A young man sat at his desk staring down, lost in thought. One would think that a brush with death, saved only by the unexpected kindness of a stranger, would fill him with fear of his own mortality and yearning for eternal life, like many other nobles these days. But instead, it made him vividly aware of just how absurd and pointless was the pursuit of immortality.
Back when his father was still alive, he remembered being told the story of Arash and Bahram, two guards of the royal family. When faced with the choice to abandon each other to save their lives, or to stay and fight as one, they chose to stand together. As a child, he never quite understood the moral of the story. Wouldn't it be better for them to be apart, if they both got to live because of it? But now, after his experience - not the first close call he had survived, but the closest one he had so far - he realized that he had been looking at the lesson all wrong.
Life was a fleeting, precious thing. No matter how secure one may feel in their position, death could come for anyone at any moment. Which meant, every moment ought to be cherished - and the people as well.
"Master?" A timid female voice broke him out of his contemplation.
The man turned around.
"Ava, please. We're alone," he spoke to his servant, looking at her solemnly.
Her eyes immediately softened.
"Eiliar," she corrected herself. "Are you alright?"
"I am well," he quickly assured her, but she didn't seem convinced. She sighed deeply.
"Forgive me, I just worry for you. After today..."
"I know." He stood up from his desk and approached her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "But I'm completely fine, I promise you."
Looking into her concerned eyes, he felt himself grow stronger in his decision.
"I don't understand how someone could attack you in a cemetery of all places..." Her hands fidgeted, playing with her wooden necklace. "Who in their right mind would dare to attempt such a thing? Even Ishvalans know better than to desecrate the resting place of the dead."
"Perhaps someone who doesn't respect the gods," he replied. "Or doesn't believe in them at all."
"Even those who do not worship any gods know better than that. Cemeteries are sacred."
"Perhaps he wasn't Xerxesian. I never saw him, so I cannot be sure."
She moved as if she was going to touch him, but stopped. "Still, I am so glad that you're safe."
He hesitated for a moment, then decided - to Duzakh with it. It was time to stop wasting time on doubt, and start caring about things that truly mattered. Ava was important. Perhaps the most important person in his life.
In a swift move, he enveloped her in a gentle embrace. He felt her stiffen in surprise.
"Mas- Eiliar?" she whispered, her voice unsteady. Her arms shyly returned the gesture.
"Ava," Eiliar said quietly, but with feeling. "If I asked you to marry me… would you?"
"What?" she gasped, shocked. "Eiliar! You can't mean that!"
"Of course I mean it. Do you love me?"
"I… Of course I do, but-"
"And I love you. That should be enough reason for two people to marry."
"But I am only your servant."
Eiliar released her, facing her again.
"I do not care," he told her, absolutely serious.
"You should! What about your reputation?"
He shook his head. "We both know I wouldn't be the first noble to marry a servant."
"Still! You should not..."
"...Make my reputation any worse than it already is?"
Ava looked away. "It would be easier if we were together in secret."
Eiliar put his fingers on her chin, turning her head back to him. "You believe I would ever dishonor you in such a way?"
"Most slave owners do."
He frowned, greatly displeased. "Since when do you take me for a man on their level, Ava?"
Her expression immediately flooded with shame and regret. "No, of course I don't! I never meant-"
"What is this about? Do you not wish to marry me?"
"I do!" she said passionately, finally giving up pretences and putting her arms around his neck. "I love you, I want to be with you more than anything!"
She pressed her forehead against his.
"You have such grand plans, I wish for nothing more than for you to succeed," she confessed guiltily. "I fear that if you marry me openly I would become the reason for your failure, and it's a thought I simply cannot stand."
"Ava, you could never lead me to failure," he told her with certainty. "It was you who opened my eyes in the first place. You make me want to be a better man. The reason for my ambitions, my convictions, they're all because of you."
"Please… marry me?" he asked once again.
"Yes," she finally agreed, tears in her eyes.
Later, they sat next to each other hand in hand, no longer feeling any shame.
"The assassin is still out there," she said with worry. "And the people who hired him, too."
"I know," he sighed. "We will have to go into hiding until they are caught."
"What about the man who saved you? The one who performed miracles with his hands? Could he help?"
"Even if he could, I have no idea where he is."
"We should still try to find him."
"He never even told me his name."
"But you said that he wore bandages on his right arm and left leg, right? I'm sure-"
He gently interrupted her, shaking his head. "As much as I wish to find him to thank him for his great deed… I do not believe he wishes to be found. He asked me not to mention him to anyone as his reward for saving me. I do not intend to repay him by doing what I was specifically asked not to do."
