Author's Note: Welcome back! Have a quickish update, for once in our lives lmao.

Disclaimer: No own, no money made, respect to Arakawa, no respect to TERFs and bigots. Cool? Cool.

Chapter 31

Enter, Eldest Redhead

After the tournament, and after his unfortunate stint as a cat on the last Saturday of September, Ed compartmentalized. He threw himself into work, threw himself into running calculations about Dumbledore's hand with Alphonse.

"You look like death," said Snape at the breakfast table on Monday morning. Ed could not tell if the remark was entirely caustic or coming from a place of concern. Greasy's voice stayed firmly on the line: it could be either and nobody could tell for sure.

Ed glared as he buttered his toast. "Zat's rich, coming from you."

Snape snarled at him, and Ed took a bite of toast to 1) save himself from the conversation and 2) project an air of being supremely unconcerned. Who cared if Ed had spent the rest of the weekend hunched over his notes with Alphonse and exchanging letters with Ollivander? Ed didn't need sleep, not as long as he had research to fill the gap!

But maybe Snape had a point. Ed's research might not suffer from sleep deprivation, but his teaching did. He was short tempered, snappish, and impatient. Students in his first class quickly stopped asking him any questions at all, and Ed had the sneaking suspicion that it wasn't because they understood the material. After about half an hour of their non-responses, he threw up his hands. "Have a study hall today! We'll try again on Wednesday."

He declared study halls before even trying to teach his other classes. Even the fifth-year section was a bust, because Al, who might ordinarily help, looked worse than Ed did. He couldn't blame him – he tried, briefly, to put himself in Al's shoes. He tried to imagine Al turning into a cat, tried to imagine having to watch it. But try as he might, Ed's mind resolutely shied away from making the picture vivid. Secretly, Ed was grateful. Being a cat was awful and disorienting, but he'd rather turn into a cat any day than watch Al do it.

Ed noticed that Al didn't pull out any schoolwork during that impromptu study hall. Instead, he buried himself in another book of Pandora Lovegood's notes. Ed watched Al scribble furiously in his alchemist's notebook for just a moment before shrugging. He turned his attention to his latest exchange with Ollivander, talking about the properties of Oxygen, and the properties of the spells that most frequently manipulated it. Alphonse wasn't the first Elric to bury his problems in research. It's as good a coping mechanism as any, Ed decided.

By Monday evening, Ed was finally exhausted enough for a real sleep. His body settled into deep blackness, floated there. There were no dreams, no sounds, not even the sideways sensation of the body's real location, of the pillow pressed to his cheek. That fabled black sleep, of course, could not last.

Bill Weasley responded to Ed's letter about Dumbledore's cursed hand during the wee hours Tuesday, October 1st. Ed had been expecting a response from Bill. Ed had been salivating over the very idea of Bill's letter. His correspondence with Ollivander, while interesting, didn't seem to be going anywhere active. Ed wanted movement, and he wanted it in the form of Bill Weasley's letter.

But Bill Weasley didn't send him a letter. Instead, a sharp knock sounded on Ed's bedroom door, pulling him violently from the deepest sleep he'd had in days. He rolled to avoid whatever assailant might be waiting in the dark, rolled straight out of bed and landed in a crumpled heap on the floor. He was just lucky that he'd rolled to the left, automail leg falling under him instead of on top of him.

After blinking into awareness and realizing that he was alone and safe in his teacher's quarters, Ed called, "Who's there?"

"Huh?" said the person on the other side of the door, "Oh, German. Duh. It's Bill Weasley! Molly's son, the curse breaker?"

Ed picked his pocket watch off his end table, flipped it open. It was three in the morning. Searching for his English, he said. "It's zee middle of zee night! Why are you here now?"

"You said something about discretion?"

"Zee middle of zee night is not discretion!" Ed said. "Quieter halls mean people are more likely to notice you!" How stupid are these damn wizards?

But the only real-life curse breaker Ed could find was waiting in the hall and Ed wasn't going to waste that opportunity, discretion be damned. Ed went to his pile of clothes and dressed before shuffling sleepily to the door. "Vat was your first job?"

Bill smiled. "I was hired by a ward manufacturing company right out of Hogwarts. Applied to Gringotts two years later, was accepted."

Ed yawned, said, "Correct answer." He opened the door the rest of the way, gestured the eldest of the Brood of the Red Hair into his small sitting room. His design choices were modeled mostly after Teacher's preferences. A clean wooden table, a couple of hard but serviceable wooden chairs. Shoved below the window (which somehow looked out on the grounds despite the room being in the middle of the castle), was a cluttered desk.

