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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miles to babylon

There were no set time for Beltline raids. Its people struck as need or whim dictated, and those were both fickle masters. Ginji needed both hands and feet to count the number of times he’d been jostled awake by Teshimine-san’s rough hands in the dead of night, and ordered to hide while still slow and confused from sleep. Still other times, they came during the day, bursting out of the meager shadows like starving animals.

Ginji huddled in a pile of sodden cardboard boxes, trying to find shelter from the Beltline people and the rain both. He was still too young to even properly keep up with the older kids, and so had been shooed off to a pretense of safety. He had his hands pressed hard over his ears, in an attempt to keep the sound of screaming down. Some of those voices he recognized, and tasted helplessness as a bitter pill.

Thunder growled, and he heard one rough exclamation in a voice he didn’t know–and then, very abruptly, complete silence. Even the rain seemed hushed for that brief moment.

Ginji cracked one eye open and lowered his hands fractionally. In the wake of that vacuum of silence is a nearly-deafening rush of quiet things: the rush of blood in his ears, the rasp of his breathing, the drum roll of rain, and–

Footsteps.

They had a slow, deliberate rhythm to them, heavy over the sound of everything else. And though it was hard to judge, it seemed to be coming closer to him. Ginji sucked in a sharp breath and held it, sharp and stabbing in his chest. Though the day was heavy with summer warmth, his hands felt shaking and cold.

The box over his head lifted up suddenly. Ginji flinched back with a squeak, squeezing his eyes shut. Instinctively, he covered his head with his skinny arms.

“Aha, Ginji-kun. There you are.”

He looked up at the sound of his name in spite of himself, and found himself squinting through a blinding flash of lightning. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, as though he’d touched live wire. “Wh–who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Teshimine Takeru,” the man said. Ginji blinked light-ghosts from his eyes and frowned. He did not recognize this man, dressed in shining, spotless white in the middle of Lower Town’s dreariness and filth, but even so, this stranger knew Teshimine-san’s name–

“The fighting’s over now, Ginji-kun,” the man said, and held out a hand. And indeed, his voice was the only one now, trailed off into expectant silence. “Takeru is looking for you.”

Ginji stared at that hand. It was slender and pale and neat, smoothed of all calluses. Even Lon-Fa had rougher hands than that. Warning still tingled in his fingertips, and he did not trust that friendly half-smile. He shook his head.

“Oh, come now. There’s no need to be scared.”

Ginji shook his head again, mute. The man’s smile never so much as flickered, nor did his hand waver. “Now, Ginji-kun–”

“Ginji!”

Relief blossomed in his belly. He snapped his head up at the sound of that second, familiar voice, just in time to catch an irritated spark cross the stranger’s face. And then there was Teshimine-san, bruised and muddy, with rain dripping from his shaggy hair. He stopped short at the sight of the other man, golden eyes narrowing.

The stranger straightened and put his hands in his pockets. “Yaa, Takeru.”

“What are you doing here?” Teshimine-san demanded. Part of Ginji flinched back at the unexpected, raw anger in his voice. “You–”

“It’s many miles to Babylon, Takeru,” the man said. He turned, and walked away from Ginji, towards Teshimine-san, who tensed as though preparing for another battle. “But my steps are nimble and light.”

“It loses something in translation,” Teshimine-san said, following the man with his eyes as he passed. “Don’t ever come back again.”

“I’m not the one who makes that decision,” the man said. Over his head, lightning split the sky, silhouetting his entire slender form in a wash of blinding white. “But maybe we’ll wait for your boy to come to us.”

With that, he began to walk faster, until his shining form was swallowed up in the gray of rain and evening. Teshimine-san watched him go, tense long after the last speck of white vanished. Ginji scrambled out from under the cardboard boxes and crept hesitantly over to his side.

“Teshimine-san?”

Teshimine-san took a deep breath and turned, his face unbearably serious. “Ginji,” he said, “you–”

Thunder belched suddenly, drowning out his words. Ginji was too afraid of his expression to ask him to repeat them.

“–not ever. Do you understand?”

Ginji swallowed hard and nodded. Teshimine-san’s face finally softened.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go find dinner.”

A small static shock charged their fingers when Ginji took his hand. It was barely more than a spark and brief pressure, and then gone. They looked at each other, and Ginji grinned, feeling the weight of that peculiar situation slough away, like dirt under water.

The rain was coming to a slow end.

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dogtags

Alicia Hughes had two things she never took off: an friendship bracelet that one of her friends had made for her for her tenth birthday, and a set of dog tags that she kept out of sight, under her shirts and close to her heart.

“They belonged to your father,” Uncle Roy had told her, when he’d given them to her. “I don’t know if he would’ve wanted you to have them, but they are for you, regardless.”

In truth, she hardly remembered the man who’d been her father. Photographs of him still remained in the house, including a large family portrait over the fireplace. In every one, he looked kind, smiling like the happiest man in the world.

“If Papa loved us so much, why did he leave?” she asked her mother once, as they made dinner. She had been very young, she remembered, with the dog tags burning against her skin in a newly-made secret. “Why didn’t he stay?”

Her mother, beautiful and lonely and sad, had stopped and smiled with the echoes of heartbreak. “Because, sometimes, our choices are made for us, and no matter how much we argue, it changes nothing. Your father would have given the world to stay with us, never doubt that.”

Sometimes, when nervous or upset, her mother would twist her ring when she spoke. It was her wedding ring, and like Alicia’s dog tags, it was something she never took off. When she asked her questions, her mother twisted the ring so hard, it turned the skin around it pale, then red. Alicia watched her, and decided to never ask again.

On the anniversary of that day, they went down to the graveyard together, each with an armful of flowers–roses from her mother, lilies for her. Alicia always walked a few paces behind her mother, looking around at the neatly-ordered rows with solemn eyes.

There were so many of them, she thought, every year, and each one had originally been a person, with a face and a name and maybe even a family, too. It made her happy to put the flowers down on the grave and to leave that uncomfortably quiet place. Surely, her father had found a nicer, more cheerful place to stay.

She hoped so. She didn’t want to think about him being lonely, wherever he was.

Another person might have hidden the dog tags away, locked in the same hidden drawer she kept her diary. Alicia found she liked the weight of them, somehow comforting around her neck. On long rainy nights, she pulled them out of her nightshirt and weighed them in her hand, and let the clink of them lull her to sleep.

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Knowledge

Weekly dinner at the Hughes household always consisted of three things, without fail: an hour or two of playtime with Alicia, who never failed to be a captive audience whenever he snapped his fingers; the meal itself, usually prepared by Gracia, who was the epitome of the virtue in her name, and then–

“The problem with you is,” Hughes said, “is that you’re easy to love, but hard to know.”

–some kind of pithy conversation with Maes Hughes himself.

In recent months, due to certain other developments, he’d stopped obliquely hinting that married life was more than worth its occasional bumps and headaches, and started probing for other things. With Alicia fast growing up, it seemed to have suddenly become his business to play Concerned Father to anyone who lingered long enough to be caught by him.

Hence sitting here now, with half-finished drinks and an earnest Hughes, waiting for his response. In the kitchen, Alicia was chattering happily at her mother over the run of water and the clink of dishes. Roy just raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

“Just what I said.” Hughes raised an eyebrow right back. “You’re a charming bastard, and the women eat it up. The fact you’ve dated enough women to use their names as part of your alchemical code says a lot, don’t you think?”

“They don’t necessarily love me,” Roy murmured.

“Oh, please.” Hughes rolled his eyes. “It’s disgusting, the way they’ll follow you like homeless puppies. Do you know how tiring it is to listen to someone talk nonstop about how wonderful and special and all-round perfect someone is?”

“… I’m going to assume that’s a rhetorical question.”

“Smug bastard.” Hughes bunched up his napkin and threw it lazily at Roy, who merely leaned to the side to dodge it. “At least I know my ladies love me back.”

Roy snorted. “Just because they’re attracted to me doesn’t mean they love me, Hughes,” he said, a touch more irritably than normal.

“They think they do, however. And sometimes, that’s enough.” Hughes leaned forward, and his eyes were narrowed and piercing, with no trace of the stupid father or the love-struck husband in them. It was not unlike when he’d been a young boy, scrutinized by his own father, weighed and judged by eyes that promised no easy escape.

So, instead, he looked into his drink, giving the glass an absent-minded shake. Ice clinked, and the sound was very loud, during the brief lull of silence from Alicia’s voice. “I’ve done my best not to encourage false hopes,” he said, utterly bland.

Hughes let out an explosive breath. “See, that’s what I mean,” he said, and though his expression was disgusted, there was also a hint of fondness in his relaxing eyes. “You say things in a way that someone who wanted to can hear anything they want with a little bit of skewing.” He leaned back in his chair, and drew a few circles in the air with a finger. “It’s the mystery. I have it on the greatest authority that women like that sort of thing.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Roy snorted. “What you and your wife do in private is not any business of mine,” he said blandly.

“This is not about me, here.” Hughes gave a dismissive wave. “It’s the fact that we’ve got this new wave of girls working in the offices, only they’re not working, because they’re too busy comparing notes about how you looked at them or smiled or something.” He dropped his head back for a moment, then lifted it again, drumming his fingers against his knee.

