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Mendacium

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April XX, 224X

 

The city was lit up in a blaze of glory, screams and shouts ricocheting off the buildings like gunfire. Tongues of flame lapped at the dark sky, sending twisting tendrils of smoke to block out the stars from street view, turning the light of the moon into a sickly gray glow that washed the rooftops with shifting shadows.

 

It was a masterpiece.

 

He stood on the highest tower for a ways around, watching the panicked crowds stampeding through the blistering streets. One of the Noumu shrieked overhead in an unearthly howl, sending the population into even more of a fervor. A camera wouldn’t do this justice, the smell of candle smoke in the air, the pulsing feeling of his own heartbeat. Nothing could capture this feeling, and he wanted it to last forever.

 

But something told him, deep down, that it wouldn’t.

 

He knew Sensei had ‘taken care’ of that other brat, but it was hard to believe. Any moment now those molten eyes would burst out of the shadows and swallow him whole, and the whole world knew it.

 

He looked down again, distracting himself from the itching feeling spreading from his exposed neck down to the tips of his bloodied fingers by once again losing himself in the cold night wind, contrasting with the heat from the inferno on his face. 

 

Even if the Fullmetal brat didn’t show up, the pros would be here soon, and then it would all be over. This mission wasn’t to do anything in particular, it was to spread fear and chaos through the country, to let the people know that the League of Villains is here, and they’re coming for you. 

 

The sound of the breeze behind him shifted, but he didn’t need to look to know that Kurogiri was behind him now. It wasn’t comforting, not really, but it was nice, to be able to witness this work of art he had created and share it with another.

 

They stood in silence for a moment, but Kurogiri hadn’t come just to observe and they both knew it. He coughed gently.

 

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but the main force of the heroes has arrived.” Looking down again, he could tell it was true. The evacuation seemed more organized, the fires were beginning to be put out. The last few Noumu must have been captured.

 

Whatever.

 

His mood soured, but he sighed. “They know it was us. That was the objective, after all. What about that nasty, self-righteous asshole Stain?”

 

“There are U.A. students fighting him, it is likely that he will lose, since more heroes are on their way, including Endeavour.”

 

“That piece of shit,” he growled, rage bubbling in his veins. “Kurogiri, remind me to put him on the top of our kill list once All Might is out of the way.”

 

“Understood. We had better leave, the news helicopters are on their way, and Sensei would like you to come back.”

 

“Oh, one last thing.” He paused. “Was the little brat fighting Stain? Or is he still with Sensei?”

 

Kurogiri froze in place for just a moment too long. “He is… we should be leaving now, Shigaraki.”

 

It was as good as confirmation, and laughter pooled in the back of his throat. “Alright then, you little punk,” Tomura rasped out, “have fun playing with Stain. We’ll get you soon enough.”

 

-*-

 

XXX, XX

 

The Gate loomed overhead, tall and dark and imposing as all things truthful are, and in front of it sat their visitor. Like always.

 

Truth existed a few meters away, just far enough to not be directly in his personal space but at the same time close enough to be deeply uncomfortable. The boy blinked a couple of times, adjusting slowly from the dark shadows of a bar to the lightless void of Truth.

 

He took a deep breath, probably relishing in the feeling of lungs expanding and contracting despite the absence of air, and then turned to face them, face inexpressive. It sat back, waiting as patiently as they could for their guest to ask what was on his mind.

 

“Why…” his voice started out hoarse and quiet from disuse, but gradually got stronger. “Why are you showing me this? What are you getting out of this?”

 

Such a funny question! “Why do you expect that we would get anything out of this, little guest?”

 

His eyes narrowed. “You don’t just give people things. Why are you letting me watch brother?”

 

Ah, now they were getting to the crux of the matter. Why was it letting the boy watch the little alchemist. “We do not get anything out of this. Letting you see what your brother will do to bring you home… it isn’t a favor, or a reward.”

 

“That means… this is the payment for something.” Alphonse Elric’s eyes narrowed as a reflex. He looked back at it. “But… what are we paying for?”

 

Close, close, he was very smart! Not close enough. Truth tried again. “Edward Elric is doing me a favor, the risks of which and the price should he fail being equivalent to both of your bodies, your soul, and the tolls of those currently alive who have trespassed into my domain. What, then, is left over?”

 

They could see it in his eyes that he didn’t quite understand. He was perfectly still, not even breathing after the forced breath earlier. Maybe it could show him.

 

Suddenly the emptiness around them filled up with air, and the boy’s eyes slowly widened, first in confusion, then in the dawning realization of fear and horror. His pale hands came up to clutch at his throat, chest expanding and deflating wildly but taking in no oxygen. Truth let it go on for only a few heartbeats before the air disappeared, leaving their guest coughing on the floor.

 

The boy looked up at him with a sort of dull understanding, and Truth knew he got it. 

 

Watching his brother break himself to bring them both home was payment for his life.

 

When his lungs had sorted themselves back out again, he sat back, taking a moment to compose himself. “Then why are you showing it to me… like this?”

 

“Oh, yes. Time is such a funny thing, you know.” They paused, gathering the right words. “Everything I’m showing you is happening right now, and also has already happened, and someday will happen. Tell me, how do you think this is going to end up for the little alchemist?”

 

He looked thrown off by the change in subject. “Um… well, he’s going to… brother is going to win, of course! He’s not going to lose this late in the game, he’s going to win and get both of us home!” His voice grew stronger and stronger, by the end he was close to shouting.

 

Hm. “Those aren’t the same thing, Alphonse Elric.”

 

“What?”

 

“I’ll tell you this, then, because it is fun to talk to someone, and your brother is entertaining. He is going to succeed in bringing you home, and already has succeeded, and is succeeding right now.”

 

It took a moment for the statement to register for him, but when it did it was obvious. “We’re… going to go home? Brother is going to succeed?”

 

“He must. When he completes his task and returns, we will be even. If he were to lose, to fail, to die , the scales would be unbalanced. Since I have everything of you, your father is out of reach, and the little alchemist would be dead, who am I going to collect from?”

 

“If he’s going to bring me home, then why are you dragging this out?”

