Pairing:: eventual Roy/Ed
Prompt: From my au_bingo card for the prompt "Fantasy & Supernatural: gods and goddesses."
Summary: At the age of forty, Roy Mustang is everything he'd never hoped to be, falling into what his best friend refers to as 'old man syndrome'. After having settled comfortably into his monotonous life, Roy finds himself dragged into a struggle between beings he'd never acknowledged outside of fiction, his life suddenly resembling an ancient Xerxesian epic centering around an unconventional half-god with the fate of all humankind in his hands—not to mention a chip on his shoulder the size of Amestris.
Author's Notes: This is extremely AU and borrows from both the manga and the 2003 anime, as well as ancient Greek mythology. Now beta'd by ketita, who is super and amazing and always able to make sense of my rambling, regardless of whether or not I even know what the hell I'm trying to say.
Part one can be found HERE.
"There's no reason for you to be here," Roy said calmly. "This is the science department. You're classics. Go back where you came from."
"I'm tired of the old ladies," Maes said. "I walk in and they try to pinch my cheeks!"
Roy rolled his eyes and clutched the styrofoam cup closer, the steam from the coffee warming his face. The staff room had been empty when he'd arrived, and Roy was thrilled to have a few moments to himself. So, of course, Maes had to come and ruin it. "Go away," he said again, tried to sound imperious. Maes started laughing.
"I'll go back to the Hell from whence I came once you agree to tell me what's with that look."
Maes made a vague gesture at Roy's head and dropped his eyebrows and stuck out his lower lip. "You've got this duped look on your face. You walked in with it this morning and it seems to have nested."
Roy pointedly turned his chair in the opposite direction.
Maes sighed and finally just gave up and sat down at the table, scooting his chair noisily across the tile until it was pushed right up against Roy's. "Did you meet someone?"
"I ran over a child."
"He said he was eighteen though, and that I shouldn't worry."
"And then he made me breakfast."
"I don't even know you anymore, Mustang."
"Now, if you don't mind, I'm extremely busy and important. Notice, if you will, the papers."
"Yeah, hard not to," Maes said, casting a longing glance at Roy's coffee. "That the unannounced exam?"
"You're enjoying this too much."
"Every so often," Roy explained, "I have a class that I hate beyond reason. This, Maes, is that class."
"So you're just going to fail them all?"
"No, worse. I'm going to pass them all with such low grades that it'll take until their graduating semester for their GPAs to recover."
"Oh, evil." Ah, the joys of teaching.
It was closing in on seven o'clock, and Roy and Maes could only sit around and do nothing for so long. They were both looking a little worse for wear, bags under their eyes and ties long since pulled off and shoved in their pockets. Maes looked over the clock and demanded they find some food. What was the point in being married, he asked, if he didn't eat his wife's cooking?
"I've told you already, I need to finish grading," Roy said, tugging his keys out of his pocket. The parking lot was mostly empty and would likely remain so for another hour at least. Then an influx of students and faculty would show up for the night classes, and in all honesty, Roy pitied them more than he could express in words.
"Gracia hasn't seen you in weeks," Maes said. "Come on, it's free food!"
"Which I have at home," Roy said, "where I can be alone, finally."
"Finally?" Maes asked. "What about last night?"
"I told you. There was that kid."
"I thought you were joking!" Maes stopped right in the middle of the road. Roy had to grab him and tug him out of the way when a car sped around the corner and toward the street. "You brought some kid home? After running him over?"
"I thought I ran him over," Roy said. "He didn't seem injured. I just wanted to be careful." He hesitated before adding, "I'm pretty sure he was homeless. He hinted at it, anyway."
Maes looked uneasy. "How about carefully taking him to a hospital?"
"He didn't want to go," Roy said. "He was pretty adamant about it, actually."
"He's gone now?" Maes asked. "And your credit cards are still with you?" Maes just sighed when Roy scowled at him and leaned up against the side of Roy's car with an amused, defeated look. "I guess it's better safe than sorry, but still. Be careful next time."
"I'm hoping there won't be a next time," Roy said dryly. "I'd rather not make a habit of running over homeless children."
"Children? I thought he was eighteen."
