So yeah, uh, here it is. And I pologise to all of you who are following this; I just had writer's block of the worst degree for about 2-3 weeks.
Title: Changed For Good - Chapter 7: The Strength to Walk Away
Rating: PG-13 for language
Word Count: 5077
Warnings: Angst, cuteness, some language, mild yaoi. (No, I won't tell you the pairing.) Did I mention cuteness?
Summary: Ed and Al prepare to return to East City and solve the mystery of the experiment in the alley - both of which are easier said than done.
Missed a chapter? Previous chapters are archived on skyehawke.com, starting here.
When Ed woke up, he didn’t open his eyes right away. He didn’t have a particular inclination to; his mind was still focused on the night before. Still sleep-fuzzed and groggy, he tried to remember what exactly had happened . . . He’d been talking to Hughes. He’d been upset. Hughes had been . . . nice. Really nice. Too nice . . . it had made Ed feel warm and safe and other things he was not accustomed to feeling. A lot of the specific things Hughes had said to him were faded, but the feeling was there, the feeling of Hughes’ arms around him and his soft voice and the texture of his shirt as Ed had pressed his face into it, crying, wanting so badly to just be held, be loved . . .and Hughes had, had said he loved him, and remembering that made Ed’s heart skip a beat, even now . . .
He groaned and pulled a pillow over his face. God, didn’t he have enough problems already?
“Shit, shit, shit . . .”
Bad enough that Hughes was married, for God’s sake . . . bad enough that he was much older and a man and practically Ed’s adoptive father . . . And still the fact remained that all Edward had wanted to do the night before was lean over and kiss Hughes, more than he’d ever wanted to kiss Winry, or any girl, for that matter.
What the fuck is wrong with me!?
Around that same time, Shou Tucker was also waking up – and it was an even less pleasant experience than Ed’s.
He hurt. That was what he was aware of first, before he realized that he was curled up on a stone floor or that his pants were missing or that there was someone crouching next to him . . . He hurt too much, and in a region he wasn’t used to hurting in . . . and then he remembered why he was hurting, and immediately wanted to forget again.
“You poor boy . . .”
At first he thought it must be Envy, come back for a second round, and he very nearly panicked, but before he could move, a gloved hand reached down to stroke his face gently, and he realized it was Lust crouching beside him, and he relaxed; but only marginally: it could be Envy, after all.
Lust continued stroking his cheek, brushing strands of black hair out of his eyes. “You poor, poor boy . . .” Her voice was soft and golden, like honey . . . “I didn’t know he would hurt you this badly . . .”
Yeah, I’ll bet you didn’t, you bitch, Tucker snarled internally. Lust was indisputably the leader of this little gang; he’d have bet good money that that look she gave Envy last night was granting him permission . . . but if that were so, then it was probably also due to her that Envy hadn’t bent Tucker over a table and had his way with him years ago. Still, he didn’t want to trust her – especially not when it hurt this much, when the memories of the night before were still burned so vividly into his mind – God –
He shuddered, drawing his knees up and gripping his shoulders, his Automail cold against his flesh, trying to curl in on himself and maybe disappear . . . but Lust started stroking his hair, soothing, calming, making gentle little noises, snatches of lullabies to which she obviously didn’t know the words. “There, there, shhh, darling, it’s over now . . .”
And if she meant one word of it, Tucker would have eaten his Automail; it was a lie, and he knew it, but oh, he wanted to believe it . . . when he hurt this much, when he was so ripped up and battered and afraid, all he wanted to do was cling to any comfort, even a superficial one. So he let her pull him up, into a sitting position, to lean him against her and put her arms around him. He pressed his face into her bare shoulder, wanting so much to be comforted and gentled and told everything would be all right; and Lust, bless her black little heart, did just that. She stroked his hair and held him tight and made little calming noises, like a mother trying to soothe a frightened child. Which, Tucker thought with bitter amusement, he technically was.
He did not cry, which was a relief to him; letting Lust comfort him was one thing, but to cry in front of her would be even more humiliating. He would cry later, probably, but for the time being he clamped down hard on despair and tried to calm himself. Finally Lust moved away from him and helped him to stand up. He was ashamed to find that he had to hold on to her arm in order to stay upright, and could walk only with difficulty. It was so embarrassing . . . The face that he was naked from the waist down, and probably bloody in embarrassing, didn’t help matters much, either.
