Radio Heroes

Radio dramas had become popular in his academy years, in the uneasy time just before the Ishbar War began. He remembered tinkering radios as a cadet, counting down the days before they were all shipped out to the front line, of being clustered with his fellow soldiers around one tiny set and listening for home in the airwaves. Westerns were the most common of the dramas, all the actors drawling in long, exaggerated accents. Good and evil were plain black and white, and there was always a pretty girl who’d go home on the hero’s arm, off into the sunset.

Maes sometimes wished to be one of those men, with their gravely voices and their keen eyes. They only drew their guns when necessary, and in the end, anyone they killed deserved death. It was all right in drama, because they were the lonely heroes under the high noon sun. They didn’t crawl on their bellies through the desert, targeting the innocent alongside the fanatical, “just in case.” Their kind couldn’t exist out here, where sand got into everything and you could never be sure that the familiar faces you saw in the morning would still be there at night.

When his tour duty was over and he came home again, his girl met him at the train station and enveloped him in soft arms. He didn’t remember too much of that exact moment, only that he stood with his face against her hair and thinking of nothing at all, really. She’d said nothing, he’d said nothing, and they’d just stayed together, as the crowd moved around them. The war was far from over, and all the battles were not yet won, but for a moment he was the hero of dramas, battered and dusty, finding his place at last.

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Not At Home

Secretly, Ginji doesn’t like hotels.

Oh, the beds are nice, and the food is good; it’s good to be able to stretch out completely, uncramped by the tiny car. He likes the fact that being in a hotel means that they’ve been successful at work — they’re not begging for scraps, even if it’s only for night.

But in a hotel, he can’t roll over and be inches away from Ban’s sleeping face; if he reaches out in the middle of the night, all he finds are cool sheets under his fingers.

At least they’ve never been able to afford separate rooms. If he holds very still, he can hear the sound of Ban breathing, but … it’s just not the same. There’s no closeness to it, no tobacco and dust smell, which lingers around Ban even when he’s freshly-showered.

And Ban loves hotels — he loves their cleanness, their space, and when they have the money, they go to Western-style hotels and they buy sushi, sake, and Ban just grins and grins. Even if the desk attendant isn’t a pretty girl, it doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm.

“This is only a first step,” he says, toasting Ginji. “Sooner or later, Ginji, we’ll get the money we’re worth, and then we can be like this every night.”

And he has to admit, it seems like a good idea, living in comfort all the time, especially when he’s spent his entire life in the slums and worse, but there’s a part of Ginji that’s still reserved, not quite certain he likes the idea.

When he sleeps in a hotel bed, he’s lonely. The air of the room isn’t close and warm and cramped; it doesn’t smell of old cigarettes and stale food. If he has a nightmare, he wakes to his own gasping, not Ban’s hand on his head, telling him he’s being stupid, and he needs to quiet down and just sleep.

If they someday have the money for an apartment, they’ll have separate rooms. And Ban might bring home girls, or he might just be content to sit with Ginji in their living room and eat sushi, fighting over who’d get the last piece. Whether he does or not, though, he’ll sleep somewhere else, and he’ll be there, but he won’t, at the same time.

He thinks it might be nice to sleep in an actual bed on a regular basis; he thinks it’d be nice to be able to afford meat for dinner every night. Sushi could be a special thing. It would be nice to have a place that was their own, where he didn’t have to sleep with one eye open, waiting just in case someone tried to slink out of the shadows and come after them.

But they’ve got the Ladybug, and while she’s not the biggest or best of accommodations, she’s where they belong.

So when they spend the night in hotels, Ginji rolls around and around in the cool sheets, and listens to Ban breathing, and thinks, We’ll be going home soon.

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Red Moon

The Liche smelled like dried leaves and stale water.

Kurtis sat with his hands on his knees and watched it, waiting. He could hear soft voices singing, maddeningly faint — red moon, red moon, wash away the sins of those who bear them — and the words prickled at his skin, and worse yet when the Liche finally drifted over to him, its features lost in shadows.

“You cannot come with me,” it said, and he felt the words rather than heard them, echoing hollowly in his skull. :Sinned, you’ve sinned.:

For a moment, he wanted to snarl back — yeah, tell me what I don’t know — but he bit his tongue and waited.

Between his bent knees, a small glowing ball of light appeared. Surprised, he pulled back. “What … ?”

“Sinned,” the Liche repeated, emotionless. “The Red Moon wanes.”

Kurtis wanted to protest he didn’t understand — but just like that, he did. He swallowed, and looked down. In his hands, the ball of light had become a familiar costume. “You mean I can’t … ?”

“Sinned,” he heard it say again, before it faded away. He was left staring down at the costume, feeling ridiculous as he tugged at it — it was too small, he thought, and there was no way he’d fit. His sins were too heavy for a spirit to carry him to heaven, and for a moment, he felt crushed by that — the reunion he’d hoped for had never seemed so far away. For a morose moment, he wondered if, just maybe, she’d finally stopped waiting for him.

“Two choices,” the Liche repeated. His head snapped up, but when he looked around, he was still alone. “Two choices, in Celestia or the Netherworld. Two choices.”

Kurtis looked down at the costume. It looked like a kid’s toy, pale green and tiny.

Gordon was in the Netherworld, and Jennifer, with that Overlord kid. In Celestia was that strange bastard with the white wings — Carter had believed he’d been an angel, and planned accordingly. Kurtis himself wasn’t so sure.

Two choices, the Liche said, but really, there was only one. Kurtis slipped his hands into the wings of the costume, and found that it fit surprisingly well, despite how tiny it seemed, when he held it away from himself. Closing his eyes, he pulled it the rest of the way on, and felt the zipper down his back move up of its own accord. When he looked again, the world had shifted and changed, nothing like he remembered it to be.

“Two,” the Liche said again, and he could see it now, floating at the edge of his vision. “Two choices, until the Red Moon waxes full.”

“Once choice,” he said, and turned to face it fully; for a moment, he thought he saw narrow red eyes gleaming in the shadows of its heavy hood. “I’ve still got work to do, as a Defender of the Earth.”

The Liche remained still for a moment, then nodded and turned, drifting slowly away. Kurtis followed, wobbling for a moment on his new peg legs, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. He could already feel something falling away from him as he walked, hope rising in its wake.

Just wait, he thought, as he followed the Liche through a glowing blue portal, as they make their way back to the material plane. Just wait, and I’ll find my way back to you, if I have to make the path myself.

He stepped through the final gate, and the Liche disappeared, leaving him alone in a fragrant green place, watching as the white-winged bastard vanished, leaving demons in his place.

But he was a Defender of the Earth, and a true Defender never laid down his weapons as long as something still threatened world peace. And a brother in arms was still family; Gordon and Jennifer needed his help. He had plenty of time before the Red Moon came again.

Kurtis walked forward, and left the sound of singing behind for later.

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Progression

Once upon a time (so she told the story), there was a young girl and a young boy who fell in love over the carcass of a bear and got married. And it was a beautiful wedding, too — the groom’s family catered, and the bride created most of the decorations herself, using scrap wood and metal and a few well-placed alchemic circles.

And then the couple went on their honeymoon (which basically amounted to camping out a safe distance from Dublith, so they could get away from their hordes of well-wishers — because in a small town, everyone knew everyone, and the wedding had been the biggest event in years), and then came back to start their life as a married couple. They opened up a little butcher shop and hired the boy’s young cousin to help out in the shop, and so they lived peacefully for many years.

Then one day, the boy (who had now become a man) said to the girl (who was now a woman, and pregnant at that), “We need to build things for the baby.”

She looked thoughtful, and put a hand over her belly. “You might be right,” she said. “I’ll have to see to that.”

***

“It’s not much,” Izumi said, “but for a first try, I don’t think it’s bad.”

“…” said Sieg, very expressively.

“It could be worse,” Mason said, tipping his head to one side. “Is it a … sheep?”

“It’s a bear! A bear!” Izumi turned on him, her hands on her hips. “Are you saying it looks that bad?”

Mason quailed, more out of instinct than anything else. “N– no, ma’am, it’s not that bad, it’s –”

“Eh.” Izumi hefted the stuffed animal. “It’s a first try. I should get better eventually.”

Mason caught it when she lobbed it at him, then fumbled it for a bit, peering. The stitches were lopsided. “Ms. Curtis, you made this?”

“I already said that.” Izumi rolled her head till her neck popped. When she laced her fingers together and stretched them, there were bandaids on two of her fingers. “Ah, that’s better. Yeah, I made it, so?”

