It was difficult to realize that there were places and times one would never blend in, but even worse were the times when one did happen to fit the mold. He probably looked like a sixteen-year old punk, Edward Elric thought sourly as he stormed through the alleyway, sending street people diving to either side for cover, the irony only catching up to nip his heels a moment later.
Of course he looked like a punk, he was sixteen and furious with his fists balled and ready to whale on someone, which was why these nameless people were avoiding his gaze, hoping they would not be the ones to earn this dangerous young man's wrath. A diminutive, dark-haired woman stepped to one side hastily as he exploded out from the mouth of the alley onto the street at large, and her eyes on him were instantly terrified, as if she expected him to punch her any second. What nonsense, he thought, and the tight ball of anger burning in his stomach intensified until he realized that his annoyance was probably making things worse. Her shoulders slouched down at the rigid, trembling line of his body, and he felt guilty as she practically dove into the alley just to get away from him.
Ed turned the corner sharply and marched directly to the little out-back lot, a patch of land directly behind the complex of warehouses where their project was housed. The University of Munich made its own peculiar footprint on the city, and like most campuses he'd seen in his life it was forever running out of room for itself. Whenever it did, like the giant, sprawling organism it was, the campus reached out feelers and ate into the surrounding city—low-rent areas first, sometimes stray warehouses or houses that would be used in their current form until money was found for them to be renovated. The building the physics department had currently annexed for "special projects" was right flush against a ghetto, and not one street behind it was an entirely residential district—complete with street life, green grocers, and a weedy vacant lot where a house fire had burned someone's residence to the ground. As of yet, the area was too poor for anyone to rebuild there.
He stepped away from the busy street and walked through the blighted ruin of what had once been someone's dream, into the shade of the house's one remaining brick wall that had not yet been razed to ground. The little patch of charred earth smelt more like vegetables and refuse than smoke, probably courtesy of the housing complex next door. A bit like piss as well, like the rest of this lousy, hateful world. He couldn't see Alfons, but he could hear the man's breath hissing like an angry cat in the darkness, and he squeezed his fists tighter, waiting.
"Well?" Ed called out, trying to keep his voice steady and even, though inside every last nerve was awake and jangling.
"You called me out here? I came!" He shifted from side to side, trying to see just where Alfons was at. Fuck, he wished his Drachman were better. He was aware he probably sounded like an idiot sometimes, but no one had ever told him in school that their country's most common foreign language would some day be useful in a mirror-universe. Just another nasty trick in this nightmare the Gate had sprung upon him.
"I noticed," a breathy tenor called back. "I'm surprised you did."
And then the worst surprise of any he'd found here, the part which sometimes made him doubt he'd escaped the Gate's trickery at all. Alfons Heiderich, this universe's most cruel mistake, came round from the other side of the crumbling brick wall, and Ed found himself again wondering if the man existed solely for his personal torment. Fifteen and pale, with a name and sweetheart's face that reminded him heart-breakingly of Al—and a viper's tongue and a demon's heart, and an ego the size of a small country.
Ed's temper flared and he shifted his stance, trying to find a better footing to properly brace himself. Some days it seemed like it never stopped raining in Munich, and the past week had certainly taken its toll on this unfinished back lot. Mud squelched underfoot and his prosthetic foot wobbled in unnatural ways. He resisted the temptation to look down and check it, because that might betray his weakness. He had made the mistake of letting Alfons find out that his left leg was prosthetic, but not its level of mobility.
That had been the first black mark against the man, actually. Since sometimes he walked with an unavoidable limp, the research group had asked if he was in some way lame, and Edward had done the noble thing and owned up that yes, it was actually missing, but with his false one, he could walk reasonably well. That had been his first, and in some ways, most brutal wake-up call to the realities of this place. He had known of people who were disturbed by automail, yes, but never had he seen such open disgust. For the brief moment he'd pulled his pants-leg up, the entire research group had curled their collective lip, and he had transformed in an instant from a living, sentient being into a walking piece of scum.
"Is that...a war injury?" the Frenchman who looked like Havoc (another cruel trick!) had finally asked, and that was what had clued him in that there was something greater going on than simple automail aversion.
This country was at war, he remembered the Old Bastard telling him, from the very instant they set foot in greater Munich. They ended up on the wrong side of it. Speak Drachman if you can, avoid using your Amestrisian. If you have to be any nationality, best to be American. You don't want them to think that you're English.
Not good for them to think he might have fought for the wrong side.
"No," he had said after a moment's hesitation, "this is an old injury from when I was a child. I got my leg dragged beneath a street car."
