Previous Chapters of Better Living Through Alchemy can be found on my Master Fic List.
The Official velvet_mace word count this chapter: 10,020. Fic to date: 223,089.
The door opened with a mildly protesting creak and the form standing in the doorway creaked as well. It was a sight to be sure; a rumpled blond mess in a bathrobe that hung almost to its ankles. Its hair danced about its head and shoulders in a tesla-like array and it snuffled as it smacked its lips.
“I'm sorry to be so early brother, but we are going to catch an early train,” Al handed off the squirming bundle tucked under his arm. The small black and white terrier, (not at all offended to have been left in the care of Al after being accidentally abandoned at the parade grounds), wiggled in enthusiasm and licked at his co-owner’s chin.
“Huh, wha?” said Ed and tried to focus enough to actually understand what his brother was saying.
“I'm just here to pick up Sophie and get my suitcase,” Al said brushing past, “I'm sorry to cut this short, I know it seems I'm always doing it, but Riza and I have a lot to talk about. We did a lot of talking last night at her hotel,” Al disappeared down the hallway and turned into his bedroom. He reemerged a moment later with his suitcase and cat carrier, and sat them in the hall. Ed just kept blinking at him and looking around, then seemed to notice he was still holding R.D.
“If this is R.D., then what is that in the bed with us?” Ed said groggily.
“Ah, that makes looking for Sophie much easier,” Al grinned and headed for the master bedroom.
Even in the dim light it wasn't hard to pick Sophie out against the white pillowcase. She was wrapped around the General's head like a fuzzy, purring halo and Al lifted her gently as not to disturb the man.
“I take it things went well,” the General's voice said softly in the darkness. Al pressed the purring cat to his chest; he felt like purring himself.
“Yes,” he returned softly, “Thank you, my pirate.” Without another word, he made his way back to his disheveled brother in the hall and knelt to put Sophie into her carrier.
“So,” Ed said, “I guess I won't be seeing you for a while, seeing as how you'll have things to work out and dating to do and such.”
Al straightened up and dusted off his pants.
“Yeah,” he said, “I mean I got the ground work laid, now I have to build on it,” he gave his elder brother a half smile.
They both shuffled about a bit and then finally Al leaned forward and hugged Ed loosely as to not squish the dog still held in his arms.
“I'll call you a lot, I promise,” he said, then released his brother and stepped back, stooping to pick up the suitcase and cat carrier.
“I know,” Ed said, forging a grin, “I'm happy for you; I know you've always liked her, even when we were kids.”
“Yeah, well...” Al said. The door was behind Ed. When he went out of it, his whole world would be opening up anew. When he went out of it, something would be irrevocably left behind. It was both elation and pain, but he was used to that. He was used to exchanges.
“Be careful. Let me know you made it back to East City safe,” Ed said, putting on his authoritative tone, “Don't be late for your train.”
“Right,” Al said and nodded. He went to the door and sat his suitcase down briefly to open it while Ed shifted R.D. to under his flesh arm and caught the handle with his automail hand.
“I got it,” he told his younger brother, who was no longer his ‘little’ brother. He was leaving little behind.
“You always do,” Al smiled, “Thanks brother, thanks for everything. Thanks for making it possible for me to have this.”
“I didn't do this,” Ed said, cheeks heating a little, “You got her all on your own.”
“But you got me back,” Al said, “Just like you promised, you always make good on your promises.”
“Hey... you're my brother,” Ed said, “That's what big brothers do.”
Al regarded him a moment more, nodded and picked up his suitcase. He stepped out the door, off the small porch, walked to the waiting car and his future. His elder brother watched him go; waiting until he was in the car and it pulled away before stepping out of the pre-dawn chill and shutting the door.
The General made a very entertaining whooshing sound when his dog was dropped on his stomach. He made more entertaining sounds when said dog danced there a moment before darting up his chest and having a go at his nose with a wet tongue. Then the General's dog got to dance on his head a moment as the man flailed wildly, but the victory was short lived when the General got his hands around the small, furry chest and lifted him up, holding him aloft.
“R.D.,” the General said, “I see you made it home after your wild night of partying.”
“I can't believe we left him,” Ed muttered, climbing back into his side of the bed, sliding under the quilt and then right up against Roy to leech body heat, “We would be terrible parents.”
“I knew that Al or one of the boys would watch him,” the General smiled and the small dog trotted to his spot at the end of the bed between their feet, “So, Al's heading back east?” He reached out and ran his hand over Ed's hip and up his side. Since Ed was there to leech body heat, the General felt it only fair he get to touch a little.
Ed didn't answer. Instead, he pressed closer and ran the tip of his nose along the General's collarbone. Roy slipped his hand around to Ed's back and began to rub up and down gently.
“It will be okay,” he said into blond hair, “wait and see; it will be just fine.”
Ed responded by turning his face and pressing his cheek against his chest. The General kept rubbing slowly, up and down his spine as R.D. adored his flesh foot.
“Of course it will be fine,” Ed said eventually, “It's Al after all, how can she resist?”
“I think she's pretty well doomed,” the General said with soft mirth, “Elric men are irresistible and more than a handful. I think I feel sorry for her.”
The General yelped as his hand shot up to cover and rub at his offended nipple while the Elric of his choosing snorted against his chest.
“I'll give you reason to be sorry if that's what you really want,” Ed scowled and clacked his automail fingers together.
“I'll be a lot less fun if you have to rush me to the hospital,” the General said.
Ed wiggled around a bit more and finally settled; the General smiled and kissed the top of his head.
“I have a meeting on Tuesday that is probably going to run late, I can ask Havoc to bring you home,” he said.
