Ed felt sick. It was a dense blanket pressing its way down through his body, mind and soul. A quick, clammy nausea, oil-like in his mouth. The temptation to stick his fingers down his throat and bring relief in a sharp rush of bile was intense, but there was nothing in his stomach to expel. Instead he could only swallow against the dryness and take deep, steady breaths as he willed it to pass.
Al nudged his shoulder, silently offering him a mug of steaming black coffee. The aroma turned Ed's stomach, but he accepted it anyway, grateful for the heat of the ceramic vessel against his palm. A violent shiver crawled over his skin, and he fought it back with gritted teeth. He wasn't cold, not physically anyway, but mentally he felt frozen. It was as though all his thoughts slid, glacier slow, along the same black path. What had happened at the station was horrible, but it was not as shocking as it should have been. That bothered him. When had he become so used to death?
Families had been torn apart in one split-second, rent asunder as though the ties of blood that bound them together were meaningless. All he could do was look upon the devastation with cold detachment. It had nearly been Al and Winry. It could have been them he was pulling out of the rubble or covering in blank white sheets to hide their dead faces from the world.
'Brother?' Al sat down next to him, close enough for Ed to feel the safe warmth of his body. 'Are you all right?'
Ed glanced up, knowing that it wasn't really a question. Al knew that something was wrong, and it would be an insult to his intelligence if Ed told him otherwise. He shifted his hands around the coffee cup and shrugged. 'I'll be all right, Al. I'm just glad you and Winry got out of there in time.' Cautiously he reached out to brush the swollen cut on Al's forehead. It was red and bruised, but it didn't seem too deep. The paramedics had told him to take it easy, and Alphonse seemed to have taken their advice to heart. He had crossed his legs under him on the couch and was leaning back into the deep cushions. His relaxed posture was completely at odds with Ed's hunched form.
'Tell me what happened at the warehouse tonight.' It was a gentle demand, not a request, and Ed felt his eyes widen in surprise at his brother's tone. He tipped his head to one side as he scrutinised Al's expression. His eyes were earnest and unwavering, and his lips were unsmiling. There was no sign of anger, just a chilly seriousness that warned Ed against brushing off the request.
Steeling himself, Ed took a gulp of coffee, feeling it hit his hollow, numb stomach with something equivalent to pain. However, it helped to have a core of heat somewhere in the blank ice of his body before he began to speak. 'We found the remains of an array among the rubble at the station. It looked a lot like what Carmine had used on me at the warehouse, so I went to check it out. Mustang came with me to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.' A frown twisted his brow and he scowled into the mug. 'I wish he hadn't.'
He lifted his shoulders in a dismissive shrug. 'When we got to the array we accidentally activated a portal to the plain of the gate that Carmine had left behind. I had to close it, but when I used alchemy it – it looked more like what she uses. Even in my head it wasn't just one circle. It was four or five. If they hadn't drawn themselves on the ground when I clapped maybe Roy wouldn't have been able to notice anything was different, but it was right there for him to see.'
Al's young face was wrinkled with confusion. He drummed his fingertips idly on the coffee mug as he tried to follow his brother's train of thought. 'Why does that bother you?'
It was a difficult question, and one that had been carving itself deeper and deeper into Ed's consciousness since he had closed the portal. Why did he care what Mustang thought of him? It had never bothered him before. 'He acts like I'm a risk,' he replied eventually, 'like he actually believes I could hurt people.'
'The alchemy you're using is unfamiliar. He doesn't understand it and that worries him,' Al paused before leaning forward, narrowing the world down just to the two of them. 'It worries me too.'
'It's not dangerous,' Ed muttered. 'At least, no more so than the alchemy you use. Mustang said it himself. Some components of what I was doing looked familiar, as if they had become integrated into the arrays that people design and use today. It's not magic or a threat. It's just different.'
'I don't think it's the alchemy itself that's the problem. It's the fact that you know how to use it,' Al countered. 'He said you didn't stop to think. You acted reflexively, and the result was a complex of patterns that he didn't understand. People are used to you being a prodigy, Ed, but even you can't come up with an idea like that in a heartbeat.' When Ed didn't reply, Al put his coffee cup on the table before knotting his hands together. 'Can you show me? Just something simple. I want to know what it looks like.'
'Here?' Ed waved a hand around the living room. 'I'm not doing any kind of alchemy in Hughes' house. What about Gracia and Elysia?'
'I thought it was safe?' Al asked, getting to his feet and motioning for Ed to follow him. 'The garden then. I don't want you to activate anything. Just show me an array.'
'Why are you so eager to know?' Ed demanded cautiously, hating the first slivers of distrust that were working their way through his body. This was Al. If there was anyone in the world who would understand without question it was him.
