yuuo: (Pandora's Box)
[personal profile] yuuo posting in [community profile] pandorasuniverse
Character/Series: Edward Elric, Cast; AU to the original series
Rating: MA
Notes: Written based on the 'what if' idea that Ed had never been able to bind Al's soul to the armor. Please heed all warnings. All chapters can be found here.
Title: Pandora's Box: Chapter 3: Your Possible Pasts
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 8799
Summary: Let me just say right now that trains are boring as hell.




and strung out behind us
the banners and flags
of our possible pasts
lie in tatters and rags
-Pink Floyd

Let me just say right now that trains are boring as hell. They may seem exciting if you've never been on one, but they're not. They're noisy, bumpy, hard to sleep on, and they're not very fast. Not when you're in a hurry. But they're the fastest transportation available, so I put up with them. Eventually, I even learned to sleep through most of the trip, grabbing precious hours of rest my body needed, since as the years went by, I'd often deprive it of sleep when I was anywhere else.

I'd been on a train before, once, when our mother took Al and I to meet her mother, shortly after Father left. But our grandmother wanted nothing to do with us; apparently, there'd been some drama about Mom marrying Father and she'd been disowned. I didn't like that woman for how she treated Mom, and I'm not even sure where she lives, exactly, which is probably a good thing. Especially now. I was too little to do anything about it then, but I'm not now, and I don't trust my own temper.

This trip was even worse for me than that trip had been. That trip, I'd had Mom and Al to keep me company. Now, I was miserably alone for the first time in my life. All I could do was stare at the empty seat across from me and desperately wish Al were there, even if all I could've done was sealed his soul in that suit of armor. I would've taken that over the loneliness.

As the train got going, I suddenly heard a small clatter, like someone ahead of me dropping something, then a drawn-out groan. I stuck my foot down, stopping the small piece of chalk from rolling away from me as it got under my seat. I bent down and picked it up, a small smile starting to form on my face as I hoped it belonged to a fellow alchemist, and maybe I could have some company, even a stranger's, for this ride.

As I held it up to offer it to the person in front of me, a little girl's face popped up from over the edge of the seat. "That's my chalk," she said, holding out her hand.

Crestfallen, I handed the chalk back and sat back in my seat, letting the disappointment settle over me. I still wore my heart on my sleeve in those days, and I tended to wallow in my emotions, rather than controlling them. "Sorry," I whispered, although I doubted it was heard over the noise of the train as it started accelerating along the rails.

Whether she heard me or not, the little girl smiled triumphantly, snatching her chalk back and turning around, her pigtails flailing like a demented six-year-old's weapons as she did so, and plopped herself back down in her seat. A woman's hushed voice said something from next to the girl, then the girl's head appeared over the seat again, that same satisfied smile on her face. "Thank you and sorry!" The girl started to turn back around again, then paused and looked back at me. "Are you my age?" she asked.

I scowled. The girl had to be six, maybe seven. Who did she think was so small he looked like a little kid?! "I'm eleven!" I snapped, to no avail. This time, the girl clearly didn't hear me over the train.

She leaned forward, half-hanging over the seat, and cupped a hand to her ear. "What? I can't hear you!"

Flushing, I crossed my arms and looked away, refusing to speak to her anymore. The little girl frowned, then stuck out her tongue and settled back on the seat. "Mommy, he's grouchy."

Finally, the woman turned in her seat a bit, deciding her daughter had been given enough free reign for the moment. "Jasmine, mind your manners," she scolded, then sat up a bit, turning more to look back at me. "I'm so sorry, sir, my daughter-" The woman cut herself off, blinking. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you'd be a little older."

I admit, my thoughts jumbled up in a brief temper tantrum of rage. I wasn't that young! I didn't look that young! And I wasn't that short! I was officially decidedly unamused with this situation. So much for a quiet trip.

Unlike her daughter, the woman looked apologetic for the slip. "I'm sorry, I just was expecting an adult, not a child." She looked around. "Where are your parents? You're not traveling alone, are you?"

For a second, I could do nothing but look at her, uncertain how to answer that. Even if I could be heard, what was I supposed to say? 'Yes, I am, I'm a poor, crippled, mute orphan who's going to join the military.' Something told me that wouldn't be the best way in the world that I could put things. Finally, I just nodded in answer that yes, I was traveling alone.

The woman frowned, looking like she was considering something. "How old are you, honey?"

I fidgeted a moment, then pulled out my notebook and wrote my age, handing the page over to her. She frowned, then looked at me again. "Is something wrong with your throat, sweetie?"

I shrunk back a bit, ducking the bottom of my chin into my turtleneck a bit and not meeting her eyes. I glanced back up when she turned around again, wondering if perhaps she'd given up on talking to me, before she turned back around to face me again. "Why don't you come sit up here with my family?" she said. "A boy your age shouldn't be traveling alone right now."

