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 12: The Glove Is Latex
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 9561
Summary: Office work, I found over the next couple days as Mom and I got the office ready for Mustang and his men to come in, was extremely boring.




your skin's a lot like plastic
some kind of bad disguise
transfusing blood for paper
so sweet, you're drawing flies
-The Vincent Black Shadow

Office work, I found over the next couple days as Mom and I got the office ready for Mustang and his men to come in, was extremely boring. Forms to sign off on, most of which I didn't even have a chance to actually read. Reading took time I didn't have, if I wanted to get my work done in time, so I skimmed, and even then, that was slow going. I learned to scan quickly for anything that I didn't want my name on, then sign off and move onto the next form.

The pure amount of bullshit and red tape that crossed my new desk was mind boggling. If anyone ever says an office job is easy, they have never had an office job. I thought being out on the road was tough, good grief, this was worse. I was now tethered to my desk by paperwork.

I was entirely all too glad to greet Mustang and his people at the train station when they arrived. Havoc and Breda went off to their own lodgings. Fuery went to a preassigned military dorm. Mustang was there, with a scant few boxes and a carrier in which was that cat I'd found over a month ago. She looked bigger and quite a bit healthier than I'd last seen her.

I didn't see Lieutenant Hawkeye though. That worried me.

"Edward, sir this was your idea, I'm leaving it to you and your adjutant to find me a place to live," Mustang said. "Or at least someplace I can put Fuzzball down before she meows herself to death. She didn't like how noisy the train was."

I stared. "You named her Fuzzball? What kind of a name for a cat is that?"

"An apt one," he replied. "She is a regenerating ball of fuzz. See this uniform? It used to be pristine. Now it's full of cat hair."

I smothered a smirk and put on an annoyed face. "No one said to keep her, Mustang. I recall giving her to Lieutenant Hawkeye."

His irritated look turned distant. "About that. She was given a medical discharge before the transfer paperwork came in."

That startled me. She'd been in perfect health when I was with her. "Medical discharge? What happened?"

"Is there a car waiting, Edward? I'd like to put Fuzzball's carrier down for awhile."

I nodded, still watching him. "Yeah, my adjutant is waiting by the car. We'll get your boxes and get you to the house we picked out for you. It's a two bedroom, not far from work."

"Perfect," Mustang said, following me to the car. He set the carrier down inside while Mom and I got his boxes loaded into the trunk. He lived very simply, a couple boxes labeled 'books', two labeled 'clothes', and one mandatory 'misc' box. Except the books boxes, none were very heavy.

I was surprised to see how easily Mom lifted those boxes of books. I wasn't joking when I said those were heavy, probably full of research material, and Mom lifted them like they were nothing. I didn't remember her being that strong.

Mom held the back door for Mustang and I both, and we crawled in. This wasn't normal protocol for moving a soldier into his new home, but I wanted to see to it personally that Mustang got settled and into work so he could start helping me with that mess I called an office.

Mustang didn't say anything about the fact that his new commanding officer and adjutant were personally moving him into his new house, but he did start signing once we got in the car. "To answer your question, she had a miscarriage that triggered a nervous breakdown. The doctor discharged her. She'll not be coming to Central."

I stared at him, turning pale. "Oh god," I whispered, probably barely heard over the noise of the car. "A mis- I didn't know she- shit." I couldn't make my hands work to complete a goddamn sentence.

"No, Edward, it wasn't yours. It was mine."

If the pregnancy I hadn't known about had floored me, this made my brain completely stop. Terror crept in in the absence of other thoughts. My (former) commanding officer had been involved with a subordinate who'd cheated on him with me, who also outranked her and dear anything that might exist, strike me down before that trouble fell on my head. "Yours? She- shit, she was involved, I swear to god, I didn't know, sir. I wouldn't have let anything happen if I'd known."

"Of that, I have little doubt, Edward. She told me what happened, before they put her on medicines." Mustang did not look happy through any of this conversation, his face held into a stern mask of an unhappy military officer.

I shrank away, that terror shriveling into an overwhelming sense of shame. My mouth tasted like cotton, and was about as dry as it. "Everything?"

He nodded. "She told me what happened to you up north. She also told me about the lash marks on your back. Why didn't you tell me?"

I looked down, playing with my hands in my lap. Shame, mostly, but I wouldn't admit to that. "It didn't matter," I finally spat out.

"The hell it didn't," Mustang growled, before switching back to sign. "Edward, what was done to you was wrong, period. I could've helped you so much more if I'd known why you were acting the way you were, instead of how you'd been before you disappeared."

I shrugged. "You can't change it, so why bother?" I asked, turning to him again. "Can you change what I learned up there? No, you can't. So don't worry about it. Just help me out with this goddamn office." I sat back, letting myself coast away from the carnival ride of fear by immersing myself in my present situation and dealing with it. The office was part of things, and a part I could throw at Mustang to keep him from focusing any more on the subject we'd just drifted away from. "I have to leave for a little while, someone I gotta meet with about my own research, so you'll be in charge. Captain Douglas is coming with me, so I'm counting on you."

He sighed. "Very well, Edward." He paused, then grit his teeth. "Sir."

I grinned before I could help myself. "That's going to kill you, isn't it?"

He stopped and looked at me for a long moment, smiling faintly. "Yes, it is," he finally answered. "And that's the first time I've seen you smile since your qualification exam."

