Disclaimer: Don't own Fullmetal Alchemist. No money. Don't sue.
This is a present for JChrys, who went above and beyond to read, feedback, and make suggestions not just for Perfect After All, but its spawn PAA: The Fusing Alchemist and PAA: Price of the Past. For anyone that crazy, a fic pressie is necessary! Here it is, JChrys; I hope it's what you had in mind!
And thank you.
Special Plugs Time! This fic, both concept and dialogue, was developed in cooperation with Silverfox2702. She is co-plotter and co-writer, and this is posted with her blessing. You should PM her and tell her to post a fabulous short she wrote recently.
- x -
"I – I simply don't know what to do!"
The muscles supporting the back of his neck started twitching, and he rubbed at them in short, irritated strokes. She took no notice; she never did.
So much for getting any work done.
A month ago he'd have simply told her to vacate the laboratory. He was working; they were both working, though Klein was of course in another of his late afternoon 'meetings.' Edward – or Dr. Russell Tringham, as he called himself - had only been assigned to this floor four weeks ago, so it was too soon to know if Dr. Klein was working on the uranium bomb. The clandestine meetings, the way he protected his notes . . . he was clearly working on something for the higher-ups in the military. And he was also clearly not in the room, so he wasn't going to be any help in getting rid of her.
Of course, Klein was the reason she was there, in a way, but if she'd speak to him half as much as she spoke about him, their problems would either be resolved or they'd have parted ways by now.
Then again, he could see why Klein would prefer not to dump her. She was General Walther's daughter, after all. Dating and dumping the boss's daughter in the course of a month probably wouldn't be the greatest thing for his career.
And it was one of the reasons Ed himself had been steering clear of her. It was just getting . . . harder. Since she was a technician herself she had every right to be in the lab, and had attached herself to him like an underfed blonde limpet.
"Please, Herr Tringham, would you speak to him for me?"
Ed closed his eyes and held back a sigh, letting the round rims of the microscope lenses press gently against his eyelids. "Yes, of course, Fraulein Walthers. But I really believe it would be better if you did so yourse-"
"Oh, what a coward I am!"
And then she dissolved into noisy tears.
Ed went ahead and got the sigh out of the way, leaning against the microscope another moment before sitting upright and turning on the small, round stool.
Geraldine was actually crying. He was stunned to see an actual tear glitter on her cheek as she covered her face with her hands. She was often prone to melodramatics, but to see her really, honestly upset-
His eyes forced his head to turn towards the door, and his shoulders were already crawling for his ears in a cringe. If Mary Marguerite caught him in here with a crying girl – the general's daughter, no less – he would be skinned alive and used in next Sunday's blood pudding.
"Eugch. Gerry, it's okay . . ." He stood, fishing in his back pocket for a handkerchief. "Please don't cry-"
She shook her head sharply, still buried in her hands, and then inhaled air through her nose with the rather curious – and deafening – sound of a consternated walrus. Apparently she found the sound as embarrassing as he did; it just made her cry louder.
Ed winced, patting down his labcoat a little more frantically. Where was his damn handkerchief, he'd had it earlier-
"You're not a coward. I know he can be . . . intimidating when he's angry, but I'm certain he's been feeling the same confusion . . ." He groped for the words, casting around for the white square of cloth he knew, he knew he'd had when he'd left the apartment that morning-
On the bench.
He snatched it up, shaking out the neat square and pressing it against her hand. "Please, fraulein, don't cry. Everything will be fine."
She accepted the handkerchief, though it did nothing to muffle the next, even louder inhale, and Edward found himself pondering the possibility of surgery correcting her deviated septum. Her nose wasn't excessively large, it just caused her to laugh like an anteater and . . . well, this . . .
She squeaked quietly, then dropped her hands so that he could see her tear-stained eyes. They seemed startled.
"Herr Russell . . . I feel quite strange, of a sudden . . ." Her eyes started to roll backwards, and he reflexively reached out to catch her. Her head lolled backwards, her arms flopping bonelessly behind her, and he staggered forward a step to compensate for the sudden weight, his foot grinding the dropped handkerchief into the tiled floor.
Only then did it click.
The handkerchief had been on the bench because Klein had spilled a test tube and needed something to sop up the worst of it before it soaked into his journal.
Klein usually worked with chlorine and various salts.
There was no telling what was on that handkerchief.
"Fraulein?" Dear god, he'd poisoned the general's daughter. Ed juggled the completely limp form in his arms awkwardly, trying to free up a hand. "Fraulein." He could feel her ribcage expanding, he knew she was still breathing. Ed patted her cheek, gently at first, but when he didn't get a reaction, he hit her a bit more sharply. "Geraldine!"
Her eyelids fluttered, and the cold knot that had formed in his stomach relaxed, ever so slightly.
"Fraulein," he repeated, in a more forceful tone of voice, and her eyes slowly opened. Her color was good, pupils were a little dilated, though . . . Awareness was quick in returning; her eyes still had tears in them, and they widened in alarm. Her arms shot up a little uncoordinatedly to cling to his shoulders, obviously afraid of falling backwards.
"Herr Tringham!" It was a soft little gasp, and she tried both to straighten and to leap backwards. This only served to pull them further off-balance, and they stumbled into the bench opposite Edward's. He winced as they made contact; he'd probably just bruised her hip.
