pooling our power together were we able to achieve results. I thought that my leaving would weaken her irreparably, render her unable to complete the process."
"Only she made up the difference by ripping it out of us," Ed concluded, and his shoulders were vibrating from the sheer tension running through his frame. "Not very smart of you, old man. And I'm curious; these results you achieved? We already know what they were; we've seen the records. Dante's been jumping bodies for decades. But I guess what I really want to know is your number. How many bodies has it been for you, old man? How many human souls have you forcibly evicted just to save your fucking self?"
Hoenheim's face was empty, blanker and more vacant than even Edward's voice.
"This is my third," he said. Without shame, or remorse. Stating fact. "My power enables me to hold a body longer than Dante. I've had this form for four decades."
Edward pressed an almost absent hand to his stomach, where nausea was starting to curl and slide like snakes.
"I'm not even your kid," he said softly. Realization. "Everyone back in Resimbool rattled on about how much I look like you. But that's not really you, right? I look like whatever human suit you're wearing."
For the first time, something strong and fierce flashed across his father's face.
"You are my son," Hoenheim repeated. "This may not be my original form, but I've been its only occupant for almost half a century. Everything you are, Edward, right down to your inordinately powerful alchemic ability, came from me."
"No," Ed negated. "Anything good about me, it came from Mom. I'd burn out everything inside that came from you, if I could."
Hoenheim actually fell back a step, as if pushed by the force of Ed's anger.
"You hate me that much," he said softly.
Ed furrowed his brow, tilted his head.
"Do I have any reason not to?" he asked, honestly curious. "Blood ties will only get you so far, old man, and you sprinted way past claiming those the day you didn't show up for Mom's funeral."
Silence hit the clearing like a brick.
"But I don't want to talk about that," Ed finally said. "Not with you. Not ever. What I do want to talk about is why you're here, and what you were doing before."
"This body is…it's crumbling," Hoenheim admitted quietly. "Shortly after Alphonse was born, it started to decay. And I realized; without jumping to another body, my time was limited. I don't hold out much hope for salvation, Edward, but I don't want to die with something so horrible still functioning due to my fault."
"Dante," Edward said. "And the asylum. So you left. Why?"
"The alchemy that Dante and I used to jump from body to body is very old, and extremely powerful," Hoenheim continued. "Many of the books detailing its effects were lost even before alchemy was thrown away and reduced to a fairy tale. But I knew that I could find a way to reverse it, if I could find the ones who still practice, and keep record of older times."
"You were looking for a way to stop Dante. But you're stronger than her, you said so yourself. You couldn't just walk in and shut her down?"
Hoenheim shook his head.
"I could have once," he said. "But when I left, Dante retained possession of something very powerful, something she and I sacrificed much to create. It's called a philosopher's stone, and it manifests unbelievable amounts of alchemic power. It's how she and I were able to jump bodies in the first place, without the use of conduits. The stone weakens with every use, which is why Dante relies so heavily on the asylum now. But when it was still strong, Dante used it to create bodyguards of unnatural strength."
"Lust," Edward said. "Gluttony, Envy. Sloth. Half of the workers inside the asylum."
"Dante and I have both been growing weaker, as the stone loses power," he said. "But those things that she created remain strong."
"Yeah, so I gathered," Ed muttered, and pressed an absent hand against the bandages constricting his side. "What are they?"
"They're called Homunculi," Hoenheim said, and here he hesitated. "They're…creatures created when an alchemist tries to bring someone back from the dead."
Edward froze. The snakes inside his stomach exploded outward, racing up his throat and wrapping around his heart. His hands fisted helplessly against the oak tree.
"The woman," he said, breath sawing out between words. "The woman in the Director's office."
"Trisha," Hoenheim said softly, and Ed let out a sound that caused heartbreak to skitter through his father's eyes.
"Mom," Ed gasped helplessly, and everything hurt. His eyes were swimming and his head was pounding and he thought that he could die from this, this guilt and shame and horror forcing his body into lockdown.
His father was there, pressing a warm hand against the back of his neck, urging him to breathe. And he hated himself for allowing it, for leaning into it for a few fleeting seconds. It felt like being able to share the weight a little, but he'd been carrying it on his own for so long, and he couldn't let himself forget whose fault that was.
"Off," he muttered, and shook those hands away. He pressed his own fingers against his brimming eyes, and shook his head to clear the ache away. Or at least shove it back. "Is she…is she anything like she was? Can we save her?"
Hoenheim put his hands inside his pockets, but not before Ed saw them trembling.
"She'll try to kill you," he said. "If you go back, she'll act on Dante's orders alone. She won't remember what she was to you, or Al."
Ed thought of breathing balls of organs, of blackened bodies possessing perfect sets of teeth.
"Okay," he whispered. It was almost better, almost easier. But he couldn't tell Al; Al could never know. He straightened up. "And what do you mean, 'if'? We're going back." He nodded at the rapidly lightening sky, edging towards yellow now." Come sunrise."
Hoenheim shook his head, stepped forward once again.
"No, Edward," he said. "You fought hard, you made it out. You kept your brother safe, and brought the others with you." His father smiled a little. "You've done enough. I know the way to stop this now; let me take it from here."
"Are you seriously saying this shit right now?" Ed asked incredulously. "Now that all the heavy lifting is done, you're just going to dance on in and have your reunion? Fuck you, old man. I've got people still inside."
Hoenheim's eyes were soft, sympathetic. Ed kind of wanted to puke, just looking at them.
"You did the best you could," his father said gently. "Sometimes you have to accept losses in order to achieve the end result. You need to take care of those you were able to save, Edward."
"We lost people," Ed hissed, and slapped a hand against the tree that now also served as a funeral stone. "Good people, while you were out communing with alchemic clouds, or whatever. Your lily white ideals don't know anything about what's been happening here."
Hoenheim's mouth twisted.
"Nothing about what you just said makes me want to stay," Ed snarled, fingers fisted once again. "I'm not you, old man. I don't make cuts to climb a little higher, and I don't leave people behind. I know this may be difficult for you to understand, what with your lack of practical experience and all. But I'm going to get my friend out, because I have promises to keep."
"That boy," Hoenheim said. "Roy Mustang. You don't even know that he's still alive. Odds are that he is not. Are you truly going to allow the ones you lead to risk their lives for someone already lost?"
"Yeah, wow," Edward said. "You just have no idea. This isn't about some stupid power hierarchy. See, I'm not the boss of anyone. They've got just as much right to go after their friend as anyone would. And even if I didn't completely agree with their plan, I still wouldn't try to stop them, and not just because Riza would kick my teeth in if I did. I'm not allowing them to do anything. People, real people, don't work like that." The look he shot his father could have melted stone. "Foreign concept to you, I know."
