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 13: My Temporary Home
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 8137
Summary: Mom and I returned to Dante's house with a promise that we'd let Teacher know when we were leaving so she could follow, preferably without anyone at Dante's knowing about it.




this is my temporary home
it's not where i belong
windows and rooms that i'm passing through
this is just a stop
on the way to where i'm going
i'm not afraid because i know
this is my temporary home
-Carrie Underwood

Mom and I returned to Dante's house with a promise that we'd let Teacher know when we were leaving so she could follow, preferably without anyone at Dante's knowing about it. That would be difficult, since I was sure Dante would send someone after Mom and I to make sure we made a Stone for her like good little lackeys, but I'd find a way.

Not wanting to be near Dante, and completely avoiding Rose's little infatuation, I decided to explore the house a little bit, see if I couldn't find some evidence of who Envy was, or if not that, Envy himself to beat it out of him. He seemed to have completely disappeared while Mom and I were in town.

As I got closer to the back rooms, the amount of dust increased, as if that part of the house was no longer in use and was being left to ultimately rot. I was a little surprised that Dante would let that happen, with her pet homunculii around to clean it for her like good little slaves, but apparently, she had no interest in this area of the house. (Yes, I was a little bitter about how she treated Mom, can't you tell?)

I started inspecting the rooms, seeing a lot of old furniture under cloths to protect them from dust, but not from age. The rooms were all arranged, and stepping into one and lifting the dusty sheet revealed very old-styled furniture, as if from another century. I wondered how long Dante had been living in that house.

In one room, instead of carefully preserved scenes that looked like something from another time and place, I found total chaos and destruction. Like someone had come through like a whirlwind and tossed furniture around, drawers and ancient papers and linens. I stepped carefully inside, looking around. I bent down to examine one of the papers. Transmutation circles and alchemical notes were scrawled in an old hand, in a form of Amestrian that I barely recognized.

There were only two items in the whole room that hadn't been ripped, toppled, or otherwise destroyed. On the bedstand next to the bed was a clock, still ticking away from what unknown century, who knew. And on the wall above the fireplace was a painting, covered in a sheet. Both looked undisturbed.

I glanced around, then stepped over to the painting. I grabbed the sheet and pulled, revealing under it an ancient-looking painting of my father and another boy, with the family gold hair and eyes. He looked about thirteen, while my father looked ageless, forever trapped the way I remembered him.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that the young boy in that picture had to be an Elric boy. I didn't know who, but whoever he was, he was mostly likely long since gone and died, as centuries marched on without him.

"What're you doing in here?" Envy's angry voice came from the doorway.

I reluctantly tore my eyes away from the picture to look at him. "Who's that?"

Envy had his arms crossed, leaning against the door frame with a look of spit and vinegar growing on his face. "What does it matter? The kid's dead. Long time ago."

I wondered why Envy was so hostile over this boy, until my brain kicked into gear. It also did not take a genius to figure out, my father would've only risked his life on human transmutation for someone important to him. Like a son, perhaps, or a nephew close enough to count. I couldn't imagine why my father would leave the homunculus of someone so important to him behind to Dante's care- and I suddenly wondered if Dante was the mother if the kid was a son and not a nephew or some other relative, and the thought made me very uncomfortable- but it made sense.

"That was you, wasn't it?" I asked, watching Envy carefully in case that hostility turned violent.

Envy narrowed his eyes. "What of it? The old bastard abandoned me to get married to your pretty little whore and have you and your brat brother."

I was over in his face in a hurry as I grabbed him and slammed him up against the wall. "I don't care what you say about our father," I snarled, "but don't you ever talk about my mom or brother that way." The shock of the presence of a half-brother took second place to my temper. Mom and Al were the two most precious things in the world to me, and I had little that mattered left. Talking shit about them was a good way to get me pissed.

Envy laughed. "Look who's all big and bad. You really think you could take on a homunculus, Shorty?"

I bared my teeth. "I'd be happy to give it a shot. Just for you, Envy."

"Such brotherly affection," he said with a manic grin. He grabbed the front of my coat and pulled me close. "I should return the favor." Then he... well, I won't say he kissed me, that was a flat-out bite. I still have a scar on my lips from that.

I let go of him in surprise, staggering back and staring at his smug face. What the fuck had that been about? Time had obviously not been kind to Envy's sanity. Too bad for him I didn't care about his sanity. I cared about that comment he made and making sure he understood exactly what I'd do if he said it again.

