Warnings: Language and non-explicit homosexual scenes.
Author's Note: A quick one-shot while I take a quick break from Tears and Rain. I hope you enjoy it!
The Best Thing
Ed glared across the massive expanse of the oak desk, scowling at the man who sat behind it. Colonel Mustang was watching him with something like amusement, one eyebrow raised ever-so slightly as he waited. Between them, lying innocently on the wooden surface like a dropped flag of surrender, was a sheaf of papers – another assignment.
'I don't have fucking time for this,' Ed snarled, eyes narrowing as Mustang gave a lazy shrug of indifference. The bastard had dragged him away from the library, from the one good lead he and Al had found about the stone in almost a year, and now he was asking him to deal with – some pathetic problem that any alchemist could manage.
'You'll do what you're ordered to, Fullmetal.' It was almost a purr, as if he delighted in watching the flash and flare of Ed's temper and found a sick kind of joy in getting a reaction out of him. 'The archaeological dig is here in the city, an old temple of some kind. They need an alchemist to examine the arrays on some tombs they've found. It won't take you long. Besides, I am sure that Alphonse can carry on the research while you look into this. The library will still be there when you return.'
'Why can't you do it yourself?' he demanded. 'They don't care which alchemist they get, so why don't you go?'
'I'm busy.' White gloved hands gestured to the papers all over his desk. 'Lieutenant Havoc will be accompanying you, though.' His lips curved into a smile as he added, 'Just to make sure that you don't get distracted.'
Ed clenched his teeth so tight that his jaw creaked. Why didn't the fucker say what he meant? Havoc was coming with him to make sure he did what he was told rather than sneaking back to the library. He didn't know what annoyed him more, the fact that Mustang suspected that he would try and avoid the assignment, or that he was right.
With a snarl, he snatched the file from the desk and glared at the photographs as if they had done him personal injury. They showed faint designs, primitive and barely visible on the surface of bland, grey stone. They couldn't be identified from the images alone because whoever took the pictures hadn't bothered to get the angle right. All he could make out were one or two elements – fractured pieces of a larger whole.
Fine, it should be easy enough. Turn up, look at a bunch of stupid rocks, tell the historians that what they thought were arrays were nothing but old graffiti and then get back to the library. He and Al were so close to breaking the code – so close to knowing more about the stone - that he could almost taste it. The sooner he got this done, the sooner he could get back to what actually mattered.
Absently, he turned to go, stopping short as Mustang said, 'I haven't actually dismissed you yet, Fullmetal.'
Ed looked over his shoulder, letting every inch of his fury show in his gaze before he yanked open the door and slammed it behind him, making everyone in the office jump.
He hated the military, hated fucking perfect Mustang who had him on a leash whether he liked it or not, hated everything that got in the way of retrieving Al's body... . Ed sighed, knowing that it was only because he was a state alchemist that he'd got this far with his search. He should probably be grateful, but all he could muster was a faint resentment. No one could claim that the military hadn't got their equivalent exchange. They had used him for years, owned him for as long as his contract stated, and when he was of no more value to them he would be discarded without hesitation.
He couldn't wait.
'Brother?' Al asked cautiously, his voice tinny within the helmet.
Ed tapped his breastplate gently with his left hand, pressing his anger down hard and tight until it was a glowing coal in his stomach that he could ignore. 'Sorry, Al. Looks like you'll be doing some research by yourself for a few hours. I've got a short assignment to take care of.'
'You don't want me to come with you?'
'Nah, there's no point in both of us wasting the day. I'll get this done in an hour and be right back.' He glanced towards the door, noticing Havoc leaning patiently against the wall, waiting for him. An unlit cigarette was tucked behind his ear and, despite his casual pose, Ed could see that the lieutenant was eager to be out of the office and away from Hawkeye's all-seeing eyes. 'I'll meet you in the library, okay?'
Al nodded, metal grating on metal as Ed turned away and gestured to Havoc, not breaking his stride as he walked down the corridor towards the doors that led to the outside world. It was mid-morning, and the place was crawling with soldiers. He ducked around a couple of gossiping secretaries and trotted down the steps to the parade ground, pausing for a moment to give Jean a chance to light his cigarette.
The man was as predictable as clockwork in his habits, but he was the easiest of Mustang's men to get on with. Breda had a sharp mind that Ed didn't exactly trust, and Fuery kept calling him "Sir". Falman would probably have a fit if he knew about all the rules Ed broke on a daily basis, and Hawkeye was nothing short of terrifying. At least Jean had a sense of humour and didn't get in the way. He wasn't annoyingly stupid and he didn't dismiss whatever Ed had to say just because he was sixteen and shouldn't have anything worthwhile to contribute to a conversation.
'He pissed you off again, didn't he?' Havoc said with a grin, inhaling sharply as he trotted to catch up. 'What did he do this time?'
'He doesn't have to do anything. He's a smug, arrogant bastard, and I hate him. Hawkeye should just do us all a favour and shoot the git.'
Jean snorted a laugh. 'Trust me, if he hasn't finished that paperwork by the end of the day, you might get your wish.' He slowed down a bit, forcing Ed to go at a more leisurely pace or leave his escort behind. It was tempting, but he didn't want to get Havoc in trouble. 'What are we doing, anyway?'
Ed kicked at a loose stone, sending it skipping along the street. He followed its jumping path with his eyes before it vanished down a drain. 'Talking to some archaeologists. They found some artefacts with what they think are arrays on them. It shouldn't take long.'
