Weighted

Kantarou is by no means heavy: he eats well when food is available, but he will be the first to skip a meal if money gets too low, and this inconsistency means that he is bony wrists and angles. Even at the best of times, he’s a little underweight and a little soft. Haruka can — and has — lifted him with one arm before, without second thought.

But when he puts his hands on Haruka’s shoulders and pushes, when it’s dark and the light catches strangely in his huge red eyes, Haruka remembers: ah, Kantarou carries the weight of his name, as well. Every time he says it, he gets a little heavier, like he’s chaining them together. Kantarou can be curled on his chest and be scarcely noticed, but the name contract pulses like a tangible thing with its own heartbeat.

Haruka can’t say he prefers it, but at least he no longer hates it. Continue reading

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In the Night

He wakes to weight and pressure on his chest.

Normally, the first instinct would be to struggle, to lash out and fight off whatever dares come close enough when one is vulnerable and asleep. What he has taught himself, however, is to observe and to wait; he has seen panic and careless planning destroy men in the field, and is determined to never be like that.

Archer opens his eyes.

“This is highly inappropriate,” he says. Continue reading

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Home

It’s not that she prefers the Netherworld, or that she doesn’t miss Celestia; both are a lot like home, these days. She goes back and forth often enough, and while the older angels (who still remember Master Vulcanus) shoot her narrow looks and avoid her presence, the younger ones and the trainees flock around her: apparently, she’s something of a hero. Most of them giggle shyly and blush if she talks to them. Continue reading

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childhood

What Mana liked to do, whenever they had a successful night and there was money enough for them all to eat, and for the adults to drink besides, was to put Allen on his shoulders and parade them through the streets, like some kind of victory march. In retrospect, Allen realizes they must have looked very strange indeed: a ragtag band of clowns and other tawdries, walking like they had just saved the world.

When Allen grew too big to sit on Mana’s shoulders, he instead became the leader of their group, a scrawny boy in a jacket three sizes too large and an awkwardly-bandaged right hand, with Mana’s black silk top hat balanced precariously on his head. They would walk, and Lily and Cassie and the other girls would sing hymns of victory, march the heroes home, march them home.

It didn’t happen that often; every year, it seemed, the world grew a little darker and more narrow, the people a little more suspicious and jealous of their money. Allen, looking back, wonders how much of that was a growing disdain of theater (as Mana always said, as the others always echoed), and how much of that was the sheer nervous fear of humanity, milling like skittish cattle as akuma crept in to punctuate their numbers. Even the most placid of animals can usually sense the presence of a predator.

In his dreams, sometimes, Allen walks those paths again, leading the way for a faceless procession — the clowns and the tumblers and the singing girls, but the only sounds he ever hears are his own footsteps, and the slow tap, tap, tap of Mana walking after him.

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Suffer Not Idiots

The trouble, it was generally agreed upon, was not so much that Yachiru was Grown Up And Noticing Boys. It wasn’t even that she’d grown up to be Quite The Looker, or even that she was disturbingly aware of this fact, flirting shamelessly to distract anyone unlucky enough to be sparring with her.

The problem, as everyone agreed, was that Zaraki Kenpachi hadn’t noticed that his vice-captain was now a stunning and vibrant young woman, and thus attracting the eyes of more than a few of the younger shinigami at the academy. If asked, Zaraki would say Yachiru still was small enough to sit on his shoulder, and therefore, was still a little girl.

When you towered over almost everyone else in Soul Society, ratios of bulk never did mean much. Continue reading

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Strange Attachments

cowritten with Harukami

While Kantarou was quite pleased to be with Haruka finally, no more doubt or uncertainty between them, and though new-coupleness was quite enjoyable overall, he wasn’t entirely sure he liked how Haruka seemed to be viewing him as — well, as the wife.

Haruka raised his chopsticks to Kantarou’s lips. “Say ahhh,”Haruka said blandly.

Kantarou blinked at him, lips twisting with distaste. “Haruka,” he said. “I’m not sure this –”

Haruka shoved the rice into his mouth. “Good enough,” he said. And then, “This is supposed to be the way new couples act, right? That’s what Youko said.” Continue reading

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at the beginning of all things

He finds her eight years old and ready for the Academy.