Ava tugged her necklace, frustrated. "But if we found him, he could protect you."
"If we manage to find him… I'll definitely offer him a position in the household as my bodyguard. But until then, I think spreading rumors about a miracle worker in Xerxes would be very unwise. Especially now when the King is seeking immortality."
"Right." Ava squeezed his hand. "Eiliar, am I evil for hoping that the King meets his end before he can reach his goal?"
"Only if it makes me an evil man too," he admitted. "Kyros is mad, Ava. He has long lost reason and any care for Xerxes. The only things he loves now are power and the idea of eternal life. What's even worse, most of the Court indulges him. Uncle Rayan is one of the few people left who has any courage to disagree with him, but he's lost a lot of influence in the past ten years and I worry he might lose his position as a counselor one day."
"He will be fine," she tried to comfort him. "He's survived in the court for decades, I believe in him. He will make it."
"I hope so," Eiliar sighed, leaning on Ava's shoulder for strength. "I sincerely hope so."
"And I hope we find that miracle worker, too."
Edward Elric sneezed suddenly while adjusting the sign above his stand. That's weird, it usually only happened when someone was talking about him - pretty doubtful, seeing as he was in the wrong time period for anyone to know him.
He sighed. This was going to be a complete flop, wasn't it.
A repair stand. That's where his life had lead him to. He was setting up a repair stand.
But, to be fair, his main goal wasn't money at all. He already knew he wasn't going to earn much, if anything from the stand. No, the reason he was setting up his own place at the market was to observe alchemist Roshan's mansion - and hopefully to hear some useful gossip from the locals.
After buying his house, he spent almost a week fixing it up. The plumbing was first - he refused to throw waste onto the street from his window, that was just disgusting. The nearby well allowed him to set up a boiler with a system to filter the water. The filter was especially necessary, for he shuddered at the thought of what kind of diseases could be infesting a public water supply like that. Not to mention he could hardly count on modern medicine to save him if he got ill in the future.
To avoid drawing attention to the adjustments, they had to be set up underground - in a hidden basement. Seeing as the house didn't have a basement before, he had to put a lot of effort into making it safe so that the house wouldn't collapse on the top of it. It was hard work, but in the end he managed it.
After finishing the basement, for the first time he could safely pull off the bandages and take care of his automail, away from any prying eyes. Frankly, it was in terrible shape - Winry would have been devastated. She would have ripped Ed a new one if she saw the condition the desert journey had left his limbs in. ...Now, she would never get to help him with his automail again. Just thinking about it made Edward depressed. How sad it was that he missed being hit in the head with a wrench?
Also it made him realize, he was in an era where no automail mechanics existed. In other words, if something happened to his arm or leg - he was screwed. He would be a cripple forever.
Cripple. Not a word he often associated with himself. He hoped it would never come to that - Xerxes apparently wasn't a kind place to the physically disabled.
Aside from cleaning his automail, the secret basement quickly became the place Ed spent most of his time in - drawing maps of the streets, writing down names and places he'd learned, making plans. Performing alchemy, especially. He even transmuted a small electric system and attached a lightbulb to the ceiling. It needed to be recharged often, but it almost felt like being in a low-budget apartment in East City.
Admittedly, separated from the outside world, he often forgot to eat… or sleep. He tried, okay?! But it was difficult to keep track of meal times when there was so much important work to be done!
(Dammit, Al would be so...
...Alphonse's armor collapsing in slow motion-
...disappointed by him.)
Anyway, his house was finished now and it was time to carry out his first plan: Operation Hohenheim.
Step One: gather information about Roshan at the market.
Step Two: infiltrate Roshan's home.
Step Three: negotiate for Hohenheim's release.
(He refused to write the world "buy" in this context. The thought alone made him sick to his stomach.)
Ed honestly didn't know what he was going to do with him afterwards. How old was Hohenheim now, anyway? Seeing as the plan was to keep him out of Father's reach, should Edward just send him to Xing so he could find a better life there? But he probably didn't have any alchemical knowledge at this point, so there was little chance of him becoming the Western Sage, inventing Alkahestry and repeating history.
...Who was Ed kidding, history was screwed no matter what he did. Sending Hohenheim to Xing was never going to fix anything.
You could ask him to stay with you, a voice sounding a lot like Al's suddenly whispered to him.
Yeah, right. Like that was a good idea.
...It was a horrible idea. It had to be a horrible idea. Right?
Yet the idea wouldn't stop pestering him, especially at four in the morning when he struggled to sleep.
He was completely alone here.