“By hand? Not with …” Mason drew a circle in the air with one finger. “You know?”

“Of course not,” Izumi said firmly. “This is going to be for my child, and I didn’t make him with alchemy. His things shouldn’t be made with alchemy, either.”

“Oh.” Mason blinked, and set the bear down. After a moment, it sagged to the side. “It’s … very nice?”

“It’s crap,” Izumi said dismissively. “Not bad for a first try, but otherwise crap. I’ll try again later.”

***

The cradle didn’t turn out much better. It buckled and collapsed under the weight of the two stuffed bears Izumi put in — both also products of her own handiwork.

“Just have to keep trying,” she said.

***

“Buying formula from the store won’t hurt the baby,” Sieg told her.

Izumi continued to look insulted. “My cooking isn’t that bad,” she said. “I’ve done enough reading, I know how what babies need — it should be fine, right?”

“It should be,” he agreed. “But they’ve been doing only this for years. At the very least, we can buy some, just in case it goes wrong.” Like the bears, and the cradle, and the shirt she tried to make.

Finally, Izumi sighed. “You might be right,” she said finally. “… but I’m still making those clothes.”

Sieg didn’t argue. They had a system that worked perfectly for the two of them: it was all a matter of taking victories where you could find them.

***

The end of that story didn’t exist (as she told it), because there was some point between the rest of the story and “happily ever after” that went wrong. Rather than question, the girl shouldered this and moved forward, leaving behind pieces of stuffing and broken wood in her wake. Only the first one survived.

Years later, she gave the bear to a young boy with blonde hair and bronze-sheened eyes. This boy had lost a mother, and the woman had lost a son, and so they suited each other.

“It’s … nice?” he asked.

“It … belonged to your brother,” she said, and didn’t fill in the rest of the details. She didn’t have to: she’d told enough of a lie that he believed her, and went to sleep with the lopsided thing next to him on his pillow.

She thought someday she’d retell the whole story, from “once upon a time” to “the end.”

And as she watched the boy sleep, she thought maybe this time she could actually use “happily ever after” in between.

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No Luck

Rem dreamed of a world that was green, that’d be lush and beautiful as the holodeck simulations aboard the ship. Rem dreamed of a world where there were flowers, and not just the red ones — some were yellow, like his hair, or blue like his eyes, and purple, and pink, and all colors he wasn’t sure could appear in nature.

Rem dreamed of a world carpeted in grass, where someone could lie back and stare up into a gentle blue sky.

She’d dreamed of a lot of things, but a sandblasted desert had never been one of them, not with its craggy edges and cliff faces, all stark and bare stone. She’d never dreamed of death by fire, or thirst, or of being forgotten.

“We’re the shepherds and heroes of these sleepers,” she’d said once, with her face shaded blue by the computer screen. “All of us here on the crew, whether or not we live beyond the landing, we’ll be their originators and their ancestry.”

(“You know,” Wolfwood says, as he fills their small tent with cigarette smoke, “they say we used to live on a planet so green that you could pick weeds and use ’em as good luck charms.”

Vash puts his chin on his folded hands, blinks the sting from his eyes. The sandstorm outside shows no sign of diminishing. They’ve got enough water for two more days, and he thinks it’ll be enough. “I’ve heard that too,” he says. “Sounds weird, doesn’t it?”

“Weird’s not the word, broomhead,” Wolfwood says, and stubs his cigarette out into the sand. It makes a soft hissing noise. Vash can see the scars on Wolfwood’s knuckles, souvenirs from a short brutal lifetime, even when he’s not fighting. His palm on Vash’s shoulder is rough and warm against the night-desert air. “Impossible’s a better one.”

“Impossible is sometimes closer to the truth than ordinary stuff,” Vash tells him, and sits up as well. His hair is tousled down, and full of sand. “Look at me.”

“Look at us,” Wolfwood returns, and outside, the wind howls louder.)

Once, shortly after the landing, he’d found a small, isolated area where one of his little sisters had taken root. In her great shadow, small patches of green had sprung up, lush as anything aboard the ship. Vash knelt there, and marveled at the feel of cool grass, which once upon a time, he’d taken for granted.

He leaned forward and placed his palms against the ground; his sister’s welcome crept through him like an old friend. For just a moment, her voice sounded like Rem’s, lifted in song. In spite of himself, he smiled, and let his fingers curl a little. They sank into rich dark earth, not dry, loose sand.

“Hey, there,” he whispered. “Do you mind if I take just one? I can’t stay, but …”

She laughed at him, her voice whispery. But she didn’t argue, and so he searched among the sprouted seedlings, her children (his children), and pinched one tender stem in two. For a moment, he paused to marvel at the faint green stains left on his fingertips, then tucked his souvenir carefully away.

The rest of the day, he slept in her shadow, and when he left, she sang farewell to speed him on his way.

(“I don’t know what I’d do with a world that was all green,” Wolfwood says. His back is a warm smooth expanse under Vash’s arm, rising and falling slowly, slowly, with his breath. “Be fucking confused, really.”

Vash is silent, and then he says, “It’s not so bad, really. You’d get used to it.”

“You can say that, broomhead,” Wolfwood snorts. “You adapt to everything. I’m a priest — my job is to change things so that they’re the way I like ’em, not change myself.”

“That’s not true –”

“Well, that, and help people. Go to sleep, broomhead. You’re keeping me awake, with your wondering.”

Vash doesn’t say anything more, but closes his eyes, and listens to Wolfwood breathe, the soft sounds almost drowned out by the sandstorm. He thinks about the blue sky and gentle sunlight on Rem’s hair, and the smell of cut grass, and the delicate stains on his fingers.

He doesn’t remember what happened to that weed, that one little present his little sister allowed him with laughing grace; he thinks he may have lost it sometime before July. He wonders if she’s been covered by the desert, swallowed whole by a sun that allowed no quarter.

Luck and the impossible exist in the extraordinary, he thinks. The plain, the everyday, the drying stalks with their tiny three leaves — they hold nothing but determination, the desperation to withstand old despairs and new memories.

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purity/beauty

He once met a man who claimed killing was art, that the sculptor of a single human death was to be elevated, exalted as a creature to be venerated and emulated.

This man believed, with the bloodshot eyes and spit-flecked lips of the faithful, that the world had been created as his canvas, each human being nothing more than artistic potential. In the end, he only valued them as tools, worth nothing more than a painter’s palette or brushes. In Doctor Jackal, he believed he found himself a kindred spirit.

“You–could bring them to me, yes,” the man pleaded, his fingers cool on Akabane’s slim wrist. There was a covetous sort of lust in his pale eyes, and a reverence to his gentle touch. “You could bring them to my side, and I–I could make them beautiful.”

Akabane carefully removed those clinging soft fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said calmly. “The truth is, I have no interest in this sort of arrangement.”

Not everyone could be the GetBackers, after all, and find a happy medium between two such different people. Akabane found no appeal in playing the role of final shepherd for this person. He took a degree of pride in his own work, but he did not agree that beauty came from the death alone.

Beauty came in the fighting leading up to the death, the stress and strain that always ended too soon–the fury and the movement and the poetry of muscle over bone–

(beauty was the blankness of Amano Ginji-kun’s large eyes, as kindness and warmth bled away and exposed the lightning-violence of the ruler underneath)

–and beauty came in the purity of the final moments of death, when aggression and battle arrogance found itself cut short and bloomed into silence, the exact moment of and every stifled heartbeat after that–

(beauty was Midou Ban-kun’s consuming rage, the blood-scented aura that flared around him when the serpent was roused to killing fury)

–which meant the intricacies of torture simply held no interest for him.

The man wept and clung to Akabane’s coat, bleating like a lost lamb when it finally pulled out of his grasp, and the transporter agent disappeared into the night. It felt much like one of those silly daytime shows that sometimes played, the occasional times he watched TV. He tried to imagine Ginji-kun in that man’s place, just for amusement’s sake, and dismissed that as ridiculous. Ginji-kun, without Raitei’s blood or not, had much more dignity than that.

Polite to the end, Akabane tipped his hat to the man as he left, and wished him luck in finding a more suitable partner for his specific needs.

He once met a man who killed to create the beauty otherwise lacking in his life, and had not killed him when that man became too familiar.

There was no challenge to killing a man who could only express his appreciation for death when the victim was helpless, no enjoyment to be taken from snuffing out one small sad life, too lost in its own complexities to threaten anyone who was not tied down.