My grin fell and I shrugged awkwardly. "Don't do it very often, that's all."

"I know. I hope to see it more often after this." He looked up as Mom came to a stop. "This is the place?"

I nodded. "This is it."

We helped Mustang get his boxes and the carrier inside, then left him to unpack himself. Mom spoke on the way back to the office. "So what did you two talk about, Edward?"

I looked out the window. "Nothing, Mom," I said quietly. "Just a mutual friend who's had some medical problems lately." I wasn't about to tell my mother about Riza, what I'd done to her, or what had been done to me. She'd go on a warpath for one thing, for another, I couldn't stand to see the disapproval I imagined I'd get if she knew what I'd done to Riza.

"I hope your friend gets better then," she said in that patient tone that said she knew I was hiding something, but she wasn't going to pry, she'd wait patiently for me to tell her myself.

"Thanks."

When we got to the office, I asked Mom if I could get my hands on a medical record. "Depends on which records, sir," she said, slipping into work mode now that we were in the office.

"A soldier's records. She recently was given a medical discharge. I want to see why and what they've put her on for the why."

"It shouldn't be too hard. What base was she stationed at?"

"East Headquarters. Her name was First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye. She served as Mustang's adjutant in the office. She was on the list to transfer here, but she was discharged before the order came through. I sat down at my desk, eyeing the mountain of paperwork I had waiting for me. "And put in for our leave to go to Dublith as soon as Mustang and his men are settled in here."

"Yes, sir," Mom said with a bow, then stepped out of my inner office to go do what I'd asked her. It felt weird, ordering around my mother, but I also knew how to act like a soldier, and soldiers obeyed ranks. Still, it was massively weird.

***


Our leave came up before Riza's medical records from East could be shipped to me, so I was forced to hope Mustang didn't pry into that and hide it from me. I wasn't sure if he would or not. On one hand, he'd shared the information about her with me readily enough, even if privately. On the other hand, I'd been 'the other man' for awhile, and I didn't know how much he'd appreciate me snooping where I didn't belong.

No use worrying about it.

Mom and I caught an early train out, heading down to Dublith. I was a little apprehensive about the trip; I was paranoid of this woman that took care of the homunculii, mostly because I couldn't come up with a reasonable answer to a question that had been bugging me since I first was reunited with Mom. How the hell had this woman found Mom? Mustang had said that he'd gone back to the house to find Al right after dropping me off at the Rockbells', and in that time, somehow, what had been Mom had disappeared.

Either Mom had made it all the way to Dublith in that form, or this woman had known and been there in Rizenbul. Which didn't make sense, nobody knew what we were going to do that night. But it made more sense than that mess my mother had been making it to Dublith. Or even having reason to go that way. So somehow, that woman was in Rizenbul and knew to watch for her.

The other reason for my apprehensiveness came in the form of my teacher. If she saw me, she'd kill me. I went against her teachings and tried to raise the dead, no matter how successful I was or wasn't. And then I joined the military. I could only imagine the humiliating asskicking she'd give me, and I couldn't be certain my instincts wouldn't take over and make me dodge, or worse, fight back. I'd had good fighter instincts before, the military had polished them until they shone.

I decided to forgo the touching reunion with my teacher and avoid town as much as I could. Thankfully, Dante's place was just outside of town, up a hill in a forest. The chances of running into my teacher were slim.

The train pulled into Dublith late, and Mom and I walked down the road and up the path leading to Dante's. Mom entered like she owned the place, holding the door for me as I stepped in. The place was huge.

It wasn't the size of the house that astounded me, though. It was the person wandering past the foyer in a thin little nightgown. What the everloving hell was Rose Thomas doing there?

"Oh dear," Mom said, setting down her briefcase at the door and walking after Rose. I followed, keeping hold of my suitcase. "Rose? Rose, dear, are you still nightwalking?"

Rose stopped and looked back. "Oh. Sloth. I'm sorry." Her words were distant and slow, as if coming from the other side of a tunnel. I wondered how much of that was because of Liore and how much was because of the insane asylum they'd tossed her into. Her face brightened when she saw me. "Angel!"

I faltered to a stop. Me? An angel? There was something to make my brain crash into a tree. I shook my head. She frowned. "Yes, you are. You're the one that saved me. I recognize that coat."

I shook my head again. "Not an angel," I croaked. Angel. Are you kidding me? "Name's Edward."

Mom came to my rescue, putting a hand on Rose's shoulder. "Rose, dear, let's get you back to bed. You'll have plenty of time to talk to Edward in the morning."

Rose gave me a longing look, which made me tense, but she let Mom lead her away. I stayed where I was until Mom came back several minutes later, wondering how Rose ended up here and not in Rizenbul, where I'd asked Hughes to send her. Another question to get an answer from someone in that house, probably Dante.

My thoughts stopped running in circles when Mom rounded the corner into the atrium. "I'm sorry, Edward. She had a very hard time of things before the military released her from that asylum. I don't know what they did to her there, but she's more than a little vague now. Lady Dante is working to help her through it with her herbal medications."

I had the horrible mental image then of Riza in one of those places. That's where they put patients with 'nervous breakdowns.' I had the sudden urge to run back to Central to eye those medical reports. But I had things to take care of here, like finding out who this Dante person was and how much of a threat she was to my family before I could do anything else.