Lust reached and pulled a blanket from somewhere and wrapped it around his shoulders and stroked hair out of his face once more. “There now,” she purred, “you should go get cleaned up. You’ll be all right again soon. And when you’ve had a bath and gotten dressed and had something to eat, then you can come back and work on this project, all right?” she put her hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want you to be overworked.”
Tucker didn’t trust himself to say anything. All he was thinking was that a bath and food sounded wonderful. Pants would also be nice . . . he turned away from her and walked toward the door, doing his best not to wobble as he did so.
“So, this is the report the coroners filed,” Hughes said, dropping a thick stack of papers on the table. “Forensics is still inspecting the crime scene for any clues. And there’s an Investigations team questioning everyone within three miles who might know anything.”
Alphonse picked up the report and started flipping through it, surprisingly deft for someone with such large hands. “Did the coroners find anything interesting?”
“Well . . .” Hughes leaned across the table and flipped a few pages towards the back. “None of the victims had any blood left.”
“No blood? But didn’t they all have wounds anyway? So they would have just lost blood that way.”
Hughes shook his head. “Not all of it. Even a ruptured artery won’t bleed you completely dry. And also . . . Forensics says there wasn’t nearly enough blood in the alleyway. There’s a lot more blood that isn’t in the alleyway and isn’t in the victim’s bodies . . .”
Alphonse gasped, horrified. ‘Was it a vampire!?”
“Of course not,” Ed snapped, causing both Al and Hughes to look up. Ed was coming down the stairs, fully dressed and looking much better than he had last night. “There are no such things as vampires, Al. Besides,” he added, when Al didn’t look convinced, “Why would a vampire want the Philosopher’s Stone, anyway? They’re already immortal.”
“Oh . . .” Al nodded, looking a little relieved. “But . . . if it wasn’t a vampire, what was it?”
“Ed, glad you’re up,” Hughes said, smiling. Ed grumbled something unintelligible and sat down next to Al. He took the coroner’s report and started to flip through it, impatiently; Hughes couldn’t help thinking that Ed seemed especially irritated, even by his usual standards. “Ed? You all right?”
Ed jerked, looked up, and unaccountably blushed. “Yeah . . . I’m fine. I’m just . . . trying to figure all this out . . .”
“Well,” Hughes said, crossing his arms and leaning forward, “Why don’t we pool our resources, figure out what we all know together? Because obviously you two know a lot more about this than I do.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small red stone. “Like what this is, for example.”
“That . . .” Al looked at Ed. “We just call it the Red Stone. It’s something we found out about . . .” he looked at Ed for confirmation.
“About a year ago,” said Ed. “This place up in the mountains, Xenotime . . . guy was doing research on it. Apparently the creator of the Stone came from that town, too . . . his sons were still living there.”
“They helped us learn more,” Al said. “They were alchemists, too, and they helped us.”
Ed snorted. “Yeah, I guess you could call it helping . . . anyway. We found out a lot about the Red Stone . . .” His face darkened. “We also found out how it’s made. It’s . . . not pretty.”
“We thought maybe the Philosopher’s Stone was different, though,” Alphonse said, as his brother fell silent. “Because the Red Stone is powerful, but it’s nothing compared to the real thing . . . after what we saw yesterday, though . . . we’re not so sure.” Alphonse’s voice also trailed off.
Hughes looked from one brother to the other, at the despair plain on their faces. “But . . . but you don’t know, do you? I mean, if that thing we saw was an attempt to make the stone, well, obviously it failed, right?” Ed and Al nodded.
“That’s true . . .” Alphonse said, nodding. “Brother, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions till we know for sure, right?”
Ed lifted his head slowly and looked at Al. “Yeah . . . I gotta believe there’s another way to make the Stone.” He nodded, then turned back to Al again, as if a thought had suddenly struck him. “What about those people in black? You think they were behind this?”
Alphonse paused, then nodded. “Yeah! This seems like something they’d do . . . but to think they’re working right here in Central!”
