The sign, though unmistakable, was still difficult to believe and understand. There was no fine print, no language barriers, no running ink or bubbles in the wood, nothing to mar the way the letters sat, black as night and big as day. Their meaning was to the point, short and not so sweet, but it was impossible not to hope for a miracle.
"No way!" Ed yelled, the smooth white cloth of his gloves grasping onto the shimmering red surface of the apple and waving it at the storeowner. "Are you serious?"
The elderly man behind the counter, perhaps five years too old to still be working as he dangled one foot in the grave with the other tap dancing right beside it, nodded. "If you don't like the prices, then go somewhere and try to find it cheaper," he muttered, his eyes grazing over the fruit in worry, frightened by the hand that grasped it so tight. Bruising such a delicate piece would make it hard to sell, and that meant a loss of profit, dammit; why couldn't this customers see that? "The only way I can stay open is by charging one mark lower than the rest."
"One mark isn't worth the paper its printed on," Ed shot back, but shelled out the asked for price with a begrudging silence. He knew it was an uphill battle, knew that he wasn't going to get anywhere, but his fascination with the situation still refused to fall away; the amount of news coverage on the inflation had been buzzing throughout the masses at a rate that reminded him of hummingbird's wings. Ever since the minister of foreign affairs, Rathenau, was murdered, everything had fallen down, toppled around the country, and slowly, the world.
Forgoing the brown bag, Ed took the apple and strolled away from the shop with a pleasant sigh. Juice exploded onto his tongue as teeth tore open the skin, his mouth slurping a little as it tried to roll free; not a drop wasted around here anymore, not on anyone's cheap life. The air was tense, the auras dark in all the faces that ever passed by. Germany, this place in this strange world... it lacked the grace of his home, even if his home was riddled with manipulated henchmen and dogs of war.
But then again, how different was this place?
The sky was gray, and Ed found himself huddling in deeper into the dark green of his coat, fighting out the chill of a night long since coming. Days were shorter here it seemed, something pushing the night in harder, faster, making it linger about the skyline like a monster that wouldn't fade, wouldn't run even under the promise of a new dawn. The streets were riddled with puddles from a rain that morning, most of them dark with dirt, with grime, with a century of thoughts. Ed stared down at one as he passed, his reflection sucking on an apple back at him, and without meaning to, he began to think of the principals of alchemy concerning such a valuable mineral.
At that little one bedroom flat, science waited, the promise of hopes and dreams comprised on paper with charcoal. Rocket ships. Figures. Numbers. Sketches and sweat. His home was somewhere, somewhere, and he'd go back, make it back no matter what had to be sacrificed in return. Somewhere, Al was waiting, had to be waiting, complete and whole, because damnit, damnit, he had suffered too much not to be there.
He tossed the apple core into a different puddle, watching it ripple out, the water shifting, moving, and the image gave him waking nightmares are he strolled. Tearing his amber eyes away, he tilted his head back, staring at the gray clouds, at the way they hung, pregnant over him, over this cursed country in this cursed world.
"Will you rain already?" he muttered, before hurrying back home. There was oil at the apartment, nestled aside his bed, and he could hear the way his automail in his leg needed it as it cried out in soft squeaks when his knee moved. So much waited at that flat, so much needed him, called for him, but he was finding that being stuck in that oppressive little shack seemed less than inviting. The lonely gray walls, the way the draft blew in against his foot, the way the window looked out over the city and saw nothing but dark rooftops and monochrome sky... how optimistic was that?
He rounded the corner, waved his hand to the obligatory face that he saw everytime he left his apartment, and slid into the building. He had to duck around, moving out through the kitchen of the downstairs restaurant before finding the staircase, and he took the steps two at a time while ignoring the cooks that were standing around, guffawing over some dirty joke they had heard earlier. The economic state had hit everyone hard, and they were seemingly no exception by the empty haze of their dining room. He couldn't blame them for raising the rent, but that hardly meant that it would piss him off any less.
It took a moment to slide the key into the door, turn it, slide into the flat that was a place to lay his head rather than any sort of "home". The old man was out, gone, and Ed wondered how long he'd have the place to himself before noise, distraction would return. It had been a year, a long, long year of being together and though rage still lingered there under layers of skin and muscle, it was smoothing, slowly eroding the coarse edge of that anger, that betrayal. Sometimes, he could look at him and even let his lips curl, crack, draw up into a smile that didn't bear some ill intention smirk about the edges; sometimes, he could say something civil. Sometimes, there was hope.
But for now, there was peace, sweet peace that wouldn't fade but simply wrap around him warmly and cradle him like a child. Damp shoes were kicked free, flung back against the door, and he didn't blink as the cold draft wrapped over the wet socks, icing the nerves that could still scream underneath his flesh. The bed was rumpled in the corner, nothing more than a cot really, but it was better than the gusty floor by a long shot.
Ed walked to it, sinking down on the edge, hair falling free of his ponytail once the tie was unknotted. The wash of gold was the only color in the room; even the normal telltale red of his coat was hidden underneath the bed after a few of the residents gave him hesitant and disgruntled looks over the alchemist symbol along the back in black, whispering something about a servant of Lucifer, whoever that was. Now, now it was simply grays and greens and browns for him, anything to draw less attention to him and his desires, his mechanical limbs. After all, he already heard how they whispered, how they spoke behind his back, calling him insane, mad, the boy who didn't know anything but thought he could own the world.