It did not occur to Ed to be embarrassed, and Bill certainly didn't seem to have an opinion. Ed gestured at a chair; Bill took it. "I'm sorry to wake you."

"I sought you were just going to write me back," said Ed, sitting himself.

Bill shook his head. "Not secure enough. I figured we could talk with more detail and in plainer speech if we just met in person. I wasn't sure what questions would lead me into classified territory."

Man. Stupid preference for the night aside, maybe he wasn't horribly indiscreet. Hughes would love this guy. "Alright, zis brings some problems, zough, because my little brozer is zee wizard among us, and he's also zee alkahestrist. I'm helping out wiz zee math, but Al is zee one who's examined Dumbledore himself and zee one who'll be undoing zee curse."

Bill Weasley blinked. "Dumbledore? He's the one with he cursed hand?" Ed nodded, and after a moment Bill managed to collect himself. He shook his head. "Absolutely not. On Dumbledore? I'll be the one to undo it. Your brother can hop in when I've got the curse lifted to heal the damage."

There was something else about the process that Eldest Red Child wasn't saying, but Ed wasn't going to call him on it now. He figured that if it was important, then it was something Bill wanted to run by Alphonse first. And if it wasn't important, then Bill had simply decided that Ed did not need to know.

He wasn't sure how much he liked that second scenario, because who was this man to decide what was important for Ed to know and what wasn't? But Al was determined to help the Old Man and Dumbledore aside, Ed wanted to see how the equations were going to work out! Ed wasn't going to antagonize the person most able to meet those goals.


Ed raised a mocking eyebrow, "Yes, because you're skilled enough at alkahestry to know how to work alongside it."

Bill did not take the bait. "Remind me to tell you about Egypt sometime – lots of unfamiliar magic thereabouts. I won't say I know anything about alchemy or this alkahestry stuff, but I know how to improvise." The smile he flashed ranked among the most charming Ed had ever seen.

Smiling back was utterly involuntary. Ed still wanted to be angry about being woken in the middle of the night. He still wanted to be angry about his own limited capacity to act. There was a part of him that wanted to shake Bill until he gave him real answers. Instead, he said, "Fair enough." Good improvisation could take an alchemist a long way. Ed decided that stood for wizards, too.

"Where is this alkahestrist brother of yours?" asked Bill. "The two of you were attached at the hip when Fleur and I visited home."

"At zis time of night? Ravenclaw Tower," Ed said.

Bill frowned. "I would've put him in Hufflepuff before anything."

Ed couldn't argue with that – what little he'd learned about the houses suggested that Al's core values aligned very closely with that of Hufflepuff's Founder. But both he and Al were trying to move on from who they'd been in the years following their attempt at human transmutation. Those changes were a conscious choice. Ed would bet money that Al had engineered his sorting to line up with his current goals, more than his fundamental self.

That was probably too much information to throw at this almost-stranger, though. So instead, he said, "He just wants zis next part of his life to be about learning, I sink."

That did sum it up. Bill gave out a soft breath that fell somewhere between laughter and disbelief, but there was a glimmer of something in his eyes that told Ed that Bill knew exactly what he meant.

"So, what exactly are you hoping to accomplish zis late?"

"I'd like to get a look at the curse – Dumbledore's hand, I guess – before conferring with your brother's notes," said Bill. "The headmaster tends to run a little nocturnal, so I sent him an owl. With any luck, he'll be expecting us."

Ed blinked. Come to think of it, Dumbledore had dropped Harry off at the Den of Red Hair in the small hours of the morning. But one night doesn't necessarily indicate a pattern. He appraised Bill, said, "Really?"

Bill nodded, looking a little exasperated. "He also loves to hold unexpected meetings in the middle of the night. I figured turnabout is fair play."

Ed admired the gumption, just a little. Inconveniencing Dumbledore, even knowing that the old man was dying, brought him just a little joy. The Headmaster's odd balancing act of blatant manipulation and true sincerity got on Ed's nerves. He laughed.

"Zen let's go," Ed said. "Surprise late-night meetings haff always worked for me!"

Bill looked almost as amused as Ed felt, and Ed wasn't sure exactly how condescending that amusement was. Then he decided he didn't care, stood from his chair, extended a hand to Bill. Bill took it, and as he pulled him up, Ed managed to find enough camaraderie to run with.

