Catalysis
Iluxia & Aventria

Inspirations: Oscar Wilde's "Dorian Gray," John Green's "Paper Towns" and "The Fault In Our Stars." Brahms and Strauss and Stravinsky. Also some Rachmaninov. Orange chocolate cakes. Steaks. The puzzle section of Barnes & Noble. Ridiculous amounts of Earl Grey tea and blueberry scones. Vile vending-machine espresso shots at the asscrack of dawn when I'm trying and miserably failing to stay awake during hospital rotations. Three boxes of ink cartridges, dozens of expensive hand and back and neck massages, and eighty-four handwritten pages of pure masochistic joy. (Yes, I think I've figured out why Catalysis takes so long to update. Mm-hmm. Definitely. This is why. All of it is handwritten, I shit you not. I believe only chapters 1-4 were typed...)

Notice: Yes, Catalysis lives! No, it's not going to be scrapped. Also, catalisis LJ will be shut down soon - it is time for me to leave LJ behind, methinks. It's been a fun seven years but it's not working for me anymore, so no point in forcing it. References for Catalysis can now be found here, and Catalysis will now be housed on AO3 and FFN only (yes, the LJ counterpart really is going down). Makes it easier for me to up chapters. (AO3, of course, will still be the better version, because it allows me to embed images, which FFN will not. Humor me here; I must have my perks!)

Addendum to the notice: ...go to AO3, please. The footnotes are there. I can't post them here; it won't allow images and links. Google "Catalysis archiveofourown" or go to my profile for the link!


III : Growing Pains

10


.

Having spent the previous day traipsing around the city, they settled for a day of rest much-welcomed by Izumi's delicate condition. Master refused all manner of coddling, but it was all in vain, for Sig was equally formidable when he made up his mind. Roy similarly forbade her from undue exertion after taking a searching look into Izumi's face.

"You shall have to tell me more about this condition of yours, Miss Curtis," he implored, "I know a number of highly capable doctors who might be able to help. A discussion for when I come home later, perhaps?" Her eyes darkened like the skies before a storm, but she gave no words of refusal.

"You have to teach me how you do that one day," Edward bid Roy as they made their way to the street where Havoc stood in wait. "I've never seen her consent like that from a stranger before." They were strangers, Roy and Izumi, if not for Ed and Al. And yet Ed was convinced that their paths were not so distant from the other as it first seemed. The world at large was a strange place, full of strange coincidences. (Please! the Gate scoffed. All things fall into their place at their precise time.)

But Mustang's response took his attention away from the Gate's cheek. "I did nothing," the man said, "save suggest an option that might prove favourable to her in the long run. The key, Edward, is to offer them such options — choices — wherein they may gain something of value for a small sacrifice. Options, you see, allow the freedom of will — though mostly false — that the human ego desires."

"But it's a false option," Ed offered, still dubious, encountering great difficulty believing that Izumi would fall for Roy's clever little tricks.

"Perhaps. Their answer may not be what you expect. This is why it is integral to minimise their refusal by giving them options," a smirk, coy and triumphant, tugged at Roy's lips as he stepped into his military car. "I trust you can navigate the kitchen for yourselves. Stay safe, Ed; I'll see you later."

"Later," Ed echoed, closing the front gate. When he turned toward the house, Al stood by the doors. "Hey. Everything okay?"

"Oh, fine," dismissed his brother. "But I have something to show you. Something from Mum. Dad gave it to her to give to us, before he left." Al paused, looked into the house behind him, and asked, "Should we tell master about it…?"

"Well, what is it?" asked Ed, thinking, something Mum neglected to give me, apparently.

"A small box," Al held up his hands to mime the size and shape, "probably just enough space for a letter, maybe, and a small trinket or two. I don't know. It's upstairs."

Ed closed the front door behind him, bolting it as he thought. On the one hand, they owed their master a great deal of honesty after the mess they had caused. On the other, in close consideration of Hohenheim's… crowd, perhaps keeping sensitive knowledge to themselves would be the wiser move. Izumi knowing of these things could only mean her further involvement in troubles beyond her concern and physical capacity.

Her coughing — deep and wet, as her impaired vessels struggled to remove excess fluid from her lungs — echoed from the ground floor guest rooms. Ed's decision was made for him then.

"Let's not tell her until we know what's in it," Ed declared, ushering his little brother up the stairs. Their bare feet made no sound against the gleaming redwood. "When we see what's inside, we'll decide what to tell her then. It could be nothing important in there that we don't need to be worrying her about."

"Right," Al agreed, though they both knew the futility of that statement. Hohenheim, for all the pains he took over the years to hide himself and his purpose, would never have left such an item for them if it was not of significant import. Whatever this matter was, though, they had no clue.

They retreated into Ed's rooms and closed the doors before Al retrieved the box from the depths of his knapsack. At a distance, Ed saw a small golden box, no longer than the length and width of his palm, with sturdy make and no visible latch. Upon closer inspection, they found that it lacked any visible means of opening at all, or any other external mark, save for small block letters engraved starkly on its front:

BLOOD OF THE TRUTH

BLOOD OF SUN

BLOOD OF MY MOON

BLOOD OF MY BLOOD

ILLUMINATE THE TRUTH

Strange words were made even stranger by their peculiar — and visibly intentional — indentation. They both puzzled over the words for a few minutes, Ed pondering the significance of the spacing: the conspicuous gaps were what first caught his eye. He knew from what little he had read of literature that poetry sometimes took advantage of the white spaces in between type to emphasize or perhaps cloak some hidden meaning.

But I'm hopeless at poetry, bemoaned Ed, and the one person whom I know isn't is away! Roy could shed some light on this, but they'd need to wait for him to return home first, then wait for a chance to talk without their master there. And how likely is that, with her guarding all of our interactions with Roy like some feral predator?

"Mum didn't give me any key," Al murmured then, turning the box over and around. "How are we supposed to open this?"

"If Hohenheim's being literal, then we bleed for it," Ed deadpanned. The Gate snickered at their predicament. "Four repetitions of the word can't be coincidental. Something to do about blood." He scowled in bare-naked contempt. "Morbid. And here I thought he cares for our wellbeing!"

"Brother," Al sighed in admonition. "A little blood loss isn't that detrimental to our overall health. Maybe all it needs is a little drop!"

"Or maybe it needs to be submerged in a bucket; how do we know?" Ed returned vindictively, realising how petty and ridiculous he was being (Al's exasperated glare confirmed as much) He cared not a single bit. He detested the necessity of Hohenheim's mysterious departure; it was unfair. But the world was hardly, if ever, fair. "I suppose we can't force it open by hand, then?"

"That would be a supremely bad idea if anything fragile is inside," Al nodded, "but it's made of metal. We can try alchemy."

True enough it would be a simple matter of molecular displacement. Ed put his palms together, and, murmuring, "Here goes nothing," wrapped his fingers around the box. Bright blue sparks flared to life, skittering and scuttling over the golden surface, giving the engraved letters an ephemeral glimmer, casting pale shadows against the wall as they grew brighter and brighter —

"STOP!" yelped his brother at the same moment that he dropped the box to terminate the reaction. Mutely they both stared at the box as the light faded from its outline.

Al spoke first. "That was overload!"

"But why?" Ed's face collapsed in confusion. "How?"

"Brother, what did you try to do? Did you use anything special — "

"No!" he denied. Such an elementary mistake; he could not have made it! "Just an ordinary cleaving array to part the metal into two! Did I get the substance wrong? No, that's gunmetal for sure…"

"So what went wrong?" Al puzzled. "Why would it overload? Arrays never overload unless there's a glyph error, and you don't make glyph errors."

They stared at the other for a brief moment, before Ed fetched a slip of paper and a pencil. "You try it," he offered, watching his little brother draw the exact same array he had held in his head — I had it exactly the same, didn't I? he asked the Gate in a panicky voice, to which it indulgently replied, Yes, Edward — and for a second time, they watched the reaction fail. "Another overload. It wasn't just me. Strange. D'you think we should bring it to master?"

A prospect they were both reluctant to submit to, if going by Al's querulous expression. She would doubtless tire herself lecturing them yet again about the evils of recklessness and unsupervised experimentation, especially with unknown, untried objects such as this. It was highly unlikely that they would even get to opening the box at all.

"Maybe we should try the blood," Al suggested, sounding stubborn and hesitant all at once.

Ed had to blink. "What, really? What is this, magic? No alchemy I know of opens boxes when you give it blood! I mean, how does that even work? Blood for opening a box — of all the nonsensical…" he trailed off into quiet murmurs of consideration, permutations of lock arrays skimming above his thoughts as he played with the mechanics in his head. The Lindbergh locks were the only ones he could think of that could come even close to that level of complexity, but they operated within the realistic bounds of alchemy, using scripts as keys for the locks on the item, and not blood. (Fine bit of invention, those Lindbergh locks were.)

"Well," Al began cautiously in that tone that he used whenever he was on the verge of using words sure to offend Ed, "maybe the lock is something special. I'm pretty sure Dad knows a lot of alchemy you and I don't know."

That he does, the Gate affirmed in its usual glib manner, irking Ed all the more. But the mystery at hand far outweighed his ego's need for reassurance, so he let the comments slide and fetched a safety pin. (His glares, of course, lost none of their acid potency.)

Al held the box steady as Ed pricked his finger, watching the blood slowly swell. When there appeared enough to be sufficient, Ed swiped the finger across the box's surface, smearing a line of dark red against the engraved letters.

For a few moments nothing happened under their anxious watch. Ed's doubt throbbed in his throat, and he opened his mouth to declare their attempt a useless one after all, when the blood began to sink into the shallow crevices of the engraved letters to trace the words crimson in an eerie display — and then it vanished — vanished! — into the metal, as if absorbed by a sponge!

Another incredulous heartbeat passed, spent gaping at the other like a pair of fools, until the box gave an unearthly reddish glow, split its metal housing neatly into half, and promptly parted to unload the small bundle of paper and cloth secreted away in its care.

"WHAT!" Ed was incredulous and appalled, as he took stock of the box. "How is that possible! That's not in the books! What — how did he do that! How!"

The Gate, no doubt privy to the specific manner of devilry at present work before them, chose to hold its peace and offered a mere moonlike smile.

While he spluttered, Al took the two halves of the box into either hand and put them side by side. The split was neat, a clean vertical cut dividing the metal box into two. But the peculiar way the cut fell across the engraved words allowed a new reading to surface for their eyes.

BLOOD OF THE TRUTH

BLOOD OF SUN

BLOOD OF MY MOON

BLOOD OF MY BLOOD

ILLUMIN ATE THE TRUTH

The indented first and last lines were cut into half by the vertical split, leaving one half of the box with most of the verse while the other half was left with fragments of a line. 'THE TRUTH ATE THE TRUTH,' one-half of the box now read, turning Ed's attention to the Gate. Still it remained, wordless and unhelpful but for a wider glib smile.

"Does it mean the Gate?" asked Al, apprehensive and visibly more than a little annoyed. Remembering none of that strange realm, his little brother was left out of the loop. Al, of course, was the better choice if one of them had to be left out like so, given Ed's nonexistent patience and inclination towards reckless and potentially fatal unguarded exploration.

"It has to," Ed frowned. "I can't think of any other possible meaning."

"But — how does Dad know about the Gate?" Al's tone was clad in anxiety, confusion, and apprehension — and for good reason: knowledge of the Gate was only attainable through direct contact with it, or someone who had seen it. And considering which precise examples of alchemy involved direct interaction with the Gate, well. If fortune was with Hohenheim, then he would have known about the Gate through someone else — but Ed knew fortune shied from their lineage, at least the sort of fortune that kept one out of grand and dangerous circumstances.

So Ed could only shrug and respond, in an oddly off-put tone, "As you said, he probably knows a lot of alchemy you and I don't know." (The Gate smiled in delight and patted him with a paw.)

The very admission made him uncomfortable, so he transferred his attention to the box's contents. Al was correct: it did contain a wad of folded paper that had to be a letter, along with a small bundle of red cloth secured by a golden string.

"Letter first?"

"Letter first."

Al scooted close as Ed unfolded the letter. They began to read:

.

Edward and Alphonse,

By the time you are reading this, I have been long gone. While I regret not witnessing your growth into fine young alchemists, certain responsibilities in one's life cannot be simply abandoned or forgotten. I must meet this responsibility on its way to find me. I cannot allow my old world to damage the quiet life Trisha and I have had, even if it is at the cost of separation. I can hope that my decision does not cause you too much pain, a vain hope; I will trust the strength of heart that the both of you will have inherited from your mother. In any case, that you are reading this letter is an assurance of your relative safety and well-being, which is already more than I dare ask for.

But the purpose of this letter is neither in apologies and excuses, nor in pleas for forgiveness. We will address those at a later, more prudent time, when we finally reunite in person, so you will both be able to see for yourselves the sincerity of my apologies and the truthfulness in my reasons. Instead, I have entrusted this letter to your mother for her to hand you when you come to understand what alchemy truly means. She is no alchemist, but she is an intelligent woman. She will know when the time is right. Do not begrudge her if she delays. She takes her time to consider things, a trait of a wise individual.

The world of alchemy is both vast and small: once you enter practice, you will be encountering people I know and worked with, or people who know me, or of me. You are both intelligent boys: you will know not to take this world to Resembool's quiet idyll. You will leave your childhood home and seek places of knowledge elsewhere. Your mother is even more ill-equipped to deal with the world's pressures and perils than you two are. Leave her to her quiet life. She will reconcile to your departure as she has reconciled with mine.

I do not belittle you when I deem the two of you ill-equipped for the world at large. I do not mean it in a disparaging manner, but it is the truth, and we must learn not to begrudge the Truth. Too often we lay the blame upon it when we ourselves are to blame for our own folly. I can do little to prepare you for what you will go to face — and they are great dangers, because you are my sons — but if you heed my words here, you should stay safe.

First among the items here is a small booklet of great value and sensitivity. Do not reveal its contents to others. It is a complete list of the people I have met and associated with, with notes on these pertinent people: who they are, where they live, how to contact them, what they do, what their other capabilities are, what loyalties they hold, where their weaknesses lie, and whether or not they should be trusted, with what, and to what degree. Such information can prove disastrous in the wrong hands, and some of these people are my good friends. It is not my desire to repay their kindness and companionship with treachery.

I have marked these trustworthy individuals whom I can feel you can approach and befriend. They will be willing to lend you a hand provided you reciprocate with good faith and earnest friendship. You may, of course, have already met some of them, for I can think of a few who might seek Hohenheim's children first, if they gain knowledge of your existence.

Second are three warnings you must heed, though they might sound arbitrary and ill-contrived:

NEVER, under any circumstance, perform any of the three forbidden acts of alchemy.

Should you encounter any person bearing a tattoo of an ouroboros, in the likeness of the necklaces I have enclosed in this box, run. Do NOT engage with them: they are dangerous individuals possessed of a range of powers in combat and regeneration beyond any modern capacity of alchemy today. Avoid attracting their attention and refrain from any significant interactions with them. Above all, NEVER mention your relation to me. If you must engage with them, do so with every intent of escape. There is no shame in running if it earns you and your people another day to fight. If and only if you are caught without any means of escape, show them this necklace—which you must wear at all times, even in sleep or in the bath—and it will buy you time. At the very least, it should keep you alive and breathing.

Beware of the shadows. These are no ordinary shadows; it lives and breathes and watches. It has eyes in the dark and can deal you harm if you give it any reason to. Do not provoke it; from it you cannot run, and against it you cannot win. Not yet.

Take these words to heart and do not discard them as the ramblings of an old man. I only ever wish for your safety and wellbeing. I cannot prevent you from setting out to see the world, but I can at least forewarn and thus forearm you against its perils.

May your feet be sure and your hands be steady; may the road take you to travels memorable and worthy. Home is now behind you, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread. So take heed and be watchful until we meet again.

T. Van Hohenheim

.

The coverlet was warm underneath Ed's fingertips, soft cloth and cotton giving way to the force of his grip. Silence settled between them, pregnant with the multitude of emotions coursing through their limbs. The lack of clear answers was enough to drive Ed mad with rage and frustration! What did the old man hope to accomplish with the letter if it only served to further his confusion? It only gave him more questions! Why did the world only ever see fit to give him nothing but questions?!

Ah, there now. You're overreacting, admonished the Gate, with the dismissive brandish of a vaguely puffy tail. You saw me. I am an answer, am I not? I am answer, the answer, to many, many things. We must care never to complicate that which is simple just as we must not simplify that which is complex. Do not blame the answers for not making sense, Little Hohenheim, especially if you are the one asking the wrong questions.

"Agh, shut up!" he snarled, "Let me think! I don't need or want your fucking riddles right now!"

Al jumped at his sudden outburst and gave him a look. "Brother," and there was a small note of alarm in his voice, but Ed burst just then from his seat and began pacing the room. Many things were mentioned in that letter — he would need to make copies — if he could only pick them out to examine them with greater care, surely something—! Surely it would be able to provide him with some sort of, of direction. As much as the words sounded ridiculous, they were Hohenheim's words: they had to be of some worth. Absent though he was, Hohenheim had never lied to them: not in his textbooks, not in his journals, never in anything they have had of their father throughout their childhood years learning alchemy. He knew to heed those words — and besides, he personally knew the truthfulness of at least one part in the letter: the existence of the shadows. (Ed shuddered as the Gate coiled tight in displeasure.)

…and then there was the ouroboros. People with ouroboros tattoos could be as common as black crows! What was the likelihood of such a well-known symbol of alchemy being a unique marker for one specific group of people? Not to mention the logistic difficulty of screening every person for one! How on earth was he even supposed to conduct that conversation? Good day, I'm Edward, pleasure to meet you; would you mind stripping so I could see if you have an ouroboros tattoo? Edward blanched, horrified.

"Brother," Al repeated, this time with significant force. "Sit down. You're making me dizzy. Throwing a fit won't do us any good." Under his little brother's heavy glare, Ed folded in surrender. "I'm supposing you know about some of the things he's mentioned, going from your reaction. Spit it out, then. I'm getting sick of being left behind."

That stung far more than Al surely intended, but Ed keeping pain was one of those skills his brush with the Gate gifted him. He gave no outward indication of his smarting heart and recounted his brief and inconclusive encounter with what he thought Hohenheim meant by 'the shadows.' He had time enough to warn about absolute silence on the matter before Al burst into his own hissy fit.