"He said he was, but—well, he was… small."
Roy held a hand at his shoulder. "The top of his head only came up to here. No eighteen year old I've ever met was that short."
Maes shrugged. "You never know. There are all sorts of glandular disorders—"
"I don't care," Roy said shortly. "I don't exactly plan on hunting him down and analyzing his health."
"Well, now you're just being—"
"Professor Hughes!" Roy and Maes both turned to see a short, dark-headed girl bobbing and weaving between cars toward them, hands raised over her head and papers clutched in both.
"Miss Chang," Maes said. "What can I help you with?"
The girl passed Roy an apologetic look, dipping her head low and murmuring, "I apologize for the intrusion," before rattling off about some assignment or other. All Roy caught was, "and so I was planning on writing about the establishment of the caste system in ancient Creta based on the idea of the hierarchy of the Xerxesian gods," before he checked out completely. Waving at Maes, he unlocked his car and got in, shaking his head.
Classics students, he scoffed. Maybe he was missing something, maybe there was some charm to mythology that he'd just never quite understood, but even as a child, Roy hadn't been able to accept reading about mythology, about gods and goddesses and all the frivolities left behind by the ancient Xerxesian race.
After all, what was the point in studying something so irrelevant to real life?
"That's the last time I go to Hell," Ed swore into the phone. On the other end of the line, Al muttered something Ed couldn't hear but knew had to be some long-suffering remark, likely directed at him. "She just bitched the whole time. And then—and then the old hag set my head on fire! Just like I fuckin' thought she would! Why the fuck does she do that?"
"I don't know, Ed," Al sighed. "Maybe she just hates you."
"Well, no shit."
"And you can't really say you're never going again."
"Yeah, yeah." Ed leaned against the glass wall of the phone booth, eyes passing over the scribbled graffiti painting the insides.
"Did she say anything about the tasks?"
"Yeah, she said she was considering it." Ed let out a harsh, barking laugh. "Which means she's not thinking about it at all."
"I don't know. I think Dad's finally getting to her."
"Good for him," Ed sneered. "It only took three hundred years!"
"Go easy on him," Al said. "You know he's just—" Something sounded in the background, Mei's voice, and Al sighed into the phone again. "Sorry, brother, I need to go. Mei needs a ride somewhere. Stop by tomorrow, all right?"
"Sure thing," Ed said, trying not to sound disappointed. "Later." He hung up the phone and it immediately rang again. Ed stared for a moment, bewildered, but then figured it could only be one person. When he picked up, he tried to sound pleasant. "This better not be who I think it is."
"Is that any way to greet your father?"
Ed rolled his eyes, uncaring whether the man could see him or not. "I dunno, you tell me, old man."
Hohenheim let out a wounded sigh that Ed could barely hear over the strange sound of some sort of movement on the other end of the line, like thousands of papers being shuffled around in a constant flurry. "Dante said you stood her up."
"It was an accident," Ed growled into the phone, startling a man who walked by. "I went and saw her, all right? I just left."
"Edward… I know how you feel about her, but you need her. I can't control what she does."
"You can't really do much, so I'm not surprised."
Again, a sigh. "Three days from now," Hohenheim said, "go back to her. She'll have your tasks."
"You sure about that?" Oh fuck, did Ed ever hope he was. If the old bastard could pull that off—
"One hundred percent sure. And this time, please don't get distracted."
When the line went dead, a thank you was on the tip of Ed's tongue, the two words he'd never quite said to the man. Though, he reasoned, it would make more sense to save them for when Dante had his tasks in hand.
No sense in getting ahead of himself.
Ed had lived more than a handful of lifetimes in the human sense of the word, but time still managed to catch him off guard, slowing and speeding in sporadic intervals, all of its own accord. The three days leading up to his audience with Dante seemed longer than the entire span of the Xerxesian empire.
Above all else, Ed hated waiting. He hated having something so close that he could feel it skim the tips of his fingers while remaining just out of reach. Dante did it on purpose, had to have. She'd waited for Ed to leave before making the call to Hohenheim, obviously intending to waste Ed's time. And now Ed was going to have to go back—again.
