Ed first gets the idea in Prague, where they’re lying low and trying to figure out the best way to escape Central Europe. The Germans are constantly on their trail, probably because two foreigners with gold eyes and six flesh limbs between them stand out in people’s memories. The echoes of the war are quickly fading, so the Thule society has had more resources to spend on tracking them down. Al’s heard, though, that things are shaky in America, and an American collapse has consequences for the entire world; the Thule society may not be able to afford to track them for much longer, especially if they put more distance between themselves and Germany. He had suggested the Soviet Union, which was crazy. Ed wasn’t going anywhere that cold, and he didn’t particularly like the look of that Stalin guy.
“We need to blow it up!” He tells Al, who looks up from his newspaper—Ed has no idea why he’s pretending to read the damn thing; neither of them speaks very good Czech—with a blank expression on his face.
“Blow up what?”
“The transmutation circle, obviously.”
“Oh, right, obviously.” Still, Al puts his paper down and turns around completely “Explosives wouldn’t work though, would they? There was plenty going on ‘round the portal last time.”
“Nah, we don’t want to actually use bombs. Even if they’d work, the last thing we need as any more attention from the sort of people who care about unexplained explosions.”
“We want it to self-destruct,” Al says, mostly to himself.
“Yeah, exactly. Break the circle, end the transmutation. If we can get the circle to disintegrate itself, that should close the portal on this side.”
“It seems almost too simple.”
Ed rolls his eyes. “Simple is better.”
“Not if it means we have a portal left open in the middle of the city!”
“We wouldn’t do it in the city, Al, come on, we know better than that.”
“Either way, it’d be out in the open for anyone to find.”
Ed deflates at that. Al’s right, though he does wonder what would happen if the portal were closed only on one side. Would it even work? It wasn’t, of course, worth the risk.
Al bites his lip, and Ed refrains from interrupting his train of thought. Ed is a prodigy, and at the age of twenty-six has accomplished probably a half-dozen impossible things, but sometimes Al makes leaps of thought that leave him completely blindsided. His little brother is a genius. It makes his heart swell.
“Two circles, maybe,” Al mutters to himself. “Could we set it on a timer, somehow?”
“There’s not a place for temporal information,” Ed says.
“We could add one, maybe? Time is the fourth dimension, after all. Alchemy should take it into consideration.”
“A circle within a circle? I think I read something about that once. This would be so much easier if we had a library.”
“If we had a library, we wouldn’t need to be talking about this,” Al reminds him.
“Ugh, I know.”
They both lapse into silence, doodling possible arrays. Ed tries to come up with a non-alchemical way back; the structures of both worlds seemed to be fundamentally the same. Alchemy was the only major difference between them. It would certainly involve less bloodshed, if he could figure out some way to push them through the Gate without actually opening the Gate.
It hits him like a sack of bricks.
“We forgot about one variable,” Ed says slowly. He’s still working the idea out, but it seems plausible.
“We did?” Al looks appalled.
“The blood, right? Like, we have to use blood from someone who doesn’t belong here, but there’s no reason we need so much, as far as I can tell.”
“I think I see where you’re going with this,” Al says. He sets down his pencil.
“They took a ton of blood from Hohenheim…”
“But they wanted to bring an entire army through the gate, and we only need to get two people across.”
“So maybe the reason the portal didn’t destabilize or close is because it was drawing on so much blood.”
“You’re suggesting that there’s a relationship between how much blood we use and how long the portal stays open.”
“Yeah,” Ed nods. “There’s gotta be more to the picture than that, but I figure it’s a start. Between that and figuring out a way to make it self-destruct, I think we could make it home.”
“We’ll make it home, brother,” Al says to him in the same voice Ed used to use to reassure Al he’d get his body back. Ed can’t stop the grin that spreads across his face.
“But first,” Al continues, “I think we may need to leave town.”
“Again?” Ed sighs. “I thought we were being subtle this time!”
Al gives him an unimpressed look, but says, “They may not have found us yet, but Marek told me some Germans have been poking around, asking mechanics about their clients, that sort of thing.”
“Ugh,” Ed groans and shoves his face into the arm of the couch. “None of them are even helpful. I should just stop visiting them at all.”
“It may cut down on our average moves per year,” Al agrees. “I was thinking somewhere near the coast.”
“What about that Slav kingdom in the south? They’ve got a nice coastline, most of the Adriatic, if I remember correctly.”
“The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes?”
“Yeah, that one.”
Al hums in agreement and picks his pencil back up. If Ed cranes his neck and kneels on the couch he can almost make out the graceful arcs of the circle. It doesn’t look like an array Ed has ever seen, though. There’s too much, too many lines and glyphs. He must be trying to work in the temporal information.
Ed stretches back on the couch and tries to work out the same problem. They need to tell the array to do what it’s supposed to do, but only for a set amount of time. If it’s going to self-destruct, or disintegrate or whatever, it’s going to be a very delicate thing. Ed trusts his brother implicitly, but he doesn’t necessarily trust their alchemy, not on this side of the gate. If they were back home, this would be no problem, they’d probably be starting trials already and running away from the ensuing explosions. The symbols that Ed didn’t recognize in Al’s array will crowd too close to the ones he does know, if Al is doing what Ed thinks he’s doing. There has to be a way to make sure the circles don’t interfere with one another. He pinches the bridge of his nose and wishes, for the millionth time, that they were back home.
That’s a train of thought Ed can’t afford to entertain right now. It always starts slow and simple— he wishes they were back in Amestris so they could test the introduction of time into transmutation circles rather than doing it by pure theory and some educated guesswork—and then becomes an all-encompassing ache that consumes him for what feels like hours.
It isn’t precisely loneliness, because Ed feels guilty thinking of himself as lonely when he has Al with him, when they have met so many good people in Europe, when they’ve even managed to find doubles of their friends and been able to pretend, for a minute, that they’re home. It’s more that Ed knows acutely how out of place he and his brother are. They can travel to every corner of the globe and never find someone who speaks their native language; their greatest skill is useless here; everything they learned in school has no meaning to anyone; Ed is now acutely aware that Earth is at least decades if not centuries away from developing automail-like technology; anyone they could have reached out to for support is gone, locked behind the Gate.
This isn’t helping, Ed tells himself. If they get this right they get to go home, and all of these things will cease to matter. Focus, he mutters, focus.
Time is the fourth dimension, so there should be a space for it in their arrays. Al’s definitely right about that.
“We need to include more dimensions in the circle,” Ed says.
Al’s head snaps up. “A 3d circle!”
“Exactly! We need to layer it,” Ed jumps up, his melancholy forgotten in the face of his excitement. He takes Al’s pencil and starts to sketch. It’s hard to capture the layering on paper; Ed is envisioning the self-destructing circle somehow raised above the gateway circle, or maybe below it. They need to decide what height means relative to time. Ed’s pulse is racing in a way he’s missed, a way he can’t remember experiencing for years.
They sketch possible circles until Al’s little notebook is full, and then they start scribbling on the newspaper. Al complains, but Ed calls him out on not being able to read Czech and Al insists he knows it well enough to read the news and at that point they give up on revolutionizing alchemical theory for the day.
They stash the ruined newspaper with the rest of their journals and pack up with an ease born from long practice. Ed always feels bad running out without telling the landlord, but this is why they pay the rent up front with cash, usually on a week-to-week basis. In his wildest fantasies they live in a house that they own, and they aren’t running anymore. It feels like a small and confining dream, but that’s life on the other side, apparently.
Al locks the door and slides the key under it. The expression on his face is a mirror of Ed’s: wistful, tired, with a slow burn of anger underneath it.
“Belgrade?” He asks as he finally turns away.
“Yeah,” Ed says, “Belgrade. We should pick up a Serbo-Croatian dictionary first, though.”
“Isn’t it related to Czech?” Al asks. “I’m pretty sure I have a Czech phrasebook in my bags somewhere.”
“They don’t even use the same alphabet,” Ed points out. “What is your deal with Czech, anyway?”
“It’s a beautiful language, brother,” Al harrumphs. “Not all of us gave up after learning three.”
“I didn’t give up!” Ed protests. They get weird looks in the street like they always do when they speak Amestrian. It makes his blood boil, the way everyone side-eyes them because it’s obvious they’re foreign but it’s not obvious what kind of foreign they are.
“Then what was Portugal?”
“We were there for like four days! You didn’t learn Portuguese either!”
“I learned more than you did!”
“I had all my bases covered. You just memorized a bunch of sappy poetry.”
“Being able to order food, swear, and say “I’m not short” is not covering all your bases,” Al insists.
“I can also say “I’m from the UK” and “sorry, my passport is at the hotel.” Everything else is just grammatical patterns.”
Al sighs dramatically, and then an evil grin spreads across his face. “So you’re saying that you could be speaking perfectly fluent Portuguese if you just learned some more words.”
“More or less,” Ed agree. He figures he can’t get himself into too much trouble, since they’re not actually going to Portugal.
“Great!” Al chirps. “I’ve got a Portuguese-English dictionary somewhere in my bags.”
“I’ll tell you the rest after we get our tickets,” Al says, and then transitions smoothly into accented Czech as he buys two tickets on the next train to Belgrade. Ed then watches him flirt with the girl behind the ticket counter for at least five minutes. He thinks about walking over and embarrassing his little brother, as is his God-given right, but Al was clearly about to make some sort of weird bet, so Ed doesn’t need to piss him off right now.
“The train doesn’t leave for a couple of hours. It takes like twenty-seven hours, so I got us spots in a sleeper car.”
“Great,” Ed says, “I love sleeping on trains.”
“You like it more than being shot at by Germans,” Al reminds him.
“So true,” Ed agrees. “Let’s get lunch since we’ve got time. Train food is awful.”
They take their bags with them, though the girl behind the ticket counter insists she can watch them while they’re gone. Al chides Ed for being short with her, and Ed takes umbrage with his choice of words, and wins the ensuing argument about how careful they should be, especially with suitcases full of alchemy notes.
They stop at the first hotel they come across. Ed does his best impersonation of an important British person, and they’re escorted into the dining room immediately. The rest of the patrons are also British or American; Ed only hears English being spoken.
“So,” Al says in German once they’ve ordered and the waiter has disappeared, “let’s make a bet.”
“Is this about the Portuguese thing?” Ed asks.
“Yup. Here’s the deal: I’ll give you my Portuguese dictionary, and you’ll have the entire trip to study. When we get to Belgrade I’ll ask you to translate something. If you can’t do it, you have to tell me why you’re so opposed to going to America.”
“And if I can?”
“I won’t try to bring any strays back for the entire time we’re in Belgrade.”
“For the entire time we’re in the country,” Ed counters. Al grimaces but agrees.
That’s how Ed finds himself in Belgrade, twenty-eight hours later, totally incapable of reading street signs or understanding what the concierge at the hotel is saying to them. He can extrapolate based on the Czech he knows, but it isn’t going to be enough. Al must have planned this, the brat. It’s probably payback for Ed convincing him back in ’25 that Spanish and Portuguese were basically the same. The memory makes him chuckle, and he forgets to be angry until they’re set up in a surprisingly nice room.
He wins the bet, too, much to Al’s surprise. Victory is less sweet when he immediately has to switch gears and start learning Serbian Cyrillic, and even more bitter when he sees Al’s expression.
“Do you really wanna know that bad?”
Al shrugs. “I can guess, probably, but it’s weird that you’re so close-mouthed about it.”
Ed feels terrible. “I didn’t mean to keep it a secret, I just…”
“I know!” Al interjects.
“Look, I’ll tell you anyway.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Nah,” Ed says, “I feel like a jerk now.”
Al is suspiciously silent.
“Anyway,” Ed says, with a significant look at his little brother, “going to America, it just feels like giving up, you know? The gate spat me out in Europe-or in Britain, but that’s basically Europe-the first time. What if we’re supposed to be here for it to work in the other direction? I don’t know,” he admits, eyes focused now on his knees, “I guess I’m tired of running but I’m not ready to give up yet.”
When Ed looks up, Al is already moving in for a hug. He relaxes into it; it feels like a huge weight has been taken off of his shoulders. They don’t really talk about the possibility that they’re trapped, forever, in this alternate world. It’s like when Al was still in the armor and they never imagined a future where he didn’t get his body back, except that this time around Ed hasn’t always been sure they can succeed. He feels a little better about it now, both because he’s hugging Al and because a self-destructing circle may actually solve all their problems.
Al doesn’t say anything as he pulls away and returns to his seat, for which Ed is eternally grateful. There’s only so much of this he can handle at any one time.
They continue to not talk about it, even though it lingers over their heads like a dark cloud, as they learn basic Serbo-Croatian and find an apartment a stone’s throw from the Danube; as they flit from menial job to menial job; as Al tries to bring home three cats and a dog within two weeks, only to be reminded of the bet he lost; as Al falls into a mutual flirtation with the girl who works at the bakery down the street, who speaks at least three languages Ed hasn’t even heard of and can’t attempt without hurting something in the back of his throat; as Ed occasionally sleeps with a university student named Miroslav, who talks to Ed about his studies and is shocked when Ed talks back, in broken Serbo-Croatian and then in German as he explains the problem with Miroslav’s analysis, and who calls Ed a genius and asks him why he never finished his studies, and is gracious enough to ignore the bitter edge to Ed’s laugh.
The only time they talk about the possibility of staying on Earth (of being trapped, Ed thinks to himself) is when they work on the circle, late at night. It’s their last, best, and only shot. Al doesn’t think that the detonating circle should be raised above the portal; Ed does. They what starts as an incredible civil debate ends with the living room covered in increasingly sloppy diagrams, thrown haphazardly and both brothers lying on the floor.
“I just want to go home,” Al says.
“Yeah, kiddo, I know,” Ed says, voice muffled by the arm thrown over his face.
“Do you think we’ll make it?” Al asks, and Ed readies himself to lie, and tells himself it isn’t entirely a lie because he can’t quite bring himself to quash that last light of hope he still has, but then he looks up and Al’s glare is like a laser, so Ed tells the truth.
“I don’t know. I think there’s a chance that this’ll work, and that it’ll close itself. I think we need to try.”
He hears Al let out a long, shaky breath. “I think I liked it better when you lied,” he says.
“I didn’t lie,” Ed protests, “not really.”
“I know,” Al says, softly.
They lie like that for a long time, the silence punctuated only by the rustle of paper.
In the end Ed wins their argument; they do end up putting the exploding circle above the portal, but Al redesigns everything else with a vicious attention that Ed can respect. They set a date in the middle of April (“The cruelest month,” Al quotes, and Ed rolls his eyes. “Eliot’s a jackass.” “Just because you can’t appreciate poetry--!”) which gives them plenty of time to figure out how much of their own blood they need to spill.
Ed talks about it like he would talk about any chemistry problem, which Al finds totally weird. When he tells Ed this, Ed just shrugs and points out that the last time they tried something half this crazy he ended up amputating his own arm, so it can’t possibly be worse. After that, they agree not to talk about it.
In the days leading up to April 19th, the chosen day, Ed can barely contain his excitement. He manages to rein it in while saying goodbye to Miroslav.
“I’m going back home,” he says, and Miroslav gasps.
“Back to England?”
“Something like that,” Ed agrees, and keeps the grin from his face until he’s outside. Later he knows he’ll feel terrible and guilty about it, but for now it’s like nothing can hurt him.
Al does something similar with the girl from the bakery. They pack their bags and quit their jobs. Ed figures if the Germans could bring an entire army with them, he and Al can at least bring back their notes and a few books. A few quickly becomes “as many as they can fit into their suitcases.” They count out what’s left of their money and leave it on the table for their landlord. Ed stuffs a few bills in his pockets while Al isn’t looking, in case they don’t make it and they have to go to America after all.
On Friday, April 19th, 1929, Ed and Al leave their apartment in Belgrade for this last time and head for an abandoned factory on the edge of town. By the time they reach it night has settled around them. Al lights the candle they brought with them and they wind their way through the decaying metal. They’d come here about a week before, to make sure they could set-up a 3d array.
There’s still a lot to do; the circles have to be perfectly aligned and connected, so that the blood works to activate both of them, but soon enough it’s done.
“So,” Al says. “I guess we should just go for it.”
“Just a few milliliters,” Ed reminds him, and pulls out his pocketknife. “It can all be mine, if you want.”
“No way,” Al says, indignant. “Fifty-fifty, we agreed.”
So they fill the test tube Ed swiped from Miroslav with their blood, and then pour it into the center of the transmutation circle, and activate it with one swift motion. For a sick moment nothing happens, and Ed can feel something inside of himself start to die, and then the circle flares to life and the portal home is swirling there, in front of them, in this old factory in Belgrade. They’re going to go home after all.
“Brother!” Al yells, “we have to go now, before it closes.”
Ed looks up; the detonating circle is starting to glow, from the inner edges out. When it’s complete, the circles will be destroyed. He takes Al’s outstretched hand and they jump.
They fall and fall for a time that is both immeasurably short and immeasurably long and then they hit the ground, and it’s—
sand. It’s fucking sand. Ed has clawed his way back across the fabric of the universe and he’s dumped himself in the goddamn desert. Someone is laughing hysterically, and it takes him a minute to realize it’s him.
Al is lying next to him, still holding his hand, and he starts laughing, too. Ed is momentarily glad that they’re in the middle of the desert so no one can hear how crazy they sound.
Ed hears the rush of the portal and sits up. Al moves with him. Then, all of a sudden, it’s silent. The portal closes itself.
“It worked,” Al murmurs. Ed can’t stop smiling.
“We made it,” he says.
Al turns back to him with a blinding grin. “We still have to walk through the desert, though.”
“Don’t say that,” Ed pleads. “We don’t even know where we are yet. Maybe it’s not actually the desert. I see mountains, actually.”
“This looks familiar,” Al says. “This isn’t the desert by Lior at all, brother. You were just overreacting.”
“You thought it was, too!”
Al hums. “Anyway, I think we’re near Rush Valley.”
It dawns on Ed, suddenly, that they don’t have to sit here and try to guess where they are based on six-to-eight year old memories of Amestris. The circle comes to mind instantly, and Ed raises himself up on a pillar of earth. In the distance he can see a town amidst the peaks; it looks like what he remembers Rush Valley as being, except bigger.
“It’s that way,” he tells Al when he comes back down. “If we start walking we should get there in a few hours.”
