A Little Bit of Spice

Greed had better put out for a hotel this time. Okay, so there was a good part of Ed that knew they should be more frugal than that—but he was so damn tired of laying on the ground already, and they were still weeks and weeks away from the Promised Day. Not to mention his neck and shoulder were killing him.

They'd been making their way east for the past few days. Greed hadn't told them why, so they just had to trust he knew what he was doing. Ed did trust the guy, on some level at least. Otherwise, the whole "defect from the military and join up with rogue homunculus and company to save the world" thing was just a huge waste of time. And apart from the whole "saving the world" thing, Ed did not want to waste any of his or Al's time—his brother didn't have any to waste. There was no way of knowing how long it would be before his soul would reject the armor. They just knew it would happen eventually. For now, all Ed could do was hope that Al could hold out until the Promised Day. It seemed like everything all came back to that.

It had been late in the afternoon when Ed and the others had stumbled into Freitsburg. It was a small town on the outskirts of East City, and from what he could tell, it was a craftsmen's town: they'd passed about fives times more carpentry and blacksmith shops than most towns would have had. It reminded him a little of Rush Valley—except that he hadn't been undressed and inspected by any strangers on the street yet.

"Ed, you okay?" Darius asked.

"What?" Ed started to come to attention. He realized he was holding his automail wrist right up against his chest with his other hand. Oh. He let himself go, then kept his gaze lowered as he walked. It seemed like he was spending a lot of time lost in his own head today. Mind you, it wasn't like anyone could fucking blame him. He had a lot to think about, and only a few things he could actually do right now. He could only hope they'd find the answers they were looking for when the time came. He could only hope Al and Winry were okay. They'd been under the watchful eye of Briggs—they should be safe. Ed had been hoping for a long time now, and frankly, he was getting sick of it. He needed to do something, to find a lead, anything.

"I need some food," Ed finally said.

"So do I," Heinkle supplied. Darius grunted an approval. Greed merely nodded.

Since no one else seemed inclined to, Ed took the lead and started heading further into the city. Their funds were limited, but the street vendors were usually pretty cheap. He didn't want to think about what would happen if they only ended up buying more freaking tinned beef. Thankfully, it wasn't long before he smelled something spicy on the air, and shit if he wasn't ready for something that didn't come from a can. He veered off the main road and followed his nose to the small window front of what looked to be a noodle stand. There was a bar counter beneath a low awning with a kitchen area tucked behind it, and a tall, wooden bench was set up along the counter for customers to use.

Up until this point, Greed and the chimerae had been following Ed through the city without comment. Now, however, Darius and Heinkle stopped following Ed twenty yards short short of the food stand and covered their noses.

"What," Ed asked, "you don't want to eat?" He slid onto the bench seat and propped an elbow up on the counter surface.

The pair exchanged a quick look between them, then Darius said, "If the way this place burns my nose is any indication of how it'll come out later, I'll save my ass the agony and find someplace else."

"What he said," Heinkle added. They both just stood there, though, until Greed waved them off as he sat down next to Ed.

"So you're not afraid of a little spice then?" Ed asked with a teasing smile.

"No, this place smells like stale cat piss. I'm just tired of walking around."

Ed deflated a little. "Right." So Greed was in a mood again, apparently. Great.

As if on cue, a man popped up from behind the counter then, apparently from out of nowhere. He smiled at Ed, an empty pot in each hand and a towel thrown over his shoulder. "Why, hello there. What can I get for ya?"

"Something hot and spicy. You have noodles, right?" Ed asked.

"You'll want the Eastern-style, then. Coming right up." The man put his pots down somewhere on the other side of the counter, turned his back to Ed and Greed, and started ladling out some noodles and broth into a deep bowl, which he then placed in front of Ed along with a fork and a spoon. The stand attendant nodded and turned his attention to Greed, but the homunculus just shook his head and held up his hand. The noodle guy gave Greed an annoyed look. "Normally seating is for paying customers-"

"Don't worry about him," Ed cut in, "I'll eat his share too." The other turned a speculative look first on Greed, then on Ed. Ed continued, "Trust me, if you think he's pissy now, just try and get him to leave and see what happens then." Noodle guy snorted an awkward laugh, then disappeared into the back without saying anything more.

Ed turned to Greed. "What's his issue? It's not like there's a ton of people trying to come and eat here. Why'd he have to make something out of you sitting down?"