I stepped back into reach and slugged him hard across the jaw. He smacked back against the wall, then graced me with an almost manic smile. "That's what you give just for calling them names? I can't wait to see how much you'll try to kill me for sending you up north."

I paused, giving him a wary look. His smile became toothy. "That's right," he said in a smug tone to match that evil grin on his face. "Grand really had no idea where you were. Because I was the one that sent you off with the psychopath, just to piss off the old bitch."

What he was saying made me taste bile. The bite of the lash, the smell of blood and the ice and a swollen feeling in my mouth all came screaming into my mind. Somewhere, I heard Archer's voice telling me to get to my knees.

The rage took over.

I gave him a hard right hook, then aimed my hands at his scrawny damn neck. He lunged at me before I could. He was damn fast, I'll admit, and every bit as strong as I was, possibly a bit more. I was barely able to keep up.

But I managed, spurred on by adrenaline and that blackness that blotted out everything, and wrestled him to the ground. I earned a good sock to the eye in the process, but I pinned him down, bringing my automail fist down into his face repeatedly.

He laughed between blows. I didn't care that for whatever reason, the damage was healing as fast as I'd leave it, a flash of alchemical light that couldn't blind me to my target. "What's the matter, Shorty? I didn't hurt you, it was-" A brilliant flash of light blinded me, and I was abruptly left with, not Envy, but Archer. "-me, Fullmetal. You're out of line. On you knees, soldier."

I wheeled back off him onto my ass. Archer stood up, reaching down for my hair.

I scooted back, trying to get away. His eyes were the same cold ice, the tone was as angry as he ever was at me, and the smell of him was strong. It all made it impossible to breathe; I was too scared to catch any air.

God no no no, please no, I got out of there, don't take me back-

My brain unscrambled itself back into the present- I'd pay for the forcible jerking around, but I didn't dare let Envy throw me back into the past and back on my knees. I kicked my leg up right between his legs.

Envy doubled over, that same flash of light returning Archer's form to Envy's. I got up and tackled him. "Don't you ever think you can get me that way," I snarled at him.

Envy smiled up at me. "What if I take your precious brother's form? Would you hit even him?"

"It wouldn't be him, it'd be you," I growled, my throat aching at the use. "Sorry, Brother, but you and your tricks are beneath me." I got up, kicking his side once before moving to leave.

"Fuck you!" Envy shouted after me, sitting up and rubbing his side. "I'm better than you pitiful human, don't you walk away from me!"

I turned and stared at him. "Why don't we see what my alchemy will do to you, Envy? Should I transmute that Ouroborous on your leg? See what happens?"

A bluff, a cold one, one I almost hoped I could be called on. If that mark could be transmuted, Dante might've already used it on my mother, and god only knew what that might've done to her. It was a variable I wanted to eliminate.

But more than that, I wanted to make Envy hurt very, very badly. It was only that need that kept me from panicking and running, kept my stomach from twisting into a pretzel right then and there.

Envy recoiled as if struck. "You're no better that that old bitch," he spat. "How long before you make the same threats to your precious 'mother'?"

"I won't. Her, I actually like. You can die for all I care."

Why he let me go, I don't know, but I heard him throwing things around in his room as I left. Maybe he was afraid of that lie I cooked up on the spot. Maybe there was something to it. I didn't know, but it didn't matter. I got away with minimal damage.

Physical damage, anyway.

Once I was certain that Envy was too busy destroying whatever was left of his room to follow me, I broke into a run and found a room as close to the main living area as possible, without chancing running into someone. I closed and sealed the door behind me, then dropped down onto the floor, shaking like a leaf in a strong summer storm.

I'd gotten away from there. I had. But Envy had almost dragged me right back to it, and I was terrified, of him, of Archer, and of everyone in that house in general. I wanted out. I wanted home. I wanted life to go back to before Mom and Al had left me.

In a desperate attempt to stay hidden, to avoid Envy, or Dante, or god forbid, my mother, I crawled to the corner, curling up until I was hidden from sight on the far side of a bed. I stayed there as my teeth chattered, my stomach threatened, and my mind sung white noise at me. The noise was a raging crescendo, battering me around, then slowly, it dimmed until a thought was able to break through.

Mom. I needed my mom.

I dragged myself up off the ground and headed out of the safe little room, where Envy might find me and try something worse. I heard silence outside in the hall, and that made me nervous. I kept my hands close together, ready to transmute in an instant as I slunk back to the inhabited part of the house, to where Mom might be.