The irony of that still amused him, even now.

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The Pen Is

In hindsight, he thinks the challenge was a bad idea. The best way to get Edward Elric to do anything isn’t to order him, but to challenge him, which is something Roy has used to his advantage in the past. Unfortunately, it has been known to backfire, too.

Like now. One offhand comment about Ed lacking eloquence in anything unrelated to alchemy has sparked this ridiculous habit, and while Roy is a patient man, there is a certain point where even Ed’s amusing obsessiveness gets irritating.

He rolls over and opens one eye, and isn’t sure if he’s more irritated at the fact that the lamp is still on, or that Ed has been so absorbed all evening.

“Ed,” he says. “Put the paper down and go to sleep.”

Ed uses the pen to push his glasses up his nose. “Eight-letter word for ‘overindulgences’?” he asks, as though he heard nothing.

Roy props himself up onto one elbow, and considers trying to take the paper away. He knows better — Ed doesn’t have any reservations of punching with his metal fist when provoked.

“You’ve been working on that one for hours,” Roy says. “If you don’t need to sleep, I do.”

“Mmhmm,” says Ed. He scribbles in another word. “Hey, do you know a four-letter word for –”

Edward,” he says, with more irritation now, “there’s a perfectly good desk downstairs you may use, so I would appreciate it if you –”

In a single smooth motion, Ed leans down and kisses him soundly; at first, he tries to continue talking, genuinely irritated, then gives up. Ed is not unlike a force of nature, sometimes, and it’s often safer to let it go, to open and let him have his way. Roy curls a hand around one shoulder for balance, makes a pleased sound as Ed’s hand rakes firmly down, chest to belly to lower still.

Ed pushes at Roy’s shoulder with his free hand, and they go down with a thump and a bounce. Ed refuses to let the kiss break, and hums pleased as he strokes Roy through his pants with a strong, sure hand.

It’s when Roy moves himself, reaching up and sliding his hands under Ed’s tanktop and letting his fingers creep upwards, across warm skin, that Ed breaks the kiss.

“Four-letter word for sex?” Ed grins at him, glasses just barely hanging onto his face, flushed and breathless.

Roy pulls the glasses off, and tosses them haphazardly onto the bedside table.

“You know very well,” he growls, and drags Ed down again.

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The Shape of the Son

The old bitch Lust calls him “Father” out of respect; she has watched him at work, and knows the extent of his power. Gluttony, as always, is Lust’s devoted pet and echoes everything she says. Sloth calls him their master, and Envy remembers a time when that word meant “husband” as well.

Perhaps she does it on purpose, while she holds his greatest favor in that form, but he is led to believe that when they are born anew, they do not have the memories of the shell they are provided. He cannot say this with firsthand authority: he alone has never been provided with the opportunity to change. He is supposed to be the perfect child of their “father,” his body made to continually replace itself, as he sees fit.

Envy does not believe this, not since he was betrayed and the next one to follow him was given a fallible, fragile body. He has not believed since this Sloth came to them, with one particular woman’s face and voice. He hates her on that principle, though Sloth itself, the being in the woman-husk, he does not mind so much.

It is late, and the night-shadows are growing thick and heavy. Gluttony has eaten most of the military uniforms they disguised themselves with, much to Lust’s displeasure. Envy still has one hat, and he twirls it on one finger, watching dusk approach.

He can sense that man approaching him, though his boots make no sound on the stone.

Something tingles in his belly, rising into his throat and tasting of metal and brightness. Anticipation, he thinks, which in itself is a bitter pill. Before he can be spoken to, he stands and shifts, arranges his face and form into something new.

Breasts are no stranger than to him than different hair, shining soft and brown, pulled over her shoulder in a loose tail. She folds her hands demurely before her and lets her eyes drop to the ground.

Feet come into her line of vision and stop. Envy does not look up until long square fingers cup her chin, tilting it so that man is looking straight down at her. His eyes burn with such strange golden fire, and she leans towards it, seduced anew by the warmth that seems to be promised there. The light brush of his hand burns in her skin.

Tonight he is considering her, weighing every detail of this face. Obediently she waits, and closes her eyes when he kisses her, soft and lingering. The beard is rough against her lips.

And then he lets go, stepping away from her. She blinks her eyes open and looks at him in confusion. This is the form he likes best, doe-eyed and easily manipulated, soft to his touch. Sloth may have the woman’s face, but she is not an actor like Envy, and cannot go against her actual self to fit the body she wears.

“Something else tonight, I think,” he says, eyes gleaming as he strokes Envy’s cheek. Envy blinks at him, opaque, feminine. She knows that look, and hates it more than any other–but she is helpless against it, unable to fight or even look away as he smiles at her, and purrs:

“Let me see my son.”

Mute, she continues to stare at him, even as her body shifts–shorter now, with broader shoulders and soft brown hair melting into rich gold. That man watches avidly the whole time as she becomes he, but does not touch until the transformation is completed. Envy is careful not to move when an index finger traces his mouth–flinching is not appreciated.

Then hands rise to his shoulders and push down, firmly. For a moment he wants to resist, but then his knees betray him, buckling him to the ground. One broad hand cups the curve of his skull. Quiet, he waits; this is not something he is allowed to presume or take lead in, even if his pathway seems obvious.

Fingers bury deeply in his hair and tug him forward. Envy leans easily and lifts his hands. The automail feels heavy and awkward, like it always does, and his fingers are clumsy on the fastenings of that man’s pants. He thinks, briefly, that the Fullmetal brat must be very good with his engineered fingers, better than Envy can ever hope to be–and then the buttons are open and the flaps gape open, with enough room for him to reach smoothly inside.

It’s fast and slow, the span of lifetimes in a handful of age long heartbeats. That man does not move or make a sound, only waits and breaths hard through his nose, and so Envy does both for him, bobbing his head until he is lost in the rhythm. The taste is sharp in the back of his throat, salt in open wounds.

And suddenly it’s over, fingers bruisingly tight in his hair before relaxing. Envy keeps from choking simply because he’s had practice. He holds himself very still, with his mouth rounded in a seal, the Ouroborous in miniature, and waits.

There’s a sigh, which he feels reaching to the pit of his own stomach, before he’s urged back. Fingers skitter down the side of his face, almost gentle; he’s careful not to look up. If there is any fault in his form, it will be in the eyes, and he does not want to see affection for someone else in those golden eyes.

He’s given less than a minute, and then fingers wrap around the long fall of his bangs and yank. Envy covers the wince by redoing that man’s pants, fingers careful on sensitive flesh as he works. When he finishes, he backs up and bows his head again, ready to wait; the aftertaste lingers bitterly on his tongue, on each breath. It’s sour, like old milk, like thin beer, and he knows that hours from now, the taste will still be there, compounded flavors. If he breathes too hard, he can remember the first time he knelt and opened his mouth for this man.

All he has to do is wait, he thinks, and then it will be over. As long as he’s properly submissive, as long as he doesn’t quite look that man in the eye, he’ll be fine. The bastard likes having the proper respect due to him, and Envy is not, at this moment, being asked to meet his eyes.

A rough thumb presses to the center of his lips. Instinctively, he parts his lips, but it only touches briefly at his teeth before pulling back. Envy raises his eyes up to the proud sharp line of that man’s nose, and stares at that as he tries to calm his breathing.

He sees that man smile, so smugly satisfied in makes his teeth itch. He holds very still as that broad palm strokes the side of his face, then settles at the base of his throat. Broad fingers curl, and Envy makes himself not swallow, still watching that man’s cheek rather than his eyes. This borrowed form feels too stiff and awkward, and he wants to be rid of it soon; the Fullmetal brat’s body is too different form his own, too similar to this man’s.

“Good boy, Edward,” he hears that man say, a moment before bearded lips touch his forehead, as though in blessing. Envy feels the name burned into his skin by that mouth, this name that is not his, this name that cannot be his, no matter how many years he spends pretending he’s the Fullmetal brat for this man’s amusement. “I love you, son.”

The words seize in his throat; he doesn’t want to answer. But this is still part of the scenario; he will not be left alone until he says–“I love you too. Father.”

Again, the hand strokes his face, callused fingers so terribly gentle. They trace the line of his jaw, the curve of his cheek, and someone far stupider than Envy could mistake this for gentleness. He forces himself to keep his eyes open, staring without seeing, waiting as hair is tucked behind his ear and that hand falls.