I don't need his help, Ed argued with himself.
The loneliness was already getting to him, slowly driving him insane.
Edward tossed around his bed. I don't need that bastard. I never needed him.
And Hohenheim was the only person left in the world that he was familiar with. It was a cold, hard fact.
Suddenly, Ed remembered meeting up Hohenheim right before the Promised Day.
"Listen, Edward. He has to be stopped at all cost. I need you to help me."
"Help you?! Now, look here. I'm gonna stop that Bearded Bastard, but I'm not doing this because you want me to help you! Our best chance to beat this guy is to team up, and it's the only reason I'm even talking to you right now!"
"...That's fine with me. It doesn't matter what your reasons are as long as you still fight alongside me."
"God dammit," Ed moaned, rubbing at his face.
He wasn't being fair. The Hohenheim in the future might have abandoned him and Al, but this wasn't that Hohenheim.
He wasn't a living Philosopher's Stone. He wasn't the Western Stage who inspired the creation Alkahestry. He wasn't the man who abandoned his wife and sons for ten years.
This Hohenheim was a slave. He's never done anything to him - he couldn't, probably. Edward would have complete advantage over him in every way. He would not be the frightened little boy who watched his father walk out the door with a cold look in his eyes, or the teen feeling towered over by the adult accusing him of running away from his problems.
Ed would be his superior. He would be the one calling the shots. He would be his… master.
The thought was disturbing to him in a way he couldn't explain.
He has to agree to it willingly, he finally made up his mind. I will not force him to stick around. He probably won't want to, anyway. Why would he? Technically, I'm not even his son - genetically maybe, but not in any way that matters. I'm just a stranger. He's going to leave, like he always does.
If nothing else, he owed Al to try. If Al was the one in Ed's position, he would have adopted Hohenheim in a heartbeat. If they were never going to be a family, the least Edward could do was try to be Hohenheim's friend.
If Hohenheim didn't want it, though, all bets were off. Xing was a pretty nice place, probably. It'd be fine. Ed didn't care.
That wasn't even important right now, anyway! What mattered was getting Hohenheim out. Anything else could wait.
Ed sighed heavily, his recent insomnia and boredom getting to him. He forced his eyes to follow the people walking around, paying the closest attention to the street leading to Roshan's mansion.
After observing the crowds for a while, he was starting to notice subtle differences between classes. He wasn't an expert on fashion, but it was pretty conspicuous some people wore clothes of much poorer quality than others - those were probably the slaves, or at the very least servants. Listening to the people shopping taught him a lot about the language, too. He was pleasantly surprised by how fast he was picking it up - turns out that once you knew what you were looking for, the grammar structures were pretty familiar, if not simpler than Amestrian. He was sure his accent was horrible, but whatever. What mattered was that now he was able to properly communicate with people without charades - that was progress.
(He would never admit to paying special attention to the words describing size of things. Nuh uh, no way. He just wanted to be aware whenever people would incorrectly insinuate things about his height so he could correct them - that's all!)
Overall, information gathering was pretty boring so far. The most excitement he got was when he spotted a scamming trader in a nearby stand - once Ed loudly pointed him out, it caused quite a stir on the market. He tried to flee, but Edward was fast enough to tackle him to the ground. Later, after some guards arrested the guy, another merchant came by and thanked him for catching the trader in the act. He didn't get what the big deal was. He just did what anyone would have done.
Just as his tired eyes were tempted to close for a moment, a sudden commotion drew his attention.
There was an older woman in the street, who judging by her position on the ground had just fallen down. There was a spilled bucket of water next to her. Someone was yelling at her, but she didn't seem to be getting up.
Before he knew what he was doing, Ed left his stand and was walking closer.
"...where you're going, stupid old hag! Apologize!"
The woman was shaking slightly. She was at least fifty, she could be hurt - and yet some jerk was screaming at her like she had murdered his children. Ed felt his blood boil at the sight.
"Answer to me, slave! What are you, mute?"
Slowly, she raised her head and nodded twice. The man stopped for a moment, surprised.
"You are? Well, I shouldn't be surprised then," he snorted, looking like he was about to kick her. "No wonder you have the brain of a pig."
"Hey!" Ed stood between them, gritting his teeth. "That's enough."
"And who are you, her handler?"
Edward gave the man the coldest, most dangerous glare in his arsenal.
"Don't you have places to be?" he told him slowly, each word promising pain.
The man, apparently having a small portion of sanity intact, realized it was in his best interest to listen. He quickly left without another word. Before he disappeared from sight the crowd returned to normal, people deciding the entertainment was over.