"Edward, only I am capable of-,"
"You can have your reunion," Ed interrupted. "We're not stopping you; we never had a plan for getting rid of Doctor Bitch, just a lot of hiding. You're welcome to her. But keep your redemption quest out of our business; we've got a mission of our own to execute."
Hoenheim stared at his son, in silence. Edward laughed a little.
"What did you think was going to happen?" he asked. "You were going to swoop in at the last minute and save the day? Play the hero and then gather up your sons to make a happy family? Might have worked once, old man. Maybe even a few months back, I don't know. But the people inside that house mean more to me now that getting answers from you."
"The philosopher's stone-,"
"I don't care. My people are whole, and they will be safe once this is over, and I don't need it. And if it's as powerful as you make it sound, the world doesn't need it either. Just make sure you destroy it alongside Doctor Bitch, okay? That can be your job."
There was another silence, longer than the last. And then Hoenheim smiled a little. Sadly, but there was warmth there, too.
"You're a smart boy, Edward," he said softly. "Smarter than I ever was."
The quick zip of pleasure at the pride in his father's voice was not unexpected, but Ed just absorbed it like a blow.
"You're just saying that because you think I got it from you," he said, and almost smiled. "Listen, I need you to do something for me."
The eagerness in his father's eyes burned like poison.
"Of course, Edward. Anything."
"When this is over," he said slowly. "If we walk away from that place again, I need you to go, and stay gone like before. I need you to let Alphonse walk away without knowing you were ever here."
The light in his father's eyes dimmed, his shoulders slumped. Ed felt an unexpected sting in his own eyes and throat and tipped his head back.
"Look," he said. "I've finally gotten him to a place where he doesn't cry for you in his sleep. It took him so much longer to let you go than it did for me, and seeing you again, it would just bring him back to where he was."
"And that would be a bad thing," Hoenheim said, voice dull.
Edward swallowed hard.
"You're falling apart," he said. "You said so yourself. You don't have much time left, and you just told me that you were never the person we thought you were. You can't be a father to us, not now, not after knowing this. But Alphonse would try. If he knew you were here, he would try, and it would destroy him."
For a long time, Hoenheim stared at the forest floor, and didn't speak. When he finally looked up, Edward refused to meet his eyes.
"I understand," he said. "I may not have done right by you boys before, but I can do this. If you ask it of me."
"Thank you," he said, through a throat almost too tight to speak. "For what it's worth, I'm grateful for that. And I don't hate you. Not anymore."
Hoenheim huffed out a humorless laugh.
"I'm not sure that feeling nothing is better," he said.
"We'll stay out of your way," he said softly. "We're on a one-stop mission. Do your best to stay out of ours."
Hoenheim nodded. Ed took a deep breath, and then turned away, back toward the house. He hesitated at the door, and looked back. His father was nowhere to be found, vanished back into the trees.
So, if Ed took another minute, let something wet and full of regret he'd never acknowledge out loud, roll down his face, there was no one around to witness it anyway.
By the time the sun rose properly over the trees, Edward's wayward regret had been locked deep inside his chest, where it had been withering away for years. No more tears or shaking terror; as the small group crept through the forest, his hands were firm and his eyes fixed.
"For the record," Havoc whispered, as they crept their way back towards the door they'd blown their way through only hours before. "This is just a really bad idea."
Hooked over his ear, a tiny voice cracked through the communication system Fuery had managed to whip up.
"Shut up, Havoc," he suggested pleasantly.
Towards the front, Alphonse snorted out a soft laugh.
They were split into two groups of four. Ed, Al, Riza, and Havoc were making their way inside the slumped and smoking ruin of the asylum, each with an earpiece positioned against their skin. Fuery, Falman, Breda, and Winry were tucked away under the cover of trees, with Fuery manning the radio he'd created and the others standing guard with whatever weapon suited them best.
It was a deliberate divide; one that any person who knew their group at all would be able to figure out. Logically, Ed and Al should have been the only ones making the run. They were the only alchemically gifted left, and would have moved faster without the risk of casualties. But Roy belonged to Riza and Havoc more than anybody, and so Ed couldn't find a stronger reason to leave them behind. Besides, it was kind of generally accepted that Riza would have shot his face off had he even suggested her hanging back.
Winry had wanted to come, had eyed Ed's bandages and battered automail as she made her case. But Winry's folder was still stamped somewhere inside the asylum, she was still a target for a much scarier goal, and so Ed refused to let her at all near where Dante might be.
"And this is such an obvious trap," Breda had pointed out helpfully. "Like, flashing neon signs obvious. Best for you to keep the goods away, Win."
So, Winry had her wrench, and it was just the four of them, creeping through battered and blackened hallways.
"Holy shit, Boss," Havoc hissed. "What the hell were you and the Colonel doing in here? Alchemy on flambé?"
The walls around them were burnt and broken. Many of them were sagging dangerously, or pieces of plaster on the ripped and scar-riddled floor. Bodies had been dragged away (Envy's obliterated form, Kimblee's power-drained sprawl), but blood and other bits still decorated the wooden floor and white walls.
"Brother," Al whispered, quietly distressed.
"I lost him in the adult wing," Ed murmured, sparing his brother a short, soft look. "But odds are they've dragged him anywhere else by now. Thoughts?"
"Hughe's office is clear," Fuery tossed in over the tiny speakers. "But the adult wing, where Teacher was kept, is a complete loss. Total cave-in. Roy won't be there."
"Isolation," Havoc supplied.
"Alchemy chamber," Riza added.
"I was going to say infirmary," he said. "They need him at least well enough to stand if they plan on using him."
"Or Dante's office," Al whispered. "She could keep an eye on him there."
Ed blew out a breath.
"Okay," he said. "We need to check all four, and we need to be fast, and quiet."
"Two teams," Fuery suggested. "An alchemist on both."
It went against every instinct Ed possessed, to separate himself from Al. But it made sense, and there was a look in his brother's eyes anyway, like he was asking Ed not to let him down by not trusting.
"Right," he said, through gritted teeth. "Al, you and Riza hit the isolation rooms and Dante's office. Havoc and I will head over to the infirmary. Nobody goes into the Alchemy Chamber alone; if we don't find Roy, we reconvene and take it together."
"And answer your radios," Ed added. "No response after thirty seconds gets me running through the halls with my hands already clapped, okay?"
They nodded again, with a bit more grim amusement this time. Ed watched his brother walk off with Riza at his back, and turning down the opposite hallway with Havoc in tow caused something like physical pain.
"He'll be all right, Boss," Havoc murmured, as they crept their way through the corridors.