"When will we meet this Dante?" I asked her one-handedly.

She took a second to process that- I was a sloppy signer when I was down to one hand. "Tomorrow morning. Everyone's asleep. Why don't we get you settled into a room for the night?"

I slept fairly fitfully, when I slept at all. Something was very much not right in that house, and it put me on edge. Maybe it was the sickly sweet smell of perfume that permeated everything, I didn't know, but my instincts were telling me to get out of that house.

It turned out my instincts weren't wrong.

The next morning, I was going through my morning exercises when Mom knocked on the door. I pulled my shirt back on and answered the door. "Yeah?"

She smiled. "Breakfast is ready. Lady Dante is eager to meet you."

"Okay, I'll be right down." Once Mom had left, though I was loathe to leave her alone with this woman, I cleaned up with the rag and water basin there and changed into clean clothes, then headed downstairs, fully armed.

At the breakfast table were Rose, Mom was serving, there was an old lady, and someone so androgynous, if not for his otherwise broad shoulders, I wouldn't have been able to guess what gender he was.

Rose lit up when she saw me. "Edward!"

"Well, look who finally decided to meet us," the androgyne purred. "Fullmetal Shorty himself."

I blinked. Not only had I long since outgrown short jokes, but it'd been ages since anyone had made any. I was too stunned to react beyond staring at him like he'd lost his goddamn mind.

"You must be Edward," the old lady said. "It's a pleasure to get to meet you. My name is Dante, I'm known as the town's chemist." I nodded in greeting. "Your mother was quite pleased this morning, I've never seen her so happy. It's not often a homunculus is accepted by their creator."

I shrugged, taking a seat by Rose, who watched me with little hearts fluttering about her head. Oh god. I couldn't handle anyone's infatuation with me, much less an insane girl's.

"Can you sign?" I asked the old lady known as Dante.

"Of course," she said. "When Pride mentioned you'd earned the State Alchemist certification at twelve, I knew I'd be seeing you sooner or later, so I made an effort to learn."

I paused. That sounded entirely creepy, to me, but I don't think normally. I assumed I was supposed to be grateful for that so I thanked her. On the other hand, even if she was the embodiment of evil, she was more courteous about it than Archer, who didn't bother learning my language at all.

"I have some questions for you."

"I'm sure you do," Dante said, sipping what smelled like tea. Mom set a mug of coffee down in front of me. "But those should wait for a better place than the breakfast table, don't you think?"

I gave her a stony stare for a moment, then shrugged. "Fine with me." It didn't matter when I cornered her, as long as I cornered her.

Breakfast was eaten in silence, without even minimal conversation. I felt a chill at that; what kind of household didn't talk over breakfast? Not even to ask 'pass the salt' or something? The androgynous man occasionally shot me looks that were bordering on hostile, while Rose continued to make moon eyes at me, like I was the greatest thing in her world since sliced bread. Dante seemed oblivious, and Mom just kept looking at me with a smile like she couldn't quite believe I was really there.

Fucking creepy all the way around. Except Mom.

After breakfast, Dante asked Rose to help Sloth with the dishes, and it took me a moment to realize that this 'Sloth' she was referring to was my mother. After she'd told Envy- the androgynous man, I assumed- to leave the girls alone and go find something to do, I spoke up.

"Why'd you call Mom that?" I asked.

Dante looked at me. "Because that is what I named her. All the homunculii I have cared for have been given names like that. They are, after all, mankind's forgotten sins."

I bristled a bit. "I didn't forget her," I told her.

"I know you didn't, Edward, and we're all very grateful for that. I've never seen a homunculus accepted by its creator before. Not even Envy, and he's quite old. You'll have to excuse his poor manners, by the way, he's gotten cranky in his old age."

I shrugged. "I've dealt with worse." I'm not exactly polite myself, although I was doing my best to mind my manners around Mom. "But now that Mom's been accepted, shouldn't you call her by her real name?"

Dante sipped her tea. "No," she said calmly. "Accepted or not, she is still a homunculus, and not the same woman who you'd called 'Mom' before."

"And as her creator, I don't get a say in this?" I demanded testily.

She finished her tea and stood, taking her cup over to the sink where Mom and Rose were busy with dishes. "Thank you for the tea, dear," she said to Mom.

Mom smiled at her. "Of course, Lady Dante."

Dante stepped over to a cupboard and pulled out a basket. "Edward, come to the garden with me, please. We can talk more out there."

I stood warily, glancing at Mom and Rose as I went. I knew she was only an old woman, but something about her demeanor and the way she ordered homunculii around put me on edge. Every instinct I had screamed that this place, and especially this woman, were evil.

I followed Dante out to the garden, where she crouched down on her knees and started digging around, harvesting long sheaves of... some herb I didn't recognize.

Give me a break, I'm not a botanist. I can't know everything.

After a moment, she began explaining. "Edward, I know this is probably very difficult for you to hear, since you clearly love your new mother very much, and homunculii are a new concept for you. But they're not human. We cannot treat them as such. You can love them, you can call them whatever you want, but the fact remains, they are not human. They are...hmm." She turned to look at me. "Have you read much science fiction?"

I shook my head. "A little, but not much."

