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Roy splashed through the puddles, letting his body find an easy, long stride as he sprinted back towards Central Command. Rain plastered his hair to his head and ran down his cheeks like tears, but he ignored the discomfort as he darted across the road, dodging quickly between the cars.

Hawkeye was waiting for him, and broke into a sprint at his side. ‘Who called you?’ he demanded raggedly, trying to keep his breathing steady and give his body the oxygen it needed.

‘Alphonse.’

No other words were exchanged as the two of them concentrated their wills on getting to the infirmary. It felt like an eternity before the grim façade of the command building loomed out of the murk. It was a white monolith in the night, and pools of light bathed the precinct as Roy flashed his identification and hurried on through. The security guard barely had a chance to acknowledge the pair of officers before they were gone, clattering up the stairs and into the building.

The infirmary was normally a haven of calm. More often than not it lay silent, dealing with the minor everyday strains and sprains that hobbled through its ward. Now, though, the normally open doors were closed. As Roy skidded to a halt he could see nurses working feverishly around someone’s bedside, calling jargon out to each other. The sight did not fill him with confidence. There was a frenetic energy to them that emphasised one simple fact: every second mattered.

‘Al, do you know what’s happening?’ Riza’s words were soft, and Roy turned to see the younger Elric sitting on a bench pushed against the corridor wall. He had been so intent on getting to Ed that he had not even noticed him. Al’s hands hung clasped between his legs and his head was bowed. He looked like a little boy in prayer. Yet when he lifted his head there was nothing pious about him.

Fear darkened his eyes; it battled with confusion and the faintest thread of anger. His normally smiling lips were wrenched into a miserable grimace, and his brown complexion was a ghastly white. There was no blood on his clothes but they were wet with the rain, and Hawkeye grabbed a blanket from a stack nearby and tossed it around his shoulders.

Her fingers were shaking as she pulled the edges together and rubbed Al’s shoulder in a futile attempt at comfort. ‘I got here as quickly as I could.’

‘I know, thank you.’ The hollow words that departed Al’s lips sounded lifeless. His voice carried the dark phantom of dread. ‘You might as well sit. I think it’ll be a while.’ He nodded politely to Roy. ‘The doctor said he would have to tell you what was happening. You didn’t have to come out.’

‘I wanted to.’ Roy’s voice was gentle but firm as he sat shoulder to shoulder with Al, lending the trembling youth a touch of warmth with his proximity. ‘How did this happen?’

‘I don’t know.’ Al closed his eyes and sighed. ‘We were walking back to the dorm room, talking as normal. Ed looked a bit unwell but he said that it was just a cold. We were almost at the door when he slumped against the wall. He started coughing again and clutching at his chest.’

‘Was there blood?’

Al nodded weakly. ‘Lots of it. I tried to steady him, but he lost consciousness. I knew he wasn’t well, and I knew there was something wrong. Why didn’t he tell me?!’ The question rang out along the corridor, echoing back to them angry and pained. Hawkeye faltered for a moment before wrapping her arms around Al’s torso, offering both comfort and restraint as his distress increased. ‘I could have helped him!’

‘I should have told him to see a doctor tonight,’ Roy choked out, a thick knot of guilt clogging his throat and chest.

‘You knew?’ Al demanded stiffly, lifting his head to fix the dark-haired man with a searching look. ‘You knew and you did nothing?’

He swallowed tightly and nodded, unconsciously weaving his fingers in a tense mesh of distracted anxiety. ‘He was coughing in my office. I saw blood but I – I just told him to go and get some rest.’ Roy thought Al would lash out at him. He ever braced himself for the blow, knowing full well that he deserved it for not taking the most logical course of action.

Instead the younger brother shook his head woefully, his voice terse. ‘If you only knew from today then it wouldn’t have helped. Besides, he left your office at about half ten. This happened over an hour later after I dragged him out of the library.’

‘So he didn’t go to bed.’ Hawkeye’s statement was flat, but it spoke volumes of her opinion of Edward at that moment.