An outlandish lie, but if there was one thing he'd learned, a tall tale always got the focus off the matter at hand. He'd made up a story, wowing the rest of the group with his impression of the sound of the engine, the red-hot agony of what it was like to suddenly and traumatically have your leg severed at the thigh, his thigh muscles reflexively twitching and clamping as he shrieked (which was, of course, the only reason he was alive, true story—muscles spasming to seal off the artery). He did it well, he felt, because he actually did know what it was like to watch his own flesh be mangled, and the feeling of his own blood dripping hot over his hand—that he would not forget in a thousand lifetimes of murderers, homunculi, or alchemical fights. The others had listened politely, occasionally cried out in sympathy or disgust, and by the end offered him a fag for his effort in entertaining them.
And Alfons's eyes, unamused and glinting, like twin pieces of ice, had not believed him one bit.
He was wearing that expression now, along with that arrogant little sneer he never seemed to lose, and Ed had to remind himself that no matter what, he couldn't lose it and throw the first punch here. Alfons had challenged him to "take it outside", and so he would, but he also knew that he could beat the ever-loving shit out of this idiot. And as much as that thought pleased him, he also had to think ahead. Alfons was an arrogant asshole, yes, but he was also the head honcho of the group that had so far been his only in-road into actual work in the field he was interested in. Theoretical research was all fine and good, but if he was ever to find a way to break out of this world—if he was ever to transcend the barrier between this nightmare and his real brother, one who was hopefully sane and whole and would never look at him with that cold light in his eyes—he needed people interested in practical experiments, too.
Keeping that in mind, he forced himself to cross his arms in front of him, making it look like he wasn't imminently ready to punch Alfons into next Tuesday.
"This is utterly childish, you know," he said, meeting Alfons's flinty gaze. "We're adults, why should we be fighting?"
"If it's so pointless, why did you follow me out here?" Alfons retorted, breezily putting an end to any claims Edward had at a moral high ground. "And it sure took you long enough. I was just about to leave."
"Yeah? I took the alley," Ed ground out. "Why, how'd you get here?" No doubt the bastard knew some smarter, faster shortcut. Any time Alfons could find some way in which Ed was wrong, or his science questionable, he couldn't resist pointing it out. He never harped on any of the other men like that, and it had quickly started to get to Ed. He had been nothing but charitable to the man—even despite the fact that irrationally, he felt as though Alfons had somehow stolen his brother's face—but Alfons repayed him with passive-aggressive bullshit. When he'd asked what Alfons's problem was with him, the man had claimed that there was none. It was starting to get old.
As predicted, Alfons was once waiting to prove him wrong. "Try the back door to the shop next time," he said. "It leads right here. Unless you went running to Daddy Dearest for help?"
Red flared in front of Ed's eyes and he seethed for a moment before he recognized that was exactly what Alfons was after, him losing control. He determined he wouldn't take the bait. "That has to be the lamest cheap shot in the book. My father has nothing to do with this, and I don't give a shit if you insult him or not," he replied in a curt tone.
"Why, is that your problem? My father?"
Alfons said nothing, but Ed thought he saw a twitch in the man's eyes that betrayed him. Typical, he thought in disgust. He had been to all four corners of the civilized world, right up to the tundras of Drachma and the borders of the Eastern Desert, and so far no matter how far he roamed, he'd discovered that money and power—and the petty jealousies they inspired—worked the same way everywhere. Apparently the principle held even in foreign universes.
"I don't know what you've heard, but my father didn't pay off the department head to get them to accept me," he said. It was skirting the truth. His father's current identity, "Phillipe Bombast von Hohenheim", held great prestige among certain academic circles in this universe. They hadn't had to pay because the headmaster of physics had been too starstruck by his father's name. 'Of course' they would extend an invitation to 'the venerable sir's' child, and it was not at all a problem that Ed's education 'had been disrupted by the war'. Ed had been uncomfortable with the situation himself, but he'd had enough experience with snooty academic types to know that one did not look gift horse in the mouth, nor turn down a free library pass.
He had asked the old bastard later just how the hell he had managed to do that—how the hell he even knew so much about this place, but Hohenheim as always had only given him a mysterious, infuriating little smile. Ed personally suspected the man had been here before, and that thought as always brought up a nasty riot of feelings. That his father had abandoned them to gallivant in this pale shadow-world—or perhaps, been a hapless prisoner here while Ed imagined that he had abandoned them—it caused Ed's guts to twist, and did not improve his mood one bit.