'Take all the time you need,' Jean said graciously. 'I'm not in any hurry. It's a nice day. Might as well enjoy being out in it rather than cooped up in the office.'
Ed looked around, noticing the sunshine for the first time. It bathed the streets in gold and gleamed diamond bright off of cars and windows. A soft breeze murmured in the leaves of the trees, shifting the isolated emerald canopies and stirring up whispers. Summer was just beginning, and he hadn't even noticed. For the past few weeks he had lived in a rut between the dorms and the library. It was all about Al and the stone. There wasn't time for anything else.
As always the frigid, fluttering fear that their research would be nothing more than another dead end unfurled in his stomach. He didn't know if he could bear that. For years he had careened between highs and lows. If this latest theory turned out to be nothing but bullshit and lies, he didn't know what he would do. Keep going, of course, because this was for Al, but every time they failed he felt a decade older, tired and heavy with the burden of his guilt.
'Mustang knows how important what you're doing is, you know,' Havoc said after a short silence. 'He might act like he's deliberately trying to get in the way, but he's already delegated three assignments to other teams to give you more time in the city.'
Ed glanced over at him, suspicious, but there was no sign of guile in the older man's face. Ed had seen him try and lie to Hawkeye enough times to know the signs, but his eyes weren't shifty and he wasn't fiddling with the button on the cuff of his jacket. He was telling the truth, or he at least believed what he was saying. 'How do you know that?'
'I spend more time in that office than at home. Who else do you think does the filing? Sometimes I happen to read some of the documents before I put them away or pass them on, that's all.' Havoc grinned, following Ed's lead as they turned left. 'The colonel might act all high and mighty most of the time, but it's just that, an act. He's a good soldier, cares about his men and his country. He just pretends he's a feckless idiot.'
'Then he's the best actor I've ever seen,' Ed muttered, frowning as the damp stench of the river tainted the breeze. The thought that Mustang had actually been doing him a favour made him uneasy. In all his time at the military, no one had ever helped him out without expecting something in return. 'Why would he bother? What in it for him?'
Jean shrugged, winking at a young woman on the other side of the street before looking ahead again. 'I have no idea. All I'm saying is that, even if it doesn't seem like it, he respects you and what you're trying to do for your brother. He wouldn't have interrupted your research if he didn't think that this was important. It's-'
Whatever Havoc had been about to say died away, and Ed glanced at him before following his incredulous gaze, feeling his own breath pause in his throat. There, amidst the blockish utilitarianism of Central's modern architecture, was a massive building. It was lower than its neighbours, its foundations set almost twenty-feet below ground level, but its spires still reached higher than the skyline around it.
Long, thin windows bordered a huge round hole in the main wall, and vaulted doors climbed upwards. They would have dwarfed anyone standing on their threshold and must have weighed a ton. Strange carvings perched on every corner and ledge, looking down on any passers-by.
'What – what -?' Havoc stopped, tilting his head back and squinting against the sun as he looked at the towers. 'I've walked along this street hundreds of times. How come I've never seen this before?'
'We only discovered it recently. It was hidden behind a more modern building that fell down,' a gentle, well-spoken voice said. 'Apparently it's been visible from the river for centuries, but this is the first time anyone's been able to get inside.'
Ed looked around to see a young woman watching them with interest. She had a shovel in her hand and was covered in dust and grime. Cobwebs clung to the headscarf that held her hair out of the way, and grime streaked across her cheeks. She smiled playfully, her face flushed with enthusiasm as she moved to stand next to Havoc and pointed. 'See that? There are bells in the towers. We think there used to be more than a dozen, but most of them have fallen down. People used to ring them to summon the citizens to prayer.'
'It's beautiful.' Havoc wasn't following her finger. He was studying her profile, a familiar, star-struck expression on his face.
Ed rolled his eyes, pulling his watch free. 'Someone asked for an alchemist?' he said, not bothering to keep the impatience from his voice. 'Something about some arrays on tombs?'
'Oh, yes!' The woman seemed flustered, wiping her grubby palms on her overalls before reaching out to shake hands. 'I'm Elaine, one of the junior archaeologists.'
'I'm Ed, and this is-'
'Havoc. Jean Havoc.'
Elaine nodded in welcome, and Ed noticed that she didn't let go of Havoc's hand in any hurry, letting her palm linger in his as she examined his face. Finally they let go of each other, and she gave a cheeky grin before motioning for them to follow her, keeping up a running commentary about the dig as she led the way.
'It's very kind of the military to send someone so quickly. We only discovered the tombs a few days ago, and we've been puzzling over them ever since.' Their footsteps echoed as they entered the massive building, and Ed looked around. It was a muddy mess in most places, but Elaine acted as if it was the greatest treasure she had ever set eyes on. 'You see, this type of architecture pre-dates modern alchemy. It's ancient and, while you can see echoes of the style in Amestrian buildings of the late-classical period, nothing like this has ever been found before.' Elaine looked over at Ed, gesturing around. 'Even though we didn't think alchemy existed when these worshippers were alive, there's symbolism of it all over the place.'
Looking up, Ed could see what she meant. Once, the roof had been painted, and he could still make out faint traces of circles and shapes on the distant surface. The building seemed to go on forever, stretching off in different directions. An altar stood at the far end and, above it, another massive hole was cut into the wall.
