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Babylon

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Babylon:
Lit:
1 )The city of Babylon
2) A place of captivity or exile
3) Derived from the Greek "Bab-Ilani: The Gate of the Gods.


 

Edward Elric opened his eyes, letting his vision gradually adjust to the gloom of the dorm room. The place was Spartan to say the least. Two rickety bunks were pushed against opposite walls, and scrappy, mismatched chairs were shoved off in one corner along with a wobbly table. A bare light bulb hung ponderously above him, and he stared at the reflected dawn in its curve.

People did not live here; it was not home. It was just a handy room for a dash of privacy and a good night’s sleep. At least, it should have been. Instead Ed found himself irritatingly restless. Sleep had come in dribs and drabs, haunted as always by nightmares of the past.

A gentle snore from the bed opposite made Ed raise an eyebrow, and a rare smile tugged at his lips. Stiffly he turned on his side to survey the occupant. His little brother’s mop of hair was dishevelled, casting sandy brown strands across his face: his human face. Even now, Ed found himself taking a good look at the features that he had feared he would never see again.

There was so much of their mother there, in the turn of Al’s nose and the quirk of his lips. At seventeen his body was broader and, yes, damnit, taller than Ed’s own. Still, no one doubted the family resemblance. It was strange that, in contrast, Ed’s looks were almost entirely derived from their father.

A familiar welt of bitterness trailed across his heart at the thought of Hohenheim, and he pressed his automail fingers to his chest, letting their coolness mask the painful sensation of his emotions. He would never forgive their father for leaving them, just as he would never forgive himself for putting Al through four years without a body. Retrieving it had been atonement, and one Ed had never meant to survive.

The sharp slice of Envy’s blade between his ribs was a burning pain, almost drowning out the subtle trickle of blood from the open wound. Transient darkness was a fleeting respite before the brilliance of the gate cut its way into his conciousness. He stood on the threshold, neither moving forward nor stepping back. He did nothing until Envy and then, to his horror, Al appeared to pass through those waiting doors.

Consciousness was a bitter agony. There were no doubts about what he had seen, and no hesitations in his actions. The incantation of equivalent exchange was a mantra in his head as he scrawled arrays over his skin: one on each limb, one on his torso and finally one on the centre of his brow.

A metallic scent filled his nostrils, coating his tongue with its patina as crimson faded to dull brown stains against his skin. It had to be done. All those choices, all those decisions had finally boiled down to this. A life for a life. If that was the price then he would pay it. His last thought was of his brother, of the body he had stolen from Al in his desperate attempts at human transmutation, and how this was the only apology he could make.

The gate was waiting for him, and in voiceless words it seemed to mock him: Back again, Edward Elric?

He did not speak his request. He merely held out his flesh arms in mute surrender, demanding his brother in return. He would not accept a fraction. He expected the trinity of body, mind and soul.

There was been a breathless moment in which both a second and an eternity passed. He lived and died and lived again, caught up in the flux of energy that streamed through the gate. Before his eyes the knowledge of Everything paraded its glory, but he was blind to it.

It was there, on that precipice between one plane and the next, that the decision was made. Blackness leapt, latching itself around his arm and leg, tearing his newly recovered limbs from him and returning them into the abyss. In a clattering cacophony of pain and disorientation he felt the automail reassemble as though it had never been gone. The confusion was horrifying, and the familiar anger returned full force. Was it daring to deny him?

Your brother is yours. In exchange… .

The arrays on his body flared into life, biting into his skin. Sparks of agony snaked along those simple lines, etching themselves deep into his flesh.

A permanent reminder of what you would have given - and what you could have lost.

He wanted to demand how that could be equivalent, how forcing him to remember this could ever be fair payment for the brother he had fought for. How could the gate be so fickle? To demand so much from him as a child but ask so little now, it was unbalanced! His voice stayed mute as his mind screamed the endless questions, demanding answers from the silent darkness and the bright light at its core.

In a heartbeat the gate vanished, and he awoke to reality.

The agony was unsurpassed. It shredded him, destroying his will and making every breath a struggle. The echo of his heels kicking against the floor rasped in his ears as he arched his back, writhing with the need to escape. The floor was still slick with his blood, and he staggered painfully to his feet, slapping his flesh hand to his burning head as the automail leg trembled underneath him.

He was intent on stumbling out of the array, on seeking some solace when free from its confines, but something had brought him up short. Blinking through the haze of pain he saw his brother lying on his back in its centre, his chest rising and falling steadily in slumber. Agony ebbed, forced aside as irrelevant in that moment. His body may have shuddered but his mind was strong as he staggered to Al’s side and fell to his knees. Bloody fingers deftly found the steady, throbbing pulse, and a hacking breath of relief escaped Ed’s lungs.

Ed blinked the memory aside, letting his gaze take in his brother’s face again. In the weeks and months following that day, Al had worked hard to regain his strength, taking joy in the simple tasks of living. His distraction had given Ed the time he had needed to perfect his mask and hide the torment that locked him in its embrace.

In those first weeks he blamed the pain on his automail, but gradually constant discomfort became blinding flashes of torture, and finally it dulled to a few attacks a month. Now the pain only struck when he was exhausted or run down. Still, it was like a disease. It might not be contagious, but it was always there to catch him unawares. He suspected it was not just a reminder of what he had done. It was the gate’s way of telling him that he was in debt, and one day it would collect.

'Fuck that,' Ed muttered to himself, moving to sit up. He grimaced as his lungs contracted painfully and tried to smother the cough that tore at his throat. Pressing a hand to his mouth, he grimaced as his chest heaved. The skin on his breast bone flushed hot, and he shut his eyes tight. The noise was too much to hide, and he heard Al roll out of bed.

‘Brother, what’s wrong?’

Ed shook his head fiercely, forcing himself to get it under control. The cough was a recent development. It had first turned up a few days ago. He did not know if it was a belated gift from the gate, or if it was just a cold, but the crimson that flecked his palm told its own story. ‘I’m fine, Al,’ he managed to gasp, wiping the blood away quickly so that his brother wouldn’t see it. ‘Didn’t mean to wake you.’

Al said nothing, wordlessly conveying that Ed had no need to apologise. The worry on his face was evident as the first true light of the sun filtered through the east-facing window.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ he quietly begged. ‘I’d tell you if there was something wrong.’

‘No, you wouldn’t.’ Al’s voice was resigned, and Ed couldn’t hide the wince that twitched across his face. It wasn’t the first time that Al had complained of him hiding things. He doubted it would be the last.

With a sigh Ed sat back against the headboard, knowing it was hopeless to try and defend himself against the mild reproof. Even as a child Al had known when his brother was hiding something. Even when he had been returned from the gate he still knew Ed better than he knew himself. ‘I’ll be better soon,’ he finally conceded. ‘Besides, you know what the army is like; you’re not ill unless you’re dead and even then you’re just an inconvenience.’

Al frowned, putting a hand gently on Ed’s flesh shoulder and giving it a quick squeeze. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t go on this mission.’

‘We?’ Ed asked dangerously, straightening his shoulders and fixing his brother with a glare. ‘No Al, there is no “we”. I’m going to see what Mustang wants, and you’re staying here. You’re not a dog of the military. Officially, they’re not even paying you.’ Al opened his mouth to speak, but Ed leapt out of bed, shaking his head furiously. ‘Al, we have this argument every time.’

‘And I always win,’ Al pointed out with a grin.

Ed scowled as he flicked on the light, but kept his lips pursed shut as he grabbed a towel and headed for the bathroom. ‘You’re not coming with me.’

‘You can’t stop me, Brother.’

From someone else those words would have been a challenge, but from Al they were simply a statement of fact. As difficult as it was for him to acknowledge Al was growing up. Ed found himself in the uncomfortable position of being the only family member left to keep his best interests at heart.

With a flick of his hand Ed slammed the bathroom door, not caring about the dust that shook free from the ceiling or if he woke everyone else in the building. He knew that he had not set the best example for his brother. From the moment they lost their mother his actions had been rash and thoughtless, but through it all Al had been at his side. That was the way it had always been, and, despite his best efforts to protect him, Ed realised it probably wouldn’t change.

Stepping out of the boxers he had slept in, Ed flicked on the shower and ducked under the spray. The tension in his muscles slowly unwound as he tipped his head back, letting the water stream through his hair and course over his shoulders.

It hadn’t been long after Al got his body back that they’d argued about this for the first time. Ed had suggested that his brother go back to Risembool with Winry. He could still remember the flat, angry look that had come into his brother’s eyes. He had seen it once or twice in his mother’s face when they were particularly naughty, but Al’s words were not modulated by motherly concern.

‘I did not go through four years of hell to get my body back only to leave you behind when we succeeded!’

‘Al-'

‘No, Ed. I’m not going unless you come with me!’

The words had lodged in his throat and forced their way past his lips. ‘I can’t do that.’

The same statement still rang in his head, as though the fight had never ceased. It had been then that Ed had realised that, while he despised being on the military’s leash, it was the only thing he had left. He could not imagine returning to the idyllic peace of Risembool. How could he? Those four years had been spent stumbling from one near-death experience to the next. Hope and despair had been their constant companion, but through it all they had their purpose.

Suddenly that had gone. Aimlessness was something Ed used to wish for, but in its company he felt lost. At least the missions gave him something to do and new ways to stretch his alchemy. Besides, he had seen too much of the sins of Amestris to go back to a secluded corner of the world. Like a soldier returning from war, there was no way to ignore what he had witnessed. Everyone had their ghosts to lay to rest.

His needs had warred fiercely with his desire for Al’s safety. The same disagreement continued even now, but, day-by-day, Al kept to his word. He did not leave his brother’s side. Even while Ed worked his way through the same script of an argument, he couldn’t keep the gratitude from his heart.

It was only a matter of time before Al took his life into his own hands and validated his presence by taking the state alchemy exams. His alchemical talent was stunning; perhaps it was not quite as extraordinary as Ed’s, but there was something gentle and natural about it. Al had elegance while he had flair. It was just another way they complimented each other.

The morning alarm rang out, interrupting Ed’s thoughts and making him swear softly. He had to be in Mustang’s office in half an hour. Bastard. What kind of man was even awake at that time of day?

An unbidden image of a sleep-rumpled Roy Mustang flashed across his mind, all tousled hair and burning eyes. Ed’s mouth went dry and a sharp rush of desire flashed through him to pool low in his stomach. The feeling was nothing new, and Ed groaned quietly as he began to stiffen.

As he had aged the embarrassing adolescent lust had become stronger, turning from shy curiosity to blatant consideration. He had rather hoped that it was the result rampant hormones and would fade away as he approached adulthood. Instead Ed found himself spurning the advances of interested young women and lingering on impossible fantasies.

Shutting the water off he rung out his hair and grabbed a towel, ignoring his aroused state. He didn’t have time to deal with that now. Maybe later, when he had more than a few minutes to spare, he could take the matter into hand.

Wrapping the towel around his waist he made sure the heavy material hid his erection before opening the door and motioning Al into the bathroom. ‘Don’t be long,’ he muttered, resisting the urge to pull a face as Al eyed his wet hair pointedly. It was a source of contention between the two of them that Ed took so long to get ready, whereas Al could be presentable after only a handful of minutes.

Rolling his eyes at the sound of Al’s off-key singing, Ed picked up his razor from its resting place at the side of the sink and set to work. Meeting the blank stare of his reflection head on, he scowled at the pattern scored into his forehead. The arrays were forever burned into his skin, picked out in scar tissue. Those on his flesh arm and torso were easy enough to hide, but the lines on his brow stood out clearly for all to see. It made him look like a carnival psychic rather than a state alchemist, but there was nothing to be done. He bore it; if not with pride then with confidence. It was a sign of what he had been through and what he had been willing to sacrifice. He learned to put up with the stares just as he learned the bear the pain.

It didn’t take him long to remove the dusting of stubble and creamy foam from his chin. A quick hand over his jaw ensured he hadn’t missed any stray hairs. With a sigh he clapped his hands together, letting his alchemy work a simple change of state on his wet hair. It had taken him practice and resulted in a few scorched eyebrows over the years, but with a few wisps of steam most of the water had dissipated. His hair fell in a dry cascade to below his shoulders. Cutting it was a rare occurrence. If it started to get in his way or one too many soldiers confused him for a woman he’d hack a handful of length off, but otherwise he let it grow.

He was just putting it up in a clumsy braid when Al emerged, nursing a nick on his jaw. It bled a faint line of crimson, alarmingly bright against Alphonse’s skin.

‘You all right?’

‘Razor slipped,’ Al replied, wiping the blood away as he pulled a t-shirt on over his head and ruffled his short, damp hair. ‘Do you need a hand with that?’

Ed smiled and tied of the braid in answer. ‘Winry’s automail is getting better, or maybe I’m just getting used to it.’

‘At least you won’t have to get it refitted again,’ Al replied. ‘I think you’ve probably grown all you’re going to.’

‘You’d better not be calling me short.’ The words were a growl, but there was a playful edge to them. Ed’s height had finally topped out and, while he’d never tower over anyone, he wasn’t as petite as he had once been. Of course, it didn’t stop the long running comments about his stature.

Al hesitated, the faint smile fading away. ‘Brother, you know I’m not going to let you go alone today, don’t you?’

'We don't even know what Mustang wants, yet,' Ed pointed out. 'Maybe it's an assignment in the city.'

'It doesn't matter. I'm still coming with you.'

Ed sighed and nodded as he tugged the black t-shirt over his head and reached for his coat. ‘Fine, have it your way, although you know I can look after myself.’

Al looked like he wanted to dispute that fact, but obviously thought better of it as Ed grabbed his watch and looked at the time. A quick curse escaped his lips, and he slipped the silver time-piece in his pocket before heading for the door. ‘Come on.’

The halls of Central Command were bustling with morning activity. Recruits ran this way and that, hampered in their duties by the need to salute the officers who roamed among their ranks. The mess hall was a hive of activity, and Ed took a deep breath of the fried bacon and strong coffee aroma that wafted through the air. His stomach rumbled at the fulfilling scent, and he promised himself that he’d get something on the way back. In fact….

‘Al, go and get something to eat. No point in both of us missing breakfast. Grab me some bacon while you’re at it.’

‘But -’

He pushed Alphonse in the general direction of the food and hurried on, calling over his shoulder, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t leave you behind.’

‘If you dare -’

Ed chuckled as his brother left the threat hanging in the air and thought about picking up the pace. With a nonchalant shrug to himself he forced himself to walk more slowly. There was no point in kowtowing to all of Mustang’s orders. Besides, he had plenty of people to keep his ego inflated. It was up to Ed to put a dent in it once in a while. Making him wait wouldn’t hurt.

Opening the door to the office that contained Mustang’s closest staff, he sighed. The room was familiar and, if he was honest with himself, it was the closest thing he had to a home. The air smelled of strong coffee and the pervasive stench of Havoc’s cigarettes. The potted plant in the corner thrived on the dregs it was frequently fed, and the constant rustle of paper was a sibilant melody. Even when his life was in turmoil, Ed felt that he could rely on this place to always be the same.

When he was younger he used to wonder if they ever went home. He had been so obsessed with his own path that he had barely had the time or gratitude to notice the dynamic of the group. Initially there had been discomfort and resentment at his presence. They thought he was just a kid, and he thought they were only getting in his way. Mutual respect had been a long time coming, but now he knew that there was nothing that he couldn’t ask of them. In return they knew that he could always be relied upon, and he was a powerful alchemist to be reckoned with.

Hawkeye’s desk was empty, but judging by the patient canine figure of Black Hayate she was in Mustang’s office. The woman might be tough and incorruptible, but there was still a faint sense of maternal pride about her when she looked at the men under her command, and the officer who oversaw them all. Of course, if Ed ever told her that she’d fill him with bullet holes. Her hard reputation was well-earned, and he couldn’t fault her. In fact he was pretty sure that it was only her presence that ensured any work got done.

Havoc was slumped across his desk, his head pillowed on his arms. The cigarette in his mouth was unlit and half-crushed against his uniform sleeve as he struggled manfully to keep his eyes open. There was barely a twitch of acknowledgement when Ed reached across and snagged the cigarette, throwing it into the bin.

‘Mornin’, Boss,’ Havoc managed, raising a hand in a feeble salute.

‘Late night?’ Ed asked as he looked at some of the paperwork strewn across the desk. None of it looked particularly critical. His only reply was a faint grumble of agreement, and he smiled as the man finally gave up his battle and shut his eyes.

The clank of a spoon made Ed turn, and he saw that Fuery was adding copious amounts of sugar to a cup of coffee, as though hoping the cocktail of caffeine and sugar would give him the energy he needed to face the communications issues awaiting his attention.

‘Where is everyone?’ Ed asked quietly, grabbing the coffee pot and looking at the cooling dregs with suspicion. Grabbing an almost-clean mug he poured it out and took a gulp, grimacing the bitterness clogged his mouth.

‘They’re not here yet, sir.’ Fuery pushed his glasses up his nose, ignoring Ed’s sigh of annoyance at the respectful title.

The forbidding mahogany doors to Mustang’s office opened, allowing enough room for the slim form of Hawkeye to slip through. She looked impeccable, as always, and Ed noticed her tight-lipped expression. Her dark eyes flashed as she took in the occupants of the room, and her hand automatically descended to the butt of her gun.

‘You’re late, Edward’. Those three words had a very final sound to them and, despite the fact that he was finally a fraction taller than her, she seemed to tower over him. Her brows were slanted in the faintest of disapproving scowls, and Ed held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture as Havoc and Fuery scrambled to appear busy.

‘Only by a few minutes. Give me a break, Hawkeye.’

‘Gladly. Where would you like it, sir?’

A faint smile eased the seriousness of her threat, but Ed still edged away, not entirely sure she wouldn’t put words into action. With a shake of his head he dodged around her, pushing into Mustang’s office and slamming the door behind him.

The room was much the same as it had ever been, bar a few new bullet holes in the plasterwork. It had barely changed since the first time he had marched in here, all false bravado and untamed anger. He had to admit that he’d grown up since then, even if the military still treated him like a child.

Roy was reading his way through a document and had not even bothered to lift his head as his youngest state alchemist made his entrance. The sun slanted through the window, casting striped of shadow and relief across his face. His fingers were curled over his lips as he concentrated, barely twitching an eyebrow as Ed sighed and leant on his desk, invading his personal space.

‘You’re late, Fullmetal, and I’m short on time.’ His voice was soft, but there was no missing the intended emphasis.

Ed suppressed the spike of temper that heated his blood and tightened his jaw. At least the bastard was getting the height jokes out of the way. ‘Whatever, Colonel Bastard,’ he sneered, letting that one go. ‘What’s the mission, or did you just call me here to piss me off?’

The Flame Alchemist sighed deeply. ‘Perhaps you missed the memo, Fullmetal, but I’m a Brigadier-General these days.’ He ignored Ed’s last jibe and handed across a plain brown envelope. ‘I want this wrapped up by the end of today. No excuses.’

Ed flicked through the briefing, picking out key words from years of practice. ‘Grave-robbing?’ he finally asked. ‘Is that really state alchemist business?’

‘It is when they’re robbing military graveyards,’ Mustang replied grimly. ‘The remains could provide ingredients for some alchemical purposes.’

Ed looked carefully, noticing the faint lines of tension in the older man’s face. This was going too easily. There had been no shouting, and hardly any exchange of insults. ‘What aren’t you telling me?’

Mustang looked up sharply, and his dark hair fell across his forehead. For the first time Ed noticed the man’s appearance. His normally immaculate uniform was dishevelled, and his pale face was lined with exhaustion. His jaw was stiff and his knuckles were white knots on the paper he held in his hand. There was no smug satisfaction on the bastard’s face, and, in a disarmingly young gesture, he swept a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up in tufts.

Grimly, he pressed his lips together, and Ed felt his back stiffen. For an instant he thought Mustang wasn’t going to bother answering, but eventually he managed a strained whisper, letting one brief flicker of emotion breach his distant façade.

‘One of the graves robbed belonged to Brigadier-General Hughes.’

Chapter Text

Ed sipped his coffee, letting the strong, black drink work its magic as he watched the street through lowered lashes. A couple of young women giggled to each other, blushing and raking his slim form with longing looks as they slowed their hurried pace. It wasn't that Ed ignored their admiration; he was oblivious to it. His eyes may have been taking in the world but his mind was busy at work, pondering the scant evidence they had found in the cemetery.

Those who knew him would have been surprised to see Ed so thoughtful. Even now, teetering on the brink of adult-hood, his actions were often impetuous and poorly planned. He was expected to rush into things head-first without giving a second thought to the consequences. Still, he at least had the sense to know when the situation called for a different approach.

Grave robbing was a vile crime, regarded with horror and distaste by most. Even if someone had seen what had happened they were likely to deny witnessing such sacrilegious behaviour. It was this stoic silence that was giving Ed difficulty. As discreetly as he could, he had put the squeeze on a few people he could rely on in Central, quietly asking them if they had heard anything that might be related to the unusual events at the cemetery. No one had an answer for him. Their eyes were blind and their ears deaf. That in itself was suspicious enough.

With a sigh he put the empty mug down on the table and got to his feet, turning up his collar as he stepped out into the rain. Thick clouds had rolled in from the west, bringing downpours with them. Raindrops bounced off the pavement, splattering in puddles and muffling the sounds of the city with their continuous rhythm.

He had sent Al off separately, knowing that the younger man had his own contacts. Al's likeable nature and quiet charm always endeared him to people. There was hardly a barman or waitress in town who wouldn't give him a free lunch along with all the latest word on the street.

A derisive snort escaped Ed's lips, oddly loud in the peaceful precinct. He didn't have time for charm; he barely had time for manners. His brother eased through life with a gentle smile, but Ed preferred the more volatile approach.

Passing an open alley mouth he hesitated, letting his gaze take in the dank, shadowed depths. There was one more person who might be able to tell him something. A burly barkeeper called Dane in the shadier part of Central was often privy to the secrets of the underworld. He was normally fairly tight-lipped, but he owed Ed a favour or two.

A lone alchemist in this part of town was practically begging for trouble, but Ed's lips twisted into a feral grin, and he straightened his shoulders. He would not come across anything he couldn't handle.

The rain ran off the overhanging roofs, sending torrents of water smattering into the ground. Rubbish and detritus clogged the drains, turning the narrow warren of alleyways into a foul marsh of discarded refuse and filth. His steady stride did not falter as he marched through it all, not letting his eyes linger too long on the bundles of rags and soggy cardboard shelters that nestled in the gloom.

A sibilant sound, much like a rush of indrawn breath, made Ed hesitate. His fists clenched in his gloves as he looked over his shoulder, and his eyes narrowed at the sight of the two thugs who leaned against the wall. They were not common tramps or mindless thieves. Their bearing was too military, and the knives in their hands were well kept. The blades gleamed in the sullen daylight, held ready to cut and maim with the flick of a wrist.

'Alchemists aren't welcome 'ere,' the taller one sneered. His face was a network of scars. Some were fine white lines while others were still red, open wounds. 'You must be lost, boy.'

The other one had circled to Ed's side, making it impossible to watch them both at once. 'Normally we don't kill little kids, but I guess we ain't got a choice.' The joy in those words was stomach turning, and Ed felt his back teeth clench in anger. This one had only one pale eye, and a greasy patch covered the hole where the other had been. 'Besides, you're sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong.'

Lightning quick the two of them leapt, their movements surprisingly agile as Ed jumped out of their way. With a swift clap a crackle of power transmuted his automail arm, and Ed felt a flush of satisfaction as the sleek limb elongated into a long, steel point.

Two blades met with a clang, metal scraping on metal as one of the thugs put his weight behind his thrust. Muscles tightened and strained as Ed struggled to block the blow, narrowing his eyes against the rain. His boots skidded in the wet, and behind him he heard the whistle of something passing through the air. With a quick twist he wrested himself free in time to dodge another swing. There was the soft sound of ripping cloth, and Ed cursed as a piece of his coat fluttered to the floor.

A fist swung out of nowhere, landing squarely over his left eye and sending stars shooting across his vision. In one fluid movement Ed dropped to the floor, letting the weight of the blow bear him down. As quickly as he could Ed lashed out, brutally accurate. In one sweep he had knocked the taller man's legs out from under him, and smashed his fist into his jaw as he fell. Bone crunched painfully, and Ed knew that his flesh hand would be bruised for days.

There was nothing but a grunt of pain from the assault. What would have knocked most men unconscious barely seemed to faze this guy. Blood trickled from the man's mouth, and he spat a gob of saliva and tooth fragments, wiping his lips on the back of his hand.

Ed scrambled to his feet and dodged away, turning his back to the wall so that he could see both of them at once. They moved like tigers closing in for the kill. They had been trained for this. There was no trace of uncertainty in their frames, only a sickening joy at their strength. He was beginning to think that maybe this hadn't been a coincidence. They seemed suspiciously well informed for two cut-throats.

The first man lunged again, the knife already swinging down in a fatal arc towards Ed's neck. In synchronised perfection the one-eyed attacker slashed his blade upwards, the point aimed to slide under Ed's ribs.

Without conscious thought Ed clapped his hands together, returning his automail to its original state and catching a wrist in his metal palm. With a sharp movement he spun out of the way, pinning the scarred man's arm behind his back and twisting it painfully.

A soft sound like tearing velvet caressed the air, and Ed flinched in surprise. The blade clattered to the floor from senseless fingers, sending a melody of notes echoing down the alley and bouncing back again. In his arms the thug had stiffened, the tendons of his neck standing out in a spasm of pain as his partner's knife finally came to a halt under his ribcage.

For a moment, the three of them stood in a frozen tableau, unable to comprehend what had happened. With one last gargling sigh the scarred one in Ed's arms went slack, the subtle tension of life fleeing his body as blood welled from his torn belly and dripped on the floor. The wound was decimating and deep, and the one-eyed man had frozen in shock.

His hand was still on the hilt of the knife, now covered in blood and gore. His eye was wide with horror, and with shaky, stumbling movements he began to back away. Ed watched, still unconsciously supporting the body's weight, as the dead man's partner turned and fled, his footsteps booming along the alley in his haste to get away.

The first, vivid instinct was to give chase. Ed's human leg ached with the adrenaline and the need to run somewhere - anywhere away from here. With a massive effort he fought down his natural reactions. He would catch up with the other one later. For now there were more practical concerns.

Ed gently laid the body in his arms on the ground, keeping his eyes away from the foul, gaping wound that had ended the man's life abruptly. Without a thought he stripped off his coat, using the torn fabric to cover the gruesome epitaph of an injury. It would do, at least until he could send a team out to dispose of the body.

Guilt, ugly and brumal, reared its head. He always aimed to disable any assailant, but more and more over the past year he had found his choices narrowed down to a situation of kill or be killed. Part of him murmured excuses, but the truth of it was that it was his decisions that left corpses, rather than prisoners.

A glimmer of something caught his eye, and he saw a large ring on the man's left hand. It occupied the middle finger and gleamed a rich, butter gold. As gently as he could he eased it off of the swollen digit, twisting it over the joint. The metal was still warm, and he stared at the flat surface. Two small letters were engraved in the metal: a "V" superimposed on top of an "N". His first thought was that it was a wedding band, that wasn't right. Jewellery on the middle finger was a symbol of ambition, not commitment.

Getting back to his feet he touched his eye gently, hissing as the tight, swollen skin sparked with pain. 'Crap,' Ed murmured softly, blinking away tears. Couldn't the idiot have punched him somewhere that it wouldn't show?

With one last look around Ed shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away, letting the vicious swirl of excitement in his blood slowly abate. The lack of adrenaline left him drained, and guilt dragged at his emotional core. More than once he found himself poking his black eye with exploratory fingers. It wasn't the first he'd had, and it would not be the last, but that didn't stop it from hurting.

It didn't take him long to reach the dingy bar he had been heading for. Its name, The Grindle was carved haphazardly above the door, deep scored lines in the brickwork. The dilapidated building was a hangout for roughs and hookers; dangerous in the daytime and deadly at night.

Slipping around the back, Ed tapped on the door, knowing better than to walk into the bar. He doubted he would get out in one piece.

After a few seconds the door opened a crack, and a suspicious eye peered through. Before the owner had a chance to react Ed crammed his boot in the gap, not blinking as Dane tried to slam it shut again. 'The sooner you answer my questions the sooner I'll go.'

'You've got a nerve,' a big voice grumbled, and the door eased open to reveal a hulk of a man. Dane's shaved head was covered in tattoos, and blank grey eyes stared out of a chiselled face. He crossed his brawny arms and glared down at Ed, his lips pulled back to bare his teeth in an unfriendly grin. 'Don't you know if you're seen here they'll be pulling your body out of the river?'

'Then I won't be seen.' Ed shrugged dismissively, grimacing as a whore shrieked with laughter from the grimy depths of the bar. 'Someone's been robbing graves at the military cemetery. Know anything about it?'

Dane straightened and glanced back over his shoulder at his oblivious patrons before nodding once. 'Don't know who's doing it, but things are twitchy. Too many people asking too many questions.'

'No one's mentioned anything about it other than that?' Ed asked disbelievingly, rolling his eyes when the massive man shook his head. 'Fine, what about this?' He pulled the dead man's ring from his pocket, holding it up to the light. The engraved letters stood out clearly, dark lines at the heart of the yellow band.

Dane paled, his tanned face turning a sickly white as he stared at it. He pushed his hands out in front of him as though trying to keep the innocuous piece of jewellery at bay. 'Get that out of here! Where the fuck did you get that, anyway?'

'None of your business,' Ed snapped. 'What do you know?'

'Nothing. I know nothing.' Sweat beaded Dane's shaved scalp, and he licked his thin lips nervously as his eyes darted around in his head. 'I know nothing,' he repeated.

'Just give me a name, Dane,' Ed said softly, 'and I'll be out of here.'

The big man rubbed nervous fingers across his lips before bending down, bringing his head to Ed's level. 'Vivus Nix.'

Ed frowned in confusion, moving his foot as the door slammed shut hard enough to dislodge some tiles from the roof. They cracked on the pavement at his feet and lay there, vivid terracotta fragments in the monochrome rain.

'Vivus Nix?' Ed repeated to himself, shaking his head in confusion. Was that even a name? Was it one person, or a group? The military presence in Central meant that gangs were few and far between, but they did exist. Whatever this "Vivus Nix" was, it had terrified the unshakable Dane. That was definitely something to keep in mind.

He wove his way back through the maze of alleyways without incident, letting the rain brush his shoulders with chilly kisses. His black top was soaked through, and his automail arm was exposed for everyone to see. Transmuting the blade on his hand had laid waste to yet another glove, and with a sigh of irritation he pulled his flesh hand free of the white confines.

He did not know why he bothered. The gloves and long sleeves had been a mask for his frail self-esteem in the past, hiding the irregularities of his body from the world. Now it did not seem to matter what people thought of him. The array forever scarring his forehead was enough to make people pass a judgement: attention seeker, masochist, rebel - he'd been described as a lot of things. In the end he had come to realise that people would judge him by his appearance no matter what, but he still wore the gloves and coat like some kind of shield. It was a uniform of a different kind.

When he emerged on the main streets the sun was starting to set. Summer was fading away, and the clouds overhead brought a false night with them. Water dripped from Ed's hair, trickling down his neck and between his shoulder blades. His clothes were saturated, but he ignored it. There was no point in drying off or seeking shelter. He wasn't going to get any wetter, so he may as well endure it.

At least the day had not been completely wasted. He had learned something, although whether it related to the grave robberies or not he had no idea. Whoever the culprit was then they were good: good enough to hide their tracks and smart enough not to take anyone into their confidence.

Breaking into a jog he rounded his shoulders as a sharp-toothed wind blew down the road. The cemetery occupied a large expanse of peaceful land near Central Command, untethered by buildings and undisturbed by the bustle of the living.

Black gates, well oiled and cared for, marked the boundary, and Ed eased them aside with care. Despite the secular nature of the graveyard, it still maintained some kind of holy hush. Everyone earned respect in death, and Ed gave it willingly, doing nothing to break the peace.

Al was huddled under the branches of the yew tree in the centre of the necropolis, a silhouette against the dying light. Breaking into a quick jog Ed made it to his brother's side, ignoring the first trembles of a chill that danced across his skin.

'I can't believe someone would do this,' Al said in way of greeting without even glancing at his brother. His voice was thick with disgust; his normally benign lips twisted into a grimace of horror. 'Why can't they just be left to rest in peace?'

Ed looked out across the rows of tombs. Normally the place was pristine. White headstones stood proud and strong, immaculate in any weather. The grass was kept short and lush. He could grudgingly admit that the military took care of its own, even in death. No grave went abandoned or unkempt. When the names on the memorials were lost in the murk of the past and all relatives had long since moved on, there was still someone to tend the tombs.

Now upturned soil marred the landscape, and gaping holes in the grass screamed their accusations. At least five bodies had been stolen. Some, like Hughes, could be nothing more than bones by now. Others had barely had a chance to settle in their caskets.

Straightening up, Ed fought back a wave of nausea as his stomach rolled greasily. When Mustang had explained that Hughes's grave had been violated the mission had taken on a new slant. What was mundane became personal. Neither of the Elrics had been there for the funeral. They hadn't even known that Maes had been killed until well after the fact. In a way this was recompense. Hughes had done so much for them in those first, difficult times. Now it was their turn to repay the favour.

Mustang's taut expression flashed in Ed's mind. His eyes, so dark they were almost black, had been neither supercilious nor calm. In their depths had been a quick, hot rage, hemmed in at all sides by the dark waves of remembered grief. Ed could rant and rave about the bastard's smugness, but he had not got through the past few years without seeing what lay beneath the surface of his superior officer. Gestures, once one-dimensional and off-hand, took on a new layer of meaning as time had passed. If he was younger he might have considered the mission a punishment: a tiresome obstacle in his path. Now he knew better. Roy could have chosen any one of his aides to investigate, but he had chosen Fullmetal.

Perhaps the bastard trusted him after all.

'Did you find anything?'

Al shook his head. 'No one saw anything. Everyone seems to be just as shocked as the military.' He glanced at his brother then, straightening in surprise as he took in Ed's dishevelled experience and blackened eye. 'What happened?'

Ed shrugged nonchalantly, pulling back from Al's gentle touch with a grunt of pain. 'Just a bit of trouble. I'll send clean up to deal with it later.'

Al frowned at his brother, knowing exactly what wasn't being said. 'How many dead?'

'One.' Ed did not bother to explain the situation. It would only come out sounding like petty excuses, and Al knew him better than to think he had killed in cold blood.

'Are you hurt anywhere else?' Al grabbed his wrist, looking at the grazed and swollen knuckles of Ed's left hand and probing gently, checking for broken fingers.

'A bit battered. It's not important.' Ed smiled reassuringly, flinching as his bruised face throbbed. 'I didn't find out much. Some people knew that it was happening, but they didn't know who was behind it.' Leaning back against the trunk of the yew tree, he scowled. They had already tried to find a pattern to the desecrated graves, but none was apparent. This morning he had asked Scieszka to find the history of those who had been buried there. If anyone could find an element of commonality it would be her. The young woman's agreement had been forceful and unhesitant. Ed had no doubt she would have the information he had asked for by dawn.

'Mustang thinks the remains may be being used in alchemy.' He scowled. 'I hate to say it, but I think he's right.'

Al ran a hand through his hair, dislodging a shower of raindrops as he screwed his eyes up in thought. 'I suppose it's too much to hope that it's just anti-military?'

'Where's the graffiti and the destruction?' Ed asked. 'Why stop at five graves? Why go to the effort of digging them up when you could just smash the headstones?' He shook his head, wrapping his arms tightly around him as the encroaching dusk made its presence known. 'No, this was too deliberate. Perhaps it's some kind of revenge, but even then I have my doubts.'

The two brothers stood in stiff silence, both lost in their own horrified thoughts. The mortal remains of a human were a powerful component of a wide range of alchemy, but their minds kept returning to one possibility. 'Human transmutation?' Ed asked quietly, speaking the bitter words in his mouth. 'Do you think someone's trying to bring them back?'

Al frowned, scuffing the toe of his boot against the grass. 'Why take five at once? It seems - desperate.'

'People who attempt human transmutation are desperate, remember?' Ed pointed out, rolling his head on his shoulders as he tried to relieve the tension that was knotting his back. 'But you're right. Why wait so long to attempt it? Hughes's body wasn't the oldest that was exhumed.'

Ed looked up in surprise as his brother put his hand on his shoulder, pulling him gently away from the pillar of bark that supported his weight. 'We can think about this in the dry. You look like you're about to catch your death.'

'Oh, and you look much better I'm sure,' Ed grumbled, eyeing his brother's rain-slicked t-shirt. 'If we go back I'll have to tell Roy that I've found nothing.'

'Roy?' Al raised an eyebrow at the familiar term. 'I didn't realise you were on a first name basis.' The grin on his lips widened as an unfamiliar blush crested in Ed's cheeks, warming his chilled skin.

'Oh, shut up. I can't call him "bastard" all the time.' Ed pointedly ignored the mischievous glint in his brother's eyes as he picked his way between the graves. Al seemed to have the good sense to hold his tongue, and Ed struggled to calm the heat that dusted his cheekbones.

The ground squelched underfoot, and he passed the scattered mounds of earth at the side of an open tomb. Perhaps it was morbid curiosity that made him hesitate and step closer to the edge, but in the blink of an eye he found himself staring into the darkness. There was no coffin in its shady confines; nothing but earth and water lay at the bottom of the pit. Ed felt his skin crawl at the thought of being buried in the damp, uncaring earth. Logically he knew that the dead had no opinion one way or the other, but the idea sent icy fingers across his living soul.

A subtle shift beneath his feet was the only warning he got before the soil folded under his weight like soft clay. Staggering back he tried desperately to find a strong foothold on the bedraggled grass. His boots slithered clumsily, and with a choked gasp of horror he slipped into the waiting pit.

He hit the bottom with a painful thud, feeling the flesh parts of his body pang with the impact. His forehead connected with a protruding bit of flint, and a hot trickle of blood seeped down his face. The coppery tang of it assailed his nose, and he shuddered at the disjointed memories of horror that the smell invoked. The thing they had brought back in their attempts to transmute their mother, injuries too countless to list, the final sibilant slice of Envy's blade....

'Ed?' Al's voice was laced with alarm. The thud of approaching footsteps slithered to an abrupt halt, and Ed looked up to see his brother staring down at him in horror. Al's normally healthy complexion had paled to a ghastly white, and he wondered what thoughts were flashing across his younger brother's mind. 'Ed, say something!'

Spitting dirt out of his mouth Ed ran his tongue across his teeth, making sure that none of them were loose. Eventually he managed a quiet, 'Ow.'

Al breathed a sigh of relief and knelt down, careful not to get too close to the lip of the hole. 'What are you doing?' he demanded, the worry ebbing away towards morbid humour, 'trying it on for size?'

'Very funny,' Ed grumbled, carefully propping himself up on his elbows before getting to his feet. His head throbbed from the movement, but nothing seemed to be broken. Looking around at the four walls he sighed, glowering at the blank façade of soil. He couldn't get out unaided. How easy it would be to end up trapped, unable to claw his way back to the surface.

Realisation struck in a blinding flash, making him pause. 'Hey, Al,' he began, pushing aside the insidious fear that seemed determined to break apart his train of thought. 'How do you sneak through the streets of Central carrying five coffins?'

Al's good-natured face crumpled into a frown as he considered what his brother was saying. 'You could put bones in a bag,' he pointed out, 'but a coffin or a just-dead body would be more difficult to hide.'

 

'Whoever is doing this isn't working alone, are they? There's got to be at least two, and there might be more.' Ed bent down to examine a cluster of footprints in the grave's base. They were set in deep as though their owners had been trying to lift a great weight above their heads. Even the rain had not quite washed them away, sheltered as they were in this cradle of ground.

With a heavy sigh Ed clapped his hands together, pressing them to the damp walls and watching with some satisfaction as a series of handholds sprang into being. The hole was only six feet deep, and on a dry day he could have hauled himself out. After all he wasn't that short. Today was a different matter. He knew without trying that he would find no grip on the rain soaked walls.

Al reached down a hand to help him, and Ed felt a tremor of relief at the warm vitality of his brother's grip. Something about the cemetery set his teeth on edge and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His little trip into the grave had not helped either, and his mortal frame seemed to be suffering under the sombre influence of the place.

'Let's get out of here,' Ed muttered, glancing down at his mud-soaked clothes glumly. 'Do you think there's any way we can sneak into Central Command without being seen?'

Al took one look at his brother's appearance and grinned, shaking his head ruefully. 'No chance.'

Heaving a sigh Ed trudged away, hearing his brother laugh quietly at the comical squelching of Ed's boots. Despite himself he smiled. Al's mirth was a balm on his weary soul, and the prickling sensation over the scars on his body reminded him, as always, that it could have been so very different.

The walk back to the command building was quick. The streets were empty, bar the occasional car that splashed through the puddles. Few people bothered to dare the downpour, choosing instead to conduct their business indoors. By the time they climbed the steps and reached the shelter of the daunting building Ed wondered if he would ever be dry again. His skin felt cold and clammy, and he could not ignore the lingering, febrile heat in his cheeks. His head felt muzzy, and the cough that he had held under tight control all day was threatening to make an appearance.

Picking up the pace he made his way through the corridors, ignoring the incredulous looks cast in his direction. Al kept up with him easily, giving a smile and a wave to people he recognised as they barged their way towards the busy haven of Mustang's section.

The idle evening chatter fell into shocked silence as Ed shoved the door open and stomped in, drips of rain and mud trailing behind him. He didn't hesitate or even acknowledge the astonished faces around him as he stormed through and into Mustang's office. He didn't want to have to answer their questions or acknowledge his carelessness. If they found about him falling in that grave he would never live it down.

Slamming the door behind him, he winced as an answering throb of pain ricocheted around his head. A tight sickness returned in his stomach and he shut his eyes, trying to find his balance as he struggled to get his body back under control.

When he looked again it was to find Mustang considering him curiously from the fireside. A warm blaze crackled merrily in the grate, and Ed wondered if he had been playing with the flames. Pyromaniac. Still, the heat was too much to resist and he propped himself against the mantle, letting some of the chill in his bones seep away.

'You're dripping on my carpet, Fullmetal.' The words were entirely unamused, and Ed resisted the urge to wipe his boots on the expensive rug at the hearthside.

'Like I give a damn, bastard.' His voice cracked painfully, and Ed winced at the sound. Rather than indifferent he sounded pathetic. Not the impression he was aiming for.

Mustang's eyes swept over him, taking in the mud that covered his subordinate clothes and the heavy presence of blood and bruises. The scrutiny was intense, and Ed found himself shifting uncomfortably and trying to contain his embarrassment.

'Most alchemists would make sure they were presentable before reporting to their superior officer.'

'Fuck that,' Ed groused. 'You're presentable enough for the both of us.' The backhanded compliment slipped out before he could stop himself, but he studiously ignored the smug smile on Mustang's face.

'There was more than one person digging up those graves,' he began. 'I'd say there were at least two or three of them. Maybe more. They were organised, and put a lot of thought into it. The graves weren't chosen for convenience, but I don't know why it was those remain in particular they took.'

Mustang stood stiffly by the fire, his back rigid and his eyes blank slate. To the casual eye it was simple military training that influenced his posture, but Ed could see the tell-tale signs of emotion: a tightly clenched jaw and the faintest narrowing of those exotic eyes. His uniform had been pressed at some point during the day, but although the rumples had faded from the cloth there was still a vaguely haggard air about him.

'Is that it?' Roy asked smoothly, his words heavy with their usual arrogance. 'I wonder that you bothered to report to me at all.'

'Because you bitch if I don't,' Ed snapped, his tenuous grip on his temper gone. He knew he had failed, but the arrogant idiot didn't need to rub it in.

'Oh, I'm not the bitch in this relationship, Fullmetal.' The words carried the faintest rumble of a growl, and one ebony eyebrow quirked upwards.

Ed blinked, knowing that Roy couldn't have intended that to sound as strangely sensuous as it had. He opened his mouth to give a sharp retort, but his words died as his chest convulsed painfully, and the hacking cough returned full force. He clapped his flesh hand over his mouth instantly and crouched by the hearthside, not caring what Mustang thought of his alarming behaviour. His throat was burning with the pain, and he felt the warning stab of agony begin to crawl across the geometric arrays that scarred his body.

Shit.

He did not notice Roy crouch at his side and jumped in fright when his wrist was snatched into a tight grip. Crimson specks of blood stained his palm, gleaming lewdly in the firelight. Roy froze, his brows drawing down into a frown as he stared.

Ed tried to pull his hand away, grimacing as Roy's fingers tightened around his flesh, holding him steady with a firm pull of his own. The man's eyes had darkened with anger, but as he stared wordlessly into the older man's face Ed realised that there was something else there - something he had never seen in those irises before.

Fear.

Chapter Text

Roy Mustang thought he had outgrown this kind of dread. It was only there, watching Ed’s blood shine in the firelight, that he realised how close a companion fear had remained. Until then, he honestly believed that he had moved beyond that sudden, childish flash of terror. Now it returned full force, shaking him with its potency.

‘What the hell is this?’ he demanded, forcing the words past his numb lips. He wanted it to be a joke. The need for some easy explanation was a heavy pressure in his chest. When Ed turned away, Roy swallowed tightly, struggling to choke back angry, frightened words. Possibilities whirled through his mind. It could be an infection, a trauma or something more systemic and deadly. The blood covered most of Ed's palm, bright red and frothy: a gruesome testament.

‘How long has this been happening?’ His voice was a hoarse whisper, forceful despite its low volume. His fingers tightened, and he shook the young man's arm in emphasis. The flash of anger in Ed's eyes spawned a weak trickle of relief. At least he was not listless; there was still some fire that remained.

‘It's none of your business!’ With a quick yank Ed pulled away, snatching his hand free and rubbing his palm on his wet t-shirt. In a flash the claret proof had vanished on a backdrop of black. It was as though he hoped to erase the encounter from history with that one gesture, and Roy watched as the alchemist rose to his feet and moved towards the door.

‘Stop right there, Fullmetal. I’m not done with you yet.’

The blonde’s back stiffened, and Roy waited for the rude response or dismissive flip of a middle finger that normally followed that kind of demand. Instead there was only a heavy rise and fall of shoulders, as though all of Ed’s strength was spent and there was none to spare for even a frail retort. Eventually he turned to face the desk, and Roy took a good, hard look at his subordinate.

Pale skin was slicked with mud, and the rain that still clung to him darkened his distinctive gold hair. The bruise around his eye had blackened rapidly, and a trail of dried blood still dotted his temple. A flush lingered on his prominent cheekbones, although whether it was from his recent proximity to the fire or something else, Roy couldn’t tell.

His body, lithe and well trained from years of hand-to-hand, still maintained its familiar slouch, but now he looked weary. Vivid eyes glared, one eyebrow slightly raised in bare tolerance of the scrutiny. Roy had seen many things in that golden gaze: anger, impatience, desperation.... Since returning from the gate those emotions had become less prominent. These days there were also flashes of understanding and something else, hot and indefinable. All the while those feelings were half-hidden behind some kind of internal shield, as though Ed would not allow the true strength of his emotions to be known.

Fullmetal was good at concealing anything that he believed to be a sign of weakness. His naturally stubborn nature helped him in his goal, and, by Roy’s orders, part of the office routine had grown to include a subtle examination of his well-being. It had become mundane: water the plants, clean out the coffee pot, and check that Ed was not suffering in silence. Either someone hadn’t been doing their job, or the young man was getting better at keeping things from them.

It had been a few weeks after the Elrics had returned to Central, safe and mostly whole, that Hawkeye had commented on Edward’s health. Faint lines of strain were etching themselves into his face, and they had deepened by the day. Everyone had tried to find out what had happened and reassure themselves that Ed had returned as unharmed as he appeared. One by one he fobbed them off with weak assurances that no one really believed.

Gradually, they had found more subtle ways to try and learn the truth, but Ed was holding his own counsel. Even Al was unable to learn anything from his stubborn brother. In the end they had stopped trying and contented themselves with watching from a distance. It was not enough, but what else could be done?

More and more, Roy found himself wondering if he really knew anything about the young man under his command. With Al it was simple. He was an open book: easy to take into confidence and always willing to help and be helped. Ed was the opposite. Even to those who knew him best there was the distinct feeling that he presented the world with a mask, a fake appearance that told nothing of the reality behind that brash, impetuous nature.

Frankly, it was infuriating.

Roy squared his shoulders, forcing all emotion away as he let his voice slip into cool, indifferent tones. 'Take a shower and get some rest. You're no use to me in this state.'

It was a dismissal, clearly emphasised as he turned his back and glared out of the window at the night. He could almost hear Ed grinding his teeth together in anger. If there was one thing that Fullmetal could not stand, it was being ignored. The boy may have grown up, but he had not left his temper behind with his childhood.

The window reflected the office, from the sprawling sofa to the fire in the heart, and. Roy watched Ed scrub his hand over his face, his fingers brushing away mud and rivulets of water. He touched the bruise around his eye thoughtlessly, and Roy winced in sympathy as Edward cringed.

It was an unguarded moment and, for the first time in two years, Roy saw what was really there. For a second his young face was ravaged with pain, exhaustion and a desperate hopelessness that he had never seen on a man during peacetime. Ed looked like a soldier on the front line, haggard and beaten. It was automatic to turn around and reach out. The urge to wipe that expression away with a careful touch was so powerful that Roy struggled to control it. His muscles tensed as he forced himself to remain motionless, but his eyes were fixed on the reflected scene, taking in every detail.

What kind of private battles must Ed be fighting to look like that? Every day life did not wear a man down. Only endless months of bearing one's burdens alone left the spirit so defeated that it could clearly be seen. Had it been that way since he had brought Al back?