‘He didn’t even change out of his wet clothes,' Al replied. 'You know what Ed’s like. When I was a seven foot suit of armour I could at least pick him up and carry him when he was being stubborn.’ Al’s reminiscent smile was faint, but pure, and Roy felt a stab of pain at the thought of what would become of them if Ed did not make it through the night. ‘If I tried that now he’d probably knock me out. I haven’t won a sparring session against him since I got my body back.’

The double doors opened, revealing a harassed looking man in his late fifties. His slender face was lined with tiredness, and the look in his eye was that of someone who had seen far too much grief in his years as a military physician. His mandatory white coat was dishevelled, and his neat grey hair hung across his forehead as though he had not had the time to brush it when he was awoken. A stethoscope had been stuffed carelessly in his pocket, and it banged against his hip as he walked towards them.

‘Doctor Collins?’ Roy asked, getting to his feet as the man nodded in acknowledgement. ‘What’s his status?’

‘Brigadier-General Mustang, I presume?’ The doctor smiled to take the edge of irritation out of his words, but it was a frail expression. ‘Please, could you and Mr Elric follow me?’

‘I’d like Lieutenant Hawkeye to come with us.’ Al’s voice held a modicum of strength, and he met the physician’s eyes earnestly until the older man nodded in acquiescence.

‘Very well.’

It wasn’t until they were in the relatively comfortable confines of his office that the physician spoke again, motioning for them to sit down in the soft leather chairs as he began. ‘Edward’s condition is serious. It is also, I’m afraid, untreatable.’

The direct honesty of his words was like a sword twisting in Roy’s side, and he looked over to see Al’s face crumble. The doctor himself paced behind a large, walnut desk and pulled out a series of x-ray sheets. With a quick flick he turned on a light-box and pressed one of the films against it.

‘An x-ray is best used to show bones. However, organs, particularly large masses like the liver, will show as a faint outline. This is the normal appearance of the lungs.’ He showed them the clear outlines of the two lobes. ‘There’s no shadowing, so there is no damage. This is what Edward’s x-ray showed.’

The light behind the picture flickered, but it still picked out the details clearly. The outlines were blurred, and dark patches mottled the cavity. Welts of bright white slashed across the film like razor blades. ‘Mr Elric’s lungs have been eaten away. There is barely enough tissue left to sustain him.’ The doctor turned back to his files, his shoulders rising and falling heavily as he did so. ‘Similar symptoms show throughout his thoracic region. It’s affecting his heart, and moving onto his liver and spleen.’

The silence that followed was dense, and the doctor sat down in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I have never, in my entire career, seen anything like this. The white streaks are scarring caused by the tissue trying to repair itself, but it is failing.’ He pressed his fingertips to his eyes as though trying to force the image aside. ‘There is really nothing that we can do.’

Roy felt his throat constrict as his head began to pound. How was that possible? With all the advances in medicine and healing alchemy, how could they be unable to help Ed? 'How long does he have?’ Desperation filled those words from end to end, and he swallowed tightly as the doctor looked back at the x-rays in thought.

Eventually he spoke with great care, his logical voice taking on a gentle tone. ‘It might be an hour; it might be a month. I don’t think he can have much longer than that.’

Roy closed his eyes, bowing his head in misery. So little time? It felt like his insides were being torn apart. A lead weight sank in his stomach, and every heartbeat seemed to bring a surge of grief with it. Tears prickled the insides of his eyelids, and he blinked them back furiously. Al had the right to cry; he did not.

‘There is one thing that I do not understand,’ the doctor said quietly, his eyes softening as he took in the three defeated people in front of his desk. ‘This degeneration has not happened overnight. This is eighteen months or two years worth of damage.’

‘Two years?’ Al croaked. Neither Hawkeye nor Roy needed to be a mind reader to know what he was thinking. Two years ago the Elrics had returned from the gate together. Two years ago Ed had been willing to give up everything to save his brother. Was this the cost of that exchange?

Roy felt nausea turn in his stomach, and clenched his teeth shut tight. What kind of sick trade was that: to exchange a full life for a slow death? How could that even begin to be equivalent? Another thought sliced across his mind, ice cold and horrific. Had Ed known? Had he done this willingly and been living with this knowledge ever since?