"Mm, too busy with scientific readings, I assume," she smiled. "Well, perhaps you have heard of the concept of clones, then? Genetic copies of someone else. They are new people unto themselves, even if they also fill the role of the person they were cloned from. I am not arguing that she is your mother. You have accepted her as such, and as her creator, you may do with her as you wish. But you must remember, she is not Trisha Elric. Which is why I call her Sloth, even now."

That made sense to me, but I didn't like the implication of not treating them as humans, despite the fact that they weren't. "What makes them not human?"

Dante went back to her work. "They lack a soul. And they have specific abilities that I'm sure your mother hasn't shown you yet. She can turn herself into water. Envy can shapeshift. Lust has long claws that she can form from her fingers. Gluttony can eat and digest any matter in the world. Pride has the ultimate eye. The former Greed could harden his body into an impenetrable shield. Abilities humans could never have. They are also faster and stronger than humans."

That explained how Mom had handled those boxes of books of Mustang's. "But why not just treat them like any other person, instead of ordering them around and treating them like lesser people? Even if my mother isn't human, she's still a person and she deserves a little respect."

Dante laughed. "Was I not polite enough for your tastes? I'm sure you've forgotten your manners a time or two around her. You're a soldier, few soldiers have proper manners."

I crouched down by her so she didn't have to turn to see me sign. "What was the missing ingredient in her?"

She paused, then looked up at the sky. "Well, I suppose someone should know to take over for me. I'm getting old, I won't live forever. They must feed on red stones. I'm sure you know what those are. Incomplete Philosopher's Stones. They need the souls of others to make up for their lack of one."

That made my stomach drop. The thought disgusted me, but I refused to let it cloud my judgment of Mom. It wasn't her fault for what she was.

"It's a shame I only have incomplete Stones, like those," Dante said, her tone idle. "If I had the true Philosopher's Stone, I could turn them all human."

I stiffened, staring at her with the stony look I'd mastered as a mask to hide what I was thinking or feeling. She was trying to play me. I didn't know what she really wanted that Stone for, but I recognized manipulation when I saw it. I'd spent too much time with an abuser not to. She wanted whatever Stone I could get my hands on, and I had a feeling she'd hold my mother hostage to get it, if she had to. A plan of my own started forming in my mind, although I was loathe to go through the first step.

"How'd you know Al and I were going to create her?" I asked, diverting the subject for the moment.

That made her pause. "What do you mean?"

"Mom wasn't in the lab anymore by the time Mustang went back to look for Al. Either she made it all the way here in that poor shape she was in, or you were in Rizenbul, waiting for her. I'm not stupid."

"I never said you were, Edward," she said, returning to her harvesting. "But you're right, I was waiting for her. I am Izumi's teacher. Everything she taught you, she first learned from me. When I heard who her students were, I had a feeling. I knew your father once, long ago, probably long before he met your mother. He'd tried the same thing. Envy is the result, and unlike you, your father was not as magnanimous towards his creation and left. I worried that the sins of the father might fall to the sons, and I'm afraid it's not in me to turn away a homunculus in need of help."

I took all that with a grain of salt; although I was sure there was truth in there, it was wrapped up in some very ripe bullshit. I played along, though. "Thank you, then. I wouldn't have her if you hadn't followed us." I noticed something else she said, and glanced towards the house. "Who was Envy? If my father tried to bring him back, I mean."

Dante didn't answer for the longest minute, then she stopped harvesting and looked at me. "I think that's Envy's to decide to tell you or not. It's not really my place."

I didn't for one second believe that. Her whole attitude towards homunculii, convinced that they were not human, and maybe they technically weren't, but she obviously thought of herself as better than they were because of this fact. So I highly doubted she respected Envy's privacy enough for that statement to hold water. She was keeping a card close to her chest.

I'd have to see what I could pry out of Envy. If he lived up to his name, he was probably jealous of the family my father left him for, which meant Mom and I and Al. I could probably play off that to get him to slip up.

I straightened and headed inside without saying anything to Dante. I'm sure she found it rude, but I was sure I didn't care.

Inside, Mom was just finishing putting away the breakfast dishes with Rose's help. I waited and watched for a moment, watching Mom with a look that said I wanted to talk to her. She looked at me nervously. "Rose, why don't you go help Lady Dante in the garden?" Mom suggested to Rose.

Rose looked longingly at me, then nodded. "Okay," she said quietly, and brushed past me out the back door. I had to resist the urge to draw away in revulsion. Nothing against Rose, she wasn't revolting on her own. I just didn't like being touched, and especially not by her. Not by a woman fixated on me with a messy past that could manifest in any sort of fucked up way.

Mom folded her hands together over her abdomen. "You look angry, Edward."

I shook my head. "Not angry, just wondering why you didn't tell me about these abilities you had."

She wrung her hands together slightly. "I feared I couldn't explain it in a way that wouldn't upset you. I knew you'd listen better to an alchemist who specialized in homunculii than me."

I stared at her. "Mom? I may not have been good at following instructions as a kid, but that doesn't mean I didn't listen to you when you told me something. I don't like this Dante woman, she says things that I don't like. Things about you homunculii that come more from her own conceited arrogance than from any actual fact."

Mom frowned. "Edward, there's no better expert on we homunculii than Lady Dante. She's been studying us for centuries."

