Dinner turned out to be toad-in-the-hole, and while it wasn't as good as mother had made it—it wasn't as good as Ed could have made it; Ross wasn't much of a cook—it was still hot and filling. Al ate his own share and then some of his brother's, ignoring Ed's playful protests, and they both helped Maria clear the table when they were done.
Maria didn't press for an explanation until they'd all done the washing up and the contents of Al's suitcase had been emptied into the washing machine. She made them two coffees, Al realizing with a lurch that this would be the first time he'd had Ed's favourite drink, ever, and found Al a dressing gown to wear. Al caught her watching Ed with a confused expression several times throughout the evening, especially when he refused to take off his clothes to be washed or didn't request seconds of dinner, letting Al eat enough for both of them. It was shortly after midnight when she finally settled them on her couch, opposite her coffee table, pressed two cups of hot chocolate in their hands, and asked them to tell her what had happened.
Ed finished his drink in one gulp, setting the empty mug heavily on the coffee table, and said, "I'm Edward." She blinked at him, her brows drawing together in confusion. "I put Al's soul in my body," he continued, watching her carefully, and Al picked at the handle of his own mug and didn't take his eyes off the table as his brother spoke. "I couldn't restore his body, not the way I'd planned to, so I settled for that."
"I was too selfish to let him die, though," Al mumbled, still not looking up. "Brother gave up his arm for me the first time, then his entire existence for me the second time, and I... I couldn't let him do that. I transmuted his soul into the nearest humanoid thing available—"
"-Which happened to be one of the homunculus. The most dangerous, if you would, and probably the oldest."
"Wait. Explain from the beginning. From the time Edward 'gave up his arm' for you, Alphonse, without interruptions."
Ed and Al exchanged another glance, and Al tossed back his own drink. Suddenly the chocolate sat like a lead weight in his belly, and tasted sickly rather than sweet. He swallowed against the sudden nauseous sensation and began to narrate the story that had bought them to the military in the first place, then beyond, Lior. Xenotime. The parts of the fifth laboratory they hadn't told her about, Tucker, Lust, Gluttony and Envy. Dublith and the Devil's Nest, Izumi, Wrath, Dante, Greed and Kimbley. Lior again, Scar, Rose, Sloth and Pride and the Philosopher's Stone. So many names, so many places. Edward switching to the deaths of Sloth and Lust and the kidnapping of Al. The underground city, Dante with her smug defiance as she tore down the rules that had cost them their bodies, the world beyond the gate—and at this point Maria looked a little sceptical, though she raised no arguments—zeppelins, Hohenheim and his death. Dante again, Gluttony and Al in an array, Envy leaping from place to place as he taunted Ed. Wrath gripping his ankle, tripping him, and Edward leaving them to grapple on the floor, retreating to Alphonse instead of a pointless battle with an immortal foe. Hands coming together to clap, Dante screaming about using alchemy—and what did they care about obeying her? It was now or never—a blinding transmutation. Alphonse again for the fear and the desperation that had led to soul-alchemy on Envy's body, again using blood as an agent. Edward's blood for Edward's soul, a stronger seal than most.
Edward then took over again to talk about taking on both Gluttony and Dante, with Rose and Wrath frozen, one in fear, the other in pain. Gluttony breaking away, Dante forced to restore his mind—such as it was—to him to prevent him from consuming her, and the sin then collapsing, crying out for Lust. Not moving to help her when Edward lunged, when she clapped her hands and the homunculus seal had blazed around him, weaker without the agent that was part of Envy's original form. He'd forced himself out of it, feeling as though his skin were being flayed inch by inch by particles of glass, wrapped his hands around her throat and twisted as she reached for the ourobouros mark. A sharp 'crack' lost in the large room, Gluttony and Wrath gasping as she fell limp from his hands and Rose too shocked to do anything but stare. Wrath handed over to her and Al scooped up in his own arms, they'd fled, leaving Gluttony to call for Lust into an echoing silence. Learning Envy's mind wasn't completely destroyed, preparing to catch the train the next day, then weeks spent sleeping rough and breaking into the library.
Maria was an attentive listener. She didn't interrupt once, not even to question them, and when they finished merely sat back thoughtfully. "This Dante—four hundred years old? But she couldn't stop you from killing her, Edward?"
"I think it was a lack of preparation," Ed said quietly. "If it had been purely Envy, and not some sort of Envy-me hybrid, the seal would probably have worked, or at least stopped him. She had threatened him successfully with something like that before, I think."
"How do you know? The same way you know he was the one to kill Brigadier General Hughes?"
"I have his memories," Ed muttered. "Four hundred year's worth, at that. They're not nice, but I know what he did, and what she did to him."
"... What she did to him?" Maria asked cautiously.
"Let's just say she was a very unpleasant person to live with," Edward, lips twisting into a sardonic smile.