Shrugging, Roy said, “Young people are always prone to being flighty when it comes to these things.”

Hughes gave him a sour look. “You’re not that old, Roy. And this has been something I’ve noticed has been going on since, oh, I don’t know. Forever?”

“Forever, huh?”

“You’re a paranoid bastard, you know that?” Hughes sighed, with an extra edge of melodrama to it. “All you let people see are the shallow waves, and when they try to get more, you shut them out.”

“Is that so.”

“You’re never going to be without enemies, Roy,” Hughes said, reflectively. Roy said nothing, waiting out the seeming non-sequitor. “Too many people resent too many things about you to let you live your life in peace.”

Roy’s smile had teeth in it. “I never expected otherwise.”

“Still.” Hughes traced circles in the air with one finger. “A man like you needs all the allies he can get, and friends are better than allies, but by definition, you can’t keep people in the dark and expect them to–” The sound of small running footsteps cut him off.

“Daddy~!” A small flurry, dressed in white and pink, appeared in the doorway, a split second before it launched itself at Hughes. He fielded the impact well, tilting the chair back with controlled precision, as though the weight of a single small girl could truly rock the heavy furniture.

“Alicia,” he crooned, “you done helping Mommy with the dishes?”

Alicia settled herself on her father’s lap and grinned with a proudly gap-toothed smile. “I did,” she said, “and I even helped put some of them away!”

“That’s my girl!” Hughes jogged one knee, earning a delighted squeal as the little girl bounced. “Did you make sure to finish everything else?”

“Mommy let me feed Baker tonight,” she announced gleefully. “He eats like a piggy.”

Hughes laughed. Gracia trailed in, at a distinctly more sedate pace than her daughter’s madcap dash. At her heels trailed the new family dog, purchased for Alicia’s fifth birthday. Still more a puppy than anything else despite his size, he wobbled on long awkward legs, squirming until he made it around Gracia, then bounded towards father and daughter on the chair.

Alicia twisted until she could hold out one tiny hand, and squealed when Baker rose up onto his haunches, forepaws braced on the seat cushion, and licked her palm enthusiastically. Hughes ruffled the dog’s ears, then nudged him back to the ground.

“Alicia, honey, bedtime,” Gracia said. “Say goodnight to Daddy and Uncle Roy, okay?”

“Yes, Mommy,” Alicia intoned obediently, then turned and gave her father a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “Good night, Daddy,” she said, then shrieked again when he rubbed their cheeks together. Then she slid from his lap and crossed over to Roy, beaming as she held out her small arms. There was no hesitation or shyness in her bright green eyes, and even so tiny, she stood braced with obvious determination.

“Up!” she said. “Hug!”

“Say please, Alicia,” Gracia chided, hiding a smile.

“Pleeeeeease?” She batted her lashes at Roy.

Roy chuckled and leaned forward, hooking his hands under her arms and swinging her up with a heave. She giggled, beaming down at him, and when he set her down in his lap, she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Good night, Uncle Roy,” she said into his neck.

For a moment, he hesitated, then cupped his hand across her back. “Good night.” It was strange–he remembered holding her like this when she was a baby, the few times Gracia had bullied him into trying. She had been such an alien, fragile thing back then, a completely different creature from the squirming bundle he held now.

She put her lips to his cheek and buzzed, loudly. He started, and she just flashed him that same ear-to-ear smile, then slid back to the floor and ran to her mother, giggling all the while. Gracia swept her up, and Alicia draped herself over her shoulder, waving enthusiastically at them as she was carried up the stairs.

When Roy looked back at Hughes, the man was staring at him again, with that same calculating expression. He just raised an eyebrow.

“Is it really that difficult?” Hughes asked, quietly. “Alicia’s a little girl who thinks you’re the most wonderful man in the world–after her daddy, of course.” A faint smile chased its way across his face, then faded. “Kids like that don’t care what secrets you have, or what you’ve done in your past. You’re here now, and she loves you.”

“Didn’t you just say that all your new secretaries are in love with me, too?” he asked. “You’re tossing that word around quite cheaply, Hughes.”

“Like I said, easy to love, and hard to know,” Hughes said patiently. “They know you as the dashing Major General, war hero and Flame Alchemist. You’ve got a handsome face and good manners, so they’re charmed. Alicia loves you as Uncle Roy, who spoils her outrageously–” here he raised an eyebrow at Roy–“and comes for dinner every other Saturday. And she knows about how Ed–”

Roy got to his feet, expression still bland. “It’s getting late,” he said. “I have a ways to walk.”

Hughes leaned back in his seat and just smirked. If a bit of worry still lingered in his eyes, he let the matter drop.

Alicia’s bedroom door opened, and Gracia reappeared on the stairs. She paused halfway down, looking between the two of them with mild surprise. “You’re leaving?”

Roy shrugged into his coat, and managed to dredge up a smile for her. “You’ve been utterly charming, but–”

“But my husband’s said some things you’d rather not think about, so you’re going off to brood by yourself,” she said crisply. When he slanted a look at her, she smiled. “Give our best to Edward, all right? And tell him he’s expected next time, or else.”

His hands paused for a full second on his coat. She continued to smile back at him, unconcerned by his darkly probing look. After a moment, he gave her a wry smile and saluted smartly as he would to any general on the parade field.

“She’s a keeper, Hughes,” he said. It was the same thing he’d said years ago, after he’d first met the young woman who’d accepted his best friend’s name and ring.

Still lounging in his chair, Hughes snorted, though there was a deep note of affection in that sound. “Damn straight–and she’s mine, so hands off.”

Gracia laughed and descended the rest of the way down the stairs, skirting around Roy to her husband’s side. He heard the rustle of movement, and guessed that Hughes had hooked an arm around her waist; Hughes was physical in his affections, and more with his wife and daughter than anyone else. “Good night, Roy.”

He nodded without turning. “Good night,” he said, and headed for the door. He heard Hughes mutter something at his wife, who only laughed.

Outside, the night was cold and clear. He closed the door quietly behind him and stared upwards, through the mist of his breath. Even in East City, you could see more stars than in Central. When he’d first left, he had not believed he would miss that place, but–there were certain things left behind there, irretrievable.

A thousand young faces, shining with belief and hope, all abandoned and buried, in Ishbar’s sands and East City’s ghettos. His own people had suffered losses, as well. Losing lives aged a man faster than years alone.

Roy fished a pair of gloves from his coat pocket–ordinary gloves, fur-lined and black leather–and slid them on. Then he tucked his hands back into his pockets and began the slow walk back to his house.

The lights were on and the door was not locked when he arrived; he looked at the pair of black boots left carelessly discarded off to the side, and smiled faintly. Noises emerged from the kitchen, along with the smell of coffee.

“I’m back,” he called, as he pulled off his coat. The house still carried a distinct chill, despite the lit fire he could see in the living room, and so for now, he kept the gloves on. If he had to guess, he would hazard Edward had simply forgotten to even start the fire until distracted from his studies by the fact that it was too dark to see.

“I heard,” Edward called from the kitchen. “I’m back, too.”

“I could tell.” Roy bent and unlaced his own boots, and these he left neatly standing beside Edward’s in silent statement. He made a detour to the library, plucking one book at random from the shelves, and then made a beeline for the fire. There was a haphazardly stacked pile of papers at one end of the couch; this Roy moved aside and settled himself into the corner crook formed by the back and arm. It still retained a bit of body warmth, and this he leaned comfortably back into.

“That was my spot, bastard,” Edward said, in the doorway. He was still dressed for the road, though his feet were bare, and carried two gently-steaming cups. “Not that you care, huh?”

“One of those had better be for me,” Roy replied.

“No, I’m gonna drink ’em both. Sheesh, would a little politeness kill you?” Edward slunk across the floor towards him. There was the faintest curl of a grin on his face, edged and bright. For someone who’d ostensibly spent at least the first half of the day on the road, there was still a distinct spring in his step.

“If you were a guest, perhaps,” Roy said. “As you’re merely freeloading, I see no need–”

“Don’t be such an ass.” Edward stopped in front of him, his expression halfway a challenge. “I pay my part of the rent, and you know it. Why I do, I’m not sure, because when you’re home you spend all your time bitching and making demands–”

“That’s why you love me,” Roy said, and held out one hand.

Edward snorted, rudely. “You wish, bastard,” he said. “Move over, unless you want coffee in your lap.” He lifted up one of the cups, tilting it so that a dark bead appeared on the lip, held just barely in place by surface tension.

Roy moved, and Edward plunked himself down on the couch with careless ease, and managed not to spill any coffee, though it sloshed dangerously close. One cup he handed to Roy; the other he slid his automail fingers around. A bit of squirming and rearranging ended with Edward partly reclined, using Roy’s side as a pillow, with his human arm flung out wide, so that naked fingers tapped thoughtfully against Roy’s ankle.

They sat in silence for long moments. Once situated, Edward went back to his notes, and Roy sat with his book open to a random page, staring at the pattern and sway of flames. The snapping, quiet voice of the fire was almost hypnotic, motor memory tingling in his fingertips.

“Gracia says you’re to come, next time,” Roy said at last, his voice quiet.

