The rank air filled Roy's lungs and mouth as he and Ed hurried away from The Grindle, too intent on getting to their witness to bother with stealth. He slipped around a corner, regaining his balance in the slick muck before carrying on.
He tried to forget about the people lying on the bar floor, still and lifeless, but the tang of blood lingered with him. It was a wanton ghost that clung to his hair and skin, turning his stomach and making him long for one deep, cool breath of clear air.
Abruptly the high, dark walls fell away, making him blink in the faint sunlight. The city was stretched out in front of them, and the breeze carried with it the salty perfume of the river. He had no idea how many miles they'd travelled, but the waterway was nearby, a silver ribbon wending its way between the banks.
The gentle slope of the smoothly paved road had been designed to offer the best views to the wealthy occupants of this quarter. Several generals kept town houses here, although there was still a preference to get away from Central all together among the higher-ranking officers of the army.
'This way.' Ed set off down the wide street, weaving in and out of the pedestrians. Ladies dressed in the highest fashions were browsing the shops and gossiping to each other, discussing the scandalous behaviour of one neighbour or the other. Men stood on corners, discussing politics and business affairs, or retired to the gentlemen's clubs that still opened their doors to the public; relics of a bygone time.
Gradually, boutiques gave way to residential houses. Tall and broad, they were painted white or bricked in vivid red. Everywhere the wealth of the people who lived here was flaunted. Sleek black cars with shining radiator grills cruised along the roads, more to be shown off than to get their passengers from one place to another. The people themselves were like peacocks, gaudy and style-less in their extravagance.
'Fucking stupid,' Ed muttered, ignoring the shocked gasp of a woman within earshot. 'How can people this rich live so close to somewhere like The Grindle?'
Roy glanced around, casually undoing the buttons of his coat so that his rank was once again visible. This was not the kind of place that soldiers patrolled, and their presence was already gathering some less-than-respectful attention. A young man dressed in a sharp cut suit eyed them with a sneer, and a woman nearby was watching them with steely eyes as her younger charges simpered over clothes. 'Maybe they don't know it's there?'
Ed snorted in disbelief, glancing back up the hill to the rookery of dilapidated roofs that had almost disappeared from view. 'I suppose they can always ignore the occasional corpse in their gutter.' His words were hard-edged and bitter, and Roy glanced over at the young man's expression. His face was blank, but it was pretty obvious that this place disgusted him more than the filthy alleyways they had just passed through.
The people here were old aristocracy or new money. Either way they thought themselves above the law, and the city's well-being was far below their concern. As long as it was not blood running in their streets they thought nothing of the army that ran the country. As far as they were concerned, it was the natural order of things that young men and women should go off and die in wars so that they could sleep safe in their beds and enjoy their money. As long as it wasn't their sons or daughters being commanded into their graves then all was well.
Once he'd been like Ed, sickened, not by their wealth, but by their belief that such money was their god-given right. There were, of course, the good souls among them: those who donated to charity and took an active interest in the city, but most lived in a rut between the river and their front door, never setting foot in the other parts of Central unless absolutely necessary.
Gradually that disgust had faded away, its strength drained by familiarity. It was just the way things were, and no Fuhrer had yet had the courage to try and change the city. They focussed on the bigger picture of Amestris and ignored what was right on their doorstep. Even Roy's own dreams for Amestris hadn't included taking a good hard look at the principal metropolis. At least, not until today.
The booming voice carried across the entire street, and Roy looked up to see a man moving through the crowd like an iceberg. Age had done little to dwindle his broad frame, and what he lacked in height he made up for in volume. 'General Stadt.' The salute was automatic, and the perfect mask for his surprise. He had thought the elderly general was out of town for the winter, away from all but the most urgent of demands. The craggy man was nearing retirement, and it was just as well, since he barely managed to hide his disdain for the new Fuhrer.
Stadt was a stickler who wanted everything done by the book. Roy's job was always easier without his superior officer around to ask questions or demand a certain document in the middle of a crisis. Everything about him, from his uniform to the cut of his iron grey hair, was regulation perfect. Even Falman looked sloppy by comparison.
'I've seen your men around the city,' Stadt said, his voice drowning out the burble of a nearby car engine. 'Searching for the wretches that destroyed the station, are you?'
'As best we can, sir.' The diplomacy in the response told its own story, and Stadt gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. He probably knew about Hakuro declining the warrants, and Roy would bet a month's wages that he was back in the city to try and limit the damage that could be done by the Fuhrer's apathy.
The general's sharp grey eyes skimmed around the street, quelling a few of the more curious stares from the residents. 'I'm not sure you'll have much luck here,' he warned, a touch of sympathy in his voice. 'Bloody uncooperative lot in this part of town.'
'We have an active lead, sir. It's the best we've come up with so far.' Roy kept his posture rigidly respectful, all the while silently praying that the man did not demand a report within the hour, as he had in the past.
Stadt's eyes came to an abrupt halt on Fullmetal, and Roy smothered a sigh. Edward had a habit of rubbing most officers up the wrong way. They were aggravated by his stubborn refusal to wear a uniform, insulted by the invariable “fuck off” glare in his eyes and, regardless of their own alchemical talents, uncomfortable at Ed's obvious genius. The result was often terse demands sent to Roy's office to at least get the boy into the familiar blue and gold of the Amestris regimentals. Several attempts had already been made, but Ed refused point blank.