"Why do these things always happen when I'm not around!" he shouted, voice bouncing against the walls. These rooms had superb insulation; Ed doubted they would be heard downstairs. "I don't know what it is you did, brother, but the trouble seems to be following — no, hunting you! There's more you haven't told me about things that have happened here — don't think I can't tell — and they all revolve around you. This is starting to get beyond ridiculous!"

"Er," Ed offered carefully, "everything mainly started after the Gate?" and he winced at the vitriol in the Gate's glare. Sure, it hissed, just put all the blame on me. After all, I'm the one who drew and activated a human transmutation array. Must be convenient to have a scapegoat handy for every major fuck up, no? Oh, and by the way, I'm also the one with remarkable golden eyes.

"That shadow — do you think it knows you're Dad's son?" Al asked, jolting him from the Gate's inspired melodrama once again. "It's a little too good of a timing to be a mere coincidence."

"Al, we don't even know if that was real," he chided, reaching for some blank paper. He should make copies of the letter now. "Could be a harmless shadow, could be my addled imagination… could be Hohenheim's addled imagination too, actually, now that I think of it. I mean, really, shadows?"

Spoken like a true brave warrior who didn't cower into Mustang's bedcovers to get away from the dark, sneered his Companion. He conjured a mental bucket of water over its funny catlike head, upturning it with a vicious mental shove. Drenched, it sprang away with a yowl. (The corresponding physical sensation was best described as a sudden knife of cold tingling towards his left ear.)

"It all sounds like make-believe, but I think I'll trust Dad, brother." Al fished the two necklaces from the pocket of paper they were nestled within. The filigree and elegant metalwork inspired a memory of his recent birthday gift to Roy. "We didn't think blood would work but it did. We didn't believe or even conceive of a Truth but there it is. Father's talking about things that sound impossible — but is it really so hard to consider them likely? How much harder to believe a successful human transmutation?"

Ed took a necklace and watched Al don the other. The small circle of gold hung on a thin chain that looked delicate and almost feminine against his little brother's throat, but it shone a queer white-blue under a certain angle of light: Ed guessed activated titanium. It would take significant force to break that chain — even without counting the abundant web of protective scripts no doubt etched into them. Ed swallowed. Hohenheim was serious.

"Come on, brother," Al coaxed, patting the letter and the small booklet of blackmail material. (What Hughes would give for such a thing! He had to show it to Roy later.) "Let's make copies and then go through them some more. I'm sure we'll discover more surprises if we look carefully."

Carefully was the keyword. Ed sighed and told himself, Ask the right questions, as he began with the booklet. Glinting under wan sunlight, the ouroboros necklace hung around his neck.


:::

The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.

( Agatha Christie )

:::


They made three copies and fell into argument about who would keep the original. Ed wanted Al to keep it, being far away from Central's perils and politics and closer in spirit to Hohenheim. It was however for the very same reason that Al thought Ed should keep it — "because you need to try to consider and understand Dad better, brother!"

What an utter load of bull.

A stupidly sentimental letter was not about to help him 'consider' his dearest Father Hohenheim the Late. He needed to break Al out of this unsightly habit of insisting on clearly futile attempts, or at least convince Izumi to see to it. Time and energy were better spent on fruitful pursuits!

Ultimately they decided upon their usual brotherly compromise (and this was well into the afternoon): Alphonse would keep the original letter while Ed would take the original booklet. Similarly, the second copies were between them split. The third set of copies went back into the box, which resealed after it was given another drop of blood. They had yet to decide for a place to hide the infernal thing.

Soon Roy was home, hopping upstairs to chance and say hello before heading for the kitchen to help Sig prepare dinner.

"Roy, after dinner," Ed caught the man's sleeve, "we need to talk with you. Alone." Al was leaving tomorrow for Dublith, their tickets already scheduled and paid for. They would have no other chance to field their questions at Roy apart from tonight.

"Alright," Roy easily acquiesced, giving them a knowing smile before disappearing down the back stairs. The man was by now well used to undue demands on his time and attention, as he well should, Ed thought, because it's been more than two months since I came here, and that's bloody long already.

"He really does spoil you rotten," Al mused, playing with the ouroboros necklace. It was fast becoming a habit — Al had done it four times in the past forty minutes. His little brother was distractedly happy about having received a trinket from Hohenheim, and it showed. Ed would have to leave a sharp word or two about that; it would not do at all to walk around with the necklace bared if Hohenheim's words were to be properly heeded. (They had decided to be serious about heeding their father's words, for if breaking the man's first warning about forbidden alchemy dealt the damage it did, however much more for breaking the other two warnings about the ouroboros and the shadows? He shuddered to think what sort of catastrophe that would look like.)

"Brother! Are you listening?"

"No, sorry, what?"

"I said," Al sighed, frowning and casting a look that read 'Not Impressed,' "are you sure we should leave Master out of this?"

Ed's face darkened. "Positive."

"Why? She could help! It's just a letter from Dad," Al sighed again. "I thought you said we'd tell her after we saw what was inside."

"And what's inside is so inconsequential; it's really none of her concern," Ed scowled, picking at his notes. The edges of his notebook bore faint indentations from mild but repetitive abuse from his fingernails. "Look, she's still your master, so I can see why you'd want to consult with her. Feel free but do wait at least until you're in Dublith, okay?"

"Brother, distance does nothing to dull her wrath."

"Oh, yes, it does something! It does great things for my overall state of health! Not to mention my mental stability!" He was met with a small frown, though, so he ceased his theatrics with a defeated slump of his shoulders. "Look, I can tell how she's going to react about the Booklet of Blackmail on shady people, and I don't want to hear any of it from her. Worst case scenario is she'll insist on hiding it from Roy, which, apart from being absolutely impossible, is also absolutely daft. Roy's in the best position equipped with the right amount of cunning and motivation to use it to substantial effect — and he's capable of doing so with enough tact that he won't stain Hohenheim's name or offend any of his precious friends. Hell, those precious friends might be friends to Roy as well, I wouldn't be surprised…"

He neglected to mention his own stubborn, childish, and prideful wish to separate his movements from Izumi's watchful eyes and guarding hands. The contrary desire sparked out of nowhere, gaining strength and speed as a wildfire in dry grassland the more they talked of it. He was done with her total protection, screw total protection, he hissed, I learn faster without it. And this was true: the pain of the last two months had taught him more than he would have learned staying at Izumi's place for half a year. Oh, it was pain, true enough, and he was no sadist basking in its visceral bite — but learning came with it and he did want that. There were few things in the world he would not give for that.

In stark comparison against Izumi, Roy's protection was much different. It was still in a way coddling and paranoid, but Roy fully expected him to perform outside of total safety, more and more often now, a sign Ed took as a hopeful step towards Roy's reconciliation to the fact that he would not remain a child to be protected forever. If Roy did come to that acknowledgement, he would be the first one of Ed's guardians to do so. For Ed no longer needed to be hidden; instead, he needed to be guided carefully into the world. Roy seemed willing and ready to do so; Izumi was clearly not.

Over dinner, Ed endured Izumi's inquisition with a potent mixture of sulk, sarcasm, and his usual firebrand recalcitrance. It seemed to lull her well into complacence. She was curious as to what they spent all day discussing upstairs and would not rest until she was assured that all was well; Ed's pointedly normal behaviour showed her that all was well.

Alphonse caught the hint and kept comments to a minimum, feigning deep thought so well that Izumi (and Ed too, almost) was tricked into believing that Al really was considering a permutation on the soul link array burned into his own chest. Roy, on the other hand, gave indulgent and approving little smiles all throughout. (Surreptitiously, of course.) Then dinner concluded and Ed feared that Izumi would insist on staying up with them, but Sig, perhaps catching their intention or perhaps in genuine concern for his wife, promptly stood and angled her towards the hallway that led into the guest suite.

She sighed in affection. "Honey, I'm alright. Not made of glass, remember? Won't break." But Sig's wordless grip on her arms was insistent. Whenever Izumi underwent an attack, only a full day's bed rest could restore her to full strength.

Ed hastily assured her, "Go and rest; I promise we'll not do anything stupid." The concern in his voice was sincere. "We'll probably just argue some more about the soul array — but we won't do any stupid experiments like rewriting it while it's holding Al's soul, promise." In the corner of his vision, Al's hand twitched behind the chair.

Izumi sighed. "Fine, fine," she relented, her voice was thin as the winter wind. Her eyes hid a lurking relief at the prospect of more rest. She had spent the day enduring her wracking coughs. Bidding them a good night and reminding Al to get some sleep for the morrow, she retreated into the hallway and vanished from their view.

None of them spoke except for quiet requests or directions from Roy as they worked to clear the dining table and clean the dishes (alchemy). Ed looked forward to not having to use the dining room anymore: he missed the quiet, intense mornings at their kitchen table for two, breakfasts with a lesson or chess session, the little homely things he shared with Roy. Already the table by the kitchen window looked as if it were languishing without their daily attention.

When the chore was concluded and they were each armed with a large piping mug of hot beverage in whatever preferred variation (tea, coffee, hot chocolate), they trooped up the stairs, Ed breaking the silence first as they took seats by the fire. "You tampered with the soul array, didn't you." It was not an accusation: it was a statement of fact.

"I did," Al admitted with a shaky breath, fingers trembling around his cuppa. Al was never much for denial, despite having done grave mistakes few would admit to. (Denial was more of Ed.)

A stretch of silence passed by before Ed ground out, "I am not yelling at you because (1) it'd lure Izumi up here, and (2) because I am on my way to acknowledging that we will both forever be a pair of morons bent on accomplishing an impossible list of moronic and potentially catastrophic things."

Al blinked and turned to Roy. "Thank you, sir."

Roy smiled. "Ah, the pleasure was all mine."

"For what?" Ed bristled. If Roy knew something about this and hid it from him

"Two months ago, brother, you wouldn't be holding yourself back from yelling at me for any reason, much less in consideration of master or to acknowledge our stupidity. This must be Mr. Mustang's efforts showing its results," Al pointed out plain and simple as you please.

Ed had to stop and consider that with some wonder.

"Well then, boys," Roy intervened. "Before the night grows too old, what matter is this that requires my presence and opinion?"

Reminded of their purpose, they presented him the box, which Roy took, examined, and frowned at. He lingered on the etched letters, mouthing the words as if they were a song. Then he said, "Is this from Hohenheim?" to which both Ed and Al startled.

"How did you know?" Al demanded, knowing less of extent of Roy's relationship with their father. Ed meanwhile scowled. So the Bastard really did see and know more of their father. (Small wonder the Bastard was such a bastard, for such things were best learned from masters.) The recognition that lit Roy's eyes was of the same recognition that lit their eyes whenever they discovered a work of Izumi's alchemy: it was of the familiarity borne from a student's close apprenticeship to his master.

"There were poems and songs — plenty of them," Roy recalled, fingers brushing the letters with a gentleness best described as reverence. "Hohenheim was very fond of them. A fair number I'm sure he created, though which ones I can't say for sure. It was very strange alchemy — nothing like I've ever seen or read of before. The words have power, he told me. And so do the spaces — 'the breaths in between,' he called them — and the rhythm and tone, the repetitions, the count. The words had power to act as a directional: more precise, potent, and binding than our modern glyphs and scripts. Essentially they are direct instructions for the energy — without the need to translate intent into glyph and script." With a wistful tone, he sighed. "I never got it out of him how this worked. That was the last year of my stay at the Hawkeyes when he finally explained it to me. Not enough time to talk my way into a lesson."

Ed and Al exchanged laden looks.

"I'm supposing you'll need blood to open this," Roy declared, handing it back to Ed. "No amount of force, alchemy or otherwise, will work."

Ed and Al exchanged a look again. It was Ed who then spoke, "Well, we've actually already opened it earlier, but opening it wasn't what we came to you about. We just wanted to show you what it looked like first, but — well, what we really wanted to ask is if you know what's making it do this." He clapped his hands and held the box, demonstrating the mysterious overload process to see if Roy would recognise it as a step of any reaction at all — and true enough, it had Roy snapping upright in his seat, eyes shining eagerly in the firelight. At first, Ed thought it was in concern for their safety (which if it were so, he would be duly offended, for he was perfectly capable of handling a simple matter of overload, thank you very much!) but Roy's face lit in fascinated delight as the crackling faded away.

"Oh!" the man softly exclaimed, "Ohh, exquisite! Never in my wildest dreams — so there still exist practitioners who — he never told me, the slippery old snake — so rare — "

"Excuse me!" Ed barked with a petulant scowl. "Tell us instead of muttering to yourself like a lunatic! And you call me a mad genius? Pot! Kettle!"

Roy, undaunted by his ire, uttered a soft laugh before smiling through his explanation. "This, boys, is a box sealed with very, very old alchemy long thought lost to the sands of Xerxes' destruction and Persia's fall. It's so old that even the most arcane books in First Library will mention it only in passing. The lock is the untold predecessor, so to speak, of the Lindbergh locks — you know them, yes? Our scholars call this the Pravese lock after Mr. Prava, the alchemist who documented almost all extant knowledge about it. But in the old books — the really old ones — they call it by a different name, a name of its own: the Blood Ward."

Ed's eyes flickered to its surface, where five repetitions of the word burned against firelight. Five for a star. Five for the pillars of a circle.

"Five for protection," Al murmured, eyes dark as they both looked back on the night they began drawing their mother's array. Five for protection, they checked off, building the circle like their master taught them to, with protection for themselves and for the would-be result of their transmutation. Backlash was not to be trifled with, she taught them.

Five for protection, of course, had little potency against the Decider of Equivalence itself. But for this box…

"It's protecting itself!" Ed realised with a start, "and by blood the protection is done! So by law of equivalence —"

"— only by blood can it be undone," Roy nodded. "The Blood Ward was long ago used to protect containers like this that would hold family heirlooms too precious to entrust to simpler, more straightforward forms of security. They would paint the array into the inner panel of the container with the sealer's blood, and then infuse it with enough alchemical charge so that it keeps active and can trigger on its own. Which of course means that only certain materials can be used in the construction of the box: potent metals, conductive crystals, and so forth. Very expensive stuff.

"When the process is finished, the blood will completely absorb into the material, vanishing any trace of a circle — takes about three days. At that point, the array is permanent and the box cannot be opened or destroyed, except by that of the same blood — meaning sons and daughters of the bloodline who wish to open or destroy it. They would need to provide their blood to verify their identity, thus counting this array to be one of the small handful of old blood alchemy that we know of today."

"Blood alchemy?" echoed Al, clearly unfamiliar with the concept. "I understand using blood as an identifier, but that should be it, shouldn't it? Like any other molecular compound, blood is blood. There can't be much you can do with it…"

"On the contrary, scholars of ancient alchemy speak of a whole collection of arrays and alchemical procedures operable only with the addition of blood — and no, not as a mere identifier either, or even as a trigger for that matter. We're unsure how exactly they made it work — terribly rare to find a piece of relic holding a clue," Roy added with a significant glance at the box cradled in Ed's hands. "If I were to put a price on the box you currently hold, it'd be enough to buy one of the major Armstrong estates — and then some."

Ed seized the box to his chest.

"I'm not going to sell it," Roy scoffed, sounding very offended. "Why would I hand it to someone else when it's already under my roof? Besides which, its Hohenheim's property, and now your property. I'm sure you'll find better use of it than any of the military's halfwits in employ. They wouldn't know what to make of that and likely hurt themselves in the process of figuring it out. Let's be generous and spare them the agony."

Ed had to agree. Alchemical backlash was never friendly to the alchemist; Pinako and Winry had even had some customers over the years who were victim to their own stupidity. He stroked the box's surface and wondered if Hohenheim truly trusted them enough not to get hurt handling this box. What if they hadn't known any better? The explosion would have been sizable, the injuries serious.

"Hohenheim knew that you would come looking," Ed told Roy, forcing himself away from more uncomfortable thoughts. He pricked his finger and demonstrated the opening process, which Roy watched with an expression of almost childish delight. They were all of them true and hopeless alchemists at heart, Ed sighed, fascinated by such strange and obscure things… "These are copies of what was inside. Here are the originals. It's just a letter —" Ed pushed that away from Roy's hand "— and two necklaces he told us to wear at all times." Ed chose to share the three warnings and then showed Roy the golden chain.

"But it's the last piece is what I thought you'd be interested in." The booklet Ed retrieved was small, but perhaps half an inch thick, its pages darkened by the thick swarm of Hohenheim's hand. They were notes and observations upon the many significant people Hohenheim had met. Under the first heading, which read 'FRIENDS,' began a troupe of names and pertinent details in gold ink. There on the very first page was Berthold Hawkeye and Roy Mustang.

"Good to know you're not a lying lout, Bastard," to which Roy replied with a wry smile.

Berthold Hawkeye was underlined by Riza Hawkeye, daughter, non-alchemist — and beneath that, 'Do not approach per specific instruction of Berthold.'

Roy nodded. "Berthold never wanted her in the way of danger. She is defenceless against the sort of enemies he would have made for himself during his youth as a well-known anti-martial alchemist. He did not speak of it often but his wife was a casualty of his infamy. He was afraid of the same fate befalling his only remaining blood."

"But she's in the military now," Ed pointed out, "with you."

"She followed me after Berthold died," Roy sighed, "and wouldn't be convinced away. The most I could do was to protect her from the inside, so the moment the conflict ended, I took her under my wing."

"Just like that?"

Roy shrugged. "Her grandfather, General Grumman, is the Warden of the East, and was my superior after the war. She was assigned under my care and promoted to be of sufficient rank to serve secretary to a ranked State Alchemist."

"If her grandfather was that powerful and rich," Ed hazarded, "she could have gone to them after Berthold died. And instead she followed you into the very system her father hated? How does that make sense?"

An expression Ed found difficult to quantify came upon Roy's face then. Love was too powerful a word, and respect too weak; affection came up short, and regret not profound enough. Roy then said, "You will find that a woman with a strong heart does not so easily surrender her will and freedom to the insignificant and petty sentiments of men."

Ed nodded. "I see. She told you where you can all shove it. Makes sense."

"Brother," Al sighed under Roy's sudden, delighted laugh.