If I'd been looking at the ground, or anywhere else, I would've given myself whiplash for how fast I'd look at her at that. As it was, I tensed to the point of my muscles hurting. "What?!"

She put her hands over her mouth, wide-eyed, like a child caught saying something they shouldn't. "Oh, Edward, please don't tell her I said that. She won't turn me human if she knows I'm blabbing her secrets."

I scowled. This woman was holding my mother hostage to the idea that she could turn her human. If the main difference between a human and a homunculus was the soul, I knew damn good and well Mom could never be made human. Souls can't be recreated, even with the Stone.

I stepped over to Mom and put my flesh hand on her arm, reading her chemical composition. "Mom? You're chemically identical to a human. You are human. So what if you don't have a soul? Doesn't matter to me, won't matter to Al. You're still you."

She smiled, a bit wet-eyed, and pulled me into a hug. "You're a dear, dear boy, Edward," she said.

I glanced over her shoulder towards the back door. Dante could come back in at any time, and I didn't like the chances of walking into anyone else around here. "Why don't we take a walk, Mom?"

She looked at me curiously, then neatly folded up the towel that had been used to dry dishes next to the sink. "All right. There's more housework to do, but I suppose it can wait awhile."

***


I stuck my hands in my pockets as we walked down the forest path from Dante's. Once we were suitably far away, I took my hands out to sign. "I want to stop by and visit my teacher," I told her. "You'll like her, after she's done kicking my ass."

Mom shot me a sidelong look. "I hope that was figurative, Edward."

I shook my head. "No, it wasn't. How do you think I learned to fight? She taught us that by fighting with us, like a teacher should. I don't know if she's better than me still, or if the military's given me an edge on her, but she's probably going to hit me a few times for joining the military, then a few more times for you. She taught very hard against both, and I've disobeyed her teachings."

Mom pursed her lips tightly. "I'm not sure I like this woman, if she treated you so poorly."

That made me shake my head again. "No, Mom. She taught us, then bandaged us up afterwards with a pat on the head and a 'good job'. She made us help with chores, then gave us dinners that there was no way we could possibly eat it all."

We walked in silence while Mom decided her opinion of my teacher. I hoped it'd end up favorable enough to not get into a fight with her when Teacher kicked my ass.

"She took care of you, then?" Mom finally asked, as if my answer would make her decision for her.

I nodded. "She was never a mother, she was a teacher, but if it hadn't been for what she taught us and how she taught us, I probably would be dead by now. The military taught me how to shoot, but to actually fight, hand to hand? That was all my teacher."

"Then I'll try to control my temper when she greets you," Mom promised.

I sighed with relief. "Thank you. Teacher wouldn't take it well if someone else attacked her for disciplining her student. And from what I hear about your abilities, you'd be able to take her on."

My teacher's husband was out on the front walk when we arrived. He looked me for a long minute. "She's been waiting for you," he finally said that stoic growl of his. "I'll get her." Then he turned and headed back into the house.

My stomach did a flipflop as I grabbed Mom's arm and directed her a few steps to the side, out of the way. "Stay here," I told her. "And don't move, no matter what she does."

Mom could've been ice for the tone she had when she said, "I don't like the sound of that, Edward." Her eyes were narrowed, and she damn near looked ready to roll up her sleeves and get in between her kid and a charging rhinoceros.

I gave her a helpless facial shrug, and stepped back up to the door, awaiting my executioner. I didn't have to wait long, either. Teacher came storming down the hall to the door and her foot connected with my face with the force of a freight train.

As I stumbled back, she cracked her knuckles. "You stupid apprentice!" she all but yelled. "I didn't teach you to join the military!"

I heard Mom start to say something and I held up a hand, silencing her. My teacher ignored Mom, swinging a right hook at me. For the first time in my life I managed to block her, and more than managed, I defied her to do it. I caught her fist before it connected with my jaw, giving her the stony stare the military had taught me. It wasn't what I should've done, maybe, but it was my first reaction.

Her eyes narrowed, then she swung her other fist in a controlled wide arc, probably expecting me to block with my right hand, busying both hands in the process. I ducked instead, letting go of her right fist as I did so. I finished my drop and swept my leg at hers. She jumped over my leg and I used the momentum to stand up as I turned, bringing my automail arm up at her face.

She lifted her arm and blocked, then immediately withdrew her arm, drawing her head back out of the way of my attack. She took two large steps away. She glanced at Mom, studying her for a long moment, as Mom seemed to turn to ice, staring coldly at my teacher. Then Teacher looked back at me and walked over.

I knew she'd figured out who Mom was, so I forced myself to lower my arms and defenses. She struck me across the jaw, then pulled me into a hug. That surprised me, and scared me a little more than her punches did. She'd never hugged me before.

"You fool," she whispered. "You genius fool. You got it to work?"

"She has no soul," I said, relaxing in her grip. " And it cost me Al."

"More than that," she noted, eyeing my right shoulder as she pulled back and let go of me. "Come on, inside, both of you."

I stepped over to Mom and hugged her. "It's all right, Mom. I promise. I'm not hurt. I deserved that, for what happened to Al and I when we brought you back. She lost a lot when she tried it," I explained. "We defied her teachings. I had it coming. Okay?"

She pursed her lips tightly while Teacher watched us from the doorstep. "You don't deserve to be beaten, Edward."