Al hesitated at the door, not bothering to turn around as he spoke. 'Because this is the only thing you've told me about without arguing. Either it's too important for even you to keep a secret, or it's too insignificant for you to be bothered about. Whichever it is, I need to know as much as I can. It's better than not having any idea what's happening in your life any more.'
'Al, you see me every day. You know exactly what's going on.'
'No, I don't.' His words were hollow, and Ed saw his shoulders sag. 'I'm being told so many things by so many different people: you're dying, surviving, fighting, giving up... . The only thing everyone can agree on is that you're not talking about whatever it is that's happened to you – that's still happening to you.'
The silence following his small statement was thick and tight. It pushed at Ed's chest, choking him as he tried to find the words to reassure his younger sibling. The truth was right there on the very tip of his tongue, but he couldn't bring himself to mention the light inside him or the voices in his mind. It was literally as though something had turned his lips to ice. Finally he surrendered to it, keeping his peace as he reached out to touch Al's left shoulder. 'I'm sorry I can't tell you more. I'll show you what happened at the warehouse.'
Together they moved out into the garden, both shivering at the nip in the air. The perfume of herbs and heather tinted the night, and Ed took a deep breath before looking around. 'I don't know if this will work. Last time I had to activate the arrays for them to be drawn. They appeared after I clapped.'
Ed leant back against the wall, feeling awkward as he closed his eyes and concentrated his will. He needed something benign, and he carefully chose an array designed to drop the temperature of water by a few degrees. It was a tiny change, but enough for what Al wanted to see. At first he came up blank, falling to the easy single circle pattern he had grown up with.
Abruptly, his mind's eye blurred, and the image slipped out of focus. When it re-emerged it showed three distinct circles, each touching the other. He could see, in the same way old languages were almost comprehensible, but not quite, the elements that it shared with the modern array. Yet this felt different. Unbidden, it sizzled under his skin: a gentle purr of power.
'Brother, I'm not seeing anything,' Al's voice was cautious, as though he were afraid of interrupting. Thought fled from Ed's mind, lost in the sudden tense burn of power that seethed through his flesh. It made his skin tingle and his muscles ache with the need to release it. His pulse was a rapid rushing in his ears, and cool air hitched in his lungs, rasping at his throat.
'Then I'll have to activate it. Stay by the door and don't get in the way.'
'Wait, what are you -?'
Al didn't get the chance to finish as Ed brought his hands together, unleashing the surge that tautened his body like a harp string. The clap of his hands was gunshot loud, and he faintly heard Al gasp as the light filled the air. It scorched the back of his eyelids, igniting his vision with its brightness before it dwindled to nothing. Blinking quickly, he caught sight of the bright circles just before they wiped themselves clean. In their wake, picked out on the lawn in newly created frost, the pattern lingered.
It had been a simple piece of alchemy; a quick change of state, but Ed couldn't help the small sigh of contentment that escaped his lips. It felt good. It was not just a staticy sensation abruptly discharged; it was a core power being allowed to ebb and flow through him. That was what it wanted, and every time he used it he found himself a little more addicted to the warm punch of it. That scared him more than anything else, more than this knowledge from nowhere or the voice in his head. Already he was finding it hard to remember how alchemy used to feel.
Al stumbled away from where he had been hanging onto the doorframe, eyes wide and face pale. After a moment he seemed to remember to breathe, and his words escaped him in a rush of air. 'I felt that, and I was standing about ten paces away!' He shook his head in a daze. 'Are you sure it's not dangerous?'
'I know what I'm doing,' Ed replied softly, cringing as his brother just shot him a look before moving towards the lawn.
The icy vegetation crunched under his boots, but he was careful not to interrupt the design with his footprints as he examined it from every angle. 'It's beautiful.'
Al's voice was full of reverence, and Ed released a breath he had not realised was trapped in the cage of his ribs. He had feared that he was the only one who saw the grace of the array, but in Al there was a kindred spirit. His passion for alchemy easily equalled Ed's own, and the awe on his face was just enough to be reassuring.
Al hunkered down, his attention fixed on one symbol among the rest. His fingers stretched out, hovering, but not touching. It was as if he was trying to read its meaning through his skin. Then he stepped back, moving away and taking in the whole of it through narrowed eyes. 'I've seen something like this before,' he finally murmured, the flush of intrigue gone from his face as he lifted his gaze to meet Ed's. 'Not an array like this, but some of these letters look familiar.' He pointed to the words inscribed around the thick band of each circle.
'You have? Where?'
He shook his head, his young face wrinkled in confusion, as though he fought with an elusive memory and was unable to dredge it from the quagmire of his mind. 'In a book, somewhere.'