It could be worse, he figured. They could be calling him short.
One hand, the one that gleamed even in the deepest darkness, swept the sketches and blueprints onto the floor without another thought. Falling backwards onto the thin mattress, he drew his legs up and closed his eyes. Outside, the rain had begun to dribble, and the quiet patter helped guide him into a place where only dreams could complete him.
"I see you didn't get the extra charcoal today."
Ed groaned as the words, spoken so evenly and tiredly, cut through his sleep, driving the reality onto him with weighted hands. What had he been dreaming of? Al...and...Colonel Smartass...and sensei.... and they were—
The soft hand found his eyes, rubbing the pieces of slumber away that stubbornly clung to buttery lashes. Sometime, the rain had stopped, had quieted and left its imprint of beaded water against the panes of glass. Night had fallen, its dark kiss slinking over the apartment and only beaten back by the few candles his roommate had chosen to ignite. Cheaper, it had proven, but so inconvenient. Of course, not as inconvenient as having no money for food....
Ed pushed himself up, the flame dancing, pirouetting, jumping. It reminded him of his dream, of Mustang, of—
"I went, but their prices were—"
Hohenheim shook his head with a little smile, pulling out the bag and tossing it to where his son sat on the bed. He said nothing as the other rooted through the depths, coming up with the scattered pieces of black writing utensils, brandishing two like a weapon more serious than any sword.
"What, you didn't think I could get them? That I would forget?" Ed shot, his teeth grinding together. No faith! No trust! Nothing! How dare he—
"I didn't think you could afford them with the inflation," Hohenheim corrected, the smile wavering and falling to the wayside. His myopic eyes dropped their pleasant glitter behind the glasses, and he reached into another bag, retrieving a couple pieces of bread to split between them.
Edward snatched away the offered snack, staring down at the porous bread with hunger in his stomach but not in his soul. The dream had made him short, had made him homesick, and though he wouldn't admit it in front of anyone, he felt like kicking something until it broke then breaking down himself.
He took a bite instead, muttering a "Thanks" under his breath. The comment made his father smile, made the candle brighten a little about them both and reflect in the strands of golden hair they shared. Hohenheim took a bite out of his own treat, glad he didn't have to ask if he had been correct about the complete lack of monetary funds on both of their behalves for the sake of vocal chords and sanity.
"Any closer?" the elder Elric had asked, one sunbeam eyebrow arched, something that outshone even the candle between them. He nodded to the papers thrown onto the floor, unsure if it had been exhaustion or frustration that had laid them to waste there; when it came to his son, truly either one was equally as possible.
"I'm still here, aren't I?" Ed finished off the bread, then looked down at his hands in a fit of anger, of rage. Equivalent trade it might have been, but this... this was hardly fair! But then again, hadn't he learned that life wasn't truly fair?
Time to change the subject. "I heard the bookstore down three blocks ? you know the one, right? ? has a new shipment coming in." Hohenheim climbed to his feet, moving to the sink to wash his hands, scrub them down gently with the bar of white soap. "They might have something that can help you."
Edward's head jerked up, his eyes widening, before he calmed himself. Every time, he was excited, and every time, he returned disappointed; what would say that this time would be so different? "I'll stop by tomorrow. Want me to get anything else while I'm out?"
"An apple. Nice and red. You know, I have been telling you that I've been craving one for a few weeks. If only they weren't so expensive."
Ed smirked as he blew out the candle and flopped back down onto the bed with a soft thump. He had known, and he was certain that the old man would have loved to hear about how in season those sweet crimson spheres were right now.
For once, the sky was blue, the sun beaming about him like a halo of excited angels surrounding his slight stature. He was humming under his breath, some song that he and Al had sang while skipping down by the river, picking up frogs and feeling their cold, clammy skin under his fingertips. Mother had always asked them not to do that, some old wives tale about warts, but they did, couldn't help it in that little boy fashion. His spirits were as high as the clouds, the new book under his arm even though it would mean that they would be late with rent yet again, but that was trivial! Trivial in comparison to what he had!
Theory of Spectra and Atomic Constitution by Niels Bohr! Brand new! This would help him, would aid him, and even though it wasn't alchemy (stupid world beyond the Gate), it was the next best thi—
Edward stopped in midstep, slamming one boot down hard against the cement while shoulders slouched down in the building rage of someone insulted down to the core of a dark soul. His metal hand curled, fingers wrapping around one another as he turned on his heel, gold eyes turning to lava in their anger. Did someone actually think they would be able to get away with such a remark? Did they think that they could actually live after saying such a thing? "Who are you calling so short that you can't see—"
But the words never came, never finished their trail as they died on the lips that dared to speak them. And why shouldn't they when one's enemy was standing with folded arms and one hell of a shit-eating grin? Especially when you believed said enemy to be dead, long dead and gone and devoured by powers greater than the both of them combined?
The homunculus tossed the long, dark hair over one shoulder, before nodding with lips turned towards the heavens. "The only." And without another word, he drove his fist into the once ecstatic ex-alchemist's jaw, delighting in the feel of bone and flesh and the impending bruise.