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05 July 2010 @ 22:23
Arc II: Debut, Chapter 07 Part A  
Title: Catalysis (Full details, here. Also available on Fanfiction.Net.)
Words: For this chapter (all parts), ~31000
Rating(s): PG-13 for this chapter.
Warning(s): Language.
Chapter Summary: In which lots of things happen. And stuff.


II : Debut
Part A
Part B →

“The individualist anarchist recognizes nothing above his ego and rebels against all discipline and authority, divine or human. He accepts no morality and when he gives himself to the feelings of love, friendship, or sociability, he does so because it is a personal need, an egoistic satisfaction—because it pleases him to do so. He does not completely reject cooperation; he argues that cooperation is essential for the fulfilment of some needs. But he contends that only the individual of their own definition is capable of genuinely forming a voluntary association with others.”

Crouched over the desk with a pen in hand, Edward growled at the piece of paper that was well on its way to becoming the bane of his existence. With how much suffering he was going through, he was in no position to feel even the tiniest shred of pity for the paper’s very visible pain. He stared at its scribble-laden, messy surface for thirty more seconds, before—“GAH,”—stabbing it vindictively with the expensive pen he had in hand. Crumpling it up in one swipe, he viciously lobbed it towards the general direction of the fireplace and then collapsed into his couch.

“Edward, how many times have I told you not to do that?”

“Ugh, please, not now,” sliding down to lie on his side, rubbing the back of his neck to alleviate the tension there. “I’ll listen to you later,” he mumbled.

“Such a shame, Edward,” Mustang sighed, cleanly shifting aside a finished sheaf of military paperwork, “that your… towering genius is defeated by a measly little letter.”

Ed just knew that was a stab at his height.

“If it’s giving you that much difficulty, why don’t you use the tried-and-tested formula?”

“What formula?”

“Well, for starters, how about telling him that yes, you’re still alive, and no, he doesn’t need to rush to Central on the next train to gather your bones? Ask him how he’s doing, like how any normal person would begin a letter.”

“Oh,” Ed said. “That.”

“Yes, Edward,” Mustang smiled. “That which your brother would be most pleased to know. You can leave the alchemical theories for later.” Ed scowled. “In fact, I highly suggest against sending any important data through the post; it’s not as trustworthy as we would hope. Just another thing that needs to be corrected for when I become Fuhrer.”

“Of course. It always comes down to you, your paranoia, and your mighty ego,” spat Ed, pulling out another sheet of paper and rotating the pen in his grasp. Al, he began, I’m writing this from Central, and yes, I’m safe. He had long since decided against ‘Dear…’ and such pleasantries; they took up too much space, and he sucked at them anyhow. They were a waste of time.

Writing to Al was something he had only recently thought about (which shamed him, of course) but he couldn’t help it: he had plenty to distract him. Mustang had only reminded him of it when on one occasion, they were talking about array architecture, which Al was exceptionally good at). He had contemplated first on calling home, except he didn’t think he was ready to face up to his mother (who would no doubt answer the phone if he did call home) or, for that matter Winry, who would answer if he called the other house. Besides, writing a letter gave him a much-appreciated leeway—a distance that would help him organise his ever-messy thoughts.

Slowly, he trudged through the words, picking and choosing what he wanted to tell and what he wanted to keep. Never had it been so hard to talk to his brother before, but circumstances were awkward at the moment. All things considered, he was still a runaway.

He made sure to mention that he was staying with The Grand Bastard, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Mustang for the while—and it reminded him of Hohenheim and Mustang’s... relations, but he gingerly skirted that. (Al already knew about it anyway.) Talk of Hohenheim was unpleasant to him at the moment; it left a bitter taste of betrayal in his mouth, and not because his father had walked out on them, but because somehow somewhere along the way, he too became just like his father: a traitor.

This bitterness, however, was something he took in stride; he looked it in the eye, swallowed it up, and steeled himself for the next turbid dose. It was his rightful payment, a compensation he had to pay in exchange for this freedom he now enjoyed. He just hoped that wherever his father was, Hohenheim too was enjoying the same bitter draught. (Hopefully the bastard was dead in some cold, muddy ditch somewhere in Drachma.)

Realising that he had paused mid-word, he rotated the pen in his left hand grip again and continued penning the letter. Now he was apologising for the sudden departure and the delay in contact. With careful words, he explained what Trisha had said that had made him leave. The note he had left behind was less than substantial at best; if anything, his brother deserved a full explanation.

This was the best I could think of, he told Al. I couldn’t not do alchemy; I’m sure you understand. It’s all I know.

Perhaps he was being uncharacteristically open, but this was Alphonse anyway; ultimately, it didn’t matter. Al could read him like an open book.

He was more than relieved when the train of thought segued away from himself and towards his circumstances. Picking up his pace, he happily relived every single moment of his memory since he stepped off of the train from Resembool. Storytelling was something he was usually rather sloppy at, but just with this one instance, he put extra effort into making it an experience for Al, who would no doubt be dying of curiosity and of that inadvertent tinge of envy). He made sure not to hold back on anything, evident by the sheer length of his satisfying expository diatribe of none other than Mustang the Bastard. He severely needed the outlet; he was sure that Al would understand. (It doubled as a warning too, for the eventuality that Al visited Central. Forewarned, after all, was forearmed.)

Taking no notice of the time, he only came to realise of the late hour when the grandfather clock’s repetitive chiming broke his concentration. It was midnight; he and Mustang both had burned half the night away whittling at their work. Thankfully, he was nearly done; he added a few more details (Mustang’s office and home numbers, Hughes’ too just in case, a reminder to use code words and to never reveal too much in the reply) before signing his name at the very end.

Just as he rose from his slouch, a steaming mug of chai with milk was placed beside his arm on the desk, and Mustang settled across from him with a small smile. “Are you done?”