Risking a glimpse to the side, Roy was surprised to find that Ed was standing a respectful distance away, at ease but alert. Ed was far enough from them to give the two superior officers something like privacy, but close enough to hear his name should it be spoken. It was something both Havoc and Hawkeye practised, and he had obviously picked up the habit at some point.
The general cleared his throat, obviously debating whether to make an issue of Ed's appearance. After a moment or two he seemed to decide against it and gave a curt, 'Carry on, Mustang,' before marching away. Roy watched him go with relief, shaking his head and cursing silently. The paperwork on his desk was already unmanageable, and it would only get worse with Stadt nearby.
Abruptly, Ed's fingers grabbed his arm, pulling him to the left and down another alley. This narrow street was cobbled and seemed to be where some of the houses backed onto each other. Hanging baskets were suspended from brackets, despite the approaching winter, and rubbish bins were closed and locked against any opportunistic strays. Lamps lit the passage, chasing away the deepest gloom. There wasn't a soul in sight, and every door was locked tight against thieves. There were fewer windows here, and those that did grace the walls were barred. The residents weren't taking any chances with the family silver.
Roy raised an eyebrow when Ed slipped into a shadowed doorway and stopped, turning to watch the way they had come. Quickly, Roy chose some shelter of his own and did the same, frowning when he saw three silhouettes hesitate at the mouth of the back street. They skulked, huddled like crows in their coats. From this distance it was impossible to tell if they were male or female, young or old, but they were patient. Precious minutes slipped by as they loitered around before one finally shook their head and shrugged. They slipped away, heads bent, leaving the mouth of the alley clear.
Glancing across at Ed, Roy frowned, wondering what to make of the strange behaviour. A normal thug would have welcomed the shade and privacy to strike at a target, but those three had acted as if they weren't sure that they would have the upper hand. Mind you, three civilians against two alchemists were not exactly great odds.
'How much further to Rider's?'
Not far,' Ed replied. 'Better to go this way and stay out of sight than walk through the main street, though. They were watching you talk to the general.'
'Did you see anything else?' Roy asked as he slipped out of the shadows and followed Ed's lead, noticing how the younger man skirted the pools of light and kept to the gloom.
'They kept their faces hidden, and the way they moved was – odd.' Ed shrugged again, his shoulders shifting under his jacket. 'Sort of stiff, like their legs weren't working properly.'
'Spies of some sort?' Roy suggested, able to think of at least three powerful families with criminal connections in this quarter. They at least would want to know why there were two strange soldiers in their midst.
'Maybe. Either way we should get to Rider's before they can report back.'
Hastily, they jogged through the narrow back street, dodging around the rubbish cans before stepping out into a vast square. In its centre a fountain stood, splashing cheerfully in the quiet. Water cascaded over a plinth on which an angel stood. Mostly nude and sporting an impossible perfect physique the sculpture's wings were spread wide, creating a sprawl of shadow in the weak afternoon sunlight. A blindfold covered his eyes, and the bow in his hand was pulled taut, arrow aimed upwards into the sky. Only a spiral of cloth around his waist and down one leg gave the depiction of Eros a modicum of dignity.
Beyond it stood a mansion, massive and imposing. Made of red brick and marble it had probably been one of the first estates before Central's vast sprawl had engulfed it in suburbia. Now the square in which they stood was edged with cars, parked and empty. There were benches and the occasional tree, stripped of their leaves by the wind. In the summer it was probably a place to lounge and sip wine in the heat, but now it was almost deserted.
A doorman stood on the steps that led up to the place, watching them curiously as they approached. Snowy hair peeked out from under his hat, and his leather-gloved hands were folded respectfully in front of him. Astute blue eyes took in everything about Roy from the mud on his boots to his rank. He doffed his hat politely before his eyes settled on Ed, and a broad smile crossed his face.
'Edward! Let me guess: you're here to see Sally?'
'Yeah, George. Is she around?' Ed's smile was genuine, and Roy found himself watching in amazement as George took off his hat and scratched his head, his lined face falling into a frown.
'Course she is. When's she ever anywhere else?' The doorman's expression was troubled, and after a while he cleared his throat uncomfortably. 'You know, Ed, it's funny you should turn up today. Thomas, one of her boys, came back this morning all cut to hell. They've called the doctor in but they don't think there's much that can be done for him. Too much blood loss; too much shock. She's spittin' mad about it.' He shrugged, shaking his head sadly. 'Still, business runs as usual. She'll either be in Thomas' room or her office.' George glanced up at Roy, a polite smile on your face. 'If you're not here to be entertained can I suggest you use the back door, sir? It's just that a certain gentleman of high rank in the military is enjoying some company, and it might be best not to cross his path. It would cause embarrassment.'
Roy nodded, wondering who was making use of the services here. It would be naïve to think that no one in the military would do such a thing. Obviously at Rider's they tried hard to maintain the privacy of their clients, and as the doorman led them around the side of the house Roy realised that windows were just high enough to stop people from peering in. Heavy drapes were pushed open at the sides and would no doubt be drawn in occupied rooms.
Ed hadn't said a word since George's long speech, but Roy knew they were both thinking the same thing. Chances were it was Thomas who had been in The Grindle, but Ed hadn't mentioned any blood or signs of a struggle upstairs. Had the person who' d killed the patrons caught up with him before he'd made it back to the safety of Rider's?