"Yeah," Ed agreed. "Let's just get this over with."
Mustang wasn't in the infirmary. Ed knew it as soon as they arrived. The air was too still, too stale. They searched anyway, carefully checking behind corners and under beds. They were just getting ready to head back into the hallways when Al's voice crackled over the earpieces.
"Brother? Brother! We found him!"
Ed skidded to a stop, felt all of the blood drop from his face in one fell swoop, reached out an instinctive hand to Havoc, who was swaying on his feet.
"Where is he?" he hissed. "Al, is he all right?"
"Isolation," Al said back. "And…Brother, I don't know. He doesn't look…I don't know."
"Is he breathing?" Havoc gasped out. "We can fix him, we can, but he has to be breathing, Al."
"Riza's checking him," Al said, and he sounded shaky. Scared. But holding strong, and Ed felt the faint stirrings of pride. "She's feeling for a pulse, and…oh…," there was a wet smack, and then the sound of indignant gurgling. "Um. So, Riza may have just punched him in the face. But, um. His eyes are open?"
Havoc really did buckle this time. Just a little, though, and he was smiling as he swayed. Ed held tight to his upper arm, and allowed his eyes to flutter shut for a brief moment, allowed himself to feel relief. Over his radio, Ed could hear Fuery laughing, and maybe crying a little, because it sounded thick.
"He's talking," Alphonse said, and Ed could hear the grin he was wearing, as big as Havoc's. "Brother, he's talking, and he doesn't look good, but he's going to be-"
But then Alphonse fell silent.
And over the earpiece, Ed heard Mustang's mangled voice hiss out two words.
And he didn't even have time to shout Al's name before the walls around them began to rattle.
As it had all his life, Al's name beat out a steady tattoo in the back of Ed's brain. However, unlike the comfortable and familiar rhythm of the everyday, the name screamed itself like an air raid siren inside Ed's skull as he and Havoc ran through the cracked and shuddering corridors.
The radios were silent. Had been ever since whatever was making the walls rattle had started. And Ed had never been more terrified by the absence of his brother's voice.
"Boss," Havoc barked and snagged his wrist as they ran, and Ed hadn't even realized that he'd started to shake harder than the walls around them. "I really need you to keep it together right now."
Because Havoc's eyes were wide and a little wild, and he probably wouldn't be able to much longer. Okay. Ed sucked in a sharp breath as he and Havoc sprinted and shook his wrist free.
"Got it," he said. "Stay on my left, Havoc. You don't have alchemy, or Riza's gun."
"Can't hear Fuery," Havoc pointed out.
"I know. Explosion must have disrupted the radio signal."
The isolation chamber was bent and blasted when they skidded to a stop outside of it. The door was hanging off of its hinges, the walls around and inside were blackened and burned, and there was nothing but a gaping hole and crumbling concrete where the floor should have been.
"Shit," Havoc whispered, peering down through the broken floor. "Boss, look."
Crumpled amongst the wreckage, having fallen at least a floor, were three separate shapes. And scattered underneath them were several familiar symbols, painted on the concrete.
"The alchemy chamber," Ed hissed. "The room was right above it. They were waiting for us."
"Such a trap," Havoc said, but his voice was shaking with fear and fury, and it wasn't funny at all.
"They want us down there," Ed observed, and shut his eyes against the howl in the back of his brain that demanded he swing down to his brother's aid right now, right away.
"Yeah," Havoc agreed. "Which means we totally shouldn't go. Sucks that we have to anyway, right Boss?" The smile Havoc flashed him was small and sharp and sad. "Good guy disadvantage."
"Truth. All right, here's what we're going to do," Ed decided. "Swing down, grab our guys, and get the hell out. Two minutes, tops, and maybe they won't catch us."
"You're a genius, and that's the best you've got?"
"Yeah, I really need you to shut up right now."
"Whatever," Havoc said, but at least his smile was a little softer now. "This is going to suck."
Ed ignored him, despite his silent agreement, and latched a hand on what looked like the sturdiest bit of floor. Carefully, he dropped down into the alchemy chamber, absorbing the impact of his landing on his automail leg.
"Show off," Havoc hissed, as he scurried down using secure bits of jutting stone.
Ed ignored him some more, and sprinted over to Alphonse first, because the silent scream of panic inside his skull couldn't be denied any longer. His brother was out cold, bleeding a little bit from his right temple, and his arm looked painfully bent, but he was breathing, and Ed could work with that. Something inside his chest eased, and he shuddered out a heavy sigh.
Across the chamber, Havoc was whispering to Riza, who was apparently awake and still clutching her gun. Ed left him to it and made his way over to Mustang's crumpled form.
His stomach bottomed out, sick and screaming, at the sight of him.
The boy was pale, much paler than normal, and covered in blood. Too much blood. Every inch of him that Ed could see was bruised, and in addition to his unnaturally bent arm, his fingers were crooked and swollen. Every single one of them.
And worst of all, his eyes were open. But they were blank and empty, despite his continued breathing, and Ed knew what that look meant, had seen it on his own face, in the hospital after the fire. It was the look you wore when the pain was too huge, when it swallowed up everything that defined you, and the only place you could escape from it was inside yourself.
"Mustang," he whispered, and knelt at his side. "Roy."
The other boy didn't even blink, or acknowledge Ed's presence at all. Just continued to stare straight ahead, sightless. Ed reached out a hand, brushed carefully at his shoulder, and Mustang jerked away instinctively, a low animal sound creeping out his mouth.
Can't even touch him, Ed thought desperately.
Something like despair gripped his heart, because Al was still unconscious, and he could see Riza clutching at her ankle out of the corner of his eye, and trying to hide the grimace on her face, and how were they supposed to move Mustang, when they couldn't even touch him without hurting him?
"Edward," he heard Riza say, and holy shit, she was on her feet, standing on her obviously broken ankle like the pain was nothing, like it had never existed in the first place.
"I can't-, " Ed started, and gestured helplessly at the broken boy in front of him, hating desperately that he was shaking yet again.
"You can," Hawkeye said, and her voice allowed zero argument on the matter. "We can. Use your alchemy, make a stretcher. Alphonse can ride out on Havoc's back. You and I can carry Roy."
"Edward. Don't make me hit you, too."
Crouching behind Hawkeye, Havoc snorted out a single, hysterical laugh. Ed stared, and then unbelievably, started to smile, warmth spreading up his spine.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, okay."