The sound of the door clicking shut attracted his attention, and Geraldine grabbed at his neck and shoulders convulsively. Ed still managed to turn his head. "Klein-"
He was there, standing just inside the doorway with a look of shock on his face. And he wasn't alone.
"It was the general, wasn't it."
Russell Tringum didn't wait for an answer, slapping his hand down on the table. "Brilliant!"
Edward Elric shook his head, chewing on a slip of dry skin on his lower lip while the entire table laughed uproariously.
"I can only imagine the guy's face," Al murmured fondly, with only a faint slur. "Okay, so he's got the man's daughter draped over one arm, pressed up against the bench-" and Al demonstrated by grabbing the suddenly-swooning prop that was Fletcher Tringum, "-and you know how nii-san's mind works when he's in a tight spot-"
"I never should have told you this story," Ed interjected grumpily, from over the rim of his pint glass.
"- so he stands there for a second, staring at both of them, trying to think of something to say, and the general turns to Klein and says, at least someone's taking an interest in her. And then he turned and walked out!"
Russell collapsed fully onto the plank table, while Fletcher started giggling again and grabbed onto Al's neck to keep from falling off the bench completely. This unintentional re-creation of the aforementioned situation was twice as funny, and Ed finished off his pint while the rest of the table was gasping for breath.
Finding his glass empty, Ed took the opportunity to make eye contact with their waitress. It was unnecessary, he saw – she was already on her way with the next round. She was being very attentive despite the place filling up, and he needed to remember to tip her well. Russ had been right; the dump wasn't bad.
Leaning one flesh arm and one 'automail' arm on the thick wood plank table, he cast another look around the place. The Plank and Bilge, it was called, and it wasn't much more than a long glorified basement. It had been built into the slope of the land, so that one wall had a series of high, thin windows stretching across its length. They allowed in just enough light to see by, and from their table, Edward could watch the shoes and ankles of the passerbys as they hurried down the street.
Good way to see if the missus was on her way for you. Or the military.
He watched their waitress weaving through the crowds, a sea of deep blue, and he smiled at her when she placed a new round in front of them. They were drinking something of a dark amber color, somewhere between a lager and an ale, and it was actually quite good. It probably was the color of bilge water, come to think of it, but neither he nor Al had ever been pressed into sailing, so he really wasn't sure. It was starting to have the same affect on his balance as a long journey at sea, though.
She collected the empty glasses, flashed them all a wink, and sashayed over to a round table in the middle of the room, much to the appreciation of everyone watching her. Russell chuckled, bringing the pint glass up to his lips, and Ed turned back in time to see a calculating look.
"So, 'd'you take up with the general's daughter?"
Ed gave him a simpering smile and sipped at his own brew. "No. The whole point was to avoid attention." Fletcher was giving him a pleading look, and Al kicked him gently under the table, so Ed sighed and continued. "I told Klein what had happened, and we both agreed letting the general think what he wanted was better than admitting what had happened. I don't really know what Gerry said to him, I expect nothing. It wouldn't have been proper for a daughter to discuss such things with her father. At least not there."
Fletcher's pleading look turned thoughtful. "I guess it wouldn't really be here, either."
"And neither is this!" Russell crowed, lifting his glass to eye level. "You're way behind, Elric. This your first time?"
Ed almost choked on his next pull. "What?" Surely Russ didn't believe he and Al never went drinking. Even if they'd only done it a handful of times, and only because there was no way to get out of it, and they had only been special occasions –
Of course, this was special, and an occasion. They were back, and whole. Colonel Bastard had made it to the top. And his little brother was a certified National Alchemist. So he'd let the Tringums drag him, kicking and screaming, to the nearest dive to have a few drinks.
Well, not screaming. The headlock had been a little too tight for that.
"You know." Russ jerked his chin in Ed's general direction. Edward glanced down at himself, wondering if he'd spilled something, but Al seemed to connect the dots, because he tapped his brother's 'automail' arm.
"Oh, that. Yeah." He knew he could have had that drink with Pinako, but he hadn't. Hadn't had a drop of alcohol since leaving that other world. Hadn't needed it, not with the narcotics the doctors had been pumping him full of, and he'd been having enough trouble deciphering his own thoughts without muddying up the waters, as it were.
"More blood to dilute the alcohol with. Not that it'll help," Al added, already finished with his next pint.
Al was grinning, and dodged an aimed kick under the table. Shithead.
"Nii-san's tolerance for alcohol was the stuff of legends."
"Well, he's probably had a lifetime's worth of painkillers by now, so it would stand to reason-"
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Al turned to the man beside him, a year younger but nearly as tall as he was. For some reason, they'd chosen to sit together, leaving Ed no choice but to share a bench with Russell. Which was a damn shame, because it was very difficult to strangle Al from across the table. "I know twelve year olds that can handle their liquor better."
"He's about the same height-"
Ed struck out; Russ dodged, as easily as he had in Mugwar's mansion, all those years ago. Ed followed up with the armor, but for some reason it was quite a bit faster – and heavier – than he expected. He pulled the punch, shattering the half-empty pint glass in front of the other alchemist, and Russell had to lean far out into the aisle to avoid being hit. He collided into the back of a fairly jovial alchemist, who propped him back up rather affably, and then, recognizing them, immediately bought them a round of drinks.