Control was the issue, and Ed had no other choice but to let her have it.
On the morning of the third day, Ed could hardly sit still for his nerves. "It's gonna be something awful," he predicted. "Fuck, she's probably going to ask me to kill Hohenheim."
"She'd never give you a task you'd enjoy doing," Al said. "You'll just have to wait and see."
"Awful, it'll be awful!"
Al pulled open the curtains, letting the soft morning light pour in and temporarily blind Ed, who'd been grumbling in his brother's direction. Hissing loudly, Ed pulled the comforter over his head and continued to mutter disparagingly. "So awful," he moaned.
"You have to get up at some point," Al reminded. "Especially if you want anything to eat before I shove you out the door. Mei left some, uh, pancake things."
Ed peeked out from under the blankets, the only part visible his slanted, suspicious eyes. "Pancake things?"
"Yeah, and they have, like…" Al paused, frowned. "Well, they're fried. I don't know. They make it where she comes from, Xing."
"Sounds weird," Ed said, but he rolled out from under the blankets anyway. "Save me some, yeah? I'm going to go shower."
Al nodded, pausing in the doorway on his way out to say, "I left some clothes out for you."
He managed to get through the morning and out of the house with his mental state sloping toward the positive. Ed was pretty damn impressed with himself up to the moment that he was standing in front of the Stairs, watching the dark half descend beyond his range of vision, knowing what waited at the end.
"Fucking hate that bitch," Ed said, swallowing loudly. It was pathetic. Every time he had to go to Hell, it took him ages of encouraging himself, of building himself up, before he could do it. He'd once spent six months standing at the top of the stairs trying to work up the courage to walk down them. Ed would never admit it aloud, but—
Hell, especially with Dante as its Lord, was terrifying.
At the bottom of the Stairs, instead of Dante, the Sins were waiting, all watching Ed descend with strange, unreadable expressions—except Envy. Envy watched Ed with narrowed eyes overflowing with the deepest hate, and Ed didn't even have to ask to know what Envy was thinking.
"Was Dante too busy to greet her own guest?" Ed asked, sneering down at the pathetic excuse for a welcoming committee.
"Don't presume to understand our Lord's intentions," Lust said, stepping forward and pushing Gluttony out of her way. "We've been asked to escort you to the main hall for the hearing." Her voice was like silk, caressing Ed's mind and lulling him into a sense of peace and security that he nearly missed the last few words.
"Wait," he said, snapping to attention, "hearing? What hearing?"
Lust looked vaguely disappointed. "For your Tasks, of course. Lord Dante and Lord Hohenheim," behind her, Envy hissed his displeasure, "compromised about the location."
"They compromised," Ed repeated dumbly. He sure as hell hadn't heard any of this from that shitty father when he'd had the man on the phone. Why the hell he did that, call Ed and then not tell him anything relevant, made no sense. "Fuck," Ed added, because there really wasn't another way to sum up his thoughts.
Lust didn't appear disturbed by his rancor. "If you're finished whining," she said with only the barest trace of a sneer, "our Lord is expecting you."
"Waste of time," Envy grumbled, shoving by Ed and slamming into his shoulder, shooting a dark look back at him.
Ed couldn't reply, couldn't waste the effort, because Hohenheim and Dante were there, just beyond the large oak doors Lust was pushing open and gesturing him through. They were there, together—in the same room. It had to be the first time they'd seen each other face to face since Ed's birth.
True to his expectations, walking into the main hall felt like walking into a furnace, his skin prickling with a nervous heat, his mouth cottony even while his palms broke into a sweat.
Hohenheim smiled down at him from the head table, looking worse for wear, lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth that Ed didn't remember being there the last time he'd seen the man—two hundred years before. Dante didn't acknowledge Ed, keeping her focus on some unknown point on the wall beyond his shoulder.
"Good afternoon, son," Hohenheim greeted him. Ed gave a short, jerking bow, repeating it again for Dante before he took a seat in the chair set before the large table, the view even more intimidating due to the fact that Ed's feet dangled in the air when he sat, legs not quite long enough for his feet to do much more than skim the floor with the tips of his boots. "You know why you're here."