'Windows, we think,' Elaine said when she noticed his puzzled expression. 'We found shards of coloured glass on the floor nearby. There are even a few pieces still in the frame.' She sighed happily. 'We're hoping to reconstruct the whole building and restore it to how it used to be. The way these windows are aligned capture the rising and setting sun. Perhaps an echo of an earlier, more nature-based religion?' Her voice had taken on the soft, thoughtful quality of someone talking more to themselves than anyone else, and her grey eyes were staring out of the hole, unfocussed on anything but the hazy past.
'Who the hell are these people?'
The barked words echoed across the room, jerking Elaine from her stupor and making Ed glance towards the source of the noise. A tall man strode towards them, his stony face grim with disapproval. He was painfully thin, and it looked like he would snap in a strong wind. A small pair of spectacles were perched on his nose, and he squinted at Ed through the lenses, eyebrows climbing to his hairline when he saw the pocket watch.
'I asked for a state alchemist,' he snapped, 'not a child.'
Ed gritted his teeth, shrugging his shoulders and looking back towards the door. 'I'm all you're going to get. Do you want my help or not?' Maybe the bastard would send him away. At least then he could get back to the library.
The man's pale face suffused with an ugly, angry red, and he spluttered in wordless fury. 'Impudent boy! Show some respect or I'll report your behaviour to your senior officer.'
'Knock yourself out,' Ed muttered, hearing Elaine give a tiny gasp of shock before smothering a laugh.
The man glared at him for almost a minute, his slender frame shaking beneath his immaculate suit. Finally he snapped, 'Elaine! Take this boy down to the tombs. Make sure he disturbs nothing. I will contact the military and ask for them to send us a real alchemist.'
'This way,' Elaine said quietly, keeping her head bent and her face turned away from the older man as she moved towards a dark hole in the floor. There were steps leading down into it and she grabbed a lantern, handing it to Ed before taking another one for herself. 'Be careful. The stairs are quite worn, and watch your head.'
'Who was that guy?' Havoc asked when they were out of earshot of the upper level.
'That's Mr Wallace. He's funding the project. Without him we wouldn't be able to do this work. I know he seems bad-tempered, but he's actually a brilliant archaeologist. Unfortunately he lacks people skills.' She laughed again, but there was a hint of darkness to it this time. 'You get used to him after a while, either that or you quit. We've already had three graduate students leave in tears.'
Meek lantern light probed its way through the velvety darkness, shining off of old, cloth-wrapped bundles. They were vaguely humanoid in shape, and Ed felt Havoc stiffen with horror as he realised what they were. 'Are those dead people?'
'Hmm? Oh, yes.' Elaine brushed a cobweb out of the way, looking over her shoulder and grinning as she noticed Jean's expression. 'Don't worry, I'll protect you.' She caught Ed's eye and winked before she continued walking, her voice echoing strangely as she spoke. 'We think these were among the last people to be entombed here. You'll see that they were put to rest quite hastily, and there are a lot of them. Perhaps they were soldiers killed in a war, or there was some kind of plague. Either way, they were short on space when they came to burying these poor souls.'
Finally, they stepped out into a large cavern. The rock had been carved to create smooth walls, and the floor was covered in tiny tiles to make a strange sweeping pattern. The lanterns only cast small pools of light, and Ed lifted the lamp in his hand higher, trying to see how large the room was.
'It's almost a mile across,' Elaine said, her voice awed. 'We think it was a natural room, perhaps an even more ancient holy place, which they decorated to show respect to their dead.' She pointed to a carved idol in the centre. Once the statue had probably been flawless, but the air was damp, and its features had been smoothed by time. Now it was a mournful, eerie presence. 'That figure is a common theme in the artefacts we have found.'
'A man on a cross?' Jean asked quietly, his voice nothing more than a whisper so as not to shatter the peace of the place. 'What's that about?'
Elaine shrugged, moving towards a low, stone block and putting her lantern down on the floor. 'If only we knew. He may not have been their god, but a hero in their scriptures or someone else of significance, like a merciful priest. Either way, it's clear that he was important to their religion.'
She ran her fingers across the lid of the tomb before crouching down and motioning Ed closer. 'See these?' She traced a group of circles. 'This was the first grave that made us think we had stumbled across a very early example of ancient alchemy, but we can't be sure.' She looked at him, hope turning her eyes bright. 'If it is, it will be so much easier for us to find more funding. No one's interested in dusty old ruins, but anything that can help unravel the mystery of alchemy? It's like digging in your garden and finding gold! The military will give us more money than we know what to do with if they think there's something in it for them!'
'They might also stop you working on it all together,' Ed pointed out, smiling as Elaine straightened her shoulders and clenched her hands into fists.
'I'd like to see them try!'
He turned to examine the circles, making sure to keep his hands to himself as he followed their sweeping lines with his gaze. The design wasn't much bigger than the palm of his hand. Three circumferences, varying in size, overlapped one another, and intricate symbols were carved in each shared segment. They were lain out in a vaguely triangular shape, and the circle at the peak was the biggest.
Visually, it meant nothing to him, but he recognised the feeling in the air. It was the faint, greasy sensation of an activated array. There was alchemy at work here, but it was ancient and weak, almost lost amidst the stale atmosphere of the catacombs. It brushed against his skin like hot silk, beckoning even as it sent a shiver up his spine.
'Are there any more like this?'