They manage to make it to Rush Valley before the sun sets. It still takes them hours, but they landed in the morning, so there’s still daylight as they drag themselves along the main street. Even though Al transmuted water for them, Ed is still pretty sure he’s lost 95% of all the moisture in his body.
“Brother,” Al says, “is that?”
Ed looks up and sees what Al must be talking about. Outside of one of the shops, saying goodbye to one of her clients, is Winry.
Ed and Al both stare at her, speechless, until she turns around and sees them looking at her. She tackles them before they can say anything.
“Ed! Al! You dummies, what took you so long?” She’s crying, but Ed doesn’t point it out.
“Hey,” Ed says, “it took a lot of work to get back here!”
“It did,” Al chimes in.
Winry laughs and shepherds them into her store. Ed hasn’t been so happy to hear someone laugh since he found Al again. The laughter stops once she gets a look at Ed’s arm.
“What happened to your automail?”
“I grew out of it,” Ed mutters.
Winry looks him up and down. “Sure you did.”
“I did,” Ed whines. “Tell her, Al!”
Al laughs, but dutifully says to Winry, “It was at least a couple of centimeters. His legs were getting uneven. Besides, three years without any maintenance is a long time for automail to last, right?”
“Three years?” Winry shrieks. Ed admires her energy, if not the damage she’s doing to his eardrums.
“Yeah,” he says. “Eventually it seemed like taking it off would be better, even though this thing,” he waves his arm at her, “isn’t nearly as good. We tried to follow Hohenheim’s model, but it’s not perfect.”
Winry’s face softens. “Well, I don’t have a replacement waiting for you this time, but it’s probably best to go ahead and take these things,” she pauses to shudder, “off. No offense, I’m sure you guys tried your best.”
“We’re not engineers,” Al says.
“Clearly,” Winry mutters, and sends Ed to a corner of the shop to strip.
She’s gentle and quiet as she detaches his arm and then his leg, though Ed can tell by her expression that their design is causing her physical pain. She cleans the ports and expresses her surprise at how good of a condition they’re in, takes Ed’s measurements (“I guess you grew a little…” “Who’re you calling little?”) and stares off into space for a few minutes before saying, “Okay, I think I know how I want it to look. But first, dinner!”
Ed is suddenly acutely aware of how long it’s been since he’s eaten. “Yes. Dinner.”
“Dinner,” Al echoes. Their stomachs growl in unison.
Winry laughs and starts pulling takeout containers out of her fridge. “It’s Xingese,” she says. “We finally got a Xingese place last month. It’s all anyone would talk about for two weeks. Paninya left her food here. I keep telling her I’m going to eat it myself, but she never listens.”
“How is Paninya?” Al asks as Winry indiscriminately loads three plates with food.
“Good, good. Still working for Douglas. She runs errands for me sometimes, too, and looks after the place when I’m in Central.”
“What are you going to Central for?” Ed asks. He would have expected Winry to say Resembool.
“I have a second store open there. It’s where I work in the off season. Don’t worry, I only take military clients if Sheska vets them first.”
“Sheska from Intelligence?”
“Who else would I be talking about, dummy?” Winry retorts around a mouthful of food.
“I just didn’t realize you two were friends.”
“I’m not surprised, since the last time you were on the planet you were, of course, too busy blowing things up. Also, we’re not just friends, Ed,” she says with a laugh, “she’s my, I don’t know what the best word is for it.”
“Is she your wife?” Al asks.
“We’re not married,” Winry says. “But you’ve got the idea.”
“I was saving the world, thanks very much!” Ed retorts, and then registers the rest of the interaction.
“You and Sheska, huh?”
“That’s great,” Al says. Winry beams at him.
“Yeah, me and Sheska. She’s…” Winry trails off, “she’s incredible. I could go on, but I don’t think you want to hear it.”
“Of course we do,” Al says, at the same time as Ed asks
“Are you happy?”
Winry looks at him. “Yeah, I am. It’s even better now that you two are back. You are staying, right?”
“Yeah, we’re staying.”
They spend the rest of the meal in a comfortable silence. Ed adjusts to only have one workable hand again. It’s been years since he’s had to do everything left-handed; it took them a few months after his automail gave up the ghost to make a workable replacement. He remembers being terrified that the Thule society would descend on them while he wasn’t able to run, or fight back. Ed shakes his head. He’s back home, now. No one is coming for them.
After they’ve cleaned their plates, Winry browbeats them into going to bed.
“I know what you two look like when you haven’t had enough sleep, so don’t try lying.”
So Ed hops upstairs and Al follows behind him. Winry’s only got one guest bed, but she insisted that one of them use hers, since she’s going to be working as late as she can to get Ed an arm and leg. Ed takes the guest bedroom since it’s closer.
He makes a genuine effort to fall asleep and it works, for the most part. Ed isn’t sure exactly how long he’s been awake, but it feels like it’s been days. He’s out like a light as soon as his head hits the pillow.
He jerks awake a few hours later after a nightmare he’s already forgetting but which left behind it the sensation of being sucked through the gate again and again. It takes him a long minute to remember where he is, to remember why he doesn’t have his prosthetics on, and by that point Ed knows he’s not going to be getting much sleep. So instead he makes his way downstairs and follows the sound of metal on metal until he reaches Winry’s workroom.
“I should have guessed,” Winry says without looking up. “Sit down, but don’t fiddle with things. I have a system.”
“I’m sure you do,” Ed says with a laugh. The place is full of half-built automail pieces, scrap metal, tools, and what are probably invoices.
“You’re lucky,” Winry says, holding up a half-finished arm. “I had this lying around. It’s a lot like the one you had before, but I’ve been working on joint strength. More strength without sacrificing flexibility.”
“Yeah?” Ed murmurs. Winry takes that as an invitation to narrate most of her actions. It’s the calm, even-handed speech of a teacher. Ed wonders if she has apprentices of her own now. She should; she’s a genius.
The sound of her voice is enough to anchor Ed, to reassure him that he’s back home and not in the middle of the cruelest dream possible. Even his own subconscious couldn’t come up with all of these small details of engineering, or the smell of metal and oil in the air. He lets himself close his eyes for just a minute.
Winry shakes him awake after what feels like just five minutes. “I should have known you’d just fall asleep,” she says, but her smile is gentle. “C’mon, go on upstairs. I’m done for the night.”
Ed looks over at the workbench and discovers that the arm has gone from being half-built to being almost entirely done. “How long was I asleep?” he croaks.
“Just a few hours. It’s still the middle of the night.”
Ed grumbles but lets Winry herd him upstairs and watch him get into bed. “I know you,” she says in response to his whining. She does. Left to his own devices he probably wouldn’t even lie down.
He eventually does fall asleep, and ends up being the last one awake, too.
Al gestures to the plate of toast and sausage on the table and tells him Winry has a client. Ed grunts his acknowledgment through a mouthful of toast and Al rolls his eyes.
It gets easier after that. Winry finishes Ed’s arm that night, and has a leg for him three days later. Al spends most of his time keeping Ed company at Winry’s, but eventually his cabin fever is too much for Ed to handle so he convinces Al to go out and look around for a specific food stall Ed remembers from years ago.
Once Ed has automail again, they start their search for the best street food in Rush Valley with the kind of dedication they once reserved for their quest to return home and, before that, to restore their bodies. Paninya joins them sometimes. She’s blessedly calm about their miraculous return. Winry has taken it pretty well in stride, too. She’d cried a little when Ed had his automail back, but that aside she’s seemed perfectly happy just to let them be in her life again with no questions asked. It’s one of the major reasons Ed is content to stay in Rush Valley for weeks (the others of course, are that he loves Winry and that it’s a relief to be in one place without fear, and that Al seems happy). He wants to ignore it for now and just rest.
Of course, they can only go on like that for so long. After they’ve been there for nearly three weeks Winry asks, in the voice she reserves for things she knows people don’t want to hear (like, for example, how much their bill is going to be) “How long are you guys planning on staying?”
“I guess we should go see Granny, huh?” Al says.
“She is getting impatient,” Winry agrees. Granny Pinako had been the one person they’d gone ahead and called. Ed said it would be fun to surprise everyone else, and that is part of it, but he also doesn’t want anyone else to know because he wants for him and Al to be able to do this at their own pace.
It is about time they started really living again, though, he figures. If he’s being honest with himself, he’s getting bored.
“Tomorrow?” Ed suggests.
“You don’t waste any time, do you?” Winry asks. Al laughs, and they end up leaving the next day.
Winry tells them to look up Sheska when they get to Central, and makes them promise to call when they get to Resembool.
Granny is happy to see them, though she chastises them for taking so long and worrying everyone. Ed and Al spend the rest of the week playing with Den and telling Granny odds and ends about Europe. They leave out the most salacious details, but Ed gets the feeling that Granny knows exactly what they’re not saying.
They visit their mother’s grave and the remains of their house—even after all these years, no one has built on the land. It’s weird. Ed doesn’t know what he was expecting, or if he was expecting anything at all, given how often he thinks about his feelings, but it wasn’t this.
There’s the guilt, still, always, and the grief, but Ed also feels something like relief. There was a chance he might never have been here again, and somehow that’s worse than the pain that this still brings. Judging from the way Al holds onto his hand, he feels the same.
They don’t stay in Resembool for much longer. Granny tells them not to wait more than half a decade before they come see her again. Den barks in agreement, and Ed and Al head for Dublith.
Teacher knocks their heads together as soon as she sees them, but then hugs them and cries. Sig lifts them up so high even Al’s feet don’t touch the ground. They spend the rest of the week sparring, which is embarrassing because Izumi beats them soundly every time. It’s like being ten all over again.
“We’ve been busy!” Ed whines.
“Did you not need to defend yourselves in the other world?” Izumi asks.
“It was different,” Al says as he dodges her kick. “People don’t fight like this in the street.”
“Exactly,” Ed says, trying to duck under her guard. It doesn’t work, and he hits the ground hard. “Just, they sort of punch a lot. Knives, too. They were big on knives.”
“Guns, sometimes,” Al adds.
“No excuses,” Teacher says, and wipes the floor with them.
They don’t really talk about alchemy until the day before they leave for Central. Al knows he wants to do graduate work at Central University, and he ends up telling Teacher all about the circles they used to get back home. Ed lounges in his chair and listens, only chiming in to remind Al which bits had been his idea.
“What about you, Edward?” Teacher asks once Al’s explanation has wound down. “What do you plan on doing in Central?”
Ed avoids making eye contact. “Well, I think I might still be enlisted, so I need to check on that.”
“The military, again?”
“Look,” Ed says, “it’s not my dream job. I wanna…there’s a lot of research I wanna do but I don’t want the military to have access to it, and I don’t know if the university would make me a research fellow with my credentials.”
Izumi narrows her eyes and Ed adds in a rush, “Not that I’m not gonna try! The military is just for backup.”
“You could enroll with me,” Al offers.
Ed and Izumi snort in stereo.
“I’m not really cut out for that,” Ed says, trying to keep a straight face.
“I was just pointing out that you do have another option. I know you’re not thrilled about staying with the military.”
“Yeah, yeah. At least the military won’t be breathing down my neck all the time. You think I could handle having an advisor?”
Al hums but doesn’t say anything. Ed appreciates the effort but knows down to his bones how much he’d hate being a student. Al is the only collaborator he can handle, so having someone in charge of him is out of the question. Besides, he probably knows more about alchemy than anyone on the faculty.
Izumi wisely doesn’t get involved in the ensuing argument, but Ed knows whose side she’s on, anyway.
They get sent packing the next morning with more sandwiches than they can hold, much to Ed’s delight. He’s already planning the best order for eating them, and calculating the odds of being able to beg some of Al’s from him. Ed figures he has a pretty good chance of getting at least one, maybe two or three if Al’s tired of them by the time they get to Central. They’re going to be staying with Sheska, who’s the only person in the city who knows that the Elrics have made it back home. Ed hadn’t wanted to tell her in advance because there was a chance that she might let it slip, but Winry had rolled her eyes and said, “She works in Intelligence, Ed,” and continued to dial. Sheska will be easy at least. Ed likes her in a distant way, and is determined to keep an eye on her to make sure she treats Winry right, but they weren’t particularly close before Ed vanished. That’s what he’s been putting off, and Ed knows it, and he knows Al knows.
Ed feels more like himself now than he has in years, but there’s still something tired sitting in his chest. He just doesn’t have it in him anymore, not for stuff like this, not for the way people look when they see him and Al, not for talking about the past six (if he’s being honest, the past eight) years. Ed has a lot of fight in him, always has and always will, but he is tired of using it. He is tired of fighting all the fucking time, and he wants to come home and pretend like everything is alright. The past month has been everything Ed could have wanted: quiet but not stagnant, thank god, full of people who asked the kind of questions he wants to answer.
Still, he knows they have to do this, so he’s going to do it. Ed doesn’t shirk his duties.
Sheska’s already half-asleep by the time they find her apartment, a spacious second-story place in a neighborhood that reminds Ed a little bit of Vienna. Al says it’s more Prague, but Ed thinks that’s just because they were in Prague more recently. The apartment itself is cleaner than Ed had expected, but still littered with books, even though shelves line most of the visible walls. The mantle is filled with pictures of Winry and Sheska, together and separately, and a group picture of the whole Rush Valley gang.
“We’ve only got the one guest bed,” Sheska says in a low voice, “but there’s the couch, too.”
“It’s not a problem,” Al assures her. “We’ll figure something out.”
Sheska nods and then hugs them both briefly and fiercely. “I’m glad you came back,” she says, and the goes to her room.
Ed crashes on the couch before Al can complain, and tries not to think of tomorrow. They’re going to see Gracia.
Ed and Al join Sheska for her morning coffee, which is really more them sitting at the table and watching while Sheska alternates between taking huge gulps of coffee and running around gathering all of her stuff. Before she leaves she tells them they can stay as long as they want, but that she will be going out of town the weekend after next to visit Winry—and the way her face lights up at Winry’s name sets all of Ed’s concerns to rest—so they’d better be prepared to house-sit if they’re here that long.
“We’ll get out of your hair before then,” Ed assures her, and Al adds,
“But we’d be happy to house-sit, of course!”
Ed isn’t sure Sheska actually hears that, since she’s dashing out the door muttering about how she’s going to be late.
Once Sheska’s gone Ed and Al take their time getting ready. Gracia hasn’t moved, so they remember most of the way. It doesn’t stop them from dragging their feet from the moment they leave Sheska’s to the moment they reach Gracia’s doorstep.
When she sees them she can’t speak for a minute. She mouth is open but nothing comes out, and her eyes are full of tears as she pulls them both into a hug, right there on the step. She releases them when Elysia’s voice pipes up from behind her,
Gracia lets them go and Elysia launches herself into Ed’s arms. “I missed you! I missed both of you!”
“We missed you, too,” Al tells her. “You’ve gotten so big!”
“I’m eleven now,” Elysia tells them as Ed sets her down.
They head into the house where Gracia has pie fresh out of the oven, like she knew they’d be coming. Elysia tells them about school and then demands to know where they’ve been.
“Well,” Ed says, leaning in close, “it’s a bit of a secret, but I know we can trust you.”
“Of course,” Elysia replies, deadly serious. Gracia chuckles.
“We were in another world.”
“How did you get there?”
“A gate,” Al tells her, noticing that Ed is floundering. “Some bad people opened a gate, and we had to go to the other side to close it, and we got stuck. But we found a way back.”
“What was the other planet like? Were there aliens? Aunt Sheska says there are aliens.”
“Oh my God,” Ed mutters. “Of course she does.”
“No, no aliens,” Al says with a laugh.
“Just normal people,” Ed adds. “Like our twins.”
“Twins? Did you have a twin over there?” Elysia asks. Her eyes are wide as saucers.
“I never met him,” Ed says, “but I met Al’s twin. He looked almost exactly like Al.”
“Was,” Elysia starts, looking down, “did my dad have a twin?”
Ed’s breath catches in his throat. He looks over at Gracia, who echoes Elysia’s question.
“He did,” Ed says. “He had a twin, and your mom had a twin, and they got married and they had a little girl, who looked just like you.”
His voice breaks at the end, but Ed knows no one notices because Elysia is sobbing into his shirt and it looks like Gracia, too, is crying softly into Al’s shoulder.
After that, things get easier. Ed and Al take turns telling stories about their travels in Europe, and Elysia brightens right up. She wants them to teach her all the languages they learned, she wants to read the books they talk about, and she wants to see maps of all the cities they saw. Even Gracia starts smiling again.
When they finally leave it’s with half a pie and Gracia’s orders to come visit soon. She sees them out, and once Elysia is out of earshot, Al apologizes.
“We didn’t mean to upset you, or Elysia,” he says.
“Don’t be sorry,” Gracia tells them. “It’s…it’s a comfort in a way, to know that there’s a world out there where we’re still happy together, that he loves us no matter what world it is.”
“Yeah,” Ed says softly.
“Goodbye,” Gracia says, and kisses them on the cheek.
Ed and Al both agree that there isn’t much point in trying to do anything else particularly productive for the rest of the day, so they go back to Sheska’s to drop off the pie and then spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Central looking for places for rent. It’s a mostly useless exercise since they have no money other than what Winry gave them a month ago. Ed remembers having a largely untapped bank account, but that was eight years ago and for all he knows the military might have seized it. They pick up Aerugan takeout for dinner and Sheska is delighted.
“It’s a little ironic, since there’s been a, ah, situation down at the border. I probably shouldn’t have told you that. Anyway, I actually have to go back in tonight so I don’t know when I’ll see you next. Good luck, and Mustang’s office is on the third floor now.” With that, Sheska grabs her overnight bag and dashes back out the door.
“Well, then,” Al says, “I suppose that’s that. What do you think she meant by a situation?”
“More war-mongering probably,” Ed guesses with a glower. “Clearly things haven’t changed much.”
“You’re going to yell at the Colonel tomorrow, then,” Al says.
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to,” Al tells him.
Ed lets the subject drop after that because Al is actually right. Ed knows it isn’t rational, but he had expected to find that Mustang had become Fuhrer in his absence and somehow righted all the wrongs in Amestris. He stews about it all night in lieu of anything better to do, and by the time he and Al get out the door in the morning Ed is ready to deliver a thunderous rant.
Mustang, of fucking course, is in a meeting. Ed’s fury is immediately cast aside because the rest of the office is so excited to see them. Hawkeye hugs Alphonse first, and Ed is crushed by Havoc and Breda simultaneously.
