Two weeks have passed since Ed’s birthday and another weekend was upon them. Saturday morning came and it found Ed lying with his head on Jean’s shoulder as Ed drew lazy circles on his lover’s chest with his fingers. It was early and by all rights, Ed should be asleep. The sun’s glow was little more than a faint presence in the pre-dawn sky and the stars were still staking their claim across most of the heavens. Yes, Edward Elric should be asleep, but he wasn’t. He was far from it.
"What are you thinking about so hard Babe?” Jean asked. “I can almost feel the gears grinding in that super brain of yours."
"I'm trying to think of some way to get the City to listen to reason."
"About the orphanage."
"Ah," Jean said as he gave Ed's shoulder and arm a squeeze, "You do realize you don't have to save the world right?"
"What made you say that?"
"I'm just trying to get you to be okay with not making everything your responsibility."
"Ah," Ed said as he sat up and looked out the window, "But someone has to. It's not like those kids can stand up for themselves."
"True," Jean said as he rolled over onto his side to face Ed, "and I understand that. All I'm saying is that it doesn't have to be you."
"That's part of the problem. Not enough people care to speak up about it." Ed replied as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. Once on his feet, he crossed the room and focused his attention out the window. "Remember when Jouner Park became the place to walk and hang out? All of a sudden, people were paying attention to its shoddy upkeep and the fact that it lacked enough benches, fountains or trails. People got vocal about it and the City turned that rundown forgotten park into a little oasis. All it took was a good, loud vocal push."
"If you say so Ed," Jean said as pulled back the blankets and gave Ed a lazy smile. “Why don't you come back to bed?"
"I'm not tired."
"Who said anything about sleeping?"
Well that was another matter. Another matter altogether.
Ed didn’t leave Jean's arms or home until Sunday a few hours before the band was scheduled to practice. When he walked in the door of the house he shared with Al, several voices drifted down the hallway and into the kitchen. When Ed went to see what all the commotion was about, he was surprised to find most of the band already in the music room discussing something.
“Hey guys. What has everyone so worked up?”
“Nothing Brother,” Al said with a sigh, “just trying to work out this four part harmony.”
“The one Zack was writing for the ladies night thing Fidel wanted to have?”
“The very same,” Zack replied as he gave Al a look.
Once Ed paid attention, he noticed everyone was looking around at each other. Brows furrowed he asked, “What’s the problem?”
Al swallowed nervously before saying, “We… Well we just can’t seem to get the right voices with the right parts that’s all.”
Miles snickered at that just as Zack went over to Al and snatched a few pieces of paper from his hands. Al made a grab for it but Zack was already too far away. Handing the pieces of paper to Ed, Zack said, “This is the part that’s been giving us the most trouble. It doesn’t sound right with anyone’s voice thus far so I was hoping you’d give it a try, Ed.”
Ed scanned over the sheets in his hands and as he did so, Al was on pins and needles. What no one had mentioned was how racy the song lyrics were. Fidel had asked for romantic and spicy and thus far, Zack was the first to produce a complete song. Al knew his brother had been working on some things and they had worked on some of the instrumental stuff together but he hadn’t seen any of the lyrics yet. Al doubted anything Ed had put together could hold a candle to what Zack had come up with for them.
Especially the part he wanted Ed to sing.
Al loved his brother and he knew Ed had come a long way with some of his hang-ups over the last few months but he didn’t think he’d come as far along as those song lyrics would need him to be. Al had tried his best as they had practiced but the part screamed for a higher voice. He could go up in range with the best of them but he had his limits and try as he might it just didn’t flow when he sang it.
As a gifted tenor, Ed had an exceptional range and he had a way of making the words fit with the music. With this in mind, Zack thought Ed could pull it off. Al did too, but he thought his brother would rather sit in boiling water than be on stage in front of a hundred people singing the lines Zack had written.
“Ok guys let’s play the music all the way through one time so I can hear it, then we’ll do it again with the lyrics and I’ll see what I can do,” Ed said as he sat down behind the piano.
Al gave Zack and Miles a worried look to which Miles just laughed and Zack rolled his eyes. As he walked by Al, Zack whispered, “I think you’re selling Ed a little short.”
“If he refuses to look us in the eye after this you owe me two rounds,” Al replied.
