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Better Living Through Alchemy

chapter 17.

"It's going to be fine," a familiar and loved voice
whispered in his ear. Ed turned slightly from the spectacle in front of him,
of students rushing about to set up booths and stands. The General winked his
solitary eye. He was wearing his cap and dress uniform and he looked marvelous.
His presence was such relief and Ed cursed the fact he couldn’t kiss him.

A sudden burst of light took everyone by surprise and
all heads swiveled in its direction. Al looked up, grinned sheepishly and waved.
He was helping Ed's class set up their booth and had decided to be decorative.
Before he knew it, he was swamped with students from other classes begging him
to come and help with their booths.

"That is exactly the reason I said I wouldn't help them,"
Ed nodded toward Al's predicament, "I'd be transmuting fancy booths all day."

The General chuckled and patted his shoulder.

"You have this Professor job down pat," he grinned.

"What can I say?" Ed grinned back, "I'm gifted."

Seth and Daniel charged over, R.D. running frantically
along side them, his leash held tightly in Seth's hand.

"Professor," Seth panted, "Okay, the football team says
they get two spaces for their booth and Mr. Harding says they only get one because
the band has already got their booth set up and Coach Taylor said it was poor
planning on your part and then he and Mr. Harding started having heated words."
Seth nodded, eyes large behind his glasses.

"They're cussing," Daniel translated.

Roy slapped Ed on the back and grinned huge.

"Gifted, you say? Diplomacy is now called for, I seem
to remember you have a failing grade in that department," Roy simpered.

"You shut the fuck up," Ed snapped, then clamped his mouth
closed and looked sidelong at Daniel and Seth. Seth was blushing but Daniel
was grinning toothily. Ed let out a groan.

"Fine, let me go play peace keeper, lead the way boys,"
Ed gestured and the pair rushed off ahead of him with Ed following along behind.
R.D. kept trying to wait for him, but got dragged along by the boys.

"This is so much fun," the General said to Ed's retreating
back.


Alex found him standing beside the bleachers, worrying
a single glove between his hands. He stood beside him and clasped his hands
behind his back. Alex made an impressive figure in a three piece suit and looked
both formidable and respectable. They glanced at each other again and then back
out over the fields.

"I'm glad to hear you've come to your senses," the former
State Alchemist said to the General, "It means so much to Edward, and to yourself,
though you would deny it."

"It's been a while," Roy sighed, "I actually practiced,"
He shook his head, "Ed and I drove out into the middle of nowhere and I shot
off random flares and aerial bursts. I just hope I can pull this off."

"You worry too much old friend," the large man smiled,
"You've never let Edward down before."

Roy shrugged and glanced up at the bleachers.

"I've been informed that I'm to be in position no later
than three o'clock," the General grinned, "Until then, I am left to my own devices.
You know Ed was holding out on us all these years, I think he would have made
a fine commander in the army."

"Indeed," Alex intoned, "I was well informed of the parameters
of my demonstration, or should I say demolition? What do you know of this Hydro
Alchemist who will also be performing?"

"Otto?" Roy said, "He's a pleasant enough sort, you'll
like him. He was a Major in the west back before General Alton took over there,
do you remember Alton? He was a great lover of hunting. He and Riza's grandfather
used to go out to that lodge in Cartwell all the time," Roy fiddled with his
glove some more, but hadn't put it on.

"I can't say I recall... look at that," Alex raised his
hand to point and Roy lifted his head, looking in the direction his attention
was being called to. Edward was walking across the field and trailing behind
him in a uniform row was a good number of his students.

"They're like ducklings," Roy chuckled, "I hear tale Edward
is the envy of many of his fellow teachers because the very same boys don't
behave half as well out of his sight."

Ed stopped, turned around and put his hands on his hips.
He leaned forward and said something to the first boy in the row, then lifted
his hand and pointed at the rest of them. The first boy shrugged and turned
to speak to the boy behind him, and it went like that throughout the entire
lineup. The boy in the very back waved his hand at Ed and Ed raised his hand
and waved back, then noticed himself doing it and dropped it. He made elaborate
shooing motions and the group sulkily dispersed, so Ed turned and continued
on his way. He only got a few feet before the line began to sneakily reform.

"A true leader of men," Alex said with a laugh.


"Ed!" Al said, looking a bit wild eyed and desperate.
He made a grab for his older brother's sleeve as Ed happened by, "You've got
to help me!"

Ed made a low whistle and shook his head sympathetically.

"You know Al, you always complain and say I interfere
in your life too much as it is," Ed said and gently extracted his sleeve from
his brother's desperate grip, "You also know I've told you before I think you're
too nice and people take advantage of you. I think this is a good lesson for
you, I don't think I should be bailing you out."

"There are thirty-six booths," Al wailed, "If you want
me to be in any decent shape for your demonstration I need you to help me,"
Al pleaded.

"If you let me down, well... I'll be disappointed of course,"
Ed said, studying his gloves, "Learn to say 'no' Alphonse, really, it's not
that difficult. I know you can, as I am often on the receiving end of your ventures
into denial. I'm the only one you seem to be able to inflict it on."

