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build your wings on the way down

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Edward has cockroaches under his skin and leeches in his veins. He's vibrating and bursting and his body is too small, too big, doesn't fit quite right. He needs Al to know - needs to tell someone, anyone, but he will cut out his own tongue before he burdens anyone else with this knowledge.

But Al needs to know. He deserves to know.

Winry runs her fingers through his hair, and the thought of that thing he and his brother created - makes him turn his head away and close his eyes. The things hiding in his mind are even worse than his reality though, so he opens them again. Winry still sits beside him, but her hands are clasped tight in her lap and she looks like she's going to cry. Again.

"Sorry," he says, his voice still more of a croak than anything else.

She blinks the tears from her eyes, "It's okay." She settles her hand on his head again, just resting there now, and Ed turns into the touch, luxuriates in the feeling of skin against skin, and tries not to vomit when he looks over Winry's shoulder at Alphonse hovering in the doorway. The sunlight reflects off his armor; his cold, hard armor.

He risks a glance back at Winry. At least she's smiling now.

~

He can't bear to talk about it under the Rockbell's roof, or in their own home where their mother died (died twice, thanks to them). He can't go much farther than either of those places until he can manage more than just twitching his automail limbs.

So it's almost a year after the failed transmutation, standing in front of their mother's grave where all these terrible conversations seem to happen, where Alphonse says, "You're hiding something."

Ed takes a deep breath, feels the air in his lungs, the blood in his veins, feels all that there is to feel in the body he still has and his brother doesn't. "Yeah."

"I'm not a kid," Al scuffs his foot irritably against the ground, and then hunches his shoulders when he accidentally kicks up a tuft of grass with his metal foot. He carefully maneuvers it back in place. "You don't need to protect me."

"I need to tell you something terrible," he says, and he can't look at his little brother. They've built their entire lives around alchemy, lived and breathed the laws of equivalent exchange, and even after this Alphonse has such a perfect faith in it. Ed hates that he's taking this away.

He can feel the weight of Alphonse's gaze on him, but can't bring himself to meet it. "What else did it take, brother?"

Ed looks at him now, pale and hands shaking. He clenches them into fists to steady them, "How did you know?"

"A soul isn't worth an arm," Alphonse briefly touches the place where steel meets skin on his brother's body, "What else did you give?"

Edwards swallows, "Ignorance." He places his hand on Al's, "If I tell you, there's no equivalent exchange. You don't get any benefit. I don't - I don't have to tell you. We can pretend-"

Al pulls away, and Ed thinks he's going to sob until Al uses his new large hand to cup his brother's whole face and turn it so they're finally looking each other in the eye. "You cry in your sleep."

Ed parts his lips, but no sound comes out.

"Tell me everything," Alphonse demands.

~

Alphonse tries to say that they shouldn't use alchemy, if that's where it comes from, if that's the cost. Edward says with that attitude he should go live in Ishval. It devolves into the closest thing they can get to a screaming match with Granny and Winry the next room over.

Al is the one to offer the olive branch, clunking footsteps almost hesitant as he sits down next to Ed, crouched along the rolling hill. "I don't want people to die just so we can live, Brother."

"They won't," Ed says firmly. "There's more than one way to reach the same end." Al sighs, and it's odd, to hear that familiar sound rattling around the empty armor. Ed slumps to the left so that his torso is flung across his brother's thigh. "All is one, one is all. We use alchemy. When we die, our souls will fuel the alchemy of other people. As long - as long as we remember our duty, it's okay. We'll find some way to make a philosopher's stone from non-living souls, we're not going to kill anyone Al, sheesh."

"Our duty?" Al questions carefully, not like he doesn't know but like he wants to make sure Ed does too. He thinks he'd be insulted, except that this a dark path Ed's starting them down, so Al's probably right to be worried.

"Alchemist," Ed says softly, speaking to himself and to his brother and every single person who's ever drawn a transmutation circle, "be thou for the people."

~

Edward is doing one armed pushups (not the automail arm, thankyouverymuch) when Al steps into his sight. Ed uses that as a great excuse to collapse on the ground, sweat rolling down his temple as he lays on his back and looks up at Al. He quirks an eyebrow, grinning, and Al crosses his arms. "It's not enough to make a philosopher's stone, you know. That's the easy part."

Ed's elation dims. "Yeah, I know. We have to figure out how to destroy it too."

Al taps his fingers against his forearm, making an odd, rhythmical pinging sound. "It seems like such a waste, to just use it for our own gains and get rid of it."

"What else would you want to do with it?" Ed jumps to his feet and rotates his automail shoulder. His mind flashes to the other things the Gate showed him, the things he didn't tell Al about: killing machines, chemical and biological warfare, the many and creative lengths people will go to destroy one another.

"Help people?" Al says, like Ed's an idiot, and the reminder that Alphonse is good and just and nothing like the men the Gate had showed him, even after everything they've been through, is such a relief that he's almost dizzy with it. "That's what we're supposed to do as alchemists, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Ed confirms, but he rubs the back of his neck and looks to the ceiling before he can go on, "But - who are we to decide?"

Al blinks, "Brother?"

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Ed recites, "We - have to be really, really careful if we decide to do anything besides restore ourselves, Al, okay? Because with the power to do anything - there's a possibility that we'd decide to do anything."

"And the longer we have it, the longer someone bad has to take it from us," Al concludes.

He looks much smaller than a giant suit of armor should, so Ed punches his shoulder and beams, "One problem at a time, okay?"

Al nods, "Okay. We're going to have to go though Dad's books again."

Ed scowls, but doesn't argue.

~

The sweat stings as it drips into Ed's eyes, and he wipes the back of his arm against his forehead before continuing the complicated step of ducks and punches that Teacher taught him. The footsteps he hears are too light to be Al's, but he still pauses and turns on his head, hopeful. Instead it's only Granny. Ed glares and crosses his arms, "Are you here to yell at me too?"

Granny stares at him until he uncrosses his arms and his face flushes. She sits, patting the spot beside her. Ed hesitates, but joins her. She immediately grabs onto his leg, checking all the gears and connections with practiced ease, pipe unlit but clenched between her teeth. "You don't have to do this alone. I thought you'd figured that out by now."

"It's not that. Well, not just that," he amends when Pinako snorts, "but - Al can't go to Central, can't follow me to the military, not while he's all," he flaps his hand around in way that hopefully conveys what he means, "I know you don't know a lot about alchemy Granny, but you have to know that binding a soul is - not normal. He'd end up in a lab, forever. We both would."

"You don't think this Mustang guy is trustworthy?" she starts tapping Ed's metal arm, seemingly satisfied with the echo it produces.

He shrugs the shoulder that the older woman isn't currently attached too, "I don't know. Maybe? Who knows. But until I find out, I'm not risking Al. It's just a year, Granny. And I'll come visit when I can, and then - we'll figure something out, either way, if Mustang can be trusted with Al or not."

Pinako sighs, finally letting off on her inspection of his limbs, "When'd you become such a pessimist, Ed? You used to have more faith."

"Faith is for children," he says, derisive and like he's not only eleven and a child himself. Ever since that thing forced itself inside his head, he hasn't been.

Pinako raises an eyebrow and says, "Careful, dear,” but doesn’t specify what, exactly, he’s supposed to be careful of.

~

Winry and Al are standing in front of him, and his train is going to leave without him if he doesn't hurry, but he really, really doesn't want to go. The train sounds a warning whistle and Winry flinches, eyes wide and watery, and it hurts so much that Ed hugs her just so he doesn't have to see her. Winry nearly strangles him with her skinny arms around his neck, but this is the last time he's going to get to see his best friend in who knows how long, so he doesn't complain, for once. Winry buries her face in Ed's neck and whispers, "Be safe, please be safe, please, please, please. We can't lose you too. Al can't lose you too."

Ed hugs her back just as tightly, careful to be gentle with the automail arm that she made for him. "I'll be fine, don't be such a girl. Take care of Al and Granny for me." Winry pulls back and smacks his arm, scowling, but it's a much better a sight than her crying. The whistle blows again, and he needs to get on that train. He turns to his brother, looks up and up, and it's so unfair that Al is so much taller than him now. "Let me know if you need anything, okay? Money, or books to research from, or - anything. I'll get it to you. Keep me up to date on what you're working on, okay? It'd be dumb if we were working on the same things in different places-" Al puts a hand on each of his brother's shoulders, and Ed falls silent.

"Do good, and behave. I'll miss you."

Ed blinks too fast, and his breath hitches. Stupid Winry, being a girl is contagious. The whistle blows a final time, and Ed wraps his arms around his brother, even if Al can't feel him it still counts, and thumps him once on the chest before he bolts, jumping onto the train just as it starts to leave the station. He turns around and waves.

They wave back, and Winry's crying for real this time. Al lifts Winry onto his shoulders, and they're still waving when Ed loses sight of them, two of his most important people nothing more than specks in the distance. He stays there until a ticket attendant taps his shoulder, “Hey, you really need to sit down. Where are you parents? Do they have your ticket?”

Edward’s tired suddenly, exhausted down to his bones, and he doesn’t have the energy to be offended. “Here’s m’ticket,” he mumbles, shoving the piece of paper into the guy’s chest and snatching it back as soon as it’s stamped. He picks up his suitcase and swings it backwards over his shoulder so that it bumps against his back as he walks down the aisle, and pretends like he can’t feel the older man’s eyes on his back. He has a feeling it’s something he’s going to have to get used to. He collapses in the first empty seat he finds, kicks his suitcase under him, and curls up as small as he can manage before he falls into a fitful sleep.

~

When Roy said he’d had a surprise aboard the train, it would be a lie to say that some eleven year old child was the last thing he was expecting, because as far as Maes is concerned it wasn’t even a fucking option.

He’s about to go tell Ed to find somewhere quiet to hide and to let the adults take care of this, but – Maes has been friends with Roy too long, was in Ishval too long to not know at least the basics of alchemy. When Ed casually swings himself back on top of the train and makes a canon with enough ease that it would make General Gran jealous, he understands that this boy is talented and powerful. Maes hates himself but he is outnumbered and outmanned and he can’t afford to not use someone with the power this kid so effortlessly wields.

Ed snickers as a number of Bald’s goons go careening into the water and Maes says, “Hey, I don’t suppose you have a plan?”

He honestly is expecting that he doesn’t, is saying it as a way to bring attention to the fact that they need one, but Ed looks at the wide expanse of ocean and says, “Yeah,” like he’s a little surprised by the answer himself.

Later, with Bald unconscious on the ground and his automail crushed by Ed’s own slender metal hand, Maes puts is hands on the shoulders of the bruised and bleeding child standing in front of him, and he's going to kill Roy. "Not bad," the kid croaks, and he has a coughing fit that wracks his small frame so violently that Maes has to hold him upright.

"Jesus, kid," he kneels down so he can look him in the eye, "Are you okay?" and he immediately wants to kick himself, because he's got finger marks around his throat, a bullet grazed his waist, and he's going to be one giant black and blue bruise come morning. Roy is dead.

The kid glares, rubbing at his chest, "I'm fine. You okay?" he juts his chin at Maes's bloody hands.

"Yeah. Seriously, Ed, I'm worried about you. You took a beating back there," Maes tries to reach for the sluggishly bleeding wound on his torso, but the kid steps away from him and looks like he's seconds away from outright snarling.

"I'm fine," he presses his own hand to the wound, and doesn't even flinch at the pain. "Considering everyone on this train is alive, I'd say that we did okay. You can back off now."

Maes blinks, looks to Bald and then smirks, relaxing just enough that Ed loses his skittish tension. "I guess you're right. Good job, Ed."

Edward smiles, and looks his age, and Maes's heart squeezes in his chest.

~

The Roy Mustang of his memory was a giant, as tall as his long gone father and twice as terrifying in his anger. The slender, dark eyed man sitting across from him in this too big office is actually a relief, although he does his best to not let that show.

"In light of your impressive performance on the train, General Hakuro has agreed to back your bid for State Alchemist," and that smirk at the corner of Mustang's lips causes a lump of lead in his stomach, because - Mustang couldn't have known what Ed would do on that train, that he'd help and risk his life instead of cower in fear. Except that he's clearly not a man that would gamble on something that big, so he did know, was comfortable in the belief that he knew enough about Ed to predict his actions after barely ten minutes together. Worse than that he'd been right, and saw no problem in treating people like chess pieces - him, Hughes, General Hakuro.

Ed knew the Flame Alchemist's reputation, had seen brief flashes of his handiwork in Ishval when the Gate had split him open and crawled inside. He'd seen that terrifyingly powerful array stitched into his gloves (and what a dangerous, arrogant move, leaving the array for all to see, didn't he realized any decent alchemist could use it against him?) but with this realization he felt the first inklings of fear. Mustang was a dangerous man, and it had nothing to do with his abilities as an alchemist.

"Good," Ed says shortly, when the silence makes it clear that Mustang expects some sort of response. If he thinks that Ed's thanking him for using him as a pawn, then the old man is off his rocker.

Mustang raises an eyebrow but doesn't comment further. "I've arranged for you to stay with Shou Tucker, the Life Sewing Alchemist, for a month so that you may make use of his library in order to study for the exam."

"I don't need to study," Ed folds his hands behind his back, and bites down a grin at the frustration that flickers in Mustang's eyes.

"The State Alchemist's Exam isn't child's play, Elric," Mustang snaps, and Edward finally lets the grin out, lets his mere presence make a mockery of Mustang's words. The older man sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Regardless, you may find some interest in Tucker's notes. He's the leading living expert on biological alchemy."

Ed takes a half step closer, "Biological alchemy?"

"He specialized in chimeras," and Ed feels a wave of disgust rise from his stomach to his throat, because that's not biological alchemy, that's soul alchemy with some biological components, and it's depraved. "He made one that spoke two years ago."

"What?" he whispers, eyes wide, and he can feel the urge to run thrumming in his blood, because Mustang says this very normally, like he's impressed even, and what the hell has Ed gotten himself involved with. "And - he's still allowed in the military?"

Mustang blinks, "Of course he is. It's how he received his commission." Edward wants to vomit, wants to tear Mustang's skin from his face, because that's disgusting. Even seeing what Mustang did in Ishval, he assumed the man had some respect for human lives. "You shouldn't look so disturbed, Elric. While it's hardly the prettiest of alchemy, it's not far from what you're trying to do."

He feels like he's been slapped. Mustang is wrong, he would never - but, then again, Mustang doesn't know what he knows, doesn't know that the root of all alchemy is actually just as depraved as what Shou Tucker did to some animal and some poor human being two years ago. He doesn't know that Edward is here so he can find a different way to restore his brother to his body, and so his path must seem as bloody and awful as Tucker's. Mustang is watching him, and Ed knows Mustang's frowning behind the hands clasped in front of his face. He swallows, "What did it say?"

"Only one sentence - 'I want to die.' Then it starved itself until it got it's wish."

Yeah. Ed can't say he's surprised.

~

Ed is safely sequestered in Shou Tucker's library, studying to take the fucking State Alchemist Exam when Maes strides through Roy's office. Riza doesn't even look up as he marches past, which means she's pissed at Roy too. Good, she should be. Maes is not the slamming doors type of guy, but he's sorely tempted to become one when he walks into his office and Roy is calmly working through his mountain of paperwork.

"You better start talking. Fast." Maes crosses his arms over his chest, and growls when Roy rests his head on the palm of his hand, eyes half lidded like Maes is one of his girls and he can smirk and make the other man forget that he endangered the life of an eleven year old boy for no fucking reason.

"Is this protective streak because of Gracia's pregnancy? I know Elric's a bit small for his age, but I wouldn't put him quite at infant status just yet." Maes sees red and throws one his knives at Roy's head. He barely ducks out of the way, losing that ridiculous stance as he flails out of his chair onto the floor, "Maes! What the hell?"

Roy peeks over his desk warily, just in case more projectile knives are headed his way. Maes gestures at him with the pointy end, "You better know what you're doing."

He slams the door on his way out. It's incredibly satisfying.

~

Ed meets Nina and his heart breaks. She's small and sweet, and has no idea that her father is a monster. He can't believe the military is letting a man like Tucker raise a child, but then again if Mustang's any indication they don't even flinch at what Tucker's done.

"She's so small," Ed says down the line at a public payphone, and he clenches the cord too tight in his flesh fist, "She's only five - were we ever that small? That's a dumb question, of course we were. I just - Al, this place is terrible. The people are terrible," and he sucks in a too harsh breath, squeezes his eyes shut. His brother can't cry, so he won't. He won't.

"Brother, come home," Al says, his voice rattling around inside the armor. "I don't want you around these people. It doesn't sound safe."

"I can take them," he says, tries to sound like he means that. One on one - hell, even two on one - he probably could, but even he's not quite arrogant enough to believe he can take on a firing squad.

"Brother," Al says, and that's a reprimand, and Ed smiles in spite of everything.

"It's our best option Al, it really is. I'll be fine, really," he sighs, "It just sucks, is all."

"Yeah," Al says, and there's really not much else to say but that.

Later, Ed tosses and turns in his bed, and he hasn't had one good night's sleep since he's been here. He can't, not when he's in the same house as Tucker. He alchemizes his door shut every night, and it's still not enough. Ed knows that he can't actually hear the screams and cries of the animals down in Tucker's workshop, but his imagination is vivid enough that it amounts to the same thing. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to block out the sound of his own brain, but he hears a soft tap tap tap.

"Big brother?"

Ed throws off the covers and crosses the room. He puts the door back with a quick clap, and opens it to Nina small and teary eyed on the other side. "Hey," he says softly, dropping to his knees so he can look her in the eye, "what's wrong?"

She sniffs and drags a fist over her eyes, and Ed feels his heart break all over again. "I - I had a bad dream, and Daddy's working, I'm not supposed to disturb him, but I -" The tears in her eyes spill over, and Edward opens his arms. She throws herself into them, skinny arms strong around his neck. He stands, kicks the door shut, and rocks her back and forth.

"It's okay, it's all okay, big brother's got you," he murmurs into her hair and he's reminded so painfully of Al for a moment that he can't breathe, but it passes, and he kisses Nina's forehead as her sobs eventually quiet. "Do you want me to take you back to your room?" Nina presses her face into his neck and shakes her head. Ed smiles, "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?"

Nina nods, and says quietly, "Please."

Ed places her on the side of the bed closest to the wall and curls around her with his back to the door, and if only protecting her from the monsters in the real world was as easy as protecting her against the ones in her head.

~

It's a bright, sunny day, so he's at the park with Nina, alchemy book balanced on his knee while she does her very best to braid his hair. He winces, and thinks that at least hair grows back, unlike limbs. Tucker is wary of him, skitters around Ed's hateful yellow gaze, but seemingly has no qualms with allowing him unrestricted access to his daughter. If anything, he seems relieved to have her taken off his hands while he does his best to cook up some new disgusting chimera that will allow him to hold on to his State Alchemist's certification.

"Edward Elric!"

Ed blinks and looks up. Maes Hughes is standing there beaming, his arm around a very pregnant and very pretty woman. "Hey Major," he smiles. Nina clutches his arm and peaks over his shoulder. Ed gently draws her forward, but she's still got a tight grip on his hair so she's mostly behind him. "Nina, this is Major Maes Hughes, he's a friend."

She tugs on Ed's hair, trying to hide behind it, and he grimaces but doesn't stop her. The woman ducks her head and smiles, while Hughes doesn't even bother. He grins wide and squats down in front of Nina, offering his hand. "Hello little lady Nina, it's a pleasure." She giggles and places her hand in Hughes's. He kisses the top of it, and she squeaks and turns bright red, snatching her hand back and burying her entire face in the back of Ed's head.

"Big brother, he kissed me!" she says too loud, right in his ear.

"Do you want me to beat him up?" he asks seriously. Hughes squawks.

The woman laughs, "Maes, look what you've done."

"I was just trying to be friendly," he protests, "Ed, Nina, this is my wife, Gracia."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hughes," he says politely, "Nina, do you want to say hello?"

Nina peaks out from behind Ed's golden hair and says, "Hello Mrs. Hughes."

"Well aren't you two the cutest?" she beams, "Do you have plans for the rest of the day? Do you want to come over for dinner?"

Ed doesn't say anything, but looks back at Nina. When she's silent, he says, "Do you want to go over to the Hughes's for dinner?" He can't see her nod, but he can feel it, so he says, "That'd be great, thank you."

After dinner, Nina is playing with Gracia, and Ed watches, and tries not to think of his own mother and fails miserably. Hughes knocks his elbow into Ed's shoulder and says, "Penny for your thoughts?"

"She's going to be a great mom," Ed says, "She's really good with kids."

"So are you," Ed blinks, startled, and turns to looks at Hughes smiling face. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I was a little surprised. You don't seem like the gentle type."

"I'm not," he says, and shrugs off Hughes's raised eyebrow. "I've had a lot of practice is all. I helped raise my brother, and there are a lot of little kids in Resembool. Me and Al and Winry would help babysit the ones that were too young for school."

"Why weren't you in school?"

Ed snorts and says, "Basic arithmetic was bit below me," and tries not to sound big headed, but he probably doesn't succeed.

"And Winry? She's an alchemist too?"

"Uh, no," he pulls up his sleeve and taps his automail arm, "she's a mechanic. She built this."

"... How old is she?"

"Eleven," he says and tries not to laugh at the gobsmacked expression on Hughes's face. "Arithmetic was a bit below her too."

"Clearly," he mutters, "How's the studying for the exam going? It's coming up."

Ed scratches the back of his head, "I was serious when I told Mustang I didn't need to study. Tucker's got some rare first editions, and I've been looking through those, but I'm not too worried."

"Ed," Hughes says, serious, "The exam is no joke. Hundreds of people send in applications every year, even to get the opportunity to take the exam is an accomplishment. They'll only choose one alchemist."

Ed opens his mouth, tries to think of a way to explain why he isn't just being arrogant without either giving too much away or giving himself a panic attack and instead just says, "I understand."

~

Edward holds Elysia before her father does, and he looks at this tiny human that Maes and Gracia created (he has a few stuttering memories of Al being this small once upon a time) and falls in love with her right there, is owned utterly, and thinks that the next time he rings Al he's going to have to tell him that they have two little sisters now.

"Big brother, let me see!" Nina demands, and he lowers the baby girl down for Nina's inspection. "She's perfect," she breathes, wide eyed and delighted.

"She is," Ed agrees, and he looks at Gracia as he says it. He goes to hand the squirming baby to her father next, but Hughes is pale and shaking, and clearly just as in love with his daughter as he is terrified of her. "She's not made of glass, you won't break her," Ed says sternly, and only thinks it's a little funny that Hughes could look down the barrel of a gun with a grin but looks like a strong wind could knock him over when faced with a baby.

"She's so small," Hughes says in wonderment, and Ed decides not to make fun of him for crying.

Ed pushes her into Hughes and positions his elbow to support her head. He presses the man's arms firmer against his daughter, because babies get nervous if you don't hold them tight enough, something he's sure Maes will figure out quickly. "There," he says in satisfaction, and decides that Hughes looks a whole lot better with his daughter in his arms than knives in his hands.

That night he rings the Rockbell’s, but doesn’t ask for Al quite yet, instead he stays on the line with Granny and says, “Women are amazing. She made a person.”

“People make other people all the time,” Pinako says, but Ed knows she’s grinning around her pipe.

“Doesn’t make it any less awesome,” Ed insists.

“No,” she says softly, “It doesn’t. Sounds like you found your faith.”

Ed pauses and repeats, “Faith is for children,” but he doesn’t mean what he meant before. Granny must understand, because she laughs.

~

When Bradley announces him as the next State Alchemist, Ed tries to feel pride in his accomplishment, but all he finds is fear and weary acceptance. These are his first steps towards the road to hell. The fact that he's already been to hell and back isn't actually any sort of comfort.

~

Ed doesn’t kill Tucker because Nina asks him not to. This can’t be allowed, the military is awful, but it can’t be this awful. So he pats Nina’s head with his flesh hand and makes a phone call.

“Hughes residence!” Gracia answers, exhausted but cheerful.

Ed swallows, and he need to make it clear that this isn’t a social call. “Mrs. Hughes, this is Major Elric. I need to speak with Major Hughes.”

He can hear her breathe in sharply, “One moment, I’ll get him right away.”

Ed squeezes his eyes shut, feels Nina tremble beneath his hand, and does his best not to cry. “Ed, what’s wrong? Gracia seemed upset.”

“I need you to get to Shou Tucker’s now. Don’t bring anyone you wouldn’t trust with your life – no, with your daughter’s life.”

To his credit Hughes doesn’t question him, just says, “I’m on my way,” and hangs up.

Hughes arrives a half hour later, Mustang and a woman Ed remembers as Hawkeye in tow. He’s locked Tucker in one of his own cages, and he’s sitting on the living room floor with Nina’s head on his knee.

“Ed, what’s wrong?” Hughes demands, bursting in.

“You better not be wasting our time, Fullmetal,” Mustang drawls, and Edward slowly stands, sliding Nina’s head off of him.

“Tell me you didn’t know he used his wife,” he says softly. “Tell me it wasn’t military approved.”

“Fullmetal, what on earth –“

Ed darts forward and grabs Mustang by the lapels, dragging him down to his own height with the strength everyone is always surprised he has. Hawkeye aims a gun at his head, but he ignores it, instead looks into Mustang’s dark eyes and spits, “It was his wife he used two years ago, I figured it was a prisoner or a foreigner, at the very least I expected the military wouldn’t allow free Amestrian citizens to be used. And now his daughter – are you so willing to build your career on the backs of children's broken bodies?"

Mustang is shaking now, his fingers poised to snap and kill them all when he snarls, "Fullmetal-"

“Ed, stop it, calm down, you’re not making any sense,” Hughes pleads.

“Big brother?” Nina says behind him, voice a horrible mix of little girl and grown dog. Hawkeye gasps, Hughes goes horrible silent, but it’s Mustang he’s watching. He sees those eyes widen with realization and his face drain of all blood, and for a moment Ed’s not pulling him down so much as holding him up. “Big brother.”

“I’m right here, Nina,” he says calmly, and Hughes gags. “You didn’t know,” he says to Mustang, letting him go and straighten, “You really didn’t know?”

“You did?” the older man asks.

Ed shrugs, “The only way to make a talking chimera is to fuse an animal with a human – and to do so poorly. Well – I mean, maybe with parrots you could get it to make something that sounded like speech, but it wouldn’t be real intelligence.”

Something bumps into the back of his thighs, and he turns, bending down so he can go back to petting Nina. “Big brother,” she says, “big brother, it hurts.”

Ed kisses her furry head, “I know, I’m sorry.” He doesn’t looks at the adults in the room, “You’re sure the military didn’t know he’d used a human? He’ll go to jail for this?”

“Of course we didn’t know,” Mustang says, “That’s – disgusting.”

“I believe you didn’t know,” Ed says, and as terrible as all this is he is horribly relieved that Mustang isn’t the monster he thought he was, “but are you sure the military didn’t?”

Mustang presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything. Hughes, finally finding his voice, asks, “Can you put her back?”

“No,” Mustang says at the same time that Ed says, “Maybe.”

“You can’t undo a perfect transmutation,” Mustang snaps.

“Does this look perfect to you?” Ed asks, “I’m not saying it’d be easy, but –“

“They are biologically joined, you can’t –“

“Do you know nothing of soul alchemy?” Ed asks, and at Mustang’s blank look he rubs at his forehead. “It’s – a soul isn’t attached to a body, it’s a body that’s attached to a soul, okay? So chimeras are by necessity soul alchemy, with aspects of biology. Therefore to make a true chimera, you need to fuse souls, and then bodies. But instead what people do is fuse bodies and leave the souls to battle it out, or attempt to occupy one body. Now Alexander and Nina’s bodies are one, but their souls are still separate. And I use the term ‘one’ loosely here, because it’s more a patchwork fusion than a true one. I’d need to run a few tests, but I assume at least for a while both their souls are still in the body, but because Nina’s soul is stronger it’s the one in control.”

He’s pretty sure Mustang only got half of that, but what he asks is, “Could you make a true chimera?”

Ed’s face shuts down, and he snarls, “I won’t.”

“But you could,” Mustang confirms.

Ed runs his hand through his hair. It gets caught in the braid, and he yanks it out, irritable, “You could, okay? Once you know the basics, it’s not hard.”

“How many people would you say ‘know the basics’?”

Ed opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Me. My brother, if he took the time to think it out. My teacher, maybe, and maybe my father, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I suppose I don’t have to tell you to keep this knowledge close to your chest?” Mustang asks.

“No sir,” Ed rolls his eyes. But then he sighs and tries to adopt at least a little deference, “Can you keep this under wraps for a while? Give me some time to try?”

Mustang lets out a slow breath, “What is it that you expect me to do?”

“Just – keep Tucker locked away. You have people you trust to keep an eye on him, don’t you? And give me some time to try to put Nina back.” Ed swallows, “Please. She can’t – she can’t live like this forever. And if you report Tucker then you know she won’t live like this for long, either, because she’ll be carted off to some lab and dissected. Don’t tell me she won’t, I’m not dumb.”

“No,” Mustang says, “If there’s one thing I couldn’t accuse you of being, it’s dumb.” Ed wants to take offense at that, but he needs Mustang to do this for him, so he holds his temper and holds his tongue. “I can give you two weeks, at most.”

Ed lets out a breath, and that’s not enough time, not nearly enough time, but he’ll manage. “Thank you.”

“What do we do with the girl?” Hawkeye speaks for the first time.

Edwards puts a hand on Nina’s head, and says, “She can’t stay with Tucker, and I can’t take care of her and work on a way to save her at the same time.”

“It’ll be easier to keep an eye on both her and her father if they’re in the same place,” Mustang says.

No,” Ed glares.

Before Mustang can say more, Hughes offers, “She can stay at my home.”

Both Ed and Mustang are startled, and Ed says, “You really don’t have to do that, with Gracia and Elysia there –“

“She can stay in the attic,” Maes says firmly, “I’ll talk it over with Gracia, but I can’t believe that she’ll object. It’s just for two weeks.” His voice softens, “I won’t begrudge a girl two weeks of my time for the chance to save her life.”

“I will save her,” Ed says, and hopes Al will forgive him two more weeks in the armor to save a little girl’s life.

~

The light reflects like diamonds against the amber liquid inside his glass, and Roy wants to do nothing but sleep, sleep, sleep. Who knew that the brat would end up being this exhausting?

“Well that was a fun conversation,” Maes announces, throwing himself down besides Roy at the bar. He steals his drink and downs it all in one motion, and Roy almost smiles. “She cried, Roy, I haven’t made Gracia cry since coming back from Ishval.”

“I don’t think this one’s on your shoulders,” he mutters, flagging down the bartender for more drinks.

Maes sighs, slumping against the bar top, “Do you think he’s going to do it?”

“No,” Roy says immediately, almost before Maes has finished asking the question. His best friend raises his eyebrow at him, and he sighs. “I’m not going to pretend I understand everything Fullmetal was saying about soul alchemy – frankly, that’s so far out of my depth as to be laughable – but poorly completed transmutation or not, it was completed. What’s made cannot be unmade.”

“I would have said that a twelve year old couldn’t pass the State Alchemist exam, and yet here we are,” Maes pointed out.

Roy shook his head, “It’s not the same. Even if Ed can take Nina and Alexander apart – and that is a big if, while it’s not impossible I would be shocked – he won’t be able to put her back together again. It’s human transmutation.”

“Then why the hell,” Hughes says, furious, “are you letting him do this? He’ll blame himself forever if he kills Nina, you know that, this will fucking ruin him, and if you don’t think he can do it, why the hell are you adding to his guilt like that?”

“He has to learn,” Roy says softly, “Edward is – terrifying in his power, in his arrogance. I thought he’d learned, I thought trying to bring back his mother and losing two limbs and his brother’s body had taught him something about hubris, but I guess I was wrong. And he has to learn, he’s too powerful not to know his own limits. He needs to understand that he can’t save everyone before that same arrogance ends up destroying everyone around him, Maes. He, he needs to fail and break apart so I can put him back together again, and make him into – something less terrifying.”

“Well,” Maes says after a long moment, “that’s depressing.” Roy laughs, and it sounds like glass breaking in his throat. Maes clinks his glass against Roy’s and murmurs, “To all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.”

The next day when Scar’s gone underground again and Shou Tucker’s skull is splattered against the floor, Roy looks quietly amused in that way that means if he had it in him to cry, he would, and says to Hughes, “At least this will make it easier when Ed fails. Nina’s already been declared missing and possibly dead.”

Maes grasps Roy’s shoulder because it’s the only comfort his best friend will allow Maes to give him.

~

“Please don’t be mad,” Ed says down the line, “It’s only two weeks, I won’t – this won’t be a habit, we will get your body back, okay? Don’t be mad.”

There’s silence on the line, and Ed swallows, because if Al is mad it won’t stop him, but it will destroy him, so. “Brother,” Al says, “I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t try to help, of course I’m not mad.” Ed breathes out. “What do you need?”

Ed twirls the cord around his fingers, thoughtful. “The reconstruction part should actually be fairly simple – the soul knows it’s body, I just have to guide it.”

“It’s still human transmutation, brother.”

“Yeah,” he sighs, “and I’m running low on limbs. I’ll have to figure out something for the Gate to take. The biggest issue is deconstructing Nina and Alexander and not getting them messed up with each other, or splitting atoms that I really shouldn’t. If I had a spare decade or so I could probably construct an array that would do it all for me –“

Al snorts, “A spare lifetime maybe. And a really big circle.”

“And a really big circle,” Ed confirms. “But I’ve got two weeks and a circle that can have maximum a three meter diameter.”

“I’ll do some research,” Al sighs. Ed beams. He has the best little brother ever.

~

It’s been a week, and he’s no closer to discovering the secrets of precise and controlled biological deconstruction. He’s lived half in the Central Library, the other half in his sad, allotted military dorm room that’s so far from his home in Resembool that it’s almost depressing. It’s almost one in the morning, but no matter how much Ed tosses or turns he can’t sleep. He punches his pillow until it’s almost comfortable and bounces back into bed. He recites chemical formulas, trying to lull himself to sleep. But that’s never worked, it always just makes him think more, and it doesn’t work now, he didn’t know what why he even bothered.

Ed flops spread eagle on the bed, blankets tangled about his legs, and it doesn’t take him long to decide that he’s just got to get out of this room before he loses his mind. He’s already throwing on his jacket and stomping out the door when he realizes that he has no idea where he’s going. It’s too late to call either Al or Winry, too late to go to the Hughes's, no cafes will be open, and while with the watch at his hip he’s technically able to go into bars, he doesn’t particularly want to.

So he’ll walk. He’s been in this city for over a month, and he still doesn’t know it very well. He’s used to knowing his surroundings, and so early it’s still night means that there won’t be as many people to get in his way. And anything’s better than staring at his wall. At first it’s quiet, and he doesn’t see anyone besides the night watchman whom he offers a cocky salute. But if Ed wanted quiet he would have stayed inside, so he finds the loud streets, the ones spilling over with people and yelling a music. With the chaos surrounding him, his mind finally starts to quiet, and now he’s in what Pinako would probably call a bad area, graffiti’d walls and throbbing music, and everyone he bothers to look at is a little too skinny, and hungry for something that isn’t food. He trails his fingers against a particularly dirty wall, reading the creative curse words when he trips, stumbling over someone’s splayed legs and barely righting himself instead of falling on top of them.

“Watch where you’re going,” Ed’s staring down at a girl who’s older than him, maybe seventeen or eighteen. She’s got dark blond hair and blue eyes, and a cigarette held loosely in her fingers. Her legs are covered in torn jeans, and her tank top is small enough that as soon as he realizes it, Ed turns bright red and looks away.

She doesn’t sound angry, more like she’s offering genuine advice, and Ed swallows and says, “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She shrugs and take another drag of her cigarette, and it glows bright orange. “Those things will kill you, you know,” he says, and is instantly mortified.

Instead of making fun of him though, she looks at her cigarette and says, “Yeah, you’re probably right,” and snubs it out against the wall. She looks up at him and smiles, “What’s a kid doing around here at this time of night? It’s dangerous.”

Ed grins, “I think I’m okay.” He takes out his watch and shows it to her, and when her face remains blank he thinks that she doesn’t know what it is and he’s just made a fool of himself.

But she sighs and tips her head back against the wall. Ed can just barely hear the pulsing, thumping music on the other side, and it has to be some sort of bar or club. “Man, the military just keeps on getting more and more fucked up. No offense,” she adds.

“None taken.”

“You didn’t answer my question, you know,” she says, “Why are you out so late?”

“I,” he hesitates, but she’s been nice so far and if she laughs he can walk away and never see her again, “My dorm room was too quiet. I’m not used to being alone.”

She smiles again, and she has a really pretty smile. She pats the ground beside her, and Ed thumps down, suddenly desperate for any human contact he can get. “I know that feeling. I grew up in a big family, and now that I’m away from them – I didn’t realize how much I’d gotten use to a little chaos.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Ed asked, jerking his head to blasting music. He also has the urge to offer her his coat, because he’s a little chilly, and he’s wearing a lot more clothes than she is.

She snorts, shakes her head, “No, one of my friends wanted to go, so I came. Well, she’s not really my friend, but we’re in the same class, and I guess I was hoping going out with her would make us friends. Instead it’s just made me tired.”

“Oh,” Ed says, not sure what to say to that, “So you’re in school?”

“I go to Central University,” she tosses her head in the general direction of where Ed supposes her university is, “What about you, what’s your life story? It’s bound to be interesting. Or your name, I’ll settle for your name.”

“Edward Elric,” he offers her his hand, and she shakes it, “What’s yours?”

“Gabby,” she smiles, “Nice to meet you, Edward Elric.”

He’s about to say the same to her when a man stumbles out the club and towards them, yelling. Ed goes to stand, but Gabby puts her hand on his arm and shakes her head. He gets closer, and Edward can make out the red eyes and white hair, which probably means the language he’s shouting in is Ishvallan. He’s not sure whether he should get in between them or not when Gabby opens her mouth and responds in the same slow, rounded Ishvallan, grinning and eyes half lidded. The man huffs, but has seemingly calmed, crossing his arms over his chest and asking, “Where did you get the kid?” in Amestrian, with only the barest hint of a desert accent.

“This is Edward Elric, he’s a State Alchemist. Edward, this is Aviv Seif.” Edward waves, slightly intimidated. Because Aviv is skinny, but he's way past six feet, and seems even taller with Edward sitting on the ground. The burn scars covering half his face make it looks like he’s always scowling. “He was nice enough to come with me tonight. I ditched him a little bit,’ she admits, the corners of her mouth almost a grin.

“I am her boyfriend,” Aviv glares at Edward, who raises his hands, because he wasn’t making a move, he was just talking. “And you ditched me a lot a bit,” he directs at Gabby, who laughs.

“That’s not a phrase in Amestrian, babe, but nice try,” she holds out both her hands, and he grabs them and hauls her up so fast that she stumbles into him, which going by the smirk on his face was the whole point. She smacks his chest, but she’s smiling when she looks down at Ed. He smiles back, prepared to say his goodbyes and wander back to his bleak dorm when she holds out her hand and says, “Do you want to come to our place? State Alchemist or not, it seems irresponsible to leave you alone sulking in the worst part of town.”

“I wasn't sulking!” he says, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yes you were,” she says cheerfully and waggles her outstretched fingers, “but that’s okay, I was too. I’ll make cookies, I think we have all the ingredients?” she directs the last part at Aviv, who nods.

“I’m not a kid!” Edward glares.

Gabby laughs, “You totally are, but we are too. Are you coming or not?”

Edward hesitates and looks to Aviv. After a moment he sighs and smiles, and that smile transforms his whole face, makes him handsome, “She makes very good cookies.” Ed grabs her hand, and she tries to pull him up but he’s a lot heavier than she expected because of the automail, so she stumbles and almost falls on top of him. Aviv grabs her around the waist, and with one tug they’re both on their feet and falling into him. Ed looks up, and Aviv is just as tall when he’s standing, damnit. “We do not live far,” he promises, one arm around Gabby’s waist and putting the other one on Ed’s shoulder as they start to walk away from the throbbing club.

“Do you like chocolate chips? I think we have peanut butter too,” Gabby says, leaning around her boyfriend’s torso to talk to him.

“I like chocolate chips,” he says.

“Good!” she beams.

Their apartment is on the fourth floor of a crumbling building, but the inside is neat and well kept, with blankets seemingly folded and available in every corner of every room. “Do you want hot chocolate or adult hot chocolate?” Gabby asks after plopping a bowl of ingredients in front of him with stern instructions to mix it.

“What’s the difference?” he asks around a bite of cookie dough, which is delicious, and he’s tempted to not let Gabby actually bake them and just eat the batter.

“Alcohol,” Aviv says, taking down three chipped mugs from the cabinet and a dark bottle.

Ed kind of wants to say yes out of curiosity and so they won’t think that he’s a kid, because he’s not, but he’s tasted Granny’s moonshine and its gross. “Can I try it first?”

“Yes,” Aviv pours a couple of ingredients together and then mixes them vigorously. He exchanges the mug for the bowl of batter, and Ed takes a tentative sip. He grimaces, because it’s not as bad as Granny’s, but he still doesn’t get why people would drink that for fun. “Normal hot chocolate?”

“Yes, please,” Ed says, relieved when the older boy doesn’t tease him, just swaps out the mugs and claims Ed’s rejected one for his own. Gabby slams the oven shut, cookies baking inside and the clanking oven slowly heating up the apartment as well, although by the looks of it Gabby doesn’t feel the cold.

She sits down at the table between him and Aviv and gratefully accepts her own mug of adult hot chocolate. She turns to Ed and asks, “So what kind of alchemy is your specialty?”

That gives Ed a pause, because he’s not really specialized, but he has his name for a reason, so he says, “Metal,” and before they can question further he asks, “What are your majors? You’re both in university, right?”

“I’m a linguistics major with a specialty in desert languages, so a couple of dialects of Ishvallan and a few of Xingese. I’m working on my Cretan, and my written Xerxesian is pretty good,” she says proudly, and Ed knows that it was kind of rude of him and he should have known better, but he wasn’t expecting that from her. “Aviv is getting his degree in Amestrian law, he’s going to be a lawyer.”

“Oh,” he says, blinking, “What are you going to be?” he asks Gabby.

She shrugs, “I have no idea, but people always need translators for things, so I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Aviv places his hands over hers and says warmly, “You will be fine.” Gabby blushes and beams at him, and Edward drinks his hot chocolate and tries not to laugh at them both.

~

It’s just past dawn. Maes is staring down at a sleeping Elysia when Gracia comes up behind him and wraps her arms around him. “Good morning,” she yawns.

“Good morning,” he turns in her embrace to kiss her properly.

She leans against his chest and says, “Did you feed Nina already?”

“Yes,” he sighs, and looks down at Elysia and is honestly baffled how any father could do that to his daughter, how any parent could not love their child with the unshakable, terrible intensity that he feels in his heart every day.

“Does Roy really think that Ed will fail?” Gracia asks, and Maes rubs his hands up and down her back.

“Yeah.”

“What do you think?”

Maes shrugs, “Up until Ed, Roy was the most talented alchemist I knew, and he thinks that the fact that Ed even thinks it's possible is insane. But – Ed is a genius. Not like Roy is a genius, or I’m a genius, but a real prodigy, who’s likely to turn the known laws of the universe on their head. This might be one of them.” He remembers big brown eyes hiding from him under Ed’s golden hair and admits, “I hope it is.”

Gracia sighs and nods, says, “You should go see him today, see how he’s doing. Swing by the dorms before you go to work.”

“Yeah, okay,” Maes agrees, still looking at his daughter, and thinking of Ed.

It’s a little past eight when he bangs on Ed’s door, and when there’s no reply he considers that maybe he’s sleeping in. But Ed has been at the library the second it opened at nine sharp for the past week, and that doesn’t seem likely to change. He knocks again, calling out, “Ed, I know you’re up!”

“Major Hughes?” Maes turns on his heel and sees Ed, clothes rumpled like he slept in them and clearly just getting in. “Is something wrong? Is Nina –“

Ed’s gone pale, and Maes grins and holds up his hands. “Nina’s fine! Nothing’s wrong, just checking in. Did you sleep in the library last night?” he asks, raking his eyes up and down Ed.

“Uh, no. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I walked for a bit. Ended up on Canal Street.” Ed yawns, and Maes is going to have a heart attack thinking of tiny, twelve year old Edward walking down Canal Street in the middle of the night. “I met some people, and stayed at their place last night.”

“You what?” Maes says, and there’s a fist around his heart. He looks Ed over for signs of abuse or rough treatment. He’s been a soldier for a decade, spent a year in a warzone, and has never actually wanted to kill someone, but if someone touched Edward –

“We were talking really late,” he explains, oblivious to Maes’s emotional crisis, “They go to Central University, and Aviv is really quiet, until you get some alcohol in him and get talking about Amestrian citizenship laws,” Ed’s mouth quirks up at the corners, “Then he is not quiet, and Gabby speaks Ishvallan, but I don’t, and he’d forget that, then remember it, and have to repeat it in Amestrian for me, which meant almost all his rants went twice as long – well, anyway, we were up late. They have a comfy couch though.” He yawns again, and actually, almost looks like a kid when he adds, “Gabby made chocolate chip cookies, they were really good.”

Maes lets out the breath he hadn’t realized he’s been holding, because of course Edward goes to the place with highest concentration of prostitutes and gang violence and drug rings, and walks home with two overly political, multi-lingual students who feed him cookies. Of course. “Well, it sounds like you had an interesting night. Why don’t you let me buy you breakfast and you can tell me all about it?”

“Thanks, Major, but I really need to get to the library,” he says, slipping his key from his pocket. His leather pocket of his leather pants that he wore while walking down Canal Street. Maes almost wants to have a heart attack on sheer principal.