She was in her room, quietly humming as her knitting needles clicked away. I felt the ice in my bones thawing at the sight this image from my past, a sight that soothed away the noise of Acheron that Envy had pulled up in front of my eyes. She looked up at my entrance. "Edward! What happened to you?" she asked, eyes wide, bordering somewhere between panic and anger- she didn't even know what had happened and she already seemed ready to beat whoever or whatever had caused the blood on my lips and the red swelling over my eye that would probably turn into a bruise.

I waved it off. "Got into a fight with Envy, I said. "I won."

Mom stood, and while that panic abated into mild concern, the anger stayed strong. "You should put something cold on that to prevent swelling," she said. I wanted to balk at that tone. That tone was murderous. That awful 't' word hung over me.

"I know," I said instead, trying to calm her down by sounding cavalier and hopefully distracting her anger. I didn't want her trying to take on Envy, even if she could probably beat him senseless. "I probably won't, though."

She sighed in a way only a woman dealing with a stupid man could. "I wish you were still young enough for me to baby your injuries for you," she said, seeming to let the issue of Envy go for the moment. "You grew up behind my back and I wasn't there for it. It's a bit shocking to think of you as almost seventeen."

I gave her a lopsided smile. "I think it's a little more shocking that you're alive, Mom," I pointed out.

She made a humming noise of agreement. "I suppose so. Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?"

I closed the door to her room before answering. "Envy was Father's son."

She gave me the shock I was expecting and hoping for, though bringing Envy back up had her ire back up as well. "He-"

I cut her off with as shush. "Sign. I don't know who might be listening in."

Mom took in a deep breath- when was the last time I'd defied her that much? -then lifted her hands. "He's what?" She was a superb translator, but a terrible signer.

"Father's son. I discovered a painting in his bedroom of the two of them, and I suspect Dante's his mother, which might explain a few things about why he acts the way he does, with her attitude towards him. I noticed no mother was in that painting."

For all the possibility that she was playing me as much as Dante was, Mom was certainly a better actress than the old bat. "Edward, are you sure about this?"

After having her repeat herself so I could understand her, I nodded. "He confirmed it during our fight," I said. "He also called you and Al some unflattering names, which is why I had to kick his ass."

There, make it sound like it was a typical teenage fight and not the result of something worse.

Mom rolled her eyes. "Don't let him get to you, Edward. He's always like that. I don't mind, and I doubt your brother would care."

"Yeah, well I care," I snapped, leaning against the wall.

Mom was quiet a moment, looking off somewhere else. "Can he be saved, like me?"

I shook my head vehemently, resisting the urge to yell at her for suggesting it. She had no idea he was the one that transferred me, and in the name of avoiding bringing up Acheron in general, I decided against telling her. "The only one who could do that would be Father, and Envy gave me the impression that he hates him. He's a lost cause." I thought about her question, though. How many could be turned? "What's this Lust like?"

Mom blinked, probably caught off-guard by my subject switch. "She's a nice enough person, I suppose. She's very loyal to Lady Dante's promise of humanity."

"Think she'd listen to me if I told her it was impossible?"

Mom shook her head. "I highly doubt it. She's very determined to become human again. I think I may be your only ally among the homunculii, Edward. And you're sending me away." Boy, there was some scolding.

I sighed. "Mom? I need all of the homunculii and Dante in Central. But not you. I'd chance you getting caught up in things and disappearing. I can't lose you again. And I am getting Al back. He'll need you, too."

She sighed in resignation. "All right, Edward. I won't argue. You're as bad as your father. When you make a decision, god help anyone who wants to argue against you."

I looked down at the floor, toeing the ground. "How soon can we leave here?" I was uncomfortable with comparisons to my father, so I tried to sidestep it gracefully. Didn't quite make it to graceful, but at least I got away with it.

"I think that depends on how you handle Lady Dante," Mom said, sitting back down. "Stay polite, Edward, tell her you'll get the Stone, she'll let you leave as soon as you want."

I let my thoughts wander over that, then pushed away from the wall. "I'm going to go get us out of here," I said. "Might want to start packing."

I headed out, looking through the house for Dante. It wasn't hard to find her- she was in the kitchen, washing the herbs she'd picked that morning. Rose was with her, helping, but she turned to me with a smile best suited for a lover than a barely-known acquaintance. "Edward!"

I had to stomp down on the desire to run at that look.

Dante glanced back at me at that. "Oh, hello- goodness sakes, what happened to you?"

I shrugged, wiping away a bit of blood from my lips. "Got into a fight with Envy."

Dante made a rude noise. "That boy. Never polite to guests. I apologize for him, Edward."