George ushered them through one of the many side-doors to the building and bid them farewell, returning to his post with a cheerful smile and leaving Roy to look around. Ed hadn't been lying when he had said that this was the most select brothel in Central. Each room was richly decorated. Swathes of fabric, vividly dyed, hung from the windows, and antique furniture was artfully arranged. The overall impression was one of ever-lasting splendour
A young woman dressed in a beautiful Xingian gown passed them, a cup of green tea cradled in her palms. Black curls tumbled down her back and framed her jaw. She smiled politely at Roy, dark brown eyes glinting as if she had seen the joke in life and was enjoying a good laugh at the punch line. Around her neck was the same pendant they'd found in The Grindle, but in gold.
'They're not your typical working girls,' Ed said quietly, a faint tone of defensiveness in his voice. 'A lot of them are orphans, although one or two are runaways from richer families – disowned and disinherited now. Sally takes in a lot of youngsters, gives them an education and then they can make the choice for themselves when they’re old enough. Stay here or go.'
Roy stayed quiet, letting Ed lead the way through room after room. He didn't know what he had expected of a place like this, but it definitely hadn't been such a relaxed, happy atmosphere. All he had ever heard about the sex trade was that it was a downtrodden way of life. The last choice: sell yourself or starve. Yet no one he saw seemed unhappy or trapped.
Ed stopped at a door and knocked politely, waiting until a young voice told him to come in. Pushing it open wide enough for both of them Roy stifled an amused smile and felt some of his discomfort about this place fade away.
Sally's office was in complete contrast to the rest of the house. Paperwork was literally everywhere. The floor appeared to have become the filing cabinet, and as he watched a young blonde woman expertly tossed a ball of paper into the roaring blaze in the hearth. There were pens littering the place like deadwood, and the woman herself had ink smeared across one cheek. Her hair was being held back from her face with what looked like a paper knife skewered through a loose knot, and one of her earrings had fallen out.
'I'll be with you in a minute,' she said holding up a finger as she scribbled something on a bit of paper. 'If I stop now I'll lose count.' Her pen flew across the page, her lips moving fractionally as she worked. Finally, she sat back and looked up, her faintly puzzled expression fading away as a dazzling grin lit up her face.
'Eddie!' she cried, a bubbly laugh escaping her lips as Ed grimaced in horror at the corruption of his name. 'What are you doing here? Not come to take up Sally's offer have you?'
Roy looked at Ed sharply, confusion making him frown. Offer? What kind of offer?
Ed's cheeks were flaming red, and he was studiously avoiding Roy's gaze as he rubbed the back of his neck. 'No, Min, 'fraid not.' He reached into his pocket and pulled out the pendant. The star pivoted slightly as it hung suspended in the air before the young woman cradled it in her palm. 'Is that Thomas'?'
The woman's smile vanished, all sign of her frivolity fading as she examined it seriously. She turned it over more than once before giving a mute nod. 'Where did you find it?'
'At The Grindle,' Roy said quietly, speaking for the first time. 'There'd been a fight of some kind.'
Min hesitated, measuring him with her gaze. It was neither judgemental nor trusting, and he saw her eyes take in his rank and, unlike most, she noticed the arrays on his gloves.
'I'm sorry Brigadier-General Mustang,' she said earnestly, getting to her feet. 'I know you and Ed aren't likely to be wrong, but Thomas would have no reason to go into a place like that. I have no idea how this got there. Maybe he's said something, but-' Her eyes flickered to Ed, pleading, as though she was worried he wouldn't believe her. '-Tom's in such a bad way. I think he's still holding on upstairs, and Sal will be with him. You know what she gets like when one of us is ill. You'd think we were her own kids or something.'
Her intelligent eyes had gone overly bright, and she mumbled an apology as she blotted at her eyes with her cuff, apparently not caring that her tears would ruin the silk of her gown. 'I don't even know what happened. Thomas is in too much pain to say more than a few words. He was attacked with a knife; the doctor thinks there was poison on the blade. The wounds won't close, and Sal won't let us see him.'
She took the paper knife out of her hair and checked her reflection, blotting at the smudge of ink before removing her remaining earring. 'I'll take you to his room, but I really don't know if there's much you can do. I mean – if you could catch who did it... .' Her smile was frail and meant wholly for Ed. 'As if you don't get one or the other of us out of trouble often enough, but it would mean a lot.'
Opening the door, she led the way up the sweeping staircase, her skirt hem held off the floor. They passed room after room, and Roy noticed a red star was hung from the corner of some of them. It was probably a tactful way to say that the occupant had a client inside. Min nodded to one or two people as they passed, and Roy noticed that they always smiled at Ed. Not in the artful, flirtatious way they used on a client, but openly friendly. Just how much had he had to do with Sally and her employees in the past?
He tried to tell himself that he had more important things to think about, but Min's mention of Sally's offer to Ed swept back into his mind as inexorably as the tide. Ed's obvious embarrassment made it pretty clear that it had been something to do with her business, and he felt his stomach knot uncomfortably. His imagination ran riot, and none of the scenarios it came up with gave him any comfort.
Min came to a halt and knocked on a door no different from the others. Eventually it swung open, and an older woman looked out into the passageway.
Roy didn't need anyone to tell him this was Sal. She was probably almost twenty years older than him, and the distress in her face could only be described as maternal. Once she had probably been a striking beautiful woman, and even though age had softened the sharpness of her cheekbones and jaw she was still handsome. There were more lines of laughter than sadness on her face, and she wore each one as though it were a medal of honour. Her stern expression melted away when she saw Ed, and she instantly stepped aside to allow him in, listening with half an ear to Min's explanations and introductions.