Elaine nodded, gesturing away into the distance. 'They're on every sarcophagus. They're all the same.' She shrugged self-depreciatingly. 'But then I'm not an expert on that kind of thing. There might be variations I didn't notice.'
With the lantern in his hand, Ed walked away into the gloom, leaving Jean to continue bestowing the young archaeologist with his rapturous attention. She seemed gratified to have someone who would actually listen to her enthusiastic theories, and more than once Havoc had given the kind of answer that suggested he was genuinely interested in what she was talking about. Perhaps, for once, he was seeing a woman as more than just a pretty face.
The tombs were laid out in neat rows, each as nondescript as the last. Whoever these people had been, it seemed they had saved all the decoration for the building itself. Over in the far corner, a bigger slab caught his eye. It looked wide enough to have three or four bodies inside, and something was glowing faintly against the grey canvas of the rock. Ed moved towards it, barely noticing that he could no longer hear Havoc and Elaine as he crouched down and set the lantern on the floor.
Here the array was bigger, comprised of twelve discs arranged in four triangles. They were various sizes, creating a riot of curved lines and lettering that glowed with a feeble blue light. This one was definitely active, but Ed couldn't see any signs of the transmutation. There was no shift or change in the surface of the stone, and the air seemed to carry the same stale fragrance, faintly perfumed with the dankness of the nearby river. So what -?
Absently, he put both hands on the floor, leaning closer to get a better look at the symbols within the arrays. As soon as his palms touched the ground, he felt hot, fresh power surge up his arms. Looking down he swore, realising his mistake. Another, newer array had flared to life beneath his touch. It was almost the same as the ones on the tomb, but the biggest circle was no longer at the peak of the triangle; it was at the right hand corner. There were words carved along the lines in an incomprehensible language, but the handwriting looked somehow familiar.
He tried to pull back – to stagger out of the way, but already the bright wave of energy was sweeping over him, stroking his face with shafts of heat and catching invisible fingers in his clothes. It was like standing in a vicious gale, and it slammed into him as he struggled to stand up, making his boots rasp as they slid fractionally against the floor. Grit scratched at his face and he shut his eyes, holding up a hand to protect himself from flying debris and the dazzling, bitter light of the alchemy.
Steadily, the air calmed, falling silent again, and Ed cautiously lowered his hands and looked around. At first glance it appeared as if nothing had changed but, gradually, he began to see the differences.
The lantern was gone, no longer resting by the tomb. Instead the massive cavern was lit by equally spaced lamps. They shed illumination on the rank and file of tombs and gleamed off of the polished walls. They wasn't black or grey, but bright, sapphire blue, like ocean water behind glass. In the centre of the room the idol was pristine. It was no longer a vaguely human shape, but a clear figure nailed to a cross. Thorns encircled his head, and his ribs stood out stark and bare under his flesh. It was done in white marble, and natural sunlight pooled around it, spilling in from the glass dome overhead.
'Havoc?' Ed called out. His voice burbled as if he were speaking underwater, and there was no answering call. 'Elaine?'
It took him a few paces to realise what else was wrong. Although he could feel the floor beneath his boots, there were no footsteps beating out the rhythm of his walk. Even when he stamped down as hard as he could, there was no noise. What was going on?
After a couple of minutes he found the steps leading up to the main part of the building and he climbed them two at a time. It took only a moment for him to realise that the place was the same but different. Wooden seats, varnished and shining, were arranged in the big empty space, and the ceiling above was painted in startling, breathtaking colour.
A heavily pregnant woman was standing in front of the altar, looking up at the massive window rapturously. The mischievous grin was softened into something blissful, and her left hand rested against the swell of her stomach. Ed blinked, his thoughts whirling in raging confusion as he stared at Elaine. What the hell was going on?
'Hey, your husband's waiting for you outside.'
Ed jumped - couldn't help himself - because that voice was far too familiar. He heard it every day, speaking from his lips and rough in his throat. He looked around at the same time as Elaine, staring at the lone figure who walked up the aisle between the seats. It was disturbing, watching something similar to a reflection moving and talking with a mind of its own.
Except this image of himself was older and, Ed realised, taller than he was at the moment. Blonde hair was caught back in a ponytail, and there was far more of his dad in that face than he would have liked. A faint, white scar drew a narrow line through the tip of his left eyebrow, and there was something different about his body language. He didn't look edgy, driven, dreading... . All the emotions Ed saw when he had looked in the mirror this morning had been wiped clean. This Ed seemed more at peace than he would ever have believed possible.
'Hawkeye let him out early, did she?' Elaine said with a smile, awkwardly bending down to grab her bag before walking away from the window. 'Lucky man. She must have been in a good mood.'
'I think she did it get some peace,' the older him said with an earnest grin as he looked pointedly at her swollen belly. 'Havoc thinks he's going to miss it.'
Ed's gaze took in Elaine again as his mind timidly put forth a frail hypothesis. Either this was some weird alternative universe, or it was at some point in the future. Alchemy had always been used to transform one form of matter into another, but it was built on energy. If used correctly then, theoretically, it could be used to manipulate time and distance. Perhaps the array he had touched had dragged him forward in time?
That, or he had lost his mind.
Elaine laughed and rolled her eyes. 'I told him this morning, "Not today." I'm not due for another month. I'd better go put his mind at rest.' She paused in the circle of gemstone colours that dappled the ground from the stained glass window, looking thoughtful. Ed watched as the older him cocked his head, raising an eyebrow as she hesitated before saying with a laugh, 'I know I've told you before, but thank you. If it hadn't been for what you found that day, none of this would have happened.'