“If I’m not working,” Edward replied absently. “Some of us still go out and do things for a living, Major General.” He made a face. “Have I mentioned how annoying your title’s become after you got promoted?”

“Constantly,” Roy said dryly.

“It’s a pain. Any chance of going back to being a Colonel?”

“A snowball’s chance in hell, Fullmetal.”

Edward slanted him a look under the veil of his lashes. “Was worth a shot.” Then he reached up to put his cup aside, and squirmed so that he was now on his belly, propped with his bony elbow braced on Roy’s thigh. “If you’re not going to do anything, give me my spot back. It’s a hassle trying to take notes this way.”

“I stole it fairly,” Roy said. “Don’t underestimate the triumph of age and sneakiness over youth and energy, Fullmetal.”

Both of Edward’s brows drew up, then together. He hoisted himself up to his knees, expression turned sardonic. “Never pegged you to be someone who’d get maudlin over your age, Major General.”

“You’re a smart boy, Fullmetal,” Roy said. “But you should leave the psychology to your brother.”

The disgust in Edward’s eyeroll almost had audible sound to it. He crossed his arms over his chest, mouth pursed. Roy turned back to his book, and, despite himself, barely managed to hide a smirk when Edward sighed, loudly and pointedly.

“I’m young, not stupid,” Edward said, reaching out and untangling one of Roy’s hands from his book. “That whole ‘pity me for my age’ won’t work–I know you.”

“Do you, now,” Roy murmured. He snapped his book shut with his free hand, then lifted his gaze to meet Edward’s speculatively.

“Mmhmm,” Edward said. He hefted the weight of Roy’s relaxed hand in his both his own, like something strange out of a foreign market. “You’re a grouchy bastard who likes things to go his own way and has no morals about doing whatever you need to get it.”

“And here I’ve always been told I was charming,” Roy said.

“What delusional woman told you that?” Edward shifted his legs, so that he now sat cross-legged on the couch, facing Roy. He was still examining Roy’s hand, adjusting and bending the fingers, as though to test it was properly working.

Roy cocked an eyebrow at him. “Tell me, Edward,” he said, voice dropping to a murmur, “why should I put up with your attitude when I have been informed, just this evening, that there is a whole host of lovely and charming young ladies who would gladly give up an evening of their time for my company?” He gave his hand an experimental tug, and Edward’s fingers tightened fractionally.

“Because,” Edward said, as his real thumb dragged along the cuff of the glove, “you’d be bored without me.” He glanced up briefly, that same smirk lighting his gaze.

Roy slouched further back into the crook of the couch, and affected the most bored expression in his repertoire. “You’re not being especially entertaining now,” he pointed out, and let his gaze wander to a point over Edward’s head.

It earned him another rude snort, and a short mutter under Edward’s breath–something that sounded suspiciously like smug bastard–before he raised Roy’s relaxed hand to his face.

“Don’t get too excited,” he said, when Roy looked at him with amused quizzicality. “I’m the one doing you a favor, here.”

Delicately, his teeth closed over the tip of Roy’s index finger. Encased within the glove, it felt only like a slight pressure. Roy slanted an eyebrow at him. “These are new gloves,” he said mildly. “Leather doesn’t take well to teeth marks.”

The pressure increased briefly–a warning nip. Edward’s eyes were unashamed, the edges of his mouth spreading into a feline smirk. Despite himself, Roy quirked a half smile in return and reached out with his other hand, to cup Edward’s face–and found his wrist caught firmly between automail fingers. Roy asked the question by wriggling his own fingers, and was answered by the press of cool metal to his wrist.

“Enjoying yourself?” he muttered. Edward only twisted his head gently from side to side, working the glove slowly loose. The fingers of his human hand crept up under the edge of Roy’s glove, dots of smoother warmth against the fur lining. Edward’s eyes were closed and his expression intent, mouth working as he occasionally shifted the grip of his teeth. On Roy’s other hand, the automail thumb began tracing absent circles, like a new alchemy student practicing the perfect round shape required for an array. Edward was still on his knees, but leaning forward now, the line of his body growing relaxed and heavy.

When Roy shifted his position to accommodate the drape of another body across his legs, his elbow jostled his book and sent it tumbling to the floor. For a moment, Edward’s eyes flickered open to check–but it had landed safely on its back, rather than on its spine, and so his eyes closed again. The glove was now halfway off, and the sliver of exposed flesh on Roy’s palm felt cold and oddly exposed, though the room was warming nicely from fire.

He leaned forward, so that his nose brushed Edward’s temple. “The last time we did this here, you called me a pervert.” The whisper left strands of hair clinging to his lips, which smelled of books and metal and the faintest traces of soap.

Edward snorted, but did not let go. In the wake of the glove, his fingers moved in, cupping the back of Roy’s hand into a gentle curve. The other, he kept pinned down to the seat cushion.

Roy’s thumb slipped free, and then the rest was easy; Edward leaned back, and the glove slid off smoothly. With a disdainful feline expression, he turned his head and spat it out over the edge of the couch, where it flopped, the fingertips just brushing the fallen book. He turned back to Roy’s exposed hand now, turning it slowly, as though considering. Roy kept the fingers relaxed, watching Edward’s intent expression.

A moment later, a rough pink tongue flickered out, rasping against the webbing between index finger and thumb. Roy sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and saw the way it made Edward smile, though that golden gaze never lifted back to his.

Carefully, as though he actually cared for ceremony, Edward drew his tongue down the length of Roy’s index finger, from the tip to the base, where it circled, as though probing for some hidden secret. The rush of his breath was steady and hot against the damp trails it left behind, and it was only a faint moment of surprise when it was completely engulfed in wet heat. On the couch, Roy’s other hand twitched, and as if in compensation, Edward twined their fingers together. The metal palm was still cool in the warm room.

Roy shivered. Edward was now draped fully against him, purring deep in his chest as he pulled back, lips tight around the pointing finger. When it was fully free, he gave it one more tiny lick at the pad itself, where the whorls of the fingerprint were made, then slid his tongue down the folds of Roy’s cupped palm. The rest of his body moved in a slow, subtle rhythm–not even full rocking, but still a careful, continuous motion. Briefly, his lips fastened to the point of Roy’s pulse and sucked hard, and through the round shape of Edward’s mouth, his tongue slashed quick, meaningless patterns, before they trailed, smoothly, to the bend of Roy’s elbow.

“Edward,” he said, quietly. His hand now rested over Edward’s real shoulder, and he moved those fingers at last, curling them into a weak fist. Edward’s eyes flickered open and up to his face, considering, and then he leaned up, his mouth almost soft against Roy’s own. He caught Edward’s lower lip between his teeth for a moment, worrying at it, then licked both. Edward’s breath gusted out in a faint, throaty laugh, and then he leaned back again, this time drawing Roy’s thumb into his mouth, tongue swirling gently before nipping sharply at its tip.

Absently, he shifted his other hand again; the automail fingers only dug into the back of his hand, clinging. They were finally beginning to warm, absorbing Roy’s body heat to return it. He gave a short, experimental thrust of his hips, feeling the pressure drag along Edward’s stomach. Sharp teeth nipped at him again, but the younger man was grinning when he let Roy’s thumb pull out of his mouth, golden eyes darkly lit and challenging.

“I’m busy,” he said. “Stop trying to distract me.”

He leaned forward now and pressed his open mouth to Roy’s chest, hot and sharply present even through the thin material of his shirt. His tongue slid across a nipple, searching, a moment before his mouth closed fully pressing the careful edges of his teeth to that small rise of flesh. Roy’s head dropped back, and he moved his hips again, a bit more urgently than before. Not for the first time, he was glad for the width of his couch.

Edward laughed again, the sound muffled by Roy’s shirt and skin. After a moment, he moved away, leaving a wet circle to cool in the fire-warmed air. With a bit of deft maneuvering, Roy managed to tug the tie loose from Edward’s hair and buried the fingers of his free hand into its weight, combing gently through. For a moment, Edward paused to shake the hair from his eyes, nipped playfully at Roy’s hand, and continued his work. His flesh hand trailed ahead of his mouth, working open every other button of Roy’s shirt, leaving gaps of skin for more thorough study.

When it reached his pants, it skipped over the fastenings entirely and simply cupped, holding there. Roy’s hips twitched; a small, sharp noise escaped him. Edward’s mouth was now at his belly, an inquisitive, sharpened tongue probing the definition of muscle there. Every now and then, he breathed out in a long, slow, heated wave, there against the damp trails left by his mouth.

Finally, distantly, he felt the pressure of Edward’s hand lessen, and a moment later, his pants were being undone and spread open. Automail fingers squeezed his own briefly, as though in encouragement, before Edward’s other hand pressed him flat to his belly, leaving no room for movement or friction. A closed mouth trailed in the space between navel and groin, the heat of Edward’s entire body seemingly concentrated between Roy’s legs. He’d been opened in a rather undignified sprawl, his fingers buried deep in the heavy weight of long golden hair.

Edward leaned up slightly, to the last undone button, and in that gap placed a brief, almost chaste kiss. From there he trailed down, opening his mouth a little more each time, until he was nosing against his own hand, suckling at the skin until it blushed red. Roy’s breath hissed out in a long, slow rush, and he glanced down to see Edward crouched, waiting, eyes glittering back up at him.