"You are a very cruel brother," Al said and ran a hand
through his bangs, "Fine, I'll finish up this one I'm working on and everyone
else can do it the old fashioned way. After all, teacher said to use your hands
when you could."

Ed stood by as Al finished up the booth he had started
and then turned to slink away. Ed followed him, directing him toward a good
hiding place and they went to stand just under the lean of the bleachers.

"Please don't go over the plans again," Al said, holding
up his hands when Ed opened his mouth, "I know what I'm supposed to do and when
I'm supposed to do it, follow your own advice and don't bail me out."

Ed snorted and shook his head.

"So... how are things in East City? I mean, how are things
going? Any more dates?" Ed asked.

Al sighed and rubbed his cheek a moment.

"No, but a couple of weeks before I left to come here,
this building contractor showed up," Al growled, "He acted really familiar with
the Colonel and she went to dinner with him. I don't know what to think. She
even called him by his first name and I didn't like that," Al glanced at his
brother, "You think I should be worried? I think maybe I should be worried.
I mean, he showed up and then suddenly she was too busy for anything. I don't
know if she went out with him again, I have no reason to hang around in her
office unless I have a job or I'm summoned. I started to ask Pharr about it,
but I wasn't sure how he'd feel being made a spy on his commanding officer,"
Al tugged his lower lip and fixed Ed with a rather worried look, "I think I
should head out tomorrow instead of the end of the week and get back, who knows
what's going on?"

His elder brother did some kind of tight lipped little
spasm and looked all around before looking at Al again and forcing a rather
obviously fake smile.

"If you think that's best of course," Ed said, trying
to keep the whine out of his voice.

"You don't want me to leave tomorrow," Al sighed, "You
want me to hang out at the house waiting for you to get off work each day so
you can come home and eat my cooking and argue theory with me until we go to
bed."

"That's not it," Ed said, "Well okay maybe a little. It's
just when you visit you always cut them short for some reason or another, or
you just come to take care of your work and then I don't get to see you much
either because we're both working. I'd take the rest of the week off if I could!
But I only have tomorrow to spend the whole day with you and then the rest of
the weekdays trying to make up the time. I know, I'm a selfish idiot; you don't
have to tell me. Don't look at me like that."

Al glanced away and Ed sighed.

"Yes okay, it does sound like someone could be moving
in on your territory," Ed said, "You know what Al, you've got to tell her."

"I can't," Al said. "I mean, I can't just come out and
say it."

"Why not?" Ed asked, "You're going to have to say something
eventually," he folded his arms.

"So did you just come out and tell Roy?" Al asked.

"No... but he came out and told me," Ed said.

"So you didn't just come out and say anything until after
you started dating," Al said.

"We never dated," Ed returned, "We just started... um
yes, after we were dating."

The General decided to be nosy at just that moment, ducking
under the bleachers with them. Al grinned at him and Ed smiled, raising an eyebrow.

"What's the pow wow boys?" the General said with a grin
of his own, "Everyone knows standing under the bleachers means serious business...
or that you're going to make out."

Al laughed as Ed scowled and the General sidled over to
his lover, giving him a quick kiss on the forehead.

"I was just telling Al he should come out and tell Riza
how he feels," Ed said and folded his arms, looking toward his younger brother.

Al gave an immediate look of sibling betrayal, but it
softened out and he glanced at Roy, because in truth, he did want the General's
opinion.

"How do you feel, Al?" the General asked, pushing his
hands into his pockets, (to keep them off the Professor).

"The stakes have been upped," Ed said before Al could
answer, "Another man has entered the picture."

"Is that so? Anyone I know?" the General questioned.

"His name is Macklin Talbert," Al said, "I don't know
him myself; he's an outside building contractor that the military has hired
to design some new barracks."

"What makes you think he's a threat?" the General asked.

"It's not so much that he's a threat," Al said, studying
the bleacher beams, "But he's so familiar with her and they went to dinner a
couple of times before I came up to Central for the exhibition."

"Did you go out with the Colonel as well? Or did she put
you off to go out with this man?" The General said.

"No, it's nothing like that," Al said, "We did go out
before I left, and she said she'd miss me for the book reading that we had thought
about attending, but that's just it, that's all we do. We go out and eat and
talk about music and literature, or dogs and guns. I feel like I'm running in
circles."

"All the more reason to make the first move," Ed said,
"I think if she knew you were looking for more than friendship, things might
change."

"Maybe, but who says that's for the better?" Al said plaintively,
"What if I scare her off? You know, if I can't have what I... prefer, then I'd
want her friendship, I don't want to risk losing it."

The General was looking at the Professor and the Professor
noticed.

"What?" he said, putting his hands on his hips.

"Don't let your brother tutor you in first moves," the
General said, "He's always been the bottle-it-up-inside kind, but he does make
a good point."

"You think I should tell her?" Al said, eyes getting a
little round, "I remember when you dated her... I don't mean to pry, but do
you think it would work?"

"Ah, about that," Roy said and cast a sidelong glance
at Ed who returned it with an indifferent look, "I wasn't at my best then, if
you must know. Riza and I came to an understanding about our relationship; what
she saw in me wasn't me per se, but an ideal. I don't think you'll run into
that situation. In a lot of ways, you have been with her longer than any of
us. If anything, that should be to your advantage. Don't let me or your brother
talk you into anything that you don't feel comfortable with yourself. Riza is
sometimes a very difficult woman to deal with; she likes to shut herself off,
not like Ed, but in different ways.