He clapped his hands, turned the stone scattered around them into a flat bed with handles. It wasn't the most comfortable stretcher ever created, but it would have to work, and at least he was able to alter the chemical make-up enough to make it light and easier for him and Riza to carry. In a burst of inspiration, he used another stray bit of stone to create a sort of splint for Riza's ankle. Again, not the most comfortable option, but it would at least provide some support. She smiled at him when he handed it to her, and strapped it on without even a wince of pain.
He probably would have never been able to get Roy onto the stretcher without Riza there. The sounds Mustang made, horrible and helpless and hunted, would have broken him, burned him. But Riza kept her face like stone, rolling Roy onto the stretcher with solid, unwavering hands, because it was either that, or leave him there, and that wasn't an option. Only after he was settled, on his back and breathing shallowly, did Ed see her run gentle fingertips over his face.
"We need to go," Havoc said, eyeing the shadows warily. He'd moved away when they'd been transferring Roy, backed up several paces, eyes shut and teeth clenched tight.
Ed nodded his agreement, and rose up off his knees. He frowned when he saw his pants stained red, not with blood, but something thicker, and sticky. Paint.
"This symbol is fresh," he said slowly, crouching to run his fingers over the nearest line. "Still wet."
His brain slotted the pieces together, at a pace that everyone else called abnormal, and he was already reaching out hands to shove the others off, get them away, when the lines began to glow blue, and pain like he'd never known outside of the fire brought him back to his knees.
Dimly, over the roar inside his head, he heard Havoc shouting, Riza screaming. Heard his own hoarse cries, and Alphonse making noise even in his unconscious state. His body curled inward, trying to protect itself against what felt like his bones being broken and then forced out through his skin, but there was nowhere he could go to escape it, trapped on the symbol like he was.
And then it was gone, snapped off like a light switch, and in the sudden silence, Edward's sobbing, sawing breaths seemed extremely loud. Behind him, to his left, he could hear someone-Havoc-retching as he emptied his stomach all over the fresh paint.
"Welcome back, children," Dante began, only she didn't make it any further than that, because Riza had drawn her gun and fired at her, without hesitation and with perfect aim, while Ed was still pondering how to get air back into his lungs.
What. A. Woman.
"Charming," Dante said, and Ed saw her staring with mild amusement at the bullet hole now decorating her dress.
"Riza," Ed croaked, ignoring Doctor Bitch entirely. "Riza, get off the circle. Take Havoc and get off, I'll get Al-"
But then the pain was back, burning blue inside his mind and behind his eyelids, ripping screams from inside his throat.
"It must be a terrible thing, to be so predictable," Dante said conversationally, once the blue faded away. "Such a smart boy, Edward, and yet I knew this trap would work." She smiled at him, sweet like candy. "Sentimentality is such a weakness, wouldn't you agree?"
"Ugh," Ed grunted, because everything felt bloody and broken inside. "Go to hell."
"No need to be rude," Dante tutted gently. "After all, you've been so rude already, haven't you, Edward? Burned down my factory, took away my product, destroyed some of my favorite inventions."
Hazily, Ed remembered Envy's smirking, screaming face, and felt nothing but vicious satisfaction.
"Of course, some still remain," Dante continued, and Ed hated the smile in her voice. "In fact, I believe one is especially eager to speak with you. Where are you, dear?"
"Edward," he heard his mother say, and it hurt, so much worse than the blue pain of Dante's circle.
"Shit," he said, and curled himself a little tighter.
"Edward. Sweetheart, I'm so disappointed."
He didn't want to look. But even knowing it wasn't real, the child that he'd thought he'd killed in the fire that night was still desperate to see his mother's face. So he rolled shakily to a half-sitting position, and stared at the monster he had created.
They'd dressed her up. Pulled her hair back and put her in a dress like the ones she'd used to wear in Resimbool.
"You bitch," he said to Dante, and nothing could stop the tight and trembling tears in his voice.
The monster wearing his mother's face didn't look angry, or upset. Instead she looked sad. Disappointed. And that was so much worse.
"Sweetheart, how could you do it? How could you drag me back like that? And then leave me there on the floor, in the fire? I couldn't move, Edward. Couldn't breathe. All I could do was sit, and believe that my sons would come back for me, of course they would come back and save their mother." Something like tears glimmered in the creature's eyes and Ed felt his stomach roll dangerously. "But you didn't. You left me there. And I burned, Edward. The pain was monstrous; it was like dying all over again. And I still couldn't move, couldn't escape the burning and the bleeding and my new skin peeling off."
"Shut up," Ed hissed out through gritted teeth.
The creature shook her head. Teardrops slid down her pale cheeks like heartbreak.
"I'm just so disappointed," she said again. "My boys. My sweet boys. I thought I raised you better."
"You didn't raise us," Ed gasped out, and realized vaguely in the white buzz of blankness that had become his mind that he was crying as well, silent tears rolling down his face, and trying to scoot away, to hide himself.
"You brought me back," the creature continued, undaunted. "You dragged me back, and then you abandoned me. Abandoned your mother when I was so frightened, and in so much pain. How could you, Edward?"
The low sound that escaped his throat was ragged, wrecked. Just because the creature wasn't actually his mother didn't make her words any less true. Shame twisted in his gut like snakes, coiling up his throat and making it impossible to breathe.
"Don't," he whispered.
"How could you leave me like that? All alone. And your brother, Edward. I left you to care for him. And you pulled him into this with you, stained his hands as much as yours."
"Stop. Please, stop."
"All of this is your fault, Edward. My oldest baby, my sweetest boy. How could you destroy so many lives just by touching them?"
"I didn't," Cold, everything was cold. "I don't…I never meant…"
He pressed his face against the paint lines. Felt like maybe he could stay like that for a while, forever, until things stopped hurting so bad. Vaguely, like watching through a window, he could see his own pale face reflected in Havoc and Riza's eyes. His eyes were too wide, he could see, blank and strangely bottomless.
Havoc looked horrified, maybe about to puke again. Riza looked sad, so horribly sad.
"That's right, sweetheart," his mother's voice crooned gently, and he no longer cared that it wasn't real. He would accept it, as the poisonous lullaby that he deserved. "Rest your head. You know you deserve this, my darling one. So just rest yourself, and let it come. Don't fight what you know you've earned, Edward."
God, but it did sound liberating. The idea of lying there on the floor, and simply accepting what he'd always known he deserved. This was his fault, after all. That had always been his unchangeable and innermost truth. His guiding certainty ever since the night of the fire, and the one thing that no insistence from Alphonse, or anyone else, could ever sway. He'd done this, he'd brought them to this point and this place, both Alphonse and his mother, and who was he to argue if they finally demanded their rightful recompense, who was he-
Something jerked roughly at the back of his jacket, hauling him off the floor and halfway to his knees.
"I'm getting really tired of saving your ass, Elric," Mustang hissed in his ear.