Sally inclined her head before closing Min out, murmuring a few gentle words of comfort to the girl as she dismissed her. Roy watched as she hesitated by the door, collecting herself. Slim shoulders straightened like a soldier preparing for war, and when she looked up he could see that her hazel eyes were bloodshot.
She met his gaze without hesitation, and her weary smile was that of an equal. He was in her domain now, and Roy suspected his rank meant nothing. 'As you can see, Brigadier-General Mustang, you've come upon us at a rather tense time. I apologise that I couldn't be downstairs to meet you and answer your queries.'
Roy shook off the apology and motioned for the older woman to take a seat. Thankfully she didn't take it as him thinking she was weak, but rather accepted the respite with a trace of relief. 'It's because of Thomas we came here. We suspected one of your employees might be in danger.' For the first time he glanced at the bed.
The pale figure among the sheets was barely breathing and seemed utterly unaware of his surroundings. Dark eyes stared glassily at the ceiling, and only the shallow rise and fall of his breathing showed that he was still with them. 'I'm only sorry that we were too late. Min suggested that he might have mentioned something about who did this to him.'
'Minerva's a charming girl,' Sal said, her voice heavy with pride as she clutched at the alternative topic. 'I don't know where I would be without her, but I'm afraid she doesn't know even half of Tom's problems. She mentioned that you'd found Tom's pendant at that atrocious place, The Grindle?' The older woman's expression fell for a moment, and her hands knotted nervously. 'I wish I could say I didn't know why he was there, but his sister Lucy has been getting in with a bad crowd. She thinks she can earn more freelance and no amount of talking can get the dangers of that into her stubborn head. He was afraid she would end up dead in the gutter, or worse.'
The image of the girl with her throat cut sprang to mind, and Roy swallowed tightly. 'About seventeen years old with blonde hair and blue eyes?' he asked hoarsely, knowing as Sally dropped her head into her hands that he didn't need to tell her any more. She already guessed what had befallen Tom's sister.
'Stupid girl,' she muttered sadly, fighting to regain a portion of her composure. 'I never knew two siblings so different, but I never thought it would come to this.' She gestured at the bed. 'I'm afraid only Thomas has the answers to what you need to know, and he's just too far gone. His wounds -' The strength in her voice faltered, and Roy watched her swallow tightly.
He had been there himself, countless times. How often had he stood at someone's graveside and tried to speak around the lump in his throat? How many times had he spent days - weeks - months standing in reality but having nothing to do with it, unable to get over the fact that there should have been something he could have done to save those who had slipped away under his command. Always the stifling chill of self-blame was a choking thing. There was never a choice of who would live and who would die. Sudden and abrupt, another one would just be – gone, and he knew that Sal was already mourning the loss of a boy who was close enough to be her son.
'Is there anything you can do?' Her question was directed to Ed; he stood by Thomas' bedside, tense and uncomfortable. His eyes darted quickly to meet Roy's gaze, pinched with doubt. Ed's alchemy was a physical force. It was the kind of power that moved buildings, but for healing something as delicate as flesh it was useless. All Amestrian alchemy somehow fell short of what was needed. The only ones who had ever come close was the Xingians, and even then it was sometimes like using a drill where a needle was required.
'I might be able to take away the pain, but-' Ed straightened his shoulders and looked Sally in the eye, utterly unflinching. 'He's almost gone, and we need to know who did this to him. If I can give him some clarity can you get some answers?'
Sally nodded, getting to her feet as Roy inched closer to Ed's side. 'Do you know what you're doing?' he asked, his stomach fluttering uncomfortably as he tried to glean the truth from Ed's features. Something, some finely honed sense of danger was trilling through his body, telling him that this was not as simple as Ed was making out. Pain could not just be erased like a flaw in a masterpiece. It was a form of energy in itself, and it couldn't be destroyed. 'Ed, what are you planning?'
Ed tipped his head to the side slightly, as though listening to a voice only he could hear. 'He's not got long. It's literally minutes. I can transfer the pain and leave him free of it for that long.'
'Transfer it to where?' Roy hissed, scowling when Ed just gave him a look. 'Fullmetal, I order you not to do this! In case you haven't forgotten he's not the only one on borrowed time!' Now concern became fully-fledged fear, thrashing inside his ribs like a caged bird. 'You don't even know you're strong enough for this!'
'Yes I do.'
Ed brought his hands together. There was no sharp clap or flash of light, but a sudden sensation of unquestionable power. It surged through the room, and the array blossomed silently. Circle after circle was etched across the floor and up the walls, turning in soft counterpoint to one another.
Thomas took a deep breath, dragging the air into his lungs as if it were the last gasp he would ever take. Glassy eyes came back into focus, and he stared, bemused, at the patterns dancing across the hangings. His dark blonde hair was matted with blood and sweat, but the youth of his face wasn't twisted with agony any more.
Before Roy could stop her, Sally ran into the array, her knees thumping on the floor as she got down beside the bed and clutched the boy's hand in her own. Roy half-expected the circles to collapse, but the patterns just twitched, changing slightly as they continued their slow orbit. Feeling useless, he moved closer to Ed, standing near enough to catch him if he fell.