Hughes looked from one to the other, utterly confused. “What?”
“Oh – sorry.” Ed turned back to Hughes, blushing apologetically. “There’s these . . . people . . . we’ve never really met them up close. But it seems whenever we investigate the Stone, we find them lurking in the background.”
“We don’t know much about them except they dress in black always,” Al said. “And the one we actually saw up close had an Ouroboros tattooed on her throat.”
“Oh – this:” Al flipped over a page of the coroner’s report and quickly sketched a symbol on the back; a winged snake devouring itself, curled around a six-point star.
“I’ve seen that before . . .” Hughes said quietly.
Instantly Ed as alert and looking at him intently. “Where?”
“I’m not sure . . .” Hughes said slowly, “But I’ll ask around at the office. I know I’ve seen that before . . .”
“Maybe they were involved, Brother . . .” Al said, turning to Ed, who nodded.
“It would make sense. Gah! I just wish we knew why they were doing it . . .” He ran his fingers through his hair, still falling loosely over his shoulders. “We need to get back to East City.” He smiled ruefully. “Much as I hate to admit it, Mustang’s the man we need to talk to.” Not to mention that getting away from Hughes seemed like a very good idea . . . being this close to him was making it kind of hard to think straight.
“All right.” Hughes put the report down and stood up. “I’ll go into work and see what I can dig up, both about the murders and about this Ouroboros thingie . . . you two, get packed up and take care of train tickets. Call me when you’re all set to go, okay?”
Ed and Al nodded, standing up too. “Okay.”
Elysia could tell Uncle Ed and Uncle Al were going away again; they were busy putting things in suitcases and moving around their rooms, and they didn’t want to play with her. But they didn’t chase her away, either, so she watched them from the door, until she became bored and went off in search of a more engaging playmate.
But she was out of luck on that score: Mama was busy doing laundry, and she politely but firmly refused to play dolls with Elysia. She didn’t even want to play hide-and-seek. And Nina was even worse than Mama. Elysia found her in her bedroom, curled up against Alexander’s side and looking very sad. She just shook her head when Elysia invited her to play, and Alexander didn’t even lift his head off his front paws.
“Why?” Elysia asked, frustrated. “Why won’t you play with me?”
“Because Papa’s going away,” Nina said sulkily, nuzzling into Alexander’s soft golden fur.
Elysia cocked her head, puzzled. “But Papa always comes back for dinner . . .” Papa always went away to work; that was nothing new. But Nina just shook her head, turning away from Elysia.
“But – “
“Never mind!” Nina snapped, glaring at Elysia, who took a step back in shock, and then started to cry.
In the midst of packing, Ed realized that Gracia had taken his extra clothes to be washed, and Alphonse volunteered to go get them back. (He tended to feel awkward whenever his brother had to pack up; he didn’t require much in the way of baggage, and so tended to feel like dead weight.)
As he walked down the hall, Al glanced into Nina’s room, and paused when he saw both Nina and Elysia curled up with Alexander. Both girls were sniffing and looking miserable.
Al walked in and crouched next to them. “What’s wrong?”
Nina sniffed. Elysia sniffed. “You’re going away again.”
“And Nina yelled at me.”
“I said I was sorry . . .”
“And no one will play with me.”
“You don’t like me.”
“Nobody likes me.”
Alexander didn’t say anything. He just looked at Al with big brown eyes; and Elysia with green, and Nina with blue.
Really, it was useless to resist.
After twenty minutes of waiting for Al to come back with his clothes, Ed finally got fed up and went looking for him. “Geez,” he muttered, “You want something done right . . . “ He stopped, suddenly, backed up a few steps, and peered into Nina’s room. Al was sitting on Nina’s bed, each girl seated on a pillow in his armored lap.
“And then, we looked outside – and it was snowing!”
“Oh no!” Elysia squealed.
“Oh yes!” Nina nodded happily.
“And so we couldn’t take your Mama to a doctor,” Al explained in a voice full of excitement. “Your Papa had to go run out in the snow and bring the doctor here!”
Ed smiled and leaned against the doorframe, just watching and listening, as Al related (with some enthusiastic input from Nina) the story of Elysia’s birth.