His glare intensified, until it felt like he was seeing the world through slits.
Alfons faltered for a moment, perhaps intimidated by Ed's obvious increase in anger, but then rallied. He drew himself up and tossed his shaggy mop of hair back out of his eyes with one quick flip of his head. That particular gesture was what always prefaced him saying something utterly arrogant, and naturally also made Ed wonder if, despite the name, Alfons was really a false Russell Tringham. The theory was appealing, except that Russell had proved he wasn't actually a complete waste of space.
"Interesting," Alfons said haughtily. His voice practically dripped with condescension. "For the record, I've never actually heard anyone say that your father bought your way in—but you're right, one can't help but wonder. How did you pass the entrance exams? Or do they give half-points for saying 'table salt' and 'silver spoons' gets you silver chloride?"
Ed gritted his teeth. He had suspected Alfons was going to pull out something like that.Trust the demonic little prick to remember each and every time he ever slipped up and reverted to Amestrian alchemy. In Amestris, it was possible to take a compound which had the desired elements in it, then extract what was necessary without tinkering with solutions or worrying about state changes. Here, he couldn't just extract oxygen from the air, or carbon from the earth. It was fucking annoying.
If this were the real world, I could show you how things are done, he snarled internally. I could transmute that fucking smile right off your face! Not that he would, of course, decomposing flesh was a horror he never wanted to do again—to humans or homunculi—but he figured he could achieve the same effect if he transmuted the straps of those insufferable suspenders into lint. For reasons unbeknownst to those with a sense of fashion (or working eyes), people here all ran around with straps over their shoulders to hold their pants up. And Alfons in particular had the habit of hooking his thumbs beneath his when he was going on about how Ed was Wrong about something, which endeared them to Ed even less.
Ed watched with increasing frustration as Alfons hooked a thumb beneath his suspender strap, just below his collar bone.
"Or perhaps the dean was impressed by your suggestions we 'just liquefy some oxygen, the air has plenty of it'?"
"I was implying we should invest in a Liebig condenser," Ed hissed.
"You didn't even know the name for it," Alfons retorted. "No, you just assumed there was some magic device out there that would do the job, I guess. That's what you always do, you just throw these crazy ideas out without the slightest clue how you're going to realize them!"
"Yeah well, it's called brainstorming," Ed sputtered in response, his hackles rising. "Some innovator you are if you can't even come up with anything new. Is that why you're so married to petroleum for the fuel system? Cause I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's a shitty choice and you need something better!"
Alfons's pale ears visibly reddened. Ed smirked in satisfaction. That was one of the few good things about the man. He was an excellent debater until he got flustered, and when he did, it was immediately obvious.
"A-as if you've come up with something better!" Alfons said lamely. "Damn it, this is just what you always do! You say something doesn't work, well, what do you have to offer!? Nothing! You sit there and complain that Einstein's full of shit, well, go on, why don't you disprove him!"
And back to what had started this whole argument in the first place, and well, damn it all Alfons had a point. Ed knew this world's view of science was off because damn it, he had come from a place where things functioned fundamentally differently. He had seen the Gate, felt its deathly touch on his body, and he knew that there was more out there than these ignorant people knew.
He had also been warned many, many times already never to reveal such knowledge—for fear that he would be mistaken as stark raving mad.
Alfons flipped his hair back again, looking triumphant, and Ed forced himself not to fly at the man. It was just all so fucking unfair.
"See? You can't, can you? Then don't even make that claim! Einstein is brilliant man, I will not ever have you speak ill of him! I have had it with this shit!"
The same Einstein whom others in the research group often made fun of for some of the same ideas, or his crazy demeanor, or for being the wrong ethnicity, and Alfons never batted an eye. Frustration reached a boiling point, and Ed made his decision. It would be suicide academically for him to punch his project leader's lights out—unless he could taunt the bastard into taking a swing first. The one good thing about Alfons's giant ego was, he was relatively certain that if Alfons threw first and lost he would be so demoralized he wouldn't want to tell anyone.
"Okay then, fine!" Ed spread his arms out wide, leaving himself superficially vulnerable and open to attack, though his stance was still solid and he was more than capable of fending off frontal attack. "You've had it with me, I've had it with you—then let's finish this already. Go ahead, I know you're dying to take a swing at me. That's why you called me out here, isn't it?"
Alfons's eyes widened a bit and he started forward. Ed could tell he was tempted. He paused, though.
"I called you out here," Alfons said stiffly, "so we could continue this discussion without bothering everyone else."