'Restoring the church?'
Elaine shook her head. 'Any of it. The dig would have had no reason to collude with the military; we would never have had the funding for this,' she waved her hand up towards the ceiling, taking in the majestic splendour of the place. 'I would have never have got to know Jean, because he came here every day for three months before he actually got the courage to take me out to dinner, and if the army hadn't been here then he probably would never have come back.' She smiled with a hint of sadness. 'Mr Wallace called you a "boy" then, remember? I bet no other alchemist would have worked out what the arrays on the tombs were for.'
The sound of a car horn outside made both of them look towards the door, and Elaine sighed. 'I'd best get to going. I'll see you tomorrow. Don't be late! We're breaking through to the greater catacombs and you know we're going to need your expertise!''
Ed watched as the older him gave a long-suffering sigh and waved good bye, but there was definitely a smile on his face and a spark of interest in his eyes. Once Elaine had gone, he turned back to the window, looking up at it thoughtfully as if it held the answers to what ever questions lingered on his mind.
Hastily, Ed looked the image of himself up and down, taking in the brown trousers and waistcoat as questions echoed like gunfire through his mind. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing sleek automail and warm, tanned skin. He hadn't got his arm and leg back, then. Where was the pocket watch? There was no sign of the silver chain. Wasn't he in the army any more? What about Al? Where was his brother?
A dark shape moved in the corner of Ed's eye, making him turn. The man walked silently, footsteps so light they were imperceptible among the faint sounds of work still going on in the further reaches of the temple. Mustang moved like a big jungle cat on the prowl, his eyes fixed intently on the oblivious older Ed. There was no sign of his normal aloof indifference. Instead the expression on his face was almost tender, with more than just a faint edge of hunger in his eyes.
Ed stared, frowning in confusion as Mustang didn't stop a few feet away, but advanced even closer until he could loop his arm around the other Ed's waist and pull him back into his chest, bending slightly to drop a long, steady kiss on the column of his throat.
He expected a fight to break out, for the reflection of himself to spin and snarl and punch the pervert because what the hell?
It didn't happen. The older Ed made a rough, happy noise, eyes narrowing in pleasure as he tipped his head further to the side, reaching his left hand up to tangle loosely in Mustang's hair.
Ed blinked, knowing that his mouth was hanging open. Not the future then, but some fucked up alternative universe where somehow he and Mustang didn't want to break each other's heads open but instead wanted to do – that.
The urge to blush and turn away was almost overwhelming, but he was held transfixed. His other self looked like he was enjoying what Mustang was doing. He definitely wasn't complaining or making any move to step out of Mustang's embrace, and Ed felt an unwelcome tingle of warmth dart across his skin to pool in the pit of his stomach. Was it as good as it looked?
They were talking to each other, but he couldn't work out what they were saying. Every word was quiet and intimate, and Ed jolted as he realised what it looked like. His mum and dad used to do that when he and Al were kids – have a conversation that was far more about touch than words. It was what people in love did, so why was he doing it with the colonel?
One of Mustang's hands skimmed lower, aiming purposefully in a direction that made Ed's face burn bright red. The other him snatched at his wrist, completely unembarrassed as he growled a warning and turned in Mustang's arms. 'We're in a church, pervert.' It wasn't spat or angry, it was almost tender, and Ed watched in fascination as he stretched up a little to capture Mustang's lips in a long kiss, pressing his body closer.
He cleared his throat, feeling ridiculous. He should wander back the way he came, see if there was any way out of this freakish place, but just as he turned to beat a hasty retreat Mustang said something that made him freeze in his tracks. It was a quiet question, only a little louder than his earlier murmurs, and Ed wouldn't even have heard it if the high ceilings hadn't captured the words and echoed them back to him.
'What time are you coming home?'
Staring over his shoulder, he saw that Mustang's hands were cupping the other Ed's face and that their foreheads were touching. It was a blissful scene, intimate and secure, and he couldn't take his eyes off of them. He'd thought it was just – just about sex or something, but home? That suggested more than just a bed to play in. It made him think of warm nights curled up by the fire, of something permanent that couldn't be taken away.
That Ed, standing only a dozen feet away, had somewhere to belong.
He turned to face them again, looking more closely this time. Mustang was hard to read, he always was, but there were faint signs of ease and trust. Dark eyes were utterly unveiled, open and earnest as he waited for a reply. It made him look young and strong. Not that Mustang was old, but he always seemed to be either smug or grim, as if they were the only two emotions he knew. The man standing toe-to-toe with his other self was a world away from what Ed knew and recognised.
'Probably in a couple of hours. There's something I need to do first.'
Someone cleared their throat politely, and they all looked towards the door. Hawkeye stood on the threshold, respectful and patient, although Ed noticed that there was a faint smile on her face, as if she had seen similar scenes between them a hundred times before. 'You've had your break, sir,' she pointed out quietly. 'You promised me you would finish off your paperwork before the end of the day if I let you see Edward.' Her eyebrow quirked, and there was the tiniest trace of laughter in her voice as she added, 'Equivalent exchange.'
Mustang sighed, the expression on his face turning pained for a moment before he bent his head for another kiss. It was long, slow, loving, and Ed shifted uncomfortably, trying to ignore the ribbons of heat wrapping around him in swathes. The whole thing made him feel off-balance and uncertain. If this was the future, then what those two had together was something that he would have one day. More to the point he would have it with the smug, arrogant git who he wanted to kill almost every time he saw him.