Greed shrugged his shoulders and propped his forehead against the knuckles of his tattooed hand, his elbow resting on the counter.

Ed picked up the fork and poked into the dish a bit. There were thin noodles floating in a watery, red broth with floating bits of stuff in it. Some floaty bits looked like they could be peppers or maybe some green onions, and other floaty bits looked like spices, red and clumpy. The heat of the spice tickled at his lips and nostrils, and he could feel his mouth getting wet. Ed grinned and circled the noodles on his fork greedily. It was kind of awesome how the body responded to food like this before even tasting it.

The noodles themselves were fairly tasteless—mostly soggy and thin and slimy, but the broth that soaked through them and the little bits that stuck on were freaking hot. He swallowed them down and savored the slight burn that bit at his lips and tongue. That was capsaicin for you—pungent and irritating and, well, amazing. It was amazing because pepper plants evolved so that the levels of capaicin in them were too irritating for mammals to eat—because mammals would chew and destroy the seeds—which left it open for the birds. Birds who have no molars for chewing, and no taste receptors for capaicin. Nature was great like that. He and Al had looked this up once after getting told off for sneaking some of Granny's spicy stew (she'd said it was for her card game) and being forced to drink milk. They'd learned capaicin was hydrophobic, and therefore not water soluble—so best washed away with alcohol or something fatty. At least Ed was old enough to order a beer now if he wanted. Except he'd probably have to show ID, and well, that wouldn't be too good, now would it?

Greed made a show of putting his other elbow up on the counter. Then he lowered his head and began rubbing his temples.

Ed slurped down another large mouthful of noodles, then nudged Greed. "You all right?" Ed asked quietly. Greed didn't answer. "Hey."

"Yeah," Greed muttered, but he didn't look too good. He looked a little pale, peaky, like he might pass out or some shit.

"You should eat something."

"Not from here, I won't."

"Stop complaining, then."

Greed picked his head up and gave Ed an incredulous look. "How am I complaining?"

"You're all sighing and rubbing your forehead like you've got a big headache, and you look like shit. So eat something!"

Greed chuffed at him. "Of course I've got a headache!" he said, as if that explained everything. Then he dropped his face back into his hands. Ed continued eating and tried to ignore him. Doing so was difficult with all of the sighing and moaning and generally bratty behavior Greed was exhibiting. This annoying attention-seeking went on for a couple of minutes, and then Greed straightened one elbow and laid his head down on the counter, facing away from Ed. He was really quiet now.

Ed looked over at Greed carefully. His fork was still held to his face with a sizable chunk of noodles half-hanging from his lips. Then he set down his bowl and crossed his left arm in front of himself to bump fists with Ling.

"Hey," Ed said through his noodles.

"Thought I'd never win that one—he really didn't want to eat here."

Ed sucked the noodles down noisily. "Why? What's he got against noodles?"

"It's not the noodles, I don't think. He's mad because I've been getting my way a lot lately. 'I'm running this show,' he tells me."

Ed snorted. Greed's ego somehow seemed even larger than Ling's: getting pushed out like this all the time had to be pissing him off. He grinned. "Then let's get you some noodles. A really big bowl."

Ling's face brightened and Ed looked away, his face heating up a little. Then he added, "Just to piss off Greed, you know? Plus the spices will release some endorphins—they trigger pain signals—and that'll get the blood pumping." Ling gave him a quizzical look. "It'll make you feel better—you look like shit, you know."

"So you've said. I do feel tired," Ling said.

Ed rapped his metal knuckles on the bar top. "Hey! Can we get another bowl of this stuff?"

The stand operator appeared from the back. Again, his attention was on Ling. Ling sat there smiling dumbly, as per usual.

"Change your mind?" the booth man asked.

"Something like that," Ling said quietly, smiling.

The noodle guy's expression was hard to read, though Ed got the impression that the guy didn't trust them all that much. It didn't last long, when the man turned away from them and served up a second bowl of spicy noodles, this time for Ling. "That'll be 40 cenz for the both of them," he announced. There was that suspicious look again.

"Can't I have another bowl?" Ling asked Ed, mournfully.

"Not right now. We need to make sure we've got enough money to last us." Ling turned those sad, puppy eyes on him. Ed grit his teeth and said, "Would you rather more noodles or a bed? If you want a hotel, then only one bowl of noodles. I vote for a bed, personally."

"Are you sure we can't have both?"

Ed sighed and pressed his fingers against his temple. "There are bigger things going on than noodles. You get one bowl, be sure and enjoy it."