 

“Your brother will succeed in his task. That does not mean he will succeed intact, mentally or physically. That does not mean that he will succeed before decades have gone by. That does not mean that he will succeed and keep to his morals.”

 

They leaned forward.

 

“So then, Alphonse Elric, how will your brother ‘win?’

 

-*-

 

Dec. 21st, 223X

 

It was just a little hole-in-the-wall bar. As simple as it was questionably legal. Maybe that was why he liked it so much, enough that he just might be sad to see it go.

 

No, scratch that. He would not be sad in the absolute slightest.

 

It wasn’t that he hated Japan, quite the opposite. If Al and Winry and all of Ed’s friends and family were here then he’d be perfectly content to live here forever. Sure, there were some problems, but when he’d last seen Amestris it wasn’t looking so pretty either, and at least the government here wasn’t actively hunting him down.

 

Oh, wait. 

 

The irony was too strong to ignore, and he allowed himself a few moments of dark amusement before he refocused on the task at hand. Namely, escaping from several heroes and one particularly pissed off Eraserhead. 

 

See, quirks were scientific garbage and the hero system was fucked to no end, but this? Running from cops and military and other people who were very, very mad at him? This he could do.

 

Thinking about it, it was probably not a good thing that he felt more at home in fights and the aftermath of them than in normal society.

 

Shelving that mental discussion for later, Ed took a flying leap from one rooftop to the next, buying himself a few seconds before they were on him again. A quick slide down the fire escape brought him back down to floor level, where he could alchemize his clothes and blend in with the tourist crowds.

 

That plan was quickly scrapped when two patrolling heroes turned the corner at a dead sprint, damn those little earpieces, he had never understood technology ( shut the everloving fuck up Mustang, no I do not need help putting the phone back together you absolute bastard- and don’t you dare bring up that half of me is made of phone parts I’ll rip your hands off I swear-)

 

Yep. Definitely not a good thing. Should he see a military therapist when he gets home?

 

Just as he turned to go back up the fire escape with a little bit of surprise, two glowing red eyes appeared over the lip of the roof and Ed wisely decided that up was an equally bad decision. He couldn’t go under, either, keeping his alchemy as a trump card wouldn’t work for long if every hero, pedestrian, and camera saw him make a big-ass hole in the ground and hop in like the white rabbit.

 

So to the side it was.

 

Honestly, thank whoever he fucking believed in at this point that Ryōsei was one conniving little gremlin and had given him the back alley tour within the first couple weeks: allies, who will kill you if you enter, who won’t turn you in but will steal your money, and so on. Useful.

 

A few steps down and there was a big black door with a faded-out paper sign (fourth-biggest yakuza hideout in Musutafu, not friendly, keep running), a closed grate halfway up the wall (secret entrance to Centennial’s place, takes too long to enter, keep running), and- ah, there!

 

Ed skidded to a stop in front of a dark, empty doorway, throwing himself inside. He had to tuck in his legs on the leap, just barely missing being grabbed by one of the heroes. Scrambling to his feet, he raced further inside, desperately racking his brain for the directions. Down one staircase, take the right hallway and then around this corner, up the next two stairs…

 

His pursuers were close enough behind him that he really wasn’t trying to lose them, but he wasn’t gaining any ground either. His sharp turns and smaller figure were helping, but holy fuck were some of these guys fast. 

 

He could hear one of the cops stop, out of breath, and start to radio in for reinforcements to guard the exits of the buildings. Under his mask, his mouth twisted up into a cocky smirk. Like that was going to do jack-shit against him.

 

They were almost to the other side of the building, and Ed just needed a few more seconds. An unexpected front-handspring helped him dodge a swipe from Eraserhead’s scarf, which hit the wall, followed by a low curse from the black-clad man. Ed took a moment to glance back, and was pleasantly surprised at how much more tired they seemed than him.

 

Ha! They may have had good instructors, but no one even comes close to Teacher when dealing with physical activity. 

 

A quick push off the wall where the hallway ended helped him crash through the old wooden door on his left, which shattered into splinters that he rolled through, coming up on his feet and already running. 

 

There was a window on the far wall, and he had about two seconds before they caught up to him. He punched the window with an automail fist, breaking it just as easily as the door. Eraserhead charged into the room feet-first, but stopped abruptly when he saw the open window right above Ed.

 

The hero opened his mouth to say something, alarm on his face, but Ed wasn’t going to stick around and hear it. He brought his hand up into a goofy salute, and without any further delay, bent backwards and flipped himself over the windowsill.

 

The window was six stories up.

 

Eraserhead shouted, a wordless call for backup. A flurry of activity heralded the arrival of heroes and cops alike, swarming the bottom of the building like hornets. Of course, they wouldn’t find anything looking around in the surrounding alleys and streets.

 

Thank Truth for the water in cement.

 

That’s the thing about Japan that he really loved. Compared to Amestris, they were about… several centuries in the future. And while science had stalled with the advent of quirks, it was still far enough ahead to keep the little scientist part of Ed happy for a lifetime or two.

 

Self-healing objects, tons of newly-discovered elements, Silly String… it was a dream for him. Things that would be considered alchemical marvels back home were being sold in dollar stores here. 

 

And luckily for him, the old library near the bar had a few very interesting books on rheology.

 

Gloved hands gently pushed and prodded the ceiling back into shape, the tightly-packed together yet rudimentary drilling mud settling back into place. Oh, he was so lucky he had stumbled upon non-newtonian fluids, viscoplastics had saved his life twice this week already. How else would one create a solid wall that turned to liquid when enough force was applied and could be made out of anything containing enough bentonite clay and calcium carbonate?

 

Ed shook his head and got to his feet. Focus, there was time to research later. 

 

He was in a room he had alchemically created for himself under the street right underneath that window. Even now he could feel the roof shake subtly under people’s feet, but he had added in a few stabilizing agents to the drilling mud, and he was confident that it wouldn’t turn to a fluid under anything less than someone half made of metal careening down from six stories up.

 

Thank whoever was watching over him at this point that there weren’t any cameras in this back part of town.

 

Sitting there as silently as he could manage, Ed listened closely to the pounding footsteps on the street level above. After he felt like they had been gone for long enough, he slowly rose from his spot on the floor, wincing as his arm made a particularly loud protest. Truth, he was so bad at remembering to oil them.