“I think so,” Ed bit his cheek, looking down at the eleven-going-twelve long pages of his tiny, spiky script. He gathered them up, put them in order, numbered them, and awkwardly handed them to Mustang. “Could you see if it’s alright?”

Mustang quietly accepted the sheaf and began reading, all the while sipping the hot drink. Ed gave his own mug a sniff and a sip as well, in that order. For the last two days, he had grown quite addicted to this beverage. Mustang had introduced it to him when they’d stopped once at a small coffee shop Mustang frequented during the mornings on the way to the Headquarters.

Warily, he eyed the man for any response at all. As usual, disapproval was something he wished to avoid, and he still did not know why. It was as if his psyche had somehow adopted Mustang as some sort of surrogate father figure within the last month or so that he had been in Central. There was something unsettling in that thought. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to a father so kind in comparison to Hohenheim, whose absence was the only thing he had remembered about a father since he was little. But at the same time, there was always a wash of comfortable warmth, a feeling of safety and contentedness with Mustang. He wondered if Al would feel this too, were his little brother here.

He sighed, shaking off such melancholic thoughts and retrieving another blank sheet of paper to pen a short note to Winry. Much as it saddened him, he had no faith in his mother at the moment—there was no guarantee of Al ever seeing the letter if he sent it directly home and Trisha saw it first. She could read it, or hide it, or even burn it—he didn’t know, and he wasn’t risking it. Winry, on the other hand, would be sure to hand it directly to Al as long as he told her to. She had always been the more emotionally aware of the three of them since childhood. She would understand.

Just as he was shifting to the note’s second line, Mustang chuckled, pursed lips suggestive of suppressed laughter. Ed narrowed his gaze: “What.”

“A ‘perfectly grand egomaniac,’” Mustang met his gaze with eyes dancing of amusement. “Why, I wasn’t aware that you thought of me so highly, Edward; thank you.”

“It was not a compliment.”

“I am aware,” and again came the silky shrug, “but I shall take it as such. My, are the next three pages solely about me? I must admit, I am rather flattered.”


“Oh, but I won’t be able to evaluate your letter with confidence without reading all of it.”

“You need no further addition to your already far too bloated ego, Bastard!”

“My ego can never be too bloated, Edward; it simply is,” the Bastard reclined against the couch, legs crossed, and with a sense of extraordinary superiority about him. The air was so thick with it that it took all of Ed’s effort not to choke on its density. Mustang continued, “If I seem too bloated to you, then it’s probably just me not coming up to my own expectations.”

Fucking hell, Edward thought to himself. He sank into his couch as he listened to Mustang’s intermittent chuckles and uncensored remarks of shameless self-glorification. The Gate snickered inside his head, evidently amused—but he was not! He forced himself to return instead to the note he was writing to Winry—

“Am I truly the first to keep up with your theories, Edward? Oh, how lonely you must have been all those years!”

—and tried his very best to temper the urge to forcibly shut Mustang’s flapping orifice—

“Aren’t you so glad we met? It must have been fate!”

Suffice to say, he had to try very hard.

When he finally finished writing the note to Winry, he grabbed a random piece of expensive stationery from Mustang’s stash—dark blue with silver lining—and transmuted it into an envelope big enough to fit the folded pages. With care, he printed the names and addresses on the front as Mustang finished reading the eleven-and-something pages’ worth of script.

“It’s perfect,” Mustang smiled, handing them back to him. “Absolutely perfect; you need not change anything.”

“Of course you’d think so,” Ed snatched the letters back and stuffed it haphazardly into the envelope. Mustang had offered to take him tomorrow morning to the post office, after which they would stop at Mustang’s favoured cafe to have brunch. “Where else are we going tomorrow, after food?”

“Stationery shopping,” Mustang said, finishing the now-lukewarm cup of chai. “I need to restock, and you need your own stock for your research.”

“But it’s Saturday tomorrow. Don’t you have work in the morning? I’m sure I can go to the post office on my own, as long as you show me where it is. I’m not that directionally challenged,” and he didn’t want Mustang to spend even more money on him yet again.

“I’m not letting you out of the house alone, Edward; not while we’ve yet to catch that eye collector,” there was a sour note to Mustang’s tone at the mention of the serial case. A stretch of heavy silence, and then Mustang shrugged, “Besides, I can use you as my excuse so Hawkeye won’t force me to the Headquarters tomorrow. Saturdays are actually overtime; she claims that it is rightful compensation for my wasting half the week feeding birds.”

“You feed what?”

“Birds, Edward. Those feathery flying creatures you see from time to time if you ever took your eyes off your books and glanced outside the window—”

“I know what birds are; I’m asking why the hell you would feed them at work!”

“Well, they’re certainly more amusing than paperwork from Douglass. My window stares across the courtyard at this old tree, you see, and quite a number of birds choose to nest there. Did you know that crows can purr? Like cats!”

Ed rolled his eyes, smoothly sealing the envelope’s flap. For someone with such distinguished rank and honour at an early age, Mustang was actually rather lazy, and a very prolific procrastinator. The way Mustang did it was almost an art, if it weren’t for Hawkeye and her trusty guns trashing his style.

Cleaning up his mess took less time than he expected, and when he was done, he sat back and sipped at his drink, deep in thought. His eyes remained on the solitary blue envelope rested on the tabletop. What would Al think of what he had written? Would it be sufficient? Mustang had given his approval, and that was a good thing. But Al was Al. He would think of things differently for sure.

And Ed didn’t even know if Al would still talk to him. He sighed, throwing his head back and closing his eyes. For all he knew, Al could be infuriated with him; his little brother had always hated being left behind. But he couldn’t very well run off with Al and leave their mother alone in the countryside, could he?

