Chapter One: Departure
Ed + Winry
Divergent Future, episode 27
It had been Al's decision to leave, and Ed had only ever wanted Al to be happy, so he didn't argue with him about it. He did everything he could to help, in fact. He'd booked their train tickets so colleges could be visited and programs evaluated. He'd asked a favor of that bastard Roy Mustang and nagged Izumi Sensei in order to get the needed letters of recommendation to present to the colleges where Al had ultimately chosen to apply. And once accepted to the prestigious University of Hoyle, he'd helped Al pack.
"Hoyle isn't that far away," Al said for the third time as they stood on the platform, waiting for the train.
It wasn't that far, true. Ed could easily make the trip in a morning and be back in Central by evening with several hours in between trips to spend with Al.
But Al wasn't going to have much time to spend on anything but his studies for the foreseeable future.
"I just want you to be careful, Al," Ed said, muttering it because he'd already said the words too many times and even he knew it was getting annoying. "I know people do it, but it's a dangerous balance."
"Dr. Marcoh managed," Al said with a little, uncomfortable shrug. Ed could almost see the great, hulking suit of armor that no longer encased his younger brother's soul. How he'd managed to convey so much in that expressionless, metal prison, Ed never figured out. But sometimes in the secret, dark reaches of his own soul, he missed the reassuring presence of that armor.
"I know," Ed said. He sighed, wishing he weren't such a big-mouthed hot-head. "I know, and I'm really proud of you, Al," Ed admitted. "I'm the one who'd screw it up. You're going to be great. You're going to be the best alchemic surgeon ever. I know you will."
Al turned to look at his brother, his eyes brimming. He seemed too young to be going off to college. Far too young to have gone through what he'd already gone through in his life. He was a little too young, physically, though, at twenty, he was actually a little old to be just starting college. No one had to know that, though, any more than they had to know he was an Elric.
They'd lived so much of their lives in train stations that all of the noise, announcements, whistles and chaos surrounding the arrival of Al's train had gone by them unnoticed until the porter Ed had hired to help with Al's bags indicated it was time to board.
Ed looked up into his brother's tear-filled eyes and gave him a reassuring wink. Somewhere along the road, he'd accepted being short as he'd accepted his automail. It is equivalent exchange, even for just this moment, he thought. It was worth everything to see Al happy and living his own life. Even if the ungrateful brat had to be tall.
"Thank Gracia-san again for me, Niisan," Al said. "It's... it isn't that I'm ashamed. You do understand—?"
"Don't worry about it, Al. I don't want to have to explain my name to everyone, either, but I'm kind of stuck with it. Alphonse Hughes is a perfectly acceptable alias. I wish I could be Edward Hughes. But it fits you better. You're like him in a lot of ways, you know?"
"Niisan," Al breathed, sounding stunned. They both quietly thought of Maes Hughes as the ideal father, even if he had been a bit overboard on the pictures.
"He'd be really proud of you, too, Al. Gracia-san said to say so, but I know she's right—" The train whistle interrupted him, sounding the long blast that indicated it was getting ready to leave. "Get going, now. Don't want to be late."
Al caught him in a rib-crushing hug, reminding Ed once more of the armor. He then inhaled deeply to disguise a big sniffing-back of his unshed tears, gave a firm nod, and ran for the train.
Ed didn't think he would ever get used to the empty space left by Al's absence. But as that absence was due to Al's desire to figure out his own life — now that he had his body back and a life of his own to lead — Ed would have to endure.
He waved to Al as the train pulled away and kept waving a little too long, even after there was no way Al could still have seen him. He didn't care if he looked foolish. Somewhere along the road, he'd stopped worrying about that, too.
Scieszka waited outside the station, reading a book. She looked up as Ed approached. "Ready to go?" he asked, forcing a smile.
She stood up, gathering her things. "Yessir! Ready when you are. Are you okay?" Somehow, in the confusion of his return and reintegration into the military hierarchy at Central, he'd ended up with an assistant. At first, he'd been appalled at the idea. And then he'd found out who he'd been assigned and stopped fighting it. Any researcher would kill for an assistant like Scieszka.