 

He looked down at his arm again. Really, he would’ve been just fine with his flesh arm. The arrays he’d traded it for weren’t even that much help, just normal arrays that were updated for this future-world. They hadn’t had this type of tar back in Amestris.

 

On second thought, he might’ve died in the first week without the new concrete array and the weak healing one. Maybe he would’ve traded, like, a finger for those ones.

 

Moving on.

 

He pressed his hands together, circling the energy for the calcium carbonate mixture-to-concrete array, before pushing it through the stone above him. A similar shape-changing array followed, pushing the cement away in a hole just big enough for him. A bit of the rock flowed down and solidified into a ladder.

 

He poked his head above the street, suddenly coming eye to eye with a girl crouched down in front of him.

 

They both froze for a good few seconds, before the girl’s mouth twisted slowly into a crazed smile and Ed’s brain kicked itself back into gear. Thankfully, she didn’t attack, since he would’ve been hard pressed to defend at that close of a range.

 

She sat back, rocking a bit on her heels. It was such a childish gesture that it seemed far too out of place, considering her practically bloodthirsty smile. “Hi!” she chirped, setting about a dozen alarm bells off in Ed’s head. “I’ve been wanting to meet you so much, Fullmetal-kun! Can I call you Haga-chan?”

 

She didn’t make any move forwards, so he carefully pulled himself the rest of the way out of the hole and backed away a few steps. Her smile remained fixed firmly in place, even as she too stood up. What was he supposed to say? 

 

She hadn’t done anything blatantly antagonistic yet, so he settled for a neutral, “Who are you?”

 

“Oh, you can call me Toga-chan!” She leaned in a bit, golden eyes sparkling. “I only let my friends call me that. We’re friends, aren’t we, Haga-chan?!”

 

Oh, he really, really hated this. “Uh… sure. I’m just gonna…” He took a few experimental steps backwards, eyes still fixed on her though the metal of his mask. She matched him step for step.

 

She pouted. “Aw, leaving already? Why are you wearing that mask? We’re friends, I wanna see what Haga-chan looks like! Your hair is so pretty!”

 

No, no, no, nope, fuck no, he was leaving. Ed could deal with fights. He could deal with country-wide genocide plots. He could deal with inter-dimensional travel. What he could not deal with was crazy women. Hell, Winry scared the shit out of him sometimes, and they had known each other since practically birth.

 

He didn’t answer, just took a few more steps back, cursing under his breath when he felt the alley wall behind him. The girl in front of him continued to babble.

 

“I’ve heard so much about you, you know! Beating up all those bad guys… I bet you’re pretty cute, Haga-chan! You’d look cuter all covered in blood, though.”

 

His eyes snapped back up (Fuck, when had he looked away?) to see her now brandishing a knife, smile stretched ear to ear and eyes wide with bloodthirst. She laughed. 

 

“Don’t be all scared, Haga-chan! I won’t kill you! When you kill people, they stop bleeding, and that’s no fun! I just wanna cut you up a little bit-”

 

She had leaped forward in the middle of her sentence, giving him just enough time to stop the blade with his right arm. She continued to laugh, face pressed up as close to his as she could get.

 

He lifted up his metal leg and kicked outward, sending her stumbling back a few feet. Her smile morphed into an over-exaggerated frown.

 

“C’mon, that hurt! You shouldn’t hurt a girl like that! All I want is to see you bleed!”

 

He clapped his hands and slammed them to the ground, array on his back tingling as a cloud of dust sprung up around them, hopefully hiding him from view. He pulled himself onto the fire escape behind him, but she must have heard the loud clanking of metal on metal, because the next thing he heard was her batshit crazy laugh as the gleam of her knife sliced through the haze.

 

He dropped to the ground, then had only a moment to dive out of the way with squawk of panic. Fuck, he shouldn’t be running out of breath this fast. Teacher would whoop his ass.

 

Focusing on regaining his breath, he shifted his mask to wipe the blood out of his eye from where an old wound had reopened. “Yeah, just saying you aren’t going to kill me isn’t any more fucking reassuring!”

 

She seemed to have stilled, at least for a moment, and Ed frantically ran through his options. The array on his back itched, reminding him it was there, and he called the modified concrete array to the front of his mind before he could regret it.

 

“You have a different name, right? Can I know what it is? Aren’t we friends?”

 

He let her babble in the background, too busy balancing out the equation before clapping and slamming his mismatched hands to the ground. The dust had just about settled, and the last thing he saw was her wide eyes before the ground swallowed him whole.

 

It was dark in the little cave, and Ed was sure that he could reach both walls if he leaned a little, but at least it was quieter.

 

Aw, shit. He couldn’t check if she was gone, but he couldn't leave until he was sure that she was. Could he just tunnel into the building he had been next to?

 

No, too risky. There might be people living there. He might be a wanted person, but he wasn’t about to wreck some people’s lives just to escape some weirdo crazy girl with a knife. Truth.

 

He resigned himself to waiting for a while.

 

-*-

 

Jan. 6th, 224X

 

Dabi was sitting in the backroom, minding his own business for once, when he heard death itself stomp its platformed boots into the back room. Elric collapsed on an old chair in the corner with more anger than was strictly necessary, and no sooner had Dabi made eye contact when he started ranting.

 

“Fuckin- that Bradley-ass, see-all-your-attacks little piece of everloving shit-” On a closer inspection, the boy had rips all over his coat and a disturbing amount of dried blood on his clothes and shoes.

 

“Uh,” Dabi said eloquently, “Are you… okay?”

 

All he got for his concern was a snarl and more ranting. “... want to fight him! Look, I didn’t sign up for this bullshit, that motherfucker with his smary-ass smile and his fucking deals- AND THEN this little asswipe is just like ‘I don’t know anything I swear’ like the fuck you don’t I watched you meet with that broker bastard yesterday so spill the FUCKING beans or I swear to Truth I will switch your asshole with your mouth ‘cause all that comes out from between those lips is just horseshit -”

 

Was he even breathing?

 

It took a while, but eventually he wound down and was left panting (blissfully silent) in the raggedy armchair. Dabi figured it was safe to speak now.