The 'right now' sounded vaguely ominous to me, and I wondered what news I'd managed to miss living in the sticks, but I didn't argue, accepting the invitation with a nervous smile. Grabbing my suitcase, I darted around the back of the bench seat separating them and settled in the open spot across from the woman, and next to a man I guessed was her husband, judging by his apparent age.

The woman smiled. "That's better." She held out her hand. "My name's Marianne Kendrick. This is my husband, Daniel."

I shook her hand tentatively, then glanced up at the man and shook his hand when he offered it as well, while the little girl announced that her name was Jasmine, apparently not wanting her mother to do it when she could do it just fine. They seemed like a friendly enough family; the man looked like he came from maybe one of the more northern districts, fairer coloring and green eyes, while his wife and daughter- who clearly inherited her looks from her mother- looked like they came from one of the far eastern districts, darker-skinned and dark-haired.

It took a moment for me to realize I ought to give them my name, so I pulled out the notebook again and scribbled my name out, handing the paper over to Marianne. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Edward," she said after she read the note. "So where are you headed to? Are you visiting relatives?" Another note explaining I was on his way to Central, but no, no relatives, changed hands. While she was reading that, I scribbled out another note and handed it over.

Marianne eyed the second note a second, then glanced at Daniel, handing the note over to him, before settling her gaze on me. "You haven't heard?" she said, her voice lowering to just barely audible over the noise of the train. I shook my head. "A few weeks back," she explained, "there was a terrorist attack on a train taking General Hakuro and his family home from a vacation."

"Thankfully," Daniel picked up his wife's story, taking off his glasses and rubbing a hand over his eyes, "the general and his family were fine, and there weren't any deaths, although a couple soldiers got injured in the process. But now all the higher up generals are panicking and having their families brought to Central for protection."

Marianne's lips twisted into a wry smile. "Basically, my father and the others are being paranoid old coots and dragging us halfway across the country so they can keep an eye on us. I'm General Raven's daughter, but don't go making that big news. I doubt anything's going to happen at this point; that group got what they wanted already, but I suppose a little caution never hurts."

I blinked, looking between the two adults. Well, that certainly explained why they didn't think it was safe for someone my age to be traveling alone. I wasn't terribly worried, but I wasn't ungrateful for the concern and the company.

"But onto less gloomy subjects," Daniel said, voice at a normal conversational level again. "So you're not visiting relatives, what are you going to Central for? You're a little young to have to be working, aren't you?"

I looked up at him, then scribbled out another note. 'I got an offer to study alchemy from Lt. Col. Roy Mustang.'

Marianne laughed when she read the note. "Roy Mustang, that devil. Well, if you've been offered that by him, it can only mean you're a talented alchemist." She seemed genuinely amused by the idea. "You stay with us, then. When we get to Central, if the lieutenant colonel doesn't have someone there to pick you up, my father will help us get you to Mustang's office."

I liked that family. They were good company for the train ride, and quickly learned to just do most of the talking, as writing notes was cumbersome, but it kept me entertained and kept my mind off of things.

When we got to Central, a tall, dark-skinned general met us. He looked to be in his fifties, still fairly young for a general, and he greeted Marianne with a warm hug, then scooped up Jasmine. "And how's my favorite granddaughter?" he asked.

Jasmine giggled. "Grandpa, I'm your only granddaughter," she told him.

He laughed. "So you are! All the more reason for you to be my favorite." He greeted Daniel with a broad grin, then seemed to notice how close to his family I was sticking. "And who is this?"

"Father, this is Edward Elric," Marianne introduced me. "He says he received an offer from Roy Mustang to study alchemy here in Central."

I offered him a nervous smile and held out my hand. He took it with that same big grin. "Glad to meet you, Edward. I'm General Raven. So Mustang brought you out here, hm? Well, I'll take you to his office." He looked at an adjutant next to him. "Escort my family to the hotel," he ordered, the motioned for me to follow.

I waved to Marianne and her family and grabbed my suitcase, following after the general.

The office he led me to was crowded with people, who all stood up and saluted once he'd entered. "At ease," he told everyone, then turned to a blonde woman. "Lieutenant, is the lieutenant colonel in his office?"

She blinked, then nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll go announce you." She stepped around her desk and disappeared into the inner office, then reappeared a few minutes later. "The lieutenant colonel can see you now, General."

"Wait here, Edward," General Raven told me, then looked at the lieutenant. "Lieutenant, keep an eye on the boy while I talk to Mustang."

We looked at each other, then she nodded, saluting again. "Yes, sir."

Once General Raven had disappeared into Mustang's office, the lieutenant looked at me. "Are you from Rizenbul, by any chance?"

I nodded once. There was no point to using a note for that answer, after all. I glanced pointedly at Mustang's door, then back to her. She looked at the door, then back to me, blinking blankly for a second, then turned back to her work. "Yes, he told us he was expecting you. We were actually expecting you a little sooner than this." She set the papers on her desk down. "Your name is Edward Elric, correct?"

Again, I nodded. She studied me. "Would you like a drink of water?" I shook my head, and she got a mild look of consternation on her face. "Forgive me if I cause any offense, but how might one go about getting a verbal response from you?"