Well, yes, I could, actually. Granny and Winry would be there for her.

Yes, he could have run off with Al to Central, and they could have been here now, together, doing research, if it hadn’t been for his selfish impulsivity. On that sunny afternoon when he left Resembool, he had wanted to take himself as far away and as soon as possible from his mother’s hateful, condemning eyes. He hadn’t even stopped to think of his brother then, to be honest. When faced with the grave consequences of what he had done (a taboo, a sin out of misled love), he recoiled as if bitten by a rattlesnake. He ran off to nurse his wounds, to let the poison bleed out slowly, away from the origin of pain. This was him. This was his cowardice. He was a loving son, a pathetic brother—more than what he thought he was, less than what he wanted to be.

“I think I’ll go to sleep now,” he declared.

“You should. Long day tomorrow.”

He left his near-empty mug of chai on the tabletop and went to bed with the feel of the grit of betrayal underneath his fingernails.

The dreams had started bothering him not long after they had found the seventh body. They weren’t much, really—just a lapping, warm darkness against his skin. Occasionally there would be a flash of light; at once an image, a circle, a glyph—but oftentimes they didn’t make sense, and it was fine that way. Dreams weren’t supposed to make sense anyway, except on the rare occasion that they did. On those days, Ed tended to be irritable beyond imagination; he had these foreboding dreams more than other people did, and he had a niggling suspicion that this was another one of the parasitic Gate’s damnable side-effects.

These dreams weren’t nightmares, not just yet; he didn’t wake in the middle of the night screaming the house down. No; normally the darkness would simply fade away into the grey of the morning, when inevitably he would wake to the beckon of Mustang’s breakfast cooking.

So it was again today, except what beckoned him to awareness was the warm hand resting atop his forehead, steady as if to calm his wandering mind. Wordlessly, he blinked up at Mustang, who sat on the edge of his bed.

“Dreams bothering you?” the man asked, brushing aside his fringe. Ed found himself briefly awkward with the affectionate gesture, but he shrugged it off.

“A little bit,” he rose from the sheets, if a little sweaty. His clothes for the day he already had prepared the previous night; he only had to wash up. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I’m sure,” Mustang’s tone was wry, but Ed thought nothing of it. Mustang was wry many times during the day.

Ed swung his feet over the side of the bed and made his way into the bath, gathering hair off of his shoulders where they had spilled out overnight. He had yet again forgotten to take the tie off before collapsing into bed. His hair was longer than what he was used to; normally he wouldn’t have to put it into a high tie anyway. Until he won against Mustang in a game of chess, he would have to put up with its length.

“You know,” Mustang began again, “Hohenheim used to say that dark dreams are highly conducive to the overall health of one’s psyche.”

Ed gave a snort. “How is this, exactly?”

“He said that dark dreams are the mind’s way of relieving the volatility we try to keep tightly lidded in civilized society. Violence and aggression, shameless sexuality... things that our stiff-backed mores preach against—and most people listen, for fear of being ostracized. But as human beings, we need an outlet for them, and if we don’t grant them that outlet, eventually, they will overcome us,” Mustang explained. “Hohenheim posited that the mind is ingenious enough to create its own outlet in the form of dreams—perhaps not as satisfying as unleashing one’s anger upon its true item, but enough to keep one sane.”

“Or insane,” dreams were porous, tricky things; Ed knew better than to trust them with the certainty he reserved for facts.

“Or that,” Mustang conceded. “But according to Hohenheim’s supposition, a mild-mannered, passive person would have violent dreams; the vilest, most dreadful murderer would sleep like a babe.”

Ed emerged from the bath, hair tie and brush in hand. “Are you calling me a mild-mannered, passive person?”

“Hardly, Edward,” Mustang gently stole the brush from Ed’s slightly fumbling automail hand. “You don’t scream the house down in the middle of the night, after all.” With meticulous care, Mustang began brushing Edward’s hair straight down his neck and back, past the shoulder, pulling stuck strands out of the shirt’s collar and from behind the ears.

From time to time, Edward felt like a doll of Mustang’s, something to dress up and prettify. Of course, he never complained; as much as he was awkward with the affectionate doting, he loved it, and he basked in it. Growing up, he had never been the spoiled one; there were two of them, him and Al, and there had only been their mother. Trisha had loved him, but she had always been closer to Al, perhaps because they were more alike. Trisha had loved him just as she had loved Hohenheim; loved, but never truly understood.

The doting continued well into the rest of the day. Mustang took him on a tour through the other side of the neighbourhood, one that he had only been to once before, on that night when Mustang had fetched him from the train station. Under the bright morning light, the place looked even livelier, with more people milling about. This was the Historical District, Mustang explained to him, and the big street they were driving on was the East 3rd. Mustang’s house was still within the boundaries of the Historical District, in the residential areas a little more than five minutes away from the main street.

Quickly, they stopped at the post office, parking the car in front and to the side of the road away from the trams. The trams ran along the seven main streets of Central. Three of the seven main streets formed concentric circles radiating outwards from Central Plaza, while four of them passed through Central Plaza to bisect the circles into eight parts. The city itself was constructed similar to how the skeleton of a basic alchemical circle would be constructed, which Ed found typical of Amestrian city planning, and rather amusing.

Inside the post office, they had to stand in line. While Mustang’s silver watch could have ferried them easily past the queue, they both decided to err on the side of caution and desist from associating the letter with Mustang’s name. It was for the letter’s safety; they wanted to keep it from ending up in one of Mustang’s playmates’ hands.