"Been a long time since I had a fight that evenly matched," I said, hoping to scare her a little with the idea that I could keep up with her precious homunculii. I was still processing that I might've been bluffing without meaning to, if all the homunculii could heal as fast as Envy appeared to.

"Well, here," she said, setting aside the plants she was cleaning and grabbing a towel. "Let me get a red stone to heal that. That cut looks deep. What did he do?"

"Bit me."

I was almost amused to see Dante wearily put a hand over her eyes. "That boy. I'll speak to him, Edward. He'll behave himself. Now." She looked back at Rose. "Please keep cleaning those, Rose. I need the pennyroyal for your nightly tea." She smiled at me, and I suddenly felt as unclean in her presence as I did in Rose's.

No. Noooooo, no. This was all not going to happen. If my first thought that I was suddenly a replacement Elric was anywhere close to accurate, I was going to stop and hurl somewhere.

"I'll be right back, dear." Then Dante left, and took with her a feeling of grime.

"Edward?"

Rose's voice was so soft that I almost didn't hear her. I looked over at her, and in the name of not upsetting her further- that woman had a hard past, and not much of a future in front of her, I didn't need to make the presence worse than my jitters probably already was -I forced my facial muscles to relax instead of tensing up into a defensive scowl. "Yeah?"

Rose's eyes were as solemn and haunted as I remembered, but perhaps more unfocused than before. "You got me out of there. Why do you hate me now?"

I wasn't sure how to safely answer that. I glanced off at the door Dante disappeared to, waiting for her to come back with that damned red stone so I could stop bleeding and get out of there. "I don't," I finally said, then shrugged. "I'm just not much good with people."

"You made God save me."

I took a moment to draw in a deep breath. "Rose, that was a statue, not God. I'm just an alchemist."

Silence stretched another thirty seconds, and I was getting antsy for Dante to get back. Rose started washing the herbs again. "Did the snake eat you too?"

It took me a few seconds to decipher that. "No," I said. If I was understanding what that statement meant, then I was lying, but even if I was wrong, I wasn't going to tell this woman anything about me that might get back to Dante.

Speaking of Dante, the old broad came to my rescue. She opened her hand to reveal a tiny red stone nestled in her palm. "Here," she said. "I'll heal you. I'm sure you'd be able to, but I have experience, and a tired old lady likes to do something good now and again."

She smelled strongly of perfume as she got near me, and I had to tighten every muscle in my body to get my feet to stay put and not run. That perfume smelled sickly sweet, almost like it was covering up the smell of something more disgusting.

But I managed to stay still, feeling my skin on my lips warm up as the wound closed up when she put the stone near my face. She lifted her hand towards my eye, and I felt the soreness there disappearing.

She stepped back, admiring her work. "It will do. I'm afraid you might still have a scar there. A shame, some young lady might've liked to kiss those at some point."

I wanted to retch.

"You said you can turn them human. How soon can you do that?" I asked, shifting the subject quickly.

She blinked. "As soon as I have a Stone," she said. "Why?"

"I'm going back to Central with Mom tonight. I'll make your Stone as long as you turn her human like she and the others deserve. And I get a piece of it to try to get Al back."

"That seems fair enough," Dante agreed. "You are, after all, the one doing the work."

"After that, the rest is yours, and I don't care what you do with it," I added, which was a total lie, but she didn't need to know that.

"That's very generous of you, Edward," she said. "I'll keep it on hand in case any other homunculii come to me."

I refrained from reminding her that she'd gone to Mom, rather than the other way around, and in fact, she'd probably gone to all of them except Envy, who was handed to her on a platter.

"That's fine." I looked at Rose. "You stay here and help her," I said as loudly as I could. I felt bad about her, I knew damn good and well that Dante had her around for a new body. But no choice. I looked back at Dante. "I'll send word when I have the Stone ready. Mom says there's a place you like to stay in Central when you visit?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I do have a place. I'll take Envy and Rose with me when you call for us, as I assume you were about to say. The place I stay at will be less conspicuous for such a transmutation than even out here. Did your mother tell you where it was?"

I shook my head. She smiled. "Well, I'll show you when we get there, then. You'll be quite impressed with it." Yeah, I'd just bet. An underground city is pretty impressive. I wondered how it got down there, but I wasn't about to ask and tip my hand.

"You might want to call the other two- Lust and Gluttony? -home to Central, too, since I'm going to want that piece for me back pretty fast."

Dante nodded slowly. "Yes, yes, them too. I promised them too. Now, you're sure you can get the Stone, Edward? I'd hate to see everyone so disappointed."