"It's common that displays of emotion are seen as a sign
of weakness, more so in women. You can see where this train of thought is leading.
Riza is so in control of herself, because she had to be, that I don't think
she realizes it anymore. So, if she has feelings for you, I'm not sure she would
know how to convey them. And you yourself, Alphonse; dancing around the issue
and taking it slow looking for some sign; you might as well dance forever.

"No, definitely something has to give, and I have to say...
it would have to be you."

Al seemed to work that over and after a moment, he smiled.

"Thanks," he said, "I think you're right."

It was then that the booth builders he'd abandoned found
him and Al cast pleading eyes at his brother, who shrugged in a 'what-can-I-do-about-it?'
way. Al got led off by his hands and some prettily worded pleas while Roy shook
his head, looked at Ed and smiled.

"Not at your best, were you?" Ed said, "That's not like
you."

"I had this six year off period," the General said, "I
can't imagine why."


"What the fuck is that?"

"You're from Risembool; I assume you know good and well
what that is."

"What? Bastard! I know what it is, but what is it?
I mean, what is it doing here?"

"I suspect it's the football team’s mascot. It's
so good to see that the old traditions still live strong and steadfast in the
hearts and minds of the youth today."

"It reminds me, I so miss sausage with my breakfast, I
get terrible heartburn from pork."

"Why the fuck is it here?!"

"You better tone that down, I saw the Dean walking around
earlier you know."

"My guess would be that the football team is going to
have a greased pig competition."

"Pigs and grease make me think of bacon, another pork
product I must refrain from."

"Well it looks like it has a mind of its own. Walking
a hog that big on a harness is just asking for trouble... and there it is, it's
eating that booth."

"What the FUCK?!"

"The speed that young man can achieve is startling."

"He had years of practice running for his life."

"It appears that Alphonse finds this very amusing, I believe
he is pointing and laughing at Edward."

"Looks like some organization is out of its baked goods."

"Hope the football team has deep pockets; they'll be paying
for that."

"Who is that gentleman in the... tailored sweat suit?"

"I believe he is the head of the physical education department."

"He's the bane of Ed's existence."

"Oh dear, that can't be good."

"It is amazing the skills of diplomacy that Edward has
learned since the days of his youth. His talent for the retention of knowledge
is truly edifying."

"The Professor's diplomacy is... unique."

"Your highness, I didn't see you standing there."

"Prince."

"The next time you stop by the house, I have a delightful
tea I purchased from an import shop you simply must try."

"What do you suppose he's going to do?"


The Professor ran a hand through his bangs. Around him
stood the members of the Chorus watching mournfully as Matilda, the football
team's mascot, dined heartily on what would have been their bake sale.

"What are we going to do?" said one of the boys to the
professor's right, "My mom baked those cookies all day yesterday, we don't have
time to make any more."

"My grandma made the sweet rolls," said another boy.

The three members of the football team were putting their
backs into Matilda's own prolific backside with little success.

"It's not unfixable," the Professor said, "We'll do something,
I'll think of something, it will be okay."

Please stop looking at me like that, I'll make it better.

"But how?" said the same boy who's grandmother had bestowed
sweet rolls on him to make some money for his club, "Can you bake? And there
isn’t any time."

The Professor, while being a master of many things, (and
most of them rather skillfully. He was the master of a few other things that
weren't quite as skillful, but since his incompetence was better than many people's
best shot, he considered himself a master still)
but baking wasn't one of
them. He did however, know some one who could bake, and quite well at
that. His eyes picked his younger brother's form out across the field.

"Give me just a bit," he assured the crestfallen chorus
members, "I have an idea."


"What in the world..." Al managed as his elder brother
snagged his elbow and pulled him toward the academy. "You want me to bake?"

"Not just bake, perform a miracle, you were good at it
in the past," Ed told him, pushing in through a side door, "Come on, the cafeteria
is this way."

"Brother, your obvious insanity aside, what you're wanting
is impossible," Al pleaded as Ed steered him down the hallway, "There’s
no time to bake enough of anything to replace..."

"Who said you were actually going to bake?" Ed said with
a somewhat manic grin, "You know how to bake, so that should be enough
to... fake it."

"No... you don't mean..."

"Baking with alchemy, come on admit it, you've always
wanted to try."

Al groaned as Ed pulled him through the cafeteria doors,
behind the counters and into the kitchens. They were large and airy, with large
ovens to one end, sinks lining the back walls and metal pantries lining the
sides. Ed went to the pantries immediately and began throwing open doors. He
moved from one to the other, pulling things out and tossing them at the large,
stainless steel line of tables that dominated the center of the room.

"Flour, sugar, here's cinnamon, you can use that right?"
Ed said manically, "What else goes into baked things? Eggs and butter?" He turned
and strode for the large industrial refrigerator near the door where they had
come in.

"Brother, how am I supposed to alchemize baked goods?
What am I supposed to alchemize?!"