Once all of the hugging and crying—yes, Havoc tears up a little, and Ed and Breda swear to never let him hear the end of it—is over, and stores have been swapped and Havoc has finally stopped asking if breasts were, on average, larger in this world or the other, Fuery asks the question everyone has been avoiding.
“So what are you two going to do now that you’re back?”
Al brightens instantly. “I’m going to enter the university to do alchemical research. Brother and I had a lot of ideas on the other side, but we couldn’t test them out.”
Ed smiles fondly. “His only problem is going to be picking something to focus on. He’s gonna drive them crazy over there.”
“I’m sure I’ll figure it out,” Al says. Hawkeye smiles indulgently and turns to Ed.
“And what about you, Edward?”
“Well,” Ed drawls, putting his feet up on the desk and ignoring Falman’s indignant noise, “that’s the question, isn’t it? I’m not going to be a student.”
“Teachers across the country thank you,” Breda says.
“Anyway, I’d take a research position at the university, but I have to convince them of my credentials first, and who know how long that’ll take. So I need to get a job basically now, so that we actually have some money. I’m assuming my old account got seized at some point over the past eight years.”
“Is this your terrible attempt at asking if you can work here again?” Havoc asks. Fuery snickers.
“No!” Ed yells. “I’d never ask for my job back, I’m just laying out the facts. Besides, with my luck, I’m probably still enlisted somehow, that bastard Colonel probably kept me on the fucking books for some sort of sneaky reason, and so I’ve been AWOL for eight years and I’m probably going to get fucking court-martialed or something—!”
“No one’s being court-martialed, Fullmetal. I’m glad to learn that our time apart has had no effect on your penchant for drama,” Mustang says as he walks in.
Ed stares. He can see the exact moment when Mustang’s brain catches up to his mouth. His face goes totally slack, blank with shock, and then morphs into what Ed can only call delight. He’d almost forgotten about the eyepatch; it still doesn’t suit Mustang’s face. Two lies, from certain angles.
Al gets to his feet. “Hello, Colonel,” he says, and then pauses and squints. “Or should I say General?”
“Brigadier General, actually,” Mustang says. He’s still smug, Ed notes.
Al hugs Mustang, tight and quick, and as he pulls back he adds, “I got my memories back, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Mustang agrees. “How?”
“When I went through the gate. They just came back.”
“But coming back didn’t take them away.”
“No,” Al says. “But we still don’t know why.”
“Gift horses,” Ed reminds him. “It’s gonna be weird if I don’t hug you too, isn’t it,” he says to Mustang.
“I think it will be weird either way,” Mustang says.
“Good thing I’m an adult now. I can handle it.” Ed gets to his feet.
“Are you?” Mustang asks. “It looks like you’re still a child in some ways.”
“Asshole!” Ed yells. “I grew! Tell him, Al.”
“He did,” Al confirms. “At least a couple of centimeters.”
“Oh, well,” Mustangs says, nodding. His eye is deliberately wide. Ed has no idea why he wants to hug him. He’s going to do it anyway, though.
Mustang is warm and solid and Ed lets himself bury his face in Mustang’s chest, and doesn’t think about Mustang’s arm around his torso or his hand at the small of Ed’s back. He doesn’t think about whatever it is that Breda is muttering under his breath. Ed doesn’t think about 1925. Mustang’s hand slides up his spine to rest on the back of his neck. His thumb sweeps once, twice, over the knobs of Ed’s vertebrae, and Ed lets out a shuddering breath.
The hug must not have lasted as long as Ed thought it did, because when they break apart no one looks uncomfortable. Ed brushes it off; he’s enough of an adult to admit that he missed Mustang.
“So,” he says, “am I still in the military?”
“Is that what you were worried about being court-martialed over?”
“I wasn’t worried,” Ed protests. “I just know that being AWOL for almost a decade isn’t a popular move with the higher-ups.”
“Actually, Fullmetal,” Mustang says, “you weren’t considered AWOL. You were MIA, and given the unique circumstances surrounding your disappearance, you still had a couple of years left before we officially declared you dead.”
“I can put you back on active duty as soon as you go through a routine assessment.”
“You think I forgot how to do alchemy?” Ed doesn’t shriek. He is twenty-four; he doesn’t shriek anymore, no matter what Al says.
“Well, it has been a while.”
Ed doesn’t say anything in response. Instead he claps his hands and hits the floor, and watches Mustang’s face as a giant hand emerges from the ground to give him the finger. Someone to Ed’s right lets out a choked laugh. Mustang does a very poor job of hiding his smile.
“Right, then. I suppose that won’t be a problem for you.”
“Damn right,” Ed says and sits back down. Al shakes his head, but he, too, is smiling.
After that it dissolves into aimless catching-up chatter again. Mustang announces that he has work to do, and then makes no move to do it. Hawkeye doesn’t even try to get him into his office, which is how Ed knows how much they were missed.
They leave for lunch with the rest of the office, but Ed and Al peel away from the group to visit the university instead.
“We might as well let you get some work done today,” Al says. “I’m sure Captain Hawkeye would appreciate it.”
She looks grateful, at least as much as Ed has ever been able to tell from her face.
“That went well,” Al says once they’ve left everyone else behind.
“Yeah,” Ed says, but he’s already done thinking about it. He’s moved on to considering their plan of action at the university. Ed is passingly familiar with universities—and extremely familiar with graduate students—on the other side of a space-time divide, but he doesn’t know how that will translate to Amestris. He’d never paid attention to anything like that when he was younger, because he hadn’t really conceived, or been capable of conceiving, a future beyond restoring Al.
Things will be pretty straightforward for Al, he hopes. There’s no way Al can’t prove to them that he knows enough to enter as a graduate student. Ed doesn’t know how he’s going to talk his way into a research position without ever having taken a course at the university, but he figures the combination of his skill (and his State Alchemist qualification) and sheer stubbornness will get the faculty to see things his way.
It takes them longer to find the alchemy department than Ed would have expected; it’s in a building on the edge of campus, old and surprisingly regal for Central.
The front room is commanded by a secretary who pins them to the entryway with her glare. Ed remembers Alfons telling him that secretaries are the most powerful members of their departments, so he prepares to make nice. Luckily, Al gets there first.
He walks up to the desk and strikes up a conversation that Ed can’t hear, but softens the secretary’s stony glare significantly. Ed stays by the door so that he doesn’t ruin anything, until Al turns his head and says, very clearly and very loudly, “Don’t mind him, he’s not great with people. Alchemists, you know?”
The secretary laughs. Ed rolls his eyes but joins Al at the desk anyway.
“I was just telling your brother,” she says, “that we won’t be admitting new students until the fall, but if he gets his application in soon, I can arrange a meeting with the department head for him. If everything works out, he can start in the fall.”
“Wow,” Ed says, “I thought it would be harder.”
“Well, we knew it would be straightforward for me,” Al reminds him. “My brother also needs to make an appointment with the department head,” he says to the secretary. She looks over at Ed, probably wondering why a grown man needs his younger brother to talk for him.
“Hi,” Ed says with a smile that actually feels natural to him, which is great. “I don’t know if my brother told you, but I’m interested in working here as a research fellow.”
The secretary’s eyebrows shoot up. “This is very unusual. You didn’t study here.”
“No,” Ed admits. He knows what she really wants is for him to lay out his credentials, but she’s trying to be polite about it. “I am a State Alchemist though.”
“Technically, you still need to be reassessed,” Al points out. Ed wonders when his little brother became so traitorous.
“That’s just a formality,” Ed assures her. “I’ve been gone for a while so I’ve missed a few of the routine assessments.”
She looks him up and down and as her eyes trail over his automail hand Ed sees the moment she makes the connection.
“You’re the Fullmetal Alchemist?”
“Yeah,” Ed admits, sheepish, “that’s me.”
The secretary hums for a moment, then says, “State accreditation is the equivalent of some degrees, but it varies from case to case. Still, given your high profile…” she trails off for a moment. “I don’t think it would be out of line for you to meet with the department head, too. After that it’s up to him.”
“That’s more than I was hoping for,” Ed says. “Thanks!”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she says. “I still need to see when he’s free next.” She pulls out a huge notebook and leafs through it. “He’s not free until three weeks from tomorrow.”
“That’s the day of the assessment. Al, you should take that meeting.”
The secretary nods and writes something down. “As for you,” she says to Ed, “he’s free again two weeks after that, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“Not at all.”
So she pencils Ed in too, and promises to give them a call to remind them. Ed gives her Mustang’s office’s number, since he and Al still need to find a place. Fuery usually answers the phones, and he’s the least likely to whine about doing their work, and also the least likely to tell Mustang and therefore get them in trouble.
Once they’re off university grounds entirely Ed turns to Al and asks, “Does this seem too easy to you?”
Al laughs. “It’s easy compared to jumping across universes or finding the philosopher’s stone, but it’s not objectively easy.”
“What’s the even supposed to mean, ‘objectively easy’?”
“Don’t be obtuse,” Alphonse chides. “We still need to find somewhere to live.”
“That’s not hard,” Ed protests. “We’ve done that a thousand times!”
“I wasn’t finished! Even once we’re physically settled, we still have to…we still have to get used to living in our world again. Don’t tell me you think it’s going to be like nothing ever happened.”
“I hate it when you’re right,” Ed grumbles.
He thinks about what Al said the rest of the way back to Sheska’s, and the next day as they look for a place to live, and he thinks about it when they do find somewhere, a two-bedroom apartment above a fishmonger’s that Ed says will attract rats but Al sees as a place to find a pet cat. It’s all too easy; Ed’s account wasn’t seized, so they can pay the first month’s rent and buy groceries. The fishmonger is an Aerugan with a lot of opinions about freshwater versus saltwater fish, who gives them free samples when they come to introduce themselves because she thinks they look like they need the protein.
It’s easy for Ed because he doesn’t try to readjust. He lingers around the office like he did when he was fifteen and waiting for an assignment, and when his assessment comes around, he does what they want him to do: circle-free alchemy that manipulates the earth. It comes, still, as naturally as breathing. He’s still the same person he was eight years ago.
He maintains that fiction for weeks, despite Al’s best efforts. It results in a schizophrenic split: the apartment shows all the signs of their lives on the other side, books in German and English and French piled on the coffee table, bottles of wine and whiskey, the furniture rearranged to give them easy access to the windows; on the streets Ed is a version of himself that has been dormant for years. He wears his red coat again, which garners a lot of attention but not from anyone who wants to murder him, so he doesn’t really mind. The coat helps him ease back into being the Fullmetal Alchemist, and Ed doesn’t really know how to square the Fullmetal Alchemist with Edward Elric the wanderer, the hunted man, a cripple who believes in something the rest of the world knows to be a sixteenth-century farce, so he leaves Edward Elric the castaway behind.
This holds until his first assignment. Mustang sends him out to West City, where some jackass is using alchemy to kill people. It isn’t the sort of work he would have done, before, but Ed has accepted that some things will change.
It isn’t a very complicated case. Whoever the murderer is, they’re not actually a well-trained alchemist. The array is messy and often incomplete (which Ed assumes is the reason for the state of the bodies) but it’s also a very unusual one. Ed can list off the top of his head the books that their killer could have found the array in. It’s a short list, and of the five books two of them are out of print and—Ed knows—completely impossible to find outside of Central Library. The other three are also difficult to get your hands on, as is to be expected of books that concern explicitly weaponized alchemy. West City’s finest track down used and rare booksellers, and from there it’s a direct line to the killer.
The police are able to give Ed and name and an address, but it’s his job to apprehend the guy. Al comes with him, despite Ed’s best efforts to get him to stay at the hotel. Their murderer, one M. Fredericks, isn’t at home. By the looks of things, he probably hasn’t been living there since the murders started a couple of weeks ago. So he’s not as big of an idiot as Ed thought. He still can’t be that smart, since he’s running around killing people instead of doing literally anything else.
It takes them two full days to figure out where Fredericks is hiding. West City has a sprawling but poorly-maintained sewer system. Shocker, Ed mutters to Al when the officer assigned to the case admits that the sewers haven’t really been updated for about thirty years. The chief offers to lend any officers she can to help Ed and Al sweep the sewers, but Ed waves them off. Too many people will let Fredericks know they’re on to him. Besides, Ed and Al can handle anything this guy can throw at them.
They do handle him, when they eventually find him huddled in one of the completely unused tunnels. Fredericks puts up a good fight but he doesn’t have any formal hand-to-hand training, and clearly isn’t expecting them to be able to use alchemy without a circle. The only minor snag is that Ed gets caught in one of Fredericks’ shitty circles, purely by chance, and so his arm is all ripped up and Al has to be the one to put him in cuffs.
As soon as that’s done, Al starts freaking out over Ed’s arm. Luckily, it’s the flesh one, so he won’t have to get reamed out by Winry.
“There’s got to be a way to fix this with alchemy,” Al is saying. Ed is only half-listening, the rest of his attention focused equally on escorting Fredericks to ground level and keeping track of his blood loss.
“I was reading the other day about Xingese alkahestry. They say it’s mostly medicinal. If they can do it…” Al trails off, lost in thought. Ed turns Fredericks over and listens to Al have a one-sided discussion about the possibilities of medical alchemy while Ed gets his arm stitched shut. Ed listens; his little brother is a genius.
“So I think maybe this is what I’ll do my research on,” Al says as they leave the hospital.
“You’re going to base your whole graduate career on the fact that you were mad you couldn’t stitch up my arm with alchemy?”
“It’s as good a reason as any.”
“Fair enough. We need to go back to the station before we leave. They may still need me to do something.”
As it turns out, they want Ed to do at least part of the interrogation because, quote, “no one here really knows anything about alchemy and we don’t want him to lie to us about it.” Ed swallows any obnoxious commentary, since he is not actually sixteen anymore, and goes in to talk to Fredericks.
Fredericks is sitting on the far side of the table with his cuffed hands down in his lap. He doesn’t look terribly concerned. Ed doesn’t bother sitting down. Instead he leans against the wall by the table, just a little too close to Fredericks. He flexes his automail hand in a way that hopefully comes off as menacing.
“So,” Ed says, “why alchemy?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“Why? Why use alchemy to rip people apart?”
“Ah,” Fredericks says. His expression turns from confused to sly, knowing. “For knowledge, of course.”
“You’re gonna have to elaborate on that.”
Fredericks grins. “Of course. This was the logical next step in my quest for perfect knowledge. I sought to unravel the mysteries of both alchemy and the human form.”
“Why not animals?” Ed asks, and hates himself. “Why put yourself on the wrong side of the law? You’re not going to be doing any unraveling in jail.”
“You of all people should know the answer to that. The array was specifically for humans. It would not have had the intended effect on animals.” Ed seriously doubts that. He lets Fredericks ramble on until he can’t stand it anymore.
“I’ve heard enough.” Fredericks raises his eyebrows but goes silent. “Stop bullshitting me. You killed those people because you wanted to. Alchemy just gave you the excuse you needed.”
“Don’t. Any alchemist worth their salt, or, hell, anyone as interested in alchemy as you claim to be, would know that that book is almost entirely useless. There are maybe a couple of interesting theoretical points, but on a practical level it’s worthless. The only reason for someone to go after that book, unless they’re trying to compile a comprehensive bibliography, is for that damn circle you used. And you didn’t even get it right!” Ed is dimly aware that he sounds hysterical.
Fredericks is watching him with cold, shuttered eyes. Ed doesn’t wait to hear his response.
Once Ed has been assured that Fredericks won’t be seeing anything outside of a jail cell for a very long time, he and Al head back to Central.
Ed deflects all of Al’s attempts to talk about his conversation with Fredericks. Instead they talk about Al’s research plans, about when he should go to Xing, and about their upcoming meetings with the alchemy department head. They agree that Al should wait a year before he goes abroad, just to get his footing. Al reminds him not to accidentally condescend to the department head. They craft a pretty believable story about their time on the other side; Mustang hasn’t told them yet whether or not the whole thing is classified.
When they get home Ed sleeps for a full sixteen hours, then writes his report, which ends up being longer than every previous report of his combined—although that isn’t exactly difficult—without speaking, then eats enough for three (or so Al claims) and goes down to Mustang’s office.
Mustang reads the whole thing immediately. Ed asks if he doesn’t have something actually important to do, but Mustang insists that Ed turning in a legible, complete report in a timely fashion might be a sign of the end of days, so he has to look at it right now.
Ed initially sits on the couch in Mustang’s office and tries to read the titles on the bookshelf across the room, but Mustang’s continued silence gets boring, so he gets up and starts browsing, eventually settling on an alchemical text he’s read a dozen times. He could go out into the main office, but Ed doesn’t really have much to say.
“So,” Mustang starts, what feels like an eternity later. “It seems you haven’t changed, Fullmetal. Care to explain why you needed to blow up about a third of the sewer system to catch this man?”
“Hey, my methods are totally valid! Besides, those things haven’t been overhauled since like, before you were born. I’m doing the government a favor.”
“Truly the People’s Alchemist,” Mustang snarks.
“Fuck you,” Ed replies, but there’s no real heat behind it. He feels better already; arguing with Mustang lets him focus on his low-simmering anger, rather than the slow, seeping awareness that even Amestris has changed. He knew, of course, that Amestris would be different this time, both because he knows firsthand how rapidly countries can change, and because he knows, even deeper down, that he is no longer the same person he was eight years ago.
He and Mustang bicker for a few more minutes, and then Mustang sets the report on his desk and fixes Ed with a serious look. The eyepatch has done nothing to dull the power of Mustang’s gaze. Ed’s throat suddenly feels tight. He swallows.
“Edward,” it’s bad news whenever Mustang uses his actual name. “I am sorry that I had to have you do this.”
“No,” Ed interrupts. “I get it. I’m not angry, Colonel—“
“Whatever. The point is: I’m not a kid anymore, okay? I know you can’t protect me from whatever it is you were trying to protect me from. Shit like this, I guess.”
Mustang makes a small noise of assent. “You can’t fault me for trying.”
“I’m not,” Ed sighs and scrubs his flesh hand over his face. “Look, the point is, I guess, I’m used to it now. People did terrible things on the other side, too. Fredericks is just small potatoes, really. So this isn’t a loss of innocence thing. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Mustang is, for a brief moment, speechless. Ed cheers internally.
“Right, then,” Mustang says, “that’s been dealt with. Have you met with the university people yet?”
“No, it’s tomorrow. Al has, though. He’ll be starting in the fall. They said it was too late notice for him to be in the running for fellowships this year, but we can afford the tuition without too much trouble. He’ll win one for sure next year anyway; he’s a genius.”