I nodded. "We'll have it within a month."

"Very well," Dante said. "A family trip." She looked at Rose. "Doesn't that sound exciting, Rose?"

Rose looked up at her, wide eyed, then nodded slowly. "Yes, Lady Dante. Is Edward going to be there?"

Dante looked at me and I nodded. "Yes, dear, he will be. It'll be quite lovely."

"Sorry to grab Mom and run like this, but I have a lead in Central I want to follow up with before it disappears and we lose our Stone," I said.

"Of course, Edward, I understand. Go pack, we'll be fine here until you send for us."

I signed thank you to her quickly, then ran back up to Mom's room. She wasn't there. I panicked, running to my room on the off chance she decided to pack up for me- it would've been pointless, I was still living out of my suitcase, but she wouldn't have known that -only to find she wasn't there. I searched a couple other nearby rooms, and was about to go outside when I saw Mom stepping out of her room.

I had no idea what just happened. She hadn't been there a minute ago.

"It's time to go?" she asked, and there was something very cold but self-satisfied in her eyes.

Oh god, please say she didn't go confront Envy over the issue. I wouldn't be surprised if she had, Mom had never tolerated bullies, but if she did, Envy might've said something about Acheron and I just didn't want to get into that minefield.

I nodded. "Are you packed?"

"I am," she said, stepping back into her room. She returned about thirty seconds later with her suitcase and the small duffel that held her knitting in hand.

"Let me grab my stuff," I said, deciding to let the issue go instead of bringing it up at all. I headed back into my borrowed room to grab my things. I paused in reorganizing my suitcase to something more sensical than the mess I'd left that morning, looking at the picture that needed to be refolded into the clothing. "Almost, Al," I whispered. "I'm almost there. Just hang on." With that, I tucked the picture away and closed my suitcase.

I joined Mom out in the hall, and we made our way back into town to get Teacher. She and her husband weren't expecting us back already. "I'm terribly sorry, Missus Curtis," Mom said, speaking up for me. "Edward says we need to leave right away, to keep ahead of anyone Lady Dante might send after us."

"It's that bad?" Teacher asked, even as her husband went to pack for them.

I nodded. "I suspect she'll send Envy after us, and I'd rather get out before he does so we can hide you two until I need you to take Mom to Rizenbul. By then, I'll be doing enough interesting things to keep him occupied."

Teacher raised an eyebrow. "What sort of interesting things, Ed?"

"Making the Stone," I said.

She frowned. "Edward. You said the Stone was made from live humans."

"I think there's still research left over from when Marcoh worked the Fifth Lab," I reminded her. "I'm going to see if there's enough there to make a Stone big enough to get Al back. I told Dante she got a piece to make the homunculii human, but she can jump off a cliff for all I care."

Teacher pursed her lips together. "Very well." She looked back towards the bedroom. "Are you almost done, honey?"

Teacher's husband emerged, two suitcases in hand. "Ready," he said.

Teacher grabbed her coat. "Let's go, then." We left, hurrying to the train station, silent the whole way, like a bunch of thieves sneaking through the night. In a way, I suppose we were. We were going to steal Dante's empire right out from under her arrogant little nose.

***


We arrived in Central a day later. I hoped we had beaten Envy there, assuming he could take on animal forms. I didn't know if he could or not, and neither, unfortunately, did Mom. All she knew was that he was a shapeshifter and could take human forms, because he'd used my form to mock her once. Which pissed me off beyond reason, but there wasn't much I could do about it, so I marinated in it.

After we'd gathered our luggage and gotten off the train, I turned to Mom. "We should keep them at your place. Better than a record of them checking into a hotel. Think your place can handle that many people?"

After she translated to Teacher and her husband, Mom nodded. "I have plenty of room there." She looked at the others. "This way. We'll take a cab. I'm afraid I don't have a car. When I do drive, it's a military car."

"We understand," Teacher said. We gave them the address and a little money for the cab, since there was no way we could all fit in one cab, not with Teacher's husband being as massive as he was. Mom and I waved down our own cab and piled in.

She looked at me. "So how well thought through is this plan of yours, Edward?"

I refused to meet her gaze. "Too well," I replied. "Now I just gotta hope Dante cooperates."

"You think she might not?"

"I'm not sure. I just want her and at least Envy in Central when I need them there. I can deal with Lust and Gluttony on my own if I have to. But Envy's too loyal to that old bitch, and she's too evil to be allowed to live."