“Get some sleep,” that man says, always so fucking solicitous, as though he cares. “You have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Envy listens to the sound of his footsteps walking away, waits until even the echoes fade away, and he’s left completely in silence. Only then does he relax, letting his body blur itself until he is himself again–or as close to himself as he can remember. There are times he truly believes he was born with a different shape, a different voice–but the bastard tells him nothing, so he’s only left to guess.

He walks back to the window, where he sat before, leans over the edge, and sticks a finger down his throat until he vomits, bitterness and bile flung out into the unsuspecting night. When it’s over, he remains leaning over the edge, spitting weakly, though the taste is still there, biting deep in his throat, and all the water and wine in the world will not wash that bitterness away.

The breeze is cold on his face, and he closes his eyes. He can sense Lust standing behind him, saying nothing, but radiating cool disapproval. He sits up, scrubs at his mouth and chin, and turns to her.

It’s ironic, he thinks, in a bubble of madness, that she can be so named and yet, her honored “Father” has never, to his knowledge, laid a hand on her. That’s fine, though; Envy knows he’d have to try and kill her if it was otherwise, and he likes this new Lust, much better than the old one.

“One of the Flame Colonel’s little lapdogs is getting too close,” she says. “He’s apparently been given permission to investigate ‘military corruption,’ as it pertains to the Fifth Laboratory.”

“Heh,” he says. “Let Sloth take care of it.”

“She will. However,” and Lust’s eyes narrow, “you are still part of her plan. He’ll likely ask around about Doctor Marcoh’s location, and we will need to see exactly how much he knows, at that point.”

Envy pretends to consider this, then pushes himself to a standing position. If Lust notices how weak his knees are, how he continues to lean against the wall for support, she says nothing.

“All right,” he says. “Since my help seems so necessary, I’ll help you put that little yapping dog to sleep.”

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Youthful Flowers, in Spring

He saw her before he noticed her, which he blames on distance and distraction. When he considers it now, it seems impossible that his eyes had ever passed her over. He mentions this to Gai-sensei, who laughs and tells him it’s because his heart knew he wasn’t ready–how could he declare himself to his most important person, if he lacked all the skills to protect her?

“The youthful heart is the most patient and the most impatient,” Gai-sensei had said, with one foot on a rock and staring with straight back and shoulders into the sunset. “It simply waited until you were ready to meet her, and then revealed itself, and now you can’t think of anything else.” He had smiled then, with the dying sunlight pinging off his teeth.

Because Gai-sensei says so, it must be true. He does not question himself after that, how he could have missed the brightness of her eyes and the kindness of her smile. His heart has always noticed, he tells himself, but it bided its time until he could introduce himself face-to-face, his newly-mastered lessons under his belt.

Now that seems like a crumbled kind of pipe dream. His arms hurt from the push ups he’s been forcing himself through; sweat stings his eyes and makes the thin hospital-issued clothes stick to his body. The breath in his lungs wheezes, but her image floats before his half-closed eyes, and he can’t stop. He will do a thousand push ups, or else he will have to run one hundred laps around the hospital yard. He has to become strong again.

This is not for Konoha, not on the most base level; this is not even for himself and Gai-sensei, to prove he can still be a ninja. This is for her, because as he is now, he’s not worthy enough to even offer his life as her protector. His heart aches, but it’s not because of exertion, but because he knows how close he is to failing her a second time, a third time.

“Lee-kun!” the nurse says, with exasperation in her voice. This is the third time today he has snuck from his rooms to go train, and she is getting fed up. He feels sorry that he worries her like this, but she doesn’t understand how important this is. “You have a guest.”

He glances at her briefly, wants to tell her that he’s busy, and please can his guest wait?–and then he sees red edged with white, and looks up to see large green eyes staring down at him. His arms tremble and give up, so that he lands heavily in the dust. The nurse exclaims his name again and hurries forward, and Sakura-san follows quickly. She tries to smile for him, and he thinks he hates that look, because it’s a travesty. Her smiles are too precious to be used as disguises.

The nurse helps him sit up, and lets him lean against her arm as a back rest. He is acutely aware of how he looks, sweaty and dirty, his arms and legs trembling a little with spent effort. Still, he smiles back at her, because he’s always truly happy to see her, and he wants her to think he’s fine, so that she’ll stop looking like some wounded thing–because she’s strong, stronger than she’ll believe. His heart would not pick someone unworthy of protecting.

“Lee-san,” she says. In her hands, she holds a single yellow daffodil, just on the cusp of its fullest bloom. The tender green stem is wrapped in a wet cloth. He thinks it must be for Sasuke-kun, and pretends he is not stung to see it. “I thought–”

The nurse cuts her off, instructs Sakura-san to help bring him inside. She comes immediately, and at first he thinks to protest–she smells newly-cleaned, and there is traces of dampness in her hair–but then she slings his arm firmly around her shoulders, and helps walk him inside. Her soap smells surprisingly plain; he’s heard Tenten mutter a few times about the silly frivolities Sakura-san and Ino-san are too fond of, but there are no traces of those things on her now.

Slowly, they make it back to his room. He is mortifyingly grateful when he can sit down, because now his legs ache, slow and grinding, and the world swims at the edges of his vision. The nurse’s hand is first icy, then wonderfully cool against his forehead. He hears her say something in an annoyed voice, something about taking better care of himself, but all he can do is watch Sakura-san go to his bedside table and take out the daffodil already in the single-flower vase there, and replace it with the one she brought in.

This time, when she looks at him, her smile is much stronger, closer to as it should be. He can’t help but smile back. Gai-sensei would say it is because the youthful flower of his heart has bloomed, and turned to her as his sun–but as much as he admires his teacher, he privately thinks it’s simply because she is Sakura-san, and when she smiles, she should have everyone smile back. The nurse is fussing at him, pulling off his dirty slippers and saying something about having him change and getting some rest, but that doesn’t sink in until she gets between them and asks Sakura-san to leave.

She is surprised by the request, and he doesn’t dare hope that it’s disappointment that lurks on the edge of her apology. He is perversely pleased by that disappointment–she doesn’t want to leave, she wants to stay close to him.

“Thank you for the flower,” he says, “Sakura-san.”

Her green eyes widen; she seems almost surprised. But then she gives him the truest smile she’s seen yet, brilliant and wide–and, he always thought, not reserved for him. It’s how she smiles at Sasuke-kun, and, once in a rare while, Naruto-kun. And it’s amazing, how one smile can warm him through, absurdly pleased with himself and the world.

“I’ll come back later,” she offers. “You should rest, Lee-san, so you’ll recover faster.”

He watches her go, slipping easily through the door. Rather than turn the hallway to head to Sasuke-kun’s room, she takes the turn that will eventually lead her to the front desk, and outside. Perhaps it’s selfish to wish, but he will pretend that she did not likely go see Sasuke-kun first, that she only brought one flower, and that was for him.

The nurse clucks her tongue as she gives him a fresh change of clothes. “She’s a nice girl, that Haruno Sakura,” she says. The look she gives him is understanding–and maybe he’s still wishing so hard he’s imagining things, but–it seems there’s no pity in her smile.

“She is,” he agrees–and oh, there are more things he could say, but the only person that should hear them has already left. He fumbles with the buttons of his shirt, and waits until the nurse closes the door behind her before he takes it off. It’s dirty, and he remembers to be embarrassed again, staring at the dirt and sweat stains. He does not need doctors to tell him how badly the fight has damaged him; Gai-sensei has taught him well, and he recognizes that there is much of his body that no longer responds as it should.

But on the bedside table is a small yellow daffodil, bright in its vase, and that makes the aches, the exhaustion, the uneasy loss, nearly worth it. Lee smiles at it when he puts on the clean shirt, and the fresh pants, and as he lies down and pulls the blanket to his chin. When he wakes, it will remind him she was here, and how she smiled just for him when she left.

He closes his eyes, and dreams of spring and blooming cherry trees.

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Mythology

Sometimes, he looks at Ren and he thinks of Galatea, formed so perfectly from the illusion of a woman, exactly as her creator wanted. When she sleeps, he will look at her and touch her face, and know: this is not marble brought to warm life, to be her creator’s companion in all things — this is just a young girl, ones and zeroes and computer code, who keeps the silence from breaking an old man’s heart.

On some level, he meant to tell her as soon as she was old enough to understand. Thirteen is not quite enough to weigh the situation and see the equation to its end. Makubex would know, but Makubex is a genius, and Gen knows he himself has been left behind. He meant to tell her, and then time slipped away from him, until she’d stepped over of her own accord, and learned the truth.