So Mustang hadn't warned anyone about my inability to speak. I felt sorry for the lieutenant, so I pulled out my notebook and wrote her a note that said "ask me to write it down."

She flushed. "I apologize, I didn't realize-" I cut her off by waving my hands, shaking my head. I wasn't offended, she didn't need to get upset about it.

Anything further she could've said was cut off by the door to the inner office opening. General Raven stepped out with Mustang. "Well, Edward, as much as I hate to do this to you, I'm going to leave you in their capable hands now. Good luck." With that, he left.

"Edward, Lieutenant Hawkeye, I'd like to see the two of you in my office, please," Mustang said, motioning to the blonde-haired woman and myself. So she finally had a name I could think of her as.

"Yes, sir." She looked at me. "We'll put your suitcase under my desk. It'll be safe from any pranks the men might get in their heads to pull." She gave the others in the room a stern look.

"Hey!" an overweight red-head protested, "don't blame me for this guy's bad habits!" He motioned to a tall blond man.

"Whose bad habits are they?" the tall man replied, lighting up a cigarette. "Whose?"

"Children," Mustang said blandly, crossing his arms, "don't make me put you in separate corners."

I got the feeling these people were more family than coworkers. They certainly didn't behave the way I expected military to behave.

Hawkeye and I walked into Mustang's office, and Hawkeye closed the door behind us. "You wished to see us, sir?"

"I did." Mustang sat back in his chair, kicking his feet up onto the desk. "I want you to take Edward to Shou Tucker's place, Lieutenant. That's where he'll be studying for the State Alchemist exam. Here's Tucker's personnel file, feel free to share the non-classified information in it." He looked at me. "Shou Tucker is the Sewing-Life Alchemist. He specializes in biological transmutations." I tried not to turn pale at that. "He mostly works with chimeras. I'm sure you'll find plenty to study while you're there."

He sat forward, dropping his legs to the ground. "One more thing. Lieutenant, you're familiar with the sign language used in the field, correct?"

The look on her face suggested that Mustang knew damn good and well that she was. "Yes, sir."

"I want you to take some evenings in the week to go over to the Tucker's after dinner and teach it to Edward. He has an old throat injury and he'll need an alternative means of talking. Paper and pen are cumbersome."

I glanced at Hawkeye. That gave me a lot of studying in only two and a half months. I had to study for the exam, and learn a whole new language and something told me Hawkeye wasn't terribly confident in her ability to teach. But if anyone could do it, it was me, and quite frankly, I had to. I needed to do this for Al.

Mustang looked at me. "To let you know, Tucker has a four year old daughter named Nina and a fairly large dog. Try not to get lost behind them."

I turned as purple as my coat, I'm sure. I tried to yell at him, but all that came out was a few squeaky noises and some air, but I think he got my point, with some of the words I used.

All right, all right, I'm my own worst enemy, or at least was in that regard. I admit, most of the things I thought people said about me, the only person saying it was me. Shut up.

***


Tucker was a lean-faced man, with glasses and short-cropped hair. His daughter, by contrast, had a round face, still full of her baby fat, and long brown hair and big blue eyes that watched me shyly from behind her father.

Their dog, on the other hand, tackled me immediately.

"Get offa me!" I snapped at him with as much volume as I could muster as I used the strength I'd built up in rehab to shove him off.

Hawkeye sighed, then turned to Tucker. "This is Edward Elric, you've been told about him, I assume."

Tucker nodded. "Yes, we have. Alexander, get off our guest. Come here, boy."

"Naughty, Alexander!" Nina called to the dog. "Come here, right now. Don't be mean."

Thankfully, the dog obeyed its masters and got off me- it was one heavy dog, and even though I'd built up some impressive muscle with rehab, that doesn't say much for an eleven-year-old boy.

"Come in, Edward, please," Tucker invited, then looked at Hawkeye. "We'll take care of him. Anything else?"

"I will have to come by some evenings to teach him field sign, if that's all right," she said. "The lieutenant colonel has ordered I teach him."

"That will be fine," Tucker said as I straightened my coat and grabbed my suitcase, stepping up to the doorstep. He looked down at me. "Come in, and don't mind the mess. It's been like this since my wife left. We need a woman's touch around here."

He showed me to my room first, with little Nina tagging along. The room wasn't bad; in fact, it was bigger than I expected. I wondered if there were any small rooms in this huge place, really. I doubted it.

His library was what interested me most about his house. It was huge, with hundreds of books on alchemy, many on various biologies. I knew right away I had a huge job ahead of me, studying for this exam. Even with the knowledge the Gate had given me making it easier, it was still a daunting task.

Nina stayed rather shy around me. She commented on how much I ate at dinner, but otherwise, she seemed too shy to interrupt my studying. I noticed her sitting in the library sometimes with Alexander, just around the corner from me, but she never came out of hiding, and I was too engrossed in my studies to pay much attention at first.