"Hey." Ed gently helped the woman up. "Are you alright?"
She looked at him closely, confused at his concern. Finally, she nodded.
"Is this yours?" Ed lifted up the mostly empty bucket.
The old lady subtly gave the container a sad, tired look. She'd probably been dragging it from the well - for a young person it wasn't a long trip, but for someone her age? It must have been exhausting, and likely it wasn't even her first round today. No wonder she had fallen.
Then, something occurred to Edward.
"Hey, do you know Roshan the royal alchemist by any chance?"
Suddenly, there was a wary look in her eyes. She nodded reluctantly.
"Do you work for him?"
Ed realized it was a pretty good opportunity.
"I wish to speak with him. Would you mind if I came along?"
After a moment of indecision, she shook her head. Ed felt a sting of guilt when he considered she couldn't possibly say no to him. After that earlier display, he was pretty sure everyone treated slaves like garbage around here, especially ones with disabilities.
It made sense. It did not make it any less sickening.
"Great!" He grabbed the bucket in his right hand in a way that made it obvious he intended to carry it. "You need to go back to the well first, right? I'll come with you."
Once again, her face took a confused expression. After a beat, she bowed, pointing with her arm in the direction of the well. Understanding that she wanted him to lead, he reluctantly made his way before her. She followed him obediently, her head still bowed.
It was unsettling.
"Um," Edward knew it was probably normal. That he should let it be. But… He couldn't help himself, it bothered him. "Doesn't it hurt walking like that?"
She looked up, surprised.
"I mean..." Ed shrugged awkwardly. "It looks pretty bad for your back. Especially after that fall. You don't have to, you know, bow or whatever. I don't care."
There was something very shrewd about her when she appraised him this time: his face, his hands, the bucket. Ed felt himself sweat a little under her gaze. It reminded him of Granny's, whenever he'd gotten himself into trouble.
Then, like sun peeking from behind the clouds, something warm entered her eyes. Her lips twitched the smallest amount, and if it weren't for the wrinkles Edward could have sworn it was a smile. Deliberately, she reached his left hand and lifted it. Ed allowed it, if a bit puzzled.
Gently, like the slightest amount of force could shatter it, she patted his hand.
Then he understood. She was saying thank you. And not in a way a slave would say it, either - it was more personal, a gesture of trust. He doubted many people would allow her to touch them like that - or at all. It was brave.
It was also the first act of kindness he experienced since entering this new, old, unfamiliar world. It felt like someone was finally seeing him, seeing a person. Like he wasn't so alone.
He felt himself choke up.
"You're welcome, ma'am," he said hoarsely.
Seeing him understand her, she actually smiled at him. Nodding again, she took the lead this time. Ed followed her.
They were silent until they reached the well. If was busy around, like it always was this time of the day - no one was paying attention to anyone else. Even if a free man filling a water bucket for a slave must have been quite a strange sight.
"So… about Roshan," Ed started.
The woman's face immediately became blank.
"How long have you been… working for him?"
She raised one finger.
She confirmed it.
"Is he..." Ed was hesitant to ask this, he knew the response wasn't going to be positive, but… "...treating you alright?"
She lifted an eyebrow. He'd never heard such loud sarcasm - even from people who could actually talk.
"That bad, huh," he muttered.
The woman began to wash her hands.
"Um…" He wasn't getting anywhere. He needed more information. "Do you know if he has a job position open, maybe? Like an assistant, or-"
She suddenly flinched, looking up sharply. Before he could ask what was wrong, she grabbed his hand, shaking her head in small movements.
Ed watched her, trying to understand. One of the things his experience with Alphonse had taught him, was reading body language - since Al hadn't had a face, he had to learn how to emote in other ways: such as subtle movements of arms and shoulders, tilting his helmet, hand gestures, twitches. And from what Ed could read, she was screaming fear and unease at him right now, even if her face remained completely blank.
"Is being Roshan's assistant dangerous?" he asked in a low voice, careful so no one else would hear him beside the older woman.
She nodded, slowly.
"Is Roshan dangerous?"
This time, she hesitated. Then she shook her head, but nodded afterwards too.
"It isn't about him," he figured out. "Roshan's alchemy is the danger, isn't it?"
She pressed her lips together. There was a small tremor in her hands.
"Don't worry," he tried to comfort her. "I know what I'm doing."
The woman shook her head again, this time more firmly. She showed her five fingers.
She pointed at him, her finger touching his heart.
Then she moved the finger across her throat.
Five men dead.
"He killed them?" Edward asked very quietly.
She shook her head and nodded. Yes and no.