"I have renewed respect for the scary lady. There ought to be more of her in the world!"

"More of her to tell men like me where to shove it?" Roy chuckled. "Oh, she'll love this. Gracia too. They can be quite a pair when they put their minds to it."

"And their kitchens!"

"And their kitchens."

.


.

They talked some more of a few of the people in the first pages of the booklet, but the conversation gradually led back to the box. He threw a suspicious glare at Roy, who sat inspecting the inner surface of the blasted thing. No doubt the Bastard felt uncomfortable discussing politics in bare terms with Alphonse in attendance. How many times had he warned Ed of ears hearing things they should not hear? Roy knew more about these listed people than he was letting on, to be sure. Ed would simply have to wait for later.

"Mr. Mustang, what can you make of Dad's warnings?" Al asked out of the blue, holding the pages of the letter with fussing fingers. "You were with him for some time. Does any of it make sense to you?"

"Well, the first one is self-explanatory," he began with a laden glance at the two of them, "but the rest I don't know. Ed has no doubt told you about that strange night with the Gate and the shadows — if he hasn't yet, shame on you, Edward — but apart from that, I'm as far in the dark as the two of you are." The statement was met with marked disappointment, but only from Al. Ed knew Roy knew something more about all of this and he would eventually extract it from the Bastard. Roy continued, "I've never met anyone with that exact tattoo, and from Hohenheim's words, let's hope we never do. –ah, best let's warn Hughes of it too, what with the nature of his job."

"But what exactly are they?" Al was fiddling with the necklace again. "And what do they have against Dad?"

Ed could think of a couple of things…

"The likeliest explanation is that they are a syndicate of some sort, organised crime and the like, deep underground and dealing in forbidden alchemy. Could be smuggling relics or knowledge across borders."

Ed was dubious. "Gangsters with 'a range of powers in combat and regeneration beyond any modern capacity of alchemy today.' Really."

Roy shrugged. "I merely suggested a likely explanation; it does not have to be the truth. As I said, I don't know. Hohenheim knows a lot of alchemiy you and I are beyond. Perhaps one day we may ask him, but for now, this is all we have."

Even still, Ed refused satisfaction.

"What about the Blood Ward? Do you know anything else about it? Scratch that—I know you know something more, you recognised it in one glance. You even said something about its practitioners." Roy had acted surprised that Hohenheim knew and could perform blood alchemy—or perhaps that specific lock—as if he knew that there was only one known practitioner of it in living history and that practitioner was dead.

Roy smiled and nodded in approval. "Very astute observation, Edward. Add a point to your goal of ten for a cake on demand." Ed pumped a fist into the air. "I do know more about the lock, but unfortunately for both of you, none of it relates in any way to Hohenheim, except perhaps in the vaguest and most abstract of senses. It would only be an interesting story to tell."

Nothing else was quite as entertaining as stories about alchemy, so both of them sat the rest of the night away by the fire under thrall of Roy's past adventures. Ed did not remember falling asleep, only that he woke eventually, still curled with his brother on the couch, the morning sun brightening the blinds on the windows and the embers of last night glowing still and soundless in his mind.

He thought of Roy's story, of the lady and her three children, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with bright minds and uncertain futures. The story was far removed from them, away in another time and generation, too remote to be any of his concern. But it concerned him anyway. Why was life so difficult for people? It was not only them, though their little family was undergoing its own gargantuan hardships. Other people were routinely subjected to these trials, tested by pressure, and for no apparent reason.

Dog's expectant tail-wagging thumped him from strange thoughts and the remainders of an even stranger dream. His feet, when he swung them round, met the warm presence of soft fur. Dog turned and gave him a demanding look.

"Spoiled," he murmured, rubbing its belly. "Spoiled and rotten."

Dog followed him into the bathroom where he washed, and then back across the library to descend into the kitchen. Surely breakfast would be underway. But as he neared the back stairs, voices in serious discussion reached his ears.

Stopping in his tracks, he turned to dog, met its eye, and dropped to the floor. (With a quiet wuffle, Dog also dropped to the floor.)

He dug his fingers into the animal's fur to appease it and gingerly placed his ear by the stairway. It was Roy speaking now. He closed his eyes and strained.

"…no significant amount of blackmail or violence will wrest Edward away from my protection, Ms. Curtis, please understand. I can see your reservations —"

"Do you, Mr. Mustang? I sincerely hope you do." Yesterday's long rest had done its number. Izumi sounded her usual self: strong, confident, sure of her place in the world. (That place was quite clearly nowhere beneath Roy Mustang.) "He's too precious to be wasted on petty ambitions and fruitless political pursuits."

"I could not agree more." Ed could hear from this distance the smile in Roy's tone, gentle and patient. "You do not approve of men like me, alchemists who work for the military, and you are well within reason to do so. But I bid you not constrain me to my title and line of work. Before I was a soldier, and before I was an alchemist of any reputable competence, I was a friend of Hohenheim — I still am. I owe their father many things, some of which I see Edward in need of now. These things I am more than happy to provide. As I've said time and again: I will not put him in harm's way."

"Some would argue that simply being with you is putting him in harm's way, Mustang."

Silence.

"I do not encourage him into anything he does not want to do, and that includes being with me, Ms. Curtis." Was it Ed's imagination, or did Roy actually sound hurt? "It might surprise you, but your first night here was also the first I heard of Ed's plans for his career. Naturally I had measures in place to help him out whichever path he chose to pursue — I would have supported him whole-heartedly either way — but I have never heard any true confirmation of the sort that he made that night to you." Another pause, during which Ed had to push his imagination to paint a picture of the man's countenance. "Contrary to initial impressions, Ed is more than capable of keeping things to himself."

"A disturbing notion if ever there was any," Izumi huffed. Sig, silent until now, gave a soft laugh. "Very well then."

Izumi had made a decision. Ed clutched Dog.

"Swear to me that you will care for that boy, Mustang, with the knowledge that breaking your oath will make me come after your blood. Care for him with the sincerity that his good nature deserves — not as a tool for your ambition, not as a pet or momentary fancy, but as a true friend. As things are, he looks up to you as a model figure despite your short acquaintance," a rustle of cloth, perhaps her shrugging, "which is just as well — they never had a father figure, or any man, in their life." Her voice suddenly grew soft, her words slow in coming. "Edward… Edward and Alphonse are the children I never had. You are too young to have children of your own, but I doubt I need explain the hardship of letting them go at such a young age, and after such grief between them and their mother. Ed, in particular, the stubborn boy — he has the potential for great things — and you know full well that great things can also mean terrible things —… I fear that will be his fate if he is left alone without a good and steady guide. He can very well destroy himself. He almost did."

Roy took a while to respond this time. "And Alphonse, he isn't so?"

"No… no, Alphonse is calm and circumspect, most of the time. Few things can unsettle that inner locus of control. And if Al were ever pushed to the point of harming himself — hard to do, mind you — he would spend some time thinking about it, time you can use to pull him out of the spiral. Not so with Ed: that boy will go out fast and in style. It is very hard to stop him from getting at what he wants."

Roy laughed. "I remember saying a similar thing to Hughes."

"It's a good thing that Ed's staying here, love," Sig suddenly said, surprising Ed with his deep baritone. "You work better with Al. You and Ed are too alike."

"But it's Ed who needs more right now," sighed the troubled woman. "Al remembers none of what transpired that week after the deed was done — the hardest time to cope with it all, which Ed had to weather alone. Surely that left wounds. Grief of that sort leaves its prints deep inside. He's hiding it. He's already hurting from having been left by their father — he remembers that when Al cannot. Their family has fallen apart — and he will say that it is entirely his fault."

"There's no remedy for that but slow reconciliation with his brother and mother," Roy pointed out, tone reasonable and adult. "The best we can do in the meantime is to keep them occupied, prevent them from brooding. He's forthcoming enough if you talk to him about it, though he does try to insist on blaming himself at certain times."

Because it is my fault, Ed scowled, earning a windy sigh from the resident parasite in his head. Shivers broke on the back of his neck at the Gate's sudden reappearance. It was a strange sensation, the Gate unfurling itself in the dark of his mind. The extended period of absence reminded him of how alien it felt having a tenant where there should only be himself.

Quit the self-pity, little Hohenheim, it is most unbecoming and frankly quite nauseating poured over your ego.

Ed hissed, almost missing Roy's next words.

"In any case, it's all a work in progress. He just needs time. I can give him time. It would also be good if he could visit you once in a while to see his brother, especially if he plans to remove himself from Resembool for a while. Al will be his only connection to that old life."

"Oh, I expect the visits, rest assured. If I don't see him every half a year hale and whole, I'll think the worst and come for you."

"Noted," Roy chuckled. "They'll be pleased to hear that they have approved visiting rights when they wake — which should have been ten minutes ago, let me fetch them."

Ed hastily slid away from the stairs and crept towards his little brother, just now stirring from the couch. He had enough time, though, to hear Roy add playfully, "And of course, your guarantee, Ms. Curtis: that I will care for Edward I do swear, on pain of my doubtless painful and bloody death at your — ah, how did Edward put it? — serrated teeth."

When Roy peeked into the library, Ed was sat by Al and sporting an awkward flush. How was one to take such declarations of loyalty? Ed hoped Roy understood the magnitude of those words, for Izumi held no idle oaths. She was a woman of her every word.

"Good morning, boys," Roy smiled, beatific, at complete ease. "Breakfast is ready. Go wash and come down."

"Thanks," Ed croaked, one word weighted with meaning —

— and, as if to take the weight into his hands, Roy's smile evened out in one beat. "You're more than welcome."


:::

By and large, children do not listen to what you say. By and large, children watch what you do. And that's how you teach.

( Morgan Freeman )

:::


Before they knew it, Al and Sig and Izumi were leaving. It was far too soon. Four days and five nights were hardly enough to sate his longing for their familiar company. Life, however, had other plans, beckoning them home to Dublith while here — in his new home — Ed had to stay.

Parting with his brother was much more painful this time around, their farewells corporeal and raw as they were given face to face. The separation felt final, irrational as that was.

When are we next going to see each other? Ed wondered, throat clenching as he looked over his little brother's face. Time flowed with such haste; they could easily grow into strangers, taller and fuller but different from how they used to be. Al looked like this now, thinly freckled nose and rounded cheeks and burnt honey eyes — how would he look in a year, or two, or three?

"Okay?" Al asked.

Would they still recognise each other?

"Okay," Ed responded in kind.

He stuck his hand out, the flesh one. Al took it and shook it.

Then Al was boarding the train, the lines of his back already older and taller than Ed ever remembered them to be. Resembool and Dublith and the island on Lake Castell now seemed worlds away. How inseparable they had seemed back then, learning as boys under the shadow of the stars, just the two of them against the world. Now no more. Just like that.

Ed stood watching the train draw farther and farther away from the platform, espying Al's hand shooting out to give one final wave before they were out of sight. He returned the gesture with a resigned sigh. We chose this, he told himself. Now we live with it.

"You can always visit each other whenever you like," Roy said, laying a warm hand on the back of his neck.

"No," Ed said, eyes fixed upon the window through which he could still see his brother's receding face. "It's best if we stay apart for some time. Otherwise, we'll never get used to it. If we're going to do this, we're going to do it properly and in full. No halfway crutches allowed with master, after all."

His guardian responded by steer him out of the station towards their parked car. "Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire," Roy said quietly. "You'll see him again. Come, we mustn't be late for our next errand."

"Errand?" Ed echoed, distracted by the weight of Roy's unexpected words. "Why, where are we going?"

"No need to sound so alarmed."

"Begging your pardon, but it's you. I am within my rights to be alarmed."

The Bastard only continued to laugh. They retrieved the car and were soon off on their way down East 3rd, taking a path quite familiar now to Ed's eyes. True enough, after so many minutes, they parked in front of the tailor's place.

Ed balked. "But we just bought the winter set. What do we need more clothes for?"

"The annual Yule Ball, of course."

"The what now?"

"An annual high-profile event exclusive to high society, notable persons, and dignitaries of sufficient import and status, Edward. Now let's be getting inside; it's cold out. Hurry now." Roy held the door open for him; Ed followed inside. "The event is held by one of the five most prominent families of Amestris — well, technically four, since the Rens never host — but it's been done since the founding of the country. It was the Armstrongs last year; it'll be the Steinbergs this year. They cycle."

"Right," Ed blinked, eyes still adjusting to the indoor gloom. "Okay."

Roy's tailor friend — Anthony or Andrew, whichever one of the two — descended upon them, a veritable plague of praises and platitudes. Roy, of course, responded in kind. Ed stood there and waited for them to finish — "An outfit for the Ball, Anthony, and your selection of cravats as well, I think…" — before he commenced quizzing Roy on the portents of this Ball. There was no point in arguing his attendance — Roy would insist, and for good reason, the Gate added, a due reminder of the conversation he had overheard between Roy and his lady master. Roy was doing this for their mutual benefits, pulling a great number of the strings at his disposal to ensure Ed a safe and advantageous place in the military and in Amestrian high society. The least Ed could do was avoid being a difficult brat.

"So what exactly is the purpose of this event?" he asked as he shed his coat and cardigan. Roy was now sat at a small coffee table, a new addition to the private fitting room.

"Celebrating the end of a year by reaffirming political relations and making a show of spending money," Roy shrugged, as if to say, what else is there?

"Oh, of course. Excuse me for even thinking that there ever was some sense in the world."

Roy indulged him with a smile. "At its heart, it's a gathering of the old families and other close friends. Few who don't meet those qualifications are able to partake of the celebrations. But the old families have many friends, and most of them are people of power, money, status, or all of the above. So it follows that most of high society gets an invitation."

"And it follows that you're one of them," Ed muttered in quiet defeat. Roy's network was formidable. Hohenheim's booklet had merely listed him as alchemist apprenticed under Berthold, its information being dated eight years; Ed had to wonder if Hohenheim knew exactly how much Roy had achieved for himself in such a short span of time.

"I've been very fortunate to find good friends in the Armstrongs, the Steinbergs, and the Firats, yes." Roy ceased demurring before him some time ago, a sign of their growing comfort with each other. It only meant, though, that his ego was often on full display. "However, I can't say that I'm very close to the other families."

Not that you need them, having only the three most powerful ones in hand. He recalled the Firats as very prominent characters in Roy's story the previous night, about the Lindbergh locks' origins. In a roundabout way, the Firats were related to the Lindberghs, whose patriarch Sir Alfred Lindbergh invented the groundbreaking Lindbergh lock. A fine work of script if there ever was any. The Lindbergh lock's advent revolutionised how modern alchemy utilised scripts and provided the only known method of locking a container by way of alchemy.

Or at least so the textbooks said.

Roy's story and Hohenheim's box told him otherwise. Before the Lindbergh lock was invented — indeed even before Alfred Lindbergh's birth — there existed the ancient Pravese lock that Hohenheim had used for the box. Few knew of it, and among those few was a young Alfred Lindbergh, finding references and examples of this old array in a very old alchemical tome he had inherited from his financially intelligent but otherwise alchemically uneducated grandfather. Having plenty of money, an obscene abundance of time, and relative freedom from other pressing concerns, Alfred Lindbergh dedicated himself to research and eventually devised the alchemical lock that would define the rest of his life — all of it but a modern, script-based variation of the Pravese lock diagrammed and detailed within that old tome.

His 'innovation' catapulted him into even higher heights, taking him from his vast landholdings in the countryside of Kissel to the bustling streets of Central. He assumed a career as an academic of Amestris and received honorary funding from the military and numerous other sponsors to continue his research. Over time he produced countless variations of the original lock. He did marry as was expected of his station, taking a young woman from a stately family: Lady Lindbergh she became, to the envy of her peers, what with her lissome beauty and her fair heart. Though she was no outstanding mind in alchemy, she had wits about her that served her well in other areas of life, such as managing the household. She and Sir Lindbergh became the best of friends, confiding in each other as only those who hold absolute trust do. For a time, they were content.

It was at this time that Julius Firat, then a tall and strapping twenty-something and good friend of the decade-older Sir Lindbergh, brought along two classmates from the medical academy. It was that year's Yule ball, the very same event Ed was now being prepared for. Julius introduced both to Sir Lindbergh, the first being Miss Anne Sachs (Julius' future wife, a certainty he was still vehemently denying at the time) and the other a certain Miss Katerina Islenhov.

Trouble never even loomed on the horizon before it arrived. Sir Lindbergh suddenly fell in love.

It was not at first sight, no — according to Roy, at first Sir Lindbergh was merely curious. Julius, who was as a little brother to him, was known for his marked reluctance to ever be seen with a woman outside of family. Being the only Firat of his generation, sole heir and child, Julius was acutely aware of his status and the amount of turmoil his presence can and will bring into a young woman's life. Suffice to say, Sir Lindbergh was surprised when Julius walked into the Ball with not one but two girls on either arm. Oh, he was very intrigued indeed.

After lengthy conversations, it became apparent that Julius had grown besotted with Anne Sachs, however reluctant he was about the business of love. It also came to light that Katerina Islenhov was only present as Anne's moral support. (The Yule Ball was apparently a place so stressful one needed moral support.) When Anne was sufficiently comfortable perched on Julius' arm, Katerina cleaved to a quiet balcony, and was subsequently engaged with Sir Lindbergh's kindly company.

She was no exceptional beauty: the best word to describe her was 'plain.' Her hair and eyes were of earthy ochre, contrasting with her sun-starved white skin. Her cheekbones were high but her jaw too pronounced for the effect to be lovely or stunning. Her eyebrows were the slightest bit uneven, her lashes lifting as if they dared defy gravity — but just there, the fire of great intelligence within her wide, dark eyes — that was what caught Alfred Lindbergh's poor heart. They shone bright with the light of genius, so bright that her face was almost rendered gaunt underneath them.

Alfred Lindbergh — not Sir Lindbergh, but Alfred Lindbergh — fell hard in love.

She was what his housewife was not. She could not cook and knew little of housekeeping. She worked like any man, a librarian at the First Library while studying at the Firat Academy. In a few years' time, she would commence her career as a medical doctor specialising in cellular pathology. Eventually she was to become a professor at the very same institution, teaching cellular biology to younger generations of doctors and researchers. Her extraordinary intellect filled the gap that Alfred Lindbergh sought in his lady wife, spurring on a most ill-opportune romance that would bring about the birth of a great lie.