Hawkeye showed up the third night I was there for my first lessons in field sign. I was the one to greet her at the door, Nina a perpetual shadow. I waved to the lieutenant and opened the door for her.

"Hello, Edward," she greeted, stepping in. "Where would you like to do this?" She seemed nervous, like she wasn't sure what she was doing. I had a feeling she'd never taught anyone before, and something else told me she didn't know how to handle children.

I shrugged, looking around. Nina spoke up. "We can use the library," she said. "Papa's down in his lab working on the rea-. .. rea- ... ssessment?" I was impressed- sure it, took her a couple times, but she got the word right, and for a four-year-old, that was a big word.

Hawkeye smiled. "Then we'll be sure not to disturb him. The library it is. I'll let you two lead the way."

Nina looked up at me. "Big brother?" I never did figure out what to make of her calling me that. "Can I learn with you?"

But even with my uncertainty, I couldn't say 'no' to that face and those earnest eyes. I smiled and nodded. Her face lit up with a big grin, and I had to hold back tears at the idea of that grin on Al's face. Everything served as a reminder of Al in those early days; I eventually learned to stop seeing him everywhere but in my mind, but in those days, it was hard.

I reached for Nina's hand, taking it as we led Hawkeye to the library, where we found a comfortable table and went to work. Field sign isn't difficult. It follows basic Amestrian grammar, and most of the signs are pretty obvious what they mean. It's extraordinarily simplified, though. You don't say things like 'we ran out of milk'. If you tried, you'd end up painting a picture of a little man literally running out of a bottle of milk, which, while hilarious, is not exactly helpful to communication. So you simplify it down to 'milk finished' or 'milk complete', however you want to interpret that sign. It means both things.

But full sentences could still be formed, and most things can be said pretty easily. I could tell I'd probably end up picking up or making up the bad words, since Hawkeye made a point of never teaching me any- I don't know if that was because of my age, or because of Nina's, or both.

My days fell into routine, with studying occupying most of my time from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, and Hawkeye coming over every other day after dinner for about two hours, before it was bedtime for Nina.

I was in my room, laying back on my bed and sneaking in some late night studying, when Nina came into my room with a timid knock. She wasn't quite as shy around me once she'd started learning sign with me, but she still stayed out of my way when I was studying.

I looked up. "What is it, Nina? Shouldn't you be in bed?" I signed.

She twisted one braid in her hand nervously for a minute, then lifted her hands and started to sign. "Can I talk to you, Big Brother?"

I set my book aside and sat up, crossing my legs underneath me. "You can talk, Nina," I told her. I patted the bed in front of me. "Come here, come sit down."

She tugged on her pigtail, then scurried forward, crawling up onto my bed and sitting crosslegged in front of me. "I thought if I spoke your language, you'd be able to talk to me."

I blinked. "Nina, Amestrian is my language. I just can't speak anymore. You can talk, I don't mind."

"What happened to your voice?" she blurted out, leaning forward and looking at me with those earnest eyes of a four-year-old.

I drew back, mind racing to figure out how to safely answer that. "I lost it in an alchemical accident," I finally told her.

She looked down at the bed. "Do you ever play? All you ever do is study."

Suddenly, her shadowing me made a little more sense. I was probably the closest thing to a kid her age she'd been around in ages, if ever. She was lonely. "I used to play with my little brother all the time. But he's not here right now, and I'm studying to help rescue him," I explained. I looked at her for a moment, considering. "Did you want me to play with you?"

She looked up at me hopefully. "Would you? I don't want to stop you from helping your brother, but... I mean, you need a break sometimes, right?" She tilted her head. "What happened to your brother? Who took him?"

Another question I couldn't safely answer. "I'm not sure, but I need to get him back," I finally lied. "That's why my studying is so important." I reached forward and ruffled her hair with my flesh hand. "But I'll play with you tomorrow," I told her in a whisper.

Her face lit up like it had when I told her she could learn sign with me, and she jumped forward and caught me in a hug. "Thank you, Big Brother! The radio says it's supposed to snow tonight, so maybe we can build snowmen tomorrow!"

I'd never seen snow, really. Rizenbul was too far south, it got a rainy season, not a snowy season. "You'll have to show me how," I told her. "I've never built one."

She looked up at me, sitting back. "Never?" She looked wide-eyed. "We'll fix that, definitely!"

"Good. Now, you, bed. I don't want you getting into trouble with your dad."

She grinned, hugged me again, and squirmed down off my bed. "Good night, Big Brother."

My days fell into a new routine after that. I'd study from breakfast until lunch, then play with Nina for about an hour before returning to my studies. Hawkeye continued to come over every other day and I grew more proficient in my new language. Nina was learning almost faster than I was, and frequently tried to correct my signs.

My birthday came that January, just a bare month before the test. Mustang's friend, Major Hughes, showed up and took Nina and I to his house to meet his very pregnant wife and have a small party with just the four of us. I wasn't as happy as I probably should've been, since that was my first birthday without Al. But I did my best to be gracious, even though I really wanted to curl up in bed and cry.