Unlike other hasty trips to Dumbledore's office, this one wasn't rushed. It certainly wasn't the flustered hurry of a gang of children trying desperately to make a deadline. Ed and Bill had time to chat. Bill traded a story about his old supervisor at the Egyptian branch of Gringotts for an anecdote about Juna at the Nord Branch Library.

They laughed raucously about goblin-wizard relations, loud enough for a portrait to shout angrily after them about disturbing his sleep, but under the laughter was valuable information about a potentially dangerous political situation. Ed took Bill's information to heart, and he could see Bill do the same. Ed could quite plainly envision someone like Granger getting very angry about their good humor on the subject – but sometimes serious topics were best handled with a light brush.

Humor was the best way to trade important information without tipping off outsiders.

Ed was tired, but by the time they made it to the Old Man's office, his spirits were running higher than they'd run in weeks. Maybe he'd made something of an ally in the oldest child of the Brood of Red Hair. Someone Ed could add to the list of people he would actually miss back in Amestris. Nyorok, Ollivander, Bill Weasley.

He realized, as he gave the password to Dumbledore's gargoyle, that he hadn't thought of the cat incident once since waking up. Ed shivered, but led Bill up the spiral staircase without dwelling on it. This conversation might lead to math! Much more important than old trauma.

At the top of the stairs, Dumbledore's door swung wide with a wave of Bill's wand. Somehow, Ed was surprised to find it empty. He'd fully expected to see the Old Man looking pretentious in his throne-like office chair.

Well. It was three in the morning. Ed looked around the room, decided that someone ought to be sitting in the pretentious office chair. He sat in it cautiously, half expecting a trap. Bill snorted, and Ed leaned his head against the gold-wrought neck rest. "We might be waiting here till morning," he said. "Might as well get comfortable."

Bill grinned, shook his head, turned his attention to something on the wall.

"Hey," said Bill when his eye alighted on whatever he was looking for. "Phineas Nigellus! Wake up!"

There was a grumble from behind Ed. Ed turned in the Headmaster's (surprisingly soft) throne-chair. A row of portraits that Ed had somehow never really noticed sat neatly on the wall above and behind the desk. Most of them looked to be asleep.

"Why portraits?" said Ed. And damnit, he was frustrated. He'd just been turned into a fucking cat – was it too much to ask for time to process that? Piling on this whole sentient-and-trapped-in-an-object bullshit was just too much. He'd not spent much time talking to the portraits since arriving at this awful magic castle, but Al had reported in. Al had reported about them quiet and subdued, even before the cat incident, and Ed had found himself immediately ready for murder.

There was a discontented grumble from the indicated portrait. "That's Headmaster Black, to you."

Ed did not turn his attention away from 'Headmaster Black,' but he could hear Bill let out a sigh behind him. "I've spent all together too much time with your other portrait, so I think I'm allowed to use your first name, Phineas," said Bill.

"Would you prefer Lord Black?" said the portrait, with a disapproving frown. "Those are your options. Anything else and I certainly won't be helping you."

"Headmaster Black, then," said Bill, throwing up his hands. "Would you go get Professor Dumbledore for me?"

"Why should I interrupt the Headmaster's slumber?"

"It's important," said Bill. Bill seemed like an easy-going guy, but an edge of annoyance was creeping into his voice. The part of Ed that wasn't horrified-ly staring at the line of trapped sentient people wanted to look back at Bill and laugh at him.

The portrait –person? – narrowed his eyes. "It's on your head if it isn't."

"Yup!" said Bill. "I accept that."

With a final roll of his eyes, Headmaster Black walked out of his frame and into the next one, and then the next one, murmuring pleasantries to his fellow portraits. He finally disappeared entirely after passing through a painting near an unobtrusive door wedged into the corner. Ed was rather alarmed to realize that he hadn't noticed the door before.

Goddamn this magic shit. Ed was brilliant at situational awareness!

Ed looked at Bill but did not say anything before returning his attention to that unobtrusive door. Now that he knew that it was there, he wasn't going to let it out of his sight. It did not take long for it to open on near-silent hinges.

"Mr. Weasley," said Old Man Dumbledore as he appeared around the doorframe. "I'm afraid I wasn't expecting you and Professor Elric in my office at three in the morning."

Ed grinned, knew instinctively that Bill grinned too. "I was stuck in a vault at Gringotts," he said. "I'd planned to swing by after work today, and I only managed to get myself out about an hour ago. I did send an owl."

"Ah," said Dumbledore, shuffling carefully from the nondescript door to his chambers to the desk. "I must have missed it. Would you mind relinquishing my seat, Professor Elric?"