"Grey or gold, Edward?"

Roy's prompt whisked Ed out of his quiet recollection. Both cravats in question were of the finest Xingese silk, hand-woven into soft waves of colour. "Gold?" Ed chanced, earning an approving nod.

"I thought so myself; it should go well with your colouring." Handing them back to the tailor's assistant, he negotiated a date for the fitting and took a moment to sign a bank note. "Thank you, Anthony. As always, I look forward to the results."

In short order, they were seen out of the shop. They took to the car and summarily headed home. As Roy navigated a turn, Ed began, "About the Lindbergh story…" Roy smiled and gave an encouraging hum, "…nobody ever found out about the affair?"

"Nobody but those involved," Roy confirmed, easily unfazed by the sordid details.

"So then how do you know about it?"

Roy smiled. "Because Katerina Islenhov's youngest son is Anya's lover."

Sir Lindbergh had not had a child by his lady wife when he met Katerina Islenhov. Meeting Katerina extinguished all desire within him to start a line by his wife; instead, he wished for Katerina to bear his children: strong-willed, intelligent children to carry forth his legacy. These children would surely be capable of taking his life's work into the future and bettering it. Kind and beautiful though Lady Lindbergh was, and a good friend of Sir Lindbergh's heart, he knew enough of genetics to be certain that she would bear him no genius child. So he created a lie.

A great one it was, born with the help of his good friend Julius, by that time married to a complicit Anne. They gave him countermeasures to prevent any pregnancy through his lady wife and, when the time was right, corroborated his lie: they confirmed, as licensed and practicing doctors, that Sir Lindbergh was infertile. Which of course he was not — Katerina Islenhov was already pregnant. It was a sordid double-cross. But Lady Lindbergh bore this 'news' with commendable grace and kindness; never once did she blame her husband for their childless marriage and remained faithful to their vow.

Perhaps by guilt, and certainly to ensure that she would not be lonely, Sir Lindbergh agreed to adopt children, rearing a brood of seven strong to care for the family estates and for his lady wife in their old age. All the while, he sired three bright minds through Katerina, who lived life on the surface as a single mother by an unknown wayward lover.

"But then his real children will never inherit any of his stuff, will they," Ed pointed out with a frown. "I thought he wanted heirs. Well, they're not legal heirs." Roy pulled into the last parking spot across from a neighbourhood café they favoured. It was lunchtime, and the place served excellent chicken wraps. They were only a block away from home.

"They inherited neither his name nor his riches, correct," said Roy, "but what he gave them in its stead is so much more valuable. His acumen, Edward; all three children have them, just like he thought they would. They carry the legacy of his brilliant mind. And the youngest—Kanon, Anya's lover—he carries on his father's research. He inherited all the necessary, ah, materials, so to speak."

"I thought none of them inherited property!"

"Well, that's according to common knowledge. Nobody knows that they did inherit some things," Roy coyly smiled. "After all, nobody has yet to open that trunk of Sir Lindbergh's."

"Trunk?"

"He owns this trunk where he allegedly keeps all of his most precious and sensitive research journals, along with some priceless references and artefacts. The few who know of how he derived the Lindbergh lock from the Pravese arrays suspected — and correctly too — that the old tome he got the Pravese arrays from was kept in that same trunk. It's a source of much frustration for his adopted children, who all want a piece of the most precious part of their 'rightful' inheritance. They think it still hasn't been opened, and every year they debate about hiring alchemists to open it for them. They would have hired half the State Alchemists in Central if they weren't so afraid of the contents of the trunk being stolen."

One of the first things Roy had warned him of back in Resembool was the safety of his intellectual property. Ed remembered that conversation quite vividly. Plenty of people would kill for knowledge. "So the trunk has been opened by one of the Islenhov kids?"

Roy nodded. "At the time of his grave illness, his family was in disarray. The adopted children were fighting amongst themselves about the inheritance, so Lady Lindbergh sent them all away while their father was battling the illness. Lady Lindbergh herself was still strong and took to handling the estates by herself quite well. So Sir Lindbergh had the chance to call the Islenhov children — all three of them — to his house. Kanon says the Firats were there too, to make it look like a friendly visitation. But of course the true purpose was to ascertain if any of his secret children could open the trunk."

"A test," Ed said, "of worth."

"The eldest of his three, Karenina, refused. 'I am my mother's daughter,' she said, 'though I'm honoured by your offer, sir. My place is in healing, in medicine, beside my future husband and family.' In a matter of months, she was due to marry Jason Firat, the eldest of Julius' brood."

Ed snorted somewhat inelegantly into his food. Of course she would marry a Firat. Central became ever smaller and more insular the more he discovered its history. One would think there would be enough people to go around, but apparently not so.

"The second son, ah. I've told you about him," Roy reclined, stirring his latte idly round and round. "He saw me briefly at the symposium. Karl Islenhov is his name."

Ed blinked. "The Venom Alchemist!" Roy and Hughes had talked at length about the visit, though Ed had not noticed him in the crowd himself. Smaller and smaller, he thought. The world was a strange place.

"Yes, the Venom Alchemist, my comrade in Ishbal. He too refused, citing the vast gap and numerous differences between his own style and his father's alchemy. He was already in his twenties and well-established in his style by this time. And he was always proud of his own work, though in a quiet manner; he would not have taken well to being handed alchemy for free — it would not have been his, and it would not have been right. Strong moral principles, that man. And his alchemy does model itself more after a branch of his mother's line of medicine. Cellular pathology specific to toxins instead of live pathogens — fascinating work."

Swallowing his bite of chicken before Roy detracted himself, Ed prompted, "So the youngest got it."

"That he did, and not without a show of brilliant alchemy too," Roy nodded. "Kanon went to investigate the trunk and took a close look at the array — a classic Lindbergh lock, S1 class permutation — beautifully hand-carved with painstaking precision on the surface of the trunk's lid. Except to the astonishment of his siblings and the Firats, he got up, took a penknife, and cut his palm open with its blade."

Ed looked up from his food to search Roy's face. "Are you saying that the lock…"

"A Pravese lock, a Blood Ward, was used on the trunk, exactly." Leaning forward, Roy continued in eager tones, "Sir Lindbergh had used his own blood to draw the Pravese lock on the trunk when he had it first made; that initial circle would have absorbed into the material and long disappeared. Then he constructed a classic Lindbergh lock, with a prompt script that read: I open only for the blood of the worthy. Now, you've studied Lindbergh locks, you know how they work with scripts."

"Right, right," nodded Ed, "each Lindbergh lock is unique with a specialised prompt and keyscript. The lock spells out a 'prompt' — a question — and is primed to recognise only the correct 'keyscript,' like a password. So the alchemist would need to write out the exact script that spells out the exact password — he'd have to either memorise how to write it, or be proficient enough in scriptwork to be able to understand the question and translate the answer into the keyscript."

He distinctly recalled Izumi's script exercises, whole afternoons of communicating with nothing but scripts. Scripts were essentially glyphs (alchemical symbols) grouped together to spell out commands or form 'words' that were 'intelligible' to the energy. He and Al had long wondered precisely how the energy could read the glyphs and scripts, but now they knew: there exists a Gate.

Roy continued. "Well, the Pravese lock is somewhat similar: the alchemist who seals the container has to leave some sort of hint about the presence of a Pravese lock. Remember, the Pravese array is drawn by blood which disappears after it's activated. Unless the sealer leaves a clue, the opener has no way of knowing that this container has a lock upon it."

"Except if they try opening it by alchemy — then the container would do what Hohenheim's box would have done and blow up in their face." Ed was still dubious about that. What if he hadn't stopped the reaction fast enough? Hohenheim became a shittier parent with every passing day.

"The most common forms of hints were either riddles or carefully worded verses of poetry, like Hohenheim's clue —" Blood of the truth, blood of my blood… "— which is partly how I knew that his box was sealed with a Blood Ward."

"…so Lindbergh hid the hint to the hidden Pravese lock, in script form, inside a fake Lindbergh lock?" Ed echoed in disbelief. "Roy, the old man beats you in paranoia!"

"It is not paranoia if they really are out to get you," Roy sniffed. "In any case. Kanon read and understood the script on the trunk's lid upon sight. I open only for the blood of the worthy, it said. Perhaps not so much paranoid as he was meritocratic, old Sir Lindbergh was. And for good reason: his research is highly sought after. It should only fall into the hands of worthy alchemists."

"Worthy alchemists being those who can crack the trick trunk by being highly versed in script," Ed concluded. "Fascinating. So this Kanon Islenhov is a friend of yours?" Scriptwork was a delicate and oft underappreciated art with the most unfortunate tendency of being painfully vague, and imprecise in its relativity. Ed would very dearly like to meet an alchemist who specialised in it — a rare and most coveted specimen to be sure.

"He is," Roy confirmed, "and unless he has other more pressing engagements, which I do highly doubt, he will be in attendance at the Ball."

Suddenly the prospect of being paraded in front of important people did not seem so deathly grim. The promise of having at least another proper conversant apart from Roy and Hughes eased the tight ball of anxiety in his chest. –that feeling of unrest came at a strange time, he noted; he was never one to shy from crowds and prying eyes, and never encountered the same sensation during the symposium.

…perhaps, he thought, now that other concerns (Izumi; Trisha) were laid to rest, freeing him to truly commit to this new world, he began to grasp the enormity of all of it.

I'm going to be a State Alchemist. And all of this is working towards that.

He sucked at the winter air, letting it whistle past his teeth to fill his chest with smoke and the scent of roasting coffee beans and the sweet taste of subtle static warning of impending snow. The clouds above were gathering in substance: soon the city would be submerged in white.

"Roy."

"Yes, Edward."

"Will you really be able to keep me from war?" Ed wrapped his hands around his mug. Roy's eyes were intent on him, twin dark pools shining in the limpid sunlight. "If I become licensed," he began, "I'd be the youngest licensed ever. Do you think that's enough to keep them from deploying me?"

"It certainly helps," Roy responded in honest kind. The sidewalk café was beginning to empty as the lunch hour drew to a close. "If you desist from any overt show of combat expertise… if you are careful with the direction of your research…" the man released a windy sigh. "I can give few guarantees, Ed; politics offers few guarantees. Best we can do is anticipate and adapt. The one thing that I can guarantee you, however, is that if ever another battlefield arose and Amestris needed its alchemists for war, I would be deployed first, not you. My specific skill set is useful on the field, you know. Saves a lot of manpower and money having me on the front line demolishing enemy ranks with a snap. Hopefully, if that time comes, I'm enough."

Ed thought.

"But even you have to sleep at night."

Roy was smiling; Ed could not. Sacrifice was the taste of his own tears and his brother's blood on his hands, in his mouth.


:::

But there are forces that don't let you turn back and undo things, because to do so would be to deny what is already in motion, to unwrite and erase passages, to shorten the arc of a story you don't own.

( Salvador Plascencia )

:::


Time coursed quick as a brook after Izumi left. Life in Central returned to its previous routine. A noticeable weight, though, was lifted from Ed's heart, allowing him to truly begin to enjoy the good fortune bequeathed to him through his association with Roy. It was during this time that he discovered the existence of a basement in the house — "Really now, Edward!" — he had somehow remained ignorant of it for the past two months.

The basement, situated alongside the wine cellar, was nothing more than a vast empty space. Rectangular in shape, it looked to span the house's whole length. Thick round pillars supported the house's framework, being the only interruptions in the blank sight. To Ed's great relief, it was much unlike the basement in Resembool as this one gaped in height as much as it did in breadth. The high ceiling alleviated the tomblike sensation of being underground.

"You're welcome to set up a laboratory here if you need one," Roy bid, descending the spiral stair with him into the wine cellar to go through the basement's side door. He had fetched wine bottles for Roy in the past but he had never noticed this door; perhaps it was meant to be that way. "I did intend for this place to be space for experimentation, though as you can see, I've never gotten around to it." The Bastard was a busy Bastard.

Maybe later, Edward thought, when I have something to experiment about. Taking his brother's advice, he had begun keeping more organized journals of his thoughts, all with the heavy knowledge that his planning would play good parts in securing his research grants as a State Alchemist. He had to have direction if he did not want to be directed. This meant shedding his magpie behaviour by fortifying his restraint: challenge accepted.

His mettle was immediately put to test, as if the Bastard could somehow sense his resolution. On a rainy Saturday morning, as the past week's murky snow was washed from Central's stones and streets, Roy and Hughes sat with him in the library for a long and vital introduction to the persons of Central's high society.

"Do I have to?" he whined, slouching into his couch.

Roy only raised a brow.

"Well, if you don't, you run the great risk of committing some terrible faux pas, and that's never a good way to start building relationships," Hughes pointed out. "The more you know about them in advance, the easier you can inveigle them into your arms."

"I'm not Roy," Ed crossed his arms, "but I'll pretend you have me convinced. How exactly do you propose to educate me about everyone attending? You can't possibly want me to memorise a list of names and occupations?"

"On the contrary." Before him, Roy set a thin sheaf of papers crawling with prolific family trees with detailed notes and charts. "You won't need to know about everyone; the important figures will suffice."

Ed stared at the papers in disbelief. "Is it even possible to know this many people?" He picked at the papers with a hand, as if to reassure himself that they were real.

"You need not know them, Edward; you must only recognise them."

"…right. I can get away with no names as long as I connect their titles with their ugly mug."

Hughes chortled. "Well, the ones we're starting with are not what I'd call ugly. These families are the paragon of unfairly flawless genetics, if you ask me." Spreading out the first three pages, Hughes displayed relatively small family trees: the Armstrongs, the Firats, the Steinbergs, and the Weisses.

"You've already met the Armstrongs," began Roy, "so tell me what you can recall."

"Er. Old man Lucas Armstrong married scary lady Evelyn Amsel-Armstrong, and she birthed even scarier lady general Mira and kinda weird but kinda nice Major Alex? Oh. And girl who couldn't stay awake at the symposium, whatsername…"

"Edward, names are important," chastised Roy, relinquishing his cuppa and tapping the family tree with a finger. "You have to show them that you regard them important enough to remember their names."

"But I don't!"

"Then pretend."

Ed sighed. Can you do this for me?

Will you pay? the Gate crooned.

Never mind. Ed turned his attention to the trees: Roy was gearing for a walk-through for each family. As Roy named a person, Hughes set down a corresponding photo. (Ed noted the strange angles. He knew a stalker's vantage point when he saw it.)

"Lucas Olivier Armstrong: only child, head of the family, retired General, prominent politician. He served the military for over forty years: sponsored many alchemists (no need to memorise all of them, though). Hailed as the Defender of West City during our last active conflict with Drachma when they tried to take the gap of Westgate through the Spinestail — could have been a successful invasion if not for the old General. After that, he climbed the ladder and held the Headship of State Affairs here in Central."

Ed pretended he knew what that meant.

"He married his wife from the Amsel line and they've been together for thirty years. You recall the story of the Amsels and this house, yes? Good. Well, she is an astute businesswoman and handles an equal amount of management power over the Armstrong estate with her husband. For the most part, she busies herself with their various financial concerns while Sir Armstrong weaves webs of power across Amestris. They make quite a pair."

No one could argue with that description. Ed still recalled, in quite vivid detail, the respect and authority the husband and wife commanded with an ease that was better suited to breathing.

"The three children are Mira Olivier Armstrong who is eldest and a Brigadier General in service of Major General Hunter in the North. She's soon to be a Major General herself, and is quite accomplished in combat, politics, business, and command. Yet unmarried, despite her mother's best efforts—"

"She must be a pain to find a husband for…"

"Roy's one of the strongest candidates, if you must know!"

"I mustn't! Too much information!"

"Maes, please. She's too old for me, not to mention frigid —"

"She's only three years older than you!"

"Hence ancient, and frigid —"

"Best way to think of her is a female version of Roy, Ed, minus the alchemy."

"And you're trying to get them together?" Ed gaped in horror. "But that would mean he's marrying himself! He's already narcissistic enough as it is! Why would you do that?!"

Hughes cackled in delight while Roy rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I am not marrying her," the man firmly declared. "Now, moving on."

Alex Louis Armstrong was nowhere near his elder sister's achievements, hence a less interesting personality. His one redeeming quality was his kind heart, which Ed considered a necessary and fortunate asset to possess for an alchemist. Last of the brood was Catherine (yes, that's her name!), young and innocent and very carefree indeed. The family's princess was every inch a girl where Mira never was and never will be; as such, she had a close affinity to the Armstrong matriarch, with whom she reportedly spent a lot of her time. Catherine, all of fifteen years, was betrothed to Joseph Firat, also the youngest of the Firat brood.

"Now, the Firats are a different class of personalities altogether," Roy continued. "The Armstrongs are by trade warriors and leaders, but the Firats are healers and scholars. Such is the way they've always been. They, along with the Steinbergs, Armstrongs, and Rens, are the four oldest bloodlines still true and intact in Amestris today. Make no mistake, they are good people, and very kind, but they tend to be more isolated, less involved, than the Armstrongs — not for any trivial reason but for their profession. The entire family is made up of doctors and future doctors."

Ed nodded. He was familiar with the name. "They own the Firat Academy of Medicine, don't they." It was only the most prestigious medical academy in the whole of the continent!

"They don't just own it, Ed, they founded it hundreds of years ago. They say the Firats were the healers of Friedrich's army — and later his court — during the establishment of our country. Even back then, they were already the best at what they do. That is what you call pedigree," Hughes declared.

"If it's pedigree we're talking, the Armstrongs have a leg up on them: they're descended from Friedrich himself." Roy spread his hand over the second tree on the table. "But the Firats are just as old and just as influential. Very busy people; no nonsense approach to life. You'd like them, I think," he said to Ed.

Roy went on to enumerate each of the Firat brood and their numerous accomplishments, details that would walk with Ed into bed. The stories of Central's families were long and colourful. Faces and feats blurred together in his head until at last they melted into flat grey noise that eventually lulled him to sleep. In those hazy depths, he dreamed of Hohenheim's voice for the first time in many years.

When he woke, he opened Hohenheim's booklet and began to read.


:::

What a treacherous thing, to believe that a person is more than a person.