 

“So, uh, what… exactly happened?”

 

Elric opened one eye to give him The Look. “I just told you what happened.”

 

“No, you didn’t. You yelled what happened at me, with enough cuss words thrown in to drown a small army,” Dabi corrected.

 

The kid opened his mouth to respond but paused, deflating after a moment. “Fair.”

 

Dabi leaned back with a smirk. “Since when have I been the logical one in this partnership, huh, Mr. Smartypants?”

 

“Partnership?” Elric scoffed. “What partnership? You’ve helped me out exactly one time so far, you deep-fried prepubescent teenage girl-shaped raisin.”

 

“Wow, hate me that much now?” Dabi knew he was just pressing the boy’s buttons, but it was honestly so easy. It was begging him to make fun of the kid.

 

Surprisingly, Elric fell into the banter-y rhythm pretty quickly. “It’s not exactly hard to, now. Try to be at least a little more likeable in the future. Not like your charming mug will bring people in.”

 

“Oh, and yours will?” and then, because Dabi was nothing if not daring, “You’d certainly need it, seeing as your stature is rather… lacking.”

 

Elric stiffened, a low grumble in the back of his throat starting up, like a dragon preparing to breathe fire. Dabi didn’t bother to hide his smile, but dug his hands into the old couch a little tighter to anchor himself in the face of the oncoming tantum. The kid probably wouldn’t physically attack him. Probably.

 

But a few moments passed with no explosion, and another few showed that while Elric was still fuming, he seemed to be swallowing his anger. A matching smile twisted his mouth, and he leaned back. 

 

“No. You won’t get me like that anymore. Just because I’m not good at all those mind games that Bastard mag, heißt nicht, dass ich dumm bin! I’m taller than Winry, you know!”

 

The weird thing was that the boy didn’t even seem to notice that he had slipped into another language (German, probably?). 

 

“Um, Japanese? Not all of us can be bilingual,” Dabi joked, but it was a bit forced. It was just odd seeing the teen ‘famous for beating people up’, in his own words, restrain himself.

 

Elric just blinked in confusion, then his face lit up. “Oh, sorry. I just know someone from back home who you remind a bit of. Well…” he trailed off, and the calculating look in his eyes morphed into disgust. “I can’t believe I’m saying anything nice about Colonel Sarcasm, but he’s a lot smarter than you, I guess. Not that that’s hard.”

 

Oh, this little shit

 

Thankfully, Dabi’s very belated comprehension skills prevented him from saying anything to that as he realized that Elric apparently knows someone in the army. He forced himself to act nonchalant. “I’m sorry, who?”

 

Another blink, but there was a bit more distrust in it this time. God, was this kid always on edge? “Mustang, who’s only saving graces are his flame al… quirk and Lieutenant Hawkeye. You’d think that a relationship where one is constantly threatening the other with a gun wouldn’t work, but the bitch of shared trauma does a lot apparently, and if they aren’t together in a few months I owe Havoc twenty cenz…”

 

Elric slowly became more energetic with his fond ranting, and who could have guessed that he liked bitching about people? Dabi let the buzz of his words fade into the background, just listening enough to nod at the appropriate moments.

 

Now, Dabi was the least qualified person to dig into anyone’s sketchy past, so he had been doing a fairly good job of ignoring all of these unintentional cryptic comments and unexplained oddities, but something about this rubbed him the wrong way.

 

“... but I guess he was kind of useful, if you ignore his obsession with women in miniskirts. Seriously, that’s just kind of weird, especially if you have literal children in the office, like, working , and that's why the only respectable one is Hawkeye. Fuery acts like a confused puppy, Falman is bad at poker, Breda’s too sane, Havoc always smells like cigarette smoke-”

 

Dabi held both hands up in the universal signal to wait just a damn second. “Yeah, yeah, okay, uh, did you say you were working in the military ?”

 

Elric gave him a confused look. “Uh, yeah.”

 

A heartbeat passed.

 

His face went through an impressive bluescreen, after which he made a little ‘eeping’ noise and sunk into his coat. “I didn’t mean to say that, shit ,” he hissed under his breath and then dissolved into meaningless German. 

 

Okay, there was not enough time to unpack all of that.

 

Dabi felt like breaking into hysterics. “Fuck, Elric, were you a goddamn child soldier?!”

 

“I was not!” He snapped back, but it didn’t have it’s usual bluster. “I was just a… researcher. And why do you care, anyway?”

 

Dabi edged away from the snarling kid, but continued to stare, letting him know just what he thought of that bullshit excuse. No kid got hired by the military, anywhere, as a fucking researcher .

 

Elric huffed, crossing his arms and glaring defiantly back. “What, you don’t believe me? It’s true, I swear- ugh, this is why I don’t bring it up, I forgot you guys have the Geneva Convention…”

 

“As in you fucking don’t?!” He felt like laughing. Shit, when did his life end up like this? Running away from home to become a villain and ending up being a pseudo-vigilante instead. Hell, he’d killed people before! Why was he concerned over some brat?

 

The kid didn’t answer, and Dabi let out a puff of air, all the fight flowing out in that breath. It left him empty, drained. “You know what, I don’t care. Do whatever you want.” He ran a hand through his hair.

 

It was disconcertingly quiet for a few tense seconds. This was a mistake, his head screamed, go apologize, it’s too silent, say something, you messed up .

 

He couldn’t take it. His lips felt drier than normal, the staples dug into what skin he could still feel. The whole room teetered on a knife’s edge, and Elric’s calm silence was so very, very loud.

 

Dabi breathed in again, and decided this was fairly stupid.


“Your first entrance exam is in a couple weeks, right?” His voice was hollow, flat, but the tension flowed out of the room with a silent but steadfast agreement.

 

Don’t ask.

 

Elric sighed, much more carefree than he had any right to be. “Yeah. The first one is U.A., something about being so “Plus Ultra” that they have to hold exams first in the region.”

 

Dabi managed a dry chuckle, and it was like nothing had happened, even if his eyes hovered just a tad bit too long on Elric’s erratically tapping feet, even if he paid a bit more attention to the way his eyes carefully documented and dismissed every sound from outside.

 

He understood what it was like to be that on edge. 