Shock stiffened Ed's spine like a punch. His brain slid crazily sideways for a second, trying sluggishly to process this new twist when his entire mind was bloated and swollen with guilt. He jerked his head to the side. Mustang's face was white and waxy with effort and pain, harsh lines etched deep into his skin and bruises standing out like paint spatters.
But his eyes. His eyes were burning like before, and it made unexpected and really kind of embarrassing tears clog Edward's throat.
"There's a stone stretcher between me and the circle, it disrupted the flow."
"I know you're fairly thick-headed, Elric," Mustang continued, whispering fast and harsh because Dante could activate the circle again any second. "I mean really, I know this. But even you are not stupid enough to believe anything coming out of the evil and crazy corner of the room. That's not your mom, and I never met the lady, but I'm pretty sure she would never blame two grieving little boys for making a mistake."
The lines beneath them were beginning to glow, and crackle. Mustang twisted his-holy shit, broken-fingers tight into Ed's collar.
"And the reason to keep from putting your head down is currently drooling on the concrete to my right," Roy finished ferociously, eyes like infernos inside his pain-ravaged face. "So get off your ass and do your job."
And with that, he shoved Ed ass over teakettle out of the transmutation circle, seconds before Dante lit it up and set everyone screaming again. Including Roy, who had sacrificed his stability on the stretcher to give Ed the boot in the butt that he needed. The older boy dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, buckling under the weight of too much pain.
Ed didn't waste his advantage. He rolled, adrenaline screaming at Dante's cry of, "Sloth! Stop him!"
They were still screaming behind him, his brother and his friends. It made his knees wobble and knock as he ran and his heart beat thick and fast in his throat. Something burst and shattered on the wall to his left, and Ed winced away from it, shifted his footing instinctively.
Hands caught him, wrapped strong and tight around his upper arms. Ed kicked and screeched but then he was being spun and his dad's face was flashing into focus.
"Late," he burst out. "Late, late, God you're so late, where the hell have you been? We're getting kicked to shit down here, and Al, he's still on the circle, and what is that, Dad, what are they doing?" He was babbling, and really uncomfortably aware that he'd just called the bastard 'Dad', but he couldn't seem to stop himself. He felt shaky and raw, split open and on display, and his dad looked so big and strong and safe.
"Edward," he rumbled, and pressed a steady hand to the back of his son's neck. Shit, Ed was even clinging to his jacket, hands fisted like needy things, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop. "It's all right. It's going to be all right."
"Mom," he blurted, and his voice sounded thin again. Stretched tight and tense and grating as it left his throat. "It's Mom, they have Mom, and she said…I can't…"
That strong and steady hand shook him a little, stopped his sputtering words.
"Listen to me, Edward," his father said, over the sounds of Dante shrieking with fury. Apparently, she wasn't pleased to see him. "That circle, on the floor. Dante's taking your power, you and the other children, same as she always has, only she's not channeling it this time. She's ripping it out, and if we don't stop her, the others will die in the process." His father's eyes were fixed on his, his hands warm. "I need you functioning, and fighting. I can handle Dante, like I said, but I need someone to hold her creatures off until I can get to her."
The image of his mother, dressed so sweet and normal, danced at the edges of his vision. He shook it off.
"I'm fine," he gasped out. "I'm good. I've got them."
His father nodded.
"How many are left? She used to have five, but I haven't seen all of them here."
Ed shook his head.
"Only two," he said. "Sloth," not Mom, not Mom, "and the Director. Envy and Lust got rocked in the explosion upstairs. Gluttony got his heart ripped out by Kimblee."
"Okay," his father said, and his eyes softened. "I just need you to hold them off, Edward. If you'd rather…if you'd prefer that I…"
It was probably the nicest thing his Dad had done for him ever, offering to take his kill like that. To shoulder the responsibility that Ed had brought into existence. And he was tempted, too. His dad felt so steady and sure and safe underneath his hands. Ed wanted to lean, to slip off some of the weight he'd always been too young to carry and siphon it onto shoulders a bit better prepared to handle it.
"Can't," he said. "My mess. My clean-up."
His father nodded. Like that made perfect sense.
"Okay," his father said. To their left, Riza and Havoc's screams cut off ominously. "Okay. For what it's worth, Edward, I'm proud-"
"I'll hit you. Again. So not the time, old man."
Hoenheim laughed a little.
"All right. But be safe, Edward."
"Whatever," Ed returned, and absolutely refused to acknowledge the warmth under his heart as anything other than heart burn.
They rolled away at the same. Hoenheim ducked in Dante's direction, eyes set and grim, and Ed turned to tackle his own problem.
His head was an air raid siren, screaming things like the others, have to get the others, get them out of the circle. But underneath it all was the softest whisper of My fault and I wish you were real, sparked by the creature standing with her hands so neatly folded.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I know that you're not her, I know that, but still. My only chance to say it, you know? I'm sorry."
The creature tilted her head.
"Doesn't change what you did, Edward."
"Yeah, I know." He twisted trembling hands together. "I know. So, how do we do this?"
She smiled at him, soft and serene. And then, she lunged, arms and hands dissolving into some sort of liquid. Ed clapped his hands instinctively, with a startled shout, and threw up a stone wall to repel those twisting liquid pillars.
He caught flashes as he ducked and dodged. His mother, eyes deadly with intent, working around the obstacles he threw at her. His friends, still panting on the painted circle, but slowly starting to creep to their feet, Riza's fingers tight on the trigger of her gun. Al and Roy still sprawled across the floor, silent and still.
His father, steady and calm, with Dante's hands locked around his throat. With his hand buried deep inside her chest.
"Dad!" he shouted, almost unwillingly, as Sloth's liquid limbs smash another one of his barrier's to rubble.
"I'd worry about your own problems, dear," she said. "Protect yourself. That's what you're good at, right?"
Ed, breathing hard, managed to twist away as her arm snaked by.
"Never worrying about others, not really," she continued, voice soft. "You're a great pretender, Edward. Using the ones around you to cover your own mistakes. Making yourself the victim."
She caught him by the ankle, brought him down hard. Ed's vision flashed bright and brilliant yellow as he hit the concrete jaw-first.
"Making others cry for you, and your little boy mistakes," she whispered, as Ed gasped and kicked at the rope around his foot until it broke apart. "Getting their warm hands and soft words."
Ed scrambled to his feet. His brain was a confusing whirl of sound and too bright light and aching pain. His face was wet, and it wasn't sweat, but it didn't matter.
"Getting all the attention, and love," the creature continued, and did she realize she was crying too, Ed wondered. "You've never known what it's like, to be left alone in the dark. Abandoned."