He puts a hand on Edward's arm, and the boy looks up at him, confused golden eyes, and he says, "Just a quick breakfast, just an hour of your time, okay?"

"Okay," he says slowly, "Let me shower and get changed. You can wait inside, it's kind of a mess, though."

"That's fine," he says, and mess is an understatement. He delicately sits in the rickety wooden chair while Ed disappears into the bathroom. The bed makes it clear that Ed at least tried to sleep last night, or he just never makes it, which is a possibility. The walls are covered in papers, with diagrams and formulas on them too complex for Maes to even start to follow. All the furniture has been shoved back against the wall, and in the middle of the room is a large chalk circle with arches and curves and precise angles sketched on the inside. Maes stands and doesn't quite touch the circle, but he gets as close as can. There are parts that are smudged out and pieces that look too blank to be complete.

"I'm ready!" Ed bangs out of the bathroom and walks over to his suitcase, bending down to put on socks. He's in those damned leather pants, but hasn't put on a fresh shirt yet. Maes tracks the scars over his young body, and Edward is skinny, but the swell of muscles he'll one day have are clear. The metal arm almost looks grotesque on his frame, and his scars are still a deep, dark red that will hopefully fade to white in a few years.

Ed pulls a black tank top on and then a fresh pair of gloves, and Maes clears his throat, "Socks on both feet?"

"The metal's hard on the leather too," Ed explains, "socks help it last longer. I always go through twice as many right boots than left."

"Right," Maes says, "of course. What do you feel like for breakfast?" Ed runs a comb through his hair, absentmindedly braiding it with impressive speed. Maes is going to have to make Edward teach him that for Elysia.

"Pancakes?" he says, "I haven't had pancakes in a really long time."

"Pancakes it is," Maes says, and Edward bounces on the balls of his feet.

~

Edward rings for Alphonse, because they only have three days. "Rockbell Automail."

"Hey Winry, is Al around?"

"Edward Elric," and Ed swallows because Winry's not yelling, she's quiet, which means he's in real trouble, "You better have a good explanation for why Al has been looking through those books again, a really good reason, because I know you two are stupid, you're both the dumbest boys I know, but you're not that dumb, are you?" Her voice is thin at the end and Edward closes his eyes and drags his hand over his face.

"Winry, Winry, no, okay, no. There's this little girl here, Nina, I told you about her, right? She's in trouble, and we're trying to help her. That's it, Winry, I promise."

The girl takes a deep breath before saying, "Okay, I believe you. I'll go get Alphonse."

"God," Ed mutters, and then his little brother's on the line, "That was horrifying. What did she catch your reading?"

"I needed to double check something in Gregory's symbology texts," he says, and Ed resists the urge to groan because those books are utter nonsense unless you're messing around with human transmutation, and not for the first time Ed wonders what the hell their old man got up to in his spare time, "but that doesn't matter, brother."

"Winry definitely thinks it matters."

"Brother, focus. You can use Adronge's reverse half circle for deconstruction -"

"Have you lost your mind?" Ed scoffs.

"-as long as you use the red lion as the anchoring point. I can't believe the red lion actually has some sort of functionality at all, by the way, but I'm pretty sure here it'll work. I don't know what you'd balance it with on the reconstruction half of the circle, but red lion and Adronge's half array should take care of the deconstruction, if you are very, very careful."

Ed's mouth is actually hanging open, "Al, you're a genius! That's - I mean it's insane, but it'll probably work, yeah -"

"Brother, we still need something to balance the red lion, if we don't balance it, it will tear you apart -"

"Gold," Ed says, seized with a lightning understanding, "we can balance it with gold."

"... That's going to be a rough transmutation," Al says, but he sounds more thoughtful than disapproving.

Ed shrugs, "I'll edge it with the river stabilizers, that'll help. And with the chemical gold against the red lion, it'll be a functional transmutation, that's all that counts."

"Yeah," Al sounds quiet again, "Have you figured out what you're sacrificing to the Gate?"

Ed grins, and shrugs, "Yeah, I have an idea."

~

Gabby's eyes are starting to burn, and the words are all beginnig to blur together to the point where she's not sure what, exactly, she's supposed to be translating. Aviv puts his hand on her shoulder, and she says, "Five more minutes and I'll come to bed, babe, I promise."

"You are a liar," he says fondly, and places a newspaper on top of her notes.

She has to blink a few times before she start to recognize words in the swim of Amestrian, "Fucking hell."

"You make interesting friends," he's totally laughing at her, and she reaches back to hit him. Ed's face stares up at her, announcing the youngest State Alchemist to date, and she already knew that, but it looks like the newspapers have decided to make Edward Central's newest celebrity.

"Do you think he's still coming over on Friday for pizza?" she asks, "We never did get to finish our discussion on how citizenship and taxes are connected."

"I think he is a child still, and children need friends," he bends down to kiss her forehead, "You are a good friend."

Her eyes scan the article, "Should we introduce him to some people his own age? I mean, I don't mind, but maybe he does?"

"When you were twelve, you would have been very happy to have seventeen year old friends," Aviv says confidently, "Besides, normal children are not military and do not have such strong opinions on custody rulings."

"True," Gabby concedes, frowning still.

~

Roy won't admit that Riza's presence at his side is a comfort, but luckily she knows him so well that he doesn't have to. Maes is on his other side, crouched low so as to keep a calming hand on Nina's back. Edward is in the middle of the room, on his hands and knees, gloves off as he carefully sketches out the circle in chalk. It had gone past Roy's ability to understand about ten minutes ago, although when he sees Fullmetal draw out the red lion he almost wants to laugh at how ludicrous this whole thing is, how pointless.

"Okay," the boy says finally, dusting off his hands and running a critical eye over his circle, "I'm ready."

Ed walks over to Nina and squats so he can look her in the eye. He swallows, and says, "Big brother is going to try to fix you, okay? And it - I'm going to do my best, I'm going to do everything I can to fix you. Understand?"

"Big brother," the thing that used to be Nina Tucker moans, "it hurts."

"I know," Ed says softly, "I know." He puts his arms around her, and stands, heaving her up with that deceptive strength that Roy knows isn't due to just the automail. He puts her into the center of the circle with the stern instruction, "Don't move," and then retreats to the outside. He takes a deep breath before looking at Maes.

"Just do your best," he says, and Ed's face firms.

"Here goes nothing," he drops to his knees and places his hands on the circle. After a minute Roy doesn't think that anything's actually going to happen, and this will in fact be the most anticlimactic moment of his life, but then he senses it. A pressure beneath his feet, a buzzing in the air, and with no warning the array comes to life, an intense golden light so bright as to be blinding. It's give off so much alchemical energy that's some of it is being let out as heat, and the room is warming up to uncomfortable levels.

Maes stumbles into him, and Roy steadies him, but can't take his eyes off of Fullmetal. He's breathing evenly, his face is calm, and it remains that way even when the screaming starts. "Dear god," Riza whispers, the guttural combination of little girl screams and dog howls something that Roy is sure will haunt his dreams alongside Ishval, but still he can't look away. The screaming cuts off, and Roy can see dark, liquid masses shifting and moving inside the array, and is struck dumb with the realization that Edward actually managed to take apart a completed transmutation, and that is - staggering, unheard of, and now Roy hopes that when the light dies down he can run forward fast enough to cover Ed's eyes before he can see whatever's left of the little girl. The light flickers, dims, and Roy takes a step forward because the knowledge of his failure should be enough for Ed, the remains of Nina's body isn't something he need to so see.

"No!" he growls, and Roy pauses because he can't breathe suddenly, there's enough power gathering in the air around him that he's choking on it, the alchemical energy is so thick and cloying he's surprised that the air isn't sparking. Maes grabs at his elbow, and how can he not feel that, neither of them can, Maes or Riza judging by the confusion on their faces, and Roy needs Edward to do whatever the hell he's going to do before he passes out, and he doesn't dare to even let his fingers touch in this, because if his array went off with this much alchemical energy he would level all of Central, at least.

It's gone just as suddenly, leaving Roy stumbling and gasping in the clean air as the array shines so bright that even with his eyes closed he's afraid it'll burn his retinas.

Then it's gone, and Edward's calling out, "Nina!" and Roy opens his eyes and goes to grasp for Edward, because he doesn't need to see -

But when he looks in the array he sees a pale little girl's body and long reddish brown hair. Ed tears off his coat and covers her with it before he drops to his knees. "Nina, Nina, Nina, little sister, please be okay, please, please, please," Ed presses a clumsy flesh hand to her throat and his eyes are wide with fear as he chants, "No, no, no," pressing down on her thin chest and leaning over to tip her head back and trying to force air into her lungs. Roy should stop him, should do something, but all he can do is stay on his knees and stare are the little girl that Ed tore apart and put back together.

Ed's crying, and it's been over a minute, and Roy needs to stand, needs to do something other than sit here in dumb shock. Ed presses his mouth to Nina's, breathes, and tries to massage her heart into beating, and Roy will never forget this moment for the rest of his life, will think of it when he need to chase the nightmares of Ishval away.

Nina gasps, and coughs, and her eyes open. Ed gives a strangled cry and scoops her up in his arms. She's dwarfed by Ed's red coat around her body, and she clings to him, each of her coughs rattling her small frame. Ed stands, his metal arm under her thighs and flesh arm around her back and getting tangled in her long hair, and he's grinning so wide staring down at her that his whole face is going to break in half. "Big brother?" she says, finally all little girl and no dark dog growl, face red and exhausted from her coughing fit. "I - I had a bad dream," tears well in her eyes, "I had a really bad dream, I was - and Daddy -" She throws herself into Ed, wrapping her arms around his neck and sobbing.

"It's okay, it was only a dream, big brother is here," Fullmetal croons. He walks out of the circle and drops to his knees in front of Roy, who opens his mouth but has nothing to say. Edward grabs one of Roy's hands and places it on Nina's back. She's warm even through the jacket, warm and breathing and alive. Roy rubs her back, slow and dumb, and looks down into Fullmetal's triumphant golden eyes. Riza and Maes crowd forward, drop to their own knees and hesitantly reach for Nina, feel her warm skin, and Ed eventually transfers Nina into Maes's arms, who holds her like Ed has just handed him the world. Edward claps his hands and erases all evidence of the array, takes one long look around Shou Tucker's basement, and says, "Time to go, I think."

~

The news of finding Nina Tucker two weeks after her father's gruesome murder runs rampant through the city, and the military is so desperate to give the populace some good news, something good to look at, that the proceedings to give Maes Hughes full custody over her are sped through. A picture of the Hughes family - Maes, Gracia, Elysia, and Nina - makes the front page.

Maes throws himself down next to Roy at the bar, "Gracia cried again, but it was pretty great this time. Nina's going to be an awesome big sister, she talks to Elysia all the time, it's adorable."

"Of course, think of the role model she's had," Roy says, smiling in spite of himself at his friend.

"Glad you think so, we listed you as her godfather in the paperwork," Hughes says cheerfully, and Roy very carefully doesn't have a panic attack over being listed as the godfather for both of Maes's children. "Now I have two daughters, you know what that means? Twice as many cute little girls to take pictures of!" Maes grins and knocks their shoulders together, "Why the long face? So you were wrong about something, but hey, what a great thing to be wrong about!"

Roy swirls his glass so the ice cubes knock against each other and says, "I'm sending Ed away, to the East."

"Jeez, isn't it a little soon?" Maes blinks, "I thought you wanted to keep him close, at least while he was young."

Roy snorts, "You didn't feel it in there, in that basement - Ed can't be in Central, can't be any one place for too long, because if any of the higher ups figure out what he can do," Roy pauses, because the idea of a power like Ed's leashed under the military's command is staggering in its horror. He knows he'll lose sleep thinking of what Ed could have done in Ishval. "I'll keep him moving, never in the same place for too long. It's the safest option."

Roy doesn't say anything for a while, lost in his own thoughts, and Maes allows him his silence until he says, "You were planning on Ed to fail, to show him that he wasn't as good as he thought he was. But he succeeded."

"The most terrifying thought in all this," Roy says softly, and can't look at Maes while he says it, "is that Fullmetal might actually be just as powerful as he thinks he is. And - that would be bad enough, if all Edward would ever be is what he is right now, that would be one thing. But he's twelve Maes, he's a child, and this is only the beginning."

"You worry too much," Maes says, and Roy's eyes snap up to his, "So far Ed's used his skills trying to help people, Roy, and even if he messes up sometimes - well, we'll be there to put him on the right track."

Roy wants it to be that easy, wants intent to be the most important part, but when he was a budding alchemist, when he enlisted in the military, when he puzzled out the array on Riza's back and leashed flames to his hands, he thought he was going to save people, to help them, to work towards the greater good. Instead he got the smell of burning flesh, and he became not a savior but a crematorium. Maes knows all that already, though, so all Roy says is, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and knocks back the last of his drink.

~

Alphonse slowly puts the phone back on its hook, and Winry is so nervous she's practically vibrating. "Well?" she demands, and crosses her arms defensively when it comes out as a squeak. Al turns - and she can't read his face anymore, and she hates that.

"We did it," he says, and he says it so normally that it takes Winry a moment to process, "We actually did it, Nina's back in her old body."

Winry screams and Al startles, but doesn't have time to react before she throws her arms around his metal waist and screeches, "You did it, you did it, you did it! I knew you could! If you guys did this then you can do anything!"

Al knows that what they've done is worlds easier than getting his body back, but it's proof that they can work with the Gate, that it can be predicted and quantified, and Al knows what is cost his brother to face the Gate again, and Al thinks he loves him so much that he'll burst. "Brother's being sent on a mission, he says he can stay for a day since we're on the way," he's got his big hands on Winry's back, finally used to how much pressure he can exert without bruising.

"Good! He needs a check up, I bet he's got food in my finger joints, he always does, it's like he's driving me insane on purpose," Winry rants, but doesn't try to move away, only falls more heavily against him, and Al cradles her close while she tells him all the ways she's going to kill his brother. He doesn't laugh, but only because not having a real body means Winry's started throwing wrenches at him when she's mad. He has a couple of dents in his armor that Ed can hopefully get out.

~

Ed kicks his boots against the sidewalk, these streets at least now familiar to him. He's been smiling constantly for days it seems, and mostly it's because of Nina, because she's safe and alive and happy, but also because -

He'd faced the Gate again. He spoke to it, and it didn't crack him open this time, and he traded Alexander's body and soul as the price for performing the transmutation. Angry, spitting black tendrils that want to drag him into them and tear him apart, but can't because the Gate is bound by the laws too. Snarling fury in his brain, claiming equivalencies. But he knew better, knew this was not a deal, was not a bargain, it was a transaction with set prices. An animal's body and soul for some measly energy, and maybe with another alchemist that energy would have destroyed them, but the Gate had given him the knowledge to control it from the first go around, and if it hadn't wanted Ed to be a worthy opponent it shouldn't have weaponized him with knowledge.

He grins and twirls in the street so his coat flares out around him, and enters a building just as someone is leaving it, taking the stairs two at a time. Getting Al's body back won't be nearly as easy, since they actually need to retrieve it from beyond the Gate, but if they have the philosopher's stone - well, laws are laws, and not even the Gate is exempt from that.

He knocks twice on the door, is about to knock a third time when it's yanked open and Gabby's dragging him inside. Aviv is wearing a yellow, frilly apron and Ed doesn't even try to stifle his laughter. "The pizza is almost done," he says, red eyes warm at Edward's giggles.

"You, you're an alchemist, you're good at math, right?" Gabby asks, pushing him down into a seat at the table.

"I'm okay," he says, blinking, and smirks when Gabby plops a book of trigonometry in front of him that he may or may not have read when he was seven.

"I will make you so many cookies if you make this make sense," she says, scooting close to Ed and pouting, throwing an arm over his shoulders.

He blushes and scrubs a hand over his face to hide it, "Yeah, sure, no problem."

~

"Try not to draw too much attention to yourself," Roy says, leaning back in his chair as Fullmetal stands across from him and scans the file on his mission. "I'd prefer if you could get in and out without causing a scene."

"I'll do my best," the boy says, frowning while he looks over the pages, "Suppose these sightings are chimeras, and I do find the person making them - what should I do with the chimeras?"

"Gather and contain them, then turn them and the rogue alchemist over to General Grumman at Eastern Command," Roy says, but Edward only hums in response, and he can feel a headache building behind his eyes and the kid hasn't even left yet. "Fullmetal Alchemist, are your orders clear?"

"Transparent," Ed says, but Roy has the distinct impression that the boy is laughing at him. "Will that be all? My train leaves in an hour, and I need to swing by the dorms still."

"One more thing," he lets his voice soften enough that Edward actually deigns to look up at him, "Really do be careful - I don't need to tell you that your abilities are extraordinary, you know that. But - there's a thin line between gods and monsters, Fullmetal. You don't want people to - you don't want people to be forced to place you as one or the other."

Edward is silent for a long time, that deep golden gaze staring into Roy and choking him anytime he tries to break the silence himself. Finally Ed looks away, and asks, "What makes you think gods aren't monsters too, Colonel?"

Roy doesn't have an answer to that, but thankfully Fullmetal doesn't wait for one. He offers Roy the sloppiest salute he's seen since the last time the boy saluted him, and leaves, slamming the door shut behind him with an impressive bang.

~

Nina squirms on Maes's shoulders, tilting her body so far to the side that she'd have fallen off if not for Maes's firm grip on her ankles. "I don't see big brother!"

"Are you sure you got the train times right?" Gracia asks, bouncing Elysia in her arms.

"Yes," he says firmly, then lets go of one of Nina's ankles to scratch at his forehead, "I think."

Gracia laughs, and Nina hits the top of his head and scolds, "Papa!" and Maes grins even wider, because this could have been a lot harder than it was, bringing this little girl into their family. It would have been if not for Ed's patient coaxing and explanations, that Daddy was gone just like her mother was, but Gracia and Maes would be her parents if she wanted, and Elysia could be her little sister for real.

Nina was insistent that she would only have one daddy, but seemed shyly accepting of Maes as Papa. One day, Maes knew, they would have to sit Nina down and explain what had happened to her, how she had come to be their daughter, but for now she seemed to content to accept her two weeks as a chimera as nothing more than a bad dream.

"There he is!" Gracia points, and Ed is indeed making his way through the crowd, a small figure of red and gold. "Edward!"

"Big brother!' Nina screeches, and Maes winces. Ed turns towards them and waves. Nina kicks his shoulders, "Down, down, let me down!" Maes does, partially out of fear of bruising, and she's off like a shot, darting in between adults' legs to tackle Ed to the ground. By the time Maes and Gracia make it over to them, Nina's dangling from Ed's throat like a necklace.

"Hey Mr. and Mrs. Hughes!" he greets, apparently giving up on detaching Nina and putting an arm around her legs to support her. "What are you doing here?"

Gracia leans over to kiss his forehead, and he turns bright red but doesn't protest. "Why we're here to see you off, of course!"

Ed blinks and says, "Oh," as Gracia hands over Elysia so Ed's got Nina on one arm and the baby on the other.

"Smile!" Hughes says, snapping a picture, "Now one with you, honey!" Gracia stands behind Ed and bends down so her head is on top of his, and Ed smiles through his blush.

"You didn't have to," he says, handing Elysia back as Nina lets go and jumps down.

"I don't think Nina would forgive us if we didn't say goodbye," Gracia snags the camera from her husband, who pouts but doesn't protest, "Okay, now one with you two."

Maes stands behind Ed and puts his hands on his shoulders, beaming. "I have to catch a train," Ed says, trying to tug away. Maes bends so their faces are level, and another flash goes off.

"Okay, okay, if you have to," Maes says.

Nina runs forward and wraps her arms around Ed's legs, "Be back soon, okay big brother?"

"Okay," he grins, hauling Nina up and squeezing her tightly before handing her back to Maes. "I seriously have to go guys -"

"ED!" Maes blinks and looks toward the screaming, sees a teenager with ripped jeans and blonde hair running towards them, "EDWARD!" Maes squints, because she looks oddly familiar.

Ed turns, "Gabby?"

The teenager launches herself at Ed, who stumbles but doesn't fall. "I thought we were going to miss you!"

"Hello Edward," a deeper voice says, and Maes looks behind them and sees a tall Ishvallan teenager coming to stand beside Ed, a basket balanced on the crook of his arm. "I told you we would not be late," he says to the girl.

"We almost were," she insists, finally letting go of Ed so she can take the basket from the other boy and hold it out to him, "Here! I baked them this morning, that's why we were late."

"Almost late," the Ishvallan says, and Gabby scowls.

Edward looks in the basket and grins, "You made me cookies?"

"Of course," Gabby goes back to focusing on Edward, "You'll write us, won't you? These military missions always last longer than they're supposed to, who knows when you'll be back, it could be months."

"I don't think it'll take months," Ed grins, "but yeah, I'll write, if you want me to."

"We want you to!" Gabby swears, "Right Aviv?"

"Right," the boy says, and he rolls his eyes but he's grinning too. He bends down to hug Edward, and it's then that Maes sees the burn marks and his stomach goes cold. People get scars all sorts of different ways, he tells himself, just because he's an Ishvallan with burn scars doesn't mean Roy is involved at all. "Be safe. Come home soon."

"I will," Ed says, and the train lets out a piercing warning whistle, "Okay, I really have to go. Bye everyone! Thanks for the cookies, Gabby!" He hops on the train, but a moment later he pop his head out a window, to Nina's delight. The train starts to pull away, and they all stand at the platform waving to Edward until he's out of sight.

Maes is still staring at the blond teenager who's waving at a speck in the distance, and it finally clicks. He blurts, "Catherine Armstrong?"

Her hand freezes in the air. Aviv coughs. She lowers her hand and slowly turns to face him, her lips forced into a polite smile. "I'm sorry, have we met?"

"I, uh, was at Briggs for a few weeks for an inspection," he says. "I met the General. You look a lot alike." He pauses, then questions, "Gabby?"

"A nickname, which I use because I don't enjoy being recognized," she hisses, and Hughes flinches. "I suppose my sister and I do share a few similarities." she continues pleasantly, "I also suppose you work with my brother as well. Next time you see him, do kindly tell him to go fuck himself."

Maes's mouth drops open. Gracia coughs to hide her laugh. "I'll ... keep that in mind."

"Great," Gabby says brightly, "well, I'll see you around." She spins on her heel and marches away. Aviv gives them a sheepish wave before jogging after her.

"You could try to act a little more scandalized, she swore in front of our children," Maes sighs.

Gracia kisses his cheek, "Sorry honey, your face was worth it."

~

Ed watches Central pass by, and he has at least a day on the train before it hits Resmebool. He opens the basket and stuffs one of Gabby's cookies in his mouth. Edward flips open the file Mustang had given him, and no way is he actually turning chimeras over to the military, the Colonel has to know that.

He grabs another cookie, getting crumbs all over the file, and wonders if a six legged three hundred pound beast could be taught to plow farmland.

Chapter Text

Ed curls up against the window, watching the scenery become more and more familiar the closer they get to Central. It’s been five years since he first took a train to the city, the weight of his sins nearly crushing him with nothing binding him to it than hope-tinged desperation. 

There’s plenty binding him there now. There’s the Hugheses, there’s Gabby and Aviv, there’s every familiar face in the city that smiles at him when he returns.

There’s Mustang.

Maybe that’s the most surprising thing of all, how much Mustang has come to mean to him. He used to be afraid of Roy, saw him as the personification of everything Ed hated, and even after Nina that perception might not have changed, except –

Ed knows the worst things Roy has done, saw them when the Gate split him open and dumped the truth inside. Ed knows the depravity that Roy is capable of. Yet, again and again over the years, Roy has had his back. Has defended him against entirely true accusations, attempted to shield him from the foulest parts of the military, been there for him in his worst moments if not always a kind presence at least always a presence.

Ed, against his better judgement, trusts Roy in a way he trusts few others.

~

The train station is particularly crowded today, hot irritated bodies slamming against one another, and if he thought for a moment his daughters would allow it he’d take them home now and away from all the chaos.

“Papa, I can’t see!” Nina scowls, stomping her foot as if she’s much younger than her eleven years. “We’re going to miss him.”

“We won’t miss him,” he placates, Elysia on his shoulders and frantically looking through the mass of people. “He knows we’re here waiting for him, he wouldn’t leave without us.”

Elysia grabs his hair and tugs, “Papa, look! That’s his train! He has to be here.” 

Nina pulls her hand from his, “I can’t see, Papa! I want to see.” She reaches into her pocket and kneels on the ground. He’s certain he checked her pockets before they left.

“Honey,” he says urgently, “please don’t–”

It’s too late. The cool blue light of alchemy washes over them, and his daughter is lifted on a cement pillar into the air. People freeze around them, looking at the girl suddenly standing tall over them. “BROTHER!” she calls, waving, “Over here!”

People part like the sea in front of her, and Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, walks forward. He has the same signature look he’s always had, but on a child it was comical. Now the leather pants and boots make him look dangerous, now that red coat is recognized and talked about all throughout Amestris, as distinctive an identifier as his golden coloring and infamous temper. 

Maes feels his heart clench. Ed was the age Nina is now when he took the test to become an alchemist of the state, he was a child. Now, at seventeen years old, he doesn’t look much like a child. 

He looks like a man. 

“Nina,” he greets, holding out his arms. She takes a heart stopping leap off the pillar five times her height and he catches her easily, spinning her around and then setting her on her feet. Nina is far too much like Ed for Maes to ever sleep easily. “Nice job, very symmetrical. Not very smooth though.”

“I didn’t care about how it looked,” she says, rolling her eyes, “Function over form.”

“Perhaps,” he agrees, allowing Nina to clamp herself to his arm, “but you are talented enough and smart enough that I expect you to master both.” 

She scowls, and for a moment he thinks she’s going to argue, but only says, “Yes, Brother.”

Maes wishes he could get her to do that. 

“HELLO BIG BROTHER!” Elysia screeches, and for the moment she may be the more obedient of his daughters, but she’s never been the quieter one.

“Hello, little sister,” he carefully takes her from Mae’s shoulders and settles the five year old on his hip. She wraps her arms around his neck and snuggles into his shoulder, seemingly unbothered that she’s pressing her face into automail. Finally, Ed’s gaze meets his, and his lips quirk up in a half grin. “Miss me?” 

“Not in the slightest,” Maes says, reaching out and tugging on his braid since there’s no room for him to hug Edward with his daughters hanging all over him. 

Elysia makes a big show of looking all around them before leaning in and whispering, “Where’s Bigger Brother?”

“Here,” Ed assures, “I had him take an earlier train this time instead of a later one.”

Nina frowns, “Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid with always making Al arrive separately? Nobody even knows who he is in Central.”

“It’s not being paranoid if they’re actually out to get you,” Ed and Maes chorus as one, then grin at each other.

Nina gives them an unimpressed look that’s so much like Gracia’s he has no choice but to grab her face and kiss it all over until she’s laughing so hard her grip on Ed’s arm is the only thing keeping her upright.

~

She’s been following them, as she was told to do. The brother arrived the day before, and now she watches the Fullmetal Alchemist laugh and smile with the people he has no blood relation to, yet he claims as family none the less. This is the first time she’s followed them to Central, the first time she’s followed them to this place that might be considered a home, and she can’t help but be intrigued.

Lust has been following them for a long time, has done it on orders, because she was told they were the key that would unlock everything she’s ever wanted.  

For the first time, she believes it. But not for the reasons she’s always been told.

After the attack on Envy in Liore, Sloth slipped up. She said something, off hand, innocuous. Lust is sure she’s the only who noticed.

He was never this violent as a child. He cried all the time.”

Sloth remembers being Trisha Elric. All of Lust’s suspicions are true.

~

“I’ll call as soon as I arrive,” Winry promises, hiking her duffle bag over her shoulder. Al had said he’d be here to help with this, with leaving, but Ed needs him more right now. She understands, but she’s not happy about it. “You still have to make yourself dinner when I’m not here. You can just freeze the extra.”

“I know,” Pinako answers.

She blushes at the exasperation in her grandmother’s tone, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I worry,” she admits, and wishes not for the first time that there was another way.

But Pinako taught her everything she knew a long time ago. Winry’s been putting off her move to Rush Valley for years, and she can’t do it any longer. If she’s to improve her family’s techniques, if she’s to carry on the Rockbell name and brand, she can’t just learn from her grandmother. She must learn from as many people as she can, she has to tinker and work and fail until she’s the very best mechanic in the business.

The Rockbells have always been the best. Winry refuses to be the one that breaks that tradition.

“I’ll be fine,” Pinako says, puffing at her pipe, “Go. Give them hell.”

Winry drops her bag and falls to her knees to give her one last, fierce hug. Then she stands, scoops up her bag, and goes running so she doesn’t miss her train.

~

Roy knows Ed is on his way almost a minute before he arrives by the familiar, uneven stomps that always mark his trek through the office. 

His door burst open, the bottom center of it worn down from the amount of times Edward has kicked it. “Colonel Fuckface,” he greets, kicking the door closed again with that same shit eating grin.

“Fullmetal,” he returns, holding up a warning hand as gets up from his desk. 

“I know the concept of working for a living is foreign to you, but since I’ve got things that actually need doing–” He shuts the window and pulls the curtain across them. Ed falters. “Mustang, what the hell are you doing?” 

“We can speak freely, I had Maes check my office for bugs this morning,” he says, and it’s a risk, any moment that he hides from the eyes that are constantly on them is a risk, but considering the report he’d gotten it’s one worth taking. 

Edward’s shoulders loosen even as he scowls, “We can do that at the Hughes’s place. Don’t fuck up our little game just because you’re impatient.” There’s a multitude of rumors about their relationship, from hate to tawdry gossip. As long as they’re talking about their most recent fight, and not the impossible feat Ed performed this week, they count it as a win.

He doesn’t sit back at the desk, has little use for power plays when he and Ed speak as themselves, as equals. Instead he sits on top of it, legs dangling almost to the floor and hands braced against the sides. Ed sighs, but must figure out that he’s serious about this, because he twists to face him and relaxes into the couch.  “Now,” he starts, and resists the urge to pour himself a drink, “was it really necessary to kill the priest?” 

“The first time? Probably not, and that wasn’t me anyway. But the second time? Oh, definitely.”

He should just give in and pour himself that drink. “The second time?” 

“Cornello got caught in the alchemical backlash and died,” Ed explains, “so Al and I left. We were gone maybe two days, right, when Rose – this girl we’d met in Liore – tracks us down and says the bastard’s back. So we go back to Liore, and sure enough the priest is there spouting this crap story about how the other guy was an imposter but he’s the real deal.”

“So you ripped his spine out of his back?” Roy asks, and he doesn’t have the energy to sound upset about it. He saves that for when beings and equipment that are supposed to be returned to the military mysteriously end up in backwater towns that trains don’t travel to and no one even would know exist if some poor schmuck hadn’t passed through once and stuck it on a map.

Ed gives him an offended look. “I didn’t lead with that, no. Want to hear the interesting part?”

“How is that not the interesting part?” Roy demands. 

He leans forward and gives him a smirk that reminds him eerily of Hughes. “When I ripped that thing’s spine out, it didn’t die.” 

“Stop.” He goes back around his desk so he can reach into the bottom drawer, pull out a bottle of scotch, and take a swig straight from the bottle. He slams it onto desk and wipes his hand across his mouth. “Okay, go on.”

It takes Ed almost a full ten minutes to get his laughter under control before he actually manages to continue his report.

~

“You should eat something.”

It takes long, slow seconds for the sounds she’s hearing to form themselves into words she understands. “Maada?” she murmurs, eyes still glued to the page even as she turns to where the voice is coming from. “Inna last jayiea.”

Ant bihajat llil'akul,” the voice repeats, and it’s enough to snap Gabby to the here and now back to Amestrian.

“What the fuck kind of accent was that?” she demands, “I should take you downstairs to Jiddah so she can laugh at you.” 

Alphonse’s sigh echoes through his armor, and never let it be said that Al lets his lack of a physical body prevent him from being an exasperated teenage boy. “Oh, my mistake, let me work on that. Should I try wetting my lips? Pull it from my throat? Oh, wait–”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re a disembodied soul, accents are hard to correct, whatever,” she leans back in her chair and crosses her arms, “When you get your body back, I’m going to beat all those bad habits out of you.”

“Looking forward to it,” he says warmly, “In the meanwhile, people with physical bodies need to eat.”

She arches her back and groans at the cracks and pops. She’s too young to feel this old. “I’m fine, I’ve only been working a few hours. It’s barely lunchtime.”

He takes her by the shoulders and twists her around. The moon is low in the sky. “It’s almost seven at night. You need to eat.”

She blinks. “Oh. Well, at this point we might as well wait for Aviv to get home.” 

Alphonse’s shoulder hunch up before he forces them back down again. 

“He called and said he’d be working late,” she says, and tries so very hard not to let her disappointment show. “How late?” 

There’s the clank of metal on wood as Al shuffles his feet. 

“Oh,” she says, and forces her eyes not to water. “Okay. Well – well, I guess we’ll just have to go to him,” she says decisively. “Right? I mean,” she looks down at her ripped jeans and stained tank top and the hair she hasn’t washed in almost a week hanging limp around her shoulders. 

“You know he doesn’t care how you look; that’s not the problem,” Al says. She doesn’t know what her face looks like, but it must be awful by the way he takes a half step away from her. “Gabby, that’s not what I meant.”

She pulls off her tank top and stalks from the room, shedding the rest of her clothes as she goes. Alphonse yelps and slaps a hand over his helmet. “No, I know exactly what you meant, and I’m sick of him trying to protect me this way. I don’t need his damn protection!” 

“He worries,” Al implores from the other room as Gabby steps into the shower, quickly scrubbing her hair clean. “You get a lot of – attention, for dating him, and he doesn’t want to put you in danger.” 

She swallows back her instinctive answer, that she’s an Armstrong, and just because she rejected the family didn’t mean she lost the genes. Anyone stupid enough to face her in a dark alley would end up with their head as a new edition to the alley wall. Instead she says, “I highly doubt I’m in any more danger for dating him than he’s in for the audacious act of not being dead. My boyfriend is working late, so I’m going to go bring him some food.” She steps out of the shower, and flings open her closet. She goes to the back, to things she still wore when she responded to the name Catharine. “Are you coming?”

Al enters her room, helmet on backwards to preserve her modesty. She doesn’t know why he thinks she has any. “It’s better than letting you go alone, I suppose.” 

Well, that’s about as much of a ringing endorsement as she’s likely to get. She’ll take it.

~

The thing about red water, red stones, is that they corrupt all they touch. Each of the homonculi are worse for having consumed them, are a little bit more twisted than they would be without unfinished philospher’s stones bubbling beneath their flesh.

Greed figured it out first, purged them from his system, and then left. Years ago, when she realized Father would never fulfill his promises, she sought him out to help her do the same. She’s not as strong as she was before – but as soon as they were gone she remembered how to speak Ishvalan, remembered the face of the man who loved his wife so fiercely that he risked everything to bring her back. But he only got Lust instead – a squirming, crying thing that certainly looked nothing like his dead wife before red water was poured on her, who wouldn’t look anything like her now if not for the remnants of red water she has to keep inside her to survive.

Lust has seen photos. Sloth looks exactly like Trisha Elric, down to the dimple on her left cheek and the color of her eyelashes. She’d almost looked like Trisha Elric when they found her too. She doesn’t think Sloth needs red water to survive.

None of the others got it that close, that right. Hohenheim created Envy in his image, because he didn’t know what his son would have grown to look like if he hadn’t died. Lust is the closest they’d had, the right face and shape, just the wrong colors, pale skin where it should be brown, black eyes that should have been red.

But Sloth looks like Trisha, remembers what that woman remembered. Envy hates because it’s all he’s capable of, the one emotion he’s able to channel. Lust doesn’t have emotions, not truly, she has flashes of what she thinks feelings might be, but she’s not Greed. She can’t twist the boundaries of her curse until she’s almost human.

Lust doesn’t know what having a soul is like, but she thinks it looks like Sloth.

Sloth, who hates so strongly that it can only be borne from a heart that loved and is now broken. Sloth, who has memories of the sons who made her. Sloth, who holds herself aloof and away from them, like she’s different from them, because she is.

Sloth, who looks like Trisha Elric and has Trisha Elric’s memories, and, if Lust is correct, Trisha Elric’s soul.

Sloth, who is Trisha Elric in a way that Lust can never become the Ishvalan woman she was meant to replace, no matter how much she wishes she could.

~

Edward isn’t actually trying to drive Roy to alcoholism. It’s just a fun bonus.

“Liore could have gone worse,” he tries to offer, “Sure, there’s some pretty bad rumors going around about me right now. But no one’s talking about the thing that didn’t die, so there’s that.”

“Are you sure you didn’t kill it?” Roy asks, rubbing at his eyes. Ed almost feels sorry for him, except he does this to himself, really. “It sounds like you killed it.”

Ed looks longingly toward the bottle. He’s never developed a taste for the stuff, and only bothers to drink it when Aviv mixes him something neon and fruity tasting. Still, he does envy Roy his coping mechanism. “We didn’t find a body, and if it didn’t die when I tore out it’s spinal column I doubt anything I did after that did much good.” 

“How did the people react?” Roy asks.

“Poorly,” Ed says bluntly, “but Rose seemed to have it all under control. I warned her the military would be sticking its ugly noses in it, so hopefully she can keep a grip on the town.”

“I sent General Grunman,” he says, taking another sip from the bottle. “It’s a bit far from his jurisdiction, but he’s always intrigued by whatever mess you cause so he wasn’t too cranky about it.”

He brightens. Grunman is a conniving, manipulative old man, but he’s not bloodthirsty. Liore will be fine. “Thank you.” 

Roy waves it away, face flushed from the alcohol. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what this creature was?”

He bites his lip. He does, but it’s more because it’s in the shape of things he doesn’t know rather than the things he does. He’d hate to drive his commanding office to suicide without just cause. “Pending,” he decides on finally, “I’ll have to do some research.” He blinks and points at Roy, “That reminds me, I’m going to need the Central Library to do it. I’m going to be staying at headquarters for the foreseeable future. Just give me local stuff.” 

Roy’s lower lip juts out like he’s a child Ed has scolded. “You know I don’t like you staying in Central too long.”

“It hardly does us any good anymore,” he grumbles, “I’m so well known nowadays I might as well set up a photo booth.” 

“But you’re so subtle. How could this have happened?” Roy drawls.

Ed grins, “Bitch, bitch, bitch. I assume the requests to transfer me slowed after I blew up that mountain?” 

“Indeed. Although I had to field questions about why my subordinate blew up a mountain, Edward.” 

“It was in my way,” he shrugs. 

Roy’s left cheek shifts, and Ed knows he’s biting the inside of it to keep from laughing. “You are widely known as a barely controlled disaster.” 

“Then our plan is working,” Ed says, “Just like Maes said it would.” 

Roy sniffs and takes another long drink from the bottle to keep from answering. Ed resigns himself then and there to having to carry the man home himself.

~

Lust follows Fullmetal to the Colonel’s door, and she should stay and peek through the windows, but she won’t. There’s a whole other Elric to follow, after all.

There won’t be anything of value worth watching, not yet. She can see it in how carefully they hold themselves when they’re together, in the way they look and look and never touch, not in any way that matters. 

She knows those looks. Like a starving man gives a meal, like a mother gives her child, and everything in-between. She knows those looks. 

Sometimes, she admits to herself that she remembers those looks.

~

Aviv tries to pretend he’s upset with Gabby for coming here, but it only lasts until he catches the smell of whatever’s in the basket in the crook of her arm. “Did you bring muffins?” 

“Enough for your whole office,” she says, smiling winningly at the other exhausted associates. Three of them turn bright red, and Aviv resists the urge to roll his eyes. He knows what’s she’s doing, coming here in clothes he hasn’t seen her wear since they were kids (clothes that are too small on her now, but look just as good for all the wrong reasons), laden with baked goods and fake smiles. 

She can play the part of the perfect, obedient Amestrian girlfriend, with her blond hair and blue eyes. It won’t make him any less Ishvalan in their eyes. All it does is make her less like them because it’s him she’s dating, him she chose, and him who she goes home with. She’s so beautiful and lovely that none of his blond, blue eyed coworkers can understand why she doesn’t choose one of them instead. 

It won’t matter. But he loves that she tries. 

Yanzurun li mithl 'ana farisa,” she mutters, eyes going cold for the moment when only he can see them. 

“How foolish of them,” he says quietly, “for you are the predator, and they are they prey.” 

Her smile becomes genuine, and she hands him one of the muffins. When he takes it from her, their fingers brush. 

~

Alphonse doesn’t object to waiting in the street outside of the law firm Aviv works at. What Gabby’s trying to do is all about image, and he’d ruin any chance of that succeeding if he walked in with her. 

That being said, he resents being left along in this dark and creepy street. 

It feels like someone is watching him. 

~

Ed meets his brother at the library the next morning, neck sore from the unexpected night he’d stayed on Roy’s couch. He has to stop doing that. 

Then again, he liked Roy’s house. It was warm and familiar, and too big for just one person anyway, even a show-boating colonel.

“Morning Brother,” Al greets, failing in besides him as he walks up the steps. “Did you tell the colonel that we’re dealing with homunculi?”

“Sure thing Al, I’d gotten tired of Mustang and thought a well-timed heart attack was just the way to get rid of him,” he snarks, flashing his watch to the guards and breezing through.

Al waves at the librarians as they head to the back of the library, where the interesting alchemical texts are kept. “You’ll have to tell him eventually.”

“Let’s at least figure out how they’re made first,” he grumbles, “the secrets of half the universe, and this is the information the gate feels the need to leave out.”

Al reaches up to the top shelf and grabs all of Mendel’s texts. Half of everything he writes is so deeply flawed it’s a little embarrassing, and the other half is utterly brilliant. “Nina’s struggling with balancing elemental powers in her circle. She wants us to come over and help her.” They’ve been to Central Library before, of course they have, but sitting next to Mendel’s books is a shiny new tome. The Intersection of Alchemy and Alkahestry: Collected Literature From the Previous Millennium. It has nothing to do with what they’re researching, but he grabs it anyway. He needs something to read during the long nights when everyone else is asleep.

“I’m surprised she didn’t ask Mustang,” Ed says absently, already sinking into a tome on vague transmutation symbolism, something his brother professes to hate even though he devours anything he can find on the subject. “It’s what his circle is based on.”

“She tried.” Ed looks up, eyebrows raised. He can tell by his brother’s voice that he’s smirking. “Apparently, her understanding of base elemental combustion and reaction has surpassed his.”

He laughs so loudly a librarian ventures to their corner for the express purpose of giving him a dirty look.

 ~

They follow Father because he says he can give them what they desire. Lust isn’t sure how he can promise that, how any of them can believe him, when she’s not sure if they even know what it is they truly desire.

She knows what she wants, more desperately than anything else – to be human, to be the woman who’s hazy memories she carries and who’s face she wears. She has flashes of memory, but they’re blurry, and she doesn’t – she doesn’t feel anything, it’s bits of information of a life she never lived, but no emotion attached to it. She wants the emotion, and the memories, she wants it all.

But the others?

Greed just wants to be left alone. Gluttony has no wants besides to consume and be by her side (she thinks he was like her once, and she aches to speak Ishvalan to him to see if he would understand). Envy wants to kill his father, the man who created him so long ago. Pride already has what he desires, seated as the ruler of Amestris.

Sloth seems to think she wants to kill those who created her, calls herself Julia and refuses to acknowledge the Elrics as connected to her at all.

But Lust was there, when Father dropped red water onto the twitching and steaming thing the Elrics had created. She already had a face by the time they got there, had arm and legs and eyes that were a beautiful brown.

Freshly born homunculi look like many things, but Lust had never seen one that looked like a human before.

She can’t help but wonder what Sloth would have become if they hadn’t interfered. Father would say that she would have died, like the results of other failed human transmutations before her. But Lust –

Lust isn’t so sure.

She hasn’t been there as long as most, isn’t nearly as old as Greed, or as Envy who’s been by Father’s side almost since the beginning.

She’s smarter than the rest of them, though. The man who created her was a skilled alchemist, better than most, and she thinks that’s why she has flashes of the life she was supposed to live, of his face and his hands and his smile.

Father has spent over four hundred years trying to tear down the world for his own gains. He’s not going to do anything for any them, and Lust is tired of waiting for something to pass that never will.

However. If there’s anyone, absolutely anyone, who can save her, who can give her what she wants –

It’s the Elric Brothers.

Sloth isn’t like them. She hates the brothers not because they created her, like she’s always insisted, like Envy hates Hohenheim, but because she remembers them. Lust is sure of it, believes that Sloth hates so ferociously because after the first few confusing weeks her memories sharpened and she remembered the woman she was. She says she hates them because they created her, but Lust knows better, or at least she thinks she does.

Sloth hates her sons for not coming back for her. Hurt and anger can get muddled at the best of times, and rebirth is hardly that.

She doesn’t know what Father wants the brothers for. She doesn’t care. As far as she’s concerned, those boys are her only chance at a normal life. Which means from now on, she protects them for her own reasons, not Father’s.

Not that she’s planning to tell him that. Not yet, at least.

~

Roy’s woken at an ungodly hour in the morning by his phone that just won’t stop ringing. Someone better be dead.

He stumbles out of bed and down the hall, picking up the phone and snarling “What?” into the receiver.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” Maes says down the line, and he almost hangs up just then. “Any gossip from our favorite troublemaker?”

“You know,” he says, “How the hell do you know already?”

Maes laughs, booming and obnoxious. “I spoke to Alphonse this morning. It’s no longer morning, in case you were wondering. Is Ed still there?”

“No,” he answers, even though he hasn’t checked. “He always leaves early.”

Maes tuts at him down the line, and Roy rubs his snapping fingers together. “Roy, you naughty boy! Those rumors of you sleeping with your subordinates will start again if you two keep this up.”