Ed took that time to observe his surroundings, captivating as they were. The post office and its surrounding buildings were all of the Romanesque style, inspired by the architecture of Rium, a city in the far western country of Viteliu. He remembered from his early reading days that Viteliu was once only a weak country under the shadow of the then looming Creta, but now, it was one of the three powerhouses of the western continent, alongside Ailia and Francia. During the Dark Ages, Viteliu was the western world’s one light, serving as a centre of innovation and art.

Of course, even back then, Amestris was scientifically superior to Viteliu. But while trapped in a particularly bloody bout of fighting with Drachma, Amestris, financially chained, couldn’t show its superiority. It wasn’t until the earliest beginnings of the Age of Illumination that Amestris began to shine as the centre of western science and technology.

They left the post office a few moments later and hurried for food. The cafe itself was also within the Historical District, as with most of Mustang’s haunts. Ed could see why Mustang loved this part of the city. There was an atmosphere of dignity and tradition that came perhaps with the age of the structures towering around them. Past the Riumi section were the grand and intricate Gothic structures: it was as if he was being led through time itself as they drove further uptown towards Central Plaza.

Lunch was quick, consisting of delicious sandwiches made with freshly baked bread and robust coffee roasted especially for them. The entire time was spent discussing history and art, and between the two of them, there never was too much conversation.

Afterwards, they walked down and across the street to the stationery shop, leaving the car parked by the cafe, where the owner had agreed to watch it. Ed didn’t think that there was a high risk of burglary or vandalism in this part of the city, but he decided to indulge Mustang’s paranoia. He needed to walk his meal off anyway.

It was then while following Mustang on foot that Ed realized just how many people were about. Absently, he wondered if this was how Central looked like on normal days. The people were no longer afraid to step out; it was as if the eye collector was completely wiped from the populace’s memory.

The entire thing was irrational, Ed thought. The leads Mustang’s team had gotten from the library logs had prompted several arrests over the past week, but none of them were concrete, and he knew from what Mustang had told him that most of the suspects in custody were mere pseudo-alchemists—wimpy myth hunters—blindly probing into Xerxes’ past. The military had yet to announce a successful capture or elimination of the serial killer, and yet the people were already forgetting about caution, haphazardly walking about with no care for their own safety. They were practically begging to be killed. Granted, it was broad daylight, but the eye collector could very well abduct his victims during the day, while it was easier to blend into the crowd, and there were more victims—more eyes—to choose from.

Look at them,” Ed tugged at Mustang’s arm as they turned into a smaller, less crowded street. The stationery shop was situated at the corner where the main street met the smaller one. “They’re having picnics with their children while a killer is lurking out there—and they have no way of defending themselves! Don’t they read the papers?”

“They do, Edward; they just can’t read very well,” Mustang’s tone was dismissive. Ed wondered if he should take that to mean that Mustang already had a plan in place. Knowing how paranoid the Bastard could be, there probably was a plan in place. “The people see what they want to see; it can’t be helped. They’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the news of arrests being made.”

“The military’s not doing anything about it?”

Mustang stopped and laid a hand on Ed’s shoulder, gently turning him around. “Look,” the man spoke low into his ear, “that young man over there. He’s a soldier—civilian clothing.”

Ed stared. “Is he your subordinate?”

“No; I don’t know him.”

“Then how do you know he’s a soldier?”

“By the way he moves,” and Mustang had that air of superiority again, except Ed could no longer be bothered to try and temper it. “I can see that he’s been trained. The Military Academy is painstakingly thorough with its cadets.” With the hand on his shoulder, Mustang steered him away from the main street and towards the shop. “There are many more of them on the streets every day and night. Uniformed soldiers have also been increased in number; it’ll put pressure on the eye collector. Before long, he’ll slip up and show himself to us—and the best part about it is that we won’t have to do a thing.”

“Lazy Bastard,” Ed had to sigh. “We don’t even know when or where he’ll kill next.”

“Soon. Serial killers tend to escalate; very few of them have enough self-control to hold the urge. Those few are the ones we don’t catch, and he’s not one of them. He’ll move again within two more weeks or so. Until then, we’ll just have to be patient. As for where he’ll kill next, hopefully we can force him out of his normal boundaries. The less variable control he has, the better it is for us.”

“You sound like a cat hunting a mouse,” snorted Ed.

Mustang gave him a wry smile, “Something like that, yes—though I’d prefer to be a bigger cat, if you don’t mind.”

“But how can you hunt a mouse when you’re a fat cat? It’ll outrun you.”

“...big, Edward, not fat. There’s a distinction.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Yes, there is.”

“No, there isn’t”

Yes, there is.”

“No, there isn’t! The cat is big because it’s fat! It’s a flawless deduction, and you know it,” Edward was smugly grinning to himself (the image of a fat Mustang cat was too hilarious) when they stepped into the shop. The scintillating scent of fresh paper assaulted Ed’s nostrils, and almost instantly, the tension waned from his shoulders. He gravitated eagerly towards the mahogany shelves against the wall, where there were sample stacks of all kinds of paper, from ordinary trade to the most expensive kinds of decorated stationery.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

Ed jumped, turning to the deep, booming voice to his left. Upon turning, he had to tilt his head far back to see the other person’s face. The man was a typical Amestrian, down to the brilliant blue eyes and pale blond hair, except the man’s build was massive. Ed was (unpleasantly) reminded of Sig, his teacher Izumi’s husband, from Dublith.

“General Armstrong, what a pleasant surprise,” Ed had to admire Mustang’s fearlessness as the man casually stepped forward to shake the General’s proffered hand.

“Indeed! I rarely see you around these days, Lieutenant Colonel. You must come and dine with us once. My wife will be very pleased to have you over; you know how she’s taken a liking to you. Take Hughes and his beautiful wife along as well,” the General gave a friendly pat on Mustang’s shoulder. And then, surely enough, the General turned to look past Mustang’s shoulder and gazed at Ed with piercing blue eyes. “And who might this young man be?”