“Meeting? What kind of meeting?” the Professor lifted his once settled head and looked at him.
“Oh you know, boring, politically motivated?” Roy leaned forward and kissed him on the end of his nose, “Don't frown at me like that, you know I'm going to be very busy with all of that soon.”
“Well, I guess you gotta do, what you gotta do,” Ed sighed and lowered his head again.
What he had to do turned out to be a lot. Much more than the Professor bargained for and he found himself increasingly irritated to be staring at the back of Lieutenant Colonel Havoc's head more and more frequently.
One night a week had turned into two, two had become four and there was now talk of a weekend retreat.
“How much of this am I supposed to put up with?! “ Ed yelled suddenly, causing the man in the front seat to jump, but he was used to such things when certain alchemists were in the back seat.
“Well I'm sure I can't tell you, boss,” Havoc said, leaning his head back a little and glancing over his shoulder, “The General's a busy man. You know, running for Prime Minister is a big thing.”
“I am no longer twelve, Havoc,” Ed spat, “Stop talking to me like I am.”
“Hmmm,” the man said and turned to look ahead again, as this was optimum driving position, really.
Ed sighed and let his head thunk back against the seat.
“No, I'm sorry. I know Roy is going to be busy. At least I thought I knew,” he rubbed his palms down his legs, “I guess I didn't know as much as I thought I knew,” he finally admitted, “I just get tired of going home alone and going to bed alone...”
“To much information,” Havoc said from the front seat, then grinned into the rearview mirror.
Edward gave him the middle finger salute.
“Yeah, I guess it is a drag. And having to drive you out into East Bumblefuck isn't a lot of fun for me either,” Havoc said, “It keeps me out late; I guess it's a good thing Sarah works most nights.”
“How is that going?” Ed asked, folding his arms and turning to look at the scenery slowly become dimmer in the fading light of afternoon, “I mean, you've been together for a while now... any future plans?”
“You know, when you have married friends, everyone is supposed to be married,” Havoc snorted.
“I'm not married,” Ed said softly, “That’s for... you know, normal people. I don't have much to do with normal people. Al's going to go off and be normal,” he finished on a mumble.
“Who sets the standards on normal?” Havoc asked from the front seat, “I would like to meet him because I have a few bones to pick. You know, just being with someone and being happy and making them happy? That's normal in my book, chief.”
Ed shrugged, looked down at his pants and picked at them.
“Okay congrats, I feel like I'm twelve,” he muttered.
“That's what I'm here for,” Havoc said, slapping the steering wheel and making a grand gesture, “Can't have you getting too big for your britches.”
“Are we there yet?” came the petulant tone from the back.
“I apologize, this is last minute, I'll make it up to you,” the General pleaded over the desk.
Ed ticked off the excuses on his fingers.
“That is what you said yesterday and the day before that, you know... why don't you just live here? You're never at home anymore, I might as well live alone,” he snarled.
“Ed,” Roy appealed, “I can't just blow these things off, I have to be available and visible and this is important. As for living here... I was thinking perhaps we should take an apartment in the city?” Roy glanced up from under his bangs, “We could live at the house on the weekends.”
Ed just started at him, then raised his hands and dropped them.
“WHAT? Are you serious?! I don't know about you, but I like living out of the city. I mean it was fine when I was a kid, it was kind of exciting... and what about R.D.'s yard? He won't have much of a yard if we move into the city. What about the hedges? Huh, who's gonna trim those and take care of the yard? What if someone realizes we aren't there all the time and breaks in? What about my desk? Are we going to be able to get an apartment big enough for both of our desks? I don't know about you, but I have to have my home desk because I do a lot of paper grading at home. And closets! I like the big closets!”
The General was doing some of his own staring at that point. His eyebrow climbed and the corresponding corner of his mouth turned down.
“You've certainly gotten domestic,” he said.
“Domestic?!” his blond lover howled, “Is that anything like gay?! Just because a guy likes his house, his manhood is called into question?! What is it with you people? I'm not domestic like a fuckin' housewife! I'd just as soon shove an apron up your big and hooked nose! All I want is for you to come the fuck home with me at night so I'm not there by myself -- and R.D. doesn't count -- and I just want you to fuckin' be a home when I'm at home because I don't get to see you all day and is that too much to fuckin' ask?!”
The General reached up and ran a finger along his nose.
“My nose isn't hooked,” he said.
“I'll hook you up one fuckin' side and down the other,” Ed seethed.
“Okay look, I'll clear my schedule tomorrow and I'll take you out, anywhere you want to go, then we'll go home and spend a nice evening with just each other and maybe some music and wine... deal?”
“You aren't buying your way out of this one,” Ed said, “When you mean out, do you mean dress up out or where I want to go out?”
“Anything you want,” his General placated.
“I'd have to bring a change of clothes tomorrow, because I wouldn't want to wear my school clothes,” the Professor folded his arms.
The General walked around his desk and stopped in front of the Professor. When he leaned over a bit, the Professor tilted his head up.
“It won't be forever,” the General said softly against Ed's lips after the kiss.
“It will only feel that way,” Ed returned and then sighed, “I guess I should go and find Havoc.”
“He's waiting for you in the motor pool,” the General said.
Ed held his tongue and squared his shoulders, retrieved his briefcase and headed for the door.
“I'll try to be home before midnight,” the General called after him and the Professor sagged a little when he was out of sight down the hall, anticipating another night of discussing his troubles with a small black and white terrier who'd taken to sleeping on his pillow above his head.