Everyone – excluding Russell – raised their glasses in thanks, and after a brief introduction, easily the tenth and no more memorable than any of the others, the four found themselves once again staring at each other, their quarrel forgotten.
Well, almost forgotten. Russ had been right. Ed hadn't had as many as the others, and it wasn't just because of his admittedly normal tolerance for alcohol. He could easily drink four pints and feel nothing more than a buzz, but he'd seen Al put a liter of hard liquor away with no ill effects, other than a rousing good time and a sour mouth in the morning. Ed knew damn well that if he got more than a little tipsy, he'd pay for it in the morning. And the afternoon, possibly into the early evening.
Then again, as he chugged the rest of his pint in preparation for the new round coming, he really couldn't be sure it was the fourth. It was certainly more than three, but less than six . . . right?
"That's the spirit!"
"Oh, you don't want to get him toasted," Al murmured, giving the waitress a glowing smile as she set out the next round and took the empties.
"Violent much?" Russ said it in a half-joking way, but Ed narrowed his eyes anyway. He had them to thank for Al actually being able to sit there and drink, and them to thank as well for his own life, in all likelihood. But even if they'd all shared each other's names, it didn't make them close. Didn't make them friends.
Well, didn't make them friends enough that such comments could go unpunished.
Al cocked his head to the side. "You know, I don't know. Usually by the time I saw him he was passed out or just about."
"Which is more than I can say for you, Romeo," he retorted, and it took him a moment to process the blank looks he was getting from the Tringums. Al was glaring daggers, so they knew it must be good, but it suddenly occurred to the elder Elric that the Tringums had no idea who Shakespeare was.
"Well-known fictional character in a romantic tragedy," he supplied quickly. "At least I can make it home. This one wakes up in other people's beds."
"It wush a sofa, thankyouverymuch," Al snapped indignantly. "And a lumpy one at that."
"It wush?" Ed teased, and this time managed to dodge the kick aimed for his shin. Fletcher giggled again, and Russ just shook his head.
"What about you two? What have you been up to since we've been gone?"
Ed was much happier when the conversation turned to all the stupid things the Tringums had done, and the next half-hour passed in pleasant conversation, with Russ taking the role Edward had abandoned.
The Tringums, as it turned out, had straightened up and flown true. Russell was the one certified, though, and no amount of questioning Fletcher yielded the real reason why he hadn't followed. Edward was fairly sure Fletch wasn't worried that he wouldn't have passed the exam, or even specifically whether he'd have matched his brother's score. He just seemed to think it was a lot of red tape and responsibility without a significant gain.
And to be honest, if Al had had a choice in the matter, Ed wouldn't have pushed him to get the certification. Fletcher was right. If not for the Academy, he would probably have asked for discharge. After all, Mustang still had a few markers to call, and had just gotten a few more in the last month. It wasn't like he really needed such control over them.
Ed blinked when he realized the table was quiet, and found all three of his companions staring at him. Al frowned at him.
"Well? It's true."
He stared at his pint, which was inexplicably half-empty, then back at his brother. "Uh . . . sorry. I stopped paying attention for a minute there. What are we talking about?"
"If you weren't paying attention," Russell drawled, "then what was the snort for?"
Ed frowned. "Just thinking about Colonel-I take that back. Prime Minister Bastard."
Fletcher grinned widely. "Still hate him as much as y' used to?"
Al headed off that line of questioning before he could even open his mouth. "Actually, I'm sure the place just brings him back. It was . . . what, nine years ago now, nii-san?"
Ed gave his brother an inscrutable look, and Al leaned on a forearm, swirling the beer at the bottom of his glass. "His first time," he enlightened the table.
The Tringums were silent for a moment. Then Russell choked, and turned to him in shock. "Are you fucking serious?"
Ed did the math quickly. He was twenty-three, he'd been thirteen, so –
"Ten," he clarified, but Fletcher was gaping at him, and suddenly Al started howling. Only then did it click.
"First time drinking!" He could feel his face growing hot. "Filthy, the three of you!"
"I was gonna say, Mustang?" Fletcher laughed, then cocked his head to the side. "Though you did wear your hair long, and you are blonde-"
"That's disgusting, and you're going to stop right there," Edward growled, thunking down his glass for emphasis. "Oh, god," he added, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I will never get th-aauughh! New topic!"
"Oh no you don't," Russell crowed, moving in on the mortified Elric. "Why does Mustang take you back to your first time drinking?" Then he paused, his sluggish mind trying to catch up. "Wait, he was getting you drunk?" His grin became lecherous. "'cause he –"
"I said new topic! La la la, not listening!"
"I'd've figured Havoc," Fletcher remarked innocently. "Getting you drunk," he added quickly, when Ed dropped his hands to give the younger man a deadly look. "I mean, he jus' seems the type not to care 'bout buying liquor for minors. Not like you didn't have the coin."
"That was his . . . second'n'third time," Al recounted, face still red from laughing.
"Sometimes I don't think th'man is very bright," Russ observed. "Ed at . . . damn, thirteen, was bad enough sober. You mus've been a helluva high maintenance drunk. And he did it more than once?"