“Ah. Edward, meet former General Lucas Armstrong, one of my acting superiors back in the day.” Ed swallowed his intimidation and stepped forward, meeting the General eye to eye. “General, this is Edward Elric, the elder son of one of my alchemical mentors.”

“Lucas Armstrong—as in Robert Mahler’s sponsor, Defender of West City, the Lucas Armstrong?” Ed had to gape, while Mustang took the opportunity to explain his current circumstance.

“Edward is staying with me while he remains in Central for his research,” the Bastard said. “I thought his talent would be severely wasted if he were to suffer East City’s horrendously lacking libraries.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the General nodded gravely. “East City’s libraries are rather depressing.” Then, addressing Ed directly, the General asked, “So the young man has interest in alchemy! What field are you hoping to conduct research in, Mr. Elric?”

“Subatomic alchemy at the moment, sir,” Ed awkwardly replied. “I’m hoping to build upon what Mahler and Montague had already established.”

“Very good,” the General nodded approvingly, giving Edward’s shoulder a pat with one hand. He had to tense his muscles to keep his knees from buckling under the large hand’s force. “Rest assured you are in capable hands. The Lieutenant Colonel, unlike the rest of the military these days, is very caring of his subordinates,” Ed had to struggle to keep a straight face. “Work hard and you might be able to achieve the same heights as Mustang here, maybe even pass the State Alchemy exam within a few years’ time!”

But before Ed could say a thing, Mustang wryly interjected, “Oh, I think he’s plenty qualified to take the State Alchemy exam next year, if he wishes to, sir.”

“Ho,” the General raised both eyebrows in surprise. “That skilled, are we?”

“Careful with your expectations, Mustang. Set them too high and you might just face disappointment,” from the back door leading further into the shop’s stock room, a tall, blonde lady emerged in full business attire. She was followed by another blond man of similar stature and facial features as General Armstrong, if younger.

“Brigadier General,” Mustang inclined his head to the lady, and then turned to the other man. “Major.”

Edward blinked and inched just a little bit closer to Mustang. It was quite obvious that the lady and the Major were both Lucas Armstrong’s children. The physical similarities were undeniable. Their entire family is in the military? And the daughter’s a Brigadier General! Wasn’t Lucas Armstrong’s father also a General? What is this, a fucking dynasty?

“Lieutenant Colonel Mustang!” the Major smiled, grasping Mustang’s hand with fervour. “It is always a pleasure!”

“Promoted again?” the lady sighed disbelievingly. “The last time I was here, you were only a Major like my brother—and even then, you commanded your own battalion, which was unprecedented of such rank. No wonder people suspect you of foul play. The way you brush through ranks is unorthodox, Mustang. That annoying face of yours doesn’t help either.”

“Well, I can’t help it if I’m so fabulous, can I? I was born this way. Besides, orthodoxy is overrated,” and there was again that beatific smile.

The Lady General merely shook her head in disgust, a sentiment Ed could understand, before redirecting her attention. “Mr. Elric, was it? Mustang seems to be expecting a lot out of you. You’re capable of performing transmutations of State Alchemist class?”

Ed gave a lopsided shrug. “You would have to tell me what State Alchemist class means. I just transmute as I go. I don’t really care much for ranks and stuff,” he tried to be formal with her, but he just couldn’t, not when she was treating him rather informally herself. General Armstrong didn’t seem to mind, as the elder man stood there and listened with an idle smile.

“Typical,” she said, casting her eyes skyward, before gesturing towards her brother, the Major. “You and Alex and all of your kind—alchemists—you hold so much potential, and yet you never even think of using it in a worthy way!”

“Worthiness is relative,” Ed retorted, a frown tugging at the edges of his lips. For some reason, her words grated at his nerves, even though the tone of it was congruous to Mustang’s usual spiels about power. He must have gotten used to the Bastard after a while of cohabitation.

Their little exchange was broken by Lucas Armstrong, who expectantly offered him a blank sheet of paper. “If you would indulge an old man’s curiosity, Mr. Elric, I would like to see a small demonstration of your alchemy.”

Perhaps the General wanted to see him draw an original array, but Ed had another thing in mind. He turned to Mustang for permission, and, when he was given it, calmly brought his palms together, feeling the now familiar spark of energy crackling against his skin. There was a brief rush of blue light illuminating the shop when he touched the sheet of paper still in the General’s hand. He watched and guided the reaction as the sheet smoothly folded itself into a simple paper crane. It was one of the earliest reactions he had learned long ago when he was a child, but it was by no means simple. The reaction itself was quite complicated, as it concerned molecular displacement, instead of the recombination process common with typical reactions.

The blue light ceased as the reaction waned, leaving the paper crane sitting primly atop the former General’s palm. The expression on the Major’s face was of pure admiration, which Edward had to admit he was a little uncomfortable with. (It was too pure. It sparkled.)

“Is everything alright?” the shopkeeper stepped into the shop from the inner storage, alarmed. “I thought I saw a flash of—Master Roy! I wasn’t aware you were—I do apologise for not attending to your needs immediately; Chantal and I are both preparing General Armstrong’s orders, sir. Why, you could have given us a call and we could have prepared your usual set in advance!”

“It’s quite alright, Marc; I’ll need more than the usual, anyway,” and no doubt this shop too was another one of Mustang’s investments. The man practically owned the entire Historical District. The cafe they had their lunch at was also another one of Mustang’s shops. Ed inwardly sighed. Perhaps from now on it would be wiser to assume—as much as he hated assumptions—that every single shop Mustang introduced to him an investment.

“We were simply having young Mr. Elric here demonstrate a little of his alchemy, my friend,” said the General, setting the paper crane on a nearby coffee table. “I hope you don’t mind me borrowing a sheet of your sample paper.”