"How do you know he's loyal to her?"

I side-eyed her. "Let's say for a second that we're right about her being his mother. She may treat the homunculii like shit, but she's still the parent that stayed. How would you feel if I walked away from you and left you with a kid that didn't even like you?"

Mom was quiet, taking that in. I knew that look- she was thinking hard about what I'd said. I was making a lot of assumptions, I knew, but I was also paranoid and too scared of the damage this woman had the potential to do to the family I had left to me to be willing to move slower. I had to keep ahead of the monsters before they caught up to me.

Besides, I really wanted Envy dead, with minimal losses on my side.

Finally, Mom seemed to accept my reasoning and crossed her arms, tapping one finger on her arm. "And what about Pride? Will you leave him?"

I shook my head. "No, I'll get him at the same time I get the others."

"You're going to leave this country scrambling," she pointed out, voice hushed under the sound of the car.

I shrugged. "Someone will step up to take his place."

"I suppose so."

The car ride went in silence after that, right up until we reached the house. We paid the cabbie, then I had Mom take our suitcases in while I waited outside for Teacher and her husband. They arrived not long after us, and I showed them into the house.

"You've done well for yourself, Missus El - er, Slo- ... what are we to call you?" Teacher asked as her husband brought in the luggage.

"Juliet Douglas while we're here," Mom answered. "That's my assumed name in the military."

"Very well, Miss Douglas."

"Thank you," Mom said. "I used to be the f├╝hrer's secretary. It came with a comfortable income. Now I'm Colonel Elric's adjutant."

Teacher gave me a tired look. "Colonel Elric, huh?"

I held my hands up in self-defense. "Bradley dumped it on me, blame him."

Mom chuckled. "Bradley has an odd sense of humor. Come, this way, I'll show you to your room."

While Mom got them settled, I got into my suitcase and pulled out Marcoh's book and my own notes on it. I still wasn't done unlocking all its secrets. Most notably, I didn't have the array, which I would desperately need.

I largely ignored it when Mom went into the kitchen to start a late dinner for us, and Teacher's husband went to help her. In fact, I kinda ignored it when Teacher went in to help her and both were summarily banished to the living room, where I was.

"What are you working on, Edward?" Teacher asked, moving to sit next to me. "I thought you knew how to make the Stone."

I shook my head. "I know what it's made from, but I don't have the array yet," I told her, not bothering with more than whatever my voice felt like giving. The room was quiet and any more would just hurt my throat.

She held out her hand. "May I?"

I looked at her, but handed over my notes and slid the book over. "It's encrypted as a cookbook, and some of these recipes actually sound pretty good, so it's been murder going over it. I've been working without any reference books. It's been slow going."

Teacher looked over my notes, raising her eyebrows every now and then. "Edward, you've become very skilled at alchemy, to be able to do this. " She looked at me. "I think the student just passed the teacher."

I grinned, feeling a swell of pride at the compliment. "I've been studying a lot the last few years," I pointed out. "But thank you."

Her eyes softened. "You still have a good smile, I see."

I blinked, my whole expression dropping, then I looked away and shrugged nervously. "I don't do it often."

"I've noticed. Has having your mother back caused this?"

"What, smiling? Yeah, I guess. Didn't have any reason to before. Al was gone, Mom was dead, the Rockbells ... well, I don't talk much to them anymore unless I have to." I looked off somewhere past the wall in front of me. I knew exactly why I'd become so awful to be around, and I knew I couldn't tell Teacher, or Mom. They'd go on the warpath and quite frankly, I wanted them focused on what I needed them to do. And besides, I really didn't want to confess to anything. The last time I had, it'd ended badly for the one who dragged it out of me. I'd shoot myself before I did something to hurt my teacher or mother.

Teacher put her hand on my shoulder. "We'll get Al back, and you can rebuild your family and have reason to smile again."

I gave her a lopsided, probably pathetic smile at that, hiding exactly what I was thinking. I'd never have that family back, and I knew it. I was enjoying the time with Mom for what it was worth, but I'd never see Al smile at me again. Not because I'd fail, but because I couldn't stay, not with what I was planning.

I didn't say that, though.

Teacher and I worked on my notes together until supper was ready. Mom and Teacher chatted a bit, while Teacher's husband and I remained silent, focused on our food. Housewives. Always can find something to talk about. Especially when they could swap embarrassing stories about me. Sigh. I wanted to crawl under the table and die an agonizing death.

Teacher's husband insisted on helping Mom with the dinner clean up, leaving Teacher and I to go over my notes again. We sat down at the couch and hunched over my notes.