“That implies they ever stopped,” he says, “I prefer those rumors to the ones that Fullmetal is a prodigy unmatched by any, one who could tear apart the world given the right incentive.”

“But Roy,” Maes pitches his voice to sound confused, “Fullmetal is a prodigy unmatched my any, one who could take apart the world given the right incentive.”

“Exactly,” Roy answers, and then hangs up on him.

One of those rumors are true, and the other isn’t. He’d like to keep the untrue one circulating for as long as he can, and if that means doing nothing about the ones that say he’s sleeping with his seventeen year old subordinate –

– so be it

~

Winry goes to Rush Valley to learn, but she also to work. She arrives in the cool, pre-dawn morning and goes to the space she’s renting. It’s cramped, with a bedroom and bath for her attached and absolutely no place to cook and barely any room to work.

That’s fine. She’s a Rockbell. She’s not planning to stay here long.

With any luck, she’ll have drum up enough custom to rent out her own shop on Main Street within the year.

~

Nina sits outside with Edward and Alphonse, the three of them clustered around a half complete alchemy circle while Alphonse talks animatedly and Nina listens with rapt attention. Elysia is, as always, at her sister’s side, although she doesn’t understand a word of what any of them are saying.

Neither does Maes, for that matter. When he looks at them, he feels a familiar current of fierce pride and worry. Maybe it was too much for him to expect Nina to be a normal child, with being the daughter of Shou Tucker and the sister to Edward and Alphonse Elric. But he hadn’t expected her to be such a genius.

He’s seen what happens to geniuses, what the world does to them and what they do to themselves.

Nina is as terrifyingly smart as the Elric brothers, and he worries.

~

Generals keep trying to corner him and talk about his ‘potential’ and how Mustang isn’t nurturing it, so he’s taken to hiding the library. The homunculi problem is bothering him. The only bits of knowledge the Gate hadn’t stuffed his head with was human transmutation, and since he doesn’t know how homunculi are made it’s likely human transmutation is involved. He just can figure out how. They are beings of flesh and blood, but seemingly not confined by them or attached, so there has to be something else holding them together, some piece he’s missing.

In order to unmake them, he first has to discover how they were made. They’re involved with partially completed philospher’s stones, which means that they’re complicit in mass murder. They need to be stopped.

Somehow.

Ed sighs and huddles down in the chair, his book propped open in front of him. It’s an ancient leather text that’s so rare the library won’t let him take it, which means he’s forced to sit here reading and taking notes until the library closes.

He’d sent Al away a few hours ago, getting worried about how many pairs of eyes had seen them together. Al is staying with Gabby and Aviv, as he always does when he’s in Central with Ed, and he hopes his brother is having more fun than he is right now.

~

Gabby, arms laden down with grocery bags, shoves open the door to the same crappy apartment they’ve had since college, and not for the first time thinks longingly of moving somewhere else, somewhere without stained walls and no heating and obnoxious neighbors.

But Aviv is Ishavlan, and so are most of the residents of the building. Gabby could easily secure a nice apartment in Downtown Central, someplace chic and expensive and more befitting of her former life. They’d wouldn’t kick Aviv out, it would be too gauche to acknowledge him at all, which is the whole problem. Here, at least, in this shitty, crumbling apartment, Aviv doesn’t have to pretend to be anything else than what he is – an Ishvalan man whom the war didn’t manage to kill.

“What’s all this for?” Al asks as suddenly the bags are taken from her arms.

She rolls her eyes, because Alphonse knows she’s stronger than she looks. “You and your brother are back in Central, and actually sticking around for once! We should celebrate! I’m making kousa mahshi.”

Al starts unloading the bags, more than familiar with her kitchen. “Ed was just planning to go to the dorms after the library.”

“Don’t worry, Aviv is going to go pick him up,” she says, but suddenly she’s not even listening to herself talk. The book he’d been reading lies open on her kitchen table, and she walks over and picks it up without thinking. She knows those symbols. She’s seen them before. “What is this?”

“What?” Al turns around. “Oh, it’s about the Xingese alkahestry, and its connection to alchemy. The articles are about a thousand years old, but there’s not really any other texts on the subjects.”

She traces her fingers against the symbols, and she’s no alchemist, isn’t particularly gifted in math or science. But she knows her languages. “Do you have a copy of this in the original language?”

“Not on me,” he answers, and she can tell he’s frowning even though he doesn’t have a mouth. “Gabby, it’s just – it’s not important, I just thought it was interesting. Don’t worry about it.”

“These translations aren’t correct,” she looks up, because that symbolism is used exclusively in death rites and Xing doesn’t deal with death rites, they don’t consider words an adequate way to send people on to the next life.

There’s only one culture she’s come across that would put death symbolism alongside rebirth, and she can see how an alchemist would think it’s about alkahestry, how they’d see that and think of healing, but they’re wrong.

“This is a text about Xerxes.”

~

It’s dark and raining by the time Edward leaves the library. He’s trying to decide between transmuting his coat into a pseudo-umbrella or just walking to the dorms and transmuting himself dry when an unfamiliar voice intones, “Fullmetal Alchemist.”

Oh god, they’re literally stalking him now. “What?” he snarls, and immediately feels guilty when he looks up and seems a dark skinned man with white hair and an x-shaped scar across his face. He’s wearing sunglasses even though there’s no sun, and doesn’t recognize him from Gabby’s building, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t met him before. Although most of them just call him by his name. “Sorry. Did you need help with something?”

He pushes the sleeve of his right arm up to his elbow, and Edward is instantly intrigued by the odd alchemical lines tattooed there. He’s never met an Ishvalan that practiced alchemy before, and neither has he ever seen alchemy quite like that. “Han alwaqt balnsbt lk litalbiat allh.”

Ed blinks, and – it’s time for him to meet god? What? Are Ishvalans trying to convert now? There’s no way that can end well. He’s trying to remember the word for atheist in Ishvalan when the man’s arm starts crackling with red alchemical energy and Ed realizes he probably should have taken his words literally.

~

Lust hesitates. Elric can’t die, if he dies so does her chance at a normal life, and she can’t give up, not yet.

So when the man has Edward pinned and is about to land the final blow, she does what Father told her never to do, and she reveals herself.

She knocks the man aside, piercing his shoulder with her knives for fingers, and puts herself in-between them. “Sorry, honey. This one’s mine.”

The man looks at her, sunglasses gone, and Lust goes cold. This was a mistake, the worst mistake, she knows this man – how can she know him, she doesn’t remember anyone but the man who made her, how is this happening –

Laila?” another voice asks, one she recognizes, one she wishes she didn’t, and she marvels at how completely and quickly this has all spun out of hand, at how large of a misstep this was.

Her heart is beating too fast in her chest, and a cold sweat has broken out all over her body. She feels faint and like fire is eating her up all at once. Images are coming at her too fast, broken memories of a life she didn’t live, and she nearly collapses at the overwhelming amount of information pouring into her.

She turns her head, and he looks different than the boy from Laila’s memories – but of course he does, those memories she has are a decade old, of a little boy and now he’s a man. Oh, but his face – Ishvala have mercy if she ever discovers who put those burn scars on her brother’s face, because she will not.

No, she corrects herself harshly. He is not her brother. She is not his sister.

 “Laila is dead,” she answers, and knows it’s a mistake as soon as she says it. Aviv takes a trembling step towards her, but Edward throws out his arm, stopping him from getting any closer. Good.

The man she has pinned to the ground, the man who spoke at her wedding, who made fun of her singing, who walked with her to the market so she wouldn’t be lonely, who kissed her forehead and threatened to steal her for himself – he looks at her and whispers, “Aietaqadat 'anah fashal.”

He did fail!” she says in Ishvalan, and she hates herself for reacting, for the sweep of relief she feels at being able to speak her language. She never had a wedding, never went to any market. She is Lust, a homunculus, a monster, and she mustn’t forget. “Do I look like a person to you? I am – a thing, a mistake, an abomination.” She retracts her fingers, but her brother-in-law (not her brother-in-law, she doesn’t have one) doesn’t move. “I am not her – I may have her face, I may remember the things that Laila remembered, but I am not her. Laila is dead.”

You are my sister,” Aviv insists, and Lust remembers being on the cusp of thirteen when her brother was placed in her arms, when her mother touched her hair, so different from everyone else’s, and told her to name the new addition to their family.

She takes a step away, and she hasn’t felt fear in a long time. She feels it now. “Laila was your half-sister.” She was the product of a passing Amestrian man, one who’d found her mother beautiful enough to fuck but not marry, and they all knew. They looked at her, and her dark hair, and knew she didn’t belong. She has memories of pain assaulting her, of not belonging, of hiding her dark Amestrian hair under a scarf, of trying too hard to be something she wasn’t.

Maybe she was never meant to belong. Maybe becoming a monster was inevitable.

She was my sister, you are my sister,” he repeats, and Lust can’t do this right now, refuses to deal with this. The onslaught of memories is threatening to overwhelm her and leave her defenseless, and she won’t allow it. Not now, not ever.

She looks at Elric, and he has no reason to listen, very rarely listens to anyone at all, but she still says, “Don’t – don’t kill him. Don’t let him kill you either.”

He nods, eyes darting between them, “Anaa lin.”

What the fuck, since when does the kid speak Ishvalan – it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is getting out of here and away from these people who look at her and see the woman she was supposed to be before she loses control and starts to believe them.

~

As soon as the woman is gone Edward relaxes his grip on Aviv, takes a deep breath, and says, “I’m going after her.”

Aviv means to stop him, reaches out a hand to do so, but he only touches air. Edward is long gone, and maybe he should chase after him, but he knows it’s a fool’s errand. Ed will do precisely what he wants to do, regardless of anyone else’s opinions, and nothing else. 

“Saif,” he says, stepping toward the man who had attacked one of his dearest friends and dropping to his knees, “You are bleeding.”

Don’t call me that,” he says harshly, scrambling back. Aviv catches his wrist, and Saif’s whole body twitches, like his first instinct is to attack and he’s holding it back, like no one has touched him in a long time. “I am Nameless.”

By who’s decree?” Aviv retorts. He presses his hands to the wounds, and tries not to vomit at the warm slickness of blood. “They murdered our holy leaders first, there is no one left to declare you an outcast. You are Saif, my brother-in-law. Ishvala above,” he curses, and his voice breaks. He leans his head against Saif’s shoulder, and the man is taut enough to snap but he doesn’t make any move to push him away. “I thought you were dead. I thought – you, and your brother, and Laila-”

We burned Laila,” Saif whispers. “When – when she died, we burned her, even though my brother begged us not to, even though he refused to attend her funeral, we burned her.”

Farid was beside himself with grief, and we could not wait,” he says, and Saif is still bleeding, he can’t get the bleeding to stop. “If three suns rose without us sending her to Ishvala, he would not recognize her spirit.”

Saif looks up, and it’s still raining and they’re soaked through, but Aviv thinks he might be crying. Saif slips back into Amestrian to say, “Maybe we were too late, and Ishvala didn’t recognize her, and she – she came back as, that, that thing.”

“Or perhaps alchemy is powerful and terrifying and our high priests were right when they told us not to meddle in it,” he retorts. The front of Saif is soaked in blood, and he’s not a doctor, he’s a lawyer. He can’t do anything to fix this. “Come on, get up, you are coming with me and we are getting you help.”

“I’m a wanted mass murderer,” he says, “Also, you’re acting rather calm about all of this.”

“It is the shock,” he says, pulling Saif to his feet, “I will have a mental breakdown later. Also please do not try to kill any more of my friends.”

Saif reaches out a clumsy hand and touches the burns alongside Aviv’s neck. He can’t stop himself from flinching. “None of us were untouched by the war. You were only a child.”

He throws Saif’s arm over his shoulder, and momentarily staggers under his weight before he straightens. “It was a war, Saif. Wars do not care for children.”

Saif’s laugh sounds like broken glass in his throat, and Aviv does his best not to focus on it as he begins the trek home.

When he was picking up Ed, he did not worry. No one would question the Fullmetal Alchemist. But two Ishvalan men? He better stick to back roads and alleys and hope for the best.

~

Edward was prepared to spend the rest of the night tracking the woman down, but it’s easier than that.

He finds her huddled under an awning, arms wrapped around her knees and face turned down. “Are you all right?” he asks in Ishvalan, taking careful steps closer, arms wide so she doesn’t think he’s a threat. Although, based on what he saw back there and what he knows of homunculi, he’s the one who should be worried.

“You sound like you’re from my village,” she answers in Amestrian, head still turned down, “Why?”

He settles down beside her, hoping he doesn’t get stabbed for his trouble. “Aviv and Gabby taught me to speak it. Gabby knows how to do a lot of different accents, but they both taught me his because they thought it would be easier.”

“Oh,” she finally raises her head, and leans back against the crumbling wall. He doesn’t think she’s doing it on purpose, but every movement is sinuous and smooth, and he can’t help but blush. “Have you figured it out yet, or do I have to explain it to you?”

“You’re a homunculus,” he says confidently, “You – you’re an Ishvalan, and Aviv’s sister, and – and you were married to that other guy’s brother. They thought you were dead, but you’re not – you, you’re different.” He goes silent, and he thinks of Shou Tucker, of what he did to his wife, to Nina, to the horrible things he turned them into. “Was your husband an alchemist? Did – was it an experiment gone wrong? Did he do this to you?”

She turns to him and smiles, “I could say yes, and I wouldn’t be lying, but you’re not quite right.” She closes her eyes again, and Ed tries to imagine what she must have looked like before, with dark skin and red eyes. “I am almost what he meant to create, I think. I have the looks, the memories, like a doll brought to life.”

Ed’s mouth goes dry, and for a moment he can’t see, his vision narrowing down to darkness as his head spins. “Brought to life,” he repeats, “was – you – you died, didn’t you?”

“The woman who’s face I wear died. Her husband was an alchemist, and he loved her, and was so incredibly stupid that he believed he had the power of Ishvala, and he tried to bring her back.”

He reaches out, his hand hovering next to her face, but when she doesn’t move to stop him he runs the back of his index finger down her cheek. The rain is cold, but she is warm. She’s warm. “He did it. He brought you back.” It’s impossible, it has to be impossible, because even now he thinks of the circle he and Al used on that fateful day, and it was perfect, if ever there was a circle that should have worked it should have been that one. But it didn’t, so it must be impossible. He needs it to be impossible, because if he and Al could have brought their mother back and they failed he doesn’t know how he can live with himself.

She turns into his hand, eyes open once more. “No. I am – almost. A memory given life, a facsimile of who I was meant to replace.” She looks at him for a long, careful moment, and Ed can’t breathe, thinking of impossible things, of circles he hasn’t allowed himself to picture in years, and he almost misses it when she sighs and says, “A homunculus is born when the product of human transmutation is fed an unfinished Philosopher’s stone.” Oh god, that’s disgusting, almost-people powered by the souls and blood of thousands of real people. “I used to think it was impossible. There are others like me, others borne from desperate, powerful alchemist who thought they could outshine Ishvala, and they all failed. I thought everyone was destined to fail.”

Ed can’t breathe, this is too much, too fast, he feels like he’s dying. “What do you think now?” he croaks.

“I was there when you nearly killed Envy, the homunculus masquerading as a priest. I was there when you saved Nina Tucker. I was there,” she continues carefully, “in the aftermath of you and your brother’s transmutation. I was there when red water was poured on the thing that you meant to replace your mother, and – and I think, maybe, that you didn’t fail.”

“My mom is a homunculus?” he spits, eyes wide, and heart beating so fast he fears it will beat right out of his chest. “I – I turned her into – I made her,” he shudders, and huddles in on himself. He didn’t think he could become any more disgusted with himself, didn’t think he could hate himself more than he already does, but he’s clearly being proven wrong.

She rests her hand on his shoulder, “They call me Lust. We call her Sloth, she calls herself Julia. Because homunculi by our very definition are not the people we were meant to replace, we do not adopt the names of those people. But – I, I don’t think she’s one of us.” She takes his chin and forces him to look at her. He doesn’t realize he’s crying until she wipes his tears away. “I’m telling you this because I want your help, Edward Elric. I know many things of alchemy, and I will tell them to you. I know of a terrible plot to end this country, and I will tell you of that too. I will help you in any way I can, but in return I want your help, in any way you can.” She swallows, and Ed can’t breathe, can’t think. “Homunculi are bodies given shape by red water, and that is all. But Sloth – she remembers you, she almost had a body when we found her, she – she has memories and emotions and they’re all twisted up inside of her, but they’re there in her in a way they aren’t for the rest of us.”

Lust smiles at him, and Ed thinks she looks like she wants to cry, but can’t. “You and your brother didn’t fail. Sloth has Trisha Elric’s soul, which means she is Trisha Elric. The rest of us don’t have souls, we’re just empty shells. Edward – I will help you, because you are the only person who can help me. I want a soul too. I want to be Laila, I want to be a person, like Sloth, like you. You’ve done it before. Now I’m asking you to do it again.”

~

Alphonse has so many questions.

“The bleeding isn’t stopping,” he says, hands firmly placed against this man’s shoulder, “we need to go to a hospital.” The meal Gabby had lovingly prepared was shoved onto the counter, and the table is now full of bloody bandages.

Aviv pales and Gabby snorts, “Right, here’s an Ishvalan mass murderer, if you could save his life and not kill him for us, that’d be great.”

“I will get Jiddah,” Aviv announces, “She used to be a nurse.”

“Fifty years ago!” Gabby calls out, but Aviv doesn’t answer and heads downstairs. She looks down at – Saif, Al thinks Aviv called him. “She wasn’t actually a nurse, she was a seamstress who gave people arak until they passed out, and then stitched up any parts of them that were obnoxiously bleeding. When they complained of a hangover the next day she kicked them out.”

“Getting drunk and passing out sounds nice,” Saif says, and Alphonse can’t help but worry about how grey he looks. “Aviv’s grandmother died. Who,” his voice slurs, “who’s Jiddah grandmother to?”

Gabby mouth tightens at the corners with concern, even as she keeps her voice light. “Everyone, no one, we don’t keep track, she’s like a hundred years old and smokes cigars so we call her Jiddah.”

Alphonse lifts the bandages just enough to look under them, and another gush of blood washes out. Saif’s not going to make it if they don’t do something. If he doesn’t do something. He looks to Gabby, “I have an idea. You’re not going to like it.”

Her eyes flicker down to his hands, then back up, and never let anyone say that Gabby doesn’t catch on quick. “Al, you have no idea how to do it. You haven’t even tried. You just have some vague directions from a book that isn’t even Xingese in the first place.”

“He’s dead if I don’t try,” he says, and doesn’t look toward the man as he says it. He doesn’t know what will trouble him more – if Saif looks upset at this news, or if he doesn’t. “I can do it. I’m a genius.” There’s another issue here, one they’re not daring to speak aloud.

Ishvalans do not support the practice of alchemy. Aviv is tolerant of it, but he doubts the man on a revenge crusade against them is, doubts he’d want to be saved by it.

He can hear footsteps. They don’t have much time. Gabby’s eyes harden and she goes over and locks the door, briefly laying her head against it when Aviv starts banging on it and yelling. “Okay. Let’s do this. Tell me what to do.”

“Hold him down, don’t let him move,” and that might seem like a comical order, but Gabby is possibly one of the strongest people he’s ever met, to the point where it goes from unlikely to impossible. He’s seen here stop a car with her bare hands. She can hold down a single man.

Saif’s eyes widen when Gabby locks his arms behind his back. He tries to struggle but realizes he can’t move. Good. “Madha tafeal?!

“Saving your life,” Gabby answers grimly, “I’m sorry. It’s the only way.”  

Alphonse takes a deep breath. It’s – it’s about energies, about allowing the energy to heal, it’s a little like soul alchemy in that he doesn’t need to be a doctor to do this, doesn’t need to have an intricate understanding of anatomy. He does have an intricate understanding of anatomy, but it’s not going to help him here.

He knows where Amestrian’s energy comes from, and he doesn’t think it’s meant to heal. So – he needs a source for his alchemical energy that isn’t tainted, that isn’t the souls of millions of dead from a world that isn’t their own.

Al only has one energy source like that, one thing that he can use to heal since he doesn’t understand what Xingese texts mean when they talk about the flow of energies beneath the earth.

His own soul.

“This is going to suck,” he says, and before Gabby has a chance to question him he takes his hands, soaked as they are in Saif’s blood, and uses that blood to sketch out two matching five point circles. “I’m really sorry if this kills us,” he says to Saif, then then presses a hand to each circle and activates them.

It hurts, and for one moment he forgets to focus and marvels at the fact he’s feeling pain. He hasn’t felt anything in so long that even pain seems like a relief. Then he remembers that a life hangs in the balance, and he uses some of his own energy – just the smallest, tiniest bit – and siphons it into Saif, lets the man’s soul guide that energy to where it’s needed, and it’s not perfect, but – he thinks it’ll be enough.

He comes back to himself, stumbling away. Gabby is looking at him in awe, while Saif stares at him in fear. That’s fine, because neither of them are dead. Where before Saif had five deep puncture wounds, he now has five shiny scars.

The door finally bursts open with a fizzle of alchemical energy, and Edward steps through. His brother takes in the scene before him with narrowed eyes. “Alphonse,” he says, and there’s something terrible in his voice, something that Al thinks doesn’t just have to do with him, “what did you do?”

Aviv hesitantly steps inside his own home, eyes flickering to Saif and relaxing when he sees he’s still alive.

Jiddah unscrews the bottle of arak and takes a long swig before setting it on the counter, says, “I believe you will be needing this,” and walks back out the door.

It’s so nice to know that at least someone has some common sense. Al only wishes that someone was him.

~

Lust spends a long time in that alley. She tells Ed as much as she can about the plot to turn Amestris into a philosopher’s stone, about how red water corrupts a person, about anything he asks. He doesn’t stay long, only long enough to get the basics, and then he’s off to his brother. They make quick plans to meet the next morning at the market, and then he’s off.

But Lust doesn’t leave. The flashes of Laila’s life are getting stronger, but they’re not enough. She has bleed through of all her negative emotions, but none of her positive ones. She feels the pain Laila felt at her half-Ishvalan status and her terror when she began to sicken and die. But she doesn’t feel any of her love for her brother, the first time Farid brought her hair to his lips and called her beautiful means nothing to her.

Before, she had only wanted to be human, to be a person, and had no interest in being the woman she was meant to replace. Now, however –

Her humanity is so close to the surface, so close she can almost taste it. Farid began the work, and was so, so close. But now she needs Edward to complete it.

She is not Laila. But she wants to be.

~

Al doesn’t always agree with the decisions his brother makes, doesn’t like the time they spend apart or that they have to pretend not to know each other whenever they’re walking the streets of Central, sometimes he thinks that maybe Nina is right and Ed takes it all too far. He doesn’t say anything though, because he knows why Ed does it, knows its fueled by the things he saw when the Gate split him open and tore him apart, knows that all these things let his brother sleep that much easier, and so he does them.

This isn’t like those times. The two of them are at the train station, sitting on a bench under a crappy awning that gives them at least some protection from the pounding rain. Ed hadn’t even waited for an explanation before grabbing Alphonse and booking it out of Gabby and Aviv’s apartment to the train station. He’s pale and shaking, and he alternates between staring at him too long and seemingly being unable to bear looking at him at all.

“Brother,” he tries, not for the first time, “What’s going on? Where am I going? Did one of the higher ups say something to you? Should I be worried?”

Ed crosses his arms and doesn’t look at him, foot tapping anxiously against the pavement. Al lays his hand on Ed’s knee, stilling it, and can’t help but be worried by the violent flinch that accompanies the action. Ed hunches in on himself, and for a moment Al thinks he’s going to be sick. Then he takes a long, shaky breath and uncurls until he’s sitting almost straight. “Sorry,” he whispers.

He’s properly frightened now. He hasn’t seen Ed act like this since – since – well, since he came back from the Gate. He slides from the bench onto his knees so they’re almost the same height, and he’s not above begging. When it comes to his brother, he’s not above anything. “Please, Brother.” Ed still won’t look at him, head tilted up. “You’re scaring me.”

That gets a reaction, at least, a shudder going through his body, and Ed’s hands twist into fists. He licks his lips and says, finally, “I – I thought that I knew all the worst things people were capable of, I thought I knew what horrors I’d committed, and I’d – not made peace, how the hell could I make peace with what I did, but I accepted it. I thought I knew what kind of man I was, what kind of monster I was, and – and I was wrong.”

Ed presses his palms to his eyes, and Al can’t help but stare at him. “I don’t understand,” he says finally. “But you didn’t do any of it alone – I was there every step of the way,” he thought they’d gotten passed this, but clearly he was wrong. “We performed that transmutation together, I did half the calculations and half the work and we did it all together. Whatever you’re feeling, whatever blame you’re taking on – half of it is mine too.”

Ed throws his arms around him, and Al can’t feel it, not really, but he hugs back. “I know,” he whispers, “I know. But – let me do this, let me take care of this. Please.”

“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is,” he says plaintively, “Brother, what’s going on?”

He rubs his arm over his eyes, “I’m sending you to Rush Valley to stay with Winry. Bring her with you to Dublith,” Al blanches, because Dublith is where Teacher is, and if she sees him she’ll know what he did and then she’ll kill him. “There’s a homunculus there, his name is Greed. He hates Father, and he once helped Lust, so we can probably get him to help us too. Find him, and bring him back. Don’t let Winry follow you if you can help it.”

“If you think I can stop Winry from doing anything she wants to do, all those wrenches to the head must be affecting your memory,” Al answers, mind spinning. “I don’t understand half of what you just said.”

Ed pulls out an envelope and shoves it into Al’s hands, “Here, this will explain, just the basics, just enough. I used our code, don’t worry.” Someday an alchemist is going to find the travel logs of the Elric Brothers, and figure out that hidden inside was the type of advanced alchemical research to make a board of professors weep. “Don’t read it until you’re on the train, and please don’t hate me when you read it. You’re going to be angry, really angry, and that’s – fine. I’m okay with that. But don’t hate me.”

He looks younger than he has in a long time, and Al doesn’t know what’s in the letter, what could make his brother this upset and jumpy, but he knows one thing, a single truth that is more immutable to him than any other. “Brother, I could never hate you.”

His brother finally meets his gaze and gives him a pained half-smile that slowly eases into a full one.

~

Gabby is pacing in her study. Aviv is sleeping soundly in their bed, and Saif is on the couch, mostly healed. A serial killer is in her home, one that tried to kill her brother, regardless of the fact that she doesn’t call him that anymore. One that tried to kill Edward, one of her dearest friends. But he’s Aviv’s brother-in-law, and while she certainly doesn’t think being a state alchemist should warrant a death sentence, she remembers Ishval. She knows what they did, and some of them were reluctant, like her brother, and some of them were eager like Kimbley, but all of them did it. That’s the part that matters.

I will not harm you,” a deep voice says in Ishvalan, and Gabby nearly jumps out of her skin and throws her desk at their guest, which would be a poor way to repay Alphonse for saving him.

I am not worried for myself,” she retorts. “I am worried about the future. I am worried about my boyfriend, and what your presence will do to him.

Saif nods, as if that’s perfectly reasonable, and it is, but somehow that just makes her feel worse. “I will take my leave in the morning.”

“You will not,” she snaps in Amestrian, “Serial killing freeloader or not, you are Aviv’s lawful brother. I am his in all but law, which means you are my brother too. My home is your home, Ishvala knows you here, here is the place where you may leave but you must always return,” she finishes in Ishvalan. She glares, daring him to contradict her, to say they are not of the same house and the same name so that she has an excuse to throw him through her wall.

Instead he smiles at her, the first she’s seen, and offers her a shallow bow, “Shukraan 'ukhti.”

Thank you, Sister.

~

Once he sees Al onto the train, Ed knows what he needs to do.

He wants to go to Gabby and Aviv’s to make sure they’re all right, to ensure that Saif survived the terrifying healing alchemy that Al performed. He wants Gabby to make him hot chocolate and pull a blanket around his shoulders and tell him that everything is going to be okay.

He wants to go to Roy’s house and curl up on his couch and listen to Roy’s drunken alchemy ramblings, and let him light his fireplace with an unnecessarily flashy snap so the warmth of the flames and Roy’s voice lull him to sleep.

He wants to wake up Nina and hold her tight, wants to feel her arms strong around him and listen to her long suffering complaints about kids at school, wants to hear her call him big brother and remind himself of the one thing he managed to do right.

But that’s not what he needs to do. He believes Lust, believes every word she told him. But he has to be sure. He needs to verify whatever information he can, and there’s only place to go for something like that.

The rain has finally let up. With a clap he’s dry, and he takes a deep breath and begins to walk.

It’s so late it’s nearly morning, which means it’s a perfect time to get lost in the crowds of Canal Street.

~

Madame Christmas knows the Fullmetal Alchemist, because everyone does. She knows him from the rumors, and from the rants her boy goes on about him. Those have changed over the years, from the first time Roy sat at her bar and spoke full of fear of the boy he’d found, to now, when he smiles and sips at his scotch and speaks too fondly of things that used to terrify him.

But most of all, she knows him because he’s one of her best paying customers. She’s not above taking the military’s money, and she’d love to know how he explains their little relationship on his expense report, because she’s almost certain there’s no line for “Bribing sex workers for information.”

So she’s not too surprised when he walks into her bar at high time, when most of her girls are busy upstairs and Vanessa’s smile’s getting a little strained trying to balance it all.

She is surprised by his appearance. Nothing’s off or out of place, but the kid looks like he’s been through hell.

“Madame,” he greets, sitting too hard on a stool and leaning his elbow on the counter, “I need some information.”

“You need a drink,” she returns, already in the process of mixing something sweet enough that he won’t spit it up on her. Doesn’t bat an eyelash at the worst bits of humanity, at wounds awful enough that she would have written him off as dead, but he bitches and moans something awful at the burn of a little whiskey.

He scowls, “I don’t drink, Chris.”

He’s one of two people who can get away with calling her that. Riza Hawkeye is the other. “I don’t give a shit, Edward.”

She shoves a syrupy pink drink at him, and tops it off with an umbrella. He almost smiles at that. “I didn’t come to socialize.”

“You’ll get whatever you need,” she says, and moves the drink a couple inches closer. “Later. Drink now.”

He gives her a look of betrayal and dismay – one of her favorites – and takes the drink.

~

Roy trusts that if his mother had heard any rumors of immortal monsters, she would have told him. But it’s also entirely possible that if she did hear of such rumors, she would have dismissed them as impossible and moved on. Which is fair, because that’s what he would have done before hearing Ed’s report about Liore.

Which is why he’s walking down Canal Street with his collar flipped up, because this is the last place he needs to get recognized. But the only thing more suspicious than going to Canal Street at night is going there during the day, so it’s a necessary evil.

He steps into his mother’s establishment, preparing himself for Vanessa to fling herself at him and tug at his hair and pinch his cheeks.

What he’s not prepared for is for Edward to be there, coat flung off so he’s a dangerous combination of golden skin and hair and eyes against sensual black leather. His cheeks are flushed, and his muscles shift with his every erratic, drunken movement.

Every inappropriate thought Roy has ever had about Edward, every one he’s ruthlessly squashed down, comes rushing to the fore. “Ed?”

Edward and his mother turn to the sound of his voice. His mother starts cackling, and Ed grins at him, slow and wide, and for a moment his heart forgets to beat. “Hey,” he says, turning in his seat, and those leather pants cling to him in a way that’s obscene now that he’s seventeen that it just wasn’t when he was twelve. “You come here often?”

He turns on his heal and walks right back out, because he is in no way shape or form drunk enough to handle this right now. He can still hear his mother laughing.

~

When Winry is woken up by a ringing phone in the middle of the night, she just hopes it’s not someone who needs a surgeon. Rush Valley may be bustling with automail mechanics, but skilled surgeons with a comprehensive medical background were a little harder to come by. The triple bypass heart surgery she’d performed last week had been terrifying, mostly because she had done it on a half hour’s notice and she hadn’t slept in twenty hours before that in an attempt to fulfill a rush order for a hand repair.

“Winry Rockbell,” she answers, cutting herself off halfway with a yawn.

“Hey,” says a familiar, slurred voice done the line.

She snaps instantly awake. “Edward? Where are you? Are you hurt? Where’s Alphonse?”

“I’m fine,” he says, voice clearing a little, “I’m at a bar, Chris kept giving me drinks because she’s a psychopath. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You always scare me,” she grumbles, but leans against the wall, the adrenaline spike leaving her even more tired, “What’s up?”

“Al’s on a train on his way to you. He should arrive at like – like ten in the morning, if there aren’t any delays. Can you be there to meet him?”

She blinks. On one hand, she’s overjoyed to have Al back, she’s missed him. On the other, she’s incredibly confused. “Sure. Did you guys figure everything out? I thought this was going to take a lot longer.”

“Something happened,” he says, and he sounds almost sober now. “Al’s going to be upset, he’ll tell you everything. You’re both safe, you don’t have to worry about that. But I – I don’t want Al in Central right now.”

“You’re going to do something stupid and you don’t want Al to get caught in the crossfire,” she says, anger simmering. “Edward, what the hell? You and Al are better together, I thought you knew that.”

“I do. But trust me, what I’m asking him to do isn’t safe either. So – take care of him for me. And make sure he takes care of you.” Winry’s about start cursing Ed out on principle when he adds, “I have to go now and track down Roy, he saw me at the bar and then he just left. For no reason!”

“Unbelievable,” she says, but before she can explain all the situations that word applies to, Ed hangs up on her.

When she sees him next she’s going to hug him and then she’s going to strangle him. Not necessarily in that order.

~

The weak pale grey rays of sun are just starting to peek over the horizon when Ed breaks into Roy’s home with a clap of alchemy. He looks at the couch, the soft inviting couch, and he only has a few hours before he has to go meet Lust. It’s a good couch, but he knows this house has something better.

So instead he goes up the stairs, taking them two at a time until he reaches Roy’s bedroom. He kicks the door open on instinct, and Roy is sitting up in bed with his glove on poised to snap, still blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Relax it’s me,” he says, pulling off his boots.

Roy slumps and covers his face with his hand. Drama queen. “Edward, you gave me a heart attack – where’s your jacket?”

He looks down, and only now realizes that he’s missing his signature red coat. “Must have left it at Chris’s,” he shrugs, and unzips his pants. Roy makes a sound like might be dying, but Ed has had the longest night of his life and he doesn’t have time for Roy’s existential crisis right now. “What were you doing there anyway?”

“Visiting my mother,” he answers, eyes flickering between Ed and the ceiling, “Edward, what are you doing?”

“Holy shit, Chris is your mom?” That’s explains so much. He peels off his tank top and tugs the tie out his hair, shaking it out. He’s standing there in nothing but his boxers with his hair loose, and maybe he’d be embarrassed about the automail except he’s still pretty drunk and besides, Roy knows the worst of him, knows the terrible things he’s done. Roy knows what he is, and he doubts some dismemberment will throw him now.

Roy is staring at him, dark eyes wide. He licks his lips, “Edward. What are you doing?”

“I trust you, and I’m tired,” he says, and Roy’s whole face softens, “Now shove over.”

He lifts the covers and rolls under, shifting until he’s lying on Roy’s chest and he’s tangled their legs together. Roy lays there tense for a moment more before giving in, relaxing into it and reaching out a hand to run it through his hair, gently working out the knots as he goes.

Ed leans into the touch, and gives a long, contented sigh. “This is very strange,” Roy says, but he sounds fond and not angry, so Ed doesn’t worry about it.

You’re very strange,” he retorts. He can feel Roy’s chest shaking with laughter as he finally drifts off to sleep.

~

Ed wakes up without a hangover, thank god, but is nearly late for meeting Lust anyway thanks to the amount of time he spends creepily watching Roy sleep. He rushes out of there and books it to the market, and they never said where in the market they were meeting, but he figure she’s been following him around for years, so she’ll find him.

He’s proven right when a light hand touches his back while he’s looking over a stand full of perfectly symmetrical green apples.

“Saif is fine, if you were wondering,” Ed says, turning around. He hasn’t heard anything to the contrary, and if something had gone wrong, he would have heard about it.

Lust is in civilian clothes, nothing like her long black dress and terrifying boots. Like this, she appears to be nothing more than an exceptionally pretty young woman. Ed is struck with the realization that Lust looks only a handful of years older than him, that she died young and when she came back she stayed that way. “Has my mom aged?” he asks, and it’s such a strange question that for a moment he wonders if he’s not still sleeping and this is all just a nightmare.

She sighs and tucks her hand into the crook of his arm. He doesn’t realize how tall he’s gotten until he realizes their heads are level. Then again, her lack of heels doesn’t hurt. They’re not the only couple walking the streets in the early morning, married couples looking over cuts of meat and young couples lingering over the chocolate stalls. Mothers with their children, and siblings walking together who are clearly at the age where they’re allowed to go places without their parents only if they go together.

It’s been a terrifying, life changing past twelve hours. It’s good to see the world keeps going on as it always does.

“No. We don’t age, and maybe she would have, if we hadn’t interfered. Maybe she would have a normal mortal body, although – I don’t know. Making a body from scratch is difficult, Edward. I doubt she ever would have been a normal human.”

He wants to ask more questions, wants to know everything, but – he has a duty. Alchemist, be thou for the people. Saving the world has to come before his personal desires. It has to, otherwise he’s not fit to call himself an alchemist.

“So this Father character,” he says, “he’s planning to turn Amestris into a philosopher’s stone, just like he and Hohenheim did to Xerxes.”

“Van Hohenheim did not know the horror he was to unleash,” he can feel the weight of Lust’s gaze on him, “He was trying to bring his son back to life.”

“Oh good, my dad committed genocide on accident, that’s comforting,” he scowls, “So that’s Envy, right? My brother?”

“Envy is not your brother. He is the least human among us, and the first we must kill,” she says sharply.

There’s a group of men giving Lust filthy looks as they walk past, and Ed tugs her against him and wraps his arm around her waist. “You seem surprisingly willing to kill the only people you’ve known for over a decade.”

She rolls her eyes at his actions, but allows it. “Sloth is Trisha, and we will save her. Greed defected a long time ago, and helped me through my own red stone withdrawals. We will not harm him. The others must die – they are not people, and they do not know mercy, not even the shape of it.” She hesitates, but continues, “Envy is the worst of us, I think, because he was created from the remains of a baby. Babies turned into homunculi – they never have anything to draw on but their own hate, no memories to recover that might teach them differently.”

“And you?” he asks, and turns enough that he can see her out of the corner of his eye.

She pauses and says, “I remember what she remembered. I remember having feelings, falling in love, caring for my brother. But – they are not my memories. I am a body and a brain and that is not what people are made of.” She continues walking, “When they attack, they will attack as one, so we must kill who we can separately. This means, of course, that we must save your mother first.”

“Saving Amestris is more important,” he argues, even though he wants nothing more than to see her, to help her, the thing that Lust seems to think is his mother.

“Saving your mother is the first step in saving Amestris. Without her, Father will be weakened. Without her protection, so will the others.” She squeezes his waist, “I told you I would help you, Edward Elric. You swore to fix me, and you are a man of your word. So, I will help you save Sloth.”

Ed thinks maybe he loves her a little bit. “How difficult is getting clean of the red water?”

“If Greed hadn’t been there to stop me, I would have killed myself just to get the pain to stop,” she says, “but cleansing her will be the easy part. Last I talked to her, she wanted to skin you and your brother alive and then set you on fire. So that may be the more pressing of our concerns.”

“Great,” he says faintly, and he’s passed the point where he can even be surprised or upset by anything. It’s probably not very healthy.

Lust actually laughs at that, so at least one them is enjoying this.

~

Roy wakes up to an empty bed, to a sense of loss without having Edward in his arms even though he’s never woken up that way before. He doesn’t know what last night meant, if it meant anything at all, or if Edward was just drunk and didn’t want to sleep on his couch. He thinks it meant something. He hopes it did, at least.

He rolls out of bed, and on his bedside table is a note.

Meet me at the Hughes’s at six. Big news.

Then a doodle of a heart.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Chapter Text

“Al! Alphonse, over here!” Winry waves her hands at the train station platform, trying to get her friend’s attention. He turns to her, and she falters. It’s hard for a suit of armor to look devastated, but he does. She doesn’t know what she was expecting, exactly, but the stiff, tense shouldered walk over to her makes it think it’s worse than anything she was imagining. People are moving out of his way as he walks to her, giving him fearful glances, which is strange. Al always looks scary, but people are rarely scared. He finally makes it over to her, and she reaches for his hand, grabbing one of his massive ones between her own. He’s clenched both of them into fists. “What’s wrong? Is Ed okay?” That’s a stupid question, because if Ed wasn’t okay, Al wouldn’t be here.

He pushes his other fist in front of her face, and there’s a crumpled letter there. She reaches for it, and it takes a bit of tugging to get it away from him. She smooths it out, and instantly recognizes Ed’s handwriting. It’s in their code, which is irritating, but she’d penned enough letters for Al to Ed before he’d gotten used to his fingers that she can read it, if slowly.

They stand there in silence for several long minutes as she reads, forcing people to move around them, but everyone is too cowed by Al’s presence to tell them to leave. She’s crying by the time she finishes, and she looks up at him, eyes wide. “Is – so – she’s really…?”

“Yes,” Al says, and his voice is brimming with all the tears he can’t shed. “I have to go to Dublith, I’m going to get on the next train. I just didn’t want to leave without telling you–”

“I’m coming with you, are you crazy?” she asks, “You’re not doing this alone.”

“It’s dangerous,” he says quietly, “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

She glares, “Life is dangerous, Alphonse. Get over it. I’m coming with you.”

Winry grabs his apron and tugs, intent on having him follow her home. After a moment of stubbornness, he relents, and allows her to drag him through the train station. She has a lot of work lined up, she’ll have to find other mechanics to handle her clients when she’s gone. The loss of custom is going to suck, but with any luck she’ll get it handled with a few calls, and they can be in Dublith by nightfall.

Plus, she’s kind of worried about Rush Valley losing access to one of its only actual doctors, but it’s unavoidable.

Ed and Al only ever managed to get in more trouble when she’s not there to pull them out of it.

~

Aviv wakes up slowly, the sun shining through the window and onto his face. That’s strange, because usually he’s left for the office by the time the sun’s up. Then he remembers it’s Saturday, and curls more into his bed, sighing. He reaches out a hand for Gabby, intent on pulling her closer and enjoying a rare lazy morning. The space beside him is empty and cold, and he’s disappointed, but not surprised. She gets up early every morning to work on her translations, even on the weekends. She gets paid by the line translated, not how many hours she works, so he can rarely get her to take a break.

He pushes himself up, idly wondering what he should make for breakfast, and if she’s already made coffee, when he gets a good look at his hands. Is that dirt under his fingernails? When would that have happened –

All at once the events of yesterday come rushing back. It’s not dirt, it’s blood. Saif’s blood.

He’s runs from their bedroom, heart pounding, not sure what exactly he’s afraid of, but knowing he is afraid. “Gabby! GABBY!”

Aviv grabs the edge of the door frame, looking into the open living room and kitchen. Gabby is at the stove, midway through cooking a large pot of oatmeal. She turns to face him, frowning, “What? Is something wrong?”

Saif is sitting on the couch, wearing Aviv’s clothes since his were covered in blood, and looking through a large stack of papers, his eyebrows pulled together as he concentrates. It’s the passages from an ancient Ishvalan monk’s personal journal that Gabby has been translating. As a monk himself, Saif is one of the few people left who was taught the ancient holy scripture by the masters. He’s not surprised at all that Gabby has roped him into double checking her translations. Aviv looks up, and his mouth quirks up the corners. “It seems you have grown up,” he says in Ishvalan.

Gabby snorts, and Aviv has no idea what he’s talking about until he realizes he’s standing there completely naked. “Ishvala above!” he curses, and hurries back to their room to find a pair of pants.

Saif and Gabby’s laughter follows him down the hall. He can’t help but let a smile tug at the corner of his lips.

~

Ed is conflicted about where to go after he parts ways with Lust. His head is buzzing with information, and what he wants to do is go somewhere to have a panic attack, or at least think things through.

There’s no time for that now. First things first - he should really go get his coat. But he left his it with Chris, and he tries to avoid going to Canal Street during the day. It’s only asking for trouble, and he has quite enough of that already. But he’ll be at Hughes’s at night, so unless he wants to wait until tomorrow night to go grab it, he might as well head over there now.

Oh well. If the rumor mill decides he’s picked up a fondness for drug trafficking, they might at least talk a little bit less about how he’s supposedly spreading his legs for his commanding officer. He isn’t particularly bothered by those rumors, but Roy gets a pinched look around his eyes whenever they come up.

It’s a quick trip, what with him being one of the few people interested in going there in the light of day. Chris’s place is open, but quiet. Most of the girls are still asleep, resting from a long night of work. Vanessa is there, with head in the accounts book. She’s not made up like she is for the night crowd, no heavy make-up or short, tight dress. Her hair is pulled up, and she’s in jeans and a tank top, and –

He laughs out loud, and her head jerks up, then she grins. “Do you like it?” she asks, stepping out from behind the bar to twirl. She’s wearing his red coat, and it flares up around her. It’s almost comical on her, too big around the shoulders, and she has lots of space around her waist.

“Perfect,” he says, “it suits you.”

“I suppose you’ll be wanting it back,” she shrugs it off, holding it out to him. Then her eyes narrow, “You look like crap. Didn’t the Madame only give you two drinks?”

He had transmuted his tank top into a long sleeve shirt this morning, but the material had become so thin in response it almost seemed pointless. With a clap he’s back in his classic tank, and he gratefully pulls his coat back on. “It was closer to twelve, but it wasn’t her fault. I’ve just had a – weird couple of days.”

Vanessa hums, leaning over the bar to grab and tug on a dark sweater that he’s almost certain he left here on accident a couple of months ago. He doesn’t understand her obsession with stealing his clothes. “Want breakfast? I can probably manage to cook us something without setting the house on fire.”