Ed snorted, a half-laughing sound of complaint. 'Al, we've read thousands of books. Can't you be a bit more specific? Was it in the library; on a mission?'
'No, it – I – I don't know.' Al shut his eyes tight, his hand going to his head in a way that made Ed's heart stop in his chest. He bolted across the grass, corrupting the array and rendering it useless as he hurried to his brother's side. His hands braced on Al's shoulders, taking his weight without a second thought as he lurched unsteadily on his feet.
'What is it?' Ed demanded, moving his grip to Al's forearms and shaking gently. 'Does it hurt? Do you feel sick?' One of his hands could feel the pulse in his brother's veins. He sensed the dip of skin and knew unconsciously that his hold was just tight enough to keep Al upright. From his automail he felt nothing. A faint presence and pressure, but no sign of life. Ed had to look down to reassure himself that the fault was that of his prosthetics. Touch shouldn't lie like that, and there was a renewed surge of gratitude that Al was whole and unbroken.
'My head's just a bit fuzzy.' His smile was reassuringly honest, but Ed didn't back off far as he turned Al back towards the house.
'Come on. You're meant to be resting.'
'So are you,' Al pointed out without missing a beat.
'Don't do as I do. Do as I tell you.' The adage was one of their mother's, but without her sweet tones and gentle laughter the words felt clumsy on Ed's tongue. 'You're the good one, remember?'
Al didn't reply, but he didn't protest as Ed hovered by his side protectively, allowing his brother to climb the doorstep and move into the kitchen. The door shut quietly behind them, and Ed drew the bolt back into place, locking out the night.
Al sat at the table with his head in his hands, staring at the grain beneath his elbow. The expression on his face was fiercely determined, and when he spoke the frustration in his voice was clear.
'I know I've seen letters like that somewhere before,' he said at length. 'I can remember the book. The cover was blue, with red binding. There was gold leaf on the pages, and it was old. I can remember thinking that my armour would rip right through it.' He sounded so certain that Ed had to smile.
'So we were looking for the stone.' It was a statement, not a question. When Al was still in his armour they had done nothing else. There had been no time for anyone or anything but each other and that ceaseless, agonising obsession. 'Maybe it's still in the library....'
Al looked up sharply, his eyes narrowing as he shook his head. 'Brother, that library is full of books. You can't read all of them! Besides, you're not on active duty.'
'Reading a book isn't active, Al. Besides, I need to know more about this. I need to know where it came from, and why it's suddenly the only alchemy that feels right.' He could sense his brother's scepticism the instant the words parted his lips, and Ed half turned away so that he wouldn't have to see the confusion on Al's face.
'You've used it – how many times?' he asked, 'two or three, and it already feels natural to you? Brother, you've got to stop.'
Ed's response was so visceral that it surprised him, making his eyes go wide and his hands clench at his sides. Logically he knew that Al was right. Alchemy shouldn't be addictive. The power shouldn't be a drug, but it could be. Every power-mad alchemist they had ever run into had been a slave to the crackle and spark of it, but this wasn't lightening. It was sunshine. It was air. It was essential.
He didn't realise he was shaking until a few tendrils of hair fell across his face, trembling across his vision. Desperately he willed himself still, knowing that there was nothing he could do to explain. How could he tell Al that the one simple act of performing that array had washed away the numbness and swept away the nausea that had clogged his being? It had forced aside his exclusion from the world and thrust him back into it, like a hand pushing him upwards through the surface of choking a sea. He felt alive, and that was something he couldn't relinquish. Not now.
Every moment of his life needed a purpose. Without a battle, with nothing to fight for, he was broken. His intelligence, his power, it all became an ornament: something beautiful to look at and coveted by many, but ultimately useless. This new alchemy was a puzzle, something to distract him from his uncertain future. If he could concentrate on this, he could forget that he was probably dying. He could lose himself in the complexities and give each day a bit of meaning - something other than a simple survival or existence.
'Why not?' Al asked quietly, getting to his feet and crossing his arms. His gaze was piercing, but placid. There was no hostility, just an open need to know the truth. It was a look their mother had used when she had been trying to ferret out the little white lies of their childhood, and Ed spoke without a conscious thought.
'It's all I've got left.' He ran a hand through his hair, tipping his head back and sighing at the ceiling. 'You wouldn't understand.'
'So explain it to me!' Panic edged into Al's voice now, cracking it around the edges. 'You're always telling everyone to stop treating you like a child, but that's exactly how you treat me!'