“Are you watching, Roy?” he husked, and then leaned forward and swallowed him down, the same way he’d taken Roy’s fingers earlier. His free hand pinned Roy’s hip sharply, which was perhaps for the best, given the way his body immediately jerked into action. A sharp litany of fierce curses spilled from his lips, mindless and automatic, and he could feel the smug satisfaction emanating from Edward in waves.

It didn’t take very long at all. Edward, always a quick study in whatever he applied himself to, applied himself with utmost thoroughness, teeth and lips and tongue and fingers. After a moment, he pulled off, and brushed soft closed lips over the head in a gentle sweeping motion, then lightly ran his teeth down the length, barely hard enough to even be felt. The entire time, his hand remained firmly pressed at Roy’s hip, using the weight of his automail arm to keep the other side equally pinned.

When he swallowed again, slow and hard, Roy gave a hoarse shout and jerked, seeing bright spots against his already blurry vision as he toppled over the edge.

He closed his eyes, breathing deep and hard and slow through his nose. After a moment, he felt Edward shift against him, the automail fingers releasing his own, felt hands carefully arranging his legs back together a moment before solid weight settled atop them. He cracked one eye open to find his lover’s face hovering bare inches above his own.

“Well?” Edward asked, his grin cheeky. His tongue flickered out to lap at the corner of his own mouth, carrying away a smear of white. “Told you you’d be bored without me.”

Roy took a deep breath, and pounced before he smiled back. Edward squirmed, but only halfheartedly, and still ended up flat on his back across the couch, pinned by Roy’s greater body weight. His grin never wavered, fierce and sharp, another weapon in a vast arsenal. Roy trapped that face between both hands, staring fiercely.

“You,” he said, “are the most irritating, arrogant, and cocksure idiot I have ever had the misfortune to sleep with.”

Ed stretched his head back, exposing his throat, still grinning. “Flattery’ll get you anything you want, Major General.”

“And you always get so grouchy when I pull rank on you,” Roy murmured, then bent his head and sank his teeth into Edward’s neck, at the juncture where it flowed into shoulder.

Under him, the slender body jerked with a hoarse exclamation. He did not relent, running the sharp edges of them down along the corded tendons that sprang up as his hand slid down and worked Edward’s pants open, and then slid home.

It earned him another wordless cry, this one sounding almost shocked before it dissolved into something distinctly more pleased. Edward squirmed enthusiastically, combing his fingers through Roy’s hair until he lifted his head for a kiss that was as much teeth as tongue, sharp-edged and demanding. Narrow hips, pinned under his own, thrust into the touch of his hand with as much force as possible. Over the rush of his own heartbeat, the sound of Edward’s voice had drowned out the crackle of the fire.

One sharp pump of his hand, two, three–and Edward’s entire body tensed sharply against his own, biting at his lips. Warmth pulsed over Roy’s fingers, and he continued to stroke until Edward shifted under him, making a sound that was closer to pain than enjoyment. He rolled then, shifting so that he could rest one elbow on the couch’s back–still mostly holding Edward down, but not as heavily as before. Dazed golden eyes slid open in time to watch Roy lick his own fingers, and a crooked, tired smile crossed that bruised mouth.

“You’re such a pervert, Roy,” he murmured, and closed his eyes again.

Roy paused, then bent down and kissed him soundly, ignoring the grumpy sound and halfhearted swat he got in retaliation. “I suppose you just bring out the worst in me,” he said, and continued cleaning his hand.

When he was finished, a heavy automail arm hooked behind his neck, dragging him down. He went willingly enough, turning his head so that his cheek, rather than his chin, was pillowed at Ed’s shoulder.

“Feeling better?” Edward asked, his voice very quiet. That was all–no petting fingers, no extra words, just the fire-broken silence and a long moment of waiting.

Roy closed his eyes. Easy to love, but difficult to know. That’s what Hughes had said, and he thought that, perhaps, that he was happier with the knowing over the loving; this person’s understanding was more important than any number of vows, whatever their state of dress–or lack thereof.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I don’t feel like getting up.”

“Good,” Edward snorted, and the fingers of his automail hand spread, so that they curved gently against the bend of Roy’s neck in natural rest. “Because you’re not getting me anywhere unless you drag me–or carry me, and I’ll kick your ass before you do either.”

He chuckled, and opened his eyes halfway. The fire was dying down to coals, and the room would chill soon enough–but here and now, Edward’s body was solid and warm under his own, narrow chest rising and falling in slow, steady rhythm. Atop him, the automail arm kept him decidedly in place, though it was ordinary deadweight, and could be shrugged off with a single turn. This was the moment of breathing, not delicate or sustained or romantic–but theirs alone, kept in a guarded open secret.

It was, Roy decided, entirely enough.

He closed his eyes.

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And So Remains

She watched his back as he walked away, and thought, He will not return.

There were still dishes from their shared lunch stacked on the counter, and the smell of his pipesmoke still hung heavily in the air. One pair of his shoes remained by the doorway, flanked on either side by Edward and Alphonse’s sandals.

His departure had not been any different than the others he’d taken, from time to time–he had still kissed her cheek and ruffled Edward’s hair, and then had paused to peek at the napping Alphonse. There had been a solemn line to his mouth and a distant reluctance to his movements, as though he did not want to leave, even as he stood in the doorway and said Good-bye. But she saw the door close behind him, then turned to the window to watch him leave, and she knew–He will not return.

She did not know how long she would have stood there, staring at his disappearing form, if not for the insistent tug on her skirt, and the wide golden eyes peering up from the level of her knees. Instantly she pulled away from the window and knelt down, smiling quickly. “Edward, what’s wrong?”

Her oldest son poked a finger in his mouth and regarded her uncertainly. Once, Pinako Rockbell had commented that the boy occasionally seemed too old for his age, already with the threads of adult confidence and anger in his moods.

Right now, though, he was entirely three years old, confused by the feeling of change in his small world. “Mama, why are you sad?” Then he looked to the window, though he was too small to watch his father leave. “Where is Papa going?”

For a moment, she found herself caught, then gathered herself and told him the truth: “Papa is going on another one of his trips, Edward. I’m sad because I don’t like to see him go–do you?”

Edward shook his head, his finger still stuck in his mouth. When he said nothing, she reached out and impulsively swept him into her arms, tucking his small golden head under her chin. He tolerated this for a moment: sometimes she felt the maturity Pinako saw in him stemmed from his independence more than his intelligence. Usually, she would squeeze him extra-hard, kiss his cheek, then release him as his little face scrunched up in disgust.

This time, though, she did not let go when he started to squirm. And then, a moment later, he stopped and threw his small arms around her neck, clinging with desperate strength.

“Mama,” he said, his voice muffled, “you won’t go away too, right?” There was a distinct waver in his voice, and once again he was nothing more than her child, afraid of something he didn’t yet understand.

She stroked his hair, clean for the moment, and thought of the ache in her bones, and the tightness in her chest whenever she pushed herself too long.

“Of course I won’t,” she said.

***

She took the doll from Pinako’s hand and turned it over slowly, half-afraid to breathe. The doll was cute and smiling, entirely appropriate for a little girl–Al’s doing, her mind suggested in a daze, because he was the one who always brought her flowers, when Ed dragged home whatever wildlife he could find. For a moment, its weight burned in her hands, and she wanted to fling it away and cry with the same terror that blotched young Winry’s face.

Pinako’s son said something to her, an invitation to tea, which she turned down without really being aware of what she did. For just a split second, his broad-shouldered frame against the window made her think of another man, years gone. She excused herself fully, and as she walked out, she saw her two sons huddled against the side of the house, bent together and tense as anxious puppies.

On the stairs, she stopped and looked at them. Ed was drawing small circles in the dirt, and she could see enough of his face to see the fierce, disappointed slash of his mouth; briefly he dashed the back of his hand across his eyes, then stabbed his stick hard into the grass. Al pressed his clasped fists down atop his head, shivering a little in the warm summer day. Neither of them had noticed her yet, and she had to breathe deeply before she could descend the stairs and walk to them.

Sooner or later, they will come after you, she thought, and bit the inside of her cheek. Would I ever be allowed to follow?

***

The pain came and went in red spurts, and there were moments where she thought she could get up and cook something. Al caught her at today, and it was, perhaps, the first time she’d seen her gentle younger son angry. He’d bullied her back to bed with a finesse that had Ed’s particular sharp style to it, capping with a threat to tell his brother when Ed returned from market.

She went meekly, and covered her mouth with one hand to hide her smile. Al sat in the chair by her bed, a book of fairytales in hand–the same one she remembered reading to him (and to Ed, who listened though he’d previous declared himself too old for fairytales). The cover was battered and the spine worn; when he opened it on his lap, she saw scrawling little doodles in the margins. Ed’s work, she thought; he loved books as well as his brother and father, but had a tendency towards a wandering pen.

“I’ll read to you until Brother comes back,” he said. “Which one would you like?”

She leaned back and folded her hands over her stomach. To her relief, the pain remained at bay, and she was able to speak in a perfectly normal voice. “Read me your favorite, Al,” she said. “The one you both always liked, about the princess who wore the cloak of a thousand furs.”