"What makes you think I got tanked?" Ed grumbled, a little defensively.
Russ raised an eyebrow, or at least tried to. It just made his face look lopsided. "You never do anything halfway."
Well, that was true.
"Didn't this place used to be called the Boiling Kettle?"
Russ turned back to Al, relaxing Ed enough to start drinking his beer again. It was starting to get a bit warm.
"Yeah, actually, it did. Seriously? The Roy Mustang took a thirteen year old to a bar?"
"I smell a good story here." Fletcher propped his face in his hands, staring intently at him, and Ed rolled his eyes.
"Look, okay, I was thirteen. I wanted to find out what the big deal was, why all the adults drank. Mom never did, and I knew what alcohol did to the human body, but not why people liked it. So I had a few drinks, the bartender realized he'd broken the law, called my superior officer, and Roy Fucking Mustang apparently came and took my drunk ass home." He was surprised he could say that without blushing. Not that he could tell . . .
Ed surreptitiously poked himself in the cheek as the rest of the table started chattering. Oddly, his cheeks were a little numb.
So more than four pints, then.
"He actually came out himself?"
"If he'd been even seen with a drunk minor . . . And a subordinate at that-"
"He could have gotten in serious trouble – god, can you imagine what could've happened? If Ed had tried t'transmute something like that-"
"That was the thinking," Al supplied. "I dunno if Hawkeye drove 'em or what. All I 'member is he said he was going to do some research, then meet me at the library at two. Then three pm rolled around, I checked the other libraries, checked everywhere, then went back to the dorms, and 'bout twenty minutes later there was this knock on the door, and there you go."
Two pairs of eyes centered on him again, and Ed was slightly startled when his empty was taken by a slim hand, and another pint took its place.
"Thank you," he told the waitress, who smiled at all of them, and briefly distracted the Tringums.
Ed shrugged when he couldn't avoid them any more. "Sorry, I don't know any more'n'Al does. Don't remember. And I sure as hell have never brought it up with Mustang."
He shook his head. "I remember getting there, and thinking that bourbon was pretty nasty, and I remember asking for a sample of every genre of alcoholic drink, and . . . well, and he gave me a shot of everything, instead of something more manageable-"
"- for someone your height-"
This time Ed's human arm came into contact with Russell's, causing the taller man to flinch back into the aisle again, laughing.
"-and that's pretty much all I remember until the next day."
Russ chuckled around his glass. "Damn, I bet. How many shots d'y'suppose that would be?"
"Well, lessee, there's bourbon, whiskey, vodka, scotch, cognac . . ."
Ed let them start their list, taking a deep pull of the beer in order to really taste the flavor.
Beer, as it turned out, was quite tasty, if he could just get enough of it to taste. He really should have tried it first. But his research said 'Beer before liquor, never sicker,' and the last thing he wanted was to stumble into work like the sergeant and let them all know what he'd done-
He put the glass down, smacking his lips. They were a little numb, so it was harder than usual, and it gave him that same alluring almost taste. His mouth was still far too tingly to really taste anything, but he was pretty sure the last thing he'd tried was good, and before that-
He frowned at the glassware on the table, letting his eyes slide over the half-empties. They'd start out in order, but he couldn't really remember how they'd been sorted, and then the automail fucking knocked a couple over, so the hell with it.
Stupid automail. He'd just gotten it fixed, too. Winry'd screwed up.
Ed blinked at the thought, then giggled. Damn. Winry'd kick his ass if she knew he'd thought that.
He should probably fix the glasses, too. Bartender kept shooting him funny looks. Was getting on, and he knew in an hour or so first shift would get off, so he probably wanted the fucking table opened up for other customers. He glanced around owlishly as he fumbled with his pocketwatch, noting the other patrons. Not many. Plenty of empty tables.
Had he really tried everything? Were there different kinds of beers? Seemed like there must be, since some beer looked like piss and some looked like coffee.
Coffee. For some reason, it sounded really yummy.
He glanced around the table, noting his watch was in his hand. Huh. Why'd he pull out the watch?
"What do you think you're doing, Fullmetal?"
Edward picked up his head, surprised to find it wasn't quite where it should be, not quite between his shoulders. Across from him was a bright blue Roy Mustang-shaped uniform. He blinked a few times, just to make sure he was really seeing what he was seeing.
Yep. It was a Roy Mustang-shaped uniform, all right.
He snerked, barely hearing it, then glanced around the table. The uniform had asked a question . . .?
Oh. What he was doing.
"Research," he declared, waving the automail to indicate the glasses on the table. He heard something shatter, but the Mustang-shaped uniform didn't so much as twitch.
"Research," it echoed silkily.
That was one of the reasons he hated Roy Mustang. He constantly stated questions as . . . statements. Or repeated what people said. Like he couldn't think of something on his own to say. Fucking puppet.
"Mm-hmm," Ed affirmed, as sarcastically as possible. "Research." It sounded a little funny to his ears, and Ed wondered if his annunciation was actually as clear as he thought it was.
"And what are you researching?"
That was another thing Colonel Bastard did. Ask obvious questions. Wasn't he a damn alchemist? Or was he just blind?