'Don't be stupid. If I don't tell you something then it's for your own protection. You got your body back. You got your life back. I didn't!' Ed sank his teeth into his bottom lip, ignoring the sudden tang of blood as he forcibly bit back his angry words. Al was standing pale and shocked, his arms hanging limply at his sides as he stared.
'You blame me.'
'No.' The shake of his head couldn't be emphatic enough, and Ed turned his back, twisting away from the horror and guilt in his little brother's expression. 'I'm just saying that you've got something worth protecting. If you wanted to, you could forget everything that happened since mum died. I never can.' He waved his automail hand in emphasis, letting the lamplight glint off the cool steel that had become a permanent reminder of his sins. 'I'm still fighting to get back what I lost. It's not just my arm or leg any more, Al. It's my whole life. If I don't do something I'll be gone in a month.' He closed his eyes, refusing to acknowledge his brother's strangled sound of protest. 'Less now. If I stop using this alchemy it'll be like acknowledging that nothing can be done. That there really is no way out, and eighteen is as old as I'll ever be.'
Ed swallowed, looking down at the floor. 'This new alchemy, whatever it is, it's giving me something to work with. It means I've still got a hope. I know it's linked with the gate and Carmine somehow, and maybe it can help me. For another year, or month. Fuck, even for another day with you and the others it'd be worth it. I'd give anything for that.'
They stood in silence. There was nothing more than the width of the kitchen between them, but it may as well have been miles. Ed's heart clenched painfully as Al closed his eyes, blinding himself to his own response as he slowly nodded – as though he didn't want to acknowledge that he could understand his brother's point of view. His tongue darted out to wet his lips, and his voice was a little more than a rasp. 'I'd give anything for that too. I'd go back to being a suit of armour if it meant you had more time.'
Ed wanted to tell Al not to even think about it. The words were already perched on his lips, and he could feel the desperate chill on his skin at the very thought. Instead he shook his head and sighed. 'I know you would, just like you know I won't ever let you do that.'
Al shifted uncomfortably but, before he could argue, before he could weigh down Ed's mind with a fresh layer of anxiety, Ed raised his hands in surrender. 'Don't start, Al. I know you think I'm a hypocrite, and that you'd do anything to help me even if I don't ask for it. That doesn't change the fact that if you do anything stupid I'll tear you apart. Besides, what could you do? There's no gate there to bargain with.'
The kitchen was quiet for a moment. Around them the house creaked softly. Beams settled, the radiators on the wall clanked, and Ed thought he heard the yip of an urban fox outside. Al eventually let his posture drop in defeat, but there was still a hint of determined defiance in the set of his shoulders. 'You can let me help you, at least with finding the book. Promise?'
Ed uncrossed his arms, forcing the tension out of his body as he stepped towards his brother, motioning towards the living room with his automail hand. 'I promise, Al. I was going to ask anyway.' He smiled then, knowing that Al needed to see the brother he remembered. Not from before they had found the stone and wrested Al's body from the gate, but from before all this had began. It was hard to remember that once they'd just been children with nothing more serious to worry about than how to fill their days with play. It all seemed so long ago, but he could still muster that same, unsullied smile that made it seem like everything would be all right. 'Now come on, I need some sleep and so do you.'
'The paramedics said I needed to be woken up every couple of hours in case I had a concussion.'
'I'll make sure you're all right,' Ed promised, a wicked smile lurking on his lips as a thought occurred to him, 'unless of course you'd rather have Winry nurse you back to health.'
'Brother!' Al whined quietly, rolling his eyes and failing to hide the flush that tinged his cheeks. Without another word he led the way through the living room and up the stairs, ignoring Ed's quiet chuckle as they crept through the house. Floorboards shifted underfoot, giving creaking gasps that became pained squeals under the weight of Ed's automail. Pace by pace, with much cringing and whispered cursing they made it to the room that Gracia had set up for them to share.
Twin beds were against either wall, and the window was shut tight against the night. A vase of flowers, fresh and fragrant, perched on the dresser, and quilts had been heaped on the bed to keep out the cold. Al collapsed on the mattress with a grateful sigh, burrowing his face into the soft pillows. Blindly he kicked off his boots, easing them to the floor before tucking his socked feet under the duvet and pulling it up around his shoulders.
'Aren't you going to get undressed?' Ed asked, raising an eyebrow when the only response he got was a sleepy mumble. As quietly as he could, he took off the short black jacket and the t-shirt underneath – he'd still not retrieved his favourite crimson coat from where he'd left it over a corpse in an alleyway, and he grimly realised it was probably long gone by now. If anyone notice the loss of his trademark garment they didn't comment, but he was still irritated by its absence. Liberating his feet from his boots, he slipped between the covers. Leather pants were not the most comfortable of sleeping garments, but they would do.