Assured that everything was going well, the shopkeeper returned into the storage room, calling for somebody named Isabel to come down and entertain the customers. Once they were again left alone, the General turned to Ed and remarked, “That was an exemplary reaction, Mr. Elric. You would no doubt be an invaluable addition to Central’s research specialists.”

“I still think using gloves with circles is akin to cheating,” dismissed the Lady General, to which Ed had to scowl, even though it was more of a jab at Mustang.

“I don’t use circles,” Ed retorted. “I don’t need them.” He raised his gloved hands to the Lady General’s eyes for inspection, and then took off the gloves to reveal that he had no tattoos or any such trick to his alchemy. Inside his head, the Gate too bristled, as its gift to Edward—the ability to transmute without a drawn circle—was similarly insulted.

The Armstrongs’ attention was, however, called by the gleam of polished automail. Mustang laid a hand on the back of Ed’s neck and sighed, “What did I say about being careful with information, Edward?”

“I’m sure they can keep secrets,” Ed shrugged, putting his gloves back on. “I mean, they’ve not revealed to anyone else how much of a real Bastard you are,” he gave Mustang a wide grin, “have they?”

General Armstrong laughed, but the Lady General remained quiet, eyes sharp with something Ed could not define. The Major was still gazing at his right arm, now more than aware of his automail. And then, much to his surprise, the Major straightforwardly asked, “Mr. Elric, did you perhaps perform human transmutation?”

There was a quiet pause.

Ed looked the Major in the eye and thoughtfully tilted his head. “Human transmutation isn’t the only way to lose a limb through alchemy, Major.”

Sensing the dismissal plain in Ed’s tone, the Major lowered his eyes and conceded, “Of course. You’re right.”

I always am, Ed huffily thought to himself, and was heartened to find the Gate huffily agreeing with him.

The more than just a little tense atmosphere would have quickly become uncomfortable had they not been interrupted by noise from the stock room. A young girl of about seventeen or so walked through the door from the back of the store and approached them with a smile. Ed was busy huffing to himself to hear her greetings, but he did register Mustang’s voice. The Bastard was (imperiously) requesting for the usual stock, and something else called a basic researcher’s set.

As explained to Ed, the basic researcher’s set consisted of three kinds of writing paper, four styles of letter paper, two types of tracing paper, two types of mapping paper, and two types of drawing paper. All of it was for him. He was free to pick what kinds he wanted for each subset, and was also allowed to sample each kind with pencil, pen ink, traditional quill, and colour paint. (Mustang added that they actually allowed customers to test with their own pens, if the customers brought them along.) The mapping, tracing, and drawing papers originally came in rolls, but they could also be ordered in standard letter-size. And of course, since Mustang was a regular of the shop, they kindly included a ream of plain trade paper for miscellaneous use. Scratch paper, basically.

“They also offer binding and printing, in the eventuality that you write your own work and wish to publish it,” the Bastard informed him as he was choosing between two different kinds of writing paper for the last of the three slots. He took a while to finish picking for the entire list, by which time the Armstrongs’ packages were ready to be paid for.

Soon, they were bidding each other a good day, with the Armstrongs taking their leave. The Lady General took the car keys, while the Major easily carried three heavy boxes of paper out of the shop. The former General, however, did not immediately leave. Instead, Ed found himself held by eyes of incredible depth acquired only through years of a fully lived life.

The General said to him, “I see great potential in you, Mr. Elric. I can see why Mustang here holds high expectations of you. I myself hold similar expectations. Your technique is obviously born of a talent that comes along only once in two generations, maybe even more than that; I have never seen anything like it, and trust me, I have seen quite a lot through the many alchemists I have sponsored in my career. I can say with certainty that you will one day become a great pillar for this country, hopefully alongside the Lieutenant Colonel, who will no doubt reach high ranks in the foreseeable future. Whenever you are in need of any assistance whatsoever, know that the Armstrong family’s doors are always open for you.”

Ed struggled against the urge to look away. Upon his shoulders was a heavy, insidious film of pressure; it was expectation, and it was not a small amount. It took him an absurd amount of self-confidence to keep looking the General in the eye—an amount of self-confidence he wasn’t even aware he had.

“I’ll see you again, Mr. Elric. Until then, keep yourself safe,” and then the General turned to Mustang to say, “You too, Lieutenant Colonel. Good luck with your latest case. Do give me a call so we can set a date and time for dinner later this week, eh?”

With that, the former General took his leave. Mustang lowered his head a slight degree in a gesture of respect and gratitude just as the General stepped out of the shop.

When they were finally left alone, Ed released a momentous breath and sagged against Mustang’s side. Mustang ruffled his hair and laughed a little. “Look at you. You’re already gathering your own set of loyal sponsors!”

“Let’s not do that again anytime soon,” he groaned, reaching a hand to press at the junction of his neck and right shoulder. The muscles there were taut, pulling painfully at the automail’s port. He would have to be gentle on his arm for the rest of the night; though the wounds were mostly healed, they could easily rip open, if he pushed himself.

Mustang took a seat in an armchair at one corner of the shop, where there was a sitting area. “I understand that the General is rather intimidating at the beginning, but he is a kind man. You shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself. They won’t spite you for being casual. It’s better if you keep away from pretention and just be as you are. They value integrity and honesty in a person far more than they value knowledge and culture—though of course, having those as well would be preferable.”

“Of course,” he didn’t need Mustang to tell him that. He wasn’t stupid. He simply was unused to such heavy expectation placed so suddenly upon his shoulders. With Mustang, he was more comfortable; between the two of them was a more tangible connection. But General Armstrong was a man he only just met, and yet...

Is my alchemy truly so remarkable?