"What's your best recipe?"

"Well... I make a lot of muffins at home..."

"Good! Muffins it is! Icing with them maybe?" Ed carried
a carton of eggs and a block of butter to the table.

"You forgot the milk," Al said drolly, surveying the ingredients
scattered over the shining metal.

"No, I didn't," Ed said with eerie cheerfulness, "these
muffins are for the lactose intolerant."

Al rolled his eyes and then gasped as Ed ripped open a
flour bag and dumped the contents unceremoniously onto the table.

"Muffins don't have icing."

"Why not? That's boring; the best part is the icing."

"You're thinking cupcakes."

"Make those too..."

"This is ridiculous," Al exploded. "They won't even be
cooked!"

"Necessity is the mother of invention, alchemy started
in the kitchen," Ed yelled, breaking eggs and throwing them into the flour and
tossing the shells toward the sink. "Adapt, Alphonse! By our very nature, we
humans innovate and adapt! You can do this, I have faith," he grabbed the block
of butter and tossed it into the pile and then up ended the tin of cinnamon
over the whole mess. "Show me the brilliance you dazzled them with, Al; make
me a believer." Al wasn't sure he liked the manic gleam in his brother's eye.

"I... this is... FINE," Al grabbed for the block of butter,
managed to smush a corner of it off and stared at a clean spot of table, after
a moment he hesitantly started an array.

"Now you're getting into it, a butter array, genius!"

"It's cleaner than trying to draw with egg yolks, shut
up I'm concentrating."

Ed bounced up onto his toes, leaning across the table
to look at Al's array. He opened his mouth as if to offer a suggestion, but
promptly shut it at Al's glare.

"Stand back; I'm not sure what's going to happen."

"Muffins are going to happen."

"Says you. Get back. Okay, here goes nothing."

"Have I ever told you how proud I am to have you as a
brother?"

"Good, you can hire me a lawyer when people get sick off
these muffins! Now be quiet, I can't transmute with all your yapping."

Under lit from the light of alchemy, Al was almost sure
his brother could double for Karl Borisloff, the actor who played the mad scientist
in all those 'B' horror movies.

Ed cackled and held a muffin aloft, "It's perfect!" he
crowed.

Al eyed the pile of transmuted bakery items more warily.
"So," Al said slowly, "gonna' try one?"

"Of course," Ed said, "You are an excellent cook; they'll
be fabulous." He took a big bite of the 'muffin' in his hand, then promptly
gagged, hacked and spit it onto the floor.

Al rubbed his forehead and shook his head. "I told you!
There is no way this is going to work."

"They look cooked, but once you get them in your mouth,
they sort of disintegrate into their base ingredients," Ed said, nose wrinkling,
"But that doesn't matter, we have a finished product!" he gestured at the pile
on the table.

"What are you talking about? People can't eat these!"

"Well it won't matter, will it? I mean, they won't try
to eat them until after they buy them. We can just put an 'all sales final'
sign on the table."

"Brother! That is dishonest and nothing to be teaching
these boys!"

"Al, this exhibition is going to come off without a hitch,
do you hear me? Without a HITCH! I consider these part of the experience; they
can be touted as alchemy muffins! People will buy them by the bag full! We'll
have a disclaimer that we told them they were alchemy muffins... and therefore
unstable. The chorus has their bake sale money and everyone is happy! HAPPY!"

"Boy, the stress has gone right to your brain."

"It's not my brain I'm worried about, it's my reputation!"

"You really have grown up."

"Watch it," Ed hissed.

Al watched Ed commandeer a large metal pan from a rack
above the sink and begin to pile the muffins into it. He followed Ed back out
to the exhibition grounds and watched the boys of the chorus all cheer him like
a war hero back from the fields of battle. Then invariably, he joined the line
that stood taking notes of Ed's every move, all for different reasons.

"Did he raid the pantry in the kitchens?" the General
asked.

"Um, no," Al answered.

"Did the two of you run out to the corner market?" Alex
asked. "That was very good timing, did you take a back route I'm unfamiliar
with?"

"No, not that," Al said with a smile and a nod.

"You pulled them magically out of thin air," Otto said
with a small laugh.

"You could say that," Al said, avoiding eye contact with
the General.

"I wonder what alchemized food will taste like?" said
the Prince.

"I don't suggest you buy one," Al commented. It occurred
then to Al who had asked the last question and he began changing up his order
in the line until he stood right beside the Prince.

"I didn't know you were going to be here, Your Highness,"
he said with a smile, "I hope you won't mind if I ask you a few questions about
your country’s alchemic practices; as you know, I'm very interested in
your 'pharmacy' and hope to discuss it with you in length."

The Prince looked a little nervous at the mention, his
eyes darting back over the field to where Ed was transmuting the chorus booth's
broken table. He smiled thinly and tilted his head.

"I think that today's activities will be very exciting,
don't you agree? I have never attended an exhibition at a boy's academy; tell
me what can be expected."

"Oh," Al said, "Well, it's just to show off to the parents,
mostly. There will be a demonstration of the marching band and the chorus will
sing, of course. Many of the booths will be displaying things the boys have
made in class. It's probably a much more vested interest to the people who have
children enrolled here. Are there any Xingian alchemists in our country?"