"Cheer up, Ed," Hughes told me. "It's your birthday. You're twelve. One more year and you can be a mouthy teenager to Roy."

I looked at him with a weak smile. "Thanks," I said, then went back to poking my dinner.

"It's your brother, isn't it?" he guessed, out of earshot of his wife and Nina, who were busy talking about Gracia's baby.

I froze, putting my fork down, no longer interested in even pretending to eat as I nodded mutely. Hughes put his hand on my shoulder. "Losing someone is tough," he said. "And first holidays and birthdays without them are the toughest. But it does get easier."

Get easier? I didn't want it to get easier, to live without Al, without my light, my heartbeat. I was missing a piece of my soul without my little brother, and nobody seemed to get that. Instead of arguing, I just nodded miserably, forcing back tears as I wished once again that I'd managed to succeed in binding his soul to that armor. I'd still be here, trying to become a State Alchemist so I could fix that, but at least he'd be there.

I'd never get used to that absence of him.

What a disaster that night turned out to be. Gracia went into labor while we were there, and a blizzard hit, meaning Hughes had to leave two young children alone with his wife while he went to get the doctor.

I cannot say how glad I am the doctor showed up before she actually gave birth, because Nina and I were both really useless.

Then the day of the test came. And I still didn't have that special permission I needed to take it. Panic overtook me as I ran to Mustang's office. Hawkeye and the others were there, but Mustang wasn't- being a high-ranked State Alchemist, he was part of the testing board, so I was stuck pacing the outer office while I waited.

Hawkeye kept watching me with that overly patient, bland look of hers, while Havoc started tapping his pen on the desk irritably as I paced back and forth. I ignored their irritation as my own grew. Every passing second was another second I wasn't taking that test, and another second of hope lost. If I didn't get this test and get that position, I had no idea how I was going to help Al. I'd have to wait for another year. Another whole year before Al had a prayer's chance of getting out of that hell I'd banished him to.

The thought turned my stomach and threatened my lunch.

Mustang finally showed back up that evening with Hughes in tow, and I could tell from the look on his face that he knew what I was there for, and furthermore, that he knew I was angry with him. He'd promised me. He'd led me out there to Central, set me up, and had failed me. I was probably radiating anger like a furnace.

"In my office, Edward," he said without much emotion, leading me into the inner office. Hughes and I both followed, my ire working up into a full-blown screaming fit, not that I'd do more than crack and squeak at him. How I wished for my voice back about then.

Mustang took a seat at his desk, with Hughes leaning against it. "Now, I'm sure you're very angry, Edward, but-"

"Angry doesn't begin to describe it!" I snapped with as much volume as I could muster. "I've done everything I had to, you were supposed to get me permission to take this test!"

He sighed. "And I've obtained permission. For next year. General Raven has agreed to grant that permission, but he feels you'd benefit from another year of study first."

I slammed my hands down on his desk. "That's not what you told me," I snarled. "I busted my ass to get here in time for this year's test!" I wasn't about to tell him why I was so keen on becoming a State Alchemist. I let him think that it was something to do that would keep me from wallowing in mourning. He was a smart man, he'd probably figure it out eventually. In the meantime though, I wasn't going to let on.

But without telling him, I couldn't even begin to describe how desperate I was to take this test now.

"Hey, Ed, simmer down," Hughes said, reaching over to put a hand on my shoulder. I pulled out of his reach. He gave me a sympathetic look. "Look, you can stay with Gracia and I since you probably can't stay with Tucker after this. We'll help you study, you can take the test next year. That's more time to study so you can guarantee you'll pass, all right? Settle down."

My teeth were chattering with tension as I tried in vain to come up with a reason I could give them why I needed this test now and not in a year. The idea of another year without Al, another entirely unnecessary year that he was stuck in that Gate, it made me sick.

I gave Mustang a scathing look before turning on my heel and storming out, slamming both office doors behind me, I hoped to their consternation.

I stormed around Central Headquarters, not caring that I probably was not authorized personnel. I needed to cool off, and figure out something I could do to either get that test, or an alternative to being a State Alchemist at all. I wasn't having any luck on any front. My temper was still up, and nothing had presented itself to me. I supposed I could always track down the führer and demand a test, but I had a feeling that wouldn't help much.

The sound of crying caught my attention. It sounded like a little kid, maybe about Nina's age, and he sounded like he was miserable. Thinking he was someone's kid and maybe lost, I followed the sound, my temper cooling as concern took over. A little kid lost in the middle of a military compound wasn't exactly a good thing.

I finally located the source of the crying, a young boy, about four, holding a broken toy while a woman I assumed to be his mother crouched beside him, trying to comfort him. I walked over. "What's wrong?" I asked as loudly as I could.

The woman looked up at me. "Oh, dear, Selim broke his favorite toy, and I can't seem to fix it. If his father were here, maybe he could fix it, but we're still waiting for him."