"Alcohol, of course." He rubbed his eyes absently to clear off the film, then opened them wide and focused on the uniform more intently.
Huh. That might actually be Colonel Bastard.
Seeing as it was smirking at him.
"This I can see," he said clearly, his gaze lingering on the table. Ed followed it to the glasses, wondering if Mustang was trying to figure out how he'd sorted them. It was genius, really, he'd started with dark liquors and-
"Did you find any you liked?"
No. Well - beer, but could he really be sure? The colonel seemed to be concentrating on the right side, which is where he'd started, and all of those had definitely been bad. It had been a long time before he'd found anything good enough to take a second swallow of. "No, they all taste like shit." There. Take that, annunciation police.
"What were you looking for?"
Ed rolled his eyes. Now they had to have an existential conversation about it? What the hell did he want, a written report? Then again, it really was Colonel Bastard, and if he didn't want his research budget taken away for doing something illegal –
Well, hell, he'd gotten the budget for doing something much worse, so how much could the colonel really care? Probably not at all. He probably didn't give two damns and a holler.
Edward tilted the beer towards himself, contemplating trying to taste it again. Wasn't worth the effort though. "Wondered what the appeal was. Why people drink it." Certainly not for the taste, which he'd figured, since it was pretty much just spoiled fruit and vegetable juice in a variety of forms.
"People drink for different reasons," the colonel said calmly.
Trust the bastard to give him a response like that. "That's a bad answer. You drink," he added critically. He'd seen the bottle in the bottom right drawer of the desk, though admittedly he'd never actually seen anyone drink out of it-
Mustang smiled, rather than smirked, in response. "I can't." He waved a hand casually at the table. "You already drank everything."
. . . wait. What?
Ed looked the glasses over more carefully. He was right. Whoops. "Oh."
"That's okay. I know a place we can get more."
More . . .? Hadn't he had some of everything? Oh, but that beer, right-
"Let's go there and I'll tell you why I drink."
Ed glanced back up at the colonel, calculation replacing this niggling feeling that he needed to apologize for something. Was the colonel . . . asking him to go with him to a bar? To have a beer? Was it a trap?
"But can't we just order more here?"
The colonel cocked his head to the side, a brief look of confusion on his face, and Ed wondered again if he was speaking as normally as he sounded to himself. He knew that alcohol interfered with motor responses, and the tongue was actually quite difficult to control despite the complexity of the human languages, and he had had some to drink, so it stood to reason that a few of the lesser physical affects might surface for the next half-hour or so-
"You're a minor," the colonel finally pointed out, somewhat obviously. "If the barkeep serves you any more, he'll get his license to sell revoked."
. . . wait? Because he'd served him at all, or because there was a limit to how much you could buy at once? Ed blinked. Shit. Was there a limit? He'd had to dangle the watch in front of the man's face to get any service to begin with, but he didn't honestly want to get the guy in trouble. He had brought him what he'd asked for – and taken a pretty pile of cash in return. If he got his license taken, though, how long would that cash last?
"Oh," he heard himself say again. "I didn't mean to get anyone in trouble . . ."
"That's okay," the colonel said, in a somehow reassuring voice. "We'll just head to a new place." He got to his feet, as gracefully as ever, and Ed resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. He could do that just as smoothly, so he demonstrated. The floor plank he was standing on gave, but he caught himself easily, and looked over – not up, never up – to see the colonel pulling his arm away.
Hah! He'd thought he was going to fall over. Stupid colonel.
"Fuckin' slanting floors," he groused, and the colonel just nodded assent.
"You picked an old bar, Fullmetal. The floors do that sometimes."
Ed just glared, and after a moment the colonel started to walk away. He said something in a low voice to the barkeep, but Ed didn't quite catch it. The floor was getting positively tricky, and the colonel didn't seem to be having trouble with it, but of course he went to bars more frequently so he was probably more accustomed to it. They said that sailors could learn to walk a floor that swung almost perpendicular to the horizon, but would fall over when they got back to static land.
Ed frowned as his stomach grumbled. He probably should have ordered some lunch. The books said not to drink on an empty stomach, but they also said alcohol was a depressant, and he hadn't wanted to be tempted with a nap when he was done, so he'd forgone it. He was almost immune to the painkillers Aunt Pinako used these days, and he figured that would give him some equivalent of a tolerance.
He was right, too, since he was still navigating the floor properly.
The colonel was stumping up the stairs, and he followed into a blindingly bright but somehow dull mid-afternoon light. He'd picked some bar in a basement a few blocks from headquarters, but outside of the troublesome floors it had been fine. Quiet, not very many patrons, and no one had bothered him.
"You come here often?" he baited the colonel, who had opened the door of a vehicle. Hah. Of course the colonel didn't walk anywhere like a normal person. Shit, he barely ever left his office. He was lucky he wasn't a fat slob, and luckier still that alchemists seemed to have higher metabolisms than most people.
Which was probably another reason why he was so unaffected by the booze.
"It's not my usual choice," the colonel responded smoothly, and he closed the door. Ed tugged on his coat, making sure the bastard hadn't caught any of it in the car door, and he heard another door close.
Huh. The bastard was sitting next to him. Of course, he never rode up front, even when Hawkeye was driving.