I faintly smiled. "That? That was a love tap. I can handle more than that and she knows it. She wouldn't be so rough with me if I weren't capable. Please? We can trust her, and we need to have a long talk about this Lady Dante of yours, and I want her in on it."

Mom gave me a concerned look, brushing her hand over my jaw. "If you say so, Edward. I'm not sure I like her, if that's how she treated you and your brother, though."

"She trained us to be strong," I corrected, offering her my arm to escort her in.

She sighed, taking my arm. "All right, Edward. I'll play nice. I got the message."

My teacher led us into the house, shutting the door behind us and leading us to the kitchen, motioning to seats. I let Mom pick her seat, then sat where I could stay between the two women in my life and still allow Mom to translate my signing for me, which I silently asked her to do.

"Of course," she said.

Teacher settled down in the seat I left for her. "Okay, Edward. Start explaining."

"You want me to start at the beginning?"

"You can start by telling me what happened to your voice that you can't tell me this yourself," she said.

I sighed. Figured. "After we transmuted Mom, that... thing, it took Al as payment for her. So I tried to bind his soul to a suit of armor Father had in the lab. I lost my arm and my voice for the effort."

"And didn't get Al back," Teacher noted. "That seems extraordinarily against equivalent exchange." I shrugged helplessly. What could I say? That's what happened, and equivalent or not, that's what the Gate did. Then Teacher looked at Mom. "And she is the result of your attempt to resurrect your mother?"

This time, Mom answered for herself. "Yes, I am. My name is Sloth."

"That's an unusual name."

"There are others like me," Mom said. "We're all named this way. Lady Dante calls us 'man's forgotten sins'. However, now that Edward's accepted instead of rejected me, I might be able to take a new name."

"You will," I snapped irritably. "I don't like this Dante person and how she handles the homunculii."

"You're not talking about Dante the Chemist, are you?" Teacher interrupted, looking between us.

"You know her?" Mom asked.

"She was my teacher," Teacher said, nothing I didn't know, but apparently Mom hadn't. "She seemed harmless enough, although I greatly disagreed with her philosophies. I didn't understand the point of learning alchemy just to not use it to help people. She claimed, in not so many words, that she wasn't human and was above people. I thought perhaps senility had overtaken her."

I shook my head. "She said that because she's not human. Or if she is, she's one fucking weird one."

Mom translated faithfully, then looked at me tiredly. "I suppose telling you to watch your language won't work?"

I coughed. "Sorry, Mom. Military."

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I'm very familiar with how men in the military talk. You're a vulgar lot, all of you."

I shrugged helplessly. "I've always been a foul-mouthed brat, I just learned more words."

"Well, that I won't deny." She sighed. "My apologies, Missus Curtis. I didn't mean to go off topic."

Teacher waved it off. "Like he said, he's always been a foul-mouthed brat. I remember dealing with him on a regular basis."

Mom raised an eyebrow rather imperiously at that, but didn't say what she clearly wanted to say. "So do I, actually."

I ducked my head. "Back on topic. Dante has supposedly lived for centuries, taking care of homunculii."

Teacher blinked dumbfoundedly, straightening in her chair. "How is that possible?"

"I'm not sure," Mom said. "Envy is the one that told me this, and I believe he was trying to rattle me."

"Envy's kind of an asshole," I remarked. "And more than that, Mom, he was created by Father. At least according to Dante. She wouldn't tell me who he was that Father risked human transmutation to bring him back, but she told me he belonged to him, at least."

Mom looked at me in shock before hesitantly translating. "Your father created Envy? When was this? Envy said he's almost as old as Dante, but that would make your father-"

I nodded. "Centuries old, just like Dante. And I think she uses the Philosopher's Stone to do it. I'm not sure what exactly she does, but the Stone's definitely involved."

"How can you be so sure?" Teacher asked.

"She pretty much just asked me to hand it over to her," I said. "She knows I'm looking for it, and probably has guessed why, and yet she tried to manipulate it away from me by holding Mom hostage."

Mom practically snapped her neck turning her head so fast to look at me. "She did what? How? Edward, what did she say?"

"After she got done lecturing me about treating you like a human being, she said 'of course, I could turn them all human if I had the Stone.' Which is total bullshit."

"Edward, if she's been working with we homunculii as long as Envy says she has, then perhaps she can."

I shook my head. "Any alchemist that's tried human transmutation can tell you that it's horseshit. You can't recreate a soul, that's what goes wrong and summons the Gate in the transmutation so it can proceed to-." I bit off what I wanted to say. I'd heard the saying often enough in the military, but not only were my teacher and mother listening, I just couldn't bring myself to bring up the imagery of a rape joke.

Teacher sighed. "Edward, watch your language. I don't know what you were about to say, but watch it." Then she frowned. "But what our boy says is right. There's no way to recreate a soul in someone."

"Best I can think she could do is attach a foreign soul to your body," I said. "Like I tried to do with Al's soul. But even that is damn hard, and-" I cut myself off, dropping my hands as I thought about that. "She could be attaching her soul to different bodies as the old ones get close to death." It was a gross idea, but it made more sense than random immortality. Her body was too old; if she was scared of death enough to go after a Stone, she was probably too vain to want to be an old woman forever.

Teacher sat back a bit, arms crossed. "What happens to the original body's soul?"