"Edward, your handwriting is atrocious."

"You're just now noticing?" I asked her, looking at her.

She leveled her gaze at me. "A serial killer has better handwriting."

"... I'll take that as a compliment."

She rolled her eyes, setting down the paper she was looking at. "I just don't see an array in here, Edward. Are you sure he included it?"

"Yes. I don't see why he wouldn't. This is his complete research, he'd have to record the array somewhere in here." I sighed in frustration.

"Are you sure these are complete? He might've kept some of it with him."

I shook my head. "He wanted this as far away from him as possible, in case he was ever found."

Teacher picked up the book again, reading through it again. Or part of it, anyway. That was a big book. After a moment, she put the book down and frowned in thought, then grabbed my notes. She flipped through them, while I watched and waited, hoping she might catch something I hadn't. I idly flipped a pencil in my hand while I waited.

"What's this here, Edward?" she asked, holding my notes out and pointing to something.

"Oh that?" I studied it. "That's- ... actually, I'm not sure what that is." I scratched my head with the eraser of my pencil." We studied my badly translated bit of notes from Marcoh's research for about two hours before we finally found the radial hidden in it. It was part of the circle for the Stone.

"I ran right over it," I grumbled, smacking my forehead with my flesh hand.

"Don't worry about that now," Teacher said. "Let's find the rest of it, see if it's in what you've already translated."

Mom looked up from where she'd settled in with her knitting to wait out our study. "It's getting awfully late. Perhaps you should wait until tomorrow, with fresh eyes."

My teacher and I looked at each other. I shrugged. "I'm not due back at the office for a few days," I said. "So I can afford to stay up late."

She nodded and looked up at Mom and her husband. "We will stay up. We have precious little time to find this array."

Teacher and I worked long into the night. Mom was with us most of the time, her knitting needles clicking in a quiet sort of melody, keeping us awake and focused as we went through pot after pot of coffee. Teacher's husband had long gone to bed by the time Mom finally did at around 3:30 in the morning; she was tired, but not exhausted. Homunculii, I was finding, only needed a little sleep. Which I rather liked, as it meant she'd be able to look after Al later, even while he was sick or not sleeping well.

Mom woke up around six, coming out with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, yawning. "Are you two still at it? Haven't you gotten tired yet?"

"Tell tired to talk to the caffeine in our systems," I replied.

Mom sighed. "You two would do better to get some sleep and come back refreshed. You're probably missing things you would not with sleep."

"We're fine, Juliet," Teacher said. "We've almost completed the array."

Mom stepped over. "How is it looking so far?"

"Stupid," I said.

"Focus, Edward, we're almost done," Teacher scolded, whapping me on the back of the head.

We studied awhile longer, both of us growing progressively more tired. Our last pot of coffee was starting to wear off. Teacher ran a hand down her face, sighing. "I'll go put on another pot," she said, standing up and stretching.

Her husband came out of the spare bedroom about then. "Izumi," he said pointedly, seeing us still awake.

She gave him a tired smile. "I know, honey. But we're down to the last piece of the array. If we can't find it by the time we've gone through this last pot of coffee, I'll go to bed."

I yawned, rubbing my eyes tiredly, then went back to looking through notes. I was starting to get bleary-eyed, and a bit desperate to find this last piece before I fell asleep and drooled all over the notes. Teacher brought me another mug of coffee a few minutes later and I took a grateful swallow, then went back to looking.

It was another hour before I finally spotted the last piece. "Here," I said, pointing to it, then sketched out the missing piece. "This is the strangest array I've ever seen," I said as I added it to the rest of the circle.

"I imagine it would be, since this is a transmutation like none other. Even human transmutation doesn't compare to what this is doing," Teacher said.

I finished sketching, then held up the paper with the array. "Is it just me or does it look like a bird?"

Teacher took the paper from me, studying it. "A phoenix array. Magnificent."

"Oh, is that what it's supposed to be?" I yawned again, popping my jaw as I did. "Okay, bed. I'll study that more in depth after we get some sleep."

"I agree," Teacher said, getting up. "Come on, Edward, we need our sleep." She walked over to her husband and kissed him. "I'll only sleep awhile so I can sleep tonight," she promised, then headed back to the back rooms.

I gave Mom a sleepy smile, then waved good night to Teacher's husband and went back to my own room and collapsed on the bed.

***


"What's our next order of business, Edward?" Teacher asked over dinner that night.