He couldn’t help but wonder. The Gate stirred from where it had been napping—six people, it told him. In the entire history of western alchemy, six people, including him, had been capable of grasping the enormity of the Gate’s knowledge without succumbing to insanity. Only six people were found with the skill of transmuting without a circle. Against hundreds of thousands of alchemists in the western continent, that was a very small number.

(You’re special because you have me.)

The Gate inside his head was a conceited little piece of shit.

No; I’m special because I can stand you—because I survived you. Twice.

It hissed at him, before curling up and settling down again into its little hole in his mind. It allowed him to play with its strands, and he freely sifted through its information, picking at threads and pulling out images. Indeed its presence in his mind was somewhat... defiling, but he was growing used to it. The benefits of having the Gate far outweighed its consequences—and besides, he had rightfully earned this information by surviving his two trips into its bowels.

For a moment, he wondered if it was only because he had gone twice into the Gate that this piece of it in his mind had a distinct personality and an individual will. Perhaps the double trauma had reinforced it into his consciousness a little harder than the usual. (Just a little.) But after a moment’s consideration, he dismissed the thought; the Gate really was just a piece of shit by nature, and there were no two ways about it.

He was removed from his reverie by the shopkeeper’s voice. Their packages were ready to go. Mustang momentarily left the shop to drive the car over so they could load the boxes easily in. (“We should have just taken the car with us,” Ed sighed.) While he waited inside the shop, the owner offered to show him their selection of writing implements—and Ed didn’t even try to resist. When Mustang returned, he had a handful of pens, pencils, and three quills (with inkwells) ready to be added to the tab.

It took them little time to get home. Upon arrival, Ed attempted to help carry their purchase inside, but Mustang sent him along his way, and so he prepared for them tea, which they both enjoyed later on.

Ed sat sprawled on the floor in the library with their tea, gazing at a map of Central spread before him. With his eyes, he traced the East 3rd street, from Central Plaza all the way until it terminated before the front steps of Central’s train station at the East End of the city. He could see the rails sprawling out from the station, branching this way and that; some of them skirted around the city to head west, some headed further east, and others made their way straight north or straight south.

Leaning back, he absorbed the big picture, now made even more cognizant of the city’s shape. It was truly like an alchemical array taken straight out of a basics book. He knew that this map of Mustang’s was the latest and most accurate of all issues, and as he gazed at the seven main streets, he found them immaculately straight, as if they were drawn with a ruler, much like how an alchemist would draw array chords. Even the canals were made to guide the river straight down along the 4th street, all the way from the northwest to the southeast, where it split into two smaller canals. The only instance where the straight canal was diverted was where it reached and skirted around the edge of Central Plaza, only to return to the original straight line.

Different colours were used to shade different sectors of the city, and Ed eyed the Historical District, shaded in tones of sepia. He spent the next half-hour studying the map as Mustang read a book nearby, only stopping when he felt the tension gathering painfully at the middle of his back. He straightened his slouch and stretched his neck, gingerly massaging his shoulder where it met the automail port.

“Is your arm paining you still?”

Ed gave an absent hum, still probing at the knots with his flesh fingers. It was hard to apply enough pressure to them with the awkward position, but it was the best he could do.

“Come here,” Mustang gestured him over.

Ed turned and stared.

“Come on.”

Curious, Ed half-crawled towards Mustang’s armchair. He was made to turn around and sit facing away from Mustang. Fingers began pressing into his back, and almost immediately, Ed groaned in relief. Mustang’s fingers were very accurate, and as they probed around the edge of the automail’s metal plate, they released knots he never even knew were there. His head lolled to one side as Mustang pressed a thumb into the junction of his neck where it met the right shoulder, and within ten minutes, Mustang had him pliant and nearly purring.

Only at one point did Mustang press near the automail that Ed hissed in pain, and it wasn’t much. Mustang must have had intimate education in the anatomy of the human body; no amateur would be able to do such thorough work worthy of a professionally-trained masseuse.

“Are you taking post-surgical medicines?” Mustang asked after a while of quiet kneading.

It took a moment before Ed realised that he was being asked a question, as boneless and dazed as he was. “Drugs? No. Why?”

The Bastard—not so much of a Bastard at the moment, yet again—moved fingers to press at precise points on his neck. Head tipping forward, he let a sigh of pleasure slip past his lips. He desperately needed this massage. So gone was he that he barely heard Mustang say, “Don’t you think your wounds are healing a little too quickly?”

“Mm,” he had been wondering when Mustang would notice the abnormally quick recovery. He had told Winry and Pinako that he would force himself to scale the year-and-a-half—maybe even two years—of rehabilitation for his kind of injury within six to eight months. But at this rate, he was going to reach full recovery within four months or less. “I’m not really sure myself, but I have a strong feeling that the accelerated healing is also because of the Gate.” He shifted forward as Mustang dragged twin lines of pressure parallel his spine. He could feel each muscle uncoiling as the fingers passed them by, to be followed by a warm palm kneading in tight little circles. Mustang had real skill for this.

“...you mean to say that the Gate has influence on you even when you’re outside of its realm?” as usual, Mustang was very perceptive. The man grasped at his ideas with such ease that sometimes he had to wonder if Mustang himself carried a piece of the Gate inside of him. (That could explain the pure egotism the Gate and Mustang shared.)

There was a stretch of silence, within which he struggled against his persisting dilemma. He had yet to decide whether he should tell Mustang about the Gate’s existence within his mind. Because of his respect and affection for the man (which he had already given up on denying), he felt an intense pressure to be honest and forthcoming, just as Mustang was honest and forthcoming with him. He however feared rejection, not knowing exactly how Mustang would react to the news. Having a disembodied foreign voice in one’s head wasn’t exactly the definition of sanity.