‘Why haven’t there been any symptoms until now? If this thing was eating away at his lungs shouldn’t there have been signs earlier on?’ Riza asked, breaking her silence for the first time.

‘The human body is a resilient thing. It can adapt to slow damage and mould itself to perform new functions or survive on reduced levels of essentials if needed. However, this would have been painful.’ Doctor Collins pointed to the x-ray, highlighting a particular clot of scar tissue. ‘This is close to a primary nerve and looks like the original point of degradation. When this damage was occurring then Mr Elric must have been in terrible agony. As it moved away through the lungs, which have fewer pain receptors, it would have faded away.’

The doctor got to his feet, the emotion fading from his face as his analytical mind examined the evidence in front of him. ‘Other symptoms might have included tiredness, or getting out of breath easily. It was only when the damage was so extensive that he began to expectorate blood that the situation would have truly made itself known. Do you know when that started?’

‘A few days ago he began coughing. He kept insisting it was just a cold,’ Al bit his lip, no doubt thinking that he should have known better than to believe Ed’s quick dismissal. They had all become so used to it over the years that it was easier to accept his word rather than push the issue. Now they were losing him.

‘I doubt even Edward would mistake this for something viral. We have taken a blood sample to confirm this is not a contamination or contagious agent, but I am certain that it is not.’

Roy felt cold, as though his brain had disconnected from reality. He knew that he still sat in the physician’s office, but somehow it felt as though he had stepped away and distanced himself from this. He wanted to deny it: to tell the doctor that he had to be wrong. Of all of them Ed was the one who would not give up. It defied the imagination that the Fullmetal alchemist would simply let his body break his will. He would never just die. It was too mundane: too human!

A tear splashed on his hand, and he looked at it in surprise, realising it must have fallen from his own eyes. Another joined it, and he dimly thought that he should hide his grief. It would not do to be seen weeping over a subordinate. Yet his body would not let him conceal the elemental fact that somehow he was breaking up inside.

Al’s head was bowed again, his shoulders shaking silently. Riza’s eyes were alarmingly bright, but of all of them she was the most restrained. She tipped her head up to the ceiling as though trying to force the tears back and finally managed to speak. ‘Will he wake up?’ Her voice wobbled and hitched on a sudden sob, and she clenched her eyes shut tight as Collins bowed his head.

‘Perhaps. However, it would be better for him if he did not. At least now he is unaware of the pain.’

He said it like it was a mercy, as though the only person’s feelings that mattered were those of the young man lying in that hospital bed. A selfish flash of anger rushed through Roy. He tried to suppress it, but the pained grief turned to childish rage as the thoughts tore around his head. He wanted Ed to wake up. He wanted to see those eyes open and hear something - anything - from the blonde. Even if it was only a swearword it would be better than nothing. Al deserved the chance to speak to his brother again, just as Roy knew he had earned the right to throttle the alchemist for being so careless with his own life.

The rage was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving him drained. Part of him was grieving, curling in on itself with silent whimpers. Other parts wanted to demand how Ed could be so selfish and inconsiderate. How could he do this to them? The volatile flash of emotions was nauseating, and he got shakily to his feet and departed the office without a word.

Neither Hawkeye or Al followed him. Perhaps they both had better sense, but he doubted that they’d even heard him go. Al was distraught. The foundation of his world was crumbling away and, worse, there was the inconsolable possibility that this sacrifice had been made for him to exist.

How naïve they had all been! How utterly foolish! Roy’s lips twisted into a self-berating grimace. They thought that they had lost enough to make a happy ending possible. They had honestly believed that it was over; pain and death would not visit them again. They thought that they had paid their price.

It just did not work that way.

Roy hesitated by the doors to the room. All but one of the nurses had gone, and the young woman who watched over Ed’s sleeping form bowed her head respectfully as he slipped in. ‘I’ll give you some privacy,’ she said quietly. ‘His condition has stabilised, but he won’t hear you.’ She hesitated, as though she wanted to say something but was unsure if it was wise. Eventually she murmured, ‘It’s unlikely, but if he wakes up then please let us know.’