Al strapped on his guitar, Zack did the same and Miles picked up his drumsticks. They played through the melody and once they were done, Ed jotted down a few things on the music sheets in front of him then asked them to do it again adding the vocals. The song kicked off with a short intro from Zack’s strong low vocals that was followed by Al’s part. Smooth and sensual was the name of the game and initially it stayed that way. Everything was going along swimmingly as it flowed into the part Miles sang. When it came to Ed’s part, that smooth sensuality kicked up its game an erotic notch. Zack was sure he saw Al flinch when the chorus was over with the younger Elric looked like he was holding his breath as Ed leaned into the mic and let it flow.
I need to be with you
Let me lay beside you
Do what you want me to
Zack thought Al’s eyes were going to pop out of his head.
Wanna hold you, ooh, baby
Can I touch you there
Al’s expression was so flabbergasted Miles was cramping up behind the drums as he tried not to laugh. It was only made worse once Ed started ad libbing as he sang the suggestive lyrics his brother had previously thought would scar him for life.
Come on, come on
Come on, come on
I can keep you satisfied, baby*
When Ed finished that last line, the music came to an abrupt halt.
Confused as to why and thinking his band mates thought his singing was off Ed said, “Hey I know it wasn’t pitch perfect but it was my first shot at it so cut me some slack.”
“No, that was great Ed,” Miles said as he chuckled. “In fact I think you nailed it.”
Ed looked around and Zack was nodding in agreement, as poor Al remained rooted to his spot with his mouth hanging open. Despite still being confused as to why they were all behaving so strange Ed shrugged it off. He knew they all had their quirks so he just chalked this up as another one of the many.
“Since we already broke the mould on the Ladies Night music anyone interested in running through some of the stuff I’ve been working on? I was going to save for the next time we practiced but that song put me in a spicy mood.”
“So we see,” Zack replied with a chuckle as he looked over at Al who had yet to recover.
They played through two of Ed’s songs and the melody to one that had promise but Ed insisted the lyrics were not ready for human consumption before going back to Zack’s four-part harmony. By that point, it was close to actual practice time. Ashley and Lena would be there soon and they thought they should start coming up with a setlist for their next night at Fidel’s.
When the ladies arrived they brought with them food and beer. When they wandered into the music room Ashley sat the food down on a table as Lena crossed the room to kiss Al on the cheek. As the two carried on and dissolved into giggles, everyone else dug into the refreshments.
Rehearsal went off without a hitch and it was a little past ten that night before the brothers were alone.
“I love those guys I really do,” Ed said as he stretched.
“I do too,” Al replied as he started rifling through the mail.
“Anything good in there?”
“That depends,” was Al’s response as he tossed two envelopes at Ed.
One was a large envelope from Preston and the other was a letter from Winry.
When Ed didn’t comment, his face becoming unreadable, Al broke the silence.
“How have you two been? I know you’ve been talking but… well I wasn’t sure how it was going and to be honest I was afraid it was still too much of a sore spot for me to ask.”
Ed walked over to the icebox and pulled out two beers. He didn’t reply right away but his stern expression spoke volumes. After sitting one of the bottles on the table, he slid it over to Al before popping the one in his hand open and leaning on the counter. Ed could think of a hundred other things he'd rather talk about, but he knew he couldn't avoid this forever so he might as well suck it up.
“It’s better than it was but it still needs work. We’d both like to think we’ve just fallen into being friends again, but it’s not that simple. There’s always this big white elephant in the room with us and no matter how many times we talk the bastard refuses to go away, it won’t even shrink.”
“I hate to say it but it may never be the same, Brother.”
“I know that and that is what’s killing me. I was thinking maybe we need to just sit face to face and talk this out. Phone calls and letters can only do so much.”
“You might be on to something there,” Al replied as he took a drink out of the bottle in his hand. “But are you really ready to have her here? Not only in front of you but here, in our home, for days on end?”
“No, I’m not, but it has to be done. I feel like this is separating us all. We haven’t been back to Resembool, she hasn’t been here, we hardly talk to Pinako and just… it’s all just a big convoluted fucking mess.”
“I wish I could help.”
“I know you do Al but this is something she and I have to sort out and we need to do it sooner rather than later. I’m going to invite her here when I respond to this letter. We need to get past this.”
“I’m game if you are Brother. If it will help I’ll be at your disposal. I’m sure having me here instead of off with Lena will act as a bit of a buffer.”
“Thanks Al,” Ed said as he turned around and looked out the window over the sink just as a nighthawk landed on the porch railing. This mess with Winry felt so damn heavy. More than anything Ed wished he could hitch this damnable problem to the tail feathers of that bird and let it fly away. “I’ll need everyone I know around me as a buffer if I decide to introduce her to Jean.”