I looked at her. "Probably shoved into Dante's old body. She's too arrogant to use a homunculus's body. They're sub-human to her."

"But she's been nothing but kind to me," Mom protested.

I shook my head. "To use you to get to me, more than likely. She followed us back to Rizenbul the night we left here, because she figured we'd make you, just like Father made Envy. She knew we'd leave a homunculus behind and purposely followed us to get you. And now she's using you against me."

It occurred to me, unhappily, that she might've manipulated Mom into manipulating me without Mom realizing she was doing it. Even worse, Dante might've convinced Mom to do it purposely.

I'd take the chance that Mom wasn't aware of what Dante was doing. Like with Dante, I could smell the underhandedness of that sort of mental fuckery, and I hadn't picked up on that from Mom. I knew I was biased, but I had to make a choice on whether to trust her. And my first thought would always be my mother was there for me.

"Quite frankly, I don't want you anywhere near that woman, but until I can figure out how to get rid of her without pissing off Envy and the rest, I have to play along," I said, pushing aside my decision and the possible consequences of it.

"The rest? How many homunculii are there?" Teacher asked, looking to Mom as the most likely source for an answer.

"There are five of us. Six if you count Greed," Mom explained. "But Greed's been sealed for more than a century. There's Envy, Lust and Gluttony, myself, and Pride."

I tilted my chair back on its back legs, thinking. This, for the record, is never a good idea. The... chair, not the thinking part. "Yeah, about Pride. She said he told her about me getting certified as a State Alchemist. Is he hiding in the press the way you were hiding in the military or something?"

She shook her head. "No. I thought you knew when you met him. I could always tell, but I guess I was already familiar with him before I finished forming. He's F├╝hrer Bradley."

I bet you can guess what happened next. Yeah, that chair and I went ass over kettle. "What?!" I squeaked out as I struggled to get out from under that chair and back upright.

Mom stood up and helped me to my feet. "Edward, are you okay?"

"Aside from the mind-blowing shock, sure." I rubbed the back of my head, hoping I wouldn't end up with a lump there. I'd been hit harder on the head without a lump, but sometimes it's the stupidest things.

Teacher slumped in her chair. "Edward, what have I told you about that?" she said almost vaguely, staring down at the table. "This country is being run by a homunculus."

"I'd be fine with that, except it's Dante running things. You know he listens to her the way Mom did."

"That's an even worse prospect, with her anti-human ideologies," Teacher said. "No wonder we keep getting into wars with no ends."

Wars with no ends.

Drachma closed in on me. O'Riley's and Farrand's deaths, Lance and Scott strung up with barbed wire, the snow and the cold and the whistling sound of artillery. All because of a misanthrope. That blind rage built up again, until I couldn't see, until I couldn't breathe, until every bit of me trembled, until I had to lash out at something. I chose the wall.

"Edward!" Mom snapped when my automail fist left a nice hole in the drywall.

My teacher sighed. "Did that help?"

"It made me feel better for a second." I carefully withdrew my hand and fixed the wall. "Sorry, Teacher."

She waved it off. "No harm done, you fixed it." She crossed her arms as I righted my chair and sat back down. "So these wars are caused by Dante, if we follow this train of logic. Is it just because she dislikes people?"

"Who knows," I snapped grumpily, then stopped and thought about that. Dante needed the Stone. The Stone was made from live human beings. Oh dear god. I sat up straighter. "She starts them to get the Stone. The Stone is made of live human beings, she uses the wars to make the Stones."

That caught both Mom's and Teacher's attention. "They're what?" Mom asked, horror sketched across her face in a way I didn't remember ever seeing. "Oh god, she fed those to us."

"She told me, Mom, and I don't give a fuck. You're still my mother."

"What things? Stones?" Teacher stared. Then her expression hardened. "How do you know this, Edward?"

I returned that look with a flat one. She couldn't possibly think I-

Okay, with my reputation, maybe she could.

"Not from making one," I said. When Mom failed to translate- she looked way too distracted by the revelation about the red stones (and I didn't blame her) to even notice I'd signed anything, I repeated myself 'out loud'. "I found a guy who'd made some prototypes. He didn't act like he was happy about it. He told me, and gave me all of his research to work on on my own."

Teacher seemed satisfied by that, a small nod and a look that suddenly looked a bit distant from the conversation. Something was going on in her head. "If she had them to feed to the homunculii, why does she need you to make her one?"

I shook my head. "Red stones are incomplete Philosopher's Stones. They can amplify alchemy, but not like a real Stone could."

Mom finally came to the rescue to translate. "I'm sorry, Edward," she said, almost woodenly. "Please, sign. I'll translate."

"Thank you." Her tone worried me, but I could understand it.

"So she couldn't transmute them together to form a bigger Stone?" Teacher asked.

"That, I don't know. I would think in theory that doing that would work, but I'd say theory's wrong if Dante hasn't already done that. Unless having her trained homunculii around to do her bidding is important enough to do things the hard way."

Mom winced. "We do tend to listen to her fairly faithfully. But we owe our existence to her. Without those stones, we don't progress past the stage that I'm sure you saw in the house, Edward. Eventually, we die in those forms."

"She does it to use you," I pointed out. She looked down at her hands on the table. "Mom, it's okay. I doubt anyone would blame you. I don't."