Al pursed his lips and frowned at her. Occasionally, there was a quiet stillness to him that reminded her of his father with acute strength–and it was never stronger than when he was trying to make a point. “But, Mom, that’s our favorite. What about yours?”

“It’s my favorite, too,” she said. When he continued to frown at her, she smiled at him, without the breath to laugh. “It always made you happy that the king found the princess in the end, and your brother, well–”

“Brother just likes it because the princess’ father was a bad man, who lost her,” Al said, with a dryness that did not quite match his age. After a moment, he paused, then flipped to the correct place in the book. “He said he’d go to the post office again,” he said quietly. “To see if–maybe–”

She closed her eyes. Her sickbed felt impossibly wide beneath her, as though countless miles separated her from the uncertain sound of her son’s voice. There were still times she awoke and stretched her arm out, just to feel the empty cool places where no one else slept.

“Read for me, Al,” she said. “Until your brother comes home–and then you can read to us both.”

He paused, and then pages rustle again. “‘Once upon a time there was a king who had a wife, and she was so beautiful …'”

Even when the pain started to rise again, she said nothing. Al’s voice, hesitating every now and then over longer sentences, soothed better than the physician’s prescribed medicines.

***

Her chest hurt so very badly. Every breath felt rough and sharp in her chest, and it had taken monumental just to form the words properly. She thought of that day years ago, when she stood at the window and knew her husband would never return. For a moment, she looked at Ed, and thought about the heavy question of a three-year-old, so long ago. Now, she thought, seeing the way his eyes darkened, he understood too well what had frightened him, that sunny day. She also remembered his anger, and the way he screamed on the other side of the house, where neither he nor Al thought she could hear.

“Why doesn’t he come?! Mom’s sick–she’s DYING, and we haven’t heard a thing!”

“Brother, stop it, you’ll wake her up–”

“Isn’t his own wife important to him?! Where IS he?!”

“Brother, stop it–Brother!”

“Ah, Ed,” she croaked, and both he and Al immediately leaned forward, crowding each other to hear her words. “Would you make a corsage for me?”

Ed blinked. “Eh?”

She smiled, watching the room darken as she sucked in the breath for the end of her request. I do not regret, however much I’ve missed him. Your father loved us all, once.

“That person … always made them for me …”

The smell of flowers rushed past her and soothed the tightness in her chest. She felt a brief flare of surprise, because neither of the boys were that fast with their alchemy, but–

In the distance, she heard Edward and Alphonse calling to her, but she could not understand them: their voices faded, dropping away until they were less than whispers, and then gone.

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Kanaete

The years pass on, like they always do. Sakura petals give away to insects in the summer, and during the autumn and winter there are falling leaves and snowflakes. Like the gears in clockwork, they grind on tirelessly, always the same at their core. Variations come and go, but in the end, it’s the same spring and summer and autumn that it’s always been. This year, there was more rain than usual, and people are worrying about things like flooded homes and ruined crops. People are always worrying about those, when there is too much rain.

I’ve never worried about those things. I don’t need to. What does a doll need of food and drink? Shelter is important, especially for such a handsomely-made child-doll like myself, but the other two … those are human concerns, so I don’t think about them much. I never have, really.

Come to think of it, most of my handlers were never too concerned with such a thing. I’m well-crafted, and my “mother” was and still is famous, though it’s been many years since I’ve seen her face, and will be many more until I see it again. Dolls have vastly different lifespans than humans, and if properly cared for, we can seem to be eternal … but you know, everything has an end. No matter how charmed or wonderful, it always ends. Like the seasons, which always plod so comfortably along. Even if they come back someday, they still come to their curtain close.

The rich and the privileged highborn are no exceptions to that rule. Eventually, Death comes for everyone and every thing – and dolls have no special place in Her heart. Someday, She’ll come for me, too, and then … then, wherever it is a puppet goes when he or she dies, that’s where I’ll be. And maybe I’ll see all of them again – the people who have manipulated me over the years. It sounds bad, maybe, but that’s only if you’re human; for a doll, the handler is everything. Every one of them has left a mark on the original personality my “mother” crafted for me, and over the years I’ve become something completely different from what I used to be. It’s silly to be resentful of someone who has given so much to you, especially if you were crafted for that sole purpose.

I would like to see them again, the people who filled the starring roles of all those vanished lives. Because I remember all of them, while I sit here and wait for the next one to come; I remember their voices and their names and their particular styles of puppetry. Like the seasons, they are all similar in their hearts, but they carry a thousand different little details and quirks that make them different to me. And all of them are carried here with me, in the “soul” of a wooden doll.

Some people might be disturbed by that idea. I think it’s kind of poetic, like the stories I usually perform with my handler. This way, even when Death comes, there’s a piece that She can’t take away with Her when She leaves. That piece is mine, the heart of understanding that it takes to become a true master at anything, and in that small piece, every single handler I’ve ever known lives on.

Including … including …

The first time we met, I wasn’t too crazy about you. I mean, I’m a very precious child-doll built in the second year of the Meiji era; my handlers have to be graceful and sure of themselves. But you were just a little brat, barely beginning to learn the subtle art of puppetry, and at the age where you’re horribly awkward with just yourself, let alone a doll you have to manipulate. There was a lot of potential in you, I’ll grant that much, stemming both from your bloodlines and an innate ability sparked deep inside of you. And you looked like a doll yourself, wide-eyed and white-faced as your grandfather took me off a shelf and gave me to you. When I first opened my eyes at the touch of your fingers, you looked straight at me, and …

You knew. Somehow, through some trick of nature or fate, you knew. And you smiled.

Our years together were really the best, weren’t they? I’ve never been a detective before. It was a lot of fun, even when it got dangerous or scary. Because we were an unbeatable team, with your observation skills and me bridging the gap between you and your fellow humans. For someone with such a rich personality in your heart, you were very shy with others. That was fine, though, because I was there, and I could be your voice whenever yours seized up. There were times when it seemed we couldn’t get involved with anyone without some kind of murder happening, but … I wouldn’t give up any of it. No matter how cliché that sounds, I’ll never give those memories up.

Like a glass lily in my heart, I’ll keep it preserved until I see you again …

I wish you married and had children, like your mother wanted. I wish you hadn’t simply decided to adopt some orphan to give your name and legacy. Because I regret knowing your line died out with you, when your family has been my handler for so long … and because of that, there’s no hope that someday I’ll look up, and see a child with your face and eyes and smile looking back at me. That kind of loss is something even a doll can regret, you know. All that potential I had seen in you, in that first moment, came to the sort of fruition that made me unspeakably proud of you. If I could have cried, I would have.

Years come and go as they always have, and there’s always a new handler waiting to meet me before. I’ve cared about them all, and I’ll care about all the ones I’ll know in the future, but you’re the one I miss the most. Not just because of the way our names dovetailed – though that was, I have to admit, an interesting stroke of fate – but because we fit together, better than any other handler I’ve ever known. To you, I wasn’t just a precious performance doll, to be handled with extreme care and fussed over if a single knot was kinked into my hair. I was your confidant, your contact with the rest of the world, your support … your friend.

Your friend. That’s something precious which anything and anyone could understand. Like the seasons, like people, it’s untouchable in its sacred unchanging way. A hundred thousand poems have been composed because of this feeling, and its deeper cousin, love, and there’s no way those hundred thousands of poets could ever hope to capture even a quarter of that feeling onto paper, even if they were to write all their lives on the subject.

I was your friend … and you were mine. And even though I hate playing favorites, and having the choice of “which is better: this? or this?” placed in front of me … I still miss you the most. This wooden doll’s soul was always inspired by you, you know, and whenever you were there, I tried so hard to move on my own, to be the independently living creature you always saw me as. No matter how old you got, your eyes stayed the same, always fixed on me with shining belief. You knew that I had a soul, somewhere in my crafted heart, and even when your family and everyone else scoffed at that, you continued to believe.

And your last thought … your last thought was of me. I remember being on my stand, and I watched you even with my physical eyes closed. A strange cold had seeped into your bones with the passing winter, and left you bedridden, fading and tired, alone except for me. Your heir went on to become famous in his own right, you know, but I can’t forgive the bastard for never coming back to you. He simply took the precious things you offered and never looked back. Not even when you were alone and dying and slowly losing your fear, or when you were washed and dressed that last time for your funeral, or when your body was burned and the ashes of your mortal form allowed to drift away into the ocean … not once did he ever show up.

But that didn’t bother you, did it? I was there. That was what really mattered to you.

You smiled at me, and your eye were the same as the little boy’s I had seen so long ago. You reached a hand to me, and even though you fell short of touching my body, I reached out my hand and let my fingers touch yours. It made your smile widen.

“I will see you again, someday,” you promised me. And then you were gone, a candleflame snuffed out in the passage of winter winds, which carry the crystal snowflakes past my window today. The lawyers came soon afterward, and none of them recognized my value (the stupid greedy bastards, I’m glad they didn’t realize how much money I could have brought them), and now … now I’m here. I’m sitting with other abandoned child’s toys – I wonder if these are the same ones you used to play with? – and I’m waiting for my next handler to find me.