His words burbled in his own ears but didn't seem to reach the people standing in front of him. They were oblivious to anything but each other, and when Mustang stepped away he looked bereft, as if he were leaving part of his soul behind. 'See you later.'
'See you. Don't give Hawkeye a reason to shoot you. I need you in one piece for what I've got in mind tonight.'
At least the answering expression on Mustang's face was one Ed recognised. A pure, unrestrained smirk. With a last, hungry glance he left, boot-steps quick and precise before he and Hawkeye were gone. Ed watched their silhouettes move away, still trying to grasp what he had seen. Him and Mustang – together. Kissing and touching and – and stuff. He had wondered why most of the pretty girls that made Al's armour shuffle hadn't done a thing for him. Now he knew.
Him and Mustang.
'It freaked me out, too, when I stood there and saw what you're seeing. I hated the bastard back then, and I just couldn't get how I got from wanting to rip his throat out to – to something else.'
Ed jumped, jerking his head around to stare at his older self. It was a weird experience, being caught in the bright gold of his own gaze, but after a moment the other him sighed, crossing his arms and looking down at the floor. 'I can't see or hear you, but I know you're there. I remember it so clearly because -' he hesitated, frowning in thought before he shook his head. 'I just remember it. I accidentally activated an array down in the catacombs and ended up here, seeing that and trying to understand what the fuck was going on.'
He glanced back at the window, his eyes slightly unfocussed as if he was searching his memory for the right thing to say. 'It is the future, by the way, not some alternative universe. Five years on from your present, or something like that.'
It took only a heartbeat to do the maths, and Ed realised that he was seeing himself at twenty-one. He had never imagined being that old before, but it kind of suited him. At last he looked like the adult he claimed to be, although maybe when he turned eighteen he'd cut his hair. Anything to stop him looking like his dad.
'Hacking your hair off won't stop you looking like that bastard.' Ed shuddered to himself, watching his counterpart grin as if enjoying the punchline of a good joke. 'It doesn't matter what you look like; what matters is what you do. Unlike dad, you never walk out on the people who need you, and you never will. Besides, Roy gets sulky every time you mention cutting off the ponytail.'
'Roy?' Ed asked incredulously, alarmed by the feel of the name on his lips. It shouldn't have felt right, and the fact it did only made him angry. 'What the hell were you – was I – will I... .' He trailed off, his mind caught up in a confusion of tenses before he sighed and pressed his hand to his forehead.
'Look, I know you've never thought of him in that way before. I remember what it was like. The only thing that mattered back then was Al, but after today you'll look at Roy differently.' He grinned again, and Ed realised there was a faint hint of Mustang's smirk in it. 'You'll try not to, you'll try and prove all this wrong, but it still happens anyway. You'll fight it, he'll fight it, and then you'll both realise it's hopeless.'
The other him scratched the back of his head, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, because I know you. I am you, and you're a stubborn brat. I just -' He stopped, biting his lip, and when he looked up again his eyes were earnest and clear. 'Whatever you think right now, within an hour you'll have your doubts. In a year you'll see that things have changed between the two of you, and by the time you're eighteen you'll know the truth of it. He'll always be a smug bastard, but he's the best damn thing that could ever happen to you. Take it from someone who knows.'
Ed's shoulders slumped as he stared at himself, trying to read his own expression. He really believed it. He really, honestly thought that Mustang was good for him. The strangest thing was that, from what he had seen, he could almost believe it too. The older him was happy, comfortable in himself and strong with confidence. Was it Mustang who had taken what he was now – a mess of scars and guilt and tangled, skittish emotions and forged him into that?
'Brother? You promised to help me pick a birthday present for Winry. Are you coming?'
Ed's breath left him in a rush as he whipped around to stare at the young man in the doorway. Blonde hair stuck up at all angles, and patient grey eyes, bright with intelligence, were glued to his older self. There was no armour, no tinny, echoing voice, just Al. He even looked the right age, and his body wasn't frail or wasted from years in the gate, but strong and sure.
'We get him back?' he asked, all thoughts of Mustang fleeing his mind as he reached out to grab the other Ed's arm, swearing as his hand drifted right through. 'How do we do it? Is it the research we're working on? When does this happen? How much longer do we have to wait?'
'Gimme two minutes, Al, and I'll be there. I need to finish something off first.' His older face was serious now, and Ed knew that, even if he hadn't heard the questions, he could remember asking them. He waited until Al had wandered back out of the door before saying, 'All I can tell you is that the answer isn't in the library, it's here. You really owe Mustang for sending you on this assignment. If he hadn't, you might never have got Al back.'
Overhead a bell tolled, painfully loud, and Ed blinked as the world wavered and began to fade. The ground beneath his feet grew tacky, and the air became stormy with the scent of alchemy.
'You need to get back to where you were!' the older Ed shouted over the din. 'If you don't, I don't know where or when you'll end up!'
He didn't need any further urging, sprinting away down the steps and into the catacombs as his heart thudded in the base of his throat. It was all too much to take in. His mind was like a water-logged sponge, heavy and aching with uncertain knowledge. Him and Mustang together, in love, for all he knew, and somewhere in the ruin of this church was the way to bring Al's body back.