He sat on the couch, since the General wasn't in his office when he'd come in. His spare clothes were in the older man’s bathroom for which Roy had the only key, (he could just alchemize the door open and then repair it after he was done, but if the General came in while he was doing it, all he would do is complain that Ed had ruined a perfectly good door and no matter how much Ed protested that he'd put it back just the way he found it, the General would say it would never be the same and Ed would hear about it... forever.)
He'd only been sitting there for about five minutes when he looked up as the door to the office opened, smile crossing his face, but it was Havoc. The man stuck his head in the room and observed Ed on the couch, then carefully looked around the rest of the room, but didn't enter. Ed arched an eyebrow and snorted, but the Lieutenant Colonel didn't come in. Instead, he extended his hand around the door and waved a white envelope between two fingers. Ed eyed the envelope and the man waving it, then got to his feet and walked to the door. As he approached, Havoc backed up a bit, holding the envelope at full arm’s length. Ed plucked it from the man’s fingers and Havoc ducked out, shutting the door as he went, leaving the bewildered Professor standing alone.
I know this is no excuse, but I'm sorry... last minute... I forgot... I promise...
Ed crumpled up the note, whipped it at the desk and stood shaking for a moment. He raised his hand and snapped his fingers, over and over. In his imagination, the marble melted and the desk burned its way through the floor, falling into the unsuspecting secretarial pool below. The women scattered, screaming; the fire alarms went off in the complex. The whole of the place was evacuated, the General was located and fired on the spot and Ed took him home, where he stayed and was the fuckin' domesticated one for the rest of his days.
He reached up and rubbed at his temple, trying to keep from grinding his teeth to powder and snapping his jaw in the process. He took a few steps back and sat hard on the couch, doing absolutely nothing but seeing red for several long seconds. It had been a long time since he'd felt this way. A long time since a smirking Colonel, or an idiot alchemist, or a stupid civilian or an Ishbahlan with a scar had made him seize up with the need to just break things.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, Al repeated over and over in his mind. But don't hyperventilate. You always go from one extreme to another, Al said patiently.
What was Al doing? Was he with Riza? Was he happy? Sure he called and sure he told Ed everything that was going on... Why the fuck was Roy doing this to him?!
The door opened again and Ed froze, hoping against hope that some dumbass, thoughtless, back stabbing General realized what a complete and utter bastard he was being, and in doing so, was rushing to try and intercept a Lieutenant Colonel with a damning note he'd given him to pass along. Seeing as he'd failed to stop said note from falling into Ed's hands, he was ready to crawl to him on his knees and grovel for forgiveness before kissing his shoes. No, not kissing his shoes, polishing them with his tongue.
Havoc stuck his head around the door again and swallowed hard.
“Dismissed!” Ed barked, “Dis-fuckin'-missed! Services not required!”
Havoc saluted and the door shut again, leaving Ed alone and in silence to contemplate the many ways he could somehow learn to hex the General. Hyperactive bladder wouldn’t be a bad curse, he'd have to stay home then, or wear adult diapers. He'd stay home; no way he'd be caught dead in adult diapers.
He closed his eyes and slid sideways on the couch, coming up against the arm and just laying there. His brother was off having a life, his lover was off having a career and here he was, running in place. He felt... sorry for himself. Sure, he'd done it before, when he was half his current age and his brother was trapped in steel and his whole life centered around his sins, but he thought, finally, he was over it.
“I just want to go home and not be alone,” he murmured to the room around him.
“That could be arranged,” the room answered back.
Ed rose swinging. One moment he was slumped on the couch, eyes closed, the next he was throwing blows at a black haired interloper who was almost as much of a bastard as the one that stood him up. Each strike was neatly dodged or parried. He jumped onto the coffee table and brought up his flesh leg; a strong forearm blocked it and he swung himself back in order to avoid the punch aimed at his mid section.
“You've been practicing,” the Prince said, grinning as he ducked another blow.
“And I'm just in the mood to demonstrate on your head,” the Professor growled and threw another punch.
“Might I suggest a more suitable place for combat? You seem to need to work off a little steam. Tell me, where is the General?”
The volley of punches that came after that casual statement surprised even the Prince.
The General campaigned and the Professor trained. It went on like that for several days that turned as they will into weeks and eventually months, and a certain form of resignation seemed to settle over Edward. Events and balls were no longer something to complain about, the suits and pomp and circumstance around them became second nature. More often than not, a certain Xingian Prince made the stodgiest of affairs tolerable and many speeches were missed as balconies, empty rooms and other such places were located. The Professor found, against his will, that the Prince was a fascination. Bandying words and adventures with him brought an appreciation of his wit, his intelligence and his ambitions.
“Tell me about the stone,” the Prince whispered one night in a dark garden maze outside a palatial event facility, “I think it's time you tell me some stories.”
“Stories?” the Professor turned and walked a bit into the maze, “I don't have any stories worth telling, nothing that involves moon goddess or foxes with abnormal tails.”
The Prince clasped his hands behind his back and remained where he was; Edward could just pick out the curve of his smile in the wan light falling over them from the ballroom balcony above.
“Besides, there is nothing I can tell you,” the Professor said, “It's all military hush-hush and classified. I'm not allowed to tell you.”
“It's not that you can't tell me, it's that you won't tell me,” the Prince said in his mild tone, the edges of which danced in mirth, “There is nothing the military can and can't tell you to do, that is something I simply refuse to believe.”
“I hear a fountain,” the Professor said, “I bet it's at the center. These mazes are a dime a dozen, come on, let's go see it.”
The Prince hummed, and looked over his shoulder toward the building behind him.
“The buffet table will still be there when we get back,” Ed groused.