His statue was broken to pieces, and she wept tears of plaster and dust. The gods of Babylon City have only pity enough to grant her life for her creator, and not for any other.

And if Ren is Galatea, then Makubex is Icarus, who flew too high and was plunged into darkness as a result. Sheer luck, perhaps, kept his skull from being dashed to bits, or his body dissolving into gray dust.

Luck, or the will of the gods. Gen could, if he wished, reach through the networks and learn the secrets of Babylon City, as Makubex had. He could read of his own eventual fate, or of the prophecy that surrounds ties Raitei’s fate to the Beastmaster’s. Some well-placed keystrokes, and he could delve into the mathematical heart of the Archives, whirring to accommodate for the appearance of the Witch-Queen’s grandson, and how the calculations have shifted to keep the end product the same.

But Daedalus, genius inventor he was, dared not stir the waters, or challenge the will of the gods. He is a tired old man, with dreams that have flowered poisonously and withered away. The Labyrinth he helped create, with monsters at its core, runs on its own now, beyond his power to control.

Perhaps, then, Makubex is Icarus’ potential realized; if there is any who will break open the secrets of Babylon City, it will be that young boy. Daedalus has let his path diverge from that of his son, and cannot reach him now.

In his chair, Gen leans back with a groan, feeling his muscles pop and creak. A moment later, his Galatea comes in, and there is a stained apron tied around her skinny waist and long neck.
“Gramps,” she says, “dinner’s ready.” They have never discussed how a computer generated child can live with the true illusion of breathing, functioning life; Ren continues to make dinner for them, and he has watched her eat amounts appropriate for a growing girl her age.

“Ah,” he says, watching her. “Thank you, Ren.”

She shrugs and smiles, and the expression is tired. He thinks he can recall a similar weight in Makubex’s shoulders, shortly before the boy took his place at Raitei’s side. It pains him to see, but it’s something that she must solve for herself. Daedalus has put aside his drawing board; Pygmalion has cast aside his artist’s tools.

There is only himself, Gen the Pharmacist, and his granddaughter, who looks at him with such very real eyes.

“Coming?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says, and gets to his feet.

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Seasonal

i. Spring

Fullmetal’s first military crush is Lieutenant Hawkeye, which comes as a surprise to no one, except perhaps Fullmetal himself. He is not obvious about it; that is not his way. But he smiles more for her than anyone else, except his brother, and makes an effort to be more polite in her presence.

Hawkeye is charmed enough by Fullmetal’s affections, but does nothing to outright encourage them. She tells Roy, one night, as she is preparing to leave, that she thinks it’s simply that Fullmetal is looking for a strong mother figure, and in the first flush of hormones and puberty, he has fallen in love. With a history like his, she says, it’s not surprising.

Her observations echo Roy’s own, and he watches Fullmetal thoughtfully. There are more difficult women to win than Riza Hawkeye, but at least Fullmetal is self-aware to realize the dividing line of personal feelings and professional behavior. He treats Hawkeye with the respect of her station, and never oversteps his bounds.

Still, the moment the first flowers fight their way to the sunlight after winter ends, a neatly-tied bundle of them appears on Hawkeye’s desk. There is no note, but Fullmetal has a conspicuously-timed absence, vanishing for an assignment two hours previous. She puts them in a handsome vase and keeps it on the corner of her desk.

By the time Fullmetal comes back, they’re already wilted and gone. Havoc mentions their presence, though, which pleases him for days. The office teases him about it, subtly, but Fullmetal is more subtle than he is often given credit for, and the nuances of their jokes are clear to him.

Roy finds him out on the parade grounds one afternoon, as afternoon begins to shade red, and the remainders of winter still sting the air to a lingering chill. Fullmetal has gathered some weeds, which have previously escaped the notice of the grounds-keeper, and is drawing an array in the dust with chalk.

In spite of himself, Roy stops to watch. Some distant part of him is surprised that Fullmetal still remembers how to draw an array properly, now that he no longer has need of one–but that’s only foolishness. For those born to the science, whose lives and blood are sworn to principles no man could ever hope to fully catalogue, the array is ingrained–as much of life as bone and breath.

He stands behind Fullmetal and knows his presence is noted, then ignored. Fullmetal sketches in the last line and sets his fingertips to the array, watching the reaction flare to life. A moment later, the weeds have been transmuted–three long-stemmed red roses are there, and now Fullmetal turns around to glare at him, eyebrows drawn and mouth set in a challenge.

“Ah,” Roy says. “You know, she prefers sunflowers.”

Fullmetal blinks at him, then hunches up, his young face set in a decisive scowl. “What makes you think you know who these are for?”

“Didn’t you realize, Fullmetal? I know everything.” Roy bends, so that he’s crouched beside the boy. Up close, the lines of the array are bold and strongly done; being out of practice does not weaken his hand. “Roses are fairly serious, don’t you think?”

“Shut up,” Fullmetal murmurs, and his gaze slides to one side, almost guilty. “I–”

“Sunflowers, Fullmetal,” Roy tells him, and takes the chalk from his hand. It takes only a few strokes to change the array accordingly: and his lines are not as powerful as Fullmetal’s, but in his defense, he thinks that it has been longer since he’s had need for a proper array.

Fullmetal rocks back on his heel and just watches as Roy works, says nothing to argue when Roy puts his one hands onto the array and the roses shift and expand and change. They are small sunflowers, and there are only two, but they shine like coins, like Fullmetal’s hair, after the energy of the reaction fades.

“She’ll appreciate these better,” he says. “It’s also better if you give them to her directly, instead of sneaking around the back.”

The boy blusters at him, and snatches up the flowers as though they are wilting on the ground. For a moment he clutches them to his chest like some kind of ward, then turns on his heel and marches off. Roy watches him go, and waits until he goes inside before chuckling.

It has been a long time since he was that young, he thinks, as he strolls after Fullmetal, back to the building. He can remember when he didn’t understand about flowers, and poured over the right words to make a pretty girl smile at him, and realizes it has been nearly as many years as Fullmetal has been alive.

On another day, at another moment, this might have given him pause, the weight of unfulfilled ambition heavy on his shoulders. But in an evening that smells of spring and growing greenery, he only shakes his head ruefully as he goes inside.

ii. Winter

That year Winry visits him again in time for his birthday. He smiles at her, and through impulse unexpected, offers her his arm. She takes it with wide eyes and a small blush, and he realizes: she is beautiful. Al finds a convinient excuse to bow out for the night, and they are the only two left in the little dorm room.

They go to dinner together, in a small resturant that Lt. Fury suggested to him months ago. There are no candles or dim lighting, but the booths are small and intimate, and for what feels like the first time in years, he can talk to her freely. Between them, the subject of the future remains taboo, so they speak instead of the past–the birthdays he spent in Rizenbul, Al’s one disasterous attempt to learn how to cook, and the memory of three kids joined together against the world.

During it all, Winry smiles and laughs and talks back, and she is completely unselfconscious now, glowing in the ambiance of the resturant. It makes Ed happy to see her this way, with her burdens temporarily shed. This is the girl he remembers–changed in places, modified in parts–but still herself.

Central is having an unusually cold winter; it is too far south for snow, but gray heavy clouds gather low in the skies, and rain freezes to slush on the cobbled streets. After dinner, they walk back to his dorm together, arm-in-arm, through these cold streets. Sometimes they speak, their breath misting briefly and gone, but for the most part, they go in silence.

Ed only has a vague understanding of how these things are supposed to end, and he’s willing to bet that most of what he knows is bad advice. Lt. Havoc takes a great delight in trying to “educate” him–usually when Lt. Hawkeye is busy elsewhere–but after the first two or three times, Ed has learned to tune him out.

Romantic advice is not quite so believable when it comes from a man with a steady strike-out average.

Still, he thinks that perhaps Winry expects something from this, the two of them walking closely together to share heat in the evening. A streetlight flickers to life above them as they pass, and they pause. Winry’s cheeks are flushed pink and her eyes glitter brightly as she looks up at him.

“Winry,” he says, and is surprised at how difficult the name is to pronounce. He’s known her all his life; it should not be hard to acknowledge her, not when she’s standing before him, and her body is a line of warmth against his. “I–”

She reaches up with a gloved hand and presses two fingers over his mouth. There is something almost sad in her eyes; he can see it, now, with her face so close to his. Ed tries to finish his sentence, and Winry shakes her head, hushing him. The sound is softer than the voice of the wind around them, cutting cold and sharp through his coat–and hers too, he’s certain; Rizenbul has cold winters, but they’re gentle with pristine, picturesque snow, not the gray and the sleet and the wind.