"His alchemy killed them."
Roshan's alchemy is killing people.
Edward understood everything now. Roshan had his assistants perform Human Transmutation. How else would you create a Homunculus without a Philosopher's Stone and survive? The only way was not to actually perform the transmutation yourself, but have someone else do it for you.
He was a moron for not figuring out it sooner. Of course creating a Homunculus needed a Human Transmutation array, it was an attempt to create life for crying out loud. And like all alchemy it required Equivalent Exchange - it required life to be already there.
"Did he succeed already?" he asked, light-headed after his revelation.
Seeing the woman's face, she apparently didn't follow.
"Roshan is trying to create life with alchemy, right?" Ed explained, whispering. "Did he succeed?"
There was something dark in her expression.
"Please," he said softly, sensing her reluctance. "This is really important. Did he already succeed?"
She didn't move for a long moment. Then, as if in slow motion, she nodded.
The Dwarf in the Flask was alive.
After helping the old lady carry the bucket half way back, she silently insisted on taking it the rest of the way herself. Not wanting to get her in trouble Ed allowed it, his mind spinning from all the information he learned from a single conversation with a mute person.
He was insanely lucky, all things considered. The woman made a huge risk by telling him all of that. After all, why bother keeping a slave - an old one, too, and Roshan had been owning her for only a year - that couldn't talk? The answer was to stay quiet. If Roshan knew what Ed had found out from her, he'd probably try to kill them both. She obviously did it only because she wanted to save Ed from dying, like the other five men.
Man, he'd never even met Roshan and he already despised him from the bottom of his heart.
From Edward's perspective, this situation made things harder and a lot simpler at the same time. On one hand, it meant that it was too late to get Hohenheim out before his blood was used - and the Dwarf in the Flask was already around. Both of which sucked.
On the other hand, it meant the Homunculus that currently existed was the Homunculus Ed was familiar with - that it wasn't a different one, with unknown ambitions and abilities. It made the future more predictable - and most importantly, it allowed Ed to use his second plan.
Now, this plan was a lot more complicated than Operation Hohenheim - but, if it succeeded, it would accomplish three things:
One: Xerxes would not be destroyed.
Two: no new Homunculus would be created in the near future.
Three: Ed wouldn't have to kill anyone.
However, the down-sides of this plan were:
One: it would be pretty damn difficult to pull off.
Two: it required keeping an eye on the Dwarf in the Flask constantly.
Three: doing it would prevent the future he knew from happening, erasing everyone he knew - except Hohenheim.
Ed was trying very hard not to think about the last one. It was too late to go back - he'd already made his decision. The awareness didn't make his nights any easier, though.
But first Operation Hohenheim had to be executed, stat. And as much as he appreciated the old lady's warning, becoming Roshan's assistant was the fastest way to infiltrate the mansion - and follow up with Operation Homunculus.
So he did the first logical thing - approached the guards and politely requested an audience with the royal alchemist.
He expected suspicion to be directed at him, but it seemed like a young man asking to see Roshan wasn't an unusual occurrence.
No wonder, if there were at least five in the past year.
One of the guards sent a nearby servant to their master to ask if he was available at the moment. Ed idly wondered just how many slaves could one man have - as he would find out later, the answer is a lot.
As he was being escorted inside, his mind quickly assessed the situation.
Alright, so they let me in with a guard just in case I tried to pull something. Makes sense. There are probably more guards inside. Still, I can probably take care of them fast and escape without problem if it comes down to it...
...But let's not get ahead of myself. First, I need to sell myself - so showing sympathy to slaves is a big no. I need to act like it doesn't bother me, like I support it even. I need to act confident, like a heartless bastard - I need to act like… Mustang.
That's it! I have to channel Colonel Bastard! He was always a slave-driver, anyway. ...Not literally, but still. Be cocky, confident - but respectful to superiors. Suck-up to them.
...Okay, maybe not too much. I still need to come across as impressive - if I act too humble he won't take me seriously, not with my age. I was a State Alchemist for years and most people still didn't respect me because of that.
He entered what he supposed was the equivalent of a hearing room in Xerxes, where a bald guy in fancy robes sat in a ridiculously upholstered chair, in front of an equally obnoxious gilded desk.
This is Roshan? What a pig! Ed thought. No, doesn't matter - focus. Be confident. Respectful. Channel the Colonel. You can do this.
"Master Roshan," he said with a short bow, hoping he used the right title. "It is an honor."
"Welcome," Roshan responded, putting down his papers. "What is your name?"