Ed was utterly locked in concentration, a victim to the ebb and flow of the alchemy that he controlled. His jaw was clenched tight, and sweat beaded his brow, sticking his hair to his forehead as his body struggled to deal with the borrowed pain. It was a stupid thing to do. One of those damned heroic moments that, in the end, amounted to nothing but foolishness. Every minute was damaging him more and more. Every borrowed second, a blessing to Thomas, was a curse to Ed.
'Tom. Can you hear me?' The pleading in Sally's voice was a hollow, desperate thing: a choking need for a few more moments before the last goodbye.
It took a second for the young man to focus on her, and when he did there was a flash of dark, icy grief in his eyes. His voice was choked and dry as he struggled to speak. 'Sal? They killed Lucy.'
'I know, Tom. Can you tell me who did it?' When she got no reply she tried again, her voice low and gentle, void of all urgency. 'What did they look like?'
He wet his lips, shifting uncomfortably on the mattress. He seemed mercifully unaware of the blood that was staining the sheets by the second. 'Only saw the woman. Three others had knives – killed what they wanted. She-' His voice strengthened and there was a moment of intense concentration on his face as he struggled to prop himself up. 'She just touched people, Sal, and they died. They just fell on the floor, gone. I tried to help Lucy, I really tried, but the woman saw me.' There were tears in his eyes now, hovering on his lashes and trailing down his cheeks.
Something fell from Ed's jaw to the carpeted floor, and Roy reached out automatically, cupping his hand around the younger man's shoulder in concern. It was hard to tell whether the wetness on his face was tears or sweat, but the rigid mask of acceptance across Ed's features was beginning to crack under the strain. His breathing was losing its deep, regular pattern, coming in shorter pants that hissed between his gritted teeth, and his complexion had faded to a ghastly white.
'We're running out of time,' Roy warned quietly, watching Sally swallow back her own sadness and run her hand through Tom's hair.
'Shhhh, it's all right.' The soothing words were enough to ease some of Tom's distress, and he lowered himself back to the bed, his body tense with a pain it couldn't feel. 'I know you did everything you could. Did you hear this woman's name? Did you see what she looked like?'
'Dead.' His voice was fading, and for a minute Roy wondered if he'd slipped into some kind of delirium until he spoke again. 'She looked dead. Grey all over except for her lips – looked human but acted like something else. Something worse.'
Sally shook her head, trying to make sense of what he was saying as his eyes fluttered shut and he slumped back into the pillows, all strength gone.
'Get out of the array now!'
The alien voice spoke from Ed's lips, layers of sound like hundreds of people speaking at once. Sal jerked to her feet, staggering clumsily from the pattern of circles as the lines began to edge themselves with colour. Bright white became bleeding crimson and raw violet, filling the room with a dazzling clash. It grew in intensity until Roy's retinas burned, and he was forced to shut his eyes against the blinding brightness.
Something stirred, whipped up into a rushing stream of a gale that hissed and howled in the air, crackling with some kind of power that Roy could sensed with every fibre of his being. It was barbed wire across an exposed nerve, the punch of a bullet, the last slice of a blade: agony embodied in its rawest form, following the departing power of Tom's life as it tried to flow back to its rightful place, only to fade into nothingness.
Abruptly, the room calmed and Roy blinked, looking around frantically as he tried to clear his vision. The first thing he saw was Ed leaning weakly against the wall, his eyes closed tight and his head tipped back. His chest was still labouring with each breath, and the pallor of his skin had taken on a frightening grey tinge.
In two strides Roy was in front of him. It took all his willpower not to grab Ed by the shoulders and give him a good shake for being so stupid. Instead he put a gloved hand against Ed's forehead, feeling the sharp, febrile heat through the thin fabric. 'We need to get you home,' he said gruffly, frowning when Ed shook his head.
'I'm fine. Just a bit of a headache.' His breath caught and Roy narrowed his eyes as Ed smothered a cough behind his hand. Even so the sound was startling, and before long his spluttering gave way to a full coughing fit. Weakly he doubled over, struggling for breath as his lungs rebelled, spasming as if the air he breathed was toxic.
'What is it?' Sally demanded, shaken from her sorrow by the noise. 'What's wrong with him?'
'It's not contagious,' Roy replied, trying to steady Ed as he continued to gasp and wheeze.
'Like I give a damn about that!' Sally spat, showing a flash of fiery temper as she strode to Ed's other side and swept his hair back from his forehead, grabbing his automail shoulder without a trace of a flinch. 'Has he seen a doctor?'
Roy gave a grim nod. 'Nothing he could do,' he said flatly, not wanting to have to voice the facts he was still trying to deny. His thumb stroked uselessly along the straining curve of Ed's neck as he waited, knowing there was nothing he could do but hope that this passed. He could feel the shiver of adrenalin making Ed's muscles quiver between the deeper, racking shudders of his torso. If he couldn't get control of this soon he'd pass out from lack of oxygen.
Gradually, Ed subsided, although Roy thought it was more from force of will than because his airways were clear. The blood on his palm was more obvious this time, like something that flowed from an open wound. Ed didn't even spare it a glance as he wiped it away on his jacket and straightened unsteadily.
He looked unbearably young, and Roy felt his heart clench. 'Home, Edward, or the hospital. Your choice.' He made sure his tone was final, knowing that Ed would try and argue anyway. Hughes would have been paternal, prodding and poking until Ed gave in out of sheer irritation, but Roy was Ed's commanding officer. He couldn't forget that no matter how much he wanted to.
Eventually Ed nodded his head, a grudging acknowledgement that maybe, this time, Roy had the right idea. 'Thanks, Sally,' he rasped, glancing sadly at Tom's still body on the bed. 'Sorry I couldn't do more.'