Suddenly Ed's eyes met Roy's in the glass, and the mask slipped back into place. It was a seamless fit over his features. Agony ebbed away behind an indifferent expression, and the grimace on his lips eased from sight. Roy could almost convince himself that he had imagined it all, but he had seen it for his own eyes. A moment was enough. He knew that, as long as he lived, he would not forget what he had seen.

‘Why didn’t you go back to Risembool after you retrieved Al’s body?’ It felt odd to voice the question that had plagued him for so long, and the reply he got was just another clumsy evasion.

‘I thought I was dismissed,’ Ed muttered darkly, his defensive anger flaring. He knew that Roy had seen the expression on his face, and the scowl on his brow made it clear that this was not a topic open for discussion.

‘You don’t seem to be in any hurry to leave my office.’ Clasping his hands behind his back he continued his false scrutiny of the vista beyond the window, never taking his eyes from Ed’s reflection.

Eventually Ed took a deep breath, letting his shoulders rise and fall in an indifferent shrug. ‘I didn’t think I would be let off the leash.’

It was a lie, and they both knew it. Still, when Roy glanced over his shoulder Ed only tilted his chin defiantly as though daring him to comment.

‘No one’s keeping you here, Fullmetal. The military can be – persuaded - to part with your expertise if that is what you truly wanted.’

Something flickered in Ed’s eyes, and Roy felt a tightness clench his chest painfully. He had foolishly been hoping for some kind of explanation, but now he wondered if he had just talked Ed into leaving Central for good. His breathing had stuttered to a halt, trapped in the cage of his torso as he waited for the reply.

‘I don’t think you could manage without me. You take so much looking after.’ Ed’s voice was gentle, with the faintest trace of daring playfulness. ‘I’ll keep working on the grave robbers and let you know when I have something more.’

Roy watched him go, speechless. He was used to Ed’s moods swinging from one extreme to the other, but he had never experienced that particular tone in the young man’s voice before.

Only the crackle of the fire disturbed the silence that fell in Ed’s wake, and Roy half-turned to examine the comforting presence of the flame. Its flickering light abruptly reminded him of the blood on Ed’s hand, and his heart sank like a stone. Roy let his shoulders slump, leaning against the glass as he stared unseeingly into the rain, feeling the familiar creep of worry insinuate itself back into his soul.

More and more Ed was coming back from missions with scars or injuries. He was no longer a boy who needed protection. He was a young man who had found his strength and his way in the world. At first glance people assumed he no longer required their help, but nothing was further from the truth.

With a sigh, Roy bowed his head, trying to think like a commanding officer. If it were Havoc or Fury coughing up blood then he would have instructed them to seek medical attention. He would have removed them from duty without hesitation and thought nothing more of it but a vague concern.

Ed was different.

As much as he hated to admit it, Roy knew that he had stopped thinking of Ed as a subordinate a long time ago. He had watched an attractive boy become a handsome man, and somewhere along the way the strict lines of protocol had faded. Annoyance had become respect, and the warm creep of attraction had worked its way gradually into Roy's life. Of course, he knew his feelings would not be returned. How could they be? The antagonism between Flame and Fullmetal was legendary. For that heated intolerance to change into something opposite was unthinkable.

So, he found himself doing what he did best. Keeping his distance. He made sure to remind himself of the difference in rank, age and situation at every opportunity, but that did not change the fact that lust was clouding his judgement. Just because he thought that the attraction he felt to Ed was not mutual, it did not stop him worrying about the younger man, or wondering what would happen if, one day, Ed did not return from a mission.

Closing his eyes, Roy swore, feeling his heart wrench at the thought and hating himself for his weakness. The whole situation was tying him in knots, and there was no one to help him untangle the mess of his thoughts. 'Damnit, Hughes,' he whispered desperately, 'I need you.'

He tried to imagine his dead friend's words, but the memories were treacherous: faded images in the hollow vault of his mind. He could not recall the timbre of Maes' voice, or the exact colour of his eyes. After all this time not even the photographs could bring those recollections back to him.

Whirling away from the window he clicked his fingers, smothering the fire in one smooth gesture. Quickly, he forced his mind away from its morose thoughts as he grabbed his coat and shrugged it on. He wore his gloves but, as Hawkeye had pointed out, his alchemy was useless in the rain. Despite himself Roy felt a smirk twist his lips. He had other ways to defend himself. Helplessness was not his style.

With one last, grim glance at the paperwork on his desk he opened the door and stepped out of his office. Only Hawkeye and Black Hayate remained. The blonde woman was spreading towels out to dry and straightening the unceasing stacks of paper that seemed to materialise on her desk. She looked up at him with a sad smile and reached for the telephone.

'Shall I call your car, sir?'

'No, I think I'll walk.'

Riza glanced out of the window and raised an eyebrow in question before nodding her understanding. There was a moment or two of companionable silence as she flicked off the last of the lights and held the door open for him. Black Hayate trotted obediently behind them as Hawkeye yanked her smart coat over her jacket and did up the buttons.

Belatedly, he realised that if he walked then so would Hawkeye. 'Why don't you take the car?' he asked. 'You don't have to get drenched on my account.'

'Black Hayate needs the exercise.'

Looking over his shoulder at the lean, well-kept dog he wondered about calling the woman out on her weak reason, but decided against it. If she was insisting on walking, then that probably meant she had something to say.

'I'll walk you home.' Roy's words brooked no argument, and he waited for her to give a resigned nod. It had become habit for one of the men in the office to see her safely to her door. They all knew how tough Hawkeye was, but still, the idea of her alone in the dark did not rest comfortably with any of them. If she noticed their protectiveness then she ignored it. It was probably that or put a bullet in them, and that did not encourage good teamwork.

Her movements were aggravated, and a barely restrained sigh caught his attention. He had not worked at Riza's side for so long without gaining some understanding of the nuances of her nature. In the same way that she knew what a certain smile or quirk of his eyebrows meant, he could tell the difference between real anger and a bluff. He could also tell when something was preying on her mind.

Now was one of those times. It was easy to see it in the wrinkle of her brow and the faint lines that bracketed her mouth. With a start he realised that she was reading his facial expression with equal ease, and she voiced the thought on both their minds.

'Something is wrong with Ed, sir.' It was delivered in military fashion, and Roy knew that she would cite at least a dozen instances as proof if he asked for them. Hawkeye never drew a hasty conclusion.

'I know. He was coughing blood in my office.'

The alarm on her face was genuine, and Roy felt a prickle of discomfort as her confidence seemed to falter. 'Al told me that something was wrong, but he couldn't tell me what. He just knows.'

He nodded, expecting nothing less. Whatever Ed thought there was no way that Al could be kept completely in the dark. Years of being in each other's constant company had given them an potent bond. Both Elrics were incredibly protective, and both would put the other's safety before their own in a heartbeat.

'It's instinct. Ed's the same; even when he's distracted he always seems to know what's happening with Al.' Roy listened to their twin footsteps echo along the corridor and trot down the stairs before he spoke again. 'Fullmetal will keep going until his body demands its rest.'

'That could kill him, sir,' Riza pointed out, her tone belying her weak opinion of his assessment. 'You know what he is like, and he won't stop until his body forces him to.'

'I'm not saying that we should ignore him,' Roy responded, 'but he's not going to accept our help willingly.'

'He needs rest.' Hawkeye's hand drifted automatically to the weapon under her coat, as though she were considering forcing the young alchemist to recuperate at gunpoint. Roy would never say it to her face, but sometimes there was something distinctly motherly about his only female aide.

'He's stubborn, Lieutenant. Have you ever tried to get Edward into bed? He's very resistant.' Belatedly Roy realised what that had sounded like, and a cool glance at Riza confirmed that her lips were twitching with smothered laughter.

'Can't say I have, sir. Blondes aren't my type.' Her voice was lilted with mirth, and he knew if it weren't for her professionalism she would be chuckling openly.

'I didn't mean it like that,' he said with all the dignity he could muster.

Hawkeye held her silence for a moment before controlling herself and stepping out of the dry hallway and into the rain. 'Permission to speak freely, sir?'

'Of course.' Roy felt a thrill of trepidation. Hawkeye rarely asked permission to speak her mind, and he got the feeling that he would not like what he was about to hear.

'I have seen the way you look at Ed sometimes, sir. I think you did mean it that way, at least to some extent.'

The darkness hid the faint flush on his face, and he cleared his throat awkwardly. Was she as discomfited as he was? She did not appear to have lost her cool, and he could feel her swift, penetrating glances as he tried to think of a response.

'He looks at you in the same way.'

Her words were like pebbles dropped in a calm pool. They broke his smooth exterior with their ripples, and he found his normally stable emotions thrown into disarray.

Roy stopped, turning to take a good look at Riza's earnest expression. She was too close a friend to deliberately lie to him, but she had to be mistaken. 'I think you've confused anger with something else,' he mumbled.

'If I did that, sir, then I'll hand in my gun.' The certainty in her voice was edged with soft sincerity, and she idly reached out to brush some lint off of his lapel.

'You know, most officers would report their superior if they had suspicions of an indecent relationship like the one you're suggesting... .'

Hawkeye gave him a disbelieving look. 'Indecent?' she asked. 'I'm sorry, sir, but if it makes you happy then how can it be indecent?' She sighed, blinking through the rain and crossing her arms. Her lips twitched into a faint smile and she murmured, 'You thought I didn't know.'

Roy swallowed tightly. He hadn't thought anyone had realised his preferences except Hughes. The green-eyed man had pried the truth from him with the help of a large bottle of whisky. Even then he had expected censure from the unshakable Maes. Instead there had been nothing but warm understanding and silent support. Now the same feeling was coming off of Hawkeye. Her chin was tilted as though daring him to deny it, and eventually he nodded once. It was the only admission she would get from him, but it seemed enough.

'You're not upset?' he asked, wincing when she gave him a sharp look. It spoke volumes and somehow implied that he was being unbelievably stupid. She did not reply with anything but a smile and shake of her head before she set off with Black Hayate at her heel, intent on getting out of the rain.

After a moment, Roy trotted after her. 'What gave me away?' he asked curiously when he was again matching her stride.

'You mean other than the longing looks?' Hawkeye shrugged and turned to check that her dog was still following her. 'Overcompensating. That miniskirt speech might have earned you Havoc's eternal gratitude, but it was pretty transparent.'

'Do the others...?'

'Perhaps, but if they know then they've kept their suspicions to themselves.' With a tight sigh she squared her shoulders against the cold. 'The only reason I mentioned it, sir, is because you're wrong. Out of all of us you're probably the only one who can tell Ed what to do. He might complain but he does obey your orders. Perhaps not to the letter, but the end result is the same.'

They walked in thoughtful silence until they reached Hawkeye's front door. She fumbled for a moment with the lock before nudging her way inside. She gestured for Roy to follow but he shook his head, huddling in the lee of the building as she tempted Black Hayate through the door. The rain had lessened slightly, but Roy still cringed as cold water trickled into his collar.

'I sent out a cleanup team,' she said absently. 'They should be done in an hour or so.'

His silence must have alerted her to the problem because she looked up sharply, her warm brown eyes narrowing suspiciously. 'Ed didn't tell you, did he?'

'No.' Roy clenched his jaw. It was probably deliberate on Ed's part. His reports always tended to gloss over the death toll and the damage estimations. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know, but the question slipped out. 'What was the team for?'

'A dead body in the alleys near The Grindle.' Hawkeye frowned thoughtfully. 'Actually it was Al that told me. Perhaps Ed just forgot.'

'The Grindle?' His voice roughened with a growl, and he scrubbed a hand over his tired face. 'What the hell was he doing in that part of town? He's lucky to be alive.' The thought of the impetuous Edward marching into the dark heart of those narrow streets was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. 'At least Al was with him.'

Hawkeye bit her lip before confessing, 'Actually I think he was alone. They split up to cover more ground.'

Roy felt the beginning of a headache cloud under his brow, and he wished he could track down the blonde alchemist to throttle some sense into him. 'I'll talk to him about it tomorrow. I'm beginning to think that we should give him a permanent, mandatory escort. Think Armstrong's up to the job?'

It was only a half-joke, but Hawkeye smiled and shook her head ruefully. 'Goodnight, sir.'

'Goodnight, Lieutenant. See you in the morning.'

Throwing her a quick wave, Roy turned and set off towards his own home, knowing that Riza would watch until he was out of sight. At one point her concern for his well being had made him uncomfortable, but he had soon learned that he was not particularly favoured in that regard. She watched them all as they left, making sure they were safely away into the night before closing her door.

Sighing, he wondered what things could have been like. She was a good officer and perfectly attractive. He knew for a fact that there were many men in Central Command that viewed her with more than just military business in mind. Yet while he could see, in a detached way, that she was beautiful, he valued her friendship too much to ruin it with what could never be more than a casual fling.

With a faint smile he shook his head, turning onto the main street and covering the short distance to his house at a brisk walk. It seemed whatever attraction had once lit Riza's eyes had long since faded. She knew the truth, and there had been no judgement from her – only hope and the faintest trace of disappointment.

Trotting up the steps to his front door, he twisted the lock and slipped inside. The hall was dark and cool, and he quickly turned the lights on and checked the doors and windows. Higher officers in the military were always targets, and he refused to lose his life because he had been too tired or careless to look out for himself.

The day had been long, and the puzzle of the grave robbers combined with his concern over Ed had taking its toll. Exhaustion pulled at his muscles, and he rubbed a finger absently over the scar beside his eye. It was faint, but present. Archer's shot had gone wide; an inch to the right and Roy knew he would have at least lost an eye, if not his life.

He still remembered waking up on the doorstep of the Fuhrer's house and seeing Hawkeye's panicked face. The wound had bled like a pig, but it looked far worse than it was. She thought she had failed him and kept apologising again and again. It was her bullet that had killed Archer, and her accuracy that had denied the maniac a second chance to fire.

The aftermath of that day had been a nightmare, and because of his involvement he was deemed unsuitable for promotion. Instead it was Hakuro who had assumed military command. He snorted to himself. The man's incompetence was only exceeded by his self-importance. Tensions were running high, simmering near boiling point for the past two years. Unless something changed, it wouldn't be much longer before the whole mess went up in flames and they had another war on their hands.

Roy had been doing everything in his power to limit Hakuro's blunders, but there was only so much he could do. The whole of Central Command was waiting with bated breath, trying to keep the city under control while the rest of Amestris fell to pieces.

In the flurry on inauguration and investigations there had been barely a smile among Roy's staff. Lack of evidence meant they were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the fear remained. Everyday they were constantly reminded of who was missing from their ranks. The absence of the short blonde boy and the looming armour was like a wound that would not heal.

Some had an unshakeable faith that the two would succeed. Fuery, for all his kind nature, would snap at anyone who suggested they might not make it back. There had been a time when all Roy could do was dwell on his doubts and wonder if they would ever know what had become of the two boys.

It had been weeks later that the phone had rung; it was just another call on a busy day. He could remember Hawkeye telling him who it was, and the whoops of relief from his men. He had been torn between cursing Edward for not reporting sooner, and thanking whatever power might be listening that the two of them were all right.

Steady, musical notes rang out through the house, breaking into his memories, and Roy looked up at the clock. It was striking midnight, turning one day into the next. He hesitated by the drinks cabinet, knowing that a glass of whisky would settle his nerves and numb his mind, but no, he would not. One drink became two, once a week became every night and before he knew it he would be addicted. He never wanted to be reliant on anyone or anything but himself. Even those he chose to take to his bed had never become an essential in his life; it simply was not possible.

Hawkeye's careful words had struck a chord, and he wondered if it would be possible to keep Ed from becoming something he could not live without. Something told him that a relationship with Fullmetal would be neither superficial nor temporary. That alone was enough to cause concern. Maes would have laughed and told him that, wife or partner, it did not matter. Whoever had the ability to make Roy even think about commitment was worth hanging onto.

Forcefully, Roy turned towards the bedroom, climbing the stairs and scowling at the carpet. There was nothing to be committed to, except perhaps an asylum. He had to be crazy to be thinking of this. Whatever Riza said, Ed was not about to share his life with Roy. Lust was one thing, but love?

‘I don’t think you could manage without me. You take so much looking after.’

The words rang out clearly in his mind, and Roy felt his heart lift again. If it hadn’t been a joke, and if Ed had been telling the truth, then did he really mean that the way it had sounded?

Did it really mean that Ed had stayed in Central for him?

He had stopped by the bedroom door, his mind a complete whirl of disorder as logic, doubt and emotion waged war against one another. He wanted to believe that assumption. He wanted to believe that there was some potential between himself and Ed, but his realistic nature would not allow him more than the faintest trace of hope.

The shrill ring of the telephone cut through the quiet, making him jump at the unexpected sound. Exhaustion burned away under a rush of adrenaline, and he dashed down the stairs towards the phone. Private numbers were only used in a true emergency or the outbreak of a war. Whatever the caller had to say it would not be good news. In a flash he had snapped the receiver from its cradle and pressed it to his ear.

'Yes?'

'Brigadier-General Mustang?' The voice on the other end of the line was soft and tired, as though its owner had been disturbed from sleep not long ago.

'Yes?' Possibilities ran through Roy's mind, but he already knew in his heart what the call was about.

'This is Doctor Collins at Central Command infirmary. I have to inform you that an officer under your command collapsed tonight. Edward Elric.'

Sweat prickled along Roy's brow and he licked his lips, trying to calm his thoughts into a logical, cohesive formation. The doctors would not inform a commanding officer of health issues unless it was serious. 'What's his status?' he bit out, feeling the blood drain from his face when the doctor sighed heavily: a hissy crackle on the line.

'Unstable and deteriorating. I suggest you hurry, sir.'

The line went dead with a click, leaving Roy staring vacantly into space. His stomach writhed with anxiety and his throat was parched. There was no self-deception, and his mind leapt back to the blood that had stained Edward's palm. Crimson and vivid, it had been a sign he had ignored, an unmistakable warning that he had not wanted to heed.

His heart thudded painfully as he yanked the door open and dodged out into the rain, silently repeating an endless mantra in his head,

Please don't let it be too late.

Chapter Text

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

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

‘Alphonse.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Was there blood?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Very well.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just did not work that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just ask.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘You haven't told him, have you?'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Roy?'

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

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

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

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

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

'Let me up.'

'What? No.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'It's too late for that.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to keep his distance.

Chapter Text

Gritty eyes blinked at the ceiling, seeing nothing of the plain white paint as he struggled to master the pain. The day had slipped away, a march of agonising hours, and now evening had wrapped the world in its shadow.

Ed's fingernails dug into his palm, minor hurts in a world filled to the horizon with agony. Every breath made his chest feel as though it were full of barbed wire, cutting and cleaving into his flesh. More than once he had regretted his impulsive refusal of the medication that could have brought peaceful oblivion, but that was not what he was looking for. He was not about to settle for a easy cruise into death.

The gate had done this to him. His faith in that was unshakable, as though the portal itself had told him such. The thought of it made him seethe. It was unfair, and he couldn't believe he had fallen for it. All this time he had been trying to deny it and trying to convince himself that, for once, he had come off better from an encounter with the gate. Instead it had played tricks on him.

Al insisted that it was an object, not a creature. If that were true, then it would not be possible for it to cheat or show any cunning. Yet Ed remembered the words that had echoed in his mind, and the deep, dark intelligence beyond those doors. It was cold, bitter and malicious. Worst of all, he felt that he was being toyed with. It was as though he were fated to return to its threshold time and again, where he would challenge it and somehow lose more than he realised.

Grimacing, he propped himself up on his elbows, letting his muscles acclimatise to the strain of his weight. Even now, brought so low so suddenly, he knew one fact for certain: if this was what it had truly cost to get Al's body back then it was worth it. He doubted that there was any price too great for that. However, just because he was willing to pay it did not make it a balanced trade.

It sickened him to know that so much of his life had been moulded by the dictates of equivalent exchange, but the gate, the guardian of that fundamental scripture, failed to follow it. How many times had they been punished, and how much had they lost? Well, he was not going to settle for it this time. There was no way that he would simply lie down and accept the fate in store. A weak smile crossed his lips as he realised that he had never been one to accept the cards he was dealt. When things did not go his way he changed them, and damn anyone or anything that tried to get in his way.

Slowly Ed managed to sit up fully, wincing as nausea sunk into his stomach and the room swam. Gradually the sickness faded, and he was left with a dull ache in his chest that had nothing to do with what was happening to his body. Al had been desperate, pleading with him not to face the gate again. He spoke with the voice of common sense, the calm logic to Ed's furious emotion, but it made no difference to his ultimate decision. He knew that if he failed then there was more at stake than his own life. He and his brother might be as different as passive night and torrid day, but the bond they shared was unbreakable. If Ed did not return, then he suspected that Al would waste away trying to find the means to retrieve him.

'That's why I can't fail.'

His whispered declaration echoed in the room, absorbed by the dusk. It was a strong promise and, although there was only the sparse furniture to bear witness, Ed knew that it was one that he would not break. He had been through too much to be stopped by this. He would face what was happening to him, and he would find a way to get what was his returned. He wanted his life back, all of it, and he was not about to settle for anything less. Damn equivalent exchange and damn the gate of truth. He would find a way to take it by force if he had to.

It had taken every ounce of cajoling to get Al to leave with the nurses. His younger brother was in desperate need of sleep but had refused to leave Ed's side. Only when he had secured Edward's promise that he would not seek out the gate tonight did he finally relent. Now he was probably resting in a spare bed not far away, and Ed suspected that he did not have too long before Al returned.

Delicately he swung his feet over the side of the mattress, letting his shaking legs take his weight. Clinging to the wall he stumbled towards the chair and grabbed his clothes. They had dried out at some point, and the black t-shirt and leather pants were reassuringly familiar when he put them on. His coat had been left covering a body in an alleyway, and he sighed at its absence. The crimson fall had become a trademark for him. He'd transmuted it and repaired it as he had gained height and breadth, and now he felt naked without it.

Glancing around the room, Ed grabbed the discharge forms. He had signed them as soon as the doctor had left, knowing that the old man held little hope of him taking the rest that he had recommended. Ed had become a master at pushing discomfort aside and deeming it irrelevant. Now he was doing the same thing, and although the sensations that raked his body were persistent they could be ignored. They had to be.

He remembered the feeling of a warm hand brushing his face. That touch had taken the pain away, if only for a moment. He could recall hearing someone demanding that a nurse was found, and he had vaguely recognised the “no arguments” tone that Roy often employed. A tight grip on his hand had been an anchor to reality, and he recalled concentrating on the feel of hot, dry skin in his palm until he had finally been able to drag his eyes open.

Mustang had looked at him with such relief that Ed had wondered if he was still dreaming. There was no smugness or condescension in his expression. Instead his bloodshot eyes had closed in a silent prayer of thanks, and his fingers had slackened their grip a touch. Edward frowned in thought at the memory. Roy's presence had made him feel warm and safe. It had been as though nothing mattered because he was there, and he would put everything right again. It was an illusion, of course. Even Mustang wasn't that powerful, but for the first time in ages Ed had felt as if he really mattered to someone other than Al.

Then he had just walked away. The doctor had asked to speak to Ed alone and Roy had not returned. Glancing at the doorway Ed wondered why his chest felt so strange. A heavy flutter stirred under his ribcage and he scowled as he realised it felt like deep disappointment. That couldn't be right! It did not matter to him whether Roy stayed or went, or where the man was now. This strange sensation had to be something else, like a mild heart attack or something.

'Bastard,' he grouched, knowing that he missed Mustang's presence despite his arguments. The man gave him strength and confidence, although he'd never tell him that. 'He's not hard on the eyes, either,' Ed muttered to himself, feeling the phantom memory of Roy's tender touch on his cheek. With a grunt Ed swiped the feeling away, letting a dark scowl cross his brow as he straightening the sheets on the bed automatically.

He was just picking up his pocket watch when a stack of parchments by the bed caught his eye. Scieszka's neat handwriting was instantly recognisable, and he grabbed the top page and read it through. She had written everything she could find about the history of the five graves robbed, and even summarised her conclusions. Her organisational talents were unparalleled, and Ed wondered if she ever did anything except read. It was impossible to imagine her drinking at a bar or taking a walk.

Skimming quickly through the documents, he rubbed his hand over his eyes, wondering how he could be so tired when he had slept for so long. It was tempting to get back into bed and simply rest, but he forced himself away from the tempting cradle of the mattress. He got the distinct feeling that if he lay down he would never get up again.

The reports were fairly simple but did not reveal a great deal. The occupants of the graves had been different genders, ages and rank. They had come from different backgrounds, and there was three years between the first death and the last. At first it looked as though they were random events, and it was only Scieszka’s last sentence that provided any link between them.

Each occupant of the graves had been murdered.

'What the hell?' Ed mumbled to himself, tapping his foot on the floor as he read through it again. Not even the murderers were the same. The only commonality was the simple fact that they had all been slain by someone else's hand, and not on the front-line of a battlefield. Wearily he shook the thoughts away, pocketing the reports and moving towards the door. He'd hand the findings back to Mustang in the morning. Right now he had more important things to do.

Feeling more like a criminal than an invalid, Ed eased open one of the double doors to his room and peered into the corridor beyond. The fluorescent lights cast the place into stark relief, offering no shadows in which he could skulk. He was going to have to make a break for it and hope that no one questioned him. Of course he knew the hospital was not a prison, but he would rather just leave than have to bear a lecture from the medical staff.

He walked as quickly as he could, trying not to limp as the ports around his limbs seethed. The metal weight of his automail was pulling hard on his weakened body, and he clutched his arm to his chest to ease the fire in his shoulder. Dismissively he tossed the forms onto the nurse's empty workstation, not breaking stride as he left the infirmary and came out in the main corridors of Central Command.

Despite the hour, the passageways were still busy with personnel. Twice Ed had to double back to avoid a familiar face, and he realised with growing irritation that it would not take long for word to reach Mustang about his departure. If he was not careful then he would be collared and hauled to the office without even getting out to the fresh air.

Slipping in and out among the bustle he tried to remain inconspicuous. People here were used to his presence, and no one looked twice at his bare automail arm or the scar on his forehead. Still, if asked he knew they would all be able to remember seeing him.

Biting his lip nervously, he muffled a curse as Falman stepped out of an office up ahead. Thankfully the tall man did not walk his way, and Ed quickly took the next available right. After what felt like hours of navigating his way through the twisting corridors of the command building he slipped out of a side door, closing it and leaning back against its solid bulk as he slumped in relief.

His body was keening with agony, and a feverish sweat prickled his brow and upper lip. Ed wished he had the luxury of taking the doctor's orders and staying in bed. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he did not have time. The physician had said that, if he was lucky, there was a month of life left in him. At worst he could be dead by dawn.

Taking in a great lungful of air Ed held his breath, forcing himself not to cough as his chest twitched and burned. He might be ill, but whatever this condition was he was not its slave. If he had control over it then he could carry on, at least for now.

The cool evening smelled of rain, and the parade ground was still dappled with puddles. Stiffly at first he began to walk, skirting the pools of light cast by the street lamps. Darkness had taken the city, seeping through the streets in the wake of the day. Easily he picked his way across the square, following his familiar path towards the library a few blocks away. He had to find out all he could about the gate. Somewhere there would be an explanation of the way it worked, and why it took far more than it gave in return. He and Al had conducted endless research, but it had all been focussed on the belief that the gate abided by equivalent exchange. They had never concentrated on the portal itself.

Out from under the curious gaze of security, Ed let some of the tension fade from his frame. It felt better to be doing something. The torment that clutched at his body eased its grip when his mind was occupied with another goal. Perhaps practice at ignoring the pain had paid off. The urge to cough faded to an irritating tickle, and the burden of his body gradually seemed to lift.

Looking absently to his left, Ed frowned, seeing the melancholy testimony of the cemetery. The robbed graves had been filled in, but they were still muddy scars on the green of the grass. At least if his confrontation with the gate failed then he would not be buried. It would take him all: mind, body and spirit. Somehow that very act seemed preferable to his organic remains being left under the ground to rot.

A flicker of light in the distance made him stop. There were no guards in the cemetery, and it was too late for any kind of ceremony. A halo of yellow surrounded a lamp which swayed gently, as though held in an unsteady hand. The darkness of the graveyard was too dense to make anything out other than vague outlines, but it did seem suspicious.

Narrowing his eyes curiously, he weighed his options. He could continue onto the library, or he could investigate the unexpected presence amidst the tombs. With an irritated sigh he shook his head and began to walk away. It was not his concern any more. Someone else could deal with the grave robberies. His own life was at risk, and he was not about to be distracted by one unsolved mystery.

An image of Hughes flashed in his mind, green eyes bright with laughter and dark hair falling across his forehead. Ed's stomach lurched at the memory of the man who had always been there to help him. It was enough to sway his decision. His life may be long gone, but Gracia and Elysia both deserved some kind of closure about what had happened at the graves. So did he, for that matter. The library would still be there in an hour. It would not take long. It was probably a grieving relative sobbing at the graveside of a loved one. As soon as he knew for sure then Ed would be on his way.

He pushed the gate open, grateful that the oiled hinges gave away nothing of his presence. Instinctively he shifted his balance onto the balls of his feet and crept along in a half crouch: a faint shadow flitting through the darkness. If whoever was robbing graves was collecting the bodies of murder victims, then the military cemetery offered a good supply. The five that had already been taken certainly weren't the only ones. Amestris had its fair share of coups and assassinations; they all carried a death toll.

Besides, there was more to this than petty theft. Ed did not like to let a mystery go unsolved. Mustang had given him this assignment personally. It was not officially in their jurisdiction, and it was plainly obvious that working on this was a favour to everyone in the office. If he died without discovering the truth, then perhaps they would never know what had become of Hughes's grave.

A grim smile of frail humour crossed Ed's lips. Wasn't there some superstition about people with unfinished business coming back as ghosts? The idea did hold some appeal. He could annoy Fuery by hiding all the pens in the office, and drive Hawkeye to insanity by re-organising the filing. Another thought crossed his mind, turning the smile into a smirk. He could spy on a certain Brigadier-General in the shower....

A twig snapped beneath his boots, gunshot loud in his ears as it echoed off of the gravestones. He froze, every muscle locked tight as the blood in his veins turned to ice. He expected a shout, or for the gloom-shrouded figures ahead of him to run, but they seemed not to hear. Ed silently berated himself for letting his mind wander. It would serve him right if he was caught.

With great care he forced himself to focus, blocking out everything except the people in his vision. He ignored the sensation of the cool wind dragging fingers over his cheek and the chill bite of his automail. The moonlight was obscured by tattered cloud, creating a scattered pearly light across the tombstones. It was ethereal and quiet. It would have been beautiful if it weren't so damn spooky.

Someone up ahead swore bitterly, and Ed discarded the idea of a grieving relative. It was a curse of frustration, not sadness. He pressed his bare hand to the bark of the yew tree, letting its broad shape conceal him as he peered around, analysing the situation.

Two men were already in the grave up to their chests, and one hovered at its lip. The lantern light flickered on his face, and Ed recognised the thug from the alley. His face was terse, and he kept looking around as though expecting the vengeful dead to leap out at him and strike him down for his crimes. The wind moaned in the branches above Ed's head; he shivered at the same time that the man gave a whimper of fright. The two in the grave also looked around, one drawing a cross over his torso as though to ward off evil spirits. Each wore a gold ring on their middle finger, but Edward doubted that one of them was the leader of Vivus Nix. They were nothing but toughs following orders. They were expendable, and Ed would bet a month's wages that they knew it.

There was a hollow thud as one of the shovels hit the lid of the coffin, and one of them mumbled something to the guy with the eye patch. As Ed watched he trotted off, and an engine rumbled into life. It came from beyond the cemetery fence. Ed raised an eyebrow as the two men liberated the casket from its mud-filled resting place and lifted it onto their shoulders.

'Watch it,' one of them grunted, 'it's rotting through. Last thing we want is corpse slime all over the place.'

His partner shuddered, visibly nauseated as they slowly ambled away, leaving the yawning mouth of the sepulchre behind them. Ed waited until they were almost out of sight before abandoning his hiding place and creeping forward. They moved awkwardly, staggering from side to side under the weight of the coffin as they made their way towards one of the smaller gates in the fence. Its hinges squealed loudly as they eased through, and they left it hanging open as they departed.

Ducking behind one of the shrubs that lined the edge of the graveyard, Ed peered through its branches and swore in surprise. The coffin had been loaded into the back of a hearse. Flowers covered its lid and sides, hiding the disintegrating wood from any passers by. All of the grave robbers wore black, and one drew out a battered top hat and perched it rakishly on his head. No one would look too closely at a hearse, even one driving at night. It would slip through the streets unnoticed, and they could keep coming back again and again. Even in a military graveyard it did not look out of place.

Slowly the vehicle set off, using the sombre, creeping speed of funereal cars everywhere. Quickly, Edward turned up his collar and shoved his hands in his pockets. He let his body relax into a comfortable slouch as he darted through the gate. Strolling along the pavement he made sure to stay well back from the car, occasionally turning down side streets and rejoining the main road later on. All the while the men remained oblivious, just as he had hoped.

One smoked a cigarette out of the half-open window, filling the air with sweet tobacco smoke. Ed watched as they pulled to a stop outside a dilapidated building. Its brickwork was crumbling, and the high windows were pocked with cracks and holes. Over the door in peeling paint was written “Peevey's Funeral Directors”. It looked like they had been out of business for some time, but the half-rotten double doors opened silently to admit the hearse, which vanished into the shadows.

Whether it was still running or not, the business was the perfect front for dealing in grave goods. Whoever was behind this had thought it out with care. It was obviously not an amateur operation. Ed watched the warehouse from the other side of the street, trying to make up his mind what to do next. He could report to Mustang and let an investigation squad clear things up, but it was only his word on what he had seen. He had no proof that this was the headquarters of the grave robbers. For all he knew they were transferring the casket to another vehicle and moving on. He had to confirm that this was their base. Once he knew that then he could hand it off with confidence and let someone else deal with the problem.

Jogging across the road he skirted the periphery of the building, looking for another way in. Whoever owned this place kept the grounds clean. There was nothing he could pile up to reach the high windows, and all the back doors were securely locked and in good condition. With a quick glance over his shoulder Ed quietly clapped his hands together and pressed them to the wall, smirking as a set of steps formed.

Clambering his way to the top was painful and took him longer than he would have liked, but he got there in the end. As silently as he could, he knocked the jagged teeth of glass out of the frame before pulling himself up. No streetlights shone at his back, letting him slip inside under the cover of darkness. A remaining fragment of glass snagged his palm as he twisted and hung from the windowsill. There was nothing beneath him that he could feel, and Ed swallowed tightly before letting go. He dropped gracefully to the floor, bending his knees to absorb the noise of his uninterrupted fall.

Darkness pressed in from all sides; the weak trickle of moonlight showed him nothing but the most basic of squat shapes, and he reached out his hands blindly. His questing fingertips found damp wood caked in mud, and he realised that they must have stacked the coffins here. Taking a deep breath of the dank air he reached inside one, breathing a sigh of relief when he felt nothing more gruesome than rotting timber.

Something chimed beneath his touch, and he pulled it out of the casket, holding it up to the weak light. A pair of grubby spectacles winked back at him, amazingly intact. He recognised them instantly as Maes'. He had seen the man clean them enough times. It was odd, after all this time, to see something that had belong to him. Without thinking about it, Ed carefully slipped them in his pocket.

The purr of the hearse engine died suddenly, and he realised with a sinking sensation that he was in one of the storerooms. If they emptied their latest haul and brought it in here then he would be found in no time. As quickly as he could he felt his way over to the door, pressing his ear to listen for noises beyond.

'Tonight was the last one. We can finally complete our task.'

The door swung open a crack at Ed's touch, allowing him to peer through and into the warehouse beyond. Once it had probably been full of stone for the grave markers, and chunks of granite and marble were still stacked in haphazard mountains against the walls. The centre had been cleared to expose the concrete floor, and he could make out the curving lines of a massive array. In its centre was a gruesome assortment of remains, and the choking scent of decaying flesh made Ed's eyes water. He tried not to splutter, clamping a hand over his mouth to keep the smell at bay.

One of the grave robbers turned away from the pile, gagging dryly. The other two were pale, but seemed to be keeping their calm as they surveyed their find with a critical eye. 'What should we do?' one of them asked. His back was towards Ed's hiding place, but his voice was rank with reluctance. Whoever he was he had his suspicions about what was being done, and Edward knew that he would be too distracted to notice anything flitting among the shadows.

He opened the door wide enough to dart through, taking refuge behind a stack of granite slabs and crouching in their skulking shadow. No one cried out for him to stop or charged over to grab him. He had got away with it, for now.

'Just stay here and watch.' A woman sauntered into view, tapping the thug on the end of his nose with an elegant finger and tossing a mocking smile over her shoulder. 'Another hour and it will all be over.'

'And our money?' the one with the eye patch demanded, crossing his arms and looking from the gruesome pile to the youthful face of the woman. She let out a musical peal of laughter, which would have been pleasant if it weren't so patronising.

'You'll get what's coming to you.' It was a purr of a promise, and Ed narrowed his eyes in disbelief. Whatever the men were going to get for their efforts it was not going to be money. They weren't amateurs, and yet they behaved as though they had been wrapped around her little finger. They did not question her authority, despite outnumbering her. She was a petite woman, and her face was devoid of any signs of age. She could have been younger than Ed, or older than Mustang. There was simply no way to tell. Her hair fell in a sleek brown swathe down her back. Thin lips, painted crimson, were twisted into a meaningless smile, and there was a distinctly feral expression on her face.

She gesticulated with her right hand, and Ed noticed that each slender finger was adorned with a gold ring like the one he had found. With a crook of her finger one man was tugged towards her. He did not even struggle as she smiled in satisfaction and beckoned him closer to the bones. The rings had to be powerful to hold anyone captivated like that, yet Ed felt nothing. Perhaps they had to be touching flesh to have an affect.

Suddenly the woman turned, looking directly at his hiding place with cold, grey eyes. Heat flashed in his pocket, burning painfully into his leg. He barely managed to stifle a yelp as she curled her thumb down, increasing the heat ten-fold.

'Since Victor, the owner of that ring in your pocket, is dead and unlikely to return to us, then I assume we have a stranger in our midst.' Her voice was joyful, and Ed felt a bead of sweat trickle down his back as the heat vanished. He could hear the steady tap of her heels on the floor as she approached, and he grimaced as she laughed again. 'Well you're just in time to join us. I'm sure you will be very useful.'

A click of her fingers and the three men moved like puppets on strings, graceless and awkward. 'Why not come out peacefully? It would save us all so much trouble.' Her voice echoed strangely, as though several people spoke through one pair of lips. It made his head ache and set his teeth on edge, but the thugs at her side seemed hypnotised by her words.

There was not much choice, Ed realised. His back was to the wall, and he was hemmed in on all sides by stacks of stone taller than he was. In a few moments they would have him cornered. He could not run, but he sure as hell could fight. A grim smile crossed his lips, and he clapped his palms together before pressing them to the stack. A bolt of alchemy shot through them, sending dust and fragments flying in all directions as the power ripped through the air. The noise shook the building, unsettling more slabs of rock and sending them spilling down to the floor in a gritty cacophony.

The men panicked. One was killed almost instantly, his head caved in by flying stone. The other was pinned by one of the cascades, groaning as he struggled madly to free his shattered legs. Only the one with the eye patch remained unharmed and, when he recognised the state alchemist causing the destruction, he roared in fury.

'You!'

Ed lunged out of the way as the man pulled out a knife, sending it flying through the air with deadly accuracy. It snagged Ed's t-shirt, tearing the fabric across his shoulder and clattering away into the darkness to be lost among the rubble. A quick stab nearly caught him, and Edward ducked aside, stepping back pace for pace as his assailant stalked forward. The man's one eye was wild and barely human. Sweat streaked the grime on his face, and his muscles danced in twitches. Behind him, Ed could see the woman watching, a disgusting expression of glee on her face.

Something silver darted in front of Ed's eyes, and he felt a welt of pain across his cheek. Blood dripped from his chin, smattering onto the floor as he stumbled backwards. His illness was making him weak. He could feel it clouding his mind and draining his strength. Beneath his boot the ground changed, and he looked down to see that both he and the man with the eye patch had entered the array.

Forcing his legs to move he danced out of the way. He could not perform alchemy inside the circle. If he touched the ground then he would probably activate it. Even transmuting his automail could trigger the design, and it was not something that he wanted to risk.

With a feral grin of his own he lunged forward, taking the man off balance and gripping his wrist. His automail fingers crushed mercilessly, and the thug howled in pain as the knife clattered to the floor. A swift kick sent it skidding away towards the circumference of the array. When it reached the boundary a hiss of alchemical energy arced through the air, stopping it dead. Nothing could cross the circle, and Ed swore viciously as the man in his grip struggled against him. They were both trapped.

'Well, well, well,' the woman murmured pressing her finger thoughtfully to her chin as she sauntered into the array. The power parted like silk, brushing along her skin harmlessly as she approached. 'The Fullmetal Alchemist. I'm honoured. Of course, when I stole the remains of Maes Hughes I had hoped to lure Roy Mustang himself here, but I think you're a much greater prize. Besides, any powerful alchemist will work for what I have in mind.'

She crooked her finger again, and the man with the eye patch went slack. His breath rattled in his throat, bubbling viciously as he clawed at his neck. In moments his cheeks were white and his lips a frosty blue. He pitched forward to the floor, dead.

Ed remained silent, letting the tension coil in his muscles as the woman stopped in front of him, raising her hand to brush his cheek. Deliberately he pulled away, his eyes narrowing coldly as she smiled. 'So young! Only just a man and yet here you are, the hero of the people. Your reputation precedes you.'

He was on guard, prepared for her to make any move and give him an excuse to lash out. Close up her eyes looked cold and dead, and he felt his skin crawl as he spoke through gritted teeth. 'Yours doesn't.'

Her lips twisted into a sneer of disgust and she shook her head. 'I'm no state alchemist. They wanted me, of course, but I have other plans.' She bent her three middle fingers down to her palm, and Ed stepped back in disgust as the bodies of the men slid over the floor towards the pile of remains. Vivid trails of blood slashed across the stone, but she paid it no heed as she clasped her hands in front of her and smiled benignly. 'Plans that now include you, Edward.'

Before Ed had a chance to respond something slammed into his back, icy and cold. The agony he had been trying to keep at bay swept back full force, and his spine twisted to try and evade it. Hot, coppery blood filled his mouth, dripping from between his lips as he fell to his knees.

A lithe hand shot out and grabbed his hair, yanking his head upwards and pressing a knife blade to the column of his throat. He struggled, trying to pull himself to his feet and away from her, but the pain was too strong. It twisted between his ribs, writhing like a live thing and locking him in place. Her fingers gently traced the throbbing line of his pulse, and he managed a growl of fury as she pressed her lips to his neck. 'It is a shame to waste you, but it must be done.' She pressed the blade downwards, slicing it into his pulse point and sighing contentedly as his blood began to pour across his skin.

He clutched at the wound, feeling it gush against his palm. He could not see, could barely breathe. Every beat of his heart was killing him, and his mind was darkening as his body lost its fight. He wanted to swear or lash out, but he could do neither. Something grabbed his foot and he twisted to see that he was being pulled towards the centre of the array. His blood mingled with that of the others, filling the scored lines engraved in the floor. Alchemy pushed it onwards, painting the array in gruesome scarlet as the woman took up her place in a smaller, adjoining circle.

'Don't die yet, Fullmetal.' She smiled. 'I need you alive for just a few more minutes.'

The flow from the deep wound in his neck had turned sluggish, and he was oblivious to everything but the single-minded battle to take the next breath.

In the end it seemed that it did not matter which alchemist lay in her web, but Ed's mind lingered on one grateful thought:

Roy was safe in Central Command, and he would never have to know that it could have been him in Ed's place.

Chapter Text

With a hiss, the array beneath Ed's back sparked into life. It crackled with raw strength as energy danced along the lines and ignited the air. Wind rushed around him, cooling the sweat on his skin and clotting the blood that pooled on the floor. Dust and grit scratched his face and coated his lips with grime.

His breath came in pants, accelerated by fear and confusion. He could sense the alchemy at work around him and could feel the keening pull of it on his flesh. There was so much energy that it made him long to reach out and touch it. Common sense warned him that it would hurt but, if it weren't for his wounds, he would have cast the internal caution aside and lost himself in its mesmerising clutches.

Abruptly the gale subsided and the light diminished. Beneath him the ground fell away, leaving him hovering over nothing. The alchemy became a steady pull, tugging him wantonly towards something. Ed's heart sank. He recognised this touch. He could never forget the demanding clutches of the gate.

Opening his eyes he saw that the warehouse was gone. There were no walls at his sides or tiles over his head. He was lying on faint traces of the array, and he could feel the pattern scorching him where he was pressed against its lines. Cautiously he removed his hand from his neck. No blood flowed, although it still stained his fingertips vivid scarlet.

He stared upwards at the featureless sky. Every instinct told him that this was the same strange plane that the gate of truth occupied, but it had changed. The air normally glowed a warm yellow, but now the colour had leached away. Drabs of darkness and shadow stretched as far as he could see, forming a dense fog that clung in soft vapours to his skin and hair. He blinked moisture from his lashes and hesitantly sat up, letting his gaze drift around the undefined horizon.

Only one feature interrupted the vista of nothingness, and Ed swore in disbelief. Not far away stood the gate, its doors hanging from its hinges like the broken wings of a bird. The darkness beyond it was barely contained, sending out questing tendrils in all directions. Massive gouges scarred the wood; cracks ran across the lintel. The huge engraving of an eye had been blinded, almost obliterated by someone's fury. As he watched another rent appeared in the timber, and crumbs of stone fell away from the frame.

On the threshold were the pile of remains. They were still locked within one part of the array, and Ed could see the cluster of sigils around them. The triangular symbols were crossed out by straight, parallel lines. He had seen them once before in an old religious text where alchemy had been assumed to be the power of the gods. They were meant to show sacrifice: an offering of sorts.

With a sinking feeling he realised that the same marks surrounded him, one for each point of the compass.

'You survived.' The woman's voice came from behind him, and he turned to stare into her impassive face. Her gaze was focussed on the doors, and her scarlet lips twisted into a beautiful smile as she closed her eyes and tipped her head back. 'It's finally time.'

'Time for what?'

'Revenge.' Looking at him through half-closed lashes she smirked coyly. 'The gate is a balancing point. It keeps the flow of energy between this world and whatever lies beyond equal. At least, it used to.' She walked forward, not taking her eyes from the portal's commanding presence as a tendril of shadow coiled lovingly around her hand. 'Everything passes through those doors, and the gate learns. It has the knowledge of everything: kindness, love, hatred and fury. Which do you think it has seen more of?'

She did not await his answer, instead cocking her head to one side. 'Emotion is so difficult, don't you think? It pollutes everything. An object becomes infected with hate, passion, jealousy... It sees all the wrongs of humanity and, in turn, becomes more human itself.' She stepped forward, carefully keeping one foot outside of the runes as she whispered in his ear. 'Have you never wondered why there is a bright light surrounded by so much darkness?' Her lips brushed his cheek and her breath whispered across his chin, making him shudder. 'All the good things, the knowledge, the love, the strength, have slowly succumbed. I made sure of it. I strengthened the shadows and drowned everything else.'

'Why?' Ed asked, trying to understand what she was saying.

'Punishment.' Her face became hard and distant, and he saw her fingernails bite into her palm. 'It would not return to me someone I had lost. It had no concept of negotiation, only the rules that its creator instilled in it.' With a flick of her hair she stepped back, squaring her shoulders as she turned away. 'I changed all that. I made sure that whatever passed through was tainted with rage, or grief, or pain. I killed and tortured and sacrificed everyone I could. When that failed I gave it the human remains of those killed in war or destroyed by another's hand.'

She sighed then, and for a moment she looked human and desperate. 'I was trying to break the rules, to cause some kind of overload.' Her laugh was abrupt and mocking. 'Instead I gave it intelligence. I taught it the concept of greed, and I made a deal.'

'A deal? I thought you were getting your revenge?'

'I am destroying the gate that was. I am punishing the light at its heart!' Her voice rose in fury. 'That is the inflexible machine with nothing more than vague sentiment and intelligence.' She waved her hand dismissively. 'At least, it was. I doubt there is anything left of it by now. I made an agreement with the creature it has become. I will set the shadows free from the gate, and it will give me that which I was denied.'

Ed frowned, letting his eyes roam her slim figure as she paced back and forth in front of him. She was distracted with her efforts to validate what she had done, and he found his mind working on two levels. One, more basic and instinctual, was trying to plan his escape. The other was conjuring question after question. One fact would not leave his mind at rest, and he took a deep breath before speaking. 'Had you already started contaminating the gate when Al and I tried to bring back our mother?'

She laughed then, like one would chuckle at a child's naivety. Her eyes danced with mirth as she looked him over. 'My dearest boy, the gate you know is nothing but a ghost of its former self. I'm sure you've questioned its idea of equivalence a thousand times. I mean, look at you!' She gestured to his automail and the scars on his flesh. 'You have a fine body, and yet the gate sought to rob you of it all. Like a cat playing with a mouse!' Another giggle parted her lips. 'I've been destroying this place for centuries, before even your father set foot here. I was the first to master alchemy and challenge the gate.' She looked over her shoulder at the portal, sighing as another slash carved up the wood. 'Before I began my work there was no darkness and no light. There was only silver. I have divided it and pitted each side against the other.' She bit her lip, a flush warming her alabaster cheeks as though she were a schoolgirl with a naughty secret. 'Now I've finally won.'

Ed swallowed as she crossed her arms over her chest so that her palms rested on her shoulders. Slowly, as if she were revelling in the moment, she drew them across her breasts, leaving trails of alchemical power in the wake of her fingertips. Gracefully she bowed low, about to touch her hands to the lines of the array.

'Wait!' He moved forwards, deliberately scuffing rubble across the rune at the northern point of the circle which held him captive. She did not notice. Her eyes were too glazed with the approach of her achievements. 'I've got one last question. Who are you?'