"Ah," she said quietly. "And how is the search to find what you need going?"
"Not very well," answered Alphonse with a rueful shrug. "We have no idea what we're looking for, simply amassing any information that might be relevant, and a lot of it probably isn't. We've limited it down to the fact that there is a way to kill the mind without touching the soul or the body, but it's very tricky, and we've found no way to accomplish it." He scowled at that, automail hand clenching into a fist, and she had a sense of the frustration the pair of them must be feeling.
"Would Dante know?" Maria asked, curiously. "You mentioned visiting her at her home—might she have done research on the subject? Considering the amount of times she must have changed bodies, especially when they started to rot—might she have had this problem but found a way to deal with it?" She backtracked at their expressions, holding her hands up in a placating manner as she said, "It was just an idea, and I don't know anything about alchemy, especially of this level—"
"Maybe," Edward replied, frowning. "She might have, actually. Question is, how would we know? We don't really want to leave Central now, not when we've isolated what we need—"
"We could call our teacher, brother," Alphonse interrupted, eyes wide with hope. "She could look for something for us."
"Well, yeah," Ed said with an expression of deep unhappiness on his face, "But that would kind of mean admitting what we did..."
"I don't think she'll hurt us this time, though," Alphonse said, a similar expression flashing across his own face. "And even if she does, as long as we get the information, it's all right, isn't it?"
"I guess," Edward said after a pause, the tension she hadn't noticed creeping into his muscles fading. "I'll call her tomorrow. Long distance, though, it's going to be expensive—"
"Use my phone," Maria said with a shrug. "They give us phone credit each month, and I have about nine month's worth stored up. I don't need to use it very often, you see," she added, and Alphonse gave her a radiant grin. Looking at Edward's current form and overlying the expression, she could tell that Alphonse's face was naturally suited to smiling, and had a sudden urge to pick both of them up and hug them. They were children, for all their intelligence and all they'd been through, and it was absurd, how things had ended. She forced the urge back down, offering them both a small smile, and taking their empty mugs back into the kitchen for a refill.
By the time she returned, Edward was dialling the number with Alphonse sitting so close, he was practically perched in his older brother's lap, in order to hear what their teacher said. She put the mugs back on the table, watching as Ed waited for someone to pick up and wrapped an arm loosely around Alphonse, both of them leaning in towards the receiver as someone answered with the usual business slogan. Maria frowned and Al winced, but Ed merely said, "Hello Mason, it's me. No, Edward. Is our teacher there-? Yeah, could you get her for me? Thanks."
Alphonse held his breath, raising his living fingers to brush lightly against the arm Ed had slung over his shoulders, an oddly tender motion considering the source. "There's a loudspeaker option on the phone," Maria felt compelled to point out. "Green button. Do you mind if I stay and listen?"
"No," Al said quickly, fingers moving until he found the button and pressed it. Ed dropped the receiver into his lap, and jumped when Izumi's voice, amplified, turned up. "Did you do it? And if so, why the hell did you wait until now to call me?"
"Ah—sorry, Master," Alphonse answered instead, cringing. "We had other things to deal with."
"... Like what?" Izumi demanded, sounding rightfully suspicious. "If you're in trouble again, you two, you tell me now."
"Well... we didn't get Al's body back. Not his actual actual body. Like, the one he was born with, that body—"
"Quit procrastinating and get to it," Izumi said, relatively calmly. Ed sucked in a deep breath.
"Wellyouseeitwaskindaconfusing, andIthoughtIdidn'thaveanyoptionleft, excepttoputAl'ssoulinmybodybutthenheputmineinEnvy'sand—"
"EDWARD," Izumi thundered, and both brothers flinched. "What do you mean, you put Al's soul in your body?"
"Um... I meant what I said, Master, I put Al's soul in my body because I didn't think I could get his back..."
"And then Al did what with yours?"
"... I put brother's soul in Envy's body," Alphonse said very quietly, wincing in anticipation. Edward's arm tightened around him.
"Envy? One of the homunculi?"
Izumi sighed. "Alphonse. Remember the first thing I taught you?"
"One is all, all is one?"
"That means knowing when to let go, no matter how hard it is," she said, surprisingly gently. "You've made this mistake, so you'll have to live with it. When you grow old and he doesn't, remember that this was your decision."
"I know," Alphonse said, eyes downcast. Ed dropped his arm down to Al's lower back, rubbing at his other shoulder, and ducked to press his cheek to his brother's. Alphonse offered him a small smile of gratitude before continuing. "But Master, something went wrong. Envy's mind didn't completely die. And the reason we called you was to ask... was to beg you, to go look for Dante's research for us." He eyed the speaker warily as Izumi didn't answer, and felt the need to add, "We're looking for a way to make the homunculi human, too."
"And if I told you that Dante's research had been destroyed?" Izumi answered, eventually, and Alphonse bit his lip, face virtually collapsing.