Sleep crept up on him, assaulting him from the shadows of the night and pushing him under in one gentle shove. It was shallow: a clear, tropical ocean of slumber, warm and comforting. Dreams began, stuttering and falling away, turned aside by the imminence of consciousness. In a way Ed knew that he wasn't properly asleep. He could hear the sound of Al snoring, and the tap of branches on the windowpane. He was still here, in Gracia's house, but the images behind his closed eyelids were slowly taking him elsewhere.
The wind was arid. He could smell the bone-dry desert on its breath, but here it was just a whisper of a threat. The sand was out there, beyond the high walls of the city. He was safe from its deathly presence, and the people here thrived. Distantly, he could hear the sounds of the market. People called out their wares, tempting customers with surges of fragrance and exotic silks.
The wealthy, musical splash of a nearby fountain caught his attention and he turned towards it, watching the spray make rainbows in the air. As he approached its cool mist kissed his skin and caught in his hair. All around it were old alchemical arrays picked out in tiles. They gleamed in the sunlight, speaking of water and life.
Intrigued, he looked around, realising that each home was built in magnificent tiers, one level rising in gleaming white stone towards the terracotta roofs. There were no hovels that he could see, no beggars or tumbledown shops. In every town he had ever visited there had been a deprived place, where the broken or weary found their home and scraped a living. There was none of that here. He didn't have to see that to know it was true.
Looking up, he saw that plants hung from every available ledge, long lush trails of vegetation that waved a flag of defiance to the vast expanse of dry death he knew was little more than a mile away. He could see the irrigation ducts, and his eyes rested on a quartet of circles, dead at the moment. Come dusk they would flare to life all over the city, and bring the cool, crystalline water that this place needed.
A child ran over to the fountain, laughing and splashing in the puddles. His brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and the white cloth that was wrapped around his body was stained with dust and mud. He didn't seem to mind. The gold torque around his neck gleamed like butter in the sunlight, and his eyes were lined with Kohl. He spun around again, dizzy enough to stumble, until someone caught him and laughed.
The woman wore a crown. It was a simple circlet that banded across her temples and caught her hair back from her face, but her white gown, loose and toyed with by the breeze, screamed royalty. She patted the little boy's head and looked over her shoulder to where a handsome man stood in the shadows, arms folded as he watched the pair sternly. A king perhaps, a prince or maybe a military leader. He seemed too strong and serious to belong in this touching little scene.
Abruptly, the woman looked at where Ed was standing, nothing more than a phantom in this word of his imagination. Dark hair tumbled down to frame her face, and rich grey eyes shone out from her pale face. Her lips, crimson painted, curved into an innocent smile.
Ed awoke abruptly, his eyes shooting open as his heart rate accelerated to the point of pain. He could feel his pulse hammering in his veins, and a faint blue light was emanating from every scarred array on his body. The heat in his chest had intensified, glowing with recollection as its warmth spread through his veins like a drug. It had been a dream, but unlike any other it stayed picture perfect in his mind. It did not fade or falter, and Ed sucked in a deep breath as he ran a shaky hand over his forehead.
I remember the fountain.
He sat up, gasping as the quilt fell away and the cold air hit his chest. The scene replayed in his mind, this time more simple. He could feel the curl of joy at splashing in puddles, and the dizziness from spinning around and around. The realisation was like a blow to his heart, turning the glow in his chest to a cold, dead ember between his ribs. The childish tones the gate sometimes took; the voice in his mind was the little boy from the dream. It hadn't been a fiction of his sleeping mind, but a memory.
'I – I don't understand,' Ed whispered into the darkness. 'What have you got to do with the gate?'
The pain was quick and brutal, a warning that he had gone too far. It blossomed outwards, making his bones ache and his muscles tremble as his head throbbed, throbbed, throbbed in time with his heart. Breath rushed into his lungs and Ed gritted his teeth tight, clutching at his temples until the agony was gone, stolen away as quickly as it had come.
The voice was silent, but there was something else. He was aware of another presence. It was silent and watchful. He could feel its interest, as though it were a teacher watching a particularly apt pupil. There was no emotion, not even ambivalence. It was just observing him as if it wanted to know what happened next: acceptance or denial.
Ed whipped the sheets back, scrabbling to his feet as if the bed had personally offended him. He stood in the middle of the floor, staring at the pool of blankets that were etched into relief by the moonlight. Somehow he doubted he'd be getting any more rest tonight.
As quietly as he could he nudged Al, satisfied when he got a barely there grunt from his brother. 'Just checking you're okay,' he murmured. 'I'm going downstairs for a bit. Can't sleep.'