“Are you sure? There are some rather portly men in charge of the military or have you failed to notice? I imagine the General will be joining them in a few years. He's well on his way already, with the amount of desk time he seems to have,” the Prince's grin turned positively wicked.
“You shut the fuck up,” the Professor snapped, heading into the maze, “Leave Roy out of this; I hate it when you bring him up.”
The Prince wisely chose not to comment and instead started off at a leisurely pace to keep the Professor in sight.
Edward kept making lefts and the Prince smiled at the trick. It wasn't long before the wall of dark greenery yielded before him and the smell of water carried over the air. Edward was already there, standing to the side of a large pond; in its middle, an elegant tower showered the night air in mist.
“Look,” Edward said as Ling drew up to his side, “Fish.”
The Prince glanced down. In the reflection the moon cast over the pond, he could see patches of white and gold darting about in a random fashion.
“If it was daylight and our shadows cast on the water, they would probably gather looking for hand outs. These are koi, very popular in my country,” the Prince supplied.
“Mooching fish for a mooching monarch, not surprised,” the Professor half grinned.
For a while, their silence was companionable. In the distance, the sudden sounds of music wafted from the direction of the ballroom.
“The band has started up, the speeches must be over,” Edward said, turning his head, “We better head back, Roy will be looking for me.”
“What did you do with the stone once you found it?” the Prince asked.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” the Professor said, tight lipped.
“I would have thought you would replace your limbs, but you didn't. Was it your brother? The one hidden in armor for years? He is not as tall as I would have assumed considering the size of the armor he wore. Was it Alphonse who benefited from the stone?”
“I'm heading back; I have nothing to tell you.”
“Did you consume Liore for the sake of your brother?” the Prince asked and the Professor, already heading for the opening, froze in his tracks, his back stiffening.
“Was it worth it?” the Prince said lowly.
The Professor came at him, as the Prince knew he would. It was easy to dodge such a blind attack fueled by... what? Anger? Guilt? Horror or shame?
“That wasn't ME,” the Professor screamed, voice raw and raged, “I didn't do that! I was cleared of that! It wasn't ME!” His voice waged war between tears and screeches; it battled between guilt and shame, “It was some fuckin' mad man who thought he knew GOD! It's not my fault, it's GOD'S fault, do you hear me?! DO YOU HEAR ME?!”
“Yes,” the Prince answered, “So, tell me why a godless man is in a god fearing country, following a military man who wants to be god himself? What did you do with the stone, Edward? Do you still have it? I can make you rich, I can make you powerful... more powerful than he hopes to be with his fancy words and political position.”
“I don't have it,” Edward snarled, swinging at the Prince's head with an automail fist, “I never had it, don't you get it, you fuckin' moron?! I'll tell you another thing, you don't want it! You are just like all the other self-important fucks I've ever met! You have no idea; you won't pay with enough effort. You have no idea of the price!”
“Tell me then,” the Prince begged, “You think you know me, but that is just for your own sake,” he ducked a punch, dodged a kick and again gave the subtle signal for Ran Fan to stay out of it.
“I do know you! You pander, you fawn, you play up and for what?! You're just like him! What are you going to have to show for it? Your name in a history book? So fuckin' what? Most of those dead bastards are there by luck or the lack of it, hook or by crook! Have you ever compared the ones who are really worthy of being written about with the ones who are only infamous?! I have! I've waded through every fucker who did anything remotely interesting in the past, and I tell you, it's not worth it!” The Prince danced out of range, skirting the edge of the pond and Edward pursued, “Listen to me you dumb fuck! I just want to help you!”
The Prince's smile was gone. He parried a blow neatly, slammed his shoulder into Edward’s and they stood locked for a moment like that.
“If you truly want to help me, then you would help me toward my desire,” Ling said flatly, “We play this game, you and I, this game of wanting and denial, and for what? If you wish to have something, you should take it. Why is the wish for power more repugnant than say, the wish for food? Some people need power to live, some people just need air and speculation.” The Prince shoved Edward aside and went into a defensive crouch.
“So it is with you and the General,” he finished.
“So, what of it?” Ed held back, panting slightly, most of his energy and rage spent.
“I would say you were unsuited,” the Prince slowly raised from his defensive position, “but I can't really say. It's more like you are... reversed.”
“Eh?” Ed's eyebrow quirked.
“Tell me, did you pay for the stone with your ambition?” the Prince asked, “The General reaches and yearns, but you are content. How can that be? The great Fullmetal Alchemist, content to be draped in a shadow.”
Ed open opened his mouth, only to close it again. The Prince tilted his head.
“This God you speak of with such disrespect; I think perhaps you've traded one God for another.”
Ed whirled then, marched out the entrance to the fountain and back into the maze. He took a couple of turns before his vision and reason cleared enough for him to realize he'd failed to follow his pattern... hadn't he? Or had he? In frustration and turmoil of matters other than the mind, he clapped his hands together and touched the brambles and branches of the wall hedge in front of him. They parted with a rustling, like a stage curtain, and he pushed through to the next wall, and the next. He startled some uniformed man clutching a girl in a waitress uniform who was obviously not his wife, but he didn't pause until he was in the clearing of the courtyard below the balcony.
He looked up at the balcony, panting slightly and caught himself turning back to look at the maze, but stopped himself. Balling his fists at his sides, he strode back through the downstairs doors, took the curved stairway up to the second level and went through the large and ornate double doors that led into the ballroom proper. The band was on break obviously and the crowd had dispersed. They were all divided up into groups according to rank and cliché as usual. It was a bit empty, but Edward could hear conversation from the adjoining room where the buffet was set up. He stopped near the middle of the floor, all alone there on the marble and grout. It was as if at any moment a spotlight might strike him, the band might play and a gentleman in a dress uniform might come forward to offer his hand.