"And you realize that we won't be coddling you," Dante cut in, voice sickly sweet. She set down her glass and Pride was behind her before so much as a second had passed, refilling it with a dark red wine. "Today, I will assign you the first of three Tasks, Edward." She stared down at him, lips pursed, and Ed felt ten times smaller in that chair before his father and the woman who held his future in her hands than he ever had in his long life.
Ed, swallowing, nodded and gripped the seat of his chair, palms sliding against the wood, sweaty.
"You may, of course, refuse the Task given to you, in which case you will forfeit your right to the title of Lord of Hell." Dante looked pleased at the idea, at her own words, and Ed felt a pang of true fear at what the Task might be. All she had to do was make him refuse, and she'd be another step closer to keeping the underworld for herself.
"I'm sure he's aware of the restrictions," Hohenheim murmured, sounding patronizing enough that Pride, standing behind Dante, looked away. "Please, continue."
Dante's nostrils flared, but she managed to keep her tongue. "The first of your three Tasks is to return an escaped soul to me. What condition you return him in is of little concern to me."
"An escaped soul?" Ed blurted. "How in the fucking—"
"Edward," Hohenheim said, tone quelling. He nodded at Dante.
"As I was saying," Dante said, lowering her voice and speaking even softer, "a man escaped due to a… laxness in security." She passed a withering glance at Gluttony, who shuffled his feet and made a low, keening noise. "He is a disturbed human, one who deserves his place here," she continued. "When you return him to me, I shall assign you the second of your Tasks."
"Who is this guy?" Ed asked. How was he supposed to find an escaped soul?
The smile on Dante's face wasn't comforting in the least. "His name is Shou Tucker," she said, sounding oddly pleasant. "And that's really the only information I have on him."
"The—the only information you—" Ed looked over at Hohenheim, eyes wide and mouth open. The man, however, did nothing to help Ed, just nodded and stared at the table.
Well, Ed thought as he looked back to an altogether too pleased Dante, he was screwed.
Two days later, the only thing Ed managed to accomplish was redecorating the interior of his brother's house to better suit his mood: dark and angry.
"You really can't leave the doorknobs as dragons," Al said, hands over his face. "And the gargoyles have to go, too. Why you thought one would look good right next to my bed, I really don't understand, but it has got to go."
Ed just huffed and nursed his third cup of coffee, hunched over like a little old man as he stared bitterly at the papers scattered in front of him. Newspapers, missing persons reports, everything he could think of, and there wasn't a single thing referencing a 'Shou Tucker'.
"She made him up," Ed growled. "I know she did!"
"Ed," Al said despairingly, "my house!"
"But she's not gonna pull the wool over my eyes, no sir—"
"Fuck, this is ridiculous! I just wanna fuckin' know who Shou Tucker is!"
"Shou Tucker? Isn't that the name of the professor who disappeared a few years ago?" Ed's neck nearly snapped he turned his head so fast, a nonplussed Mei standing in the doorway with her arms full of books.
Ed was quick to empty her arms of her books and dump everything on the table before rounding on her again. "Where'd you hear about Shou Tucker?" he demanded, grabbing the stunned girl by her shoulders and sticking his face close to hers.
Mei scowled and shoved him away. "He was my biology lab professor during my freshman year. He was a very sad man."
"Sad, how?" Al asked, looking interested.
"I don't know," Mei murmured. "It was something you could tell just by looking at him, like everything in his life was just wrong. Some people, these things are obvious about."
"And he disappeared?" Ed asked. "You're sure about that?"
"It was very big news on campus when it happened, because it was right after he quit. The board of directors revoked his tenure, and he left. The next thing we heard, his house was broken into and he was just—gone."
Al and Ed shared a glance, and Mei stomped her foot on the ground and stuck her finger in Ed's chest. "What's this all about? No one's said anything about him in so long!"
"It's something I gotta deal with," Ed said vaguely.
Mei dropped her eyes. "It's part of your," she glanced at Al, "Tasks?"
The subject was touchy between the three of them, the tension especially obvious between Mei and Ed. Ed looked anywhere but at his brother and the girl he'd traded his life for and nodded. "Yeah, I have to find the guy. Don't go doin' anything stupid, though. You can't get involved."