It happened so fast. She lunged for him again, arms outstretched, almost like a mother. Ed ducked, spun, clapped. And pressed a hand against her stomach.
She froze. Their eyes locked as he rearranged her chemical makeup. They were close enough to share breath, tears.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, as her eyes began to dull, as her skin began to lose color. He said it to her this time, to the creature that he'd left alone in a burning house, not to the ghost of his dead mother. "I'm so sorry."
And she was almost gone, but there was just enough left for a slight widening of her eyes. For what might have been a tiny smile.
And then she was nothing in his arms, a crumpling, dried out weight that fell to the floor like a corn husk already gone brown and crackling.
And he was already moving away, because it had all been said by this point.
Hoenheim was standing across the room. His hand was no longer buried inside someone else, because Dante was spread across the floor, unmoving and withered even further by age. In his fist, Hoenheim clutched a red stone. It glowed a bit between his fingers, and Ed tried very hard not to think about where he'd pulled it from.
"That's it?" he asked, and they both pretended that his voice wasn't tense and trembling. "That's the stone? Are we done?"
His father didn't even look at him. His eyes were heavy with the weight of too many memories as he stared at the stone instead.
"Not yet," he said softly, absently. "Not quite."
He curled his fingers once, gentle. And the stone crumpled to rust colored dust in his palm.
And then he stuck his hand deep inside his own chest.
"Shit!" Ed yelped, and danced instinctively backwards. "What the hell! Get out of there, old man, what are you doing?"
His father retracted his hand. Dropped another stone, much smaller and more fragile looking, into Edward's hand. Ed stared at it, half tempted to toss it the hell away because he was incapable of unseeing where this had come from.
"I've been letting it wither," his father said softly. "Not pumping it full of fresh energy like Dante. It should have just enough left to heal your friend, and then it should fade away on its own."
"Okay. Um. A really gross present, but thank you, I guess?" Ed held it gingerly between two fingers. "Let's use it and get out of here, then."
But his father was buckling, bending almost gracefully to his knees.
"Hey. Hey!" Ed crouched down beside him. "What's wrong? What are you doing? We're done, let's go!"
His father smiled.
"I'm done," he corrected gently. "But you've got to go. Heal your friends and get out, Edward."
"If you can't function without this thing inside of you, then why did you take it out?" Ed hissed, and refused to acknowledge that his voice was shaking even harder now. "We can take Mustang to a hospital. Get it back in, and get your ass up."
"My mess," his father said, eyes serious and soft. "My clean-up."
"No, you do not get to use that on me, no," Ed returned. "You can't just waltz back in here, and play your swan song like a hero. You can't…this is…this is not how you get to make amends! You're not going to die here, you're going to spend the rest of your life making it up to Al and me, buying us shit and hanging around like a creep and saying sorry every five minutes and being there to make up for being such a dick, you can't do this, you can't, not again."
"Edward," his father said, and put his hand over Ed's fist, which had somehow parked itself right above his dad's heart. "This is your clean break. Take it."
"Damn it," Ed whispered, and he could taste salt on his tongue, from the tears on his face. He thumped his fist down, once. "I don't want your stupid clean break."
He got to his feet, and staggered away. Hoenheim closed his eyes, like he'd expected it, like he knew didn't deserve to die with his son at his side.
The surprise on his face was almost funny, when Ed came back with a pale and shaking Alphonse in tow.
"Brother," Alphonse gasped, eyes wide and bewildered, obviously in pain as he clutched his broken arm. "Brother…what…"
"Don't, Al," Ed murmured as he helped his brother sink to his knees by their father's side. "Just…please."
Al took a moment. Took in the situation, his father's reedy breaths and rapidly paling face, his brother's desperate eyes. Al took a moment, and then sucked in a deep breath and made a decision.
"Hi Dad," he said, and smiled wide and bright.
"Alphonse," his father said, and he was weeping now, tears staining the smile on his face that was so huge it looked almost painful. "Hello. Alphonse."
Al kept smiling, even though his own eyes were stinging, and Ed was whispering a broken 'thank you, Al, thank you' into his ear.
"It's good to see you," Al whispered. "I missed you, Dad."
He took his father's hand. His father curled his fingers around it as best he could, and continued to cry silently, through the widest smile Al had ever seen.
"Thank you," Hoenheim whispered, and Al knew the words weren't aimed at him this time.
Ed's face was turned away, his shoulders shaking and his jaw set and tense.
Al took his hand too. Because even now, he knew they wouldn't.
Mustang bitched the entire way out.
His first act, upon Ed using the stone on him, had been to punch the younger boy in the jaw, just once.
"I told you not to come back for me, Elric," he'd said mildly, climbing to his feet, as if one was healed by a magical red rock every day.
"You're fucking welcome," Ed had hissed back from his position on the floor.
Riza had smiled. Havoc had snorted. Mustang had extended a hand to pull Ed to his feet.
And then he'd opened his mouth. And he hadn't shut it since.
"And really, Elric," he murmured, as they maneuvered the burnt and bending halls of the asylum's upper level. "It's like you have a hero complex, or something. Charging in like that. All you were missing was the white horse."
"Shut your face," Ed returned fondly. "You man-slut bastard."
Alphonse thought about telling them both to shut up. But then he thought about how Roy's baiting had distracted Ed from the bodies on the alchemy chamber floor. About how it gave his brother something solid to respond to. And he kept his own mouth closed instead.
Warm fingers curled around his wrist.
"How are you?" Riza murmured, her eyes never wavering from where they watched Roy clamber over the strewn debris.
Alphonse contemplated his broken arm, which there hadn't been enough power in the stone to fix. Thought about his churning stomach, which felt scraped raw with confusion.
Riza's eyes slid to his for the barest millisecond, an unspoken question.
"Really," he added. "It's…a lot. And I know that Brother and I…we need to talk. But," he smiled, as Ed finally snapped and pitched a rock at Roy's head. As it missed him deliberately by a wide margin. "I trust him. I always have. So it can wait."
"Okay," Riza said, and let him go.
"Hey!" they heard Havoc shout, as they finally exited the grey and smoke-filled corridors and entered the early summer sunshine. "Hey, Fuery! What the hell are you doing here?"
"I'm here to kill you," Fuery said, bright and beaming smile fixed to his face. "Because when communication goes down, you're supposed to find a way to contact us, not disappear into the bowels of enemy territory."
"Oh, you're terrifying," Havoc realized, backing up a step. "Like, actually really scary right now, Fuery."
Ed took a quick and desperate head count, saw Breda and Falman nodding in solemn agreement.