 

-*-

 

Jan 25th

 

Ed woke up that morning feeling a good, normal amount of dread.

 

Oddly enough, the funniest part of that statement was the “morning” part, seeing as Ijiwaru screamed him awake at Far-Too-Fucking-Early o’clock, on a Sunday, meaning it was (technically) his day off.

 

He got ready, putting off oiling his arm and leg for future-him’s problem, and went down the rickety old wooden stairs into the back room.

 

It was chaos.

 

Ijiwaru was pacing and muttering in the corner, counting up something like her life depended on it, while Shiruko shrieked at another worker in the background. Ryōsei sprinted through the room carrying a stack of trays and accidentally clotheslined Dabi, who fell to the floor with a muffled wheeze.

 

Ryōsei was the one to spot him first. “Elric!” they cried with relief, and Iji whipped around so fast that he thought she had been possessed. Ryōsei scurried back out the door when she glared at them, and within seconds everyone had stopped moving around.

 

“What’s all the commotion for?” He asked, trying not to sound too judgemental.

 

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” she laughed, high and just that little bit fake. He chalked it up to stress. “It’s just been… a long morning, for no particular reason.”

 

Dabi groaned from the floor, sounding like he was going to cry. Ed really didn’t get all of his drama, maybe it was an internet thing, so he elected to ignore him, as did everyone else. Ijiwaru walked forward to ruffle his hair, which he dodged with a scowl.

 

A shout sounded from outside, and everyone in the room turned to face the door. Ryōsei poked their head in sheepishly. 

 

“Uh, so maybe I dropped the last bottle o’ whiskey, and maybe it happened to spill all over the floor…”

 

Ijiwaru sighed again, and Ed kind of felt bad for her. She just could not catch a break. “Then go buy some more!”

 

“I can’t!”

 

“Why not?”

 

“... I ‘ave class in half ‘n hour.”

 

“Half an-!” She cut off her sentence abruptly before whirling around. “Elric, go buy some more whiskey.”

 

Ed spluttered in surprise. “I can’t do it either! I’m underage, they won’t sell me alcohol.”

 

“... Dabi, you lazy sonofabitch, get up and take Elric to the store.”

 

The scarred man in question looked up slowly and stared at her, raising his eyebrows after a beat. Ijiwaru huffed, conceding the point.

 

“Fine then, I guess I’ll go. Elric, you’re still coming with me.” She silenced him with a short glare before her gaze softened. “All you’ve been doing recently is beating up villains, running from cops, and working on your applications.” Ed had actually finished those and turned them in weeks ago, but he wisely stayed silent.

 

“... Okay.”

 

Her previous anger disappeared like a puddle in summer, and she gave the occupants of the room a sharp grin. “Good. We’re leaving now.”

 

He hurried after her (much longer, but he wasn’t going to admit that) strides, passing through the main area where Shiruko sat on the bar. She looked up as he stopped in front of her, raising an eyebrow. 

 

“Going out?” He nodded, and she sighed, even though there was a faint smile on her face. She twisted over the counter and tossed him something that he fumbled to catch. “Wear it.”

 

Unfolding it out, he saw that it was a black baseball cap and dark gray hoodie two sizes too big. “Why?”

 

“Because you honestly look like a villain with that resting bitch… everything,” she shot back, and he felt the indignation well up in him.

 

“Hey! My outfit is perfect.”

 

“For advertising that you want to go to prison, maybe. Who wears leather pants anymore? Put the damn hat and jacket on and just be glad we’re not making you ditch the boots.”

 

Ed considered fighting her more, but another sharp look made him give in, and he pulled on the hoodie. The sleeves hung a good few inches past his fingertips and the bottom of it brushed mid-thigh, and he was about to shrink it down alchemically before Ijiwaru turned around from pulling her sweater on. 

 

“Normal people don’t wear dress gloves outside, Elric. Just leave your hands in your pockets,” she said, and he had to take a second to remind himself that she didn’t know about his automail and probably just thought he was a germaphobe or something.

 

Shiruko apparently thought he was taking too long to get ready, because a sharp tug on his braid pulled him towards her and she tucked it up under the hat before he could protest. 

 

“... Why is it on backwards?”

 

Shiruko gave him a blank stare. “I’m not sure whether to be amazed or concerned at your blatant ignorance of pop culture. You’re a teenage boy, for fuck’s sake!”

 

Ed wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be sheepish or angry, so he settled with the latter. “I’m sorry I didn’t study ‘pop culture’, I was too busy learning useful things like history and the whole fucking Japanese language !”

 

“Girls, girls, you’re both pretty.” Ijiwaru materialized out of thin air between them with her usual grin, and both arguing parties turned to glare, and in Ed’s case, bare his teeth at her. The smile never left her face, but she did pause, as if considering the conversation. “While I am a bit surprised at your cluelessness, Elric, we need to leave before the morning rush hour starts.”

 

She grabbed him by the arm and marched to the side entrance, exiting into the empty alleyway and ignoring Ed’s scowl with all the grace of a sledgehammer. It was a pleasant day, but there was something just a bit… off. 

 

It felt kind of like those days holed up in the library with his brother, times when neither of them would see the sun for days on end and then emerge weary and sun-starved from their little book cave. One time Havoc had come to collect them, and upon leaving the relative peace of the Central Library, Ed had stupidly asked if the sun had always been this bright.

 

Ed smiled faintly at the memory, turning slightly to ask Al if he remembered but caught himself just in time. Ijiwaru was nice enough, but he was already doing a bad enough job as is keeping his origins a mystery and she was smarter than the cheerful act let on.

 

The alley opened up onto a side street, and then a larger street, and before too long they were at a small shopping center. Despite the months he’d spent here (and wasn’t that a shock- he’d already been here for almost nine months, holy shit), he had avoided going out as much as possible, which was easy since other bar employees tended to buy the food and run for supplies, and most of his forays had just been to the library and back.

 

People of every type milled about, talking and shopping with each other. Looking around, he probably would have stood out more here than in that little bookshop two streets away from the bar, although that would explain why the man running it had given him such weird looks the first few times he visited.