"Edward Elric." He decided he had nothing to lose by using his real name. It's not like he had any reputation at his point.
"Hm. Edward Elric, why did you wish to see me?"
"I heard there is an open position for an alchemy assistant." That was a bit of a shot in the dark, but from what the old lady had let him know, it would make sense - unless Roshan already found a replacement. "I wish to prove myself to you."
"Is that so?" Roshan seemed only a little bit intrigued. "What exactly do you think you could offer me?"
"I am a genius." Ed stated without hesitation. Confident, but serious. "You would not regret it."
"Truly?" Roshan looked amused. Good. That meant he doubted him, but he would be willing to give him a challenge. "Can you give me a demonstration?"
It was a bait, one Roshan didn't believe Edward could follow up. He was about to be proven wrong.
"May I have a piece of chalk, please?" Ed didn't doubt he could run circles around this guy where it comes to alchemy, but he wasn't going to show all his cards - just enough to be accepted.
"Of course," Roshan opened a drawer and pulled out a wooden box full of chalk. "Go ahead."
Roshan probably thought Ed was just going to draw a circle on the floor and explain the theory behind it. Ed almost smiled evilly at the thought of what was about to come.
He took a two-inches-long piece of chalk, flipping it carelessly into the air then catching it with his left palm. Roshan raised an eyebrow at the pointless showing off.
Gracefully, he leaned down without getting on his knees, drawing a perfect circle around himself in one smooth rotation. It took him less than five seconds.
Glancing at Roshan, he saw that the alchemist's face was now free of amusement, his eyes wide open in surprise. Ed allowed himself a small smirk.
He stepped out of the circle and with fast, sure strokes, added a circle and a triangle, both flawless. Then he finished it off with a couple of symbols that he didn't need, but made the array more impressive to look at (even though in reality performing transmutations without supporting symbols was more difficult than the other way around).
The whole process didn't last more than twenty seconds.
Roshan was now openly staring in shock.
Eager to make his jaw drop all the way to the floor, Ed pressed his palm to the edge of the array, raising his other hand above it as the circle lit up with blue light.
Slowly (much slower than he needed to, but it made a good show) a spear rose up from the floor, meeting Ed's waiting hand. He heard a gasp behind him, remembering the guards were watching too. Oh well.
When the transmutation was over, Ed twirled the spear in his hand. But keeping in mind there were guards present, and they might snap out of their shock any second and react to Edward suddenly holding a weapon in front of their Master (reminiscent of his performance in front of the Fuhrer when he was twelve), he grabbed it horizontally in front of himself.
Much to Edward's satisfaction, Roshan was indeed gaping at him.
"I told you," Ed tried not to sound too smug. "I am a genius."
Roshan finally snapped out of it, taking the spear into his hands. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes now - one that Ed was very familiar with.
It was the look of a man who was starting to realize the power Edward wielded, and the ways he could use that power to his advantage.
"Remarkable," he said in awe, examining the spear with growing fascination. "Not a single transmutation mark. Who taught you?"
"My teacher was Izumi Curtis… a hermit living in the Northern Mountains," Ed invented on the spot. Not like anyone could try to verify his story - he doubted any Xerxesians had ever reached those mountains.
"A hermit?" Roshan was surprised. "You are not from Xerxes?"
"My father was - not that I ever knew him. I grew up in the West, but I've traveled to Xerxes recently to learn more about alchemy."
"Is that the reason why you wish to be my assistant?"
"Yes, but I hope that in time we can become partners," Ed improvised. Ambition was the iconic characteristic of any heartless bastard, right? "I know you have more experience than me, but I have dreams of my own - I'm sure you understand, Master Roshan."
In other words, I know how good I am at what I do. If I am not satisfied with your support, I will find someone else - and you cannot afford to let me go.
"I think we can come to an agreement," said Roshan. "What is it that you dream of, Edward Elric?"
"To excel. To learn more about alchemy. To have the support to introduce my future findings to the whole Xerxes, for my inventions to be known for generations to come." To be rich and influential didn't need to be said.
He was spewing complete bullcrap, but he hoped he sounded convincing. Judging by Roshan's expression, he was buying it. Sweet.
"Yes… I think we will work well together," Roshan grinned, his teeth glinting with a cold shine. "You are in luck, Edward Elric. My previous assistant had just left yesterday. Fortunately we managed to finish the project we were working on before his departure. Do you dabble in bio alchemy, perhaps?"
Yesterday. Damn! Did Ed seriously miss the mark by just one day?
"Oh yes," he kept his voice light by pure force of will. "It's an area of great interest to me."
"I'll be happy to receive your input, if you're interested."