She wears the black initiate’s robes, and her hair cropped short, which makes her face look very round and very young. She has her mother’s eyes (his eyes) and serious mouth; she is eight years old and still such a fountain of possibilities that she sheds them with every small breath.

He hasn’t spoken to his family in years; her eyes call him a stranger in everything but name.

And yet: he holds out his hand to her and she takes it without question, and they walk away together.

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The Song of the Lion

When Asad was young his mother would rock him in her arms, and sing him hymns as lullabies. He only has snapshot memories of it all: the heat of day blending into the cool of night, and the wind carrying the sound of his mother’s voice. Praise be to the God who created this world, who gave us shape and is our strength.

“Perhaps you will grow up to become a great man,” he remembers her saying once. “Perhaps you will grow up to be a just man.”

She always spoke like that, always “perhaps” and “maybe,” but never more. Even her love was conditional, because she was a daughter of religion, and the only absolute was Ishbara. Maybe she loved them, maybe she didn’t. If you become a holy man, you will understand.

When Asad was old enough to be left alone with his brother, his mother would go down and kneel on the marble steps, praying until long after the skies turned black. There were many times his father would go to fetch her, and she would enter the house with a lost, distant look, always looking over her shoulder back to the mosque. When their father dies, Asad is twelve years old, and watches his mother drape black veils over her head and walk away, to spend the rest of her life in meditation. He doesn’t know her well enough to mourn.

Eventually, though, Asad follows his mother’s example. He goes to the temple and kneels on the marble and listens to the words of the holy men and the priests; he spends late nights pouring over the texts as his brother, next door, studies science and machines and unnatural things. Halim is brilliant and not really suited for the dry dusty desert; he talks about irrigation techniques, of going against nature and causing the sand to blossom without waiting for the seasonal rains.

Asad loves his brother, and doesn’t understand him at all.

Halim leaves eventually, going out into the world. He leaves with Amestris’ glittering godless capitol, Central City, as his goal, and is gone for over a year. Asad almost gives up on him when Halim returns.

Halim brings strange ideas, talking of alchemy and its benefit to the people, and completely ignores how it goes against everything that Ishbara has ever taught. Halim no longer wears the traditional loose-flowing robes woven by the village women; instead, he wears crisp strange things that he calls a “suit.”

And Halim brings back Adara, who walks with her arm in his and with her head up high. She is from a village that is near the Amestrian border, the daughter of a scholar; she has long dark hair and skin the color of milk tea; she is the most beautiful woman Asad has ever seen.

“If you are Halim’s brother,” she murmurs, when they first meet, “then from this day on, I am your new sister.”

In the eyes of the village elders, they are never officially married. This causes tongues to wag, as the old women draw their daughters away and watch suspiciously as Adara walks to the well and draws water for the day. At night, she sits with Halim in his study and does the mending, listening to him ramble about his strange ideas of science, and speaking more freely than most women in the country would dare. Asad has never seen more than an embrace pass between the two of them, or a brush of hands over breakfast.

“Why don’t you marry her?” he asks Halim one day, as she is out at the market. “It would make things easier for her.”

Halim sticks a pencil behind one ear and smiles. He wears glasses now, bought off an Amestrian merchant who wandered through nearly two months before. It makes him look old. “We are already married,” he says. “It would be very strange, to be married twice.”

“The marriage customs of the Amestrians are not our own, Brother. You cannot be considered truly married if one of them officiated.”

“My heart says we are married,” Halim says. “And Ishbara teaches that we must always be true to our hearts, and what we believe.” He smiles, and before Asad can argue again, Adara is home. The smell of jasmine follows her like the shapings of a dream.

“Love,” she says, and reaches out to put her slim hands on his shoulders. Halim leans back and smiles at her, and Asad slips away before his presence can be further remarked upon.

Adara comes to him later, slim and cool and everything he has not allowed himself to want. She stands in the doorway, watching him, and when he is finally ready to snap, to say something hard and angry, she says, “I am not your enemy.”

He does not even try to argue. “My brother has changed because of you,” he says. “He was always interested in the sciences, in a different road than the way of Ishbara, but you have changed him beyond that. If the elders knew he practiced alchemy with you, we would all be cast out as sinners against God.”