( John Green, Paper Towns )

:::


Hohenheim knew many people. Ed was a little shy of astonished. Pinako and Trisha certainly never spoke much of what Hohenheim was like, or what he did before happening upon his wife-to-be in the quiet idyll of Resembool, but the manner in which they all referred to life in the countryside (quiet, peaceful, idyllic, removed) suggested a lifestyle otherwise tumultuous and fraught with peril.

What is he running from? Where did he come from? Where is he going? So many questions, so many mysteries Ed had about his father, and all of them futile, unyielding as a barren desert.

Some of the people in the booklet Ed found in Roy's charts and trees. They were alarmingly prominent persons: Marius Firat, father to Julius Firat, deceased; Lady Shan of Ren, great-grandmother and matriarch of the old family; Generals Gardner, Grumman, Raven, and Ivan; Lieutenant General Jeager and Adler; State Alchemists Nash Tringham, Albert Schrum, and the late Robert Mahler —

Ed began to wonder. Hohenheim, who are you?

Here we begin to ask the relevant questions, the Gate grinned, humming happily in his head. But that was as much as Ed got. The Gate remained unhelpful.

After lunch, he doggedly peppered Roy with questions as they drove to the tailor to fit the finished clothes. "Is it normal," he asked with more than just a little scepticism, "for a person so reportedly uninvolved with the military to be so well-connected? He had to have had reasons to be acquainted with all these people beyond being an exceptional alchemist! Surely there are exceptional alchemists disconnected with the military. Izumi's not in the military!"

"Rest assured the military is aware of her existence and practice, Edward, as it is aware of most alchemists of any worth or talent in this country. But to reorient your queries, Hohenheim was well-connected to such a degree because of his alchemical proficiency. Often he would provide counsel to younger alchemists, some even licensed by the State; he was never published to my knowledge, but certainly influenced enough salon and dinner table discussions to be a household name to those who were. Whenever he was in need of money, he would either tutor children of well-known alchemists or prominent families; he would offer his services as an assistant researcher, or peer reviewer, or relic appraiser; occasionally, he was even known to be an alchemical healer. He's held a variety of occupations just in his handful of years at Berthold's place with us."

"But," Ed haltingly murmured, "but — wouldn't that mean some of the people we'll meet might recognise me as his son? I — that is, everyone says I look a lot like him…"

Roy ushered him into the tailor's shop and nodded. "Some might draw the conclusions, yes. Some already have. The important thing is for you to be careful of what you say. Keep quiet about your family situation to keep them away from your mother and brother." A pensive look crossed the man's face, the indoor gloom throwing dark lines and shadows upon his outline. "I had initially warned my company not to talk too much about you and whatever little they might know of your origins as a general precaution. This was when you were convinced against being licensed. I knew that if any of the top brass had heard about a son of Hohenheim, they would have cornered you into a contract, and that experience is not a pleasant one, mark my words. Now, though," Roy turned to him with a crooked smile, "well."

"Now we want them to pay attention," Ed nodded, shoulders sagging a tad. He fiddled idly with his jacket's cuff. If favour fell on his side, he would not be measured against Hohenheim's reputation. The booklet had no stories to offer on what sort of alchemy his father practised, not even a wandering hint of a minor goal or past achievement. It was frustrating, but he supposed it was a good thing. If people began to ask questions, he would have no clue.

"I wouldn't fret about it too much," Roy assuaged. "Though there are many secrets surrounding your father, he is without doubt a good man with a good heart."

Ed's face scrunched up in instinctive distaste. "What does that even mean?"

He was met with a warm chuckle. "I see you've taken well to your philosophy readings. Well, to put it crudely, consider that he is a man your good mother consented to marry."

Ed remained unconvinced. "Love turns people's brains into some strange gelatinous substance, from what I've seen and heard." That coaxed laughter from the Bastard just as Ed began to shrug out of his jacket and shirt. "We're not wearing a suit this time?" he noted with some curiosity. The trousers, shirt, and waistcoat were part of the course, but this time the coat handed to him sported a pair of tapered tails.

"No; this time we are in coattails," Roy declared. He stood behind Ed and smoothed both hands across the coat's shoulders. "A perfect fit as always, Anthony, thank you."

Anthony looked well-pleased at his prized patron's satisfaction. "Should we taper the waist closer, sir?"

Roy motioned for Ed to turn side to side and raise his arms, observing the fit and flow of the fabric with each motion. "No, this is perfect. Just enough space for mobility without losing form. Let's try the cravat with it."

Cravats, Ed found, were far easier to befriend than those neck ties (noose!) and bow ties (glorified collar!). True to Roy's word, the golden silk made an elegant partner to the classic lines of his black waistcoat and overcoat with its coattails. Roy tucked a matching gold kerchief into his breast pocket, folding to make a small triangle: the finishing touch.

"There," Roy smiled, settling a hand on his shoulder and looking with him into the mirror. "Scholarly, dashing, and handsome. You'll be the evening's golden star."

Ed, shockingly, had to agree. The young man gazing back at him was at once both familiar and foreign. Those were his eyes, his face, his features — but he saw more confidence than he felt, and more calm than he knew. The cant of his jaw spoke of a quiet sort of determination; his shoulders were held with a lighter weight. And his eyes — they were focussed. Though his troubles were far from nonexistent and more challenges were waiting ahead, he was certain of his goals and the purposes behind them. For the first time in a long time, he was at peace with himself.

I do this for myself, he thought, unbidden. For myself, because I want it.

"See someone you don't know?" said Roy, drawing away to sign the receipt.

"Just someone I haven't seen in a while," Ed smiled, gingerly removing the coat. He handed it to the assistant and, on a whim, plucked a cravat from a tray of samples. "You should get this," he held it up to Roy.

The cravat in question was of exquisitely crafted silk, Xingese in origin, dyed the blue of a deepening winter night. Minuscule waves were hand-woven into the fabric, a pattern that gave it dimension and shade. Against Roy's dark colouring and pale skin, it made a most aristocratic design.

Roy examined the piece. "A fine choice, Ed. We will make a connoisseur of you yet."


:::

I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.

( Phillips Brooks )

:::


On the day of the Ball, it began to snow. The flakes were soft and fat, melting quickly upon contact with Ed's flesh hand. He held out his automail hand instead. They soundlessly sailed closer from the ashen skies, meandering to and fro with a delicate cadence. He stood in the backyard in mute wonder as the world was doused in white. Eventually, though, the cold grew too bitter to bear.

It was noon when the snow began to fall and mid-afternoon when he settled back inside. A long soak in steaming bathwater loosened the stiffness in his neck and shoulders, followed by a generously sweetened mug of hot chocolate to secure his good mood. For a few hours, the only sound inside the house was the ponderous crackling of the hearth and the muffled hourly chime of the clock. Dog was curled around his side when Roy returned home at last.

He was roused from his reading and fed a quick, small dinner before they both retired upstairs to dress. Ed had learned from Roy that it was best to eat a light meal before such events not only to provide them energy but to avoid overeating during the event. Primary amongst the night's objectives was to socialise with people, and it would be a poor use of such a singular opportunity if they were to waste all their time socialising with the menu instead.

Washed, powdered, dressed, and buttoned, Ed crossed the hallway to Roy's rooms, presenting himself to be checked once over — "Very good, Ed" — before he offered the man his hairtie. "I'm afraid to crease the coat," he explained, facing about and allowing Roy to take a brush to his hair. It took quick, practised movements to pull his hair into a high and angled tie. Ed had to ask. "Did you ever have long hair?"

Roy huffed in amusement. "Never. Berthold refused a haggard apprentice. When I began to grow a beard, he demanded that I immediately learn to shave myself, or he would do it for me, slit my throat by accident, and would not be blamed for his actions. I had to get Hohenheim to teach me. Fortunate that he was there then." The Bastard read the change in his face at once and asked, "Did he never teach you anything before he left?"

Ed's lips quirked. "He did, actually. Quite a bit. I remember most of them only vaguely — I was very young. Don't know exactly how old, but certainly old enough to wield chalk to good effect. He was teaching me a glyph at one time."

Äld, Hohenheim had directed, tracing the glyph on the floor.

Äld, little Ed had repeated, hands tiny in his father's steady guiding grip. Funny letter, he had giggled then as he was nestled into his father's warmth. Circle inside a circle inside a circle!

It means 'to begin,' Hohenheim had said, and 'to begin' means 'to end.'

Äld, little Ed had repeated once more, taking the chalk and copying his first glyph on their basement floor. Äld.

"There," Roy relinquished the hairbrush. "A perfect young gentleman."

Ed observed the man's handiwork and gave a snort. "So if you've never had long hair, how are you so good at this? You must have had practise somewhere." He followed Roy into the bathroom and watched as the finishing touches were applied to the man's own ensemble.

"My once forever paramour and now no more," Roy explained, nonchalant. "She had long, luscious hair. Dark and rich as warmth earth, soft and light as the wind. She would have me comb it into ties or buns. She would never let me braid it, though; apparently my braids were uneven."

Ed could only blink. "…what happened?"

Roy swiftly slipped into his own coat and tugged the folds into their place. "She broke my heart."

By their feet, Dog gave a quiet wuffle. Ed agreed with Dog and said, "Don't worry about it; her loss."

The Bastard snickered in amusement. "Indeed, Edward. But I'm surprised you aren't hounding for details."

"I was headed there next, thanks for making it easier. But I thought I'd be nice and stroke your wounded ego first." Snickers erupted into proper laughter. "There's definitely a story there, though. I'd be lying if I denied my curiosity."

"Edward, I doubt your curiosity can be denied." More laughter as they retrieved the car keys, a pen, a pocket notepad, their thick winter coats, and the house keys.

"There you are! I thought I heard happy noises," Hughes bid from the back stairs. "Pick up the pace, gentlemen! It wouldn't do to be late!"

Downstairs, Gracia stood in wait, radiant in her rose blush square-necked silk dress. Roy would later inform him that it was made of Erithrese silk instead of Xingese, being slightly thicker, warmer, and therefore more suited to colder clime. A sash one shade darker than the dress wound about her swollen belly, allowing the soft layers of silk to cascade freely around her frame. The skirts were cut in staggered layers of silk and hemmed with intricate hand-embroidered swirls. She wore simple heeled black shoes and was in the process of pulling on silken black long gloves when they descended. Hughes hustled over to help her into her coat, after which she adjusted her auburn curls above her collar.

"I do believe Edward is stunned speechless by your radiance, my lady." Roy, ever the charmer, brushed a kiss over the back of Gracia's hand. His comment earned an approving nod from Hughes and a mild chuckled from the lady herself.

"No — it's — I — you're — pretty," Ed finished lamely. A mild flush crawled up his neck.

But Gracia took a hand to his cheek and smiled. "Thank you, Ed." And then, with a sly light in her eyes, "You're quite the dapper young man yourself. The young ladies will find themselves quite occupied, I think!"

This time, a full flush bloomed beneath his skin, effectively warming him as they stepped out, locked the doors, and trekked to the garage. Hughes was driving to the event; Roy would drive back home.

Once they were on their way, Roy handed him his invitation with a gravity and reverence more befitting the surrender of a crown or a sack of gold. Ordinarily he would have been invited as Roy's ward in the same manner children were invited as their parents' responsibility. But he had apparently made such a remarkable impression on the Armstrongs that the old General and his wife had asked the Steinbergs to procure for him an invitation specific and exclusive. He was being welcomed as his own person—as an alchemist of individual worth and potential.

"I still don't understand why you couldn't just let him come as your ward, you know," Hughes commented from behind the wheel. "It's not so bad being a father. Seriously. He's good for you! Ask Gracia, she'll tell you. You enjoy life more! I don't know why you'd want to deny that. You were just laughing about something when I came up to get you —"

"It's not that I don't want to acknowledge Edward; it's that he needs to be acknowledged on his own," sighed Roy, "and we weren't exactly laughing about a laughing matter earlier. Ed cracked a smart-aleck comment about Regina."

There was a thick pause.

"Oh," Hughes responded with some weight. "And what brought this on?"

"I was asking how he got so good at grooming long hair," Ed pushed, leaning forward in his seat, "and Roy mentioned a heartbreak. A heartbreak, Hughes — somebody broke the Bastard's heart! And I thought everyone wanted a piece of it. Or is that why? I'm curious."

Hughes cackled, more at Roy than at Ed. "Of course you are! Well, Roy? Your boy's asking for the story of Regina, the girl who stole away into the night with Roy Mustang's young and fragile heart!" and then, in a mock-whisper, "I'm warning you, Ed: you'll want to strangle the life out of her. She's a right witch."

"Maes," Gracia reprimanded.

"Right, yes, love, language and young innocents, sorry."

They deftly navigated a turn and emerged at the beating heart of the Historic District. East 3rd was little dampened by the thickening carpet of snow, it seemed, for people still lined the streets on either side. The pavement shone like silver ahead, slick with moisture but not enough of it to pool on corners. Hughes went at a confident speed.

"There's really not much to tell outside your ordinary tragic teenage love affair," Roy sighed as Ed and Hughes both allowed the expectant silence to fester with awkward tension. "I met her while I was staying at Berthold's. She was of a fairly well-to-do family, somewhat prominent in the region. Cotton farms. So she grew up in relative comfort and luxury, though it was outside of Central. We met at a festival where she first approached me. Said I was different from the other boys she knew. I told her it was likely because I was a few years younger and lacked the pedigree and wealth necessary to transmogrify me into an unjustified arrogant arse. She didn't care. We were friends, then we were lovers. Then she broke my heart."

Something about the casual tone with which Roy spoke of her struck a chord in Ed. Far from being dishonest, Roy truly did seem to care little and think none of it anymore. It was but a story of the past to the man. But pain, when visceral and tremendous, left its mark upon its victim, a mark quite impossible to disguise. Ed heard it in Roy's uncaring voice, knew it because he had undergone the same himself. Roy had recovered, strong of will as he was, but Regina wrought in him great grief all those years ago. Ed could tell.

"Will she be here tonight, d'you reckon?" Hughes asked. Ed blinked.

Roy shrugged. "Likely. Her husband's family is one of the Armstrong's business associates. That's enough to warrant an invitation, even though they're not very close. They have tradition."

"Wait, wait. She's here? That Regina lady?"

Hughes grinned through the rearview mirror. "She is! We see her every year. Quite the drama, don't you think?"

Ed had to agree. "So… let me guess. She was already married off to this other guy and never told you?"

Roy smiled. "I did warn you that it's little more than your ordinary teenage tragedy. She was engaged all along and I never knew. Never even suspected. How could I? I didn't revolve in her society back then; I knew little of how her world worked. Her engagement, like most others, was a long-standing engagement between the two families: her husband's business is in textile production. You can imagine how it was a most fruitful and practical union. I only found out by chance when I was visiting Central with Berthold. She'd mentioned having to attend a wedding at one of the city parks on the very same day; what she never mentioned was that it was her own. Likely she never expected that I'd have any reason to be in Central. I decided to surprise her, but got surprised instead. Sometimes I still wonder if she ever planned on telling me at all."

Ed could see it in his mind's eye, a vivid and beautiful scene. Regina resplendent in her white dress, crowned with flowers, perhaps barefoot in the grass, naked sun in her brown hair… and Roy, he would have stood in the distance, frozen in disbelief. It was potent enough for a novel.

"Anyway, I left for war shortly after that. Finished the Academy and got licensed; started my career at the end of that relationship. Ends are beginnings, so Berthold always said. And there's nothing like the suffering of the world to detract me from my own misery. Forgetting her worked like a charm."

Silence reigned inside the car for some minutes, all of them watching the passing scenery outside. They were almost at Central Plaza: the First Library's gorgeous exterior loomed large and shadowy a little ahead.

After a while more, Ed huffed and crossed his arms. "Well, she must be ruing her own hypocrisy now. If she's as status-conscious as you say, I mean. You're at a higher standing than her husband, aren't you? So there, in her face."

Hughes and Roy both burst into laughter, much to Ed's irritation. It was true! She could not give up her family for someone she allegedly loved, which spoke of her priorities clear and simple. She did not marry out of duty; no dutiful daughter would fool around with someone else all the while finalising an arranged marriage on the side. She married because she could not bear the stigma she would have to endure if she abandoned her family and name — as much as she could not bear the prospect of losing the life of comfort and stability that she enjoyed as the daughter of an old business family. Young Roy had little to offer in the way of material things back then.

They circumnavigated the roundabout one-way path winding around Central Plaza and slowly turned into South 4th. Central Park stood mostly leafless and frozen around them as they drove. Ahead was the National Theatre, where the Ball was being held to ensure adequate space. Before them in a neat line were stately black cars, all of them faces turned toward the same place.

"Does the theatre accommodate the Ball every year?" Ed asked. "How does everyone fit?"

"There's two large ballrooms and plenty of adjacent halls inside, apart from the main theatre itself," Gracia explained. "And whenever the Armstrongs are hosting, they hold the Ball at their residence instead. They have enough space, but I think they're the only ones who do."

"Not quite, honey; there are the Bohms. Their place is larger."

"Than the Armstrongs?!" Who are these people to have one over the Armstrongs?

"What they have in size, they lack in finesse." Roy was quite clearly not an ardent admirer of this Bohm family. "Their architecture and interior design—absolutely tasteless. Horrid furniture, at that. No congruence to speak of. No class whatsoever."

Ed winced at the acid disdain in Roy's words. Who are these people to deserve that much dislike from Roy?

"Best not to let them hear that, my friend," Hughes warned as they finally pulled into the driveway.

"Which is why I'm letting it out now," the Bastard murmured as they stepped out and arranged themselves. Other guests were making a trail of footsteps in the snow, a wet dark line leading up to the front steps of the theatre. The structure was surely gorgeous by day, but tonight it took elegance to a higher level, soft yellow lights making its ivory façade seem illuminated from within. The lighting was angled just so to give the spectator an illusion of gold. Circulating about the driveway as a small army of attendants, guards, and valets, every last one of them impeccably attired in their livery. Hughes relinquished their spare keys to one before they stepped inside.

First among the things Ed noticed was the honey-rich energy humming against his keen alchemical senses when they came into the entrance hall. Alchemical temperature control, he knew at once, though how he could identify it, he had no idea. Gracia helped him out of his overcoat and straightened his dress coat with small and practised movements. Ed stood straight and still for her, but his eyes meandered about, taking quick note of his surroundings with more than a little awe. Roy and Hughes were both removing their overcoats as well when Ed noticed a certain stiffness — tension — in Roy's shoulders.