He did a slow turn, scanning the little clusters of blue predators dotting the wall and sitting areas. His gaze fell on the back of one in particular, half turned away from him, head bowed and leaning forward slightly, indicating his interest in the conversation huddled between him and his mates. But by fate or attraction, or a bit of both, he straightened, as if the mere touch of a golden gaze drew him. He turned slowly and lifted his head, the skirt of his dress uniform moving with him. When his eye lighted on Ed, his face softened and the smile that grew there was something divine. Edward stood numbly, feeling his stomach sickeningly roll in on itself as his feet seemed to meld to the floor.
He didn't believe in God.
Roy broke from the group, his heels clicking on the marble floor as he headed toward him. Each step echoed against Ed’s chest in an almost painful way. He wanted to step back, turn, move to the side; he didn't want to be conspicuous and in the open. It was almost like being naked to a roomful of strangers.
“Edward,” Roy's voice washed over him and as was his namesake, it ran like fire, “Come and join us, I was wondering where you had gotten off to. I was especially surprised when you weren't the buffet.” The General smiled a small, teasing smile and reached out his hand.
“That's really fucking nice,” Edward hissed, “You think all I do is eat?”
The General blinked, his hand hovering between them.
“I'm really tired of this puppet show, I want to go home,” he turned away so he didn't have to look at the General's hand.
“I'm not done here yet,” Roy said, lowering his voice, “Do you think you could stay a bit longer?”
“It's always about you, isn't it? I'm tired; I’ll find my own way home.”
Walk, don't look back.
“Edward,” the General said behind him, but he was heading for the door.
Don't look back, keep moving forward.
He didn't hear the click of heels behind him. He slowed outside the door... but nothing. He swallowed and lingered for a moment in the foyer.
Don't look back.
He pushed out the double doors and looked at the line of automobiles lined up at the curb. A few drivers glanced up at him, then back down to their respective books or papers or whatever it was drivers did to amuse themselves while waiting. He couldn't just order one of them to take him home... he wasn't a Major anymore. He'd left it behind.
No, he wouldn’t. There was too much invested, there was too much history. But sometimes too much of a good thing...
He strode down the line of cars. As he left the lights of the foyer behind, they all just became one never ending line of dark shapes. An occasional flicker of light would pick out an angle here or there, then finally he was free of them as well. His feet left the paved walk and made no noise across the grass, but where was he going really? He stopped there, in the darkness at the fringe of the lawn.
What was happening?
“I answer to no god,” he told the night air around him, “I don't care if he's just a concept or a fucking mortal... I don't care, I only answer to me.”
So where was the Xingian now? Off to shake another foundation, off to make another poor soul question his very existence? Fucking bastards, the lot of them. Then he heard it, the soft foot fall behind him. Did thinking about him somehow summon the Prince? Was that the secret to royalty, always being in the right place at the crucial time? He whirled, lips bull back, right hand clenching with an audible clink.
“I told you there is no god,” he snarled.
“I remember,” the General said, “I'm not here to convince you otherwise.”
No, you are only here for my soul.
“I'm finished if you're ready to leave,” Roy said softly, “Thank you for waiting for me, even if you didn't mean to.”
“It's not like I had much choice,” Ed mumbled, “I couldn't figure out which sleek, black, luxury options, fucked hunk of metal we came in,” his eyes flicked to the General's.
I'm not asking for your forgiveness, I'm not.
“Well, you're in luck, I remember the driver's face,” the General said lightly, “I think it's this way.” He turned to go back toward the gathering of cars, but didn't hold out his hand.
I suppose I deserve that.
Ed trailed him back to the driver and they soon found themselves on the way home.
“Okay, does anyone remember why I've brought you here?” the Professor asked, surveying the group standing on the sidewalk. He tilted his face down to peer at them over his glasses. “Anyone at all?”
Gavin suddenly shot his hand into the air, going up on his tiptoes as if to make it more prominent.
“Yes?” the Professor drawled.
“You said we were coming here to look at the works of dead guys who did something lofty in the dim past,” Gavin repeated, almost verbatim.
“Well done,” the Professor said, “Here are the rules: Stay together. I don't mean in little groups all over them place, I mean in one big central group preferably at my back. Touch. Nothing. Let me repeat that: Touch. Nothing. Don't try to eat anything,” he looked pointedly at Duffy, “No shouting, running, horsing around, sleeping, poking your neighbor, looking at your neighbor funny... what am I leaving out?”
“Snickering,” Seth suggested.
“Good one, no snickering,” the Professor continued, “No belittling the achievement of men great enough to have their life’s work encased in glass... I think that covers it. No inventing new things I have to tell you no doing about in the future.”
“This is going to be so boring,” Daniel complained.
“No being bored,” the Professor added.
“Good one, Stanton, now we have to look interested,” Richard said. There was snickering around them and the Professor glanced at them sharply. Daniel eyed his newly discovered rival; no one was supposed to one-liner up him.
The Professor herded them up the steps of the Central Museum of Science and Technology. There were 24 steps; Duffy counted them aloud in a stage whisper he must have thought could only be heard by himself. Seth opened the door and manned it as his classmates filed him past him and then trotted in at the Professor's side. They paused at the large maple desk where a nice young lady in a crisp uniform handed each boy a pamphlet with a map printed on the back. Much paper rustling commenced.
“Rustle quieter,” the Professor hissed, “Remember, your behavior not only reflects on the Academy, but it reflects on me. Don't make me have to kiss the Dean's ass tomorrow,” he'd given up the harder curse words. Surely ass was allowed. These were boys after all.