“But . . .” Elysia frowned, “I don’t ‘member that . . .”
“Well, you were just a baby,” Al said.
“A little baby!” Nina squeed.
“What did I look like?” Elysia asked, enthralled.
“You were so cute,” Al said, “And –“
“--Small!” Nina exclaimed.
“And you were so sweet and pink and—“
“—Little!” Nina laughed so hard she fell off Al’s leg, rolling on the bed. “Teeny-tiny little Elysia!”
Ed felt he had to step in. “And what’s wrong with being little?” he asked, smiling, moving forward. He leaned over Nina and poked her in the stomach, causing her to convulse with giggles. “Maybe you’re just too big!”
“I am not too big!” Nina cried, grinning.
“An’ I’m not too small!” Elysia said, bouncing up and down. “So there!”
Ed grinned and lunged for Nina, tickling her and lifting her in the air as Elysia clapped and clamored for her own turn. His clothes, he decided, could wait.
It was almost sunset by the time Ed finally called him. Maes picked up the phone on the first ring, speaking smoothly. “Maes Hughes . . . Ed! Good, I’m glad you called. I was getting worried.”
He heard Ed make a noise that for all the world sounded like a squeak. But when Ed spoke again, it was in his – well, Tucker’s – smooth, familiar tenor, so maybe Maes had just imagined it. “We’re fine – we’re all ready. Do you have anything for us?”
Hughes looked down at the mess of paper on his desk; he’d spent hours looking over crime reports from the past three years, looking for anything that might help the Elrics. “Yeah, I think so . . . give me ten minutes to get this stuff together, and I’ll meet you at the train station, okay?”
“Okay,” Ed said, “We’ll be there.”
Maes smiled into the mouthpiece. “Take care of yourself, Ed. I’ll see you there.”
There was a pause, and then a quick noise of agreement before the line went dead. Maes blinked at the phone; either rats had been chewing the wiring again, or Ed was being unusually phone shy. Interesting . . .
There was a knock on the door; a brown-haired head and a vey large pair of green eyes looked in at him.
“Yes, Schiezka, did you find them?”
The girl stiffened and nervously snapped off a salute. “Sir!” Maes had to hide his grin behind his hand. Technically, Schiezka wasn’t supposed to be here; she’d been fired from the Central Library months ago – for reading on the job, naturally – but she knew the library and its contents better than anyone living, and Maes wasn’t the kind of man to just throw away a valuable resource. “I found the reports you asked for.”
“Ah, great!” He leaned forward and accepted them from her with a little smile. He flipped through the thick file. It was a series of police reports, all having to do with apparently unrelated crimes. They were only tentatively linked be reports in all cases of black-clad people fleeing the scene; and at least one sighting of the mysterious symbol Alphonse had shown him. “Yes . . . this will definitely help . . .” He looked up and grinned. “Thank you, Schiezka.”
“Yes sir!” She saluted again, but didn’t leave right away, waiting for something. “Um, Lieutenant Colonel, I didn’t find those other reports.”
“You mean the Marcoh report? The one I didn’t ask for?”
She nodded. “Yes sir. That’s the one I didn’t find.”
He stood up and put on his coat. “Good girl. Make sure you don’t leave it on my desk, all right?”
She nodded, saluting again as he walked past her. “No sir, I won’t.”
Ed bit his lip, shifting his weight from anxiously from one leg to the other, a cold breeze blowing down his back and making him shiver. It had been about quarter to six when he called Hughes; and after that there had been a final check to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything, and saying good-bye to Gracia and Nina and Elysia and (at Nina’s insistence) Alexander; and Gracia had insisted they take some food with them, and then there had been another round of reluctant good-byes, and then they still had to get to the station, and buy tickets, and hurry out to their platform; and now here it was almost seven, the train about to leave, and Hughes still hadn’t shown up.
Honestly, some people.
He had half a mind to just get on the train right now, join Al in their compartment, where it was no doubt warm and comfortable and he could order hot chocolate for the long ride east . . . and it would mean he didn’t have to talk to Hughes. That would be a major plus, at least as far as his nerves were concerned . . . but he really wanted to know what Hughes had to show him, and that, coupled with the warm, fuzzy part of his brain that got warmer and fuzzier at the thought of seeing Hughes again made him stay rooted to the spot.