'Don't be daft,' she said, her lips smiling even as her sharp eyes watched him with concern. 'You did more than enough. A few minutes without pain was probably a blessing. Are you sure you're all right? You could always rest here for tonight. It's nearly dark.' This was addressed to both of them, but Roy didn't have a chance to reply as Ed shook his head.
'We need to get back to the office and let the others know that Carmine's been seen. Maybe we stand a chance of tracking her down.'
Sally's eyes met Roy's, and there was a shared moment of annoyance at Ed's stubbornness. They both knew that he needed to rest, and sooner, rather than later.
Suddenly the lights flickered, their brightness ebbing to a futile glow before they went out all together, leaving them in uncomfortable twilight. A scream from downstairs, shrill and horrified, echoed through the house, making Roy's skin crawl.
Sally leapt for the door, all other things forgotten as she yanked it open and hurried to the stairwell. Even from here Roy could hear someone begging hysterically, and a young man shouting in fury at what sounded like more than one intruder.
'This way, hurry.' Ed's tap on his shoulder made him turn and follow him deeper into the house until they came to a small twisting stairway. It had probably been the servant's stairs at one point, but now it offered a perfect way down to the ground floor. With any luck whoever had invaded Rider's would be distracted by the other occupants.
A gunshot barked through the air, abrupt and fierce. Roy and Ed stopped halfway down the stairs, their breathing loud in the enclosed space as they tried to discern any other sounds from the utter silence that followed.
Someone's laughter, soft and melodic, floated up to them. It was a mocking sound, as if they were revelling in someone's idiocy. 'Brave little thing, aren't you?' a distant, female voice purred. It did not have the tutored air of the working girls, but the coy flirtation behind every word spoke of a woman who never thought of herself as the weaker sex. Roy hated that kind of voice. It belonged to the sort of woman who thought little of anyone but herself. 'Pity, really.'
There was a crackle of power and the thud of a body hitting the wall. Someone cried out a name in alarm and the laughter came again, like a child enjoying her favourite toy.
'Carmine,' Ed snarled. His expression was lost in the darkness, but the hatred in his voice was as clear as day.
Roy swore fiercely, adrenaline making his mind and heart race. Ed was already almost too weak to stand, and he certainly couldn't fight even in self-defence. Carmine wouldn't come quietly, and that left them with very few options. It was tempting to just tell Ed to run, to get out of here and come back for the wretched woman another day, but they might never have this chance again. Besides, they couldn't abandon Sally and the others to her sick whims.
Before Roy could stop him, Ed had taken the rest of the stairs and slipped out into the corridor, his gold eyes intent on the entrance hall where the noise was coming from. If he had a plan he didn't bother to share it, instead drifting away into the luxurious gloom like a ghost.
Looking around, Roy gritted his teeth, forcing himself to come up with some kind of strategy. Whatever Ed was doing would be made easier if Carmine was distracted. If she was too busy playing cat and mouse perhaps she would forget that she was the invader, and that this territory was not secure.
Quickly, he moved towards the entrance hall, forcing his worry for Ed aside. His finger and thumb were already pressed together as he tried to remember everything he'd been told about this woman. She was a powerful alchemist; one who'd been through so much that more than one person described her as not quite human. Something about that made a shiver run up his spine. If not human, then what?
Peering around a corner, he took in the scene in the entranceway, letting logic overrule emotion as he plotted. There were four of them. The three he and Ed had seen following them previously still skulked around. Half buried in layers of coats and grime they moved like rusty machinery. Every step seemed to be a struggle, but they still circled like scavengers, waiting for the order to kill. One passed not far off and Roy gritted his teeth, trying not to wretch as the smell assaulted his nose. It was the stink of death. Not fresh blood spilled from a victim's wound, but old rot.
Carmine had used the remains of soldiers for some form of alchemy, temporarily bringing them to full life before sacrificing them. Now it looked as though she was taking that a step further. The things around her were nothing but re-animated corpses held together by alchemy and hope. One had a still-smoking bullet hole in its chest, although the wound had probably done nothing but make it stumble.
Roy felt a smile curve his lips as he watched the things continue their unsteady path across the floor. If living bodies could be burned to nothing, then a corpse should be just as flammable. Of all the things that zombies were vulnerable to, it was fire.
The click of his fingers gave away his location, and he saw Carmine turn to stare at him as flame erupted across the hallway, white hot and terrifying. He meant to engulf all four of them, but Carmine didn't even flinch as the fire flowed around her, diverting like lightening drawn to a conductor.
It hit one unfortunate rag-clothed creature in a blossom of blue and white. With the dogged persistence of something with no will of its own it continued to stumble, oblivious as its limbs gave way and it collapsed to the floor. No sound escaped it, but it was still one of the most gruesome sights Roy had seen in years. Palls of smoke, stinking of cooked meat, rose up towards the crystal chandelier overhead, and its cloudy, blind eyes rolled in its head.
'The Flame Alchemist. What a pleasant surprise.' Carmine stepped over the crumbling ash on the floor and moved towards him, her hands relaxed at her sides. 'No, we'll have no more of that.' In a flash she crossed her arms over her chest and drew them apart again, letting the alchemy flow. It was a move that Roy hadn't seen before, so different from the clapping Ed and Al used, but he could still feel its effect.