For a second he thought she would not answer. Her expression flickered in confusion as though she could not understand the relevance. Finally she managed, in a very distant voice, to respond. 'They called me Carmine.'

The array flared into life just as Ed lunged for the break he had made in the lines. He had to act now before the other aspects of the design compensated for the minuscule flaw. Heat flashed across his flesh, flaying his skin and making him gasp in pain. His knees gave way and he fell to the ground, pulling his body into a roll and letting his momentum carry him free of his prison of lines.

Wind stirred again, a breathy gasp at first. In moments it was a snaggle-toothed gale that tore at his hair and clothes. He could barely stand up, and the frame of the gate groaned in torment as it began to collapse under the force of the pressure both inside and out. Something moaned: a desperate, sad sound in the heart of the darkness beyond the doors.

A rough, splintering roar filled the air, and the doors were wrested free from their last, tenuous hold. Ed ducked, putting his hands over his head as one flew over him, crashing away into the distance. Massive cracks yawned in the stone of the frame. The simple designs that had once wrought the rock had vanished, and one side was already slumping dangerously.

The moan came again, increasing in volume to a tormented scream as the array flared more brightly, sending arcs of power from one side to the other. Ed had never seen anything like it, and he staggered to his feet as he tried to think of some way to stop what was happening. Desperately he tried to obliterate the design, but it had no effect. The markings that had offered him up as sacrifice had been weak and superficial, but the main array had been carved in over time. It formed deep furrows in the strange surface of the plane and was undisrupted by Ed's attempts to erase it.

An explosion rang out, pushing him back to the ground with the force of its shock wave and deafening him to everything but the tortured wails that were now emanating from the gate. He blinked several times to try and clear his vision. What he saw made his stomach rebel. Tear-filled eyes looked out of the blackness, tortured by a pain they had no voice to explain. He could see the dim shapes of children's bodies being torn apart by the same dark tendrils that they had once controlled. It was just as Carmine had said. The gate was turning against itself, and the darkness seemed bent on destroying everything.

Big brother!

Ed baulked, his body shaking as the familiar voice of Nina Tucker rang out from the abyss: proof that Shou Tucker had never succeeded in returning the soul of his daughter to the doll-like copies he had created. Other voices, familiar and alien, cried out to him. Some called his name while others were undirected pleas for mercy. He had always thought the owners of those eyes were evil; it had always been they who had reached out to claim the price that had been asked, but now they were victims at the mercy of something he did not truly understand.

The screams began to choke and die, and Ed lifted his head to stare at Carmine. Her eyes were vacant and soulless as she looked into the shadows that were slowly freeing themselves from the doorway. Her hair fluttered around her face, and her painted lips were parted around whispered words. Ed tried to make them out over the sound of the wind, but what he heard sounded like a completely foreign language to him.

'Stop it!' he yelled, letting the gale carry his voice. 'Whatever you think it will give you is wrong! If it's lost all idea of balance and equivalent exchange then why would it keep its word to you?'

She faltered for a moment, and he thought he saw a tear carve its way down her cheek. The madness was gone from her face, and in its place was horrified understanding. Carmine could not reply as her lips continued to chant the strange incantation, but her eyes shone with a desperate plea for forgiveness. She could not turn back. Not while there was still hope.

It felt like a punch in the stomach. Not just because he could see that there was some semblance of sanity and regret in her expression, but because he had been in the same place. He knew that desperate and bitter bile of anger. It would have been easy as a child to turn to rage and revenge. Every time he had seen more of the world's sin he had felt more of his innocence die. It left him cold and empty. He had known, even then, that he had to be careful. It would be too easy to let the void left by his mother fill with obsessive revenge.

Retrieving Al's body had given him a quest and saved him from that fate, but it could easily have been different. If he had not been able to bind Al's soul to the armour – if he had lost his brother entirely – then he knew that it could be him who was activating this array and ripping apart the one thing that had robbed him of so much.

The screaming fell silent, leaving nothing but the howl of the tempest. A chill swept over his body at the sudden peace, and he turned to stare at the yawning hole of the portal. There were no eyes in there now. They had all been closed by destruction. The blackness boiled within its confines, and the idle tendrils that had seeped out into the air began to move with new purpose.

Around the remains and corpses the marks of sacrifice began to glow and shift, allowing the dark, serpentine strands access to the bones. They moved like snakes, weaving between ribs and slithering over flesh both rotted and fresh alike. One wormed its way into the pocket of a newly dead sergeant, getting trapped within the confines. Another deftly removed the eye patch of the thug and curled up in the empty socket as though it were a nest.

Abruptly the bones began to snap, and the flesh shrivelled in a gruesome acceleration of the decomposition process. Edward wanted to turn away, but his eyes were glued to the scene. He did not understand. The gate already had the minds and spirits of the dead, so what purpose could the bodies serve? Clothing and skin flaked away into swirling dust. It whirled upwards and fell back down, caught in a private vortex.

Suddenly, dazzlingly, light ignited in the darkness. It was the faintest collection of fragments, like something breaking free from the grim shade of malice. They tore outwards, burning through the air and embedding themselves into the swirling particles where they hovered, jewel bright, at the core of the cloud.

Piece by piece the dust began to aggregate, collecting together in columns of various heights that took on humanoid shapes. Bone and muscle, flesh and cloth solidified from the air. There were six in all, and Ed let his eyes rake along the uniformed rank until they came to rest on Maes Hughes. His broad shoulders were held rigid as though he were on the parade ground, and there was no sign of emotion in his face. He was like a statue with neither breath nor life to give. The others were just the same.

Another flash, more blinding this time, and Ed heard the sudden coughs and gasps for air. The military postures had dissipated entirely, and the men and women were clutching at their chests, their faces flooding with colour and life as they stumbled back from the gate. Ed felt his body tense, automatically seeking the tell-tale mark of the Homunculi. Were these soulless copies of the soldiers who had died?

The newly dead sergeant was the first to dispel Ed's doubts as his hand instantly went to the wound that had taken his life, exploring the mended flesh on his forehead curiously. He remembered being murdered and, as the others began to recognise and respond to the various ranks of those around them, Ed knew that they had not lost anything to the gate. They had more than just snatches of memory; they had total recall. The stars of light had been the core of their being, their spirits. These people were not Homunculi – they were real humans brought back from the dead, but why?

A spear of darkness shot out from the gate, impaling a young Lieutenant through the chest. She cried out in agony, her newly living body trembling as death reached up to seize her once more. Scrabbling futilely at the mist-like barb, she tried to pull herself free as she was hauled inexorably towards the threshold.

Hughes dashed forward, squinting without his spectacles as he tried desperately to break apart the spar that held her in place. Other screams cut through the air, and Ed knew with a sickening certainty what was happening. The darkness in the gate could gain more power by receiving the trinity of body, mind and spirit in one strike. The whole held greater strength than the sum of their parts.

'Spread out! If you huddle together it can get two of us at once!' Maes' voice was strong and firm, the power of his rank easily giving him the confidence he needed to pull the remaining two soldiers from their terrified stupor. He moved with certainty, darting away from a questing rope of shadow as he tried to find a way to escape. His jaw, shadowed with stubble, was clenched tight as he realised the situation was hopeless. The array still held them trapped.

Without thinking Ed clapped his hands together and slapped them down onto the array. The familiar sound made Hughes twist around, and a vivid grin twisted his lips when he saw the alchemist only a short distance away. Ed lifted one shoulder in a faint shrug, hoping that Maes would get the message. He could only do so much: they would have to be ready when the time came to break free.

He could feel the surge and flow of energy beneath his palms and slowly began integrating his own influence on the current. It was slow at first, the faintest disruption to the pattern, but gradually it grew more turbulent. Carmine screamed, her voice catching in her throat as her body twitched like a puppet on a string. Her power and Ed's met in a twisted knot of potency, and Ed felt his arms shake with the strain. Something in his chest cracked painfully, and he choked on blood as another rib broke under the stress. He thought he could feel a sticky trickle working its way down his side and gave a bark of hysterical laughter. He hadn't thought he had anything left to bleed. Was he even still alive?

Pressing his palms harder into the floor, he swore as a negative feedback loop began to develop, effectively short-circuiting the array. The air began to squeal like fingernails down a blackboard, and it shimmered with heat haze. Sweat prickled down Ed's spine as each breath began to burn. He and Al had both activated the same array before and it had never had this kind of reaction, but then they had both had the same goal in mind. Now he was trying to stop Carmine while she was struggling desperately to proceed.

Ear-splitting pops began to sound, and Ed managed a wild grin of triumph as cracks began to cleave the strange ground near the gate. The array was breaking apart, and, with one last blow, the three remaining soldiers broke free and began to sprint towards him.

The gate collapsed, completely wrought apart by the forces that were at work. There was nothing left but two stumps that marked its boundary and a great, wavering hole into nothingness. Like ink the blackness seeped outwards, devouring everything as it spreading in all directions. It was like a cancer, taking root and feeding off of the energy that still coursed through this plane. Unregulated, and with no conduit through which to pass, the power seemed to become dangerous and feral, tempting and passionate.

Ed managed to get to his feet, pulling against the strengthening urge to simply lie down and give up. There was no way that he was becoming fodder for the gate – or whatever it was. He began to walk backwards, letting the three soldiers catch up with him. Two ran past without paying him much attention, but Maes stumbled to an abrupt halt, squinting as he tried to bring him into focus.

'Ed!' That one word was hushed with relief, as though the man truly could not believe his eyes. Wordlessly Edward reached into his pocket and handed the Brigadier-General his spectacles.

'You'll need these.' He pressed them into Hughes' hand, managing a faint smile as Maes grinned at the familiar sound of Ed's voice.

Quickly he shoved the glasses on his nose, looking around in disbelief. 'What is this place? What's going on? Did you do this?'

'I'll answer your questions later,' Ed said bluntly, grabbing Maes by the wrist and setting off after the other soldiers at a painful sprint. 'Right now we have to get out of here!'

Hughes nodded, searching Ed's face as he tried to glean his own answers from the young alchemist's expression before concentrating on the indefinite horizon.

Ed gritted his teeth, letting go of Maes' wrist to clutch at his own ribs. The grinding bones jostled against one another and sawed at his skin. He shouldn't be fleeing. He shouldn't even be breathing. Hughes didn't miss the movement and paled when he noticed the blood trickling over Ed's fingers. 'You're wounded!'

Ed managed a weak grunt of hollow laughter. 'You don't know the half of it.'

Something black shot over Ed's shoulder, and he heard the gory organic sound of flesh being torn. Up ahead the sergeant crumpled to the floor, his breath rattling through a slit throat as dark tendrils gathered him into their embrace. The remaining woman, a captain, according to her rank, was sobbing in horror now. She staggered to a halt, her face buried in her hands as she slumped to her knees.

Slowing down, Ed put his hands on her shoulders, twisting to face her so that he could keep watch on the sea of darkness that followed them. 'Come on, you've got to keep running!'

'But there's no way out,' she managed between sobs, her body trembling with crippling fear. 'We can't run forever!'

A wail of agony raked through the air, and Ed looked up to see Carmine convulsing in the grips of her power. Dark vines of shadow were twisting themselves into a cocoon around her body, pressing themselves into her mouth and nose. Still the desperate sound leaked out, pitching into sobs and mumbled prayers as the creature she had sought to bargain with claimed her for itself.

'It's that or give in,' Ed muttered, realising he was leaving bloody fingerprints on the captain's jacket. She opened her mouth to speak again, but her voice died in her throat as her body twitched. Ed staggered back in shock, automatically shielding Maes with his own frame as the woman slumped. Three tendrils had buried themselves in her back and were slowly beginning to drag her into the heart of darkness.

Ed moved stiffly, herding Hughes back as he tried desperately to think of something that could help them. He knew too well that the gate would not let them go until it was done with them.

'I don't even have my push knives,' Hughes growled quietly, patting his pockets in annoyance. 'What idiot buried me without a weapon?' The man hesitated, pulling out a small square of paper and staring at it: a picture of Elysia.

Despite himself Ed smiled. 'I think someone thought you'd rather have a photo of your daughter.'

Maes swallowed tightly and nodded once. 'They were right, but even I can admit that it's not the most practical object to have at the moment.'

They kept moving backwards, their boots echoing strangely as the wind died. The air became breathless, as though the universe had stopped to watch the inevitable encroachment of the boiling interface on the two helpless men. Ed swallowed tightly, knowing that they were out of options. If the gate, or what was left of it, still controlled who could enter or leave this plane, then he and Maes were stuck.

Squaring his shoulders Ed stopped his retreat, ignoring Hughes' questioning look. As though mimicking his actions the shade stopped its advance, hovering a few feet away. Like silk curtains it parted, black leading to more black as a figure stepped out of its depths. The only colour was the gold rings on her fingers and the scarlet of her lips. Everything else, from her skin to her hair to her eyes, was grey.

She moved stiffly, as though she were unused to inhabiting a human body, and when she spoke Ed realised that the invasion of her being had begun long before this day. It was clear that it was not several people that spoke from Carmine's lips, but millions. Her voice was that of all the murdered, broken, angry souls that had passed into the gate.

'You cannot win,' she said softly, a grey tongue darting out to lick her lips as her gaze stared blankly ahead. It looked like she was reading his soul rather than seeing his face. 'This place will only let you go once my task has been completed.' Cupped in her hands was a tiny fragment of light, the only thing left of the burning heart of the gate. It flickered and waned even as Ed watched, but once again he thought he felt a faint sense of recognition from it.

Her eyes focussed then, and her pale face darkened faintly with thirsty desire. 'All I need is one more life, so who will it be?'

Ed clenched his fists at his sides, his mind whirling as he tried to work out a way where both he and Hughes could get out of this alive. None came to mind. His throat tightened as grief flashed through him. There really wasn't a choice to be made. He had already broken his promise to Al, and now he would not be coming back.

'Maes, get out of here. She'll let you go.'

'What? What the hell are you talking about?' Hughes shook his head fiercely. 'I'm the one who is already dead. If one of us stays behind it should be me.'

Ed looked at the man's face, feeling his heart clench when he saw the fierce protectiveness in his eyes. He had always treated Al and Ed like wayward younger brothers, or perhaps even sons, although he wasn't quite old enough to be their father. He had been murdered by the Homunculi because of their actions; now he was trying to protect them again.

The throb of movement in the hollow of Maes' throat, steady and rhythmic, caught Ed's eye. With a sad smile he shook his head, knowing the Carmine was watching their exchange with hungry interest. 'You've got a pulse, Hughes. You're alive. Once I get back there I'm as good as dead.' He held up his bloody hand in emphasis, indicating the broken ribs that had perforated his chest and the gash in his neck that no longer bled. 'I don't even know if I'm really still alive. It's hard to tell in a place like this.'

He saw Hughes hesitate and took a deep breath, saying the one thing that would sway him. 'Elysia misses you.'

Green eyes flashed with unshed tears, torn between horror and a dreadful gratitude. Slowly Hughes bowed his head, and Ed knew that the man was beaten. It was cruel, in a way, to mention his daughter, but at the same time it was true. Hughes had the chance to return to his family. There was a full life waiting for him back in Amestris. For Ed there was a month at most, and even he had to acknowledge that his injuries had probably reduced that to a matter of minutes.

'Send him back now,' Ed snapped, his words strong and fierce as Carmine tossed back her head. She seemed to hesitate, and Ed knew she had been planning to take them both. 'Do it, or you won't get either of us.'

'You plan to fight?' she asked tartly, her eyes raking over his trembling body. 'You wouldn't last a moment.'

'Let Hughes go back to Central without any tricks, and I'll come quietly.' He smirked, letting his false bravado take control. 'You said you wanted a powerful alchemist.' He spread his arms wide and bowed mockingly. 'I'm all yours.'

Carmine pursed her lips and nodded once. With a flick of her hand the air glowed for a moment, and Ed felt Hughes' warmth leave his side. In the same heartbeat a bolt of darkness shot out from the oily sea at Carmine's back, and he had no time for anything more than a surprised gasp as it cleaved neatly between his ribs.

He had expected it to hurt, but instead there was just an icy chill as if it were slowly drawing the warmth out of him. His breath fogged from between his lips, and his eyes began to lose their focus. Was it his imagination, or was something glowing?

Carmine leapt forward, grabbing his hair and yanking his head back so that she could look into his face. He saw the array on his forehead reflected in her eyes. For the first time since he had retrieved Al's body it was glimmering bright blue. What was the sense in that? The arrays had allowed him to open the gate as part of a human transformation, but he was already here... .

His eyes fell to the spark of light in the woman's left palm. It was flashing and pulsing, gaining some vestige of strength from somewhere. In comparison his own will seemed to ebb away. He thought he was supposed to be feeding the darkness, not the light.

It happened so quickly that neither alchemist had time to react. Like a firework the light shot from Carmine's hand, shattering the dark spar that held Ed in place and surging straight for his chest. Burning heat scorched its way into him, driving away the chill and pushing him backwards. The air around him changed, losing its grey overtones. It felt like he was falling but at the same time staying still. He could see Carmine's face contorted with confusion and rage as, behind her, the darkness leapt.

Then it was gone. He lay in the centre of the array on the warehouse floor looking up at the sky. The tattered clouds had vanished, leaving the night bedecked with the diamonds of the stars. Around him the remains of the walls loomed like half-toppled tombstones. The roof had gone, no doubt blasted apart by the explosion of alchemy that Carmine had wrought on the place.

Pain lanced aggressively through his head, and he managed a feeble groan before he shut his eyes. Running footsteps hurried closer and someone skidded to a halt at his side. Warm fingers checked his pulse, slipping over the smooth skin of his throat and moving down to his ribs. It should have hurt, shouldn't it? There should be wounds... . Ed's mind was fuzzy, and he knew that he was not going to hang onto conciousness much longer. Someone swore in surprise and he managed to open his eyes and look at Hughes.

'It wasn't a dream then?' he croaked, grimacing as his head flashed with unfamiliar images and memories that were not his own.

'No dream.' Hughes sounded stunned, and Ed realised the enormity of what that meant. After all this time Maes had literally come back from the dead. 'It's no dream,' he repeated softly, his lips parting into a grin as he sat back on his heels and chuckled in disbelief. 'I should have known you had something up your sleeve, Ed.'

Ed felt his eyes drift shut, wishing he knew what had happened. He wanted to get up and get back to Central command, but his body would not respond. He knew that there would be questions to answer and things to sort out, but he was too tired. He just needed some sleep. It tugged at his mind, and the harder he resisted the harder it pulled.

Fingers wrapped around his flesh wrist, and he realised that Hughes was keeping a check on his pulse. 'You can't leave now, Ed. I've only just got home.' His voice was hoarse with worry, the light tone fading as he seemed to realise that Ed was not as unharmed as he appeared. 'You've got to tell me what happened while I was gone.' Deft hands kept checking him over for wounds, and Ed managed a hiss of pain as a fingertip alighted on the scar on his chest. Fuck that hurt! The mark on his forehead and his flesh arm throbbed to same beat of agony. What the hell was going on?

'Just hang in there, Ed. It sounds like help is on the way.' Hughes gripped his hand, his touch just as firm as Mustang's had been. Perhaps they shared the belief that they could hold onto the spirit by hanging onto the body. Edward wished he would be more gentle. He did not need broken fingers on top of everything else. Besides, he wasn't going anywhere.

There were sirens, and Ed dimly wondered how he was going to explain Hughes' reappearance to a load of common soldiers. If they found out he really had been brought back from the dead they would treat him like a test subject. He would not get to see Gracia or Elysia. Instead he'd be locked away, a miraculous discovery with no rights whatsoever. 'Hughes,' his voice was an urgent whisper. 'If anyone asks your death was staged. You've been on a mission. Don't tell them anything else.'

He saw Maes look at him with surprised respect. Obviously the man had not thought of the possible repercussions of what had happened. The moonlight turned his glasses opaque for a moment as he nodded in agreement. 'Of course. I take it the military hasn't changed much?'

The corner of Ed's mouth lifted into a smile, and his eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks as sleep finally claimed him. Slumber's soft caress eased his pain as his breathing fell into a deep, easy rhythm and he let reality fade away.

It would still be there when he awoke.

Chapter Text

The coffee scalded Roy's tongue, robbing him of the taste and making him wince. Still, at least the heat reminded him that he was still alive. He could feel his heart beating and knew that his lungs took in air, but he felt more like an animated corpse than a person. He moved like a machine, barely acknowledging the world around him. Everything felt as though it were happening to someone else. Somehow he doubted he'd even feel the stab of a bullet if Hawkeye finally lost her temper and shot him.

Roy knew he had slept. He must have done, because he'd shut his eyes and when he opened them again hours had passed. He felt anything but rested. His body was locked between the jittery thrill of caffeine and the leaden pull of exhaustion. It was as though he slumbered with his eyes open, completely removed from reality. Everything was within arm's reach, and yet it may as well have been a world away.

It had been less than twenty-four hours since Edward had collapsed on his way to the dormitory, his body finally giving up the fight to hide his illness from them. The doctor had said in grim, earnest words that the Fullmetal Alchemist was dying. Nothing could be done. That was the fact that Roy was still trying to come to grips with. There was no last minute medical marvel; Ed's time was as good as up whether he accepted it or not.

Impossible.

He pushed the thoughts away, seeking refuge in denial. He could not think about this, not now. His stomach churned. His head began to pound. He just wanted to forget about it. Never before had he longed so fervently for Edward Elric to barge into his office swearing and raising hell.

A painful sound choked in his throat, and he turned away from his desk to let his gaze fall beyond the window pane. One breath, then another. He had to stop this. He had to stop his mind from running around in circles and moving from one pessimistic realisation to the next. It was too easy to be lost in that downward spiral.

Night was drawing in, and Roy dimly realised that he had lost track of time. He had barely touched his paperwork and, for once, Hawkeye wasn't holding him at gunpoint as a result. Other than Al, she was the only one who knew the true extent of Edward's decline. The others suspected something; they would not be his men if they weren't each astute in their own way. Each had noticed Riza's tense demeanour and had seen the exhaustion of the Brigadier-General. They were no fools, and a solemn mood had descended on the office like a storm cloud, brooding and black.

Sighing, Roy got stiffly to his feet and shuffled out of the door, heading for the coffee pot. At least someone had the sense to keep it full and hot. He gripped the handle and poured himself another generous mugful, hoping that this would be the one that could pull him back into the real world. Unlikely, but he could always hope.

A quiet noise made him turn, and he hesitated with the drink halfway to his lips. Havoc stood to attention, his eyes staring fixedly at the wall behind Roy's head. Breda, Falman and Fuery were watching intently from their desks, and he got the sneaking suspicion that Jean had been nominated for some kind of unpleasant task.

He quickly shot a glance at Hawkeye, but she sat impassively behind her desk. Her modest make-up had long ago succumbed to what Roy suspected were tears, and her hair was spilling down from its usual neat twist. No chance of any help there then.

'Permission to speak freely?' Havoc asked, and Roy noticed that, for once, the man did not have a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

Wishing he could think of a good reason to decline the request, he gave a sharp nod. 'Granted.'

'Exactly how ill is the boss?'

Boss. Ed was probably almost a decade younger than Havoc. The fact he outranked all of them except Roy should have caused friction. Perhaps it had at first, but now things were different. It wasn't a simple case of respect or loyalty like the men showed for Roy. Everyone in this office had seen Ed and Al fight for what they believed in. They had taken on insurmountable odds and won. It was as though playing a part in their adventures, however small, had cemented this group together. In a sad way it was like family.

Roy flicked his hand dismissively, trying to muster some false confidence as his men stared at him with earnest expressions. 'It's nothing to be concerned about.'

'I think it is, sir.' That was Fuery. The normally calm dark-haired man had crossed his arms and was watching Roy seriously. 'Lieutenant Hawkeye has spent most of the day trying not to cry and you -' He hesitated, perhaps realising that he was moving into dangerous territory as Roy narrowed his eyes. 'You've seemed distracted, sir. Ed's been ill before but you've never reacted like this.'

'And how is that?' he asked, his voice dangerously quiet.

Fuery shifted uncomfortably, but he stood his ground. 'Like you're losing a friend.'

Breda and Falman both nodded their agreement, and Roy found himself feeling curiously vulnerable. Was he really that obvious? He hoped he'd managed to maintain an air of mystery about him, but it seemed he was as easy to read as a book.

'We know you too well, sir,' Breda added as if hearing his superior officer's thoughts. 'You can't lie to us.'

Wearily, Roy wondered if he could have them shot for insubordination. Wasn't there a rule somewhere about questioning your superior officer? If not then there should be. He looked over at Riza, seeing her shake her head meaningfully. As hard as it was to keep them in the dark, telling them the truth would be disastrous. It was bad enough that he couldn't concentrate. They couldn't afford to have the entire staff crippled by the knowledge that they were losing one of their own.

'He's in a bad way,' Roy managed, the words feeling clumsy on his tongue. 'He's been ill for a while, and it's just started to take its toll.'

'Since getting Al back?' Falman asked, showing the precise intelligence that he had been selected for. He was standing to attention behind his desk, radiating military precision. Still, it didn't keep the emotion from his face, and Roy could see his own fear mirrored in the man's expression.

Four pairs of eyes stared intently back at Roy, and he realised that they had probably already figured it out for themselves.

'Yes.'

His admission did not need to be loud to have an affect. Havoc's face fell while Falman and Fuery exchanged a frightened look. Breda brushed a hand over his close-cropped hair and sighed, looking out of the window at the darkness for a moment. 'Is he going to make it?'

'Of course he is,' Havoc snapped back, frowning at the suggestion that it really was the end of the line for the young alchemist. 'Right, sir?'

Roy swallowed another mouthful of coffee, keeping his eyes firmly down-turned as a wraith of steam brushed against his cheek. Eventually he forced his lips to move, attempting to find some suitable words of reassurance that were not an outright lie. 'He was awake when I left him.' His throat tightened as he struggled to concentrate on the positive. 'He was even arguing with the doctor.'

'That doesn't answer the question,' Havoc whispered as Roy shut his eyes and turned away. He could feel the concern coming off of his men in waves. Was it best for them not to know? If the truth was not worst-case-scenario – if their darkest fear were not reality – then he would have leapt to reassure them, but what could he offer? Nothing. He could not even console himself.

Distantly, he heard Riza get up from her chair, and her steady footsteps moved over the hardwood floor. 'We don't know if he'll survive.' Her voice was firm and strong, and Roy looked up to see her neatening her hair with deft fingers. 'The only thing I am certain of is that Edward is not just going to lay down and die. His illness is severe, but he will fight it with everything he's got. We all know him well enough to be sure of that.' She nudged a stack of precarious paperwork back from the edge of Havoc's desk and flicked off the lamp. 'None of us will do Ed any good by staying in this office all night long. We need to go home and get some sleep.'

The protests of the men were cut short as the door banged open, making the occupants of the room jump. Riza's hand flew to her gun, and Roy swore as he slopped hot coffee over his fingers. Everyone looked up in surprise at the Elric in the doorway, and Roy wondered how many of the others felt a flash of disappointment when they realised it was not Edward.

'Sorry,' Al said softly, his intelligent eyes taking in the startled officers. 'Is Ed here?'

'I thought he was in hospital?' Fuery asked as the others shook their heads, suitably confused.

'He waited for me to fall asleep and then discharged himself.' Al's voice was clipped and heavy with disappointment. Still, Roy knew that he wasn't surprised. They had both known that Ed would release himself from under the doctor's care. It had simply been a matter of timing. His teeth clenched in annoyance, grinding together as he took the forms from Al and looked at curved form of Ed's simple signature. The twin letter Es were clumsy, belying the exhaustion of the man who had held the pen.

Idiot.

'Falman, get out there and find out if anyone's seen him. Havoc, check the dorms and take Breda with you. If he's not there then check the library. Fuery, ring around the other offices. Maybe one of the other divisions knows where he went.'

The men leapt into action, taking more reassurance from the firm, competent orders of their commanding officer than they had found in his previous words. This was the Roy Mustang that they knew and respected, and it was a welcome alternative to the broken man of a moment ago. 'He is all right in the head, isn't he?' Breda asked quickly, tapping a fingertip to him temple. 'I mean, Ed's not confused or trippy on the drugs is he?'

'No,' Al said darkly. 'He knows exactly what he's doing.'

'Someone wake up Armstrong. We'll drag Edward back here by force if we have to.' Roy's threat had a firm ring to it, and he saw the others hesitate as Hawkeye crossed her arms over her breasts and cocked her head to the side.

'You're behaving as if you think he's going to do something stupid,' she said quietly, narrowing her eyes questioningly.

'This is Ed we're talking about,' Roy snarled. 'That's a practically given.'

The lieutenant nodded in acknowledgement of a point well made, but her lips were still pursed tight. 'I mean something specific. We'll be able to follow orders more fully if we have all the information, sir. What do you know that we don't?'

Al shifted uncomfortably, chewing anxiously on his lip before answering in Roy's stead. 'It was the gate that made Ed ill. He's planning to go back and force it to give him a cure.'

'Would that even work?' Falman asked, scratching his head. If the gate was confusing to alchemists then it was a complete mystery to the common man. The people in Roy's group knew more than most about the portal, but they were no experts.

'It doesn't matter to Ed. He'll make it work or die trying,' Al replied, 'which is why we have to find him before he gets there. He promised me he wouldn't do it tonight, but-' He shrugged, leaving the sentence hanging as he shook his head in confusion.

The others caught his drift. Ed normally kept his promises, but there was always a first time for him to go back on his word. Swiftly the room emptied, leaving Hawkeye, Roy and Al standing among the desolate desks. Fuery had already picked up the phone and was engrossed in seeking out the information they needed. He pushed his glasses up his nose and began scribbling in precise shorthand as Roy asked the question that had been preying on his mind.

'Is he any better?'

'Well enough to walk,' Al said, his frustration barely contained. He flashed an apologetic smile at Roy and carried on. 'I'm not sure what hurts more, his body or his pride. He's acting like the gate is a living thing that's open to negotiation.'

'You said yourself that what was happening to him was more of a punishment than a price. Doesn't that suggest some kind of sentience?' Roy asked gently, not wanting to provoke the younger Elric more than he had to. A man would have to blind not to see that Al was the calm influence on Ed's temper. What most people did not realise was that, in Ed's absence, that same short fuse tended to flare in the younger brother.

'So you think he's right to do what he's doing?' Al demanded, pacing over to Havoc's desk and absently throwing Jean's cigarette butts in the bin. 'It's already taken so much from him. There's only one thing left!' His broad shoulders slumped. 'If he finds his way to the gate he won't come back to us.'

'Thinking in worst case scenarios isn't going to help,' Riza said quietly, her voice soothing as she tried to force them to focus on the present, rather than the possible future. 'I know it's late, but don't you think that you should call Miss Rockbell?'

Roy looked sharply at his aide as Al frowned in confusion. 'Winry? I don't want to worry her about Ed.'

'Alphonse,' Hawkeye sighed, pressing her fingertips to her brow. 'Sometimes you have to think of yourself. Winry will help you whatever happens. You know that.' A faint smile tilted her lips. 'Besides, if Ed is going to insist on being stubborn then she can knock him out with a well-aimed wrench.' Snatching one of the phones off of the cradle she held it out to him until he accepted the receiver and began to dial.

'Are you sure that's a good idea?' Roy asked as he moved to stand by Riza's shoulder. 'Winry isn't exactly a calming influence.'

'Sir, if the doctor's right then Edward is going to get worse rapidly. Al needs someone who knows him almost as well as his brother.' She swallowed and a glimmer of tears flickered along her lashes. 'You can't help the dying, but you can help those who are left behind.'

Roy tried to block out the conversation taking place only a few feet away. Hawkeye was right: they could all only help Al so much, and the Rockbell girl was the Elrics' one link left to home. Their childhood friendship with the young woman had cemented itself fast through the years. It would be best if she were here. A quick glance at his watch told him that she would probably be on the last train out of Risembool. It would still take her days to reach Central, but her presence would be better than nothing. Al needed someone there for him, and it was a hole that no one in the military could fill.

Al finally finished the call, having tried to reassure Winry as best he could without blurting the truth over the telephone. Throughout it all he had been quiet and calm, but Roy knew that Winry wouldn't have missed the tremor in the young man's voice. 'She's on her way. She'll be here by the end of the week. I just hope that's not too late.'

'We won't let it be,' Roy replied flatly, feeling his heart ache at the thought. Winry would be there for Al, but there was still the undeniable truth that there would be no one to help ease his own pain. It was his alone to bear, and he knew he would have to find a way to live with the void. In a way, it was almost as though Ed was already dead. From the moment those words had left the doctor's lips it was as if Fullmetal's fate had been sealed. It was a bitter, pessimistic thought and, while Roy loathed its presence, he knew that it was a way of protecting himself. Expect the worst and then he would not be surprised when it happened.

Fuery put the phone down with a clatter and tapped his pencil against the desk as his lips moved in silent thought. 'The boss was seen leaving the building about an hour ago. He was heading for the library, but the staff there say they haven't set eyes on him. He's not in his usual spot so unless he's hiding then he didn't make it.' Kain cleared his throat nervously, stammering slightly as he noticed how much Al's face had paled. 'Sorry, that came out sounding ominous. What I meant, sir, was that he can't be far away.'

Roy nodded at the shorter man and reached for his coat. 'Get the others and tell them to meet me in the precinct outside. We'll track him down ourselves.'

He did not wait for a response as he swept out of the door, his footsteps echoing along the corridor. This was better. His anger simmered in his veins, bringing back with it a spark of vitality. Its heat was a part of him, an undeniable fragment of who he was. It made him feel alive. He had to marvel at the influence Ed had over him. That the infuriating alchemist could cause so much pain and so much anger in the space of a day was unreal. Had it always been like this?

There was no answering thought and, with a quick shove, he pushed open the main door and stalked out into the plaza in front of Central Command. The security there watched them with interest, no doubt taking in the cluster of deep blue uniforms with some trepidation as they congregated in the square. The Flame alchemist was intimidating enough, but with the others right behind him there was no one who wanted to stand in his way.

Major Armstrong saluted smartly, his moustache twitching as he fell into step. His uniform jacket was straining over his muscular physique, and Roy grinned coldly as the sentries hastily got out of their way. 'Report,' he snapped over his shoulder.

'We double checked the dorms,' Havoc called out, his voice distorted by the hurry of his footsteps. 'No go.'

'A few of the other officers reported seeing him in the hallway,' Falman added. 'One of them did say he looked a bit edgy.'

'Probably thought he was going to get hauled back to bed,' Breda pointed out, panting slightly as he tried to keep up with Roy's quick stride. 'Ugh, I shouldn't have had second helpings at dinner.'

'Concentrate on the job,' Hawkeye snapped, her boot heels clicking loudly as she strode along. 'No one saw him between Command and the library?'

'Only the sentries, and they didn't follow him. Do we actually know where we're looking?' Fuery asked, 'Or are we just going to tear the town apart?'

'It's tempting, but probably not the best idea,' Roy replied as he pulled on his gloves. A quick click sent a spark into the air and he nodded once, satisfied. 'Al, where are your brother's hiding places? Where does he go when he doesn't want to be found?'

There was a brief silence as Al hesitated, no doubt trying to think. 'Ed's more the confrontational type. I don't think he really has any hiding places.'

'Not that you know about, anyway,' Falman pointed out softly, his tone gentle. They both had a good point. If Edward had a problem then he was normally up front about it. There were still dents in the plasterwork in Roy's office that could attest to the young man's volatility. Yet when the brothers fought it was a different matter. It did not happen often, but Roy could easily remember at least one occasion where Ed had vanished for over a day and not even Al had been able to root him out.

The wind stirred, escalating into a gust that rustled the tree branches and set the gate of the nearby cemetery squeaking and clanging in its grasp. The noise set his teeth on edge, and he scowled at the offending iron-work. Shouldn't that be locked at this time of night? Neat little lanterns lined the fence, casting soft light into the confined space beyond, but there was no living souls beyond the gate.

He stopped suddenly, grunting as Havoc barrelled into the back of him. Jean mumbled an apology and withdrew a cigarette, placing it between his lips out of habit as he followed Roy's gaze into the dark recesses of the graveyard. The yew tree at its centre waved forlorn branches at the sky, and the clouds above were starting to dissipate. The moonlight didn't show much, but the sight of the tombs was enough to remind Roy about the bundle of papers Hawkeye had handed to him at daybreak.

'Damn.'

He paid no attention to the flinch of surprise from his men. It wasn't often that he swore. It was another bad habit he was picking up from Fullmetal. 'Al, I don't suppose you thought to pick up Scieszka's report, did you?'

'No, it was on Ed's bedside table...' Al stopped, realisation dawning. 'Oh.'

'Yes, “Oh.”. Come on.'

Roy pushed open the gate quietly, letting the sombre air of the hallowed ground wash around him like a tide. He felt the others huddle at his back, instinctively drawing closer as they eyed the graves with trepidation. 'You think Ed came in here to investigate?' Al asked, squinting around for any sign of his brother.

'It might not have been his original intention, but if he was heading for the library as the sentries said then he would have walked right past those gates.' Roy shrugged, clicking his thumb and forefinger gently to conjure a small flame. 'You know as well as I do that he would have read Scieszka's report. Perhaps he found something probative, or maybe he just saw something suspicious. It would explain why he didn't get as far as the library.'

Behind him he heard Hawkeye draw her gun. With a confident click she pulled back the safety hammer and aimed it into the darkness. 'You're making us a target, sir.' She nodded her head towards the flame.

'It's that or not be able to see.'

'It's your hand they'll shoot,' she warned with an indifferent shrug, her sharp eyes trying to pick out any threat between the neat rows all around them.

'Man, this place is creepy,' Breda whispered, twitching in surprise as a squeak of car tyres reminded them that they were not too far from civilisation. 'You sure the boss came here?'

'We have to check.' Roy began to move forward, grateful for the massive bulk of Armstrong at his side. Not that there was anything in a graveyard to attack them, he hastened to add, but it was reassuring all the same. There wasn't much that could take down the Strong Arm alchemist. 'Stay close,' he ordered, looking behind him to see that his men were responding with a mixture of open fear and grim determination.

Breda's hands were bunched into fists as he faced backwards, defending the rear. Havoc's cigarette hung limply from his lips as he kept his eyes fixed on the expanse of tombs that stretched away to their left. His gun was still in its holster but one hand hovered nearby, ready to draw it at the first sign of trouble. Fuery was keeping towards the centre of the group, which was probably the best idea for the young communications officer. Combat was not exactly his strong suit.

'This, this place isn't haunted, is it?' Havoc asked, trying to sound unconcerned and failing miserably.

Roy rolled his eyes. He had forgotten the rather superstitious nature of some of his subordinates, and he carefully intensified the flame in his hand. 'It's a graveyard. There's nothing here but bodies.'

'Dead bodies,' Breda added with a touch of horror.

'It bothered Ed as well,' Al said quietly. His hands were held pressed together in front of his torso, and Roy could see the faint flicker of alchemy tracing its way around the young man's fingers. 'I don't think it helped that he fell in an open grave though.'

Havoc snorted, and the other men chuckled quietly to themselves. The mounting, insidious fear dissipated as quickly as it had begun. 'Is that how he ended up covered in mud?' Falman asked. 'No wonder he was furious!'

Al nodded. 'We left pretty quickly after that.' His smile seemed a touch strained, and Roy wondered if they shared the same thought. It was odd how the world worked. Now, knowing what they did, it seemed a touch prophetic that Ed had stumbled into an open grave on the same day that his ill-health had made itself known.

Coincidence, of course, but it was still an unsettling idea.

'Sir!'

Hawkeye's one word made him twitch, and he spun to face the direction she was looking in. The muzzle of her gun pointed the way and he lifted his hand higher, letting the light spill across the ground. There, in the back corner of the graveyard, was a freshly dug hole. Either it was another robbed grave or someone had been doing a bit of impromptu burial work. As one the group edged towards it, their attention focussed completely on the gaping pit.

Roy could smell nervous sweat and the faint clean smoke of the flame that burned in his hand. A gust of wind stirred his hair, and he blinked dust out of his eyes as he tried to see what lay in the dank depths. With a quick gesture he motioned Hawkeye and Havoc to break off. Moving with oft-practised skill the two soldiers circled around, approaching from opposite sides before lunging forward and aiming into the darkness.

With a sigh of relief Hawkeye let the safety on her gun drop back into place. 'All clear. It's empty.'

There was a general relaxation throughout the group, and Roy swallowed tightly. He had to admit that part of him had expected to find Ed in that tomb, and he felt weak with relief that it was nothing but an empty cleft in the ground. Armstrong picked up a shovel, hefting it as though it were a matchstick. 'There's timber on the edge,' he said, his deep bass voice rumbling among the gravestones as he picked a few splinters free.

'There are tyre-marks out here,' Falman called from beyond a small gate in the corner. 'Wide and deep. It doesn't look like a normal car.'

Roy hunkered down by the tomb side and looked around, trying to see any indication of Ed's presence. Had he left them nothing, not even the slight clue as to where he had gone?

'I need a sign,' he muttered.

The explosion ripped the air apart, shaking the ground and pitching him off balance. He managed to fall backwards rather than forward into the grave, but the inferno was enough to leave his ears ringing. Looking up he saw a broad flash of alchemical power shoot into the sky, pushing its way into the clear night before it winked out of sight.

In the wake of the roar was a hollow silence. Only the suck of the air rushing inwards stirred the night, and Roy struggled to his feet. He stared in the direction of the blast, trying to picture the city in his head. 'Was that in the warehouse district?' he shouted, trying to hear himself over the squeaking in his ears.

'Probably. It didn't look like a chemical-related blast.' Hawkeye picked herself up and dusted herself off, wiggling a finger in her ear as though to clear her hearing. 'I think that was the sign you were looking for, sir.'

'I think you're right.'

He broke into a run, leaving the others to follow his lead. All military order was gone as each of them found their own pace. Their footsteps clattered down the empty street, arrhythmic beats in the darkness. Roy could hear the blare of sirens and gave a grunt of annoyance. That was just what he needed: the police interfering in alchemist business. The tinny sound of the vehicle bells rattled off of the walls and bounced down the alleyways, creating a disorienting confusion of noise.

The destruction was clear even from a distance. One of the buildings had been torn apart. Rubble lay strewn around in landslides of stone, and a hearse was on its roof near the roadside. Dust was still falling in a soft cascade, drifting to settle like dirty snow on their shoulders. Amidst the mess of destroyed masonry one central section had remained clear. The massive scrawl of a complex array was just visible on the floor, its lines shattered apart by huge cracks and distorted by scorch marks.

In its centre a dark-haired man knelt, concentrating intently on the body in front of him. One hand was wrapped around the flesh wrist, but there was no mistaking the cool steel of the youth's right arm. The dull rumble of more collapsing debris made the stranger look up, and Roy staggered to a sudden halt.

It couldn't be. He blinked in quick succession, trying to clear the apparition from his eyes. It remained stubbornly present, and Roy's usually ordered mind scrambled to find some logical explanation as he stared at the friend he had thought he would never see again.

Maes Hughes looked back at him, his lean face breaking into a grin of recognition as his glasses winked in the street light. The joy on his face was unmistakable, and Roy felt an answering smile tug at his own lips. He shook his head in amused disbelief. Hughes never changed. Laughter, half hysterical, bubbled in his chest and he moved towards Maes at a quick stride, noticing with relief that Al was already at his brother's side

'Set up a perimeter!' Hawkeye barked, drawing her gun again and training it on Hughes as she approached. 'Tell anyone who gets near that this is under our jurisdiction!' Her words jerked the other stunned soldiers into action, and Roy scowled in disbelief.

'What are you doing?' he growled.

'Just being sure, sir,' she said quietly as Maes got to his feet and raised his hands in surrender. A wry smile curved his thin lips, and green eyes flashed with amusement as the two of them approached.

'Same old Riza,' he said gently, seemingly not bothered by being on the business end of her Browning pistol. 'Although you've left the safety on.'

She didn't even blink, but Roy thought he saw a quick flicker of something like laughter in her eyes. 'Can't fool me that easily, sir. Can you answer some questions for me?'

'Checking I'm not a Homunculus?' Hughes asked, shrugging in agreement as he winked at Roy. 'I'm glad someone's thinking straight.'

'What's your wife's name?'

'Gracia Hughes.'

'Her maiden name?

'Looke.'

'How old are you?'

Hughes rolled his eyes and shook his head. 'Too old to want to answer that question.'

'What's your favourite drink?' Roy asked, letting a grin part his lips. He didn't need an answer. He knew that the man in front of him was no copy. In every characteristic movement and the lilt of his voice it was obvious. He was the genuine article.

Hughes' eyes darted to Roy, and the faint smile spread fully. 'Fenlings brandy, well matured and in a big glass.' He looked over his shoulder, and Roy saw a flash of confusion cross his face when he saw Al kneeling at Ed's side. 'Now I've got a question for you,' he murmured, his face becoming serious. 'Have you got a car here, because we need to get Edward somewhere safe.'

'I'll commandeer one,' Hawkeye said smoothly, lowering her gun and rolling her shoulders to ease some tension. She saluted smartly, as if friends coming back from the dead was an everyday occurrence, and hurried away. Roy smiled to himself as he heard her shout to the others, telling them to concentrate on their work and stop gawking.

Hughes reached out a hand, and Roy saw a flash of nervousness in his friend's eyes before he shook it warmly. In an instant he was pulled into a crushing hug, and he managed a choked laugh as Maes grumbled, 'This has been the strangest day I've ever had.'

'I think I can say the same thing.' Roy pulled back, taking in everything from the flush of life in his friend's cheeks to the gleam of disbelieving joy in his eyes. 'You're really alive.'

'I should hope so, because if this is the afterlife then it needs some work!' Hughes gestured at the destruction and the familiar sprawl of Central that hemmed them in on all sides. Mirth flickered across his features, but beneath it Roy could see the confusion and fear of being pulled back into the land of the living. Time had carried on without his friend, and he could barely comprehend what must be going through his mind.

The screech of a car taking a corner too fast made them look up in time to see Hawkeye skidding to a halt at the edge of the destruction. Roy's eyes fell to Ed's still form, and the smile slipped from his lips as the seriousness of the situation came crashing back full force. There would be time for a joyful reunion later. Right now they had to get out of here. 'Can he be moved?' he asked cautiously, crouching at Al's side. 'What happened to him?'

'I wish I knew,' Maes replied quietly as he hunkered down. 'I have no idea what was going on, but it was Ed who got me out of – wherever I was. He was wounded with badly broken ribs and a deep cut here.' He ran his fingers down the line of Ed's throat. 'Then they just vanished. He was talking to me for a while, but he blacked out a few minutes before you got here.'

'Vanished?' Roy echoed in disbelief, noticing that the black eye and grazed knuckles from the previous day had also been erased. 'Do you know anything about this?'

Al shook his head. 'I don't even know what it might mean,' he said quietly. 'He's just sleeping, but I can't get him to wake up.'

There was a moment of silence, and Roy saw recognition and amazement flicker across his friend's face as he took in the dark blonde boy who knelt in the mud and gore. 'Al?' Maes' voice was hushed, as though he couldn't believe his eyes. 'I didn't recognise you.'

'Well the last time you saw me I was a seven-foot suit of armour,' Al pointed out softly, grinning when Hughes chuckled. 'Brother got my body back a couple of years ago now.'

Maes glanced down at Ed's sleeping face, his expression fond and serious. 'You know, I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything he can't do.'

'Probably not,' Roy murmured, carefully slipping his arms under Ed's knees and arms before lifting him gently from the gory ground. 'Let's get out of here before they start asking difficult questions.'

Edward's blonde head rested on his shoulder as he walked towards the waiting vehicle, taking care not to jostle the sleeping alchemist. Ed's breathing was a steady tickle against his neck, intimate and reassuring. The solid, steady thud of his heart against Roy's chest was a continuous beat, unfaltering and strong, but there was no sign of wakefulness as they picked their way through the debris.

Roy knew that Hughes and Al were right behind him, neither willing to leave Edward's side. It was unbelievable, in a way. Those two embodied the impossible. They were living proof of what could truly be done with the power of alchemy, at least when it was in the hands of a prodigy like Edward.

As gently as they could, he and Riza lay Edward along the back seat, resting his head in Roy's lap and his feet in Al's as Maes climbed into the front seat and twisted around to face them. Now, in the gloom of the car, a faint blue light was giving the air an eerie glow. Taking off his glove Roy brushed Ed's hair out of his face, frowning at the array that fluoresced softly, waxing and waning in time with Edward's pulse.

'Get to the hospital,' he ordered quietly. 'We need to get both Ed and Hughes looked over before we do anything else.'

He left his hand resting on Ed's shoulder, letting his thumb sweep back and forth in an absent caress as he stared out of the window, trying to find some kind of rhyme or reason to the events of the night. Only one stark fact stood out clearly in his mind. Whatever had happened in those short, dark hours, he would never be able to repay Ed for bringing Maes back. He had returned something precious to all of them.

There was nothing in the world equivalent to the simple gift of life restored.

Chapter Text

The hospital air was quiet and cool after the din of sirens and mess of devastation at the warehouse. White walls formed an oppressive blank canvas, and merciless lights stripped away every pretence of vanity. There were no lies here. Every shadow and every flaw was exposed for the doctors to see. It was a haven of honesty amidst the coy secrecy of the surrounding military command.

Roy gazed at the youth between the clean, scratchy sheets, cataloguing his appearance. Ed’s braid was coming unwound, and there was no mistaking the nature of the rusty streaks through that bright gold fall. An injury must have been bleeding profusely to saturate his hair that much, but there were no marks on him. His skin was unblemished apart from a healthy flush of life and a few smears of grime.

He had to admit that Ed looked a hundred times better than he had only a few hours ago. Where there had been the lingering threat of death there was now an empowered strength. Only the depth of his slumber seemed ominous. He had not yet stirred. The glow of the arrays had vanished like something from a dream, but still his eyes remained closed and his body locked tight in rest.