The prince shifted foot to foot and looked anywhere but
in Alphonse's direction.

"In my country, we have exhibitions of a different nature.
There would be a great, whirling dragon puppet and many kites," he said, "Also,
fireworks. Are there likely to be fireworks here?"

"Only of the alchemic variety," Al said, "Your Highness,
in what philosophy is pharmacy based? I'm not sure what equivalency would be
in a medical sense."

"I would be hard pressed to answer your questions, Alphonse.
As you are well aware, like alchemy, pharmacy takes many years of intensive
study."

"But you know pharmacists," Al pressed.

"There are pharmacists in the royal court," the prince
said uncomfortably, taking a step away.

Alphonse stepped with him. "Could you arrange a visit,
perhaps? I mean, shouldn't you have a personal physician with you? I'm not trying
to be pushy, I just think that in your best interest that might be advisable.
Suppose something was to happen, then you would be dependant on the Amestris
doctors for your care and I'm sure you would be more comfortable with one of
your own countrymen in attendance."

"It is a point well taken," the prince agreed, watching
Alphonse's brother being mobbed by his students and their parents, "I will definitely
consider it."

"You could arrange for me to meet with your physician
then," Alphonse said hopefully, "I would be extremely grateful, you understand.
If there is anything I could do for you in return..."

"No thanks are necessary for a service I have yet to perform,"
the prince said, half bowing in Al's direction and backing away, "I think I'll
take a tour of the grounds, it seems that the festivities are underway."

"I could be your escort," Al said with a smile, "I can
act in my brother's stead as your cultural liaison since he's otherwise occupied;
it would be my honor."

"Would it?" the prince said weakly, "I'm sure you're busy
and I don't wish to be a burden to you during this celebration as well..."

"I insist," Al said, advancing on the retreating prince,
"It's the least I can do. After all, you're brother's friend; that makes us
friends too."

"You drive a very hard bargain," the prince murmured,
"how can I resist?"

"Excellent," Al said, falling into step beside him, "The
junior science club has constructed a working miniature volcano; shall that
be our first stop?"

The prince merely bowed his head, gave one furtive glance
toward the Professor, (who hadn't looked their way once, thus missing his
royal predicament)
, and followed Alphonse toward a booth that smelled of
sulfur.


The Professor sat a large cafeteria pan full of muffins
on the reconstructed table. The boys and their chorus teacher, (who'd arrived
just after the catastrophe and was thus spared the brunt of teenage male angst)

gathered around and peered at them. For a moment, there was nothing but silence,
then one of the boys reached into the pan and took out one of the muffins, sniffed
it and started to open his mouth.

"Don't eat that!" Ed yelped and then smiled sheepishly,
"Those are for selling. If you eat them, then you're eating your profits," he
covered smoothly. The boy eyed him and slowly put the muffin back into the pan.

"How did you make so many so fast?" Miss Dobson, the chorus
teacher asked, "Were they in the cafeteria? I don't think it's right for us
to take the academy’s muffins..."

"Oh no, it's alright. If need be, I can compensate the
kitchen for the ingredients, but these are fresh," Ed smiled, "Baked from scratch,
my brother Alphonse's recipe."

"I'm really indebted to you, Professor Elric," the young
woman said with a smile, "It's very kind of you to step in and help out the
boys, I'm sorry I was late..."

"That's not a problem," Ed said, starting to edge away
from the table as a few parents walked up, "Good luck," he said, rushing away.
He really should have told them to get money in hand before customer put muffin
in mouth. He noticed the line up standing there watching him and he started
toward them, (to give them a piece of his mind for standing there gawking
instead of helping)
, when he noticed a certain Xingian prince in the presence
of a certain younger brother. That seemed the priority, so he altered his route
and had almost reached the pair when Mr. Thaxton, the band director, jumped
into his path.

"Professor Elric, good god man, I’ve been looking
everywhere for you," he said, grabbing Ed's arm and abruptly changing his trajectory
about seventy-five degrees, "I was thinking we could line the band up around
the east side of the building and they could play 'March of the Night Brigade'
as they made their entrance across the field..."

"Oh, is that so?" Ed mumbled distractedly, craning his
neck to see Al and Ling moving on to the next booth at the far edge of the field.
It struck him as Miss Bloom came racing up to trot at his side that if he didn't
do something about that, and quick, Al would probably be on a train to Xing
in the morning. He tried desperately to send a telepathic message to Roy to
go and break up Alphonse's little espionage, but it was too late. He found himself
standing in the back field with a lot of instrument cases and a group of boys
who looked hot in their tall, fuzzy hats.

"I was thinking we'd start out with a regular formation
and break into something a bit more modern as we approached the field. Our baton
marshal has had some excellent ideas and choreography," Mr. Thaxton waved a
tall, lanky, bespectacled boy over, who looked at Ed the way a finch looked
at the inside of a cat's mouth.

"This is Hubert. Hubert, you know Professor Elric of course,"
Mr. Thaxton said, slapping the boy on the arm. Ed watched him tremble like a
twig in a strong breeze as the boy swallowed and nodded to Ed.