"I could see if there's been any rumors," Mei offered. "He was a very nice man."
Something just didn't fit. If Tucker was such a nice guy, why was he in Hell? And what was he that he was able to escape? What the fuck was that guy up to?
Ed could at least be certain that Shou Tucker existed, despite the contradictions between Mei's accounts and Dante's own words. Something wasn't adding up, and he had no idea how to go about connecting the pieces.
"Guess I have my work cut out for me, huh?"
"Guess so," Al said. Mei had left the room shortly after, the tension rising to painful levels. "You know, Mei—"
"She's fine," Ed muttered. "I don't even get it, she just—fuck."
"Try, though," Al said, a note of pleading evident in his words, "for me?" And what could Ed do but agree?
"I have to go," Ed said, pulling his eyes from his mother's expression on his brother's face. "Stuff to do," he joked. Al followed him to the door, and Ed grabbed the doorframe as he was passing through and paused, turning to his brother to say, "I don't blame her, just so you know," before disappearing through the threshold and allowing the door to slam shut behind him.
Roy never wanted to have an eventful day again, not for as long as he could avoid it, but Maes Hughes was blocking his attempts at normalcy at every turn.
"I'm not going." Roy cradled his cell phone to his ear with his shoulder, shuffling frantically through the papers on his table, I know I put those lab reports somewhere! Put a pile of papers down for five seconds and they all disappear.
"You have to go!" Maes whined on the other line. "It's tradition!"
"Last year, all thirteen of the girls in your mythology class tried to get me drunk and into your spare bedroom."
"Twenty years ago, you'd have loved that," Maes laughed. "I saved you, though, didn't I?"
"Gracia saved me," Roy corrected, finally managing to unearth the missing reports. He pushed everything else off the table and onto the floor, figuring he could clean it up later. "I have a lot of work to do, anyway. I need to have these graded and submitted into the system by Monday—"
"Which would already be done, if you didn't procrastinate."
"If you're going to lecture me—"
"Come on, Roy! You have to come. It'll be fun!"
"It's stupid. Every part of it is stupid. I don't believe in any of that, you know."
"Neither do I, Roy. It's technically just a class exercise, but it's gotten popular over the years."
The reports weren't too long. Roy could probably finish them all in a night, if he had enough coffee. And Maes' parties were always entertaining, if nothing else…
"Fine," he agreed. "But I'm not bringing any food. And if you expect me to wear one of those ridiculous flower wreaths—"
Maes broke him off with a hysterical laugh, and Roy knew he was remembering those photos from the party two years before, when the class had been entirely female and the majority of the food brought had actually just been liquor, strong fruity liquor. Roy scowled. "Don't worry. I promise—no wreaths. Just show up, and try to enjoy yourself. You're turning into a crotchety old man before your time, Roy."
"I'm not," Roy denied. "I just have a lot to do."
"I remember the days when you had a date every night, and with a different girl every time," Maes said. "I almost regret wishing you wouldn't do that."
"You know, Gracia has this really nice friend—"
"Not a chance, Maes."
They had the same conversation nearly every time they spoke, and Roy had only made the mistake of agreeing to a blind date with one of Gracia's friends once.
Once had been more than enough.
"I'll come, fine, but I need to get some work done tonight," Roy finally said. "So stop calling me."
"Keep saying things like that and I might think you don't love me anymore," Maes teased. Roy responded by hanging up on him.
Parties, Roy didn't have time for parties, not with finals looming barely a month and a half away, grading to do, sleep to be had. Why he agreed to the party every year, Roy hadn't a clue.
Maybe, for once, it would be worth it. He did need a break, after all.
'Sad' was a good word to describe Shou Tucker. After hearing what Mei knew about the man, Ed went straight to the library, the public records section, and dug up anything he could find, which mostly amounted to a dissolution of marriage form and a separate form, dated three weeks after the first, requesting full custody of a 'Nina Tucker' to a 'Janice Tucker née White'. The thing of it was, there was no resolution to the custody form. The paper trail ended there, without telling Ed just where Nina, who he could only assume was Shou Tucker's daughter, ended up, or whether or not the wife-character got whatever she wanted.