Ling pouted theatrically, but started twisting his fork in his bowl, collecting noodles on it.

"40 cenz, please?" Noodle guy seemed a little irritated.

"Ling, give him the money."

Ling froze up and glanced at Ed out the corners of his eyes. He swallowed what he was eating, then smiled at Ed and tried to lay on the charm. "Oh, I thought you were treating me, Ed."

Geez, why'd he have to say it like that in front of other people? "Ling, Greed's wallet is in your jacket somewhere."

Ling's mouth formed a small 'o', then he fished through his jacket pockets. After a minute, he pulled out a small coin bag and handed it over to Ed. The idiot prince still couldn't be bothered to figure out the different notes and coins, probably because he'd never actually paid for anything in his life. At least not personally. Ed located the appropriate coinage and passed it off to the stand operator. He seemed much happier now that he'd been paid. What, had he thought they'd jet on the bill? Ling slurped loudly next to him, reminding Ed who he was with. He promptly forgave the attendant silently.

Ed needed to focus on something else for now. "Spicy, huh?" he asked Ling.

"I've had much hotter," Ling answered. "They've definitely toned down the spiciness for the Amestrian palate. You guys seem to really like bland food." He looked up at Ed, then added, "This is quite good, though. It reminds me of dan dan mian."

Ed chose to ignore the quip and inquire about the foreign stuff. "Of what?"

"Peddler's noodles. They were very popular with the commoners back in Xing. I quite liked them myself. Of course, my grandfather didn't approve of such cheap food, but that didn't stop me from sneaking out to get it."

Ed laughed. "So I guess not much has changed in your life: first you're sneaking around in Xing, and now here in Amestris. Where next? Drachma?"

"My Drachman isn't nearly good enough for sneaking around, I don't think."

"You can speak Drachman?"

"Ya gavaru nimnogo pa-Dracuski ," Ling said in a heavy accent.

Well, that was surprising. Not that Ed knew any Drachman to be sure it was real, but it sounded like Ling could speak it. Then again, Ling was pretty good at bullshitting, so maybe he was just speaking Xingese all funny? That last sentence had definitely sounded different to Ed from the Xingese he'd heard Ling speak, which sounded alternately as though he was singing and as if he was constantly shushing Ed. Ling propped his cheek against his palm, tilting his head to watch Ed.

"For all I know, you're just making this up," Ed said after a minute.

"I could be. Sosi moy hui." Then he smiled smugly and waggled his eyebrows at Ed.

"What did you just say?"

"Nothing. I just made it up." He still had that look on his face, the one that said he clearly knew something that Ed didn't.

"Like hell it's nothing. What did you just say?"

"I'll tell you later," Ling said as he lifted his bowl to his lips and drained the broth in big gulps.

Ed tutted. Why did Ling even know any Drachman? Or Amestrian for that matter? That had always bothered Ed. "Oi, where did you learn all these languages anyway?"

Ling set down his bowl. "From my tutors. As a prince who may one day be emperor, it's my duty to be well versed in many subjects." Ling paused. "My Drachman's not that great, though. I can speak it a little, but I know my pronunciation is off."

That was rather modest of him. Best Ed acknowledge his appreciation of Ling's humility. "You always did talk funny."

Ling laughed, that goofy smile of his filling up his whole face. "Now that reminds me of someone I know from back home."

Ed squeezed his pocket; the metal of Winry's earrings dug into his palm. It was good to have something to remind you of home, to keep you focused on your goals. "Don't go and get all sappy on me. We've got a lot to do before you can go back and take over Xing."

Ling raised an eyebrow and gave Ed a dangerous grin.

Ed remembered why he liked Ling so much. The guy had his flaws, sure, but he had goals and drive. So much drive. Ed grinned back. Okay, being wanted by the military and on the run sucked—when it was all over and done with he was buying the most kickass mattress ever—but not all of it was so bad. It wasn't like they were doing this for just nothing, either. He and Al had their bodies to take back, for starters, plus they had to stop Father from executing his big plan and protect the country. Fixing Amestris would be Mustang's job, but Ed needed to help him make sure there was something left to fix. So Ed could deal with a little more misery for now. It wasn't like he was alone in this: he had his friends with him.

"You going to finish that?" Ling asked, pointing to Ed's dish.

"Fuck yes, keep your paws off!"

And if Ling didn't end up emperor after all this, he was so going to kick his ass all the way up to Drachma.