 

Ijiwaru dragged him into the nearest grocery store before he could fully take in what was going on, and while he would never admit it, he was kind of thankful for the hoodie and hat. He still shrugged her off with an annoyed grumble, stalking into the back of the store and taking in what they had.

 

The sound of Japanese from the front cashier was still audible even several… what were they called, aisles? Aisles away. He made sure the hat was covering as much hair as possible, they had cameras here, and kept an ear on the conversation. Hopefully they’d be able to leave soon.

 

He turned the corner just in time to get a freezer door to the face.

 

Ed stumbled back, cursing in Amestrian under his breath, and only vaguely heard someone else do the same. His face throbbed.

 

“I’m so sorry, my boy, are you alright?”

 

He lifted his head, all prepared with a glare and everything, but froze once he looked at the man.

 

Now, he wasn’t sure if this was something from the Gate or if his lifetime of bad decisions and overall shitty-ness had finally decided to do something good for once, but every cell in his body screamed danger when he looked at the guy.

 

Blond hair poofed out from his head, while two deep set eyes looked at him with something akin to concern. He must’ve weighed ninety pounds soaking wet, and Ed could practically see his ribs, even through the ridiculously baggy shirt.

 

He closed his mouth, glare forgotten. “Um. Yeah. I am fine, sorry.”

 

The dude was frail and weak, but there was a definite power coming off of him that made Ed just want to turn around and run far, far away. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

 

Mr. Sunflower smiled sheepishly. “I do apologize, I hadn’t seen you coming. As long as you’re okay.”

 

Truth , the guy freaked him the fuck out. How could someone so weak looking give him this many bad vibes? Ed mentally scrambled for an excuse to leave. He was curious, of course, but he also liked being alive.

 

Ijiwaru saved his ass, not for the first time and definitely not the last. “Elric!” She barked from the front counter. “Let’s go!”

 

Ooh, the cashier must have really pissed her off. Maybe he didn’t ask to see her driver’s license? Women were oddly touchy about being seen as older than they are. Whatever it was, it was the perfect distraction.

 

The pressure disappeared when the guy looked away, and Ed took the opportunity. “C-coming!” He announced, then cursed silently for stuttering.

 

Iji was waiting by the doors, looking less mad than she had sounded. She pulled the hat lower on his head when he walked by her, giving him a tight smile. The left the store in silence, which gave Ed plenty of time to feel himself relax at the absence of the frail guy.

 

Seriously, though, who was he?

 

He was distracted by Ijiwaru grumbling under her breath, but he wisely decided to not ask. She was carrying a brown paper bag that he assumed held whiskey, so it was fine.

 

He glanced over his shoulder, watching as the man he’d been talking to exited the store slowly and turned in the direction of that old beach. Was he homeless? No, those were nice pants, you didn’t get those from being homeless.

 

Ugh. Sometimes he really hated his ‘sense of adventure’, as Al put it.

 

He turned to Ijiwaru. “Uh, I’m just going to… walk around a bit. Explore.”

 

“Explore?” She raised an eyebrow, reminding him eerily of Teacher. “You’ve never seemed to be interested in that before.”

 

Fuck. He scrambled for an excuse. “Well, that was because I’ve been busy with applications and working and stuff.” He forced a small laugh. Buy it, buy it. “When I get accepted into a school I won’t have any time then either, so might as well do it now?”

 

Her eyes were narrowed, but she nodded. “Alright. Just don’t get lost, caught, or in trouble. You know the drill.” Oh, thank Truth.

 

He turned away from her, heading in the general direction of the trash-filled beach. Honestly, he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t really been exploring before this. His hair was in a low ponytail, and golden eyes were a million times more common here than back in Amestris, so the chances that he would be recognized were slim at best.

 

Hell, one of those heroes had gold eyes. What was his name… Ed gave up. It wasn’t important anyway. 

 

He strolled along as casually as he could, doing his absolute best to not make eye contact with anyone while also not being too dismissive. It was a weird balance, staying far enough back from the old dude that he wouldn’t be noticed. 

 

Turns out he was right, which was a bad thing nowadays, and they ended up at the beach, which was… barely trash filled at all. There were like two piles left, which was interesting, because the first time he had seen that beach (holy shit, almost ten months ago) it had been absolutely covered.

 

He crouched beside one of the few remaining piles, watching as the man jogged over to a kid, looked about his age with messy hair, and started to talk. Ed was far enough away that he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but neither of them were doing anything particularly suspicious, just kinda… hanging out. Maybe they were family on a picnic, or something.

 

He wasn’t going to get anything, and it felt weird to just be spying on this dude and his son (?) at the beach.

 

The sand underneath him shifted slightly, but he managed to move without knocking anything over. His leg shrieked in protest, and, not for the first time, he promised himself that he would oil it when he got back to the bar. 

 

Maybe he had been mistaken about the guy? He wasn’t getting any bad feelings now, maybe it was something in the store? He resolved to go back eventually and check.

 

Either way, it was established that there was nothing for him to worry about right now.

 

He turned to leave, and had made it about two steps away before the rusted-over toaster he had been next to toppled into the rest of the pile. The low murmur of voices further down the beach trailed off at the clanging, and Ed froze in his tracks.

 

Ah, shit. His luck was terrible.

 

-

 

Toshinori Yagi had been pretty surprised by Young Midoriya’s accomplishments last time he came to the beach, and was even more so now. The boy huffed and panted as Toshinori jogged up to him, the cold drinks in his shopping bag drawing the boy’s immediate attention. 

 

“You’re almost done, my boy! ” He started as Midoriya greedily drank from the first cold water bottle, grinning. Large green eyes stared up at him in happiness, still ecstatic about being praised by his idol even after all of these months.

 

“Thank you, All Mi- I-I mean Yagi-san!”

 

Toshinori freed his own water from the bag, sipping it gently as Midoriya went back to pulling a crate filled with old scrap metal and moldy fabrics. “It really is impressive. I must say, I had expected it to take longer, but you’ve exceeded my expectations yet again!” He let out a quiet laugh, a faint echo of his usual booming chuckle.

 

“It’s all thanks to you!”

 

He shook his head, but he was smiling. This kid, so determined to praise him when he should be praising himself for all of the hard work he’s put in. “At this rate, you’ll just make the U.A. exams. I assume you’ve been studying too?”