It was unnerving.
What was more unnerving was that he was unable to find any record of the man's employment at the university, as though he'd been completely erased. There was a single mention of him in an academic journal called The Circle, one Ed had heard of over the years. It first appeared in the late 1970s and had existed with a readership interested solely in its sensationalist claims. What Tucker was doing in it, Ed hadn't a clue, but it didn't seem relevant.
Regardless, Ed decided to keep note of it—literally. Cautious of the librarians, he tore the single page article written by Tucker straight out of the journal and folded it carefully into his pocket. Leave no stone unturned, Ed figured. It was better to collect every drop of information he could squeeze out of the public access channels before deviating into the more suspect areas of intelligence.
Downtown Central wasn't an easy place to hide in. Ed knew Tucker had to be long gone, fuck knew where, and he knew the bastard wasn't likely to come out of hiding any time soon. What moron would, when the whole afterlife was on the watch for them? Not that Ed knew anyone else was looking for Tucker. In all likelihood, no one was looking for him—no one but Ed, that is. There were so many things that just didn't fit together.
A soul escaping from Hell should have been a huge deal. Hohenheim should have handed Dante her ass for fucking up, but instead he was sitting down for a nice dinner and a round of 'torture Ed' with her. What the hell had that been about, anyway? They don't see each other for three hundred years and suddenly they're best friends again?
Sometimes, Ed really didn't understand gods.
"The library's closing in twenty minutes, sir," one of the librarians whispered down the aisle. Ed waved half-heartedly back and stood, knees sore from so long on the floor. "Closing already?" he muttered, pulling out his watch and flicking open the cover. Somehow, he'd wasted the day away at the library—again. Five hours going through public records? Al was right. Ed needed a life.
He stepped from the library into the night-darkened streets, thankful for the rain clearing up. Dante must have been more pissed than she let on to spend a week straight pushing storm after storm on Central. The again, it was the sort of spiteful thing Ed came to expect from her.
Maybe, if Ed was lucky, the storms stranded Tucker somewhere in the city. If Tucker was still around somewhere, it would only be a matter of time before someone spotted him. Ed wouldn't mind someone doing the legwork for him. In the end, the Task would be completed, and who gave a fuck how it got done?
Not Ed, that was for sure.
"Hey, baby, how you doin'?"
"Not interested," Ed grunted, stepping around the offended-looking sex worker. Why they had to block the sidewalk, he just didn't understand. They should be lurking in bars or some shit, not bothering him.
But that was the way of Central, of the human race in general, and Ed didn't understand any of humanity any better. In the several hundred years since Xerxes went crashing and burning into nothing, all the changes he'd seen in the world were for the worse. Like automated check-out lines in the grocery store! Lazy, that's what it all was, lazy and convenient and the stupidest shit he'd come across.
It was a wonder mankind didn't just destroy itself, for all the good it did.
"Hey, if it isn't babyface!"
"Fuck you, Greed," Ed hissed. The bar was surprisingly empty for the time of night.
"You're such a killjoy, kid," Greed muttered. He was standing behind the counter, lining glasses up and filling them to the rims with some liquor or other. "Whaddaya want, anyway? You comin' here is always a bad sign."
"I got a Task," Ed said, unable to resist the urge to brag.
"Eh? A Task? The old hag actually gave in?" Greed looked impressed. "How'd you manage that?"
"By bothering her about it for three hundred years!" Ed scowled. "How else?"
Greed laughed, pounding his fist on the bar top. "Guess it was about time, yeah? So, what? What're you doin' here?"
"You ever heard of a Shou Tucker?" Ed held onto the counter and pulled himself up on the stool, cursing every inch of his five feet.
"Shou Tucker," Greed repeated. "I can't say I know the name off the top of my head."
"Figures. Guy's a non-entity!"
"What's he so important for?"
"My Task, that's what! She gave me the most fucking ridiculous—"
"Whoa, whoa, you know the rules!" Greed held up his hands. "I might not be in the circle no more, but I sure as hell count to disqualify you. Don't fuck up 'cause you can't shut up."