Catching sight of the wider tomb he sped up, hearing the last chime of the bell and feeling its heavy echo bounce back and forth, slamming into his skin in waves. Something on the smooth floor caught his toe and he went sprawling, cracking his head on the corner of the stone as the world went to white.
He didn't hit the ground. Instead he slammed into something that gave way with a surprised 'whuff' of air. Strong arms went around him reflexively as they both fell to the floor, and he could tell from the spicy scent of the man's cologne that it wasn't Havoc who had caught him, but Mustang.
Fuckin' great, he thought, opening his eyes a fraction to glare weakly at the blue and gold clad chest he was lying against. Beneath his left palm he could feel Mustang's heart hammering hard and fast, as if he had just received a bad shock, and his ribs rose and fell in a sigh that could have been relief but just sounded weary to Ed's ears.
'Nice of you to drop in, Fullmetal.' It was said in the same smug voice as always, but the next words sounded a little softer as a gloved hand gently touched the back of his head. 'Are you all right?'
Ed made a non-committal sound, propping himself up on his hands and taking stock of the situation. He was straddling Mustang's hips, and if he didn't feel so sick and disoriented he would have scrambled away, but right now movement didn't feel like a good idea. Dark eyes were watching him warily, as if Mustang wasn't sure if Ed would vanish again as abruptly as he had appeared.
They were both in the catacombs, sprawled uncomfortably on the ground where he had been crouching when the array activated. Quickly, he glanced over the stonework, but there was no sign of the design that had dragged him forward through time. Maybe it had never existed at all. Maybe he'd just head-butted the tomb and passed out.
'You've hurt.' Mustang tugged off one of his gloves and reached up, touching the gash on the left side of Ed's head gently. Pain sparked at his fingertips, and Ed flinched away, shutting his eyes as the room performed an unsteady waltz. He could feel the hot trickle of blood running down the side of his face, and it stung like a bitch. 'It looks quite deep. It'll probably scar.'
Ed's eyes shot open, staring down at Mustang in disbelief. 'What?'
'I said it'll scar,' Mustang repeated slowly, as if talking to a simpleton, but there was a flicker of genuine concern in his expression as he moved his hand down to grab Ed's jaw, turning his face more towards the lantern light. 'How hard did you hit your head?'
The older him had that thin, white scar slicing through his left eyebrow, and Ed trailed a finger along the cut, knowing it charted exactly the same course. The knowledge of it was like a slap in the face, forcing him to recognise that what he had seen was real. His doubt had been a fragile thing anyway, but now it vanished completely. The truth turned his thoughts dense and slow, and he stared dumbly at Mustang.
He expected it to be difficult to see the man Roy would become, but actually it was far too simple. Everything he was in the future was there in the present, hidden behind the artful construction of his masks. He only wanted Ed to see so much and, until now, Ed had obliged and never looked any deeper. Now there was no desk between them, and the surprise of Ed's arrival had knocked most of Mustang's façades aside. He was still trying to be aloof and commanding, but he seemed to be fighting a losing battle.
His eyes were dark, almost black in the flickering lantern light, but the irises were shot through with a richer navy colour that Ed had never noticed before. The expression on his features wasn't distant, it was intense, as if he was staring at an intricate puzzle and trying to work out the solution. Warm fingers still held Ed's jaw, firm against his pulse as their gazes locked and something turned the air thick and heavy.
Ed's breath caught in his throat, and he glanced down at Mustang's lips before looking back to his eyes, wondering at the change in him. He didn't look self-assured or confident any more. He looked curious and a little afraid, with the faintest light of that same hunger in his gaze, held very firmly in check.
'Can you stand up?' The question was a little hoarse, and there was a hint of desperation to the words. It took a moment for Ed to realise why, and when he did he was glad that the gloom hid the blush that slammed into his face. He was still straddling Mustang's hips, and that meant he was sitting very neatly over his – oh.
Ed moved like a scalded cat, jumping to his feet. The room performed another dizzy spin, and he clutched at the tomb for support as he waited for it to settle.
Mustang got to his feet with a little more grace, moving around to the other side of the slab so that there was several feet of rock between them. He looked confused and doubtful, but it didn't last for long. Within the space of a few seconds he had schooled his features into something more professional, and he braced his palms on the lid of the sarcophagus.
Ed parted his lips to say something, to mumble some excuse and do anything to get away from here, but the sound of running footsteps made him pause as Havoc and Elaine emerged from the darkness, lantern in hand. They both looked pale and tense, and Jean melted with visible relief when he saw Ed standing there.
'What the hell, boss? Where have you been?'
Ed blinked, idly noticing how close Elaine stood to Jean, near enough for their shoulders to be touching as they waited for his answer. 'How long have I been gone?' he asked, wincing at the hoarse sound of his voice.
'Almost four hours,' Elaine said, gesturing wildly. 'Anything could have happened to you down here! You could have fallen down a hole or been buried in a collapse!'
'What did happen?' Mustang demanded, his jaw tight as he stared at Ed.
Telling the truth didn't seem like a good idea. Besides, it wasn't like anyone would believe him. Stiffly, he shrugged, trying to think. 'I bent down to check out the engraving on this tomb and accidentally activated something. All I remember is a lot of light and then waking up here.'
'A lot of light,' Mustang echoed, his voice heavy with disbelief as Ed glared at him. 'You're telling me that all of us from the office have been searching this place high and low for the past four hours, and you can't remember what happened.'