"Then we would keep on looking," Ed said quietly, "for the rest of our lives."
There was a thoughtful silence on Izumi's end of the line, and then she eventually said, "Can one of you get down here to pick the books up before Saturday?"
"You mean you do have them?" Al whispered, hope dawning on him. "All of them?"
"She had a lot, and they're encoded, but yes, I have most. Can you get to Dublith by Saturday?"
"Yes," Ed answered, his arms tightening around Alphonse. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. Good luck, you two," Izumi said, and hung up. Edward put the receiver back on the hook, poking at the buttons until the flashing light by the 'loudspeaker' option flickered off, and turned back to Maria.
"So," she said with a smile, "you may be close?"
"I think so," Alphonse replied, pressing his cheek into Ed's shoulder. He was grinning, probably with the first sense of hope they'd had since they started, and the expression transformed his face for the better.
"I'll go get the tickets tomorrow," Ed said calmly, but Maria raised a hand.
"How? You said you had no money," she pointed out, and he froze. "Look, I can't afford two tickets to Dublith. They're expensive for us non-State alchemists. But if you let me phone around, I could probably raise the money from Colonel Mustang's old subordinates."
"You'd do that?" Al asked, eyes wide. "For us?"
She smiled at him and said, "Someone needs to look after you two. You get into all sorts of trouble on your own."
"I... Thank you, Lieutenant Ross. Thank you," Al said, biting his lip and shivering, unsure of what he wanted to do. Eventually he settled for holding out his hand, and Maria shook it warmly.
"It's all right, Alphonse," she replied, "and it's okay to call me Maria."
"Thank you, Maria," Ed said quietly, and she nodded at him. He was the elder, and the most suspicious, and the hardest to win over; hearing him offer her his thanks, equal to equal—that was worth more than any amount of gushing praise, in her opinion.
She chose to clear up the mugs and take them into the kitchen before she began calling around. Ed and Al were watching her when she returned, and she ushered them off the couch and away from the phone with matronly annoyance. Al wandered into the kitchen, filling the sink up and getting started on the mugs, and after a wary look, Ed followed, creating a dishcloth out of a hand. Al made a light remark about Envy making a living as a maid, and they both laughed, if a little tensely. Maria smiled to hear them relaxing enough to take their predicament lightly, and dialled Broche's number.
She filled him in on the vague situation, without mentioning specifically what they needed to find, and secured a promise from him that he'd be there soon enough with as much money as he could spare. She called Armstrong after that, and he boomed down the phone lines and also swore to be there as soon as possible to 'comfort the Elric brothers in their terrible predicament', offered to pay the entire amount for both tickets, and was politely refused. She called Scieszka and got the contact numbers of Mustang's subordinates, including the dorm room numbers of Fury and Farman, and called the head of the dormitory in order to speak with them. Havoc agreed to pay, and Breda said he'd have to owe Havoc, as he was waiting for a cheque to come in. She bit her lip, finger hesitating on the buttons, and punched in the last number. When she finally got hold of her, Riza Hawkeye sounded somewhat dubious, but she put Roy on the line, and he said he'd send 'something' and thanked her for notifying him of the situation.
Havoc was first to arrive, cigarette clamped between his teeth and the money in a manila envelope, which he entrusted to Ed because 'you've always been the more responsible one, Al'. He grinned at Alphonse and congratulated him on restoring both himself and his brother, and neither Elric had the heart to correct him. Fury and Farman and Broche arrived together from the dorms, handing over their contributions. Edward was a little annoyed about being the recipient of charity—he had always had his pride, after all—but Al merely settled a hand on his knee and leaned into him for a moment, and the pursed lips and cold glint to his eyes faded.
Riza Hawkeye turned up with another manila envelope pressed tightly against her chest. Al greeted her enthusiastically, and she smiled—a little hesitantly—and handed over the envelope to him. Al turned it, glanced at the title scribbled on the side, and passed it over to Ed, who tore it open and emptied the contents into his palm. He unfolded the sheet of paper, read it, and scowled. "Bastard," he growled, and Al plucked the letter from his unresisting grip and scanned it, face breaking into a small smile. He didn't say anything, just rested his head against Ed's shoulder, and offered Riza another grin.
Each of their guests left shortly after arriving, skulking furtively back the way they came. Al stood on the doorstep with Maria and watched them go, while Ed wrestled with the washing machine and cursed Al's laundry. "Don't break anything, brother," he warned, ducking inside to escape the chill. Ed dumped an armful of clothes over the couch, gave him an acid look, and laid the clothes out carefully over the backs of chairs close to the fire. Al winced, noticing the loose shorts he might have worn for bed were amongst the heap, and Ed flashed him a cheeky grin. "Colonel Armstrong didn't turn up," he noted lightly, instead of rising to his brother's bait.