His only reply was a gentle snore, and he ruffled Al's hair before slipping out into the shadowy gloom of the passageway and tiptoeing down the stairs. The whole house was dark. Every lamp was extinguished, and only the ruddy embers in the hearth cast any light into the living room. Ed hesitated, picking out the sleeping form bundled up under the quilt on the sofa. Judging from the uniform thrown over the armchair Mustang had settled himself on the couch. Ed could just see a few tufts of dark hair poking out from his cocoon.
The susurrus of the carpet beneath his feet was a whispering companion as he made his way to the hearth, lifting the poker and stirring the flames back to life. They nibbled hungrily at the coal he added to the grate, going from sullen crimson to bright, clean yellow as he worked. More than once he heard a sound from Mustang and froze in his actions, not wanting to wake the man. It was only when a low, terrified groan seeped through the darkness that he turned around fully to face his sleeping superior.
Gracia must have been down after he and Al went to sleep. She'd certainly left Mustang enough bedding. He was bundled up so tight in the quilt that the twitches of his arms were almost hidden. The pillow was slipping out from under his head and one foot thrashed out before retreating back into the warm depths.
'You're dreaming,' Ed called over softly, scowling when the man didn't stir. Instead his discomfort seemed to become more pronounced, and his subtle twitches were replaced by a painful, rigid tension. Whatever his subconscious had presented him with, Roy was utterly at its mercy. He was hardly a willing victim, but he seemed unable to break himself free.
Quietly Ed rested the poker on the hearth, ignoring it as it clanked softly on the stone. With precise care he crept over, looking down at Mustang for a moment before crouching down and capturing his wrist with his flesh hand. Roy flinched, his whole being coiling tighter at the touch, but he still didn't stir or awaken. Gradually, fear relaxed into an expression of mild confusion. The lines around those exotically slanted eyes eased, and the pinch of his lips slackened as the sensation of being touched permeated the mire of his mind.
Stiffly his arm twisted, his hand moving to catch Edward's palm in his own grip. Nimble fingers wove through Ed's, catching him in a fragile prison. Ed could see the blisters and scrapes that marred Mustang's skin, and he moved quickly to pull away. He didn't want to hurt him. All he wanted was to let the man sleep peacefully. It was obvious that the dream's hold had loosened, but Roy did not relax his grip on Ed, instead tightening reflexively to keep him close.
The request was so quiet that Ed almost thought he had imagined it. The crackle of the fire nearly drowned it out, but his own sudden, hitched breath was loud in his ears. Carefully, so as not to jolt Roy awake or disturb him any further, he settled down to sit fully on the floor. It was uncomfortable, but it was better than squatting there, torn between staying and going.
'I won't,' he murmured, his thumb sweeping back and forth over Roy's knuckles as he rested his automail hand on Mustang's forearm. He almost expected the cold of the metal to penetrate the sleep haze, but the only reaction was a gentle murmur of contentment.
Ed tried to convince himself that it would be the same for anyone. Roy was only reaching out to the nearest available source of comfort. He knew how disconcerting nightmares could be, and how a warm body, any body, could be enough to chase away the fear and vulnerability.
Ed grimaced, repeating the same words that had been chasing around his mind all day. “This didn't mean anything.” There hadn't been a moment to confront Mustang over what had happened on the living room floor. Oh, Roy had found the time to argue and demand and manipulate, but not once had he mentioned that almost-kiss, that painful, blissful desire. Ed knew the lust wasn't one-sided. The press of Roy's erection against him had been enough, but even without that there had been no mistaking what had passed between them. The air had been thick with need, and even the memory of it had Ed taking a deep breath and willing his thoughts away from treacherous ground as his body responded.
It had been a shock to realise that Mustang was not as distant or as completely in control as he had thought. He had never expected that he could have that level of physical influence anyone, let alone the man whom every woman in Amestris still swooned over. He was just Edward Elric, nothing special, yet Roy had been shaking with need and fighting against the compulsion to just surrender and take what he wanted – what Ed wanted to give and take and claim.
And now the man who Ed craved like a drug had asked him for help. His lips didn't need to frame a specific request, but Roy's plea for him to stay had been apparent enough. Mustang may be safe here in Gracia's home, but in his mind he was back in Ishbal. It never left him. In the same way that the night he and Al had tried to bring their mother back would always haunt Edward's memories, Roy would never be free of that war and the atrocities he had a hand in. Even when he was Fuhrer and had made sure that history could not repeat itself, Ed knew he would still find himself back in that place surrounded by blood, death and the endless desert.