I looked around. There was a group of men in military uniform, what ranks they were, I couldn't tell - I hadn't learned to read shoulder ranks yet, and I didn't recognize most of them, although I recognized General Raven at the back of the group. They started our way, a man with an eyepatch in the lead.

I looked back at the woman and Selim. "Hey, Selim," I said quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "What's the matter?"

Selim sniffed and held his toy out to me, as if asking me to fix it. I blinked, looked at the woman, then back to the boy. "Your toy broke? Here, let me see." I took the little toy car gingerly from him. The front wheel axle was broken, wheels hanging loose and threatening to fall off completely. I experimentally pushed the axle pieces back together, only for them to fall apart again.

"What's going on here?" the man with the eyepatch asked as he stepped over.

"Oh, darling, Selim's toy broke, and I can't calm him down about it," the woman said, standing up.

"I can fix it," I told her, then set the toy down and clapped my hands. It was a simple fix, and the transmutation took me maybe two seconds to mend the axle.

"Astounding!" one of the other men with the man with the eyepatch murmured.

"Thank you, boy," the boy's father said. "Where's your circle?"

I blinked, looking up at him as I stood. "Don't have one," I whispered, habitually signing as I did.

The men looked at each other. "Come now, Edward," Raven said. "You must have one."

I held up my hands, showing off the fact that I had no circle, then took off my gloves once they'd ordered me to.

"Automail? At your age?" one of the men commented.

"Alchemical accident," I explained evasively.

The man with the eyepatch, who I assumed to be Selim's father, looked at me. "Tell me, what is a boy your age doing at Central Headquarters?"

Before I could answer, Raven spoke up. "He was probably seeing Lieutenant Colonel Mustang, sir. He came here to study for the exam. I've given permission for him to take the test next year."

I wondered exactly who this guy with the eyepatch was that a general was calling him 'sir'. "Hmm," the man said, tapping his chin. "Did you know about this talent of circleless alchemy?"

Raven shook his head. "No sir, I would've recommended him for testing this year if I'd known. That's a valuable skill. It's unheard of."

I decided not to tell them about my teacher. She'd kill me if I sicced the military on her by accident.

The men turned to each other, talking amongst themselves. Meanwhile, the woman stepped over to me, holding Selim's hand tightly. "Thank you for fixing my son's toy. General Raven said your name is Edward?"

I nodded, then smiled at Selim. "Don't break that again now, okay?"

He smiled up at me, and nodded firmly. "I won't, Edward. Thank you!"

"Edward Elric?" Selim's father turned to me. "Tell me, why do you want to become a State Alchemist?"

I looked over at him. "I promised my only remaining family member," I told him. "And I don't know what else to do if I can't get in this year."

The men all exchanged a glance. "Well, in light of your unusual ability, I think I'll grant a special exception," Eyepatch said. "Are you up for taking the test now? It'll be a late night for a boy your age."

What? I looked at him. "I- I would love to, but... um. Who are you?"

The men with him laughed. Raven shook his head. "Don't you recognize him, Edward? This is Führer Bradley you're talking to."

Leave it to me to catch the führer's direct attention. I took that news without a shred of grace. "Sir, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you!"

Bradley shook his head. "Use that sign I saw you using earlier. I can hear how bad your voice is, it sounds painful. Now, about that test?"

"I'd be honored, sir, thank you very much." I felt elated, like I was walking on air. I was getting that test! And all I'd done to get it was fix a little boy's broken toy car! I needed luck like that more often.

***


The test turned out to be much harder than I'd prepared for. I didn't even finish the written part. I got most of the answers, though, and I must've really aced what I did finish, because I passed and went on to the interviews the next day.

Thankfully, the testing council and führer all knew sign, so I wasn't forced to try to get more volume than physically possible out of my damaged voice for that. I passed that, too. Then came the practical exam. I had no research prepared for it, so I decided to do something off the cuff. I'd already impressed them with circleless alchemy, so I couldn't just transmute any old thing and call it good.

I decided to go for a perpetual transmutation. That alone was difficult, but doing it without a circle, with sheer willpower ought to impress them. If it didn't, then nothing would impress these people.

Mustang looked utterly put out with me the whole time. I couldn't imagine why. I finally asked him while we were waiting to start the practicals. "Why have you been so grumpy at me?"

He looked at me. "Edward? What exactly did you do to get this test?" His voice was lowered, and he looked a bit harried.

I shrugged. "Fixed Selim's toy," I whispered, since he clearly wanted to keep subtle about this conversation.

He looked ready to throttle me. "That's all?"

"You'll see," I told him, giving him a smug grin. He didn't know about my circleless alchemy yet, and I wanted to see his expression when I did it. I'd missed out on my chance to see the generals' faces, I wasn't going to miss Mustang's.

I ended up going last, mostly because I couldn't speak up loud enough to claim a turn, which annoyed me to no end, but I consoled myself that we were saving the best for last. The displays in front of me were impressive enough, although I was hardly impressed. A tall tower that left the alchemist drained, a hydrogen balloon that looked like a sick child had formed it that drifted off into the atmosphere somewhere, a sculpture that looked too abstract to be anything in particular. Artists! Crazy people.