"Hey," he said, suffering through the beginning stages of panic. "Hey. Where's Win-"
His words were interrupted by the giant wrench colliding with his jaw.
"Everyone needs to stop hitting me," he insisted fuzzily from the ground (again). "Like, right the hell now."
"I was worried sick, you asshole," Winry said, as she helped him to his feet.
"I am never babysitting for them," Breda said with great despair. "Ever."
"What happened?" Mustang asked Falman quietly, and manfully ignored the way that the others flocked around him, obvious joy on their faces.
"We were attacked," Falman said. "The Director came out of the trees. He had a sword."
Ed tensed like a runner on the mark.
"What happened?" he said.
"Well, Winry had a wrench," Fuery explained.
"Never. Babysitting. Ever," Breda repeated earnestly.
"He dropped after a few minutes," Falman finished quietly. "Just collapsed. Like his strings had been cut."
Ed thought about his dad turning Dante's stone into dust. Clenched his jaw and swallowed hard.
He felt Al's fingers steal silently into the crook of his elbow, and was pathetically grateful.
There was a moment of soft silence in the clearing, as everyone seemed to realize all at once where they were standing. Who was there. What they had accomplished.
"What do we do now?" Havoc asked, softly.
"Burn it," Mustang said. "Get the Director inside, and burn everything."
His eyes locked with Ed's for a brief moment. Ed thought about the bodies in the basement, who they belonged to. Nodded his head the slightest bit.
"And then we get the story out," Roy continued. "They'll just come looking for us if we don't, send us off someplace else, treat us like we're still kids that need to be treated. We need to tell everyone what's been happening here."
"We need to make sure that the names of the other kids get heard," Ed added softly, and felt Al's fingers tighten on his arm.
"Hughes will back us up," he said. "And Armstrong. We'll be okay. We'll stick together."
"Of course," Riza murmured, like she'd never expected any outcome other than this. Maybe she hadn't.
"Will things ever…be normal?" Winry asked quietly. "After this? Doesn't everyone think that alchemy is a fairy-tale?"
Havoc tossed a companionable arm around her shoulders. Smiled a little.
"C'mon, Win," he said with a soft laugh. "Have you met us? We were never going to get normal."
Winry laughed, shoved him away.
"We'll be careful," Roy said. "We'll make it clear. We're not to be used. By anyone. Ever again."
The steel in his voice, the absolute certainty, made everyone's shoulders relax simultaneously.
"It doesn't feel real," Breda murmured after a quiet moment. "You know. That we're here, all of us."
They took a moment. Looked at each other. Allowed the relief and the fear and the worry to ripple around like waves.
And then Havoc was laughing, and shoving at Breda's shoulder.
"It's real," he said. "Real enough for us to have work to do. Come on, you lazy asshole, get moving."
"Because I am a returning war hero and you didn't do anything during this but watch a girl beat someone up with a wrench."
They left in laughing groups, relief and rising jubilation coloring their voices. Ed watched Mustang walk away with Riza, and smirked at the way she flashed her gun when he tried to protest her hand twining with his.
And then Ed realized that he was alone with his brother, and that his had probably been done deliberately.
"I…," he said, and then stopped, because there were no words, and he knew it.
He bowed his head and waited for the judgment that he knew he deserved for all the lies that he'd told.
He was really, really not expecting his brother to hug him tight with his unbroken arm.
"Wow, Brother," Al whispered affectionately in his ear. "Stop brooding. I mean, really. It's like a sport for you."
"We're okay," Al continued, hushed and fierce. "I mean, we're kind of not, because you have some serious explaining to do, and I am a little pissed really deep down. We'll probably get into a shouting match later. But we're here. You're here. We're together. So, we're okay."
Ed blinked some more, his eyes stinging suspiciously. Clung to his brother's shoulders (when the hell did he get so tall?). And wondered how long his brother had been reversing the care-taking role, and he hadn't noticed.
"Hey, lazy asses!" Havoc shouted through the trees. "Stop having feelings and help us out already!"
Ed laughed. Louder and longer than he could remember doing since before the fire, before Mom.
"Come on, Brother," Al said, beaming as he pulled back.
Ed followed his brother through the trees, towards the sound of familiar laughter, and thought about how much easier it was to breathe, here on the other side of everything.
Five Years Later
Roy Mustang seemed not at all surprised as his office door was kicked in. Long-suffering, maybe, with something like a mournful sigh decorating his facial features. But not shocked, or startled, as might have been the normal reaction.
"Bastard!" Edward Elric greeted, boot still in the air and grin fixed on his face.
"There's this thing called knocking, Brother," Al said serenely, as he followed Ed into the office. "And people in polite society, you know. Use it."
"Fuck polite society!" Edward countered cheerfully.
"So busy, Elric," Mustang said. "Too busy for your shortness and your crazy."
"You've never had a busy day in your life, Bastard," Edward said, dropping onto Mustang's office couch like he owned it, booted feet kicking up to rest on the table. "Unless you count honing your inner asshole skills as work. Which hey, fair point, I bet that keeps you occupied." He thought for a moment. "Also, I'm only four inches shorter than you, can't call me little anymore. Dick."
"Hello Roy," Al added, unfazed as ever by his brother's loud everything.
"Alphonse," Mustang returned. "Nice to see you. Kindly remind your intelligence-challenged brother that some of us have actual jobs, with bigger responsibilities than running around the country like an alchemic fix-it button."
"A desk," Ed pointed out scornfully. "Your job has a desk."
"Because the military, in its infinite wisdom, decided that I should use my finely crafted social skills to head up the alchemy division, whilst you play blunt instrument and battering ram like a champion."
"Blah, blah, your jealously overwhelms me," Ed returned comfortably. "Where are the others?"
"Havoc and Falman are on a recruiting mission up North," Mustang said. "There's been some rumors about alchemists practicing in secret, and we could use the man power. Fuery's in the East, working on the communication lines. Apparently, some of ours got a little too eager to use their powers on a construction project, and knocked them out."
"Amateurs," Ed sighed.
"They'll learn. Breda's on his way back from the border. Still in peace talks with our Ishvalan neighbors, they seem determined to denounce alchemy as some form of crazy witch magic." Mustang resisted the urge, just barely, to roll his eyes. "Breda's bring them around."
"Who knew he'd be such a good diplomat?" Ed mused. "Where's Riza?"
"Escorting my next appointment in," Mustang said. "Because, Elric, as I mentioned already, some of us have real work to do."
Ed snuggled down defiantly into the couch cushions, smiling with all of his teeth as if daring Roy to try and move him. To his right, Al sighed.
"Winry wants to try and do dinner tonight," he said. "With whoever's around. She said the new restaurant next to her shop is good."