“I don’t think God is as strict as you say,” she says, hovering in the doorway. “He would not have given us the capacity to grow and adapt, if we were only supposed to be one way.”

“That’s part of the test,” Asad tells her. “Ishbara tests us to make sure we are worthy.”

He thinks Adara will argue again. Instead, she only looks at him sadly, and turns away. That night, he dreams about the smell of jasmine and her mouth shaping his name over and over.

When Asad turns fifteen, war breaks out. They are too far from the border to be in the immediate thrust of battle, but the distant sky is black from smoke, and at night, the sounds of gunfire carry. It will only be a matter of time. Asad can scarcely sleep for the sound of it, clutching an antique rifle in both hands and waiting for the exact moment that the soldiers come bursting in through the door. There are nights where he paces, restless, and sees Adara standing in the doorway, wrapped in her shawl and staring at the signs of battle, far distant.

Her family lies in that direction, and it surprises no one when she says she must go; if anything, there are people who feel she has waited too long to return to her own. Asad watches as she packs, as Halim packs, and the night they leave, he prays in the mosque until he can no longer feel his knees, and they ache for days afterwards.

A week later, they return; Asad comes back from afternoon prayer to find the door standing ajar, and follows the disheveled trail to the bedroom, where Halim sits by Adara’s side, clutching her hand and murmuring low words to her; the sound of Adara’s breathing is rough and loud, and it seems strange that such a delicate woman could sound so harsh. Asad finds he can only stare dumbly as Halim presses a cold damp cloth over Adara’s brow, as fever-chills wrack Adara’s body.

She dies by slow degrees, though Halim calls her name over and over, never letting go of her hand. Asad watches the entire time, and cannot even unlock his legs long enough to go searching for a priest. It is just after sunrise when Adara sighs one last time, whispering something he cannot catch to Halim, and closes her eyes for good. Halim’s grief is immediate and loud, which is undignified, but Asad cannot find the words to censure him.

Looking back, he does not think this is actually where everything began to change. Not even when Adara’s funeral pyre was reduced to pale ashes, sticking to the tear-tracks on Halim’s face, did things change.

It was when war finally reached their village, in an explosion of fire and anger and fear. He was on his way to prayer, and saw the men in blue appear, like the rivers of myth, grim-faced and unstoppable. Asad, to his shame, fled and took refuge in the mosque. Even the Amestrians, who looked upon alchemy as their god, did not yet have the nerve to destroy a holy place.

Things changed, he knows, when the soldiers came, and among them, the State Alchemists.

Halim drifted in and out of the crowds, dazed and lost; Adara was his guide, and she has left him without an anchor. At night, he curls in a single corner of the bed they shared and gibbers to himself; Asad, listening, almost hates her for it. During the day, he disappears from home for long stretches at a time — sometimes he comes home by himself; other times, he’s led home by the handful of remaining people in their village, who still live among the ruins of their homes, and try to avoid the soldiers when they can.

From these soldiers, and their pet alchemists, is where Halim learns about the ultimate sin. Not even the great prophets of the scriptures were granted the ability to return the dead to life, but these godless alchemists claim to know a way, and Halim drinks in these stories with the voracious hunger of a newborn. When he locks himself into his study and stays there, Asad is foolish enough to be relieved, thinking his brother is perhaps, finally, settling into grief.

Ten times a fool is still a fool, though; even to his dying day, Asad remembers the door to Halim’s study opening, and the carnage that lay inside, the blood that soaks the front of Halim’s pants and shirt. The western clothing that he was so fond of had been ruined by his mistake, and the pulsing, burbling thing that has Adara’s eyes offers no comfort.

“Brother,” Asad whispers. “Oh, Brother, what have you done?”

And the thing that is and is not his sister, the most beautiful woman he has ever known, groans and wheezes and makes thick, wet noises, reaching for Halim with a rotten, shaking hand. Halim turns his face away, pale and losing blood fast, and Asad’s hands shake as he raises his musket and fires, shooting the thing right between Adara’s wide, empty eyes.

It’s the first time he’s ever killed anything. Later, after Halim is bandaged and tucked away, to stare at the ceiling and barely breathe, Asad leans out back and is violently, horribly sick. When he swallows against the rest, it burns in his throat, like it could eat him from the inside out.