“Maybe save that for visit two, Brother. You guys haven’t talked about him?”
“Not really, I don’t feel as if I can say much considering the situation and that’s what has me hating this. Of all the people I know, I’ve always felt I could talk to you and Winry. Not being able to talk to her, especially about something as everyday news as my relationship, is the thing that is making the damn elephant linger.”
“If she comes here you two can kick off a frank discussion and get over the hump at least. Maybe push her a little so she can see you are both still hurting over this. You have to clean a wound before it will heal. Just slapping bandages on it won’t work.”
“You’re right Al, besides what do I have to lose? If I don’t do something soon it’s lost anyway.”
Al nodded as he let his attention fall back to the mail in front of him, “Did your friend Preston get the Führer’s business?”
“That he did,” Ed said as he finished off his beer. “That deal made him a happy man.”
“I’m sure anything to do with you makes Preston a happy man,” Al said with a smile.
Ed narrowed his eyes at his sibling, “What are you going on about now, Al?”
“Nothing Brother,” he replied in a singsong voice.
“It’s not like that, Al.”
“According to you it never is,” was the answer given in an exasperated tone. Al loved his brother, but Ed could be so damn dense at times.
“Just because you have half the City after you Al doesn’t mean it’s the same for me.”
“You’re right it’s not, it’s worse.”
When Ed opened his mouth to refute that claim Al cut him off.
“Look Brother I know you have some weird ideals in your head when it comes to how people think of you but whether you believe what I have to say about it or not doesn’t change the fact that you are a very sought after person.”
“I just don’t see how you could…”
“Wake up and smell the latest dozen roses or free tickets to something Brother.”
“Al someone schmoozing the Peoples Alchemist isn’t the same as what you go through.”
“If that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be, but Brother it isn’t. I know dating around isn’t your thing but, if it was, you could go out every night for two months and not repeat a person.”
“Look I know you don’t believe me but humor me and consider this, you get a flood of correspondence here and at the office. I know for a fact you don’t go around announcing who you are to people when you travel so what are they attracted to if not you?”
“I make friends easily Al, is that a crime?”
“No it’s not, but you can’t tell me out of the dozen letters you get each month every person behind them just thinks of you as a mere friend.”
“You’re making something out of nothing.”
“Keep your head in the sand if you want too Brother but I’m telling you, you’re missing the bigger picture here,” Al said as he sat his empty bottle down before excusing himself to answer the call of nature.
While he was gone, Ed used the time to open the large envelope from Preston. The size of it had him curious. There was a letter in there but most of the package was pictures. Some of them were landscape shots and other ones were from Ed and Roy’s last visit with the man.
Ed was still absorbed in the letter when Al came back into the kitchen and started sifting through the pictures on the table. He said nothing as he watched his brother’s face morph through a multitude of expressions. All of them were some variation of happily amused and Al gave into the urge to roll his eyes. Ed just didn’t get it. Al had never met Preston but even he could tell the man was infatuated with his Brother.
Al was working on a way to get this through Ed’s thick skull when his eyes fell upon a picture that left him speechless. Twice in one day, something to do with his brother had Al feeling that way and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that trend. It was a sobering occurrence and it made Pinako’s words from a while ago echo in his mind. “A man with his looks should be downright vain, but not our Edward. He's not vain at all.” So many things over the last year had made Al feel like he didn’t know who his brother really was. Before that thought could sadden him, another one hit him. A thought that made even more sense.
Ed was evolving. Late but once started it was going full tilt as Ed always has. It was possible that maybe even Ed himself had no clue who he was because he was still figuring that out.
So much time spent with a single-minded goal had left him an overly driven person. When life calmed down, he funneled all of that energy into his career. Over the past few years, Ed has worked in three different branches of the military on top of spearheading the peace talks with Xing. Ed hadn’t breathed a word but Al was certain something big is brewing with the military because the Führer himself seemed to need a lot of his Brother's time and Al had a nagging feeling that Maes was in on it too.
Not even all of that was enough: Ed started a band, he made the plight of the orphanage a personal project, every time he left town he came back with a new connection of some sort. Al wasn’t the betting sort but now that he was thinking on it, he was willing to wager that the Ed everyone currently knew was just the bud seen before the bloom. His brother had always been a person larger than life and Al had a feeling life was about to find out just how large Ed could be.
Al couldn’t wait. It promised to be one helluva a ride.