Curiously, Ed craned his head around to see who was driving, and Mustang rudely elbowed him in the ear.
"Hey!" He withdrew so sharply he accidentally bonked his head against the window, but it wasn't hard and didn't hurt at all. "What the hell gives?"
"Sorry, didn't see you there," his superior officer replied, the smirk audible in his voice. The window beside him was too bright, and it was too hard to focus on his face, so Edward folded his arms and stared resolutely forward. Bastard thought he could play with him, hmm? Thought he'd forgotten?
"So where are we going?"
"Just a little place I know. You'll be more comfortable there."
To be honest, he was pretty comfortable where he was. The car was moving, he was sure, but very fluidly, and while he saw them stop at a light he didn't feel as though the car had halted. Overall the effect was a little . . . weird. Not unpleasant.
Was this what a 'buzz' was?
. . . was this it? Was this why everyone he knew drank alcohol? Because it wasn't fucking worth it! He'd probably just dropped enough to pay for all their dinners at a really nice restaurant, and this was all there was?
"This is a dumb fucking reason to drink," he growled aloud.
"I didn't catch that, Fullmetal."
Oh, he was enjoying this, wasn't he. Ed turned to glare at the colonel out of the corner of his eye. "This is why you drink. For this feeling." Hell, using a large array made someone feel more lightheaded than this.
Yeah, well, in his case. If Mustang ever used an array larger than the one on his glove, that would be some seriously big shit blowing up.
"I don't know. How do you feel?"
Ed grinned widely at his superior officer. "Like I just transmuted a small building." Maybe he did drink for this reason. Maybe it was because he never got to use his alchemy like that-
Well, that didn't explain Havoc, though. Or Breda. Or Falman.
Nothing really explained Falman, come to think of it.
"Hey, if you stop, I'll draw an array and let you see." That seemed like a fair offer. Maybe if he let Mustang use an appropriately sized array he'd forget all about this, like it never happened, and his budget wouldn't get cut-
"That's okay," the colonel responded casually. "I'll take your word for it."
"Just out of curiosity, where's your brother?"
His brother? Hah! A test.
"Al?" He drew it out a little, just to emphasize that he did remember his brother's name, thankyouverymuch. "He's around." Come to think of it, where was Al? "Probably studying or something." Not that it mattered. Al was his own person, and did not need babysitting. Just like he didn't.
"I see. What street do you live on?"
But Ed was on to him. "Don't even know where your subordinates live? That's tacky."
"It's such a trite detail," the colonel complained. "Humor me."
That was easy, too. "The dorms." Everyone knew he lived in the dorms. The fucking colonel made him, which only endangered Al more, but it was cheaper and they needed their budget for research . . .
For a long moment, it was quiet in the car, and Ed flinched back quite suddenly when he felt – pressure, near his eyes. He blinked, then he scooted back with a yelp.
Someone was prying his eye open!
"What the hell?!" he roared, knocking the hand aside as hard as he could. He didn't get a direct hit, and the automail pounded into the seatback, but Mustang seemed to get the right idea, because he withdrew to his half of the carseat.
"Relax, Fullmetal." He definitely sounded amused. Bastard.
"What the hell? I am not drunk!" Geez, did he think he was passed out or something? He'd just been quiet for a minute! It wasn't that surprising! He could shut up if he wanted to, it wasn't a big deal!
"That's readily obvious," the colonel agreed mildly, and Ed looked at the comment from several angles before he determined there was no good way to argue with it. He huffed, crossing his arms again, and the car shook a little.
He glanced out the window before rolling his eyes. Yeah. Like a dorm was a bar.
"I thought we were going to-"
. . . another trick? Or was there some part of military life he didn't know about yet?
Still damn pissed off about the whole 'you're drunk' manhandling, he eventually opened the car door and stomped over to the building. Once the colonel had caught up, he continued, storming up the stairs. It was good that no one was in the dorms this early; he used the banister to make it more obvious that he expected a trick, but in truth it was helping a little.
Huh. He really was a little dizzy. Weird.
The colonel passed him at the landing, practically swaggering down the hall, and Ed made faces at him the entire time as they walked. He was oblivious, as he always was, and then he stopped, and knocked politely on one of the doors.
It was opened, and a familiar voice rang in his ears.
"Keep it down, wouldja?" And what the hell was Al doing in a bar?
Once he crossed the threshold, he realized the trick. It wasn't just a dorm. It was his dorm. And his room!
Ed turned and loudly gave the colonel his opinion. Al immediately got onto him, more loudly, so he told him to keep it down, louder still. After a while it gave him too much of a headache to go on, and when he felt it was safe to stop cradling his head, he found he was sitting at their tiny kitchen table, staring at a piece of toast and a glass of something clear.
Hmm . . .
He picked up the glass and sniffed, waiting for the tingle that would tell him whether the colonel had kept his promise or not. He didn't smell anything, not even when he got his nose so close some of it went up.
"It's just water, Fullmetal."
Oh, like he couldn't have said that before.
"You lied," he accused, but he drank some of it anyway. His mouth was feeling very dry and cottony.
"I don't remember that."
Ed rolled his eyes. "That's because you still mistak . . ." Shit, what was the right suffix? "Mistakenly think I'm drunk."