The strange expression on Mustang’s face clears as he laughs. “I’m sure he will. I’ll hold off on giving you your next assignment until after you know what you’re doing.”
Ed thinks about taking a parting shot, but he doesn’t want Mustang to send him to North City or something as revenge, so he sees himself out.
He barges in the next day, fuming. Mustang looks up from where he’d been pretending to work, and Ed knows he was pretending because his expression is that of a man expecting warning shots from Hawkeye.
“Ah, Fullmetal, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“They put me in a fucking reading group!” Ed yells. “I know more about alchemy than anyone in that damn department and they stuck me in some theory reading group like I was fresh out of undergrad. Just because they didn’t understand my research goals doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“And what are your research goals?” Mustang asks. He sounds genuinely interested.
“Oh, well, I did kind of lie about those. Do you still have wiretaps in your office?”
“No. Some things have actually changed since you were last here.”
“Then I guess I can tell you,” Ed says with a shrug, and sits down. It takes him a minute to decide where to start, but Mustang waits patiently. “Where does the energy come from?” Ed asks.
“For alchemy?” Mustang opens his mouth to answer, and then falls silent. “I’ve never really asked, if I’m being honest.”
“Most people don’t,” Ed tells him. “I didn’t, until I crossed the gate. In all the literature the gate is some sort of mythic energy source, and that theory holds as long as you never know what’s on the other side. But what’s on the other side is just another world, filled with human beings like us. When you take that and add it to the fact that philosopher’s stones—pure alchemical power, basically—are made from human beings, it’s not hard to figure out what drives all of our transmutations.” He looks up at Mustang, then, because he doesn’t want to have to actually say it.
Mustang looks shaken, so he clearly gets it.
“It’s awful,” Ed says. “I love alchemy, I mean, I’m trying to devote my life to it, it’s been my career since I was twelve, but I hate what it’s built on. So I’m going to fix it.” He hears Mustang draw a breath but barrels on: “There have to be other near-infinite energy sources out there; that’s not a problem. The real work is going to be figure out how to reconfigure the circles to draw on, say, tectonic plate energy rather than human lives. To figure out what role the gate plays in all of this. But I’m not going to tell those bastards at the university about this stuff. Who knows what they’d do with it?”
When he looks up, Mustang is watching him with something like wonder. Ed remembers I always knew you were alive.
“You are remarkable, Fullmetal,” Mustang says eventually, a hint of amazement still in his voice. “If anyone can do it, it’s you.”
Ed blushes furiously. “Look,” he says, trying to rescue himself from an embarrassment spiral, “I came here to say that all I’m doing at the university is going to this stupid biweekly reading group. It meets tomorrow, but after that I can go wherever you want me to as long as it takes less than two weeks.”
“Given your ‘explosions first, questions later’ approach, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Mustang pulls a file seemingly at random from the haphazard stack on his desk. “Dams in a village near the border with Aerugo are starting to crack. You can leave after you’re done embarrassing Central’s best and brightest.”
Ed takes the file after a brief dispute about his investigative methods, and reads it as he heads home. There’s no suspicion of foul play; the dams are just getting old, and the government apparently cares about repairing dams slightly more than they care about, say, sewer systems.
With that out of the way, he can focus on the reading group. The chair had at least been generous enough to tell him what text they were discussing, though it wasn’t like a day was really enough time for most people to read and absorb a text on alchemical theory. Of course, Ed isn’t most people. And as an added bonus, he’s already read the book, a fairly new release mostly concerned with the relationship between alchemy and the physical sciences. Al had bought it for the trip out to West City, and in between Ed’s hunting for Fredericks they’d discussed it pretty thoroughly. Ed honestly isn’t sure how much more insight the graduate students at the university can provide. Although the reading group turns out to be presided over by one Professor Tourmallen, a severe-looking young woman with a sharp tongue and sharper insights, Ed’s prediction is largely correct. The only thing he learns is that they expected him to embarrass himself. First, one of the students is surprised he’d read the book, having only a day’s notice. Ed shrugs it off and explains about Al and the days-long trip to West City.
Bringing up his job is not a good move. Ed knows that academics are as a rule distrustful of the government, and especially of the military—he learned that on Earth—but he’d hoped that his reputation as an alchemist would soothe some of that. Instead it only makes the students mutter to one another when they think he isn’t listening.
Halfway through, Ed takes off his jacket so that his automail is fully visible. The muttering stops.
Apparently the chair hadn’t really believed Ed when he had told him that he had a strong background in the physical sciences as well, since everyone falls into a shocked silence as Ed explains why one of the students—Liam? Ed can’t remember—is wrong in his assessment of the relationship between alchemy and physics. Ed doesn’t fault the kid; it’s a difficult topic. Ed just has eight years of practice. Still, it doesn’t make him any friends.
When their time finally comes to an end, Prof Tourmallen heads over to Ed before he can manage to escape.
“I can’t stick around,” Ed blurts, “I have work to do.”
“More state-sanctioned murder?” she asks. Ed tries not to roll his eyes.
“Repairing dams, actually. I’m not a killer.”
Prof Tourmallen—“Call me Elizabeth,” she had insisted at the beginning, but Ed doesn’t know if she’d be comfortable with him being so informal—raises her eyebrows but says nothing.
The whole thing leaves him in a vaguely sour mood that doesn’t settle when he gets home and finds that Al has made a bunch of sandwiches. He manages to eat two before Al comes out of his room and yanks the plate away, claiming that they’re for the trip down to the southern border.
“We should go ahead and leave now,” Ed says. If he remembers the train timetables they should be able to catch a late afternoon train down to South City. Packing won’t take very long; one of the many skills he and Al picked up on the other side was the ability to be ready to flee a city at the drop of a hat.
“That bad, huh?” Al asks, but doesn’t push.
He does bring it up again once they’re on the train and Ed can’t run. Or, rather, Al thinks he can’t run, but Ed is ninety-five percent sure he’s still capable of escaping to the roof. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to alarm any of the other passengers, and his shoulder and hip are sore, still adjusting to having automail again. Ed looks longingly out the window and imagines a world where he doesn’t have to talk to his brother about his feelings.
Al stares him down. He has the most intimidating stare Ed has ever faced, possibly as a holdover from once being a seven-foot suit of armor that could take anyone in a fight. Nowadays Ed wins at least two out of three, because he can handle pain and exhaustion in a way he hope Al never learns.
Ed caves anyway.
“It’s just weird,” he says. “I spent the past eight years hanging around university students, more or less. We always got along pretty well.”
“Too well,” Al says, with a long-suffering sigh.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Ed snaps.
“I was scarred for life. I reserve the right to bring it up whenever I want.”
“Estelle,” Ed says, and Al blushes.
“Fine, okay, we’re even.”
“Good. Anyway, I got along well with the female students I knew, too. I don’t know why it’d be different here.”
“Don’t be obtuse.”
“I mean, I get that the university doesn’t have a great relationship with the military. I can’t blame them; that’s why I’m trying to get out.”
“And you’re after their jobs.”
“Really, brother? You haven’t thought about this?”
No, actually, Ed hasn’t, but he isn’t going to admit that to Al. Instead, he looks back out at the passing landscape and adopts an expression he hopes conveys deep contemplation. Al is probably right about this, like he is about most things. Jobs for alchemists generally fall into three categories: independent (like Izumi, which works if you either have a great deal of money or a wealthy benefactor, but most independent alchemists are either doing research that would be disavowed by the state and the academy, or have little interest in theory and innovative research), military, and university. None of them would choose to go independent, and obviously they wouldn’t want to sell their souls to the military.
Ed gets it. They see him as competition for positions at the national universities, which isn’t really incorrect, but they’re even angrier about it because he already has a job that funds his research. He’ll have to put in more effort to get them to like him, which is annoying. Ed likes people, but he doesn’t understand them and that puts him on edge. It was easier on the other side because he and Al were constantly moving, constantly running. The only people they kept in contact with over those six years were Hughes and Gracia. Ed isn’t exactly proud of the fact that he solved most interpersonal problems by leaving, but it is what it is.
“Just give them time,” Al says, as though he can read Ed’s mind. “It probably didn’t help that you came in and told them all they were wrong.”
“Not all of them!”
Al laughs and lets it drop.
After that they have a pleasant trip down to the Aerugan border. The inhabitants of the town are thrilled that someone is actually there to fix the dams, and show their appreciation mostly by giving him so much food he thinks he’s going to explode by the end of the trip. Ed and Al keep their eyes peeled for signs of whatever unrest had Sheska and the rest of the Intel department pulling all-nighters, but nothing stands out as unusual. There’s a tension there, between the Aerugans who ended up on the wrong side of the border as redrawn by Amestrian wars and the Amestrian settlers, but Ed remembers them being like that even when he was younger.
The dams are fixed easily enough, no sign of sabotage, just normal wear and tear. The work itself only takes a day, and Ed justifies spending another two mostly eating and surreptitiously asking the locals about border skirmishes by describing it in his report as “monitoring the repaired dams and investigating more efficient ways of controlling water flow.” He doubts Mustang will actually believe him, but it sounds too official for him to be able to make any complaints.
Ed is mostly right, though Mustang does sigh and look inordinately long-suffering as he says, “I’m not entirely sure I like this evolution of your ability to spend government funds on personal matters.”
“I’ll be out of your hair before you know it,” Ed tells him, “and then you’ll be sitting here missing all the excitement. Besides, I know you secretly like being the one to yell about paperwork, since normally Hawkeye’s yelling at you about it.”
Mustang doesn’t comment on the last part, but he does agree that the office will be much quieter without him (“Not that that’s a bad thing, Fullmetal”) and they both pretend like there wasn’t a hideous eight-year long silence behind them.
Ed spends the rest of the summer finding his footing. The grad students eventually warm up to him once it becomes more obvious that he isn’t your typical state alchemist and when it fully dawns on everyone that he’s the infamous Fullmetal Alchemist—the People’s Alchemist (and, Ed realizes only later, the twelve year old soldier, a potent symbol of the cruelty of the old regime)—any remaining dislike completely evaporates.
Mustang continues to give him assignments that won’t take more than a week at most, and Al accompanies him until the fall term starts. Once the university is back in session everything picks up, begins to move at a pace that Ed actually enjoys and that keeps him on his toes. He misses Al when Mustang sends him to every corner of Amestris, but he makes use of the silence by working on his own research; he misses Al even more when Mustang sets him to poring over all of the State Alchemist program records, without telling Ed what he’s looking for.
The reading group attendance suddenly fluctuates from meeting to meeting, as more students return to the city, but academic obligations increase. The upside is that more faculty members—professors and research fellows— come out of the woodwork to join, and Ed gets to meet his future colleagues. Mingling almost exclusively with the professors kind of wrecks his chances of properly falling in with the students, but Ed figures they’re Al’s future friends, not his. The professors are, not unexpectedly, a quirky lot. Ed couldn’t care less, because he’s found a group of people with whom he can talk about alchemy for hours, and no one gets bored or needs basic tenets explained or backtalks him, Al.
He doesn’t spend much time outside of the reading group and the immediately post-group drinks with the university crowd, though. Instead he finds himself in bars with Havoc and Breda and Falman, and less often Fuery, on a regular basis. They don’t have much patience for alchemical theory, but Ed feels at home with them. With Al at the university so often, Ed spends most of his free time in the office working, “working”, or being actively insubordinate. The only downside to this is that he gets roped into helping with the deluge of paperwork. Ed is not cut out for paperwork. He tells everyone this, but no one listens to him. He then tries to make his point by doing a terrible job with everything, but apparently that just makes him fit right in. Hawkeye only gives him grief once, because—and Ed hadn’t really been paying attention—his already terrible, sloping handwriting had suddenly veered off into German. The report he was summarizing had mentioned the Intelligence department, and he had thought of Hughes, and then of a conversation they had had just before Ed and Al had left for Prague. They had, of course, been speaking in German. It must have bled over.
By the end of his explanation, even Hawkeye looks amused. Falman cracks a joke that spawns Ed’s new nickname—Professor—but by that point Ed is only barely listening. A language no one on the planet except Al knows could make for the perfect alchemical code. Of course, he couldn’t just use a straightforward translation. Maybe he could mix languages, use French words but Serbian noun endings, that sort of thing. Al should help, Ed thinks. The new code becomes Ed’s main side project, and he’s working on transferring his notes on three dimensional arrays over one afternoon in the office when he realizes abruptly that Havoc has been hovering over him, snapping his fingers, for the past five minutes.
“Hey, Professor, we’re going down to the Lounge. You in?”
“Yeah, sure, lemme get my stuff together.”
“No rush, we still gotta wait for the Boss.”
Ed raises his eyebrows. Mustang doesn’t come out with them very much, presumably because he’s still kind of an asshole, and also because Brigadier-Generals actually have to do real work occasionally. He doesn’t bother to ask if Hawkeye is joining them; she doesn’t like The Lounge, for whatever reason, and she’s already come out with them twice in three weeks, which is unprecedented. Ed assumes Hawkeye has a social life that involves people much cooler than her coworkers.
Not, of course, that it’s hard to find people cooler than them, Ed admits hours later, as they start their third round. Havoc is telling Fuery about his latest girlfriend, mostly because Fuery happens to be sitting between him and the wall and therefore can’t escape.
Mustang is in an even more terrible position; he’s stuck between adjudicating Falman and Breda’s argument about some sort of obscure military regulation that Ed immediately ignored, and listening to Ed ramble about alchemy. Ed is pretty sure he’s winning this unintentional battle for Mustang’s attention, since he’s actually talking about something interesting.
Eventually Ed does win, and he and Mustang end up in a sprawling, aimless debate that is ostensibly about alchemy but really about whatever drunken thought is loudest.
Breda is grumbling about it, as he tends to do when bar conversation turns to something he doesn’t know about. To be fair, Breda seems to know something about almost everything. Eventually he says the magic words “another round” and then the whole table is gone, and Ed and Mustang are alone, talking about alchemy.
Ed realizes he’s been staring at the back of Mustang’s glove for what feels like forever. At least since Breda and Falman started that horrible argument. Ed’s eyes are rolling back in his head just thinking about it. It was so boring that Mustang chose to talk alchemy with Ed, instead. Mustang never talks about alchemy, as far as Ed knows. Ed isn’t sure if Mustang even likes it, but he appreciates the effort. He’s also drunk.
“How much control do you have over the fire’s path? Like, can you weave it through obstacles?”
“Of course,” Mustang says.
“Great.” Ed makes a little maze of empty glasses. “Prove it.”
“I don’t think,” Mustang says, with all the gravitas of a drunk man trying to appear as the voice of reason, “I don’t think that’s very safe.”
“Then you’re not actually that good,” Ed taunts.
Mustang sighs. Ed knows that particular sigh well; it’s Mustang’s ‘giving in’ sigh. He snaps his fingers and the fire curls perfectly around the glasses, leaving the table and the thin veneer of alcohol on it untouched. Ed marvels at how much control it must take, how much calculation. He’s aware that he’s probably gaping like an idiot, but when Ed looks at Mustang’s face there’s no pride, not even a smirk. He just looks grim.
“You don’t love it anymore,” Ed says. That Mustang’s face doesn’t change is enough of an answer. “Did you, at the beginning?”
“Of course,” Mustang says.
Ed doesn’t know where to go from here so he resumes staring at Mustang’s gloves. Finally, it’s Mustang who breaks the silence.
“Did you ever hate it? After,” Mustang waves his hand around to encompass, Ed assumes, all of Ed’s childhood mistakes.
“No,” Ed says. “Even back then I knew it wasn’t alchemy’s fault. It was mine. I was stupid, and selfish, and arrogant, and…” He breaks off to cover his face with his hand. He tries never to talk about this, and the alcohol makes it worse more than better.
Mustang’s hand on his shoulder, warm, brings him back.
“Anyway,” Ed tries to grin, “it wasn’t alchemy that did it. I could never hate alchemy. Besides, I think you can still, you can do the things that I’ve done and still be able to help people. My teacher, she had a baby, and, well. It took some of her insides, but she’s good, you know. She does good things.” Mustang is watching him with an expression Ed can’t read. “And even if,” Ed laughs without humor, “even if I couldn’t use alchemy to help people, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? The lines, the way so many things come together, watching matter shift forms. I spent eight years dreaming about it, you know. Being able to change things.”
“Eight years,” Mustang repeats. Ed recognizes, now, the light in Mustang’s eye, but he isn’t sure what to do with it. Let it sit, maybe. Some things are best left alone, Ed has finally learned.
He’s rescued from having to respond by the return of the rest of the crew.
“Done with the alchemy talk?” Havoc asks.
“For now,” Ed tells him.
“Great. So, do you think that chick at the end of the bar would go out with me?”
In the long months that follow Ed doesn’t think much about the way that Mustang looked at him that night. It’s easy, since Mustang never looks at him like that when he’s giving Ed assignments. Besides, Ed has a lot on his mind. The second summer is almost over; he’ll be starting at the university in the fall, and Al will be going to Xing to study alkahestry. As practice he’s been speaking Xingese around the house, and so of course Ed had to pick it up, too. Winry will be coming at the end of September and is already sending Ed weekly letters reminding him that she will actually see him while she’s in town (like it’s his fault that last year—and, Christ, time does fly—he was in and out of town on assignments with some regularity). Ed has a lot on his plate.
At least, that’s what he tells Al whenever it comes up. Ed had tried to keep the whole thing a secret; it really wasn’t a big deal, but Al was Al and Ed let it slip. Al mostly just makes fun of him for it, thankfully; in return Ed says he’s putting the whole thing behind him because he has more important stuff to focus on. It’s not not true.
The thing is, though, Ed doesn’t need to think about Mustang’s gaze or his hand on Ed’s shoulder. Ed knows he would sleep with Mustang (1925, Rue Pascal, the smell of coffee), but they’re kind of friends now and Mustang is still Ed’s superior officer. It wouldn’t look good. Ed is an adult; he understands and will pretend that nothing happened. At best it’s a waiting game.
Ed, apparently, does not communicate this effectively to his little brother.
On Ed’s last day as a dog of the military, Al comes in to the office with him to say goodbye to everyone before he leaves for Xing.
“You don’t seem too worried about going,” Falman says.
“When you think about it,” Al says, “it’s not really that far, and I’ll be able to write home.”
“And send telegrams,” Ed reminds him. There’s still no phone line between Amestris and Xing, much to his displeasure.