Roy sighed, drumming his fingers against the foot of the bed. Deja vu washed over him in powerful waves, and he fought against the urge to pace fretfully as he waited for the doctor. Al sat silently in one of the chairs, and Roy could feel the weight of his gaze on his back. The youngest Elric had barely spoken since they arrived at the hospital, but it was obvious that he was struggling as much as anyone else to understand what had happened. It had only been a matter of hours since Edward had discharged himself from the hospital, and he was already back in one of the uncomfortable beds. It was almost as if he had never woken up from his collapse at the dormitories.

Almost.

Someone pushed the door open quietly, and Roy looked up to see Maes slip through. His jacket was slung over his shoulder, and his shirt was half-undone revealing an expanse of toned chest. Automatically he searched for the scar that the bullet should have left, but there was nothing there. At Roy’s insistence, Hughes had undergone an hour of medical testing, but the doctor’s findings were crystal clear. His body was as healthy as it had been before he was shot. There was nothing that indicated that he had ever been dead.

‘That was a bit too intimate for my liking,’ Maes grumbled, rubbing at a bruise where they had drawn some blood. ‘I’m sure doctors get their kicks out of those exams.’

‘You are a medical miracle,’ Roy pointed out, grinning as a strange thrill of emotion shot through him. It was going to take a long time for him to believe that his friend was truly back from the dead. He kept expecting him to disappear, nothing more than a hallucination of his exhausted mind.

'I'm not going anywhere,' Hughes said quietly with a smile, shaking his head as he sank into one of the chairs at Ed's bedside. 'You can stop looking at me like you're wondering if you've gone mad.'

'Sorry,' Roy said wryly, blinking. 'It's just-'

'Incredible? Amazing? Unbelievable?' Hughes nodded. 'I know. I can barely believe it myself.' His smile faded away as he glanced down at the stiff piece of paper in his hand. The parchment crinkled beneath his fingertips, and he scowled at the innocuous document as though it had done him personal harm.

'What's that?' Roy asked quietly, narrowing his eyes at the offending object.

Maes gave a lopsided smile and turned it around for him to see. 'My death certificate. The doctor said that it could be destroyed. I just -' He sighed heavily and shook his head. 'This is all too surreal. I remember dying and then I remember opening my eyes in that place. There was nothing in between. No bright lights and no tropical paradise – only oblivion.'

Roy sighed heavily, looking down at his feet. Religion was a tricky thing, especially for a soldier. It was impossible to see so much war and hate and keep your faith, but if you didn't believe in something then you were lost. You could not face imminent death on the front-line knowing that there was nothing waiting for you on the other side.

'Did you really expect anything else?' Al's voice was gentle. Roy had almost forgotten he was there, keeping quiet watch over his brother. Now his young face was earnest and curious, and Roy wondered if he could recall any of the time his body and mind had spent in the clutches of the gate. He had never mentioned anything, but Ed wasn't the only Elric good at keeping things to himself.

A feeble shrug was Al's only answer for a moment before Maes confessed, 'I'd hoped there'd be something. Even if it was a fiery inferno it would have been some kind of proof that there was an existence beyond death.' With a philosophical chuckle he shook his head. 'Maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough. Maybe there was somewhere I was meant to go, or something I was meant to do.'

He pocketed the death certificate, folding it neatly with steady fingers before tucking it away out of sight. In one swift movement he leaned across and picking up Ed's chart from the bedside table. Flicking though the documentation, Hughes raised his eyebrows in surprise at the plethora of medical information.

'You do know that's confidential,' Roy said wearily, not stopping his friend in his inquisitiveness.

'I'm in Investigations. Sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong is part of my job.' Maes glanced up, seeking Al's permission with a quick gesture before he carried on. 'Besides, you two look like you haven't slept in days. Something must be wrong.'

'Is it really that obvious?'

'You look like shit,' Hughes replied bluntly.

'Thanks,' Roy said, sarcasm dripping from his voice as he rubbed a hand over his unshaven jaw. He should have known that Maes would notice how tired they both were. Al looked as though sleep were a distant memory. Black circles smudged under his eyes, and his hair was sticking up in all directions. Roy had a sinking feeling that he looked twice as bad. Adrenaline was probably the only fuel he had. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten anything except coffee, but his stomach was a dead weight. He would pay for depriving his body of its necessities later; he was certain of it.

Hughes stopped turning the pages abruptly, a frown twitching his brow as he stared at one portion of the notes. His eyes flicked back and forth as he read the same bit repeatedly, as though he was unable to believe the words.

'He's dying?' Maes asked hoarsely, grief already etching its way into his features as he scrutinised the two other men. He must have gleaned an answer from their silence because he held up one of the x-rays to the bright light that illuminated the room, his face disbelieving. ‘How long have you known that this was happening?’

‘Since he collapsed last night.’ Roy could hear the unmistakable anger in his own voice, and felt his hands clench into fists. Last night? Was it only that long ago? It felt like an eternity.

Maes looked from Al to him, his natural observation skills easily picking up the cues in their body language. ‘You mean he didn’t tell you it was happening?’ He shook his head and crossed his arms without waiting for an answer. ‘Stupid question I suppose. Ed never shares his problems. It’s been, what, two years since he brought your body back, Al? The notes make it pretty clear that this all started back then.’

Alphonse nodded in agreement, his grey eyes resting on his brother’s sleeping face. Every worry and concern, every trace of anger and pain was contained in his expression. Roy knew that, when Ed woke up, he wouldn’t be the only one to give the alchemist a firm talking to about the value of honesty and not doing idiotic things. It would go in one ear and out the other, but at least it would make them feel better.

‘Two years is a long time to bear this by himself. Armstrong would weep at the nobility of it.’ Maes pursed his lips tight, not doubt holding back his own opinion of Edward's actions

‘It’s stubbornness,’ Roy bit out as he began to pace back and forth.

‘It answers one of my questions,’ Hughes murmured, looking very uncomfortable as Roy and Al both stared at him, waiting for him to expand on his statement. Falteringly, he began to explain what had happened at the gate, mentioning the other soldiers and the strange woman who had emerged from the darkness. His understanding was patchy, but it was better than nothing.

'The woman said she needed one more life or the gate wouldn't let us go. Ed said he'd stay behind – said something about the wounds he had probably killing him whereas I was alive and unharmed. He wouldn't take no for an answer. When I came to in the warehouse district and saw him I thought he must have had some kind of trick up his sleeve.' Hughes leaned forward, licking his lips and shrugging hopelessly. 'I guess I was wrong. He really was going to give his life if it meant getting me out.’

For a moment there was stiff, choking silence. Roy felt as though his heart had been clawed apart. A physical ache flashed from his chest to his stomach, making him feel sick. He hadn’t let himself think that Ed might not come back, but to know that the alchemist had actually suggested leaving them all behind to return Hughes to Amestris was agonising. Were they meaningless to him? Did Ed truly think that he would not be missed?

'Brother always blames himself for what happened to you,' Al murmured. 'I mean, I know neither of us pulled the trigger, but it was still because of what we were doing that you died.' He swallowed tightly. ‘I think Ed will always regret trying to bring back mum. At first I thought he would get over it, but I think that, in Ed's mind, it was the beginning of the end. It was the starting point for a trail of consequences we couldn't begin to imagine, and he holds himself responsible for all of it.’

'But he absolved himself,' Hughes protested, trying to understand. 'He got your body back and undid the wrongs he blamed himself for.'

Al's face flickered into a pained grimace, and Roy knew he was thinking of the cost of that recompense. 'It doesn't matter. I don't think he'll ever forgive himself. In his mind there's no way to redress the balance of it all. Even bringing you back won't be enough.'

Roy slumped wearily. His body was snapping with painful tension; it was crushing him, and his spirit began to fail under the assault of his emotions. He needed Ed to wake up and answer his questions. He had to find some way to grab the truth from all of this speculation, before his own assumptions and uncertainties tore him apart.

Forcing his mind into the present, he took two deep breaths, pinching the bridge of his nose to release some tension. The behaviour was unusual enough to make both Al and Hughes look at him uncertainly. A few days ago it had been easy to present the world with his usual smug, confident demeanour. Now it was as though he had lost his footing. Waves of emotion crashed against his foundations, shaking him to his core. It made his head feel hot and heavy, and he longed to get out in the cold air and somehow lose himself in the heartless night.

With another sigh, Roy let his logical thoughts take over, grimacing as it presented him with a list of everything that had to be done. It was ironic, really, that it was easier to deal with Hughes' resurrection than it was to handle Ed's condition. At least when it came to Maes, Roy felt like he was in control. He knew what he had to do, and he knew how to go about it. With Fullmetal he was completely lost and utterly helpless.

He hated that.

Letting his hands fall to his sides, he perched on the edge of the bed, finding some comfort in having at least having one situation he could command. He might not be able to help Ed, but he could help Hughes.

'I told Riza to call Gracia while you were with the doctor,' he said softly, knowing that it was only Ed's condition that had prevented Maes from heading straight home to his family. Even now, at the mention of his wife's name, Hughes shifted as though to get to his feet. Only Roy's hand on his arm prevented him from leaving.

‘Wait! She won’t be here for a while yet. I didn’t want to leave telling her until morning. She’s going to need to know the truth from one of us and see it for herself first-hand. It’s the only way she will really be able to believe it. Things might be less of a shock for her if someone explains what happened.’

The doubt on Maes’ face was clear, and Roy gently took his friend’s shoulders. ‘Once she gets here I’ll talk to her for five minutes and then you can have her back: her and Elysia. I know you don’t want to wait even that long, but we have to be careful about this. If anyone untrustworthy finds out the truth of what happened you’ll end up in one of the labs.'

His friend fidgeted, obviously torn between his immediate need to hold his family in his arms and the basic instinct to protect himself and those he loved. A flicker in his eyes told Roy that there was something else, something unspoken, that was bothering Hughes.

‘What’s wrong?’

Maes cleared is throat as though he were trying to find the words to voice his fears. He looked uncertain, as though he barely wanted to credit his imaginings. Yet it was clear that his mind was being preyed upon. ‘It’s been years,' he said roughly. 'What if she’s moved on? What if they don’t want me any more?’ He looked lost and, for the first time in a long time, terribly afraid. Roy felt his heart clench painfully as he tried to imagine what must have be rushing through his mind. Life was not like a light bulb that could be switched on and off without consequences. Every death affected countless people, and he knew that Maes was trying to work out where he fitted in to a world that had carried on while he was gone.

‘That’s not possible,’ Al murmured, looking at the pair of them with gentle concern. His soft voice was determined, and he held Hughes' gaze confidently as he continued. ‘Gracia and Elysia have missed you so much. Ed and I visit as often as we can, and we know they’d give anything to have you back.’

‘How can you be so sure? What if they don't believe it's really me?’ He went to stand, raking a hand through his hair as he shifted restlessly. Behind his glasses his eyes were downcast, and his face was racked with uncertainty.

‘We believe it's you,’ Roy pointed out, pushing his friend back down into the chair. ‘We did from the moment we set eyes on you. Hawkeye was the only one who had any doubts at all, and that's only because it's her job to be paranoid.’ He grinned then, relieved to see an echo of that expression on his friend's face.

Steady footsteps made the three of them look up, and Roy felt the smile slip from his face. Doctor Collins paced into the room; firm, grim lines bracketed his mouth. His gnarled hands were clutching a folder, and Roy could see the edge of several x-ray sheets poking out of the top. The three of them made room for the doctor as he nodded in greeting, his movements brisk as he placed the film on the light box.

Four developments had been done, and each showed the same thing. A supernova of light marred the blackness of the film. Its core was pure white, fading outward in a monochrome halo that obscured Ed’s ribs and spine. Faint suggestions of bone could be seen in the shades of grey at the edge, but nothing more.

‘I am at a loss to explain this,’ the doctor said stiffly, as though it was an admission he would rather not make. ‘Our x-ray machine is in functioning order, yet every time we attempt a diagnosis the negatives appear over-exposed. We cannot get a clear picture of his thoracic cavity.’

‘What does that mean?’ Al asked, moving towards the wall and trying to pick out any useful information from the black celluloid.

'It means we can't tell the status of his illness.' Collins sighed, shutting tired eyes for a moment. Roy knew how the man must feel. It was challenging when something tested your competence, and he knew that the doctor had been trying desperately to analyse Edward's condition. 'For all we know his lungs are whole again. We can hear a heartbeat and he is breathing, but it is impossible to guess the level of his decline. We will have to rely on the patient's own estimation and hope that he is truthful.' Collins did not sound as if he was holding out much hope for that possibility, and he eventually slipped the x-rays back into the folder. 'My expertise have failed at this point. I cannot offer you anything more than a diagnosis on symptoms alone. Perhaps over the next few days his status will become more apparent.'

'Is his prognosis the same?' Maes asked quietly, voicing the question the other two did not want to contemplate.

'Yes. Until I can find evidence that contradicts the first x-rays then his outlook will not change. I'm sorry.' He let his gaze rest on Al and Roy's rumpled appearance and the shadows under their eyes. 'There are spare beds nearby. If you wish to use them then they are available to you.'

Roy didn't need to tell the doctor that they wouldn't be sleeping tonight. The man could no doubt see the determination written on Al's face and the resilience in Roy's frame. He shared a concerned glance with Hughes before nodding in resignation. His footsteps faded away, squeaking on the linoleum floor and leaving the others to stand in grim silence.

None of them spoke. There was nothing that could be said. They had hoped to find the answers to some of their questions. Instead they were back at the beginning, stuck with the gnawing ache of fear and the confusion of the unknown. Roy closed his eyes tight and struggled for control, trying to find some order in the tangled mess his life had become. It was impossible to tell whether this latest development was positive or negative, and in the mean time all they could do was wait. He had to admit that none of them were particularly known for their patience.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw Hawkeye standing in the doorway, neat and presentable. It was obvious from her expression that she had heard the doctor’s words about Ed’s condition. Fear and despair fought a flickering battle in her eyes, but she pushed her feelings back and lifted her chin. ‘I’ve been at the office,’ she said quietly. ‘I thought you might need these.’

She gestured a sheaf of papers that were tucked under her arm, and Roy raised an eyebrow as he recognised the Fuhrer’s seal emblazoned in the corner. 'They're drafts of lieutenant Colonel Hughes' “mission” documents, including official authorisation from the ex-Fuhrer Bradley.' Her lips curved with a faintly smug smile as she held them out to him. 'They're fake, of course, but they'll pass even close scrutiny.'

'Where did you get these?' Hughes asked in amazement as he took one of the pages and peered at it.

'Havoc has hidden talents. With all the girlfriends he's had he seems to have a lot of interesting connections as well.' Hawkeye managed a mock grimace. 'I'm afraid it does mean you'll lose your post-mortem promotion, sir.

Maes chuckled weakly at that and shrugged. 'Easy come, easy go.'

'They're not completely perfect,' Riza confessed, 'but if anyone starts asking difficult questions we at least need to make sure we’re all telling the same story.' She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. 'Gracia's also here. She's waiting.'

That announcement was met with silence, and Maes took a deep, steadying breath as he tried to keep calm. 'How is she?' he asked, his voice tinged with desperation. Like a thirsty man in the desert he drank in Riza's reply.

'Curious,' Hawkeye said with a shrug. 'Possibly a touch afraid. It isn't exactly usual to be called to the hospital at this time of the night. I tried to reassure her, but I'm not sure if I was successful.'

'Al, I'll be right back. If there's any change then come and get me,' Roy said quickly, slipping into the familiar comfort of orders as he turned on his heel. Hawkeye and Hughes were right behind him, and he swallowed a knot of dread as he tried to think of how this encounter would unwind. A normal woman simply wouldn't believe it, but Gracia was remarkable. Still, it wasn't going to be easy.

'Wait here,' he said quietly, fixing Hughes with a firm look. 'If you barge in there now, you'll probably scare the life out of her, and I know that's not what you want. Riza, can you stay here and watch him?'

The lieutenant nodded once in acknowledgement, her stance relaxed. Only the gently brush of her fingers on the butt of her gun cautioned Hughes against any rash action. The man himself paced back and forth, his face pinched and pale as he sought to find release from the anxiety that had him in its claws.

Gracia Hughes sat in a chair in a small, clean waiting room. Her hair had been brushed and her clothes were neat, but there was still a faint trace of tiredness about her. She waited patiently, and Roy saw her glance curiously at the clock. She did not seem upset at being called in at this hour of the night. In her arms Elysia napped peacefully, her brunette pigtails dark against the white of Gracia's blouse.

She went to stand up when he walked in, but he quickly waved her back into the chair before sitting next to her. As soon as he saw the concern in her eyes Roy knew that he must look a mess. There was no woman in the world more caring or gentle than Gracia, and he couldn't help but smile as she reached out and straightened his collar in a maternal gesture.

'Roy, what's wrong? Is there something I can do to help?' she asked quietly so as not to disturb her daughter. 'You look exhausted.'

'I'm fine, Gracia.' Of course she would ask about his well being before having a concern for her own. It had never been any other way. She always put other people before herself. She was the perfect wife for Hughes.

Clearing his throat he tried to find the best way to tell her what had happened. His tongue felt thick and clumsy as his mind scrambled in panic. 'It's just -' He hesitated, unsure how to go about informing someone that their dead husband was actually alive.

'Did you find Maes' remains?' she whispered, her voice heavy with sadness. 'I didn't mean to cause so much fuss over it. I know you have better things to be doing.'

'Nothing is more important than that,' Roy replied earnestly, wishing he could get Hawkeye to do this instead. Surely she would know what to say? Clearing his throat he began to speak, staring unseeingly at the floor as he tried to explain. 'The remains were being used for alchemical purposes. I put Ed on the case. I knew he would do everything possible to find out what was happening. I wouldn't trust anyone else with something this important to me.'

He was surprised by his own admission, but Gracia nodded in understanding as though she had realised that fact long ago. Gently she brushed Elysia's hair with her palm, waiting for him to continue.

'At first it looked like he wasn't turning up much, but tonight he must have discovered something. He hasn't reported the details to me yet, but I'm sure he will when he's able.'

The startled look on her face made Roy wince. He would have to tell her about Ed eventually. She would probably drag the truth about that out of someone sooner rather than later. He prayed it wouldn't be him. He didn't have the strength for that.

He stumbled over his words as he went on, looking up at Gracia through the strands of hair that fell across his forehead and into his eyes. 'There was an explosion in the warehouse district tonight. When we went to investigate we found Edward and Maes in the middle of it all.'

She tipped her head slightly to one side, her eyes narrowing as she tried to follow what he was saying. 'I – I don't understand.'

He saw her confusion in the taut smoothness of her face and the tense line of her jaw. Her grip around her daughter had tightened, and she clung to Elysia like a drowning woman to driftwood.

Finally he managed to croak out the truth of it. 'Somehow Ed managed to bring Hughes back. He's alive.'

It sounded false and completely unbelievable. The proof of his own eyes was one thing, but now he came to tell someone else it seemed foolish. He would be lucky if she didn't call the doctor and suggest he have his head examined.

Crystalline tears welled up in Gracia's eyes, splashing unnoticed into Elysia's hair. Her bottom lip trembled, and she pursed it tight as she tried to make sense of what he was saying. 'Alive?' she repeated, as though she couldn't understand what he was saying.

Roy nodded, his words coming quickly as he tried to curtail her doubts. 'We've had the doctor take a look at him. It's as though he was never shot.' Carefully he reached over and took her hand in his, noticing that she was still wearing her wedding band. 'It's not a trick or some sick joke, Gracia. He's waiting to see you just outside.'

He had thought she would hesitate or insist that he had made a mistake. He expected questions or curses. Instead she leapt out of the chair, startling Elysia awake as she darted out into the corridor. He heard her gasp of surprise and the little girl's squeal of joy, and felt a smile curve his own lips. Quietly moving towards the doorway, he saw Gracia wrapped in Hughes' arms, her face buried in his shoulder as she wept in disbelief. Elysia was clinging to her father and laughed out loud as he swept her up and gathered his wife close again.

With shaking hands, Gracia brushed her fingertips over Hughes' jaw and cheeks. Her eyes were bright as she stared at him in wonder. 'It's really you,' she whispered, biting her lip as another sob shook her shoulders. 'It's really you!' She rained kisses down on her husband's cheeks and lips as tears dripped off of her chin. 'I thought I'd lost you.'

'So did I,' Hughes choked out, tightening his grasp on both of them as he pressed his forehead against Gracia's brow and looked into her eyes. 'I love you.'

'I love you too,’ she replied hoarsely, smiling shakily. ‘I’ve missed you so much!’

Hawkeye was watching the reunion with tears in her eyes, and she discreetly motioned to Roy. They moved away silently, giving the reunited family some privacy. It was as though something broken had been made whole again, and Roy couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder at the touching scene. He had never, ever thought he would see Gracia truly smile again, or hear Elysia's unbridled laughter. Now the little girl was cradled in her father's arms, despite her size, and was chattering happily as she ran her fingers over his stubbled jaw.

'I think that's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen,' Hawkeye said quietly. 'They're so happy.' She cleared her throat awkwardly. 'I know you don't believe in miracles, sir, but doesn't this make you think about changing your mind?'

'Perhaps,' he said quietly, moving into Ed's room. His stomach twisted uncomfortably as joy collided with grief and concern. 'I just wish that Ed had thought to spare a miracle for himself. I think he could use one right now.'

Riza nodded, her eyes lingering on Al's slumped form. He had rested his head against the mattress and now slept soundly, despite his previous protests. He clung to his brother's wrist as though ensuring that he could not go anywhere, and the faint trace of tear-tracks were fresh on his cheeks. Very gently Roy shook Al's shoulder, bringing him back to the edge of wakefulness. 'Al, there's a bed right next door. Come on. You need sleep.'

'Don't want to leave him,' Al managed, sounding unbearably young. His eyelids were already fluttering closed again as his body demanded the rest it had been denied.

'I'll wake you up as soon as there's a change,' Roy promised. 'I'll look after Ed. Trust me.' His words were gentle, and he noticed Hawkeye lift an eyebrow at his sincerity before she gentle took Al by the elbow and helped him to his feet.

'He's not going anywhere, Al,' she said reassuringly. 'We'll make sure of it. Havoc and Falman are guarding the doors, so even if he discharges himself again we'll stop him.'

Roy wondered if she was telling the truth about that and stuck his head out of the door, seeing the familiar forms on either side of the entrance to the hospital wing. Smoke from Havoc's cigarette curled in the air, and Falman had propped himself against the wall. He knew they may not be stoic and grim like typical sentries, but they would do their job.

Just then Havoc turned and caught his eye, giving him a reassuring smile through the window in the door. Sleep seemed to have become an optional luxury among Roy's staff lately, and he wondered if he should force a mandatory vacation for them all once this was over.

'Sir?'

He realised Hawkeye had said something, and he looked up to see her watching him with a trace of patient disapproval. After her gentle cajoling, Al had shuffled out of the door, and he heard the bed next door creak softly as the younger Elric collapsed onto the mattress. 'Sorry, I wasn't listening.'

'I said perhaps you should get some rest as well?'

'I need to stay here. I'll get some sleep in the chair.' He gestured to the uncomfortable things clustered around Ed's bed and quickly held up his hand to stem her protests. 'Do me a favour. Go home and get a few hours. Someone here needs to be awake tomorrow morning. The rest of us aren't going to be good for anything much.'

Hawkeye's lips tightened, and he knew she wanted to argue. Her fingertips drummed twice on her hip as she considered his request before finally allowing one sharp nod. 'Understood.' With efficient movements she grabbed a blanket and shook it out, casting it around Roy's shoulders with one final glare. The fact she had to stand on tiptoes to reach properly did nothing to reduce the vague threat in her gaze, and he smiled in thanks.

Sinking heavily into one of the chairs he watched Hawkeye depart, flicking the light off as she went. The room was plunged into soft twilight, lit by nothing other than the streetlamps beyond the window. Shifting his weight, Roy winced as the seat creaked threateningly.

He watched Ed through lowered lashes, trying to struggle against sleep as he maintained his vigil. Exhaustion made sounds hazy, and more than once he thought he had slipped into a dream. Faint laughter and half-forgotten memories stirred in his mind, melting together in a blur of colour and sound.

A shape near the doorway dragged him back to reality. Blinking his gritty eyes, he craned his neck to see Elysia standing on the threshold. Maes' daughter had escaped from clumsy toddler-hood and was now a graceful seven-year old. She had her mother's kind expression and her father's mischief. At that moment, though, she was all Gracia. Large eyes were shining brightly as she tiptoed across the room and hauled herself up onto the bed. For a few seconds she just looked down at the sleeping young man with a thoughtful frown, and Roy wondered what she was thinking.

With great care she pressed her lips to Ed's cheek and whispered, 'Thank you for getting my daddy back.' She spared a smile for Roy before she curled up on top of the sheets, pressing her cheek against the cool metal of Ed's arm.

'What are you doing, Elysia?' he asked curiously, wondering if he should pick her up and take her back to Hughes.

'Looking after him,' she murmured as she let her eyes drift shut. 'He played with me when Daddy couldn't and made me smile when I was sad,' She scowled for a moment, blinking blearily, 'but there's no one to take care of him. I can't get his mummy back.'

She didn't notice her parents standing behind her in the hallway, both gazing into the room with tears in their eyes at their daughter's words. Only a child could take such a complex situation and make it so incredibly simple. Roy caught Maes' eye and gave a quick nod, silently agreeing to watch the little girl. He knew that Hughes and Gracia wouldn't leave the hospital, but they would cherish the moment to simply share one another’s company again.

Elysia was already drifting off, her thoughtful frown smoothed away by sleep. As carefully as he could, Roy draped another blanket over her, tucking it up under her chin as she clung to Ed as though he were a teddy bear.

Roy could still remember her wails of grief at the funeral. Her inability to understand what was happening had torn the adults around her to pieces. Even now he wondered if she realised the true impossibility of what had taken place today.

He wasn't sure he quite grasped it himself. One part of his mind kept saying that it simply couldn't be done. It had to be a trick, a lie. Yet Hughes was flesh and blood, and he realised how desperately he wanted to believe it was true.

Gently, so as not to disturb the two sleepers on the bed, he rested his forearms on the mattress and let his head settle on the top of his hands. It would make his neck stiff, and he would suffer for it come morning. Roy knew that he could find an empty bed, but he had two promises to keep. Elysia was easy; she was as much of an angel as her father proclaimed and taking care of her was wonderfully simple.

Ed was a different matter. It felt as though Roy had spent the better part of his life trying to look after him. Of course it had all been through off-hand manipulation, like a puppet-master tugging all the right strings. Sometimes he smoothed the young alchemist's path through his influence, or removed the obstacles in his way before Fullmetal even came across them. At first it had been easy, but it had become more and more difficult to watch Edward from a distance. Inexorably they had all been drawn deeper into the convoluted plots of the Homunculi, and even then Ed had been determined to do things his own way.

Roy had told Gracia how much he trusted the young alchemist, and he hadn't been lying. Still, he wondered whether that faith was returned. If Ed had a problem that he couldn't solve alone was there anyone he would turn to, or would he just struggle on until he succeeded or died trying?

With a sigh Roy shifted slightly. He could make Ed's life easier, but the young blonde rarely let anyone offer him physical comfort. It was only at times like this, when he was helpless to stop them, that anyone got the chance to really take care of him. Even Elysia had jumped at the opportunity. Why did he have to hold everyone at arm's length?

Roy snorted irritably and shut his eyes, forcing his thoughts aside as he sought sleep. 'Goodnight, idiot,' he muttered in a low voice, hoping, rather than believing that Ed would hear him.

Slumber tugged his awareness and finally pulled him into its velveteen depths. He did not feel the mattress shift as the blanket was gently tugged up further around his shoulders, or hear the hoarse whisper of reply.

'Goodnight, bastard.'

Chapter Text

The night slipped by on tattered wings, full of fractured dreams and vague memories. More than once Ed awoke aware of at least one constant, sleeping presence at his side. It was reassuring: an anchor to reality. Like a frightened child he reached out, carefully gripping the hand closest to him and hanging on tight. This was where he belonged, right here, so why did it feel as though part of him was trying to slip away?

He opened gritty eyes for what felt like the hundredth time and blinked blearily. Images filtered back into his mind, vile and disturbing. The gate, the bodies, Carmine and the shadows. He recalled Hughes checking his pulse and the glittering night sky overhead. Was that real, or had it been a dream? Ed swallowed tight, feeling the dry rasp of his throat. A faint coppery taste lingered on his tongue. Blood. He flinched at the recollection of the warm flow on his fingertips and quickly pressed his hand to his neck.

There was nothing there.

Carefully he dropped his palm to his chest, realising that he was almost naked beneath the sheets. Someone had left him his underwear, but that was the only concession they had made to his dignity. There should be a hole in his body where the darkness had pierced him, and a rib protruding from his side. Instead there was only the array on his torso, which prickled and itched.

Ed groaned quietly as his head throbbed, pushed to the point of pain by the elusive memories of the night. What had happened? He had thought that Carmine would take what was left of his life to use as her own, but instead... . Something must have gone wrong. The potent fury etched on her face as the glimmer of light in her palm had rushed towards him was unmistakable. This had not been part of her plan.

A flicker of heat danced around the lines of the design on his chest and Ed traced it absently, trying to reassure himself that there was nothing out of the ordinary. He was back in Amestris, back in the hospital bed and it seemed that he was safe. At least for now.

Faint morning sunlight peeked out from wispy clouds beyond the windowpane. The shadows of the room were chased away, and the persistent tug of sleep's fingers gradually slipped from him. His body was weak and shaken. Even lying still in bed, Ed could feel the drained emptiness of his muscles and the trembling in his limbs. His mind was not tired, but his flesh still burned with exhaustion.

A shiver raised his skin into goose flesh, and he gently shuffled further under the blankets. A hot weight tightened around his stomach, and a sleepy growl of complaint echoed in the quiet air. Mustang was still sleeping at his side, his face turned a bit into the mattress to escape the breaking day. Dark hair spiked in odd directions, and a crease from the sheet had carved an indentation across one cheek. At some point he had thrown his arm across Ed's waist, effectively pinning him.

He looked younger like that. Stripped of the austere polish of his rank and the tense stress of his waking hours, Roy looked more human. Stubble darkened his jaw, and faint bruises still lingered under his closed eyes. As carefully as he could, Ed untangled his left hand from the clutch of Mustang's right and touched a fingertip to his face. It was the lightest possible caress, and he knew it was only the exhausted weakness of his body that drove him to it. He just had to know that the man slumped at his bedside was real.

'You'll wake him up.'

Elysia's whispered warning made him jerk back in surprise, and he looked to his right to see the little girl watching him with sleepy eyes. Her cheek was pressed against his automail arm. He wished someone had thought to give her a pillow: she must be freezing.

'No I won't,' Ed murmured back. 'He's a heavy sleeper. What are you doing here?'

She smiled at his question and nudged his forearm with her nose. His metal limbs never bothered Elysia. He supposed that, because she'd never known him another way, it seemed natural to her. 'Looking after you. Everyone's scared.'

'Of what?'

'They think you're going to leave.' Her voice was heavy with sadness and dread. She always said that her father had “left”, and it didn't need much brainpower to work out what Elysia meant. 'You're not, are you?'

'Not if I can help it,' he replied with a tired smile, hoping that it was enough to reassure her.

Elysia nodded and sat up, slipping down from the bed and moving towards the doorway. Beyond it Ed could see Hughes and Gracia, and he felt a warm shot of relief. That part hadn’t been a dream. The two of them were curled uncomfortably in the hospital chairs, sleeping in the warm cradle of each other's arms. Gracia's fingertips were twisted in Maes' shirt, and the man's arms were wrapped tightly around his wife's waist. Elysia looked at the two of them thoughtfully before climbing into her father's lap and nestling between them. Her parents automatically shifted to make space, and Ed grinned to himself as Hughes woke up enough to drop a sleepy kiss on Elysia's forehead. That was how things should be.

He grimaced as he realised that Carmine was probably indirectly responsible for bringing Maes back. She had transmuted his body in order to sacrifice him again. All Ed could take the credit for was an impromptu rescue. The very fact that Carmine had successfully brought back the dead was enough to make him shudder. He didn't understand how she had done it.

With a shake of his head, he propped himself up on his elbows. He couldn't think right now. The exhaustion in his body was intense, but it didn't stop the more fundamental needs from being present. Nature was calling, and the press of Roy's arm over his bladder wasn't helping that one bit. He managed to slide out of bed, but as soon as his feet hit the floor it was as though he were yanked towards the ground. Holding out one hand to steady himself he tried not to fall over, but it was close. The last thing he wanted was to be found collapsed in his boxer shorts.

The headache had increased to a painful pounding, and Ed narrowed his eyes against the weak light as it lanced through his skull. It felt as if he had the mother of all hangovers. The kind where you wished you were dead so that you didn't have to bear the hammering pain on every nerve. At least he wasn't throwing up.

He made it to the bathroom with tiny steps, pushing himself on with dogged determination. His legs were shaking drunkenly and shivers were making his teeth chatter. Finally he sat down on the closed toilet seat, quietly locking the door as he struggled to recoup some of his strength. 'Well, this is pathetic,' he muttered to himself, touching his forehead. He wasn't feverish, but the trembling of his body was increasing to the point of pain. What the hell was wrong with him?

Finally feeling well enough to stand, he stepped out of his boxers and quickly answered the call of nature. One palm was pressed to the wall behind the toilet as he struggled to keep his balance. When he was done he pulled the flush, ignoring the gurgle of the water as he washed his hands and looked around the room.

The bathroom was small with white tiles polished to a painful shine. There were all the basics, including a shower, and Ed only hesitated for a moment before flicking on the water as hot as he could stand it. The calescent cascade flowed over his skin, and he panicked for a moment when he saw it was tinted red. Quickly raising his hand he felt the matted strands of hair and grimaced in disgust.

'Fucking brilliant.'

He forced himself to wash his hair and soap his body, chasing away the grime and filth that clung to him. Steam was already billowing in the bathroom, and he took a deep breath of the warm, moist air as he rested his head against the wall. Water sloshed in his face. He closed his eyes against the stream, letting it banish the chill from his body as his mind wandered.

Sanctuary.

Ed's eyes snapped open, and he spluttered as he swallowed a mouthful of shower water. It had sounded like a whisper right in his ear, but he was completely alone. Another shudder tore up his spine, induced by fear this time. It must have been his imagination or the beginning of a dream, he logically decided. What else could it be?

Scowling, he flicked off the tap and reached for a towel. It was flat and scratchy, but it would do. A quick rummage in the cupboards revealed several pairs of loose cotton pants and t-shirts. They were better than nothing, and he hastily pulled them on. Maybe they'd do something to keep the cold at bay.

About to pull the top over his head he hesitated, a movement catching his eyes. At first he thought it was just his reflection in the steam-obscured mirror, but as he stared he saw a word begin to trace itself in the fog.

Sanctuary.

His arm went slack, the top still dangling from his loosely clenched fingers as he read the letters. With a mute shake of his head he reached out and swiped the word away, obliterating it in a watery streak. This was insane.

A yelp choked in his throat as he saw his image in the glass. His face was the same, slack-jawed in shock and wide-eyed in disbelief. There was only one difference, and it held Ed's rapt attention. His reflection's bare chest showed the same scars and the same trails of water that he had yet to dry away. Yet there was something else. In the direct centre of his torso a bead of light glowed weakly.

It was under his skin, casting a muted luminescence that was tinted pink by the blood in his veins. It waxed and waned, matching a staccato rhythm with his thundering heart. With a jolt he snapped his head downwards, searching for the same glow beneath his skin. There was nothing there. His flesh was ordinary. Nothing sparkled or dimmed beneath his ribs. It was the same as it had ever been.

When he looked up again the mirror told the truth. His reflection was normal.

Sanctuary. It wasn't a request, he realised; it was a fact. The light in Carmine's hand had been all that remained of the core of the gate. She had intended to destroy it, and it had taken the only course left open to it. It had found a hiding place.

He touched numb fingers to his chest, his eyes narrowing as he felt a patch of heat. It was warmer than body temperature and lay beneath the middle of the array. There was no pain, not really, but all Ed could think of was the violation. It had not asked his permission or sought any kind of approval from him. Like an animal it had acted on instinct, and now it was inside him doing who knew what?

'Get out,' he snarled through gritted teeth, bracing one hand against the sink. His eyes flared with anger, and he could feel his cheeks begin to flush with fury. 'I'm not your puppet. Get out.'

There was no answer. He hadn't really expected one. Nothing scrawled its way through the mist that remained on the mirror, and no thought murmured in his mind. A sigh escaped him, and Ed felt his legs begin to shake again. Anger was short-lived, and it didn't take long for familiar fear and exhaustion took the upper hand. He thought that he was done with the bloody gate. He thought it was all over!

He resisted the urge to smash the glass, clenching his fists at his side instead. It wouldn't do him any good. Besides, he didn't need more bad luck.

As soon as he was better he would get to the library. He did not care about the gate. It didn't matter to him whether whatever had been contained beyond those doors lived or died. All he knew was that he wasn't going to put up with this alien presence for a moment longer than he had to. He'd paid time and again, and he wasn't about to roll over and let it have its way.

Ed wrenched open the door and stepped out, letting out a grunt of surprise when he collided with someone's chest. Hands grabbed his bare shoulders, steadying him before he could fall. The touch of smooth, warm skin against his own was electrifying, and a flash of hot desire burned its way through him. Pain was shoved aside, replaced by an entirely different kind of ache, and he swallowed tightly as he met Mustang's dark gaze.

Unconsciously licking his dry lips Ed tried to get a grip and pull himself together, but it was easier said than done. They were close, almost toe-to-toe, and neither of them was backing away. Once or twice in the past Ed thought he had seen a flash of desire in Roy's eyes but had dismissed it as his imagination. Now there was no flicker; there was an inferno.

Perhaps he really was hallucinating. There was no reason for Mustang, notorious womaniser, to be looking at him like that.

On his shoulders the strong grip tightened possessively. It wasn't quite hard enough to bruise, but nor was it gentle. One thumb brushed absently along his collarbone, and Edward struggled not to groan aloud.

He blinked, and just like that the spell was broken.

'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Roy demanded, his voice rough with sleep. 'You shouldn't be out of bed.'

Edward raised an eyebrow and blew a strand of wet hair out of his face. This was more like it. This he could deal with. 'I didn't think I needed your permission to take a piss,' he grumbled. 'If I hadn't had blood in my hair I'd have been back before you even woke up.' He forced himself to brush Mustang's hands away, trying not to miss the brief warmth of his touch. He was tired, and it was making thoughts fuzzy. Logic was being driven away and instincts were taking over. He had to put some distance between them before he did something he would regret, like kiss his superior officer.

With a quick tug he pulled the t-shirt over his head before walking back to the bed. If he hadn't had an audience he would have sighed in relief as the mattress yielded beneath his weight. Instead he fought valiantly to hide the shaking exhaustion of his muscles from Roy's watchful gaze and tugged the blankets up around his shoulders.

He turned on his side, trying to block the other man from his universe. Unfortunately Mustang was never easy to ignore. He stepped into Ed's line of vision and folded his arms, opening his mouth to begin a tirade. Briefly Edward considered turning over again, but his body practically fell apart at the idea of more movement.

'Can we save the lecture for later?' he asked. 'I'm tired. I wouldn't want to fall asleep and miss it.' The sarcasm in his voice was unmistakable, and he felt a flash of satisfaction as Mustang scowled. For a moment he hoped the older man would walk out the door. Ed didn't think he had the strength to deal with Roy's disappointment right now. The worst part was that every word would be true. He should have told someone where he was going. He shouldn't have discharged himself from hospital. Yes he was an idiot, and no, that never changed.

'Thank you.' Quiet and vulnerable, the words were little more than a murmur. For a minute Ed froze, watching Roy close his eyes and bow his head. Broad shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. 'Thank you for bringing Maes back, Fullmetal.'

That wasn't what he had been expecting. Briefly Ed wondered if this was actually Mustang, or if it was some kind of impostor. Roy didn't thank him for anything, yet he hadn't imagined those words.

Blowing out a heavy breath he propped his weight up on one elbow and shook his head. 'Don't thank me. I just got him out. I didn't bring him back to life. Didn't he tell you what happened?'

Mustang uncrossed his arms and settled into one of the chairs nearby. He propped his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands loosely in front of his face as he shrugged. 'The details are a little patchy. Hughes can only tell us what happened after he was brought back. He wasn't there for the beginning.'

'Can't I just write a report?' Ed asked quietly, trying to delay the inevitable.

'Your reports are more fiction than fact. Besides, your handwriting's appalling.' Roy stretched his legs out in front of him and shifted in his chair, getting more comfortable. 'Start talking.'

‘And don’t leave anything out,’ a soft voice added from the doorway. Edward looked up to see Al and Hughes standing on the threshold. They were bedraggled from sleeping in their clothes and scruffy from hours of waiting, but there was no mistaking the relief on their faces.

‘Unless you don’t feel up to it,’ Al cut in, casting a surprisingly sharp look at Roy and Maes. ‘It can wait if you’d rather.’

The opportunity was a two-edged sword. If he said he wasn’t feeling well enough then he would never get out of this hospital, but if he claimed he was all right then there would be no choice but to relive the events of the night. With a deep sigh Ed closed his eyes for a moment and tried to get his thoughts in order. There was no way he was staying in this uncomfortable bed for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Hesitantly at first he began to speak, bringing together the patches of his memory into a cohesive train of events. As he talked he watched Roy carefully, hoping for some sign of recognition at Carmine's name, but there was nothing. Only the grim set of his mouth gave Ed any indication of Mustang’s emotions, and it was clear that he did not like what he was being told.

It was only when Ed explained the total collapse of the gate that anyone spoke.

'There's nothing left of it?' Al asked in disbelief, shaking his head as he tried to understand the enormity of it. 'Nothing at all?'

'Just a hole. Carmine was slowly polluting the gate until it tore itself apart. She's been doing it for centuries.' He didn't mention the light in her palm or the heat beneath the scar on his chest. Something warned him against it. 'I don't know quite what is happening there now. Something pushed me out of that plane, and she was left behind.'

Mustang stood up, beginning to prowl restlessly as he tried to think. 'You said she was trying to get revenge?'

'It started off that way. The gate's a channel for energy. She was tainting it by pushing as many murdered lives through it as possible. She basically fed the gate with hate and anger, and it learned. When it began to develop a personality she made a deal with it. Something to do with getting someone back that she had lost.'

'In exchange for what?'

Ed shrugged and slumped back against the pillows. 'Setting it free?' He ran a hand across his face, wishing he wasn't so tired. 'It sounded like she was trying to explain that what was in the gate was separate from the doors and the frame. They just marked the boundary between here and there.'

'And whatever was inside wanted to get out,' Mustang finished, a frown marring his face.

Ed fought against heavy eyelids as he struggled to press the point home. 'The laws of equivalent exchange haven't applied in our lifetime. At least, there is no equal return. The gate has been asking more and more in exchange for less and less. I think in the beginning it was like a machine. It was just a conduit that she wanted to destroy. After she corrupted it, it became too strong for her.' Ed managed a weak shrug. 'I don't know what will happen now that the gate is gone.'

Not gone.

He stiffened, glancing quickly at the other three in the room to see if they had heard anything unusual. No surprise showed on their faces. All three were thinking silently, trying to unravel what had happened and why. Quickly he lowered his eyes so that they wouldn't see his alarm and tried to find a measure of calm.

Still here.

The flash of heat made him gasp involuntarily, and a desperate pain burned through his head. Curling up tight he pressed his palms to his temples, gritting his teeth to stop himself from crying out. A high-pitched note rang in his ears, and tears stung at his eyes as his muscles coiled tight. Someone called for a nurse, but it was external to him: irrelevant. The agony trapped his attention, driving him deeper inside himself.

Images flickered across his mind's eye. Some were familiar memories - others were unlike anything he had ever seen. They were weak and grainy monochrome pictures, as though whatever was projecting them did not have the strength to give them colour or life. Snatches of knowledge, incomprehensible and strange, floated around. There were words he didn't understand in languages he didn't know, but it did not matter. Their meaning got through to his tormented understanding.

Just because the gate was no longer a standing construct did not mean that it had been destroyed. The elements of what had lain beyond its doors still survived.

Freedom.

Something pricked his arm, and the pictures fizzled out. Hot sluggishness seeped through his veins, unwinding his muscles with its touch. A warm hand rested against his forehead, and he groaned in relief as the pain began to ebb away.

'Ed, open your eyes.' Roy's voice was gentle, but very far away. Easy enough to ignore. People were talking, their voices low and worried. He could feel the familiar calluses of Al's grip on his left hand: panicked, frightened. He should check he was all right, but his eyelids felt like lead.

'Come on, Ed, just for a minute,’ Mustang urged, ‘then you can go to sleep.'

With a massive effort he managed to open his eyes a fraction. A gentle fog seemed to cover everything, but no one seemed to be alarmed by it. He would have frowned, but he felt incredibly unconcerned.

'Ed, listen. They've given you laudanum for the pain. It's going to put you to sleep for a while. If we're not here when you wake up, promise me you'll stay in bed?' Roy seemed to be waiting for an answer, and he gently shook Ed's shoulder when he didn't respond. 'Okay?'

'Kay.'

Sounds began to fade as he shut his eyes again, revelling in the painlessness of his body. There were no twinges at his ports or prickling of his scars. Everything was beautifully numb.

'So that's what it takes to make him follow orders.' Hughes' voice was amused, as though he were trying to lighten a black mood. It sounded like it was coming from the other end of a long tunnel.

'You could probably tell him to jump off a cliff right now and he'd do it,' Mustang replied grimly. 'I wish there was something else they could have given him, but -'

'But that was horrible. I've never seen him like that before,' Al finished. He sounded shaky and uncertain, as though he were wondering whether he had just rescued his brother from the frying pan and dropped him in the fire. In a quiet whisper he confessed, 'Mum was being given laudanum at the end.'

‘Don’t worry, Al,' Roy replied, and Ed felt the fingertips against his forehead tremble. ‘It’s a common method of pain relief. It doesn’t mean that Ed will go the same way your mother did.’

‘Laudanum is addictive,’ Hughes said softly, a gentle caution.

‘With any luck he won’t need something this strong again. If he does, I’ll talk to the doctor about an alternative. I won’t let Fullmetal become reliant on this stuff.’

Shame, Ed thought to himself as the voices vanished and his awareness faded. Life's good when there's no pain.


Light and sound came flooding back in an abrupt rush. It was as though someone had flicked a switch inside his mind and yanked him from sleep to wakefulness in the blink of an eye. He managed not to move, even though every instinct was on high alert. He recognised the hospital from the chatter of the nurses, and realised with a sick feeling that there was an IV embedded in the back of his hand. The fog of the drug they had given him was gone, and now waves of chilly horror unrolled through him.

'Mister Elric?'

He opened one eye, prepared to shut it again at the first sign of pain. Memories of the earlier agony were still fresh in his mind, but they were only phantoms of sensation. His nerves were calm and unbothered. Only the stab of the line that fed into his flesh concerned him.

A nurse was standing over him, her face fixed in a gentle expression as she waited for his response. 'Are you awake?'

'Can you take that out?' he croaked, not caring if he sounded more like a frightened boy than a man.

'If you can sip this glass of water and keep it down, then yes.'

She adjusted the pillows behind him and helped him shuffle into a sitting position. Intelligent blue eyes watched him carefully, no doubt looking for any sign of discomfort. 'How do you feel?' she asked calmly as he took small mouthfuls of the water. It was cool and soothing, and he forced himself not to gulp it down.

'Better,' he said flatly, sighing when she made a motion for him to expand on that statement. 'Nothing hurts. I just feel a bit woozy.'

'That'll be the drug in your system. It was very effective against the acute pain you suffered.' She pressed her fingertips to his wrist carefully, measuring his pulse. 'Have you ever had an attack like that before?'

Ed finished off the water and put the cup down on the bedside table, feeling the fluid settle uncomfortably in his stomach. 'No.'

The nurse nodded, making notes as she spoke. 'We think it was caused by dehydration due to blood loss. When you first came in your blood pressure was very low, and one of your colleagues estimated you had lost approximately twenty-five percent of your blood volume,' the nurse explained. 'The IV was to rehydrate you and hopefully increase the amount of fluid in your veins.'

Ed stayed quiet. Her theory sounded pretty good. Yet he could remember the flashing images and knew that the light from the gate was responsible. Was it some kind of retribution or punishment? Was it as malicious as the shadows that had once surrounded its burning core? He supposed it was too much to hope that it was benign and gentle. The proof of the past few hours was enough to rule that out.

He looked around the hospital room with distrust, trying to reassure himself that everything was normal. Night was thick and inky outside the window, letting him know that he'd slept the day away in a drug-induced haze. The sudden warmth in his veins had been a relief, releasing him from the torment. Ed could faintly remember worried voices, and someone gently brushing their fingers across his forehead. He had promised Mustang that he wouldn't leave if none of them were there. They were probably getting some rest and catching their own peace, but he felt abandoned and uncomfortably alone.

There was no way he was staying here.

'Can I have some discharge forms,' he asked, adding a quiet, 'please?' when the nurse looked horrified. He watched her open and close her mouth once or twice, as though unable to make a decision between his request and simple common sense.

'Mister Elric, you need to rest! You can't just leave. Let me get the doctor.'

Ed groaned as she marched out of the door, her sensible pumps squeaking on the floor as she went. He shot another look at the IV in his arm and sat up straighter. The doctor had said it himself. He was of age to decline medical treatment if he wanted, and he was sure as hell declining this thing sticking into his hand.