The rest of the war passes as a blur; there are only occasional bright moments that stick in his mind, strong enough to be memories. Halim dies more slowly than Adara; Asad watches as his brother’s brilliant sharp mind breaks, fragments dissolving further with each passing day. There is nothing he can do, but try to keep his brother eating and drinking, though sleep now seems forever out of the question.

War has a way of making everything pass with breakneck speed, and still maintain a snail’s pace. Asad learns to sleep with a rifle in his hands and his back to a wall; learns to sleep so that the smallest noise — whether it’s a change in Halim’s breathing or footsteps down the street — will wake him. Eventually, he becomes used to it.

Then comes the day that he goes to his brother’s study, and Halim steps out, naked and covered in strange black marks; they are dark and vivid as tattoos, but they cover everywhere — and Asad thinks, there is no way his brother could have kept his hands steady enough for that. These are not the marks of the faithful, the priests who have the scriptures embedded into their own skin as a mark of their holiness; he recognizes these from the notes that Adara kept, from the books stacked in Halim’s library. This is alchemy, and his brother is no longer his brother.

He has no time to mourn. When the State Alchemists are set loose upon the children of Ishbara, Asad watches the destruction and feels hatred burning like cold fire in his gut. There are women and children lying broken and desecrated in the streets, drowned in pools of their own blood; there are a thousand houses and villages that have been swallowed up by the unnatural manipulations of alchemy.

It is almost a relief when the State Alchemist comes for their small band of refugees; it is almost a relief, because Asad is so tired, so very tired of keeping strong, of failure, of it all. Praise be to Ishbara who holds us close and shelters us from the storms of the desert.

For Halim to die instead was something he never expected. Asad watches as a single bright moment of clarity returns to his brother’s eyes, and the tired smile that spreads across Halim’s face. He can almost see the boy he used to know, the one who took his hand and held on as their mother walked away, the one who left and came back with a beautiful woman — he sees the entire span of his life in Halim’s dark eyes.

And when he is finally alone, Asad puts his head back and wails. It’s a style of mourning reserved for the women, but there is no one else in this wide empty desert; even Ishbara has, for the moment, deserted him.

There is bile on his lips and blood on his hands and arms, from where his own was blown off, and the one that Halim gifted to him. There is sad on his face and in his eyes; for a moment, he thinks it could suffocate him. He could lie down next to his brother, and let the desert devour him whole. And then, maybe, Adara would gather him into her flower-scented arms, and he could pretend the entirety of his life was just some strange nightmare.

He wants it so badly he can taste it. Asad reaches for his brother’s face, blinking hard against sands —

— and wakes.

The man called Scar opens his eyes to gray skies and more rain. It washes away some, but not all, of the blood that coats his fingers. He has killed eight men today, and only one of them was a State Alchemist. The tally is not as bad as it could be; he’s had better days, but he’s had worse.

Slowly, he gets to his feet and walks down the long dark alley, towards where he can see light. Now, while it is still night, he thinks, he will go to the Central Library’s First Branch. Maybe there, his path will intersect with that of the Fullmetal Alchemist, and that will be one more name to his list, one more of the thousand sinners for his brother’s life. Halim was gentle and quiet, but surely somewhere, even his soul must be wandering restlessly, denied vengeance — so the pain in his arm tells him, and so he chooses to believe.

Never looking back, he walks on, and ignores the steady ache in his arm. Either way, he knows, it’ll be over soon.

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The End of the World in a Paperback Novel

“Senseeeeeeeeeeeeei!”

Shigure stuck his pinky finger into his ear and twisted. Maybe, he thought, he could wheedle Tohru-kun into cleaning them for him later.

“Senseeeeeei, are you even listening to me?”

At the very least he could ask her to buy more Q-tips. Though certainly if he suggested one, the other would follow. Tohru-kun was a good girl that way.

“Sensei, the deadline is in three hours! THREE HOURS! Aren’t you listening?!”

And maybe he could ask her to make oyakodon for dinner. It wasn’t his favorite, but he’d been craving it for a few days, and certainly with Tohru-kun’s cooking abilities, she would certainly be able to pull it off. He’d mention it to Yuki, or possibly Kyo-kun, so they could do the shopping for her.

“SENSEEEEEI!”