"Nor I," Teacher said. "You can't help what you are, nor that Dante may have used that against you. It's speculation, but now that we think Dante is potentially dangerous, what do we do about her?"

I was starting to get a horrible, terrible idea. I didn't like it but it started to seem like the only way. "Mom, what's the status of the other homunculii? I know Pride's running the country for her, but what are the others doing?"

"Stirring up trouble," Mom said. "Lust and Gluttony were originally responsible for giving Cornello the red stone."

"Mother!" I stared agape at her. Liore took its turn at crowding on me. Those children, the hot sun and sand and the rape Rose was subjected to and the losses and one more step on a dark road that I doubted I could be saved from anymore.

She gave me a helpless look. "I was never told why, or even about it by Lady Dante. Lust told me after she and Gluttony returned. Envy tends to do the same sorts of things, according to her. I couldn't understand at the time why, but if Lady Dante is pushing the country into wars, then that's exactly why they were there. To cause strife. If you hadn't killed nearly everyone before a Stone could be made there..."

At that, Teacher's expression darkened. "You did what, Edward?"

I stared at the table, trying to keep my hands still. "Nothing I wasn't trained to do."

Both women watched me. It was nerve-wracking. "Ed, what did they do to you?" Teacher demanded.

I shrugged. I would never let them see that. I'd tell Winry before I told either my mother or my teacher about the north, about Acheron and Olivia, about Archer. I forced as much of a cavalier tone into my cracked voice as I could. "I obey orders when the call to kill goes out. It's what all State Alchemists know can and will happen. It's the equivalent exchange for the resources to get Al back."

Mom gently rested her hand on mine on the table. I twitched, trying to keep from yanking my hand away. With the past so close behind me, getting touched made me want to recoil.

"You two were always inseparable, even when you were fighting. I suppose neither of us should be surprised how far you've gone to get him back."

I looked away. "I owe it to him. It was my idea to bring you back, it's my fault he's in that thing."

"Nonsense," Teacher said, still sounding immensely unhappy with me. "Your idea or not, Al went along with it. He's like you, even you could never make him do something he didn't want to do. So your idea or not, he went along with it. It is not solely your fault that he is where he is."

I didn't believe that, but I chose not to say anything. I took my hand back from Mom to sign; my voice was getting tired. "Mom? How can I get Dante to Central? And the other homunculii?"

"Lady Dante rarely has them far from her person," she said, letting my topic change slide. "Since you're dedicated solely to the Stone, she'll bring them in to her. As far as getting her to Central with them, there is an opera house in an underground city ruins that she likes to use from time to time. She said it's where she goes to be reborn. I thought it was some religious thing for her, since she was so old-fashioned, but if she switches bodies, then she must take who she wants to switch with and the Stone there. So, get the Stone for her, she'll go there."

I nodded. "And I'll bet Rose is the sacrificial lamb."

"Oh, poor Rose. She's been through so much already."

"Yeah, well, it's obviously not over for her. If Dante hates humans so much, why else would she help some girl from an insane asylum?"

"I know," Mom sighed. "If you tell her you have the Stone, or are very close, she will come to Central to use it. And she'll have the homunculii close at hand, I'm very sure of that."

"That include Envy?"

"More than likely," she said.

I looked at my teacher. "Teacher? I want you to come back with us to Central. I'm going to send Mom on vacation. I want you to take her to Rizenbul and keep her there. Our house is still there, I just sealed it. Protect her from anything the other homunculii might try."

Mom finished translating, then gave me one of her Mother Looks. "Edward, what are you planning? Don't send me away, I can help you."

I put aside the quiet worry that her protest was less about helping me and more about making sure I did what Dante wanted, and shook my head. Something I'd have to risk. "Not with what I'm going to do, Mom. I'm going to turn them all into the Stone and I can't risk you getting caught up in the reaction."

She frowned. "That'd be a very small Stone, Edward. Where are you getting the rest?"

"I'm hoping Marcoh left research behind in the Fifth Lab that I'll use," I lied. Honestly, I knew I'd probably need more than whatever Marcoh left behind. I just wasn't sure until that moment where to get it.

"And if he hasn't?" Teacher asked, sounding not quite sold on the idea of following this thought train into conclusive action. I'd have to convince her some more.

"I don't know yet. But I'll think of something," I assured them. I was lying through my rotten teeth to the women who meant the most to me in my world, just like I'd always been lying to Winry. But I couldn't tell them what I had as a back up plan. I needed them to cooperate with what I wanted them to do.

"Then I will help you," she said. "You've raised questions I want answers to." She sighed, then got up and put a hand on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to roll my shoulder out of her grip. "I'm not prying into your past. Not yet." There was a threat in that- I had a feeling she'd get the story from me somehow, or if not me, then someone else, if she could find someone who knew. I tossed aside that thought and let her continue. "But I won't let it repeat."

"Nor will I," my mother added, reaching over and taking my automail hand. It was only the lack of sensation in it that kept me from twitching away. She glanced up at my teacher, and I got the impression that somehow, they'd both just passed some test they were putting each other through, though I wasn't sure what it was.

I felt bad, playing them, but Dante was leaving me no choice. If she thought she could get us to do what she wanted, she was very, very wrong.
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Pandora's Universe: Fullmetal Alchemist AU

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