"I cannot wait, Master Roshan."
"Please, you may call me Roshan. We're going to be partners one day, aren't we?"
Ed was pretty sure Roshan was just buttering him up. No way he'd seriously promise something like that right off the bat. It was good, though. Better than he'd expected. "Very well. Thank you, Roshan. You may call me Edward."
"You are welcome, Edward. Now..."
Roshan pulled out his research materials - or rather some of them, Ed knew it couldn't be even the half of it - and quizzed him on Human Transmutation theory for a while, before starting a more equal-footing conversation once he was convinced Edward knew what he was talking about. Ed never thought he would find himself in this position, discussing the Taboo of alchemy as if it was an everyday topic.
Then again, Human Transmutation wasn't forbidden here in Xerxes, was it? It was open to debate, encouraged even, if what Roshan was saying was accurate. Ed had to work very hard not to show how progressively disturbed he was becoming, more than once swallowing his tongue to avoid saying too much: like mentioning the rebound, the toll, or the Gate.
It felt a bit like treading through a minefield - one wrong step, and things could blow up in his face. Roshan absolutely could not find out Ed had personal experience with Human Transmutation, because then he would realize Ed knew what had happened to all of his other assistants. And then, Ed would become a greater liability than an asset.
Then again, it was becoming apparent that Roshan did not intend to use Ed the same way he had used his other assistants, as he was much more useful to him alive. And to keep Ed that way, Roshan had to keep him ignorant about the side-effects of Human Transmutation and discourage him from trying it on his own at the same time - that's why despite encouraging debate, he stated firmly it required a great deal of preparation to even attempt, far beyond Ed's current experience.
Yeah, right. Like that would have stopped anyone desperate enough from trying. In Amestris it was the greatest Taboo and yet Ed had tried it anyway when he was eleven. Roshan was lucky he really had no intention of doing it ever again, or he could have lost yet another assistant thanks to his own carelessness.
Not that Roshan would care. Obviously he was too pragmatic to care about such a trivial thing as a human life.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, they reached the topic of the Homunculus.
"...I'm positive the transmutation was a success, but it hasn't responded to any stimuli yet."
"The Homunculus? You actually created one?" Ed made sure to insert awed interest into his voice.
"Yes, this is the first one successful to date! It appears to be sleeping for now, however I'm certain it will awake in a short time. Unfortunately I will be busy all day tomorrow, but if you return the day after, you'll be welcome to observe its behaviour in person."
"Hmm…" Ed was surprised Roshan was willing to let him anywhere near his precious experiment. Then again, if he really was the power-hungry alchemist he was pretending to be, there wouldn't be any reason for him to pose any danger to the Homunculus - a priceless source of knowledge.
Two days. Ed really hoped nothing would go wrong in that time.
"Why did the other attempts fail, though?" Ed asked. "What was different this time?"
"Well, I used the blood of one of my slaves for the material instead of dead matter-"
Ed knew a perfect opening when he saw one, so he jumped right onto it.
"Perhaps there is something special about that particular slave's blood?"
"I do not believe so. He is just an ordinary boy."
"I've been experimenting with blood lately," Ed lied shamelessly. "I have a theory that every individual's blood has different properties, which might influence the outcome of overall transmutation. Would you mind selling me that slave? I was thinking about getting my own anyway. Unless of course," he added nonchalantly for reverse psychology "you have an attachment to that particular one, then I'd understand."
Roshan blinked in surprise. "Of course not. Are you sure? It is quite a big investment for just-"
"Like I said," Ed interrupted. "I was going to get myself one anyway. I'm sure he's strong enough to be useful to me." Even now, he couldn't quite force himself to use the word 'buy'.
"Hmm…" Roshan turned around and called out: "Nineteen?"
A young man appeared in the doorway a moment later. "Yes, Master?"
"Bring me Twenty Three, our guest is asking for him. Oh, and tell him to make himself presentable before he comes."
For a split-second a look of displeasure flashed across Nineteen's face, before it was replaced by a politely obedient expression. "Yes, Master."
"I understand you are new to Xerxes," Roshan told Ed with the air of a concerned mentor, as Nineteen left the room. "But really, you should always at least take a close look at your merchandise before you decide on a purchase, Edward. Believe me, it is a rule to live by. Someone could offer you something that is far from your best interest."
"Thanks for the advice," Ed replied, distracted. "I'll make sure to keep it in mind."
"There is still time to change your mind, of course. Twenty Three is quite young, not completely trained up yet, and although some may find the process enjoyable it might turn out to be very time-consuming, especially in more difficult cases..."