"Yeah, fine," Ed huffed, elbows on the countertop and hands cradling his chin. He watched, dejected, as Greed lit the cups on fire and just stared at the liquor as it burned. They sat in silence as a small group of men staggered into the bar, laughing uproariously. Greed waved his hand, and a woman stepped out of the back rooms.
"I'll keep an eye out," Greed muttered, "but don't hold your breath, kid. It's That Person, so there's no telling what's really goin' on."
"Thanks," Ed said, sliding off the stool.
He hadn't expected to glean any valuable information from Greed anyway, but the guy had a point. The only predictable thing about Dante was that she was unpredictable. As soon as Ed got used to her acting one way, she'd shift abruptly, catching him off guard. Which, when it came right down to it, was the issue. If Dante was so good at catching her opponents off guard and keeping them on their toes, how did that Tucker guy escape? Getting past Dante was no small feat. And the guy wasn't even alive! He was just the left over parts of a human, the soul.
A thought struck Ed. Was Tucker just a soul? Or was he something tangible? He'd never heard of a soul escaping Hell before. Should he really be the only person searching for Tucker?
Ed shook his head, tried to free himself from the feeling of unease threatening to strangle his mind. It was stupid, assuming there was some conspiracy in the works. No one gave enough of a fuck about him in the Underworld to intervene with one of his Tasks. Hell, most of the gods he knew didn't believe he'd ever get a Task!
Besides, Hohenheim had been there. The old man was a shitty father, but he wouldn't let Dante ruin Ed's chances, not when he'd made it perfectly clear where he thought Ed belonged.
Even so, something wasn't adding up, some minor detail he must have missed. As much as the idea bothered him, Ed knew there was only one place he could start.
"You really can't make this a habit," Al said, ushering his brother inside, "showing up at midnight. Some people actually do sleep at night, you know!"
"You were awake," Ed said, looking pointedly at Al's clothes, nodding at the pen tucked behind his ear. "And anyway, I'm not here to see you."
Al started. "You're actually here to see Mei?"
"You got a problem with that?" Ed asked, scowling even deeper.
"No, no," Al shook his head quickly, holding his hands up in defense. "It's great! I told you that I want you two to get along. It's just…"
"She went to sleep already," Al chuckled nervously. "She's really—ah, she can be difficult, when she's woken prematurely. Kind of like you!"
"I can't imagine," Al sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "But really, it's been a long day. You can sleep in the guest room. Talk to Mei in the morning."
Ed didn't want to wait until morning, but his brother looked so worn down that he couldn't bring himself to argue. Al had bags under his eyes and his face was bleached a pasty white that Ed had never before noticed on his brother. He shrugged and stretched his arms over his head exaggeratedly. "Yeah, I guess sleep doesn't sound too bad. You look like you could use some, too. The hell you look so dead on your feet, for?"
"Being a human," Al said, "is a lot harder than not being one. There's just—" He shrugged jerkily and ran a hand through his hair, obviously agitated. "It's weird, is all. I've never had to worry about getting sick before, or—or being too tired. It's never occurred to me, so now I have to actively remind myself that it's possible." Al smiled wearily, then caught the look on Ed's face—something between anger and despair. "No, it's not a big deal!" Al grabbed Ed's shoulder. "Really, brother. It's just different, not bad."
Ed pushed his hand off his shoulder and ripped the negativity from his expression, grinning widely in the face of his anxiety. "Yeah, different, I get it. So long as you think it was worth it, then it's worth it."
Al looked relieved. "Yeah. Well, come on, I'm heading upstairs, too."
Ed followed his brother up the stairs, his stomach burning and his eyes blurring behind a restrained wall of tears. The worst part about his brother's newfound happiness with Mei was that Ed knew, knew with absolute certainty, that it wasn't permanent. Just like their mother, Al would die, and again, Ed would be alone, given the company of nothing but quickly fading memories, the happy early years with Al as fragile as his brother's new mortality.
As he tugged the sheets of the guest bed over his head, Ed wondered what it was like to be truly alone. One day, he'd have to ask Hohenheim about it.
He was really beginning to tire of his and the old man's similarities.
Onward to part three...