 

Midoriya’s face was scrunched up in concentration, but he answered evenly enough. “Of course, Yagi-san! I’m not going to let these months clearing the beach go to waste by failing the written test!”

 

“That’s the spirit!” The teenager released the crate, breathing deeply for a moment while wiping off his hands.

 

He was about to speak again, to bring up a few tips for the exam, but a quiet, metallic clinging drew his attention and he froze. Midoriya opened his mouth to ask a question, but Toshinori held up a finger for silence, listening closely. 

 

No other sounds were made, but something told him that there was still someone there. He didn’t have much time left today, and in this form he looked like a frail old man with an unarmed boy, the perfect target for a mugging. God knows this city had too many opportunistic villains around.

 

“... Is anyone there?” He called out softly, not trying to sound threatening while still making it obvious that it wasn’t a question. The other person knew it too, judging by the barely audible, muffled curse. It was another second before anyone stepped out into the open.

 

Toshinori felt his hostility melt away, although he wasn’t about to let his guard all the way down. The boy he had run into (literally) in the convenience store stood out in the open, hands shoved deeply in his hoodie pockets and a carefully neutral expression fixed firmly on his face.

 

“Oh, hello. What are you doing here?” Toshinori continued kindly. He took the momentary pause to study the teenager’s features. He looked vaguely familiar, but at the same time he was pretty sure that he would have remembered someone that exotic-looking.

 

The boy shifted a bit uncomfortably, but his voice was strong. “I am a bit new to this city, but I saw you heading in this direction after leaving the store and I knew that all that is over here is-... was a trash filled beach, so I followed you to… make sure you weren’t homeless or something?”

 

He phrased it like a question, but Toshinori let himself relax. He really should be a bit offended at someone saying he looked like a homeless person, although he guessed he kind of deserved it. 

 

“I apologize for worrying you then. I can assure you that I’m fine, I simply came to get drinks for my… protege.”

 

Golden eyes narrowed slightly. “So he’s… not your son.”

 

Midoriya broke in before Toshinori could hastily explain the situation. “Wait, Yagi-san, you know him?”

 

“I’m afraid I, quite literally, bumped into this young man at the store.” He coughed slightly, swallowing the little bit of blood that coated the inside of his mouth, and turning back to the golden-eyed boy. “A-anyway, My protege has been the one clearing this beach, I’m just Young Midoriya’s… uh, personal trainer.” That was good enough.

 

The boy relaxed a bit, seeming to believe him, and brought his hands out of his pockets as he turned to leave. Toshinori caught the faintest glint of metal, was he wearing a bracelet or something? His sleeves went down far past his fingertips, it would be rude to ask. “Alright then, I’m just going to-”

 

Young Midoriya stepped forward a bit, interrupting him. “Um, what should I call you? In case we m-meet again?”

 

The teenager turned around a bit, looking a bit confused. “...Just call me Ed, I guess. You’re Midoriya, right? I heard the guy over there say that.”

 

“Oh, uh, yeah, I’m Midoriya. Your accent sounds foreign, did you come here to attend a hero school?”

 

Ed was fully turned towards them again, and he just blinked for a moment before his expression cleared. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Is that what you’ve been training for, or…?”

 

“Yeah!” Midoriya shouted, then sheepishly lowered his volume. “Uh, yeah, I’m planning to go to U.A.!”

 

“I guess we might see each other there then,” and then Ed turned to leave, hands in pockets again, like he hadn’t just dropped a bombshell. “Later, if you get in.” 

 

He was gone before Toshinori could blink. Midoriya was vibrating in glee next to him. 

 

“Yagi-san, I think I just made a friend!” He beamed, then just as suddenly deflated. “I forgot to ask him about his quirk, dang it.”

 

Toshinori patted him on the back gently. “Well, if what he said is true, then you two might see each other at U.A. and you can ask him there. Until then, there is a bit of beach left to clean, so I suggest you get working on that!”

 

-

 

Ed trotted back down the streets, only half paying attention to the buildings he passed. The weird, powerful aura had faded as he’d talked to the guy, although it had still been a bit hard to act completely normal. It really was just a guy helping a kid prepare for exams.

 

So why did he still feel uneasy?

 

Ijiwaru let him go too easily.

 

The thought hit him like a sledgehammer, and he stopped in his tracks. If there was one thing he had learned about his current landlord/employer, it was that she was eccentric, but stubborn. There would have been no way she would just let him go out on his own normally, she really only let him out to go hunt for clues on his target with the express warning that he wasn’t allowed to really be seen or caught.

 

So why did she let him go?

 

His thick-soled boots pounded on the sidewalk, just slow enough not to cause a scene. Was there a big-name villain coming that she didn’t want him to meet? Was that what they had been preparing for this morning? Oh Truth, if something was going down in the bar right now, Ed did not appreciate being kept out of it.

 

The alley entrance beckoned him in, but he slowed just before reaching for the handle. It was quiet inside, he couldn’t even hear the ever-present sound of drunk patrons. Sunday midmorning or not, there were always people getting drunk.

 

The door creaked open with finality, and he stepped inside. His eyes were just barely beginning to adjust to the indoor-darkness of the main room, but something still seemed off.

 

“SURPRISE!” someone shouted right next to his ear, and Ed’s reflexes kicked in before he could figure out who it was. 

 

One leg swept out to knock the attacker to the ground, and he had them in a chokehold with his metal arm before he could register the semicircle of people who had popped out from hiding spaces and were now looking at him with horror.

 

Oh, he realized. It was a surprise party.

 

And I just knocked one of them down.

 

Fuck.

 

Dabi looked up at him pleadingly from the floor, and Ed guiltily released him before he really passed out. The scarred man coughed as he sat up, rubbing at his probably bruised throat. 

 

“Do you greet everyone like that, or is that just a special welcome for friends?”

 

Ed felt the blood rush to his cheeks. “I don’t like surprises! You’re telling me that not one person here thought that the vigilante on the run from the police might not be perfectly fine with a surprise party?” Everyone looked away sheepishly.

 

Shiruko started to laugh, a low chuckle that slowly bled the tension out of the room. “How about we start from the beginning, you little shit?”