There’s a window, and I’m glad. It lets me see the seasons change, and know that time is passing. Sakura petals giving away to insects, and then to falling leaves and snowflakes. I’ll wait here forever if I have to, and maybe someday my body will simply go to pieces, left too long without proper maintenance, without my ever finding another handler. The thought doesn’t bother me like it once used to … I’m getting old, you know. And I miss you very much.

It was a blue morning when you died. I had a dream once, repeating endlessly in my mind, where you were standing as you were in the prime of your life, young and strong, crafted as exquisitely as any other doll I’ve ever known in my lifetime. Behind you, to the faraway east, the sun was rising again, and before you stood a gurgling fountain, European style, a stream of water pouring from a marble woman’s tipped jar. The sunlight caught in the falling water, creating a hundred fractured rainbows, and the world was beautiful, but your eyes were closed and you saw nothing. But I watched it all, the blue morning and the red sun and the rainbows in the fountain by your feet.

Will we meet again on a morning like that? On some unknown day, while the wind blows past my window, bearing the markers of the season, will my body finally turn to dust as the sun rises into a blue sky? I used to think I’d like to keep on going, until I wore out; I used to say to you, remember, that I wanted to keep on going, and see the futures that my handlers never would. Because then, when I finally died, and I saw everyone again, I could tell them of the wonderful things that had happened in their absence.

But now … my feelings changed at some point. I can no longer remember when it happened, but one day, I felt the sunlight on my face and realized what my life had become, and how differently I felt about how I would end. It would almost be a relief to wait for the end quietly like this, and know that on the other side of the blue morning where the new sun is rising, where the sky is silent and I can sink into the final end … that finale that had bothered me so long before I met you …

It appeals to me now … because I know you’ll be waiting for me on the other side. Without fail.

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Morning

“Sanzou? Sanzou? Sanzouuuuu~!”

Sanzou slept, unresponsive to the pleading whine. If the damn monkey didn’t leave him alone, he’d have no one to blame but himself for the bullet in his brain, because he knew Sanzou didn’t like having his sleep disturbed.

“Sanzouuuuuuu!”

Small hands pawed restlessly at his blanket, and then weight settled on his legs. Sanzou kept his eyes shut, even when the pressure crawled slowly up the length of him, and settled heavily on his stomach. “Sanzou, I’m hungry. I want breakfast.”

Then go get it yourself, stupid monkey, he wanted to say. But that would mean opening his eyes and admitted he was awake–which he was not. Genjou Sanzou was very much asleep.

“You’re not really asleep, are you, Sanzou?” The annoying brat wriggled up higher, so that his knees now bracketed Sanzou’s ribs. It took all his training, every ounce of dignity, not to curl his lip and snarl when little fingers patted his face cautiously.

“You are, aren’t you!” The not-question sounded betrayed. “But, Sanzou, I’m hungry!”

Sanzou didn’t budge. The stupid monkey had proven, more than once, that he was entirely capable of taking matters into his own hands when he wanted food. On his chest, the pressure wriggled consideringly, and then the idiot sighed deeply, as though he were the one being inconvenienced.

“I want persimmons,” he said, sulky. “Hakkai would feed me, but all you do is sleep, Sanzou, you jerk!” Abruptly, he began to pound his small fists against Sanzou’s chest–not hard enough to bruise, or even hurt, despite his true strength. Irritated, Sanzou finally gave up–there was no way he’d be able to continue sleeping like this.

He caught both of the monkey’s thin wrists and held them firmly. They twisted slightly, but did not break free. When he finally opened his eyes and looked up, a hopeful little face peered right back.

“Gokuu,” he said, eminently reasonable, “get the fuck off of me.”

It earned him a pout. “But, Sanzou, I’m hungry.”

“You’re hungry.” Sanzou looked at him flatly, then twitched like he was going to get up. Eagerly, the monkey slid off and stood by his pallet, bouncing eagerly on his heels. Sanzou sat up, stared blearily at the weak patch of sunlight that escaped his tightly-drawn shades, and stood. Bones popped and joints cracked–he hated waking up, because it made him feel old.

The damn monkey, however, made him feel ancient.

The monkey opened his mouth to speak. Before he could, Sanzou snatched him up by the collar of his too-large shirt and hauled him over to the door. When the monkey looked up at him with surprised golden eyes, he deposited the idiot firmly over the threshold and closed the door firmly in place.

“Eh? Huh? HEY! Sanzou, wait a minute!” The exclamation was punctuated by several sharp knocks.

Click went the lock. “If you’re so hungry, have breakfast with the rest of the idiots,” Sanzou said flatly. “I’m taking today off.” He headed back to his bed, dropping the key under his pillow, right next to his gun.

“Sanzouuuuuu!” The dumb monkey knocked on the door a little longer, kicked it a few times, before there was a heavy thump and slide. “Stupid jerk.” The sulkiness of his tone spoke volumes.

Pleased, Sanzou rolled over and went back to sleep.

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Just Another Day

He should’ve taken his awakening as a sign of things to come.

It started with Ginji having a dream that involved more thrashing around than the Subaru’s tiny interior could handle. Ban woke after one of Ginji’s arms flung out and clocked him upside the head–and then it took a bit of monkeying around to wake the idiot himself up before he resorted to using electricity.

“You idiot!” he snapped. “What was all that for?”

Ginji gave him a piteous look, rubbing his head where Ban had hit back. “I was looking for food,” he said, and sniffed. “And there were these nice big chickens, only they were like the ones in that tower, and they came to life and tried to bite back, and then they started chasing me–”

Around that point, Ban just tuned him out. Sometimes, Ginji had truly serious nightmares, bloody and pained and filled with cold rain–but those caused him to curl in on himself and whimper awake, before leaving the car as quietly as he could for a few stolen moments of solitude.

Other times, though, he had kiddy nightmares that usually came whenever they had enough money to catch a late-night movie–because if allowed to pick, Ginji always went for horror movies.

“They’re not that scary, Ban-chan,” he’d say earnestly. “We’ve seen worse in real life.” And then he’d use his true ultimate secret weapon–not channeled lightning, or shaped plasma–but those big shining brown puppy eyes. Then, despite his better judgement, Ban would agree, and they’d go watch the movie of Ginji’s choice.

But then, by the time the movie ended, he’d be curled in his chair with eyes wide and staring, jumping at the smallest sounds. Ban had learned early on that touching Ginji when he was like that was a Very Bad Idea. And then, whenever they went back to the car to sleep, Ginji would spend the entire night rocking the car because he was still twitchy-nervous at little noises. If he did sleep, it would be puncuated by nightmares of something or other. Those nights, Ban woke up whenever Ginji did, though never by his own choice.

The only problem was that they hadn’t had enough money to see a movie in a while. He decided it was a hunger-induced nightmare, then booted Ginji out of the car with orders to buy coffee or cigarettes, whichever he found first. And Ginji, contrite for waking him, actually went without arguing.

So Ban leaned back in the driver’s seat and kicked his feet up on the dashboard. It had taken lots of practice to find the best way to achieve this in such a cramped space–but he’d managed to perfect it over the past two years, and now he could look cool and bored even in his tiny car. After a while, he began to nod off again, when–

Someone tapped politely at the window. Ban almost didn’t hear it, but he turned his head, pushing his glasses as he did.

A woman in a police uniform smiled at him. She looked all too familiar. Ban resisted the urge to groan as he rolled down the window.

“I’m sorry,” she chirped, and handed him a slip of paper. He didn’t look at it; he knew all too well what it was already. “You’re illegally parked. Please come pay your ticket as soon as possible.”

And she walked off, humming to herself. Ban resisted the urge to rip the ticket into confettii. He was halfway convinced that woman stalked them–that she got a peverse glee out of making sure all their money went to keeping their car legally.

Then, when Ginji came back, he had neither cigarettes nor coffee. The store was out of Ban’s brand, he said apologetically–and when it came to smokes, it was His Brand Or Else. Plus, the master had simply given Ginji a Look when he asked for coffee.

“I think it’s almost time for taxes, or something,” Ginji says reflectively. “He started dropping big hints about the tab again.” He stretched his arms behind his head and sighed. “I wonder if Hevn-san will come by with a job today~ I want to actually have dinner tonight.”

On cue, his stomach rumbled. Ginji sighed again and sank lower in his seat. “Ahhh, I’m so hungry …”

Ban slanted him an irritated look. “Ginji,” he began, “sometimes, we just have to make sacrifices in the name of–”

This time, Ban’s stomach made the obscene noise. A long silence followed.

“Ban-chan, can we get breakfast?”

Ban looked at the crumbled ticket in his hand, then sighed and dropped his head. “Yeah. Let’s get breakfast.”

***

The Honky Tonk, amazingly enough, was crowded. Natsumi sped back and forth, laden with trays, pausing only long enough to toss a “welcome!” over her shoulder. Ban and Ginji stood in the doorway and blinked at the spectacle.

“If you’re not going to sit down and order something, and pay like normal people,” Paul said calmly, “get out. We don’t have space or time for freeloaders.”

“Freeloaders?!” Ban squawked. “Who?!”

“You two, Ban, you two,” Paul said. “You gonna order anything?”

