The boy was a lie.
Everything about him. Brave face on the surface, with its sneer and lifted chin. But he was hurting underneath, and hollow with it, curled unconsciously forward like he was protecting his weakest points.
But despite the steadily buckling shoulders and the soft lines that seemed permanently etched around his mouth, the boy still stared at the figure opposite him with his head tossed arrogantly back. And when he spoke, it was with a sneer in his voice. Because they both knew that there was more than one person depending on the image he projected.
"So let me get this straight," he said, in a drawl that tried to be unconcerned, but fell just a few tight inches short of the mark. "You're kicking us out."
The man sitting across from him, more than a decade older than the boy, gave a small smile that didn't even come close to touching his frigid blue eyes.
"Of course not, Edward," he said, in a voice as smooth as a purring cat filled with canary cream. "State orphanages are always open to children who lack basic familial care and guardianship."
Edward Elric freed a finger from its fist to tap it against his bicep.
"But you're asking Al and I to leave," he reminded the man in front of him. "Hey, I don't blame you. You wouldn't be the first to send us away. And it's not like I mind. I'd much rather take care of Al on my own."
The man with cold blue eyes and pale skin steepled his long fingers together.
"We've already discussed that, Edward," he said, a wealth of false gentleness in his voice. "Multiple times. You are not yet the legal age that is required to take care of your brother on your own."
The teenager tossed his hair impatiently.
"I'm sixteen," he snarled. "One year away from the legal age. If we hadn't been shuffled into the system, no one would care if I raised Al by myself."
"Ah, but you were 'shuffled into the system', as you so succinctly put it," the man parried. "And as such, it would be irresponsible of me to turn a blind eye to your welfare now."
Edward gave in with a weary shrug, looking for all the world like someone who had fought and lost this fight many times over.
"But you're kicking us out," he said, bringing the conversation back to its original topic. "So, if you're not going to let me look after Al on my own, where are you sending us? Another orphanage?"
"I'm afraid not."
The young man gave a snort and rocked back in his chair.
"What, no one wants to take us?" he asked. "Well, I can't say I blame them."
"Nor can I," the older man agreed. "What with your impressive history of hostile attitudes and fist fights with other children." Another smile curved the man's thin mouth. "Oh, and let's not forget the burning buildings and strange occurrences."
Edward visibly flinched, and the front legs of his chair returned to the ground with a hard thud.
"There was only one burning building," he snapped, but his attempt at bravado was ruined by the absolute lack of color in his face.
"Indeed; the fire that robbed you of your arm and leg. Or so you've always claimed."Blue eyes pinned the younger man to his seat. "Tell me, is that really what happened that night, Edward?"
Ed shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and wrapped protective fingers around his metal appendage. He could hide it from the other children with his long sleeves and assortment of gloves, but a physical was required upon entering every new orphanage, and so the director always knew about his deformity.
"You've read the report, I'm sure," he shot back defensively.
"Ah, but I do wonder how much of it was actual fact."
"All of it," Ed said stiffly. "It all happened exactly like it says. Al and I were living alone in the family house after our mother died. We left the stove on one night to keep warm, and accidentally burned the house down. I lost my arm and leg in the fire, and used my mother's insurance money to pay for the metal prosthetics."
The older man rested his chin on his steepled fingers, his cold eyes radiating amusement.
"Strange how your younger brother escaped completely unharmed," he purred. "And that the police reports mention the two of you babbling something about magic, and your mother's remains."
Stubborn silence. Golden eyes retreated from the older man's face and aimed themselves at the floor instead.
"You're a bright boy, Edward. The tutors here at the orphanage say that your test scores are quite astronomical. So, I'm sure you know what the word 'asylum' means."
Those golden eyes widened in shock, but still stayed fixed on the scraped and scarred floorboards.
"Yeah," he said hesitantly. "It's a place…a place where they send people with mental disorders."
"That is the more common definition."
Edward shot to his feet faster than a speeding bullet. The chair legs dragged against the floor as his sudden movement launched it back.
"I'm not crazy! Neither is Al!"
The director leaned back in his chair, eyeing the boy's flushed face and trembling fists with great amusement.