The spark from his gloves fell to the floor, a dead ember before it hit the carpet. Roy scowled, trying to take a deep breath only to find that the air was thin. His lungs tightened, burning in his chest as he struggled to drag in enough oxygen, but it was as if the air had turned dead, stagnant and useless. With another flick of her hands Carmine slammed him against the wall, pinning him there. It felt as if iron bars pressed at his ribs, pushing harder and harder until he thought they'd crack under the pressure.
'Don't move,' Carmine advised softly, reaching up to trail an icy finger down his cheek. 'Struggle too much and you'll die. You've got just enough air to keep your heart beating and your brain still ticking over, certainly not enough to ignite.' Her crimson lips curved into a salacious smile as she glanced up the stairs towards the people who still crowded around the top of the banister. 'Didn't you wonder why such self-sufficient people were doing nothing to help you? Why they haven't even said a word?'
Roy couldn't speak or even shake his head. The hot, air-starved buzz in his mind seemed to fill everything, but when he managed to glance towards Sal he saw that her face was unnaturally pink, and he breaths were coming in short, shallow gasps. No doubt they all felt the same pressure he did, the same great weight pushing down and in as though something were trying to reach inside and choke the life from him.
He narrowed his eyes at the woman in front of him, trying to convey his utter loathing for her in one look. His efforts just made her chuckle, and she shook her head, sending silver hair fanning across her back. 'It would have all been so much easier if you'd just looked for your friend’s remains yourself,' she confided, rather like a teacher scolding a reprobate child. 'I would have had the blood of a powerful alchemist, which was all I needed, and my job would be complete. The gate would be destroyed and I would have what I wanted.'
Her lifeless face collapsed into a fierce scowl, lips drawing back from her teeth in a snarl. 'Instead you send him. The one alchemist who knows the gate better than anyone. The one who probably has the strength to shield and support it!' Carmine hesitated, her brow dipping into a frown as her breath began to steam in front of her. Experimentally she huffed again, watching the vapour curl and drift. The carpet crunched beneath her feet, stiff with ice while overhead the crystal chandelier tinkled, frost rime clouding the polished edges as the air molecules around it froze.
Carmine twisted around, trying to find the culprit as her hands clenched spasmodically into fists at her side. The two remaining creatures were moving slower now, and as Roy watched they both began to crumble, the alchemy holding them together draining away. They fell to their knees, wasted hands clutching hopelessly towards Carmine, who simply turned away, a sneer of disgust on her face. 'Useless,' she spat, kicking one aside as it faded to nothing but dust.
Her face twisted with grim determination, steely eyes focussing on Roy's trapped body. She approached him slowly, slipping a hand under his coat and spreading her fingertips over his heart. 'Such a shame,' she said, pouting like a child, 'but if Edward doesn't stop hiding and save you then this is goodbye.'
Roy clenched his teeth as the pressure turned to a bone-deep heat. It scorched right through him, making him long to writhe away, but he was locked in place. He couldn't even lift his head away from the wall as Carmine tightened her hands into fists and the pain wrenched at him. The cry didn't sound human; he could hardly believe it came from him. Yet his lips were parted, and his breath escaped in weak clouds of vapour. His throat was sore, and the buzz in his head had intensified to a sharp agony that he could not think around. It occupied his mental horizon, hammering at his nerves while he struggled to stop his body betraying him into death. His heart was thundering, too hard and fast to be normal, and his stomach churned violently. He had to get out, to get away. He couldn't stand this!
Carmine's yelp of surprise cut through him like a knife, and the sudden release left him hanging slack, still pinned like a butterfly to a board, but free from torment. The woman was already scrambling to her feet, her lips twisting into a delighted smirk as Ed stood poised to clap his hands together again. He was half-hidden in shadow, but the bright blue light emanating from the array on his forehead cast his face into an eerie light. His gaze didn't waver from Carmine, not even to check if everyone else was alive or dead. Roy knew even something as simple as that could be a fatal mistake. On the floor, already little more than a memory of light, an array faded from view.
'So you've learned some new tricks.' Her expression was one of sick joy as she faced him, her hands nonchalantly on her hips. 'I'm surprised. I thought you'd fight it; push it aside and pretend that it wasn't there. I never expected you to accept that part of the gate had made you its home.' Her finger rested on her lips, one eyebrow raised in mock thought. 'Or maybe it's that you realised you have no choice.' She moved forward, one slow, easy stride at a time. 'Maybe you realised that it's the only thing keeping you alive. Without it you would have died, oh-' she hesitated, counting on her fingers, '-about three days ago.'
Roy felt his heart flutter fearfully in his chest as his tired mind tried to follow her words. She was saying more than Ed ever would, but was it true? He remembered the burning core of heat under the array on Ed's chest, and knew that the new alchemy had manifested shortly after Ed had brought Hughes back. Was that what had happened? Had part of the gate escaped Carmine by hiding in Ed?
Ed's face betrayed nothing at Carmine's revelation, and her features flickered with irritation before she spoke again, idly crossing her hands across her chest so that her palms rested on her shoulders. 'Do you enjoy it,’ she asked, ‘being the closest thing to the vampires of myth? Tell me, Fullmetal, Hero of the People, how many have you had to kill to feed it? How many people have you sent to their graves just so you could live?' Her last words were a snarl as she drew her hands across her torso, releasing a roaring wave of alchemy across the intervening space.