“Dean's ass,” Daniel said. There was snickering that was quickly squelched as a few boys pointed at their neighbors.
There were immediately two camps of thought. To the left was the hall of the Military, complete with replicas of war mongering equipment. To the right was the hall of Sciences and Alchemy, complete with books and interesting plaques. The Professor went right; everyone else went left. By the time the Professor was through with the first plaque, (under a framed portrait of Van Hawton, the first man in written history to transmute iron out of the earth), he noticed that he was alone. Trying not to seem like he was panicking, he ran madly back through the reception area and into the opposite hall. To be on the safe side, he yelled a few students’ names as he barreled in, so everyone would jump and be edgy and less likely to do damage.
A frantic head count later revealed no one had disappeared and everyone was still generally intact. Although there was one shoe unaccounted for and no one was willing to give up its whereabouts. Muted whines followed him all the way back to the hall of Sciences and Alchemy. There was a lot of shuffling and coughing and boys staring at plaques in a way that reminded other museum goers of the joys of watching paint dry. There was whispered speculation about who was actually asleep on their feet half way through the exhibit and then the Professor got mistaken for a student by a security guard. This was highly entertaining for a few minutes and it seemed they might all actually get tossed out with the Professor. There was much disappointed muttering when the Professor managed to control himself and the Hall of Boring Alchemic Tortures continued.
Just when a few of the student’s thought they wouldn't make it, Tom pointed excitedly at a display near the very end of the hall.
“It's the Professor!” he crowed.
“Me?” the Professor croaked and there was a sudden exodus of boys from his side down to where Tom was waving his finger excitedly. Edward moved off slowly to follow them and glanced up at a sign hanging from the roof of the hallway. It read 'Modern Times' and as he passed the displays, he recognized many of the alchemists featured in them. There were some of them he'd even met before and grouped in with them was one of them he knew intimately. He let his eyes trail across the blurb printed at the bottom of an enlarged photo, but the only words he picked out where 'Colonel Roy Mustang, The Flame Alchemist'.
“Professor, come see,” Seth called excitedly and picked up his pace.
The case near the end was tall. Inside of it looked to be a pillar of stone, but further inspection revealed it was a large stone hand, palm turned upwards. As he came to stop in front of the case, an enlarged photograph glared back at him from the wall and a scowling twelve year old dared him to make comment.
'State Certified Alchemist at twelve? The story of Edward Elric.” Read the placard on the front of the case.
“Where did that stone hand come from?” Daniel asked and glanced over at him. Edward looked at it and his eyebrows rose. That stupid fight; he and Al transmuting at each other when just words failed to get their point across… He remembered that, the dusty little town. They had hauled one of those things here? They had preserved the frustrated anger of adolescent brothers under glass? He shook his head.
“I don't remember,” he lied.
“Look, there's General Mustang,” Duffy said, pointing at another picture in the display, “And you and some woman, who is that? You look like you were our age.”
“That's Colonel Hawkeye. Well, she's a Colonel now... back then she was a First Lieutenant,” Edward supplied, glancing at the photo, “I was fifteen,” he mumbled. It wasn't a particularly good shot; Riza was half cropped out of it and Roy was standing to his side. He hadn't been looking at the camera either and he didn't even recall the instance in which the photograph has been taken, or why.
“Let's move on,” he suddenly announced, “I would think you would all be sick of me by now,” he said, heading out of the hall, “Let's go look at that Military stuff you were all so hot to look at earlier.”
But it wasn't as if that helped either. Surrounded, literally. A Lieutenant Colonel had come seeking a man that was best forgotten and found a boy in a wheelchair... then proceeded to dominate his entire life. He watched his students drifting from one display to the next. They didn't know, they were just boys. He was a boy for a little while, but it seemed detached, almost someone else's memories. Where would he be now if not for a man's ambitions then? A cripple in Risembool with an animated suit of armor for a brother? No, they would have found another way, maybe a better way. Maybe they wouldn't have taken the word of an opportunist; maybe he wouldn’t have enslaved himself to the state.
Maybe Hughes would be alive; maybe Liore would have been spared, maybe and maybe and maybe...
“Professor?” Seth said hesitantly and he stared at the boy for a moment before truly seeing him.
“Let's get lunch,” the Professor said, putting on a smile, “Get everyone together.” Seth nodded and raced away to tell the others.
You needed me; I thought I needed you. You were on your way up; I was a step in the right direction, a rung in the ladder. You wanted to keep me close. I wanted... I wanted... I didn't know what I wanted.
You knew that.
He herded the boys into the museum cafe, he fed them, let them run about a bit because they were just boys, then managed to get them all on the bus and back to the academy in time for the last bell.
After all this time, I've finally learned my lessons.
He caught a cab and left the Military complex behind.
If his presence was a surprise, no one let on. He was bowed to, shown to the sitting room and wasn't made to wait long.
“Forgive the delay,” the Prince said, breezing in past his bowing servants, “Professor, I welcome you once again to Xing. How can I be of service?”
There were no words, just a roll the shoulders and a squaring of the jaw.
“I see. Shall we retire the gardens? Ran Fan, have tea sent out.”
The woman bowed silently as the Professor and the Prince left the room.
Ed stripped off his jacket, vest and shirt, and dumped them unceremoniously over the back of one of the patio chairs.
“You mean business,” Ling murmured and did similarly, leaving his sash and high collared shirt lying over the Professor's clothes. He strode to the middle of the garden where the grasses were worn down and familiar, and bowed to the Professor in his usual flippant formality.
“Let's play our game,” Ed said, “A question for each blow landed.”