“Although,” Al continues, ignoring his brother, “there won’t be any doppelgangers.”
“What?” Everyone in the room asks, in stereo. Even Hawkeye.
“Ed didn’t tell you about the doppelgangers?” Al asks.
“I must have,” Ed says. “They just don’t listen to me.”
“Lies,” Breda says.
Al laughs delightedly and tells them all about it. Havoc demands to know if his double had better luck with women (he did) and was torn between joy and devastation at the answer. The others take theirs in stride with no real comments.
“What about the boss?” Fuery asks.
“I never met him,” Al says, and Ed knows right then that this is going to be terrible.
“Ed?” Havoc prods. Before Ed can deny any and all knowledge of the subject, Mustang’s voice drifts in from his office.
“Yes, Fullmetal, what about me?”
“It’s creepy when you do that, you know,” Ed yells back. Mustang’s response is to roll his office chair out into the main space and wait for Ed to continue. Ed considers not saying anything and thereby forcing Mustang to wheel himself back, but if he doesn’t speak Al will, and Al isn’t going to tell it right, so Ed opens with:
“He’s a poet.”
Hawkeye lets out a barking laugh, and then tactfully spends the next several minutes not making eye contact with anyone.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Breda chokes out. Ed is definitely enjoying himself now.
“Not at all,” Ed says. “He also wrote plays.”
“Past tense?” Mustang asks with a raised eyebrow.
“Well,” Ed admits, “the plays were terrible.”
“Because you have such great literary sensibilities,” Mustang snipes.
“Exactly. If even I could tell they were terrible… Besides, they weren’t really plays so much as political rants done on stage. They never stayed on for more than a week, if they were shown anywhere.”
“Damn, Boss,” Havoc says, “who’d’ve seen that coming?” Mustang doesn’t answer.
“He was a soldier, before,” Ed adds, feeling inexplicably guilty. “There was a war a few years before I got there. He served in it, voluntarily I think, but it was awful, different from the way we do things here. So, he wasn’t just a poet. A lot of them became poets after the war, right?”
“Yeah,” Al answers. “He was one of the best, though, you know.”
“I didn’t keep up with the war poets,” Ed reminds him. Al rolls his eyes and turns to face Mustang.
“He really was good,” Al continues. “I have one of his books actually, here, but, oh, I guess I’d have to translate it since none of you read French or English. Anyway,” Al goes on, pointedly ignoring Ed, “his work is really ahead of its time, I think.”
“Your girlfriend thought,” Ed mutters. Al continues to talk as thought Ed weren’t even there. Mustang looks genuinely interested, probably, Ed tells himself, because Al is basically talking about how great he is. Fuery is paying close attention, too, and Falman, but they’re both nerds who care about things like post-war poetry from another world.
“There’s this one poem that everyone knows—knew, I guess. The famous part is a lover with a metal arm in the light, and how it’s quiet and…oh my god.”
Ed can’t tell if Al stops because he has finally realized what he’s talking about or because Mustang makes a noise best classified as “dying elk”.
“I thought it was a metaphor,” Al wails. “Olive said it was about war and trauma!”
“My collarbone is not a metaphor,” Ed hisses, bright red and unable to make eye contact with anyone ever again.
“I’m sorry!” Al sounds genuinely contrite. Ed hopes that this will be the end of the whole thing, and everyone will slink off and he can take his stuff and leave and go home and die of embarrassment.
Instead, Havoc asks, “Were you really banging the boss? In another universe?”
Ed hates Havoc sometimes. He can feel everyone’s eyes on him.
“Yes,” he snaps, “I was.” He glares at Havoc. “I wasn’t going to say anything about it because it would obviously be weird. And don’t say anything,” he adds, because Ed knows that expression of Havoc’s, and it never means anything good. “They’re not the same person, okay? They look the same but they’re completely different people, so let it go.”
“Right,” Havoc says in a small voice.
Ed gets up and marches towards the door with an armful of books, mostly, and a few stray bits of paperwork Hawkeye insisted he keep. Behind him, Mustang asks Al if he really has a copy of the book, but Ed is outside before he can hear the answer (which he knows is yes; there’s no reason for Al to lie about that).
Al starts apologizing as soon as he catches up and doesn’t really stop until he leaves for Xing, by which point Ed has pretty much stopped being embarrassed. It isn’t a big deal now that he doesn’t report to Mustang. Whenever Al tries to bring it up, mostly in the context of his contrition, Ed turns the conversation back onto Al’s year abroad. Ed has an extensive list of books he wants Al to get for him, or at least read and summarize. (“When do you think I’m going to have time for all of this?” “Your classes are only, what, four or five hours a day? That leaves at least another nineteen free.” “Brother…”)
The push-and-pull doesn’t let up until Al is getting on his train, promising that he’ll write every week under pain of whatever long-distance punishment Ed can dream up.
After that, Ed is alone with himself.
It isn’t as bleak as it sounds. Ed does have to adjust to not having Al around for the first time in seven years; he ends up talking to himself at home a lot. Luckily it’s usually at a volume the neighbors can’t hear.
At work, though, he’s suddenly surrounded by people he can bounce ideas off of, and who want to hear about them and will respond by talking about their own research woes. He even has an assistant, a graduate student interested in wind and solar power with a memory nearly as good as Ed’s (although neither of them are anywhere near Sheska’s level). Ed considers proposing to her the first time she pulls a list of citations out of thin air and rattles them off without looking up.
He’s starting with as much plate tectonics stuff as he can find; there isn’t much, which makes sense. Most of his Earth colleagues hadn’t bought into the theory, and Amestris is behind Earth in the physical sciences because so much can be done with alchemy. Luckily, he finds a half-dozen books by Cretan scientists that work as jumping-off points, if nothing else. The end result is that Ed spends the first two and a half months of his appointment causing very tiny earthquakes. The first three disrupt the rooms on either side of his, but after that he gets it down.
At home he spends his time trying to decipher the circle itself, to redirect the source of its power. This part is harder; no one looks at this kind of topic anymore, and the old books are so annoying, straddling the line between alchemy and theology. He doesn’t make much headway in those first few months.
Luckily, things blow over with his (former, which is weird to think) fellow soldiers, so he airs his grievances at the weekly bar night. Everyone nods sympathetically and then they move on to something else. Ed loves hearing about military bullshit now that it isn’t his problem. The first time Breda complains about having to fill some inane report out in triplicate, Ed cackles audibly.
Mustang even comes out with them once or twice, and no one says anything and it isn’t weird. If Ed thinks, occasionally, about biting the place where Mustang’s neck meets his shoulder, that’s his own business. The normalcy of things is what leads Ed to call Mustang one Sunday, when he desperately needs a second opinion (or at least a second pair of vocal cords or, hell, some sympathetic ears) on Rotterdam’s Third Treatise on the Nature of the Circle. Sunday is the one day Hawkeye doesn’t come in to the office, and therefore the only day anyone can definitely get away with slacking. In the past year, Ed internalized that schedule; he comes into his lab on Saturday, which baffles most of his coworkers, but does his best not to even leave his apartment on Sundays. The day off is sacred. So he does feel bad for asking Mustang to do something, although he realizes now that Mustang is nowhere near the slacker he pretends to be, but figures that Mustang won’t hesitate to refuse if he doesn’t want to help.
Mustang picks up after the second ring: “Yes?” He sounds wary. Ed imagines most of the phone calls he gets on Sundays are bad news at best.
“How much do you know about the theory of alchemy? Like, say, Rotterdam?”
“Ah, Fullmetal,” Mustang says. “Your phone etiquette is as terrible as I’d expect. What are you doing?”
“Not my name. I’m reading his fucking awful Third Treatise, and I don’t trust anyone at the university enough to tell them why I’m reading it.”
“And Alphonse is gone.”
“Yeah, and Al isn’t here, so you’re the only trustworthy alchemist I know.”
Mustang barks out a laugh at that.
“Whatever, it’s true. So, do you?”
“I don’t know how much help I can be personally, but I do have a few books you might find interesting.”
“That I don’t already have?”
“Give me some credit, Edward,” Mustang leans on the name. “They’re concerned primarily with elemental alchemy, but are highly theoretical and could be of some use to you.”
Ed thinks about the shapes on the back of Mustang’s gloves and agrees; fire alchemy probably has something he needs.
“Great, yeah, I’ll be over there, let me just figure out where all my notes are…”
“I won’t wait up, then,” Mustang laughs.
“It’s not that big an apartment, I’ll see you soon,” Ed says, and hangs up without thinking. His notes have to be somewhere, not his notes from this morning but his notes from the past week. He knows he brought them home last night.
They’re nowhere in the living room/study, or in Ed’s room. He doesn’t use Al’s room for anything because it feels weird, so they can’t be in there. Eventually Ed finds them in the kitchen, where they’ve slipped onto the floor and gotten completely out of order. Ed doesn’t bother to sort them; maybe reading things in a different order will lead him to a breakthrough. Ed mulls over them the whole way over to Mustang’s house, but only concludes that he does, in fact, have to put them back in order.
Mustang opens the door out of uniform and Ed freezes. He’s never seen Mustang himself in anything other than variations on the theme of “military officer.” Of course, he’s seen a variation of Mustang in everything but uniform, and this is really not what he needs to be thinking about right now.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring an entire library with you,” Mustang says, and Ed snaps out of it.
“It wouldn’t do any good,” he admits as he follows Mustang into the house. “I’ve never kept much theology.”
“Shocking. The library’s this way.” Right off the entryway, it isn’t gigantic but it’s lined with books, most of which Ed recognizes, which is good, and some that he doesn’t, which is better. Mustang finds the promised books and Ed groans at the titles but takes them anyways, and then Mustang moves to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“The books are going to help,” Ed waves them around to illustrate his point, which is based on flipping through the indexes, but he knows his way around a text. “But I really just need a second opinion.”
“Fishing for compliments is unattractive,” Ed replies. It’s what Al would have said, and it’s as good a response as any.
So Mustang sits down in the spare chair and Ed starts to rattle off what he’s figured out so far. As it turns out, Mustang is just what Ed needs right now. He hasn’t read much more than Ed, but he can direct him to useful passages in the fire alchemy books, and beyond that, he has an unsurprising knack for finding the flaws in Ed’s reasoning. They burn through the material that Ed brought with him—the major conclusion that they both draw is that Ed has to read more before he can begin to unravel the circle—and by the time they surface it’s almost noon.
“I’d offer lunch,” Mustang says, “but I need to buy groceries.”
Ed rolls his eyes. “I guess you really do need Hawkeye looking over your shoulder all the time.”
“And you have a fully stocked kitchen, I suppose.”
Ed ignores that. “I need to stop by the library, might as well get food on the way. You in?”
Mustang agrees with a shrug and they find themselves at a café about halfway between Mustang’s house and the university library.
“Why not just use Central Library?”
“What I’m looking for will be easier to find at the university, probably, since there’s nothing of military value and the books are pretty rare. Besides, I don’t have the same privileges I did before, and I don’t want the military knowing what I’m up to, sorry.”
Mustang pushes the issue, of course, and Ed eventually ends up rambling about the finer points of how he and Al got back home until their coffee comes. In the ensuing silence Ed takes stock of where they are: the little tables, the coffee in over-large mugs, the steady stream of passersby. It reminds him in some stupid way of Paris; even the face across from him is the right one.
Mustang is watching him too closely.
“This reminds me of Paris—it’s a city on the other side—although Al always talks about how every city feels different, but there’s no way to quantify that and I hate it. Paris has too many places like this, with all the tables on the sidewalk. It’s sort of about enjoying the weather, but really I think it’s more about judging everyone walking by. Anthony used to bitch about it but he did it too.”
Fuck. “The other you. Sorry, I know it’s weird.”
Mustang nods. Ed forces himself to look. “It makes it weirder if you keep talking about how weird it is.”
“Well excuse me,” Ed says, narrowly avoiding yelling, “if I don’t know what to do with it. No one really tells you how to break the news that you…that you used to sleep with your boss’s doppelganger. In another world.”
“It’s strange when you put it like that,” Mustang concedes, “but wanting to sleep with me isn’t unusual at all. Just ask any of Havoc’s ex-girlfriends”
“Oh, fuck you,” Ed laughs, “that’s not what I meant. I don’t know what I meant,” he adds before Mustang can ask. “But,” he continues, “actually, never mind.”
“Let it go, really, it’s not a big deal.”
“Okay,” Mustang gives in. “Speaking of Havoc’s girlfriends, his latest target is Captain Hawkeye’s friend who’s come to visit.”
“She’s going to kill him.”
“We’ll see. I’ve got a strange feeling about this one.”
Ed lets Mustang fill him in on the Catalina-Havoc dynamic. It sounds completely insane, and Ed hopes he gets to see them together some weekend. When he finishes, Mustang is watching Ed with a soft, inquisitive expression.
“Would you tell me about it?” he asks.
“About what? Europe? Paris? Anthony? The people who wanted to kill us?”
“Everything,” Mustang says, and he sounds like he means it. “But start maybe with Anthony.”
“Why are you so curious about him?” Ed blurts.
“You wouldn’t be, if you were in my position?”
“I don’t know,” Ed admits. He really doesn’t. Instead he holds Mustang’s gaze while he tries to figure out what Mustang thinks his position is. Maybe it’s all vanity, or nosiness—Mustang is a total busybody—but of course it isn’t. Mustang is interested in Ed, and that’s as far as he can think on the subject before he runs into a mental roadblock. The whole mess is blacked out, labeled as “too much” and shoved aside until it can’t be ignored any longer.
“He was,” Ed starts. “When I told Havoc you weren’t anything alike, that was mean. But you know how he is, he wouldn’t have left it alone otherwise.”
“I guess everyone has some sort of core essence across universes, some sort of quintessential “them-ness” that stays the same, but then they’re shaped by their experiences, so obviously two people with the same core can end up with totally different lives. Like you and him.”
Mustang doesn’t say anything, but won’t look away from Ed.
“Like, you were both soldiers, both the kind of people who would join the army for the good of their country, but it went so differently that you made different choices. Stop me if you don’t want me to psychoanalyze you or whatever.”
Mustang rolls his eye. “I think I can handle it.”
“Right, okay. So I guess in Ishbal, they made you do terrible things. They sent you out and used you as a weapon, and you saw what they did and decided to become the Fuhrer so you could change things.”
Mustang twists his lips in what would be called a smile if there was any joy in it.
“With Anthony, it was different. There wasn’t anyone to blame, apparently. The whole continent just collapsed on itself. They put them in these, in these trenches, and if you went over the top, out onto the field, you got shot. They killed tens of thousands of people to move a few inches. Nothing made any sense. I can barely imagine it. I tried to read about it, but it’s fucking terrible, the whole thing. So he just left the country. A lot of them turned to writing because something happened in the trenches. They call it shell-shock. I don’t know. But he’s like you, too, all the politics, he wants to change things, just without staying in the army.”
“He never talked about it with you?”
“Like, the shellshock or whatever? No, I guess he just figured we were of a kind and let it go.”
“Of a kind, Ed?”
“Well, I showed up with two limbs, so he probably just assumed it was the war. Most people did.”
“And you didn’t disabuse them of this notion.”
“What could I have done? The truth was out of the question: either they would think I was crazy or they’d turn out to be hunting me, and then I’d be completely fucked. It was a weird few years,” Ed says with a shrug. He’s too sober to talk about this and he hopes Mustang realizes it.
Mustang does; he’s not an idiot. The conversation turns to lighter fare, like Ed’s excursus on the merits of various European capitals, and whether or not Hawkeye is seeing someone. Mustang says she isn’t, because she would have told him, but Ed’s heard Breda’s case for the other side, and it’s pretty convincing.
Eventually they get up and head in their respective directions.
“I guess I’ll call you next time I need a second opinion,” Ed says, not making eye contact.
“I look forward to it,” Mustang says.
A letter from Xing, dated late October and received early November:
I would say thank you for the letter, but your last was more of a bibliography, so I won’t. You do know I’m taking classes here, right? And not just on alkahestry, but on Xingese, too. I don’t mind though; my tutor—Mei Chang, one of the alkahestry instructors—is wonderful! (and cute, but I didn’t tell you that) She wants to learn Amestrian so I’ve been teaching her some; an exchange of knowledge is always better. My studies are going well, I think. I have the basics of the alkahestry circles down, but we haven’t yet gotten to the theoretical aspects, which I know is what you want to hear about. I’ve seen first-hand the medical applications of alkahestry, now, too. It’s remarkable! One circle is applied directly to the wound, the other can be wherever (at least as far as I understand it) and the resulting transmutation heals the wound. Before you ask: I’ll send you a list of readings on the subject with my next letter, which will be longer, I promise. I have so much to tell you about the cities and the people and the food (!!!), but for now I have to run.
Ed keeps all of Al’s letters in a drawer in his nightstand. He rereads the longer ones when he has trouble sleeping; the combination of alchemical notes and anecdotes from Al’s daily life is a soothing one, and Ed gets some of his best ideas from Al’s casual observations. In mid-November he comes up with a hypothesis about the interconnectivity of transmutation circles, spurred on by Al’s notes and their self-detonating transport circle. He throws something together to present at the Friday afternoon meeting, which is on any given week about 50% presentations about research and 50% bitching about having a meeting on Friday afternoon. He’s mostly worried about how to talk about the self-detonating circle. For now, he’s not going to reference it at all, but the omission makes his argument look weak. This isn’t the first time Ed has been aware of how much of his past he needs to keep quiet about, but it’s the first time it’s been brought to the forefront. So, really, he should see the whole thing coming.
He skates through his own spiel without any difficult questions, and it seems like this week is going to be as boring and irritating as every other week, until Niehaus starts talking. Ed had pegged Niehaus early on as being both dead weight and an asshole, and Niehaus had gone on to prove him right beyond a doubt. So Niehaus starts droning on about how the university should challenge the government’s laws restricting alchemy, and Ed listens with one ear; if Niehaus tries to cause trouble he’ll have to let Mustang know. And then he says “taboo” and “human transmutation,” and Ed leaves the room fifteen minutes later shaking, a fog settling over his brain.
He goes to Mustang’s office on autopilot, tells Havoc he’s here for drinks. He must look normal enough, because no one says anything except to agree.
“I’ll go get Mustang,” Ed says without waiting for a response.
Mustang looks up, startled, when Ed enters and immediately collapses onto the couch.