"Get Marcoh's research out of the Fifth Lab. I've cased the place, it's locked up pretty tight. I may be pulling another all-nighter."

"Doing what? Breaking in?" Teacher looked at me. She shook her head. "How many more days off do you have, Edward?"

"After this? Two."

"Then tonight you'll rest properly, and nap tomorrow, and then we'll go see about this place tomorrow night."

I blinked. "You plan on coming with?"

"I've come this far with you, I'll see it through until you need me to take your mother to Rizenbul to protect her," Teacher said matter-of-factly.

I sighed. "Nothing's going to change your mind, is it?"

"No. Now eat your broccoli."

While I reluctantly began to eat that stuff, Mom looked at me. "Take me with you, Edward. I don't like the idea of you going somewhere potentially dangerous when I can't protect you."

I hadn't been prepared for that, and I sat with my fork poised halfway to my mouth. I set my fork down. "Mom, no. The only danger I'm expecting is maybe a rotted floor or something and you can't help me with that. We'll be fine on our own. I don't want you anywhere near that transmutation circle if we find it there. I don't know what will happen to you and your red stones if it accidentally goes off."

Mom looked down at her plate, a broken-hearted expression on her face. I felt like I'd kicked a kitten. "I understand, Edward. Just don't get yourself hurt."

The guilt in the pit of my stomach made me lose my appetite, but I knew if I didn't eat, my body would be starving for food very soon, so I forced myself to choke down my food. Teacher helped Mom clear the dishes while I went back to my notes, more for something to do than any studying. We'd found the array, I had the ingredient list, which really just amounted to 'live humans'. I could go over it for anything we missed, but that was about it.

Teacher's husband stepped into the living room with me. "Don't worry about it, Ed. Mothers are protective. I'll keep her here."

I blinked, looking up at him. He rarely spoke up, so hearing his voice surprised me. "I'll take care of Teacher, promise," I told him.

He nodded, then went to take a seat.

We turned on a radio program as soon as Mom and Teacher rejoined us, and the evening passed quietly and slowly. I waited until Teacher and her husband went to bed, while Mom sat in her chair, continuing to knit.

I walked over to the chair and settled myself on the arm, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "What're you working on?" I asked her

Mom didn't stop knitting as she leaned her head against me. "A new blanket for yours and Al's bed. I imagine you'll need a bigger one now, which means a bigger blanket."

I hugged her, burying my face in her hair, taking in the smell of her, the same as I remembered, committing it to memory. "Sorry, Mom," I whispered. "I know you're worried, but the military raised me in a battlefield. I'll be fine with an abandoned laboratory."

She set her knitting down and wrapped her arms around me, holding me tighter than I remembered her being able to. "Oh, darling, I know. You've always been like this, I've never been allowed to protect you the way I wanted to. Remember the time you jumped the ravine and broke your leg? You wanted so badly to walk to the Rockbells' instead of me carrying you. The only difference is then, you were small enough I could boss you around and carry you anyway."

I laughed a little, a demented-sounding little squeak of a noise. "I remember that. I was such a stupid kid. Hell, I'm a stupid teenager."

She pulled back and looked up at me. "That's normal, dear. Teenagers are naturally stupid. I'm sure even I was, but my memory doesn't go back that far."

"You met Father when you were a teenager," I said. "You loved to tell us this story. You met him when you were a teenager and pretty much told off your mother to run away with him to Rizenbul. You were nineteen when he married you."

Mom blinked, then laughed. "Oh goodness, I only remember your grandmother from one incident, and I remember hating her strongly. That must've been what started the bad blood. Oh well, she was a snobby old bat, anyway. You had a good grandmother in Pinako, you didn't need her."

I looked down, my smile at Mom's laughter fading. "Yeah, I did." And I'd ruined that relationship with how I blocked out her and Winry.

"Edward?" She looked at me in concern. "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing, Mom," I assured her, then kissed her forehead. "I'm going to bed. Tomorrow night's going to be a long one."

"All right, dear. Sleep well."

She resumed her knitting as I headed back into my room. Once there, I changed for bed, and pulled out the picture I'd carried around as an increasingly heavy burden ever since I first left Rizenbul. It was the family I'd never have again; I'd already shut out and shut down Winry, Al would be next. With what I was planning to get rid of Dante and her homunculii, there'd be no coming back. I'd have to run far to get away from that crime.

At least Al would have Mom. I wasn't sure who I'd ask to watch out for them, though. Maybe Teacher would be willing to take them in. I wasn't sure yet.

Well, I'd figure it out. Right then, though, I needed sleep.

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