Ban thought he could hear his money flying away on papery moth wings. A few mental calculations landed them square back under poverty’s red line–but, at least the car had not actually been towed. He sighed. “Yeah. C’mon, Ginji.” And they made their way to their traditional spots at the counter. Natsumi breezed by, snatching up the order Paul laid ready for her, and chirped another greeting as she went past.

“I’ll take your orders in a minute,” she said. “Be right back~!”

Five minutes passed. Ten. A half-hour. Ginji watched the food going back and forth with mournful eyes, both his hands pressed over his stomach. Ban had gone through two of his remaining cigarettes and was lighting a third by the time Natsumi finally came back to them. She put her palms together and bobbed her head apologetically.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but do you guys have the money to pay ahead of time?”

Ash fell in a heavy clump from the end of Ban’s cigarette. “Eh?”

“Well, you see,” Natsumi said, “Master says that we’re not accepting tabs from today on. I’m not supposed to take it easy on you guys, either.” She smiled at them brightly. “So, you two do have money, right?”

The cigarette drooped low on Ban’s lip, dangerously close to just falling into his lap. He looked past the girl to Paul, at the coffemaker. The smile he got back could do a demon proud. Briefly cowed, he fell back, then dug into his pocket for his wallet, grumbling the whole time under his breath.

When he opened it and turned it over, a single ten-yen coin bounced out. The three of them clustered their heads around it, staring.

“Ban-chan …”

“I could give you a couple of napkins for that …”

Were they really that low on money? All Ban could do was stare. Hysterical laughter bubbled up in the back of his throat, escaping one by one in weak little chuckles. One eyebrow twitched feebly.

Ginji took one look at him and leaned back. “Um, Ban-chan …” He waved a hand in front of Ban’s glazed eyes. “Hello? Ban-chan? Is anyone in there?”

“Give it up, Ginji,” Paul said, behind his newspaper. “There’s no talking to him while he’s like that.”

“But, Master–”

The door opened. “Ah, Ginji-san. Good morning.”

Ginji turned his head and blinked. “Eh? Ah! Kazu-chan!” He sprang from the seat, fans snapped out. “Long time no see!” The casual observer could almost see the heartmark that followed his greeting. “What are you doing out here?”

Kazuki smiled. “To tell the truth, I was just in the area,” he said. “So I thought I’d stop by.” He leaned to the side, looking past Ginji at Ban, who wasn’t moving beyond his twitching. “Is Midou-kun all right?”

“Eh?” Ginji turned, and his fans drooped. “Well, he woke up badly this morning and now I don’t know …” He sighed. “We don’t have any money and Ban-chan doesn’t like facing the real world without his coffee, so–”

The door opened again. “Ho? Has that snake-bastard finally shut up?”

“As long as he doesn’t start flipping out again, that’s fine with me–”

Ginji looked up and blinked. “Shido! And Emishi, too? Ahh, what’s going on? Why is everyone showing up here?”

“Yah, Ginji-han!” Emishi held up a hand and grinned. “It’s been a while.”

Shido nodded his greeting, then glanced at Ban. “He’s much easier to deal with when he shuts up,” he said blandly, to no one in particular, though Emishi hid a quick snicker behind one hand. “I still don’t see why you like hanging out with that snake bastard so much, Ginji. Even when he does have a job, he gets nothing done.”

“Ahhh, Shido, now’s not the time to be saying that sort of thing–” Ginji held up both hands, giving Ban an uneasy backwards glance. “Ban-chan’s not having a good morning, so really, it’s not a good idea to get into a fight right now–”

Ban’s head lifted and turned slowly, a mechanical degree at a time, until he could look fully at both Shido and Emishi.

Emishi sighed loudly. “It’s too late, Ginji-han,” he stage-whispered. “The most we can hope for now is that they don’t cause too much property damage.

Ginji whimpered. “We really can’t afford something like this right now–”

Like a light switch flipping on, anger suddenly blazed to life in Ban’s eyes. He surged to his feet, stabbing a finger at them both. “You’re one to talk, honing in on our territory, stealing our jobs! What have you been doing recently, ahn?”

“A bird built a nest in Madoka’s chimney,” Shido said. “We had to find a safe place to relocate it. On top of that, the last storm tore off some of the older shingles on her roof. I’ve been fixing those.”

“Heeeeeh, is that so?” Ban sniffed. “It must be nice, huh, being able to run back to Madoka if business gets slow!”

“At least I’m still working,” Shido said. “It’s not the steadiest income in the world, but it’s something.” He gave Ban a sideways glance and a bare-edged smirk. “It’s more than what you’re doing right now.”

“It’s just not your day, Gin-chan,” Natsumi said sympathetically. She put down a small plastic cup of water before him. “Ban-san doesn’t look ready to back down.”

“Neither does Shido-kun,” said Emishi. He popped to his feet. “I’ll tell a joke to lighten the mood–”

“Ah, no, no, that’s okay!” Ginji waved his hands. “Let’s not jump to solutions, here–”

Kazuki caught Emishi’s arm and pulled him back down. “They’re both adults–usually,” he added the last with a semi-doubtful look at Ban’s back. “If it looks like they might actually start hitting each other, then we can step in. Otherwise, they’ll just get mad at us.”

“We’ve got our professional pride, here!” Ban snapped, unaware of the conversation behind his back. “We can’t just take any little job that comes floating our way–we’ll take the jobs that are worth of the name of the GetBackers, and we’ll be fine without having to crawl back to a girlfriend to cover us! That’s independence!”

“We don’t even have girlfriends,” Ginji mumbled behind him. Kazuki made appropriately soothing noises.

“At least I’m not freeloading,” Shido said blandly. “I do work around the house. I make sure I pay my debts, snake-bastard.”

“What was that?” Ban loomed over Shido, bristling like an angry cat. “You wanna say that again to my face? Huh?!”

“Truth is truth, snake bastard. If you can’t handle it, that’s not my fault.” Shido seemed utterly unconcerned by the holes Ban tried to glare into his skull, and raised a finger. “Master, two coffees.”

“Don’t mess with me, monkey-boy.” Ban clenched his right fist, and the muscles rippled down the length of his arm, like the movements of a snake. “I’ve beaten you once, I can do it again–”

His phone rang, cutting the threat off. Ban snatched it up and flipped it open with more force than truly necessary. “WHAT?” he snarled. “Whatever the hell it is, I’m not fucking interested! We’re busy men, goddamnit, and I–”

A moment of silence. Then, abruptly, Ban’s expression changed to one of slow-dawning horror. “What? No, wait, Hevn! Don’t hang up, I–”

Ginji hadn’t known it was possible to slam a cell phone, but he heard the sharp click of disconnection clearly from where he sat. He winced. Ban dropped heavily back into his seat and ran a hand through his hair. “Damn it, what’s her problem?” he muttered, staring at the phone in his hand as though it might grow fangs and bite him. “Doesn’t she understand people have their bad days? How was I supposed to know it was here? She’s not the only one with access to our number!”

He subsided, irritation with Shido forgotten in favor of a new target. He dropped back into the seat beside Ginji, muttering all sorts of unpleasant things about Hevn, from the way she dressed to the way she treated her innocent contacts; Ginji sipped at his water and made appropriately sympathetic noises at the right intervals.

The door opened, and Hevn breezed in. “Hi~i, everyone,” she caroled. She gave the café a cursory glance, then beamed, looking quite pleased with herself. “Ah, Shido-kun! And Emishi-kun, too! Lucky me, you’re both here!”

“Hevn, you bitch!” Ban leapt to his feet and jabbed a finger at her. “What’s the idea of getting so angry at an honest mistake?! I–”

She breezed right past him with a disdainful sniff. “I didn’t bring a job for you,” she said icily, before her voice and attitude did a complete roundabout and she bounced forward, hands clasped to her breast like a schoolgirl’s. “Nee, Shido-kun, Emishi-kun, could you do a biiiig favor for me? See, I’ve found a client who’s willing to pay any expense to get his job done~ could I interest you in it?”

Shido just shrugged. “A job’s a job,” he said. “What do you have for me?”

“Oi, Hevn, listen to me when I’m–” Ban’s voice cut off into a most undignified squeak.

A moment of awed silence reigned in the Honky Tonk as Hevn calmly removed her knee from between his legs. She shoved his fallen body aside with one pointed heel and spun to face Shido and Emishi both, taking each of them by the arm to shepherd them into a corner booth. “It’s quite an important job,” she sing-songed. “I received it from a client who only wanted the very best~”

As her voice trailed into a low whisper, Ginji sighed and slumped against the counter. On the floor, a puddle of tears was growing around Ban’s lowered head.

“Ahhh, so much for that,” Ginji said, listless. “Ban-chan’s made Hevn-san so mad at us we’ll never get a job again.”

Ban made a noise that was probably along the lines of don’t say stupid things like that, but it was too muffled to be truly coherent. Natsumi set two gently-steaming teacups on the counter.

“On the house,” she said gently. “It looks like you might need them.”