“I accept,” the Prince said and took a defensive stance.
The first round ended evenly, one for one.
“Do you have the stone?”
“Is it the stone you want, or me?”
The second round the same.
“Can you help me find the stone?”
“....I can tell you what you need to know.”
“Are you using me to get what you want?”
“If wanting you is using you, then yes.”
The third round ended before it began.
“I'm sick of games, fucking sick of games. I've played them my whole life and I've never won,” Ed’s eyes searched a face no longer foreign.
“Then let's just dispense with them and give each other what we need,” there was no smirk or grin.
“The stone has a very high price, one which no sane man is willing to pay.”
“Sanity is something I am rarely accused of; it would be interesting to put that to the test.”
“You're not a murderer, I refuse to believe that. I learned the hard way to be content with what you have, why won't you listen to me?”
“I do listen to you; I just choose not to hear you. My ambitions have no need of your cautionary tales. Some lessons are best learned the hard way.”
“You're a stupid fuck is what you are, aren't you listening to me? The stone is forged in blood, how far are you really willing to go? Who do you hate enough to give to the damn array?”
“Who was your sacrifice?”
“I sacrificed no one, the stone we had... we didn't make.”
“You stole it?”
“No, it was forced on us!”
“But you used it, despite knowing all of this?”
“I didn't! It was Al! He didn't know any better, he's not to blame! He did it to save me... to save my worthless ass.”
Then there were arms around him and his mouth was covered. The taste wasn't the same; it was different, almost sweet and earthy. The fingers on his back, they were all wrong too. Too long, they didn't hit those spots right along his spine like they were supposed to. The chest he was against was narrower, as were the hips that pressed to his. When his mouth was released, he hung his head back to pant and the lips that took his throat and the side of his neck were somehow cooler.
This is what you want? Is this what you want?
“Come inside with me,” a voice said in his ear. It had a soft accent that he recognized.
One lover in my entire life.
“There are things I want to show you,” the voice murmured on. Lips dropped to his automail shoulder, a tongue flicked over the joining of steel and flesh.
He has always been there, I've never known anything else.
“In time, I can make you forget anything or anyone,” the voice coaxed.
He's always been there, even when I wasn't.
“You won't regret it,” the voice whispered.
He loves me.
“He loves me,” Edward said aloud, “He loves me,” he repeated, “I'm sorry, he loves me and I know it... I know that. Ling... this ends. It ends now.”
The Prince's mouth left his flesh and for the briefest moment, Edward wondered what it would have been like, but it was fleeting and quickly passed.
“I'm sorry and I lied to you, I won't tell you about the stone. I do this as your friend, even if you won't see it that way. I thought I wanted something more, but I don't. I am content with what I have. Content is not a bad thing, some people never find it and they search their whole lives. It's not settling for something, it's finding something. It doesn't matter if you have no comparison. Some people will say you haven't lived, you don't know what you're missing. Well guess what? I don't fucking care what I'm missing because I have what I want, and it's all I want.”
The Prince said nothing, his face almost blank.
“You said you wanted nothing but my friendship and that is all I have to offer. It's a take it or leave it situation, Ling, but this ends here and now. If you can't let it be, then when I walk out those doors, I never want to see you again. So what is it?”
The Prince frowned then, and Edward studied his face. In truth, he wanted Ling for his friend. The enigmatic Xingian had, in his way, filled a void he hadn't known he'd had and he would rather not have to try and fill it again.
“You drive a hard bargain,” the Prince said at last, “Grace in the face of defeat is a royal attribute, don't you agree?” The grin slipped firmly into place and Edward closed his eyes briefly, “A kiss goodbye?” the Prince asked.
“Why? Going to drop dead? My luck isn't that good,” the Professor joked. It felt better, it felt good. He didn't turn his head when the Prince tilted his and leaned down a bit, but he kept his mouth closed.
“I was wondering why you didn't come by the office,” a voice said behind them. The Prince pulled back and lifted his eyes to look over Edward's head.
“General,” the Prince said and for once in all the time Edward had known him, he faltered.
“Your highness,” Roy's voice carried from the patio. “I stopped by to see if you had seen Edward, since he came up missing this afternoon. I suppose he forgot I had cleared my schedule. I thought to stop and offer him a ride home,” the General said in his even tones, “But if he'd rather not...?”
Ed turned and walked toward the patio. He went to where he'd left his clothes, extracted his shirt and pulled it on. The General bowed abruptly to the Prince, spun on his heel and strode back into the house. Ed scrabbled at the rest of his clothes, just grabbing them and running to catch up.
A random servant opened the front door for the General, bowing once as he passed and again as Edward hurried by. Edward hardly noticed, his eyes trained on a blue clothed back just ahead of him. Roy went around to the driver's side of the car and opened the door, sliding in. Ed dropped his vest on the curb and snatched it up with one hand as he grabbed the car door handle with his other. Roy wouldn't drive away with him hanging on the door... would he? He fumbled and yanked the door open, practically threw himself into his seat and pulled the door shut.
The car shuddered as the General cranked it and Edward worked at the buttons of his shirt as it pulled away from the curb. There were no words, only the sounds of traffic around them until they hit the thoroughfare and even there, there was only silence. The windshield was dirty; Ed trailed his eyes from one smudged spot to another, then around the curve of the window to the side window in the door.
He couldn't say... 'It’s not what it looked like', because he knew what it looked like and if the General had been a few minutes earlier... besides, isn't that what every caught lover said? It was a strange place to be in, here and now. This car, this atmosphere where everything was thrown into question with no voice brave enough to speak the answers. He kept waiting. He glanced down at the hands in his lap. His flesh hand was easily made out in the fading sunlight and his automail hand was harder to pick out against his dark trousers. The General took a deep breath. Ed's eyes darted to the side and he didn't dare turn his head. His chest tensed, his throat tightened. A million and one things all fought to the forefront of his mind only to be dismissed in a panic.