"Are you ready, Ed?" Gracia asked him, her soft brown eyes steady and warm.

Her question was simple, but Ed took a second to respond — he could hear Roy's voice lurking behind her words, heavy with meaning. Ultimately you will face a decision no one else can make for you: do you want to be in this kind of life? Because if you don't, you need to escape before it takes you over.

Ed looked to the tall white doors panelled and lined with artful hand-carved designs denoting the rich hidden life of Amestris' Society. What lay beyond was a battlefield of immense magnitude, Ed knew, and this was Roy and Hughes preparing for battle. A different sort of battle from Ishbal, with words for bullets and titles for shields — a different sort, but just as deadly. It was little wonder Roy was tense.

"Ed? Everything okay?" Gracia pushed a stray lock of his hair out of his eyes. "A little overwhelmed, maybe? Perfectly normal. I was too, at first."

Of course. She had a handful of years now attending these functions with Hughes, but she wasn't born into this lifestyle. There was a time before she was Mrs. Hughes, a relatively simpler time before she had such obligations.

And why would any sane and reasonable soul subject itself to this particularly tedious and public sort of masochism? Well, Gracia's reason was close at hand. Hughes — and Ed figured he ought to start calling him Maes henceforth — returned for his wife with a jovial smile.

"Shall we, my lady wife?" the man offered his arm.

Gracia slipped her hand into the crook of her husband's elbow and stepped away. But not before telling him, with a knowing little smile, "They are only as intimidating as you allow them to be, Ed."

With naught but a breath, they strode away, together the picture of warm elegance, visibly full of love. Maes was chuckling at something already — Maes was always amused as a matter of course. Ed was then left with Roy, who eyed him up and down before donning a sharp smile.

There were no words. Ed understood the unspoken question. This was it — there would be no undoing after this. Everybody of importance and power would know his name and his face, would have talked to him and acquired an impression by the end of the night. This was his last true chance to retreat to his quiet world of simple alchemy, with his brother and master — except — except the last true chance isn't this at all, he thought. The last true chance was that night, when Al tried to stop me from putting my hand to that circle. That was the last true chance.

After that, everything was different. Ed looked around him now and saw the change. Alchemy ceased its pretence of simplicity: the veil was torn from their eyes, from his eyes. This decision wasn't hard at all; it was already made long ago.

Roy must have seen something shift on his face then: the man gave a firm nod, turned to the white doors, and lifted his head. Ed followed suit. They handed their invitation to an attendant at the door, and from this shortened distance Ed could hear it, the low muted hum of active conversation on the other side, under the light tinkle of glassware and china —

Gate give me strength; I mustn't fail Roy. (The Gate grinned.)

Upon signal of a loud voice, the white doors opened: "Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, with Edward Elric, alchemist and friend of the Armstrong family!"

By grace of sheer will, Ed did not jump. A most fortunate show of composure, for before them was a small sea of upturned faces expectantly eyeing their entrance. Ed fell into a half-step behind and beside Roy, descending the sweeping grand staircase and somehow managing not to trip. It was a minute movement but the crowd lapped forward to greet them at the foot of the stairs — with the approaching prospect of mingling with people came rushing forth all of Roy's painful training in etiquette and presentation.

"Colonel Mustang! It has been far too long!"

"Colonel Mustang, as always it is an honour…"

"Ah, Colonel, come, you must meet my daughter…"

"My good man, finally! Why, all the ladies were beginning to wonder!"

Ed stood by Roy's side and bore through it all. The straight and immaculate line of his shoulders never fell. His hands he kept clasped behind his back to avoid misplacing them. And, most important of all, the attentive but neutral mask never once slipped from its perch upon his face. It was, by universal standards, a distinct improvement from the last time he was before Society, when he had panned away to hug the walls instead of facing the circus and its music.

"There you are, Colonel Mustang, fashionably late as usual," except we are perfectly on time! thought Ed—and here came old Lord Armstrong, parting the sea with the resonating clap of his voice. On his arm was perched his youngest daughter (her name is Catherine, came a sibilant reminder from the Gate) looking shy and something of a child.

But a lovely child, for certain, the Gate prompted—so when Roy finished exchanging greetings and it came upon him to speak, he gave Lord Armstrong his hand to shake and a confident smile on top. "Good evening, sir, and thank you for your kind invitation—I'm very honoured. My lady, you are as lovely as ever."

Catherine blushed prettily; Lord Armstrong erupted into a delighted laugh. "Upon my word, Mustang! Mere weeks with you and the young man transforms into quite the charmer! Well met, Mr. Elric, well met indeed. Why, you've made my daughter blush!"

Mustang gave him an openly approving smile just as one of the men nearby remarked with a chuckle, "It must be in the air. Living with the Roy Mustang will have exposed him to such density of daily charm that he has begun inhaling it into his young lungs. You must lend me some of this veritable power, Mustang; perhaps it'll give me better luck with the ladies!"

But the man in question was handsomely built, with fair complexion and dark caramel eyes. What help? thought Ed. You need no help! Besides which, it's not density of charm, it's density of ego, thick enough to choke on. You don't want no part of it, trust me.

"Such generous words — simply complement them like you just now did, Larsen, and they will know no escape." Ed inwardly gaped at how Roy failed to even falter in search of a response. Ed would not have known how to answer that by himself, and so deftly too, and with such speed. Well, he had plenty to learn.

"Larsen, my young fellow, if you had any more help with the women, you will leave none for the unmarried men who need them and for your poor wife who needs her husband!" said Lord Armstrong with a pat on the arm. The gentleman shared a laugh at his own expense, which was a fine thing to mask the widening edge of Ed's smile. I thought so. Roy's data said you were married, you cheating little dandy. I hope your wife is nearby to hear it…

Catherine Armstrong is here to have heard it, said the Gate — oh. That had been a warning for her, from both Roy and her father. Otherwise, they would not have taken the conversation toward such a direction quite so willingly in polite company. She did look thoughtful now, perhaps considering the veiled warning. She was born into this; she should know how to pick them out.

Edward considered her for a moment and then looked back up at the blonde gentleman who had approached them. He wasn't someone who looked or felt sinister in any way, but Ed was a beginner to the character of Society. Roy was what one would call a veteran, and yet he had misjudged Dr. Geralds. How much more for Ed, who had just gotten introduced to this world? If both Lord Armstrong and Roy Mustang thought that the girl was better off forewarned, then likely she was, never mind her seeming a bit young for such things in Ed's eyes.

"Colonel Mustang!" and here came another bug — oh. Ed straightened a fraction. Not a bug at all.

Lord Steinberg approached them, tall and noble, towering over Lord Armstrong's bulk. He was younger than the old General but carried himself with similar grace and assurance. His face was far gentler, though: the face of a man who has never weathered combat and survival. Lord Steinberg went straight for Roy and clapped him on the shoulder. "Dear old chap, it is good to see you! It has been far too long; I hope you'll forgive us for missing your invitation — you had a more than satisfactory celebration even without us, yes? Good, good. My wife will want to greet you herself and apologize in person, I'm sure — a happy birthday to you, my friend, though my wishes are belated. And congratulations on your advancement. Colonel now! Hard to believe you're only — what was it? — twenty-two!"

Roy smiled, of course, and murmured his gratitude, somehow managing to avoid looking awkward as he was showered praise by both lords. The old General remarked on his promotion as well: how it was past due, and well-deserved, and so forth. Ed knew the truth, though: Roy was not happy to have been promoted for killing his friend. Roy was only too practical to allow his own pride to get in the way of his ambition. Every inch closer was worth the pain and the struggle. Ed could admire that.

Perhaps it was due to these meandering thoughts, but for a second, his eyes slid away from the lords and Roy to settle on the man called Larsen. The gentleman had a lopsided smile on his face — still charming, still handsome — but quite obviously discomfited. (Or was it only obvious because Ed was particularly sensitive about people's pretences?) He returned his attention to Roy: at complete ease, wearing a winsome smile that Ed knew to be a genuine one.

Perhaps that was it. Roy did not even have the slightest sign of tension or discomfort conversing with figures of power and influence, whereas even those who could be considered of higher status than a common military man (with only his personal titles and no weighted name) were acutely aware, and therefore acutely intimidated, by those large and looming figures.

Even the most talented socialites had difficulty commanding the seemingly near-universal good regard Roy enjoyed. No, Roy was not merely talented at politics — Roy had a gift for this, his own personal and oft undetected brand of genius. Just like how Ed could tell the makeup of a substance by touch and sight and smell, Roy could tell the workings of people with a few well-placed words in a conversation. The Bastard had the fortune of a pretty face, too, and a highly intelligent strategic mind, and determination to add to this knack of his: the result was an overwhelmingly flawless presence that Ed was only now beginning to appreciate.

And naturally, the Gate swished its tail, humans resent that which they cannot ever achieve. Ed's eyes were drawn once more to Larsen, and then to Roy. He resisted the urge to release a hopeless sigh.

Envy, Ed thought, is ugly. (The Gate grinned. That he is.)

And Ed was no stranger to it. He was often lauded a genius himself. Even in Resembool, as a child, his presence had engendered stares of mixed admiration and scorn. The nicer children would not begrudge them, but would mutter words like, "That's nice, I wish I could do that too," or, "Good for you!" But the more vindictive ones would cleave to their wounded pride and shun the Elric brothers, the Alchemist's children.

At that moment, a hand landed on his shoulder, but with a familiar weight and width. Ed did not startle and instead smoothly refocused his attention. "…haven't introduced Edward yet, but here he is, Lord Steinberg. I know you've been most anxious to meet him."

"Edward Elric, sir; an honour," Ed shook the lord's hand.

"Mr. Elric! Yes, yes. I've wanted so dearly to meet you! Why, Society is on fire about you! Lord Armstrong and the Colonel both have written me about you, and I am most intrigued by their words."

Whatever the hell that meant! "Nothing too outrageous, I hope," Ed replied, glancing up at Roy. "I know Roy is smitten with my alchemy but I wouldn't want to disappoint."

They chuckled, all three men, and Lord Steinberg remarked, "Mayhap I should send my son to you for his studies in culture and etiquette, Colonel. This young man here is all of eleven-and-a-half years old and already the paragon of correct conduct! You may be able to work a miracle my wife and I agree our son is in dire need of."

Before Roy could respond, a booming voice announced the arrival of some more guests—ah, these ones highly anticipated for sure. "Lady Julia Firat and Brigadier-General Mira Armstrong!" They turned as one, and was met with quite a sight. The two women descended the stairs towards an adoring crowd, looking stunning indeed, except Ed could still see how Mira looked at all the nice young men in the crowd as if she could smell their stupid from Briggs Fortress. (She was never going to get married.)

"They sure know how to make an entrance," Maes remarked from behind them, reappearing with his wife. Gracia was even lovelier under the soft golden light of the hall, which was surely engineered to bring forth the best and mute the worst features of any person. Not that Gracia had anything to hide. Ed still preferred her over everyone else.

Lord Armstrong rumbled appreciatively beside Ed, twinkling in delight at the sight of his eldest child. "How fast they grow. Look at her. Is she not perfect?"

Ed thought, she's not six years old to be crooned over like that!

But Roy said, "Quite possible the single most gorgeous creature in this hall tonight, yes," which engendered twin laughter from Maes and Larsen.

"Say that to her face, I dare you," Maes challenged — to which Roy raised a delicate brow.

"It need not be a dare," he said, and excused himself from Lords Steinberg and Armstrong, turning to where the ladies were surrounded by people. Ed watched his back recede.

After a moment, he said with a generous dose of horrified awe, "Roy enjoys this, doesn't he?"

Maes smiled. "That is his secret."

Where Mira and Julia were, surrounded by socialites who promptly parted at Roy's approach, was a veritable buzz of excitement and talk. Ed could not hear them from this distance but Roy was saying something with a smile.

Something very potent indeed, remarked the Gate, as nearby ladies tittered and chuckled at his words. (Some younger ladies looked on the verge of fainting.) Then Roy pressed a kiss to Julia's hand, which Julia allowed, and attempted to do the same for Mira, which she did not allow. Roy had her hand before she could react, but she exerted visible effort to push their joined hands down and away from Roy's lips. Roy then said something (likely incendiary) and Ed watched as Mira's temper burst: she wrenched her hand free of Roy's grasp and aimed a slap at him. Roy dodged with a laugh; Julia only shook her head.

"You simply must marry them," urged Lord Steinberg, stooping beside Lord Armstrong. "Look at them, my friend! I don't believe there are many who can elicit such spark from your daughter, and there are even fewer among those who are worthy of the Armstrong family. What say you?"

"Mm," Lord Armstrong watched Roy and Mira from this distance, perhaps seeing the potential fruits of such a union. Ed thought about it himself and shrugged. He liked the Armstrongs: they were good people, hardworking, discerning, and intelligent. He could give his approval if it came to that. "Well," began Lord Armstrong, "I've tried many times to familiarise Mira to the idea of eventually settling down, but she is driven by her ambition and vision. That is my bloodline manifest in her. She balks at the very idea of surrendering her career to build a family."

"A more politic approach might benefit you better in this situation." When Lord Armstrong responded with a grimace, Lord Steinberg hastily amended, "I know you have little love for political manoeuvres in matters of family, but what I am suggesting is a simple compromise. Perhaps there is no need for Mira to surrender her career for a life at home. They could both continue their military careers and raise a family together — with your help, it should be possible, no? They will certainly not be the first or only couple serving together in the military, though they might be the only one at such high rank. It isn't a conservative model for family life, but surely for them an exception can be made."

Lord Armstrong hemmed to himself for a few minutes, allowing Ed to notice that Catherine had gone to greet her sister with Gracia. Maes was likewise in a separate conversation nearby with some ranked military person, though on casual terms.

"The vital thing, if all is to proceed as such, is for them to achieve and maintain equal rank. Else their marriage will fall apart," declared Lord Armstrong, followed by an encouraging nod from Lord Steinberg.

Ed blinked. So they're already married just like that? That was fast…

Lord Armstrong was saying, "We must continue to help the Colonel along towards promotions," when the announcement for dinner interrupted the conversation in the hall, ushers redirecting guests to an adjacent dining hall. Ed hesitated for a step, not knowing if he was supposed to follow, but Maes was there with a hand on his shoulder, steering him along after the two lords.

"I hope you're hungry; it's a five-course affair tonight," Maes said, to which Ed replied, "But Roy said their portions are smaller?" Maes affirmed this and explained that it was a countermeasure against wardrobe emergencies (also known as button-popping) and fainting spells (for those who ate too much and, confined in their corsets, could not breathe).

Ed was snickering when they arrived at their table, which was one of the five rectangular tables in the centre of the hall. There they reunited with Roy, Gracia, and Catherine, who arrived with Mira, Julia, a dark-haired and pale-skinned lady Ed recognised as Karenina Islenhov-Firat, and a tall man he knew to be Jason Firat.

All the other tables were smaller and round, occupied with guests of less import—and it was quite obvious, for the group at Ed's table altogether made quite a striking picture. Flawless genetics indeed, Ed echoed Maes' words, almost unfairly so. If the Armstrong brood were identifiable by their light blond hair atop ice blue eyes, high cheekbones, and strong jaws, the Firats had hair the colour of warm earth and soulful eyes in either caramel brown or forest green. Their features were sharper, aquiline in quality, their build slimmer, with smaller bones, though just as tall. Altogether it lent them an air of nobility and solemn grace. Ed observed the two families mill about, open and familiar as they exchanged greetings and well-wishes. Roy, at complete ease, was every inch one of them.

An older lady (a decade younger than Lady Evelyn Armstrong, maybe) was in the process of apologising to Roy — ah, Lady Steinberg, Ed identified. "There you are, Adolf," she sighed, laying a hand on her husband's arm. "I was just passing our congratulations to the Colonel. Well-deserved, without a doubt."

"I said so earlier myself, before he left us to pay his homage to Mira," Lord Steinberg regaled to a growing circle. Ed stood by Roy once more, much to his relief, for the gathering of persons was beginning to look quite ridiculous. The Armstrongs, the Firats, the Steinbergs — and oh. Here comes the Fuhrer. Wonderful, he thought. Just when I thought it couldn't get any more ridiculous.

But the Fuhrer only exchanged quick greetings and handshakes with the lords (and a smiling nod to Roy) before heading for another one of the rectangular tables. Each one of the five distinguished tables were occupied with equally distinguished persons, the foremost of which was assigned to the host family (the Steinbergs for this year), the Fuhrer, and friends.

'Friends,' he had learned from Roy, was an inconveniently vague term denoting a group of people who could be any of the following: betrothed or fiancée of any person originally invited at the table; immediate family of the Fuhrer including brother, sister, or parent; honoured guest of foreign but equal rank to the Fuhrer, and their associates; and any specific person of importance invited to the table by any of its original guests for a specific stated reason, such as a companion, beau, or special honoured friend.

Roy had been there more than once, according to Maes — for every time the Armstrongs hosted, as an outward and undeniable sign of their true favour. Many speculated from his first night there — they certainly continued to do so now, and quite accurately so — that Roy was Lord and Lady Armstrongs' handpicked favourite for future son-in-law. A notion that was neither encouraged nor denied — except, of course, by Roy's supposed future bride, Lady General Mira Armstrong herself. She publicly loathed Roy, and the public believed her not one bit.

Said Lady General was at the table in discussion with another Lady — and there were a fair number of people around. Ed had been forewarned that they were to be dining with the Armstrongs and the Firats tonight, an arrangement most convenient for the other honoured guests at the other tables: the Weisses and representatives of the Ren clan were sitting with General Austerlitz of Internal Affairs at the Weisses' request. Generals Gardner, Edison, and Raven were seated at the fourth table, leaving Generals Jaeger and Adler and Ministers Lindquist and Wolf. Ed figured it had to be quite the nightmare figuring out these seating arrangements, for the danger of committing some terrible faux pas that would offend somebody. Society was a scary place.