“What happened?” He sounds concerned.
Ed looks at the floor as he answers. “Fucking Niehaus, talking about how it’s our duty as academics to challenge the establishment—which is fine, I mean, you know how I feel about the military, but then he goes on about taboos and shit, like the logical extension of “don’t kiss the Fuhrer’s ass” is “start experimenting with human transmutation.” And he had this fucking book, and obviously everyone knew what it was, and he had this fucking quote to read to us about the whole thing, and of course I knew what it was; I found it when I was fucking nine years old and I read it to Al when we argued about it, and again right before. I know it by heart. And he started reading it and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t stop shaking.”
When Ed looks up Mustang is kneeling in front of him.
“Ed,” he says, “breathe. There’s nothing wrong with you. This is normal.” One hand presses on Ed’s knee.
“I shouldn’t have shell-shock from something that happened half a lifetime ago.”
Mustang snorts. “Look at me,” he coaxes, and Ed swallows and looks up. Mustang’s expression, thank fuck, isn’t pitying.
“Don’t be stupid,” Mustang tells him, and Ed can’t help grinning.
“I know. It just doesn’t seem right. I did this to myself.” Ed knows he isn’t saying what he wants to say, but he also doesn’t want to keep talking about this.
Mustang’s thumb is brushing over his kneecap in slow, soothing strokes for what feels like forever. Ed focuses on that rather than on his self-pity. He finds that his hands have stopped shaking, at last.
“You didn’t,” Mustang says, and leaves it at that.
“Are you coming to the Lounge with us?”
“You’re going to drink after all this?”
“Obviously. Who wouldn’t?”
“Fair enough. I suppose I’ll have to come along to supervise you.”
Ed levers himself up, his flesh hand covering Mustang’s as he stands. He helps Mustang up after, makes a crack about old age and bad knees, and everything feels set to rights.
At the bar Ed and Mustang—Roy, Ed tells himself drunkenly, he might as well start calling him Roy—end up in the middle of the booth, squeezed together. The booth is probably designed to seat five comfortably, but there are seven of them, eight for the half-hour Hawkeye spends with them, during which she drinks two whiskey sodas, warns Havoc not to break Catalina’s heart, warns Catalina not to break Havoc’s heart, gives Roy a look Ed can’t parse, and then informs them, while wearing the Hawkeye equivalent of a smirk, that she has a date.
“The Aerugan diplomat, I heard,” Breda says as soon as she’s out the door.
“One of the Briggs soldiers,” Falman insists, “on leave.”
“You’re both wrong,” Catalina tells them. “It’s a local.”
“She told me,” Roy says.
“No, she didn’t,” the rest of them reply, in unison.
Roy fake sulks, so Ed presses up against him and asks, “Did she really tell you?”
Mustang smiles and leans in to whisper, “The Aerugan.”
They stay close like that, nestled against one another, for the rest of the night. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary until much later, when they’re lazily debating who the woman across the bar is eyeing up.
“She’s looking at us!” Catalina crows. “Maybe we can spice things up tonight.”
“No way,” Fuery says, while Havoc sputters. “I think she’s actually looking at me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, kid,” Breda laughs. “She’s staring at the general.”
Fuery groans, “Of course.”
“It’s not fair,” Falman adds. “He already has the Professor.”
That gets Ed’s attention. “Hey,” he says, without bothering to untangle himself from Roy, “he doesn’t have me; I’m not an infectious disease.”
“Although you are germ-sized,” Roy says. Havoc laughs and Ed gives him a look that promises a slow death.
“Who’re you calling so small he barely shows up on a microscope?!”
Roy laughs, then, and it’s all Ed can do to keep the scowl on his face.
That’s when Ed makes his decision. If Falman has noticed, then Ed has gone past the point of being cautious, and is just being a coward, and if there’s one thing Edward Elric isn’t, it’s a coward. Really, everything has already fallen into place. They want to sleep with each other; it took Ed years in Europe the learn how to read that on people’s faces, but once he got it he got it. He’s good at ferreting out secret desire, and in Roy it isn’t even buried far below the surface. Beyond that, though. Beyond that. Ed is in love with Roy. He wants more data but also knows that at a point love stops being about data and starts being about trust. He’s a rationalist, not an idiot. So, Ed loves Roy. The knowledge had crept over him slowly; this is the first time he’s ever really phrased it this way, but it’s true and it’s easy.
The second part: Roy is in love with Ed. Ed was waiting because he didn’t know if this last part was true, and if it wasn’t then he didn’t see much point in doing anything. He’d had his suspicions, though, and those had been enough to keep him looking. The way Roy had said “it’s normal,” on his knees in front of Ed, and then the question mark was gone. Ed feels stupid for waiting so long to realize it, but in his defense he’s been busy.
So, Ed figures, drunk and assured, conditions are optimal. It isn’t long before everyone is getting up to get more beer or to go to the bathroom, and Ed forces himself to get up, too. Roy is slow to move his hand from Ed’s hip—where it wandered over the course of the night (seriously, how did it take Ed so long to figure things out)—and Ed considers just sitting back down.
Ed is a man of action, though, so he gets up and he stays up. The alcohol makes it harder than he’d like, but that’s how it goes.
“I think I’ll head home,” he says to Roy.
Roy nods. “It is getting late. Hold on a minute, I’m leaving too.”
Ed hadn’t even started towards the door, but he makes a big show of waiting for Roy anyway. They leave together and walk in a companionable silence if not in straight lines, until they reach Ed’s neighborhood.
“Well, this is me,” Ed says, and before Roy can do anything to ruin his plan, like talking or moving, Ed steps into his personal space and kisses him, hard. At first it’s a bit off-center and, yes, Ed has to strain to reach Roy’s face, but he fists his hands in Roy’s collar and goes for it.
Roy’s mouth is surprisingly soft under his, and Ed reminds himself to pull away—he has a plan—but then Roy bends down just a bit, and one of his hands has a vice-grip on Ed’s waist, and he kisses back. His tongue is clever (of course) and he kisses Ed just slowly enough to drive him mad. When they break apart Roy looks almost disheveled: his hair mussed by the wind, his collar wrinkled from Ed’s grasp, his mouth red and open. Ed is quite pleased with himself.
“You should come back with me,” he says in a rush. He wants to keep Roy like this for as long as possible, before he retreats back to being the Brigadier-General.
Ed takes Roy’s hand in his before he even gets an answer. Roy’s fingers curl around Ed’s and that’s as good as anything; Ed starts dragging him down the street.
They don’t really say anything until Ed has finally bested his front door, and as they step inside Roy says, “This is cleaner than I expected.”
“You’ve been thinking about my apartment?” Ed asks, and Roy rolls his eyes.
“You’re the one who told me you leave your notes lying around the kitchen.”
“That was one time! One data point is not sufficient,” Ed protests.
“This isn’t science,” Roy says, and before Ed can point out all the ways that doesn’t make sense, Roy reels him in and kisses him.
It’s even better now that they’re inside, where it isn’t fucking freezing. Roy crowds him up against the wall and settles his hands on Ed’s hips. Ed tangles their legs and tries to press up into Roy’s mouth without making it obvious. Roy bends down anyway, and Ed growls against his mouth, and pulls away to protest, but Roy reels him back in. Ed sucks on Roy’s tongue and pulls him closer, careful to use his flesh hand. The automail one lies awkwardly on Roy’s waist; Ed reminds himself that Roy—unlike almost everyone else he’s slept with—knows what automail is. It makes him laugh with relief, and Roy pulls back, smirking.
“Have you finally gone mad?”
“Shut up,” Ed says. “The bedroom’s over there, though, if you wanna give it a shot.”
“Driving you mad?”
“Among other things.”
Roy’s face lights up in a way that Ed has never seen before, and it makes him so happy he doesn’t even complain when Roy picks him up—the nerve!, Ed thinks as he wraps his legs around Roy’s waist—to carry him to the bedroom.
“Ugh, fuck,” Ed says when he wakes up.
“Regrets?” Roy asks. He sounds more awake than Ed does, but no less miserable.
“Several,” Ed grumbles. He feels Roy tense up and rolls his eyes, which he immediately regrets, because his optic nerves join the circus of pain that is his hangover.
“One, drinking so much. Two, not inventing an instantaneous hangover cure. Three, not actually having sex with you.”
“And whose fault is that?” Roy demands.
Roy looks shifty, like he’s planning on making a break for it, either for coffee or to escape from Ed once and for all. Ed rolls and pins him down with his automail leg. Roy stills obligingly. One of his hands tucks Ed’s hair behind his ear, the other grabs his ass. Ed smirks and rolls his hips.
“Shall we try again?” One of Roy’s hands slides down to Ed’s ass. Ed smirks and rolls his hips against Roy’s and immediately has to stop, because life is cruel and he is so hungover he is going to die.
“Yes,” Ed mutters, his head buried in Roy’s chest, “as soon as I can move. How are you so fucking perky?”
“Perky is a stretch.”
“I can barely talk without puking. It’s relative.”
Roy rubs Ed’s back. It helps a little.
“You had more than me,” Ed says after a while, “how is this possible.”
Roy rubs his back in slow, soothing circles. “Probably because you don’t have enough mass to absorb it all.”
“First of all, I’m like half metal, so, fuck you.”
“Fullmetal,” Roy chuckles.
Roy hushes him, and Ed, already drifting back asleep, lets him.
When he wakes again, the sun is higher in the sky and his hangover has faded to nothing more than a mere annoyance, and Roy is still beneath him. He’s dozing, but opens his eye when Ed starts to move.
“Third time’s the charm?”
Ed grins. “It’d better be.” Roy kisses the hollow of his neck, and Ed grinds down on him. They’re both already only half-dressed and, Ed is thrilled to discover, half-hard.
Ed remembers telling Roy last night that he could fuck him—he’d just assumed that Roy was more used to women—even though Ed didn’t normally just roll over, and Roy had laughed at that but his eye had gone dark with desire. Ed had always thought that was a figure of speech.
In the light of day it still seems like a pretty good plan. Roy sits up and rearranges Ed in his lap. His hands are large and warm on Ed’s back and at his waist, on his thighs, as Roy rolls his hips upwards. Ed moans audibly and Roy smirks.
“Just you wait,” Ed murmurs as he kisses Roy, “and we’ll see who’s laughing.” He runs his hands through Roy’s hair, and his automail snags on the strap of Roy’s eyepatch. Ed tries to untangle it as surreptitiously as possible, but Roy stills Ed with a hand on his wrist and does it himself, gently.
“Do you always keep it on?” Ed asks, because apparently his number one goal in life is to cockblock himself.
Roy’s face goes blank with shock.
“I’m not asking—,” Ed starts frantically.
“I do,” Roy says. “It’s easier.”
“Yeah,” Ed says, “it probably is.” If he was in Roy’s place, maybe he’d do the same thing.
Roy moves Ed’s hands away from his face, and starts to take the eyepatch off.
Ed wants to stop him—it feels like he forced this, a little—but more than that he wants to see Roy’s scars. A selfish desire for things to be equal; Ed has never been able to hide his damage.
“Oh,” is all he says when Roy takes the thing off and leaves it on the nightstand. The eye itself is milky and clouded, and around it spreads a spiderweb of scar tissue. Ed is transfixed.
“If you don’t,” Roy starts, and Ed shuts him up with a kiss. Roy mutters something that sounds like ‘of course’ against Ed’s lips.
Ed keeps kissing him while they undress, since he figures any opportunity for them to talk is a potential disaster. Not that Roy doesn’t try constantly.
“Mouthy,” Ed says as he reaches behind himself.
“Coming from you?” Roy snaps back, but then his jaw goes slack. Ed’s still got it then, he thinks, as he sinks back onto Roy’s cock. Too much, at first, the sensation blows his pupils wide and makes his breath shudder. Roy reaches up to hold him by the hips—and fuck, his hands are so large—and let Ed settle himself.
For a moment Ed thinks it’s going to be terrible. All this work to get here and the sex is going to be terrible. Then Roy’s hand moves from Ed’s hip to his cock, his thumb rubs at the head, and Ed starts to relax and move.
One he gets a rhythm going it’s as good as he remembers. Better, honestly, even as he has to slap Roy’s hands away (“I’m going to come if you do that.” “Is that not the point?” “Don’t be an asshole.”). Roy moves underneath him and the change in angle makes Ed see stars. Roy’s dick is brushing against his prostate now with every rise and fall.
Ed concentrates on flexing his thighs and working his hips even as the building pleasure in his abdomen causes him to falter. Roy works his erection, and Ed can feel that he’s going to come soon. Roy, too, by the jerking of his hips and the way he’s muttering Ed’s name over and over until suddenly he shouts once, and Ed can feel him come. The sensation is such a jolt that it sends Ed over the edge, too, spilling onto Roy’s hand and his own stomach.
“Christ,” he gasps, slumped over, Roy still inside him.
“And you thought you were out of practice,” Roy says, pushing Ed’s hair away from his face.
“If you can still talk, I am.”
“Great effort, I assure you. Do you need help?”
“No, I’ve got it.” Ed slowly lifts himself off of Roy and collapses beside him. Roy tosses the condom.
Ed isn’t a cuddler, generally speaking, but Roy is warm and Ed’s room gets cold in the winter, so he curls against Roy’s side and lets his eyes slip shut.
“Are you supposed to be at work,” he asks eventually, to keep himself awake.
“That eager to get rid of me?”
Ed bites him.
Roy laughs. “Hawkeye and I gave each other the day off.”
“How did you manage that?”
“Her diplomat leaves town next week, so she was surprisingly easy to convince.”
“And you thought I was a sure thing?” Ed asks. He isn’t mad; he was.
“No, actually,” Roy says. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Ed doesn’t respond to that. His face is on fire, and he hopes Roy can’t see.
“So,” he says, once he thinks he won’t choke on his own tongue out of embarrassment, “tell me about this diplomat that’s turned Hawkeye into such a slacker.”
“She’s probably at the office by now, actually. I doubt she trusts Havoc to run the place, even if she trusts him with Catalina.”
“Anyway, Hawkeye’s diplomat. She’s from one of the islands off the coast that both the Aerugans and the Donbachi claim.”
“What? I don’t want a history lesson, I just wanna win whatever betting pool Breda set up about this.”
“You already won?”
“Not yet, but I’ve arranged it with Hawkeye so we can split the pot.”
“I guess some things never change, you sneaky bastard. Is that how you got her to tell you?”
They lapse into silence after that. Ed drifts in and out of sleep, telling himself each time he wakes that he needs to get to work.
Ed doesn’t make it to work that day. At some point in the afternoon he does manage to at least drag himself out of bed and into the kitchen, where Roy is sitting with a cup of coffee and a newspaper Ed didn’t realize he got delivered.
“Your downstairs neighbor let me have her copy,” Roy says in response to Ed’s squint.
“The fishmonger?” Ed asks. “She doesn’t care about the news, I think.”
“Makes sense, then.”
Ed buries his face in a mug of coffee and tries to think about what he has in the fridge. Probably nothing, or Roy would have found it already. Or maybe he’s too lazy to cook, maybe he’s waiting for Ed to make something. Or maybe—
Or maybe Ed needs to stop thinking about this so hard. Sex doesn’t normally do this to him. Then again, he’s never slept with a friend before. His relationships have always moved in the opposite direction.
When he finally looks up Roy is watching him with an expression Ed can’t, or doesn’t want to place.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Work, mostly.” It isn’t even a lie. Ed is always thinking about his work on some level, the thoughts a background hum in everything else he does.
“Not familiar with the concept of a day off, Fullmetal?”
“Don’t call me that. We’ve had sex. It’s weird now.”
Roy frowns but then nods. “Touché.”
“And, for the record, no. Never really got the point of a day off.”
Roy grins, absolutely wicked, and he looks as young as the day Ed met him.
Which is how Ed finds himself back in bed, pressed down by Roy’s weight. He’s heavy in a comforting way, moving sure and steady in Ed. Ed returns the favor later, gets to enjoy the way Roy’s eyes widen and his breath hitches as he murmurs, “It’s been a long time.” Ed doesn’t ask with whom. He’s afraid of the answer. After that, of course, is the shower, where Ed learns that Roy’s mouth is actually good for something.
They do eventually return to the kitchen, once their hunger creeps up on them. Ed has eggs and bread and an assortment of vegetables that he bought because Al sent him a list and a series of detailed threats. While they eat Roy pesters Ed about the stacks of books lying around the apartment.
“Just how many languages do you have here?”
“Not that many,” Ed protests with his mouth full. “Amestrian. Xingese because Al was studying it. English, German, French. Less French than English and German, probably. We don’t know it as well. Oh, and one Turkish book Al got from a girlfriend. Except neither of us really knows any Turkish.”
“Not that many,” Roy echoes.
“Well, when you think about how many there must be out there…”
Ed rolls his eyes. “You know your flattery doesn’t work on me.”
“Which is why I’m not flattering you.”
Ed laughs, and lets things take their natural course.
This is why he wakes up to the Sunday light falling across his eyes and Roy crushing his flesh arm and absolutely nothing accomplished. He hasn’t even written to Al, and that’s one of his favorite things to do.
He tries to extract himself from Roy without waking him. It’s shocking, actually, that Roy isn’t already awake; Ed assumed that military conditioning was harder to break. Of course, Roy is old, and they had a lot of sex. He’s probably worn out, Ed chuckles to himself. He feels pretty smug about it.
When his arm is free he starts scrabbling around under the bed for paper. He finds what seems like an entire notebook’s worth, and a pen on the nightstand. If he’s going to spend the whole weekend in bed, he might as well really commit to it.
Dear Al, he starts. Where does he go from there? Dear Al, guess what I did this weekend? Well, more like: guess who? No; he wants to see Al’s reaction to the news in person. Niehaus is an asshole, he writes.
“You brother?” Says a voice to his side. Ed jumps.
“Finally up, old man?”
Ed doesn’t have to look to know that Roy is rolling his eyes. “I chose to go back to sleep.”
“Sure you did.”
“You wouldn’t know either way. You sleep like a log.”
Ed can’t dispute that. “Yeah,” he says after a beat. “Al.”
Ed would rather talk about literally anything else.
“Niehaus, yeah. I don’t really know what to say.”
“You can always wait until he gets back.”
Ed loves him for that.
“Nah. He’ll be furious if he finds out I waited to tell him. We agreed back on the other side that we had to tell each other what was going on, no matter how much we didn’t want to. I’ll just write a couple of lines about it. He won’t get it until he’s about to leave, anyway.”