Still, if Hughes didn’t show up soon, he’d have to get on the train, or else be left behind. So he was both relieved and nervous when he saw Hughes approaching him, crossing the platform quickly.
“Sorry I’m late,” Hughes said apologetically, “I couldn’t get a ride, and then I had to convince the agent to elt me on the platform . . .”
“It’s – it’s okay,” Ed said. If it were just about anyone else he’d have given them a piece of his mind and chewed them out for keeping him waiting like this, but – not Hughes. Not now.
Hughes smiled with relief. “Good. Glad to know you won’t make me a permanent part of the platform . . . here.” He shoved a thick stack of papers at Ed. “Everything I could find about that Ouroboros and anyone associated with it; I didn’t have time to go over it myself, but . . .”
“Yeah – thanks . . .” Ed took the papers, and his fingers brushed against Hughes’, and he could have sworn that electricity jumped up his spine.
“No problem,” Hughes said. Part of Ed wished he would stop smiling – it was making it hard to think properly. But the rest of him didn’t want Hughes to stop smiling, ever. Then Hughes reached out and pulled Ed into a hug, and Ed couldn’t stop himself from gasping and stiffening, his heart suddenly pounding three times faster than it ought to. Was Hughes doing this on purpose!?
Hughes let him go, resting his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “You sure you’re all right?”
I’m FINE!, Ed thought, stop asking me that! but all his traitor mouth did was smile weakly and say, “Yeah . . . I’m fine.”
Hughes squeezed Ed’s shoulder; his smile was back, and Ed almost melted. “Okay. If you say so. Take care of yourself, okay? Don’t stay away too long.”
“I – I won’t . . .” But Ed wasn’t going anywhere, was he? Why would he want to leave, when everything felt so good, so perfect – why would he ever leave this?
He kept his feet in the same spot, not moving, holding the papers tight in one arm, not saying anything.
“Ed?” Ed didn’t respond; he was watching the light from the setting sun playing on Hughes’ dark hair. “Are you all right?”
I’m fine . . . Ed thought, but he didn’t even say that much, this time. His eyes moved over Hughes’ face, his warm hazel eyes, his long, straight nose, his mouth . . .
It was happening before Ed quite realized it, certainly before he had a chance to do anything about it; one moment he was standing almost motionless on the platform, a few feet away from Hughes; the next moment, he had moved forward, had thrown his arms around Hughes’ neck, kissing him, hot and clumsy and desperate. He wasn’t thinking – he wasn’t thinking about anything; he was just acting, his body directing everything and his mind more or less shut down – all he knew, all that mattered, was that he was kissing Maes Hughes, and it was good . . .
But there were strong hands on his chest, pushing him away – “Ed!” – and he fell back a few steps. The papers in his hands fell to the ground, spilling onto the planks of the platform, and he dropped to his knees automatically, scooping them back up without even thinking. And then it was like waking up, as he suddenly became one hundred percent aware of where he was and what – what he’d done . . .
His head snapped up and he looked up at Hughes, saw the surprise, the shock, written plainly on his face . . . the train whistle blew, and Ed stood up, backing away slowly, his breathing low and ragged, his heart pounding in his ears. Hughes didn’t move. When Ed was a few feet from the train he turned and ran, ducking inside and moving as fast as he could down the main passage.
A few seconds later, the train began to move.
Al looked up as the train began to move, startled – and then a few seconds later Ed appeared, and Al’s shoulders sagged with relief.
“There you are, Brother! I was afraid you’d been left behind! Did Mister Hughes come?”
Ed dumped a stack of papers onto the seat and slumped down next to them. “Yeah . . . yeah, he did . . .” He started staring out the window. Al could tell something was wrong; Ed was visibly shaken, and he wouldn’t look at Al, and when he spoke his voice was . . . stiff, as if he were trying to hold back tears.
“Brother, are you all right?”
“I’m fine!” Ed shouted, looking at Al angrily. “Why does everyone keep asking me that!? God, I’m fine! I’m great! I’m fucking great, so just leave me alone, okay!?”