“It’s past noon,” he points out, even though he hasn’t eaten yet either, now that he thinks about it. “I should probably get going. I’ve got a busy day.”

He starts to walk away, but Vanessa reaches out and grabs his wrist in a vice like grip. He’s thankful it’s the automail one, otherwise it probably would have hurt. “That wasn’t a request. You look like shit, and if anything happens to you, the Madame will throw a fit. Now come on. I’ll make coffee.”

“So pushy,” he grumbles, but doesn’t fight her. He’s on the fence about her cooking ability, but she makes great coffee. “Hey, did you know that Chris is Roy’s mom?”

“You didn’t?” she asks, trying to sound appalled but not doing nearly a good enough job to hide her delight. “Oh, have I got some stories for you.”

What’s left of his reluctance dissolves away. For the promise of embarrassing stories about Roy, and coffee, and not having to think for just a little bit, he can put everything else off. It’s probably not the most responsible decision, but he feels like he’ll drowned if he doesn’t stop and catch his breath.

“Okay,” he says, and follows her through the double swinging doors and into the kitchen.

~

When Maes answers the door and finds Roy on the other side, he’s immediately concerned. “Did something happen? Is everything okay?”

“I don’t know,” he says blankly, “Ed told me to be here at six. Is he not here?”

That’s not comforting at all. “No,” he sighs, “but I guess he’ll show up. Want to join us for dinner? Gracia always makes too much for just the four of us.”

“I can head back home, if it’s too much trouble. You can just ring me when Ed shows up,” he says.

Maes shakes his head, and steps aside to gesture Roy inside. “No, stay, I insist. Besides, if Ed has decided we need a random meeting in the middle of the night, then it’s probably important enough for us to wait around for him. I think Nina had some alchemy questions for you anyway.”

“Nina’s understanding of alchemy outstripped mine a couple of years ago,” he says dryly, “but I appreciate her efforts to make me feel as if I’m not completely useless.”

His daughters are delighted with their godfather’s unexpected appearance. Elysia insists on sitting in his lap, and Nina pulls him into a conversation of elemental symbolism that outstrips Maes’s limited understanding of alchemy about thirty seconds in. Halfway through their plates, they both abandon eating, and instead are arguing about the correct way to balance a circle. Elysia slips off Roy’s lap, darts into the living room, then comes back holing fistful of crayons in one hand and a bunch of paper in the other. “Drawing helps,” she says, dropping the items onto the table in front of them.

“Thanks, Elysia,” they say in unison, then each of them start drawing out their circles. Elysia has decided that she doesn’t want to get in the middle of that, and climbs onto Maes’s lap instead.

He shares an amused look with Gracia. “They always get like this,” she says, absently trying to get Elysia to eat her own portion of carrots. Maes has no idea why she keeps making them, considering she dislikes them so much.

He means to respond, but there’s the sound of their front door opening and shutting, and then uneven footsteps.

“BIG BROTHER!” Elysia screeches. She scrambles off his lap, accidentally kneeing him in the groin in the process.

“Will that boy ever learn to knock?” Roy asks, not looking up from his paper. The intensity of it is ruined since he’s holding a bright pink crayon.

Gracia pops a forkful of carrots into her mouth, grimacing as she swallows it. “Don’t be silly. He hardly needs to knock to enter his own home.”

That makes a strange look go over Roy’s face, and Maes just knows he’s thinking about how casually Ed enters his home all the time. If Nina wasn’t sitting right there, he’d absolutely make fun of him for it.

Ed enters the dining room with Elysia on his hip. “Sorry! I was at Chris’s and lost track of time.”

“I see you got your coat back,” Roy says. Maes blinks. Did Ed mean Chris as in Madame Christmas? Roy’s mother?

“Vanessa says hello,” Ed’s grin looks almost feral, “we had a great time talking about you.”

Roy looks like he wants to die, and Gracia has a sudden coughing fit that she’s doing her best to pretend isn’t because she’s choking on her own laughter. She isn’t doing a very good job.

“Brother! Tell Uncle Roy he’s wrong!” Nina commands.

“You’re wrong,” Ed tells Roy instantly, walking to edge of the table so he can peer at both their circles. Nina and Roy have been arguing and scribbling over their circles for the better part of an hour, but Ed spends perhaps half a minute looking them over before he says, “They’re both functional. Roy’s is more elegant. But his attention to balancing the circle means he loses a lot of energy in his reaction. Nina, your circle is more effective, but there’s more room for error because it’s unbalanced. If you used this circle and lost control of it–”

“I wouldn’t,” she says, and Maes hasn’t seen this mixture arrogance and confidence in a kid since Ed was that age. “Balancing circles are a waste of time. If the science is there, all you have to do is not lose control of the energy until the reaction is complete.”

Roy is starring at Nina in horror. He does that a lot. Ed sighs, “You say that, then a reaction gets out of control, and you’re facing an alchemical backlash that leaves you scarred for life if you’re lucky.” Maes heart rate ticks up, because he’s seen the horrible things alchemy does to the people who think they can control it, and fail. He wishes not for the first time that Nina was invested in something less dangerous, something that wouldn’t keep him up at night so often.

But there’s nothing to it. Alchemy is as necessary to Nina as it is to Ed and Al – it’s as necessary as breathing. He won’t suffocate her just because he’s scared. He won’t.

Ed plucks the pink crayon from Roy’s hand and flips Nina’s paper over, sketching out another circle in easy, precise movements. When he’s done, Roy and Nina basically shove him out of the way to get a better look at it.

Ed rolls his eyes and retreats to the other side of the table. He’s still holding Elysia on his hip, and she’d undone his braid and is clumsily trying to rebraid it on her own. It’s not her most successful endeavor. “Hey Gracia, sorry for dropping in,” he says, casually reaching over to claim her carrots for his own.

Gracia gratefully pushes her plate in his direction. Maes thinks about saying for roughly the thousandth time that if she dislikes them so much, then she doesn’t have to make them, then considers she’s about as apt to listen to him this time around she has been all the times before, which means she’ll ignore him completely. So he continues to say nothing.

“Not at all,” she says warmly, “you’re always welcome here, Edward, you know that.”

He grins and flushes. Whatever he might have said to that is interrupted by Nina smacking her head against the table and Roy letting out a loud groan. They’re still hovering above Ed’s circle. “Why didn’t I think of that?” his daughter and best friend exclaim at the same time.

Ed is cackling, and Maes takes a moment to consider what’s more heart attack inducing – Nina growing up to be like Ed, or like Roy.

With any luck, she’ll grow up to be like Hawkeye.

~

Ever the conscientious military wife, Gracia pulls the girls to bed as soon as dinner is over so they can talk alone. Or tries to. They both refuse to settle until Ed tucks them in himself and tells them a bedtime story. It’s actually a code for turning coal to gold, which is why Nina likes it, but on the surface it’s a story of lions and dragons, which is why Elysia likes it.

But, eventually, he’s alone with Roy and Maes in the living room, and there’s nothing for him to do but tell them what happened.

He gets to the part about leaving Scar – or Saif, as he’s actually called – to go chase after a woman with knives for fingers, and Maes’s mouth falls open. “Scar attacked you, and you just left him? Ed! He’s dangerous!”

He blinks, nonplussed. “Not as dangerous as a homunculus.”

“Homunculus?” Roy repeats faintly, “Those aren’t real.” He sounds more resigned than disbelieving, which Edward supposes is only inevitable after spending five years reading his mission reports.

“Don’t worry, Scar won’t be an issue anymore, Gabby will be mad if he goes on a killing spree while he’s staying with her,” he says in his most reasonable tone of voice.

Roy buries his head in his hands. Maes looks like he wants to tear his hair out. “Scar is with Catherine? Why? Alex will murder me if anything happens to his little sister!”

Ed raises an eyebrow. “Don’t call her that, she doesn’t like it. Besides, she’s more than capable of defending herself, even with without alchemy.”

“Scar’s killed several dozen armed men,” Roy says, although it comes out kind of muffled since he still has his face in his hands.

If it was Gabby against several dozen armed men, his money would still be on Gabby.

“Whatever,” he says, “Scar is Aviv’s brother in law, so I’m sure he’ll behave.”

“What?” Roy and Maes say in unison. It’s so nice to witness other people go through this emotional rollercoaster, rather than going through it himself.

“Scar’s brother married Laila. Laila was Aviv’s older sister. Laila died, and Scar’s brother used her remains to create the homunculus Lust. Make sense?” he tacks on, just to watch the way their shoulders slump in defeat.

They stay up late in the night going over everything, and Ed feels like he’s told the story a hundred times by the end of the night. He tells them almost everything.

He doesn’t mention anything about Sloth, about his mother.

Out of everything he’s telling them, it’s the most insane, the most unbelievable. The most terrifying. He’ll save it, for when he has something more than hope.

It’s nearing three in the morning by the time they’re done, and when he and Roy step outside he’s hit by the silence. Maes’s neighborhood is quiet, and there’s nothing to disturb it, just the soft sound of their breathing in the night.

“Can I take you somewhere?” Roy asks, “I’m hoping you didn’t plan to walk.”

He risks a glance over, and it’s unfortunate how good Roy looks in moonlight. “Yeah, can you take me to the dorms?”

His shoulders drop an inch, and Ed has to bite his lip not to laugh at him. “Of course, Edward.”

“Give me like five minutes to pack up my shit,” he adds, “then we can go back to yours.”

Ed hopes Roy has a better poker face around people he doesn’t trust. He supposes he must, otherwise he’d be dead by now. “Oh?”

“Your bed is comfier than the dorms,” he says, “besides, we can’t let those rumors of me sleeping my way to the top lapse. They’re almost as useful as the one about me blowing up a mountain out of spite.”

“You did blow up a mountain out of spite,” Roy says wryly, a guiding hand on the small of Ed’s back as he walks them to his car. Ed hardly needs it, but he’s not about to pull away either.

“I did, didn’t I? It’s so convenient when the rumors we’re trying to spread and the truth are the same thing.”

This time, he can’t stop himself from laughing when Roy’s whole face turns red in the weak light of the moon.

~

The train to Dublith seems to take forever. It’s late, so Al charms a couple thick blankets out of one of the train attendants. Just because he doesn’t sleep doesn’t mean he’s forgotten that other people do. He hands both blankets to Winry, who’s been drooping for the past hour, and her face lights up.

She lifts his arm and bunches one of the blankets up against his side. Then she wraps the remaining blanket around herself and pulls Al’s arm on top of her, so she’s snuggled into his side, but not lying against cold, hard metal, and is asleep almost instantly.

If Al could blush, he would be. He knows Winry is pretty, knows she’s actually what most people would call drop dead gorgeous. Brother doesn’t get it, but Al doesn’t think that counts, since Brother doesn’t even like girls. Al thinks she looks soft, all the gentle curves of her body and her rough mechanic’s hands, her sturdy surgeon’s hands. He wishes he could feel her, feel the warm weight of her body against his, feel her damp breath on his skin on her every exhale.

But he can’t.

So he watches the countryside pass by, and tries to imagine what holding Winry will feel like when he has his real body back.

They arrive just past dawn, and Winry stretches and it sounds like every bone in her spine cracks. “What a nice nap! Should we go find a hotel?”

Al folds the blankets and leaves them on seat, and then picks up her luggage, nudging Winry out of their compartment and onto the platform. “We should go to Teacher.”

“Already?” she asks, frowning. “I thought – well, I thought you would try an avoid her, honestly.”

“I don’t want to lie to her,” he says, “and maybe I could find Greed without confronting her, but – we’re here, and she's my teacher, I should go see her. On the bright side,” he adds on fatalistically, “she won’t be able to bruise me in the armor. It’s probably for the best that Ed isn’t here.”

Winry’s eyes narrow, “If she tries to hurt you, I’ll hit her with my wrench.”

He laughs, feeling lighter already, “Probably best that you don’t try it, but thanks. You stay here, and I’ll deal with Teacher. If I hurry, I can get there just as Sig opens the shop, before it gets too busy, and I’ll be back in no time.”

~

Roy opens his eyes slowly, squinting against the sunlight pouring into his bedroom. It’s just on this side of too cold, and he huddles deeper into his blankets, eyeing his open window with confusion. He doesn’t usually sleep with the window open.

Then his eyes catch on a single golden hair stuck to his pillow, and yesterday’s events come back to him. All that horrifying information about Scar and homunculi, taking Ed home and offering him the guest bedroom, leaving to get ready for bed as Ed unpacked and settled in. He’d come out of the shower to Ed already asleep in his bed, once again in nothing but his boxers. He wasn’t about to be driven from his own room, so he’d done the only reasonable thing he could, and gotten into bed as well.

Ed has pushed back into his chest, and the automail leg against his has been freezing, but searing warmth of Ed pressed against the front of his body had absolutely made it worth it.

Here he is again, alone after Ed had spent the night, and he allows himself five seconds of being a crazy person and presses his face in the pillow that Ed has slept on, managing to catch the faint scent of his shampoo buried in the fabric.

Then, even though it’s a Saturday, he gets ready for work, puts on his uniform and makes his bed. He didn’t make it to Colonel by thirty by only working the standard nine to five, not matter what his reputation. He goes downstairs and walks into his kitchen, then freezes.

Ed is sitting at his kitchen table, a veritable mountain of toast in front of him. He’s scribbling in a notebook, eyebrows pushed together in concentration. He’s in a too big white button up, one it’s clear he stole from Roy’s closet. It slides off the site to reveal a tanned, scarred shoulder.

Roy wonders if Ed’s torturing him on purpose.

“Is that every piece of bread that was in the cupboard?” he asks wryly, walking over to snag one of the pieces of toast for himself. Ed’s sprinkled cinnamon and sugar onto the buttery top, which Roy would admonish him for, but last time he made a comment about Ed’s diet, he’d responded that eating healthy was for people that didn’t work out three hours a day.

Ed doesn’t look up from his notebook, “I made coffee too, don’t bitch. It’s not like you have anything else edible. Who taught you how to grocery shop? A fasting monk?”

Roy pours himself a cup, giving the milk a suspicious sniff before adding it. Ed drinks his coffee black, but with enough sugar that it’s more of a crime against humanity than an actual drink. “If you’re going to stay here, people will talk.” More than they already do, that is.

“Good. If they’re preoccupied gossiping about me whoring my way to the top, they won’t look into why I’m hanging around Central, considering I’ve done that approximately never in the past five years. We’ll have to come up with some reason to tell people why I’m here, so that they can think it’s a lie and that we’re covering for our illicit affair,” Ed says.

He kind of wants to die. “We can say you’re using my library, that you’ve taken an interest in fire alchemy. If you use some for your next assessment, it’ll at least be semi believable.”

“My next assessment isn’t for another three months, but sure.” He snorts, “You’re lucky that most people are idiotic, and can’t just tell your equations from your array. You really are asking for trouble having it stitched on the back of your gloves for everyone to see, you know.”

Roy has no idea what he’s talking about. He wishes this was an abnormal state of affairs, but when it came to Ed and it’s actually the norm. “What do you mean?”

Ed flips to a new page in his notebook and draws Roy’s circle perfectly. “You’re good, really good, so you only have the most basic array, and you do all the other equations and adjustments in your head. But you still need the basic array that your alchemical equations are based off of in order to get away without needing a new circle for every transmutation. Which that means anyone can figure out your method with a little reverse engineering, Al and I did it once when we bored on the train.”

Equations fill the page, going off of everything from the radius of the circle to the placement of his elements, to their size and their relationship to each other. For the next twenty minutes Roy stands there silently as Ed works his way back through the array, doing fifteen high level mathematical equations just to get a centimeter closer to the truth. He does months’ worth of work in minutes, and there’s little consolation in the fact that the first time the brothers did this it probably took them at least a couple of hours.

By the time he done, he’s drawn a complicated array and a set of equations almost identical to the ones on Riza’s back. “This is pretty much it, right?”

“Right,” Roy says softly. Before, this would have terrified him, to see the lightning intelligence and raw power Ed commanded through intellect alone. But he knows better now, knows that Ed could make far more destructive and powerful circles, and knows that he would never use any of them to hurt people, to gain power, for anything but the purest of reasons.

He has to get to work, and Ed needs to – do whatever it is he’s doing, with the colossal mess he’s uncovered.

But they spend long moment standing there, looking at each other and saying nothing at all. It should feel awkward, and heavy, but it doesn’t. It feels normal, it feels safe even.

This whole thing really is courting disaster, but Roy can’t find it in himself to put a stop to it.

~

Alphonse doesn’t want Winry to get got in the crossfire, doesn’t want her getting hurt trying to defend him, so he’s glad that she agreed to stay in the city proper instead of coming with him. But he almost regrets it as he steps into Curtis Butchers, and is surprised by how much he’s smacked in the face with the sense of home, of belonging. They only spent a few short years here, but they were – happy, for all that that happiness had seemed like a betrayal with their mother dead.

“Curtis Butchers, what can I get for you?” a gruff, suspicious voice asks.

Al spins around so fast he nearly takes out a barrel of sausage. “Sig!”

It’s been nearly a decade, and he’s not a little boy anymore, he’s a giant suit of armor, so there’s no way for Sig to recognize him. But the man’s stoic face goes slack with wonder. “Alphonse?”

And he can’t feel it, not really, but he still pushes past the counter to pick him up in a bear hug anyway. “Sig! I’ve missed you!”

“I’ve missed you too,” he says, but his lopsided grin disappears as he takes a closer look under Al’s helmet. Al sees the exact moment that he figures out that there’s nothing underneath – his whole face closes off, and he says, “You better go talk to Izumi.”

~

Once Ed finishes working out an array that he thinks should at least theoretically manage to contain a homunculus (he’ll have to get Lust to help him test it), even if just temporarily, he throws on his clothes and leaves Roy’s house.

He has approximately a thousand things he could go do, that he should go do, but he finds himself walking in the direction of South Central. Considering the mess he left the last time he was over at Gabby’s, it seems only right to make a cursory appearance. It would be faster to take a cab, but walking will let him clear his head, will give him time to shake the array from his mind and focus on something else.

The walk to Aviv and Gabby’s is a lot longer from Roy’s house than it is from the military dorms, but it ends up being a good thing, because it gives him just enough time to clear his head, to not have alchemical equations his tongue. Gabby’s waiting for him by the time he makes it to their door, as always able to know he’s coming by his uneven stomps as takes the stairs two at a time all the way up to the fifth floor. He really wishes they would let him install an elevator.

“Ed!” she says cheerfully, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him inside, “We were getting worried about you! I called the dorms for you, but they said you weren’t there.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, “sorry about that, I didn’t mean to worry you. I’m not staying in the dorms.”

She gives him a narrow eyed look at that, clearly hearing what he isn’t saying. She dislikes Roy slightly less than some other people, but Ed still avoids bringing him up if he can help it. Luckily, Gabby can usually figure out what he means by all the things he doesn’t say. “It’s okay, we’re just glad you’re all right.”

She shuts the door behind them, and Ed is struck by the bizarre sight of Saif sitting on the kitchen table while Aviv stands between his legs, carefully pressing something to his face. “What are you doing?”

“He cannot stay in our apartment forever,” Aviv says, tilting Saif’s face up towards the light. Ed gets a better look, and realizes he’s applying makeup to Saif’s skin, slowly covering the distinct criss-cross scar over his face. “Luckily, his only identifying features are his clothes and his scar, and we can take care of both.”

“I’m surprised you’re not having Gabby do this,” he says, stepping closer to watch Aviv expertly apply the foundation, until the scar looks like nothing more than slightly raised skin.

He shrugs, “I have more experience covering scars than she does. I always cover mine for important meetings.”

Saif’s eyes narrow at that, and he reaches out and grasps Aviv’s wrist, stilling his movements. He says in Ishvalan, “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Brother. You do not need to hide your scars.”

Aviv's face shifts, caught between fond exasperation and a strange sort of hesitance. Ed shrugs off his jacket and tosses it on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. “I would hide mine if I could. Sometimes it’s not about shame. It’s just about not wanting people to look at you with pity in their eyes.

Saif startles, like he’d forgotten that Ed spoke Ishvalan. His eyes track his automail, and the thick angry scar tissue that peaks out from the neck of his tank top. He nods, “I see.”

“Are you going to try and kill me?” he asks conversationally, absently accepting the mug of hot chocolate Gabby shoves into his hands. The fact that he’s not a kid anymore and doesn’t need to be greeted with chocolate always seems to escape her. “I told my commanding officer that you wouldn’t go on a killing rampage, so it’d be nice if you could, you know, not do that.”

Gabby groans, “You told them? Did you have to?” The fact that she knows everything that gets told to Roy also gets told to Maes is a little creepy, considering he’s never told her that.

“They’ve kept every other secret of mine,” he says dryly, “I’m sure they’ll keep this one too.”

Saif’s eyes narrow, and his mouth presses into a thin line. Aviv put the final touches on the makeup, then steps away. He says, “Trust Ed’s judgement. It’s never led us astray before.

He’s an alchemist of the state,” Saif growls, “That is not one, but two strikes against him.”

Aviv sighs, “He is a dear friend. Were I lost in the desert, I would trust him to carry my name to the highest mountain and speak it to the sun, so that Ishvala might know to welcome me home.”

Saif blinks, nonplussed, and Ed can feel a flush rise high on his cheeks. Ishvalan bodies are ceremoniously burned, so that they can be sent to the sky to Ishvala. Ishvalans who’s bodies are lost must have someone travel to the tallest peak and yell their name to the setting sun, so that Ishvala will know that they were coming and to make room for them in heaven.

There were not many mountains in the desert. It was a long journey, from days to weeks, and to be entrusted to carry someone’s name to Ishvala was to be trusted with their soul, with their eternal afterlife.

It’s not a claim Aviv makes lightly, and the last of Saif’s tension drains from his body. “If he can be trusted to carry your name, then I suppose he can trusted with all else. For you are my brother’s wife’s brother, and as such you are my brother, and we are of the same name.

Oh god, that meant that Saif would trust Ed to carry his name to Ishvala, just on Aviv’s words, and if they didn’t stop talking about name carrying he’s going to spontaneously combust. “So, no serial killing them?”

“For now,” Saif allows, which Ed figures as good as it’s going to get. “There are more important matters at stake, such as that of Laila.”

Gabby and Aviv turn to him, curious and eager. Aviv has a look of bottled desperation that makes Ed uncomfortable only because it looks a little bit too much like what he sees when he looks in the mirror. “Laila is dead. That woman is not Laila.”

“She looks like her,” he argues, “she has my sister’s face, and she knew me, I could tell she knew me!”

Ed rubs a hand over his face, “She is a body made in Laila’s image, and she has many of Laila’s memories, but it’s not the same.”

“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck, Ed,” Gabby says, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the difference?”

“She doesn’t have Laila’s soul,” he stresses.

Aviv rolls his eyes, “What is a soul? It’s not so very important, is it, you got one for an arm. I would give more than my arm to have my sister back.

That’s a question for the ages: what is a soul? While usually he loves getting into philosophical and technical arguments with Aviv, now is not the time. He doesn’t respond in Ishvalan because he doesn’t want to mess up and say the wrong thing, doesn’t want to say anything he doesn’t mean.

“It’s not that simple,” he says, preparing himself to explain just the bare outlines of human transmutation, just enough so they understand what Laila’s husband did, and what it was he created.

~

Winry won’t say this out loud, because it’s kind of mean, but after an hour walking through Dublith, she can’t help but think it’s kind of … boring.

Rush Valley is so busy and bustling and demanding, and Resembool is farm country, there’s always something happening there, planting or harvesting or a whole pasture of cows getting into someone’s corn field. Or a bunch of horses getting loose, and she and Al and Ed getting to go a collect them together, because they were the only ones who weren’t busy with school or the harvest. Ed and AL could have used alchemy, and Winry could have used the sun on shiny metal to trick the horses into going where they wanted them, but – where was the fun in that? Instead they’d borrowed three the Richardson’s mares and spent half the day chasing down the dozen or so escaped horses, laughing and sweat-soaked.

It’s one of her favorite memories. It’s one the last memories she has from when all three of them were whole. Or maybe not whole – her parents were dead by then, Trisha was dead by then. But the three of them were together, and unbroken, and it seemed as if nothing could touch them, as if their happiness would be there in front of them forever, beautiful and unending.

It's a child’s thought. But back then, they were children, so it’s all they had.

Now they’re this – Al stuck in armor, compassionate and warm and forced into a place of coldness, of numbness. Ed twisting himself inside out because no shape feels like it belongs to him anymore, and too afraid to commit to any shape in particular. Then there’s her, and when they were kids she used to be the crybaby, the one who got scared, the one who was afraid of what it meant to be different and smart, who was afraid of what it meant to not be afraid.

Sometimes it’s exhausting being the only one of them with any sort of common sense.

She’s not like them, her burdens aren’t the same, they’re not the kinds of things that torture her. Or maybe she’s just the kind of person who tortures herself with them. She carries the name Rockbell, she has to be the best automail mechanic because that’s what it means to be a Rockbell. But she’s not just a mechanic, she’s a surgeon too, and she’s saved more lives than she’s lost, but – she’s still lost them. She wonders who has more blood on their hands – her, or Ed. His from killing, from defending, and hers from the people she couldn’t save, who she wasn’t smart enough or strong enough or fast enough to save.

It doesn’t matter that she’s just seventeen, that she never attended any sort of official school, that she has no shiny degree to hang on her wall. She’s a doctor. She took the same oaths as every other doctor, the ones that no one forces mechanics to take, and sometimes the weight of it threatens to make her stumble on her way down her path. She has blood on her hands, dead parents, a grandmother who won’t live forever, best friends who threaten to tear themselves apart until there’s nothing left, and nothing to shore her up but her own resolve.

That’s okay. She stole some of it from Ed and Al, after all.

Alchemist, be thou for the people.

Doctor, be thou for the people.

Winry, be thou for the people.

She’ll never be an alchemist, doesn’t want to be one, has better and more interesting things to learn than trying to memorize obscure symbolism to change a chemical state.

She’s going to build an automail heart one day. She doesn’t have the time for stuff like alchemy.

Humanity can’t rely on alchemy. Alchemists die, and so do their talents, and all the circles in the world can’t make someone good at alchemy if they just aren’t.

But mechanics? Can leave behind blueprints. Winry’s in this for the long game. She’s in this for what she’ll leave behind when she’s gone, for the people she’ll never meet and who will be born long after she’s dead who will walk around with her technology inside of them.

It’s driving her crazy to be away from Rush Valley, to just wander around this boring, picture perfect village when she could be building or sketching or any other number of things. But she said she’d wait for Al, so she will. She just hopes she doesn’t go insane from boredom first.

“Are you lost, sugar?” a smooth voice asks, and Winry’s eyes snap upwards. She’s standing in front of a bar, and there’s a man leaning in the doorway, ridiculous vest and sunglasses he doesn’t need, a leer on his lips that she’s tempted to smack off. But his teeth are too sharp unless he files them, and he’s got a dark red tattoo on the back of his hand, one with a snake eating its own tale. She flickers her eyes up the words painted across the front of the bar, and wow, that’s so not subtle, she doesn’t feel bad about this at all. A Devil’s Nest indeed.

Al is going to be furious that she didn’t wait for him, but she’s got the homunculus they’re looking for right in front of her, and she’d be an idiot to walk away from that.

“Nope,” she says, curling her hair around her finger and biting her lower lip. She’s glad she’s wearing a skirt that shows off her legs, but there’s no way for her to tug down her shirt without being obvious. Damn. “What’s a girl got to do to get a drink around here?”

He smiles, almost too quick for her to catch it, before the leer is back in place and he’s leaning over her, doing his best to look down her shirt. “Why, a pretty thing like you? She’s just got to come inside.”

She’s faking, he knows she’s faking, and she knows that he knows that she’s faking, and he knows that she knows that he knows that she’s faking.

There’s a strange, not totally human collection of people inside the bar, and all their eyes are on her as soon as she walks in. She quirks an eyebrow and doesn’t react at all. They haven’t seen strange until they’ve seen some of the livestock Ed has dropped off in Resembool during his time with the military. People should really stop experimenting with chimeras, they never get it right.

Except, looking around, someone clearly has. She’s not an alchemist, but she is a doctor, she knows her biology. And these look like perfect mixes of human and animal, nothing like what Tucker did to his wife and Nina, nothing like what the remains of failed experiments have looked like in the past. But real, true, human chimeras.

This worries her. She hopes it was Greed who made them. Because if there’s an alchemist running around with this type of skill that they don’t know about, then that’s not good.

“What would the pretty lady like?” Greed practically purrs, stepping behind the bar.

Winry smiles, beautiful and empty and says, “Oh I couldn’t possible decide, you’ll have to pick for me. I wouldn’t want to be greedy.”

Someone lets out a bark of laughter, but Winry doesn’t look away to see who it was. There’s that flash of a smile again, almost too quick to see. “Sure thing, sugar. While I do that, why don’t you tell me a story?”

“What kind of story?” she asks, eyeing the multitude of liquors he’s swirling together. She’s already decided she’s going to drink it. She doubts it’s poisoned, if they wanted to kill her they wouldn’t need a drink to do it. If they wanted to kill her, she’d already ne dead.

Al is going to be so mad.

“How about the story of how a pretty girl like you ends up in a place like this,” he leans against the counter, pressing his face too close to hers, “looking for someone like me.”

She refuses to be intimidated, leans in even closer instead of pulling away, until they’re almost touching. “I guess I’ve just got a lust for travel.”

They stay like that, for long, still moments, until Winry’s contemplating kissing him just to get him to do something. But he’s the one who breaks first, throwing back his head and laughing so loudly the who whole pub seems to shake it with it.

“All right, I’ll bite,” he says, “Why are you really here? What does Lust have to do with it?”

He presents her finished to drink to her with a flourish, and she pouts until he sticks a jaunty umbrella on top. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says, and has to resist the urge to wink.

Okay. Maybe Dublith isn’t that boring, as long as you know where to go.

~

For the first time, Alphonse is really glad his brother isn’t with him right now.

He has about to five seconds to worry about Teacher being bedridden before she springs to her feet and throws him out the window. He lets her beat on him until he figures out she’s waiting for him to fight back, and fine, okay, he was prepared to take his punishment gracefully, to let Teacher rage and scream and call him every awful name in the book for not listening to the very first lesson she tried to teach him.

But if this is how she wants to play it, fine, he’s not a kid anymore, he’s barely even human anymore, they can fight if she wants to fight.

He doesn’t have to wait for a mortal body to respond, his moves are instantaneous and smooth, and he’s had plenty of fights not with her, learned too much during his time traveling the country with his brother. But she still maintains the upper hand, older and dying and furious, she can still beat him. Maybe that’s the lesson she was trying to teach, because when she finally flips Alphonse over her shoulder on his back, the sound of his metal body hitting the dirt echoing around them, she pauses. He doesn’t move to get up, her harsh breathing filling the silence between them. He wonders if it’s over, if it’s safe to stand. There’s the sound of vomiting, and he twists his head enough to see her rubbing the blood from her mouth. Sig is hovering anxiously in the doorframe, but he knows better than to interfere, and Al wants to get up and got to her, wants to help her, but he knows better too, so he doesn’t move.

“Your mother or Edward?” she asks, still breathing too fast, voice wet from the blood stuck in her throat.

He doesn’t understand. “What?”

“Did you lose your body trying to resurrect your mother, or Edward?”

“Mom,” he says, then the rest of what she’s said catches up with him, “Brother isn’t dead!”

She freezes, and Al scrambles to his feet, not wanting to have this conversation on the ground. “Excuse me?”

“Brother isn’t dead!” he repeats, “Of course he isn’t, we both performed the transmutation, why would you even think – if Brother were dead, I wouldn’t be here,” and he means that in the literals sense, of course, if Ed hadn’t been there to bind his soul to the armor Al would have been swallowed by the gate. But it’s more than that, because if Edward were dead, Izumi is completely right, he’d violate every law known to man to get him back. But he wouldn’t hold back his own soul, he’d give everything.

Al would trade his life for his brother’s before living without him, would rather have no life at all than a life as the last surviving Elric.

Izumi’s whole body slumps, then she snaps her head up and barks, “Then where is he, Alphonse? You two are never apart!”

He stares at her for a long moment, that lets out a little laugh that filters it way through his armor. “Things have changed, Teacher,” he says. “We’ve changed. It’s not so easy anymore.”

It almost feels blasphemous to call the days they spent here as children easy, grueling alchemy studies and relentless physical training and their dead mother casting a shadow they never seemed to be able to step out of. But it was easier. Simpler.

Kinder.

“Well,” she sighs, and Sig finally steps forward, offering his wife an arm for her to lean on, “you better tell me all about it.”

~

By the time Ed steps out of Aviv and Gabby’s crumbling apartment, the sun’s begun to set. He really hadn’t intended to be there that long, but they couldn’t stop asking questions, and he couldn’t help but answer them.

It doesn’t feel like it did him a lick of good. Saif thinks Lust is some sort of corporeal ghost, Aviv is convinced she’s still his sister, and Gabby would just very much like it if no one else died, please. He sympathizes with Gabby a lot.

He sighs and cranes his neck to the sky, catching the pale edge of the moon over the edge of one of the taller buildings. He misses stars. There are no stars in Central, and he’s been all over, he knows what the night sky looks like from almost every angle of Amestris.

The view from Resembool will always be his favorite, but the stars shine brightest over where Ishval used to be.

There’s a prickling along the back of his shoulders, one he’s felt many times before but could never understand. But he understands it now. “I know you’re there,” he says conversationally, “please don’t tell me you’ve been waiting outside this entire time.”

Lust bleeds out from the shadows, a lot closer than he thought she was. “It is my job to watch you, Edward.”

The thought of Lust standing outside as Ed talked to her brother and brother-in-law – Laila’s brother and brother-in-law – is so sad that he immediately discards it. “They’re still convinced you’re Laila. They want to see you.”

“No,” she says automatically. Ed really doesn’t want one of them looking out of the window or something and see the two of them standing there, so he starts walking, leading the away from the quiet dangerous stillness here to something – less dangerous, louder, easier to get lost in. He leads them towards Canal Street, where no one they catch the eye of will remember what they look like in the morning. “It will only hurt them. I am not the woman Saif welcomed into his family, I am not the sister Aviv grew up with. Seeing her face on me won’t make it any easier on them.”

Both of his eyebrows go to his hairline, “That’s oddly compassionate for a being with no soul, with no sense of compassion.”

She snorts, and doesn’t react when Ed laces their fingers together as they get closer to the seedier parts of Central. Lust is too beautiful for people not to look at, and too powerful for anyone to be any danger to her, but Ed figures his hand in hers will dissuade at least some people from getting too close. “I don’t need to have compassion to know the shape of it, Edward.”

That makes him think of what Gabby said about ducks, and he’s not going to phrase it exactly like that, because Lust wouldn’t understand it if he did. “You know, pretending to be compassionate and actually being compassionate is indistinguishable from an outside perspective.”

“Perhaps,” she says, wary. “What’re you point?”

“Maybe humanity works the same way,” he says, watching her, well aware she could crush the bones of his hand to dust if she wanted to. “Maybe pretending to be human and actually being human isn’t all that different. Because – I’ve met some monstrous humans, okay? And you seem a lot more human than they did, even though you’re not one. Except maybe you are, maybe not just like us, but still one of us. It’s just – pretending to be human, and actually being human, is indistinguishable from an outside of perspective.”

She’s not angry. He thought she might be, but she just looks tired. “You sound like Greed.”

“Well, maybe he’s a smart guy.”

She lets out a sharp laugh, “He is, but we’ll see if you still feel that way when you meet him. What’s your point, Edward? What are you trying to get at here?”

Okay, here’s the part she might really crush his hand for. He really should have used his automail hand to hold hers, it’s at least easier to fix than his flesh one. “I told you I’d help you, and I will. I’ll figure out a way for you to get – well, if not Laila’s soul, a soul, or something close enough to one that you won’t know the difference. But, in the meanwhile, do you, are you, I mean – are you trying to prevent them from getting hurt, or you?”

She stops walking, but his hand is still intact. “Why would you say that?” she asks, and she’s closing herself off, but she’s not running, not fighting, she’s still here, letting him hold her hand in a crowded street.

“Pretending to be human and actually being human in indistinguishable from an outside perspective. So Aviv and Saif aren’t going to care that you’re not like them, that you’re a homunculus. Because even though you don’t have all the memories, don’t have all the feelings that go with them, you know you care. Or you at least know that you should care, and you’re not Laila, but you look like her and talk like her and remember so much of what she remembered, and – and – and if you want to talk to her brother and her husband’s brother, I don’t think they’re the ones that are at the most risk of getting hurt.” He swallows, and she’s looking at him, dark eyes that should be red wide and unmoving. “I just don’t think you should have to wait to be whole before you try and be happy.”

~

Izumi lets her husband fuss over her, drinks the tea he brings and lets him arrange the blankets over her legs. Sitting in bed doesn’t do her much good, not really, but it makes Sig feel better, stops Alphonse from twisting his hands together. So she lets them worry, then she forces Al to sit at the end of her bed, and she listens.

If it were anyone else telling her these things, about any other people, she wouldn’t believe a word.

But it’s Alphonse telling her, and he and Edward who did so many impossible things, and of them and from them are the only people she could believe this about. Her heart is strong. It wasn’t one of the many organs affected by her attempt at human transmutation. But it squeezes painfully in her chest the longer Al talks, and Sig is sitting quietly, knowing that alchemy isn’t a subject he knows enough about, but her husband’s face it getting more thunderous with each passing word.

Human transmutation they’d guessed, but the rest of it – the military, Ed’s rank, bending the laws of alchemy to save an unsavable little girl, homunculi and how they’re born (she killed and buried the thing she made, the thing that wasn’t her son, and she’d spent years wondering if she made the right choice, but now she knows she did – the thing she made didn’t look human, because it wasn’t one) and a plot to end all of Amestris, and the monster who calls himself Father behind it all. When Al tells her of the homunculi named Greed that he needs to find for reasons he won’t get into, only that it will get the homunculi he calls Sloth on their side somehow, she’s almost relieved. That sounds the easiest to accomplish from his lists of impossible tasks, and there has to be a good reason that Ed didn’t come with him, a good reason that Ed sent his precious little brother to do something so uncertain and dangerous alone, but Izumi can’t think of what it would be.

Alphonse is quiet for a long moment, shifting nervously, an odd scraping sound as his metal body rubs together with his every restless movement. Then he squares his shoulders and tells her that Ed remembers everything from the gate, that he carries that knowledge, and she has to press a hand to her mouth to keep from vomiting.

Remembering that she knew it once is enough to give her nightmares, the simple act of having seen it is, and the ghostly imprints that it leaves behind is enough to do alchemy without circles. But to have all that terrible, horrible knowledge, to have more than an after image, sounds unbearable.

“Brother is different now,” Al says, quiet. “Maybe it’s not because of the Gate. I’m different now too, and I don’t remember any of it, maybe we just grew up.”

“You really don’t remember anything?” she asks, putting aside her horror for now. It hasn’t warped Ed too badly, hasn’t crushed him, hasn’t left him vacant and empty. Al would know if it had, Al knows his brother better than anyone, and if Ed had been swallowed by the knowledge of the Gate, he would have noticed.

He shakes his head, “I – I wish I did, I know it’s not nice, I know it’s about the farthest thing from nice that there is. But I still wish I didn’t need circles, it seems almost pointless to survive something so horrible and not even get alchemy without circles from it. But every time I bring up trying to remember, Brother gets – upset. He worries that it will be too much, that what happened to him will happen to me. But I don’t think it will. Ed gave up his ignorance as part of his equivalent exchange, but I didn’t.”

Izumi wants to agree with Ed, wants to say it’s not worth the risk, that it’s not worth it. But these boys are talking about starting a war. Or, not exactly, they’re talking about strangling a war, about cutting off the head of the snake before it can strike. And with something so large, so delicate and important, she doesn’t think they can afford to not take advantage of whatever they can. “I think you should try and remember. It’s – terrible. But you already know many terrible things, and I’d rather you have the extra safety that alchemy without circles gives you.”

In his solemn, sad silence, Izumi realizes she’s not telling him anything that he doesn’t already know. “I won’t go behind Ed’s back to do it,” he says. “I know I have to do it, that I can’t afford not to. Whether Ed approves or not. But I won’t lie to him, and I won’t do it without him.”

Al said that he and his brother have changed, and made it sound like it wasn’t for the better, like they had become worse than they were, less than they were. But looking at the fear and determination and loyalty present in every line of Al’s body, Izumi doesn’t think that’s the case. She remembers them as children, how tightly they clung to each other at the possibility of losing everything else, at how it seemed at times as if they shared one body, one mind, how one would cry when the other was hurt, and how together they’d draw the most complex, beautiful circles she’d ever seen without even having to speak.

This is different. More adult, healthier, even. More than anything else, it tells Izumi that Alphonse really has grown up, and she digs her nails into the skin of her palms to keep her eyes from watering.

She wants to tell him this, to tell him that under all her disappointment and anger and fear that she’s proud of him. But before she gets the chance, her door bangs open, slamming off the back of her wall, unfamiliar silhouettes crowding into her door frame.

She and Sig have already gotten to their feet, ready to fight. The first one steps inside, and it’s a tall man in vest with a pretty young blond woman being held bridal style in his arms. “Found him!” the girl says, voice coming out loud and slurred. She’s got an arm around the exasperated man’s shoulders to keep her balance. “Found your stupid homunculus, let’s gooooooooooo.”

“Winry?” Alphonse asks cautiously, hands just twitching to reach for her. Izumi blinks and looks closer, and this young woman must be the girl she met once so long ago when she passed through Resembool, Al and Ed’s best friend. “What are you talking about? Who are these people?” He tilts his head to the side, “Are you drunk?”

“Your girl has no alcohol tolerance at all,” the man says.

Winry blows him a raspberry and sticks her nose in the air. “This – this is Greed, and his friends, his friends are coming too.”

“They’re not my friends,” the man, apparently Greed the deadly and ancient homunculus, says, pained. “They’re my minions.”

They’re also perfectly formed human chimeras from the looks of it, and if Izumi had had any doubts about the mess Al has gotten himself into before, she doesn’t anymore.

“Don’t say that about your friends, it’s not nice,” Winry lectures. The deadly and scary homunculus only rolls his eyes, and doesn’t to more than huff in irritation when she accidentally elbows him in the face trying to twist around. “Can I have a piggyback ride to the train station?”

Al doesn’t have any expressions, but it’s clear as day that he’s extremely nervous and uncomfortable about this whole situation. “Winry, maybe we should just pause for a second, we don’t need to leave right now–”

“Yes we do!” she yells, and Greed flinches when she does it right in his ear. He finally gets sick of her fumbling attempts, and twists around so she’s on his back, her legs around his waist and her arms are around his neck. He holds her legs in place, still trying to pretend he’s cool and unaffected even though a teenage girl is using him as a jungle gym. “Ed’s in trouble, and he’s alone, and Greed said Father is dan – danger – that he’s bad, and we have to hurry.”

She’s wonderfully focused for a girl who’s so drunk she can’t even stand on her own.

“The kid’s right,” Greed says, “if Lust is making moves against Father, then she needs all the help she can get, and the same goes for your brother. We need to be on the next train to Central.”

Izumi is startled when Winry slides off of Greed’s back, swaying for a moment, before finding her footing and marching over to her. She puts her fists on her hips and looks her straight in the eye, and she’s amused to notice the little girl she remembers is now the same height as her. “I figure some of this is your fault,” Winry tells her, and Izumi wants to be angry, but she doesn’t say it like an accusation, she just says it like a fact, like there’s nothing to be done about it but accept it. “So are you going to come with us, or not?”

She shouldn’t, it’s not safe, not with her health. But she’s been dying for years, and this is the first thing that proves to be interesting, that might actually be worth her time, worth her death.

“Yeah,” she says, mouth tugging into a grin, deciding she likes this drunk, focused girl who found a homunculus in half a day, and made friends with him in less that, who looks her in the eye and doesn’t flinch away from whatever she sees there. “I’m coming.”

~

Lust stares at him for a long moment, and Ed wonders if he’s about to get a gut full of knives for his trouble. Then she quirks her lips up at corners, “All right. I’ll talk to Aviv and Saif, if you make a move on Mustang.”

The stomach full of knives would have hurt less. “Excuse me?”

“If I don’t have to wait until I’m whole to be happy, then neither do you,” she says, flicking his automail shoulder. “You can’t think he’ll reject you. He loves you.”

“How would you know?” he snarls, then immediately regrets it.

But she doesn’t get angry at him. Instead her face goes soft, something it shouldn’t be capable of, something she shouldn’t be capable of if she’s really as heartless as she thinks she is. “I remember how my husband looked at Laila. He loved her. Of course he loved her, he was stupid enough to try and save her and got me instead, but – I’ve never been whole, Edward. Half Ishvalan, with dark Amestrian hair, he still loved me - her. You and Mustang – it’s the same thing.” She pokes at his metal arm again, “Half Ishvalan, half metal, what difference does it make? We are not the bodies we inhabit.”

“Your husband?” he echoes, ignoring the issue of Roy, because Lust is right and he knows she’s right, and it terrifies him. What he and Roy could have terrifies him. “I thought you didn’t have a husband, that you weren’t Laila.”

Her face saddens, and he wants to take it back, but he can’t. “I’m not,” she says, “I’m not Laila. I wish I was, but wishing I was her will do me about as much good as you wishing that you had your body back. None at all.”

“He still thinks you’re her,” he says, “Aviv thinks you’re his sister.” Ed can’t even blame him, if he were to lose Al, and then someone with his face and memories appeared – he would know better, and he still doesn’t think he could help getting the two confused, could help wanting him anyway.

“I’m not,” she says firmly, then, “But I’m all of her that’s left, and – all I am is Laila, and a monster. That’s what I’m made of. And – I don’t want to be a monster anymore, Edward.”