He eyed the toast – it was a poor lunch, and he wasn't feeling that hungry anymore. Or that tired. He just felt . . . funny. Unpleasantly so.
"I don't believe I'm 'mistaken'," the colonel pointed out, and Ed rolled his eyes again. Okay, one stutter, and he was going to hold it against him forever.
"You told me you'd tell me why you drink. If it's not for this." This being . . . something having to do with transmuting. "Or why you've done it so often lately." Which he hadn't really meant to say, but it was true just the same.
Then again, it didn't take a genius to figure out why. He just wanted Mustang to say it.
The colonel just looked at him, inscrutably, and Ed finally got tired of staring him down, and looked at the table instead. He could probably transmute the toast into something more interesting, if there was a piece of fruit around . . . but he wasn't hungry enough to go to the trouble.
"Drink your water, Fullmetal."
Water was so tasteless after everything else, and it felt funny going down his throat, as if it was getting colder on the way down instead of warmer. Come to think of it, it was a little chilly. Which was weird, since it wasn't even nightfall yet. "Don't want it."
"You'll thank me later."
Yeah. Like that'd happen.
Ed grinned as an idea struck him. He was an alchemist. He could appeal to equivalent exchange. "Tell me why you drink and I'll drink the water."
The colonel leaned back, apparently contemplating this new, clever offer. "Water and toast," he bargained.
Toast. Ugh. "Half the water and half the toast."
Mustang's eyes narrowed as he sensed his negotiating position slipping. "All the water and half the toast."
HAH! Got him! "Deal."
Roy sighed in defeat, crossing his arms and looking exceedingly comfortable in old, beat-up furniture that was definitely not comfortable in the least. "When you're older, this will make more sense," he began, in his dry, boring tone, and Edward groaned, letting his head sink to the table.
"Don't lecture me. My head hurts."
"You asked," he said calmly. "Drink."
Edward sat up and sarcastically took a gulp of water, but choked a little on it. Next thing he knew someone had shoved the toast in his mouth.
"I guess most people drink to forget," the colonel told him, heading off his rant mid-word. "If you have enough, when you go to sleep you won't dream. I'd have expected you to learn that in your studies on the subject."
Well, yeah, the texts had said that, but he remembered fucking everything, so clearly that was crap. "I remember everything."
"Then you hold your liquor well," the colonel complimented him. Complimented him!
. . . which meant he was trying to hide something . . .
. . . AHA!
"You said most people!" Ed crowed, pointing the toast at the colonel. "But I asked you why you drank."
Mustang cocked his head to the side. "Maybe the same reason you did today."
"Research?" His tongue tied around the word. That was pretty unlikely.
"You had quite a lot, you know."
No, he'd had very small glasses of lots of things. "There was ice too," he pointed out reasonably, and Mustang inclined his head.
"Point." They sat in companionable silence for a moment. "Fullmetal, what first interested you in this line of research?"
The toast was such a pain to chew, and he didn't want to swallow it, but it was that or spit it out, and he wasn't four. With effort he choked it down. "I told you. See the appeal."
"What made you think there would be appeal for you?"
Ed stared at him blankly.
The colonel watched him with those dark eyes. "You just came back from automail repairs in Resembool, is that correct?"
Repairs . . . of course he'd know that. He'd signed off on the leave. "You forget already?"
"I understand automail is quite painful to live with, even without the constant adjustments yours must need."
He bristled, almost hurling the toast at the man. "WHY?! BECAUSE I'M SO SHORT WINRY HAS TO MAKE IT UNDER A MICROSCOPE!?"
The shout immediately made his head throb, and he let his anger go in lieu of resting his head on the cool surface of the table. While that constant-motion feeling had at first been pleasant, it was now becoming old. He rather wished the room would just stay still for a moment.
"Your words," the colonel finally replied. "The simple fact is that you're a growing boy, and I've approved three such trips since I became your commanding officer. Most officers' insurance only pays for one annually."
That's right, he had insurance. Not that Winry cared, not that he ever filed it, either. God knew he was never going to actually use it to pay for a doctor. "What . . . why are you still talking?"
"Did someone tell you it would make the pain easier to bear?"
For a moment Ed wasn't sure he'd heard right. Then he decided he was far too tired and unhappy-feeling to really give a damn. "No. The books said it could be used in the field . . ." He let it trail off. No need to explain. If Mustang cared he could look it up himself. "I deserve this pain."
Well, he sure as hell didn't deserve the headache. But the automail, yes. In fact, it didn't feel any different, other than being clumsy and not moving properly. The level of pain was about the same. He ignored it completely.
"Because of what happened to Alphonse?
Yes. What he'd done to his brother-
Which was none of Mustang's fucking business. What, did he think he was drunk, and they were going to have a heart to heart? "Drop it."
He knew he mumbled it into the table, but Mustang didn't ask him to repeat it, and he almost fell asleep before the other man spoke again.
"Drink some more water."
"Fuck you," he grumbled, until he remembered they'd made a deal, something about drinking-
He picked his head up, more to clear it than to obey. Right! Why Mustang drank.
"Do you still have nightmares?"
Ed bristled, but there was no short joke in nightmares, just . . . mares. Really dark ones. "Everyone does."