"As I was saying, we are going to start with the 'March
of the Night Brigade," Thaxton thrumped, "and when we gain the field, I'm going
to let them play a little melody that Hubert here has worked up. It's jazz isn't
it? Yes, jazz. We want to show the parents that while we are grounded in tradition,
we aren't afraid to kick up our heels now and again."

Ed was finally listening to the man speak, (or at least
making a concerted effort to)
, and he was really trying to participate in
the conversation, but in reality, he wondered just what it was about him
that made the man think he needed to be briefed on both the band’s marching
formation and play list. He grasped desperately for something logical and semi-intelligent
to say as his distraction took deadly advantage and his career oriented mind
fumbled around.

"I know 'March of the Night Brigade," Ed interjected,
still trying to see where his brother and that bastard prince had gotten to,
(okay not technically a bastard, if he were really a bastard, he wouldn't
be in line for the throne and hence, not really a prince. How did Roy know he
was a prince anyway? Did they come with credentials? It struck him that any
foreign scam-artist could waltz into the country, claim royal relations and
have the military kissing their butts in a matter of moments. He wondered if
it worked in reverse, because if it did, he had a hell of summer break trip
formulating in the back of his mind...)
; his mouth decided to continue with
his brain's direct input.

"It's one of the General's favorite songs, he likes to
play it over and over when we..." and it was here his brain caught up, (thankfully,
for both job and sanity)
, "are at his house in his living room listening
to the phonograph. Heh," he finished off.

Miss Bloom, who had been standing quietly with the men,
(and had yet to be truly acknowledged with more than a nod), spoke up.

"Mr. Thaxton, Professor Elric is needed over at the gardening
booth. I was sent to get him, you don't mind, do you? This seems under control,"
and she latched onto Ed's arm like a floral scented leech and began to tug him
away, "I look forward to hearing the band play," she called cheerfully, sounding
like a lioness that had bagged a successful kill. She smiled at Ed and tightened
her grip.

Ed tried in vain to spot Ling and Al as he was jogged
over the back field and through the parking lot, back to where the majority
of the exhibit booths were displayed.

"What could the gardening club possibly want with me,"
he asked, double timing in a way to make the most staunch war veteran shed a
tear of joyful remembrance, "I'm not even sure why Thaxton wanted me, usually
the staff doesn't bother to give me the time of day and only the occasional
hostile glare when I'm late for a meeting."

"Oh Professor," Miss Bloom simpered, "You're so funny.
You know everyone admires you! The youngest Professor on staff, internationally
famous, plus you have the ear of some very high ranking military personnel...
what's not to love?" she smiled her brightest and most vivid 'single and mid
20's on the prowl' smile and tightened her grip again. Ed could almost feel
his automail fingers going numb, and that was quite surprising considering he'd
never felt them before.


"Let's wander about," Otto said cheerfully, "There’s
so much to see and so much to see, if you know what I mean," he laughed pleasantly.
Roy half grinned and nodded his head, indicating for Otto to lead the way. Alex
tagged along behind them, intimidating anyone who got near enough to be interesting.

"You know, I've always been fascinated by these events,"
Otto said to the General walking at his side, arms clasped behind his back,
"It really harkens back to all those family values everyone is gung-ho about,"
Otto was carrying a cane, at first Roy thought it a bit pretentious; but then
who was he to judge as he was wearing (at Ed's request), his dress uniform.

"If only they were made to attend more of these functions,"
Otto continued, "I am sure they'd understand just what they were doing with
all those pamphlets and educational seminars."

They neared the booth that Ed had bestowed with muffins
earlier and looked at the huddle of boys, standing behind the booth, staring
with some trepidation at the muffins piled in their shiny, metal corral. They
turned pleading eyes on the adults as they neared and snapped off a salute,
(as they'd been taught), more to Roy's uniform than the man, before they
clustered back together in mournful camaraderie.

"How is it going boys?" Roy said pleasantly, (never
one to deny he adored being saluted, even if it was more to blue fabric than
to his lofty achievements. Truth be told, he hadn't done anything lofty in quite
a while and this band of boys would only acknowledge him as their dad's 'boss'
before anything else. That irked him, it really irked him. Well, after today,
if everyone survived, they'd know the name Flame Alchemist once more.)
"Are
the muffins selling well?"

"Well sir," one of the boys said after a moment of horrified
silence, "they don't seem to be doing too well."

"They taste bad," whispered another boy.

"And if you stare at them long enough, they look like
they’re breathing," confided a third.

"I'm sure they aren't that bad," Roy said, reaching into
his pocket and pulling out a few cens, "Let me try one."

The boys surged forward as one, eyes on the money in the
General's hand, but then it seemed as if some military loyalty broke them before
they reached for it. They looked at the General mournfully.

"We really advise against it, sir," the boy with the 'breathing
muffin' comment said slowly, "We'd rather not be sent to the brink or get KP
duty."

Roy chuckled and looked at Otto who smiled back, tapping
his cane on the ground.

"As if I'd hold Professor Elric's baking skills against
you," the General said kindly, putting the cens on the table and selecting a
muffin from the tray. He smiled reassuringly at the boys, but their eyes had
grown wide in horror and they seemed to hold their breath as the General brought
the muffin to his lips.