Hours slipped past as Ed waited, watching Mustang's face for any sign of fear or wakefulness. Neither trespassed on his features, and Edward found himself becoming lost in the maze of his own thoughts. Questions about the gate, Carmine and the future writhed in his mind unanswered. One thought led invariably to another, but always they returned to Roy like a compass point swinging back to north.
When dawn began to break, shedding weak light on the world, Edward got roughly to his feet. His leg was cramped, and the ports around his automail ached with the chill. He should have checked on Al hours ago, but he had been too far-gone in his own rambling musings to realise how much time had gone by. Tiptoeing up the stairs he poked his head around the door to the room that he and his brother had shared.
Al was fast asleep and breathing deeply. At the bedside, curled uncomfortably on the floor and dressed in what looked like a pair of Hughes' old pyjamas, Winry slept. Her hair spilled in a tangle across the quilt, and her hands pillowed her cheek. She'd have a terrible neck ache when she awoke, but Ed couldn't help the faint smile that tugged at his lips At least he knew Al was being taken care of.
As carefully as he could he reached across the girl and shook Al awake, breathing a sigh of relief when his brother groggily opened his eyes. 'You all right?' he asked, grinning as his little brother blinked blearily at the dawn light that crept through the window.
'Where have you been?' he whispered, shifting slowly so he wouldn't wake Winry. 'Did you even sleep at all?'
'A little,' Ed replied, glad it was the truth. 'Don't worry about me. Just get some rest. I'll be back downstairs if you need me, okay?'
Groggily Al nodded, and Ed smiled softly before turning to go. The door closed mutely in his wake, and he crept along the hall to the bathroom. A shower sounded like a good idea, but it could wait. Right now he suspected that Roy hadn't even bothered to wash the wounds on his hands before falling into bed. After a brief search he found the first aid kit that Gracia always kept fully stocked. It might be a bit late for the antiseptic to do much good, but it would be better than nothing.
Easing his way back downstairs, Ed settled down next to the sofa and opened up the medical supplies. He soaked some cotton wool in antiseptic before gently taking Roy's hand in his own and turning it palm up. With a couple of gentle nudges the older man uncurled his fingers enough for Ed to see, and he winced at the bloodied mess. 'Why didn't you wear gloves, you idiot?'
As gently as he could, he began to wiped the skin clean. Did the man never think of himself, not even for moment? Was he so busy thinking about the good of the county that he forgot to think about his health? Mustang's hatred for his paperwork was a running joke, and any stranger to the office might see nothing but a lazy military official trying to get out of the tangle or red tape. Yet even then he would sometimes get so lost in reports and policies that he forgot to eat and neglected to sleep. When it was something like this, a direct attack to the very heart of Central, then Roy seemed to forget that he wasn't a machine.
Ed felt an uncomfortable pinch as he realised that the same thing could be said about him. Not now, maybe, but before. When he and Al had been searching for the stone his own needs had been completely ignored. He ate when he remembered, and perhaps in those moments he'd fill his belly with more than it could really take just because he never knew when he'd have the time again. Companionship, friendship, entertainment: all those things had been useless frivolities. If it didn't lead him to the stone then what was the point?
Mustang flinched in his sleep, his muscles shifting under his skin as Ed realised he had begun to scrub hard at the wounds in absent-minded anger. With a scowl he lightened his touch, sweeping away grime, grit and filth from first the left hand and then the right. When he was done the skin was still red and sore, but at least it was clean.
A long splinter had stabbed under the skin of Mustang's index finger, and Ed grouched as he tried to pull it out with tweezers. It was impossible to get a grip of the wood fragment, and he cursed quietly to himself, trying to think of the best way to help. A needle could be used to dig it out, but the very thought sent shivers down his spine. Fuck, no. That left him with only one real option.
As gently as he could he pinched the flesh around the splinter before lowering his lips to the wound and sucking hard, nipping with his teeth to force the barb towards the surface. It was medical, Ed reassured himself as he tried not to think how intimate this seemed, like sucking the poison out of the wound, or mouth-to-mouth. Just because it looked a bit like a kiss didn't mean it was.
A soft sound, half gasp, half growl, made him jerk away and scramble back in surprise. His cheeks flamed hot as he realised that Roy was watching him through barely open eyes. He looked dishevelled and sleepy, but the expression in his gaze was anything but tired. The quilt had slipped down to reveal a broad curve of bare shoulder, and Ed's mouth went dry as his imagination quickly drew the rest of the picture.
'Bastard! I thought you were asleep!' he spat, trying desperately to stop blushing like a guilty teenager.
Mustang looked at him in silence for a moment before a small smile curved his lips and he murmured, 'Don't let me stop you, Fullmetal.'