He wasn't listening anymore. Hohenheim was here. Hohenheim was coming here. For the first time in three weeks, Ed would see a familiar face again.
He never thought he'd become so desperate to be excited at the prospect of having Hohenheim for company. Man, he was so pathetic these days… Then again, your entire world ending, and then having the fate of the world resting on your shoulders in short succession can change a person's perspective a lot.
As they discussed the matter of payment, Ed steeled himself at Hohenheim's arrival. Would he have a beard already? Roshan said he was "quite young", so probably not… Did that mean he was currently younger than Ed? It was hard to imagine - that would be so weird.
Would he be wearing glasses yet? No, after everything he heard today, he doubted anyone would bother to give a slave proper glasses… Oh no, did that mean Ed would have to get Hohenheim a pair? He wasn't going to send him off to Xing if the man couldn't even see properly. Where the heck would Ed find an optometrist in Xerxes?!
Focus Ed, he reminded himself, crossing his legs and arms in a heedless manner, trying to hide his nervousness. It's just Hohenheim. He doesn't even know you.
Why did that thought make him the tiniest bit sad?
At least ten minutes passed before a bowed figure entered the room.
"You called me, Master?"
"Ah, Twenty Three, you're here at last," said Roshan.
The figure lifted his head a bit, familiar golden eyes meeting Edward's.
Ed felt his heart stop for a second.
An emaciated face, surrounded by white, slowly turned to face him, his eyes familiar and empty.
Ed stared back in shock. He started running forward, reaching out desperately for the boy, but hands made of shadows grabbed him, forcibly pulling him back.
"Al! Al, come on!" he screamed. "Please, hurry up! AAAAAAL!"
"I can't," the boy said in a weak voice. "I can only leave with my own soul… I'm sorry, I can't come with you."
Alphonse's body wore a sad, fragile smile.
Funny thing about family resemblance… Everyone always said Ed was the one who looked like Hohenheim - Al was the one who looked more like their mother. But, comparison is a matter of perspective. Out of the two of them, Ed might be the one to look more like their father, but it did not change the fact that Al, too, resembled him a lot.
They never had pictures of Hohenheim from his youth. They never had the chance to compare. But the fact was… they were both his sons, and both of them looked almost exactly like him. And now, before Edward stood a boy with messy blond hair, who was so similar to his late little brother it made his heart physically ache.
This was not the Hohenheim he knew. This was a boy who one day could have become that man, but wasn't like him at all.
It seriously threw Ed off balance for a second. Then, he remembered where he was.
Focus. Channel Colonel Bastard.
"Great." Ed stood up and shot the other a condescending look. Then he used his best Mustang smirk. "You finally decided to show up."
The flash of defiance he saw in the boy's eyes gave him hope that, perhaps, things wouldn't be so bad.
OH MY GOSH, I HAVE A TV TROPES PAGE NOW! :'D
I never thought that was going to happen! My Master Ed now has its own page on TV Tropes! I can't believe it! And it's so beautiful! I am not worthyyyy! (tears flowing)
THANK YOU, WHOEVER DID MY TV TROPES PAGE! I AM MOST GRATEFUL! THE STORY OF YOUR ACT OF KINDNESS WILL BE PASSED DOWN MY FAMILY LINE FOR GENERATIONS!
Ehem... Pardon my enthusiasm. Anyway~
As you can see, no matter how delayed I get with my updates, I shall not abandon my stories. The show must go on!
Ed might not realize it, but almost everything he does in the past has an enormous impact. I mentioned already I'm not too good at politics, so I'll be leaving that mostly in the shadows for simplicity's sake, but I hope you're starting to get an idea of how things are in Xerxes right now, and how they might change in the future. Not every OC will get that much development, but believe me that whenever someone gets the spotlight - it's gonna be important later on.
Some of the chapter was recap, and I shamefully admit there is more to come - but I believe Ed's side of the story to be much more complex and plot-relevant than Van's, so I hope you don't mind some events repeating from earlier chapters. I don't know how much until we catch up with chapter 7, but I don't think it'll be longer than two chapters (because I need to have a bit dedicated to Dwarf in the Flask's POV, and that probably won't fit in the next one with the amount of plot I'll have to squeeze in it).
Is Ed still in-character despite the torture I've put him through? What are your thoughts on the characters I added? Was the romance too cheesy? Was is too serious? (If so, sorry about that.) Are the OCs boring? You decide!
Thank you everyone, please comment if you can, add to favorites and follow if you liked the story, but most importantly - read on and enjoy!
Love, Blue Teller