"Zee chair is surprisingly comfortable. I'm staying right where I am." said Ed. "Summon one, like zee conservation-flouting abominations you wizards are."

Dumbledore sighed mournfully, as though the chair was the deepest inconvenience of the whole experience. "But my chair is so very comfortable."

Ed was unmoved, and the Old Man waved his pale wand through the air reluctantly. Two chintz armchairs settled on the far side of the desk. Bill took the implicit invitation, sighed deeply as he settled into the plush. "It's been a long day."

"I can quite imagine," Dumbledore said. "How does such a talented curse breaker get stuck in a vault, may I ask?"

"Happens to the best of us," said Bill cheerfully. "I count it as a win whenever I manage to get out before starving to death. So far? All wins!"

Dumbledore finally settled into his own chintz armchair, tugged thoughtfully at his beard. "I suppose that's one way to look at it. Now. I don't suppose you'll tell my why you've come?"

"Alphonse wanted to call in expert opinions," said Ed, watched as the Old Man's expression shuttered.

"I was very clear that I am content with my lot," said Dumbledore.

Damn Old Man. Given up already. "Yeah, and Alphonse was very clear about why zat's shit," said Ed. "So, we called in experts."

Bill raised a careful hand, interjected. "You know, I'd also like to know the details of why I'm here. I just know I'm here to work with an alkahestrist – whatever that means – to break a curse on you. And that the situation's delicate."

Neither of them bothered to answer him. As they seemed to do so often, the twinkle in Dumbledore's eyes dimmed to match his closed-off expression. "I don't understand why young Alphonse is bent on solving the unsolvable."

"Yeah," said Ed. "I get zat. But historically, we haff never taken 'no' for an answer, especially when that no would mean someone's death."

"Alright," said Bill. "Both of you stuff it. Are you really dying?"

"Can't it simply be an old man's time?" said Dumbledore. Ed could see him tuck his shriveled hand into his armpit.

"What exactly happened to the hand?" Bill hadn't missed it either. "You look like Fred and George hoping that Mum won't notice their prank supplies even though they're holding them right in front of her."

The Old Man looked offended at that, but he cracked. It didn't take long to walk Bill through the basics, and it struck Ed that even despite his animated talks with Alphonse and his careful examination of the chi-flow diagram, he hadn't actually seen the cursed hand up close yet.

Bill held the hand with a soft reverence. "This is a very clever curse," he said. "Whoever cast it was both inventive and malicious."

"I imagine you are quite familiar with inventive curses designed to protect objects," said Dumbledore.

"What did you try to take, Headmaster?"

But Dumbledore shook his head. "I'm afraid that is immaterial," he said. Bill had a certain reverence for the curse, but Ed watched as his reverence for the man who bore it, already wearing thin, chipped a little more.

"Don't tell the curse breaker what cursed you, eh?" said Bill. "Because that's the best way to break a curse. It was the ring you're wearing, wasn't it?'

"Saving me is already a fool's errand," said Dumbledore. The twinkle in his eyes had been restored, and that twinkle seemed focused and dangerous. "If I had my say, you would not be here at all."

"If you had your say," said Ed, "You'd be dead by Spring."

The Old Man looked away, stayed resolute. "If you insist, you may do whatever you can. But the object that cursed me is none of your concern. The curse transferred fully and completely anyway, there is no trace left of it on the object." He didn't even address the ring. Cute.

Bill didn't like it, and he glared at the ring with suspicious eyes, but he accepted the terms. It might have been near dawn, Ed might have been exhausted, but a rational near-scientific conversation with the eldest member of the Brood of the Red Hair was well worth one more sleepless night. Unlike other wizards Ed had met, it turned out that Bill worked with more than just a wand and his 'magical core'. His first order of business, to Ed's confused delight, was to lay the Old Man's burning hand on the desk, etching familiar runes in an almost alchemical circle around it.

"I sought zere weren't any alchemists here," said Ed, because it wasn't quite the alchemy that Ed knew, but what else could it be?

Bill tilted his head, said, "This isn't alchemy, mate."

That piqued Ed's interest. He'd known that magic could use a rune system, but he hadn't realized that there was overlap in those runes. He hadn't gotten around to those readings quite yet, so he sat back and watched with fascination. As the pre-dawn night progressed, Bill would remark on things he'd noticed, asking Ed for his input on the scientific concepts and alkahestry.