Ed shrugged, dabbing at the bleeding gash on his forehead. 'Sorry,' he muttered sarcastically. 'I hit my head. Not my fault I passed out.'
He wasn't buying any of it. Ed could see from the look on Mustang's face that he would force it out of him eventually, and he quickly looked away to avoid the searching strength of his gaze.
The array on the side of the tomb was still glowing weakly, and Ed tipped his aching head to one side as his mind slowly began to think it over, gathering momentum as a theory took shape. He looked up, glancing around the tombs with narrowed eyes before curling his fingers under the lid of the sarcophagus. 'I think I know what the marks on the tombs are. I need to look inside. Give me a hand.'
'Wait, you can't just open it,' Elaine squeaked. 'You could be disturbing valuable artefacts. You could destroy priceless evidence. You could – Oh my god.' Her voice fell to a whisper as Ed and Mustang hauled on the lid, opening it a fraction.
'I thought these people died hundreds of years ago?' Havoc said, his voice tight and nervous as he peered in. 'They don't look like they've been dead for more than a day.'
'Don't touch!' Ed snapped, a flicker of guilt whipping through him as Elaine snatched back her outstretched hand, looking at him in wide-eyed surprise. 'The arrays on the side of the tomb make sure that no time passes in it. I think it's recycling the same day over and over again so that they don't rot. It's a different century in there than it is here. I don't know what would happen if you stuck your hand through the alchemy, but I don't think it'd be good.'
Mustang took a deep breath, looking from the contents of the grave to Ed and back again. 'The arrays manipulate time?'
'Looks that way.' Ed took in the bodies, skin unblemished but for the pallor of death. 'They're on every tomb. This one's bigger because there are more bodies inside.'
'Could you use it for anything other than stopping things rotting?' Jean asked, stepping back from the sarcophagus and straightening his shoulders as he looked around nervously. 'To go back and forward in time, or something like that?'
Ed didn't say anything for a moment. He could sense Mustang's eyes on him, intense and piercing, and he knew that the colonel was putting together the pieces and working out what had happened to Ed. 'In theory,' he hedged, giving a nonchalant shrug, 'but someone would need to study the arrays and find out how to use them. It could take years, and even then it probably wouldn't work.'
'Havoc, go and find the others,' Mustang ordered. 'We need to place this dig under military control.'
'What?' Elaine demanded, shaking her head. 'I thought if we found arrays here you'd give us extra funding, not kick us out! Do you know how long we've worked on this? Do you have any idea -?'
'We won't take it away from you, but the designs on these tombs could be considered classified information.' He gave Elaine a charming smile, which just made the young woman raise a doubtful eyebrow. 'Don't worry. The project will still be under your control. I'll need to speak to Mr Wallace. Could you find him for me?'
She grimaced, looking between the two of them suspiciously before giving a grudging nod and following in Havoc's footsteps, leaving them at the tomb-side. The lantern on the floor made huge shadows on the wall, and Ed watched the dancing shades as he waited for Mustang to start talking
'I'm sorry, Ed.'
He looked across at him sharply, automatically on his guard. An apology was not what Ed had expected, and he didn't say anything as he waited for Mustang to elaborate.
'I meant for this to be a brief assignment so that you could back to your research, but -' He ran a hand through his hair, casting a frown at the rank and file of the graves. ' - but these arrays need to be studied. If they can manipulate time, then we need to know.'
'What, so when the army loses a battle they can go back and try again?' He sounded more bitter than he intended, and Mustang shot him a dark look.
'No, so that we can make sure the military never know what's right under their noses. I can't pass this off to anyone else and keep it hidden, and I can't let the rest of the army know about it. It could be disastrous.' He lowered his voice, sounding more like a friend than a commanding officer as he added, 'Everyone has things in their past that they'd change if they could.'
'Including me,' Ed pointed out quietly. 'What makes you think I won't use this alchemy to stop myself from trying to bring my mum back?'
Mustang watched him, his expression unreadable as the silence stretched all around. There was no one else down in the catacombs with them but the sleeping dead, and the noise from the temple overhead was muted and distant. Finally, he murmured, 'I trust you.'
Ed's heart skipped a beat and he narrowed his eyes, trying to see any trace of Mustang's normal manipulative ways. There were none.
Slowly, he let his shoulders drop, admitting in a quiet voice. 'It wouldn't work anyway. Even if we could get the arrays to work like that, I wouldn't have listened to myself.' He paused, scowling at the floor. 'I'd have tried to prove myself wrong.' He glanced up at Mustang, eyes narrowing thoughtfully as he asked, 'What would you change?'
Ed would have bet a month's wages that the man would shake his head and brush him off but, after a moment's pause, he moved around the edge of the tomb, approaching Ed's side. 'A lot of things: almost everything that happened in Ishbal, for a start.' He gently nudged Ed away from the sarcophagus and led him towards the stairs that led up to the main level. 'Not that I'd have listened to myself any more than you would. The mistakes we make are part of who we are, and that can't be changed.'
After today you'll look at him differently... .
He didn't believe in fate or destiny. Nothing was inevitable, but Ed couldn't deny what he had seen. In the future there was a version of himself who was happy and content, who was free of the army and had snatched Al back from the gate. Somewhere in the distant days ahead, there was the life he rarely let himself hope for.
He had never included Mustang – Roy – in that picture, but now... .
Now, he wasn't so sure.
Author's note II: There might be a sequel to this from older!Ed's point of view. We'll see how it goes :D Thank you for reading!