He followed Roy to their seat — side by side, across from Gracia and Maes, thank the heavens! Ed wished he were as comfortable as they seemed, but despite, or indeed, because of his consciousness of possible error, he managed to conduct introductions, polite words, and platitudes with astounding grace. (From across the table, Maes was giving him an appreciative smile.) Some supernatural strength seemed to bolster his confidence from deep within his chest, tapping a heretofore unknown wellspring of elegance and self-control. His voice never once wavered, though he would pause every now and then to weigh his words.

No; not a single misstep.

"We finally meet the talk of the city," an older man remarked of Ed, sat directly opposite of Lord Armstrong at the other end of the table, "and what a well-mannered young man he is. Practically unheard of, Mr. Elric, capturing the eye of Society like so without even having met any of the Four Families beforehand."

Ed dipped his eyes in respect, a minute movement, before stating quite plainly, with a wry smile, "I was never told anything of it until last week, Dr. Firat. Roy is protective to the side of paranoia, I'm sure you know."

The table erupted in chuckles and delighted murmurs. Lady General Armstrong audibly scoffed, "I dare say."

"Is he, indeed! Well, we are glad that he has decided to trust us with your company for tonight, Mr. Elric. A friend of the Armstrongs is a friend of the Firats; it has been so since the days of old, and we give tradition its due respect. As the patriarch of my family, I welcome you to Central," and Ed knew that 'Central' did not mean the city as much as its Society. "Our doors are always open to you."

Ed swallowed, spine stiffening. This time he fully dipped his head and murmured, "Thank you, sir." He was taught to demur and claim how their words were wasted on someone like him, but both he and the Gate physically recoiled from that. We are not a waste of words, the Gate nodded firmly. We are never a waste of words!

"Now that the formalities are done," began a younger man strikingly featured with kind grey eyes, "you must cease calling Dad 'Dr. Firat' or you'll end up confusing us all. We're all Dr. Firats, but we aren't as uppity about formal references as other families you might encounter. Practicality runs in the blood. Do us a favour and call us by name, won't you? I'm Jason," the man declared, a fact Ed already knew. Jason Firat, the eldest and heir, was the spitting image of his father Julius, all dark hair and sharp features that were softened by the soothing warmth of a good doctor's smile. Father and son could be twin brothers, if the grey eyes became green and Julius' grey hair regained their dark chestnut colour.

Ed responded, "Then please call me Edward; thanks for having me."

The lady beside Jason — his wife, Karenina Islenhov-Firat, also a doctor after her mother — very prettily laughed, leaning towards her husband. "Very charming, indeed. It must be Roy's influence."

"Well, of course, who else," Mira Armstrong replied. "Hughes is nowhere near as noxious."

"I shall take that as a compliment!" chortled Maes, just as Roy reclined with a delighted smile. Ed inwardly groaned: the cat was out to play.

"Why, my fair lady, I am deeply honoured by the high regard with which you hold me," Roy said, voice dripping with honey and light. "It must be rare indeed to be thought charming by none other than you."

The table lit up with laughter, even from Catherine and the notably flustered young man seated in front of her—Joseph Firat, the youngest, engaged to Catherine and all of sixteen years old. (Which only meant that the two were entirely unable to meet each other's eyes.)

"You walked into that one, Mira," remarked Julia, almost tragically beautiful sitting across from Mira. "Touché, Roy."

Was that Ed's imagination, or was a flush darkening Mira's neck? Either way, she pinned Roy with most menacing eyes, which only highlighted their stark paleness.

"Spare me your sweet pretensions, Mustang. I am not to be fooled."

"Ah, but of course. The Lady General prefers being praised for her strength over her most remarkable beauty."

Ed inwardly groaned. He is asking for it.

The Gate hummed thoughtfully. I do believe your kind calls it foreplay?

Ed choked — on his own spit, at that — and had to struggle to discretely clear his throat. Fortunately for him, the table was now in full swing of conversation: he caught Maes regaling to the Firats, "Roy's a very private sort of person about the objects of his affections, you see! Do excuse him for hiding Edward. Whenever he likes people immensely, he might never tell their name to anyone. Very, ah, covetous man, my friend is. He takes great pleasure in the knowledge that something is his and exclusively so."

"Maes," Roy sighed in open dismay, over the Firats' laughter.

"Why, you make young Edward sound like some treasure to be zealously protected!" Lady Anne, Julius' wife, flicked her grey eyes towards Ed's direction.

"He is, my lady," said Roy, "a brilliant mind quite unlike any I've ever met. Well, apart from his father, of course." Despite his better control, Ed could not prevent a scowl.

"And Edward's father was your alchemical mentor, is that right?" Jason said, leaning to make space as the waiter came to serve the aperitif. There was also soup.

"One of my alchemical mentors, yes; I was still primarily a student of Berthold Hawkeye." This was apparently new information, for both Lord Armstrong and Lord Firat looked up in surprise.

"The Alchemist of Air?" confirmed Lord Armstrong, and at Roy's nod continued, "My dear fellow, you have never told me so! Your Lieutenant Hawkeye — she was not assigned to you merely as good favour from that old Grumman, then?"

"Riza insisted to stay under my command, but yes, I would not have taken her along without General Grumman's express permission." Roy looked the very picture of poised elegance, so Ed doubted an unintentional slip of tongue. (The chances for one were minuscule from Roy at an event of this importance and before families of such power and influence.) He puzzled for more than a little while at the strategy behind revealing that bit of information now, and rather unsuccessfully, because it seemed such a vital piece of fact if it had been withheld for so long. He couldn't fathom any reason for Roy to reveal something so personally significant and possibly destabilising — fatal, even, for much could be derived about one's alchemy from the identity of one's master.

Ultimately, as if out of pity, the Gate provided, It's for you, dolt. Dropping an influential name in relation to the identity of your father — and therefore determinant of your status — protects and elevates you, the both of you. I do believe your kind calls it give and take. You owe him a big one.

Ed watched as the members of the table evaluated Roy in a new and heightened light. The Bastard flourished under the scrutiny! What an unbelievable exhibitionist. Ed grimaced in distaste. Even the scrumptious morsels before him could not overwhelm the rancid taste in his mouth. With a sigh, he reached for the wine.

The food, he noted with pleasure, was indeed quite a feast. Butternut squash soup was the first course according to Roy, matched with grapefruit sorbet for cleansing. He hoped for the sake of those here who took medicines that there was an alternative: grapefruit was one particular fruit juice that negatively reacted with a large list of substances, most medicinal in use. But no one seemed to be on the verge of collapse. All well and good.

The second course was a salad with chicories, pear, and crumbled gorgonzola cheese, dressed in balsamic vinaigrette and topped with toasted pine nuts. Very winter, he noted with delight, crunching quietly on the pine nuts, which were considered a treat down south. Resembool and the surrounding areas did not often have pines, the climate being altogether too warm for the plants throughout the year. Gorgonzola was an excellent partner for the nuttiness, and the pear's dash of sweetness was a flash of vibrant colour against the darker tastes. Sparkling white wine sherbet was offered afterwards for cleansing, cutting through the chalk of the cheese.

As the dishes were taken away, he leaned towards Roy and asked, "How come their gorgonzola tastes different from the one you have at home? Firmer, less — uhh — milky." He was at a loss to describe it.

"The kind I routinely buy," Roy responded with approval, "is made in the West, near Pendleton and the Spine, from where you can see Mawspeake. Those are the high woodlands, and they have a particular method of making their cheese so that it tastes buttery instead of milky. This gorgonzola, I think, was probably bought from farms near Insselberg or Altheim, just north of Central. Just as good, but of a different sort."

Roy's words were carefully tailored to avoid offence, Ed noted with a nod. While Roy was plying his explanation, the third course was placed in front of them, a subtle statement of wealth and privilege if there ever was any. It was fish, simply prepared, on a bed of leeks and mashed potatoes. But to be precise, it was black sea bass, exclusively a marine fish, and quite expensive considering how it had to be imported from Aerugo or Creta.

"Take a bite," Roy instructed, "and then immediately follow it with the wine." For this course, it was rosemary red wine — and what an elegant match. Ed savoured the soft interplay of flavours as they slid over each other on his tongue. The bass was seared just so, and seasoned very lightly, to highlight the taste of the sea, never to overwhelm it. Ed was quite sure he was not alone in savouring the rarity of this dish, as most of his table seemed to be quite taken with it.

The fourth course was the heavy one. Before him was a sumptuous filet mignon with roasted vegetables: yellow and red beet jewels, young carrots, and caramelised Brussels sprouts. This was traditional Amestrian fare, and Ed could taste it in the richness of the meat. It was almost as good as Giovanni's steak, except he couldn't say as much to Roy, not with this company — it would be rude. Instead, he chased his remarks from his tongue with a generous slather of the lemon sauce.

Throughout the course of the dinner, the table was lively with talk of all things considered by Society, politics and philanthropy foremost. Gossip, Ed found to much relief, was seldom if ever obvious, for such distinguished families had methods most honourable of discussing other people's notable endeavours and the relevant results therein—namely philosophy.

Of the common man's vocal displeasure at the so-deemed 'vices' of the upper echelons, Lady Evelyn Armstrong had to say, "Oh, I do quite sympathise." Her face was stern and dispassionate as ever. "They must feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property, and that if any of 'our' kind makes a fool of himself in such a manner, why," she paused and levelled them with an imploring look, "we would then be poaching on their territory! How uncouth that would be of us. Quite logical, if one gives it some thought, no? They do work so very hard to acquire their lot in life, unlike the rest of us. Is it a wonder they would be so — how does one put it — covetous?"

Even Ed could not suppress his snickers; the old Lady had a way with words! Now he could see how Roy so quickly learned. It was nigh impossible to avoid picking this up.

"Truly, though," Julia Firat remarked thoughtfully, "I can never figure why these common men, as they now call themselves, are so starved for this life they think we lead in pure joy and comfort. They have perfectly valid and valuable treasures, like freedom and the opportunity to define themselves by their own hard work — men like Roy here, now Colonel, have done so very well for their own reasons — reasons that are worth the price, I dare say, of throwing away those other valuable gifts they are born with."

They were all quiet for a heartbeat, until Ed huffed, discontent. He knew the answer to this one. "Knowing the price is not knowing the value. Prices are arbitrary; value is not."

The Gate grinned in agreement, its fluffy bobcat-shaped presence radiating pleasure from the back of Ed's consciousness. Lord Firat made a soft sound of agreement.

"Well said," nodded the older man, "very true indeed. Plenty of people will live long lives never knowing the treasures that they already hold within their hands. But another truth of life, my dear daughter." Julia sighed in faint acknowledgement. Ed could sympathise. Such truths bore ill for the world as a whole.

Lady Anne chose that moment to detract the conversation towards art, apparently a topic relevant enough to philosophy to avoid too much of a jar in the flow of discussion. "Lord Armstrong tells us that they have bequeathed the Vanishing to you for your birthday, Colonel! We do apologise for not being able to attend — duty calls — but I'm sure you enjoyed the piece. It is a most gorgeous work of art."

"A very generous gift for which I am still quite certain I am unworthy," said Roy, to which Lord Armstrong responded with a huff and a dismissive wave of his large hand. "The piece is very evocative. Ed fell in love, I think."

"What," Ed said. "It's pretty. And not falsely pretty, but realistically pretty!"

"Are you an admirer of Realism, then, Mr. Elric?" asked Alex Armstrong, the first Ed heard him participate in discussion tonight. If his brain was not failing him, Alex was a staunch devotee of the high arts.

But Ed had no training of any sort in such fields, so he apologised and said, "I don't know what that is. My education up until Roy has consisted of alchemy for the most part." Technically not a lie. Combat and survival counted as alchemy, and so did medicine. Izumi said so.

"It is merely what its name dictates — a style of depicting the world in art as realistically as the medium can afford. A younger trend, and quite divisive. There are as much who love it as those who hate it," explained Roy.

Mira Armstrong scoffed. "It's only divisive for idiots. Our century's dislike of Realism is the rage of a monster seeing its own face in a looking glass. Our century's dislike of Romanticism, on the other hand, is the rage of a monster not seeing its own face in a looking glass. Either way, pick your poison. It's all regurgitated blather."

Half the table broke into chuckles, Roy raising his glass to Mira for thoughts well put. Why weren't they married again? They suited each other so perfectly, Ed thought, that they were almost twins.

Similar charges dispel, said the Gate — oh. That makes sense. (Science! Ed loved it.)

Continued they did on similar veins of talk, until dessert arrived, much-awaited indeed. The fish and steak left him quite satisfied already, but there was always room for cake. It was orange chocolate cake, beautifully arranged on the plate before him, and in a portion visibly controlled to prevent its rich sweetness from cloying the tongue. Roy often said that food was art, and the plate was a canvas — rightly so, for Ed almost didn't want to destroy the presentation. Except of course, chocolate.

Catherine Armstrong threw out all pretence of light, peckish, and ladylike eating to savour the treat with great delight. Conversation dimmed around him such that he was able to observe adjacent tables where sat persons he knew from Mustang's briefing. Ed noted how they sat together regardless of political affiliations, inclinations, or pursuits: a good politician, Roy would say, followed his party leader's movements in public life, but in private followed the best cooks, dining with the Martials and thinking with the Liberals, in obeisance to a wise and well-worn rule.

It was also essential to speak only of moral things, self-denial and sacrifice and other such absolute impossibilities, so that the whole dinner could be spent talking of nothing important at all. Instead, everyone waxed poetic about their achievements in fields of philanthropy or arts or alchemy. No one discussed the burgeoning conflict (again!) with Drachma or the roiling civil unrest in the East. Not one word was mentioned about subsidy for the displaced poor of Ishbal or the sensitive issue of citizenship and rights for annexed peoples like them. The persons of power preached about the importance of virtues and principles for which exercise there was neither space nor necessity in their own lives.

"Now, Mr. Elric, let me ask you," Lord Firat leaned forward all of a sudden, eyes steady on Ed's face. Ed swallowed, hoping they wouldn't ask his opinion of complicated political matters. He wasn't quite there yet… "What do you say about Lord Steinberg's opposition against your rumoured enlistment under Roy's command? He says you ought to wait, that you are too young to be exposed to the perils of military duty. Plenty of other options to consider, surely."

Ah, yes. Lord Steinberg, currently seated with the Fuhrer at the head table, was one of the most vocal detractor of his enlistment under Roy's command, citing his age and innocence. Ed was only recently made aware (by a very reluctant Roy) of his own name's impact on Central's political talk. Apparently, his appearance at the Symposium had disturbed a nest of sleeping wasps.

Well, that was their problem, not his.

He turned to Lord Firat and said, "Give me a well-funded, well-staffed, and well-populated alchemical university, sir, and I won't need to be a State Alchemist. None of us will."

"Hear!" two voices echoed in agreement. Ed had to fight a grin. Jacob Firat and Kanon Islenhov, the two individuals he was most eager to meet tonight! As Roy had promised, they were all seated at the same table. He turned towards them, hoping perhaps that this would be the beginning of a good conversation —

But Lord Firat was not so easily deterred. "Is there something specific you need a State license for that the Colonel can't help you acquire?"

Ed had to blink in mild surprise. Really? "First Library, for a start." Wasn't that much obvious? "I know Roy's rich as a flaming pirate, but I don't think he can afford to get me all of First Library, sir. To begin with, some of the things in there I don't think can even be priced. Hell, I'm not even sure if it's right to be pricing them."

Roy swiftly took over with a chuckle, sensing that Ed was on the verge of losing hold of his tongue. "Ed has decided on a course of research that is very difficult to conduct without the appropriate literature. Of course, it is entirely up to him to decide whether or not he wants the license — I daresay I can find something to be promoted for even without him as my subordinate."

That remark coaxed hearty laughter from both Lords Armstrong and Firat. Small wonder Roy's very presence encouraged intense urges for homicide in otherwise pacific people. The Bastard was the darling of Society's elite, and he managed it so — so — agh!

"If you do decide to go ahead, though, you're already past the deadline," Jason Firat informed him.

"Plenty of ways to go around a deadline," Mira dismissed, pinning Ed with her own scrutiny. "I doubt you'll need my help with something so simple, will you, Mustang?" An understanding passed between the two, completely sailing above Ed's head. He frowned, looking back and forth. What was that? That was about me, wasn't it. It was, it so was!

"You have a little over three months to prepare, Mr. Elric," Lord Armstrong peered at him, already sure he would proceed. "I expect your success. The examinations are far from easy, so be warned."

Ed set his jaw. "As it should be! Three months is more than enough time."

"Confident, are we?" Mira smirked. "Have a care not to choke on your own ego."

Oh, Ed knew how to play this game. He smirked back. "If I do take those exams, they'll be begging to license me at the end."

Some laughter, and the conversation simply kept flowing, splintering and reconnecting within their small circle. Before departing entirely from the issue, however, Lord Firat caught his arm with a hand and said, "I hope you don't come to regret your decision, Mr. Elric. It isn't that I decry alchemy or State licensure, which are both necessities of our civilization, but you are very young. I only wish I could convince you that there is no need to discard all other possible paths to pursue alchemy, but I know my words will be in vain. My son is an alchemist, too."

Ed could see the deep sincerity in Lord Firat's wise eyes, could see that the man truly wanted nothing more but the best for his well-being. Perhaps he was tired of seeing shells of men returning from a hideous duty that they had unwittingly signed up for… or perhaps Lord Firat simply did not understand what it meant to be defined by something so thoroughly that everything else paled in comparison.

Either way, Ed gave the elderly man a small grin. "You're very wise to hold your words, sir. You see, even before I came here to be with Roy, all the other possible paths had become impossible. I'm not discarding them to be licensed; I can't, because I already did."

:::


:::

It took some time but at long last the lengthy dinner concluded, liberating the table's occupants to mingle among others once more. The population reconvened in a separate hall devoid of dinner tables; instead, servants here circulated with trays of after-meal refreshments and small samplings of sweet for those whom the luscious dessert was not enough. Their table's group did not separate, with the exception of a few of the ladies retreating momentarily to recoup in the ladies' room. Instead, their group grew with the addition of the Steinbergs, a handful of decorated Generals, and a pair of distinctly Xingese young men representing the elusive but much-lauded Ren clan.

Conversation on politics and society swam around Edward, failing to hold much of his interest for any extended period of time, though he did note what topic rose and fell between which persons, if only to be on the safe side.