"I don't really know how it works," said Ed. "alchemy uses tectonic energy, and I know how to harness zat, I know how it works. But alkahestry apparently uses zis sing called zee Dragon's Pulse, which flows srough all living sings. Alphonse is still in zee beginning of his alkahestral study, but even he can focus in on a person's chi flow and write out a medical assessment in less zan an hour."

Bill jotted something down in his own notebook, a curse breaker's research notebook, said, "I hope I accomplish enough with this tonight that I can link up easily with Al once he's awake and I've had some rest."

He kept busy and quiet after that. Breakfast time in the Great Hall was half done before Bill declared himself done. "There's only so much a parade of wideye potions can do, when you've not slept," he said.

"That is very true, Mr. Weasley," said Dumbledore, still resentful of the examination. "I'm afraid you've found all there is to be found, regardless."

Bill shot him a dour look. "I don't see anything about this hand that means it has to be a death sentence. It would have been easier to remove the curse from the object before it deployed, but."

Ed snickered and both Bill and the Old Man looked at him sharply. "Sorry, sorry. I've just been zere, gotten into crazy shit because I didn't sink out zee consequences." The Old Man did not look amused, but Bill did, so Ed counted it as a win. He continued. "But did I give up when zey blew up in my face? No. And here I am, alive. Zere is no reason you shouldn't live srough your stupid fire curse."

Dumbledore sighed deeply, and Ed knew he was trying to cultivate that faux-wise expression of his and failing. "Young man," he said. "The slow encroach of inevitable death is a different experience than dire fights."

Slow encroach of inevitable death? Asshole. "I've been impaled," said Ed. "Straight srough, by a falling beam. And zen I used my own lifespan as an amplifier to alchemically close zee wound. Which is why medical alchemy is somewhat taboo, and medical alkahestry isn't."

Bill choked, wrapped an arm protectively around his abdomen. "Merlin, you need therapy." Dumbledore remained mostly impassive, but Ed could see a hint of horror behind the relentless twinkle in his eyes.

"Zat's not my point. I'm fine," said Ed, waving impatiently. "It's fine. My point is zat nobody knew alchemically closing your own impalement vas even possible, but did I give up because zee situation seemed hopeless? No! Sometimes, all you need to do is sink about zee situation a little sideways."

Ed thought he might have shocked the Old Man silent, because Dumbledore did nothing but attempt to hold eye contact. There was something compelling about that eye contact, about that malicious twinkle in his eyes that made Ed want to stay there. Ed scowled at him, directed his eyes forcibly at the floor.

Finally, Dumbledore said, "I do not fear death."

"No shit," said Ed. "For whatever reason you'd rather be dead zan continue heading zis conflict."

The Old Man sat back in his chair, pointedly withdrawing his shriveled hand. He was about to respond when Bill cut in, clearly not prepared to hear that his former Headmaster and Leader of the Light was trying to off himself through complacency. "Alright," said Bill, "I think I've had too many wideye potions. I'm going to bed. Headmaster, can Hogwarts put me up for the night? I'd rather confer with Alphonse later today if possible."

"Of course, Mr. Weasley," said Dumbledore, looking relieved. "You know where the guest quarters are, near where you stayed as Head Boy."

Bill gave a small grin. "I do."

"The one guarded by Angelica the Bountiful is open," Dumbledore said, waving his wand. A piece of parchment materialized in his grasp. He handed it to Bill. "The password is Bertie Bott's."

"Thank you," said Bill. "I'll be back here with Alphonse tonight if everything goes according to plan."

A dark look crossed over Dumbledore's face. "Of course. I will be here."

Bill rose from his chair. Ed did the same, giving Dumbledore's deceptively comfortable throne a fond pat. "Later, Old Man," said Ed, turning to the door and ignoring Bill's incredulous look.

Dumbledore inclined his head. "Good day, Professor Elric."

Ed lifted a hand without turning to look at him, did not look back until the door to the office had closed behind him. He didn't like how small Dumbledore suddenly looked in his chintz armchair.

When they were halfway down the stairs, Ed looked at Bill, asked, "Do you haff any extra wideye potions?"

Bill pressed a phial of blue-green liquid into Ed's hand before splitting off towards his guest room. Huh, thought Ed, when he managed to catch the tail end of breakfast feeling rested and alert, never thought there'd be some good things about this magic bullshit.

Word Count: 4312

Date Posted: 2/22/2021

Thanks for reading, tell me what you think in a review! I hope this chapter helped brighten everyone's Monday and that February is treating you well. Life and the world are crazy, at least we have fanfiction. Stay safe, stay healthy, and avoid whatever unpleasant weather conditions apply to your area!