"Is that all?" a general asked after the final one ahead of me.

"We have one more, General Hakuro," Mustang said. "Unfortunately, he's not been able to speak up." He motioned to me.

I looked over at the generals, then stepped forward. Most of the other alchemists murmured amongst themselves, a bit of tittering at a 'child alchemist'. I could hear the derision and it made my blood boil. I was better than any of them there, and they were making fun of me?

I cleared away the remnants of the display before mine, then faced the generals. I took off my gloves and shoved them in my pocket, exposing my bare hands, and clapped my hands, summoning the alchemical energy required for this transmutation. I hit the ground with probably more force than necessary, forming a seven foot tall statue that looked like the suit of armor from Dad's laboratory.

The armor that would've been Al's body, had I been successful.

"Hey, Al," I whispered, "ready to impress them?"

I heard noises of awe from the generals and other alchemists as I continued the transmutation, moving the armor through the paces my teacher taught us. I mimicked Al's style more than my own, for what masochistic reason, I wasn't sure.

Damnit. He should've been there.

"All right, thank you, Edward, that's enough." I barely heard the voice, still looking at the armor-statue as it turned to me. "Edward, that's enough."

With a sigh, I released the transmutation, returning the statue to the ground.

Needless to say, I was the one that passed the test that year.

Mustang didn't act as elated as I felt, though. I hadn't exactly expected him too, but it would've been nice if he'd done more than toss my new watch at me and say "here."

"That's it?" asked as I clipped my watch to my belt and stuffed it into my pocket.

Mustang looked at me blandly. "What did you want me to say? Congratulations, you're a dog of the military now."

I scowled. "Just remember, you're the one that thought this was a good idea."

"And you've suitably impressed me. For now, return to the Tuckers' place. You've been assigned to my command. I'll come up with a suitable assignment for you."

I wasn't happy with his attitude, but I figured something else was on his mind, so I let it go with another scowl as I left with Havoc, who drove me to the Tucker home. Nina greeted me with a running tackle, and Alexander tried to follow, but a scolding from Nina stopped him in his tracks.

"Did you pass?" Tucker asked as he walked out behind his daughter and dog. I grinned, and pulled out my watch. He smiled. "Congratulations. Do you know your second name yet?" I blinked as I put away the watch before the dog could grab it. "Every State Alchemist gets a second name, a title. Mine is the Sewing-Life Alchemist because of my chimeras. Lieutenant Colonel Mustang's is the Flame Alchemist, because of his ability with fire. He's your sponsor, right? "

Before I could answer, Havoc spoke up. "That's right. The boss is officially Ed's commanding officer. Oh, he wanted to pass along a message. He wanted to remind you about reassessment coming up and he looks forward to seeing what you come up with this year."

I didn't like the look on Tucker's face. He'd been stressing over the reassessment since I arrived, probably before that, and he got the same look on his face whenever his talking chimera was mentioned. I had a feeling he'd try for another one, and for some reason, that bothered him. I wondered exactly how he'd made one before.

It was later that day when I first met Brigadier General Grand, the Iron Blood Alchemist. I didn't like him, but I found out later that was a common feeling when it came to him. I was up in my room, practicing sign with Nina, when I heard the front door slam open and several people march in.

"Where is Edward Elric?" a voice boomed, and I stood, grabbed Nina's hand and walked down the stairs even as Tucker answered that I was in my room.

"Who wants to know?" I demanded as I got within sight of the man. God, he was tall, with a crazy mustache and evil little eyes. I didn't like him.

"I don't know what Mustang told you, but Shou Tucker's experiments are under my jurisdiction. You can't stay here."

"I was told I could stay here to study for the test."

"And now the test is over," he snapped testily. "Pack your things and leave."

I exchanged a glance with Nina, who looked miserable. "You're going away, Big Brother?" she asked, clinging harder to my hand.

I smiled, crouching down next to her. "Hey," I whispered. "I'll be back to play with you again," I promised, even though I knew I probably wouldn't be able to. Poor Nina, isolated by her father's work. "I have to go pack. You stay with your father."

I hurried back upstairs; Grand had armed men with him, I didn't want to push his patience too much. It took me very little time to pack everything, since I'd never really unpacked in the first place. I put the picture back in its spot, nestled amongst my extra clothes and coat, protected from getting jostled too much, then went back downstairs and outside, escorted by armed guards.

I had no idea where to go at first, and Grand's people left me at the front gate, while Grand stayed inside to talk to Tucker. After standing around for a few minutes, leaning against the wall that surrounded Tucker's home, I decided to go visit Hughes. He'd offered his home to me in case I hadn't been able to take the test this year, maybe he'd let me stay until Mustang figured out what to do with me. I wasn't even sure what area of research to go into to help Al yet, so I didn't know if I'd be looking for a permanent place to stay, or if I'd be looking into traveling.