His automail fingers were clumsy and heavy, but he forced himself to concentrate as he peeled off the tape that secured the line. Swallowing queasiness, he grabbed the base of the needle and slid it out, shutting his eyes against the slick feeling of it slipping free. A bright dot of blood welled in its wake, pooling and trickling down his hand to drip on the sheets. It spread out, painting a crimson blossom on the stark white.

Fear gripped him hard, choking him even as his mind reeled in confusion. It was just a bit of blood, a tiny wound. Why was it terrifying him so much? It took him a moment to realise that the fear wasn't exactly his own, and Ed blinked in surprise. His body was reacting to the adrenaline and the other hormones of the fight or flee response, but his mind was clear of it.

A flash of light on the back of his hand made him flinch and, just like that, the tract of the needle had gone. Terror departed, leaving a jittery uncertainty in its place. Like a tide, the weakness rolled in again, leaving him to slump back against the pillows and close his eyes. Automail chill traced across his skin as he poked the place where the needle had been - Nothing. No pain, no wound, not even a mark on his skin.

The panic had come from whatever was inside him. He knew it with a logical certainty that rested like ice in his mind. A piece of the gate had ferreted itself away, and it knew that its haven was frail. For something of such a long existence as the gate to be hiding inside such a transient, temporary being must mean it was desperate. It knew how easily the body that sheltered it could be slain, and the very possibility of death spawned abject terror.

But why?

One is all. All is one.

Ed blinked as that thought came to the surface. He knew the words well. It was the summation of Izumi's philosophy about the essence of alchemy and the natural cycle of the world. So why did it seem to take on a different, more ominous meaning now?

Like sand between his fingers his ideas began to slip away, and the murmured concepts were once again silent. Ed clenched his teeth in frustration, tightening his muscles as he fought to wrestle his life under some control. He didn't understand what was happening, and every time he tried to think about it his strength evaded him.

It was this place, with its blank walls and its vague expectancy. He had to get out of here. He had to feel safe.

He was just starting to consider getting out of bed and sneaking out when the doctor appeared at the door. He looked as though he were preparing himself for a battle as he straightened his shoulders and walked to Ed's bedside. If he noticed the disconnected drip he didn't comment, and instead took a blood pressure device from a nearby drawer and strapped it on.

'The nurse informs me that you want to leave. I'm sure I don't need to explain – again – why that would be unwise.' He gently began pressurising the cuff, pressing the pad of a stethoscope to Ed's skin as he counted. Ed stayed silent, waiting for the doctor to finish. 'Your blood pressure is still below tolerance and is likely to remain that way for some time. You are unfit to return to any kind of duty. You must have noticed yourself how light-headed you were when you first awoke.'

'I can handle it.'

The doctor's jaw clenched, and he could see that the older man was rapidly losing his patience. 'Mister Elric, your condition is severe and dangerous. You need to be kept under surveillance! You do not seem to appreciate how life threatening your situation is. If I let you walk out of here it could be the death of you.'

'Then consider this my last request,' Ed snapped. 'Get me the discharge forms. I'm going.'

Doctor Collins tapped his pen on the clipboard in his hands, his eyes raised heavenward as though in a silent prayer for patience. Eventually he gave a resigned nod. 'Very well. I called Brigadier-General Mustang before speaking to you. I believe he is making arrangements.'

That made Ed hesitate. If Roy knew that he was being difficult then it was bound to result in a lecture later. He was privately surprised that no one had materialised to make sure he did what he was told. 'Arrangements? What kind of arrangements?'

'I was serious, Mister Elric. You need bed rest and supervision. You cannot function normally, and a blood transfusion in your current state would be risky at best. Your commanding officer is just doing what's best for you.'

A tap at the door interrupted Ed's doubtful response, and he looked up to see Hawkeye waiting patiently. She had some clothes in her arms, and was looking at him with amused disapproval. 'Must you always make a fuss?' she asked quietly, as the doctor waited for Ed's scribbled signature on the forms. 'They're only trying to help you, Edward.'

He shrugged childishly, watching the doctor go with an angry glare before he pushed the blankets aside and got to his feet. It was better than last time, but he couldn't deny the disorientation that assailed his mind. Riza's petite hand on his elbow steadied him, and she guided him to one of the chairs before crouching in front of him.

'I'm all right,' he said quietly, gripping the sides of the seat to anchor himself. 'Just light-headed. There's no point staying in hospital for that.'

Hawkeye sighed and made a grimace. 'You don't like them, do you? Hospitals, I mean. You always seem to do everything in your power to avoid them or get out of them as soon as you can.'

'They smell funny,' he grumbled, knowing from the look in her eyes that she didn't believe that for a second. When she waited in silence he shoved his hair out of his face and shrugged hopelessly. 'People come here to die. They lie down and they just accept it. I'm not doing that.'

He looked up into her face as she gripped his hand, giving it a quick, strong squeeze. 'Good. Come one, let's get you home.'

'You're not going to make me stay?'

'I'm not stupid, Edward,' she said as she straightened up, her voice becoming clipped and military. 'I know you can't be dissuaded once you've made up your mind. Think of this as a compromise.'

Ed frowned, motioning for her to turn her back so that he could change into his own clothes. 'Why don't I like the sound of that?'

Riza hesitated, and he knew he wouldn't like what she had to say. As if she were delivering a particularly unsavoury order she straightened her head and squared her shoulders, talking to the opposite wall. 'You're staying with the Brigadier-General until the doctor clears you for active duty.'

He paused in the middle of doing up his fly, staring at the lieutenant's back with a mixture of disbelief and horror. 'You want me to live with Mustang? Are you insane? We'll kill each other!'

Hawkeye glanced over her shoulder, her gaze quickly taking in his bare torso. 'Finish getting dressed and don't argue. It's that or stay here.'

For a heartbeat he considered getting back into bed and pulling the blankets over his head. If he weren't so bloody tired he'd have told her not to treat him like a child, but he suspected he deserved it. Barging out of hospital and denying all attempts of help wasn't exactly mature behaviour. For assistance to be coming from Mustang's quarter was different though. It wasn't that Roy didn't help; it was just that this wasn't his style. Ed knew more than he ever let on about the Brigadier-General's ways. He liked to pull people's strings and then deny all knowledge of having done so. It was like a game. Yet this approach was direct, and the barefaced honesty of it was unsettling.

'Why is he doing this?' he asked quietly, doing up his belt over the black pants and shrugging on a clean t-shirt. 'He hates letting people into his personal space.'

'You need looking after,' Hawkeye said, grabbing a coat and wrapping it around Ed's shoulders. 'His place is big enough for you and Al to live there as well as him. The doctor's orders were very clear. You're not to be left alone. Someone from the office will be in the house with you at all times.' She shot him a quick look. 'Think of it as being under guard.'

'Great. So I'm basically a prisoner.'

She looked over her shoulder, levelling him with a chilling gaze that made him feel about ten inches tall. 'No. You're a friend to all of us, and when you won't look after yourself then we have to do it for you. If you'd stop behaving like a child perhaps you'd see that.' She seemed to remember who she was talking to and added a grudging, 'Sir.'

Ed pushed his arms into the sleeves of the coat and wrapped it around him, glaring at her as she smoothed out the collar with a sharp jerk that nearly pulled him off of his feet. 'It's for your own good. If you won’t look after yourself then remember: Mustang outranks you. He can always order you into bed.'

She turned and marched out of the door, leaving Ed standing with a faint grin on his lips. A small part of him liked the idea of that. Maybe staying with Roy wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Text

Ed stood at the window of his room, staring out across Central. It was late afternoon, and the shop-lined streets were buzzing with people making their way home from work. No doubt their thoughts were focussed on the family waiting for them or getting back to enjoy the last of the weak sunshine. The crowd was a drab sea of black and grey, monochrome and dull, but the occasional flash of blue served as a reminder of the constant military presence in the city. He tried to pick out the faces of the soldiers, but none of them were familiar.

Over to the west, the river snaked between its banks, reflecting the gold of the sinking sun. Trees lined the boulevards, and flashes of red and vermilion among their green leaves showed the first approach of autumn. Sadly, Ed wondered if he would still be here to see the first snowfall. Perhaps last winter had been his last, and he’d never even realised it.

Swallowing tightly, he scowled at the hollow fear that had made itself his companion. Hawkeye had delivered him to Mustang's home yesterday evening, and he was left with nothing to do but dwell on what was happening to him. The doctor thought he had a month, although the obscured x-rays would give no clue if that prognosis was still accurate. Perhaps he had more time.

Maybe he had less.

Other than the medical staff and himself, only four other people knew how ill he was: Hughes, Hawkeye, Mustang and Al. Everyone else thought it was something he would recover from, and he was grateful for that. Their ignorance gave him hope. His physical condition had become a taboo subject among those who knew the truth. It was as though refusing to acknowledge the fact that he was dying would somehow change reality. Perhaps if they pretended that there was nothing wrong then he would get better.

Their denial did not stop their fear, though. He could see it more clearly in Al. His brother's young, passive face had become ravaged with worry, and it was clear that he was not sleeping properly. It infuriated Ed to see him like that; it was not how things should be. He was the older brother and the head of their tiny family: he was the one who should be worrying about their future and handling their past, not Al.

He had left a short while ago to get Winry from the station, and Ed felt a spasm of guilt flicker through him. He hadn't even thought of the young automail mechanic over the past few days. She was their closest childhood friend, and her presence would be a comfort to Al at least. Perhaps she'd be able to reassure him where Ed had failed.

His reflection mimicked his grimace, and he ran his hand through his hair to push the blonde strands back from his face. There was no one to whom he could confess his fears. He wouldn't allow himself to show anything but confidence to Al. Not because he felt that telling the truth would make him weak in the eyes of his brother, but because he wouldn't be the one to acknowledge that Al's worries were founded. What good would that do?

Briefly, he had considered telling Winry, but he knew her reaction would be aggressively defensive. She would barely know how to react to the possibility of losing someone she'd known since she was a girl. Ed couldn't confide his concerns in her. She'd probably whack him for even acknowledging the possibility that he'd die before the last leaves were gone.

Hughes and Hawkeye would listen and do their best, but he didn't think they could help. It would only make them worry in turn, and no doubt whatever he said would find its way back to Mustang eventually. Hughes would give oblique hints, and Hawkeye would eventually tell him outright.

Ed scrubbed his hands over his face and shook his head. No. He couldn't tell them, and he definitely could not tell Roy. It did not matter that he had seen the man more vulnerable and afraid in the past two days than ever before, he was still his superior officer. That never changed.

So he was left with nothing other than his own poor comfort.

Anxiety gnawed at him: a dull emotion that stifled everything. He knew he could handle himself, whatever happened. He would get by no matter what the after-life held, but what about Al? He had no official source of income and no family to turn to. There was no one who could take Ed's place, and the thought of leaving his only sibling to fend for himself brought Ed out in a cold sweat. He couldn't work out what he was more afraid of: that Al would fall apart or that he wouldn't. It seemed selfish, but what if they didn't miss him? Would he be forgotten in a month as life simply went on?

A huff of laughter escaped his lips and he sighed in disbelief, realising just how morose he was becoming. The others had it right. Ignorance was bliss, and denial was the only way he could function. Moping wasn't going to do him any good. The truth was he had not coughed since returning from the hospital yesterday evening. There was no pain or sharp twinges in his chest. The only thing that plagued him was a heavy, steady tiredness.

Absently, he ran his flesh fingers over the array on his forehead before touching his chest, feeling the cotton of his t-shirt against his skin. There had been no more strange occurrences of voices or writing on the wall. In the end he had not told anyone what he had seen and heard. People were already worried. He couldn't add to that, not yet.

Ed's stomach growled fiercely, a loud gurgle that made him look down in surprise. He had spent most of the time since getting back from the hospital in bed, slipping in and out of oblivious sleep. More than once he had been vaguely aware of someone coming in and giving him drinks of water, but it was only an hour ago that he had felt able to get up and dressed. He had no idea when Al had gone to get their clothes, but almost everything he owned was put away neatly in the drawers.

It made him uncomfortable. Whatever “arrangements” Mustang had made, Ed wasn't planning on spending much time in his house. He did not like the thought of being dependent on anyone, and it irked him that Al had been so willing to accept the idea. It had been years since they had stayed at the house of Shou Tucker, and even longer since they had called anywhere home. He'd better make sure that Al knew this was only temporary. In a few days, once he'd proven that he didn't need to be looked after like a child, he'd go straight back to the dormitories.

Stiffly, Ed turned away from the window and made his way out of the bedroom. Mustang's house was impressive, but comfortable. Considering the amount of time Roy spent at the office Ed had almost expected it to be a shell of a place. Instead it was a calm haven in the centre of the city. The furniture was modern; a direct contrast to the heirlooms that he suspected littered the family manors of other high-ranking officers. There was no dark antiquity to this place. Large windows let in streams of light, and there was a sense that nothing could break the peace. Mustang probably worked hard to keep it that way, but the result was complete tranquillity.

That was another reason to leave as soon as he was able. It would be easy to get comfortable here: to get used to the idea of having a home again.

He padded down the stairs and across the wooden floor of the entrance hall, careful not to slip on the polished surface. His socked feet made no noise as Ed worked his way towards the smell of food, so hungry that he didn't spare the other rooms a second glance.

The kitchen was at the back of the house, and as he crossed the threshold he hesitated, raising his eyebrows in surprise at the oddly domestic scene within.

Mustang was stirring something slowly on the stove; his attention fixed on the document in his other hand. The man's shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, his collar was undone and his shirt was untucked. He must have only just got back from the office, and judging by the paperwork that littered the table he’d brought most of his work home with him.

His dishevelled appearance triggered a flash of memory, and Ed felt a wave of heat surge through him as he remembered the way Roy had looked in the hospital. That brief caress and the hint of roughness to Mustang's voice that day could be excused away, but there had been no denying the dark, hot passion in his gaze. It was typical, Ed realised. He felt too weak to do much more than get out of bed, but he still had strength enough for unrelenting desire. His own emotions he was used to. He had pushed them back time and again, but no matter what he told himself he couldn’t forget the sliver of hope that perhaps the attraction was mutual.

Ed's stomach growled again, unceremoniously announcing his presence and making him blush in embarrassment. Roy looked up with a smirk, his gaze raking up and down Ed’s figure for a moment. 'I thought I heard you moving around, Fullmetal. How do you feel?'

With a laconic shrug Ed moved further into the room and leant against one of the counters, trying to appear relaxed and comfortable. 'Just tired. I don't feel as bad as I did the other day.' Chairs were arranged neatly around a solid, functional table, and Ed fought against the urge to sit down. His body's cravings for rest were at odds with the alertness of his mind. Giving in seemed like defeat, so he stayed standing and ignored the leaden feeling in his limbs.

'Thank you for letting me and Al stay here. You didn’t have to,’ Ed mumbled awkwardly. He felt uncomfortable, almost as though he was invading Mustang’s privacy, and he knew that it put him in a difficult position. It would be hard to lie or deceive Roy while he was a guest in his house.

Dark blue eyes met his, and Roy tapped the wooden spoon on the side of the pan thoughtfully. Perhaps a simple expression of gratitude hadn't been what he was expecting, but he nodded and put the document in his right hand down on top of the pile on the table. 'You couldn't have stayed in the dormitories,’ he replied, ‘and if someone hadn't stepped in you would have just discharged yourself again.'

There was no missing the disapproval in his voice, and Ed hunched his shoulders and looked at the floor. He should probably apologise for being so stubborn about his demands to leave the hospital, but he'd be damned if he'd say he was sorry when he didn't mean it. If his surly silence bothered Mustang he didn't show it, instead doling out some thick stew into a bowl and passing it over. 'At least sit down while you eat. You're going to be staying here a while whether you like it or not, so you might as well make yourself at home.'

Carefully pushing some of the paperwork aside Ed did as he was told, knowing that this discussion was not over. When he had woken up in hospital the first time it had only been Mustang's gratitude over Hughes' return that had prevented him from launching into his usual diatribe of disappointment. Now Ed realised he had only been putting off the inevitable.

They ate in silence for a while, and Ed felt the warm food ebb away his exhaustion. It wasn't long before the bowl was empty and his stomach was full, leaving his mind free of its nagging demands. A quick glance at the clock showed that it wouldn't be long before Al and Winry would be back, and he couldn't stifle the wince that flickered across his face.

'You all right?' Roy asked quietly, his eyes narrowing as he tried to read Ed's features. His expression was guarded, cautious, and Ed could see the weary fear that had etched faint lines into Mustang’s face. Had they been there before all this began, or were those new signs of strain his fault?

'Yeah,' he said quietly, frowning as the tension in Roy's body did not fade. 'I was just thinking that Winry's probably going to throw at least one wrench at my head.'

Mustang smiled, well aware of the young woman's temper. 'You think she'll be angry at you?' he asked drily before taking another mouthful.

Ed’s expression easily conveyed what he thought: he would have to be stupid to think that Winry would be anything other than furious. 'She'll tell me how selfish and stupid I am,’ he grumbled, ticking things off on his fingers as he continued. ‘She’ll yell at me for scaring Al, ending up at the gate, not telling anyone that I wasn't well....' Trailing off he cursed silently, realising that he'd just given Mustang the perfect opening.

Roy sighed, dragging his hand across his face as he leant back in his chair. The subdued anger of the past couple of days was definitely rising to the surface. Ed could see it igniting in his eyes and noticed that his knuckles were whitening as he clenched his hands into fists. When Mustang spoke his voice was low and dangerous, the words loaded with every fraction of disappointment, fear and concern that he had suffered.

'You deserve whatever she does to you, because she’s right. It was stupid to keep this to yourself.' Mustang glared at Ed like a parent would at a reprobate child. 'Why didn't you tell anyone?'

'What good would it have done?' Ed asked hoarsely, shrugging as he turned away to stare unseeingly at the tiled floor. 'Even if I'd known how bad it was there would still have been no cure! Two years of knowing the price I paid would have torn Al apart. By now there'd be nothing left of him.'

Roy raked a hand through his hair and grimaced, acknowledging the point. 'That's not it though, is it? You could have told a doctor, or anyone, but instead you kept it quiet. If we had known back then we could have found something. We would have at least tried!' Roy's fist hit the table with a thump, making the bowls clatter and dislodging a few pages of paperwork.

Ed knew that the last of his superior officer's restraint was slipping. Mustang had faced many things with an impassive face and a cool head; why was this time different? Looking back at him through his lashes Ed could see how much older he looked. It was as though something were wearing him down day by day, and he felt a stab of guilt as he realised that he was probably to blame.

'What would you have done if you had known?’ Ed demanded, his back stiffening as he found sanctuary in his own anger, ‘taken me off of active duty - sent me back to Risembool? You'd have treated me like a child, just like you're doing now. I'd rather have two years of actually living.'

'I treat you like a child because you act like one,' Roy growled. 'Even after all these years and everything you've been through you're still making the same mistakes. You're still only thinking of the consequences to yourself, rather than anyone else.' Mustang hesitated, and Ed scowled as he waited for him to continue. When Roy spoke again it was cold and quiet, as though he were desperately restraining his temper. 'Al had a right to know what was happening to you, regardless of what you think. You've hurt him more than you know by doing this. You have a strange way of showing you care.'

Ed snarled as he rose to his feet, stepping back from the table as he tried to put as much space between himself and that accusation as possible. Fury made him shake, and he tried desperately to reign in the hot wave of rage that Mustang's words had invoked. He wanted to lash out at something. The satisfying blow and the answering pain in his fist might just be enough to drown out the first sickly stabs of guilt that were already sneaking into his being. 'You don't know what the hell you're talking about!'

Mustang's eyes were narrow and hard, as unforgiving as the expression on his face. It threw Ed off balance to see any emotion so close to the surface. Normally Roy kept his distance, refusing to be baited, but this time something had changed. His mask of arrogant indifference was slipping, and his professional restraint was long gone.

'Would it really be so difficult to ask someone for help once in a while,' he demanded, 'or tell them what's going on in your life?' Shaking his head he got to his feet. 'These past few days you've not just frightened Al; you've scared everyone. It makes people wonder what else you've got to hide.'

'Why don't you say what you mean?' Ed snapped. 'It makes you wonder what I'm not saying, and that's what bothers you.' He saw the flicker of surprise on Mustang's face and smirked, crossing his arms. 'You just can't stand to think that there's something in your life that you can't understand and manipulate!'

Roy turned away, putting his empty bowl in the sink with a clatter and bracing his palms on the counter. For a moment Ed thought he wouldn't reply at all, and when he did he realised that his last remark was simply being ignored. 'Don't be an idiot, Fullmetal. You can't keep going through life dealing with every problem on your own. One day you'll fail, and I don't want to see that happen.'

'I never knew you cared.' Ed couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice as he glared at Mustang's rigid back. 'What would it be to you anyway, other than one less dog to call to heel?'

Roy looked over his shoulder, his eyes flashing with anger as he turned back to face Ed fully. His posture was rigid and unforgiving, and the weak reigns on his temper seemed to be snapping. 'That's getting old, Edward, and I'm running out of patience! You need to start treating people around you with some respect, especially your superiors.'

'Superiors?' Ed choked out, his face twisting in disbelief. His teeth grated against each other, making his jaw ache. Trust the self-satisfied bastard to pull rank. It was tempting to swear and yell, and he could tell from the sardonic smirk on Mustang's face that it was just what the man was expecting.

Well he wouldn't give him the satisfaction. If a military dog was what he wanted then it was what he'd get.

With a massive effort Ed restrained himself, clenching his tongue between his teeth in an attempt to hold back a litany of spite. Instead he straightened his shoulders and gave a cocky salute before standing “at ease” and fixing his mocking gaze on the wall behind Mustang's head.

Roy glared, his face pale with anger as his lips thinned into a grim line. Ed had no doubt that if Mustang had been wearing his gloves he would probably have suffered a nasty scorching, but the man's hands were bare. Still, just because the Brigadier-General had no spark at his fingertips it didn't mean he was harmless. If anything the fire of his mood equalled the power of his alchemy.

'Don't mess about, Ed,' he hissed. 'This isn't a game or a joke. You really are dying, whether you believe it or not! You didn't even give me a chance to help you!'

'I don't need your help,' Ed retorted, shaking his head as he spun around, intent on seeking out the refuge of his room. This was getting out of hand. He and Mustang were notorious throughout Central Command for their fights. In the office it was casual insults and icy arrogance. This was hotter and more vicious. It wasn't about work; it was personal and, despite all his instincts screaming at him to stand and fight, Ed knew the best thing to do would be to walk away before he said something he could not apologise for.

The hot band of Mustang's fingers around his arm made him whirl back, a snarl already on his lips as he tried to snatch himself away. Roy was breathing heavily, his temper making his chest rise and fall in the same quick rhythm as Ed's own. There was no cool dignity. It had all been stripped away, and Ed barely choked off a growl when he realised that all the fire that Roy claimed to be in control of was right there for him to see: wild and hypnotising.

'Get off of me,' Ed spat defensively, his emotions making him dizzy as Mustang took one step closer to him. The grip on his arm was unrelenting, and now he could feel the heat radiating from Roy's body and smell the warm, spicy scent of him. His skin was tingling from the unexpected touch, and the heat of lust and fury were mingling together, driving back sense and reason. He could have broken away if he had tried, but it felt as though he were locked in some kind of paralysis, torn between two warring instincts: fight or fuck.

His body was twisting itself in knots, and his stomach fluttered with adrenaline and desire. Every muscle was pulled taut in an effort to fight back his impulses, and his heart was thudding too loud and fast in his chest as his pale skin flushed.

Fire blazed beneath the array on his chest, searing along the lines of the design and making him cry out. With one quick yank he pulled himself free, clutching at the burning point of pain as he hunched his shoulders against it, trying to separate himself from the agony. His stomach rolled, rebelling, and he gritted his teeth as he hunkered down. Everything else had faded away, torn asunder and over-ruled by this sudden torment.

Afraid.

The thought arrived in his mind, child-like and on edge. Swearing quietly he gritted his teeth. He had hoped that the strange words in his mind would not return, but now echoes of confusion raced through his system, alien and unreal. He felt stupidly threatened, like a small animal sensing a predator. He blinked back tears and choked, wishing it would just stop. He couldn’t make sense of his surroundings, and he flinched as Mustang put his arm around his shoulders, bracing him and holding him steady.

Ed’s hand was brushed away and replaced by a larger, warmer palm. This time the touch was gentle but firm, a reassuring gesture rather than a barely restrained attack. It tingled, and gradually the confusion ebbed away. The burning dwindled to a faint ember of contentment, leaving Ed free to open his eyes and look into Roy's face.

The flush of anger had gone from Mustang’s cheeks, leaving him pale and drained. His eyes were wide, and his brow was creased into an anxious, guilty frown. Ed gasped in a breath to reassure him, fighting to keep any trace of his uncertainty out of his voice. 'I'm all right. It just took me by surprise.'

'What is it?' Mustang asked quietly gently, his hand absently moving in soothing circles. Ed tried to be evasive and shrug it off as nothing, but Roy's grip on him tightened, warning him that he wasn’t going to believe it. 'Ed, I can feel that something is different. Here.' He brushed his hand across the array again, and Ed grimaced in acknowledgement. It didn't matter that there was a t-shirt between Roy's skin and his own. The heat there was unmissable. It had gone from being warm to almost scorching to the touch.

Ed didn't reply. It felt as though all his fight was gone. Trustingly he leant back more into Mustang's grip as he closed his eyes, trying to re-establish his confidence as his body shook. Sweat was cooling quickly on his brow, and he felt his strength dim like a dying candle flame. 'I don't know what it is,' he managed tiredly. 'It's been that way since I brought Hughes back.' It wasn't the whole truth, but it was close enough and he felt Roy’s sigh tickle his cheek.

He barely noticed as Mustang led him carefully through the house before pushing him onto one of the sofas in front of the hearth in the lounge. Soft cushions yielded to Ed’s weight, but the heat of the flames in the grate seemed distant, as though there was a blanket of ice water between him and their warmth. He watched the fire through half-closed eyes, barely awake. Every time he managed to convince himself that he was all right, that everything was back to normal, something happened to remind him that his days were numbered.

Mustang's warm palm touched his forehead, checking for fever, and Ed blearily wondered how they had gone from a bitter fight to this. It was as though their antagonism had been set completely aside in one sharp moment of fear and confusion.

Fingertips traced the line of the array in an idle caress, as though Mustang was trying to work out what was happening through touch alone. It was reassuring, and Ed could feel his knotted muscles beginning to relax as he let his eyes drift shut.

A sharp breath of surprise made him open them again, and he cursed weakly at the blue glow that ignited the air around him. Mustang's face was cast into its brumal shade, and turned icy by its light.

The array on Ed’s forehead pinched with pain, and his breath locked in his throat as one word echoed around his head.

Power.

The room spun sickeningly as warmth flooded his limbs. Desperately, he tried to pull away from Roy, but it was already too late. The brief contact with the array had sapped Mustang's strength, drawing it inwards like a vampire drawing the last blood from its prey. In a matter of seconds he was on the floor, unconscious, mercifully breaking the touch of flesh-on-flesh as the glow dissipated.

Ed managed a choked sound of horrified surprise. He felt normal. The strange tiredness that had returned to him again and again had finally fled, receding from his bones and muscles. The arrays on his body were still warm, but he ignored them as he knelt next to Mustang and reached his hand outwards.

A hair's breadth from Roy's pulse point he hesitated. What if the same thing happened again? It was obvious that the light within him had done something to draw on Mustang's energy, pulling it towards itself and returning Ed's strength in the process. The knowledge was a sure weight in his mind, but his chittering, anxious thoughts did not understand how it had happened or how to stop it occurring again.

He pressed his hands to the floor for balance and lowered his ear to Mustang's chest, listening intently to the unsteady flutter of his heart. His breathing was erratic and gasping, and Ed swore quietly as he heard it hitch and stumble.

Too much.

Ed gritted his teeth and pushed himself to his feet, pacing back and forth fretfully as he tunnelled his fingers through his hair. 'Too much of what?' he snapped, not caring that his words echoed in the quiet room. 'Too much for you to handle or too much for him to survive without. What did you do?'

There was no answering voice in his mind. The child-like feeling had fled, and all he could sense was icy terror mingling with his own, hotter fear. Stopping he put a hand to his forehead, staring at Mustang's prone form as he tried to think of something that would help. For fuck sake he was a prodigy. Everyone said so. There must be something he could do!

If he was right – if the light had drained Roy of his energy for itself then there must be some way to put it back. Everything he had learned so far showed him that the brilliance at his core had power, but that it wasn't entirely in control. It was weak, frightened, and didn't understand the body it had made into its hiding place. There must be some way for him to tap into its strength. If the gate knew everything then he must have access to some of that knowledge too! He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it would make him into a puppet if it could. If it had the strength he would be nothing but a shell for it to occupy, just like Carmine.

Yet if it could use him, then there must be some way for him to turn the tables. It must be possible for him to use it.

A flash of light went off in front of his eyes, making him blink and wince. Again it came, and again. The intervals between each dazzling glow decreasing until it filled his vision from edge to edge with whiteness. Unconsciously his hands went to his temples in a protective gesture. He recognised this from the hospital, when the terrible pain had torn through his skull. Already the images were starting to flicker across his mind, and he expected the howling agony to begin shredding him to pieces.

Nothing came.

It was as though his mind was again fogged with laudanum, creating a barrier between his nerves and the frayed, tattered edges of his consciousness. The pictures were a random jumble of colour and shape, drowning out his thoughts, his emotions and his being. He could feel himself slipping away, losing himself in a tide of knowledge he could not begin to comprehend.

Slowly the stream became a trickle, as though something had hemmed back the bulk of them and was now moderating the flow. Grimly, he concentrated on what he wanted to know, shouting mute questions in the vault of his mind. He had to know how to get some of that energy back into Mustang!

It was incomprehensible and simple all at once. Most of the pictures he could not recognise, but in a jumble of thought and imagery, he began to form some idea of what he was being told. Energy could flow from one thing or the other. It could be generated and stored, but never be created or destroyed. He had to find a way to reverse the flow, to push it back in the right direction. The light had drawn the energy towards it, pulling the power towards one central point. If he could think of that as an array – if he could somehow picture that flow of energy – he would be able to push the strength back into Mustang's frame.

No!

The images stopped, abruptly curtailed by the shrieking thought in his head. Ed reeled in confusion, stumbling slightly as he screwed up his eyes in pain. It was as if the presence in his body and mind was divided into opposing factions. Shakily he opened his eyes, carefully taking his hands away from his head as he staggered towards Roy. There wasn’t time to think about it now. He had to act. Already Mustang’s lips were turning blue, and his pallor was losing all trace of vitality.

Ruthlessly, he shoved all emotion away as he tried to think. In his mind he saw the array spring into being, a complete circle with stabilising triads that pointed towards one central point. Mentally he inverted the triangles so that they pointed outwards, towards the circumference of the circle.

Ignoring the shaking of his own hands he straddled Roy's hips and clapped his palms together, feeling the ripple of power tear through him with brutal ease.

NO!

As soon as he pressed his hands to the centre of Roy's chest, it began. It was a fast, furious drain, like dammed water breaching the wall and rushing back to the lowest point. It felt like nails were being hammered into his chest as sharp points of pain exploded around the array on his torso. Groaning in pain he watched as the familiar blue wash of his alchemy flared purple, then crimson, before turning a bright, dazzling white. Shutting his eyes against its intensity he felt Mustang's heartbeat stabilise and strengthen against his hand, and the rise and fall of his chest became more measured. The air smelled of sweat and burning alchemy as Ed’s own heart thundered desperately in his ears, blotting out all other sound with its rhythm until it was a frantic beat, measuring out his life with its pace.

All the while there was a feeling deep in his mind, a strange satisfaction, as though something observed him and was impressed with what it saw.

He had passed the first test.

Warm fingers encircled his wrists, jerking him back to reality. Before he even had time to open his eyes he was being rolled over until his back was pressed into the soft, thick carpet. Around him the alchemy fizzled away, taking the searing light with it. Spots dancing across his closed eyelids, dappling his vision until he blinked them away.

He had been so involved in pouring Mustang's energy back into him that he hadn't noticed the man awaken. Now their positions were reversed, with Roy straddling his hips easily and restraining Ed's wrists above his head. He considered struggling, or at least disentangling himself from his commanding officer's grip, but something in Roy's eyes told him that it would be a bad idea to make any sudden movements.

'What happened?' Roy asked fiercely, leaning forward to put more of his weight on Ed's wrists. His face was still wan, but the muscles in his arms were taut and certain. His eyes were bright with a mixture of confusion and surprise, as well as the faintest dark hint of distrust.

'I don't know,' Ed said quietly, twisting his wrists experimentally and scowling as he realised that Mustang was using his position to his advantage. Even though the tiredness had not returned, he knew he didn’t have the strength to push Roy off of him. He was at his mercy, and he loathed that fact.

'Let me up.'

'No. Not until you tell me what you did.’ His face was fixed in an expression of uncertainty, and Ed knew that Roy had been shaken by what had happened. To be rendered helpless so quickly was horrifying, and, even worse, Ed had no way of knowing that it wouldn’t happen again. Roy’s fingers were locked around the skin of his wrist and nothing was happening, but that didn’t mean that they were safe.

‘What happened after I passed out, Edward?’ The question was rough and desperate, as though Mustang was ordering him to give him an answer and reassure him that it was nothing to fear.

Ed bit his lip, trying to think of some excuse, but it was useless. Roy was too close, and the heat and weight of him was pushing all other thought from Ed's mind. He had to get out of here. Maybe standing up, at a distance, he would have been able to come up with a decent lie. Right here, right now, his intelligence was fogged by Mustang’s proximity to think of any words to say.

Finally he managed to speak, stammering slightly as he tried to explain. ‘I don’t know what happened. You were unconscious and not breathing very well. I was just putting back whatever the array took from you.’ It was a feeble evasion, and Roy knew it.

Shifting uncomfortably under his searching gaze Ed stifled a hoarse sound as his hips brushed against Roy’s, inadvertently making his situation worse. Above him Mustang went rigid, but didn’t pull back and Ed shut his eyes in a grimace of disbelief. He desperately hoped that Roy would not feel the growing bulge in Ed's trousers, but something told him he was out of luck.

Cautiously, Ed glanced up at the man over him, raising an curious eyebrow at what he saw. Mustang’s face was flushed, and his pupils had dilated, darkening his eyes to almost black. There was no sneer or smirk on his lips, only hot desire in his eyes and the rapidly hardening ridge of flesh in answer to Ed's own passion. Roy seemed to belatedly realise how compromising their position was and he swallowed hard, parting his lips wordlessly.

Ed grinned, realising that he wasn’t as helpless as he had first thought. His face suffused with heat as his gaze flickered down to Roy's mouth and back up again. Deliberately he arched his back, pressing himself fully against Mustang. A lance of heat carved through him, pooling low in his belly as a heartfelt groan rumbled in Roy's chest. There was no fight, no questions, no fear - only this closeness and a burning, agonising need that made him want to writhe with its urgency.

Roy’s hands had released his wrists and were braced either side of Ed’s head. It was as though he were fighting to hold himself back, and Ed could see his muscles trembling as Roy began to lose the battle with himself. Quickly Ed tangled his hand in Mustang's shirt and tugged him closer, this time unable to hide his growl of pleasure as he felt Roy relax against him, close enough to touch, to kiss… .

A red flash of light ignited the room and they paused, confused. Their breath mingled, their lips only a fraction apart as a second bolt of colour flickered over the walls. Within a second the air was filled with a rushing roar that made the glass rattle in the window frames.

Reality rushed back in, and for a moment they both froze, panting and desperate. Ed looked over at the window, seeing smoke and fire belching upwards into the evening sky. Above him Mustang shifted, getting to his feet and swearing quietly as he stared at the devastation only a few streets away.

Ed could see him withdrawing, closing himself off from what had just happened between them and pulling on the cool demeanour of command. Stifling a sigh he got up, carefully keeping his distance as he followed Roy’s gaze. A thick pall of black smoke was casting a column up into the sky. At its heart he could see the red stain of fire devouring everything that it could burn.

'Stay here,' Mustang ordered, his command unquestionable as he turned on his heel, grabbing his uniform jacket and disappearing out of the door before Ed had a chance to reply.

Outside sirens began to wail, and people had stopped in the street to gawk at the carnage. Taking in a deep breath Ed shook his head and pushed himself away from the wall, following quickly in Roy’s footsteps. If Mustang thought he was going to stay here then he was sorely mistaken. Ed knew Central well, and he couldn't stop the wave of sickness rolling in his belly when he realised which building lay in ruins.

The station.

Al.

Chapter Text

A piercing whistle shrieked through the air, disturbing pigeons from their roosts among the iron girders overhead. The train pulled away, steam hissing from its pistons as it gathered speed, rattling along the tracks until it disappeared from sight. People came and went, a constant stream of movement as they hurried into Central's heart or ran to the rural seclusion of the countryside for the start of the weekend.

Alphonse Elric leant against the wall on platform three, staring unseeing upwards. Pearly glass arched high above, sheltering the travellers from the elements with opalescent curves. The sunlight turned the pure white ceiling a vivid gold and trailed a warm caress across his skin, brief and loving.

Closing his eyes, he revelled in the faint touch of it, losing himself for a moment in the gentle sensation. He could still remember the deep despair of knowing that he might never feel anything again and the constant challenge of trying to express his emotions as fully as he had when he was young. Armour couldn't cry or smile. It could only rust. When he was locked in that tall, menacing suit people did not see him as a human, and they certainly didn't seem him as a boy, frightened and vulnerable. Only his brother seemed to understand.

He had been grateful to Ed for retrieving his spirit from the gate, but he knew that the metal shell that formed his body had been a constant reminder to them both of what they had done. The absence of his heartbeat and the chill nothingness of his false skin emphasised his memories of that night. He had not seen it all, and so he could not relive every moment, but Ed was different. The pain in his brother's eyes had been a constant shadow, always present and never fading. He had hated it, seeing the hurt and remorse, but it had been the impetus to keep them both moving. Ed wanted to undo the past, and Al wanted to know that one day he would look at his brother and see only happiness.

Then, when everything seemed to be going wrong and failure was so certain - when Al had realised the only thing he could do was give himself up for his brother - everything had changed. Amidst a storm of alchemy and a blinding sea of light he actually opened his eyes and felt the flutter of his lashes as he blinked. Al would never forget that assault of sensation. True vision, dazzling in colour, filled his sight; the smell of dust and power in the air was almost choking. A breath of wind across his cheek bordered on pain, and he flinched from its alien touch. In that moment everything was overwhelming. It was as though the world was unfolding for him. It was as if he were being born again, awake, aware and amazed.

Through it all, smiling and laughing with relief, was Ed. He had kept his word, and it was obvious that he didn't care that he didn't have his arm or leg. He had his brother back: body, mind and spirit.

Even now, Ed would deny the existence of any debt at all, but Al knew that there was nothing he could do to repay him. Most people would not have the presence of mind to bind a soul to a suit of armour in the midst of a crisis, nor the strength of heart to make the sacrifice that was necessary. Even fewer individuals would devote their existence to righting their wrongs.

But there was a cost, however much Ed protested, and now Al knew the true extent of it.

A life for a life. One future for another. Most would say it was a fair trade, but Al couldn't think of it that way. It wasn't about the value of what was exchanged. It wasn't even about balance. He had regained his body, and for that he would lose the one person that mattered the most. That alone would render his life empty.

Tears blurred Al's vision and he swore quietly, dragging his sleeve over the heel of his palm and using the fabric to soak away the evidence. Once, he would have given anything to feel again, but now he longed for that old numbness. There was so much guilt and pain and anger raging in his heart that he couldn't tell where one emotion ended and the other began.

Turning his head he glanced at the clock, watching the second hand march around the face. He used to look at time passively, as though it were just another unit of measurement. Now it had become an enemy. Every moment was another moment lost, and every day that was ushered across the sky was another defeat.

He glared at the clockwork mechanism, hoping it would stall, wishing that time could stand still and the future could be ignored. Once, his mother had said that he and Ed were wishing their lives away, always looking to tomorrow and the future and never enjoying the present. Al grimaced, remembering how her expressive eyes would sadden when she said that. It had taken years, but now he finally knew what she meant. They had looked to tomorrow, next week, or month, or years as if it was a certainty that they would live to see it.

But life held no guarantees. He knew that now.

Al breathed in deeply, ignoring the smell of smoke from the trains as he struggled to control his crushing grief. It was a hand clenched around his heart, cold and tight, and nothing he could do would make it go away. The past few days had passed in a blur of confusion and disbelief. It didn't matter how many times he re-stated the doctor's words to himself, he couldn't comprehend their meaning. Life without Ed was unimaginable; he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the possibility that one day, and one day soon, he would be alone.

Wincing, he ignored the lump that constricted his throat, making him gasp around a choked off sob. His thoughts were hollow, chasing each other in circles around his mind from denial to horror and back again. He wanted to shout and rant, to let his brother know just how much it hurt to be kept in the dark about what was happening. Yet every time he opened his mouth Al wondered if his next words would be the last he spoke to Ed, and he knew he couldn't bring himself to say anything at all.

Ed had noticed, though. He didn't need telling when Al was disappointed in him. He could read every nuance of his body language and every quirk of expression, just like Al could understand Edward's mood without asking. No doubt he had also seen Al's tiredness. It wasn't just the dark circles under his eyes that betrayed him, but the shake of his hands and the nervous, unconscious movements of his body.

Belatedly, Al realised he was chewing his thumbnail, and he dug his hands into his pockets and frowned. It wouldn't be much longer before Ed cornered him and demand an explanation, and he didn't know what he could say. How did you tell your brother that you loved him and hated him in the same breath? How could he reassure Ed when all Al wanted to do was scream that he was being abandoned by the only family he had left?

The clatter of wheels on the tracks was accompanied by the singsong tones of the announcer, and Al realised that a train was pulling up to the platform. It lumbered in, squealing to a graceless halt as steam hissed from its wheels. Hot metal clanked as the fire at the engine's heart was banked and tamed. Carriage doors swung open, and he stepped back from the crowd of disembarking passengers as he tried to spot Winry among them. People chattered, and train-guards shouted to each other over the din, laughing and joking as they made their way towards the station bar.

A flash of pale blonde caught his eye, and he smiled for what felt like the first time in days as he saw Winry elbowing her way through the bustle with a suitcase in her hand. She ignored the grumbling complaints of an old sergeant, flashing him a bright smile of apology as she finally pulled herself free from the press of people and hurried onward.

Al barely had a chance to straighten up before she had dropped the suitcase on the floor and wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing hard. He gave a laugh of protest before returning the gesture, feeling some of the tension seep away in the young woman's warm embrace. Her presence was a surprising anchor, stable and secure in a world where he no longer felt in control of his own life.

She was smaller than he remembered, her head fitting neatly under his chin with a bit of space to spare, but she was still the same old Winry. Her hair smelled of flowers mixed with the faintest trace of engine oil, and he could feel the strength in her arms as she tightened her grip for a moment before pulling away.

'I came as soon as I could,' she blurted out, looking him over with an intense blue gaze that missed nothing. 'What's happening, Al?'

No, not yet. He didn't want to tell her yet. Al felt his shoulders slump and the stiff, brittle tension return as he knew that he had no choice. He could put it off for a few minutes, no more. After that he would have to tell her the agonising truth. He would have to confirm the worst, and he didn't know how he could bring her that kind of pain.

Wordlessly, he retrieved her suitcase and motioned for her to follow him. A few minutes of delay was better than nothing. 'You've got to be hungry,' he said quietly. 'Let's get you something to eat.'

He was stalling, and Winry knew it. She watched him carefully with narrow eyes, her hands on her hips as she pursed her lips. Normally that kind of tactic would have earned him a quick reprimand, but this time she knew that it was no idle matter. Her annoyance at his evasion was a poor mask for her fear. Irritation folded her brow and set her jaw in a stubborn line, but her pretty face was pale, and dark circles rimmed her eyes. She must have spent the journey worrying, and Al cursed himself for not being more careful in what he said on the phone. He had tried to make sure that she wouldn't be too concerned, but it seemed that he had failed.

'Al...' she prompted gently.

'I'll tell you in a minute, Winry, okay?' He was pleading with her, desperate to hold off for a second or two longer. It must have been enough because she relaxed in surrender, nodding her agreement. 'Come on.' He held out his other hand, waiting until she looped her fingers through his before leading her through the crowd.

There were plenty of cafés bordering the busy plaza outside the station, serving all kinds of food and drink. Bright parasols glowed like jewels, sending patches of fluttering shade across the sun-dappled ground. People sipped their coffees and beers, reading newspapers as they waited for their trains to arrive. Pigeons and sparrows chased each other among the tables, gobbling up crumbs and twittering in the potted greenery.

It didn't take long to find a quiet table, but Winry refused any kind of food. She was wringing her hands, twisting her nimble fingers around each other in a nervous dance. The waiter came over and set down a cup of tea before hurrying away, intent on his other customers. For a moment Winry just stared at it before she finally curved her hand around the warm mug and waited.

She didn't press him to begin, but he knew he didn't have a choice. The longer he put it off the harder it would be to explain. Besides, he couldn't stand seeing Winry like this. The normally confident mechanic was vulnerable in her worry, and he could almost see her thoughts dancing from one dire possibility to the next. The truth, however painful, was probably going to be better than that constant uncertainty.

Taking a deep breath he began to speak, not bothering to offer reassurances or evade the issues. He talked quickly, knowing that if he stopped then he would never be able to finish.. 'A few days ago Ed started coughing,' he murmured, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice and stick to the facts. 'He said it was just a cold, but the other night he collapsed outside the dormitory.'

Al barely noticed Winry reach out for him and stared blindly as she wove her fingers through his, hanging on tight. The mute gesture was comforting, and he returned it without a thought. 'He was coughing up blood and in so much pain; he could hardly even breathe. I got him to the hospital as quickly as I could. They stabilised him, but they found out that something has been eating away at his lungs.' Al bit his lip, trying to move his tongue around the heavy, leaden words that had to be said. 'The doctor thinks he's dying – thinks he'll be gone in a month.'

Winry stared, the cup of tea forgotten in front of her as she managed a tiny shake of her head. Al watched, feeling his heart clench when he saw the flicker of emotion across her face, a precise reflection of his own tumultuous feelings. 'Dying?' she managed at last. 'Ed?' Her gaze was unfocussed as she pressed her free hand to her head. 'But – but -'

Al stroked the pad of his thumb over her hand, keeping up a steady, sweeping rhythm as he tried to reassure her. He had been worried that Winry would nod and accept Ed's fate as fact, that she would say “these things happen” or some other empty platitude. If she had been the voice of reason that cut through his denial he didn't know if he could manage.

Throughout his childhood he had relied on Ed and Winry to help him form his young opinions, and even now, as an adult, he knew that their thoughts would sway his own. If Winry had believed or acknowledged the possibility that Ed was dying then he would have felt that it was real. Now he could see that it was not just him who couldn't believe it was happening, and he felt a rush of hot relief.

'I don't understand,' Winry whispered, her gaze jumping from one thing to the next as she tried to fit these facts into her reality. More than once she met his eyes fleetingly before flinching from the pain and seriousness in his gaze. 'How could he get ill so quickly?'

Al shifted uncomfortably and bowed his head. 'The doctor thinks it's been happening for the past two years.'

'But how could Ed not know? How could he -' Her words trailed off and hard, solid anger took the place of her pain. 'He knew, didn't he?' she asked quietly, her voice low and husky with disbelief. 'He knew and he didn't tell us.'

'I don't know if he was certain about it, but I think he suspected something was wrong. The doctor said that, in the beginning, Ed would have been in considerable pain.' Al paused, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat. 'Winry, it's been happening since he brought me back. I don't think it's just an illness. I think it's what it cost to get my body back.' His words sounded so broken and defeated, even to his own ears, and the familiar guilt was like black ink on his heart, painful and choking. If it weren't for him Ed would still have a future; he'd still have a life to live.

'Stop it.' Winry's demand was soft and plaintive; all trace of her fury at Ed's stubbornness had fled. He felt a flicker of surprise as she reached across the table and wiped away a tear that he hadn't known had fallen. 'Stop blaming yourself, Al. Ed might not have known exactly what he was getting into, but I know for a fact that he'll think it was worth it to get you back. He loves you so much I don't think there is anything he wouldn't give.'

A tear brimmed over her lashes, tumbling to break upon the tabletop. 'I just can't believe it. I didn't even see that there was anything really wrong!' Winry put her hand to her lips as more tears spilled down her face. 'When you got back from the gate he kept wincing and grimacing, but I didn't think anything of it.'

'He said it was his automail,' Al added hollowly, realisation sinking in. He had thought at the time that his brother had clutched at his chest once or twice, but he had hastily covered it, cradling his wrist against his ribs instead. At the time Al had shaken off his worry. Now he couldn't believe that he had been such a fool.

'I checked it. I checked the ports, the plates, the bolts. Everything,' Winry bowed her head for a moment, and Al knew she was still doubting her own expert work. 'There was nothing wrong with the mechanics, I'm sure of it. I can remember thinking that he must have just been tired. His body was just a bit drained, the limbs were pulling on his muscles and he'd get better. How could I be so blind? I've grown up watching the two of you. I know when you're lying. Why didn't I see it?'

'Winry. It's not your fault. Everyone was wrapped up in what had happened. Everyone was happy that I was back, and that we had both survived. I bet Ed didn't want to worry us.' Al clenched his jaw. He would have rather have known than be kept out of his brother's life like this. Grimly he carried on, determined to tell Winry everything. 'Ed knows he's dying and how long they think he's got. When he woke up in the hospital he was intent on going back to the gate to – to – I don't know what he planned to do. To challenge it, I guess. He discharged himself against medical advice within hours of waking up.'

Winry stared at him, blinking bloodshot eyes as her blotchy cheeks flushed with angry disbelief. 'Why am I not surprised?' she demanded shakily, throwing her hands up in resignation as she sniffed pathetically. 'Tell me he wasn't stupid enough to go through with his plan?'