Perhaps with the right dinner, he’d be able to find inspiration to finish his next novel! But before that, he would write his shopping list. Eggs, he wrote. Chicken. Mushrooms, because they were almost out.

“Sensei, I’m begging you, the manuscript!”

Shigure looked up, and then down, at the young woman curled in a ball by his feet. “Mitchan, you should be careful,” he said. “Lying like that is bad for your back.”

She looked up at him, with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Sensei …”

“Besides,” he said grandly, “you should learn to put things into perspective. Not having the manuscript isn’t the end of the world!”

Her eyes went huge and sparkly. “Does that mean you –”

“Go home and have a nice dinner,” he said. “Maybe a little wine, and relax! Life is too short for this sort of worrying, Mitchan, you’ll be bald before you’re thirty, and that’s never attractive.”

She looked ready to cry. “Sensei …”

“Also,” he said, “I have a package I need to be delivered. If you could mail it for me? It’s on the kitchen table.”

Her mouth opened, then closed, working silently. After a moment, she sighed, her shoulders going limp. “This is awful,” she muttered. “Sensei, you should take this more seriously, this is how your paycheck and mine is taken care of …”

“Have a nice day, Mitchan,” he said as she left, then turned back to his desk. Tohru-kun and the others would be home within an hour or two, so if he wanted to plan out a menu, he would have to get started on that soon.

From the kitchen, Mitchan started sobbing again. Shigure considered going to comfort her, and decided the manuscript would be enough. Really, she worried too much about little things; it was the bigger things — like in his novel, his first foray into science fiction, where monsters and giant robots ruled the world in the wake of the Apocalypse — that were really important.

At the end of his shopping list, he wrote Q-tips, and then set it aside to wait for Tohru-kun and the others to arrive home.

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The Measure of Human

Sometimes Al dreams of women, with long flowing dark hair and sad, distant faces. One is his mother, not his mother, whose fingers are cold and damp to the touch, and she seems to reach inside of him, curling her fingers around his heart and pulling it out to show him. Whenever she did, his brother would scream no don’t touch him leave him alone, but whenever he turned, he’d always be alone.

Other times, the other woman is there, her dark mouth pulled into a pout, her red eyes distant. She never touches him, only skirts around him, and even when she her eyes meet his, she’s looking through him. Sometimes she weeps, and blood gathers in the corners of her eyes and overflows, running like scars across her white skin.

“Who are you?” he finally asks her, following her across a blackened plain. It was once a desert, but there are huge burned craters where the grains have been melted to glassy black, and it crackles loudly under their feet. “Who are you? Do I know you?”

She does not turn. She clutches her shawl tightly around her bowed shoulders and moves faster, until Al loses track of her and comes to a stop, standing alone. And even if they’re in a desert it’s cold, the wind cutting through the thin cloth of his shirt and carving goose bumps out of his skin. He wakes and finds all his blankets kicked to the floor and his breath steaming faintly in the air. When he sits up and presses his hands to the glass, it’s snowing outside.

These are more gaps in his memory, more clues to the four years he’s missing. When he tries to ask questions, Winry will look to Rose and shake her head, and find some way to avoid the question. I wasn’t there for much. You should ask your brother.

But his brother isn’t there, though the years trundle past. Every turned corner is a dead end, every path ends abruptly; there are a thousand and one roads, and none of them go anywhere. A few times, he catches himself thinking that maybe his brother is just a figment of his imagination, something and someone he dreamed up to keep him company, in the lonely time after his mother’s death. He is always horrified by these thoughts after they pass.

Al studies alchemy voraciously and dreams of these women, and of men — in the blue uniforms of the Amestris military, swathed in the robes of an Ishbarite refugee, and flashes of one dark-haired figure who shrieked poison as he drove his fist through — his fist through —

Al can never remember the rest. When he wakes, shivering and sick to his stomach, he feels he’s glad for that.

But the woman lingers, like a bitter ghost. Sometimes he swears he can hear her voice, low and husky, rising and falling in familiar cadences. It drives him crazy, listening to her, never quite able to make out her words, and finally he corners Rose when Winry isn’t there to hush her, and asks.

Rose looks at him with her mournful eyes, then bows her head. “She wanted to be human,” she says softly. “So much that she defied the person who gave her life, so she could die like a human.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” Rose’s knuckles are white from pressure. “I don’t know. I only remember a little, myself.”