I also had some suspicions starting to rise in the back of my mind about Tucker's experiments. Nothing in his library or research I'd gotten to read suggested a talking chimera was even possible. Nothing with animals that could understand human speech, like dogs. Nothing with animals that could mimic human speech, like certain kinds of birds. And his wife had abruptly left the family just before the chimera was made.

Something didn't settle right in my stomach. I didn't know if my nature was becoming naturally paranoid, or if it was because some part of me already knew exactly how to make that talking chimera because of what the Gate had shoved into my mind. If it was the former, I wondered when I became so damned paranoid. If it was the latter, I would've liked to know just how the hell I could access all that information, because surely there was something in there to rescue Al, which was more important to me.

And if I knew how that chimera was made, it would've been really nice to actually know and not just have a gut instinct that said it was bad news. If I had known, I could've stopped it.

Well, too little, too late.

I made my way to the Hughes residence, and was welcomed in. Hughes and I talked, or rather, he talked, showing off his new daughter, who he was head over heels for, so much so that he actually whined when Gracia took Elysia away from him and told him to actually pay attention to me.

I asked about Tucker's wife. Hughes told me she died around two years ago, the same time as when he'd created the talking chimera. That wasn't what Tucker had told me. I kept my suspicions to myself, and retired early that evening.

Okay, I didn't really go to bed. I hope you weren't expecting that I did. I snuck out, and went back to the Tucker house. There were guards there, which I didn't expect, so I went over the fence in the back and through a window.

There was noise coming from the basement, where I knew the lab to be, but had never been down there myself. My stomach kept dropping and twisting up into knots as I descended the stairs, and the smell of burnt ozone reached my nose, taking me back to Dad's lab, to that horrible night when I lost Al.

"In here, Edward," Tucker called to me from the room at the end of the hall. He seemed pleased with himself. My stomach tied itself into another knot and coherent thought began to escape me as I kept repeating to myself that I wasn't back there, that it had to be something else, that it wasn't what I was thinking.

Tucker stood in his lab, with a chimera about the size of Alexander, with long brown fur that looked like human hair draping down its back like a mane. "Just in time," Tucker said. "Listen." He crouched in front of the chimera. "Listen, this young man is Edward. Can you say 'Edward'?"

The chimera looked at me with blank eyes. "Ed-ward?" it said slowly. I walked over to it, crouching down by it. "Ed-ward. Big Brother." It nuzzled my hand. "Play. Let's play."

Everything in my body felt numb as my stomach finished dropping out my shoes. There was no mistaking it, that chimera was Nina. And if I had to guess by the size and roughly canine shape, Alexander, too. I could feel the formula for a human being mixed in with something I didn't recognize at the touch. I knew that formula by heart. There was a live human being in that sad, pitiful creature.

I stared up at Tucker as I stood. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I made it just in time, too. With this, I'm sure to pass the test."

"Why?" I couldn't make my mouth come up with anything more than that. All I could think was why, why would he do this to his own daughter, sweet little Nina? What had she done?

Tucker blinked. "Because talking chimeras are unheard of, Edward, just like your circleless alchemy."

"Where are Nina and Alexander, Tucker?"

He got very quiet at that, his smile dropping. "I hate perceptive kids like you."

At that, something inside of me snapped. All I could see was little Nina, and Al, my precious brother, victims of human experimentation, and I flew at Tucker, my automail fist raising and coming down on his face, again and again. Everything else turned to white noise as I kept hitting him, like making him hurt would make me hurt less.

It didn't work. All I got for my effort was a dead body as my fist began to hit wet cement under his head and the start of a kill count that would weigh on my conscience for the rest of my life.

Nina was what snapped me out of my rage, tugging on the corner of my coat with a growl. "Pa-pa?" she cried.

I pulled back and threw my arms around her. "I'm sorry, Nina," I whispered. "I can't change you back. I'm sorry, it must hurt so much." I sobbed wretchedly into her fur as she kept crying for her father.

Finally, I calmed down enough to think. Tucker was dead. I'd killed him. That thought nearly wiped away my coherency again. Tucker was dead and I'd murdered him. I needed an adult, someone who could take care of this.

I ran for the phone and called Mustang's place.

"Hello?"

"Mustang, you have to come," I whispered, desperately hoping he could hear me.

"Hello? Is someone there?"

I whimpered, clutching the phone tighter, willing more volume from my voice that my throat simply couldn't give. "Something's happened," I tried again. "Tucker's- you have to come to Tucker's. Something happened."

I hung up then, not willing to leave Nina alone with her father's body, or at all, really. I had to be with her, I had to protect her, the military would come eventually, and I didn't want them to take her away to some lab as an example of a rare transmutation.

I went back into the lab and sat down. Nina wandered away from her father and sat next to me, whining like a puppy. I put a hand on her shoulder, smoothing down the fine human hair there over the fur. I don't know how long we sat like that before someone finally showed up.

It wasn't Mustang who showed up, though. It was Grand.
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Pandora's Universe: Fullmetal Alchemist AU

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