"Bullshit," Ed said. He spat on the ground between them. "You said we should 'take it outside' when you tried shove me off my stool and then you couldn't even do that. What do you have for arms, pencils?"
Alfons's ears reddened further. His blood pressure must be going up. "You misunderstand! I thought we could use some fresh air, I was—"
"Stalling, that's what! You know I could kick your ass and you didn't want the guys to know!" Important to seed that idea, let it germinate before they actually got down to it. Ed danced back and forth a bit, in a strange way relieved. This, at least, this sort of conflict he knew how to manipulate. Not passive-aggressive sniping, stupid constant double-standards. Just his fists, and Alfons's fists, and maybe if he won this one fight now, he wouldn't have to fight on a smaller scale every damned day.
Once they established the order of things, maybe Alfons would stop being such a prick and let him do the research he was here to do, so he could get on home and out of this nightmare, away from that sweet Alphonse-face worn by an impostor.
Alfons's expression was right now an ugly sneer, and there was nothing sweet about his voice either. He looked pointedly down at Ed's left leg.
"I was trying to say that I was not about to start a fight with someone who obviously can't fight back," the man said.
Ed knew he was being baited but he couldn't help feeling actually insulted at that.
"I don't need a leg to punch you," Ed pointed out. "Do you honestly think I'm something less because of my leg?!" And Alfons didn't even know about the arm, he remembered in a sudden fit of paranoia. He resolved only to touch the man with his left arm, even though it was his non-dominant. It was one thing to explain away a false leg, in a place where war veterans had stick legs and peg legs. It was quite another to explain a fully functional prosthetic hand, shoulder, and elbow.
Alfons reared his head back. "Well yes technically, volumetrics-wise, you are less of a person," he said. "It's too bad they didn't amputate your ego along with your limb."
He almost lost it and decked the man right then and there, but Ed reined his fury in—barely. He went in for the verbal kill instead.
"Strong words, for a man who can't even topple a cripple from a chair," Ed taunted, keeping his arms spread out to either side, making himself a nice, easy target. "And I'm missing my leg, but at least I've got my brain. What part of yours did they amputate to make you think regular petrol would work for staging a rocket?"
Alfons was starting to tremble, and that was when he knew he had him. Ed tensed himself and waited.
"It's never going to fly," he said. "You like people to think you're so brilliant, but you would be nothing without our help."
That was when Alfons flew at him.
In truth it turned out to be kind of disappointing. He certainly knew from their earlier scuffle in the laboratory that Alfons was not terribly gifted in the strength department, but he had expected from Alfons's longer legs that the man might at least be speedy. Apparently that was too much to ask. It was child's play to catch Alfons's outstretched arm as the man swung his fist inexpertly at him, and a mere second later Ed had a tight enough grip on Alfons's arm to flip him over his shoulder, using Alfons's own charge against him. There was a resounding squelch-thud as Alfons landed behind him, flat on his back in the mud, and Ed spun on his heel to stare down at the winded, utterly confused-looking man.
"How'd you like that 'practical application'?" he said triumphantly. "Momentum, it's not just for ballistics any more." He scuffed mud at Alfons's shoulder. "Don't think you know everything, cause you don't. I may be missing a leg but I can still kick your ass, and I may have some holes in my knowledge base but I can still do some damn good chemistry. I'm good at it and it's what I came to do, so just shut up and let me do my job, okay?"
Alfons said nothing, didn't even move a muscle to get up—not that Ed was particularly surprised. Bastard was likely too embarrassed to say anything. He waited a minute before he finally turned around and began heading north back toward the warehouse (and hopefully, this time, to find the fabled back door Alfons claimed existed so he wouldn't have to go around). Alfons could lie there in the mud and stew about how he just got his ass handed to him, and then hopefully by the time he saw fit to rejoin everyone, he'd be a bit more humble about criticizing Ed all the damn time. Well, at the very least, he'd be too embarrassed too. Ed knew Alfons and his ilk. Guys like that never quit, they could only hope to be suppressed.
Something cold and wet smacked him suddenly in the small of the back, and Ed wheeled around on his heel, amazed to discover that apparently, guys like this didn't know when to quit either.
"What the—" was all he had time to say before a second volley of what proved to be mud splattered across his chest, all across his white button-up shirt. His only shirt, the one he needed to wear to the university every day, and here he could not just transmute the filth out.
Alfons was turned around and facing him, sitting up on one knee. He had a fistful of mud in each hand, and his expression said he was ready to use it.