 

“Why are you even throwing me a… party?” He poked at one of the balloons, raising his eyebrows at the minimalist decorations.

 

Ijiwaru spoke up. “Well, your first entrance exams are in a couple days, right? We figured that we’d throw you something to relax, chill out for a couple hours, for good luck!”

 

Ed’s throat felt a bit tight. “Uh, thanks, then? I’m… sorry for attacking you, Dabi.”

 

“It’s fine, we really should’ve expected that. My fault.” 

 

One of the other bartenders clapped softly, and it was only a moment before the others joined in. Someone had turned on the radio, and people started to talk and mingle as Ijiwaru guided Ed to the bar and sat down.

 

“One beer and a… does root beer sound good? Yeah, a root beer.” Shiruko raised an eyebrow, but turned to get the drinks nonetheless. Ed felt himself smiling a bit.

 

He turned to his technical boss. “So is that why you were so desperate to get me to leave? You guys had to set up everything?”

 

She laughed. “Yeah! I thought we had blown it when you came down a bit earlier than we expected you too. Good thing someone thought of a good excuse to get you out, even if it cost us our whisky. Why did you ask to go exploring, though?”

 

“I ran into a guy at the convenience store who seemed… odd,” understatement of the year, “so I followed him a ways. Turns out I was wrong.” He shrugged, both of them watching as Dabi got into a fight with one of the newer hires over a plate of chicken wings.

 

They sat in silence for a moment, watching the other people talk to each other, fight, crack jokes, and just generally cause controlled mayhem. When Ed looked back over at her, Ijiwaru was smiling faintly.

 

“I don’t know for sure what you’re looking for,” she started, unusually slow and measured, “but Dabi told me that you have a brother back at home who you’re trying to get back to, and you have to capture this guy to do it.”

 

He nodded, not sure where she was going with this.

 

“I may be considered a criminal, but I’ve tried as hard as I could to keep from hurting people. I feel like you’re the same way, if a bit more successful. I just want you to know-” she finally turned to look at him, “- you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help, we’re here.” 

 

She spread her arms, to the background noise of music and laughing people. “If someone has your brother, if you made a deal with someone, you don’t have to keep it. We can help you get home, get your brother back, if you really need help. Or we can help find the guy you’re looking for, if that’s the only way. My point is that you don’t need to do this alone . You don’t have to put the whole burden on your shoulders, all of the guilt. We may not be perfect people, but few of us are as bad as the world makes us out to be. We would help you, if you want it.”

 

Her eyes burned into the side of his head, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to meet them. His voice sounded a bit hollow, even to his ears. “Yeah. I know. I’ll call on you guys if I need help… but this really is the only way to get Al back.”

 

-Why, little al~chem~ist, do you not like my deal? Would you rather settle your debt with blood, or with this teensy-tiny little errand?-

 

-you cannot tell anyone about me or the Gate-

 

They sat side by side in silence, but Iji didn’t push him any further.

 

He was glad for that, at least.

 

-*-

 

Jan. 29th

 

Ed woke up feeling like hell decided to have a sauna day, which was usual by now.

 

He sat up on his rock-hard mattress, and groggily decided no, it wasn’t quite that. More like… dread, but nothing so poetic as ‘a shroud settling across his shoulders’ or ‘a weighted blanket of fear on his soul.’ More like he ate something bad last night.

 

This was not a good feeling for today, of all days. Today was important.

 

He flipped open the old burner phone Dabi had bought him as a You Aren’t Dead Yet present, checking the time. Thankfully he had woken up early enough to have plenty of time to get ready, which was good since U.A. was a good distance away and Ed had a very real dislike for public transportation that wasn’t a steam train. 

 

The dread settled and dissipated a bit as he got moving, replaced by the latent stress of living like he did. The feeling was pretty common, unfortunately. 

 

Truth, his life was so fucked up, wasn’t it? Being on the run for however long with the two chimeras and Greedling really gave him a fresh new perspective on stress. Was the military going to find them, or was he going to sleep tonight? Will he wake up? Who knows! Not even talking about the months leading up to that, or the fight with Father.

 

Fuck, he really did feel more at home running from police than he did just… existing. Goddamn it. He needed Al.

 

-

 

Now, Ed wouldn’t exactly qualify himself as an optimist, but it was a beautifully sunny day, no one gave him a second glance, and if U.A. was even half the high school that he’d heard about, he’d be home with Al before the end of the month.

 

Truth, if only he’d prepared himself for the crowds. The streets were packed in a way that Amestris had never been, even in Central. People milled about, crossing the street, walking to work.

 

He didn’t really have a huge problem, but it would be wonderful to just… not deal with that. 

 

Ed looked around, finding a familiar and empty alley entrance to the right. If he remembered correctly, taking the back streets would be even faster than taking the main road. With a smug little smile, he casually strolled in, no one noticing. 

 

Perfect. 

 

Two corners and he was out of sight, the buzz of voices and other sounds from the rush-hour streets already faded and distorted. It was even nicer back here, quieter, more peaceful. 

 

Ed wasn’t really worried about muggers, and he was close enough to U.A., and thus hero territory, that he wasn’t worried about any bigger villains either. Besides, what self-respecting villain would be out this early?

 

A bid chirped above him, and yet another turn brought him onto a much smaller main road. Two buildings down… and a left just past the yellow convenience store. It was almost fun.

 

As he walked in the nice, peaceful morning stillness, the buildings around him began to shorten, to spread out. He was getting so close… Ed’s feet slowed down on their own. One more corner, and he’d be at U.A. High. It was so surreal.

 

Voices drifted to him in a faint but steady whisper, and Ed took the last few moments of quiet to look up at the sky. A blue sky, a few wispy clouds. Just like the one back home, but at the same time, so completely alien to him.

 

I hope you’re proud of me, Al. I’ll get you home- the right way. I promise.

 

Before he could lose his nerve, he took a step forward, marching towards the U.A. entrance exams.

 

Or, he would have, if a swirl of black mist hadn’t filled his vision, two pale and green-tinged hands wrapping themselves with surprising strength around his throat. The last thing he heard was the faint whisper of a woman behind him, taunting him to move before his head hit something hard, and he blacked out.