It had been a long time, quite a long time, since the
General had cried in public, and he tried in vain to make it an even longer
time. He couldn't quite smile because it felt as if his mouth had been sealed
by a flour based cement and he thought, but was not quite certain, there was
a raw egg playing a game of tag with his tonsils.

Alex laid a few cens on the table and reached for the
pan, but the same military loyalty the boys had shown extended even to ex-military
in the General's book. He grabbed Alex's arm and shook his head slowly before
reaching into his back pocket, producing his wallet and peeling off several
larger bills. He sat them on the table, picked up the pan of muffins and turned
away while the boys all gasped collectively behind him. Otto, grinning, fell
right into step beside him as he hurried away from the table.

"And they say chivalry is dead," Otto cooed, "Here you
are saving your lover's ass. Why, I think I might find faith in romance again."


"I've been conducting many experiments in tissue regeneration,"
Al was saying as he hurried after the prince. It struck him a bit odd that the
prince was in such a hurry to examine a booth that was hosting an exhibit having
to do with manure as fertilizer.

"Aromatics in lieu of vegetation?" the Prince called over
his shoulder, "You Amestrisians have some funny ideas," he said gleefully.

"No," Al said practically running to keep up. He seriously
began to wonder about the prince's hearing; it seemed that everything he said,
the prince misinterpreted in the most unusual ways. He did seem to have a full
grip on the Amestrisian language...

"Your Highness," Al panted, "maybe we could visit that
gardening booth? They are serving tea and actually have some tables; I could
use a bit of a breather."

The prince actually stopped and turned to him with a grin
entrenched on his face as he made to pat Al's shoulder.

"With all the tea I am forced to drink daily for both
my health and politeness, I find that given the opportunity not to drink it,
is something I've come to relish. But far be it from me to deprive you of a
cup; you certainly seem like you could use it. I will go ahead alone, painful
though the thought of losing your company is, and perhaps after you've had your
cup, we can find each other again."

"Oh no," Al said with a smile and a wave of his hand,
"I'd much rather stay with you, especially since brother isn't here to do his
duty. Not to say he's being negligent, but he's a bit tied up at the moment,
making things run smoothly, I’m sure, and really, we've yet to discuss
any pharmacy or alchemist in your coun..."

"What manner of contraption is that?" the prince interrupted
loudly and sprinted away. Al stood for a moment in slack jawed amazement before
rushing after him.

"Surely you have trucks in Xing," Al called, trying to
catch up.


Ed wasn't sure what to do with the potted pansy the gardening
club had bestowed upon him, (in an inscribed flowerpot, no less) and
cast about desperately for a familiar face that had long left behind the heartbreak
of acne. There were so many blue uniforms about, picking out the General was
next to hopeless and Otto wasn't much taller than Ed himself. Alex should be
sticking out like a beacon of General finding ease, but Ed wouldn’t admit,
(firstly and mostly to himself), that he wasn't quite tall enough to
see over the heads of the crowds around him.

He was considering uncoupling his automail arm to dislodge
Miss Bloom when a familiar and lanky foreign looking man crossed his path in
quite a hurry. Ed, not given to being glad to see the royal nuisance,
(never, not for a moment, not for a second or a millisecond), found himself
calling out beseechingly.

"Prince Ling!" he yelled and turned to Miss Bloom, trying
to muster an apologetic smile but failing miserably. "You'll excuse me, but
cultural liaison duty calls," he said, never being happier to spew that sewage
of a title from his mouth. She frowned in disappointment but pried her claws
from the steel of his right arm and Ed dashed away before she could somehow
graft herself to his hip or other extraneous body part.

The prince slowed down enough to jog in place and grab
Ed's arm as he hurried over, but then they were off.

"Save me from your brother," the prince cried, "He's a
persistent one and very charming to be sure. He really favors you I think, and
that has been a bit tempting, but still, a promise is a promise."

"If you so much as let your lips think about my brother,
I'll personally skin you, tan you, make a football out of you and kick your
ass all the way back to Xing," Ed returned loudly as they plowed through the
crowd, "But since you just saved me from the walking desperation that is an
unmarried woman in a crowd of elderly bachelors, I'll do my best!"

"Jealous?" the prince said with hopeful glee as they ducked
around a knot of uniforms both military blue and academy cadet grey, and headed
straight for the open side door of the main academy building itself.

"No, you slit-eyed, moronic, monarch wannabe and I never
will be," Ed howled as he was yanked through the door to stand in the dim coolness
of the academy hallway, clutching a potted pansy and panting.

"I like your daisy," the prince said, the gleam off his
grin brightening the gloom.

"It's a pansy, idiot," Ed snarled and yanked his arm free
of Ling's grip. He risked a quick glance out the door, but Al was nowhere to
be seen. "It looks like you ditched him... you didn't tell him anything did
you?" Ed demanded.

"I told him about the desert and how dry it was, and I
told him about dumplings and how no one here makes them the way they make them
at home. I told him about my dislike of peaches, but I don't think he was impressed.
I also told him about a pharmacy technique that involves human limb regeneration,"
then the prince put his hands behind his back, smiling—and waiting.