He needn't have worried though. Just as the relocation allowed the true politics to commence, it also allowed Jacob Firat and Kanon Islenhov the opening they had been waiting for to grab at Edward's sleeve and pull him to a corner.

"Edward, wasn't it?" Jacob Firat began, with little to spare for pleasantries. (Ed liked him already.) "Roy's told Kanon about you. Haven't talked to him recently — he's been busy — how do you do, by the way? I'm Jacob — this is Kanon, we're really interested in your alchemy — Anya said you were worth talking to."

Ed blinked, blindsided. Jacob, according to Roy and Maes' data, was the alchemically brilliant second son of Julius Firat. They didn't warn him, though, that he was also brilliantly eccentric!

"Um, hi, yes, I'm Edward, nice to meet you, and thanks, that's flattering," he responded, unsure of what else to say. Jacob peered at him with intense hazel eyes — very intelligent eyes — set upon a narrow, thin face. Though very handsome indeed, the intensity of intellectual energy radiating from him rendered him somewhat gaunt and harder to approach than his warm and welcoming older brother. He didn't twitch or fidget, but he did have an almost visible sort of tension about him — an impatient air, as if the world moved at too slow a pace for his hyper-accelerated mind.

"I think you might be stumping him there, Jake," Kanon Islenhov mediated. Jacob blinked and immediately murmured an apology, which Ed accordingly dismissed — he wasn't stumped, only surprised — Kanon smiled. "That too. Jacob is rather unusual in conversation, I suppose, but you'll forgive us. We don't mingle an awful lot in Society."

Ed gave them a sideways grin. "There's nothing to forgive."

"Excellent! We are at the beginnings of an understanding," Kanon declared, clapping his hands together. He was less intense, more boyishly charming, but no less intelligent than his friend. Edward knew his type well — Kanon was of Al's breed, kind and genial, likeable and easy to engage, but hiding manifold layers underneath. "Now, if you'll indulge us, Edward — may we call you Edward? — right, here you are, then," Kanon placed a small box in his hands, which Jacb had procured from his pocket.

Ah, Edward smiled, looking down at the box and then back up at the two young men standing expectantly before him. He was being tested! How long has it been since I was tested so honestly? His smile morphed into a grin as he turned the box over and around. How many others have figured this out before me, I wonder?

The wooden box had all four sides hand-carved with images, sigils, symbols, and scripts — so much of them and in such an artfully deceitful manner that Ed could think of at least three schools of alchemy that would be fooled into thinking the arrays were theirs. But opening this box needed no alchemy — so the scripts read, if one were able. All you need is a familiarity with children's toys, Ed thought as he began pushing the movable pieces of each face of the cube, that and a mind for clever little puzzles.

The top and bottom faces of the cube had no movable pieces but held the hint 'SPELL OPEN' as a single line of script, if you could spot it where it was nestled between archaic glyphs (decorative) and fancy lines of old poetry written in modern script (also decorative, though nice taste — Ed recognised it as Mendelson, from Roy's weekly literature lessons). So he did as he was told, spelling OPEN with the faces of the cube, one letter for one side. The movable pieces slid against each other, distorting the hand-carved images on each cube face but lining up the useless lines of gibberish script to form one ordinary alphabet letter at a time.

When he finally had each side set, the bottom of the box tingled against his fingers. Lines of script appeared on its flat and otherwise unmarked surface. It read:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And Heaven in a Wild Flower

"Oh, nicely done," Edward grinned, recognising the prompt immediately. What decent alchemist wouldn't? He sought Roy and plucked at the man's sleeve, borrowing a pen and a piece of paper to write out, in script, the appropriate response those two very well-known lines of verse — the keyscript for this clever little Lindbergh lock —

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

They were the famous words of an old alchemist and literary genius who had lived some two hundred and fifty years ago, defining in poetry the very nature of alchemy and the potential it carried for those who were adept enough to properly wield it.

The very second he finished the last word with a final stroke of his pen, the cube popped open in his hand, half-startling him even as he blinked at its contents. There, sat in between four open panels of wood, was a delicious-looking caramel truffle.

"Five and a half minutes!" Jacob crowed, calling the attention of nearby persons not already observing their little test. "He solved it in five and a half minutes!"

But Ed was more concerned with the truffle, asking flatly, "Is this for me?" even as Jacob took him by the shoulders in delight.

"If you knew how many alchemists we've trumped with that box, Edward!" Kanon laughed, offering Ed a second truffle. "To celebrate a new friendship, yes?"

"Yes," Ed nodded eagerly.

"You shouldn't let yourself be taken along by my little brothers so readily, Edward," Karenina Islenhov-Firat warned him with a coy smile. "You might regret it; they get quite zealous, especially when left to their devices for a long enough span of time, as you've no doubt seen with their peculiar method of introducing themselves and befriending people."

"No kidding," Ed grinned up at her. "An alchemical puzzle and good chocolate — I've never received a better proposition in my life! Why don't we conduct introductions like this on a daily basis? It makes so much sense."

"Hear!" exclaimed both Jacob and Kanon, to a mixture of fond and exasperated faces.

"Oh dear, they've found a new one," Julia mourned.

Roy chuckled and took great pleasure in saying, "I told you so," to a very intrigued Edward.

The following hour was accordingly spent trading queries and stories with his newfound companions, all the while remaining within arm's reach and sight's distance of Roy. Jacob and Kanon were both very bright young alchemists, well-known movers within their respective fields. Kanon was a scriptsmith, while Jacob specialised in medical bioalchemy. Both were receptive to Edward's consideration for enlistment as well, citing most passionately that alchemists were often trapped in difficult straits, unable to further their study without a stable income source for their research unless they were fortunate enough to be born to families capable of providing for their careers.

"Though I'll be honest with you," Kanon said, "the prospect of a public university affording the public free knowledge somewhat scares me too. You never know what people might use alchemy for. Case and point that debacle with Dr. Geralds…"

Edward tensed, preparing for a deft manoeuvre to avoid giving too much information away — but just then the dances commenced, saving him from having to respond.

"Oh, here we go," Kanon sighed. "Should have insisted Anya come with me. Now I have to find someone to dance with…"

"Must you?" frowned Ed. "You could opt out…"

"It is expected of me, as my dearest sister would say," and with that he began to step away in the hunt for a temporary partner. "I'll be back in short order, Edward. Come along, Jake."

"No!" Jacob scowled, crossing his arms in a fine mimicry of a five year old.

"Come now, little brother, don't be so glum," Julia swept him away, leaving Ed by the balcony, suddenly alone and more than just a little abandoned.

The dance was truly quite a spectacle, lords and ladies and distinguished gentlemen with their escorts moving in a coordinated swirl of textures and colours. Edward watched, dazzled and tired, leaning against the cool wall behind his back. The night was almost over, and it had been its own little adventure — was there anyone in society, anyone in Roy's circles, he had not yet met? He didn't think so. But of course, just as he began thinking about it, Roy spun into his line of sight, locked in sway with a lovely lady Edward did not know.

Who is she?

Edward watched them, rummaging through his brain. No; he wasn't among Roy and Maes' trees of faces. Not one of the prominent families, not a ranked officer, not even one of the business magnates included in his pre-Ball briefing. He leaned forward, looking intently. He was intrigued. Roy didn't just dance with anyone.

Who is she!

The Gate had no answer, swishing its tail quietly with the rhythm of his thoughts. She was very lovely indeed, long brown hair in a regal cascade, dress flowing from her limbs with the slow sinuous motion of molten gold. They were talking—she was talking, somewhat pleadingly—and Roy was—

Roy was not happy.

Ed sucked in a slow breath through his teeth, recoiling from the cold bite in Roy's eyes. Roy said a few words as the dance ended, disentangling his arms from her and smoothly switching partners with the adjacent gentleman — ah, of course. Lord Armstrong passed an incensed Mira into Roy's arms at that moment, her sweet ferocity displacing the sour taste that lovely brunette left in Ed's mouth.

As if on demand, the orchestra began a romantic and appropriately grand waltz as Roy and Mira spun round to the delighted murmurs of an appreciative crowd. The other couples parted to clear a way for them, allowing Ed an excellent view. They were talking as they waltzed, Mira managing to refrain from violence for once as they exchanged words in an inaudible conversation. Roy looked a little out of his depth for a minute, before recovering his usual aplomb, visible by the gentle and—dare Ed say it?—sincere smile he gave Mira in return for a few of her words. At one corner of the hall, Ed spotted the lovely mystery brunette, looking on in — in scorn? Envy? Wistfulness? Agh. Emotions were so difficult to quantify.

I could teach you all about emotions if you'd like, offered the Gate, smile widening like underwater rifts.

Nope, I can manage, thanks. Ed had a limited supply of arms and legs, after all. But could it be? He watched as the mystery brunette melted back into the growing crowd of spectators. Hmm.

"Lady Mira likes to deny it but I thinks he really likes Roy," a voice said from beside him — oh. Kanon was back (and looked very glad for it). "Or at the very least, she holds great respect for him — rather difficult not to, it's Roy, you know. But she likes to pretend she doesn't, even though they're the only ones who probably understand the pressures of their world. Really a great match all around. They're like Central's highly anticipated fairy tale waiting to tie the knot."

Ed recalled his jibe about Roy's collection of fairy tales and had to snicker. "So… who's the Prince?"

"Don't let her hear that," Kanon grinned. Jacob came back looking mightily harassed just then; Kanon slung an arm around his brother-in-law. They both turned to Edward and Kanon said, "Listen, Ed. I don't know how your schedule is or what commitments you have, but give us a call when you've got a free day. We'll take you to the colleges where the cafes are near — that's where most of the younger alchemists kill time. We'll go to Anya's too — you've been once, right? She says she'd love to have you over to look at some pieces."

It was the closest alchemists could get to an invitation to play. Ed nodded definitively. "I'll clear it with Roy and call you. Roy has your numbers, right?"

"Just call the Firat manor — barely leave, anyway — ask for me, the butler will know," Jacob said. Kanon lived with the Firats, his sister being his only remaining family after their mother died and his brother deserted. According to Maes, rumour had it that the Firats were loath to relinquish hold on such a promising young alchemist even if it meant housing a grown young man who should already be providing for himself. (Not that they couldn't afford him.)

Soon the night came to a close, and the families parted with well-wishes and yuletide greetings. For Edward, it was with promises to visit the Firats and Armstrongs and Steinbergs, but foremost an appointment with Jacob and Kanon for next week. Roy readily agreed to their plans and even offered some suggestions of places to visit, as long as they avoided certain other establishments which reportedly were 'cesspits of half-baked and semi-formed ideological amalgams'.

Ed fastened his coat against the cold as they stood on the front steps of the driveway waiting for their car. Having cemented his appointments with Jacob and Kanon, his evening was now full. He was going home content. The Armstrongs and Firats were still bidding their final goodbyes and goodnights to people as they passed by. Roy came along at last and went up to Mira with her coat, assisting her and effectively creating a traffic jam as a number of people paused to watch.

"Oh, god, enough already," groaned Julia Firat, most unladylike as she tugged her scarf about her shoulders and turned in mock disgust. "If they fall into bed tomorrow, it won't be soon enough." The delay was causing her to have to wait for the car she was to share with her brother and sister-in-law.

But Ed was a curious boy. He stepped closer to listen —

"…do believe I owe you one, and I do insist," Roy was saying, pre-empting what would have been dismissals from Mira's lips. "Perhaps a dinner, or a favour?"

"Save yourself the trouble, Mustang. I only told you what any person possessed of logic would have advised." She sighed, turning up her coat collar against the biting wind.

What, Ed thought, no slaps or witty retorts?

"Still, I insist," Roy helped her with her scarf too, and then faced her with the most earnest face Ed has ever seen on him. "Please, Mira, allow me this."

But Mira did not push him away! She only rolled her eyes, and with a put-upon sigh, acceded. "Fine, fine, Tuesday next week, eight sharp. Nothing fancy or I'll carve you into fancy shapes."

Ed stared, somewhat in shock. She agreed? She agreed!

Mira's car rounded the driveway, but before she stepped into her car, she tossed at Roy, "Forget her, Mustang. She's not worth a tenth of you." She stepped into the car, shut the door behind her, and left.

"Whaaaaaat?" Maes exclaimed, coming up to Roy with disbelief and surprise and unapologetic glee. "My good man, what in the world was that?!"

"Her, who's her? Was it that brunette lady?" Ed tugged at Roy's sleeve. "It was that brunette lady, wasn't it."

"Brunette — Regina? Roy, did I not tell you — I told you to let her be!"

"Wait, wait, that was her? Talk to her, no! He danced with her —"

"Roy! Of all the stupid —"

"Oho," Julius Firat chuckled from behind them, still in wait for their car. "I smell a good story here."

"Indeed, do enlighten me," Julia agreed, drawing close as a predator would to the scent of fresh blood.

Roy smiled at all of them rather demurely but addressed his response to Julia. "I'm sure Mira will tell you the story if you ask her, my dear, but as you've heard, I've been advised to forget. Now if you'll excuse us, our car is here."

"You're running away? He's running away!" Kanon exclaimed, having materialized behind his sister-in-law. "But we want to hear —"

Just so, they made a hasty exit, Roy manning the wheel and manoeuvring them home.

"Ooooh, Roy," Maes nudged him, "everyone's gonna know now. Did you really tell Mira? Seriously?"

"It was a moment of vulnerability, Maes, leave it alone."

Aha, so it wasn't planned! Mira saw an opening and pounced!

"How come I didn't see this? When did you dance with Regina?"

"It was right before he danced with Mira," Ed pointed out. "I was wondering who she was."

Roy looked only mildly discomfited at the idea of their society knowing about his history with said woman. He did purse his lips, however, when Maes began speculating about the gossip it would engender between less-informed persons. One of the disadvantages of Roy's visible and highly coveted position was that people often turned even the most mundane details into lascivious items of rumour.

"Bright side's on you, though," Maes was saying, "because nothing they say can really be damaging to you. Regina won't be having it as easy."

"I know that much," Roy sighed. "Oh well. It was bound to come biting my ass anyway. Now's a good time as any. And it takes the heat off Ed."

"Language, gentlemen," Gracia reprimanded, her fatigue beginning to show as she rubbed small, slow circles over her swollen belly. "And the rumour mill is nothing a careful word or two won't fix. I'm helping the Arreys prepare a little banquet for their daughter's birthday next week, and Beth Lewis will be attending. I'll wax poetic about your old lady love. It'll be the perfect tearjerker over tea and scones, and by the weekend, all of Central will know the right story."

Roy laughed. "Always so reliable! You're wasted on your husband."

"Hey!"

Ed could only laugh. Yep. I still like Gracia the best.

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It was quiet at home. The walls around him were warm and familiar, drawing from him an answering yawn. Ed was tired. He would need very little help falling asleep now after such a colourful time. The Gate in his head exuded a subdued hum as it sorted through manifold images and sensations from his memory of the night, processing them with a method and order too random and complex to make any sense to his exhausted mind.

"Would you care for a cup of herbal tea, or are you too tired to manage beyond washing up before bed?"

"No," Ed shrugged out of his coat, "I can do a cup of tea. Probably good after all I ate." He folded said coat over his arm in the same manner Roy folded his as they took the back stairs in single file.

Ed took to his bedroom and washed, shedding the formal wear in exchange for soft pajamas with a grateful sigh. The box he got from Kanon and Jacob now sat on his bedside table, a little souvenir to remember the night by. He looked forward to meeting them again.

When he returned to the library, Roy already had the tea. They sat by the fireplace and shared the silence. Roy was stirring some sugar into his cup when the thought surfaced in Ed's mind.

"Roy," he said, turning his decision over with surprising clarity for how exhausted he felt. "I'll do it. I'll take the exam this spring."

Because, truly, why delay the inevitable? It was nothing but a waste of time. He could be starting out early, learning the steps now, enjoying the benefits of being one of the country's certified best. And the First Library was just there, awaiting him.

Roy searched his face. "Why the sudden urge? I do believe we are past the deadline, though like Mira said, I can call in some favours if you truly wanted."

"There's just no sense in delaying it," Ed sighed, tipping his head back against the back of the couch. "The longer I delay, the more I second-guess. And second-guessing has never served me well. My gut instinct is my better friend."

Roy smiled a little at that, but offered no comic remark. Instead there was a stretch of silence, companionable though curious, before Roy said, "I hope you don't feel like I'm forcing you into any of this."

Ed blinked, and then gave him an odd look. "Roy. As confident as you are of yourself, when it comes to alchemy, you couldn't force me into anything. I do what I want with my alchemy. I thought we already had that down."

"Mm, yes, well, there is that," Roy acquiesced with a chuckle. Ed peered at the man for a moment; Roy looked tired. "Very well. I shall see what I can do."

Finishing the rest of his tea, Ed nodded and made to stand up. He could feel sleep coming to claim him. But ah, yes. Before bed, there was one thing he needed to ask.

"Roy."

"Hmm?"

"Did I do well tonight?"

He hated that it sounded as plaintive as it did, but Ed had to ask. He had to know.

At that instant, Roy's face lit up with what others would name pride. "The finest example of a young gentleman—you did exceedingly well, Edward."

The warmth—it was sudden and overwhelming. Ed shifted in his spot, ducking his head as if to physically avoid the compliment. It would take time to get used to this. Roy should cease being so embarrassing.

But then he wouldn't be Roy anymore, said the Gate, warning him, be careful what you wish for.

Whatever, Ed mumbled, settling his teacup on the table. "Okay, well, um. That's good. I'll, uh, go to sleep now, I think."

Roy nodded, still half-smiling. "Goodnight, Edward."

"Night," Ed bid, padding quietly to his room. "…and thanks. For, you know. All the things."

The last thing he remembered was the solid certainty of Roy's voice. "You're very welcome, Edward," Roy said, with pride and regret ringing among the unspoken wealth of emotion in those quiet words. "Always."

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All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces beyond repair.

( Mitch Albom )


tbc

arc III chapter 10 ver. 1-08
first draft: 2014.02.10
last edited: 2014.05.28

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FOOTNOTES can be found on the AO3 version, because FFN won't allow images or links. Please refer to my profile for links. References can be found therein as well. And, as always, see you until next time! (Hopefully sooner than this one.)