“Then you won’t be one,” he decides, then asks, only half teasing, “Should I call you Laila now?”

She shakes her head, eyes wide. “No, don’t – no. Absolutely not. That’s too much, too much like trying to crawl into her skin and calling it my own. It’s not the same. We’re not the same.”

“Okay,” Ed says, and doesn’t argue with her. She’s right. But it’s hurting her, that she’s not Laila, that she can’t feel happiness or love or affection. That she can’t experience the good that Laila experienced, and so she’s not Laila. People aren’t purely made of pain and torment. “Tell me more about this plot to destroy Amestris. I should probably start working on that, I guess.”

She flashes a smile at him, and she knows what he’s doing, but she doesn’t stop him, and she starts talking. This meeting hadn’t been planned, so they hadn’t intended for it to be anything besides casual. So they walk through Canal Street, arm and arm, to exchange information and to get solid footing with all of this. Ed’s almost been enjoying himself, even, because Lust is a lot less scary when she isn’t shishkaboing random people. He wonders if people think the same sort of thing about him, actually.

They leave Canal Street eventually, heading away from the main hub to one of Central’s many secluded alleys where’s there’s no one to overhear them but the rats. Constantly moving through the hustle and bustle of a crowded street is good, it means no one’s paying attention to them and those that are can’t catch more than a few words. But there’s something to be gained by silence, by being able to stop and look each other in the eye. Besides, when discussing which of the military brass are loyal to Pride, and therefore Father, even a few words overheard could be devastating.

“You’re probably going to want to write this down,” Lust says, leaning against the wall and stretching her arms above her head.

“That many?” Ed asks, and wishes he could be surprised. There was a reason everyone from Granny to Teacher thought the military was rotten down to its core. The couple of good officers he’d managed to find hadn’t changed that.

Lust opens her mouth to answer, but instead a hauntingly familiar voice says, “Well, what do we have here? It looks like you’ve been a very bad girl, Lust.”

Ed feels all the blood drain from his face. Lust moves, shoving him behind her and letting her terrifying hands extend into claws. “What are you doing here?”

A face Ed had never expected to see again steps out of the shadows. “Father worried when you didn’t come home last night. You shouldn’t make Father worry.”

“Mom?” he asks, voice high and trembling, and the tears he’s holding back making his eyes blurry.

Sloth flinches back, and snaps, “I’m not your mother!”

“You look like her,” he says, and he should stop talking, he’s sure he’s only making her angrier. But she does look like his mother, has her hair and her face, and god, but his mom was young. She seemed so old when they were kids, so mature, but his mom was only nineteen when she had him, was only twenty six when she died. Roy’s older now than his mother was, and god, but his mom had been too young to die, too young to be raising two sons all on her own.

“Like that matters,” she says, and it’s his mother’s voice but he’s never heard her sound so contemptuous before. “Envy can look like however he chooses, that doesn’t mean that’s what he is.”

“Sloth,” Lust says, “calm down. Let’s talk about this.”

She sneers, “Talk about what? You broke the rules. You talked to the sacrifice. Now it’s time for both of you to die.”

Then her entire body goes liquid, and it’s surging toward them. Edward claps his hands and drops to the ground, boxing them into the alley. Which is probably a horrible idea for his continued survival, but will hopefully keep this fight away from civilians.

Lust knocks through Sloth, and it’s apparently jarring enough that Sloth regains her shape. Lust stalks forward and pierces her through the chest with her razor sharp fingers. When she pulls them out, blood comes pouring out.

“No!” Ed says, “Don’t hurt her!”

“She’s trying to kill us, Edward!” Lust snaps, jamming her other hand into Sloth’s stomach.

“What do you care?” Sloth asks, eyes sick with hatred. Blood drips out of her mouth, and just the sight of it leaves him reeling, brings him back to when he was a kid and his mom would have horrible coughing fits that would end with blood in her hand and dripping over her lips. “You left me to die. If Lust kills me, she’ll just be finishing what you started.”

Lust snarls and twists her hand, causing Sloth’s face to spasm in pain before she shifts backward, enough to escape and then than punching Lust so hard that it breaks her neck, and her head lolls disconcertingly to the side of her shoulder as she steps back. That would spell immediate death for any human, but Lust is no human. “Edward, she may be your mother, but that doesn’t mean she won’t kill you.”

“I’M NOT HIS MOTHER!” Sloth screeches, and she’s still bleeding from all the wounds Lust gave her. Except Ed’s looking closer, and it doesn’t look exactly like blood, it’s too thin. Ed’s eyes widen.

It’s not blood. It’s red water. Whatever Lust is doing isn’t just hurting her, it’s drawing the red water out, she’s starting the detox process even as she’s fighting for their lives.

Ed is so, so grateful that he and Lust are on the same side.

Lust has just fused her skull back onto her spine when Sloth rushes forward. Lust tries to stop her, her nails growing outward and attempting to skewer her. But it fails. Sloth goes liquid, then jams her hands into Lust’s stomach, and tears open her abdomen. Even Lust can’t help but scream at that. “You’re the one talking to him, you’re the one so pathetic as to act like the sacrifice’s mother!”

Ed startles at that. It almost sounds like ….

“Are you jealous?” Lust asks, managing to laugh even Sloth digs her hand into the mess of her abdomen and crushes her spine in her grip. “Don’t worry, I’ve been dealing with my own family drama, I have no need to intrude on yours.”

“You don’t have a family,” Sloth hisses, and it’s so strange for Ed to hear cruelty in his mother’s voice. He’s never heard it before.

Lust takes a step forward, pushing Sloth back, and it’s really uncomfortable for Ed to see Lust’s internal organs just falling out of her body and disintegrating into the ground. Watching them grow back and fall all over again is even worse. “You’re right, I don’t have a family. Do you know why? Because I am not Laila. I am not the woman that I was created to replace. But you are.” Sloth is shaking her head and backing away. Lust doesn’t let her get far, stalking her and moving closer as her body slowly knits itself back together. “You’re a wife, and a daughter, and a mother.”

“Shut up!” Sloth seethes, eyes wide, “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Lust is keeping her distracted, and Ed knows it won’t last, knows that Sloth is frustrated and angry enough that she’s not being as deadly as she could be, as destructive as she could be, and they’re way too close to bustling civilian streets for that. So he kneels down and closes his eyes, clapping his hands together. He hasn’t had a chance to test this, and it’s delicate enough that he really would have preferred to draw the circle out, to double check his angles and equations. But he also would have preferred to not have been ambushed in the middle of the night by a homunculus, so he guesses he’ll just have to work with what he has.

He separates his hands and presses them to the ground, hoping this works. Alchemical energy crackles to life, a soft blue light rising from the ground and surrounding Sloth in a tight circle, so he doesn’t accidentally get Lust as well. Sloth realizes what’s happening too late, and tries to run out of the circle of blue, crackling light.

She can’t leave. She lunges against, but it’s like a fly battering against glass. She’s not going anywhere.

“Well, look what we have here,” Lust practically purrs, absently sticking the rest of her organs back inside her so her abdomen fuses shut again, her skin clear and unmarked, nothing to show that she’d ever been hurt to being with. “Looks like you won’t be killing anyone.”

Sloth snarls, and seeing that looks of frustrated defeat on his mother’s face pulls at him, and he hates that he had to be the one to put it there. “Lust, don’t.”

She rolls her eyes and steps back. Sloth’s eyes finally find him, and he can’t move, doesn’t know what to do with his mother’s eyes on him. “What do you care?” she asks, “Aren’t you going to finish what you started? You should have killed me when you made me. I would have died easier then.”

“No,” he says, and he forces himself to walk forward. He stands just outside the containment circle, searching for any imperfection, any difference between her and the woman he remembers. Lust doesn’t look just like Laila, and apparently none of the other homunculi look just like the people they were meant to replace. But Sloth does. She looks exactly like Trisha Elric.

 “Are you crying?” she demands, and she’s trying to sound cruel, but it doesn’t come out just right. “Mourning the woman you failed to bring back before you kill me?”

He touches his face, and he’s surprised to find it wet. He hadn’t known he was crying. “I’m not going to kill you,” he says, “I could never – no, I’m not going to do that.”

“Why not? You left me to die, it’s the same thing. Or do you just not want to get your hands dirty? Will you have Lust do it then?”

“We didn’t know,” he whispers, and from the way surprise ripples across her face he knows she heard him. “We didn’t – we thought we failed, we didn’t know, and then when Al went back for you, you were gone, and we thought – we thought you’d dissolved, that you couldn’t hold the form, and you’d just returned to the gate.” His breath is hitching, and he’s really crying now, and it’s a struggle to keep it under control. “I wouldn’t – we would never, okay? Mom, we didn’t know.”

~

It doesn’t feel real, being trapped in this circle and watching Edward cry. This seems like a trick, or a dream, or maybe a nightmare.

How many times did she fantasize about this exact moment? When Father first took her, she was so sure that it wouldn’t last, that her children would come for her, that they would come to take her home. As her memories cleared and settled, she remembered Ed crying for his brother, remembered all the blood as his limbs were torn away, remembered Al carrying his brother away.

So she contented herself to wait. Her children were hurt, they would need time to recover, and it was only right that they should heal themselves before they came for her. She wouldn’t want them to get hurt, to get more hurt, after all.

But Father kept forcing her to drink red water, and the years passed, and still no one came for her. Still her sons didn’t come for her. The more red water she consumed, and the more time passed with no signs that her sons even cared about her, the angrier she became.

“You didn’t know I was alive?” she asks, and her head feels funny, she should have thought of that before, why did she never think of that before? She was a screaming pile of flesh and bone, and then she was gone, and no one else had done it before, why would they assume they had?

Why hadn’t she gone to them? Father only kept her close those first couple of years. After that, she could have gone back to Resembool, could have talked to them herself.

“No,” Ed says, her first born, her precious child. She spent twenty hours in labor to bring him into the world. “Mom, I swear, if we’d known – if we’d known, nothing could have stopped us from coming for you. We risked everything to bring you back, gave up so much to have you. We wouldn’t have done that if we didn’t love you.”

“Your leg,” she says, and she’s always known that Ed lost his leg, of course, but it didn’t matter before now, “Oh, your arm, no! You shouldn’t have done it! I wasn’t worth the risk, I was dead, dead things should stay dead! And now you’re only have half your limbs, and Alphonse is in armor, and – no I never wanted any of this!”

She’s always known this, knew what it meant, but it never mattered to her before, and she can’t think as to why, can’t think of why it didn’t matter before or why it matters now. She’s light headed, and she stumbles, falling to her knees inside the circle. “Mom! Are you okay?”

She’s kneeling in red water. Where did it come from? Did it come from her? She doesn’t feel well, she should drink it. Whenever she doesn’t feel well, Father gives her more to drink.

“STOP!” She looks up, and Lust is glaring at her. “Don’t drink it. Withdrawal symptoms are starting, and it’s going to suck, but you can’t drink.”

“But,” she looks down at the water in her cupped hands, “but it hurts.”

Ed claps his hands, and the barrier is gone. Lust is yelling at him, but he’s not listening. He grabs her wrists and pulls them apart, so her precious red water falls back to the ground. “Don’t,” he says softly, eyes puffy and red from crying. “I know it hurts, and it’s going to hurt more. But don’t. Please.”

She frowns, her vision going blurry at the corners as a vicious pain rips through her abdomen, something sharp and twisting inside her. “You have to be sure,” she says, reaching up to cup her son’s face, “If I do this, you have to be sure you want me. I’m still a monster, I’m not the mother you lost.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, laying his hand on top of hers and leaning into her touch. “You may not be the mother we lost, but we’re not the same sons who lost you either. We’ve done – I’ve done such awful things, Mom.” He bites his lip and tries to smile, but it doesn’t look quite right. “If anyone’s the monster, I think it’s me. So we fit, if anything, one big monstrous family.”

The pain is worse, it’s so bad that she’s panting, and it’s spreading, soon her whole body will feel like this. But she can’t pass out, not yet, this is important. “You’re not a monster,” she says firmly, “You’re my son.”

Ed’s crying again, and she reaches out to brush his tears away, just like she used to do when he was a kid, and oh, he’s so grown up, she’s missed so much of her sons’ lives.

“Ed, Sloth, we have to go,” Lust says, “we have to get her somewhere safe soon. Once the withdrawal symptoms really start, she’ll start lashing out, she won’t be able to help it. We have to be somewhere secure when that happens.”

Ed nods, pushing himself to his feet. She tries to stand but can’t, her legs won’t listen to her. Ed bends down and picks her up, an arm against her back and under her knees. He’s so strong. She can feel a fresh wave of tears crawling their way up her throat, and she has to swallow before she can speak again.

“My name’s not Sloth,” she says, trying to hold unconsciousness at bay just a few more moments.

“Julia, sorry, we have to go,” Lust says, looking worried. “I don’t know if it will be worse or better for you than it was for me, but we can’t be here when we find out.”

She shakes her head, then leans it against Ed’s shoulder when it makes everything spin around her. Everything’s going dark, and her mouth feels mushy and hard to move, but she has to say this, has to get it out.

“That’s not my name. It’s Trisha. I’m Trisha Elric.”

Chapter Text

Roy is doing his best not to worry. Ed had called the office two days ago and said that something had come up and he wouldn’t be home. The lines are all recorded, of course, so the rumors that the two of them are sleeping together are chugging along nicely.

Ed has dropped off his radar before, for weeks at a time even, not just days. But that’s always in the middle of nowhere, far away in cities where Roy doesn’t have much personnel or influence. Not in Central. His mother swears up and down that she hasn’t heard anything about Ed, and while he wouldn’t put it past her to lie to him, he doesn’t think she’s lying about this.

Which means there’s nothing for him to do but wait. He hates waiting. Maes is getting antsy, desperate to go digging, to stick his nose in places where it doesn’t belong to try and find out what happened. Roy told him to knock it off, but he’s pretty sure Maes didn’t listen to him, and is just being sneakier about it.

A couple of days is nothing. He’s sure Ed is fine.

~

Trisha wakes up in a windowless room with a cement floor, likely a basement. She’s back behind her son’s containment circle, and she’s lying on a cot. Edward is just barely visible out of the corner of her eye, speaking to two Ishvalan women who keep looking toward her. They’re arguing about something, but she can’t make out the words. It’s probably about her.

She fades in and out of rationality, of consciousness, but it all seems too good to be true and too confusing to be real. It’s a good thing she often goes missing for days at a time, otherwise Pride might grow suspicious. She wonders what excuse he’ll give for why his secretary is missing.

Trisha can’t cross the barrier, but objects can, and the Ishvalan women keep coming back and bringing her things.

The old woman is called Jiddah, and the younger one is Yadira. Jidda is there often, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, watching her with a bottle of liquor by her side and cloth and a needle in her hands. She speaks, her voice crackly with age but her tone kind, and Trisha can’t understand her, doesn’t speak more than a couple words of Ishvalan, but it’s nice to have the company anyway.

Yadira comes and goes, white hair pulled back into a bun and tucked under scarf, like it will hide her dark skin and red eyes. She has hard eyes and a thin mouth, and she leaves at night and returns in the afternoon.

She speaks Amestrian, and brings warm, fresh bread and clean water that she pushes across the barrier. Everything Trisha eats gets thrown up, and it’s impossible for her to die of starvation anyway. She’s tried telling them not to waste their bread, but Yadira had huffed and translated her words for Jiddah. The woman had cackled and let out a quick rush of Ishvalan.

“She says embroidery hurts her hands but baking you bread makes them feel better,” Yadira says, amusement around the curl of her mouth. “Besides, Ishvala teaches that to be hospitable is to step into his light. It would be wrong of us not to feed you simply because you do not need it. People do not need many things, but a life of needs is a sad life to be had.”

Trisha flinches, curling up on her cot, her whole body tacky with sweat even as she shivers under the thick blanket they’d given her. “Why are you doing this? I’m exactly the type of monster your god warned you about.”

Yadira is silent for several long moments, then she kneels on the cement floor and opens her bag. She gently rolls a bottle of water across the barrier, and uses a fire poker to push across a small bag of what Trisha thinks are chocolates. What an unnecessary, silly thing to give the thing detoxing in their basement. What a kind thing to do.

Finally, she says, “We care for Edward Elric, and he asked us to protect you.”

“He’s a sinner too,” Trisha whispers, because she loves her sons with all she has, but they are alchemists, they tread where only gods should go, and so by Ishvalan standards they are worse than sinners. “We’re sinners, and I’m a monster. You shouldn’t be helping people like us.”

A small smile breaks out across Yadira’s face, like she can’t help it, and Trisha doesn’t understand. “You are someone in need of help,” she says, “and my god is very clear what I am to do with people like you. If I turn my back on you, if I smack away your outstretched hand, then I am no follower of Ishvala.”

Trisha’s eyes fill with tears, and she turns her head into the cot, trying to hide them. “I don’t deserve your help. I’ve done – such awful, terrible things.”

“Ishvala will weigh your actions against the balance of the world in the next life. In this one, you are someone I can help, so I will. If Ishvala sees fit to punish me for my compassion, then he’s no god of mine.” She hears the sounds of Yadira rising and picking up her bag, then her soft voice. “Sleep well, sister. Daughter, mother, monster. You are safe here.”

~

Ed has been holed up in Gabby and Aviv’s apartment for days, trying to work out a plan that doesn’t end in everyone being killed. Aviv has to go to work, it’s too suspicious if he doesn’t, but Gabby and Saif have been staying up with him, trying to help.

Lust has been too. If they weren’t focused on devising a plan with their new timetable, Ed would be focusing on how incredibly awkward it is. Lust leaves each night, unwilling to face Aviv just yet, but she can’t avoid the others. Saif doesn’t speak to her, he just stares at her. It’s unsettling for Ed, and he’s not even the one it’s happening to. Gabby has taken a different approach, cheerfully pretending like Lust is just another guest in her house, and not the failed resurrection of her boyfriend’s late sister.

One of Ed’s favorite things about Gabby is how willing she is to roll with the weirdest things that life can throw at her.

His mother is in the building’s basement, trapped within his alchemical circle. She twists from raging to weeping, periodically vomiting up red water, but she’s finally settled on tired exhaustion, which Lust says is a good thing. It means Trisha is winning her fight against the effects of the red water.

Ed visits her, and he wants to stay with her, but half the time seeing him only makes her angry, thanks to the red water that’s still in her system. So he visits only when Jiddah or Yadira gives the okay. It’s for the best, but it still feels like a betrayal, and he’s betrayed her enough already.

“Focus,” Lust says, tapping the space in front of him. She’s not wearing her form fitting black dress and gloves, they’d been torn and bloody when she’d followed Edward back here. She hadn’t seemed concerned, and Ed had meant to fix it for her as soon as his head stopped spinning, or even just to remind her that she was a powerful homunculus and could fix it herself. Instead, the next morning they’d trudged up from the basement to see an Ishvalan dress and sash laid out on the kitchen table. She’d hesitated, but Gabby had walked into the kitchen, and without hesitation or fear picked them up and pressed them into Lust’s hands.

Ed has to admit that she looks at lot more comfortable these clothes than the tight black dress she wears into battle.

“Sorry,” he sighs, “I just–”

“I know,” she interrupts, “but worrying won’t help your mother, or your brother, or the rest of Amestris. I’m often gone for long stretches of time, but Sloth isn’t. We’ll be okay for another day or so, but then they’ll notice she’s missing, and they’ll figure it out that I mean to start a war, and act.”

“We’re starting a war,” he corrects. “Winry and Al should be here by morning, Greed in tow.” There’s more, something Winry hadn’t felt comfortable telling him on the phone. He’d almost asked about the countryside, just to prompt her to speak in his and Al’s code, but he figured he had enough to worry about. Whatever trouble they’re bringing with them, it’ll have to wait until they get here for him to do something about it.

Lust sighs and rubs at her temples. He’s pretty sure homunculi can’t get headaches, so it’s just a human habit she picked up, or has remembered from Laila’s life. “I wish I knew what condition your mother will be in. She’s strong, I think she’ll still be strong when she recovers from the red water. Stronger, even, maybe – I don’t know how red water interacts with a human soul, but I’m assuming nothing good.”

“I didn’t mean to make a warrior,” Ed says, frowning, “We were only trying to make a normal mortal body.”

“Making bodies that can contain souls is hard,” Lust says, “if you had made a normal human body, then her soul would have eaten it up in the attachment process, and your transmutation wouldn’t have worked.”

Ed is not a homunculus, and he definitely has a headache. “You’re sure we can’t just go kill this Father guy and call it a day?”

“Only if you don’t want to die in the attempt,” she says dryly, then frowns. “Speaking of fathers, we should probably get yours.”

That’s the worst thing Lust has ever said to him. “Why?”

“He is carrying the other half of the philosopher stone,” she says, “and he made this mess. It’s only fair he help clean it up.”

Obviously Lust is right, but the very idea of accepting help from that bastard makes his arm hair stand up on end. “I’m not saying I’m willing to doom the entire country to avoid dealing with my dad, but I'm not not saying that either.”

Lust arches an eyebrow, not bothering to hide her amusement. “After we kill Father, you can kill your father. But we need him first.”

“How are we even supposed to find him?” he asks plaintively. “Like you said, we’re a bit down to the wire here, and I haven’t seen that asshole in over a decade. He could be anywhere!”

“I’ll find him,” Lust says, getting to her feet. Ed blinks, startled, because apparently she means right now. “I can sense him, almost, because of all the souls he carries. I’ll be quick, and hopefully Father won’t make a move before I get back. Try not to die. We have a deal, and you can’t fulfill your end if you’re dead.”

“I’ll do my best,” he says. “Is it really safe for you to go out there? What if one of the other homonculi find you?”

Lust pulls off her borrowed clothes, her black dress sliding across her body with a spark of something that’s not quite alchemy. “I know how to stay hidden. Don’t cause too much trouble while I’m gone.”

Her eyes skitter to the living room, to where Gabby and Saif are working on translations. Ed moves to touch her shoulder, to comfort her or maybe to tell her that it’s okay to tell them goodbye too, but she’s out the door before he gets the chance.

He sighs and bends over to pick up her discarded clothing, carefully folding it into neat squares. She’ll want these when she comes back, he thinks. He hopes.

~

Envy lives with the constant pulse of rage underneath his skin, has been like this since his creation, since Hohenheim tried to bring back his dead baby and got him instead. But this – this is unacceptable, unforgivable, and he’s seething red.

He’d always suspected Lust, ever since Greed had left she’d been too quiet, too pliable to be entirely real. Now Sloth is missing, and he’d found the puddle of red water, and he knows what it means.

Lust is a traitor, and she’s going to force Sloth to become a traitor too.

He should go report back to Father, or at least Pride, who’s so close to him in his cushy mansion with his cushy Fuhrer title. But he’s angry, and he wants to take that anger out on someone, and they won’t let him, they’ll try and restrain him. He doesn’t want that.

He can’t kill the sacrifices, and he can’t kill those who have the potential to be sacrifices. Edward Elric is at the center of this mess, he has to be, the son Hohenheim had to replace the one he lost, to replace Envy when he figured out he was a monster and not a man. He can’t hurt Edward, or his snap happy almost-lover, or the little girl he calls his sister.

But there’s that man, with glasses that fail to hide his too intelligent eyes. He’s been snooping, coming dangerously close to causing problems, coming dangerously close to being too much a hassle to keep around.

He’s the closest thing Edward has to a father, and if Envy doesn’t get a father’s love, he doesn’t see why Edward should. He’ll eliminate the man who knows too much and tear away yet another parent from the Elrics at the same time.

Good. Maybe once he kills that man, once he feels his warm blood beneath his hands and watches the light fade from his eyes, maybe then he’ll be able to calm down, to think.

Until then, fury fills his lungs and the urge to kill something makes his fists clench.

He’s not alive, he doesn’t have a life. He doesn’t see why anyone else should.

~

It’s dark, the middle of the night, but they’re almost to Rush Valley. They should be there a little before midnight, then they have an hour until they can catch the next train to Central. Winry had made some noise about swinging by her apartment to check on it.

They’re almost back to his brother, and – and to whatever the thing they made is. Edward thinks it’s their mother, but he’s not so sure. Hope seems like a dangerous thing to have, considering the circumstances.

There’s a blanket bunched over his thigh, and Winry’s head is laying on top it. Her legs are thrown over Greed, pinning him to his seat so he can’t move without waking her. Martel and Bido are asleep in the seats across from them, tilted against each other. Teacher, Sig, Dolcetto and Roa are in the compartment next door. No one quite trusted anyone enough to be on their own, which is why Greed’s crew is scattered amongst them.

“I can hear you worrying,” a gruff voice says quietly, and Al straightens, looking towards Greed. He’s got his head tilted back against the seat, sunglasses on, breathing deep and even. He doesn’t look like he’s awake until he smiles, and Al wonders if he was ever asleep in the first place. “You’re interrupting my beauty sleep.”

“Sorry,” he says quietly. Winry shifts, and Al places his hand against her hip. She stills, then sighs, falling back into a deep sleep.

Greed reaches over and squeezes his shoulder. Al can’t feel it, not really, and Greed knows he can’t, but he’s doing it anyway. “Worrying won’t save anyone. You’ve got Lust, and you’ve got me. Add us to you and your crazy brother, and we stand a decent chance against Father.”

“We could all die,” he says tiredly.

Greed snorts, clasping his hands behind his head. “Maybe. Maybe not. If dying scared you, you wouldn’t be where you are now.”

“Dying should scare me,” he says. But Greed’s right. He and Brother are scared of lots of things. Death isn’t one of them.

“I guess. But I think you and your brother are smart enough to know the scariest things in this life aren’t on the other side – they’re right here. Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of life,” he grins, “It’ll kill you.”

He’s a suit or armor, he doesn’t have any expressions, but Ed can always tell when he’s scowling. Greed must be able to too, because he lets out a soft chuckle quiet enough that he doesn’t wake anyone up.

Greed’s kind of an asshole. Al thinks he likes him anyway.

~

The doorbell rings. They’re not expecting anyone.

Gracia rises, but Maes puts a hand on her shoulder and gently pushes her back down. “I’ll get it,” he says, and she frowns, but doesn’t argue.

It’s late. The kids are already asleep. Or, well, Elysia is asleep and Nina had graciously pretended to be asleep for the first ten minutes after bedtime, then taken out the flashlight they all pretend she doesn’t keep under her bed and continued reading. No one coming at this time of night has anything like good news. He’s half expecting it to be Roy, but when he opens the door Edward is standing there.

“Ed!” he says, because he’s okay, he’s standing right in front of him and not lying dead in come alleyway. But then his common sense kicks in, and he’s reaching for his knives, thankful he hasn’t changed out his uniform yet. He rang the doorbell, Ed wouldn’t do that, if he was worried about startling them he would have just called out to them as he came inside –

“You really do know the pipsqueak,” the thing with Ed’s face says, but it doesn’t even bother to imitate his voice. “I thought I’d at least make it inside before you figured it out. Oh well.”

“Where’s Edward?” he asks dangerously, mind flashing. His wife and two daughters are inside, he can’t let this thing get past him, and it must be a homunculus. He hopes it’s only imitating Ed and not wearing his skin.

It moves towards him, and Maes’s aim is true, the knives sink into that thing’s throat. It makes his stomach roll to see his knives in Edward’s neck, even though he knows this thing isn’t really Edward.

The knives don’t do anything, they don’t even slow him down.

It pulls out the knives like it’s nothing, and Maes stumbles back. “GRACIA!” he shouts, panicking, “TAKE THE GIRLS AND RU–”

Maes cuts himself off with a harsh gurgling sound. He falls to his knees, raising his hand to his throat. It’s been cut, and his blood falls warm and slick over his fingers.

His vision is going dark, but he can’t die, not here, not now. His wife needs him. His children need him. He has important work to do, and he can’t do that work if he’s dead.

The homunculus grips his shoulder, forcing Edward’s face into a cruel smirk. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill your family. Yet. I want to see them mourn you first.”

Maes has something to say that, wants to go running for Elysia and Nina, but he can’t.

He hopes they all know how much he loves them, since it seems he won’t get another chance to tell them.

~

Envy hangs out on the Hughes’s roof, waiting.

It doesn’t take long.

Less than a minute later, the wife’s anguished cries pierce the sky.

He can’t feel anything, not really, but this is as closed to happiness for him as it gets.

~

Gracia wants to clutch her husband and sob, wants to break down completely, wants to slit her own throat and settle next to her husband, never to rise again.

But she can’t.

She’ll have to figure out a way to manage living, even though it feels like someone’s reached into her chest and yanked her heart out, even though it feels as if she’s died along with her husband. She has two little girls upstairs who have just lost their father, Nina for a second time, and she won’t deprive them of their mother too.

Whoever killed her husband might still be close, might still be around. She swallows her sorrow and fear, grabs Maes underneath his armpits, and drags his body inside. She bolts the door shut, gives herself half a minute to lean against it, to catch her breath and to tell herself that this is just a nightmare. Then she gets to work.

She drags Maes’s body into his study, biting her lip to keep from crying out when his blood covers her hands and she loses her grip, his body falling with a dull thump. She tries again, grabbing him around the waist and pulling him along until she reaches his study. He’s still warm. If she doesn’t look at him she can pretend he’s just unconscious, she can ignore his dull, sightless eyes and the still heart beneath her hands.

Gracia has barely locked the door to the study when she hears small feet behind her.

“Mom?” Nina asks, wide eyed. “What’s going on?”

She spins around, and she’s covered in blood, there’s blood all over the floor, and she doesn’t know what to say, what lie to tell, and instead can’t think of one at all. “Nothing. Go back to bed.”

Elysia is huddled into her sister’s side, hand fisted in Nina’s nightgown, and Gracia knows sees the moment when Nina processes the blood, how much of it there is. She grabs Elysia and twists her, so her face is pressed into her stomach. “Where’s Papa?”

For a second the tidal wave of grief threatens to barrel her over, and Gracia’s knees almost buckle from the force of it. But she takes a deep breath, desperately shoring up the strength she needs to keep standing. “Go back to bed, and stay there. Don’t argue with me. It’s important.”

Nina isn’t stupid, far from it, her daughter is a literal genius, she knows something bad has happened, if she hasn’t figured out exactly what. If she insists on discovering the truth, short of barricading the door, Gracia doesn’t know how to stop her.

“Okay, Mom,” Nina says quietly. She bends and picks Elysia up, and the five year old clings to her big sister. “We’ll go back to bed.”

Gracia wants to kiss her or hug her, wants to hold her children in her arms to remind herself that not everything is lost. But she’s still covered in their father’s blood, so she doesn’t dare. She waits until Nina carries Elysia up the stairs, then bolts for the phone.

Roy is her first choice, of course, but when he doesn’t answer his home line, she knows that probably means he’s still at the office. She almost dials him there, but hesitates. She doesn’t want the military coming here just yet, she knows that her husband, Roy, and Edward were talking about things, things that the military couldn’t know about.

She’s assuming that’s why he was killed.

If that’s the case, then she can’t make this official, can’t let the military be the first ones on the scene, and any call she makes on official channels will be logged and possibly recorded. There’s a payphone down the street, and that would at least raise less red flags, an incoming call from an unknown number, maybe no one would look at it too closely. But she can’t risk it, can’t leave the house and leave her children unprotected. Not that she’s must good against anything that can kill her combat trained husband, but she’s at least another body they’d have to get through first.

If Roy’s not available, then Ed’s her next best option. Ed, who’s been missing for the past few days for unknown reasons. Roy doesn’t know where Ed is, and she can only think of one other person who might.

She picks up the phone, dials, and waits.

“Seif residence,” says the bubbly voice of Catherine Armstrong, better known as Gabby.

“Do you know where Edward is?” she asks, skipping right past pleasantries, her voice tight and scratchy. “Please. Something – something terrible has happened.”

There’s a beat of uncertain silence. Gracia isn’t above begging. “I can get a message to him,” Gabby says finally, and Gracia lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

~

If Mom hadn’t been so distracted, so frazzled, then Nina knows she never would have let her go that easily, if she’d had more than a second to catch her breath she’d ask herself when Nina had ever been so well behaved, had ever listened without understanding, and the answer would be a big fat never.

She goes up the stairs, then bends down and whispers in her sister’s ear, “I need you be quiet, okay? It’s going to be scary and awful, but I need you to be silent. Understand?”

Elysia nods against her shoulder. She’s not good at being quiet, but, unlike Nina, she is good at listening.

Nina shifts Elysia’s weight to one arm and reaches up her sleeve. She grabs the piece of chalk she’d tucked there before heading downstairs, and makes a simple circle.

She keeps a tight control on the reaction, releasing the excess energy as heat instead of light so her mother won’t notice. The wall melts open, steps rising that lead through the kitchen into her father’s study. She hesitates before stepping into the study, but knows that every second she takes is precious, and goes through the doorway she’s created. With another quick circle, the house is back to normal behind her.

Nina had been expecting it, had known what she was going to find the moment her mother had hesitated to answer her, but the sight of her father’s corpse is enough to leave her breathless. “Keep your eyes closed,” she says, and puts her sister on her feet. “Don’t move.”

The circle drawing water from the air and for water to ice is painfully simple, and it’s easy to combine them, even with her shaking hands. She activates the array, and coughs at the suddenly dry air, even as her father’s body is covered in a thick layer of ice. Somehow, that makes it look even more grotesque.

How long has he been dead? Elysia woke up at their mom’s scream, which hadn’t been more than five minutes ago, and it couldn’t have taken Mom that long to find their dad. Two minutes at most.

Seven minutes, hopefully a bit under. Brain tissue starts dying after four minutes without blood circulation. She’s stalled that by freezing it, but that’s not going to buy her more than an hour or so. The slash in his throat is obvious, but she’ll have to repair his brain cells too. Except she doesn’t know how, she’s not Winry, she’s not a doctor. Brain cells don’t heal, not naturally, and she doesn’t have enough medical knowledge to make them. She can probably repair his throat, that’s simple enough, for a given definition of simple. But if she tries to mess with his brain, she’s more likely to make it worse than make it better.

Seven minutes isn’t so bad. Six minutes, more realistically. Maybe even five. It should be fine. He’ll be fine.

Maybe.

But Nina doesn’t really have any other option, so she’ll just have to hope for the best.

“Can I open my eyes?” Elysia asks, voice quavering.

“You don’t want to,” Nina says, “but you can, if you think it’s worth it.” She walks over to her father’s desk, yanking a handful of papers off his desk and grabbing a marker, then a pencil after another second’s thought.

Elysia makes a sound like a cut off squeak, and when Nina glances over she’s looking at their dad with her hands over her mouth, tears welling in her eyes and then spilling over. Nina doesn’t have time for tears. She has work to do. “Is Daddy gone?”

“Don’t worry,” Nina says instead of answering her question, “I’m going to bring him back.”

She draws another circle on the door, and then the door disappears into the wall. She can’t risk Mom interrupting them, this is too important. She sits next to Papa’s body and spreads out the paper, sketching out circles on them. She’ll need two, if she’s to do this properly. One to repair his body, and one to bring his soul back from the Gate. The first is easy enough, it’s repair work. It’s something no one’s done before, but hey, it’s scientifically manageable.

The second part is a lot trickier. She knows the circle for it, at least, has seen the inside of Alphonse’s armor. But that circle is too simple, it needs more variables. Nina doesn’t blame Ed for going with the simple circle, at nine years old with a missing leg she doesn’t think she’d have been able to think up the proper circle for soul alchemy at all, and he did. But she’s not bleeding out, she has more time, if not by much.

She knows this is dangerous, and stupid. She saw what happened to her brothers when they attempted human transmutation, what it cost them and what they lost. But she’s older than them, and she doesn’t have to make a body from scratch, not like they did. Papa’s body is right there, is mostly intact, she just needs to fix it up a little.

The human transmutation part is small, it’s almost nothing. The hardest part is soul alchemy, and, well –

Who better than her, to attempt to twist soul alchemy and equivalent exchange in her favor? Well, okay, realistically, her eldest brother. Ed’s performed soul alchemy twice so far, but she’s had it done to her.

She doesn’t talk about it, pretends she doesn’t remember what happened to her, what her Shou Tucker did to her. But she’s too smart not to figure it out. Her soul has passed thought the gate before, as a passenger, not as an alchemist. She’s not going in blind like Ed was that first time, she knows what she’s looking for and what she has to do to anchor her father’s soul to his body.

This is something she can do, she thinks. If she’s wrong, it doesn’t matter, she has to try, even if it ends up costing her everything.

She’s lost one father. She won’t lose another.

~

Gabby liked Maes Hughes. He cared about Edward, and only tripped over her name once, and never let his eyes get caught on Aviv’s burn scars.

Now he’s dead.

What’s wrong?” Saif asks in Ishvalan, frown intent on his face.

Gabby opens her mouth, and doesn’t know what to say, what to do. She’s wary around Saif, just a little, doesn’t think that he’ll hurt her or Aviv, but still unsure about what he’ll do. For now, while he’s recovering, while Edward is sticking his nose into all manner of things, Saif is content to stay with them, to help Gabby with her translations and wash up after dinner.

But it’s all a stopgap measure.

She pretends not to hear them arguing, late at night when they think she’s asleep. Aviv’s a lawyer, he’s good at arguing, but Gabby doesn’t know how much headway he’s making.

He’s trying to convince Saif that maybe being a serial murderer isn’t the best choice right now. Saif doesn’t seem like he’s buying it, all holy vengeance and pain and a pulsating loneliness that Gabby knows they’re just barely taking the edge off.

Saif loves Aviv, he’s his brother’s wife’s brother, which by Ishvalan custom binds them as closely as if they were born from the same name. But Aviv cannot replace a people, replace a culture, replace a whole country that was nearly wiped off the map.

Aviv has made his peace with his past. Saif hasn’t even accepted the war’s over, because for him it isn’t, and Gabby doesn’t know what that means for him. For them.

She stopped talking to her brother for the part he played in the Ishvalan war. If she doesn’t shun Saif for willingly choosing to be a killer, can she continue to do the same to Alex for being one unwillingly?

“Gabby!” He snaps, placing his hand against her back. “What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head – now isn’t the time to get distracted! – and pats his chest as she walks by and out the door. “I have to go talk to Edward. Then – then I have to make a phone call.”

Aviv is asleep, he has to be up early to prepare for a trial tomorrow. She wants to wake him up just so she can hold him. Gracia Hughes is living her worst nightmare.

When she gets downstairs, Ed is leaning against the barrier he’s created and talking to his mother. Trisha is leaning on the other side, so that they’d be touching if the circle wasn’t separating them. She doesn’t look angry, or crazy, or scary. She just look like a tired young woman.

Trisha sees her first, and frowns before jerking her chin in her direction. Ed twists to see her, and his smile slides off his face.

“You need to go to the Hughes’s house,” she says quietly, “Maes Hughes is dead, and whatever killed him might be still be around.”

Ed’s face crumples, then he takes a deep, controlled breath, and it smooths out once more.

Trisha is saying something, trying to get her son’s attention, but Gabby doesn’t have time to linger. Ed will be on his way soon. She’s almost tempted to ask Saif to go with him, but she thinks that might just make things worse rather than better. She runs back upstairs, and Saif is waiting, scowling with his arms folded.

Her hands are shaking as she dials. She calls home, sometimes, of course. She can’t abide by her family’s lifestyle, by the way they made their fortune off war, off slaughter. She just can’t stomach it. But her parents are still her parents, and she does love them.

“Armstrong residence,” says the crisp voice of their head of staff.

“Get me my brother, it’s an emergency,” she says.

The pause goes on touch too long, then she says, “Of course, ma’am.”

Less than a minute later, Alex’s voice fills her ear, “Cath – Gabby. What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“I need you to do me a favor, and you can’t ask any questions, you just have to do exactly as I say,” she says, heart beating loudly in her ears, because they haven’t spoken in years, and the last time they did it didn’t go well, but she needs him to do this.

“Of course,” he says without hesitation, “What do you need?”

He’s still a war criminal, he still didn’t manage to walk away when he knew better, damn the consequences, but – but he’s her brother, and he loves her.

Maybe it’s enough.

~

They pull into Central, and they’re one of the last people still on the train. Their very strange group exits, and Winry yawns, leaning back so every vertebra on her spine cracks. “Where to now?”

Al blinks. He knows Ed is hiding at Aviv and Gabby’s for some reason, and having this exceedingly strange group of people show up at their apartment would be the best way to blow their cover.

“I vote the Hugheses,” Winry says, “I haven’t seen the girls in forever.”

“You want all of us to show up at Maes and Gracia’s front door?” he asks dryly.

Winry considers that, looking them over. Izumi raises an eyebrow. “I’ll go to the Hughes,” Winry amends. “We really need to split up, we look absolutely ridiculous together. Al, you go to Aviv’s and find Ed, then find out what the hell is going on. Greed, go with him, since I’m assuming Lust is with Ed.” She looks at Greed’s minions – or friends, depending on who you ask, “You guys head to Canal Street. Find a brothel masquerading as a bar run by a woman called Madame Christmas, and tell her that you’re friends of Edward Elric. She’ll let you stay the night.” Her eyes fall on Izumi and Sig, and she crosses her arms, then brightens. “You guys go to Roy’s place. He and Ed are basically dating, so meeting the parents won’t seem that out of the ordinary. You should probably tell him who you are, but also I would recommend you just stroll in and start telling stories about Ed’s childhood. He’ll be crying inside, but he’ll roll with it.”

Greed lets out a low whistle, and Al says, “Winry, you’re scary. I’m so glad you’re my friend.”

He can’t tell for sure, it’s pretty dark out and they just have lamp light to see by, but he thinks Winry is blushing.

Because of him?

Wow, this is just, so not the time.

But he’s pretty sure she’s blushing because of him.

~

Nina absolutely, definitely underestimated the complexity of knitting flesh back together. She can’t figure out the right circle for it, to repair her father’s throat and his blood loss, to heal his body enough that it can live on its own.

If she had more time, she could do it. But her specialization isn’t biological alchemy, it’s elemental, and she just doesn’t know enough to come up with a circle to repair this type of damage off the top of her head. Edward or Alphonse could, she’s sure, but she doesn’t have either of them, can’t have either of them, because neither of them would help her do this. But she’s going to do it anyway.

Fixing his body is out.

She’s just going to have to do this the hard way.

It’s possible to build a body around a soul, it’s what Edward must have done for her after all. But it takes a lot more energy, to unmake and then remake something around a soul. She doesn’t have that type of bargaining power. But – if she tweaks the soul summoning circle and soul binding circle just a little, then maybe she can skip a couple of steps.

She neither wants nor needs to unmake her father’s body, nor does she want to have to put him back together again on the molecular level. So, if she can redirect the energy, only need the bit about reconstruction and leave the rest, then – well, then maybe it won’t kill her.

If she could, she’d repair the damage separately, and this would be almost easy. But she can’t, so she’ll need Papa’s soul to do it for her.

She takes out her chalk and starts drawing, one giant circle in the middle of the room. It’s only a matter of time before Mom or someone else tries to come in here. She doesn’t have much time.

~

Ed feels like his heart is going to squeeze out of his chest. Is this the universe ensuring equivalent exchange invades every facet of his life? He’s had one parent returned to him only to lose another.

He takes a cab, not wanting to waste time walking, and runs to the front door. There’s a small puddle of blood in front of the door. He assumes that’s where Maes died.

With a quick clap of alchemy, the door is unlocked, and he cautiously steps inside. “Gracia?”

She turns the corner, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows and her arms scrubbed red and raw, her eyes puffy from crying. “Ed,” she chokes out, and he doesn’t have to think about it, doesn’t hesitate. He rushes over, arms open, and she crumples, falling into him and tucking her face into his flesh shoulder. “I don’t – I don’t think they’re here, if they wanted to kill us they could have, but – God, Edward, he’s gone!

“I know,” he says softly, and part of him wonders – could he bring Maes back? But, no, he doesn’t have the right equivalent exchange, would need a body to spare and a little something extra to get his soul back, and – and he just doesn’t have that.

He had to kill a dog to get the energy to tear Nina apart and put her back together again. He doesn’t know how many people he’d have to kill to do the same for Maes.

Gracia is only a couple inches taller than him, but she’s slight, so it’s easy to hold her upright and whisper soothing nothings in her ear. He has to look around, has to figure out if this is something they can turn over to the authorities or something to do with the homunculi. He desperately wishes Lust were here, because she’d know what to do, she has this air of competence that she never loses, not even when she’s upset or furious. It kind of reminds him of Hawkeye.

“I have to tell the girls,” she says, just barely on the edge of sobbing but somehow able to hold it back, “They came down earlier, and they went back upstairs, but I – I didn’t tell them, I didn’t know what to say.”

Ed goes cold. There’s still blood on the floor from where Gracia had dragged Maes’s body. Not a lot, he stopped bleeding once his heart stopped pumping, but enough. “Nina came down here?”

Gracia nods. “She’s upstairs with Elysia.”

Ed carefully steps away from Gracia, then goes running to the study, where Maes’s body has to be. He hopes she’s right, that Nina decided to be quietly obedient for once in her life, but he doesn’t think that’s the case.

He goes to open the door, but it doesn’t budge. He tries again, and it takes him a full fifteen seconds to figure out the door doesn’t exist anymore, that it’s been alchemized away. With a clap it’s back, and swings open.

Elysia is pressed to against the wall in the far corner of the room. In the center of the room, Nina kneels next to Maes’s body. It’s in the middle of alchemical circle, one not nearly complex enough for what she’s trying to do.

She looks up and meets his eyes. She doesn’t flinch.

“Nina, don’t!” he calls out, running forward, desperate to stop her from making the same mistake that he and Al did.

She slaps her hands onto the circle, and it blazes to life.

Ed can’t stop her. But he has a about a half second window to do something else. He slams to his knees on the other side of the circle and claps his hands before touching them to the edges.

He can’t stop her. But he can help her.