Al pressed himself back into the seat, cowered by his brother’s fury. “Okay . . .” he said quietly. “I’ll leave you alone . . .”
But it was very clear to him that Ed was not fine, and he had no idea how to make it better.
Maes Hughes stormed back into his office, terrifying poor Schiezka as he flung the door open. “Don’t bother me!” he snapped, then swept into his office and slammed the door behind him.
Stupid! he thought, furiously. What a complete and utter idiot you are! God! He looked around, wanting very badly to break something, but his office was mainly full of paper, and so he just clenched his fists. Damn it!
Okay, so he hadn’t seen it coming – and how on Earth was he supposed to have foreseen that? – but that was no reason to – to just stand there, like a God-damned statue, and not even say anything – God, what Ed must be thinking right now . . .
Stupid! He pounded his fist against the door, furious with himself for not having said something, or done something, anything to keep Ed from panicking like that – yes, Maes had been surprised, of course he had, but that was no excuse . . .
He raged silently, his teeth clenched and his hands locked up tight in fists, berating himself for not having done something, for not having seen . . . Who knew how long Ed had been feeling like that? And now . . . now Hughes would be surprised if Ed ever came back again.
It was just – so unexpected . . . he’d had no idea Ed felt that way . . . he sat down at his desk and rested his forehead on his hand, slowly becoming less angry but no less worried – or surprised. He’d never thought . . . he’s always had the impression Ed thought of him as a friend, maybe even a father figure – never in a romantic sense at all . . .
But then, he reminded himself, Ed was just sixteen; mentally, anyway; Hughes hadn’t forgotten how he himself was at that age . . . never before or since had love seemed more confusing – or scary.
“Poor Ed . . .” he sighed. He wished there were something he could do, but right then . . . right then, all he could do was wait, and try to get in touch with Ed later.
And he still had some work to do . . . he reached for the phone and dialed East Headquarters. Within minutes he was connected to the office of Roy Mustang.
“Hughes . . .” Roy’s normally smooth, confident voice now sounded tired. “This isn’t a great time, I was just about to leave.”
“I’ll be quick.’ Hughes didn’t waste time with chatter, not this time. “First of all, the Elric brothers will be in East City tomorrow morning.”
“All right. Thank you. And?”
“And . . . “ Hughes paused, biting his tongue, and then said, “and nothing else about them. But . . . there’s something else I want to know. And don’t tell me you don’t know, because I know you do . . .”
He heard Roy sigh. “Just say it, Maes . . . I’m not in the mood.”
Roy was using his first name. He really wasn’t in the mood. “Roy . . .” Hughes placed his hand on the thick stack of papers Schiezka had left on his desk. “ . . . where is Doctor Marcoh?”
Ed stayed awake long after it had gotten dark, long after Al had fallen into the quiet, motionless state that was the closest thing he had to sleep anymore. Ed was doing everything he could not to think about . . . things that didn’t bear thinking about. He pulled the report Hughes – he pulled the report he’d been given towards him, and started flipping through it. It had gotten all out of order when he – when he’d dropped it, but he was finding all sorts of interesting things . . . Eventually Hughes faded from his mind completely as he started reading.
According to this . . . yes, the people in black had been operating in Central for – for years . . . there were mentions of robberies, of murders, of break-ins, and black-clad people fleeing the scene, and a few witnesses mentioning a tattoo . . . there was even a drawing of it. Crude, yes, but certainly recognizable . . . Ouroboros.
Then he turned the page, and his heart stopped.
A photograph; blurred, yes, black and white, yes, but clear enough for him to know what he was looking at. A small figure, child-sized, running down an alley; black hair cut short, red and black clothes, and an Ouroboros on his back . . . but Edward knew that back, knew those shoulders, knew the Automail that made up the figure’s right arm . . .
And all of a sudden he knew just who had set up that failed experiment in the alley.
End of Chapter 7
Comments/critiques are the most wonderful thing you can give an author, so even if you don't think you ahve anything major/nice/worthwhile to say, I still wanna hear from you! Please! Thank you. ^_^
Cross-posted to miss_arel