"Are yours keeping you up at night?"
What a dumb question. "I'm not ten, Mustang."
The colonel inclined his head again, and Ed glared at him before taking another drink. The glass was still hopelessly full.
"You won't derail me," he informed the dark-haired man. "Tell me why you drink. Nightmares?"
Roy quirked an eyebrow at him. "I don't dream, Fullmetal. I act."
Ed couldn't help it. He started screaming with laughter. "I . . . I ACT!!" It was the funniest damn thing he'd ever heard in his life. Tears were pouring down his face before he could contain himself, and strangely, it made him feel a little better. "I ACT. What kind of fucking . . . oh my god, that was corny."
The colonel answered by shoving his toast at him again, and he shook his head after he'd caught his breath. "Half the toast."
He didn't correct the colonel's mishearing of him. "So why then?" He sat up a little straighter, looking the man over. "Arthritis or something?"
This time he was pretty sure Mustang bristled. "I'm not even in my mid thirties yet."
"Uh-huh." He took another bite of toast, to remind him of their deal, and Roy gave him a flat look.
"Who told you drinking might be a good idea?"
He swallowed some more water to help the toast go down, but then decided that he was done, and put them both down. "No one person." Like he would do it if someone told him to. Again, not a ten year old. Peer pressure had nothing to do with it. "I just . . . noticed people doing it, and wondered why."
If it would make any fucking difference.
And no, since he and the colonel, the colonel of all people were having this discussion-
"Is there anything you would like to discuss? Not necessarily with me," he added quickly. "There are people on base who are sworn to the client and pati . . . who are disallowed by law to reveal what they are told in confidence."
Now Mustang was stuttering. "Hah hah. You screwed up the word. It's not just me."
"It happens to the best of us," he replied drily. "Still, there are people who are paid to help in non-alchemical matters."
Oh. Like counselors. "If they worked, why aren't you using them?"
Mustang blinked at him. "For what, Fullmetal?"
Ed toyed with the glass, aware that he'd just stepped over some line, even though the colonel's voice hadn't changed. "You know what I mean."
"You'll need to speak up."
"I said you know what I mean," he repeated, only a little louder.
Mustang sighed again, and then he laid his hands flat on the table as if he was going to stand. Ed picked up the piece of toast hurriedly, knowing that he'd somehow done something wrong but completely unable to think of a way to save the situation. "You don't tell me, no more toast!" he threatened.
The colonel's lips quirked. "I . . . drink to remember," he finally said, so softly Ed almost didn't hear it. It was starting to sound like a bus was perpetually driving under their window.
Drink to remember. Somehow that wasn't corny at all. Somehow that made complete sense. He said it so quietly, and he looked so serious, and Ed stared at him a moment, unsure of what to say.
"What do you remember?"
The corner of his mouth quirked again, and the serious look was gone as if it had never been. "More than you will, I'd wager. Eat your toast, Fullmetal."
Ed contemplated that for a moment, wishing the bus would just turn the damn corner and stop its roaring idle under his window. Trust the bastard to say something unsatisfying like that.
But their conversation wasn't the only unsatisfying thing, and Ed chewed on the words and the dry bread until he couldn't deal with either anymore. The toast was tasteless and he hated the consistency, and he just didn't want any more water. At some point Al came back into the room, which meant he'd gone somewhere, but Ed couldn't think where and didn't care. He was so . . . so tired of feeling this way. Tired of the roar and the spinning room. He wanted to be himself again.
Bed. He wanted bed.
He made it there all by himself and was peacefully drifting into some kind of slowly swirling void when people kept bothering him. Taking off his coat – like it mattered! Taking off his boots – who cared?! Eventually he started swatting at whoever it was and they left, and while the swirling was unpleasant, keeping his eyes open was also unpleasant, and he settled for the lesser of two evils.
Funny, after all these years, he still felt the same when he went to bed drunk.
Of course, the waking up these days was much, much worse than that first time. He wasn't sure Roy was ever going to forgive him for not being hung over the next day, considering he'd probably had borderline alcohol poisoning. There was nothing in the world like a thirteen year old's metabolism.
That glass of water and half a piece of toast had probably helped.
Ed grinned slightly as he sucked down another gulp of beer. He never had thanked Mustang for that. Or for chasing Al out to get juice while he'd sat drunkenly at the table and probably spilled water all over himself. Still, though-
"Gin it is," Russ laughed, elbowing him hard. "Look at that happy grin!"
Ed blinked, pulling himself back to the present. "Gin is good," he agreed vaguely, and the table laughed.
"Gin'n'lime, actually," Al corrected. "Havoc's suggestion, I'll bet."
Ed shrugged. His first time drinking with Havoc had been an adventure as well, if only because it had involved a tweed jacket, a dart, and some fire. And eventually a Havoc without pants.
"Beats me. Don't remember."
- x -
Author's Notes: Very important note! A certain talented writer who likes to lurk, by the name of Silverfox2702, is responsible for nearly all of Mustang's comments, as well as the title. I think I should make it a theme, previous present-winners should participate in the next reviewer's present.
(This is a very subtle way of saying that I like collaborating with nice people who are awesome writers. Odd, how all the people who leave me reviews are nice people who are awesome writers, iddinit? )