They lapse into silences as Ed tries to get a couple of lines on the page. He starts letters and abandons them, unable to decide what matters. Does Al want to know how Ed felt—how Ed feels—or does he want to know the context of it? Ed knows the answer to that, but it’s the answer he doesn’t want to hear. In the end he settles for I lost it or something. I don’t know, and trusts that Al will understand.
Roy’s arm curls around him and Ed waits for what he knows is coming.
“Are you okay?”
“Is that why you’re here? To make sure I’m okay?”
“Don’t be cruel,” is all Roy says, and Ed feels a pang of guilt. He’s a lot of things, but cruel isn’t one of them. Maybe Roy brings it out in him, which is an equally horrifying thought. They’re not, he tells himself, those kind of people.
Ed doesn’t say anything, but Roy doesn’t take his arm away, either.
“We sure know how to ruin a mood, huh?” Ed says. “But, yeah, I’m okay. As okay as it gets, I think.”
“As it gets,” Roy echoes, and kisses the top of his head.
Roy leaves in the late afternoon, but Ed still doesn’t manage to get any real work done. He does a weekend’s worth of dishes and changes his sheets and checks the calendar to remind himself when Winry gets back from Resembool. He goes ahead and drops Al’s letter in the mailbox even though there’s no pickup on Sunday, and he lets the fishmonger load him up with samples because he “looks hungry.”
Something inside of him can’t sit still.
Ed didn’t expect this. It’s not like his feelings for Roy—their feelings for one another, really—were a mystery to him. It’s not like he didn’t plan for this to happen. Ed is getting everything he’s wanted, just one thing after another: his brother and his home and his work and his friends and Roy, and it all makes him so happy that he thinks something in his chest is going to explode, and it makes him incapable of calm. Something skitters at the edge of his consciousness, a reminder of the transience of good things. Ed hates it, but he can’t control it. Not yet. So.
So he lets himself be in motion for the rest of the day, until he can feel his eyelids growing heavy and he finally lies down. Even then, sleep doesn’t come.
Anthony’s book is at his bedside, where he’d left it while he was keeping his hands busy.
Ed has no artistic sensibilities, according to Al. It’s true, too. Ed doesn’t care about scansion or word choice or any of that. He knew Anthony was a good poet because he managed to publish and to be read, and because Al told him so. Distance doesn’t imbue the poetry with any new significance, either, but as he reads the pieces about himself—not even half the collection, mercifully—Ed can tell how much Anthony loved him. Maybe he still loves Ed in some sort of poetic way. Maybe you can’t take it back after you write it down.
He remembers Gracia talking about what it was like to know that Maes loved her and Elysia even in another universe. Ed doesn’t think he and Roy are quite the same case, that whatever stretches now between the two of them is the same love that binds Maes and Gracia. But Ed did find Roy, despite everything, on the other side. And they loved each other, in a sort of blind and fearful way, but they loved each other nonetheless.
Finally, Ed falls asleep.
He dreams about Anthony. It doesn’t come as a surprise.
Ed is usually a lucid dreamer, a skill he forced himself to acquire on the other side, because it made it easier to run, and harder for him to forget where he was. In the two years before Al joined him, Ed dreamed of home without fail three days out of any given four, and the dreams were always too real and too comforting. He woke up unsure of what was real, and once he figured it out he would lie in place for what felt like hours, just missing everything. It hadn’t been a sustainable lifestyle. So Ed had taught himself to recognize his dreams.
When he told Al, Al had rolled his eyes and said it didn’t matter now that he was there. When he told Winry, she had given him a strange soft smile and hugged him. Ed doesn’t know what Roy would say if Ed told him. Ed doesn’t want to; it feels like some sort of dirty secret now, or another scar Ed has to carry around.
It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.
And he dreams of Anthony.
It’s an exact memory, almost. In this dream Ed is less drunk than he was in reality, thank God. One of Anthony’s plays had actually made to a stage, somehow, and so they’d gone out to celebrate. The rest of the set had come with them at first, but then they’d whirled off on some sort of adventure that probably got written about—that Al probably read about, actually—and so Ed and Anthony had been alone. There hadn’t been much point in staying at the bar, after that. Instead, they went back to Anthony’s and started in on a bottle of absinthe he’d been saving for a special literary occasion. The literary had been key, Ed remembers. Anthony had told him that absinthe was for creatives, even though Ed pointed out that no one else they knew drank it.
Absinthe is supposed to have hallucinatory properties, which is how Ed justified—and still does—what happened after.
They had about half the bottle between them, and Anthony was looking at Ed with a strange brightness in his eyes. It was something mad and happy, and Ed remembered that he used to be a soldier, that they had been drawn together by some perceived commonality of pain.
But all Ed could see in that moment was Mustang. He pushed it down, focused on everything around him that separated Mustang and Anthony. But when Anthony leaned forward to kiss him, Ed let Anthony press down on him, didn’t try to take control. The light in Anthony’s eyes stayed when he asked Can I fuck you. His voice was rougher than normal, with joy and alcohol.
Of course Ed had let him. Normally Ed fucked Anthony, but in the moment he figured, Mustang would fuck him. That seemed the logical order of things.
Anthony had looked down at him, mid-thrust, and laughed at how large his hands seemed on Ed’s hips, and it had been so naturally for Ed to say Oh, fuck you Mustang. It had been in Amestrian, but Ed never really forgave himself for it. It felt like a betrayal of Anthony and of Mustang.
So he watches it happen again in his dream, and thinks about how different the two of them are. Of course there’s something similar still, maybe, in the way that Anthony watches him. Like he’s worth watching. ; Ed doesn’t think about the dream. It joins a long list of things he isn’t think about: Niehaus, his letter to Al, what he’s going to tell Winry when she gets here, what he does now with Roy.
Luckily, he can throw himself into his work just as well as he could before this weekend. His grad student doesn’t even seem to notice anything off. They work through arrays and poorly translated papers and until it grows dark and Ed realizes he’s kept her late.
“I don’t mind,” she says with a shrug. “It’s more interesting than any of my coursework.”
“Obviously,” Ed says, and then tries to backpedal. “Not, uh, not that coursework isn’t valuable. I’m sure it has its place.”
“Well, you didn’t do it,” she points out through her laughter.
“Don’t take life advice from me,” Ed warns her. “I don’t think the rest of my colleagues would appreciate it.”
“No worries. I don’t plan to go into the military any time soon,” she tells him, and Ed waves her off.
He stays in the lab for hours after that, poring over one of the Cretan documents. By the time he gets home, he’s so tired he doesn’t even stop to think about whether he should call Roy.
The next morning Ed decides that he’ll wait until Friday. If he hasn’t heard anything by then he’ll go down to the office and raise hell however he deems most appropriate. For now, though, he’s going to put Roy and any attendant thoughts aside.
It works. Ed is relieved to discover that he hasn’t lost his ability to focus exclusively on his work for days at a time. He works on his official project with an intensity that both impresses and alarms his grad student. When she leaves for the day, his attention turns to Al’s notes from Xing. Ed thinks he’s finally beginning to make sense out of them.
Ed starts to lose steam on Friday afternoon, which he blames not on the sense of disappointment growing in the back of his mind, but on Niehaus’s sudden appearance at his office door.
“The faculty meetings in three hours,” Ed points out. “I’m sure you can wait until then to say whatever it is you’ve come here for.”
Niehaus rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to talk to the rest of the faculty. Just you.”
“About?” Ed asks. He hasn’t stood up yet. Niehaus hasn’t actually crossed the threshold, either.
“Last week’s meeting.” And Niehaus steps inside, and closes the door behind him.
“Fantastic,” Ed mutters under his breath. Then, louder: “I’m not particularly interested in talking to you, though.”
“I’m sure you can spare a minute,” Niehaus says. At least he doesn’t sit down. Ed doesn’t know what he would do, short of physically dragging Niehaus out of his office.
“I’m very busy.”
“I’m sure you are, though you never say with what.”
“I talk about my research all the time!” Ed protests.
“I don’t trust you,” Niehaus says, and Ed rolls his eyes.
“I don’t care. I was in the military roughly a decade ago, and I wasn’t exactly a model soldier. If you have problems with my being here, you can take it up with someone else.”
“You didn’t seem very enthused with my presentation.”
Ed is going to kill him. Or, at the very least, knock him out and leave him in a less than savory location. He hasn’t done anything to deserve this.
“That has nothing to do with my feelings about the military. You’re just an idiot.”
“I’m not suggesting we jump right into human transmutation,” Niehaus explains. “I’m just saying that we need to consider why it’s been banned. Whose interests are being protected.”
Ed finally looks up from his desk. Niehaus is grinning the smug grin of the hopelessly ignorant, and Ed is tired and—something, sad, maybe—and was never very good with people anyway.
“Human transmutation has been a taboo for centuries, and in other countries, too. It isn’t some sort of Amestrian decision. Besides, what do you want to do with it, anyway? You wanna make chimeras? Because that doesn’t work. I saw a lot of chimeras when I was with the military, made by a lot of people, and not one of them was successful. Or, do you want to bring someone back to life?”
Niehaus starts. Ed hopes it’s because of fear, not an answer.
“Because, how do you make sure it’s a specific person? How do you alchemize the soul? It doesn’t work. I guess you could try to make a bunch of soulless automatons, but if that’s your goal, the military will probably go for it. In secret, of course.”
Niehaus is speechless. Good, Ed thinks, and focuses on practicing ‘mindful breathing’ or whatever it was Al had told him to do when he was enraged.
Just at that moment, someone knocks on the door.
“Come in!” Ed yells, before Niehaus can start talking again.
Roy fucking Mustang walks in.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ed blurts.
“Charming as always, Fullmetal. I’m actually here for Dr. Niehaus.”
“Not my fucking name, but you can have him.”
Niehaus looks like he’s going to shit himself. Ed tries to hide his grin.
“Annual review, Dr. Niehaus,” Roy says. “Since you’re government funded, it’s only right that someone checks to make sure everything’s on the straight and narrow.”
Niehaus swallows whatever he was going to say next, which is probably in his best interests, Ed figures, with Roy giving him that look.
“Shall we, then?” Roy asks Niehaus. “Unless you’d like me to wait there for you while you finish your discussion.”
“No, no,” Niehaus says in a rush, “right this way.”
Ed sits in shock as they leave. At least Roy remembers to close the door behind them.
He stays like that for what feels like ages, just staring at the door and trying to understand what’s going on. He doesn’t know if Roy is here as some sort of favor to Ed—or maybe a terrible apology of some kind—or if he is actually conducting annual reviews.
Well, Ed figures, Roy isn’t stupid enough to come in and harass Niehaus and then leave. It would be too obvious that Ed had tipped him off, so he must at least be making a show of it. Ed does vaguely remembering hearing something about annual reviews when he had signed his contract, but it had gone into the same memory bin as the rest of the bureaucratic nonsense. But had Roy really needed to give Ed zero warning about what he was doing? Ed doesn’t know how to feel about the whole situation, so he settles on anger.
By the time Roy enters without knocking, Ed was worked himself up into a fantastic rage.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” He hisses as soon as Roy sits down. Presumptuous asshole.
“Conducting annual reviews, Fullmetal. I told you.”
Ed narrows his eyes and wonders if he could leap over his desk and strangle Roy before he was able to snap his fingers. Maybe.
“So you’re here to try and weaponize my research.”
“That’s not,” Roy pauses. “Strictly true.”
“It’s the only reason the military has you doing this kind of thing. Why you, anyway?”
“Highest ranking State Alchemist,” Roy says with a shrug. “Better the devil you know?”
“Better no devil at all,” Ed replies.
“You are being insufferable,” Roy says. Ed’s surprised at the heat in his voice.
“Are you surprised?”
“I had assumed you would understand the need for supervision of alchemical research?”
“Not from the military! I know exactly what you do with alchemy, bastard.”
Roy looks momentarily hurt, but lets his gaze slide over to the door, where several of Ed’s colleagues are doing a very bad job of eavesdropping. Someone’s feet are in Ed’s direct eyeline, so of course Roy picks up on it.
When he turns back around he no longer looks quite so upset. Ed’s grateful for that; he must be assuming that Ed is being this aggressive because other people are listening. Ed’s will to let him believe that, too, rather than admit that, ugh, his feelings had been hurt or something.
He’s also grateful for the chance to test out his new array, his first real attempt at Xingese alkahestry. One circle is on the other side of the door, while the other, much smaller, is on his desk. The one on his desk lights up if the other is activated. Apparently one of his eavesdroppers is standing directly on the other circle.
“You noticed?” Roy mouths.
Ed nods and indicates the lit array with his thumb. Roy’s eyes widen gratifyingly.
“Anyway,” he says, “whether or not you like it, I need you to show me your research.”
“Or I’ll find it myself. I’m sure you’d love to have me going through all of your notes.”
“Don’t you dare,” Ed says with a glare.
“Then start talking.”
“Not like you’d understand it anyway, bastard.”
“Stop procrastinating, Fullmetal.”
“Not my name,” Ed snaps.
“More time-wasting,” Roy singsongs.
“Here.” Ed slams a folder down on the desk. It’s full to bursting, half articles and Ed’s own miserable translations of them, and half original notes. Let the bastard try to sort through them himself, Ed thinks. He pushes the folder towards Roy.
Roy just raises an eyebrow.
“You expect me to read all of this? I’m a busy man.”
“Oh, I know,” Ed retorts. He sounds bitter, he realizes as soon as the words come out of his mouth. Fuck. He hopes Roy doesn’t notice, or at least doesn’t make the connection, but that’s obviously not going to happen. Roy is too observant for anyone’s good.
And of course he notices. Something in his expression flickers, and then is gone again. What’s left behind is Brigadier General Mustang, the Flame Alchemist. Ed wonders if he’s ruined everything.
“So,” Roy says, “walk me through it.”
“Fine,” Ed says, clipped and controlled. If Roy is going to be weird and professional about it, Ed might as well be, too.
“Half of the folder is just articles. Papers, I guess, is a better word. A lot of them are Cretan, so I’ve been doing the translation myself.”
“Why not find a Cretan-speaker at the university?”
“Really? You know I wouldn’t trust anyone else’s interpretation.”
“But you have nothing to hide?”
“Nothing more than your average non-military alchemist,” Ed says with a smile.
“And what are these articles about?”
“Plate tectonics, I think. Volcanoes, that sort of stuff. I’m trying to focus on alchemy and the natural world.”
“As opposed to alchemy and the unnatural world.”
“And nature, then, asshole. Alchemy and nature. There could be agricultural, architectural, all sorts of implications. This sort of stuff could help with constructing mines, even. Underground railroads maybe. That sort of thing.”
“May I see some of the arrays?”
Ed narrows his eyes, “Did you ask to see everyone else’s?”
“Looking for special treatment, Fullmetal?”
“You know me,” Ed says. “Anyway,” he rifles through the folder for a minute, “here are a couple. This one is about soil quality, actually. I’m thinking of some sort of large-scale agricultural array that could do something like move minerals between soil and bedrock, for example.”
Roy hums under his breath.
Ed notices that the array on his desk has gone dark.
“You never told me you were working on this,” Roy says. His voice is different. He must have noticed, too.
“Well, you know what I’m really working on,” Ed points out. “This is just to have something to present at weekly meetings.”
“And yet it’s more polished and more useful than anything else I saw today.”
Ed shrugs. “I don’t need you to flatter me. I know I’m a better alchemist than anyone else at this university. Except Al, but he’s in Xing right now, so he doesn’t count.”
“I’m not flattering you.”
“Then what are you doing?” Ed asks.
“Stating the truth. I don’t know what you want from me, here.”
“I want to know why you’re here,” Ed says. He wants to be yelling, too, but the walls aren’t quite thick enough for that.
“To do my job,” Roy says.
“You don’t think it looks suspicious? You, my former CO, showing up right after someone I don’t like presents on something I don’t agree with. I assume you found the book. He’s going to put two and two together, even if there aren’t actually two and two to start with.”
“It doesn’t matter what Niehaus suspects,” Roy tells him. “This is part of my job, and he was planning on doing illegal alchemy. If he tries to take it any further he’s going to run into people far harsher than me.”
“I can’t work here if people think I’m in bed with you!” Ed snaps, and then goes beet red. “In bed with the military. You know what I meant. I’m not in bed with you.”
“Or are we still not talking about it? That’s better, anyway.”
“Of course we’re talking about it,” Roy hisses. “I just assumed your office, surrounded by your nosy colleagues, wasn’t the best place for it.”
“Because you didn’t have a week to figure things out.”
“That’s not,” Roy starts. “I thought you might have wanted space.”
“Is this about Niehaus?” Ed asks. “Even after I told you that wasn’t why I did it?”
“No,” Mustang says. Ed doesn’t really believe him. “It was just about giving you space.”
“You couldn’t have said something?”
“It would have defeated the point, wouldn’t it?”
“Ugh, point.” Ed can feel his anger ebbing. He could turn its tide, of course. There are a thousand things he finds irritating about Roy and his behavior, and Ed does love a good argument. He doesn’t think, though, that this will be a good fight. Everyone will get hurt and this—all of this potential—will just slip out of Ed’s fingers. Maybe he deserves to lose everything, maybe he still isn’t done with his penance, but Ed wants desperately to believe that he paid his toll, eight years on the other side. Two years without Al and then another six in a mitigated solitude.
“I’m still pissed,” he tells Roy. “For the record.”
“I would never have guessed.”
“You’re not helping your case.”
Roy rolls his eyes and smirks, but shuts up.
“I, uh,” Ed rubs the back of his head, “don’t really know where I was going. I don’t know how this stuff is supposed to go.”
“There’s not exactly a script,” Roy starts, but Ed’s glare cuts him off. “Did you never argue with your,” Ed waits to see what noun Roy thinks is appropriate for whatever is happening between them, but the slippery bastard just gives up instead. “You never had an argument like this on the other side?”
“Not really,” Ed answers. “And it never mattered anyway, since I was always going to leave.”
Roy looks sad at that.
“I didn’t like it much either,” Ed points out. “But it was what we had to do. I’m trying to learn how to not run, you know.”
“A hard lesson to learn,” Roy agrees, “although I can’t remember you running from a thing in your life.”
Ed does laugh at that. “I meant more literally than figuratively. I don’t think I’ve stayed this long in one place since I had four limbs.”