She crept out, moving away along the corridor and leaving him to hover awkwardly at Ed’s bedside. His face was pale, barely darker than the bleached cotton of the pillow. The rise and fall of his chest was stuttering, hitching as his lungs laboured with each breath. Hesitantly, as if dreading what he would feel, Roy reached for his hand, brushing his fingertips against Ed’s skin.

Soft warmth was the only sensation that greeted his touch, and Roy found himself sitting on the edge of the bed and holding Ed’s hand in his palm. It was an attempt at comfort, but for whom he was not sure. He rubbed the pad of his thumb idly back and forth, finding reassurance in the simple motion.

It was hard to relate the still figure between the sheets with the flammable, infuriating alchemist who had been in his office only a few hours ago. His face was relaxed in drug-induced slumber, and his brow was smooth of any frown or grimace. Roy had seen him like this before, lying in a plain white bed as illness or injury gradually faded away. It was difficult to believe that this time would be any different; he simply could not accept that Ed wasn’t going to be back in the office swearing and complaining. It didn’t seem real.

‘Stop right there, Fullmetal,’ he murmured, repeating the same words he'd said earlier that night. ‘I’m not done with you yet.’

He had not expected a twitch of recognition or any kind of reply, but his heart still sank when he was met with silence. Bowing his head he let his shoulders slump, hating the feeling of loss and defeat that was surrounding him on all sides. It always hurt to lose a man under his command, but this was a different pain, savage and wild.

He only looked up when Al slipped into the room. His young face was ravaged, but he managed a faint smile. He hesitated when he saw Ed's hand gripped between Roy's palms, faint traces of puzzlement and suspicion flitting through his eyes.

Too tired to be embarrassed or stammer an excuse, Roy gently placed Ed's hand back on the mattress and got to his feet.

Wordlessly he grabbed a chair and handed it to Al, nudging the man into the seat before taking one on Ed’s other side. They sat there in silence as the night slipped away, measuring out the hours in Edward’s hesitant breaths. More than once Al opened his lips as though about to ask a question, but every time he subsided. The fourth time this happened Roy rubbed his stubbled chin absently.

‘Just ask.’

Al managed a small, bashful smile at being so transparent, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. 'You care for him, don't you?' A faint flush stained his cheeks but he looked up and met Roy's gaze. 'I mean, as more than someone under your command – as more than a friend?'

Roy hesitated, knowing that he couldn't deny it. Al's earnest face demanded honesty, but it was difficult. He couldn't even work out what he felt for Ed himself. The past hours had been unbearable, burning away the fog of doubt and self-deception. He had been fooling himself for a long time, and now that he had begun to grasp what he was feeling it was already too late.

He managed a stiff nod in response to Al's question; his emotions were in too much turmoil to fear the potential repercussions of his admittance. In a way he did not care what happened to him. It was meaningless now.

Al sighed, glancing at his brother's sleeping face. 'I thought so.'

It had not been the reaction that Roy had expected. Time and again people surprised him. Where he expected repulsion or loathing he seemed to find understanding. Al's face was guarded and a touch uncertain, but the brotherly protectiveness was gentle.

‘You haven't told him, have you?'

'No,' His answer was full of regret, 'and I probably never will. He doesn't need or want something like this.' He gestured weakly, indicating with one hand the potential relationship between himself and Ed.

'That's for him to decide, isn't it?'

Roy looked up sharply. For someone so young Al could be depressingly wise at times, yet others the world seemed to rob him of that logic. Even now he could see the guilt on the young man's face. Already he was shouldering the blame for what was happening to Edward, as though it were naturally his to bear.

'Do you think that this happened when Ed got your body back?' Roy asked, skilfully steering the conversation away from his emotions.

Al scowled for a moment, repulsed as he nodded his head. ‘There’s nothing equivalent about it, but no one really understands the gate. As far as I know only Ed and me have seen it more than once. I just – I don’t know. This seems malicious. It’s not a price; it’s a punishment.’ He looked up hopelessly, seeking and finding agreement in Roy's eyes.