"I'm fine," he replied. He was in civilian dress with a plain, navy blue coat in place of his usual red. In uniform or his preferred red coat, he was far too identifiable these days. Fame was okay, up to a point, but when everyone started knowing what you looked like, it messed everything up.
"Let's grab coffee before we go back," Scieszka suggested. "The Lieutenant Colonel's going to want you to catch up on your paperwork."
"Coffee and something to eat, then," Ed agreed. Her car stood nearby but they walked past it to a small coffee shop Ed knew very well. Too well, he thought as several pairs of eyes stared at him and voices whispered loudly. He heard "Elric" and "Fullmetal" several times from several sources. Scieszka shot him a sidelong glance but said nothing, and he pretended not to have heard.
He held their cups of coffee and bag of pastries as Scieszka pulled out into the midmorning traffic. He'd never learned to drive — something Mustang had said was a rare blessing — and he thought idly of asking Havoc to teach him sometime.
Scieszka let him out at the main doors and drove around to park. He'd reached his office and was juggling the coffees while trying to get the door when the Lt. Colonel appeared.
"Good morning, Fullmetal," she said, nodding. She waved away his near-disastrous attempt at a return gesture and deftly rescued one of the coffees. "Lucky you didn't crush that," she commented.
He gave her a crooked smile and said, "'Morning, ma'am." Riza Hawkeye made an excellent commanding officer. He'd never yet wanted to kill her. Brigadier General Mustang was another matter entirely.
"Is Alphonse settled?" she asked, following him into his office.
Ed nodded, setting his coffee and the pastry bag down with care. Riza set the other cup down beside the first. "He's off to Hoyle at last."
"Good. Then you can concentrate on catching up on your paperwork. I want things to be in good order before you go out into the field again."
This was her threat and promise. If he managed to write up and organize all of his reports and notes — many of them from years before when he'd been on the move so continuously that he'd stopped filing reports altogether — then she would put him back on active duty as a field agent. Until then, he was stuck on desk duty.
This arrangement had been fine while he'd been overseeing Al's preparations for college. Now, only the benefit of his research privileges and the expectation that he'd make use of them kept him from protesting the stricture. And he was tired. It was nice to have an excuse to indulge his weariness for once.
After spending the rest of the day half-buried in paper, he dismissed Scieszka early and left right on time, himself. The walk from Central HQ to Gracia Hughes' house was far enough to be called exercise, and he arrived feeling more awake than he had in hours and ready to eat.
"Ed-niisan!" Elysia cried, tackling him with an enthusiastic hug as if they had not just seen each other that morning.
He followed Elysia into the house, falling at once into the habits he and Al had developed as frequent visitors. He sliced bread for the meal and set the table, asking about Gracia's day and listening as she related the latest Elysia story while the girl alternately protested and added details.
By the time he was hauling a bag of trash out to the incinerator, it was very late. Where does the time go? he wondered. It always seemed to fly by so quickly when he was with the Hughes family.
Gracia had made up the couch again when he came back in, and he accepted the offer as wordlessly as it had been made. The couch was practically his, anyway — Al always preferred making a nest of pillows on the floor. Lately, they'd stayed here more often than the dorm, and the dorm was supposed to be temporary. Staying here was supposed to be temporary, too. My whole life is still full of temporary things, even these days...
"Oh, I forgot," Gracia said, and she disappeared into the front room for a moment, returning with an envelope in her hand. "This came for you today."
"It came here?" Ed asked, frowning as he took it from her.
"It's from Winry," Gracia explained. "It was in with a letter to me, to save a stamp."
Ed smiled and opened it. He read through the letter quickly, muttering half to himself. "She's coming to Central for a visit, week after next. Geez, Hawkeye's gonna kill me if I ask for time off again so soon."
"Elysia and I can entertain her when you're working. It'll be fine. I think she just wants to get out of Rizembool for awhile. She sounds a little depressed."
Shrugging, Ed said, "I wish I were in a better mood to help cheer her up. I hope we don't drag each other into a pit of despair."
Gracia laughed and ruffled his hair as if he were Elysia's age. "If I thought that would happen, I'd tell her to stay home! You two will be fine once you see each other. It'll be good for you both."
He took a quick, mental inventory of his automail. It should be fine, for once, and give Winry no reason to yell at him or whack him with a wrench. "Yeah, you're right. It'll be good."