"What the fuck!" Ed shrieked as another glob of mud came flying in his general direction. He side-stepped the mess, but Alfons chucked a second handful almost immediately, and that caught Ed square in the thigh.
"Ballistics," Alfons said, snarling at him. "You were talking practical applications."
Ed watched in horror as the man reached down to scoop up another big handful of mud, aimed it directly at Ed's other pants-leg.
"Fuck no, stop that!" Ed complained. He managed to dodge that shot but Alfons was persistent. "These are the only clothes I have!" He didn't want to think about the logistics of cleaning them as it was. Without alchemy...he supposed he could use a solution of sodium hypochlorite for the shirt, but that would take all the color out of his pants, and he was loathe to consider asking his father to buy him new ones.
"You muddied mine," Alfons pointed out and dragged his fingers through the dirt once more.
Ed had no choice but to dart forward and shove Alfons over sideways, back into the mud that he was so enamored of.
"You attacked me first, you dick," Ed pointed out. "After pretending to be so noble, not wanting to hurt 'a cripple'."
Alfons glared up at him. There was a thick streak of mud caked along one side of his face now, making him look less like a university student and more like the monster in a matinée creature-feature. "I thought you wanted me to treat you as an equal?"
"No, like a fellow man, not a five-year-old," Ed snorted at Alfons's muddy face. "Who the fuck throws mud in a fight? You look like the clay monster from Der Golem."
He couldn't see Alfons's right ear under all that mud, but he could see the left one as it turned nearly purple with rage.
"Try again when you've grown up," Ed said dismissively, ready to go home and look for the wash basin, and that was when Alfons lunged forward and tackled his prosthetic leg, hooking his arm around the back of the knee and pulling the joint forward.
Superiority turned to panic and Ed acted on reflex. His plastic prosthesises were nowhere near as sturdy as regular automail, and his mind was filled with the sudden terror, what if it breaks!? His father had said he was working on more, but he'd still have to crawl home, and what if he was suddenly without his mobility? Nameless horror swept over him and he brought his elbow down hard into the middle of Alfons's back, not at all remembering to pull his punches.
Alfons howled and released him. He fell face down at Ed's feet, sprawled again in the dirt.
"Don't do that," Ed hissed. He took a careful step backward with his prosthetic, gingerly testing to make sure the knee was even still functional. Thankfully it seemed to hold. "Don't you ever dare do that, what on earth were you thinking -"
The man-come-mud monster before him bellowed with rage and came rushing at him once more, arms out-stretched like he was trying to envelop Ed with his filth.
Ed cocked his fist back and let Alfons have it, right up-side the jaw, hard enough to send him spinning back to earth.
Couldhavelostmyleg fuckerattackedmyleg thatwasclose...
He trembled a little, trying to get a hold of himself. When Alfons started to push up on his knees, he kicked him solidly in the ass and Alfons tumbled right back down.
This time, the man did not get up.
Ed circled his fallen rival for a moment, wary. Alfons had tricked him twice now by playing 'dead', to his great chagrin, and he didn't want yet another repeat. After the third or fourth orbit, however, it dawned on him something might be wrong.
"You okay?" he asked hesitantly, leaning down to touch the man's quivering shoulder. Alfons's face was turned away from him, and he shrugged Ed's hand off quite pointedly.
Worried that perhaps he'd somehow seriously hurt the other man, Ed forcibly jerked Alfons toward him, rolling him over onto his back. Alfons's arms flew up to cover his face immediately, but not before Ed saw the glimmer of tears at the corner of Alfons's eyes.
Alfons scrubbed at his eyes furiously, smearing even more mud across his nose and cheeks, and then he sat up and pulled away from Ed bodily. His face contorted with rage.
"I hate you so much," the man hissed, before shoving himself to his feet and storming away. He seemed to weave a little as he went, or perhaps that was just Ed's imagination.
"Oh really now? Hate is such a strong word," Ed called after him, snide on the surface. Inwardly, he wasn't sure how he felt. Adrenaline was still singing its siren-song through his veins encouraging him to fight, or fuck, or flee. Part of him wanted to gloat uncontrollably, he had sent his rival packing with his tail between his legs.
Another part of him was starting to feel profoundly guilty, because not only had he sent his rival packing, he had humiliated and shamed him, rather more than he'd intended.
Ed brushed the mud off his front the best he could and turned, headed back out to the street and off toward home. Fuck it, he could worry later. Alfons wasn't dead, he didn't have any broken bones, the only lasting damage was to the man's bloated ego, and hadn't he meant to take the bastard down a peg? Alfons had gotten what he deserved. Nothing more, nothing less.