It pulled at the darkness like a living creature clawing its way towards its prey, tugging at shadows as if they were something more substantial than mere shade. The room shook, sending ornaments rattling and toppling the grandfather clock with an almighty crash. Ed narrowed his eyes, bringing his hands together in a resounding clap as the thing descended on him, all shadowed talon and untethered fury.
The ground blazed, no longer ice but fire as the surge tore through the building. Roy could feel it through the soles of his feet, shaking the walls and dragging at the air. The carpet was gone, torn up by the power of the thing that unfurled around Carmine. Her shadow creature was obliterated, blown away like smoke as, high above, the chandelier gave one final creak before the rope snapped.
Crystal shattered in mid-air, torn apart by the conflicting forces in the room. Polished prisms became deadly missiles, all raining down on the two alchemists. Ed was already protected, standing in the eye of the storm of energy he had created. Carmine was slower, and Roy grimaced as shard after shard embedded itself in her flesh, slicing and cutting at her, making her twitch with each impalement.
Cursing, she scrabbled at the debris, cutting her fingers as she wrenched them out of her body. One piece had stabbed into the flesh below her eye, but she barely flinched as she pulled it out, blinking away blood. A shadow flitted across her face, alighting like a butterfly on the wound. Slowly, it melted into her skin until there was nothing left but a faint smear of blood where the puncture wound had been.
All around her the gloom writhed, forming itself into clutching tendrils that reached towards Ed longingly, yet the alchemy forced them back, hemming them in to a smaller and smaller space until Carmine was surrounded on all sides. Everywhere the power touched it seemed to steal from her, making her gasp and flinch and wail. The whiteness of her skin flushed with colour where the alchemy caressed her, leaching away the bleached appearance of her skin.
Roy stumbled, abruptly released from his invisible prison as her power faded, torn away by whatever Ed was doing. He slumped to the floor, wincing as his palm entered one of the flames that licked at the place, but there was no pain. There wasn't even any heat. Still, he snatched his hand back, staggering to his feet and bracing himself against the wall as he watched, trying to comprehend what was happening.
Carmine's silver eyes flickered, warm grey ebbing into her dead irises as her body began to shake. The cruel expression on her face battled with something else, softer and more human, and Roy realised what Ed had meant when he'd called her a puppet. The darkness from the gate had entered her and made her utterly its own. She was an innocent bystander to her actions, unable to stop herself as her body was used and violated by that which she'd sought to destroy.
'No! You will not take her!'
The voice echoed around the room, a harsh, defiant cry that spat and hissed. It was an animal thing, beyond logic or reason. As Roy watched, Carmine's arm swept out, and the darkness pushed its way forward like a battering ram. It was a final attempt at escape, and he heard Ed's abrupt cry of pain as the two alchemies combined, overloading the array with an ear-splitting crack.
Roy shuddered as the false night swept over him, covering everything in an inky blackness. It was so complete that, for a moment, he wondered if he had been rendered blind. His eyes were open, but he could see nothing, sense nothing. His heart hammered in his chest as he tried to move, but his idea of direction was useless. He could feel the wall behind him, but that was it. Around him there was nothing but empty space. Not even the flames that had flickered on the carpet remained.
Gradually, his senses began to detect things. He could hear Sally's voice, calling out to see if everyone was all right. The air had gone from icy cool to abruptly warm, and sweat prickled across his brow. Groping blindly, he made his way towards where Ed had been, cutting himself on shards of crystal until his fingers fastened around a distinctive automail wrist.
'Ed?' he asked, giving it a shake. 'Ed, are you all right?'
No answer, and he patted his way up the metal arm, trying to find the reassurance of warm flesh. Instead he came across sticky blood, rapidly cooling in the air. The flesh beneath felt no warmer than the automail, and Roy quickly struggled to find a pulse.
A click of his fingers conjured up enough light to see by, and his heart sank like a rock. Blood trailed like tears from Ed's closed eyes and seeped from the corner of his mouth, pooling in the hollow of his throat. It trailed darkly across his ears and into his hair, seeping slowly. Shaking now, Roy resumed his search for a pulse, channelling the flame from his fingertips to hover in the air before ripping a glove off with his teeth. He pressed his fingers harder into Ed's flesh wrist before moving to his throat, his mind focussed completely on finding one dull twitch of movement.
Ed was cold - too cold. He didn't shiver or tremble. There were no goosebumps on his flesh, and even his torso was cool to the touch. Helpless now, almost turned senseless again by fear, Roy grabbed the neck of Ed's t-shirt and yanked, ripping it open before he pressed his ear to Ed's chest, straining to hear the faintest throb of a heartbeat.
Absently, his bare hand brushed across the array on Ed's chest, and he felt a weak tug. The flame above him guttered, shrinking before regaining its strength, and beneath his ear he heard the quiet thudding of a heartbeat that he was sure hadn't been there a moment ago. The arrays on Ed's torso and forehead had been lifeless, but now they began to flare with a tiny prickle of light.
Roy's breath left him in a rush of relief, the chilly, fearful nausea receding as he grabbed Ed's flesh hand and held on tight. He was dimly aware of someone saying they were going to get the doctor who lived just across the square, but he barely acknowledged them as he carefully put his bare hand back across the array.
He knew it was dangerous, but with every heartbeat he could feel that faint patch of heat growing, nourished by the soft flow of energy from his skin to Ed's. Carmine took without asking, demanded without mercy, and she left the dead in her wake. Now Roy gave Ed what he couldn't ask for, concentrating on nothing but the steady, controlled flow of life between them and praying that it would be enough.