He just hopes that Al and Roy and – well, a whole bunch of people, really, can forgive him for it.

~

Izumi intends to do as Winry suggests, to break into this Colonel’s home that’s apparently dating her Edward (and maybe knocking him around a little), but it’s not what happens.

Greed and Al are gone, and Winry has just hailed a cab, when Dolcetto frowns, leans his head back, and takes a deep breath. “Do you guys smell that?”

Martel rolls her eyes, “We’re not part dog, so no.”

Dolcetto throws her an irritated glance, but says, “I think – there’s another homunculus here. Not here-here, but close.”

“Lust,” Roa says, but Dolcetto shakes his head.

“It doesn’t smell like her. It… I think it’s…” He makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. “I wouldn’t recognize it if it’s one we hadn’t been near before. It’s not Lust, so it has to be–”

“Gluttony,” Bido suggests, huddling under his large cloak.

Martel’s mouth curls into a grin that looks predatory. “Want to go hunting?”

“Do we look like alchemists to you?” Roa asks. “We can’t kill it, all we can do is be killed by it. What will Greed do without us to look after him, huh?”

“An alchemist?” Izumi asks, and they all startle like they’d forgotten she and Sig were still there. “Alchemists can kill these things?”

They’re all silent, faces hardening as they stare at her. It takes her a moment to figure out why, and she can’t help the swell of admiration for Greed. Whatever else he may be, he certainly inspires loyalty. “I have no interest in harming your friend. If you need an alchemist to kill this thing, I’ll help. And I promise to never use this knowledge to harm Greed.”

Izumi is fast, she’s good, but in-between one blink in the next Martel is right in front of her, a blade pressed to her throat. Sig lets in a startled breath, but Izumi doesn’t flinch. “If you hurt him,” Martel says quietly, “I’ll kill you. I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth if I need to, until it kills me. We all will.”

She looks past the woman to the rest of them, and there’s that same determination in them, even the little one who isn’t anything close to a fighter. “Deal,” she says, and is satisfied by the surprise the flits across all their faces. “Are we going to go kill this thing, or not?”

~

Trisha throws herself at the barrier, but it’s no use, it’s like hitting a brick wall. Her whole body is sore, but she can’t give up, she can’t just sit here.

If Maes Hughes is dead, then it’s one of them who did it. Since he wasn’t eaten, she can only assume it was Envy, the thing her husband created so long ago. Looking at Envy is, to how far from human he is, just shows her how her sons succeeded where her husband failed. She’s not like other humans, not even close, but – she’s still human, free of the red water she’s still Trisha Elric. Envy is just a thing fueled by anger and fear that sometimes wears the face of a man who may have been her husband’s son.

If Envy killed Maes Hughes, then he’s discovered something, about either her or Lust. He’s impulsive, without any great ability to think things through or plan for the bigger picture. There was a reason that in spite of being the oldest of them, in spite of knowing Father from the very beginning, he wasn’t put in any positions of power. Pride as Fuhrer and Lust to manage the rest of his grand plan.

Father had placed her close to Pride as her secretary. She wonders if it was to keep an eye on her, if Father knew as soon as she was free from the red water’s influence, she’d go running back to her sons.

She slams her body against the barrier once more, but she knows it’s hopeless. Her son is a genius. This isn’t a cage she’ll be able to escape.

“What are you doing?”

Yadira is in the doorway, clenching a tray with her dinner on it. Trisha nearly sobs in relief, “Please, you have to break the circle. Please!”

She steps forward warily, “Edward said not to let you out, no matter what.”

“He’s in trouble,” she says, “my son is in trouble, this whole country is in trouble, and I can help. But not from in here. I’m not – I’m me, I’m not trying to escape, I’m trying to save my son and everything he’s worked for. Please.”

Envy is so obsessed with instant gratification, with doing and getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, that he probably hadn’t gone to report to Father yet. If she hurries, she can find him, and she can stop him.

Yadira presses her hands against the barrier, and Trisha places her hands in the same place. “I had a son once,” Yadira says, face pinched, and all the air leaves Trisha’s lungs.

Before she can ask, before she can react at all, Yadira puts the food to the side and digs the edge of the tray into the circle. Ed had painted the circle onto the concrete and added a feedback loop so he wouldn’t have to constantly maintain it. It takes her almost a minute of pushing the tray into the edge of the circle until she manages to scrape away enough of the paint to break it.

The barrier comes down with a fizzle of energy, and Trisha lunges forward. Yadira flinches back, eyes wide and afraid, but Trisha cups her face and presses a kiss to each of her cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispers, then she’s running upstairs.

She pushes the door to Edward’s friends’ apartment open. Gabby and Saif are sitting at the kitchen table, but Gabby stands at her entrance. “Trisha! Ed said it wasn’t safe for you to leave–”

“We don’t have time for safe,” she says, then looks to Saif. “I have to go take care one of the other homunculi. He was acting under orders, but he’s directly responsible for the beginning of the Ishvalan war, if that’s something you have any interest in.”

Saif hands clench into fists, but he just raises an eyebrow. “Are you asking for my help to commit murder?”

“Put that arm to good use, and help me kill one of the things that is directly responsible for the genocide of your people, instead of wasting it on hapless state alchemists,” she says.

Gabby puts her head in her hands, “Oh my god.”

Saif turns to Gabby, considering. “I am of your house, and you are of my name. I gave you my word. If you don’t want me to go, then I won’t.”

Gabby peeks between her fingers, then sighs and reaches forward, grabbing Saif’s hand between both of her own. He seems startled by her affection. “Do what you feel is right. Don’t do what you know is not.”

He squeezes her hands then stands, straightening his shoulders. “Lead the way, Trisha Elric.”

~

Winry knows something is wrong as soon as she steps out of the cab. All the lights on the bottom floor of the house are still on, and she expected Maes to still be awake, he always works late, but not the others.

Then she sees the golden glow of alchemy, shining so brightly that it’s leaking through the curtains, and she rushes to the front door. She sees a small puddle of blood by the door, but doesn’t have the time to worry about it, instead grabbing the handle and trying to yank the door open.

It’s locked. Of course.

For a moment Winry considers trying to break through before she remembers she’s not an idiot. She opens her bag and takes out a pair of pliers, prying the pins out of the hinges on the doors so she can swing it open from the other direction. It cracks and hangs at an awkward angle. She owes the Hughes’s a door now.

She has to shield her eyes from the light of the alchemical reaction. She bumps into Gracia in the hallway, who’s holding Elysia, pressing her daughter’s face into her chest while she squints against the light.

“What’s going on?” Winry yells, because somehow it’s deadly silent and a roar in her ears all at once.

Gracia reaches for her, grabbing her wrist and anchoring her to her side. She doesn’t even question Winry’s presence, only shakes her head and shouts back, “I don’t know! Ed and Nina are in there!”

Winry only knows one type of alchemy that has a byproduct of golden light.

The only question is: which of the two of them was stupid enough to try human transmutation?

~

Martel hadn’t expected this woman to be much of a fighter, this ailing housewife who’d apparently been the armor’s teacher way back when.

She was wrong.

Bido doesn’t fight, so they send him to a rooftop to keep an eye on things, to be able to go and get Greed if something goes horribly wrong. Martel remembers when Greed had come and busted them out of that lab. They’d been the ones that stuck with him, but he’d let everyone go, and they’d all ran for it.

Except Bido.

He’d been too sick, too weak. He wasn’t a perfect chimera, not like them, and the scientists had left him to die. Greed had broken into his cell and carried the man out himself, saying the whole time it was just because he needed someone small and quick, just like he kept on saying that he only kept them around because they were useful, but Martel had never bought that, even if maybe the boys did.

Greed cared for them, had nursed Bido back to health himself, and Martel wouldn’t be the cause of the gecko chimera’s death if she could help it.

She expects it to the three of them against Gluttony, her and Roa and Dolcetto, and when they can maybe pin him down for long enough, for the alchemist lady to come forward and do her thing.

That’s not what happens.

The woman and her husband hang back for about thirty seconds, then they jump in, and the husband is impressive, but the woman is incredible. She’s fast and strong, using alchemy as easy as breathing, and between them they manage to keep Gluttony in one place long enough for the woman to slap her hands on him and channel his energy out of him, through her, and into the ground. Roa attempts to gag the homunculus with a steel beam, doing his best to keep the thing from making too much noise, and the beam cuts into his arms. Luckily, not many people are by the train station this late at night, and those that are aren’t stupid enough to go towards the sounds of fighting.

They’re all hurt, bleeding and bruised, but nothing fatal, nothing that won’t easily heal with a little rest. Being a chimera comes with its advantages.

When the woman is finished, she leans over and vomits what looks like half of her internal organs.

But the homunculus is dead, nothing more than a skeleton in a pile of red water. The thought of this happening to Greed makes her blood boil, and she prays to every god she’s forsaken that Izumi Curtis doesn’t go back on her word.

Martel doesn’t know if she’ll be able to kill her without being killed herself, and it will be so disappointing if her death is in vain.

~

Nina is smart, she’s an actual genius, and Ed has never been more grateful for that than he is right now. Her array is good. It’s not balanced properly, but he fixes that, channeling the energy through him before releasing it back into the circle so it doesn’t ricochet back on her. She’s guiding most of it, generating power that’s being let out in light and sound wave so she can harness it again, a circle within a circle, and Edward would be impressed if he wasn’t so horrified.

She finishes, and she’s being delicate, being careful, but this is human transmutation, so Edward closes his eyes and braces himself for the moment that they’re ripped away and brought to the Gate.

This is the third time Ed’s been here now, and it’s just the same as before. Pure white wherever he looks, except for the gate behind him and the gate in front of him, and Truth front and center, a fuzzy outline almost in the shape of a person.

“Brother!” Nina’s fist slams into his side, and she’s a kid, but she’s strong enough that he winces. She grabs the front of his shirt, furious, and jerks him down so she can glare into his eyes. “What are you doing here? This wasn’t supposed to involve you!”

“What were you thinking?” he snaps, “Have I taught you nothing? Has growing up with me and Al taught you nothing? You don’t mess with human transmutation!”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” she says, “So it’s only okay if it’s your mom? If it’s your little sister? You did it for me, of course I’d do it for Papa!”

He shakes his head, “It wasn’t the same with you! You were all – messed up, I just had to take you apart and put you together, it’s not the same.” Then he pauses, and pales, “Wait, how do you even know about that–”

“Enough,” Truth rasps, voice slick like oil. Nina shivers when she hears it, but lets Ed go and steps away from him. “You’ve opened the Gate. Now it’s time to pay the price.” It doesn’t have eyes, but Ed can feel Truth’s gaze on him anyway, and it makes his stomach roll. “If it were not for his interference, your body would be forfeit. But he redirected the energy that would otherwise have been lost, so that is no longer the price.”

“Sorry,” he says, offhand, not meaning it at all. “You shouldn’t have burdened me with knowledge you didn’t want me to use.”

The one feature Truth seems to have is a mouth, and maybe that’s what makes its smile so horrifying. “Are you looking for more knowledge, child? You have some ignorance left to bargain.”

It’s talking about how to get his brother’s body back. The Gate hates him, as much as an otherworldly being is capable of hate. The only reason it would offer to help him is if doing so would hurt him.

But. It is the Gate. It can’t trick him, can’t lie. It’s bound by the same rules of equivalencies that they all are.

He hated having that thing in his head, those black tendrils cracking him open and pealing him apart. But it’s for Al. What wouldn’t he sacrifice, what part of himself wouldn’t he give up for his brother?

By the way it’s smiling, it’s clear it knows Ed’s answer.

“Hey!” Nina says, pushing Ed back and stepping in front him. “This isn’t why we’re here. This isn’t what the circle was for.”

“Are you ready to pay the price, child?” it asks, and the way it looks at Nina isn’t the same way it looks at Ed, for a given definition of look, considering it doesn’t have eyes. It’s … kinder, if such a thing were possible.

Her hands clench into fists, and when she speaks it’s more of a snarl. “Give me my daddy back!

The gate behind Truth bursts open, doors open wide. Black tendrils rush forth, and Ed instantly loses sight of Truth.

He tries to reach for Nina before they’re overtaken, but she’s already gone.

~

Trisha catches up to Envy when he’s almost back to base. He’s taking his sweet time, because what’s the point of rushing, really.

He’s not going to live to regret that.

Saif looks at her, a single eyebrow raised. “Are you ready, Trisha Elric?”

She grins, energy running over her so she’s not in borrowed clothes, not in her suit skirt that she wears when assisting the Furher, but in dark skintight clothes that won’t get in the way while she’s fighting. They don’t have the time for Trisha to make fun of Saif for the ways his eyes momentarily dip too low to be polite. Unfortunately.

“Let’s go. I’ve already died once, what’s the worst that can happen?”

~

Al and Greed are almost to the unofficial Ishvalan district when there’s a sound like a building falling and faint red energy in the distance. They look at each other. “We could just keep walking,” Greed points out.

Al sighs, because while that’s very tempting, it’s also very irresponsible. Alchemist, be thou for the people. “Come on.”

Greed shrugs, and as he does his whole body shifts, his skin becoming carbon.

When they get to the fight, Al doesn’t think there’s anything in the world that could have prepared him for what he sees.

Saif is fighting against a short man in a crop top and long spikey hair.

Helping him is –

Is –

“Who knew Sloth had it in her,” Greed says in wonder, “Well, I don’t know who this other guy is, but Envy is a dick. Let’s get to work!”

“Traitor!” Envy howls, lashing out at Greed, who dances out of the way.

“You know you can’t win like this,” he says, grinning. “You might as well bring out your true form.”

“Are you trying to destroy this whole street?” asks a woman, Sloth, who is – who has his mother’s face, and memories, and, if Ed’s letter is to be believed, her soul.

Who is, if all that is true, his mom.

They’re managing to keep Envy contained, but now that Al is looking closer, he can see that they’re hurt. Saif is leaning heavily on one leg, the other bloodied and almost useless, while Sloth – Trisha – Mom, he decides on, has what looks like claw marks across her stomach, thought they don’t seem to be bothering her much, if it all.

“None of us are alchemists,” Greed says, flinching as Envy’s foot attempts to kick through his chest, “So unless you have a piece of his original body hanging about, I’m not sure what you’re trying to achieve.”

Al is usually quicker than this, but seeing his mom has unbalanced him, leaves him feeling slow. He keeps thinking of the Gate, of that horrible transmutation that went so wrong, that cost him and his brother everything, of the Gate tearing him apart and dragging him past its doors, of the darkness and cold and fear until Brother pulled his soul out again. But – wait – he doesn’t – he can’t remember anything after activating the circle, how is he –

“I can deconstruct,” Saif grunts, diving out of the way of Envy’s attack, “if he would just stop moving.

They need the homunculus restrained, and he can do that. He draws a quick circle, and presses his hands to it. The asphalt springs to life, wrapping around Envy. He’s strong enough to break out of it, so Al doesn’t let his control on the ground go, keeps it shifting and partially liquid so it absorbs the force of Envy’s attacks instead of being broken apart by it.

Saif doesn’t hesitate, dragging himself forward and pressing his hand to Envy’s forehead. The complex almost circles on Saif’s arm flairs to life, and Al knows it’s working by the homunculus’s screams.

“Al, get over here!” Greed calls out, “We need a real alchemist. He won’t be able to do this on his own!”

He can’t control the ground and help them at the same time. He puts a final burst of power into the circle and runs, hoping he’ll get there in time.

Envy throws Saif off of him, face half melted away, and breaks free from Al’s restraints. Greed and Mom rush forward to pin him down on either side, and without thinking Al claps his hands together and slams them against Envy’s chest. For a horrible second he thinks he’s made a terrible mistake, that he’s cost them precious seconds. But then his hands activate the array in his mind, without him having to actually draw it out, and it’s no wonder that Saif was struggling.

Deconstruction is easy, comparatively, taking something apart is always so much easier than putting it back together. But Saif isn’t an alchemist, he doesn’t understand what he’s deconstructing, and people so often forget that understanding is a foundation of alchemy, as necessary as deconstruction and reconstruction. Envy is made up of too many things, of so many dense and varied elements that it’s impossible to effectively attack them all at once. Instead he has to do it narrowly, undo pieces of him a bit at a time. He knows he’s succeeding by the anguished cries coming out of Envy’s mouth.

“Don’t let up, kid,” Greed’s voice says in his ear, “If you do, he’ll have a chance to transform, and then we’re fucked.”

Okay, no pressure, he can do this. He can do this, is the thing, and once he manages to tune out Envy’s screaming, it’s almost like a game, going through the table of elements and ticking them off one my one as he destroys Envy on a molecular level.

He doesn’t know how much time has passed, but when he finishes he’s kneeling in a puddle of red water. In front of him is a baby’s skeleton. He doesn’t have a body, but he still feels sick. Greed’s boot enters his vision before coming down on the skeleton, shattering it. The pieces rest in the red water for a moment before crumbling to dust.

“Good riddance,” Greed says, “We’re going to have to clean up the red water. It can’t be deconstructed, only used. Anyone got a bottle on them? Maybe a funnel? Or even just a really absorbent towel.”

“Alphonse!” Someone tugs at him, and he twists to look at his mother’s face. It really is her, worried warm brown eyes and all. “Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

He opens his mouth to answer, to tell her he’s fine, but what comes out is a as close to crying as he can get like this. “Mom?” He saw her fighting, saw her body easily switching from liquid to solid, knows what she is. But if his lack of a normal human body doesn’t make him less than human, he doesn’t see why it would for his mother either.

“Oh, Alphonse,” she says, and wraps her arms around him. He can’t feel it, not really, just the light pressure of her limbs, but he hugs her back anyway. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“I missed you too,” he whispers.

Brother is missing two limbs, he’s missing his whole body, and he can’t say that the past five years have anything close to easy. But his mom is hugging him, he has his mom back, and in this moment he doesn’t regret a single decision he and Brother made that led them here.

~

Nina can’t see or hear anything, is weightless in the darkness, but she can feel the dark tendrils of the Gate covering her body. “Make your deal with me,” she says, and she can’t hear herself, but she knows she’s speaking. “Don’t take anything more from Edward. Take it from me instead.”

The tendrils leave, and she can’t see Truth in front of her, but she knows it’s there. “Are you sure? I can’t make it hurt less for you. The price is the same.”

“It’s equivalent exchange,” she says. “Ed helped me, now I’m helping him. Give me the knowledge you were going to give him, and my ignorance will be forfeit, my innocence forfeit. Don’t make the exchange with him. He has too many nightmares already.”

Silence. Nina isn’t above begging, if she has to.

There’s a sound almost like a sigh, then a feeling almost like a hand on her shoulder.

She knows the exchange has been made when her head hurts so much she can’t stop screaming.

~

Roy doesn’t understand how this could have happened, doesn’t understand precisely what has happened. All he knows is that Alex had burst into his office in the middle of the night, not even in uniform, and said that Maes was dead. He said that Roy had to get the Hughes’s as soon as possible, and that he couldn’t let anyone know he was doing it.

He’d broken a few dozen traffic laws to get here, and grief is clawing at his heart, but he can’t let it have him, not yet. His best friend may be dead, but if he lets anything happen to Maes’s wife and daughters because he was too busy mourning, he’ll never forgive himself. Maes will never forgive him either.

The front door is open, broken at the hinges, and his heart is in his throat as he runs inside. But he’s two steps in the door when the oppressive weight of alchemical energy sends him to his knees, and he can see Gracia, Elysia, and for some reason Winry sitting in front of the door to Maes’s study, equally as pinned by the pressure as he is.

Then all at once it’s gone, and he can breathe again. He recognizes this, it’s what he felt just before Ed activated the circle to save Nina. Nina, who’s smart and gifted and just as terrifying as the Elric brothers, and who Roy doesn’t have eyes on right now.

Roy and Winry bolt for the study, while Gracia remains sitting with Elysia.

The golden light fades, and he sees Ed on one side of the circle and Nina on the other, and Maes’s body in the middle, his throat slashed.

Then – it’s not.

Golden light zips across Maes’s throat, leaving behind a jagged scar. The circle sizzles, and both Nina and Edward are pushed back from it.

Maes’s eyes pop open and he gasps to life, rolling over on his side and coughing.

Ed is rubbing at his head, dazed and confused, while Nina digs the heel of her palms into her eyes, tears running down her cheeks.

Winry rushes past them to Maes’s side, rubbing a hand up and down his back with one hand, and opening her bag with the other. She pulls out a stethoscope, saying something low and soothing as she pops it in her ears and presses it to Maes’s back. He still can’t seem to stop coughing.

“I can’t see!” Nina cries, crawling forward on her hands and knees. Her formerly brown eyes are clouded over. “Is he okay? Did I do it? Is Papa okay? Did I bring Daddy back? I want to see!”

Nina is blind.

Maes looks up, and Roy is terrified of what he’ll see, but he just looks like his best friend, like he always has. He tries to speak, but can’t, loses himself to a coughing fit instead. He pushes himself to his knees, crawling past Winry and towards his daughter.

Ed is shaking his head from side to side, like he’s trying to shake everything back in place. Is Ed okay? Is he still the same man as he was before, or has the Gate taken even more from him, and left someone else in his place.

Winry moves to help, but she’s too slow. Maes reaches Nina first, grabbing her hands, and mouth working silently, trying to speak to her.

Her face lights up. “Daddy!” she cries, and she’d refused to call Maes that for so long, had only called him Papa, but it seems she no longer has to contend with balancing two fathers. To her, the only dad she has is Maes. She pushes herself up onto her knees and throws her arms around him, and he wraps her in a tight hug, shoulders shaking as he clutches her, but his sobs only come out in gasping, hitching breaths.

“Maes?” Gracia asks, voice trembling, and she steps into the room with Elysia on her hip.

He looks up, and he’s crying, but he smiles, keeping one arm around Nina’s waist, but holding out the other towards his wife. Gracia bursts into tears and runs to him, and Elysia is crying too, as they cling to Maes and Nina.

Roy sits next to Ed, dumbfounded, trying to wrap his head around what apparently just happened, and failing. Winry looks at the crying family with a soft expression, then huffs and goes over to Ed, nodding to Roy before placing her hands on her best friend’s knees. “What the hell, Ed?”

“Not my idea,” he says, and Roy breathes a sigh of relief when Ed still sounds like Ed. “She’d already activated the array when I came in, and I couldn’t – it was good, it was almost perfect, but I couldn’t let her risk that alone.”

“Of course not,” Winry says. “She’s our little sister. Are you okay? All your limbs still attached?”

The answer’s obviously yes, but his face darkens, and Roy can see the alarm he feels mirrored on Winry’s face. “I think Nina did something.”

“Yeah, genius, she performed human transmutation,” Winry says.

Ed glares at her. “No, I mean – it didn’t take anything from me, it didn’t hurt me, and it wanted to. So, if it didn’t do it to me, I think–” He means to look towards Nina, but his eyes get caught on Roy, and he blinks in surprise. Apparently he hadn’t noticed Roy sitting six inches away from him for the past few minutes. “Roy!”

“Ed,” he says tiredly. “I’m glad you’re all right. I’ve been worried about you these past couple of days.”

He stares at him, golden eyes narrowed and mouth pulled into a frown. “I thought I was going to die, or come back broken, if I came back at all. You know what I was really pissed at myself for not having done?”

Roy doesn’t get a chance to answer, because Ed lunges forward and pushes him to the ground. His head hits the wood floor with a painful whack, and he means to ask Ed what the hell he’s up to when he climbs on top of him, thighs bracketing his hips and hands on either side of his head. He leans down, covering Roy’s mouth with his own, and this is completely inappropriate for so many reasons, but he can’t bring himself to care. Maes is alive, and Edward is alive, warm and kissing him, and that’s all that really matters.

He grabs the back of Ed’s neck and twists them, being more considerate of Ed’s head than he’d been of his, and burying his hands in Edward’s golden hair as he keeps kissing him, lips and tongue and teeth, and Ed’s laughter bubbling up between them.

“–Uncle Roy sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage! Big brother and Uncle Roy siting in a tree–”

Roy and Ed part and looks over. Winry is leading Elysia and Nina in the schoolyard chant, while Maes looks on amused with Gracia curled into his side, a hand over her mouth in a poor attempt to hide her giggles.

“Think of the children, Edward,” he says, flushed and breathless.

Ed grins up at him, hair having come out his braid at some point and creating a golden halo around him. “Biology is an important lesson, and a foundation for later learning,” he says seriously before pulling Roy back down for another kiss.

~

Hohenheim is depressingly easy to track down. Then again, she supposes he was never really hiding, not from them. “You need to come with me,” she says.

He looks at her, so very old and so very sad. “Is the dwarf in the flask trying to move the time table up? I can’t go yet. I suppose I’ll have to kill you now. I’m sorry.”

Lust takes a couple steps back, hands raised, because as a sacrifice he’s one of the very few people capable of killing a homunculus without using their human counterpart’s remains. The Elric brothers and their teacher are the others. Hohenheim frowns at her actions, not understanding. “Whoa, relax, I’m not here to fight. I’m on your side. Or well, I’m on Edward’s side.”

“My son?” he frowns. “What does he have to do with any of this?”

Lust stares. “Are you trying to be funny?”

He blinks at her.

“I’ll explain on the way,” she says impatiently, because apparently being ancient makes you an idiot. “But your sons need your help against Father. We have to hurry.”

“The dwarf in the flask will not make any moves until the Promise Day,” he says, slow and still so sad. Lust feels less and less bad for him the more idiotic things he says.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s going to make a move way earlier than that,” she says, “You see, I defected, and so did Sloth, and we’re basically ruining a whole bunch of carefully laid plans. Father is moving now, so if you want to actually be useful, we have to get to Central.” She’s pretty sure he doesn’t know who, exactly, Sloth is.

He keeps staring at her. She’d save them all some time and just pick him up and carry him on her shoulder if she wasn’t afraid he’d unmake her if she got to close.

“Oh,” he settles on finally, “That’s unexpected.”

Lust wants to stab herself in the eye. It’ll probably hurt less.  “Yes. Life is full of unexpected things. Can we go now?”

“I suppose,” he says, still not moving. He does take off his glasses to clean the lenses with a handkerchief.

She wants to scream. Two alchemically modified, immortal beings can move pretty fast when they have to, so they can be back to Central by midday if they hurry. He doesn’t seem like the type of man who hurries.

Maybe carrying him is worth the risk if it’ll get them there faster.

~

Greed can’t help but be just a little amused at the image of Trisha carrying Saif on her back, his leg expertly bandaged by Al. She’s strong enough to carry a weight five times his and not notice it, but the image of this slight woman carrying a man the size of Saif like it’s nothing is hilarious.

His amusement drains away when he catches sight of Bido scuttling toward him. “Where are the others?” he barks.

Bido grabs onto his arm, tail switching back forth in agitation. “Mr. Greed, everyone is okay. Mostly. They’re hurt, but not badly. But the alchemist lady, she threw up so much blood!”

“Teacher?” Al asks. “She does that sometimes.”

They all give him a weird look, but he doesn’t bother to explain further. “Why is anyone hurt?” Greed asks, letting Bido keep holding onto his arm because he knows it makes him feel better.

“They fought one like you, Mr. Greed. Gluttony.” Panic settles into his gut, because only someone who’s been through the Gate and back would have the power to unmake a homunculus, something he’d neglected to tell them because he didn’t think it would every come up, because there’s only a handful of people that combination of smart and stupid and brave. “The alchemist lady killed him. But she’s ill! We have to help!”

He blinks, all the anxiety that had been building inside of him leaving all at once. He hadn’t known she’d been through the gate. Usually alchemists that are talented enough to make it back from the gate leave a homunculus behind, but she hadn’t. “Everyone is okay?”

“Little things,” Bido insists, “They will heal by morning. But the woman!”

“I heard you,” he says, absently patting him on the head. He turns to the others, “I have to go get my people. I’ll catch up.”

“I’ll go too,” Al sighs. “Hopefully Winry is having a better time at the Hughes’s.”

Trisha freezes and Saif winces. Greed doesn’t like the look on either of their faces even a little bit. “She went to the Hughes’s?”

“Yes,” Al says, suddenly wary. “Why?”

~

Giddy elation dims, and practicalities settle in. Winry drags both Nina and Maes to their spare room, insisting on giving them both a complete examination. She threatens to do the same to Edward, but he tell Roy that he figures he can avoid that for a while. He hadn’t lost his sight or come back from the dead, so he assumes he’s pretty low on her priority list.

Ed fixes the front door, and gets rid of the blood stains. Now that things have settled, and she doesn’t have the adrenaline to stay awake, Elysia crashes hard, asleep in her mother’s arms. Gracia brings her upstairs to put her to bed, and Roy’s just finished making a pot of coffee, since he doesn’t think anyone else is going to be able to get any sleep tonight.

The door bangs open, and Roy already has his hand poised to snap, and he’s comforted to see Ed bolt out of the study, automail transformed into a blade.

There’s the clang of armor, and Roy slumps in relief. It’s just Alphonse.

“Brother!” Al cries, and Ed gives him a tired grin and transforms his arm back. “Mr. Hughes is dead?”

He shakes his head, “A temporary affliction,” he says wryly. “Nina is a genius. But she’s also an idiot.” Then he frowns, “You’re back a few hours earlier than I expected. Where’s that person I told you to find?”

Before Al has a chance to answer, practically a whole parade of people enter the house. Ed’s eyebrows raise to his hairline. There’s a man with too sharp teeth, and four people who don’t seem exactly like people. “Heard you were looking for me,” the man says, leaning against the wall and leering down at Ed. “Where’s Lust?”

“She’s getting the last piece of our very messed up puzzle,” he says. “Glad you could join us, Greed.” 

“Just because you’re part animal doesn’t mean you were raised in a barn,” a woman’s voice calls out, “Don’t just leave the door open!”

Ed frowns, “Mom, what are you doing here? Is everything okay with Aviv and Gabby? You shouldn’t have left the barrier!”

Mom? Who on earth is he talking to?

Greed and his companions spill into the living room to make room. Roy has only seen pictures, of course, but a woman who looks eerily similar to Trisha Elric walks down the hall. She’s carrying the mass murderer Scar on her back. “Everything’s fine. We should call Gabby and tell her that, though, she must be worried. The homunculus who killed your friend was going to cause problems, so I had to take care of him. Al said Winry was here? This man needs a doctor.”

Ed winces and rubs the back of his head. “Uh, about that.”

Attracted by the noise, Maes, Nina, and Winry wander in from the kitchen. Her mouth drops open, and Roy has to admit she sound exactly like a mother when she snaps, “Edward! You didn’t! You know how dangerous human transmutation is!”

“It was my fault,” Nina says, carefully stepping forward, trying to not to knock into anything or anyone. “I performed the transmutation. Edward just helped, all he did was redirect the energy.”

Her face smooths out, apparently mollified.

“Mrs. Elric?” Winry whispers, eyes wide.

“Winry,” she says warmly, “You’ve grown into a such a beautiful young woman! And so smart – your parents would be so proud of the doctor and mechanic you’ve become. I know I am.”

The woman is Trisha Elric, apparently, which he would say was impossible except he’s just witnessed a successful human transmutation performed by an eleven year old girl, so his measure of impossible has been effectively shattered once more. He takes a moment to consider the idea of nine year old Edward and eight year old Alphonse successfully performing human transmutation, and it gives him such a headache that he has to stop immediately. By Winry’s surprise, he’s at least reassured this is a recent development. Going by why Ed had told him, this probably means she was a homunculus. But isn’t anymore? Or still is one, but not like the others.

Once they have thirty seconds to catch their breath, Roy is going to have to insist Ed fill him in on what’s been going on these past couple of days.

Winry bolts forward, and Trisha hurriedly slides Scar off her back onto the couch so she can catch the girl when she launches herself at her, pressing her face into Trisha’s shoulder.

The door opens and shuts once more. “Took you long enough!” Greed’s female companion yells out.

One of the men, with what Roy thinks are horns on his head, sighs. “It really would have been faster if you’d let one of us carry you.”

A woman with dark hair and a ferocious scowl hobbles in, a large man hovering anxiously at her side. “I can walk by my damn self!”

Ed’s mouth drops open in surprise. Roy’s grateful he’s caught off guard by at least some of tonight’s events. “Teacher? What are you doing here?”

The woman points a finger at Ed, who gulps. “As soon as I get my strength back, I’m going to kick your ass.”

“Izumi Curtis!” Trisha leaves Winry’s side to grab the woman’s outstretched hand in her own. “Thank you so much for looking after my sons. I can never repay you.” She turns to the man, smiling, “Both of you, of course.”

Izumi slowly blinks once, then twice, then says, “What the fuck?”

“My eldest must have gotten his mouth from you,” Trisha says, but instead of scandalized, she looks delighted. Winry snorts from her place treating Scar’s leg.

Nina turns into her father’s side, to hide her smile, and Maes curls his arm around her and raises an eyebrow. While the scar around his neck is hardly pretty, Roy has to say he looks pretty good for a man that was dead a couple of hours ago.

Gracia has just reached the bottom steps after putting Elysia to bed, but apparently she’s run out of the energy to be surprised tonight, because she just raises an eyebrow. “It looks like we’re going to need more coffee.”

Chapter Text

Even after Al calls to say that everything’s fine, that no one’s dead (inexplicably Maes Hughes included), Gabby still can’t sleep.

She stays up in the kitchen, working on translations out of a lack of anything better to do. Her mind isn’t tired, but her body is, and even still she can’t bring herself to go to bed. Normally, she’d just make a pot of Amestrian coffee on autopilot, but she’s restless, too. She wants to do something with her hands.

Aviv doesn’t care for caffeinated drinks, and she tends to stick with what she knows. She opens the cabinet with all their mismatched glasses, and carefully pushes them aside to reach for the Ishvalan coffee pot in the back. It’s got a wide base, and narrow top, and an elegant curved handle. It’s made of cheap brass, but Aviv had polished it until it shined. Out of all the things he’d lost when his family had fled from their village, including his family, this dallah had remained.

She mixes a heavy dose of cardamom in with the ground beans, then after a moment’s thought she adds the last of their saffron. Their spice rack is looking a little bare, they should really go to the market sometime soon. At some point they’re going to have to stop eating like they’re college students. Except that Aviv is the worst paid associate in all of Amestris, and translating is fulfilling, but hardly lucrative, and who knows how long Saif is planning to stay with them.

Maybe she should get a real job, or just another one. At least until Aviv makes partner. Central University has been begging for her to accept an associate professor position, but she knows that’s because she’s an Armstrong, and not because she can speak circles around the head of the linguistics department. Which she can. He only speaks one dialect of Ishvalan, and his Xingese accent is horrible. She doesn’t think her and Aviv’s position is quite that perilous yet.

The kitchen had filled with the scent of cardamom and coffee, and she she’s just poured herself of cup when there’s a knock on her door, and she freezes. Surely if someone was coming to kill her, they wouldn’t bother to knock first. “It’s me,” Saif says, voice muffled.

She scrambles to her feet, throwing the door open wide. “Are you okay?” she asks. He’s not standing, is being carried on the back of a large man with small horns atop his head.

He nods, “I just hurt my leg. I’m fine.”

Those two sentences contradict each other, and the white of the bandage wrapped around his leg finally catches her attentions. He’s littered with other scratches and bruises, but it seems the leg is his only major injury, and he’s returned mostly unharmed. Good. That’s good.

It occurs to her that the reason she hadn’t been able to fall asleep was because she was worried Saif wouldn’t come back home.

Sorry,” the large man says in clumsy Ishvalan. “Need go. Man go down?

“I speak Amestrian,” she says, “so does he. Here, put him to bed. Try and be quiet.”

“I can’t take your spot,” Saif protests. He’s been sleeping on the couch.

She shakes her head, “I’m going to be up anyway, and Aviv will be getting up within the hour anyway to make it to work. You can’t curl up on our little couch with a leg like that.” He looks like he’s going to argue, so she presses the back of her hand to his cheek, and switches back to Ishvalan to say, “Please. I worry.

Her honesty seems to startle him. He doesn’t say anything after that.

She’s concerned the large man will wake Aviv by stomping through their house, but just as she didn’t hear him coming up the stairs, he barely makes a sound as he maneuvers through their small apartment.

Aviv is still fast asleep, curled up on his side of the bad. She’s going to have so much to tell him when he wakes up, and he’s going to be mad she didn’t wake him for all this. But one of them needed to keep up appearances, one of them needed to keep pretending that everything is normal. That meant letting Aviv get enough sleep to be a functional human being so he wouldn’t raise suspicions by falling asleep at his desk.

Gabby peels the blanket back, and the man carefully lowers Saif onto the bed. He winces as she lifts his legs onto the mattress and pushes him down. She hesitates for half a second, but figures she has nothing left to lose at this point, so she bends down and presses a quick kiss on his forehead, right against the edge of his scar. “Sleep well, brother.”

Gabby leaves before he can say anything either way, the man silently following behind her. She closes the bedroom door, and sighs, looking up at him. “Would you like some coffee? I just made a pot.”

“No thank you,” he says, much more polite than his menacing appearance would indicate. “I have to get going. Greed won’t get any sleep until I return. Just, um, one thing. Did you know you have a military officer loitering around the front of your building? We had to sneak in through the back window because of him.”

She goes cold. “What?”

“He’s big,” he says, “mostly bald, with a little blonde curl. He’s not in uniform, but he holds himself like a soldier. I can take care of him before I go, if you like?”

Alex. It has to be Alex.

“No, thank you, I can handle it,” she sighs. “Thank you for all your help.”

“Oh, no trouble at all,” he says. “Have a good night, Miss.”

She spends several minutes trying to stave off a headache, then gives in. She pours two cups of coffee and heads downstairs.

It’s as she thought, her idiotic older brother sitting on a bench on the other side of the street that his building is on. Apparently, he thinks wearing civilian clothes means blending in. Moron. No one wears a three piece suit around here. He sees her coming, of course, and his shoulder hunch around his ears, but he doesn’t bolt. “You stick out like a sore thumb,” she says, offering him one of the cups of steaming coffee.

He takes it, uncharacteristic tentativeness around him. The mug looks comically small in his large hands. “I was worried about you. You’re involved in something dangerous.”

Saif, a serial killer, and Roy, a walking crematorium, and then her brother, who knew it was wrong, who was broken by what he did in Ishval, but did it anyway.

Her brother, who wears the Armstrong name with pride, even though it makes Gabby’s stomach turn. Her brother, who did exactly as she asked without question, who stood outside her apartment for hours because he was worried about her.

“Thanks,” she says, after long minutes of silence. She squeezes his forearm, and she can’t even remember the last time she touched him. He looks like he’s going to cry. “Go home. Get some sleep. I’m okay.”

She doesn’t know what else to say, if she has anything else to say, so she gives him a quick, awkward smile and retreats back to her apartment. Alex still has her mug.

When Aviv gets home tonight, she’ll tell him everything he missed, and then ask him what to do about this. He’s so much better at understanding her emotions than she is.

~

Winry’s relieved when they finally get Nina to go to bed. She kept on clinging to Maes, poking at his face and lightly feeling the scar at his neck, feeling for his pulse to make sure it was there. It’s clear the two of them are going to have a problem.

Nina can’t see and Maes can’t speak.

Maes knows sign language, as any self-respecting spy would, and Nina knows it because he taught it to her, glad to have something he could teach her for once. But she can’t see the signs he’s making, can’t read anything he’s written unless they figure out a way for Maes to write in braille. So Nina can speak to him, and he can hear her, but in order from Maes to say anything to her, they need a translator.

It makes Winry’s heart hurt just thinking about it.

The homunculi are camped out in the living room, and everyone else has wondered off to Roy’s house. She and Al are standing with Gracia and Maes in their bedroom, in what’s likely a vain attempt not to be overheard. If Nina is awake, she’s listening, and she knows Dolcetto’s ears are too good not to be listening, even though she’s pretty sure neither he nor Greed cares. Once people had started pouring in, catching everyone up on what everyone else had been doing had taken priority, and her medical examination had taken a back seat.

Maes and Gracia are sitting on their bed, Gracia holding one of her husband’s hands between her own. “Is – are – will he be okay?”

She exchanges a look at Al. He says, “What you have to understand is that what Nina did has never been done before, so we can’t make any statements with one hundred percent certainty, because this is uncharted territory. Brother and I performed human transmutation, successfully more or less, but what we did and what Nina did is fundamentally different. It’s just not the same thing. So, from what Winry can see, yes, you’re fine. You’re alive, and everything’s functioning as it should.”

“Mostly,” she says, gesturing to her own throat, “The scar tissue is thick, but it’s not enough that it should be causing your voice any problems. I feel swelling, but it’s minor. It’s possible the issue is something I can’t see without an x-ray, or exploratory surgery. Or that it’s neurological, and you may regain your voice in time. Or you won’t.”

Al’s sigh rattles through his armor. “It’s also possible that there’s nothing physically wrong with you, and your voice was taken by the Gate as a form of equivalent exchange. In which case, we can try to bargain for it back, but I don’t know what the equivalent exchange for a lost voice would be.”

Gracia’s face is twisted, like she can’t decide on whether to be upset or grateful. Maes doesn’t seem to have an opinion on it all, but it’s also possible that he hasn’t really processed it yet. What about Nina? He uses the letter N and then the sign for genius for her name sign. That’s adorable.

“Besides being blind, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s a perfectly healthy eleven year old girl,” Winry says.

“And her sight is the price she paid to the Gate,” Al says. “The only way to repair it is through human transmutation.”

Both their faces darken at that. Am I a homunculus? Maes asks, having to fingerspell the last word.

Al laughs. Maes’s shoulders loosen. “When I said what Nina did was different from what Brother and I did, I meant it. It’s closer to resuscitation than alchemy, or to what Ed did to separate her after she became a chimera.” He hesitates, but they keep looking at him. Winry nudges him in the side, and he sighs, then continues. “When it comes to using human transmutation to bring people back from the dead, there’s the way that pretty much everyone else has done it, brother and I included. You get a bunch of ingredients, and make a body, then you retrieve the soul from beyond the Gate, and – insert, I guess, it into the body you’ve made. But that usually doesn’t work. Souls don’t want to go in bodies that don’t belong to them, and they react like the body is a virus, and consume it. Then, with nothing to hold it here, the soul returns to the Gate. If an alchemist is particularly talented, the body that’s left behind is semi-stable.”

Gracia looks completely lost, but Maes is hanging on Alphonse’s every word.

“If red water is added to that body, it will stabilize, and become a homunculus. If not, it will wither, and die. In the case of our mom, it was – the body we made her was strong enough to house her soul, even though it wasn’t made for her, even though her soul didn’t belong inside it. But in order to be that strong, she had to have certain characteristics, a certain flexibility of flesh that also makes her a homunculus. Not that we knew that when we did it. If she hadn’t been taken by Father, given red water, and forced to stretch the boundaries of her body, it’s possible it would have settled into something closer to a human body. But that’s mostly conjecture.”

“Your soul doesn’t belong in armor,” Gracia says, frowning. “But it’s still there.”

“That’s different,” Winry pipes up. “Al has a blood seal connecting his soul to the armor. It’s not being housed by it, not working with his body. It’s just Al’s soul controlling a suit of armor. Like a ghost.”

“Thanks, Winry,” he says dryly, and she grins at him. “She’s right. If Brother had tried to stick my soul inside the armor like a body, it wouldn’t have worked, and I would have returned to the Gate. Instead, he attached it, which is different. But Nina didn’t do either of those things. She didn’t need to make a body, yours was mostly intact. All she had to do was retrieve your soul and put it back inside your body. Your soul wouldn’t fight it, because that body did belong to you. No binding needed. The issue is the soul can’t stay in a damaged body. So she put your soul back inside you, and then just like Ed reconstructed her body around her soul five years ago, she reconstructed your throat based on the needs of the soul. It’s probably why there’s so much scaring – she must not have known enough to direct it properly, instead it directed her, which is hardly the best way to perform alchemy.”

“Can’t be helped. She’s not a doctor, and her specialty isn’t biological alchemy,” Winry says.

They both look a little shell shocked. She supposes getting lectured about advanced theoretical mostly unproven alchemy can be a lot for people who didn’t grow up next to the Elrics.

She says, “The important thing is, you’re both okay. Maes, maybe going through human transmutation will have some effects, we can’t say for certain that it won’t. But in my opinion as a doctor, you’re fine. And so is your daughter.”

“And as an alchemist,” Al says, “I wouldn’t worry too much. The Gate isn’t known to have delayed effects. What we’re dealing with right now is probably all we’ll end up dealing with. It doesn’t play games, it doesn’t lie, it doesn’t cheat. It’s the Gate. It’s there to give, and to take, and that’s it.”

Gracia is crying, but not in a bad way. Maes wraps his arm around her, cracks a grin, and signs, Thank you.

~

Greed is laid out on the couch, arms crossed and eyes closed, but he’s not sleeping. Bido is curled up on the floor in front of him, the absolute worst body guard in the world. He’s twisted his body to use his tail as a pillow, and has one of the blankets Gracia had given them tucked around his shoulders. Greed admits to himself, if not aloud, that it’s pretty cute.

Martel is asleep in one of the armchairs, awkwardly twisted in a way that doesn’t look at all comfortable. Dolcetto is in the other, and he’s claimed the ottoman, so he can almost lie down normally.

Greed looks at the ceiling and waits.

There’s the careful sound of the door opening, then closing, then gentle, almost silent footsteps. Greed pushes himself up, and jumps nimbly over Bido. He claps Roa on the shoulder as he walks by, and says quietly enough that even Dolcetto doesn’t twitch, “Take the couch. I’ll take the roof.”

His eyebrows dip together, disapproving. Greed throws him a peace sign as he walks out, and grabs one of the spare blankets at the last second.

It’ll be dawn in a couple hours. Until then, he’ll be more likely to sense incoming threats if he’s outside rather than inside. Besides, his people are inside, and they won’t be fully healed for a few more hours yet.