Turning his attention back to the photo in his hand Al tried to think of a way to awaken his dense sibling. Staring at the picture, then at his brother, then back to the photograph in his hand, Al continued his inner struggle for words. The image was one of Ed was standing somewhere surrounded by water in front of a waterfall, the sun was hitting him at an angle that made the unbound hair flowing around him look like tendrils of light and the expression on Ed’s face was one that had Al wishing he knew what his sibling had been thinking. There were two versions of the picture; one was in color and the other in black and white.
Giving up on the right words Al tapped on the table. When Ed looked up, Al flipped the picture over and said, “Just a friend right?”
Ed’s jaw dropped as he sat the letter down and leaned forward, “Is that seriously me?”
“The one and only,” Al replied.
“I wonder what he did to that film to get me to look like that?”
“It’s an old trick called putting it in the camera,” Al replied sarcastically.
“Never mind, Brother, enjoy your letters. I’m going to bed and if you ever want to pull your head out of the sand, I suggest you open your eyes and take a good look at that picture. You know where to find me if you need me.”
Ed told Al goodnight but his eyes never left the photo.
That was him. It was really him.
Ed knew what he looked like but the captured image on the table was how people saw him and it was nothing close to how he saw himself. This wasn’t a damaged incomplete being with too many secrets. The person standing in the middle of that river was a man just like any other. He didn’t look haunted, he didn’t look piecemeal and he wasn’t wearing his past mistakes like a scarlet letter.
He wasn’t a bad looking man either.
As Ed sifted through the other pictures of himself as well as those of him, Preston and Roy laughing, goofing off and wandering around the town of Hayden, Ed felt like he was seeing himself for the first time in a decade. Was this image in front of him the same person he walked around as every day? Is this what Edward Elric looked like to people?
Did he really blend in so well that he could pass as any other average Joe?
“Yes you do,” replied a voice from across the room.
When Ed looked up Al was standing in the doorway in his pajamas and robe. He must have been lost in his own musings brought on by the pictures for a while. He had spoken his thoughts aloud.
“Average isn’t the word I would use to describe you Brother, but you do blend in quite well.”
“I feel like such a sore thumb.”
“I do too at times.”
“I feel like people can sense every fucked up mistake and bad decision I’ve ever made the moment they get close to me.”
“Guilt does that to a person,” Al said as he stepped back into the kitchen. “I think non-yielding guilt is part of the burden one must bear to be an Elric. It’s included in the welcome package.”
“It’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving,” Ed mumbled. “It’s heavy.”
“I know it is.”
“It’s all consuming some days.”
“It has to be.”
“I don’t want to carry this and some days I feel like I can’t.”
“Throw it away. We don’t need it.”
“It’s not that simple, Al.”
“Let me help you and maybe it can be.”
“Don’t shoulder it alone. You fought like hell to get me back and I’m here now so let me be here! Let me be your brother in more ways than just title alone.”
Ed was looking at serious gray eyes and the fact that Al looked close to cracking was breaking down that unstable wall Ed had built around all the heavy shit that made up his so-called life. One more look at Al and that unstable wall crumbled to the ground and he felt lost. Lost, raw and overwhelmed.
“Al I don’t want you to…”
“To what Brother? To feel as you have? You think I’d prefer skipping happily through life if it meant you had suffer? That’s not fair. Let me in, let me help you. If I wasn’t going to accept losing you to The Gate what makes you think I’m going to sit here and do nothing as I lose you to the past?”
“But it’s my…”
“No it’s our past, Brother. It’s our past, our decisions and our mistakes. They always have been, even when you wanted all the sins we committed to be yours and yours alone.”
Long, dense, oppressive silence filled the room settling over the brothers the way a winter’s fog settled over a field. An eternity of minutes stretched out around them before Ed finally spoke.
“I’ve carried this so long it feels like a part of me. I don’t know if I can let it go.”
“I hear talking does wonders. If nothing else it’s a damn fine place to start.”
“It’s almost midnight.”
Al opened a cabinet, pulled out a bottle of wine and sat it on the table. Looking at his brother he said, “I haven’t called in, in months. I think I’m overdue.”
Ed gave him a watery smile, grabbed two glasses and tossed Al the corkscrew, “I think I feel a sick day coming on.”
Dawn saw the brothers still talking but winding down. Before turning in to get a few hours of much needed sleep, Ed called Roy. He knew the man got up at the asscrack of dawn every workday morning so he didn’t have to worry about waking him. Roy must have been standing in his kitchen because the phone only rang one time.