He looked up at her, communicating clearly in one glance that Ed always did what he pleased. 'I don't know if he deliberately broke his word. The way he tells it he ended up at the gate by accident. He stumbled across some people we'd been trying to catch. They robbed Lieutenant Colonel Hughes' grave, as well as several others.' Al looked down at his hands, trying to sort out the logical chain of events from the mire of emotion in his mind. 'Ed said that he followed them and got caught in the middle of an array. He was pulled to the gate.'

Winry looked doubtful as she sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. 'That seems a bit convenient,' she sighed, picking up a tissue and wiping her eyes before screwing it up in her hand. 'Do you believe him?'

'I don't know. Probably. He tried to explain what happened, but it was too much for me to take in. All I know for certain is that there was an explosion in the warehouse district, and when we got there both Ed and Lieutenant Colonel Hughes were alive in the middle of the rubble.'

The silence following his last statement was a thick, palpable thing. Winry had spent time with Gracia and her family before Hughes' murder, and his loss had been almost as painful to her as it had been to Al and Ed. Swallowing nervously he searched her face, seeing the same questing expression in her gaze as she examined him. She went to speak, but obviously thought better of it before she reached for her cup and took a large gulp of the rapidly cooling tea. 'Ed brought him back?' she asked, her voice squeaking breathlessly as Al nodded.

'At least he brought him back from that plane. He said the other alchemist, the grave-robber, was the one who performed a successful transmutation. Ed got him back to Amestris.'

Winry nodded, stunned. He could practically see her mind trying to make sense of it, to find room for all of this news, and failing. 'If it was anyone else I wouldn't believe it,' she whispered, 'but you two boys have always been special and different.' She fiddled with the tissue, twisting it around her fingers as she said, 'I don't suppose Ed managed to confront the gate?'

Al knew it wasn't really a question. It was a vain hope voiced, and his only answer was a shrug. 'The gate's been destroyed. Ed said there was nothing left by the time he got out of there. The other alchemist has been tearing it apart for years. I don't know if Ed managed to strike a deal with it before it was torn demolished, or if the fact that it's gone means the price it asked for is undone.'

He frowned, thinking of the brother he knew so well. 'Something has changed, though: I'd have to be blind not to notice it. I just can't quite put my finger on it. He seems different somehow.' Al shrugged, shaking his head as he realised this couldn't be making much sense to Winry. 'The doctor's took the x-rays of Ed's chest again and there's something obscuring the film. They can't get a clear picture, so they won't change their prognosis one way or the other.' He faltered and rubbed his hands over his eyes, wishing he wasn't so exhausted. 'Brother seems better, healthier, but tired. All he seems to want to do is sleep.'

Something in his voice must have given away his distress because Winry abandoned her seat, moving to his side and hunkering down. 'Isn't that a good thing?' she asked. 'I mean, if his symptoms have gone maybe he did manage to do something.'

Her hand moved up his arm, rubbing back and forth over his sleeve. The contact was warm, but it didn't help to calm the shivers that raked across his flesh. 'All I can think of is mum and how tired she was at the end. Now Ed's the same, and even though he seems better than he did a couple of days ago I still can't shake the idea that I'm losing him.'

'Al, it's different than when your mum died,' Winry said softly, shifting her weight as she looked at him intently. 'I don't remember much more than you do about what happened then, but she was ill for a long time...' she trailed off, frowning in thought. 'Look, when Ed's awake, does he seem weak or listless, or does he still shout and swear and generally act like the stubborn pain in the ass we all know so well?'

Al had to smile at that. 'He's still like himself most of the time.'

'Your mum wasn't. She was such a wonderful, kind woman, and that didn't change, but the closer she got to the end the more it seemed like she was fading out. I'm not saying that just because it's not the same thing it means that Ed's going to be all right, but it's different now.' Winry swallowed, glancing away across the plaza as if she was trying to get her thoughts in order.

'You were helpless then, even if you didn't think so,' she continued. 'Now there's a lot you can do. Whatever Ed thinks you don't just have to be a spectator to his illness. You can stop him from behaving stupidly, or taking risks. You can help him try and get better and so can I. Your mum was alone with two children to look after, Ed isn't. He's got people who he's close to, people who can look after him. Am I making any sense?' she asked weakly, brushing her hair out of her face as she watched him intently.

Mutely he nodded in response, watching her twist one of her earrings absently as she ducked her head down, looking away from him and at the pavement beneath her feet. Gently he reached out and touched her shoulder, knowing without seeing that she was hiding fresh tears. 'Maybe I shouldn't have told you all of it.' he said quietly.

'If you didn't, who would?' she asked, lifting her chin and giving him a fierce look. 'I know you called me because you needed someone else here, but thank you. If you hadn't, I wouldn't have known anything about this until it was too late.'

'It was Lieutenant Hawkeye's suggestion. I was so wrapped up in Ed I couldn't think of anything else.' The confession tasted bitter on his tongue, and he wished he could call it back. The truth was he should have thought of Winry almost immediately. She should have been at the top of the list of people who needed to know, but instead all he could think about was how he felt. He hadn't spared a thought for anyone else.

'I'm sorry.'

'Don't be,' Winry said quickly, patting his knee. 'I know what it's like. I can still remember when my parents were killed and how horrible I was to you and Ed.'

'But you were right. Our dad walked out on us,' Al reminded her. 'It's not the same thing.'

'It doesn't matter if it was true. Now, I think of that day and I still miss my parents, but I always feel terrible for what I said. You were only trying to help.' Shakily Winry got to her feet, blotting away her tears. He could see that she was struggling to contain her emotions, and somehow he doubted they'd be the last tears that fell. Just like him she was overwhelmed by what she had been told of Ed's illness and Hughes' return, and who knew how long it would take for everything to sink in.

'Come on,' he said, forcing a reassuring smile on his face. 'Ed'll be glad you're here, and maybe you can talk some sense into him.'

'Where is he?' Winry asked as she reached out for her suitcase, sighing in irritation as Al beat her to it and hefted it easily.

'When we found him and Hughes, Ed was unconscious,' Al explained. 'We took him back to the hospital, but he discharged himself pretty quick. He's staying at Mustang's, and we're taking it in turns to keep an eye on him. There's space for you there too, but -' Al hesitated, unsure of what to say. 'Well, if you're uncomfortable there are plenty of other places you can stay.'

Winry's expression was closed off, her face drained of any emotion. Still, he could see the internal debate raging within her. Her shoulders were tense and her back ramrod straight, and she showed no sign of relaxing as she spoke. 'I respect Mustang for what he's doing, for the changes he's trying to make to the military and to the way the country is run, but I can't stay in the same house as the man who murdered my parents.'

Al blinked as she held up her hand, stemming his reasoning before he could even speak. 'Al, I want to see Ed, and I want him to know that I'm there for him whether he wants me or not. I can visit that place and talk to the Brigadier-General. I can stay there all day the same way I can sit in Mustang's office with Hawkeye and the others, but I could not sleep under the same roof as Roy Mustang. I don't think you could, either, if it was you.' Winry worried her lip between her teeth for a moment. 'I was thinking of calling in on Scieszka . Perhaps I could stay with her? I wouldn't want to intrude on Gracia, especially now.'

An honest smile broke out across Winry's face, and some of her colour returned as she focussed on the one good bit of news that Al had imparted. 'Imagine what she must be feeling like! It's the kind of thing a person dreams about. To think that you'll never see someone again and then have them returned to you. What's he like? Has he changed? Is he still in raptures over Elysia?'

As fully as he could Al answered her questions, smiling at her eagerness as they slipped into the bustling crowd. They lingered on happier subjects to keep their thoughts away from the dark despair that always seemed to hover nearby, ready to pounce. All the time they were talking Winry was looking around, re-familiarising herself with the city she had not seen for so long and eyeing up some of the young men in uniform as they hurried past.

They were almost at the edge of the plaza when someone moving at a sprint caught Al's eye. She was wearing a military great coat which covered her from shoulder to ankle, flaring around her as she hurried away from the station. The collar was pulled up, and pearly grey hair hung in a curtain past her cheek. Only when she darted down an alley did he notice the cool, dead pallor of her skin. It was the colour of milk, so white it looked almost like bone. A grey tint flushed her cheekbones, the only sign of exertion as she darted into the shadows and out of sight. She looked just like the woman Hughes had described at the gate.

'Al?' Winry's voice was curious as she realised he was no longer walking beside her, and she quickly followed his line of sight. 'Did you see something?'

Suddenly, the earth heaved beneath his feet, making him gasp in surprise as the air around him trembled. Instinct had him shutting his eyes and diving for the ground, pressing his arms over his head as the plaza trembled and a massive roar pummelled at his ears. His ribs shook with the force of the shock wave, stealing his breath and making him gasp in dust and smoke as massive crashes tore through the square.

It seemed to go on for an age, a constant nightmare of sound and movement in which he was an insignificant and meaningless thing. Like a ship in a storm-tossed ocean, he could only cower and wait until the noise finally died away. In its wake an eerie silence fell, taut and painful. It was as though the entire city had frozen in shock, and Al cautiously lifted his head to see a mass of destruction in front of him.

Within heartbeats the moans and sobs began. The station itself was a wreck of jagged stonework, little more than rubble and broken glass. Most of the ceiling was gone, and that which still remained was turning black as the smoke blossomed against it before spilling into the sky. A couple of smaller explosions rang out, and Al flinched before he realised that it was the steam engines in the depth of the fire, tearing themselves apart as the flames heated their cast iron shells beyond tolerance.

Staggering to his feet he groaned, grateful that he had covered his ears. A faint ringing interfered with his hearing, but it wasn't enough to block out the agonised wails from the rubble, or the distant, frantic ringing of the sirens. Unsteadily he glanced about, realising that he and Winry had been right on the edge. Any closer – it didn't bear thinking about.

Winry!

He spun around frantically, his breath catching in his throat as he tried to see her among the debris. Someone tugged on his sleeve, and he slumped in relief when he saw her next to him. Her face was ashen, and she was clutching at her side, her face contorted with pain. Hastily he reached out for her, catching her easily as she almost fell. 'Where does it hurt?' he asked gently, skimming his fingers over her side and pressing at her ribs. Nothing felt broken, but she still winced at his touch before pulling away. 'I'm all right, but you're not. Do you feel light-headed; can you see okay?'

'What, why?'

Tenderly, Winry reached up to his temple and brushed her hand across his skin. Pain exploded through his head, making him flinch away. When she withdrew her fingers were crimson with blood, and he realised that a sticky trickle was working its way down his face and neck. 'It's nothing. I didn't even feel it until you did that.'

'You need to see a doctor, Al, or at least sit down until help gets here.' She was shaking hard with delayed shock and staring around with huge blue eyes. She barely noticed when he wrapped her in his arms, and he knew that she was distancing herself from what was happening. It was an automatic human reaction, and he swore quietly as her teeth began to chatter.

Looking around he tried desperately to think, but his mind was sluggish with pain and its own defensive numbness. Parasols had been ripped from the cafés and lay like broken wings, flapping forlornly. Tables and chairs were overturned and crockery lay broken among the motionless bodies. If they had still been sitting in the café they would both be dead. There was almost nothing left of it, and he grimaced when he saw a bloody newspaper rattle soggy pages at the wind.

'We need to help these people,' Al said quietly, taking her hand and urging her back towards the station. If he kept her busy and distracted her with something else, then the shock would begin to fade away. Leaving her to follow , he began to search the rubble. Every body he came to he checked for a pulse. Some were gone, snuffed out in an instant. Others were still alive, but unlikely to last another hour. Gradually, Winry mimicked him, talking in soft murmurs to those who were awake, helping some to their feet and closing the staring eyes of others.

The closer they got to the station the fewer people they found alive, and by the time Al was standing on the remains of the platform he knew that it was hopeless. If the building had just collapsed then perhaps people might have survived beneath the debris, but if the explosion hadn't torn them apart then the smoke would soon steal their lives. He didn't dare use alchemy to extinguish the fires. One or two trains, thrown from their tracks like toys, were still intact. Any rapid cooling could cause them to explode, shifting more of the rubble in the process.

His stomach turned as the air became thick with the coppery tang of blood, fighting the choking perfume of the smoke for supremacy. How many people had been on these platforms or on those trains? Everyone had been rushing home, the working week finally done. From what he could see it looked as though hundreds would never make it back to their families, or set foot through their front door again.

Numbly, he walked back, finding Winry sitting cross-legged and holding a young man's hand. He must have been about their age, but it was obvious that he wouldn't make it. Each breath rattled horribly, and his face was a mass of wounds. There was blood everywhere, and Winry was murmuring soothing words, her eyes full of tears. It wasn't long before the young man took his last breath, and Al felt his throat go tight as she sobbed hopelessly, burying her face in her hands as she sat on the ground and wept.

As gently as he could, Al helped her up and sat her on a bigger piece of rubble, talking to her about their childhood. Snatches of memory he could barely recall crystallised in his mind, and his tongue tripped over his words as he tried desperately to calm her. Eventually her fluttered, panicky sobs slowly subsided into a normal rhythm, and she smiled weakly as she clung to his t-shirt. He grimaced at the rips and the bloodstains, but she seemed not to care as her tears slowly dried, and she found the strength that he knew so well.

Ambulances and police had arrived, but their shouted orders were lost on him. It was as though his mind was protecting him by focussing on the tiny details, rather than letting him see the massive picture of lost life and vivid pain. Red and blue lights flashed all around, bouncing off the pall of smoke. Sunset made the thick, white cloud ruddy, a perfect mimicry of the blood on the ground below. The wind was gentle, but it still whipped dust into the air, making his eyes sting and tears bite at his eyelids.

A pair of paramedics hurried over, ushering them both towards the open back of an ambulance. They worked quickly, pressing something to his head and making him lie down. He saw one of them touch Winry's ribs, and heard his soft apology as she flinched but bit her lip and tried to be brave. 'Bruised,' the paramedic muttered, 'not broken. Look at me.' He shone a light in her eyes, and Al winced as the same procedure was performed on him. Everything had taken on a surreal, dream-like quality, and he grumbled in quiet complaint as Winry moved over to him and lifted his head a touch, laying it back in her lap as she sat stiffly on the gurney in the back of the ambulance.

'They've told us to stay here,' she said, gently unlatching his fingers from the compress on his head and holding it there herself. 'They'll check back in on us in a few minutes. Just relax, okay?' Her voice was soft and fierce, and Al smiled in relief as he heard the Winry he was used to in that one, strident sentence. There was still a touch of shaken fear behind her words, but her shock seemed to have ebbed.

He could hear the sound of more cars arriving over the sirens. Some ambulances tore away, no doubt heading for the hospitals that littered the city. A few others stayed, treating the walking wounded as the police began to take statements from those who could still speak. A familiar voice, firm and full of authority, made Al sigh in relief. There was no doubting Mustang's command, and he knew that people would be falling over themselves to obey the Flame Alchemist. A worry niggled at the corner of his mind, but he couldn't quite grasp the thought. His head was fuzzy, and the soothing brush of Winry's fingers over his forehead and cheek was hypnotic and calming.

Dimly, he heard her gasp of surprise, and a quiet, familiar voice murmur something. A cold hand touched his chest before warm fingertips lifted the dressing over the gash on his head.

'Al, are you okay?'

He cracked open one eye, seeing the pinched, worried expression on Ed's face. 'I'm good,' he mumbled, a frown twisting his face as he struggled to recall something important. 'You should be in bed.'

'I think you're the one who needs that. You look like hell.' Ed smiled, but his expression was still riddled with concern. 'Don't worry about me, okay? I'm right here. You can keep an eye on me when you feel better.'

His brother's voice was gentle but firm, the kind his mother used to use when she was laying down the law. It brooked no argument, and Al nodded in agreement as he slipped into a hazy half-sleep.

Al could hear Winry's whispers, angry and harsh, but they held no meaning to his cloudy mind. Every now and again Ed would reply, and he found himself soothed by the familiar rumble of his brother's voice.

He didn't think of the future or worry about the past. Instead, Al concentrated on the muted voices nearby and reminded himself that, at this moment in time, he had a family.

And he wasn't about to let that slip through his fingers.

Chapter Text

Smoke invaded Roy's lungs, acrid and coarse. A cool wind swept up the haze and smudged it in an ochre streak across the sky. He narrowed his eyes, ignoring the autumnal chill in the air as he surveyed the wreckage around him. The cars had pulled up as close as they could, but the officials still had to pick their way through the debris to reach the centre of the ruins.

Everyone was unsure and confused. The human mind, when faced with such a vast situation, could not find one point on which to focus. It literally could not work out where to begin. Fear, revulsion, horror – all emotions collided in a frenzied tangle, rendering the living as broken as the dead.

Inwardly Roy shuddered, his quick mind already calculating a gruesome death toll as he surveyed the damage. The explosion had been huge, and it had struck the city at its busiest time. He could already hear the horns of motorists stuck on the roads and see the distant twinkle of Morse code from the stranded trains, unable to go any further. Central had come to a standstill, and it wouldn't be long before the metropolis began to choke. The city wasn't self-sufficient. They relied on trade to provide the food for its people. How long did they have before supplies ran low?

Logic was a sanctuary to him. He could observe his own cold thoughts with detached fascination. It was a method of self-protection, allowing him to function as a leader while protecting himself from the truth. If it was all distant and meaningless, then he could pretend that it did not strike him to the quick with despair. He could think that these people did not have families or connections. They were just corpses: nameless, faceless bodies.

In the broad light of day logic was a refuge, but Roy knew he would not sleep well tonight. Present and past would blend and merge, and he would be helpless to stop it.

He stood with his arms crossed and shook away his selfish doubts. His thoughts were caught in a tangle of unanswered questions, but his military training came to the fore, picking out the features of the event. It could be the precursor to an attack, weakening Central's supply lines and placing it under siege, but there had been no news of an advancing army. The neighbouring countries may harbour a brooding resentment for Amestris and barely concealed their disdain for Fuhrer Hakuro, but it didn't make sense. Unless this was part of a covert operation it seemed too random. There had been no build up: no threats or posturing among the other politicians.

So who was responsible?

Like water circling the drain he kept coming back to what had happened the gate. It was an unsolved mystery; an unexplained circumstance. Roy did not believe in luck or coincidence, but he knew what his gut was telling him. There was no invasion, at least, not of this world. The explosion was somehow related to the gate.

That knowledge was a bitter taste on his tongue, and he could only swallow back his irritation. He had to wait for the facts. He had to know the full of it. Until then they were only grasping at straws, and the reasons were not as crucial as the recovery. There would be time enough for whys later. Now they had to pick up the pieces and face what had been lost.

Everything lay in ruin: buildings, trains and people. Now, in the middle of it all, he could detect the tang of blood in the air. It was everywhere, smeared like paint or splashed in miasmic pools. He tried not to look too closely at the bodies, but morbid horror was undeniable. See what killed them, and learn so it cannot kill you in turn.

'Havoc! Breda!’ he called out, his voice carrying across the site. ‘Get the perimeter secure. Make sure that no one gets through except emergency personnel. Hawkeye, talk to the paramedics and find out about the survivors.' He lowered his voice, letting the harsh command take on a more human touch. 'Al was meant to be here somewhere. I'm sure he's fine, but I need to know.'

She set off without a word of response, giving only a quick, certain nod of comprehension before picking her way swiftly over the rubble. Havoc and Breda began to urge curious spectators away, clearing a large area so that work could begin.

Roy glanced over his shoulder, checking the gathering crowd for any signs of trouble. It would be the perfect opportunity for someone to instigate a fight. Anti-military sentiment was still strong, and all it would take was sign of indifference to spark a riot. The soldiers had to be seen to be helping. The police, medics and fire-masters were given heroes. The army, for all its power, was looked upon with disfavour.

'Armstrong,' Roy began, beckoning the hulk of a man over. 'I need you to push people back. Get them to go home if they're unharmed or to the hospitals if they're injured. If someone is looking for information on the fatalities then tell them that the victims have been taken to the two main infirmaries. Make sure they check there. Do you understand?'

'Of course, but-' Armstrong hesitated, his moustache twitching. It was a sign that he was unsure how genteel his next question would appear, and Roy waved a hand for him to ask it. 'It would be quicker to simply order them home. There is a time and a place for niceties.'

'If we just push them away it would cause more problems in the long run. I don't want people to use this as an excuse to bash the military. I'm asking you because your rank will make them feel important, and it will prevent any accusations that we are ignoring their concerns.’ Mustang lowered his voice further, speaking with a deep intensity. ‘Use your charm, whatever it takes, just get them out of here politely and without a fuss. We don't need a massive crowd if anything goes wrong.'

Armstrong's massive chest swelled with pride, and Roy managed a smile for the man who towered over him. With one neat, perfect salute the major departed, his booming voice gentled into sympathetic tones as he gradually began to disperse the crowd. Before long others had joined him, turning people away with soft words and quiet advice. He could hear Falman promising a young woman that he would inform her of any news about her husband as soon as they knew more. Roy raised an eyebrow to himself, knowing that it would not be an empty oath, not from anyone in his team. They would all be feeling the personal pinch and the emotional furore of this.

Some of the other commanding officers would sneer and say that there was no room in the army for such sensitivity, but he knew better. They couldn't just be brash and cold, stamping all over everything with clumsy boots. The army might belong to Amestris, but Amestris didn't belong to the army. Sometimes he wondered if he was the only person who realised that. It certainly wasn't the Fuhrer's philosophy.

Roy marched across the rubble, not caring that the ground was uneven as he made his way towards the tangled remains of the station. A police chief was talking to one of the fire-masters, and they nodded in acknowledgement as he approached. 'Brigadier-General,' the policeman, Jacobs, greeted him politely, and Roy nodded in return. The police, for all their interfering, were generally reliable, and Jacobs was among the best. He didn't blindly follow orders, but he wasn't an idiot either.

'I realise that this is a civilian crisis,' Roy began, letting his voice slip into the no-nonsense, authoritative tone that rarely failed, 'but my men will need to investigate. This blast was alchemical, and it falls under our jurisdiction as a result.'

'Like at the warehouse?' Jacobs asked, a hint of reproof in his tone. He had not been best impressed when Roy had banished the police from the scene only a few days ago. 'I'm sorry, sir, but two explosions in such close proximity do suggest that there is a criminal element at work.'

'Undoubtedly,' Roy agreed, glancing quickly back over his shoulder, checking on the status of each of his men with one look. 'I am not asking you to put this under our purview alone. We need everyone's cooperation, and I'm sure you could make use of the manpower I have at my disposal.’

He looked from one man to the other, reading their doubts and needs easily. Both forces were woefully under-staffed to deal with a problem of this size and keep the city running smoothly simultaneously. To devote the entire police and fire teams to one task would be disastrous, and they knew it. Even if the military were the only ones in control of the recovery they would still have men to spare. It all came down to numbers.

'You plan to reconstruct using alchemy?' the fire-master asked curiously. 'Are you sure that's wise?'

'I'm relying on your expertise to tell me when it’s safe,' Roy responded, knowing that the subtle flattery would make convincing the man far easier than a curt order. 'The station can't be out of operation for long. If we rebuild it manually the line could be closed for months. We could have it up and running within a matter of days if we use alchemy, but we will need to be sure that there are no bodies remaining.'

The fire-master rubbed his chin thoughtfully and removed his helmet, letting a shock of ginger hair fall across his face. He was slightly older than Roy, and his green eyes were narrow as he glanced at Jacobs. 'If it was a bomb, rather than alchemy, wouldn't reconstructing the station also reconstruct the explosive device?'

'Yes,' Roy replied, reaching desperately for his patience, 'but this wasn't a bomb. The pattern's wrong and too extensive. If it was alchemy then the cause of the explosion would reform, but it would benign and inactive. We'd remove it and neutralise it immediately.'

Finally the two men nodded, albeit reluctantly. 'I'll talk to the paramedics about getting the remains away from the scene, while Lucas,' Jacobs motioned to the fire-master, 'makes the engines safe. May I suggest, Brigadier-General, that you and your men dig in? We will have to shift all the debris to make sure that the station is clear before you can begin reconstruction.'

With a nod Roy retreated, leaving the two men to manage their teams as he surveyed the remains of the building again. The foundations were still standing, and that was something to work with. It would not be a quick job. It might be possible to construct a large array around the station, but the track would need to be restored one section at a time. It would be a laborious process and, even with every alchemist they had, the chances were that it would take days to complete.

'Sir?'

Blinking, he realised that Hawkeye was standing patiently at his elbow, her brown eyes looking up at him with a hint of sad amusement. 'Yes, Lieutenant?'

'Al and Miss Rockbell are all right. A little bruised, but otherwise whole. They're in the back of that ambulance,' she motioned towards the edge of the destruction, where one vehicle still stood. In it he could see Al lying with his head in Winry's lap. A flash of white on his forehead suggested a bandage, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. Winry was leaning forward, one hand resting on Al's cheek while the other pointed accusingly at the figure opposite her. Even from here he could see the anger on her face. She gesticulated viciously as she spoke, and Roy knew that if she could get her hands on anything heavy she would be throwing it with all the force of her fury.

Edward sat opposite her, his body tense and rejecting. Roy felt his jaw clench, and the cool detachment he had mastered slipped from his grasp. His anger must have shown on his face because Riza took a quick step back as he spun on his heel, stalking over to the ambulance.

He wanted to throttle the youth for being so careless, for disobeying his orders and for daring to follow him here. He had deliberately avoided all thought of what had happened at his home, pushing it aside as he faced the more urgent problem. Now it came flooding back to him: the sick, drained feeling before he lost consciousness followed by the hot buzz of energy that had woken him from the darkness. Ed had caused it both, and even now Roy's body was twitching with that power. His skin felt as though it were crackling with life, and every breath was almost like a high.

And then... . an image flashed through his mind of Ed underneath him, amber eyes dark and flashing as he pressed his body hotly to Roy's own. It was enough to make his step falter, and a sharp jolt of heat flashed downwards. Ruthlessly, bitterly he shoved that thought away. It had been a moment of weakness, and he wouldn't have let it carry on to its natural conclusion. He would have pulled away even if it weren't for the explosion.

Roy felt his lips twist into an ugly sneer of derision at his own denial, but he did not admit the truth to himself. If he did that then it was an acknowledgement that he was no longer in control. If he couldn't even have supremacy over his own flesh and the drive of his instincts, then he was lost.

Edward was a temptation: dangerous and wild. In a moment he had gone from knowing that the young alchemist would never fail him to doubting every one of Fullmetal's motivations. Every word that passed his lips could be a lie and every expression a disguise. He had to know what Edward was hiding. He needed to find out exactly what had happened at the gate. Until then, he was back to square one with Fullmetal.

Of course, he realised as he drew close to the ambulance, it was a catch twenty-two situation. He would not trust Edward until he knew everything that the young man wasn't telling them, and Ed would never trust him enough to tell him the whole of it. That simple fact would not stop him from trying. One way or the other he would know it all, and he would be in control again.

Taking a deep breath Roy hesitated, leaning against the side of the ambulance as he listened to Winry's words. Maybe she would succeed where he had failed. Maybe she could get Ed to betray something of what was happening. Roy was out of their sight here, but it was easy enough to catch her ire. Her voice was high and quiet, as though she were trying not to disturb someone but was desperate to yell and shout and scream.

'How could you, Edward? How could you do this to us? All that time we were right there and you didn't tell us anything about it!' She took a deep breath, as though trying to calm herself. 'What scared you? The thought that we wouldn't care at all, or that we'd care too much? God forbid that anyone ever tries to help you. We'd only ever get in your way, right?'

'Winry -' Ed's voice was rough and firm: a warning. He didn't want to hear what she had to say, but she wasn't about to hold her tongue. Roy smirked to himself. There was no way for Ed to get out of this one. His brother's presence kept him in place even as Winry's temper lashed at him without mercy.

'Don't you “Winry” me! You're a fool, Edward, and what's worse is that you never learn. You're still lying now, aren't you? Al is frightened of losing you and guilty because he thinks it's his fault. You just don't care. You don't care enough to tell anyone the truth, not even your little brother.'

'It's not like that!'

'Then what is it like? I'm not stupid! Do you think I won't understand if you tell me what's happening to you? Or is it that you like being the martyr, sacrificing yourself for other people because it gives you a kick?' There were tears in her voice now, and when Ed didn't reply at all her breath hitched. 'Your mother didn't bring you up to lie, Edward. Do you really think she would be proud of you right now, keeping Al in the dark?'

'Ouch. Talk about below the belt.'

Roy jumped at the whispering voice near his shoulder and looked around to see Hughes shamelessly listening in. His friend's face was grim, but his eyes were gleaming with curiosity. The ambulance was silent, and Roy felt a glimmer of unease. Speaking to Ed about his mother was a sure-fire way to throw the young alchemist into a funk of depression, and he knew that Winry hadn't engaged her brain before uttering that last statement. The problem was that it was unlikely to make Edward open up. Instead it would close him off even further.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped around the ambulance, releasing his earlier anger and letting it have free reign as he spoke through gritted teeth. 'I ordered you to stay where you were, Fullmetal. You're not fit for active duty.'

Ed shrugged, an indifferent, distant motion that spoke volumes of his mood. He was staring at the ambulance floor, not meeting anyone's gaze. If he had looked up he would have seen the tears of frustration, sadness and regret in Winry's eyes. The young woman held herself rigid, one hand tangling nervously in Al's hair. She was staring at Edward, watching him pull away even as he sat still, and Roy knew how much that hurt. He'd been in the same position enough times, watching Ed build a wall that he couldn't break down if he tried.

When her eyes met his, Roy gave a small twitch of surprise. In the past he'd seen many things in that young woman's face: a lot of loathing and a barrage of disgust, but never this. It was a plea for help. Not a wide-eyed, begging expression, but one of desperation. She didn't need words to convey her urgency, and before he realised it he had given a tiny nod of agreement. He would do what he could.

'Hughes, if Gracia wouldn't mind can you take Al and Winry back to your place?'

'Of course.' Maes nodded, reaching in to shake Al back into wakefulness. The young man seemed tired, but not unduly confused. When his eyes alighted on his brother there was no smile or sadness, just his lips setting themselves into a thin, determined line. Roy wondered if Al had heard what Winry had said, but he gave no hint of disapproval. Either he hadn't been listening, or he thought that his brother deserved to feel the stab of that particular barb.

Stiffly, they climbed down from the ambulance, and Al hesitated near Roy, keeping his voice low. 'I saw the woman Lieutenant Colonel Hughes described from the gate running away from the station,' he said quietly, wincing as he clutched at his head. 'She was heading towards the north, and I think she's responsible for this. Ed wants to go after her. Don't let him.'

Roy nodded, absently moving to block Edward's path in case he decided to leap up and give chase, but he didn't even stir. 'We'll keep an eye out for her. Go home and get some rest. I'll look after Ed.'

'Why don't you send him back with us?' Hughes asked. 'There's plenty of space.'

'I'm not going anywhere.' Ed's voice was dull but determined, and Roy knew from the stiffness of the young man's shoulders that he was picking a fight. Winry's words may have been painful, but it wasn't remorse that she had inspired; it was cold, hard resentment. 'If Carmine's here then I'm going to look for her.'

'No you're not,' Roy growled, sensing the challenge in the young man and rising to it. 'You can't be trusted to obey a simple order. You're staying put.'

Ed looked up at that, his expression one of utter fury. His eyes were dark and volatile, and his lips were pinched with the urge to swear and shout. For a moment Roy thought he would break, but instead he swallowed back his words and glowered.

Hughes caught Roy's eye, raising an eyebrow. 'I'll be back as soon as I've got these two settled. Something tells me you'll need all the help you can get tonight.' He didn't wait for Roy's reply before he led Winry and Al away, talking to them about what they had seen.

As they went Ed jumped down from the back of the ambulance and turned away, kicking a piece of rubble and watching it skitter and bounce. 'Why?' he snapped, not bothering to face Roy with his demand. 'Why won't you let me follow her?'

'Use your head, Fullmetal,’ Roy replied wearily. ‘Al saw her over thirty minutes ago. She's probably long gone by now. She'll show her face again sooner or later.'

'And how many more people will she kill?' Ed's question was cold, and Roy closed his eyes. He was in command, and he couldn't let the young man's petulance get the better of him, but he had a point.

'I'm giving you an order, Fullmetal. Stay here.'

For a moment he thought he would disobey. He could see the conflict in Ed's body, as though part of him longed to walk away while another was held inexplicably in place. Roy didn't fool himself. It wasn't out of any respect for his authority.

He almost asked Ed if he was all right, but observation stopped him. There weren't any traces of weakness or illness. No fever flushed his skin, and he moved with a fluid, powerful grace that Roy hadn't seen in a long time. Not since before Al had got his body back. It was as if, after years of pain, Edward had found solace and reclaimed his centre. His expression was angry and fierce, but it was not lined with agony, nor was his movement hampered by discomfort.

Questions perched on his lips, some softly curious, others vile and bitter. He suspected this recovery had something to do with what had happened back at the house. Moving closer to where Edward stood, Roy sucked in a breath, concentrating hard. The strange buzz of power he had felt was stronger now, as though being nourished by something. It made his skin tickle, and his fingers itch to click and use the strength that was right there for the taking. He had felt something like this before, back in Ishbal. It was the same kind of surge he had sensed from the philosopher's stone: a ragged, hoary feeling that longed to be put to use. Couldn't Ed feel it? He seemed ignorant to the spark in the air, but it was there. Just like the atmosphere before a storm rolled in.

‘What are you doing?’ the question was a hiss, a barely there whisper, but it still reached Ed’s ears. ‘It feels like you’re performing alchemy, but I can see that you’re not. What the hell did you do to me back at the house?’

Ed clamped his teeth shut tight and turned his back, keeping his face diverted as he replied, ‘I told you: all I did was put back what the array took from you. Nothing else.’

‘That doesn’t explain anything!’ Roy snapped, closing his eyes and physically stepping back as he felt his anger coiling like a snake ready to strike. Taking a deep breath he shook his head. ‘This isn’t helping, Edward. I need a full report on what happened at the gate and what’s been happening to you since. The presence of that woman shows it’s all linked in. This isn’t just about you anymore.’

Ed turned to face him, golden eyes molten with anger as his jaw tightened. ‘So you’re saying this is my fault?’ he waved a hand at the shattered remnants of the station. ‘I keep telling you that there’s nothing to explain!’

‘And I know that you’re lying. What are you afraid of?’

The question seemed to strike home as he saw Edward flinch, shying away as though Roy had struck him. It had been a shot in the dark. Even as a child it had been hard to imagine Fullmetal being afraid of anything. Now it was even more at odds with what he knew about the young man. Alarm bells were shrilling loudly in his head, and he knew he was marching the fine line of Ed’s anger. One wrong word and there was every possibility that Ed would simply walk away and not come back.

‘I expect your report on my desk in the morning, Major.’

When Ed did not reply, Roy turned away, his footsteps echoing as he strode across the debris. The urge to grab Edward’s arm and drag him along, to force him to obey his orders, was strong. Still, trust had to begin somewhere, and he was hoping that Ed would made the right choice. He did not bother to check and see if the young alchemist was behind him. Instead Roy forced himself to check his other subordinates before he made his way into the heart of the station.

Mutely, he shed his jacket, grabbing a shovel and beginning to dig as around him others did the same. People set up lamps, running them off of noisy generators as true night settled in. It turned the ruins into a patchwork of dazzling light and grim shadow. The vivid splashes of scarlet blood dried to smeared rusty stains with each passing hour, but still they carried on.

'Should the boss be doing that?' Havoc asked quietly, resting on his shovel for a moment and nodding towards the track.

Roy looked up, feeling an unwelcome flutter of relief when he saw that Edward was still there. He was helping a couple of privates move a large boulder from where it rested on the tracks. With a great heave they managed to get it onto the platform, revealing the tangled wreck of metal and sleepers underneath.

'He's been told to rest, but you know what he's like.' Roy shook his head to himself and scowled at his gloves, which were ripped from hours of hard labour. 'Besides, he's not meant to be left alone. At least here there are plenty of people to keep an eye on him.'

'Plenty of people for him to get lost among, too. I caught him heading for the perimeter about twenty minutes ago. He said he was getting some fresh air, but -,' Jean shrugged, not bothering to finish as he jabbed at a bit of stone. 'I stayed with him until he came back here.'

Roy digested this in silence, a heavy, uncomfortable weight settling in his chest. ‘Thank you, Havoc.’

With an irritated grunt of acknowledgement Havoc propped his shovel against his hip and scratched fiercely at his arm. Like everyone else the lieutenant had rolled up his sleeves to pitch in with the others, and his jacket was long gone. The exposed skin was tanned, but was already turning red with scratch marks.

'You all right?'

Havoc shrugged and peered at his flesh. 'I think it's something in the air. Armstrong and Falman - even Hawkeye were complaining that they felt strange. It's kind of like my skin's crawling, and I'm all edgy. Maybe there's a gas leak or something?'

He looked around absently, a thoughtful frown on his face as another thought occurred to him. 'Shouldn't we be tired by now? We've been working, digging, worrying and none of us have slept well over the past few days. This morning I was so tired I didn't think I could get out of bed. Now I can hardly keep still, and everyone else looks like they just got here.' He gestured around, and Roy realised that he was right. Everyone seemed to be wide-awake and intent on their respective tasks, despite the fact that they had been doing physically punishing work well into the night.

'When did this start?' Roy asked. 'The itching I mean. When did you notice it first?'

'A few minutes after we got here. Do you know what it is?'

Roy shrugged, his gaze drifting to Edward again as he frowned. 'I don't know what's going on. Just do me a favour and keep an eye on Fullmetal. If you notice anything strange, anything at all, then tell me. Something isn't right.’

Havoc nodded in agreement before returning to work, pausing every so often to scratch. He had thought the buzz in his own system was to do with whatever Edward had done, but if that was the case then it should only be affecting him. Even as he watched, he could see the men around Edward were rubbing absently at their skin as though it prickled, and none of them showed any sign of fatigue. By now they should have been exhausted and surly, facing the long night ahead with grim determination. Instead it was as though they were fresh to the scene.

Someone tugged the shovel from his unresisting grasp, and he frowned as Hughes chuckled and shrugged out of his jacket. 'You were miles away,' he pointed out gently as he set to work. 'Al and Winry are fine. In fact they're complaining that they have to stay out of the way.' He became serious, his expressive face taking on a hint of strain. 'I don't think either of them will sleep well tonight. They're lucky they left when they did. If they'd stayed a couple of minutes longer, then they would have been in the morgue.'

Roy rubbed a hand over his face, nodding in understanding. It was easy to forget that this could have been worse; this could have been personal for all of them, rather than another disaster to manage. ‘Did Al tell you anything else about the woman?’

‘The description matched who we saw at the gate.’ Maes frowned thoughtfully. ‘Mind you, just seeing her running from here doesn’t necessarily mean she’s responsible. She just might have known what was happening and been getting away to save her own skin.’

'It was Carmine.'

Ed's words, quiet and certain, made them turn in surprise. He stood not far away, a piece of stone in his hands. He was scowling at it, brushing his fingers over the surface, and Roy could see that he was picking out a pattern. Carefully he turned it over, showing them a fractured piece of an array. 'I recognise this. She used the same thing at the gate,' Ed muttered, bending down and picking up another piece of rubble. As Roy watched over his shoulder the young man put them together. The edges locked together perfectly.

'You're telling me she used the same thing here, at the station? What for?'

'This was part of the design she left me in. I guess it was to do with sacrificing a living thing to whatever was beyond the gate.' Ed kicked around among the debris, scowling as he picked up a larger slab. 'Except that there has to be some variation because it wouldn't work on this kind of scale. The array can't be bigger than five-feet across. Why kill everyone if you could only use the handful of people who happened to be standing inside the circle?'

Roy cocked his head to one side, watching the anger and coldness on Ed's face dissipate. In its place was the familiar flame of curiosity. To say Ed was brilliant at alchemy was an understatement. His theorising often stretched the limits of known practice, but it never failed to make sense. He simply saw the world in a different way.

'I need to go back to the warehouse and get a better look at the array there. It was too big to take in completely, but I bet whatever happened here used the same basic design.' Unflinchingly Ed's gaze met Roy's own, challenging him to deny the simple request. Mulishly, he considered it for a moment, tempted to say that there were more important things to do, but eventually Roy nodded in agreement.

'Hawkeye, Hughes, I need you two to supervise the clear up for an hour or so. If you find anything that looks like part of an array, any stones with any kind of pattern or engraving on it, then put it to one side. I'll be back soon.’

'Wait,' Ed protested. 'I can look after myself.'

'Either I come with you or you don't go at all,' Roy shrugged indifferently, forcing himself not to read too much into Ed's reluctance for his company. 'Your choice, Fullmetal.'

For a moment he didn't reply, his face set into a scowl as he turned the piece of stone over and over in his palms. His flesh fingertips ran over the lines time and again, as though he we memorising the feel of the coruscations. Eventually he sighed, shaking his head in irritation. 'Fine, you can drive.'

Mutely, Roy took the keys from Hawkeye, ignoring her warning look. The woman took pride in the black automobile, and he knew that to graunch the gears or scratch the paintwork would bring Riza's full wrath down upon him.

'One hour,' Hughes called out as they picked their way towards the perimeter, 'or we come looking for you!'

The car purred to life, moving swiftly down the quiet streets as Roy drummed his fingers on the steering wheel absently. The roads were almost empty. Traffic jams had been cleared and journeys abandoned as people realised they would not be getting to their destinations tonight. It made the drive an easy one, and his mind began to drift.

Images of the station kept flickering in front of his eyes, and he could feel the slow creep of horror beginning to steal his logic. Where there had been facts and figures, strategies and plans there was now blood, grief and agony. There had been a child lying dead, half-caught in her mother's arms. Somewhere there was a father and husband who had just lost his family. This night would bring him nothing but the hollow bite of loss, and Roy felt the first shudder of empathy.

'What's wrong?'

Fullmetal's quiet question made him flinch, and he turned the motion into a shrug. 'Nothing important.'

He could feel Edward’s aureate eyes staring at him. A sideways glance confirmed his suspicion, and he sighed at Ed's hypocrisy. The youth had folded his arms, and watched Roy with such blatant doubt that it was almost comical. Edward expected people to be an open book to him. He hated guile and secrecy and couldn't bear it when faced with someone who was less than truthful.

Yet here he was, using the same tricks that he despised in others. Silence and evasion were the tools he employed so well, almost as though he were born to gentle deceit. Ever since he was young he had told lies and turned away pointed questions with a shield of feigned ignorance. Roy doubted that there was any malice behind it. More likely it was for self-preservation and the protection of those that Fullmetal held dear, but the motive didn't change the outcome.

Roy turned the car down the street and pulled up to the battered remains of the warehouse, ignoring Ed's sigh of irritation at his stubborn silence. Wordlessly, he got out of the car, grimacing as the same emotions from a couple of nights ago returned full force. He could almost taste the dust in the air again, and smell the acidic scent of alchemy. His body was abruptly tense and on edge, as though it was waiting for history to repeat itself.

Ed still stood by the car, propped against the door as he surveyed what was left of the place through hooded eyes. For once his expression was unreadable, and Roy found himself watching, rapt. Ed looked neither discomfited nor awed. It was as though he had detached himself from what had happened here completely.

A slight movement shattered the illusion, and Roy watched Edward trace a quick line down the column of his neck. Hughes had said that Ed’s throat had been slit, and Roy knew that he was remembering the slip of the knife through his flesh. This wasn’t as easy for Ed as he was making out.

'I can't see a fucking thing from here. I need to get up on one of the roofs.'

Edward's curt words seemed loud amidst the peace, and Roy nodded in agreement before following him up the rickety fire escape of the nearest warehouse. The roof itself was pitted with holes and badly constructed patches of corrugated iron. It clanked noisily underfoot, echoing like a massive drum as they skirted their way around the worst of the damage, checking each step with their weight before committing themselves.

When they finally reached the edge, Roy felt an involuntary rush of air fill his lungs, drying his lips with its passage. The array was sprawled out before them, dead, black lines on the charred earth. The face of it was ravaged by cracks, but it was still discernible.

The pattern was a series of circles, heavily laced with symbols. Each one touched the other, a kiss of line on line. Amestrian alchemy relied on simple demarcations, but this was different. Each array was formed in bands about as wide as Roy's finger was long. The twin concentric circles of each carried a cluster of something, possibly a foreign language, spanning the circumference.

'It looks complicated doesn't it?' Ed asked. There wasn't any doubt in his voice. In fact, his words were strong with confidence, as though he could understand what he was seeing. 'It's actually more simple than what we use. There's a portion for sacrifice of the living, another for sacrifice of the dead and the last one is for protection.'

The section that he pointed to, at the furthest point from where he stood, was the one most heavily dappled with runes. Some were balancing, meant to stabilise a flow of power. Others were for elemental control. Fire, earth, air and water were all represented in band around the edge of the design.

'Some of them look familiar,’ Roy said, ‘like they're related to things that we use today.'

'They are,’ Ed replied. ‘This alchemy isn't different. It's just much older. Over the years it’s been made easier. Why draw three circles when one will do the trick?' He stared at the array for a moment longer, but the smile on his face had faded. The thrill of discovery was short-lived, and now he seemed to be eyeing it suspiciously, as though expecting it to flare into life. 'The portion I was in is definitely similar to the one at the station, but that doesn't make sense. You couldn't use it on its own. What was she trying to do?'

Without another word Edward turned around, making quick work of his descent and leaving Roy to follow at a more sedate pace. He felt hopelessly out of his depth, and that made him frustrated with his own lack of expertise. The narrow focus of becoming Fuhrer did not leave much time for alchemical research. Yes, he was an expert at the control of the fire element, and practised at many other techniques, but compared to Edward he felt like a novice.

By the time Roy got to the edge of the array, Fullmetal was already on his knees, tracing the outline and muttering to himself. He acted carefully, like a man petting a sleeping wild animal, and Roy found himself falling back on his role as commanding officer, demanding answers in a clear, concise tone.

'Was the array damaged in the explosion?'

Edward looked up, taking in the sprawling spider of the cracks for a moment before shaking his head. 'No, I overloaded it to free Hughes. She was channelling energy through it, so I did the same. I just pushed against her, rather than working with her.'

'How did you know that would succeed?' Roy demanded, staring in disbelief at Ed's down bent head. What he had just described was bordering on suicidal. When two alchemists activated an array cooperatively the results could still be unpredictable. To actually work against each other... . 'It was a miracle it didn't destroy you. Did you even care about that?'

Ed just looked up at him for a moment before giving a shrug. 'It was the only thing I could think of at short notice. If I hadn't done it, Hughes would have been trapped and the gate would have taken him for good. As it was the only reason any of us got out was because Carmine was careless. This array,' he tapped the one he had said was for living sacrifice, 'was a last minute addition. There were flaws I was able to use. She wasn't even expecting me. It was you she was after.'

Roy stiffened, his already tense muscles twisting in more knots as confusion and guilt welled up. He knew Ed had suffered. Hughes had described the wounds that had torn at him, now wiped clean by the strange felicity of the gate.

'She could have killed you,' he muttered quietly, not really expecting Fullmetal to hear.

‘That wasn’t really part of her plan,’ Ed replied after a moment, his voice softer. ‘Besides, one month wouldn’t really have made that much difference, would it?’

Roy looked up sharply, the words escaping before he could stop them. ‘Don’t say that. Of course it makes a difference. Especially if it should have been me and not you!’

Ed glanced up from where he knelt by the array, his eyes unfathomable. In them was the cool flash of deep fear, and Roy realised just how right he had been earlier when he had asked Edward what he was afraid of. He’d obviously been a lot closer to the mark than he realised.

'I think in the end all she wanted was a powerful alchemist,’ Edward replied, shrugging his shoulders. ‘You fit the bill as well as I do. Unless she's an ex-lover of yours.’

'Jealous, Fullmetal?' Roy asked, letting a smirk slide onto his lips

'Shut up, bastard,’ Ed growled, a scowl snapping his brows together. ‘I'm being serious. You don't seem to recognise the name, but it doesn't mean that this wasn't more personal.'

Roy walked idly along the line of the array, skirting it delicately as he examined the craftsmanship in it. Finally he spoke from the opposite side of the circle. 'I've never dated an alchemist. Someone of this skill wouldn't be able to hide what they could do. It would be second nature to them. I don't know who she is or why she seemed to be after me, but it looks like you satisfied her needs.' There was a faint trace of accusation in his voice, unguarded and unwelcome, but he couldn't have hid it if he had tried. 'Maybe she sensed something in you that she wanted.'

'Like what?'

Roy shook his head, running a hand through his hair. 'Maybe an understanding of what she was doing, or some kind of knowledge of her motivations. You told me she destroyed the gate; you sounded almost glad.’

'I was ill and tired,' Ed snapped, rising to his feet and crossing his arms as he glared. 'I can’t help it if I sounded grateful that she had ripped apart the one thing that’s been ruining my life since I was a kid!’ He moved irritably, pacing back and forth along a small section of the array. ‘That doesn’t mean I sympathise with what she did. Fuck knows what the consequences will be. I didn't even think she could get back here from that place, and I sure as hell didn't expect her to be running around Central!'

'Yet you can read her arrays. You recognise them.' When Edward looked alarmed Roy plunged on, knowing he had caught him off guard. 'You don't see vague similarities to the alchemy you use today. You know this!' He waved wildly to the design at their feet.

'How can I?' Edward demanded. 'This kind of array originates over four thousand years ago. I've never seen them before.’

'How do you know that they're that old?' Roy's question was the sting in the scorpion's tail, sibilant and meant to hurt. 'I doubt that there are any books on this, Edward. There's no research, but you already know it all. Tell me what's happened to you!'

Unconsciously his body had moved, pacing quickly across the intervening space. He grabbed Ed's wrists, letting his fear and his fury find its way into his grip. It was bruising, but Ed didn't flinch. Instead his eyes were staring at the array beneath Roy's feet, and his pale face had taken on a distinctly nauseous tinge. 'Move!'