"He'll be along shortly, I should imagine," Maria replied, crossing into her bathroom. She returned a moment later carrying some heavy blankets, which she deposited on the couch. "You can sleep here tonight and go to the station in the morning." She reached for the heaped notes and coins, counting them out, and frowned. "A hundred and fifty short, counting my own contribution. If Armstrong doesn't show up—"
A thunderous knocking at the door made her sigh. "All right then. You two know what you're in for?"
"He tries to crush my ribcage, he's got one hell of a surprise coming," Edward muttered sourly, and Al swatted him around the back of the head.
"You can't squish people just because they try to destroy your spinal cord, brother," he scolded, and Maria left him to it in order to answer the door. Alex Louis Armstrong was much the same as always; huge, towering, and in his attempts to be inconspicuous, about as invisible as a yellow rubber duck in a small tin tub. Maria rubbed the corners of her eyes, aware she must be more tired than normal if she could see him sparkling, and ushered him in. He dropped the envelope on the table, and bore down on an unsuspecting Alphonse like a steamroller on a deer; Alphonse even had the same 'caught-in-the-headlights' expression on his face as Armstrong swamped him. Edward snickered helplessly until he was captured in the same crushing embrace, and Maria closed the door behind him and smirked at the pair of them.
"ELRIC BROTHERS," he boomed, and Maria's neighbour thumped steadily on the wall in irritation. "You have achieved your long awaited goals and ambitions! You must be overjoyed, Edward!" Alphonse just managed to sidestep another tackling hug, shaking his head as he did so.
"And you, Alphonse!"
"I'm notGRK—" Edward managed, not fast enough this time. Al winced in sympathy as something in his brother's back clicked loudly, and Armstrong released him into a boneless puddle on the floor.
Armstrong took a step back to regard them, and Al sighed, knowing what was coming next. Sure enough, his eyes began to water, and the next second the Strongarm Alchemist was bawling like a baby and sweeping them both into a huge hug which made more than just Edward's back click. Both gasping for breath, Edward managed to get the leverage to use some of Envy's insanely inhuman strength to pry Armstrong's grip loose enough for them to both slip free. "Thank you," Al managed, polite even through near-suffocation.
"Do not MENTION it! I am merely happy to help two such young and noble boys achieve their honourable dream and succeed in upturning the cruel sentence fate has put upon them—"
"Not exactly. I'M Edward, damnit," Ed snapped, morphing briefly into his old body. Al raised an eyebrow.
"You obviously haven't seen yourself in a mirror recently, brother," he said innocently, taking a few steps closer. He was shorter than Ed's version of his old form by several inches, and Edward scowled and refused to meet his eyes.
Armstrong was, despite the image he carefully cultivated, not a stupid man. One of his gauntleted hands landed on each of their shoulders, buckling Al's knees and making Ed wince. "Explain, Elric brothers," he said quietly, and Al sighed.
Ed repeated the same story they'd told Maria, while Armstrong listened carefully. When they'd finished, he frowned, fingering his moustache slowly, and said, "How far can you control this Envy's mind, Edward?"
"Not very," Ed muttered, sliding back into Al's form. "I can keep it down, but sometimes it's hard. It's especially hard when he gets angry, and he gets angry a lot around Al."
Al's head jerked up, but his expression was indignant. "And you didn't tell me?"
"I can control him that much," Ed protested. "He hasn't hurt you, has he? And he's had plenty of chances to get you while you're vulnerable."
Al's mind quickly flashed through his options. He could have been hurt while he was asleep, or in the shower, or—or, God, being touched by Edward-Envy, but yes, he was still unharmed.
Armstrong must have decided that this was something not to get involved in, as he ruffled Al's hair—a motion which made Al grin and blush hesitantly, and a form of jealousy that had nothing to do with Envy seethe in Ed—and promised to meet them at the train station early tomorrow morning. "You should get some sleep," he said. "I'll be there around six."
"Six?" Ed muttered when he left, and Maria smiled at him.
"Not a morning person, I take it?"
Ed affected a shudder, and knuckled Al's automail shoulder affectionately. "Your stuff is still drying."
"Eh, it's okay," Al said with a shrug, heading back inside. Maria closed the door and watched him throw a few blankets over the couch, and Ed pattered after him. "Besides, I know you won't let me freeze to death," Al added casually, and Maria shook her head fondly.
"I'll wake you up tomorrow morning. The light switch is near the bathroom."
"Thanks," Ed said calmly, as Al shucked off his under jacket, and Maria went into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Al dropped his belt and pants on the floor, then his shirt and boxers, and curled into the nest of blankets and cushions. "Come here, brother," he whispered, and Ed flicked the lights off before complying, winding his body around Al's and nuzzling the top of his head. The couch wasn't really wide enough for them both, but as long as Ed didn't complain, Al didn't think he would either.