‘Do you think if we’d known about this earlier we could have done anything?’ Roy asked quietly, torn. He did not know which answer he would rather hear, but something told him it was important.

‘If it was the gate that did this, then no. It would have caught up with him no matter what.’ Al took his brother’s hand, clasping it in his as he leaned his elbows on the mattress. ‘Even though I’m furious at him, I know why he didn't want to tell us. He can’t stand pity. He wouldn't want us looking at him everyday and knowing that he was going to die.’

'So you think he knew?’ Roy winced at the automatic use of past tense. How quickly it crept in. ‘I mean, knows?’

Al nodded, and shifted his grip for a moment. ‘If not then he probably suspects something. Maybe in the beginning he thought it was just an inconvenient pain, something worth bearing for me.’

The pair of them lapsed into silence, letting their own thoughts take them as the sun crept up over the horizon. The room was blushing with a frail light when Hawkeye tapped on the door. She looked as though she had spent the entire night on her feet, and in her arms was a bundle of papers. ‘I’ve been to the office,’ she said tiredly. ‘Scieszka had these waiting for you. Apparently Ed asked for the histories of the graves that were robbed.’ She glanced at the figure in the bed. ‘Is there any change?’

Roy got up, taking the sheaf of documents from her as he shook his head. ‘No, he’s no better and no worse.’

‘I’ll hold down the office, sir.’ She held up a hand to stem his protests. ‘Can you please stay here and look after Alphonse? I’m sure it’s what Ed wants you to do.’

She was offering him an excuse to stay and maintain this vigil. He had been dreading the sunrise, knowing it would take him away and force him to concentrate on reality when all he wanted to do was linger in denial. Now she gave him what he needed.

With a genuine smile of thanks he ducked his head in agreement. ‘Tell the others that Ed’s unwell, but don’t say how bad it is. We need some functioning men in the office, and if they know… .’ He trailed off, letting her complete the sentence for herself.

Hawkeye nodded in agreement and departed, her normally brisk march slower and more weary. He listened to her footsteps fade away before putting the papers down at the bedside and taking his seat. Once in a while a nurse would bustle in and take some readings, noting them on Ed's chart. The general conclusion was the same. He no longer hovered on the precipice of death, but nor did he step back from the edge.

More than once his breathing seemed to choke, making the two men start in alarm. Each time it lasted no more than a moment, but it was still a reminder that this was no simple injury. In need of constant reassurance Al kept his brother's hand clasped in his, fingertips resting over the weak pulse in Ed's wrist. Similarly, Roy found his eyes locked on the hollow of his throat, counting of the throbbing heartbeats that fluttered there.

Morning was half gone when Ed suddenly drew in a deep breath, his face contorting with pain and his voice hitching drily in his throat. Roy was forcefully pulled from his brooding thoughts, and Al looked up sharply, studying his brother's face for any sign of wakefulness.

Where his body had been relaxed in sleep it was now pulled taut like a wire stretched too tight. Tremors ran through him, gripping him in powerful clutches as a sweat broke out across his brow. 'Get a nurse!' Roy ordered, slipping into the role of command with chilling ease. Al was gone in a second, leaving him to reach out and grasp Ed's hand again.

He murmured soothingly, the words nothing more than an unintelligible series of sounds as he brushed Ed's hair back from his forehead. Gradually the teenager's tension seemed to ease, but it did not remove the expression of pain and fear on his face. Was he just dreaming, or was he waking up?

'Ed, can you hear me?' he whispered, his heart beating hard and fast as he tightened his grip. 'If you can then say something. Please!'

'Roy?'

His heart leapt at Ed's unsteady question. Relief left him weak, and he bowed his head for a moment in silent thanks to whoever might be listening. When he looked up again it was to see unfocussed gold watching him through half open eyes. Sooty lashes fluttered down again, and Ed managed a small groan of pain. 'Hurts.'

'I know. A doctor will be here in a minute.'