“Happy birthday, Ed,” she tells him. Her other hand comes up to curl loosely around his shoulder, and the blush on her cheeks darkens. She really is beautiful, he thinks–not in a fragile, fleeting way like his mother, but strong and quiet, in a way that he has not quite noticed before. “I have a present for you. I don’t know if you’ll like it, but–”

“Winry?”

“–actually, I’m pretty sure you won’t. But this is as much for me as it is you.” She seems to be steeling herself for something, and that strikes him as wrong, somehow–that Winry, who has so often bent but never broken, must prepare herself for this now.

“Winry?” he asks again, before realization clicks into place. Her gloved palm is carefully gentle against his cheek, and he knows what she means to do in the split second before she leans up and touches her mouth to his.

Someone told him once before–he thinks it may have been Al, though how Al would know this escapes him–that a “first kiss” is very important to girls. He’s not quite sure what protocol goes for boys, but it’s strange and warm against the cut of the wind. He thinks, idly, that he can smell traces of machine oil in Winry’s thick hair.

Her mouth is very soft, softer than he would have ever expected–he’s well-used to the strength of her arms and her body, knows very well the corded wiry tension of her arms and hands. Hesitantly, not knowing what to do, he puts his hands on her hips, holding her loosely. She is warm, but there’s too much gentleness in it, and while it stirs within him, it does not take hold and stay there.

More than anything, he thinks, he’d like to keep her–he’d like to stay with her, because she is comfortable and warm and loves him, because she is willing to be his if only he’ll be hers–but all he can do is hold her loosely, and consider this kiss.

A moment later, she pulls away, and he sees now her eyes are bright–she is not crying through sheer force of will. He licks his lips, and says her name again. His voice sounds peculiar to his own ears.

“I wanted to,” she tells him quietly, still holding his face. “Just once. You’ll forgive me, right, Ed?”

Ed draws in a deep breath, and mirrors her touch with his automail hand. Any other girl might have been insulted by this–but this is the arm she has given him, the only thing she can give him, in the end. “I’m sorry,” he says, softly. And he is–she is beautiful, and in all the world, she is the woman who is closest to understanding him.

“I know,” Winry says, and lets her hand fall away. She leans her face into his palm and closes her eyes for a moment. “It’s all right.”

There is a pause between them that stretches delicately out. Before it can tip into true awkwardness, Ed offers her his arm again, and smiles at her.

“At least let’s walk back like this,” he says.

Winry scrubs at her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket, then gives him a tired, hopeful smile.

“All right,” she says.

iii. Autumn

It is autumn when Alphonse’s body is restored to him, autumn when Fullmetal lays his hand upon a small red stone and faces the gateway to the truth for a third time. Roy has deep, bruises on his arms and legs from when he held Fullmetal back afterwards, dragging the younger man away from the heart of the reaction that exploded to life around the armored soul of Alphonse Elric.

Until the day he dies, he thinks he will remember that scene: the gigantic double array sparked to enormous, violent life, so that even Alphonse’s tall broad body is completely dwarfed and gone–the sound of electricity and power, reverberating like a giant bell, the echoes of it rolling through his heart and the pit of his stomach–and the way sheer presence crackled on his skin, so that his entire body felt like some overly sensitized wire, one more piece of a giant conductivity puzzle.

He will also remember when Fullmetal finally pulled free of his arms, and dashed after his brother, screaming Alphonse’s name. He will remember how the reaction flared to life again, and how Fullmetal turned and looked directly at him before the light pulled him into itself.

Roy is still not quite sure what that look means, only that it was honest, stripped clean of the usual attitude Fullmetal gives him, and for all that they have argued and been only marginal friends over the years–this look was for him alone, without doubt or reservation. It’s not something that’s made to be pondered or analyzed; it just is, and Roy sees it, sometimes, when he wakes from dreaming.

Fullmetal stripped of his characteristic automail is … not a man reduced, but a man changed. If he seems smaller at first glance, that is only until Roy helps load him onto a stretcher, and sees that this is a body heavy with muscle and experience; there is a solidness and permanence to his restored limbs that seems somehow contradictory. Automail can be replaced, flesh and blood–normally–cannot. Roy watches as Fullmetal is taken away, and sees an adult where a young boy used to be.

Weeks later, in the hospital, he is by Fullmetal’s bedside when the younger man’s eyes finally open. Alphonse is there as well, dozing in his uncomfortable chair, holding onto Fullmetal’s–Edward’s–right hand, like it’s some kind of lifeline. Roy is there to watch as those golden eyes go from hazy to focused, and Edward sits up far too fast in his bed and moans in lingering pain.

He watches as Alphonse wakes immediately to the sound of his brother’s voice, and he has to look away at their semi-reunion, when Edward puts his arms around Alphonse’s neck and bursts into the first set of true tears he’s shed since he was twelve, and a little girl became a chimera and died. Instead, to give them some measure of privacy, he goes to the window and looks outside.

After the storm passes, he hears Edward say his name–his title, actually, but between them, it has become a name of sorts. He turns, and sees that Edward is now actively clinging to Alphonse’s hand, rather than limply accepting the hold, as he had for weeks. Professionally, Roy knows there is still distance to maintain, that the young man in the bed is still a State Alchemist and therefore his subordinate–but he cannot help but smile, and for once, he does not give it any sort of sardonic edge or twist.

“Congratulations, Edward Elric,” he says. “And you too, Alphonse.”

Edward’s eyes go wide at that, like he’s hearing the things that Roy does not say. He smiles back, with the same fierceness that has always characterized all of his emotions. When their eyes meet, there was still an honesty in Edward’s eyes, a slate washed clean. Alphonse is smiling as well, and it’s good to see what the young man should look like, an open human face and gentle eyes.

“Thanks,” Edward says, and that word is more than enough.

iv. Summer

Despite himself, he’s surprised when he opens his door one night and finds Edward on his doorstep. It has been nearly a year since the Elrics packed up and left Central, returning to the quiet, sleepy little village of their birth.

“You should have called,” he says, as he steps aside and lets the younger man inside. “I could have met you at the station.”

“Eh,” says Edward. “I wanted to surprise you.” He grins sheepishly, sharply, like he’s unsure of his welcome. “Surprise.”

Roy chuckles, then makes a gesture. “Make yourself at home,” he says. “I’ve already eaten, but if you’re hungry–?”

“Nah. Ate on the train.” Edward prowls into the house, looking around with unveiled interest at everything. Roy closes the door and thinks, ah, that’s right, Edward has never been in his house before. “Nice place you’ve got here, Colonel.”

“That’s General, to you,” he says, mildly. “The promotion came in about two weeks ago.” And you would have known, he doesn’t add, if you’d bothered to write and ask.

Edward glances at him, eyes wide and surprised. A moment later, he grins, but there’s unease behind that smile, a prickly sort of wariness that only time can eventually ease. “Still grubbing up that promotional ladder, aren’t you? Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” he says, and watches as Ed moves around his living room with the nervous grace of a worried cat. The only thing that really gives him pause is a single framed photograph, there on the mantlepiece–himself and Hughes, shortly after their graduation. Edward picks it up carefully.

“How are they doing?” he asks at last. “Mrs. Gracia and Alicia, I mean.”

Roy sighs, and comes to sit on his couch. “They’ve gone back to the country,” he says. “To stay with Gracia’s mother for a while. She hasn’t mentioned selling the house to me, though, so I’m sure they’ll be back. They’ll be sorry they missed you.”

“Yeah. About that.” Edward turns, and doesn’t quite look Roy in the face. “Hey, I was wondering–you know–”

He leans back into his couch and waits. He can guess what Edward is about to ask, but this is not something he will force. As before, he will wait and see if Edward will voluntarily; there is no satisfaction in obtaining someone against their will, even if it’s secondhand, through suggestion.

“… I want to come back,” Edward says, at last. He scrubs at his hair with the heel of his left hand and turns his face away from Roy. “I like being at home, with Al and Winry and Auntie Pinako, but–” He shrugs once. “I’m so fucking bored. Winry kicked me out and threatened to cave my skull in if I tried to transmute her tools one more time.”

“Ah,” says Roy. “And I was thinking that you’d missed me.”