"I'll let Riza know," he said. "Breda should be back this afternoon as well. We'll give Fuery, Havoc, and Falman a call afterward so they feel included." He tilted his head in Ed's direction. "Put a ring on her yet, Elric?"
"Put one on Riza?" Ed shot back, cheeks flushing.
"You're both really stupid," Al added around a smile.
There was a knock on the office door, and Roy's answering invitation was almost lost under Al's serene explanation of, "See Brother? That's how normal people do it," and Ed's reasonably phrased response, "And we've been normal, when exactly?"
"Your appointment, Sir," Riza said to Roy, with a small smile for Ed and Al.
"Hey Hawkeye," Ed greeted. "How's the idiot treating you?"
Riza's blank face was the stuff of legends, although the smile in her eyes gave her away.
"Could you specify, Edward? Which idiot in my life are you referring to?"
"The one with the fancy fingers."
"If that nickname ever gets out," Mustang said pleasantly. "I'll murder you in cold blood. Welcome," he added, to the sharp-looking man in the suit who slunk into the office.
"Happy to be here," the man said, and Ed eyed his greasily slicked back hair with something like honest confusion. "My name is Jack Nora. Thanks for agreeing to meet with me, Colonel Mustang."
"Charmed," Mustang said. "Please excuse the extra guests. Major Edward Elric and Major Alphonse Elric just returned from a mission. We were debriefing."
Ed snorted disbelievingly, while Jack Nora's eyes sharpened with interest.
"The Elric brothers," he said, and almost immediately, Ed went stiff and Mustang's eyes went sharp and yet somehow blank.
"Yes," he said, dismissively. "I believe you're here to do an article on our division? Talk about the addition of an alchemy based branch to the military?"
"Right," Jack said, and licked his lips. Somehow, he didn't look at all interested in talking about the military. "Colonel, are you aware of today's date?"
"Wednesday," Mustang returned, and Jack Nora either missed the rapidly dropping temperature of his voice, or chose to ignore it.
"June 17th," Jack Nora added. "Five years to the day since you and your team went public with your story about alchemy asylum."
"Hmm," Mustang hummed noncommittally, but his face was blank, carefully empty, the paper doll mask that he'd carried like a souvenir all the way out of the asylum. "I hadn't noticed."
Jack Nora tipped forward eagerly in his seat. On the sofa, Ed and Al were silent, mouths pressed firmly shut.
"After the initial story, your team never gave another interview about the events that occurred inside the asylum," Jack said, his eyes shining with something like greed. "There's been speculation for years. What really happened inside those walls? What details did you skip over in the general overview you gave?"
"We didn't skip over any details," Mustang said, and his voice was blank, blank and quickly approaching sub-zero. "The military has our full report."
"The military," Nora repeated, and shook his head. "But not the public. Inquiring minds are curious, Colonel. The people have a right to know what really happened."
"Do they?" Mustang asked mildly. "Based on what grounds, I wonder."
"Public interest," Nora said casually, because he was apparently a very stupid man. "There's a lot of mystery surrounding your little team, Colonel. People want to know the inside scoop."
"I'm starting to think that you never had any intention on writing about our division, Mr. Nora," Mustang said, with a tiny, almost entertained smile that could have cut through glass.
Jack Nora seemed to realize, quite suddenly, the atmosphere inside the room. He licked his lips again, nervously this time, and took a peek around. On the sofa, Ed and Al met his gaze with closed mouths and arms crossed against their chests, body language like a closed wall. Riza Hawkeye stood in the doorway, hands serenely folded and eyebrows raised just enough to imply scorn. And behind the desk, Mustang looked mildly interested and amused, and altogether kind of terrifying for it.
"It's not their story, Mr. Nora," Mustang said, almost apologetically, and for some reason, it made Jack shrink a little in his seat. "And it certainly isn't yours. It's ours, and we have no interest in sharing it further than we already have."
"We have a right," Jack insisted weakly, because he'd covered all sorts of stories, in all sorts of situations, and he refused to be intimidated sitting in this sun-washed office.
"To the suffering we endured?" Mustang asked, smiling gently, and it made Jack's blood sing with a strange sort of fear. "No. I'm afraid you don't, Mr. Nora. Riza, if you would be so kind as to escort him out."
"But…the story," Jack protested, and then stuttered into silence at the full force of Mustang's stare.
There was something like burning in his eyes.
"Will not be written by you," he said, so quietly Jack had to strain to hear him. "A fact you'll have to inform your newspaper of, I'm afraid." He gestured to the door. "Have a pleasant day."
Jack Nora, in his only smart move since sitting down, lit out the open door like there were monsters at his back.
"What a fucking idiot," Ed tossed cheerfully into the silence that followed his departure.
"You didn't hit him, Brother," Al said. "That means you get ice cream on the way home!"
Ed looked pained.
"I only did that, like," Ed's eyes went blurry as he took a mental count. "Huh. Seven times."
Mustang dropped his face into his hands.
"Riza, kindly inform the military higher-ups that they should perform background checks on any reporters sent to us in the future."
"At least Falman wasn't here," Ed mused comfortably, and rolled his shoulders to ease the lingering tension. "Or Fuery. Remember last time? I've never seen a respected member of the press cry like that before."
"You'd think they'd lose interest," Al said softly. "I mean, it's been five years. It should be obvious by now that we're not going to share the story."
"Give it time," Riza said dismissively. "Our story will fade, eventually."
In the quiet of the room, Roy's words, from five years back, seemed to whisper through like a ghost, soft and colored with age.
We're not to be used. By anyone. Ever again.
News reports on Mustang's team often contained comments of 'everyone around them, following in their orbit, feels like some sort of outsider, one step out of place and never quite in tune with what they say'.
"So, to recap," Ed said. "You're a bastard. Hawkeye, we missed your face. And we'll see you both for dinner tonight?"
"With Breda in tow," Riza agreed.
"Cool," Edward said, and hauled himself to his feet. He took the time to wander over to Mustang's desk, give him a quick shot in the shoulder. "See you, Bastard," he said, and there was something like a question in his eyes.
"Later, Elric," he said, and it sounded strangely like We're fine.
"Come on, Al," he said. "I've decided that you do owe me ice cream. Not punching a reporter is a big deal for me."
"It really is," Al agreed, somewhat mournfully, and followed his brother out the door.
Riza didn't take his hand once they'd left. She didn't come over, and brush gentle fingers over his lips, like she actually wanted to, because that still wasn't how they worked, in front of others. But she smiled at him, a gentle curl, soft and hardly there at all.
Roy smiled back. There was nothing burning in it, or sharp like knives.
And so, everything really was okay.