'Too late for that.' There was a resigned air to Ed's voice; a weakness that made the hairs on the back of Roy's neck stand on end. 'They can't help me.'

The coughing fit was sudden, and Roy winced as Ed curled up tight, forcing his body to hold still as his chest heaved with the effort to breathe. Eventually he relaxed, slumping back into the pillows. His eyes stayed shut for a moment or two, but when he opened them again they burned with determination.

It was a welcome sight. The expression was so familiar, even if it was lilted with pain. It did not matter that Ed was weak. With that look in his eye, Roy knew that he wouldn't go down without a fight.

'Let me up.'

'What? No.'

Ed rolled his eyes and struggled to sit upright, gently freeing his hand from Roy's grip as he did so. There was no stopping the spasm of agony that darted across his face, and Roy firmly grasped Ed's shoulders. 'You're not going anywhere. You can barely breathe, let alone get out of bed.'

'Mr Elric!' The nurse's voice was scolding as she bustled in with the doctor in tow. 'What do you think you're doing?'

'Leaving,' Ed replied firmly, struggling not to gasp as another cough shook his ribs. 'There's no point in staying here.'

'Brother!' In normal circumstances Al's voice would have been exasperated, but the very real fear in his tone was enough to make Ed hesitate. 'Please do what the doctor says. You're not well!'

'May I speak to Edward alone, please?' The doctor's request was more of an order, and Roy found himself being hustled out into the corridor by the nurse with Al at his side. She shut the doors firmly before giving them a winning smile. 'Let me get you some coffee and some food. The doctor will talk some sense into Mr Elric.'

'He'd be the first,' Roy muttered, earning a frail laugh from Al.

As one the two men sat down on the bench. It seemed like an eternity ago that they had perched there, waiting for news. Amazingly not even a dozen hours had passed. Now it was easier to find hope. Roy knew he wasn't alone. He could see it lightening the lines of misery in Al's face. When Ed was unconscious it was easy to believe the doctor's words, to see that he could slip into death at any moment. Now, despite everything, that possibility seemed ridiculous.

The x-rays rose like a spectre in his mind, grimly outlining their inescapable truth. Whatever Ed pretended and however strong he appeared to be it could not negate what those films had shown. The degradation was slow, true enough, but it was there. Even if the doctor's estimations were out it did not alter the fact that Fullmetal's days were numbered.

Whatever the physician was saying to Edward he was taking his time over it, and when the nurse returned with hot coffee and bread for the two waiting men they fell upon it hungrily. The acrid taste of the coffee was far from perfect, but the flash and sizzle of caffeine did the trick, waking up Roy's tired mind and rekindling his usual spark.

When Doctor Collins finally emerged it was with a grimace of irritation on his face. It was a well known fact that Ed was only ever a good patient when he was unconscious, and Roy wondered how much rudeness the physician had to bear.

'He is stubborn.' It was said in the most scathing of tones, and Collins heaved a sigh of irritation. 'I have convinced him that he should stay and rest, but how long that will last I do not know. He's eighteen years of age and can legally discharge himself against medical advice if he so wishes.'

'You told him what's happening?' Roy demanded tightly.

'He did not need telling.' Scribbling something on the chart in his hands the man shook his head. 'He already knew. Unfortunately he was not very willing to inform me of the circumstances surrounding his decline.'

'If he discharges himself, what will happen?' Al asked quietly, a frightened frown wrinkling his brow.

'The same thing as if he stayed here. He may prolong his life by a matter of days if he rests, but it is not something that can be delayed forever.' Doctor Collins hesitated before allowing a heavy sigh to escape his lips. 'There is no documentation on this, but there is a trend acknowledged in the medical community. If a patient believes they will recover, or has the strength of will to acknowledge their approaching death and still fight it, then there is often a better chance of recovery.' He hesitated, unsure of how to continue. 'In this case I am unsure of the relevance, and I do not wish to give you false hope. However, from my impressions of the patient I feel that he will not merely accept what is happening to him.'

Al and Roy exchanged a look, both silently agreeing with the doctor's assessment. There was no one more determined than Ed.