Edward glances at him sharply, then grins at him. The expression is tight, controlled, like the shrug of his shoulders. “Yeah, maybe there was a little of that, too.” He says it so very casually, like it’s no big deal, but Roy has known and watched him for years; he can see the suggestions of tension in Edward’s shoulders, stiff against the summer humidity.

Roy smiles. “You’ll have to retake the test, you know,” he says. “Since you missed this year’s evaluation.”

“That’s fine,” Edward says, immediately brightening. Now he looks at Roy, his expression bright. “That’s just great.” He bounces a little on his heels, and then claps his hands together; sparks jump between his palms, but dissipate when he simply lets his arms drop back to his side.

In spite of himself, Roy smiles. When he holds out his hand, Edward comes to him willingly and quickly, shedding his customary red coat in the process.

He left the windows open in the hopes of catching some passing breezes, but Edward’s body is hotter than the night, and when he moves his hands, Roy’s skin feels oddly cold. They shift until Roy is lying back against the couch with Edward pulled over him like some awkward gangly blanket.

The rest is easy–it is not fast, like Roy halfway expected it to be; it seems time has taught Edward some measure of patience and restraint, and those coupled with his inexperience makes it slow, languid, an open mouth on his throat and hot damp hands on his skin. A couch is perhaps not the best place for this, but Roy noses the soft weight of Edward’s braid, kisses the soft spot below his ear, and watches as Edward’s face changes–and he thinks that, perhaps, this is the best place.

Later, after, they lie together in a sticky tangle, and Roy lifts his head a little, feeling one of those illusive evening breezes slide lightly across his cheek. Edward’s cheek is pillowed on his chest, and his breathing is slow and comfortable, one more backup instrument to the orchestra of crickets outside.

Pleased, Roy smoothes a hand down Edward’s back, and closes his eyes to sleep.

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Waiting For

He knows where the planet is, small and unremarkable in its little corner of the galaxy. He knows where the house is, too, where one should land the ship so that it’s only a short walk until it comes into view. It’s not too far away, and he has vacation time saved up; the universe has been saved, and now he has all the time in the world. All he has to do is arrange for transportation, and he can be there within three days.

Rail thinks this, sometimes, at his desk and putting off paperwork. He’s a lauded hero now, with his old job and full honors–though he suspects that’s more of Nina’s work and influence than anything he really did to deserve it. The crew of Swordbreaker has been pardoned, but the only person who’s ever answered his calls is a blue-eyed woman who doesn’t quite see him, even when she meets his gaze.

Millenium Ferria Nocturne is waiting, and cannot afford to be distracted from her post. Rail has not spoken to her in weeks.

If he went to that planet, found the elegant old white house nestled in a serene lush valley, he does not know what he expects to find. Millie, of course, in red and white (and does she realize, he wonders, how she echoes Canal’s dress in her new clothes?)–but would there be anyone else? Does the house echo with her footsteps and her lone voice, singing as she works? Is there–

But even if Kane was there, Rail does not think the meeting will go well. Kane would not yell, not at the risk of annoying Canal and Millie–but he would be cold, and not recognize the touch of Rail’s hand.

I am not looking for your forgiveness, Kane, just your safety, he thinks, and signs his name automatically. This is the last document of the night, and he is tired. Nina is lurking somewhere outside, waiting to say good-night, and for a moment, he considers inviting her along. She is a sweet girl who has done a lot for him, and he is genuinely fond of her.

But that is not fair of him, not when he is waiting to hear from someone else, and know that Kane is safely home, rather than out wandering the universe, searching for a method to restore a computer’s memory.

A Lost Ship is not merely a computer, and though he has always known Canal was special, he has proof of that now. Kane has never needed that proof, though, and so he has gone to look for the true pieces of her–if, indeed, he survived that final explosion. Rail believes he has, if only because the alternative is too strange to contemplate.

Heroes are not supposed to die; this is the one golden rule that Rail still keeps from his childhood, when he believed all the stories his mother read for him. Good people may be hurt and abused, bad people may get away with horrible deeds–but true heroes, blessed by the hands of the gods, do not die. Especially not at the last minute, on the cusp of triumph, as the darkness is buried in light.

And old lovers are meant to stay in the past, he thinks dryly, then gets to his feet. There is no point in remembering memories they have both put aside long ago, even if a small part of him considers again the idea of getting a ship, and going to wait until he sees that white ship in the blue sky.

In his chest, his heart thuds loudly. Sharpness rises in his throat–he wants to take the ship and go now, to be there and watch as Kane descends the walkway, and put his hand on warm skin to see if Kane will smile for him, like long ago.

Then he puts that thought aside and goes outside. When Nina says good night to him, he smiles at her, and tells himself that tomorrow, he will ask her to dinner.

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The Ordinary

Theirs is not an ideal marriage, she knows. He is not good husband material, nor is she the best of wives–she realized this after keeping company with him for several months. After marrying him, she is reminded of this every time he comes home late, or with new injuries, or both.

Regardless, there was a comfort and fit to him in her life that pleased her immensely.

Tonight he comes home tired, with a pronounced limp to his walk. She puts young Sam in his arms and draws him in with a kiss to his cheek. When he sits, it’s with a groan and an audible creak in his knees; there is street grime on his shoes and lines of black dirt under his nails; there has never been a man more out of place in her house, or more at welcome.

She asks what he wants to eat, and he makes some freverant noises that sound vaguely like toast and soldiers. On his lap, young Sam coos, as though in agreement.

When she brings it out, with the toast burned and the yolk runny (as he likes it), he’s fallen asleep. Young Sam blinks at her with his eyes–their milky blue color has faded into a steely gray, and it pleases to see his eyes and her nose in the same face.

“Let’s leave your old dad alone, my love,” she says to him, and he only regards her solemnly. She picks him up, and his father makes a grinding noise in his throat before settling deeper in his chair. She lays a hand atop his head, on the grizzled and coarse hair, counting heartbeats. Young Sam shoves a finger in his own mouth and gums it.

Under her hand, her husband moves his head, and in his sleep says her name. It doesn’t surprise her, nor is the way he shifts and keeps on snoring faintly, as though she wasn’t there at all. Her Sam may not be clever as Havelock, but he knows who’s there to his right when he sleeps.

In her arms, young Sam gurgles something that may, in years to come, be a question. She smiles at him and bounces him once, twice, on her arm, and carries him off to bed. Later, she comes back with a blanket, and this she puts around her husband’s shoulders, tucking the corners in so that they will not fall if he moves, but will not constrict him otherwise.

“Good night,” she says, and does not call him darling or love or anything like that. Sleep is a time for being honest, and those words are too fancy and elaborate for what is calm and settled, warm in her breast. He does not stir, and that in itself is trust.

Briefly, she ducks to kiss his temple, then leaves him to rest.

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As One to the Other

She tells the girl that she would be glad to see her again, someday. It seems to be the right thing for the situation, to give a small phrase of hope in a house that seems weighted down by gloom.

Her commander sits assured and confident in the rickety old cart. When she questions him, he says, with utmost confidence, that Edward Elric will come to East City, and then to Central, to become a State Alchemist.

A year later, he is proven correct. She would not have believed herself, remembering the catatonic, pale child in the wheelchair: her most generous estimation had placed at least three years before the boy would emerge from his mind enough to interact properly with the world, let alone move freely with his new automail limbs.

She wonders if the little girl–Winry, she’d named herself–helped at all. Eleven years old was not too early to apprentice, not for a line of work as thoroughly detailed and involved as automail installation and maintenance. However, she does not ask, not even when Edward and Alphonse disappear for a week, and return with an air of certain fatalistic determination.

“They’ll go far in this world, First Lieutenant,” her commander says, without her asking. “Someday, I may even have competition for the top.” He chuckles at that, but she sees the weighing and the calculation in his eyes: the Elrics are young, but they will bear watching, and the proper caution when the time comes.

It takes less than a year to learn his faith is not misplaced. Edward begins amassing a reputation for himself with single-minded determination. His eyes, like Colonel Mustang’s, are aimed at a goal that can only be reached through unwavering determination.

Nearly two years pass before she hears Winry Rockbell’s name mentioned again.

It is afternoon, and the Elric brothers have recently returned from a mission. Edward is rubbing at the join of automail and flesh, complaining of the ache, and his brother suggests going back to Rizenbul.

“Auntie Pinako will be glad to see us,” he says, as they walk by. “And then Winry–”

Edward says something else, but Hawkeye stops, and considers. So the girl did help to create Edward’s automail. The revelation does not surprise her.