At least Alphonse doesn’t sleep. The thought that one of them will be wide awake is just comforting enough that he lays himself down on the section of roof right above their front door, wraps the blanket around him, and drifts off to a light sleep.

~

Alphonse doesn’t sleep, he can’t be tired, but he feels confident in saying today has been exhausting anyway.

Winry has claimed the Hughes’s guest room, and Al pats her on the back when they reach her door and keeps walking. “Alphonse!” she says, and he stops, and turns. Her arms are crossed and she’s scowling. He has no idea why. He’s pretty sure she doesn’t have any wrenches on her, at least. “Where are you going?”

“I was going to read in the kitchen,” he says, but it comes out more like a question than a statement. “Why?”

She shrugs, then uncrosses her arms, then crosses them again. “Can’t you read in my room? You know I don’t mind light while I sleep.”

Winry looks really cute when she sleeps. She twists the blankets and sheets all out of shape, and ends up starfishing diagonally across the bed. It seems like the wrong reason to agree to stay in her room. “Sure. Uh. Why?”

“I feel safe when you’re next to me,” she says, and Al feels like an absolute heel.

“Do you feel unsafe?” he asks, walking back over to her. Between him and Greed, there’s not a whole lot that could pose a threat.

She opens the door, waiting for him to walk past her inside. “No. I just like being near you.”

This is one of the few times when not having a body is to his advantage. “Oh,” he says, and his soul is a traitor because his voice comes out higher pitched, “okay.”

Winry looks as satisfied as she does when she finishes making a new piece of automail. It’s probably really weird how much he likes having her look at him like that.

He takes back every mocking comment he ever made about his brother and the Colonel.

~

Trisha doesn’t need to sleep. She likes it, she gets cranky without it, but she can go for a couple weeks without it if she has to. She doesn’t have to now. She’s under Colonel Roy Mustang’s roof. There’s no reason for her to be worried, no reason for anyone to attack him. They’d have to be very foolish to attack him. They still tell tales of what he was capable of during the Ishvalan war.

But she’s not going to go to sleep. She’s laying on the couch, having insisted Sig and Izumi take the spare bedroom and refusing to kick Roy out of his. And Ed out of his, she suspects. Ed had supposedly been staying here, but none of his things were in the spare bedroom.

She hears a creak of a loose floorboard, and she’s on her feet and half liquid before she can think about it.

It’s just Izumi.

The woman is in a shirt so large it has to belong to her husband, her hair loose around her face. “I’m sorry,” Trisha says, cheeks burning as she pulls her body back together again. “You startled me.”

“Sorry,” she says, voice hoarse. Trisha had heard her coughing. It worries her. Her sons have already had to deal with their mother getting sick and dying once. She doesn’t want them to have to go through it again. Izumi reaches out for her, but then her hand drops.

Trisha steps forward, offering her hand. She’s not sure what she’s looking for, but Trisha meant what she said. She owes this woman a great debt for raising her sons when she couldn’t. “Do you want to see me?”

Izumi’s face is guarded, but she nods.

Trisha is wearing sleep shorts and a tank top Edward had leant her. She removes them, standing naked in front of Izumi. She circles her, looking her over, but for what Trisha still doesn’t know. She steps forward, dragging her fingers down her throat to the ouroboros mark on her left breast. “They really did it. They brought you back.”

She closes the distance between them, pressing her hand to Izumi’s cheek. Her eyes widen. “I heard about your son,” she says. “It was before my time, of course, but Father told me about it. He’d planned to make your child into a homunculus. Wrath. You did the right thing.”

“I thought the reason I failed was because it couldn’t be done,” she whispers. “But it can. I just wasn’t good enough.”

Trisha pulls her into a hard hug. “No! You didn’t have enough to trade. My sons’ circle was perfect, but the price was too high. It took Alphonse entirely, and Edward’s leg. I wish they hadn’t done it. I wish they could have let me go, because the price to return the dead to the living is too high. You couldn’t have brought him back, not without dying yourself, and killing someone else too. Then what you would have made – either a child cursed to be a baby forever, or an adult with a baby’s soul. Neither of those are lives worth living.”

Izumi is tense in her arms, but then she shudders, and breaks. Her tears hit Trisha’s shoulders, and she rubs circles into Izumi’s back, just like she used to do for her sons when they had nightmares.

~

Ed is safe, warm under Roy’s ridiculously expensive silk comforter, and curled around him with his head on Roy’s chest. Sleep should come easy to him.

It doesn’t.

He’s lost track of how long he’s unable to fall asleep, but he’s unwilling to glance at the clock and put an exact number to his lost time. He keeps turning everything over in his head. His mom, Nina, Greed, Maes, the killed homunculi, the Gate. He knows all these problems will still be here in the morning, but he can’t seem to put them down.

Roy sighs, shifting beneath him, and Ed glances up into sleepy dark eyes. “Did I wake you?” he asks quietly.

He yawns, and curls his arm around Ed’s waist, pulling him that tiny bit closer, and Ed can’t help the thrill that goes up his spine. “No. I don’t know. Why are you awake?”

Ed shrugs, then bites his lip. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my mom.”

There’s a tense moment when Roy doesn’t say anything at all, but then he just sighs. “I just wish you’d trusted me, is all.”

“I do!” he insists, pushing himself up to glare at him. Roy doesn’t quite meet his eyes, so Ed climbs on top of him, straddling his hips so he’s much harder to ignore. “I mean it. It wasn’t – it’s not that I thought you wouldn’t support me, or that you wouldn’t believe me. You’ve backed me on too much crap, just rolled with so much of my weird shit, that I – I could never doubt you like that.”

Roy is smiling, hands warm and heavy on his thighs. That’s good. But Ed isn’t done yet.

“I do trust you,” he says, gripping Roy’s forearms. “I – it was just so crazy, and I didn’t have any proof, I didn’t have anything but Lust’s word, and I wasn’t sure if I even believed it, I hadn’t even seen her. But then I did, and it was real, and I knew it was real, but I couldn’t leave her, I couldn’t go and tell you, because she was right there, and it wasn’t something I could tell you over the phone–”

Roy pushes himself up and kisses him, and Ed keeps talking for about two seconds before his mind catches up with what’s happening, and then he kisses back. Warm, and slow, and Roy feels so good like this, touching him and underneath him. “Breathe, love,” he says when they part, pressing their foreheads together. “If you say that you trust me, then I believe you.”

That just makes Ed wants to kiss him even more. “It really sucks that my mom’s downstairs and Teacher is down the hall.”

“It was your idea,” he points out.

Ed shrugs, “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn’t take you being all awesome and hot into account. That’s what happens when I don’t get enough sleep, I start forgetting to factor in all the variables.”

Roy snorts, and then leers, grabbing his ass and pulling him forward until they’re pelvis to pelvis, because he’s an asshole. “I’m sure we could be quiet.”

On one hand, having sex with Roy is incredibly tempting, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, he’s not sure he could be quiet, and having either Trisha or Izumi hear him have sex is his worst nightmare. Or, well, his worst nightmare that doesn’t include the death or dismemberment.

“Or we can just get some sleep,” Roy says, tucking Ed’s hair behind his ear.

Ed kisses him again, because he can’t help it. “As soon as we’re in a house that doesn’t include any mother figures, I’m all yours.”

“We’re going to fuck in every room of the house,” Roy says as if it’s just occurred to him, more conversational than anything else.

Well, Ed’s not going to say no. “You get to be the one that suffers from rug burn in embarrassing places.”

Roy laughs out loud, and tugs at him until Ed lays down beside him, tangling their legs together and resting his head against his chest. He loves how Roy doesn’t flinch away from his cold automail. “That’s fair,” he says, and presses a kiss to Ed’s forehead. “Sleep. Tomorrow will get here soon enough.”

Everything is just as much of a mess as it was before and all the same crap is rattling around in his head. But, somehow, Ed manages to drift off when he hadn’t been able to before.

~

Gracia doesn’t usually manage to wake up before her husband, but today she does. She’s confused at first, to why she wakes up so tired, to why she wakes up feeling afraid. What’s there to fear?

Then she remembers, and she bolts upright, twisting to make sure it wasn’t a fever dream. But no, Maes is right there, asleep and breathing softly, the slow rise and fall of his chest all that prevents her from falling into complete hysteria.

Right. Her daughter brought her husband back from the dead, because that’s something she can do, apparently. With a little help.

Gracia keeps swinging wildly between being grateful Nina brought Maes back, and furious that she would ever risk herself like that, and hating herself for being happy she has her husband even with what it cost their daughter. Maes is alive, but Nina is blind.

Children aren’t supposed to sacrifice for their parents.

Gracia would give up her life for her children in an instant. She knows Maes would too. She doesn’t understand alchemy, doesn’t understand this gate, but she knows, bone deep to the core of her, that if she could save either of her daughter’s lives by going to this gate and letting it rip apart piece by piece, she would do it. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her children.

But she’s all twisted over this, over Nina doing a good thing, but hurting herself in the process, for not letting them protect her when they’re her parents and that’s their job.

It’s not a problem she’ll untangle this morning.

She’s awake, and she has guests. She should go about making breakfast. Greed and his crew seem like the type to eat a small mountain of food, and she knows Winry is.

Gracia knows that no matter how quiet she is, she’s likely to wake up the chimeras, but she does her best to move silently anyway. Hopefully once they realize it’s just her, they’ll be able to go back to sleep.

She’s just finished mixing enough pancake mix to feed their small army when her doorbell rings. She freezes. Last time her doorbell had rung, it had been someone who’d killed her husband. It rings again, but she’s still clutching the whisk, unable to move.

“I’ll get it.” Her head snaps up, and Martel is standing in the doorway. “Okay?”

The doorbell rings a third time. She nods.

There’s the sound of the door opening, then a quick conversation. Martel calls out, “Gracia! It’s your neighbor Mrs. Daniels!”

She lets out a breath, gives herself five seconds to grip the side of the counter, and then smooths out her apron and goes to the front door. Martel takes a step back, but doesn’t leave her side. It’s just an old woman, but Gracia is comforted anyway. “Hello Mrs. Daniels,” she greets the woman who’s old enough to be her grandmother. “Is there something I can do for you? It’s so early.”

She leans in close, and Gracia obligingly does the same. “I don’t want to alarm you,” she says in a whisper louder than her normal speaking voice, “but there’s a man sleeping your roof!”

What?

Martel slaps a hand over her face. Gracia looks over her shoulder at her. She holds up her hand and taps the back of it. Oh!

“It’s all right,” she tells Mrs. Daniels. “It’s just Gre – Greg. My cousin. He’s a bit eccentric.”

“Cousin,” she repeats.

“He’s from out of town,” she says, “You know how those Southerners are. It’s all the sun, it makes them strange. But he’s a good boy, really.”

Martel is not doing a good job of muffling her laughter. Gracia wishes she was closer so she could kick her.

“Right,” Mrs. Daniels says dubiously. “Well, as long as he’s your cousin, dear.”

It takes a few more gentle platitudes to convince Mrs. Daniels that everything’s fine and she should be on her merry way now. As soon as the door clicks shut, Gracia turns to Martel.

She hasn’t even gotten a chance to open her mouth before she says, “On it!” She goes back into the kitchen, shoves open the window, and climbs up onto the roof that way.

Gracia has just laid out a layer of bacon in the pan when she hears a high pitched scream, and then a second later Greed falls past the window and hits the ground with a dull thump. Martel’s laughter drifts into the kitchen from the open window, faint enough that she’s probably still on the roof.

After breakfast, they’re moving everyone over to Roy’s. He at least has less nosy neighbors than she does.

~

When Aviv’s alarm goes off, and he rolls into a warm body that is too tall and too muscular to belong to his girlfriend, he figures something must have happened. Saif is curled in their bed like a child, in such a deep sleep that he hadn’t even twitched at Aviv’s alarm or his movements. The bandage around his leg doesn’t help at all.

“Gabby?” he calls out, nearly tripping in his haste to get out of bed. Saif rolls over, but doesn’t otherwise react. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, with his mother’s dallah on the table and the scent of cardamom still in the air. She’s clearly exhausted, but unhurt, and she smiles when she sees him. “What happened?”

“A lot,” she says, tilting her head back, waiting. He walks over and kisses her, light and easy, and it settles him. Whatever happened, he still has her. He can handle anything as long as he has her.

Farid was fool for committing the great sin against Ishvala, for risking everything and going against the will of heaven to try and bring Laila back. But Aviv can’t say he doesn’t understand. If he lost Gabby, what rule wouldn’t he break, what god wouldn’t he face, if it meant saving her.

“I do not like the sound of that,” he says. “Should I call out of work today?” His boss will be furious. He can’t bring himself to care all that much. Aviv is too overworked and underpaid to be easily replaced.

She stands, looping her arms around his neck. She’s stronger than him, but it’s almost easy to forget, since she’s so small pressed against him. “No. We need someone to keep up appearances. I’ll fill you in while you’re getting ready.”

He doesn’t like the sound of that at all, but he won’t argue with her. He’s useless in a fight, and Saif is here. Even with a hurt leg, he can’t imagine his brother in law would let anything happen to Gabby.

~

Everyone has agreed to make the trek over to Roy’s, taking slightly different routes to avoid inevitably attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention. Maes thinks that Elysia has been traumatized enough for one day, and that Gracia and the girls should stay behind while he goes with everyone else to Roy’s. Greed instructs Roa and Dolcetto to stay behind and protect them should anything happen. Winry thinks it’s all a good idea in theory, but might be a little bit trickier in practice.  

She’s apparently the only one who’s unsurprised when Nina says, “I’m coming with you.”

Maes shakes his head and Gracia says, “You are not! War is no place for children.”

The look Nina gives her mother borders on disrespectful. “Oh, good, well in that case I’ll just sit at home, safe and sound, and the effects of war will pass me over because I’m too young. Because that’s how that works.”

There’s a beat of silence, then Elysia says, “Daddy is giving you a look like you’re going to get a time out.”

“Leaving me behind is a waste of time,” she says. “I’m going to end up involved no matter what. I’m a viable sacrifice now, and they’re not going to let me stay on the sidelines.”

“What are you talking about?” Gracia demands. “No one is sacrificing anyone!”

Winry looks to Al to see if that made any sense to him, but her eyes get caught on Greed, who’s frowning and staring at Nina. “How do you know that?” They all fall silent, and Nina crosses her arms. He sighs, and for just a second he looks old. “It took more than your sight then.”

There’s panic written across Gracia and Maes’s face, and he’s signing almost too fast for Winry to follow, demanding an explanation.

Nina can’t see any of that, but she raises her chin a little higher. “I know what’s coming, and I know what we have to do. You can try and do it without me, and fail, or take me with you and have a chance of succeeding. And if you try and protect me, they’ll come for me anyway, because I’m the last piece they need.”

Winry doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but Greed sighs and rubs a hand over his face, knocking his sunglasses up so they’re sitting on top of his head. “She’s right. She’s been through the Gate, and lived through it. Father is going to use her.”

“Over my dead body,” Gracia snaps, and even Winry has to step back from the ferocity in her gaze. “No one is using my daughter for anything!”

Nina softens for the first time, and holds out her hands, reaching for her parents. They each take one of her hands, and she looks up at the space where she thinks their heads are. “I love you. But this isn’t something we can stop. If we try, if you try, then you’ll die, and I probably will too. You have to let me do this.”

They look to Greed, who sighs, but nods, and their faces drop. Whatever he and Nina know that the rest of them don’t, he still thinks it’s necessary to bring an eleven year old girl in the middle of a warzone.

Winry tucks her hand in Alphonse’s, and is reassured when he shuffles a half step closer to her.

She hopes this is something they can all survive.

~

After spending some time with the guy, Lust understands Ed’s position completely.

He’s incredibly powerful, he’s one of the few beings that could probably give Father pause all on his own, and he’ll be invaluable in the upcoming fight. She’s still kind of tempted to give up and leave him behind anyway.

The old man can move, when he puts his mind and alchemy to it, so they arrive back in Central right around noon. She gets the impression he’s just humoring her, which, fine, whatever, she sincerely doesn’t give a shit as long as he’s following her.

She wants to go to the Ishvalan district, to check on Aviv and Saif and Gabby, but it’s time she can’t afford to waste. She can sense when other homunculi are close, just the barest hints of a presence, and two of them are in the direction of Roy Mustang’s house, so she assumes that’s where Ed is. She can just barely sense Pride in his ridiculous mansion.

She can just barely hear the rise and fall of voices behind the door, and considers just walking in, but that seems just a touch rude, so she knocks. The sounds cut off, and then Greed answers, leaning against the door frame, languid with his thumbs tucked in the back of his pockets and that ridiculous smile on his face.

Why is it that whenever she sees him she has an immediate urge to slap him?

“Hey, Darling,” he says, cocking one of his eyebrows high enough to be seen over his pointless sunglasses. “Come here often?”

Oh, that’s why. She means to answer, but in the next moment Greed is pushed forward, stumbling into Lust’s arms. She looks up in time to see Trisha barreling forward. “Hohenheim!”

“Trisha?” he says, for the first time appearing off balance. “I thought–”

They don’t get to find out what he thought, because Trisha interrupts him by punching him in the face. She puts enough force behind it then his feet leave the ground and he goes flying back about ten feet.

~

Ed is laughing so hard he has to cling to Roy to stay upright.

“Brother!” Al cries, “Do something! Stop them!”

Mom is apparently doing her best to beat their father to death, which is pretty pointless considering he’s effectively immortal, but it certainly looks therapeutic. Maybe he should give it a shot. “Have you lost your mind? Absolutely not. This is fantastic.”

Lust and Greed are outside with them, while everyone else is inside with their faces pressed up against Roy’s windows.

Al’s face doesn’t have any expressions, but Ed can tell he’s furious. He shifts his weight from leaning against Roy to leaning against his brother, who’s not mollified in the slightest.

Trisha is panting, and she hasn’t shifted forms because it’s the middle of the day, and anyone could see them, but he can tell she’s tempted. “I see,” Hohenheim says from flat on his back. “You are a homunculus.” He pushes himself to his feet and alchemical energy dances across his hands.

Ed reacts without thinking, clapping his hands together and pressing them to the ground. Hohenheim is encased in dirt up to his neck, and Ed’s tempted to get in a few good punches himself as he stalks forward. “If you try and hurt Mom, I’ll kill you,” he says, eyes narrowed. He means it. He and Al gave up too much to get her back for Hohenheim to take her away now.

“Edward,” he says, casually shifting the earth keeping him bound back into the ground. “I know it looks like her, but that’s not your mother.”

I’m not their mother?” Trisha hisses, and Ed glances over her shoulder to see Al hovering by her side. “You’re barely able to call yourself their father. I died, Hohenheim! I was dead and you were gone.”

His face is twisted, “How do you – do you have her memories?”

“She is Mom,” Ed says quietly. “Just because you couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Al and I brought her back.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Lust says, looking at Hohenheim warily. Ed doesn’t think they’ve realized it, but Lust’s fingers have lengthened into knives, and carbon armor is slowly creeping over Greed’s body. “She’s not like us. She has Trisha Elric’s soul, which means she is Trisha Elric.”

Their dad looks like he could be knocked over with a feather.

Trisha walks toward Hohenheim before Al can stop her, but Ed flings out his arm, catching her in the chest. She looks to him, and he can’t let anything happen to her, not again. But she keeps looking at him, eyes steady and firm, and he sighs, lowers his arm, and steps back. “Don’t give me a reason to hurt you,” he says, glaring at his father.

Trisha closes the distance between them, her breathing finally back to normal. Hohenheim’s eyes are wide, his mouth parted. His hands are shaking. Trisha takes a deep breath, settling herself, then raises her hand and slaps him across the face.

He flinches, when he hadn’t at any of her other blows.

“You left us, and you didn’t come back,” she says quietly.

“I was trying to save the world,” he croaks, then clears his throat.

Her eyes narrow. That was the wrong thing to say. “I don’t care about the world, I care about our sons. I died, and they were alone, and look what they did! Look what happened to them because you couldn’t put the world on hold to be a father.”

Ed wants to say something, because his mother looks like she can’t settle on fury or anguish, but this isn’t about him, this isn’t a conversation for him to take part in. He’s just here to make sure his dad doesn’t do something stupid, like try and unmake their mother.

“It was important work, Trisha,” he says, “What the Dwarf in the Flask did … what he was planning to do … I needed to be able to stop it.”

“I don’t care,” she says, and now she just looks disappointed, “If you weren’t planning to put our children before the world, then you shouldn’t have married me.”

He looks devastated. She turns away from him, gripping Ed’s flesh shoulder before she walks back inside. Ed follows her, not sparing Hohenheim another glance.

As they walk past him, he hears Al sigh and say, “You better come on in, Dad. It’s time to save the world.”

“Or at least, like, Amestris,” Greed says, skin back to normal. Lust elbows him in the side, glaring.

~

They settle into his dining room, which he never uses, because it’s the only place in the house large enough to fit all of them, and even then Greed’s chimeras end up leaning against the wall rather than trying to find a seat at the table. Nina is at the head of the table, with Ed and Al on one side of her, and Izumi and Hohenheim on the other. The homunculi have elected to sit on the other end of the table, as far away from Hohenheim as they can get. At least, Roy assumes it’s Hohenheim they’re avoiding, since they hadn’t reacted like this to any of the other alchemists. He’s next to Sig, who’s next Izumi, and Maes and Winry are sitting across from them.

“Pipsqueak has a plan,” Greed says, leaning back in his chair.

“I’m one of five people who could kill you and make it stick,” Nina says, looking in the direction of where Greed’s voice had come from. “Be nice to me.”

Maes looks appalled, but Greed is grinning. “Yes ma’am.”

She claps her hands and presses them to the table. With a flash of light, a five point circle carves itself into surface of his dining room table. He hopes she remembers to put it back later. Well, if not, he can always get Ed to do it. “This is the circle that Father will place us all in. He’s going to use us to open the Gate, and take Truth’s power. He’s trying to become a god, and this circle and us is the only way he can achieve that, so it’s what he’s going to do.”

“How do you know what?” Ed demands. Nina opens her mouth, but must hesitate for a second too long, because Ed slaps his open palm against the table. The sound makes her jump. “Damnit, Nina!”

“I’m not sorry,” she says, “We need this information, and I wasn’t about to let you give up anything else.”

“You’re a kid, you should have let me make the trade,” he says, glaring even though the effect is lost on her.

She snorts, “Oh, give me a break. You were nine when you first visited the Gate and traded away a child’s innocence for understanding. When you were my age, you joined the military. I don’t want any crap from you.”

Ed opens his mouth, then closes it. “She’s got a point,” Alphonse and Winry say at the same time, and Winry grins and winks at him. Roy is pretty sure if armor could blush, Al would be.

“As you were saying,” Izumi says, raising an eyebrow at Edward. He sinks into his chair and mimes zipping his mouth closed.

Roy is looking over the circle. It’s embarrassingly simple. A concentration of energy, and the symbols for opening and rebirth, which normally he’d say were purely symbolic and there more as a stabilizing force than anything else, but he doesn’t think that’s the case this time.

“We’re each going to be placed at a point in the circle. We can’t alter any of the symbols, or take anything away. But we can add.” It’s almost comical how everyone at the table leans in closer at that. Nina claps her hands and presses them to the table once more. “We can all do hands free alchemy, thanks to our trip through the Gate. We don’t have to physically alter the circle, because we can do it all on our own.”

When the light dies down, the circle isn’t simple anymore. It’s crammed with arching lines and complex, interlocked symbols. Roy gives up on trying to unravel it after a few moments. Hohenheim is the first to figure it out, mouth parting in surprise. “Huh,” he says, looking at Nina with a newfound respect. Maes glances at Roy, but he shakes his head. He’s a great alchemist. He’s a genius. But he’s never been wrung through and spit out by the Gate, so his understanding of alchemy is comparatively limited. He could maybe figure out this circle with a couple weeks and access to a library, but that’s it.

“Well, fuck,” Izumi says. Something that looks dangerously close to hope steals its way across her face.

A minute later, Al goes, “Oh! Wow. Do you really think that will work?”

Nina doesn’t say anything. She’s looking in Ed’s direction. He hasn’t said anything yet, his chin resting on his hand as he looks the circle over. “Big brother?”

He sighs, and rubs the back of his neck. “As someone who’s faced the Gate three times, this is a horrible plan. That said, it might work.”

Roy doesn’t find that comforting at all.

Izumi traces her fingers over a row of elemental symbols. “You won’t have enough energy to keep the connection open. If it closes unexpectedly, we could all get sucked in.”

“Brother and I made a good team,” she says, still looking towards Ed. “I’ll control the transmutation, but if you can redirect the excess energy like you did with me before, then we’ll have enough.”

“There’s going to be so much energy flinging itself around the circle at that point, it’ll be impossible to control,” Hohenheim says.

“Anchors,” Al says.

Both Ed and Nina nod. She says, “I’ll control the reaction, and Edward will control the flow of the energy. But to keep it from tearing us apart, Hohenheim, Izumi, and Alphonse will have to anchor the reaction, keeping the energy from expanding too quickly for Ed to control.”

“The anchors won’t face the Gate,” Ed says, “They’re basically acting as living stabilizers at that point. But we will.”

“I’m not afraid of the Gate,” Nina says, “What’s there to be afraid of? It always does exactly what you ask of it, assuming you can pay the price.”

“It asks too much,” Izumi says quietly. “It’s not a kind thing.”

Her face scrunches up, and she says, “Well, no, but it’s not – it’s just there, it’s not mean either. It’s the Gate. It takes, then it gives. It’s what it does. I’m not afraid to face it again.”

“I am,” Ed says, without a trace of shame. “It gives me nightmares.”

Nina frowns, tapping her fingers against the tabletop. “Oh. I could maybe do it on my own? If we have four anchors, the energy release might be slow enough that I can control the reaction and the energy flow on my own.” She doesn’t sound very confident about that.

Ed takes off his glove and reaches over with his flesh hand to tilt Nina’s face so she’s looking right at him, even though she’s blind. “You’re my little sister. If you think for one second I’d let you face something I’m scared of alone, then you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are.”

“I don’t want you to be afraid,” she says, but her relief is obvious.

He shrugs, leaning back in his chair. “It can’t be helped. This stuff is scary. Assuming I live to have nightmares, I’ll get over it.”

“Such healthy coping mechanisms,” Izumi says dryly, but it’s obvious she’s proud of him.

Ed raises an eyebrow and points at all of them. “I don’t want to hear anything about healthy coping mechanisms from anyone at this table. We’re all messed up.”

Sig, possibly the only person who that doesn’t apply to, raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything.

But what does the circle actually do? Maes signs.

“Your father asked what specifically the circle does,” Trisha says. The homunculi have been silent, but they all look interested.

The other four alchemists clearly know, but they don’t say anything, waiting for Nina to speak. She runs her hands along the edge of the circle she’s alchemically carved into her table. “It’s – it’s an inversion of the circle Father is going to use on us, almost. He’s planning to use us to open the gate. We’re going to let him, but in the last second, we’ll take control of the circle. We’ll then sacrifice him to the gate. If – if I’m right, and I am, just so we’re clear, then we’ll all regain what we lost. If we sacrifice the Dwarf in the Flask to the Gate, and maintain the circle, and loop all the energy back into it, then – then Ed will get his limbs back, Al will get his body, Izumi will get her internal organs back, and Hohenheim,” she pauses, “I’m not sure what will happen to you, exactly. You didn’t personally sacrifice anything to the Gate the first time around, so I don’t know how that will work out.”

Will you get your sight back? Maes asks.

“Your sight?” Roy translates.

She shrugs, like it’s not important. “Yes, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll get my sight back too.”

Lust leans her elbows on the table and rubs her temples. “I know I’m not the alchemy expert here, but just so we’re all the same page. You’re going to let Father capture you, use you in his twisted experiment, and take up your positions in his death circle, and allow him to activate it. Then, all five of you are going to use hands free alchemy at the same time to take control of an already activated circle in possession of a being that’s thousands of years old. Meaning all five of you have to be thinking of exactly the same symbology and lines at exactly the same time, otherwise you’ll be torn apart. Then, if that’s successful, Nina is going to push through one of the most complicated circles I’ve ever seen, while Ed controls the energy flow to make sure she actually has access to the proper amount of power to do that successfully, while the rest of you work as anchors in an attempt to ensure the absolute tidal wave of energy Father will be harnessing doesn’t rush through the circle, backlash, and kill you all. Them, if that works, Nina and Ed will go to the Gate, and attempt to sacrifice Father to it in exchange for what you’ve all lost. Which should theoretically be equivalent.”

Everyone grimaces. No one disagrees.

“Well, it sounds crazy when you say it like that,” Winry says. She’s grinning, but it’s strained. She likes this plan about as much as Roy does.

“Does anyone else have any better ideas?” Greed asks. “Because I don’t.”

Another long beat of silence. Al sighs, the sound rattling around his armor. “Well, I’m in. It’s better than going in blind and just hoping we don’t die.”

“The hell,” Izumi says, shrugging, “Why the fuck not? Sure, okay.”

Ed’s already agreed, so they look to Hohenheim, who takes his glasses off the bridge of his nose and carefully polishes them with his sleeve. Al has to grip his brother’s forearm to prevent Ed from doing something violent. He slides the glasses back on, looks around the table, and says, “Okay. It might work.”

Lust buries her face in her hands. “Ishvala above. We’re all going to die.”

Greed pats her one the back. “Can’t you be a bit more cheery? Have some hope? Convey a little false optimism? Like, great job guys, this definitely doesn’t sound like a plan that will end with the whole country getting murdered, and us in particular!”

Lust kicks the legs out from his chair so Greed goes sprawling on the ground.

Well, Roy supposes there have been worse beginnings to revolutions.

~

Maes is sitting in Roy’s kitchen with a map of Central spread out in front of him, listening to the sounds of the five alchemists working on recreating Nina’s circle in the living room, doing it over and over again to make sure they have it done perfectly. Sig is trying to be supportive, while Winry just keeps pointing out when any of the Elrics make a mistake and telling them they suck. She gets an especially gleeful note to her voice when she does it to Hohenheim.

He hates this. His daughter is at risk, and so are Edward and Alphonse, who are as good as his sons.

He sighs, and his voice is still useless. He likes talking, so he’s hardly thrilled by this development, but considering his other option was death it seems wrong to complain about it. He’d rather be mute than dead.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Trisha asks, sitting down across from him. She was supposed to be with the other and homunculi and Roy working on a plan to defeat, or at least capture, Pride while all the alchemists who could reliably kill him would be unavailable. He’s got the sewer network laid out in front of him, overlaid with the giant transmutation circle that is Amestris. He’s trying to figure out where exactly Father is planning to activate the circle from. He’s not having much luck.

He raises an eyebrow, jerking his head in the direction she came from.

“They’re just bickering now,” she sighs. “The simple fact of the matter is, we can’t kill Pride without either body parts from the person he was created from or the help of an alchemist who’s been through the Gate. I’d say we should make a preemptive strike, and kill him now before Father has a chance to set his plan into motion. But, unfortunately, he’s still the Fuhrer, and I really don’t think they’ll let us just march into his stupid big mansion and kill him – if he’s smart, then Julia Douglas has been declared a traitor, and they’ll have orders to kill me on sight. So, we’ll wait, and contain him when we have the chance. It’ll be the three of us against him, and he’s strong, but we’re just as hard to kill as he is. We’ll just have to keep him distracted until one of the alchemists can come and offer a more permanent solution.”

She doesn’t look like Greed, like Lust. There’s something about them that’s not quite normal, not quite safe. They look just a touch too different from other people. But Trisha – she just looks like a tired young woman. She died so young. When she came back, she stayed that way.

Can I ask you something? he signs.

Her eyebrows dip together, and he almost reaches for a pen to write it out when she says, “Sure. But sign slower. I haven’t used it in a while.” He must look surprised, because she smiles and says, “Pinako taught me when I was a little girl. I’m not – try not to be too fancy, but I should be able to follow along.”

He’s getting an impression that sign language was something else taught in the Rockbell family, right alongside automail. He supposes a family of doctors would do their best to ensure they could communicate with all their patients.

Your children almost died to bring you back. How do you – He pauses, unsure how to continue, not sure what exactly he’s trying to ask.

She looks like she knows. “I can’t change it, I can’t take it back. I’m not an alchemist. If I could draw a circle to trade myself back to the Gate and trade my life for their bodies, then I would. But I don’t know how, and they’re certainly not going to do it for me. Hohenheim might, but – not now, I can’t do that to them now, not when we’re about to go into war, not when I can help them, not as their mother, but as a monster. After, if they don’t get their bodies back, then it’s still an option as far as I’m concerned.”

Maes swallows. It’s horrifying. They’re not supposed to – they’re supposed to be selfish. Our children are supposed to be selfish and spoiled and demanding. They’re not supposed to sacrifice for us.

Trisha reaches out her hand, and he lets it slip into hers, is reassured in a way he can’t explain by the strength of her grip. “I know.”

That’s all she says, because that’s all there is to say. It’s not like either of them wanted to die, it’s not like they’re ungrateful for their lives. But their children harming themselves for their sake is a parent’s worst nightmare.

He wishes he could teach Nina to love a little less strongly, to be less ferocious, less protective, but he doesn’t know how, doesn’t know if that’s something he really wants for her anyway. He hates the risks and sacrifices she took for him. But he loves her just the way she is, even though she’s too powerful and too smart and too willing to risk life and limb for people and causes she believes in.

She really is growing up to be Hawkeye. The prospect is suddenly terrifying.

~

At first, Aviv doesn’t react to all of his coworkers’ screams, only focuses harder on proofing the brief in front of him. Then after a couple minutes he remembers that he’s not at home, and that if people are screaming in the middle of his law office, he should probably be concerned.

“What is going on?” he asks, grabbing the elbow of one of the other associates.

He’s paler than normal and his blue eyes are wide. “It’s the end of the world out there!”

Well, that’s spectacularly unhelpful.

A couple proactive people are shoving filing cabinets in front of the doors, which will help keep whatever they’re so afraid of out, but also keeps the rest of them trapped inside. Everyone else is pressed up against the window. Some of them are crying.

He walks over and glances down, and he’s so, so grateful that they’re on the fifteenth floor. Not that he thinks that will do them much good in the long run.

“Fuck,” he says, letting out a rare expletive. He really thought he’d seen it all.

Hordes of white, gangly human shaped things are marching through the city. The streets are already running red from the blood of people unlucky enough to get in these things’ path.

He needs to find a phone.

~

When Aviv calls and tells her what he sees, what’s heading straight for their corner of Central, Gabby doesn’t waste time disbelieving him or asking him if he’s sure. He wouldn’t say it if he wasn’t sure. Instead she says, “I’ll take care of it,” and hangs up on him. She regrets it as soon as she does it. She might die today. She should have told him she loved him. He already knows, but that’s hardly the point.

What’s wrong?” Saif asks in Ishvalan, leaning against the doorway, doing his best to keep his weight off of his injured leg.

We have work to do,” she says, and his face firms and he nods, not having a clue what she’s talking about but ready to follow her lead. She is the chosen partner of his brother’s wife’s brother, and so they share a name.

They have time, if not much. She can go around the neighborhood, telling them the war is here, to lock all the doors and hide in their basements. They’ve survived one war already, they’ll know what to do. But it won’t be enough. When those monsters come, someone needs to be there to defend them. 

Almost everyone living a mile in any direction is Ishvalan. The military won’t send anyone to help them.

She could run, could hide, could save herself. She’s sure that’s what Aviv wants her to do, what Saif would help her do.

But she can’t.

Amestrians abandoned the Ishvalan people once before, her family abandoned them once before, and she won’t do it again if she can help it.

Stubbornness has been passed down the Armstrong family for generations.

~

Roy’s phone rings and they all freeze except Ed, who get to his feet and picks up the receiver. “Mustang residence.” Everyone thinks they’re sleeping together anyway. Him being at Roy’s house isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Any humor he found in the circumstances drain away as Aviv rushes to tell him what’s happening in the middle of Central, monsters pouring out onto the street. “Got it,” he says, “Try not to die.”

They expected Father to make a move. They didn’t expect this.

When they hear what happened, the homunculi grow quiet. “They’re not ready,” Trisha mutters, then turns to Lust, “They’re not, right? I would have heard–”

Lust is shaking her head, eyes distant. “No, he shouldn’t even be able to – this shouldn’t be happening, it’s too soon, those things shouldn’t have been viable for the next couple of months.”

“We need the short version, now,” Ed snaps. “These things are already killing people. We have to move.”

“Father calls them the Immortal Legion,” Trisha says, “They’re mannequins modeled after homunculi bodies, and nearly indestructible. They’re powered by human souls – the souls that Father has trapped inside of him from Xerxes. But it doesn’t make any sense, so far none of them have been sturdy enough to contain human souls for longer than a couple of hours. He’s basically throwing those souls away.”

“Risk it all to win it all,” Winry says grimly. “It doesn’t matter how many souls he wastes, because if his crazy plan works he’ll have all the power he could want or need, and none of those souls will matter.”

Ed rubs at his eyes, because they haven’t even left the house and already everything’s going to shit.

“New plan,” Al says, pressing a hand against Ed’s back, “The five of us will go and try and stop Father, and hopefully manage to get caught up in his circle. The rest of you spread out, and try to contain the carnage. If you can destroy the mannequins, great, but if Mom is right then you just need to try and contain them for a few hours, which might be easier.”

“I’ll go with you,” Trisha says. “I’ll stay with you while I can, and fight the mannequins in the area father’s working near. They’ll probably be more of them near him, so it’s better to have someone who doesn’t die easily.”

Lust is conflicted, wrapping her arms around herself in a very human gesture. “Aviv is in the business area. But Saif is at his home, with Gabby, and they’re not alone. Most of the Ishvalans who live in Central live in that area.”

“I’ll go to the business area,” Greed says, and she looks to him, mouth parted in surprise. He grins at her, lopsided and too wide, and Ed doesn’t know who Greed thinks he’s fooling, but it’s not him. No wonder they just needed to drop Lust’s name and he was willing to hop a train to face his worst nightmare. “I’ll protect your brother, if I can. Martel will help. I’ll send Bido to go warn people in areas that haven’t been overrun yet. Go protect your people.”

“He’s not my brother, and they’re not me people,” she says, but before Greed can say something sarcastic she adds on, “Thank you.”

Roy is on phone, calling the team and making calls to Maes’s people on his behalf, since he can’t speak. Maes looks furious, and Ed knows why. Gracia and Elysia are at home, and those things are heading toward them, and he can’t go to them. Dolcetto and Roa are watching them, they’re safer than most people in Amestris, but it chafes at him that he can’t go back and see for himself. Maes has work to do. No one else will be able to command his department, not in something like this, so he has to go.

Al sighs. “Winry–”

“I’m coming too,” she says, “I’ll go with Greed and Martel. Just let me grab my kit.”

“It’s too dangerous!” Al says, and Edward winces. It’s not like he disagrees, but he’s smart enough not to try to tell Winry what to do. Al usually is too.

“There are probably survivors out there, and they’re going to need a doctor,” she says. 

He shakes his head, “No – no! Those things are monsters, and you don’t stand a chance against them.”

Her eyes narrow. “I’m not asking for your permission, Alphonse. I’m a doctor. This is my job. Don’t try and get between me and people who need my help.”

They’re glaring at each other, but they really do not have time for this. They have to go. He walks over to Roy, grabs his collar, and yanks him down so he can kiss him. He hopes it’s not the last one they get to have. “They need the Flame Alchemist out there,” he says. “Don’t let me down.”

Roy hates what he did during the war, hates that he was turned into a living weapon of mass destruction. But that’s who they need right now. His face closes off, but he nods, pressing one more light, chaste kiss against Edward’s lips.

Maes is hugging Nina tight enough that she’s probably losing circulation in half her body. Ed loves most of the people of this room, and is fond of the rest. He doesn’t have time to say goodbye to all of them.

“Try not to die,” he says to everyone, and it comes out more grim and weary than he intended. “Now let’s go win a war.”

~

Saif tries to get Gabby to stay inside, to huddle with the others in the relative safety of the basement. She ignores him. He’s tempted to tie her up and force her there. He’s already had to watch one brother go mad with the loss of the love of his life. He has no interest in watching what happened to Farid happen to Aviv.

What do you think you can do?” he asks in Ishvalan. “You will die.”

He doesn’t doubt her spirit, but she’s so slight, and she’s no alchemist. Against monsters like the ones Aviv described, it seems like she can only be another body in their way.

She glances at him, but she doesn’t look worried or fatalistic. She looks amused. “Do not worry, brother. If I die today, I will not die easy.

There’s nothing about this he likes. He’s hoping when those things get here, she’ll get scared and run, and he won’t have to worry about protecting her. He can ignore the pain in his leg and fight, but he’s unsure how much use his arm will be against creatures like these. He doesn’t think she’ll be any use at all.

He keeps thinking that until she punches right through one of the mannequin’s chest and pulls out what’s supposed to be its heart. It doesn’t slow the thing down much, but considering how their skin feels more like iron than flesh, it shouldn’t be possible.

They fight back to back, and the good news is the monsters are more interested in attacking them than tearing down buildings. The bad news is that it’s an awful lot of monsters all at once. They’re not dying, but if Saif can deconstruct them then it takes them several long minutes to rebuild themselves. Gabby is just casually ripping off limbs and tossing them away. The monsters chase after their arms and legs and heads in order to reattach them. It’s the most horrific game of fetch he’s ever seen.

“Are you a homunculus too?” he asks, even though he knows she isn’t.

She flashes a grin at him, and she doesn’t look like she enjoys this, but she’s good at it. “No. Why do people always think bringing back the dead is the only form of human transmutation?” She winces as one of those things’ jaw closes around her arm, and he moves to help, but when she pries it off she only has shallow cuts where it’s teeth were. He doesn’t understand. “Genetic manipulation is so much easier, even if the results are unreliable. It tends to skip a generation.”

He blows apart a mannequin with enough force that it knocks back the two behind it. “You’re genetically modified to be super strong and indestructible.”

“I wouldn’t say indestructible, just thick skinned. I also don’t really react to extreme temperature changes,” she says, like it’s a fun fact about her. It’s dangerous, but he takes a moment from the fighting to stare at her. She rolls her eyes as she adds, “Our genes have been passed down the Armstrong family for generations. It manifests in different ways, when it manifests at all.”

“Is it just you?” he asks. He knows she at least has a brother.

She shakes her head, stepping to the side to avoid a mannequin because she tore off its head so it’s having a hard time seeing her. “My brother has abnormal strength, and my sister is impervious to cold. I think she’s aging slower too, but there’s no way to really prove that.”

Well. Clearly he doesn’t have to worry about protect her. Hopefully, she’ll protect him.

They don’t have much time for talking after that. The monsters keep coming for them, and at first it was manageable, but Saif thinks that they might be attracted to the sounds of the fight, because more and more of them keep pouring in. Which on one hand is good, because if they’re fighting them, then they’re not attacking people who are can’t defend themselves.

But soon, he and Gabby won’t be able to defend themselves either. They’re pressed back to back, trying to keep fighting, trying to keep the monsters’ attention on them and not on all the people hiding in their basements. Gabby is covered in wounds, bite marks that are slowly oozing blood and would have killed anyone else, and he’s exhausted by his use of alchemy. He can’t help but slow down, can’t make his body keep moving at his previous speed, and soon it’s going to get the point where he’s too slow, and these monsters devour him.

He hopes his brother is waiting for him on the other side, but he doesn’t think he is. Farid may have been an alchemist, may have committed the great sin of human transmutation, but he was a good man. Saif doesn’t know what he is anymore, but he doesn’t think it’s a good man.

Just when things seem completely hopeless, just when it looks like he and Gabby are going to be overwhelmed and consumed, help arrives.

“SUCH BARBARIC CREATURES!” a man’s voice bellows, then a large, almost bald man in a military uniform punches through the monsters, alchemical energy arching down his arm and released by his fists.

“Alex!” Gabby cries, breathless. “What are you doing here?”

The Strongarm Alchemist slams his fist into the ground, causing a sinkhole that a whole bunch of the monsters fall into, shrieking. He looks over, and his eyes widen. “Ca – Gabby! You shouldn’t be out here, it’s too dangerous!”

“What are you doing here?” she repeats, kicking two monsters down the sinkhole to get closer to her brother. “You should have reported to your commander for orders!”

His eyes get wet and tears fall, and he doesn’t make any effort to hide them. It makes Saif’s skin itch to see so much blatant and unrepentant emotionalism. “They won’t send any soldiers to this area, you know that. I chose orders and safety above doing the right thing during the war. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

Saif is glad he never got around to killing him. Gabby looks like she has something to say, but when she opens her mouth nothing comes out. Another wave of monsters pushes closer, and they don’t have time to talk anymore. Now, with the Strongarm Alchemist there to help, they’re back to holding them at bay. Saif doesn’t know how long it will last, because they will tire before these monsters will.

The longer they can hold them back, the safer everyone else will be. That’s all that matters.

~

The mannequins are spreading through the city like locusts. By the time Winry gets to the business district with the others, the hoard is gone, but a few dozen stay behind, breaking into buildings and gnawing on what’s left of the people they’ve already killed.

There are so many bodies. The pavement is stained red with blood.

Winry leaves the fighting to Greed and Martel. She gets to work, turning over bodies, checking to see if people still have a pulse, trying to find survivors.

The first one she finds is a woman with both her legs stuck under a piece of concrete, arms broken and twisted. She’s uselessly trying to pull herself free anyway, and when she sees Winry her eyes go wide. “Run,” she whispers, “please, you have to run!”

Winry grabs a long metals pipe and sticks the end under the block of concrete. “Is this thing crushing your legs? Can you still feel them?”

She nods, “I’m just – just stuck, it’s just my arms. But, please, I don’t know when they’ll be back. You have to leave.”