'He believes he can do something about his situation, although I am not sure what he intends.'

Roy tensed, feeling a wave of unease at those words. Anyone else would have meant them innocently, a simple gesture of rebellion against their imminent demise. From Ed it was more ominous. The normal rules of possibility did not seem to feature in his thoughts. Next to him he heard Al's intake of breath, and knew that the same fear had found its way into the youngest Elric's heart. What was Ed planning?

He almost did not hear the doctor's next words, and forced himself to concentrate on the learned man in front of him. Collins rubbed his stubble thoughtfully and shook his head in resignation. 'I have left the discharge papers with him. If he decides to sign them then it is out of my hands until such a time as he requires my services again.'

'He's having difficulty breathing. Do you really think he can even walk out of the ward?' Al asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked back towards his brother's room. Roy knew that he was looking for some kind of reassurance that Ed was too weak to try anything rash.

'I imagine that he will try. Whether he will succeed into coercing his own body to obey is another matter. Lack of oxygen is making him weak, and the pain saps his energy. He has already refused medication to help.' With a quick nod of farewell the doctor turned to depart. 'May I also suggest that the two of you find the time to get some rest. I believe the next few weeks will be trying for everyone.'

As soon as the doctor was gone, Roy looked across at Al, noticing that the young man's jaw was clenched tight with anger. Most people thought that Alphonse was a gentle soul, but when it came to Edward's stubbornness he often had a short fuse.

'What do you think he meant by doing something about the situation?' Roy asked quietly, shoving his hands in his pockets as his mind whirled with possibilities.

'I have a fairly good idea.' Al marched forward, pushing his way through into Ed's room and leaving Roy in the corridor. As casually as he could he leaned against the wall next to the doorway. It wasn't eavesdropping. Besides, their voices could easily be heard.

'You can't!' That was Al, angry and desperate. He knew Ed too well to doubt what he was thinking of doing. 'You can't go back to the gate!'

'Why not?' Ed's voice was weary, but forceful. 'It did this to me, so it can undo it.'

'It's not a creature with a mind. It's just a gate. If you turn up there it will take you and that will be the end of it.'

'It's already taking me, Al. Bit by bit.' There was a moment's hesitation before Ed continued. 'I would rather challenge it than just accept the price it decided to charge. It never even told me what it had done. I thought at the time that it was too easy. That it asked too little for you in return. I should have known.'

'We'll find a cure. We'll find something. Please don't do this!'

'It's too late for that.'

'And whose fault is that? We all asked. We were all here for you, and you didn't tell us that anything was wrong. The doctor said you must have been in agony but you never said a word!'

'Al-' Ed was pleading, his voice heavy with exhaustion. 'I know that I'm not going to get better. I don't want to lose you, so I'll do whatever I can. Even if there's only a slight chance of success I'll do it.'

'It's my fault this happened in the first place!'

'Don't say that!' There was real anger in Ed's voice, a dangerous spark of fire that made Roy tense and smile at the same time. 'It was my choice, Al, same as this is. I'm sorry, but you can't stop me.'

There was silence after that, and Roy thought he caught a faint sob of despair. His heart ached at the sound of Al's distress and the final tones of reservation in Ed's voice. He wanted to barge in there and forbid Ed from trying to reach the gate again. Al was right, it was a fool's mission.

It took every ounce of his will not to push the doors aside and start shouting. After all, it was not his place to hear this conversation. There was no place for Roy at Ed's side. There probably never would be.

He remembered Al's gentle insistence that it was Ed's choice to make, but he could not expose himself to that kind of vulnerability, nor Ed to that kind of confusion, especially now. He knew Fullmetal well enough, despite what the others suggested to the contrary. It was a futile attraction. No, he wouldn't tell Ed how he felt. Some things were better left unsaid, a closely guarded secret.
Slowly Roy turned and walked away, squaring his shoulders and shoring up his inner defences. He had allowed himself to get too close and care too much. Now he had to face the brumal bite of reality once more. For his own sake, and Edward's, he had to do what he did best.

He had to keep his distance.