“You sound like hell, is everything okay?”
“I think it will be but I’m just now headed to bed. I was calling so you could let everyone know I was playing hooky today.”
“Seems like you need to. You sound beat.”
“I am, but it was a fair tradeoff for feeling lighter than I have in years.”
“You’ll have to tell me about when time allows.”
“I will,” Ed replied with a yawn. “Have a good day at work Roy.”
“Thank you, Ed. Take care of yourself.”
With that said, the line went quiet and Roy hung up the bell. A soft smile slid across his face at the thought of Ed feeling lighter. If anyone needed to shed some of the pounds of burden they carried, it was Ed. He was a regular pack mule when it came to emotions.
Ready to face the day, Roy had just finished his breakfast and washed the dishes when his doorbell rang. Curious as to whom it could be so early, Roy opened the door and was surprised to find a courier on his doorstep. He signed for the two rather flat packages marked fragile, tipped the young man and took the boxes back to the kitchen table.
They were labeled one of two and two of two. They were both from the same address but it wasn’t an address he recognized and it bore no name. Curiosity won out and he grabbed a pair of scissors, slit open the one of two package and slid out the carefully wrapped and padded contents. A note was taped to the top and when he opened it, he saw it was written on the letterhead from Preston’s print shop. Doubly curious because Roy couldn’t think of a single thing the man would be shipping him, he opened the letter in haste.
I hope this letter finds you well and please forgive me for weaseling your home address out of Ed. I hope the contents of these packages don't offend or sit ill with you. Never one to err on the side of caution, I couldn’t resist making them then sending them to you once the idea crossed my mind. Please know I meant no harm when I put this together.
Roy would have ripped the paper off the thing if it hadn’t been marked fragile. Preston’s words only served to increase the suspense he was feeling. Unwrapping layer upon layer he finally got to the mystery item and what he saw left him awestruck.
It was Ed.
Two pictures of Ed to be precise. They were both black and white and set in ornate pewter frames dotted with round ruby-like stones. It was two photos of Ed that Preston had taken when the three of them had gone to the park that had the river and waterfall running through it. The larger picture of Ed was of him standing on a rock, with the sun shining through the long blond hair flowing around him. The wistful lost in thought expression he was wearing was one Roy remembered well. The second smaller picture was of him laughing. He was wearing an eyes closed, face full of mirth, completely joyous expression.
When Roy could tear his eyes away from his unexpected gift, he opened the second package. In it, he found the reverse of the first package. Both photos were in color only the large frame held the picture of Ed laughing. The blue frames with golden accents were a perfect fit for the color photos.
As much as he’d love to display all four of the photos in the living room or den he didn’t think it wise. It would raise a lot of questions with visitors that he didn’t want to answer. They would have to find a home in his bedroom for now.
When he could finally stand to put Ed away, Roy jotted Preston’s address down and headed for the door. He had work to do and staring at Ed all day wasn’t going to get it done.
When he entered the office, Jean and Riza were already there. Jean gave his usual two finger salute as Riza greeted him with her usual ‘good morning Sir' as he walked toward his office. Once everyone filed in and started working Ed’s absence became the topic of conversation.
“Havoc, any clue where the Boss is today?” Breda asked.
“No, he’s probably on his way in now,” Jean replied just as Roy walked into his subordinates shared office space.
“He called in this morning,” Roy said as he handed a stack of signed papers to Riza. “He won’t be joining us today.”
“I’ve been here since twenty till,” Jean said as blue eyes narrowed at Roy. “I didn’t hear any of the phones ring.”
“He called me at home Lieutenant.”
“Ah, I see,” was Jean’s only response as he shifted his focus back to the papers in front of him.
Inwardly that action made Roy cringe, he should really learn to think before he opened his mouth. Interactions between him and Jean turned awkward so easily Roy felt like there was a constant path of eggshells between them. One false step and everything that composed the fragile friendship they clung to could be damaged beyond repair or destroyed altogether. No matter how lightly Roy tread, he had a feeling he was going to fracture something despite his many efforts to the contrary. Like a man in the middle of the ocean, he could only tread water for so long… in the end he knew he’d fall victim to the sea.
As he returned to his office and sank back into his chair, Roy decided to quit beating himself up over it. He realized there wasn’t any other way he could have handled that situation without making Riza the messenger. Even if he had, Jean would have probably had the same question and it still would have come back to her informing him that Ed had called Roy at home.
Life was a bitch sometimes and today it was barking.
+++++ +++++ +++++ +++++ +++++