With a grunt of effort, Winry pushes down on the pipe and lifts the block of concrete enough so the woman can scramble out of the rubble. As she lets it drop back onto the ground, she hears a man’s low moans. Another survivor.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “I’m going to splint your arms, then I want you to find somewhere to hide, okay? This is going to hurt. Sorry.”

There’s a child missing his head on the ground next to her, bitten clean off his neck, but she can’t focus on that. There are still people she can save. There will be time to mourn later, when her work is done.

~

They’ve gotten to the entrance of Father’s underground base, where all of this is supposed to take place. They have to fight through, of course, but they’ve got the five alchemists, Sig, and her, a homunculus. They don’t stand a chance.

Trisha hugs both her sons to her, pressing a kiss to each of their cheeks. “Don’t die,” she orders.

“We’ll do our best,” Alphonse promises, and then they’re leaving. Nina’s hand is clutched in Ed’s he carefully guides her forward, Izumi on her other side.

Hohenheim is still standing there while Sig has taken to grabbing large stones to throw at the oncoming mannequins. “What?” she snaps.

He reaches out to her, but doesn’t touch her. He looks conflicted. “I–”

She softens against her will. She does still love him. “Go. You abandoned our sons once before. Don’t do it again.” She turns away from him and faces the oncoming mannequins with a grin. “I’m a lot harder to kill than I used to be.”

She throws herself into the fight, positioning herself in between of all of them and Sig. More rocks go sailing over her head, crushing oncoming mannequins.

By the time she has a chance to glance over her shoulder again, Hohenheim is gone. Good.

~

Roy leads Riza and Havoc marching down Canal Street, having ordered the rest of his team to work on telling people to hide, to stay indoors. They’re working with Maes and his people to push out the information to the people, to keep them safe, while Roy, Riza, and Havoc take to the streets.

They passed a lot of soldiers getting here, but none that were heading here. They were planning to let Canal Street be taken, but Roy won’t let that happen. People here are good at surviving, so there are less bodies along the streets here, but mannequins are still everywhere, breaking thought windows and climbing up the side of buildings.

His team is providing support, watching his back as he works.

He holds out his hand, keeps Ed’s order in his mind, and snaps.

The array on the back of his hand activates, and explosion of fire appears in front of him. The things scream as what passes for flesh crackles and burns. It smells just like human flesh, and for a moment he can’t breathe as he’s back in Ishval, back to being a weapon under someone else’s command.

Then a familiar voice calls out, “About time you got here, boy!”

The smoke clears, and he looks over. His mother is standing on the roof of her building, a rifle balanced on Vanessa’s shoulder, who appears completely unruffled by everything. The rest of his mother’s girls are on the roof too, either guns or Molotov cocktails held in their dainty hands.

“Roy!” The girls call out, voices too high pitched and teasing, even in the middle of the end of the world, and tension bleeds out of his shoulders. Vanessa blows him a kiss, and he shakes his head. This isn’t Ishval. It’s Central, and the only command he’s following is Ed’s. If it’s Edward, that’s okay, he trusts Ed.

He snaps again, there’s the sound of gunfire behind him, Riza and Havoc taking out those that his fire doesn’t immediately kill. He turns, snaps, and at a certain temperature these things’ bodies just vaporize.

He continues walking down the street. There’s a smash of a glass and chemical fire as someone throws a Molotov cocktail on a still twitching mannequin.

There’s another cluster of them up ahead.

Roy flings out his hand and snaps.

~

When Lust gets close to Aviv and Gabby’s home, she notices the impossibly large number of mannequins, more here than seemingly anywhere else. Love and affection and true warmth are outside of her emotional capabilities, but the ice cold fear down her spine is automatic.

What if she’s too late? How many have they already killed?

She fights her way through the throng of them, extending her fingers into daggers and shredding them apart. Some get lucky bites out of her, but she regenerates within seconds.

When she makes it through, she realizes that she’s not too late at all. Saif, Gabby, and Alex Louis Armstrong are there, fighting to keep them all back.

“Lust!” Gabby greets, exhausted and bloody face breaking into a smile. Saif is wobbly on his feet, barely able to stand.

“Take a break,” she says, standing next to Alex and exchanging a quick glance with him. Apparently, he knows better than question things he doesn’t understand in the middle of battle. She’s pretty sure he hasn’t been brought up to speed on everything, but all he seems to need to know is that she’s on their side. “Your brother and I will handle it for now.”

“We can’t,” Saif says, voice haggard. “What if one of them gets past you? There are people hiding here.”

“Take a break,” she repeats, pausing to look at him over her shoulder. She knows what she said to Greed, but it was lie, one she was telling herself more than she was telling him. “I won’t let anything happen to my people. That includes you, Saif. Take a break with Gabby. Alex and I will handle this.”

She turns away from him, throwing herself back into the fight. She barely hears him as she shreds a mannequin apart. “Very well, sister.”

~

Pride is helping Father, fighting to get them all in the same room. They let him, because that’s what they want too, even if they’re doing their best not to show it. But that doesn’t mean Ed is willing to let him live. Just as Pride is shoving Ed into his place in the circle, he breaks free of the chains, and slaps his hands against Pride’s chest. He dissolves until he’s nothing more than a man’s skeleton, which then crumbles into dust. Ed tries to move from the circle, because that’s what Father expects him to do, and is almost relieved when he finds he can’t.

“Pity,” Father says about Pride, not meaning it all. “But that’s not important now.”

“Why are you doing this?” Hohenheim asks, and Ed glances around. Everyone has used alchemy to free their hands, even if they’re all stuck in this circle.

“What a stupid question,” Father says, and then he kneels and activates the circle, and Ed knows it’s just the beginning, that there’s the smaller circle here that’s keeping them anchored to the ground, but then there’s the bigger one, the one that encircles all of Amestris, and that one’s lighting up too, and he hopes this works, they only have one chance.

“Now!” Nina cries, and they all clap and drop to their knees, pressing their hands to the ground.

They alter the circle, adding lines and symbols, and Edward feels the exact moment that Nina takes control of the circle, the second the power switches from Father to her.

He grits his teeth against the onslaught of power, so much more than he’s ever had to handle before, and he redistributes it around the circle, so by the time it reaches Nina it’s something she can handle. Izumi, Hohenheim, and Al are doing a fantastic job at anchoring the whole thing, at preventing the reaction from slipping out of Nina’s grasp.

Ed knows Nina has completed the reaction when everything goes white, and he’s standing in front of Truth and the Gate once more.

Nina is by his side, and Father is in between them and Truth, wrapped in those black tendrils and trying to get free.

“Come to make another bargain, little girl?”

Nina walks forward, hand out in front of her, just in case there’s something for her to walk into. “Yes.”

Truth looks down at Father, and he goes still, hunching in on himself in an attempt to make himself smaller. Ed slides his hand over a jagged piece of his automail, then leans down, blood dripping from his hand. Truth looks back up at Nina, and its grin splits wide out, all of its terrifying teeth on full display. “Your grasp on equivalency is unparalleled, child.”

Her shoulders drop in relief. “It will work? I did it right?”

Truth doesn’t answer. It keeps smiling as the Gate behind it opens wide, and writhing black tendrils reach forward and capture Father, dragging him back into its depths. Then it enfulges them, and he can feel a searing pain in his leg and arm, but when the black tendrils leave, he’s not back, he’s still standing in front of Truth. Nina has disappeared, but Ed hasn’t.

He moves his foot. Below his boot is a circle he’d drawn in his blood. He has one more bargain to make.

He looks over himself, and his automail is gone, his arm and leg back. It’s not real, just like his blood isn’t really blood, nothing is quite real here. Or perhaps it’s too real. But either way he can feel again, in a way that’s not possible with the automail.

“A circle within a circle within a circle,” Truth rasps. “The girl has retrieved your limbs and your brother’s body. What more could you possibly desire?” There’s that contempt, that hatred in its voice that isn’t present when it’s talking to Nina.

“You know,” he says, swallowing back his fear. His circle is simple, but clear. Just like before.

Truth stares at him for long, terrifying moment. “The price is the same.”

“I know,” he says.

“Very well.” Truth comes to stand in front of him, its head cocked to the side. “Do you want to make another bargain, Edward Elric?” It doesn’t seem as angry anymore, and Ed doesn’t know why.

“For what?’ he asks.

“Truth. You don’t have enough ignorance left, it’s too big of a truth to be given for ignorance. It’s not a truth that you will want, but it is one you will need, if you truly intend to repair your country. It’s a Truth you have to share.” It looks down at his newly returned leg, “That’s the price.”

It can’t lie. It can’t manipulate. It can just give and take.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because your arrogance threatens to destroy all around you. Because you are the second best alchemist to ever pass through my doors. Because you broke the rules and did what shouldn’t be done, what I am here to prevent, and you are my only failure.” It’s lipless mouth closes, then opens again, raspy voice even. “Because I think you should know why.”

He has no reason to say yes. He can just pay the price for what he wants, and leave, and be done with this cursed Gate for good.

But he’s an alchemist. The desire for knowledge and his hubris in his belief that knowledge is inherently valuable is what’s damned him before, yet he can’t turn away now.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll pay the price.”

His leg is gone, and he stumbles, falling to his knees. He grits his teeth at the pain, but he looks down and realizes it’s a phantom sensation. There’s no blood, and his automail is back, but the pain is just as fresh as the first time Truth took his leg.

There’s a blindingly bright light that he has to shield his eyes against, and when he opens them again, Truth is gone.

In its place is a woman. She’s wearing a dress made of thin, draping material in a dark red with black cords crossing across her chest and waist to keep it in place. She has dark brown skin, bright red eyes, and long white hair that almost looks like it’s glowing.

 “Ishvala,” he breathes.

“I was,” she says, still with Truth’s low, raspy voice. “A long time ago.”

~

Suddenly, all the mannequins stop, shudder, and dissolve. Trisha steps back from all the liquid, and she doesn’t understand, the souls should be getting loose gradually, not leaving all at once.

Unless …

She turns and bolts, desperate to find her children. Sig hesitates, and then follows her.

~

Lust collapses on the steps of Gabby’s building, exhausted. Her body is slowly regenerating, but even she has her limits. Alex is using his alchemy to turns the street into a funnel for all the liquid fromm the dissolved mannequins. “Huh,” she says, leaning her head back against the door. “They must have actually done it.”

The door opens, and she falls back against bony legs before can catch herself. She looks up, and Jiddah stares down at her. The skin of her chest is still regenerating, and her ribcage and muscles are exposed. Jiddah lowers a bottle of arak in front of her. “It looks like you could use this.”

If she could laugh, she would.

Gabby plops down beside her, taking the arak from Jiddah and taking a long sip. More people are clustered behind Jiddah, trying to get out. “Good job, sister,” Gabby says, eyes twinkling.

Lust looks over to Saif, who’s bust helping Alex in spite of his injuries. She hasn’t been called okhti in a long time.

It’s … nice.

~

Roy is covered in ash, can’t smell anything but the sizzling of flesh when all the mannequins dissolve around them. He stumbles in relief, and Havoc steps next to him, flinging Roy’s arm over his shoulder. “Where to, boss?” he asks. Riza is still scanning the area, gun in hand, just in case.

He wants to go home, wants to go to his mother’s and ask her to make him a drink, wants to fall down in the middle of the street and sleep.

But there’s something he wants more than any of that.

“Ed,” Roy croaks.

Neither of them pretend to be surprised. Havoc nods, and leads them in the direction as all the mannequins had come from.

Let him be all right. Please, let him be all right.

Roy isn’t a religious man, he’s seen too much for that, done too much for that, but he can’t help praying.

~

 Winry barely takes notice of all the mannequins dissolving all around her. Greed touches her shoulder, filthy with slowly healing bite marks all over him. Martel is by his side, leaning against him. “Winry, it’s over.”

“What’s over?” she snaps, stitching a bite wound closed on a teenage boy, not much younger than she is. He’s unconscious, which is probably for the best. “People are still alive, and they need medical treatment. Either help, or get out of my way.”

Greed blinks. Martel pushes herself to her feet. “What do you need us to do?”

Us?” Greed asks, but they both ignore him.

“Find survivors. If they can be safely moved, bring them to me. Stop any bleeding you can. Hurry,” she orders. She tries to drag the teenage boy to where she’s lined up the dozen or so other survivors who she’s patched up as best she can, but who can’t move on their own.

Greed takes the boy from her. “Go. We’ve got him.”

She barely has time to nod before she’s snatching up her bag and continuing to search through the rubble, calling out for people to yell if they hear her, to yell if they’re alive.

She hopes everyone else is okay. But she can’t help them. She pushes her hope and worry aside, to be dealt with later.

~

“I don’t understand,” Ed croaks, “I don’t – you’re – but Ishvala forbids alchemy!”

“I forbade arrogance,” she says softly, “I forbade breaking the laws, twisting the power of alchemy. I forbade what you and your brother did, the night you brought your mother back from beyond my gate and put her in a body fashioned to fit her soul. Young Nina did it right, did it the only way it’s meant to be done, quickly and simply, barely dead back to alive. But to forbid alchemy outright? I would never. It was my gift to my children.”

“I don’t understand,” he repeats.

She smiles at him, and he always thought Truth was angry, but Ishvala just looks sad. “A long, long time ago, I saw a future in which my children were hunted, were destroyed, where my children were lost to time and not even a trace of them remained. I thought I could prevent it if I gave them the power to protect themselves, if I gave them something that the rest of the world would value. It would destroy me, would strip me of my abilities, my power, my very name. I did it anyway.”

“Why?” he asks.

“Because I didn’t know then what I know now,” she answers, face hardening. “Nothing comes without a price.”

She reaches out, pressing her hand against his forehead. He can feel himself being pulled back, thousands of years into the past. People walk around, and they all look just like him, golden hair and golden eyes. There are poorly constructed huts, people wearing animal leathers and with bulging muscles. Every one of them looks both willing to start and end a fight. Ishvala stands beside him. “Xerxes was little more than a barbarian village,” she says softly. “They were godless. Not just not of me, but they had rejected any god that might wish to claim them.”

They shift, traveling across the desert, to Ishval. Ed doesn’t know how, exactly, he knows, but it’s not like the Ishval of his time, a small section of Southern Amestris. This Ishval stretches across the Great Desert, easily twenty times the size it is now. It’s not like the bare ancient Xerxes.

Tall, beautiful buildings made of white stone rise into the air. People wear woven cloth, and there are children playing, and elderly men and women sitting in chairs with soft cushions. There are schools, and in every building there is Ishvala’s image, a woman in a draping red dress, with her hands outheld, always as if she’s in the process of giving something away.

“I saw visions of a future where it was all gone, where there was nothing but empty desert,” she says. “I thought if I broke myself into pieces and gave myself away, then they might have the power to survive. I gave every head priest the knowledge of how to wield this new power, and entrusted them with the task of teaching everyone else.” Alchemy schools pop up all throughout Ishval, old men teaching people of every age and gender how to draw circles and harness the power of the earth.

Ishval itself grows as a society, becoming more advanced, more complex. People specialize, and there are architects and jewelry makers and farmers, all harnessing the power of alchemy to create, to give to each other.

“They would have shared,” Ishvala says, and she sounds like she’s in pain. “My people are generous. They are kind. They would have shared.”

Xerxes has grown too, in the time that has passed. There’s a war.

It should be easy, but the Ishvalans were unprepared for war, had not used alchemy to fight because it was a gift, it was sacred, to use their god’s gift in war would be unthinkable.

The Ishvalans lost.

Xerxes murdered them. Millions upon millions of Ishvalans dead, their blood turning the sand red, until only ten percent of their original people were left. Xerxians took their homes, their land, and then made those that remained into slaves. They discovered the power of alchemy, and claimed it for themselves.

The slaves didn’t live long. Within a generation, they were all dead.

Except.

Some Ishvalans had escaped, had run away before it got impossible to do so.

Not many, compared to their previous numbers. But enough. Around fifty thousand people. They crossed the desert and settled into what is present day Ishval. It should have been a new beginning. But the elders were gone, not strong enough to cross the desert, and all their books, all their history was gone.

They forgot Ishvala’s likeness. They forgot how to tame a desert. They forgot their gift. Stories got twisted, the truth got twisted, until Ishvalans came to revile the very gift their god had destroyed herself to give them.

Xerxes flourished. They put down their spears, and hid their vulgarity under a gilded package. They enslaved their own people, harnessed alchemy for their selfish use, and hid it from its own citizens, turned it from something meant to be understood and used by all into something elite, and tucked away.

Until the Dwarf in the Flask, until Hohenheim, and then all of Xerxes was wiped out in a single night.

They return to the place in front of the Gate, and Ed’s face is wet with tears. Cracks have appeared all across Ishvala, light shining through, because this isn’t her real form, not anymore. She says, “Everything Xerxes learned, everything they had, they stole.”

She kneels in front of him, and uses the edge of her dress to blot his tears away. “I’m sorry,” he chokes out. He doesn’t know what he’s apologizing for. He just feels a terrible weight in his chest, a terrible sadness. He hopes this isn’t how she feels all the time.

“You can’t change the past, and your sorrow changes nothing,” she says. “I don’t want it. I want you to give back what was stolen.”

“Give my alchemy to the Ishvalans?” he asks. He doesn’t even know what kind of circle that would take.

She shakes her head. “No. Weren’t you listening? Your alchemy is yours. But it is not meant to hoarded, to be locked away. It is meant to be shared.” She touches his arm. “You cannot repair the damage of time and of millions of people. You are one person. The price is too high, and you cannot pay it.”

“I don’t understand,” he says desperately, “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“You will,” she says. She’s falling apart, pieces of her fading away to reveal Truth underneath. “It’s time for you to go back.”

“Wait!” He grabs onto the hand touching his arm. “Why did you do it? You were a god. Why destroy yourself and become sentenced to an eternity as a gatekeeper?”

Truth smiles at him, lipless mouth wide. “What wouldn’t a mother sacrifice for her children?”

Pain rips through his arm, and he bites his tongue trying to keep from screaming. His mouth fills with blood, and the Gate opens once more, black tendrils rushing forward to envelop him.

~

Nina opens her eyes, and she can see, which is fantastic. She looks around, and they’re in some sort of underground structure. Everyone is laid out, slowly coming back to awareness. Across from her is a thin, naked boy with golden hair. The armor is beside him. “Alphonse!”

He opens his eyes, and he has to blink a couple of times. “Nina?” he asks, and it’s his voice, it really is Al. She flings herself at him, and she’s crying, she can’t help it, because they survived, and he’s back, and she can see, and she’s so happy.

Izumi pushes herself up, hand pressed against her stomach, eyes wide. “I feel … great,” she says.

“I feel terrible,” Hohenheim groans. “All the souls are gone. I – I think I’m just – a person now.”

“My condolences,” Al says, wry, and when Hohenheim looks at him, his entire face lights up.

“Alphonse!” he cries, stumbling to his feet and walking over. He takes off his coat and drapes it across his shoulders. “You’re okay. You’re – you have a body! Your body!”

He grins, “Yeah.”

Edward groans, and pushes himself to his feet. When Nina sees him, her stomach drops. “No!” she cries, running forward. She grabs onto his automail arm, and hits his leg, but that’s still metal too. “No, no, no, no – Truth said I’d done it! You’re supposed to have your limbs back!” She’s crying for a different reason now, and Ed hugs her, scooping her up in his arms like she’s a kid. “I messed up,” she sobs, “I’m so sorry, I thought it was going to work!” Why did she get her sight back while Ed still has metal limbs? It’s not fair!

“You did it perfectly,” he says, falling to his knees next to Al. He reaches out and cups his brother’s cheek, and Al leans into it, covering his brother’s hand in his own, but he looks just as heartbroken as Nina feels. “Hey, you. Nice face.”

“Brother, what happened?” Al whispers.

“I traded my arm and leg to the Gate for something else,” he says.

Hohenheim hesitates, but then places his hand on Edward’s shoulder. “What did you trade them for?”

He jerks his head. They all turn, and Al’s armor is sitting up, even though Nina’s sure it was lying before. Its eyes are glowing. “What the hell?” Al whispers. “But – it’s – that’s not me. I’m right here!”

Min 'anta? Ayn ana? Ayn hu zuji?” the armor says, voice light and feminine.

“Oh my god,” Al says.

Don’t worry,” Ed says in Ishvalan. “We are friends. We’re going to take you to your brother.

Nina still doesn’t understand. “Edward?”

“That’s Lust’s soul. It’s Laila.” Al says, “Why would you give up your arm for Laila’s soul?”

He’s grinning, and he doesn’t look like he regrets it at all. “Because I made Lust a promise. And I don’t break my promises.” He looks to Nina, “How do you feel about performing one more bit of soul alchemy?”

She grins, wipes her tears away, and nods.

~

Both Hohenheim and Izumi offer to carry Alphonse out, but Ed insists on doing it himself. Al didn’t want to make a fuss, but he’s glad it’s Ed. He’s spent years not being able to feel his brother, and he loves Izumi and his dad, but it’s Ed who’s been by his side his whole life, and it’s such a comfort to be able to wrap his arm around his brother’s neck and lean his head against his shoulder.

Laila is walking between Hohenheim and Izumi. She keeps switching between Ishvalan and Amestrian, asking after her husband and Saif, asking about her village. No one is answering her.

“Sig!” Izumi shouts, then breaks into a run.

A moment later, their mother is there, and she throws her arms around them, “You’re okay! And you did it! Oh, I was so worried,” Trisha pulls back enough to kiss Al on the cheek, on the forehead, on the tip of his nose. “You got your body back! My baby boy!”

“Hey, Mom,” he says, and doesn’t resist at all when Trisha pulls him from Ed’s arms into her own.

All things considered, Al’s pretty satisfied with how this all turned out.

~

Maes is still coordinating the disaster that is all of Central when Gracia and Elysia walk in, a beat up Dolcetto and Roa behind him. He cuts himself off mid-sign, and runs over to them. Gracia folds herself into his side, and lifts up Elysia. Nina?

Gracia shakes her head, “I don’t know. But they all disappeared. That has to be a good sign, doesn’t it?”

He nods instead of answering.

~

There’s so much going on, and so much that needs his attention, but Ed’s finding it hard not to focus on the buzzing at the back of his brain. He didn’t trade his leg for the truth about Ishval and Xerxes. He traded it for this – circles and symbols mapping themselves out in his mind, a system of alchemy so close to what he knows, but not quite the same.

Alchemy pulls from the souls of the dead. Alkahestry pulls from the energy produced by tectonic plates. This – this is a system of alchemy that’s not dependent upon an energy source, where either or both could be utilized, where one could gather the energy from the sun to generate a reaction, like Isvalan farmers used to, or tap into the power of the wind.

Different energy sources for different types of reactions. It’s so obvious, it fits so perfectly, and Nina had done something like that, recycling the bled off energy of a circle, but this – it was how alchemy was meant to be. A way to redirect the different energies of the earth, rather than moving against it and around it.

Truth said he would know what to do, and he thinks he does now.

He knows the original alchemy, the alchemy that Ishvala destroyed herself to give to her people.

Ed has to give it back.

How, exactly, he’s going to do that, he has no idea. But he’ll figure it out.

He tells everyone else to go back to Roy’s house. No one listens. Ed transmutes some actual clothes for Al, and he and Trisha are going to search for Winry. Al’s too thin, but his body isn’t in as bad as shape as they first thought. Now that he’s had some time, he can walk on his own, at least for a while.

He takes Nina and Laila  to Aviv and Gabby’s house, intent on doing this as soon as possible. On his way there, sees a group of three familiar people, limping along and covered in ash. “Roy!” he calls out, and runs forward.

Roy’s barely had the time to turn around before Ed picks him up and spins him. It startles a laugh out of him seemingly against his will. “Edward!”

He drops him back on his feet, then wraps his hand around the back of Roy’s neck and pulls him down for a kiss, lips and tongue and teeth. Roy tastes a little burnt. He really doesn’t care.

“Hey!” Nina calls out, “Are you trying to blind me for a second time?”

Ed pulls away, laughing. Laila has her arms crossed, and when she’s disapproving in the armor she looks exactly like Al. “It didn’t work?” Roy asks, some of his elation dimming. He can feel Ed’s automail, and he sees the armor, so Ed can’t blame him for that conclusion. “But – Nina, you can see again?”

“I traded my limbs for Laila’s soul and some knowledge. She’s in the armor. Al has his body back.” He goes on his tip toes to kiss him again, just because he can. “We’re going to go combine Laila’s soul with Lust. Want to come?”

“I have to get back to the office, help clean up some of this mess,” he says, even though he very obviously wants to go with Ed. “Be careful.”

“Always,” he says, and grins at Riza’s disapproving look and Havoc’s snort of laughter. “See you tonight.”

He starts to walk away, but Roy pulls him back for one more kiss. Ed grins all the way to the Ishvalan district, even with Nina making retching sounds.

~

As soon as those things are gone, Aviv goes running.

He’s got a cramp in his side and dark spots swimming in his vision by the time he arrives back home, and the wreckage of the street does nothing to reassure him, even if all the very alive Ishvalan working on cleaning up the mess do. “Gabby!” he calls out, “Saif!” Someone waves at him, and it’s Saif. He’s hurt, but he’s standing. He grabs onto his forearms, and he feels crazed. “Gabby?”

“She’s fine,” Saif promises, and Aviv would collapse if it wasn’t for Saif holding him upright. “She returned with her brother to the military base. He helped us, so she offered to help them all figure out what to do now.”

He’s disappointed she’s not here, but she’s okay, so that’s all that really matters. He’s pleased she’s talking to her brother again – Gabby may wear her anger like armor, but Aviv knows she’s missed him.

“Hey guys!” Ed says cheerfully, from right behind him. He turns on his heels, and almost falls over. Saif and Ed reach out to steady him at the same time. “Whoa, easy there. Is Lust around?”

Saif points. They turn, and it’s to Lust daintily carrying about five hundred pounds worth of rubble out of the main street. Ed wolf whistles to get her attention, and she pauses, then turns, raising a single eyebrow. “Take a break!” he calls out. “I have something for you.”

~

More doctors have made it out of the woodwork, emergency vehicles finally braving going outside. Winry doesn’t hold it against them. Not everyone grew up like she did.

She oversees it all, and it’s obvious a couple people don’t like that, want to push her out of the way like she’s a silly little girl and take charge. Luckily, even if they’re willing to argue with her, they’re not willing to argue with Greed and all of his very sharp teeth. Martel standing behind her and casually sharpening her knife doesn’t hurt either.

It’s almost to a point where she feels comfortable leaving this in other hands and going off to find everyone when someone taps her on the shoulder. She turns, and for a second she has no idea who she’s looking at. But then he smiles, and she whispers, “Alphonse?”

“Hey,” he reaches out tucks her hair behind her ear. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

She throws herself at him, and he loses his balance and falls down. She feels bad about that, but his arms are around her waist, so he can’t be too mad about it. She pulls back, and he’s grinning up at her, eyes warm. She presses her forehead against his, squeezing her eyes shut. “Is it over? It’s all over? The – traveling all over the country, the secrets about you, being so scared all the time about being found out and taken away. It’s over. You’re coming home now, right?” She doesn’t mean Resembool, she doesn’t think Resembool fits him anymore, fits her anymore. They’ve grown bigger than their hometown, even if they love it. She doesn’t care where he settles, if it’s here or somewhere else, or even if he keeps traveling, because that doesn’t matter, it’s not what she’s really asking.

She’s asking if he’s done running.

“I’m coming home,” he whispers.

She leans forward and kisses him. It wasn’t about the armor, it was never about the armor. She’s glad he has his body back, glad she’s able to kiss him, but it wasn’t about that. It was about not starting something that they both couldn’t give themselves too. But after five years, it’s over.

He cups her face, touching her like she’s precious, and kisses her back.

~

Lust looks at the armor, and she doesn’t recognize anything about it. It scares her. She raises her hand, then lowers it, unsure what to say. “I’m sorry that – I know this body isn’t – I haven’t, I mean,” she stops, frustrated. She feels ashamed of herself, for being a monster, for wanting a soul, for wanting Laila’s soul.

The armor – Laila – reaches for her hand. “It’s okay,” she says in Ishvalan. “Farid made you out of love. Our husband’s love made this body, and we will treasure it.

“He wasn’t my husband,” she says.

He was,” Laila answers. “You think we are so different, but we’re not. You have my memories, my face, my feelings. You are me. Just incomplete.”

Lust wraps her arms around herself. “You’re so calm about this. How are you so calm?”

I was not calm, but then all my memories settled. Ishvala told me what was to come. Once we are one, we have a lot of work to do.

“Ishvala?” Lust repeats. “What are you talking about?”

“Ready!” Ed yells out, and they both look up the stairs, to where Ed, Nina, Saif, and Aviv are waiting for them.

Lust steps inside the circle, and she wonders how much of her will be left. She assumes none at all. She’s just a body, after all, she’s not a person.

She closes her eyes.

Everything hurts, but it’s not unbearable, she’s had worse, then it feels like all the air’s been stolen from her lungs.

Memories that can’t belong to either her or Laila pour into her, of a long forgotten time, of an Ishval before their first genocide, of Xerxes before it was a nation. Alchemy knowledge she’s never know and never sought before pours into her, a system of alchemy that’s not quite Amestrian, but not quite Alkahestry. A voice warm and feminine and not her own speaks, and it makes her head hurt, she can feel the shape of the words but not the meaning of them.

Laila’s soul presses into her, and – she’s not lost.

Her feelings settle into Lust’s skin, and all of her memories seem brighter, clearer. She remembers Ishvala’s soft hand and soft voice, giving her orders, telling her what her will was, and how she could carry out.

Laila is a homunculus now. She’s going to live a long, long time.

Lust isn’t gone. She still has her memories, her feelings, it’s just all better and brighter and more real. She’s still Lust. She’s still Laila. Maybe they were both incomplete, and now that they’re together, they’re finally one person, the person they were always meant to be.

The light of the circle dies down. The armor is fallen and empty.

“Sister?” Aviv asks tentatively.

She looks at him, and smiles. How could she have ever denied him, ever doubted him? “Little brother,” she says, and opens her arms.

His face crumples, and he sobs into her shoulder. Now she doesn’t just know that she loves him, she feels it too.

“Lust?” Ed asks, just as tentative.

“I’m still me,” she assures, then frowns, because she’s not just the woman she was. She’s more. She’s more than she was before she died, and she’s more than she was as a homunculus. “I’m still Lust. I’m just Laila too.”

He grins and claps her on the shoulder. “Good. I would have missed Lust if she was gone.”

She raises an eyebrow, and he laughs. He looks to Nina, “Time to go?”

“Let’s go see Daddy,” Nina decides.

Ed blows her a kiss, gives Saif a friendly punch to the arm, and then he and Nina are out the door.

Saif walks forward, cautious. He falls to his knees beside her, and she frees one of her arms from Aviv to reach up and ruffle Saif’s hair. She hadn’t thought to tell him this before, because it hadn’t occurred to her that it’s something he might not know, or something he would want to hear. “Farid loved you so much. He was so, so proud of everything you’d done. I’m sorry that he’s dead, but I’m glad he died saving you. I’m glad he died doing something he could be proud of.”

He raises his hand to his face, like he’s surprised to find himself crying.

He’s not the same man she remembers from before she died. Aviv isn’t the little boy she remembers, either, but that’s okay. They’re together again, and she’ll pull them all that much closer.

~

Olivier doesn’t get many phone calls.

She’s busy, everyone is still freaking out at the alchemical light that had lit up the border, and she’s spent the past six hours trying to prevent an all out war from breaking out between them and Drachma, since they thought it was some sort of attack. Olivier doesn’t know what it was, but she doesn’t think it was an attack.

The last thing she wants when she finally trudges into her base is to be interrupted. “Sir,” Miles says, “phone for you.”

“Unless it’s the Fuhrer to tell me what the hell is going on, they can fuck off,” she growls.

“It’s your sister.”

She pauses. “I’ll take it.”

They exchange letters sometimes, but never phone calls.

She goes to her office and picks up the receiver. “Gabby?”

“General Sister,” she answers, and Olivier smirks. “So, hey, it’s a little cold up there, right?”

What on earth. “I haven’t noticed.”

“Think maybe you want to move down south? Maybe Central? I ask because the Fuhrer is sort of dead,” her mouth falls open, “but he was a literal monster and involved with a coup to turn all of Amestris’s citizens into sacrifices for this demon thing with an attitude problem. Anyway, there’s been a coup, but it was the good guys instead! Except we need someone who wasn’t involved to be Fuhrer, so, you know, want a promotion?”

“Gabby,” she says, “what the actual fuck?”

“Come down to Central and find out,” she says cheerfully, then hangs up on her.

~

Maes runs his hands over his face, and the good news is the mannequins ate what it looks like were most of the people that were traitors in Central, but that still leaves … well, everywhere else. He hopes most of them just run away like the cowards they are and save him the headache.

“Daddy!”

He looks over. Ed is leaning against the doorframe as Nina runs over to him. He scoops her up in his arms, even though she’s much too big for it. He pulls her back, and her eyes are bright and clear, no hint of cloudiness. Your eyes?

“All better!” she says, “I – I know a lot of people died, and everything’s mess, but – we’re okay. I know that it’s selfish, but we’re all okay, and I’m just – just so happy, Daddy!”

It’s not selfish, he signs, I’m happy too.

It’s not selfish to happy to be alive. It took a long time for him to learn that. What happened is awful, alerting all those civilian’s families is awful. But his family is alive, and he can’t be upset about that.

~

It’s long past dark, but no one ever mentions how much paperwork is involved in a military coup and almost end of the world.

Maybe dying would have been better. It would have been less of a headache, at least.

His door is kicked open, and he’s smiling even before he looks up. Ed kicks the door shut, and he bypasses his typical place on Roy’s couch. He pushes Roy’s chair back and climbs into his lap, crossing his wrists behind Roy’s neck. “Hey.”

“Hey,” he says, “Everyone good?”

“I’m pretty sure Maes is planning to sleep in his office, and Nina refuses to leave his side. Gracia and Elysia are home with Greed and his chimeras as bodyguards, not that I think they need them at this point. Laila and Lust are now one person, and she’s staying with Aviv. I passed Gabby in the hall, and she’s finally going home. Forgot to tell her about the Laila thing, so that will be a fun surprise.” He counts off on his fingers as he lists of, “Izumi, Sig, Mom, my deadbeat dad, Winry, and Al are all at your place. I think Izumi is transmuting your furniture for extra beds to put in the library. I hope you weren’t attached to kitchen table.”

“Is Trisha going to try and kill your father again?” he asks. “He’s mortal now.”

Ed makes a face. “No. They were talking. The thing is Mom still loves him, even though he sucks. Which, whatever, fine, as long she’s happy. Al’s happy to have Dad around, so whatever.”

It’s clearly bothering him. But Roy figures that’s a problem they can work on untangling later. They have time.

They have time.

“I’m assuming the rule about not having sex in the same house as your mother and teacher is an ongoing thing?” he asks, because Ed is beautiful and loves him, but also he’s not in any rush, they can take their time.

Ed grins, slow and a little evil. Roy should probably be concerned that that’s apparently a turn on for him. “Yep,” he says, popping the last letter. “Lucky for you, neither Mom nor Teacher are in this building.”

He smirks, “Edward Elric, are you asking to have office sex?”

“Roy Mustang, are you going to say no?” he returns. He’s already shrugging off his red coat.

He’s planning to spend the rest of his life not saying no to Edward Elric. He kisses him before something that ridiculously sappy falls out of his mouth.

It’s such a strange feeling, to hold his whole future in his arms.

He could get used to it. He’s going to get used to it.

Ed bites Roy’s lip, and he decides to pay attention to him, before he ends up with a series of mouth sized bruises.

~

Six Months Later

~

Laila wakes up slowly. Sun streams through the window, and she looks to her side. Greed is staring down at her, like an absolute creep. He’s not in town for long, just a couple of days. She plans to make the most of it.

Greed would stay with her, if she asked. But he has his chimeras, and she has her mission, and she’s not sure if what they have is something that’s going to last. But Greed understands her, in a way few will ever be able to.

But, for now, what they have has to remain a secret.

She’s Laila, the twice risen, airtafaeat maratayn, and her position as a messiah rather than a monster within her people is precarious enough as it is. Greed wouldn’t help her case at all.

“I have to get to the school,” she says. “There are some things I need Olivier to sign.”

“Can’t you take a break?” he asks. “You’re supposed to be on break, Lust. The wedding is tomorrow.”

He doesn’t mean it. He likes her greed about her best of all.

She pushes herself up, kisses him, and then gets out of bed. “Go bother Winry. Ed and Al are teaching today, so you can both complain about us being workaholics.”

He cheers up at that. Winry is his favorite, hands down.

~

Al stands at the front of the class, and he’s still recovering, but his body is almost back to how it would have been. Less recovering at this point, more catching up with his brother. Ed can still kick his ass without breaking a sweat. It drives him nuts.

Drawing a perfect circle is almost impossible,” he lectures in Ishvalan, “but this is an important exercise. As you get better, you will learn to compensate for imperfect circles and imprecise symbol placement. For now, focus only on understanding your circle.”

He’s still working on mastering the alchemy that Brother and Laila have in their heads, but the basics are still the same.

Two dozen Ishvalans sit in front of him, carefully fiddling with a protractor and ruler, working on drawing out the circles to change water into ice. Across the hall, Brother is teaching the advanced class. Jiddah is in that one. That old woman had picked up alchemy with a speed that impressed both of them.

When Laila had approached them with an idea, with job offers, neither Ed nor Al had hesitated before accepting. Hohenheim had hesitated, but then Mom and Ed had glared at him, and he’d agreed. Al had never noticed before, but Ed and Mom have the same glare. It’s a little scary. Aviv had been grinning, and cheerfully said he was reading up on property and education law.

She’d opened up a school. A place for people to learn alchemy, to experiment with it in a way that military had never encouraged. Technically open to everyone, but – free for those of Ishvalan descent, and with a steep tuition for everyone else, and with classes mostly in Ishvalan.

Laila had even recruited Roy and Alex to teach, although they’d been horrified. “You owe us,” she’d said. “You don’t get to hide from that.”

They’d agreed.

Roy taught elemental classes on Wednesday nights. Nina was his assistant professor, which had the duel effect of giving Nina something to do, and making Roy seem a little less intimidating. Alex had a class of carpenters and stone masons, and he was teaching them the tips and tricks of manipulating a particular material.

He boosts himself so he’s sitting on top of his desk. Ed’s a bad influence on him.

~

Roy hates promotions, and desks, and his job. Being a General just means he spends even less time at home, which was one thing before, but now he has a gorgeous and impatient boyfriend waiting at home, so it’d be nice left if here before dark some days.

To make matters worse, Maes is seated on his desk, waving a bunch of photos of his daughters in one hand and signing with the other. Can’t his best friend see he’s busy?

“You know,” he muses aloud, “at least it’s a lot easier to ignore you than it was before.”

Maes’s eyes narrow. He scoots across Roy’s desk, knocking off everything on top of it, and hooks his feet around the back of his chair, pulling him up right against the desk and then shoving the pictures in his face.

“Maes!” he yells, trying to get out his chair, but Maes doesn’t let go, locking his ankles around the chair so he’s practically sitting on top of Roy, still with the damn pictures.

“Am I interrupting something?” The both pause and look over. Ed is standing in the doorway. Maes waves at him. He has two bags of something that smells delicious. “I was going to bring you dinner, but I can see you’re busy. I’ll go find Mom.”

“Ed!” he calls out, “Help!”

Ed blows him a kiss, and doesn’t manage to close the door fast enough to cut off his laughter.

He tries to stand, but Maes doesn’t budge, and they end up knocking over his desk and going sprawling across the floor. “You’re an actual child,” he says.

 Maes sits up, shrugs, and holds out the pictures again. He starts signing, Aren’t they so cute? Elysia is staring school! She’s going to be so smart! But not smart enough to revolutionize a whole field of science and break the laws of life and death. Doesn’t that sound nice?

“Wonderful,” he says dryly, but he’s smiling.

~

Olivier has so much to do, but it’s late and she has to leave and get some sleep, she can’t be late tomorrow.

Her assistant walks into her office, arms stacked with reports, and stops. “You’re supposed to have left already!”

“I just need to get through a few more,” she says, even though her hand is cramped from signing and notating.

Trisha’s eyes narrow, and she shifts the files to one arm, before her other turns liquid and crosses the office to snatch Olivier’s pen out of her hands. She almost regrets taking the woman as her assistant, except that as a homunculus who didn’t need sleep and as the assistant to the former Fuhrer, she was a literal life saver and without her Olivier would have either killed herself or several other people, or both. “This is mutiny.”

“Get out of here,” she says firmly, “You have to be up early tomorrow! Go!”

“This has to get done,” she says, equally firm.

Trisha rolls her eyes. “I’ll finish up. Your signature is basically a scribble, it’s easy to forge.”

“That’s illegal,” she says, but she’s already getting up.

“Go tell the Fuhrer on me,” she places the new stack of files on Olivier’s desk, then takes her seat, eyes narrowed in concentration.

Sometimes, when she’s tired or drunk or loses control of her thoughts for more than ten seconds, Olivier thinks about kissing her.

“Thanks,” she says, placing her hand against Trisha’s back.

Trisha glances up, smiles at her – has anyone ever told her she only has a dimple on her left cheek? She has to know – and says, “Go to bed. Tomorrow’s a big day.”

Olivier goes home, thinking of her one dimpled smile the whole way.

~

Gabby wakes up first, when it’s still dark, because she’s so close to being done.

Saif walks in a few hours later, three travel cups of coffee in his hands, and then does a double take. “Today of all days!”

“I’m almost done,” she says desperately, “really, I am!” It’s the text that Al had brought over and learned basic alkahestry from. He’d managed to find the original text. It hadn’t been in Xingese, or Xerxian, which is probably why the translation was so messed up.

It was in ancient Ishvalan.

Between her, Saif, and Hohenheim, they’d been slowly piecing it all back together. She was so excited to publish it, to put it back out in the world.

Saif glares and places a coffee cup in front of her. “Not today. Hohenheim and I will review what you’ve done so far. But no more today.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and it’s so hard to be mad at him when he gets her coffee order just right. “Okay, fine. No more today.”

He looks satisfied. “If you do not hurry, you will be the last to arrive at Gracia’s. Go.”

She grabs her wallet, stuffs it in her back pocket, then kisses his cheek before she walks out the door.

~

Ed thinks making him part of the wedding party was some sort of cruel punishment. He hates wearing a suit. But it’s not like he could say no, either.

He likes the flowers, at least. The whole building is covered in them, desert lilies everywhere they look.

Izumi is in one of the front rows with Sig, his hand around her waist and resting on her huge stomach. Al thinks it was going to be a boy, but Al’s an idiot. It’s definitely going to be girl.

Mom is next to her, with her hand in Dad’s. Ed still has no idea if they’re together, and he’s not going to ask. He’s also pretty sure Saif has a crush on his mom, and Al insists he’s seen the Fuhrer giving Mom looks like Roy used to give him, but thinking about his mom’s love life gives him a headache, so he tries not to.

Greed is next, arms crossed and shoulders slumped, like he doesn’t want to be here. No one is buying it.

Olivier’s team is there, and Miles is even wearing traditional Ishvalan clothes. The Hugheses are all seated next to each other, beaming. Roy and his team is next, all clustered together. Roy keeps catching his eye and smiling at him, and it makes Ed blush all over. He really needs to stop looking at him.

Behind them, it looks like every Ishvalan in Central has squeezed into the building.

Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong are seated in the front row on the other side of Mom, and Mr. Armstrong hasn’t stopped crying since he sat down. At least Alex comes by it honestly.

Jiddah is at the front, complicated Ishvalan robes wrapped around her. Aviv is standing front and center, and he looks nervous, which Ed thinks is hilarious. What’s there to be nervous about? She asked him.

In the place of best man is Saif, of course, then Alex, then him, then Al. Their suits are dark blue rather than black, and they have Ishvalan sashes tied diagonally across them.

The music starts, and everyone stands, and turns. First down the aisle is Olivier, Fuhrer of Amestris, and, more importantly, Maid of Honor. Then Yadira, then Laila, then Winry. Laila had requested to be put behind Yadira, Ed knew, just because she wanted to be able to step on his feet while they were dancing and grill him about the students’ progress. She was a such a pain. At least Winry and Al got to dance with each other.

Finally, Gabby slips through the doors. She’s wearing an Amestrian wedding dress, but it’s not white, instead it’s the traditional dark red of an Ishvalan wedding robe. Her hair is curled and pinned on top of her head, and the only jewelry she’s wearing is her engagement ring, a simple band with a single ruby.

She’s walking slowly at first, like she’s supposed to, but then she picks up her dress and runs forward. There’s a ripple of laughter as she stops in front of Aviv and grabs his face, rubbing her thumbs across his cheeks. “No tears!” she says, “You’re not supposed to be crying today!”

“I just,” he rubs at his eyes, “I just – I love you so much!”

“Oh my god,” Al says quietly, then sniffs. Alex is crying, but he’s always crying, so that’s not particularly impressive.

Gabby kisses him, and Jiddah throws up her arms, “Too soon!” The whole room is laughing at them.

“I love you too,” she says warmly, “that’s why we’re getting married, dummy! No more tears!”

“Okay,” he says, but he doesn’t stop crying.

They hold hands while Jiddah leads the ceremony, and Ed can’t help but grin. It is, admittedly, super fucking sweet how gone they are on each other.

The sun rose on two names, but will set on one,” Jiddah says. “I announce you to Ishvala. May you carry each other’s names into eternity.” She pauses, then grins and says, “Now you may kiss. Again.”

Aviv pulls Gabby close and dips her, her arms around his neck. They’re all cheering when they kiss for the first time as husband and wife, for the first time officially under one name.

It almost makes Ed reconsider his stance on just eloping with Roy when they get around to it.

Almost.