Ginji sighed and wrapped his fingers around it, rather than pick it up. “Thanks, Natsumi-chan,” he mumbled. “Ahh, but that won’t do us any good when the house’s generosity runs out, and we’re left to starve.” He lipped the edge of the cup morosely. “I’m so hungry …”

“I’ll buy, Ginji-san,” Kazuki said. “For Midou-kun, too, whenever he gets his appetite back.”

“Really?” Ginji sparkled at him, dewy-eyed with sheer joy. “Thank you, Kazu-chan, you’re the best!” He turned and leaned down. “Nee, nee, Ban-chan, did you hear that? We’ll get to eat today after all! Isn’t that great? Nee!”

Ban pulled himself slowly up from the ground, crawling back to his stool and using it as leverage to climb back up. “Leave me alone,” he muttered.

Ginji blinked and cocked his head. “Ban-chan?”

“I said leave me alone.” Ban gave him a narrow look. “I don’t need that thread spool’s charity, either.”

Ginji tugged at his arm. “C’mon, Ban-chan, be nice,” he said. “Kazu-chan’s offered to buy us lunch, so we shouldn’t complain so much. You were hungry too.”

“Lost my appetite,” Ban said, too quickly. He kept glowering at the corner where Hevn spoke with Shido and Emishi. Ginji deflated, as though physically hit. Kazuki sighed and put his cup down.

“You know, Midou-kun,” he began, casual as a man discussing the weather, “you could try being a little nicer, just once in a while. After all, Ginji-san is–”

“Shut up, thread spool.”

Kazuki raised an eyebrow. “As I was saying, Ginji-san is your partner, and perhaps deserves more respect than–”

“Didn’t I say to be quiet?” Ban waved a dismissive hand, not looking at either of them. “I’m busy right now. Go bug your servant, I’m sure he’s more interested in what you have to say.”

Worried by the vein that began to tick gently on Kazuki’s temple, Ginji waved his hands, smiling with forced cheer. “Ahh, Kazu-chan, it’s okay–don’t worry about it! It’s fine, see–um, I’d like a sandwich–Natsumi-chan, my order–”

“Hmph.” Kazuki tossed his head to the delicate chime of bells. Ginji peered nervously at Ban, but when no stitches or cuts appeared on him, he relaxed slightly.

“Ah, Ban-chan, you’re cutting it awfully close,” he mumbled.

About fifteen minutes later, Ban glanced back and goggled. “Ginji!” he said. “Where the hell did you get the money for food? Have you been holding out on me?!” He lunged forward and caught Ginji in a headlock, sending the sandwich slice he’d been about to eat flying through the air.

“Waaaah! Ban-chan, the food, the food!”

“I thought we were going to starve together, the both of us!” Ban squeezed. “You traitor, getting food without me!”

“But–Ban-chan–Kazu-chan offered to you, too, and you didn’t–awk! Give! Give!”

Ban dropped him and zoomed to Kazuki, one finger pointed in accusation. “How come he got food and I didn’t?” he whined. “It’s not nice to tease a starving man like that!”

Kazuki put his cup down, unfazed. “Like Ginji-san said, I did offer,” he said calmly. “You were too busy trying to spy on Shido and Emishi.”

“No way!” Ban wailed. “So, Ginji gets to eat, and I’ll go hungry?”

“Common courtesy once in a while won’t kill you, Midou-kun,” Kazuki said. “It’s a good thing to practice, at least sometimes.”

Ban sniffled. Ginji gave Kazuki a sideways look, then offered Ban half his sandwich, with what he probably thought was a great deal of stealth. Ban took it and stuffed it in his mouth, then sniffed again.

The door opened.

“Himiko-chan!” Ginji whipped out his fans and waved them at her. “Long time no see–huh?”

Something rushed past him in a blur of white and black and brown. The girl blinked and threw her arms over her face in instinctive self-defense, then found herself yanked almost off her feet as Ban grabbed her wrist and dragged her along with him. “Himikooooo~!” he warbled, voice cracking on the last syllable of her name.

“Huh? What? Wait a minute, Ban! I–”

“Himikooooo, you love me, don’t you?” Ban turned huge shining eyes at her. He clasped one of her hands between both of his own, sparkling with patent sincerity.

Silence. Ginji’s fans drooped a bit, Tare eyes gone round and huge with shock. Kazuki caught the teacup that slipped from his fingers, and even Shido had turned to look. Natsumi raised the plate she was drying to her mouth. She leaned over to Ginji, not taking her eyes from the two of them. “Nee, was that–a love confession?”

“No way!” Ginji glanced briefly at her, then back at Ban and Himiko, then covered his eyes. “Ban-chan, you’re doing it all wrong! Himiko-chan won’t be impressed by something like that!”

There was a long pause. Eventually, Ginji peeked between his fingers.

“You–” Himiko said, in a strangled voice. Every passing second deepened the widespread blush across her face. “You–”

The gathered crowd inched forward, still staring.

“YOU–” A vein began to pop on her forehead. Everyone watching leaned back, recognizing the danger signs. Ban didn’t notice, too busy trying to make puppy eyes to actually see her as Himiko reached back.

“Ahhh, Himiko-chan!” Ginji flailed his arms. “Not in here, not in here!”

Either she didn’t hear, or didn’t care. Himiko lifted the small bottle of bright orange perfume to her lips and sipped gently. An evil gleam had sprung up in her eyes.

Fwoosh.

The following silence was enough to hear a charred body drop. Natsumi prodded one of the seats that had gotten in the way, and winced when the leather cracked sharply. Paul looked up from his newspaper and gave it a decisive shake. “That’s going to cost you,” he said.

Himiko returned the remainder of the perfume to her belt and shrugged, dusting off her hands. “I have money, unlike some people,” she said, and nudged Ban away with one foot. “Just send me the bill.”

The door closed decisively behind her to a collective sigh.

“Really,” Kazuki said calmly, and sipped at his tea, “Midou-kun is usually more smooth than that.” When he put the cup back down, Natsumi poured him more.

Shido made a derrisive noise. “That snake bastard doesn’t know how to treat a girl, period,” he said sourly. “He got what he deserved.”

“No manners whatsoever,” Hevn sniffed. “I’m so glad I’m leaving this job up to you, Shido-kun.”

Ginji got to his feet and crossed the cafe, crouching down beside his charred-black partner. “Ban-chan?”

A gurgle answered him.

Ginji sighed. “At least we’re not the ones who have to pay,” he said, as consolingly as possible. “Himiko-chan said she’d take care of it.”

Ban made a vague sound of assent. The ash was beginning to flake off, and when he propped himself up on his elbows, it left black streaks across the floor.

A shadow fell over them. Ginji and Ban looked up slowly at the looming Paul. A bucket and two mops dangled from his hands.

“Bums who can’t even pay their own damages,” he said, in a voice to inspire nightmares, “should at least be able to clean up their own messes.”

One of the mops clocked Ban square between the eyes; the bucket landed upside-down on Ginji’s head.

“Master, shouldn’t I–”

“No, Natsumi-chan.” Paul dusted off his hands and walked back to the counter. “You’ll spoil them if you’re always helping them out. They’re old enough to do their own work.”

***

At least the car was still there. After his day, Ban wasn’t about to take little miracles for granted. He unlocked the doors for Ginji, but paused to light his last cigarette. Normally, he would’ve hoarded this most precious thing, but his head pounded with the lingering smell of lemon cleaner and from Natsumi’s too-loud cheerful music, and he needed some sort of antidote.

“Ban-chan?” Ginji sounded hesitant, and maybe a bit ashamed.

Ban twitched a little, the only indication he’d heard. Ginji shuffled closer. “Ban-chan?”

This time, his question was rewarded by a grunt. Ginji smiled and scooted forward, until they were seated side-by-side. He tilted his head up a bit; in the heart of the city, the stars remained obscured–but one could see the tall, dark shape of the Mugenjou, and the small lights that dotted its length created a reasonably close illusion. After a moment, he leaned and nudged Ban with his shoulder.

Ban’s shaggy head turned slightly, allowing for the barest sliver of bright blue to be visible over his crossed arm. Ginji smiled brightly at him, then turned back to the sky.

After a moment, Ban sighed and relaxed, leaning back on his hands and looking up as well.

“We’ve had better days,” he said.

“Un.”

“I’ve had better days.”

“Un.”

“Next time I see that monkey boy, I’m gonna kick his ass.”

Ginji chuckled. “It’d be better if you two got along,” he said. “He’s actually nice, Ban-chan, if you gave him a chance.”

Ban snorted. “Like I would. And what was up with Hevn today? Fawning over him and his Kansai trained monkey like that …”

His rant was cut off by another nudge from Ginji, who just smiled at his irritated look. “We’ll get the job next time, Ban-chan,” he said. “And then we’ll be rich for sure.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to argue this, to continue his rant, but Ginji kept smiling calmly, radiating ordinary good cheer, and he finally gave up and dug in his shirt pocket for cigarettes. It took a bit of looking to find one, but when he had it lit and settled in his mouth, the first breath of smoke tasted better than anything he’d had all day.

“Well,” he said, after the first heavy exhale and fixing Ginji with a wry glance, “we’ve had worse days, too.”

Ginji grinned and nodded. “Un,” he said. It only took a little shift of his weight to bring their arms together, a comfortable bump and brush that said all kinds of things in the silence.

They watched the night sky together.

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