"Peaches are only good in cobbler," Ed said nodding, still
looking toward the door. Then he stiffened all over for just a moment and turned
his head so fast the ends of his ponytail, had they connected with flesh, would
have had the effect of hundreds of tiny razor blades. "You told him WHAT!?"
The prince threw up his hands and laughed.

"Joking," he said hurriedly, "just to see if you were
paying attention. I told him nothing, not for his lack of trying. Really Professor,
from what I gather, he is running some impressive experiments. I don't see the
harm..."

"I do, I see plenty of harm! You don't know anything about
it," Ed said heatedly, "Just drop it, I don't feel like discussing it," his
voice turned sulky, "Shit, where the hell is the General anyway?" he sneered
at the pansy in his hands.

"He was in the company of Otto and that very large man
from your brother's birthday gathering," the prince supplied, "They seemed to
be getting along well. I think they were touring the exhibits."

Ed leaned back against the wall and turned his head to
regard the prince.

"You didn't have to come here, you know," he started,
"It's not exactly an event teeming in any sort of helpful cultural reference."

"I wanted to come," the prince said simply.

"Don't," Ed suddenly said, "Don't tell me something that
I don't need to be hearing from you. You know it hasn't slipped past me that
every time you're around you find some way to get me alone. Keep your lips over
there, I'm telling you this has to stop. I can't help you find what you're looking
for, it's a fairy tale. Trust me when I say you're better off having nothing
to do with it. Be happy with what you have, you're a prince for Pete’s
sake."

The prince smiled enigmatically and his lips parted, but
out of them came the beginning and almost, but not quite off-key, opening strands
of 'March of the Night Brigade'. Ed's eyes widened in astonishment even as he
jumped and the Prince winced hard, gritting his teeth as if to keep the horrendous
sound inside. Through the doorway began falling a pattern of shadows, once after
the other and the music rose and dipped in time to their passing. The prince
then quirked up the side of his mouth and took two steps to bring him to Ed's
side. He leaned down toward Ed's ear as if to say something and Ed tilted it
up accommodating.

His breath hitched as the prince's lips traced over it
and he swallowed once before jerking away. He edged down the wall and waited
for a break in the formation that he could get through.

His ear was burning, but he knew it wasn't from any idle
gossip about his person being said.


"This IS interesting," Otto said, cane tucked under his
arm and fingers to his chin. "It seems uninterested; I heard they'd eat anything,
including you and me given half a chance."

Roy had said nothing for the past half hour as his mouth
was still raw from the scrubbing it had received in the bathroom. They both
watched Matilda the hog nose the cafeteria pan, pushing it back and forth with
her snout. Of the muffins in the pan, she'd not taken a single one.

"There has to be some marketable factor to this," Otto
mused, "I'm almost tempted to deconstruct one and see what makes them tick,
but I feel the very fabric of the universe might be threatened. You brave fellow,
I think using that scrub brush from the janitorial closet was a bit extreme,
who knows where it has been." Otto gave the General's shoulder a solemn pat.

The General gave him a wan smile, glanced over his shoulder
and the smile suddenly widened. The Professor came barreling up to them and
shoved a potted plant in his face, panting slightly and looking a bit flushed.
The General's lover has shoved flowers up his nose before, so to save face,
(literally), he took the pot before the flowers petals got dangerously
close to his nasal passages.

"Professor," Otto said cheerfully, "Aren't you a sight!
Having a good time? Your exhibition seems to be going very well. Look, we've
made an experiment with your baked goods. Not even fit for swine, are the findings
so far, and I heard tale that they move on their own?"

"This was Al's excursion into alchemic edibles, I only
badgered him to do it," Ed said, smiling weakly and avoiding Roy's eyes.

"BROTHER," sounded behind them and they turned at once
with precision enough to make the synchronized swim team jealous, (who, coincidentally,
did not have a display at the exhibition)
.

"Have you seen the Prince?" Al said, trotting up to them,
"We were walking through the exhibits and got separated. I'm a bit worried because
I haven't seen him since; he’s not supposed to wander around alone, is
he?"

Ed sputtered.

"And why the hell not? What is he... four? No, I haven't
seen him," Ed averted his eyes again, "And I'm damn glad of it, to tell you
the truth. Look Al, not even the hog will eat your muffins."

"I told you that was a bad idea," Al snorted, "I bet they
taste like cement."

The General cleared his throat loudly and they all looked
at him. Otto smiled, but hid it quickly with his hand. As they stood there,
some of the burlier boys from the football team, (one of them would make
two and a half of Ed. The helpful individual who pointed this out had nightmares
of a blond wolverine with fangs for the next two weeks)
, came over with
a large metal can and gave the group admiring their mascot a salute.

Roy bowed his head slightly, for he was the only uniform
among them and lapping up the attention like a cat took to cream. They sat the
large can down next to Matilda who turned to push on it with her snout. They
checked her harness and then one of them opened the can and took out a large
double handful of what looked like axle grease. The crowd began to press around
them then and everyone shuffled about, Ed finding himself backed up to the General.
He felt the brief touch of fingers along his spine and then the sick twist of
guilt in his stomach.