On the day Roy Mustang first left home to become a soldier, bright-eyed and straight-backed and convinced he could change the world, she chose to follow without second thought. With sure hands, she picked up the weapon she despised, prepared to kill.

Nearly two years before, in Rizenbul, Winry Rockbell sat on her grandmother’s small couch, with the pinched expression of a child forced too soon into adulthood. Too young still to properly follow, as Liza herself had, she could only grieve for the anticipation of distance.

Hawkeye picks up the next file. The words she uttered as encouragement have now, in her mind, become a prediction.

Colonel Mustang resembles Edward more than either will care to admit, years rewound and fast-forwarded and tangled somewhere in between. So it does not surprise her that Edward must have his own support–his brother is too much a part of him, so close and involved with the ultimate goal, so there must be one other person who knows him best.

Perhaps Edward will be surprised, the day the girl arrives to stay. Perhaps Alphonse will be as well, though Hawkeye suspects he will be less so. Liza Hawkeye herself, however, knows it is coming. So until that day, she will take care of the Elrics as best she can, while watching out for Colonel Mustang, because as one to the other, she understands.

She knows.

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setting the stage

Ed noticed the sound of footsteps echoing his own about halfway between the library and the dorms. He neither sped up nor slowed down, and kept his hands in his pockets.

When he found a series of lit streetlamps, he stopped in the halo of the first one. The person behind him stopped as well.

Irritated–who’s so small and puny that he looks like an easy target?!–he turned.

Roy Mustang raised an eyebrow at him, in a relaxed posture that mirrored Ed’s. “Fullmetal,” he said, “you’re out late.”

Ed relaxed fractionally and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, it’s just you.”

“‘Just’ me, Fullmetal?” Mustang strolled forward, something dark and intent in his gaze. “That’s cold.”

Ed set his feet more firmly and resisted the sudden urge to back up. “What do you want, Colonel?” Unease made his fingers curl, but he still kept his hands in his pockets.

Mustang continued his steady advance until they were less than a handspan apart. The sense of another body too close to his own made Ed twitch, but he refused to budge, especially away from Mustang’s smirk.

“What do you want?” he asked again.

Mustang did not answer verbally, but he raised a gloved hand and cupped Ed’s cheek. In spite of himself, Ed flinched from that direct contact–even long ago, when it didn’t matter so much, he’d preferred his personal space. The roughness of Mustang’s glove was shockingly real, one and the same with the warmth of his hand.

“I worry about you, Edward,” Mustang said, eyes narrowed and sleepy. “Is it such a crime, to be concerned for your well-being?” He began to lean forward and down, and the hand on Ed’s face slid around to tease at his hair.

The puff of warm air on his mouth, a split second before contact, galvanized Ed into action. He jerked back with a startled noise and swung with his automail fist. It missed Mustang’s cheek by a hair, and immediately Ed spun himself around into a high kick. The dodge carried Mustang right out of the glow of the streetlight, and there he stopped.

“What the fuck was that?!” Ed stabbed an accusatory finger at the man. His hand shook slightly, but he ignored it. “You asshole, what–”

“Aw, Ed,” said Winry, lifting her head. “That’s so mean, and we haven’t seen each other in so long…”

Ed’s throat closed. When Winry stepped back into the light, he stepped back. The automail leg held firm, but his other knee trembled, and threatened to buckle. Winry continued to smile at him, but the expression he remembered from childhood was perverted, changed into something wrong.

Winry should not look at him with those eyes, part of his mind gibbered. The knotted dark strip of cloth that bound her breasts should not hang so low, and it was too cold to be showing so much skin–

He brought his hands together, the sound of his clap ringing in the stillness. When the transmutation finished, he aimed the knife-point at the stranger, scowling. “Who the fuck are you, and what do you want?”

“It’s me, Ed,” Winry said, and placed a finger against her lips, pouting at him. “Just because I’ve grown up a little…” She shifted forward another step, and tilted her head to one side. One hand settled over her heart, toying with the edges of the tie. “Haven’t you missed me?”

He resisted the urge to gag. “Don’t fuck with me,” he snarled. “Especially not with that face–!” He launched himself forward, bladed arm drawn back. Winry recoiled slightly, her face surprised for a moment as lines shifted, blurred, and then–

–“Brother,” Al said. But it wasn’t Al as he remembered him, but Al as he imagined him, lean and strong and taller than him, damnit–

Ed stumbled, lost his footing, and stumbled directly into the imposter’s arms. He hung there for a moment, dazed, and then immediately tried to backpedal. Al’s arms closed tightly around him, though, one hand firm against the small of his back, and the other curving around the base of his skull.

“Oh, Brother, don’t be like that,” Al murmured into his hair. “Isn’t this what you wanted? To be able to touch me like this again?”

Ed shoved at the narrow chest against his own with his left hand. “Fuck you,” he wheezed. “Let me go–”

Al released his head only to catch his chin, jerking his face upwards. The eyes that looked down at him were glittering and cold, nothing like Al’s at all. Fingers splayed open wide against his back, pressing them tightly together.

“Hello, Brother,” Al said, and kissed him.

Ed went stiff for a moment, frozen to complete and utter rigidity, his automail arm dropping uselessly to his side. He stared, wide-eyed, and Al looked right back, tawny eyes daring as a tongue swept across his lips and a leg slid between his own to shift against him, knowing–

(Mustang’s hand on his face)

(Winry’s knowing smile)

(Al–Alphonse, right there–)

With a tremendous heave, Ed tore himself away, lashing out with the bladed arm as he did. For a moment, the edge connected and caught on something solid, and he thought he heard a gurgling cry of surprise. He jerked his arm back, and felt something warm and sticky splatter his face, the air suddenly filled with the smell of blood.

Al clutched at his side, eyes wide with shock and betrayal. A thin, dark line trickled from one corner of his mouth. “Brother,” he sighed.

Ed shook his head, backing up. He was almost to the far end of the light, and he thought he could feel the darkness all around him, ready to close in with hungry smiles.

“Brother,” Al said again, and this time there was a very distinct, liquid gurgle in his voice. He reached out, and even in the yellow sheen of the light, it was easy to see the color of the dark stains on his palm were red, not black.

“Fuck you,” Ed whispered, in a shaking voice. “Fuck you, fuck you, just–fuck you.” He pointed the automail at the stranger again, flinching when Al lurched a step forward. “If you ever–try that face on me again, I’ll–”

“Brother,” Al said, and then his face contorted. “Brother, it hurts.” He looked down at himself, at the blood staining his pale blue shirt, and then up again. Tears stood in his eyes, which was ridiculous because Al had stopped crying a year after their mother died–

“Brother, it hurts.”

Ed choked. One foot slid back, and then the other, carrying him out of the spotlight. Al reached for him again, only it wasn’t just Al, but every face he’d known in his life, people from Rizenbul and Central and East City, all bleeding and dying and begging him, it hurts, Edward Elric, it hurts

He bolted, almost stumbling in his haste; only sheer coincidence kept him on his feet.

In the morning, Al found him in the lobby of the dorms, curled up on a ratty old couch and looking as though he had not slept the entire night.

“Brother, what’s wrong?” he asked.

Ed looked up at him, and the sick relief that spread in his eyes pained Al, in the place where his heart should have been.

“It’s nothing,” Ed said, and when Al was about to protest, he held up a hand. “At least, it is now.”

And though Al asked for a full month afterwards, even as they began packing for the mission to Liore, his brother never explained.

***

“Enjoyed yourself?” Lust asked dryly, when he slunk in.

Envy twitched, then straightened, rubbing the back of his neck. “Heh. Got caught.”

Lust came away from the wall, and before Envy had time to blink, he found himself pinned to the far wall by the long, sharp spikes of her fingernails.

“That boy is vital to our goals,” she said, twisting her hand a little, so that one sharp edge pressed against his neck. “Neither Father nor myself want to see him broken, do you understand?”

Envy swallowed hard and nodded.

“Good.” Lust retracted her nails and stepped back. He sank to the ground with a feeble cough, rubbing his throat. “See that you remember that, Envy.” Without checking to see his response, she turned and sauntered off, her form quickly swallowed by the shadows.

Envy rubbed the side of his throat and scowled. “‘Remember that,'” he mimicked, a sneer twisting his lips. “Sure, you old bitch, I’ll remember that.”

He picked himself up and dusted himself off. Briefly, he thumbed his mouth, and then allowed himself a single, toothy smile.

“You remember me, too, you Fullmetal brat,” he said to the rising sun. “Sooner or later, you’re not going to be able to run away.”

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