In a gesture so quick that Roy couldn't follow it Ed had flipped his hand, grabbing Roy's wrist and pulling as hard as he could. Pain shot up his arm, but it was nothing compared to the stinging sensation that crawled over his skin. It bowed his spine and clenched his teeth, making his muscles contract uncomfortably as he struggled against the thrill of power. In a heartbeat he was free, staggering unceremoniously beyond the circumference and almost sprawling to the ground.

Looking over his shoulder, he stared in sick horror at the lines of the array. The light grooves, shallow, compared to the others, were bleeding like wounds. Crimson liquid welled up from the ground, tracing the outlines lovingly as it flowed and spilled along the channels. Where it touched the edges the ground smoked, releasing the smell of rotting meat into the air. It made Roy gag, and he heard Edward swallowing convulsively nearby.

‘Shit.’ Ed’s curse was heartfelt, and Roy turned to see him backing away.

‘Do you know what this is?'

Ed looked uncomfortable, as if torn between a lie for his self-preservation and the need to tell the truth. 'I thought she should be stuck there back at the gate,’ he confessed quietly, ‘and if it wasn't for her using my blood in the array she probably still would be. I think it's created a conduit. A channel between here and there.' He grabbed Roy again, forcing him to move away as the scarlet winked lewdly in the lamplight.

'That's why she wanted an alchemist: for their blood.' The realisation made Roy shiver. 'It was powerful enough to create a link back to this world.'

Ed's face was grim and haggard as he continued to back away, only stopping when his back touched the wall of the nearby warehouse. ‘Carmine's intelligent. She'll have protected that array to make sure that the portal can't be used by accident, but there are probably things that belong beyond the gate that are already trying to find their way back.’ His voice sounded choked and painful. ‘If something is determined or powerful enough then what’s to stop it trying to break back free?’

Roy swallowed, watching the bloody array to shine wetly in the muted lights of the place. For a moment there was nothing: no movement or sound. Then, as if rain disturbed its surface, the blood began to ripple. It was a tiny motion at first, almost unnoticeable. Yet with each passing moment it became more pronounced, until the viscous fluid seethed and began to blacken.

Abruptly Ed hurried forward, clapping his hands together and slapping them to the floor. Light flashed along the ground, forming sweeping circles in an instant. They flared out around him, runes scribing their own way across the earth.

Roy gaped, stepping back as a smooth, clear circle surrounded where he stood. His logical mind knew it was a simple protective disc, but this was like no alchemy he had ever seen. Ed did not need arrays, but this complicated knot of a design was completely alien to him. How did Ed even know it would work?

The array sparkled, glimmering with power as the alchemy around it began to falter and fail. Carmine’s wards would not hold, and the locks of power that held back the tide from the plane of the gate failed abruptly.

Power surged along Ed’s array, and Roy stumbled as his body abruptly became heavy and exhausted. He didn’t realise he had fallen until his knees hit the ground with bruising force. Desperately, he forced himself to keep his eyes open, to watch as Edward’s face contorted in a horrible twist of pain.

Roy could feel the power all around him. The energy in the air was immense: a deafening roar to all of the senses. It tasted of burning tin and smelled strongly of ozone. The hairs on the nape of his neck were standing on end as his skin tickled and trembled under the onslaught. Light, brilliant and dazzling, arced from one portion of the array to another, sharing and balancing the power as though Edward had done it a thousand times before.

Beneath him the earth heaved, a roiling spasm that shook dust free from the buildings around them. With an ear splitting crack the ground split, forming a wide, deep flaw across the array.

Abruptly the power died, leaving the air baked in its wake. He could hear Ed’s ragged panting and saw how much he was shaking. Sweat dripped off of his forehead, impacting with the bloody ground. For a moment Roy thought that Ed would collapse in front of him, but he managed to get to his feet, weaving haphazardly.

Quickly, he forced himself up, trembling as the strength that had been pulled from him flooded back again. In contrast Ed seemed to pale further, and he bent double for a moment, hauling in deep breaths of air.

‘Before you ask,’ he mumbled, ‘I don’t know what that was either. I was just trying to close the channel.’

Roy put a hand on Ed’s shoulder, rubbing absently as he watched the hammering pulse-point in Ed’s throat begin to slow back to normal. His mind was a hive of questions, but all he managed to croak was, ‘Are you all right?’

Ed looked up at him for a moment, blinking sweat away from his eyes before he nodded. ‘I think it worked, but I’m not sure. It’s probably a good idea to get out of here.’

He didn’t protest as Roy led him back to the car and buckled him in before pulling away. A weak nod of agreement was the only reply Roy got when he said that they were going back to Hughes’s house.

Roy tightened his hands on the steering wheel, forcing himself to concentrate on the road and keep his eyes off of Fullmetal. The youth had rested his head against the window, and his eyes were shut tight against the lights that drifted past. On his forehead the array glittered, not with its usual light, but with a dappling of diamond pinpoints.

‘What the hell has happened to you, Ed?’ Roy murmured to himself, knowing he would get no reply. In the space of a few days Edward had changed completely. The doctors said that his body was failing him, but his power had only increased and changed, morphing into something that Roy couldn’t even begin to recognise. Suspicions, chilling and terrifying, were ricocheting around his head, and he had to force them aside. He would get Edward to safety and get back to the station. The city had to take priority. He just had a sinking feeling that there was something far bigger beginning to brew: something that put them all at risk.

Back at the warehouse the silence was disturbed. The ground shook again like the shuddering sigh of an old giant turning in its slumber. Blood still clung wetly to the array, dripping into the narrow chasm like wine from a goblet rim. Slowly, with a soft groan of animal sound something emerged: a grey-tinged shadow, weak and frail.

It spread like mist, lapping at the crimson fluid with an invisible tongue before it surged forward. It did not matter that the door had been closed. It had managed to pass through at the last moment. Besides, this was where it belonged, here, in the living world. This was its home; its playground.

Prey was everywhere, walking, breathing, living. Thriving through their busy lives like ants. Once it had been powerful: god-like in its horror. Then a young alchemist had sunk it into the black abyss, tearing away its strength and depriving it of everything but the monotonous infinity of oblivion. Still, it had been patient. It had waited, and now it had its reward.

Sinuously, the mist curled away, finding shelter in the dark, forgotten places of the metropolis. Its awareness did not sense the eyes that watched it, nor saw the battered body that, hours before, had pulled its way tortuously through the same doorway that had just been destroyed.

Only two things had retained the strength required to drag themselves away from the vacuous clutches of the gate's darkness, and only one of them was passably human: strong in body and sharp in mind, the only flaw in his androgynous form was the bitter, sucking absence of a soul.

Envy smiled, stretching his arms over his head as he slipped away into the night. It was good to be back.

Chapter Text

Roy grunted as he shovelled aside more debris. Blistered palms, blood smeared and stinging, slipped on the handle as he worked. His muscles keened with pain from the repetitive movement, and everything was covered in a fine coating of dust and grime. It was hard work, but the heavy labour kept his body busy and his mind distracted. His tongue tasted grit on his lips, and his eyes stung sharply from the last vestiges of smoke. Swearing quietly, he blinked the pain away before digging in again.

The clean-up operation was his first concern, but it was not the only one that had a fix on his attention. After what had happened at the warehouse, he had left Edward under Gracia's subtle guard. Second thoughts had plagued him for the entire drive, and more than once he had almost changed his mind. He had nearly decided that leaving Fullmetal with Hughes' family was too dangerous for them, his unpredictability too great, but the alternatives were worse.

Roy could have brought Ed back to the damaged site, where he would undoubtedly put more strain on himself by refusing to rest. The only other place was back at Roy's home where he would be alone. Somehow he doubted that Edward would pass up that opportunity. He would slip away to search for Carmine, and it was anyone's guess where that course of action would lead.

So he had swallowed his fear and ensured that Ed was safely ensconced in the warm haven of Hughes' home. If it had just been Gracia and Elysia then he may have forced himself to find another way, but Al's presence was a large comfort. For all of his tenderness, the younger Elric was a powerful alchemist in his own right. That, coupled with a healthy dose of common sense, meant Roy knew that Fullmetal would be carefully watched. Al wouldn't hesitate to ask for help if he needed it. If anything went wrong... .

If anything went wrong then Maes would tear him apart.

Swallowing tightly, Roy fought against the urge to hurry back and make sure he hadn't made the gravest mistake of his life. Ed would never hurt them deliberately but, after what he had just seen, it was impossible to believe the extent of all that power and hard to comprehend that it was so thoroughly under Ed's control. After all, accidents happened.

The thought made him feel sick, and Roy allowed the reassuring scramble of his thoughts to wash over him. He had told Al what had happened at the warehouse, letting him know about the strange alchemy and warning them all to keep an eye out for anything that did not seem normal. Alphonse had cast his brother a considering gaze, as though trying to weigh the truth of Roy's words against the tired, huddled figure on Gracia's sofa.

There wasn't any chance that they would be caught unawares or let their guard down, Roy told himself. Just because it was Edward did not mean they would get careless. Even Gracia knew that alchemy was less than predictable. She realised just how powerful and dangerous a friend like Ed could be. Just because he was barely out of adolescence did not make him harmless.

Roy scowled, shifting his grip on the shovel and turning over more of the stonework. He had come back here straight away, helping the others move the rubble even as Hughes gave him a quick, verbal report. The death toll had gone over two hundred and was still rising, although numbers were becoming difficult. They weren't finding whole bodies any more. Sometimes it was just ash, or a limb, but others there was nothing but the blood to tell the story of a victim. Maes had sounded sick with anger, and Roy knew the feeling well. What had happened at the station was monstrous; the worst thing was that it didn’t surprise him anymore.

In the end everyone learned that alchemy was not inherently good or evil. It was a force that could be used either way. The outcome was down to the wielder and their motives. It could be used for the benefit or detriment of individuals, or society as a whole.

People often thought that the strength of the alchemist was down to some kind or pre-set level, as if there was a limit to how skilled a person could be based on genetics. In fact the only boundary was their knowledge. Some men drove themselves into an early grave searching for the next array - the next level of comprehension. Others got to a certain point and decided they had enough power to meet their needs. Roy was one of them. He had other priorities than becoming the world's greatest alchemist. Everyone had a target and they worked towards it. For some alchemy was a tool, for others: an obsession.

To Edward it had been both the means to get his brother's body back and an addiction. Yet once Al was whole the passion did not die. It changed. Roy could remember the time, over a year ago now, when he had realised that Ed was different from any other alchemist he had ever known. The power wasn't a status symbol to him. It was not the key to unlocking all of his desires. Instead it had become an integral part of the young man. Ed never tried to justify his use of alchemy. He never categorised it into good or bad, although he did make a conscious effort to draw the line somewhere. No. Alchemy was something that defined Fullmetal and, in turn, was defined by him. At some point Ed's incredible talent had become a standard that everyone looked up to and measured themselves against.

Now there was this new power, and there was something different about it. A tool was benign and completely under the control of those that used it. The energy at the warehouse had felt like something alive. It was like a creature that, for all its obedience, was still wild and independent.

Roy rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, feeling the tight coil of his muscles beneath his skin. Cleaning up gave him the chance to put some distance between himself and Ed. It was an opportunity to plot, plan and fight back the bitter, raw edge of panic that threatened to cut him to the core.

He had never seen anything like the arrays on the ground of the warehouse district. To him they were alien and dangerous. Yet Ed had not only been able to understand their purpose, he had used them as though it were natural. He clapped his hands, and the lines unfurled over the earth as if drawn by an invisible pen. Curves had charted their way, interlocking and dispersing as runes blazed to life and the power began to flow. It was still alchemy, but it was so different that it was incomprehensible. It may as well have been magic for all that Roy could fathom from the sigils that had dappled the earth.

The trepidation Roy felt when the lines approached him had abruptly changed to surprise as they had unfurled in one clear, unbroken circumference around his feet. It was a simple sign, known by every alchemist from the first day. It was protection: a sanctuary. It would divert the energy around anyone or anything within its void and keep them safe.

Roy knew he would be lying if he said he had expected it. Ed was a brilliant alchemist, but his actions were often impetuous and badly planned. There were very few people he would instinctively protect and, until now, Roy had never even considered that he might be listed among those elite few. He kept turning that one thought over and over in his mind, probing it for flaws, while his heavy heart lightened with the faint hope that Edward believed he was worth keeping safe.

Of course he was assuming that it was Fullmetal who had, consciously or otherwise, controlled the design of the array as it unwound across the ground. There was no doubt that he had been in charge of all that power. The memory of it was still hot on Roy's skin; a burning touch that was both wonderful and agonising. Like a storm it had been a thing of awe and beauty, yet it was something to be feared. One look at Edward's ravaged face had been enough to confirm that.

Energy had waxed and waned through Roy throughout the day. Originally there was the strange drain at his house, which Ed claimed he had reversed almost immediately. Then, at the warehouse, the same thing had happened. The same sucking, vacuous feeling had permeated his being, touching the heat of his life with cool fingers. This time, at least, it had been a gentle pull rather than a forceful yank, but it had still been enough to bring Roy to his knees. As soon as the alchemy had been complete the energy had come rushing back to him, replacing what had been lost in the blink of an eye.

The question was: did Ed do it deliberately, or was it an accident?

'Sir?'

Hawkeye's voice interrupted his musings, and he realised that he had been staring off into space. The sweat on his body had cooled, leaving his skin chilly and his shirt sticking to his back. His hands were throbbing from the blisters on his palms, and he realised that he was leaning heavily on the shovel, arms folded at the wrists as he frowned at the far wall.

Adjusting his gaze, he grimaced in concern as he took in the sight of her. Blonde hair fell in tendrils around her face, which was grey with grime and exhaustion. Her hand was still raised in salute, and he could see the blood on her palms from hours of hard work. Her eyes, although stony with discipline, were showing signs of tiredness and were underscored by deep shadows. Hawkeye was trying valiantly not to shake, but her muscles were beyond conscious control. The bare skin on her arms danced with a mixture of exhaustion and strain. Quickly he reached for his jacket and pitched it around her shoulders.

'At ease,' he said quickly, watching her sag at his words. 'What is it, Lieutenant?'

The woman clutched the lapels of his jacket around her shoulders, unashamedly clinging to it as she forced her weak body to find its last vestiges of strength. 'We can't go on like this, sir. A shift system has been organised and our relief should be here soon, but I'm not sure if any of us can last even a few more minutes.'

Roy had to acknowledge her point. A handful of hours ago there had been no sign of exhaustion. Now every man and woman was pale with its toll. They carried on working, but their smooth movements were jarred with pain and weariness. Determination had been worn down by grief, and he could see several people sitting amongst the rubble with their heads in their hands, too broken and tired to carry on.

'How much longer until the next shift comes in?'

'Any minute now, sir. The Fuhrer himself authorised the use of manpower.'

'You mean he actually dragged himself out of bed? I'm amazed.' Roy grimaced at his own scathing sarcasm. He must be more tired than he realised or he would never have made such a politically inept comment. Normally he kept his low opinion of Hakuro to himself, but caution had faded hours ago. Hopefully no one had heard his disrespectful remark, although Roy had reached the point where he really didn't care any more.

Riza managed a smile, but it was distinctly frail and he noticed the pale wash to her cheeks. It was so rare that he saw Hawkeye looking so unsure that he almost didn't recognise the expression. Dimly, he realised that the other members of his team had gathered around, some slumping on the rubble while others struggled manfully to stay standing. Each wore identically grim expressions, and he knew that they had been talking among themselves.

'All right,' he said quietly, knowing that they had something to say, 'what is it?'

He was met with steady silence, and Roy felt the first shiver of unease go through him. His staff respected him, and he made sure that it never bled towards fear. Yet now they were all hoping that someone else would be the first to speak up. Did they think he would lash out at them? His heart sank further when he noticed Hawkeye look over her shoulder again, keeping a couple of new recruits at bay with a stony glare.

'We think Ed's got something to do with the fact that everyone's so tired,' Hughes said quickly, his voice carefully level and void of inflection as he watched Roy with an earnest gaze.

'It could be a coincidence,' Havoc added, his voice gravelly with tiredness, 'but as soon as you and the boss left everyone began to wilt.' The young man was leaning half of his weight on Falman, blinking his eyes in a desperate attempt to stay awake.

'Wilt?' Roy repeated dumbly, looking around at the others for some kind of explanation.

'It was like someone had taken all their energy away. One minute everyone was working hard, and the next... .' Maes shrugged and rubbed some dust off of his spectacles. 'It varied from person to person. Some just seemed to slow down a bit. Others almost collapsed.'

'We had to send Fuery home because he was almost unconscious on his feet,' Breda murmured, wiping his forehead and leaving a trail of black across his skin.

Roy hesitated, scowling as he realised he was biting his lip. It was an uncharacteristically doubtful gesture, and he knew it wouldn't have slipped by any of his men unnoticed. The truth was that the buzz of power that had danced over his skin had diminished. It was not a sudden loss, but a gradual fade. Now there was nothing between him and the agonising ache of his tiredness. If he had to pinpoint where it began then he would say it was when he had left Ed back at Gracia's house.

Slowly he nodded and drew in a deep breath as he considered his options. He couldn't confirm their suspicions any more than he could deny them, and he found himself avoiding the issue with his usual skill. 'For now everyone needs to go to bed and get some rest if they can. As soon as the shift change comes in I want you all to go home. You'll have sixteen hours until I'll need you back here. Use it. Sleep, eat and rest. Everything else can wait until tomorrow. Do I make myself clear? '

They all nodded, their painful relief visible on their faces as they began to put their shovels aside. No one wanted to blame Ed for the way they were feeling. They knew the young man too well to think ill of him, but there was always the niggling sense of uncertainty. Edward hid things from them to protect himself, but he never seemed to realise that his masks and silences did more harm than good.

Wordlessly, Roy turned back to the debris, only hesitating when Riza spoke up. 'Sir, with respect, you need to get home too.' There was a faint trace of amused resignation in Hawkeye's voice, and Roy looked up to see the familiar wry gleam in her eye.

'Is that an order, Lieutenant?' he asked, gently stressing her rank as he tapped the shovel idly on the ground.

'No, sir, it's a request from a friend,' she replied gently, reaching out and tugging the tool from his grip. 'You can't order us to go home and then stay here all night yourself. Not when you're in as bad a state as the rest of us.'

Roy wanted to protest, but a sharp look from Hughes cut him off before he could speak. 'She's right, you know. Besides, you've been digging at that same patch for at least an hour. You're not exactly at your most productive right now.'

'I can't just leave,' Roy pointed out, ignoring the desperate pleas of his body to get some rest. 'There's too much that still needs to be done.'

'Let someone else take over for a while,' Maes said with a faint smile. 'If it makes you feel better you can crash at my place. It's the closest to the scene.' When he hesitated, Hughes looked around, craning his neck to see over the heads of the next shift as they arrived. 'Maybe I'll go and find someone who can make that an order... .' The friendly threat was left hanging, and he gave a victorious smile as Roy's shoulders slumped in defeat.

Wordlessly, Hawkeye handed Roy back his jacket, picking up her own and following the others over the debris. They all walked with slumped shoulders, as though every step was a struggle. Roy brought up the rear, herding them all in front of him as he departed without a backwards glance. He didn’t need a second look. The devastation he had seen today would haunt him for a long time to come.

Shrugging into his coat he winced, feeling the creaking protests of his body as he settled to a comfortable pace, leaving the others to find the warm sanctuary of their beds. The whirl of his thoughts had subsided to a litany of basic need. His forgotten stomach growled and his muscles were begging for some rest. He could probably fall asleep standing up, given half the chance.

Hughes' footsteps echoed in time with his, emphasising the weary beat of their stride. They walked shoulder to shoulder, almost leaning on each other for support as the dappled pools of streetlight charted the way home. A fat, gibbous moon hung in the air, and each breath steamed like smoke in the chill of the night. Ice kissed Mustang's cheeks, chasing away the heat and driving his tiredness deeper into his bones.

'So, what aren't you telling us?' Hughes asked quietly as they turned the corner, leaving behind the racket of the station as they entered the sheltered, leafy heart of one of the better parts of town. The houses here were peaceful and dark, and Roy let his eyes wander their sleeping façades as he tried to form some kind of sensible response.

'What do you mean?' he asked, shoving his hands into his pockets and huddling further into his jacket.

'Don't play dumb; it doesn't suit you,' Maes softened that remark with a familiar grin and elbowed him gently. 'I've known you too long. That was a prime example of you telling everyone that you'd handle the problem without actually saying what the problem is. The others might fall for it, but I heard what wasn't being said.'

Roy nodded in mute acknowledgement, letting the smile become a tired grin. In the furore of the past few days he had not had a moment to sit down and simply talk to Hughes. The miracle of his return had been lost among everything else. On the one hand that was good, as it prevented anyone looking too closely at the falsified papers that provided a cover story for the truth. Still, it meant that Roy found himself carrying on as before and forgetting that Maes was there to turn to. He had been more lost without that simple presence than he realised.

'I've missed you.'

The confession was quiet but heartfelt, and Hughes' mischievous grin became a warm smile. 'Good,' he replied softly. 'I'd hate to think you didn't care.'

'You can't possibly believe that,' Roy said firmly. 'You must have noticed how easily everyone's accepted that you're back. It's because the hole you left never went away.'

Hughes shrugged, an embarrassed expression lingering on his face for a moment. 'I know. At first I thought it was strange that everyone seemed to take it in their stride. It's completely surreal to actually know that I was dead. I realise how hard it's been for Gracia and Elysia. I can see it every time I look at them, but it's difficult to understand that I've really been gone.'

'You didn't have any awareness at all?' Roy asked gently, letting his pace slow a touch as he watched his friend's face. The familiar, angular profile was tense, and he saw the thin lips twist in a grimace.

'Sometimes I wonder if I dreamt things. There are images that don't seem to fit in with my life very well, but then maybe I'm imagining it. Perhaps I'm just trying to pretend that there was something when there was actually nothing. It doesn't feel like any time has passed. When I opened my eyes to see the gate I didn't understand what was happening. I thought a few minutes had gone by.'

He looked away over the neat little gardens in front of the houses for a moment, staring blindly at the late-blooming roses that were already gathering frost at their hearts. 'Then as soon as Ed gave me my glasses back and I got a good look at him... .' Hughes trailed off and shook his head, trying to muster a smile. 'It hurts to know that I've missed so much. Everything's changed.'

Roy hesitated, his heart aching for his friend. His tongue framed empty words, and in the end he held his silence for a while, letting the night speak for him. 'I don't think we've changed that much. I mean, Ed and Al have grown up a bit, but they're not that much different. We're all still here doing the same things as always.'

'You really believe that, don't you?'

'What?' he asked defensively, sighing when he saw the warm grin back on his friend's face. Nothing could keep Hughes down for long. 'Come on, you're honestly telling me that we’re that much different than we were a few years ago? Ed hasn't even grown that much!'

'Better not let him hear you saying that, and actually he's not that much shorter than you any more.' Maes rubbed his hands together, trying to get some warmth into his fingers as they crossed over the road and took a left turn. 'I suppose you can't see it because you're around him all the time, but Ed's gone from being a teenager who was pissed off with everything to being a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. He's not a kid any more,' Hughes' smile took on a sly curve, 'but I guess you've noticed that already.'

Roy managed to muster an icy look, but its effect was lost on Maes, who only grinned cheekily in response. 'Hey, you were the one who changed the subject first, remember? Don't think I didn't notice.'

Roy had the good grace to look marginally ashamed, but he knew that Hughes was used to his behaviour. Misdirection and manipulation had become second nature long ago, and he acted on it instinctively to get out of a conversation he did not like. He should have known better than to hope that Maes would forget their original topic, or to think that his friend wouldn't notice and try to turn the tables back on him.

'Your choice, Roy. You can tell me about whatever it is that you didn't mention at the station, or you can talk about Ed. What's it going to be?'

'They're kind of one and the same thing,' he replied tiredly, letting the smile fall away. 'It all comes back to Fullmetal in the end.'

His unwillingness must have been obvious to his friend, because Hughes stopped on the corner of the street to his house, propping himself up against the wall of one of his neighbours as he surveyed Roy carefully. 'It must be something serious if you're not fobbing me off with excuses,' he prodded gently, looking at him over the top of his glasses. 'Start talking.'

Roy scratched his chin, grimacing at the rasp of stubble underneath his fingernails as he tried to think of the best place to start. He leaned back next to his friend, staring upwards at the night sky. 'Before the explosion at the station Fullmetal and I had an argument.'

Hughes shrugged, an easy, fluid movement that belied the curiosity and concern in his eyes. 'That's nothing new, is it?'

'No, but I was angrier than usual. I wasn't exactly the detached commanding officer,’ Roy confessed, shifting uncomfortably at the memory of his lack of control. 'He went to walk away and I grabbed his arm. I don't know if it was because I touched him or just coincidence but he doubled over in pain.' He ran a hand through his hair. The fear of that moment was coming back sharp and keen, and it made his already tired body shake. He turned to look back the way they had come, his eyes unfocussed as he carried on. 'He was so weak and cold that I dragged him into the other room and put him in front of the fire, tried to warm him up and find out what was wrong. I touched the array on his head, and it became active.’

Maes looked shocked and crossed his arms as he frowned in confusion. 'What did it do?'

I don't know. It felt like something was sucking all the heat out of me. I lost consciousness almost immediately. The next thing I knew Ed was leaning over me with his eyes shut and his hands over my heart.'

Maes straightened up, glancing over at his home at the end of the street. 'Are you telling me that Ed actually attacked you?' he asked quietly. 'Do you think he intended to hurt you? I've seen Ed so furious I thought he would happily kill you, but I never thought you'd actually ever push him that far.'

'No, I don't think so,' Roy said quietly, feeling the distrust he had been harbouring lessen as he replayed the event in his mind. 'At first I thought it was some kind of attack. I retaliated without even hesitating.' Seeing the look of alarm on Hughes' face he shook his head. 'I didn't hit him or anything. I just pinned him down and broke whatever alchemy he'd been working. If he had been trying to hurt me he would have fought back, but he didn't. He -'

Roy trailed off abruptly, feeling his cheeks flush as the memory unfurled. Quickly he cleared his throat, ignoring the roughness of his voice as he repeated. 'He didn't fight back.'

For a moment there was silence, close and hemmed by the frigid night. He didn't dare look at Hughes, knowing how much he had unwittingly given away in that moment.

'Sounds to me like you've more than “just noticed” that Ed's all grown up now,' Maes said gently. There was no trace of condemnation, only a faint wariness in his tone as he asked, 'Are you lovers?'

Roy glared then, a quick, sharp look that warned Hughes that there were some lines even he shouldn't cross. He didn't speak, keeping his shoulders rigid and his back tense, but eventually the words came forward anyway. ‘No. He's my subordinate, and he's fourteen years younger than me! If anyone who opposes me in the military even got the faintest hint of this I'd be finished.'

His shoulders slumped and a fresh welt of pain opened up as his voice rasped in his throat. 'Besides, none of that even matters now. Ed's dying.'

There was more grief in his voice than he had intended, more hurt than he had ever meant to show. He felt Hughes twitch in surprise before shifting closer, offering mute comfort just by being there. 'We're all dying, Roy,' Maes reminded him gently, 'every one of us. It's just some are getting there quicker than others.'

Hughes cleared his throat, and Roy saw that he was spinning his wedding ring absently on his finger. It was an unconsciously nervous gesture that he had seen a thousand times over the course of their friendship. 'I didn't need to ask, really. It's obvious to anyone who knows the two of you that you're not sleeping together, the same way that it's clear you'd like to be.’ He took a deep breath, pursing his lips before blowing it out in a steady stream. ‘Take it from someone who knows, Roy. Life's short. For all you know Ed might still outlive you. Even if he doesn't, would you be happier to have a few weeks of happiness, or a lifetime of knowing that it could have happened and you didn't take the chance?'

It was a choice he couldn’t face. Even as Hughes said it, Roy felt his body tense as it was torn between the two possibilities. To risk everything for a few brief moments of happiness that he thirsted for, or to play it safe and know that he had willingly turned his back on what could have been?

'You make it sound so easy,' Roy said quietly, 'as if there's nothing else to think about other than what I want, but you know it's not like that. The military is hardly going to look kindly on that kind of relationship, and even if they did he's still an officer under my command. He can't be transferred to another department because they'll find out about his past.'

'So don't give them the opportunity to see what’s happening. For all the military gossip mongering it would be easy to keep something like that hidden from the public view,' Hughes said firmly. 'You're making problems for yourself that can easily be got around, and I don't believe it for a minute. You're clinging to protocol like it's some kind of shield. What's the real issue?'

Roy clenched his teeth, wishing that he could back out of this conversation. Forcing himself to face the quagmire of reasons and excuses was almost too painful to bear, but Hughes was right. If it had just been a matter of age and rank then the issues would not be insurmountable. He could accept that Ed was so much younger than him, and he could be the master of discretion when it was necessary, but there was another reason.

'You can't have anything without trust.' The harsh statement roughened his voice, making him sound older and more bitter than ever, 'and when has Ed ever really trusted any of us?' He shifted his weight, hugging his arms tighter around himself in unconscious comfort. 'Ed doesn't trust me enough to tell me what's happening in his life, let alone come to my bed.’

'What about you?' Maes asked quietly. His voice no longer held the boisterous laughter of a friend or the logic of a soldier in the army. It was the tone of a man who was trying to make someone he cared about see the truth. 'Do you trust him enough?'

When Roy just shrugged Hughes leaned his head back against the wall, speaking to the faint scattering of stars above. 'When I met Gracia it never even occurred to me not to trust her, but you and Ed don't have that luxury. You’ve manipulated Ed so much in the past, and he still defies your orders on a regular basis, but those weren't your mistakes.'

'So enlighten me,' Roy grumbled, knowing he sounded belligerent and childish, but he couldn't help it. Talking about this hurt more than it should. It took his already dark, desperate mood and plunged it deeper into blackness until there was nothing but the cold all around him, inside and out.

'Your mistake and his was that both of you took it personally. In your minds you made it vindictive. It never occurred to either of you that it wasn't like that. He doesn't disobey your orders just to piss you off, although he probably gains some satisfaction from that. He does it because he thinks he knows a better way.' Hughes smiled, a quick, depreciating expression. 'Of course he's not always right, but he wouldn't be Edward if he didn't try. It's the same way that you manipulate him for his own protection, or because he is a small part in a bigger picture. Yet you know that, no matter what Ed thinks, it's not malicious.'

Roy closed his eyes, bowing his head and releasing a weary, pained breath. 'What are you trying to say?'

'Look, whatever this is about you need to get him to trust you. Whether you're going to take him to bed or just find out what's going on with the gate. You've got to stop treating Ed like the kid he used to be. Stop seeing the fact that he keeps things from you as a personal attack. It's not just because he enjoys being stubborn. If you understand why he's not telling you what's going on then you'll at least know where to begin.’

Maes hesitated, before continuing with quiet, firm conviction. ‘Ed's got his reasons, Roy. Make him forget why they're so important.' Hughes straightened up, tugging the sleeves of his jacket over his hands as he began to walk the final stretch of pavement back to his house. 'You never know, maybe Ed will help you forget your excuses as well.'

Roy stayed still for a moment, letting Hughes' words sink in. They did not bring an epiphany in their wake. There was no blinding flash of realisation, but they did make sense. Perhaps being able to see the pair of them from the outside gave Hughes the perspective to see where the problems lay. Over the past few years he had longed for his friend's advice, and now he had it he realised just how insightful Maes could be.

Opening his eyes, he pushed away from the wall, catching up to Hughes' weary pace with a quick, professional stride before falling into step. A cat watched them from the wall with amber eyes, flicking its tail idly from side to side as it fluffed its fur against the cold. Idly, Roy reached out to stroke it, only to be rewarded with a rather frosty glare.

'One other thing, Roy,' Hughes said quietly as he fumbled in his pocket for the keys. 'Don't try and solve anything by yourself. You don't just need to get the information out of Edward. You two have to work together, or you'll just end up hating each other.'

Roy nodded in mute agreement, leaning against the wall of the house as Hughes slipped the key into the lock and eased the bolt back. Gracia had left the lights on for them, and a warm fire was banked in the grate. It chased away the last of the chill, and Roy moved towards it like a moth to a flame. The heat beckoned him, and he felt some of the despair begin to ebb.

Pillows and a thick, feather quilt had been left out on the couch, and he smiled at the thought of Gracia's unending hospitality. The Maes household only had three bedrooms, but nevertheless she'd found enough space for everyone and it was always done without complaint. Sometimes he vaguely suspected that she was too good to be true, but Hughes had never complained of trouble in paradise. Perhaps, for some people, they really did find that one person that complimented them so utterly that life went along with barely a glitch. He wondered if they knew just how lucky they were.

'From the way you're eyeing the couch I'm guessing you'll do without coffee,' Hughes said softly as he emerged from the kitchen with two mugs in his hand. 'I'll leave it on the table in case you change your mind. Sleep well, Roy.'

'You too, and thanks,' A smile lit his tired eyes and curved his lips, ‘for making me tell you everything I wasn’t saying to the others.’

Hughes just flashed a quick grin before he crept up the stairs, easily avoiding the creaky floorboards before vanishing from sight. Roy heard the sleepy, murmured greeting of Gracia before the bedroom door eased shut and peace ruled once more.

Rolling his shoulders, Roy undid his jacket and shirt before tossing them over the chair. Despite the warmth of the fire he shivered before yanking off his shoes and socks. After a moment's hesitation he decided he'd better sleep in his trousers. For all he knew he'd be called back to the scene in a handful of hours. It was one of the many downsides to being in command.

With a heartfelt sigh he lay down on the couch, curling up his legs so his feet didn't stick off the end. The quilt settled around him, cocooning him in warm softness, and he felt the stress begin to leech away. Despite his exhaustion sleep did not come quickly, and he watched the room through half-closed eyes, forcing his breathing into an even, steady rhythm.

He couldn't pinpoint where reality faded away and the dream began, but at some point the shadows of the room became more solid. Their darkness formed the ruins of houses, beams jabbing at the air like broken ribs. All around him was red with sand and blood and fire. He felt his skin crawl as he tried to fight off the surge of memory. He had known the station would remind him of this. One glance at the wreckage had been enough to re-ignite the scenes of Ishbal in his mind, and now he was at the mercy of his own guilt.

The air was rank with the smell of scorched flesh and the arid, dead perfume of the desert. Sand was everywhere: in his hair, his mouth and mixing with the salt of his tears as more gunfire broke out. His fingers twitched convulsively, the philosopher's stone gloating in the endless, burning light. Follow orders. Do not think. Do not hesitate. Do as you are told.

The cool press of the gun muzzle to his chin was like the punctuation in an endless sentence. It was a point where the cacophony of images and pain and horror crystallised into one scene. The Rockbells lay dead on the floor, their pleading voices silenced by his own hand. Blood pooled, an ironclad link between the present disaster of the station and the devastation of the past.

He could feel the curve of the trigger against his fingertip and see the hammer raised, removing the final defence between him and oblivion. One quick movement and it would be over. The guilt would be wiped clean, washed away. Sweat trickled down the hollow of his cheek, or perhaps it was tears. He wasn't sure there was a difference any more.

The rattle of the gun filled his ears, the faint shift of the bullet in the chamber, the tiny sound as he pressed the trigger that little bit tighter. His arm screamed with the memory of the strain. He had stood there for what felt like hours, ignoring the war and the strife before finally cowardice won. It had taken seconds to remove those two doctors from the mortal coil, to erase them as though they were nothing but dolls to be cast aside. To him the same treatment would have been a mercy, but he couldn't bring himself to take that last, easy way out.

Something touched his arm, warm and alien to the dreamscape. He shied away, but the grip held sure, pulling him back from the precipice of horror as the dream fell to pieces around him. The wail of the wounded faded and the images darkened to nothing, chased away by the simple sensation of something that did not belong.

The touch continued, an anchor to something other than his nightmares. Without a thought he moved his arm, turning his hand into that grip and linking fingers with his unknown rescuer. The pain from the blisters, real and sharp, bit into his skin, but it wasn't enough to pull him entirely from slumber. The hand went to pull away and he clenched his fingers tighter, the haze of sleep rearranging itself around him, shaping itself into the promise of peaceful rest.

'Don't go.'

Whoever it was hesitated, and he heard the rustle of cloth as they moved, never taking their hand from his. He strained his ears, trying to resist the pull of sleep for a moment or two longer, just until he heard their response.

'I won't.'

The chill touch of automail should have been startling as both flesh and metal fingers held on to his hand, but instead they were familiar and soothing. As Roy gave in, he realised that he had never felt so safe as he did in that moment. Edward had him, and he wouldn't be allowed to fall.

Chapter Text

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.'

'Why not?'

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.'

'Try anyway.'

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.'

'No!'

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.

Carmine.

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.

'Don't go.'

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.

Chapter Text

The peace was a familiar, comfortable thing, settling over the office like a cocoon. None of the telephones rang, and no one intruded on the tranquillity as the clock on the wall ticked its way towards eight o' clock in the evening. Since the station had been destroyed four days ago, none of the staff had set foot inside the door for more than a few moments. They were too busy digging and clearing the debris, repairing the lines and patrolling the route.

Paperwork had been piled haphazardly on the floor, leaving four desks clear which Ed had pushed together. Scattered across their surface, scratching the wood and coating everything in dust, were the pieces of the array they had found at the site. Ed leant over them like a supplicant at an altar of knowledge, his eyes burning from his ceaseless scrutiny. Some were as big as his palm while others were no larger than his thumbnail, and finding the pattern was like trying to read in the dark: impossible.

On the other side of the room, his feet propped on Hawkeye's desk, Al sat reading through a stack of books. Each one was blue-covered and scarlet-bound, and they were only a fraction of the tomes that matched the vague description he had given at Hughes house. Despite the futility of the search he carried on intently. After all, their quest for the stone had been just as much of a needle in a haystack, and they'd come through in the end. Al wasn't about to let sheer odds dissuade him.

'Damn it!'

Ed looked up at Winry's outburst, watching her scrabble on the floor for a moment. She had declined Scieszka's invitation to go out for dinner, instead choosing to sit with the Elrics and help whenever she could. At that particular moment she was assuaging her curiosity about one of Hawkeye's old revolvers. The trigger mechanism was in pieces and had been the victim of Winry's gentle exploration until only a few minutes ago.

'Did either of you see where that went?' she asked, scowling at the floorboards.

'What was it?' Al put the book he had been reading down, carefully slipping a piece of paper in between the pages. Both he and Edward had been brought up to respect books, and neither of them dog-eared the paper or put them down with their covers splayed.

'A spring about this big.' Winry held her fingers a quarter of an inch apart and flicked her hair over her shoulder. 'It was carrying too much tension which was why the safety hammer was so stiff. When I took the casing off it popped out.'

'It's over by the door.' Ed's answer was perfunctory, and he didn't miss the gleam of doubt in Winry's eyes as she moved towards where he pointed. Her fury at his behaviour was still fresh in both their minds, and neither one had bothered to apologise. Al could drop hints as much as he wanted, but Winry wouldn't take back what she had said, and Ed knew he couldn't say that he was sorry for any of his actions. If he did then he wouldn't mean it. In the end, there was nothing he wouldn't do a second time around if faced with the same choices.

Now they had settled into a rigid, uneasy truce. The incident hadn't been mentioned since, and Ed was glad that no one had brought it up again. Just because he knew that he had done the right thing didn't make the pain he had caused any more bearable.

With a small sound of relief, Winry grabbed the small coil of wire, cradling it in her palm as if it were the most precious of gems. She returned to the cloth that she had the gun parts spread out on before settling back to her task. In the beginning she had tried to help both Ed and Al, but it was pretty obvious that her heart wasn't in it. At least this way one of them was having some fun.

Straightening up, Ed rolled his shoulders, wincing as the tension bit and boiled in his muscles. How long had he been working on this? The days had merged into one unsteady stream with the array haunting his dreams as well as his waking moments. He ate when he remembered to, or when either Al or his loudly protesting stomach made it a priority. Otherwise he was living off of caffeine and the ceaseless gnawing of the unsolved problem in his mind.

More than once he had thought about clapping his hands and letting the wash of alchemy put the pieces back together. If it was done with care the design would probably still be visible, but something warned him against trying it. Carmine wasn't a fool, and it would be just his luck for her to somehow rig the shattered array to react badly to any other alchemy. That left him stuck with this agonising puzzle, and his patience was rapidly wearing thin.

'I'm going to get some fresh air,' he muttered, huffing out an annoyed breath as he forced himself away, 'before I go insane.'

Al shot him a quick glance over the top of his book that suggested he was about ten years too late for that, but nodded anyway. 'You'll be just outside the door, right?'

'Up on the roof, and no, don't come with me.' He held out a hand as Al started to get up to follow him. 'Please?'

Winry looked up from what she was doing, watching him with thoughtful blue eyes for a moment before she reached up and tugged at Al's t-shirt, making him sit down again. 'Just be back in twenty minutes, okay, Ed? If you're not we'll come looking for you.'

He tried to see any sign of guile in her eyes, but her face was open and serious, and he realised the offer for what it was. Winry may not apologise, but she could at least bring herself to see things from his point of view. She might hate his evasion and silence about what had happened after he brought Al's body back, but this was a compromise; another attempt at a cease-fire. Twenty minutes of solitude seemed too good to be true, and he nodded his quick thanks before hurrying out of the door and taking the nearest steps two at a time.

The air was brilliantly cool, all diamond ice edges and frost crystals. Ed sucked in a deep breath, feeling it fill his lungs unimpeded. A stiff wind was plucking the leaves off of the trees, and glimmers of ruby and gold darted through the darkness. It was a night to be alive, to feel the thrill of the air on his skin and watch twilight draw its curtain across the sky.

With idle fingers, Ed reached up and undid his braid, breathing a small sigh of relief as his hair unwound, shedding some of the tension. His body felt taut, thrumming with things he couldn't identify. Since that night at Hughes' house the world seemed to have ground to a halt. No other dreams had entered his sleep, although the memory was so tangible that he could slip back into it at any moment. Jasmine and lavender, sweet and warm, still teased his nose, and more than once he had thought he heard laughter and the gurgle of water in the hush of the office. Yet every time the images unfolded in his mind a bout of grief would fill his heart.

The emotion wasn't his own, but it was still powerful enough to cause him pain, and he was sure the others had noticed his mercurial moods swinging more fiercely than before. One moment he would he happy and at peace, the next he could barely speak for the darkness that surrounded him. Hughes had gently suggested that it might be natural reaction to his impending death, but that simply wasn't the case. That strange metropolis, that desert city, had been a place of joy to the voice in his mind, and it hurt for it to be recalled in such vivid detail.

Since he had awoken and realised the truth, he had felt as though he stood on the tip of an iceberg. What he had thought was a one-dimensional mystery had become something bigger and more complex. All he saw was the tip, and beneath the surface was a vaulted cathedral of an enigma that stretched for miles into the depths. His brain literally whirled with theories, but there was never any response to his inward questions. It made him feel foolish and resentful, that silence. If hearing voices was considered a sign of madness, then what did trying to strike up a conversation mean?

Running a hand through his loose hair, he walked towards the edge of the roof. There was a railing all the way around, a half-hearted effort to stop anyone from jumping off, and Ed braced his forearms against it to look out across the city. He could see the floodlights over at the station and knew that it must nearly be finished by now. He could see the flash of alchemy as they mended the last portions of the track. It wouldn't be long before the trains were flowing back and forth once more.

He and Al had both offered to help, but Mustang had decided against it. For one thing Ed's vastly differing alchemy would draw unwanted attention from the other military personnel. Besides, as everyone felt they had to point out to him several times a day, he wasn't on active duty. So he'd grabbed the fragments of the array before anyone could object and ensconced himself in the office with Al as his ever-watchful babysitter.

A tired chuckle drifted up to him on the wind, and he looked down to see the others traipsing across the square and back towards the office. Hawkeye was on point, marching along as though the amount of untouched paperwork in the office was preying on her mind. Havoc and Fuery walked behind, turning now and again to talk to Breda and Falman. The smoke from Havoc's cigarette was being whipped away from the glowing tip, and Ed wrinkled his nose at the familiar scent.

In their wake was Alex Armstrong, talking quietly to Hughes and Mustang. Unlike the others their faces were serious and worried. Hughes was frowning, murmuring a reply to the major's question while Roy stared at the ground beneath his pacing feet. His shoulders were slumped and his head bowed, as if the strain was finally getting to him.

Ed sighed, pulling back from the edge of the building and ignoring the flutter of butterflies in his stomach, squashing them ruthlessly. It annoyed him how easily his lips could recall the pressure and taste of Mustang's kiss. His skin told lies, re-enacting the warm curl of fingers around his hip and a splayed hand across his back, holding him in place. He had been helpless then, too engrossed in everything that was Roy to think of anything but the warmth and presence and feel of him. The fact that the man could make him so vulnerable should have terrified him, but he found himself craving it, longing for another few heartbeats where there was nothing in the world but that pleasure and longing. Whatever was happening between them might be complicated, but Ed knew it was the most straightforward thing in his life right now.

'Not that it matters.' His mutter was bitter in the night, as cold as the air around him. Nothing else had been said since. It was almost as if Mustang was happily fooling himself that nothing had changed; that he hadn't lost control and reacted instinctively to Ed's teasing. If his memories had been any less clear, Ed could have easily convinced himself that what had happened was nothing but a fantasy. Roy had somehow stepped back behind the wall of his superiority, and the emotional distance was a tangible thing.

And yet in some things he had changed. The day the station had been destroyed, Roy had demanded a full report on what had happened at the gate, and what Ed was currently experiencing. It was an order Ed stubbornly chose to ignore, and he had been waiting for the verbal reprimand ever since. Yet there had been nothing. Ed scowled, confused by yet another puzzle that the man presented him with. Perhaps he was just too busy to check his paperwork?

He scowled, pushing the thoughts of Roy ruthlessly away as he sat down on the cool roof and leant back on his elbows. His twenty minutes was probably already gone, and it wouldn't be long before someone interrupted his solitude. He might as well make the most of the little time he had left before he had to get back to that stupid array.

The breeze raised goosebumps on his skin and whipped his hair across his face. He ignored the chill seeping into his bones and the sharp grit that dug into his elbows as he turned his face up to the night sky and closed his eyes. He hated feeling this incapable. The array was just part of the whole thing. Somehow everything was interconnected, from Carmine to the voice in his head. At first he had thought it was coincidence that had taken him to the gate and left the light embedded within him. He had thought he was just an available host to shelter the dying illumination, but the more he considered it the more he realised that it was almost by design.

The voice was another fragment of the mystery. It treated him like a child would treat a guardian. It was dependent on him, but it also had a vast amount of power at its disposal, a source of strength that seemed to grow by the moment. There were times, often on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness, when Ed wondered if he was truly controlling his own body any more, or if something else was subtly asserting its mastery over him. Then there was the other presence, and the faint sense of recognition. Sometimes he felt as though something had been waiting for this time, this moment, for an eternity. As though something had been patiently charting the centuries towards the culmination of this – whatever this was.

Some people in that situation might decide it was something to do with fate or destiny, but that was a load of shit. To put some higher being in control of your life was to acknowledge you were helpless. You had a path, you walked it, and you took whatever the future dealt you. There was no way he was going to believe that. It didn't work for him. He had choices, and he made them.

It just felt, right now, as if his life was shattered. It had become a series of isolated, disparate fragments, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn't find the connection between one and the next. He didn't know enough of the big picture to see how they fit together, just like the array downstairs. There were just too many pieces.

Inspiration dawned, a hot, white light in his mind as one puzzle finally solved itself. His eyes snapped open, and Ed let out a rough laugh of disbelief as the idea blossomed in his mind. Of course! He'd been so absorbed in trying to work out the pattern of the array that he hadn't really paid attention to the pieces! Some were tiny, too small to have been destroyed by the tumbling rubble. To be no bigger than an inch across they must have been near the source of the explosion. They might even form part of the trigger.

Bolting to his feet he pulled the door open, stumbling blindly down the stairs as one design after the other etched itself across his consciousness. He rounded the corner and nearly collided with Al, only avoiding him by quickly twisting out of the way. His younger brother's eyes widened in surprise, but he must have been able to read something in Edward's expression because he didn't bother to ask any questions as he hurried along behind.

The door to the office banged open as Ed hurried to the desk, barely acknowledging the others as he quickly sorted out the chunks with feverish haste. It was like removing the obscuring mist from mirrored pane, and he felt his heart thud harder as the picture began to make sense. He was dimly aware of the others watching him and a faint, crackling energy in the air, but he couldn't tear his eyes away as his fingers danced over the pieces, putting each in its place as though he'd known all along where they needed to go.

'Um, Boss?' Havoc's nervous murmur was hastily hushed, and Ed only just caught his frightened words. 'But half of those rocks are moving by themselves!'

In that moment Jean's statement didn't make sense, and Edward shoved it aside as he continued to work. Like a tsunami, unstoppable and immense, the energy began to flow through him and the fragments moved faster, shifted and jostling when he did little more than brush their cool stone faces. Uniforms rustled as some of the others straightened up, casting a wary glance around the room as though they felt the strange pull of power too, a subtle tugging of invisible gossamer threads on the corners of each being.

Ed could feel something like cobwebs brushing over his skin. It was enough to make him think he should pull away and step back, but he was already caught in the web, unable to do anything but continue his inexorable progress towards its heart.

Something, a dull, throbbing warning began in the core of his mind. Like a hammer on a gong it shimmered through his consciousness, and the one word was just loud enough to be heard over the orchestra of his thoughts.

Danger.

The last piece fell into place, and with a crack like a gunshot the fragments melded together, fissures vanishing as though they had never been. A stab of pain bit into the inside of Ed's left wrist, and he winced in surprise, glancing down at the source. There was nothing there, not even a single bead of blood or minuscule scratch. Perhaps he had imagined it.