Mustang’s hand nudged at the side of his neck, so he opened his eyes and lifted his head from where it came to rest on Mustang’s knee. Nimble fingers undid his hair tie and allowed his hair to fall into a cascade of gold. The same fingers slipped into the strands and began gently massaging his scalp, to which he could only reply with a sigh of bliss.

It took a while for him to regain attentiveness, even after the massage was finished. He remained sprawled against Mustang’s leg as the Bastard sipped tea and patiently waited for him to wake. When he finally did, he felt pleasantly boneless—and in his total relaxation, he threw caution into the air and simply declared, “I have a piece of the Gate in my head.”

In the stretch of silence, Mustang did nothing but look him in the eye. The scrutiny should have unsettled him, but it didn’t. Mustang’s eyes were dark and serene, thoughtful—Ed could see that Mustang was carefully deliberating on his words. More than likely, the Bastard was struggling to understand how such a thing could even be possible.

“This... piece of the Gate inside of you, it doesn’t influence you?”

Trust the paranoid Bastard to ask first that question.

“I wouldn’t say it doesn’t,” Ed shifted easily against Mustang’s leg. “It kind of does, but indirectly. It doesn’t have control over my movements or thoughts or anything like that—not even my alchemy. All it does is stay there, because I own it.”

“You own it,” Mustang echoed.

Ed nodded. “I rightfully gained it by surviving the Gate. I think that whoever sees the Gate is given the bounty of information that the Gate has—which is a lot, so most people don’t remember it, like Al—”

“—or they don’t survive.”

“Or that,” Ed agreed. “The information itself is a piece of the Gate that I keep, except mine kind of has a personality? I don’t know why.”

“Perhaps because you saw it twice,” suggested Mustang, much to Ed’s amusement.

“I was just thinking that earlier, when it was being cheeky,” he laughed quietly. “Those unfortunate souls who survived the Gate but went insane—I think I know exactly what drove them past the brink.”

Mustang was quiet again, deep in thought, fingers still half-tangled in his hair. Ed fought to keep his tongue still, watching a pair of birds flutter about. He itched to talk, to fill the silence, anything to divert Mustang’s attention away from the Gate, if only to delay Mustang’s rejection of him and the parasite he hosted.

“So basically, this piece of the Gate is influencing your healing—accelerating it, because your body is its host,” and Ed had to grin. Mustang really was impressive with induction.

“I think so,” Ed shrugged. “It apparently doesn’t want to die yet.”

“It doesn’t want you to die yet. Perhaps you amuse it,” his landlord only gave him a lopsided smile and gently gathered his hair all to one side.

Ed looked up at Mustang in wonder. From the day of their first meeting, this man had boggled his mind, and when it was decided that he would stay with Mustang, he had hoped to be able to unravel a little bit more of the man. But it seems he wasn’t even close to scratching beneath the surface, perplexing as the man’s behaviour was. Or was he only being fooled? He no longer knew. Summarising Mustang hurt his head; he didn’t think it was possible. This endeavour to unwrap the man would take its time.

“You don’t think I’m strange with the Gate inside me?” the question slipped his lips on a moment of thoughtlessness. When he realised what he had said, it was already too late.

But his worries were all unfounded, it seemed, when Mustang blinked, and then gave a little laugh. “Oh, Edward, you are strange, even without the Gate—but brilliantly so! I would despair if you became anything less!”

Brow twitching, Ed huffed in mock offence. It was, however, impossible for him to deny the bloom of warmth in his chest at Mustang’s acceptance of all that he was—and the underlying acknowledgement of all that he could be. The Gate’s presence changed nothing between them; no matter the circumstance, in Mustang he had somebody to talk to.

Throughout the rest of the night, he couldn’t help the smile occasionally bowing his lips at the comforting thought.

Part APart B →

Tags: ,
Current Mood: ditzyBACK FROM THE DEAD.
Current Music: Aqua Timez - Shiroi Mori
icedcandy on 6th July 2010 03:42 (UTC)

This brings me back to the days of...when I was reading the other chapters on school nights and losing sleep. This is beautiful. I can full its sexiness on the tips of my fingers as I type, and I cannot wait to savor its good Roy/Ed goodness and your delicious writing~
夢路 : dreamscape: KHR: 59 Sparkly *____*iluxia on 6th July 2010 03:46 (UTC)
Omygod, my darling, I missed you~
I just knew you were going to be the first one here! XDD
It makes me happy to know that you're still here watching and waiting for this fic. Thank you so much~ ♥
There are freebies at the very end of this humongous chapter, so take your time, enjoy your reading, and tell me what you think of it!
icedcandy on 6th July 2010 04:21 (UTC)
I've missed you, too~ I haven't been spending nearly enough time on lj as I used to.
LOL I love the connection and bond between us that your writing has helped us form~
Like I've said before, in my comments on previous chapters, I cannot wait~
tiercel on 6th July 2010 17:26 (UTC)
Quick note: "to air on the side of caution" - should be "to err on the side of caution."


I really love this fic.
夢路 : dreamscape: KHR: 80 *grin*iluxia on 6th July 2010 23:10 (UTC)
Thank you so much for pointing that out!
We missed it, it seems~ :"D We'll correct it asap.
I'm glad you're enjoying the fic, btw! We appreciate it~
amethyst_konekoamethyst_koneko on 7th July 2010 01:45 (UTC)
YAYZ for new chapter!! \o/ Four parts. wow. It's gonna take a while to read all this but I'm gonna enjoy every single minute of it! ^_^
fullmetallove90 on 7th July 2010 15:11 (UTC)
Awesomeness!!!!! I've been dying to read this for so long! I'm so glad you updated. It's a real treat after a long, tiring day at work.
Thank you. :)
I'm off to the next part!! :D