"I do not fear for your sanity, Edward," he said, in a voice that clearly stated the opposite. "Nor your brother's. But some of your…beliefs do cause me concern."
"We stopped," Edward insisted, his voice hoarse and slightly afraid. "We don't talk about it anymore."
Lazily, the older man propped his chin on his hand.
"But can you honestly tell me that the belief is gone?" he asked.
Defeated, the boy dropped his face to the floor again.
"We don't know why," he said, almost to himself. "We can't explain it. But Al can do things. He's special."
"Of that I have no doubt. But the degree to which you believe he is special worries me."
Those gloved hands fisted even tighter.
"So, you're sending us to one these asylums. Because you think we're crazy."
"As I said before, you're an astoundingly bright boy, Edward," the older man said. "However, I can see that there is still something I can teach you. Are you not aware that the word 'asylum' has two meanings?"
Edward jerked his shoulder, a helpless movement that still managed to carry an edge of defiance.
"The first is indeed the one you provided me with. But 'asylum' can also mean sanctuary, or refuge." The director's chair creaked as he leaned forward. "Something that I think that you and your brother are in desperate need of. To be honest, Edward, your mental fragility doesn't really surprise me."
"I am not fragile," the boy snarled under his breath.
The director released a small chuckle.
"To lose both your mother and your father, and to care for your younger brother at such a young age-"
"Al and I didn't lose that bastard," Ed interrupted hotly. "He ran away."
"Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that you and your brother decided to create a more magical, fantastic lifestyle for yourself," the director continued, rolling right over the young man's protests. "But your delusions have reached a point that I worry for your stability. And a problem of that magnitude and nature is not something we are equipped to deal with here."
Edward was standing completely still, but the frustration rolling off of him almost gave him the appearance of vibrating.
"We're not unbalanced!" he spat. "It's real, we know it's real!"
The director smirked as the boy bit his lip, realizing that his words were doing nothing but strengthen the older man's cause.
"If you truly believe that, Edward, then think of this transfer as an opportunity for relaxation," he said. "If everything you've told me is true, then you've certainly earned it."
For a moment, the director thought that the teenager standing before him might actually use the fists he had clenched at his sides. He could see the rage, bubbling under the boy's surface. Had he been alone here, the director had no doubt that he'd be sprawled on the floor, and bleeding from various places on his face.
But Edward wasn't alone. His actions directly impacted someone else's life. And he wouldn't, and couldn't, ever let himself forget it.
So, instead of the lunge that his body begged him for, Edward checked his forward momentum. Although the bile of it choked him, he lowered his head in submission to the director's will.
"If I'm with Al," he whispered helplessly. "You can send me to the seventh circle of hell, if you want. As long as I can be with Al."
Later, after the boy trudged out, no doubt to tell his brother of their new living arrangements, the director leaned back in his chair once again. Idly, he reached a long-fingered hand for the phone.
"It's me," he said, once the voice on the other end answered. "I have news. Tell the hospital director that I'm sending two candidates your way."
He paused for a moment, cradling the phone against his ear.
"No," he said. "Just the younger one. But the older one shows great potential to be a conduit. He's incredibly attuned to his younger brother already."
Fingers idly tapped the desk as the director paused to listen once again.
"No, it's my pleasure. Yes, convey my gratitude to the hospital director. Thank you."
With a brisk click, Frank Archer hung up his phone. Content in the knowledge that the hospital director would reward him for his find, he swiveled in his chair to stare out the window at his back. A flash of gold caught his eye, and he saw Edward, weaving through the other children scattered around the orphanage's backyard. He made a beeline for the run down swing set that sat on the dry and brittle brown grass, and tugged on the hand of another boy, pulling him off the swing and to his feet. The boy was several inches taller, and his hair glimmered, a darker gold than his brother's. Edward pulled his younger brother close, leading him away from the swing set, and the other children. Not that that was a difficult task. Many of the children jumped out of the brothers' way, because Archer wasn't the only one familiar with the reputation attached to the Elrics.
Archer watched as Edward spoke quickly and quietly to his younger brother. When the boy lashed out, his rage driving him to plant a fist in the foundation of the building, a slow smirk curled Archer's lips.