The heat in his face intensified as Ed thought of all the ways he could interpret that. It was a challenge, and even when Roy was half asleep he was well aware of where it could lead. In the right situation that could have been an open invitation for Ed to finish what they'd almost started before the explosion. What would happen if Ed called his bluff? Would Mustang back away with a smooth excuse, or would he give in as he'd almost done on his living room floor?
Well, there was only one way to find out.
Very gently, he held Roy's wrist in his flesh hand and lowered his lips back to the splinter, ignoring the faint look of surprise on Mustang's face. In one slow, deliberate stroke of his tongue he drew the finger more fully into his mouth before biting gently. A strangled moan escaped Roy's lips, and Edward couldn't help the smirk that spread across his lips as he began to suck, his fingers gently stroking the tender inside of Mustang's wrist as he did so.
Looking up, he realised that Roy was still watching, his eyes so dark that it was impossible to distinguish the iris from the pupil. His pale skin was flushed and his lips parted wordlessly as Ed's tongue danced over the sensitive pad of his finger. It was meant to be a tease, but Ed found himself held captive by the look in his eyes. His own body was responding to the heat between them, and it took all of his strength to pull away and reach for the tweezers.
In one quick movement he grabbed the protruding end of the splinter and pulled it free, holding it up to the light before he smirked. 'You've got a dirty mind. I was just getting this out for you.'
Roy closed his eyes for a moment, tipping his head back into the pillow with a rueful half-smile of defeat. He'd been played and he knew it. 'Tease.' The one word was almost affectionate, and Ed glanced up at him before he began to clean up the cotton wool, forcing himself to concentrate on anything other than the man who lay aroused and hot within arm's reach.
'What're you going to do about it?' Ed asked, knowing it was a dangerous challenge of his own.
Roy opened his eyes and let his gaze wander with painstaking slowness over Ed's face and body. He may as well have been naked for all his leather trousers hid from view, and he didn't miss the guilty flare of appreciation in Mustang's eyes as he took in every inch. Getting painfully to his feet, Ed gritted his teeth against the throbbing between his legs as he beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen. His whole body was singing with desire, every nerve stretched so taught that even the cool air of the house was like a lover's hand on his bare chest.
That had been stupid. He'd meant to call Mustang's bluff, to make him realise that he wasn't a timid boy who would back away from the slightest suggestion. Instead he'd twisted himself into a knot of desire so tight that he could barely breathe. How had this happened to him? How had a hormonal crush turned into this incapacitating need?
A hand brushed his bare shoulder, making him jump and spin around to find Roy standing right behind him. He had shrugged on his uniform jacket, but he hadn't bothered to put on a shirt or do up the buttons, and a stripe of chest was framed by the blue material. His dark hair was still ruffled, and his feet made no sound on the floor as he moved even closer.
Ed took a step backwards, swallowing nervously as he bumped into the kitchen counter. Mustang's hands snaked out, resting on the surface on either side of Ed's hips. He was effectively pinned in place, and he couldn't even find the strength to speak as Roy's lips curved in a salacious smile before covering his own.
Every nerve and cell in his being screamed for satisfaction, making him shake as his hands clenched futilely at his side. It would kill him. It had to. It wasn't physically possible to feel this good from just a kiss.
The paralysis of shock melted away as Roy's tongue traced the line of Ed's bottom lip before darting in to taste his mouth. A hand moved from the counter, cupping his leather-clad hip. His bare palm slid across Roy's chest feeling heat and the thundering beat of his heart beneath his palm as his automail fingers tangled in the lapels of Roy's jacket, holding him close and captured.
Tipping his head to the side, he nipped Roy's bottom lip before lapping at the same, tender flesh, trembling in delight as Roy's hand tightened, jerking him closer as the other wove into the hair at the nape of Ed's neck and held him still: a willing victim. Their breath mingled as their tongues clashed, desperately seeking and tasting each other. There was so much heat that Ed thought he might die, drowning in the fire that burned along his skin, ignited wherever Roy touched him.
Abruptly, Mustang pulled away, stepping back and leaving Ed bereft. He slumped back against the counter, eyes unfocussed and his breathing harsh in his throat as he tried to remember anything except the touch and taste he had just experienced. 'Tease,' he gasped hoarsely, repeating Roy's previous words.
The man just raised an eyebrow, licking his swollen lips before he replied, 'Equivalent exchange, Fullmetal. Now we're even.'
Ed raised an eyebrow, straightening up as Roy turned and walked away. His first instinct was to be angry, but it was easy to see that Roy wasn't as unaffected as he was pretending. Ed hadn't missed the shake of his hands or the husk in his voice as he spoke. A faint grin tugged at his lips, and he shook his head as he rubbed a hand over his face.
Whatever the bastard thought, they were far from even.