“In that case, it’s a much easier lesson to learn,” Roy says. He’s leaning forward so far Ed thinks he might fall out of his chair. “You just need to find a reason to stay.”
“I think I might be able to help you with that.”
Ed grins. This is the part he’s good at. He reaches across the desk and gets Roy by his lapels, clambers up onto the desk to get a better angle, and kisses him.
Roy grins against his mouth and stands in one fluid motion, now towering over Ed, who’s still sort of kneeling on his own desk. He manages to sit at the edge and pulls Roy down to meet him, and the logistical awkwardness fades away as Ed parts his mouth and pretends like he’s not the one who lets out a soft gasp.
Of course it’s him, gasping as Roy strokes the roof of Ed’s mouth with his tongue and presses his thigh between Ed’s legs.
“Here?” Ed manages. “In my office?”
“If you think you can keep quiet,” Roy says.
Ed rolls his eyes. “We’ll have to be quick. I have a meeting in,” he doesn’t even pretend to look at his watch, “too soon. With everyone in the department. Who all know you were in here.”
“A delicate operation, then.”
Ed laughs and draws him back down,
As it turns out, everyone is too mad about Roy having come by at all to ask any questions about Ed’s involvement. They just assume that Ed feels the same way they do, which is mostly true. Ed is still pretty peeved that Roy thought not talking to him for a week and then harassing his entire department was a slick move, but a) Niehaus definitely got busted and b) Ed definitely got blown, so Ed has to work to complain about Roy, which is a first. Luckily he’s still got it. If he weren’t able to generate an automatic list of everything the Colonel—Ed will never call him Brigadier General—has done in the past fifteen years, he would probably have to make arrangements for last rites or something.
Whatever lingering awkwardness Ed was expecting between him and Roy doesn’t surface. Instead, Ed meets Roy at the office and they walk home together, ignoring Havoc’s wolf-whistle and Hawkeye’s glare that promises painful retribution if the General doesn’t make it to work on Saturday. They go home together and Roy manages some kind of dinner out of what they find in the fridge and tells Ed about his week. It’s strange and familiar all at once, this kind of domesticity.
Ed can put aside his doubts about Roy, about what this actually is for him. Ed had believed—still believes, in his most rational center—that Roy loves him. He doesn’t know, though, if Roy knows how to be in love any more than Ed does. Ed remembers how Roy had been back when Ed had only thought of him as Mustang, and even if he’s figured out that the womanizer act was just that, if that’s the only way you let yourself be with other people, it becomes a habit. For a long time he’d thought that Roy was in love with Hawkeye, but whatever is between them is something stranger and darker. Ed hasn’t asked yet. Maybe he will, one day, when this is less new.
Ed doesn’t know, either, how to be in love with someone. He knows how it works in isolated moments—in days even, long unbroken stretches of relative happiness—but Ed can’t imagine what it’s like to love someone and to make them a real part of your life. He’s never known a life without Al and Winry, so that doesn’t count. There has been a space for Roy in his life since he was twelve, but Roy’s role has changed so dramatically that it doesn’t seem right to think of him as occupying the same space he did before the other side. To Ed it’s as though he has lived two completely separate lives; as though he was dead for eight years and was suddenly breathed back into a dream where he is allowed to have the things he wants.
If this makes the eight years on the other side only a lacuna, then so be it. Ed has tried to articulate this to Al—who reminds him of all the love and light and wonder in that other world, too, of the mountains in spring and red wine and the glimmer of sunlight on the Adriatic; and of Marek and Miroslav, and Suzanna and Estelle, Anthony, and all the mirror images of all their friends—but Al in some way considers the other side a test that was passed, a problem that was solved, another impossible feat accomplished by the Elric brothers. He’s not wrong.
He’s not wrong, but. Underneath everything Ed always felt acutely (as he feels everything acutely) how much he was on the outside: a man who slept with men, a cripple, a foreigner, a devotee of a false art. Eight years of hiding feels more like death than anything else. He remembers seeing his reflection at eighteen and thinking for the first time that he looked old. Worn. The lines are still there now, when he looks in the mirror every morning. He took something of the grave back with him.
Ed wants to ask Roy how he does it. Roy has to know what it’s like to have something like this in your personal timeline, but the more time Ed spends with Roy the more he wonders if Roy isn’t wanting to ask Ed the same thing. Maybe that’s love, this desperate holding the other up against a darkness at once familiar and strange.
Ed doesn’t set out to keep this thing with Roy a secret, but it happens anyway. He keeps in under wraps at work for practical reasons, and they just assume that the rest of the office gang can figure it out for themselves, or that they have a bet going. Roy and Hawkeye have probably already agreed to split that pot, too. He doesn’t tell Al because he wants to do that in person, and he doesn’t tell Winry at first because he doesn’t want to see her reaction, and then she’s visiting Granny Pinako in Resembool, and then Ed runs out of excuses.
He calls Winry the day she gets back to Central, and the next morning he’s at her apartment. She berates him for ten minutes for failing to keep in touch with her before she realizes that something must be up, if his only retort is “I’ve been busy.”
She motions for him to join her on the couch. “I’m,” she starts, then stops, frowns and starts again. “I’m not mad at you, and I don’t think that you don’t love me or anything like that. I know it must be hard for you, to readjust, but you could at least pretend to try.”
Ed feels awful, and even more so at the prospect of telling her about Roy. “I know, Win, I know. And I try, I mean, I will? I am?”
She laughs despite her best efforts.
“I’ve just, I have been busy at work. And, I’ve, uh, I’ve been seeing someone.”
Winry shrieks. “Tell me everything, and I’ll forgive you.”
“You’re not,” Ed says, “you’re not really going to like it.”
He can see her going for the wrench on the coffee table, so he decides just to rip the bandage off.
Winry goes very still and very quiet. Ed wonders if he should reach for her, or apologize, or leave. Her face is shuttered and strange to Ed; he has to wonder if she ever looked like this when they were young, or if this is something she learned without him. He should leave. Instead, he watches Winry’s hands on her knees and thinks about the little scars on her knuckles and the steady beat of blood in her wrists.
“Are you happy?” she asks, finally.
Ed doesn’t know how to answer that question, really, not how Winry’s entire face had blossomed when Ed had asked her about Sheska. Happiness is a transient state, not a way of being. Ed has spent so long being cold and uncomfortable and tired and alone that his understanding of happiness is probably far divorced from anyone else’s. But he does…he isn’t unhappy with Roy.
“Yeah,” he tells her. The answer feels good in his mouth. Real.
Then: “I’m sorry.”
Winry shakes her head, but she won’t look at him.
“I spent two years thinking you were dead, you know.” And before Ed can interrupt she casually lays the wrench across her lap. “And then I spent another six realizing that even if you were alive, you weren’t ever coming back—you and Al both. You two were the most important people in my life. It felt like I’d been shipwrecked, or, or that I’d suddenly gone blind. It took me a long time to accept that I might never see you again. So even just, the fact that you came back is more than I had ever hoped for. Sometimes I still wonder if this is a dream, that I’ll wake up and it’s five years ago and I’m still drawing automail schematics for you. I don’t like Mustang, but I love you. You can be with whoever you want as long as it’s on this side of the gate. And I missed you so much,” she says, her voice breaking. “Just, don’t stop trying. I know it takes a while.”
Whatever she was going to say after that is lost to tears. Ed wraps his arm around her and leans his cheek on the top of her head, and doesn’t realize for the longest time that he’s crying, too.
Ed breathes easier once Winry knows, even if she does inform him that he’s expected to bring Roy to dinner at least once. Ed refrains from pointing out that literally everyone would be uncomfortable with that situation, because he figures that’s what family does. And it means a lot to him that Winry isn’t fighting him on this. It’s a good sign.
Roy, when Ed tells him, is shocked. Ed just shrugs and says, “What did you expect? She loves me.”
“Love guarantees nothing,” Roy says in that strange distant voice Ed hates.
“Nothing guarantees nothing,” he replies, and elbows Roy with his metal arm.
Once he’s recovered, he points out, “Actually, it’s nothing guarantees anything…”
Ed brandishes his fist, and Roy laughs.
Ed does, though, think that love maybe guarantees something. He would tell Roy but there isn’t a place or a time where that wouldn’t be weird or overbearing. And besides, Ed doesn’t know what he would be promising. Love is easiest with a goal. He thinks about his father’s love which looked more like fear than anything else.
He waits to tell Al till they’ve gotten back from the train station. Actually, he chickens out at the station and doesn’t say anything about it until they’re back at their apartment poring over the texts Al brought back, with Ed needling Al about his tutor and Al getting redder and redder until finally he admits that he has a crush on her.
While Ed is still gloating, Al turns that tables and asks, “What about you?”
“I don’t have a crush on your tutor,” Ed tells him, but he can feel his face heating up anyway.
Al just watches him. If anything, the months apart have made his stare more effective.
“Yeah,” Ed admits. “It’s been good.”
“I knew it!” Al crows. “I told you. When do I get to threaten the general, as is my brotherly duty?”
Al narrows his eyes.
Al pounces at the sign of weakness. “You are! That’s so cute!”
Al waits him out, and Ed knows he’s waiting him out, and even as he promises he won’t crack he knows he’s going to cave and tell Al all about his feelings.
The entire process takes less than 24 hours.
Al makes a Xingese breakfast and then watches Ed eat it. Ed eats it and then teases Al about whether his girlfriend taught him how to cook. He very deliberately doesn’t say anything about Roy.
Al doesn’t press, but he radiates smugness anyway. Maybe he’s drugged Ed’s food.
The drugged food hypothesis is increasingly likely, Ed decides, because two hours later, when they’re both sprawled out in the living room reading and tossing stray comments about the inadequacies of the articles to one another, Ed puts down On the Composition of the Soil of the Regions of Amestris and says, “Did you see it coming?”
“Obviously. You didn’t?”
“A little, I guess. It didn’t come out of nowhere, for me.”
“How long? Since before-?”
“Nah,” Ed laughs, “and not even Anthony. That was just, uh.”
“Freakish, erotic coincidence.”
“Okay, never say the word ‘erotic’ to me again. You’re my baby brother. But, sure, freak coincidence. We got along. Roy and I get along. It makes sense.”
“So he’s Roy, now.”
“Well, I’m not going to call him Colonel, am I?”
“It’s not my place to judge,” Al says, sniffing primly. Ed has to laugh in spite of the underlying awkwardness of the situation.
There’s a long silence after, and Ed starts to go back to his article, suddenly extremely interested in the traces of volcanic earth found in the far east of Amestris.
“That’s it?” Al asks before Ed can get through even a single sentence.
“You two get along? That’s all you have to say about it?”
“I don’t know what else you want me to say,” Ed admits.
That makes Al chuckle. “I mean, I want to talk about Mei all the time-”
“Oh, I know,” Ed interrupts. When Ed isn’t teasing him about her, Al still manages to bring her up every other sentence.
“And I haven’t even told her,” Al continues, and then cuts himself off, bright red.
“Wait,” Ed says, delight creeping into his voice. “You haven’t even told her you like her?”
“This is amazing.”
“We’re talking about you, not me!”
Sometimes, in the grand scheme of things, you have to sacrifice to move ahead. Ed knows this, even if he doesn’t always like it.
“What else is there to say? We love each other, and I’m happy, and Winry knows, and didn’t kick my ass about it. So I think that’s everything I have to say.”
When Ed looks up, Al is staring at him.
“What?” Ed know he sounds defensive. Maybe he is defensive.
Al engulfs him in a hug. It’s still not fair, Ed thinks, that Al is taller than him. But he’s glad, too, that Al is here and he’s proud of Ed for something that Ed didn’t have to pour his literal blood into, and that when they break apart he can freely tease Al about Mei and not get anything back for it. He feels good. He might have to get used to it.
A year later, Ed leans back from the box he’s packing and says, “I hate this.”
“No,” Al tells him, “you don’t.”
Ed scowls. “I don’t like leaving you alone. What if something happens?”
Al squats down across from him and forces eye contact. “Okay, first of all, I’m pretty sure I can handle myself.”
“Second of all,” Al continues, raising his voice, “I won’t be alone, and Mei can take care of herself, too.”
“I still don’t like it,” Ed grumbles.
“You’re just nervous about it,” Al says. “It’s normal. I’m nervous about Mei coming here, and it’s just for the year.”
“I thought you were being nice and not making me talk about it.”
“I’ve only got a few more hours to bother you about it,” Al points out, “and you can’t run away or I’ll pack everything in the wrong boxes and you’d hate that.”
“It’ll be fine,” Ed says after a pause. “But what if it isn’t?”
He doesn’t need to look at Al to know what expression he’s wearing: soft but calculating. “Then you move back here and we plot to overthrow the government.”
Ed chokes back a laugh. Al doesn’t waste time trying to convince that it will work out, which Ed appreciates. He knows it will, but hearing it from someone else is grating. Instead, they sort books in relative silence, punctuated only by squabbles over who gets what, until the door creaks open.
Ed is expecting Roy, who has been shockingly hands-off during this whole process, except to veto certain items of furniture. (Ed will never understand interior decorating, and he’s okay with that).
Instead, it’s Hawkeye, who gives the room, which is a maze of boxes and loose-leaf notes, a once-over and apparently finds it acceptable, since she says nothing.
“Are you here to give me the ‘don’t fuck this up’ speech? I know Al already cornered Roy about it, so I guess it’s my turn.”
Her eyes narrow, but she’s smiling. “Not exactly.”
Al pads quietly into his room. Ed vows retribution, later.
“Roy is a difficult man to love, sometimes,” Hawkeye says. For a fleeting moment Ed wonders what sort of experience she’s speaking from, and it feels like someone doused his internal organs in gasoline.
“No,” he tells her, “not really.”
“This isn’t a test I’m trying to pass,” Ed says.
Ed realizes for the first time that Hawkeye seems uncomfortable. It’s a strange thought, that this conversation might make her nervous. Then again, it’s the most personal conversation they’ve ever had, and the only real conversation they’ve ever had about Roy. It suits both of them to leave topics like this alone, and especially suits them to leave this particular topic alone.
He doesn’t know what to say. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling for him, but he normally manages to power right through it. With Hawkeye, though, it’s different, because she has no problem with the silence and she’ll wait him out if she has to, let him finally wind down because he’s run out of bullshit.
He doesn’t actually have a lot of bullshit to spew about Roy.
“You’re good for him,” Hawkeye says eventually. “And you’re good to him.”
“Ah, I’ve never done this before,” she admits.
“I’m sure you’ve threatened people before.” Ed is aiming for humor but falls somewhere in No Man’s Land instead.
Hawkeye graces him with an awkward smile.
“I wanted to say that I’m happy for both of you and I wish you the best.”
“Oh.” Ed can feel himself blush. “Thank you.”
Hawkeye nods. She looks as awkward as Ed feels.
“We’re definitely just telling Roy that you threatened me, right?”
“Definitely,” Hawkeye agrees with a wink.
Ed never imagined ending up like this. In part it’s because his life has been, up until this point, extremely strange. And it’s got something to do with the fact that other people are unpredictable, and his life has, despite everything, always been full of people.
The real core of it though, is that Ed has never really imagined his own future. He knows that other people do, whatever universe they’re from, but for a long time that knowledge made him feel like an alien anthropologist. As a kid he had been obsessively goal-oriented, hadn’t been able to see anything past saving Al, and that made sense. After that, though, on the other side, it was different. He couldn’t see anything, no matter where he turned. He hadn’t imagined life beyond restoring Al, but he had a sense-impression of it, of happiness and accomplishment. Nothing concrete, but something good. That ended when he went through the gate. In Europe there had been no point in imagining a future, because all that Ed saw stretched out in front of him was more pain, more loss, more sleeplessness.
There are still sleepless nights for all sorts of reasons (good and bad), and Ed knows there will be pain (because that’s life and avoiding it doesn’t work), loss (of course, of course), and yet. He no longer feels the same hanging gloom that defined his every day on the other side. Instead, he feels like a human being. It’s unbelievable.
He still keeps a copy of Anthony’s book with him. Roy had wanted him to keep it, even though Ed had been more than happy to leave it with Al along with the rest of their library from the other side.
“Is this a narcissism thing?” he’d asked, and Roy had just laughed and taken the volume from his hands.
So it lives in the bedroom now, which is weird to Ed but also makes a kind of sense. He’s tried to teach Roy English but it hasn’t worked as well as either of them had hoped, so sometimes Roy makes Ed read aloud to him. Ed doesn’t have Al’s ear for poetic meter but Roy doesn’t seem to care, if he even notices.
(“I don’t get why you like this,” Ed says, months after their initial conversation.
“Plenty of reasons,” Roy tells him, and then lists none.
It never comes up again, but Ed thinks he gets it even if it’s hard to put into words. He kind of likes having the book around, too, even though the contents tend to make him blush.)
One night Roy is curled up against Ed’s side, listening to him trip through his crude English to Amestrian translation when he says,
“It’s a comfort, I guess.”
Roy laughs softly into Ed’s ribcage. “No, although I suppose that’s meant to be the point of it.”
“You’ll have to ask Al about that.”
“I mean, that you weren’t alone on the other side. That someone loved you. That I loved you.”
Ed wants to say that he had Al, but the words die in his throat. That isn’t what Roy is talking about, he knows. If Roy wants to think of them like Hughes and Gracia—soulmates, bound together no matter what universe they inhabit—he won’t stop him. The thought of it makes him nervous; butterflies in his stomach because it might be that Roy is right, or worse, that he is wrong.
“And I left.”
“And you came back,” Roy counters.
He did, didn’t he? He fought like hell to come back. It isn’t exactly a case of equivalent exchange, leaving behind everyone on the other side in order to return home, even if Ed’s first instinct is to think of it that way. He doesn’t think that he’ll ever truly be over it, over any of it. Of course, Ed has known that basically his whole life. He’s just not someone who gets over things in the traditional sense. If he were to tell Roy this, or Al, or Winry, they’d all say that they’ve known this for years, and that they love him for it.
Of course, he doesn’t say all of this aloud, but he imagines that Roy knows what he’s thinking anyway.
“I did,” Ed says. “I came back. And if I ever leave again, I’ll come back. I’ll keep coming back.”
Roy’s eyes are wet. If Ed is being honest, his might be too.
“I know,” Roy says, “and I love you.”
And Ed isn’t a poet, or a translator, even, but he thinks of Anthony’s words then and finally understands the point of the whole thing.
“I love you,” he says in return, and his whole heart is in bloom.