Al looks at her a moment. “But she died?”

“She died.” Rose’s voice grows softer. “You were there, and your brother, too. I remember someone saying.”

When she says nothing more, Al turns and walks off, into the fields. The corn has long since been harvested, the wheat stored away, but there are still long, dry strands of grass that remain. He picks these, and there is a memory: his brother doing the same, waving the grass around like a switch and laughing, like nothing in the world could ever touch him.

After he has enough, he goes down to the river, to his “argument place,” and sits down. For a moment, he feels strange: he hasn’t fought with anyone in a long time, and it seems the place no longer remembers him.

He’s an alchemist, though, and he knows better than to believe in silly superstitions, or old wives’ tales. He stares out at the dark surface of the river; it hasn’t been cold enough these year for the water to freeze over, but it moves sluggishly, twigs bobbing their slow steady way downstream.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he says. He believes in monsters, because he’s seen them — he has remembered the horrific, rotting, inside-out creature that had meant to be his mother. “But, if you’re listening … I can’t help you. I don’t even remember half of what I was. I don’t remember you at all.”

He tosses his braided creation into the water, and watches it be swept away.

“And if you see my brother,” he says, “please tell him to hurry home.”

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Man of Wax

Hoenheim Elric has rarely touched his sons.

Not the first one, who grew up to inherit his mother’s sly mind — not the youngest, who looks like the only woman he’s ever loved.

And not the middle one, bitter and angry and closest made in his own image. Ed spends his day working like a man possessed, hunched over notes and books, lost in his own world. It reminds Hoenheim of his own youth, when he was desperate to find meaning, to find an answer that would make his short lifespan worthwhile.

It cost him the love of one woman, and life with another. He’s been ten kinds of fool, and his sins are visited upon his sons, for all he did his best to distance himself.

Now he watches Ed scribble furiously, ink stains on his fingers and cheeks, and wonders if there has ever been any more danger than this. Alphonse had Tri’s round cheeks and smiling mouth, but Ed had her fine-boned beauty, in ways that were dangerous.

“Ed,” he says finally, and his voice is loud. “You should go to bed.”

“I’m busy,” Ed says, without looking up. His candle is burning low; in a moment, it will snuff itself out. There are spots of ink in Ed’s hair, and Hoenheim focuses on them, little dark blots against a sea of gold, like a reverse night sky.

“Icarus,” he says, “your wax is melting.”

It’s not really a pet name, and it’s not meant to be one. Ed’s fingers tighten for a moment on his pen, and his lips press to a thin line. He doesn’t look up, only hunches further over his notes. “I’m busy,” he says. “I’ll go to bed when I’m finished.”

But he won’t be finished, Hoenheim thinks, not for a long time — maybe not ever. He ponders this stranger that is his son, with his own hair and eyes and echoes of poor lost Tri in the slant and set of his features. There’s a puff and a soft hiss, and suddenly the room is dark; Ed’s candle has gone out, and only the moonlight streams in.

“Icarus,” he says again, because he can’t help but associate that legend with Ed, whose already flown in the face of God more times than should be allowed. In the moonlight, Ed’s hair shines gold and silver both, except where the ink has stained the strands. “You really are Icarus, aren’t you, you –”

“Shut up.” Ed stands in a sharp, jerky motion; the prosthetics pain him more than he will ever admit, especially to Hoenheim. “Shut up, asshole, just — I’m going to bed. Shut up.”

As Ed clumps past, his sleeve brushes against the bare skin of Hoenheim’s arm, right under where the rot had been set. The smell of ink and old dusty papers followed him like a cloud. He closes his eyes: Dante smelled like that once, his beautiful sharp scholar-woman, who’d been everything he’d dreamed of and nothing he’d wanted.

He doesn’t move until he hears Ed’s bedroom door close. And then his breath comes out in a hiss, slow and pained. Tri would weep to see her son now, he thinks — she would weep to see him hunched over his books like an old man, working his way steadily towards rock bottom.

“God help me,” he says, though he is an alchemist, he is a scientist, he is a man of reason who has no place for God. There’s only this dark room, and no one is listening — and certainly not the boy who’s already left him. “God help me, I can’t save him any more.”

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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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