But the General didn't speak.
Again, it was the waiting. He thought he felt a trickle of sweat run from under his hair down the back of his neck, but he didn't move to wipe it off. If he moved, somehow, irrationally, he thought he would leave himself open, invite the impending attack. He had to stay where he was, braced for the inevitable. He had to have his wits about him. The General, after all, was a General; he would know when to strike if his guard was down. Passing road lights winked in his peripheral vision and his jaw had started a dull ache just below his earlobe. He turned his flesh hand slowly, palm down on his thigh and rubbed. The General shifted a bit and seemed to clear his throat. Ed went so tense he felt himself quiver on the seat.
But the General remained silent.
He almost, almost caught himself lifting his hand to his mouth, to tug on his bottom lip. He hadn't done anything, he really hadn't. It was just a kiss, it was two and one of them didn't count because it was meant to cancel out all the other ones. It was the end. He'd made the break, he was clean. He should just tell Roy. He should just say It's not what you think. I know what you saw, but it's over, not that it ever was. That was rational and logical, Roy would understand him. Roy would forgive him. It would be over. This silence would go away. His hand was bouncing up and down and he glanced down at it, confused. It took a moment to realize that it was actually his knee that was bouncing and his hand was just resting on top of it. He risked a glance up, looking at a road sign; it was the exit for Wilton. That was two exits away from Hampton, which is the exit they took to get home. It was too soon and too far away and it was so fucking quiet in that car.
It seemed like no time when the car slowed to stop at the top of the exit ramp. It was a good excuse, raise your head, look at him; but he couldn't. He leaned with the motion of the car as they turned left. They would then go down to Hawthorne drive and turn right; after that, another right on Wheeler and then a left onto Flowering Branch. Fourth house down on the left.
And then they were there.
The General got out of the car, carefully locking the door like always. The keys in his hand tapped against the car door and then he was turning away, going up the walk.
Ed sat in the car for a few moments longer. He watched the General open the front door, he saw a flash of dancing black and white at his feet. The General went inside and pulled the door shut behind him.
He's not shutting me out, he's keeping R.D. in. Keep telling yourself that.
He did it all in a rush. He got the seat belt caught in the door, but decided it wasn't worth it to go back. He almost slipped once in the grass, got up onto the porch, reached for the knob and hesitated.
Don't be locked.
He didn't realize he was holding his breath until the knob turned easily in his hand. He pushed the door open and pushed through, because this was his life. He belonged here, this was his home. The General stood at the end of the foyer. He was undoing his uniform jacket to leave it in the hall closet for the morning. He often did this. His spare one was in the bedroom in the closet, still in brown paper from the cleaners.
It wasn't very far to the end of the foyer, only ten or so steps. He took the first two, shutting the door behind him and checking quickly that R.D. didn't escape in his moment of indecision, but the small dog was in the archway of the living room cocking his spotted head and wagging his tail. Ed took two more steps, making it a total of four so far. The General had his jacket on the hanger and was putting it in the closet. He took another, making it five; halfway there and halfway not and it felt almost as if he where wading through water. The General closed the closet door, tugged at his cuffs and turned slowly toward him.
“When...” he started.
“It wasn't like that,” Ed interrupted.
“Don't give me that! I might only have one eye left, but it works!” the General shouted.
“I said it wasn't like that! Fucking listen to me for once!”
“All I do is listen to you and your excuses! What the hell am I supposed to believe this time?!”
No, what are you doing? Don't yell at him! He's upset, he thinks he saw something, you can't fix this by yelling!
Ed struggled to control his breathing and his volume.
“I know you saw him kiss me...”
“And you kissing back...”
“NO! I mean, I was but it didn't mean anything!”
“So it was just a fling? You just thought you'd see what it was like?”
That fucking mocking, condescending tone. That smirking bastard behind a desk.
“NO! Stop doing that! Stop doing that shit; I'm not your fucking subordinate anymore! You don't fucking talk to me like that!”
“You are nothing more than the same self-centered, egotistical, pathetic brat that stood on a train platform and told me I was responsible for his entire life! And you know what?! I tried to be! What the hell is wrong here, Ed?! I'll talk to you any damn way I please. You won't make me the guilty party this time!”
“I didn't ask you for a damn thing! You came to me; you stuck your nose where it wasn't wanted! I was fucking ten years old, you son of a bitch! Proud of yourself?! You sold out the soul of a ten year old and then you fucked him over when he was fifteen and I don't mean that figuratively! You have dominated my whole fucking life and I'm sick and goddamn tired of it! You arrogant fucking bastard! You set me up and slapped me down more times then I can count, what did you fucking expect?!”
The General was suddenly striding toward him and for the life of him, he couldn't hold his ground. He back pedaled, the small of his back connected with the foyer table and he gasped and skirted around it. His eyes widened as he flattened himself to the wall. What the hell was he doing? Why the hell was he running? He didn't back down to GOD and he wouldn't back down to a man. The General's hands slammed to the wall at either side of his head and he squeezed his eyes shut before forcing them back open. The General leaned then, slowly. He tilted his head and for one bizarre moment Ed thought he was going to kiss him, but instead he felt the General's breath on his neck, right below his ear.
“You smell like him,” said a voice, gravely and low. Then he was gone. Roy pushed off the wall and walked down the hall, not looking back.
Ed stood where he was, panting slightly and seeing nothing.