'Well, that was strange.' Hughes' words shattered the stunned silence as everyone stared at the two array complexes on the table. Each was whole and unmarked by cracks or flaws. It was almost as if the explosion had never happened.

'They're not going to blow up again, are they?' Fuery's question was careful as he inched closer, pushing his glasses up his nose to examine the patterns. 'I know I'm not an alchemist, but that doesn't look like a normal array to me.'

A flicker of irritation coursed through Ed's frame and he glanced in Mustang's direction, meeting that dark, cobalt gaze for a split-second. Fuery's caution was echoed in those depths, and with a sharp sigh he shook his head. 'It's inactive.'

'So what did it do, other than cause an explosion?' Hawkeye asked, her brown eyes astutely analysing the alien design. Ed knew that it was a deeply ingrained part of her training to assess the risks of a given situation, but he couldn't understand why her body was so taut, as if ready to leap away. They were all acting like there was a live bomb in the room. Even Al, for all his intellectual curiosity, was being careful not to get too close.

With a quick gesture he motioned to two overlapping circles. The sigils were antagonistic, deliberately placed to tip the balance of energy through the pattern. At first glance it looked like a clumsy design, poorly crafted. When activated even a novice alchemist could see that its effects would be disastrous. Yet there was planning to this. It had been carefully etched with as many deliberate flaws as possible. On the ground in the station it would have barely been noticeable. No bigger than twelve inches across, it could have been passed off as some doodle of graffiti on the platform. 'That's the trigger. It's designed to be activated with a tiny amount of energy that cascades and accumulates until the array overloads and explodes. Carmine would have had enough time to set it off and get away.'

'We've had any men we can spare out looking for her,' Hughes murmured quietly, half-turning towards Mustang. 'So far we're coming up with nothing. It's like she's disappeared.'

'Keep looking,' Roy muttered, his order no less serious for its lack of force. 'I doubt she's left the city.'

'What about that?' Havoc asked, pointed at the larger series of concentric circles. They spanned several feet, and were probably hidden away in one of the many corners of the station, out of plain sight.

Ed shifted uncomfortably, looking at the triads that pointed inwards towards a central point. It was similar to what he had inadvertently used on Mustang. Only the smaller arrays to the left and right, balancing and amplifying the flow, were different. 'When someone dies their energy is released. That array was designed to channel their,' he shrugged awkwardly, 'spirits, or whatever you want to call it, towards one place. Strictly speaking the explosion wasn't necessary. If she could get people to walk over this it would suck the energy right out of them. They'd be unconscious in seconds and dead in a minute. Instead she killed as many people as possible, and the design pulled in their energy as they died.'

Every face was a mixture of confusion and revulsion, and Ed realised that they couldn't understand the point of that strange violation. It seemed a pointless parlour trick without rhyme or reason, but they didn't know what he did. Falteringly he began to speak, choosing his words with deliberate care.

'When Carmine polluted the gate with murdered souls she didn't just corrupt the gate itself, she fed it. She pushed more energy through than was given back. That's part of how it was possible for the tainted things inside to tear apart the physical portal.' He licked his lips, staring blindly at the arrays as he continued. 'Without the gate to contain any of the negative aspects of the darkness, like the hate or rage or anything like that, it latched onto her and used her like a puppet. She still seemed to have some of her own will, but most of it was the shadows talking. While she was in that plane she was fine. All the energy from Amestris and wherever else that place is connected to was still flowing through some kind of rift. She had power there, and strength.'

'And here she's got none of that,' Al murmured quietly, following his brother's halting explanation with ease.

'No more than any normal alchemist; nothing like the kind of strength that the gate would be used to,' Ed pointed out. 'In Amestris there isn't much free energy. Alchemical arrays pull the power from the gate itself to perform a transmutation. At the station she was freeing the energy in living people to use, not in alchemy, but just as fuel. The part of the gate that's inside her is no longer connected to that plane and can't get the strength it needs, nor can it just use an array to channel it into this realm. It has to take power directly from things in Amestris.'

There was silence for a moment, a mute, puzzled horror that seemed to fill the room with its cloying density. Armstrong's moustache was quivering with suppressed disgust, and Breda looked sickly pale. Havoc's cigarette tip moved wildly as he chewed on it, barely noticing as he shredded the paper with his teeth. Even Hawkeye, normally resolute even when exhausted, was letting her fingertips idly brush the butt of her gun.

'Tomorrow morning first thing we step up the search,' Mustang said firmly, quickly taking in the mood of the room. 'I want everyone here by seven. Dismissed.'

One by one the others filed out, talking in low voices among themselves. Ed didn't miss one or two wary glances that came his way, and he tried to ignore them as Al picked up the books and Winry quickly reassembled Hawkeye's old gun. Mustang had slipped back into his office, shutting the door firmly behind him, and Ed glanced at the polished hardwood portal before turning away.

'Brother, are you coming?'

He looked up to see Al and Winry standing by the door, both waiting for him to join them. 'I'll catch you up, Al. I need to get rid of this.' He jerked his head towards the array meaningfully. 'You've got a key, haven't you?'

Al nodded. 'I'm going to walk Winry back to Scieszka's, then I'll see you at home.'

Ed flinched slightly, but nodded in agreement. 'Give me an hour, and don't worry. The bastard's here if anything goes wrong.'

He watched Al go, pondering his brother's last words. He should have known that Al had taken their change in living arrangements too easily. “Home” was something they didn't have, and they definitely weren't going to find it at Mustang's place. Just because they'd both been given spare keys didn't make it a permanent arrangement. Roy was just trying to make the doctor's stupid constant supervision order a little easier, and he knew he couldn't let in one Elric without the other. They were a bit of a package deal, at least for now.

Drumming his fingertips on the table, he glanced back at Mustang's door, feeling something uncomfortable gnawing at his stomach. When he had explained about Carmine's need for strength he had tried to be a vague as possible, but if there was one person who might draw parallels between Carmine's actions and Ed's recent behaviour, it was Roy.

It was brutally simple to maintain the thick-headed stubbornness of denial, but if someone started asking him direct questions Ed knew he wouldn't be able to hide anything of this magnitude from them. He might be able to fob them off with vague excuses, but it wouldn't work forever. He had the distinct feeling that, now the station repairs were nearly complete, there would be nothing to distract the others, least of all Roy.

With a sigh of frustration he clapped his hands together and pressed them quickly to the stonework on the desk, shoving the power through in one wanton burst. It was too much for the array to handle, and the sharp, controlled explosion shattered it into dust, sending clouds of it billowing around to land in a fine layer on every surface. Ed grimaced at the mess, but shrugged. At least the array was gone, even if Hawkeye did complain at the mess.

'I suppose I should thank you for saving my life.'

Ed paused, his expression guarded as he glanced across at Mustang. He hadn't heard the door open, but there he stood. His sleeves were still rolled up, and his crumpled shirt was half-undone despite the coolness of the night. His body language screamed out loud and clear how tired he was, but there was nothing sleepy about his eyes. They were fixed on the tumbler in his hand, watching the hazy swirl of amber liquid at the bottom of the glass.

It wasn't enough alcohol to impair his intelligence or cloud his mind, Ed realised, but just enough to take the edge off of his whirling thoughts. It was a sad fact that he watched Mustang's drinking habits almost as closely as everyone else in the office. He doubted the Brigadier-General would appreciate any of his subordinates concern, but that didn't mean they didn't keep a subtly watchful eye on him at times.

'I've saved your life a hundred times since I came to Central,' Ed retorted with a smug grin. 'Can you be a bit more specific?'

Roy smirked, looking up through the fall of hair across his forehead as he took a sip. 'You said it yourself: Carmine didn't need that explosion. If she could get her victims to touch the array they'd be unconscious in seconds and dead within minutes. That's what happened to me when I touched the array on your forehead, isn't it?'

Ed swallowed, the tension that had departed with the solution of the array sweeping back in like a tide. No quick, easy lies were evident, and he scowled at the floor as the silence grew. Eventually he turned away, tugging a hair-band from his pocket and clumsily braiding his hair back into place. 'I told you that was an accident.'

'And I believe you,' Mustang replied softly, 'but that doesn't change the fact that it happened. Carmine's using this alchemy because part of what was beyond the gate is now in her and it needs energy. It's not exactly a leap of the imagination to realise that you did the same thing for the same reason, Fullmetal.'

'I didn't kill anyone.' The retort was furious, practically spat from his lips as he spun around and advanced on Roy. 'I'm not using people like she is!' He was close enough to smell the smooth liquor in the glass and see the grim determination that had etched itself into Mustang's face. This wasn't an issue that he was just going to forget about.

'You don't realise you're doing it, do you?' Roy asked quietly, sadly. 'I wonder who that makes more of a puppet, you or her? At least she's aware of her actions.'

It was like being doused in cold water, and Ed blanched as he stepped back a touch. 'What are you talking about? I'm not doing anything.'

'Everyone's noticed it, and commented on it: Hughes, Hawkeye, Falman, Havoc, even Armstrong. They've all noticed changes in their energy when you're around them. Sometimes they're so awake that it's a buzz, like a high. Others they're almost too exhausted to move. You're using them just like Carmine drained the power from her victims; you just don't know you're doing it.'

Ed shook his head mutely, backing away until he bumped into the desk. 'Like when?' he demanded, fear and uncertainty making him vicious. 'Give me one example!'

Mustang sighed, putting his glass down on the desk with a 'clank' as he looked Edward in the eye. 'Right now, Ed. When I was walking here I was thinking of nothing but getting to bed and sleeping for a week. As soon as you barged in the office it felt as if I'd drunk a pot of espresso. Then, within moments you were reconstructing the array, and you didn't even notice the power you were using to do it. Smaller arrays were drawing themselves all over the desk, moving the pieces before you even touched them, and it was like someone was draining away all that new energy I'd found. It's been happening ever since the station blew up.'

Ed's shoulders were hunched, and his gold head bowed low as he stared at the floor trying to remember any conscious decision he had made to use an array like Carmine's. He screwed his eyes up tight, practically yelling a demand for an explanation into the caverns of his mind, but his only response was silence.

'You don't have to tell me everything, Ed, but can you tell me if I'm right?' Roy asked gently. 'Did something find a place for itself in you the same way that it did in Carmine?'

'Does it matter?' he asked quietly, moving his shoulders up and down in feigned indifference. 'If I'm doing the same thing she is it makes me dangerous. The reason isn't important in the end, does it?'

He jumped when Mustang's hand reached out, cupping his chin and forcing his face upwards until he could get a clear look into his eyes. The expression on Roy's face was angry, but it wasn't the cool, distant annoyance of a superior. It was closer than that, hotter, and Ed found himself unable to look away. 'In case you haven't realised it, Fullmetal, you've always been a risk to yourself and others. I don't want to know so that I can decide whether to lock you up or hand you over to lab five! I want to know so that I at least have some idea how to help you!'

The grip on his jaw loosened slightly, and Ed swallowed as the pad of Mustang's thumb brushed along his skin, catching on stubble. It was an unconsciously comforting gesture, and he felt himself lean into it before his rational mind could stop him. It was hard to trust him, this man who had spent years manipulating everyone around him with ease. It was difficult to tell where the mind games, tricks and deceptions ended and honesty began.

It was tempting to confirm Roy's suspicions, to give him this one small victory for the tiny relief it would bring, but Ed couldn't bring himself to confess it. He had spent too long watching Mustang wind people around his finger until they flexed to his every demand and wish. There was no way he was going to be one of them, kowtowing to his every need for knowledge.

With a quick shake of his head Ed pulled himself back, ignoring the brief glimmer of hurt in Roy's eyes as his hand fell back to his side. It was like a game of chess, and with checkmate being avoided Ed could only wait for the next attack. He watched through his lashes, deliberately shielding himself from direct looks as Roy turned away and grabbed his glass, draining it in one quick motion. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before setting the tumbler back and reaching out to grab his coat.

'All right, Ed, if that's the way you want this to be. You don't have to tell me anything, but if you get into trouble or you need to talk I'll still listen.'

Ed twitched in surprise. He couldn't help it. Surrender. Well that was fucking unexpected. Mustang didn't like secrets. Knowledge to which he was unaware was like a waiting trap for him, and he'd never tolerated being kept in the dark before. It was a complete turn-around on his normal behaviour, and Ed felt his tension increase as Roy flicked off the light and opened the office door.

Without a backwards glance he followed the older man, ignoring the ring of his uneven footsteps through the mostly empty corridors of Central Command. He wanted to ask what had changed, to demand that Mustang behave as he usually would, rather than like he gave a damn. Smug and supercilious Ed could deal with, but this? This actually made him believe that the bastard cared. The thought sat badly with him, making him feel undefended and vulnerable. Still, if he asked it would open up the discussion afresh, and Ed would rather it stayed resolutely closed.

'I'm trusting you, Fullmetal,' Roy said over his shoulder, his voice firm. Ed couldn't distinguish any trace of self-doubt in it, or any notion that Roy was putting faith in him against his better judgement. 'I'm trusting you to tell me everything I need to know to keep people safe before the danger gets too great.' He grimaced to himself, running a hand through his hair. 'A lot of people would say we've already got to that point; just bear that in mind, Ed.'

It was a gentle warning, Ed realised. He could see it in the way the man's shoulders slumped. Mustang could lie and twist the truth like a pro when he was standing to attention in front of a superior or handling the press, but in unguarded moments with those close to him his body added automatic legitimacy in its nuances. Hughes had pointed it out once, years ago now, when Ed had asked how so many people could trust a man whom everyone knew was always out for the next promotion and the next step up. Maes had just grinned and told him to open his eyes. Roy could lie with words, and spin the truth when he knew the world was watching, but in moments like this he couldn't help but give himself away.

This gesture, whatever it was, rang true. Whatever Mustang was trying, it was a genuine attempt and Ed knew a step in the right direction when he saw it.

'She won't do it again,' he said, quiet but certain, slowing his pace as Roy stopped and turned to look at him with puzzled eyes. 'The lives she took will be enough to keep her going, unless she forces a confrontation of some kind to drain her energy.'

It was a test, in a way, to see if Roy really could leave an unsolved mystery alone. He could see the questions racing through Mustang's mind, lining up on his tongue to be voiced. Normally the demand for answers would have been instinctual, but with a visible effort the man held them back and nodded in acknowledgement of the point.

'I'll take your word for it.'

They carried on walking back in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Ed kept glancing to the man at his side, too aware of him to ignore him completely. He had felt many things in Mustang's presence; from lust to a rage so strong he thought it would kill him, but never this. Now, there was a gentle comfort. It was fragile, and could all too easily be crushed in one careless moment, but it was something Ed hadn't experienced before. It was as if Roy was trying to show him that he could let his guard down, and it left Ed wondering why. If he refused to speak about what had happened at Hughes' house then it couldn't be an attempt to move forward in their strange, uncertain relationship, could it? Or perhaps this was his way of showing that things could be different, and that it wasn't always a situation of order and obey.

With a sigh of frustration Ed shook his head. All he knew for certain was that he had solved one problem tonight, only to find one far more complex in the shape of Roy Mustang.

Chapter Text

The warm, smooth brandy burned its way down his throat, pooling in his stomach like molten gold. A novice drinker would have spluttered at the taste, but not even a grimace twisted Roy's lips as he set the glass aside on the mantelpiece. Flames burned cheerfully in the grate. Vermilion and crimson, orange and blue all cascaded around a white hot heart of fire, and Roy found himself unable to blink as the heat rose up to caress his face.

He should be in bed, sleeping away the dark hours. He knew, in the back of his mind, that the morning would not bring a return to normality. He almost missed the dull paperwork and the routine monotony of signing his name on whatever document Hawkeye saw fit to put on his desk. At least in that there was continuity and comfort; one day followed on much the same as before. It was hard to link the disordered, unruly tangle of his life with that strange bureaucratic peace of a week ago. It was almost as if it was another reality entirely, where the city still ran fairly smoothly, the Fuhrer was a fool and Edward... .

And Edward was still just a subordinate: one that would outlive him by years.

Roy sighed, rubbing his eyes and wincing as the half-healed blisters on his hands stung. Of course, Edward had never been “just” anything. As a child he was a prodigy; as a teenager he had more dedication to his personal cause than most people found in their entire lives. Now, bordering on adulthood, it was hard to see how anyone could think that he was anything other than remarkable.

He licked his lips, bowing his head as his mind slipped back to the night he had spent on Hughes' couch. That in itself wasn't exactly a unique situation, but to wake up feeling the nip of teeth on his fingertip and the warm, firm stroke of Ed's tongue over his skin had sent his entire body into a throbbing twist of desire. A fair share of lovers had been between his sheets, but none of them had ever played him so very well.

It had been innocent, at least to begin with. Edward might be secretive about his life, but his body language had always been brash and open. There was no way that the embarrassment he had shown when he realised that Roy was awake and aware was an act. He wasn't coy enough to fake such a charmingly guilty blush. For all his chagrin there was something erotic about Ed's wide-eyed surprise, and the way his lips had parted just a fraction, utterly tempting.

Roy smiled wryly to himself. His common sense had remained asleep, allowing his libido to take full control. The words were through his lips before his brain had analysed the possible consequences. He hadn't meant to challenge Ed. He should have pulled away, or said something smooth and dismissive. Instead he had found himself murmuring a few suggestive syllables.

“Don't let me stop you, Fullmetal.”

There was a moment of blissfully beautiful indecision on Edward's face. It was as if he hadn't believed his ears, or was trying to calculate the risk of accepting the dare. In a second determination went nova in those gold irises, and in one quick, taunting movement his lips were wrapped around Roy's finger again.

Some people might scoff, saying it was a mundane touch, a cheap tease barely worth mention, but even now the thought of it made his knees shake. He twisted restlessly, pulling himself away from the warm clutches of the fire and glancing around the study. Another drink was out of the question. The haze of alcohol might help him forget the horrors of the station and the nightmare of his more distant past, but somehow it only brought the intense memories of Ed into sharper focus.

He paced around, drawing curtains and straightening out the room as his mind continued its inexorable journey. Ed's teasing had come to an abrupt end, curtailed by a faint pinch of pain as the splinter was pulled free and Roy had been left panting and needy, wanting to take him right there damn-it and forget the consequences.

Perhaps Ed had seen the raw desire in his eyes, too intense to be hidden. Whatever, he had beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen and left Roy to muffle a groan of disbelief in his pillow. Things had already gone too far by that point, gathered enough momentum to make it impossible to stop. It was as if by breaking one rule Roy had freed himself from the shackles of all others, and the cautions of his mind fell unheeded.

In a matter of moments he had swung his legs over the edge of the couch, shrugged into his jacket and prowled along in Edward's wake. Everything was immaterial: age, rank, circumstances; none of it mattered because, just for one minute, he could let himself forget everything but what he needed.

A swift move had Ed trapped against the counter, except that he wasn't a prisoner of the situation. Even now Roy couldn't recall seeing a trace of doubt or wariness on Ed's features as he had covered the younger man's lips with his own.

Roy was always in perfect control of his alchemy, but in that moment he had burned. Ed's surprise had melted away in a heartbeat, and there hadn't been the slightest trace of hesitation as he opened his mouth and returned the kiss fully, tasting and taking as his hips arched and shifted, grinding against Roy in a wordless plea.

God, he had been so close. It had been a moment that hung in the balance, waiting for the pressure to tip the decision one way or the other. His body surged at the memory of how he had almost given in. In the end it had taken all of his strength to break the kiss and step back, leaving Ed flushed and trembling as he made a tactical withdrawal to the sanctuary of normality, as if pretending it never happened could somehow undo what they'd begun.

With an irritated click of his fingers, Roy extinguished the fire, plunging the room into darkness before he slipped out into the hall, a tipsy frown wrinkling his brow as his foggy thoughts curled in vapours. Of course it wasn't that easy. How was it possible to abstain after a taste of the one thing you craved beyond all else, and when the hell had it got this far? When had Ed stopped being an irritation and become a fascination? At what point had he become an addiction just waiting to take hold, and in what life was that even fair?

The frown became a scowl as Roy climbed the stairs. Despite the brandy, his tread was still quiet, automatically timid so as not to disturb either Ed or Al from their sleep. He moved like a ghost along the hallway, his bed calling his name, empty as it was. Only a faint noise made him pause, a twitch of adrenaline burning off some of the alcohol and focusing his gaze on the door that stood ajar to his right. Ed's room.

Hesitantly, he reached out, his hand splayed in a pale shape across the dark wood. He paused for a moment before pushing the door aside. The hinges whispered a token protest, but the sound was barely audible, and Roy stopped on the threshold, transfixed.

Moonlight bathed the bed, and the cool night was edged by the breeze that swirled through the open window. Curtains fluttered, thin veils of fabric that ghosted in the grasp of the zephyrs. It was cold enough to raise goosebumps on Roy's skin, but he barely felt their prickle as his eyes were drawn to the figure sprawled on the mattress.

Edward lay on his front, his arms stretched out to take all of the available space the double mattress had to offer. The sheet and blankets were twisted low around his hips, clinging lovingly and creating secretive shadows at the base of his spine. He'd fallen asleep in his braid, and several strands of gold had tousled themselves free to trail across his skin, turned ivory by the moon. Colour had been drained away, bleached by the echoed light that clung to the room like quicksilver. Only the metal of Ed's automail was true: dark steel made precious by reflections of dead sunlight.

Roy drew in a breath, his eyes taking in the supple sweep of Ed's back and the broadness of his shoulders. For all his youth there was nothing childlike about his body, and Roy's imagination was only too happy to provide what the sheet concealed, tormenting him still further with the need to map Ed's physique for himself: to touch and taste every rise, fall and ridge of flesh.

The noise that had drawn him in came again, escaping Ed's lips in a gasping growl that shot along Roy's nerves and pooled low in his belly. It was definitely not a sound of distress, and for the first time he noticed the faint flush on Edward's cheek and the gloss of sweat across his shoulder blades. With a restless twist Ed shifted, pulling the sheet lower, and Roy barely choked back an appreciative sound of his own.

Roy's fingernails bit into the wood of the door frame as Ed's mumbled purrs framed a name, his name. It was almost an invitation. It would be too easy, too natural for him to slip into bed next to the sleeping young alchemist, to kiss those lips and taste his skin and slake his appetite for everything that Ed had to offer.

It felt as if his body was locked in place, torn between the need to step forward and the utter certainty that it would be best to turn away. Finally, with a forceful push of his hand against the door-frame he shoved himself out into the corridor. It hurt, that fractional distance. Even though he had no right to be there, to be watching Ed at his most vulnerable, it felt like some kind of betrayal to turn away. With a choked sigh he closed Ed's door behind him and stumbled the last few steps to his own room, too tired and frustrated for grace or dignity.

Shutting the door he twisted the lock forcefully, more to keep himself in than the world out. Shaking fingers pulled at his buttons, shedding his clothes and abandoning them in a pile on the floor before he stumbled into bed. The sheets slid over him, cool against the feverish burn of his skin as he tossed and turned, too caught up in his body's demands to find any peace. His eyes drifted shut and he swallowed tightly as his hand trailed down his stomach and beyond, brushing against his straining erection.

A groan caught in his throat, rough and hoarse as he wrapped his fingers around himself and began to stroke, imagining Ed's flesh palm in place of his own. He could almost feel the lithe body wrapped around him, moving against him in a rhythm of want as he kissed and teased and promised without words.

Roy shifted, tongue darting out to wet dry lips as he ignored the dull strain in his wrist, losing himself in the heat that spiralled through his core. His erection twitched, already wet at the tip as he thought of Ed's tongue trailing a hot line down his body before lips closed over the head, sucking and tasting and driving Roy insane.

Desperately he twisted, half-turning into the mattress and burying his face in the pillow to stifle the gasps that tore themselves from him. A surge, hotter, fiercer, shot through him as he pictured Ed sprawled beneath him, hands tangling in the sheets as he bucked his hips, swearing and gasping, slick and ready around Roy's fingers before he could push his way in and finally, finally have what he wanted as Ed arched and writhed and moaned.

The image was all it took to bring his orgasm rushing over him. Warmth blazed over his torso and down between his legs as warm fluid spurted over his hand and onto the sheets. His breath was loud in the silence of the room, his body shaking with the sudden ebb of tension. Opening his eyes Roy wiped his hand on the bed-linen, too tired to clean up properly as lethargy made his limbs heavy. Gradually the racing of his pulse slowed and his breathing calmed, but it wasn't enough to satisfy him. Something told him it never would be.

With a quiet groan Roy closed his eyes, trying to ignore the murmured thoughts that the one he wanted lay only one door away, separated from him by nothing more than brick and plaster.

It was going to be a long night.


The morning air nibbled at his skin, spreading chills across his flesh. With a scowl, Roy turned up the collar of his greatcoat and shoved his hands deep into his pockets, narrowing his eyes against the wind that whipped along the streets. The search for Carmine had continued throughout the night. All the men they could spare, which was never enough, were combing the city, but as yet no one had found the elusive woman.

'Here.'

Someone nudged him with an elbow, and he looked into Ed's bleary eyes. Desperately, Roy tried to keep his face neutral as his fantasies sprang immediately to mind, vivid and clear. He had hoped daylight would weaken the images and rob them of their power over him. Instead he found himself distracted and short-tempered, barely tolerating his present situation.

He accepted the coffee cup Ed offered him with a grunt. Shop bought and strong it wasn't exactly what he was used to, but right now he would have drunk warm mud. 'Thanks,' he murmured, hoping his voice didn't sound too rough as he took a sip, narrowing his eyes as the scalding liquid burned his tongue.

His night had been restless. Shallow sleep had been a mere canvas for the erotic twist of his imagination, and the brandy he had consumed only numbed the warnings that Ed was out of bounds and made his reasons for keeping away seem pointless.

Several times he had almost given in. It was so easy to tell himself that one night would be enough, that one time with Ed would rid him of this senseless longing, but it was another self-deception. Sometimes he could lie to himself as well as he could manipulate others.

In the end he had managed a few hours of dream-filled sleep, fractured and restless. When he awoke a gritty headache had pounded through his skull, and his alarm clock told him he was already running late. There wasn't time to do more than take a cold shower and dress before getting to Central Command.

The briefing in his office had been short and to the point. They had found nothing. Hughes, Falman, Fuery and Breda were already on their way to join the first team of soldiers who were searching the southern quadrants of Central. That left the rest of them to take the north side. Hawkeye was standing nearby, taking gulps of tea as Havoc inhaled heavily on his cigarette. Al and Winry were inside the bakery, grabbing a quick breakfast before they got going.

'This is pointless.' Ed's quiet murmur was matter-of-fact, and Roy glanced sideways at the younger man. 'If the Fuhrer won't give us the warrants to search buildings then what hope have we got? Unless we literally fall over her then we won't find her.'

'We can gather information and maybe get a better idea of where she might be hiding.' It was a pathetic reassurance, and even Roy couldn't help but grimace at his own words. Hakuro's supercilious denial of his requests meant the search was nothing more than a farce. Unless they could find some genuine intelligence on Carmine's whereabouts then they were walking blind.

Another sip of coffee was enough to calm his thoughts as Roy tried to think of the best course of action. Without the right documentation any privately owned property was out of bounds, but there were plenty of other places in the city to hide. If Carmine was smart she would be staying on the move and evading the search forces. That meant she would have to risk exposure, which at least increased their chances of catching her out in the open.

'We'll split up to cover more ground,' he decided, mentally picturing the city as he issued his orders. 'Hawkeye and Havoc take from here to the river. Al and Winry you go from here to Central Command. Ed and I will head west. We'll meet back at the office at the end of the day.'

The others nodded in agreement before heading their own separate ways, each intent on finding any clue to Carmine's location. Roy hoped, rather than believed they'd have some luck. Central was too sprawling and convoluted. She could be hiding in plain sight and they'd never find her. Perhaps if they got lucky they would be able to confirm Al's sighting at the station, but beyond that he doubted they'd have any success. It galled him that the Fuhrer always had to be such a fool. At every turn Roy found himself blocked by the petty whims of a power-hungry idiot. He seemed to have no concept of what was at stake. What kind of man was happy to wait until there was another attack to find a dangerous criminal?

Resigned, he set to work, letting Fullmetal take one side of the street while he took the other. Every shop and residence was a dead end, and all most people had to offer was a sneering disdain for the ineptitude of the military. Gritting his teeth tight, Roy gathered the last of his patience as e bade a particularly vocal shopkeeper farewell and thanked her for her time. Ed was right. This was pointless. They'd stand more chance of finding Carmine by putting on a blindfold and picking a random location on a map!

The morning had crept away, and Roy's feet were reminding him keenly that new boots were not the best footwear for pacing the streets. He was pretty sure he had at least one bleeding blister, and his grim mood was turning truly foul when he looked around and realised that Ed was gone. The plaza which they had been canvassing was almost empty, bar a few shoppers, and there was no sign of the blonde alchemist anywhere.

With a scowl, Roy walked down the street towards Central Command, a prickling unease chasing its way up and down his spine. Twelve days had passed since Ed's collapse, and he had been surprisingly accommodating about the doctor's orders of constant supervision. Not once had he tried to give whoever was watching him the slip, until now. Cursing under his breath, Roy dug his hands into his pocket, his fingers itching to snap as his stride ate up the pavement.

'I had an idea.'

Ed's voice drifted out of an alley to Roy's right, and he glanced up in surprise, squelching a rush of light relief as he saw him leaning against a wall. His lean form seemed completely at ease, and it was hard not to admire just how easily Ed could fit in sometimes. Every soldier, no matter how used to civilians, had a certain straight-cut air that gave them away. Even when they were out of uniform you could pick them out in a crowd. Ed wasn't like that. He stood out, sure enough, but it was a different kind of disparity that set him apart.

'Why do I get the feeling it's an idea I won't like?' Roy replied. Central's labyrinthine back streets confused even him, but he didn't need a map to know where they'd end up if they went down the alley in which Ed loitered. It was the gateway to the darkest part of the city. A part where the only successful urban renewal would be some kind of flame-thrower. It was a disease infested nest of crime, a core of grim humanity that not even the police dared to enter.

'Look, there's only one person in Central I've been able to find who had any idea about the grave-robbings, and he knew more than just a bit.' Ed reached into his pocket before tossing something towards Roy. It glimmered gold as it arced through the air, and he caught it deftly in his right hand. 'I found that on a man who attacked me in the alleys around there. He was one of Carmine's thugs.'

Uncurling his fingers, Roy saw a gold band, simple and slightly worn. It looked like a wedding ring, and when he examined it he saw the letters V and N were carved into the surface.

'Dane, the barkeeper at The Grindle, knew what those letters stood for, and they scared him.' Ed shrugged and looked over his shoulder, as though the gaping maw of the alley behind him was no more threatening than the open street. 'It's all we've got to go on, and it's got to be a better shot than knocking on people's doors and listening to them bitch.'

Turning the ring over, Roy frowned. The weight of it was right, but there was something about the metal: a faintly greasy, alchemical feel to it that set his teeth on edge. Tipping it towards the light, he looked at the inside surface, scowling at the tiny arrays that had been carved into the rim. It would have taken a professional jeweller to make those delicate marks so flawlessly, and they had to be recently engraved. Gold was too soft, and it wouldn't take much to smudge the outlines.

'What are these for?'

Ed looked up at his question, a puzzled frown cleaving his brow as he pushed away from the wall. Gingerly he reached out, hesitating for a fraction of a second before picking up the ring from Roy's gloved palm. Roy watched in interest as Ed twisted the metal band around, his lips moving a little to silent words as he glanced over the arrays. 'I didn't even see them,' he confessed. 'The four arrays are all touching, acting like a chain. It's definitely Carmine's kind of alchemy.'

It was like being told half of the story, Roy realised. Ed would tell him little parts, and he would be left to find the significance. Every day Ed seemed to hand him another piece of the puzzle, gradually sharing small details of the big picture. It might not be the same as being asked for help outright, but he had to acknowledge that at least Ed hadn't gone off alone. It would have been easier for him to just slip away, wending his way deeper into the heart of Central's underworld until he was too far gone for Roy to chase. Instead he'd shared information. It wasn't exactly asking permission to go to The Grindle, that just wasn't how Ed did things, but it was a lot better than the alternative.

Still, what he was suggesting had the potential to border on suicide. It wasn't only the police that feared to tread in the grim knot of streets in this part of town. Anyone with a uniform was a target for the desperate. A man was likely to be killed for the shoes on his feet and the spare change in his pocket if he stumbled blindly into that deadly maze. Military clothes, or even just the glint of a pocket watch was enough bait for most, and god knew how many bodies were simply never found.

Roy grimaced, knowing that for all its danger Ed was right. Any source of information, however tenuous, needed to be followed up. Besides, what better place to hide from the authorities than an area of the city that kept them at bay by reputation alone? 'All right,' he finally agreed. 'Like you said, it's our best shot at finding out where Carmine's gone.' He gestured ahead, buttoning up his greatcoat to at least hide the evidence of his rank before following along in Ed's wake.

The air stank of damp and filth, cloying his nose and throat. The narrow walls meant they had to walk in single file, and the bricks ran wet with stale water from the roofs high above their heads, despite the lack of rain. It was as if the world was being pinched down to this narrow path, twisting and turning with only a stripe of sky above to remind them that there was more to the city than this foulness.

More than once he stumbled over things best not looked at. Stray cats yowled, splashing through puddles as they hurried to escape these intruders in their territory, and Roy distinctly heard someone curse and spit in their direction from one of the side-alleys, but he didn't turn to look. It was a tense, uncomfortable feeling, to know that he didn't belong here. It was the kind of place the military were keen to say didn't exist. In their minds Central was a haven of peace and prosperity. It was as if they could only see the distant vision of perfection, and nearby reality was lost in the haze.

A dead dog, bloated and decaying, filled the close space with the smell of rot. Rats scampered along the walls, climbing broken gutters up towards the clean air. Looking over his shoulder, Roy realised that they were already too far into the warren of alleyways to see the main street. If he lost Ed now he'd never find his way back.

'How do you know this place so well?' he asked, unable to keep the faint horror and disapproval out of his voice. Ed's stride was confident, and there was no sign of the tension in his body that was twisting Roy's muscles tight. It was almost as though Ed believed that he was the most dangerous thing the shadows harboured; as if he honestly thought that he could take anything that came their way.

'I just do,' Ed replied with a shrug, turning a corner and narrowing his eyes at the gloom. 'People here see and hear things that your average citizen doesn't even acknowledge. It's like the centre of a wheel. If you look long and hard enough you can find someone who'll answer your questions.'

'Unless you get your throat slit first,' Roy mumbled, pausing as Ed stopped and cocked his head to one side. Holding his breath, Roy strained his ears, trying to pick out what had made Ed falter, but there was nothing. The drip of water counted off a steady beat: the pulse of this place. Rats scrabbled and squeaked, but it was a natural noise, unforced and organic. 'What's wrong?'

Ed shifted uncomfortably, his eyes narrowing as his gaze swept the dusky shadows. 'It's too quiet.' The scuff of his boots in the muck was loud, his relaxed posture fading away as he clenched his hands into fists. 'The Grindle is only couple of alleys over. You can normally hear it by now, and there should be more people around.'

Roy glanced about, noticing the shredded cardboard shelters, rank blankets strewn in the puddles as though their occupants had fled in a hurry. There was a watchful feeling in the air, as though even the creatures had hunkered down in their lairs to escape the goings-on. Unconsciously he tensed his hands, thumb and forefinger pressed together in preparation for an attack.

With a jerk of his head, Ed motioned him forward, keeping his back carefully against the blank wall as he searched for any signs of danger. The calm, easy to ignore at first, was beginning to get on Roy's nerves now that he knew it was not normal. It felt like the place was holding its breath in anticipation, and he winced as glass crunched beneath his feet, shattering the silence with musical notes.

'This place is empty,' Ed murmured as the peace resettled around them. 'I've never seen it like it.'

'Maybe there was a raid?' Roy suggested, although it seemed unlikely. If the police had been here there would have been boot prints in the mud and more signs of destruction. Instead it felt like a ghost-town. The few possessions people owned had been abandoned as if nothing mattered but saving their own skin.

'No, they were running away from something.'

'Carmine?'

Ed just shrugged. 'Could have been anything. Just because there are a lot of crooks hiding out here doesn't mean they're all hardened criminals. Most of them are just homeless. They wouldn't have the strength to fight off a child, let alone a powerful alchemist or gang.'

Rounding the corner, Roy saw a squat, ugly building nestled in a broader street among the alleys. Like the winding path they had just taken, the place seemed to be deserted. The wind rattled old abandoned newspapers and chased fallen leaves over the stone ground. A bottle clinked against the wall, chiming as an enterprising rat drank the dregs of liquor from the glass lip.

The lights of the bar were on, glowing harsh light from behind the patina of grime on the windows. Yet the place was eerily quiet. No silhouettes moved behind the panes of glass, and there was no chatter or laughter, or even the roar of a brawl in progress. The front door was shut tight against the world, but Ed didn't bother with it, instead skirting the walls until they stood at the rear of the tumbledown place.

Here there were dustbins overflowing with leftovers and broken bottles. A cat glared at them from one good eye, hissing as they approached and standing sentry over its dinner. One or two tiles lay smashed on the floor, bright orange terracotta in the gloom. The back door itself was slightly open, showing an inch or two of shadowy promise around its threshold. Cautiously Ed pushed it open, grimacing as the wood hit something with a meaty sounding “thunk”.

Ed frowned, glancing quickly in Roy's direction. 'I think whatever made the people in the alley run happened here,' he said quietly. 'If anyone was concious we'd have been confronted by now.'

Nodding in agreement, Roy put his shoulder to the door and helped Ed shove, pushing aside whatever blocked their way. Ponderously it opened, revealing the dingy kitchen and the sprawled form on the floor. When alive the man had been massive, probably close to Armstrong's size and strength. His shaved head was covered in blood, but it didn't hide the tattoos that curled their way over his scalp.

'Fuck,' Ed muttered, bending down to check his pulse and scowling when he found nothing. 'He's not been dead that long. He's not cold yet.'

Grimly, Roy looked around, taking in the broken bottles and shattered furniture. It was hard to tell if there had been a struggle or if the place was normally in this kind of disarray. The floor was tacky with blood and spilt alcohol. The two scents, tangy and sharp, battled for supremacy in the stale air.

The other side of the bar was littered with bodies. None of them stirred, and Roy carefully picked his way through. The hope that one of them had just passed out from the booze dwindled as each prone form turned out to be pulse-less. Some had bled, but most of them looked as though they hadn't put up a fight. Their faces were relaxed as if they only slept.

A woman, probably younger than Ed, was the one who had bled the most. From the way she lay it looked as though she had lunged for the door, desperate to escape. Crouching next to her body he brushed her hair aside, sighing sadly at the youthfulness of her face. Cornflower blue eyes were open, staring at nothing as her lips parted on a scream that hadn't made it. A knife between her shoulder blades had stopped her finding freedom, and a quick slash across her delicate neck had ended her fight.

A footprint, petite enough to be female, was imprinted in the stain of her blood, and Roy looked up at the blank façade of the closed front door. Had they just come in here, slaughtered everyone and then walked out into broad daylight? If it had been Carmine then this was brutal. She'd killed some of them with a knife, and as for the others... He glanced across at the peaceful face of a young man. His skin was pallid and his eyelids closed, as if he'd lost conciousness at a simple touch. It was hard not to draw parallels between what had happened here and what Ed had done to him all those days ago at his home. After all, if their energy could feed her then why let the opportunity pass?

'Money's still here,' Ed called out. 'This wasn't a robbery.'

'I think it was about keeping people quiet,' Roy said, eyeing the narrow staircase in the corner that led up to the second floor. 'You said Dane knew something about Carmine and the grave-robbers. What exactly did he say?'

'Something about Vivus Nix. It terrified him. He said that he knew what was happening, but not who was doing it. That was before I showed him the ring.' Ed sighed, reaching under the bar and pulling out a sawn off shotgun.

'Looks like he knew a bit more than he was letting on.' Roy got to his feet and looked back at where Ed stood checking the gun for ammunition. 'I think she came here to make sure he kept quiet and everyone else was just,' He shrugged hopelessly, 'collateral damage.'

A noise from overhead made them both freeze, eyeing the ceiling with trepidation. Quietly Ed put the gun down on the bar, leaving his hands free for alchemy as he silently crept towards the tightly twisting stairway. 'Stay here,' he whispered, moving stealthily upwards into the shadows as Roy scowled. Before he could argue Ed was gone from sight. He couldn't even hear his footsteps.

He half expected a flash of power or a cry of pain, but there was nothing. Seconds dragged by, and with the passing of each one Roy grew more restless. If Ed had been attacked he would have heard something, wouldn't he? A sound of alarm, or at least the thump of a body hitting the floor.

Just as he was about to charge upstairs and see what was going on for himself, Ed's voice drifted down to him. 'It's just birds. Someone left the window open. Looks like the crows smelled the blood.'

'You sure it's clear?' Roy called up, glancing over his shoulder warily as he crossed his arms and waited. The last thing he wanted was to be ambushed by a killer waiting patiently for their moment.

'Completely empty,' Ed promised as he came back down the stairs with something sparkling in his hands, 'but there might be someone who can tell us what happened here.' He held up the object for Roy to see, and the pendant swung gently from its fine silver chain, sending rainbows around the room. Its simple beauty was at odds with the massacre all around. Diamonds or crystals encrusted the outer ring of the pendant, and a solid silver star hung in the centre of the ring.

'I've seen something like this before.' Roy said quietly, taking it from Ed as his memory faltered. At his touch the star pivoted along its horizontal axis, inverting the shape. 'I just can't think where.'

'Sally gives something like that to all of her employees,' Ed said, and something about his tone of voice made Roy look up, one eyebrow raised in question. Ed looked uncomfortable, a faint blush staining his cheeks as he elaborated. 'Sally runs a high-class brothel called Rider's. If a girl or boy is wearing a necklace like that it's – it's like a sign of quality.' Ed motioned to the people on the floor, indicting their tattered clothes and grime-streaked appearances. 'I doubt that belonged to anyone here.'

Roy stayed quiet for a moment, trying desperately not to ask how Ed knew so much about Central's seedy side. It was disturbing to think that it was under his command that Ed had become intimately knowledgeable about thugs and hookers. At the look on his face Ed rolled his eyes and snatched the pendant back. 'The only reason I know is because there's always at least one of Sally's girls at those fucking boring diplomatic functions you make me go to sometimes.' A quick grin darted across his face. 'Their conversation is much more interesting than anything the Fuhrer has to say.'

Roy smothered an incredulous chuckle. 'I'll bet. So you think this belongs to one of Sally's girls?'

Ed shook his head. 'No, one of her boys. The girls wear gold jewellery; the men wear silver. The star shows whether or not they're for hire. If it's point down they're taken.' Ed looked around at the destruction, his face darkened with anger at what had happened. 'I just don't understand why they'd be here. This isn't exactly their normal kind of territory.'

'Maybe they came here before work, or were stopping off on their way home. Of course it could have been stolen. Maybe no one from the brothel was ever here.'

'Doubtful,' Ed murmured. 'Any thief who wasn't a total novice would be able to tell that this was just glass and silver. Sally protects her people. It'd be more trouble than it's worth to steal from them. One of them was here, and they managed to get away.'

'Then we need to find them, and quickly.' Roy grimaced as a stray terrier trotted through the door they'd left open and bent its muzzle to the blood, lapping happily. 'For all we knew Carmine or whoever killed these people is already on their trail. Where would go if they needed protection?'

'Straight to Rider's. It's a home to most of them, and there's safety in numbers.'

'Then that's where we're going,' Roy ordered, picking his way over the bodies towards the exit, 'and we'd better hope that we're not too late.'

Chapter Text

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.

'Brigadier-General Mustang!'

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.

Chapter Text

The shadows unfurled in an inevitable tide, and every nerve in Ed’s body thrummed as it approached. Even his automail seemed to ache with the knowledge of what was coming. Plates and bolts tightening as his muscles contracted and his blood pressure rose. Instinct told him what was about to happen: It was like finding a bomb with only three seconds left on the clock. There was no time to run or scream; no time for anything but a curse of a prayer that, somehow, this was not the inevitable death it seemed.

His alchemy was the first thing to fail. All the energy he had fought to draw in from around him was released and allowed to flow through him back to its natural place. For one split second the cool air warmed against his skin before Carmine's attack slammed into him, bearing him ruthlessly to the ground.

It was a heartbeat of incredible agony, too intense to be withstood. If he cried out then he didn't hear it; he was too engulfed by the shrill, shrieking pain that played him like a violin. Discords of sensation clashed together, colliding towards a consuming crescendo of unspeakable torture.

Unconsciousness or death, it didn't matter. As long as it took him away from this place and this pain then he would welcome it. He could feel the warm trickle of blood weeping from his eyes and filling his mouth with its taste. He tried to spit or cough or fight, but there was nothing left. There was no strength to call on and nothing else to struggle for as, bit by bit, his body shut down.

Reality slipped away.


Time passed, or perhaps it did not. In the deepest, darkest silence of sleep it was impossible to tell. All connection with any world was lost. There was no guiding rhythm; no unconscious acknowledgement of day and night to show him the way. All he knew was that the senseless nothing became something, and one faint perception breached the shadows.

Warm sunlight. It stroked his skin with a silken touch, tempting him away from oblivion. The darkness clung to him, its tenacious grasp pleading for him to stay and rest, but the wordless whispers fell on deaf ears.

Wakefulness came slowly, and with it the hazy, unsteady knowledge that something was wrong. The sunlight, for all its heat and promise of life, did not belong in the four walls of Rider’s. Perhaps the roof had been blown off, but the peace was too absolute. Even when a household slept there were comforting noises: snores, beams settling and the steady buzz of a city that did not truly rest.

Opening his eyes, Ed blinked away the crimson haze across his vision and stared up at the cerulean sky. Like a blue canvas, it stretched from one horizon to the other, uninterrupted. There were no clouds or birds, and the bronze disc of the sun scorched the land as it travelled through its steady arc. Dry air tickled his nostrils, and the faint scent of jasmine and sand lingered, drowning out the tangy memory of blood. He recognised that perfume from the place in his dreams, but it was fainter now: a whisper of fragrance on the breeze.

Carefully, Ed moved his arms He half-expected the pain to return, to swamp his mind and carry him back into the night, but there was no sensation other than an aching, biting cold. His fingers felt dead with it, and when he struggled to stand his breath crystallised in the sweltering air. His cheeks were stiff and mask-like, and he stared at the frost that clouded his automail hand as if the desert sun were nothing but a painted picture.

‘What’s happening?’ he murmured, lips almost too bloodless to move and his tongue clumsy in his mouth.

'You're dying.'

Ed spun around to face the voice, stumbling clumsily as his freezing muscles struggled to respond. He was in the same plaza he had seen in his previous dream, but the beautiful tiles and the arrays carved across them were shattered. The fountain was stone dry, no longer sending a laughing cascade of water spilling down into its bowl. It looked more like a gravestone than a thing of beauty.

Sitting on the fountain’s rim was the young boy; the owner of the childlike voice that spoke in Ed’s mind. His dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and his kohl-rimmed eyes watched Ed from hollow cheeks. Twin trails of dried blood picked out a path down his face, and a third spilled from the corner of his mouth. His features were a gruesome, unsmiling facade, and Ed knew without looking that the same marks stained his own paler skin.

The white cloth the boy wore wrapped around his waist was not stained from play as it had been before. No sand or mud flawed its thick folds. This time it glowed a pristine, angelic white. In contrast the torque around his neck was dull, tarnished by a patina of shadow. The darkness chased over the surface of the simple gold band like storm clouds obscuring the summer sun.

'You're dying,' the boy repeated, his voice mournful.

Ed should have felt something. On some level of thought he knew he should have been shocked or afraid - but there was nothing. If his blood drained from his face then he couldn't feel it. There were no shivers; there were not even any words of denial.

'Then so are you,' Ed whispered, his voice rasping in his throat, already lifeless.

The boy nodded, dipping his toe in the sand at his feet to trace a pattern. 'All is one. One is all. My life and yours are the same.' Large dark eyes were clouded by a scowl, and he looked up at Ed. When he spoke again it was not with the wisdom of the ages but the petulance of a child. 'This is all your fault. Why didn't you run away?'

'That's not what I do.' His hollow words felt meaningless here, and Ed thought of Al, and Roy, and Hughes, and everyone else he would probably never see again. He had known he was dying – it was hard to deny the doctor's grim prediction - but somehow he had managed to keep the thought at bay. It had been something that the future held, and even if it was tomorrow that his life ended then he still had today to live.

Except that now it seemed his time was up.

He sighed heavily, scowling as his breath coiled in icy tendrils through the air. It drifted like smoke before dissipating: another memory in a place of alien recollections. 'What am I doing here, anyway?' he gestured around at the dilapidated buildings, no longer a civilisation but the sad ruins of what once was. 'Shouldn't I be in some kind of afterlife instead of stuck in one of your memories?'

'You're dying, not dead.' The boy got to his feet and crossed his arms, scowling like Elysia did when denied something she wanted. 'This place is safe until you choose: life or death.'

Ed kicked at a bit of rubble, wishing he felt something other than this dreadful indifference. The stone bounced and rolled away down the street. It sounded like dice rattling in a cup: one more gamble at the last chance saloon.

Fresh blood coated his tongue with its metallic taste as he licked his lips. It was strange how, even in this place he was still bleeding and breathing. He was still living, sort of. Did that mean that back there, in the real world, time was still passing for him? Somewhere he was fighting for his life, but right here, right now, he was just waiting for the outcome: a spectator to the game.

He looked around, determined to take his mind off of his helplessness. Empty, desolate streets stared back at him accusingly. This was no longer a bustling city but a ghost town. The only things that still lived were the plants, kept alive by the remaining arrays, fighting on against the unceasing rasp of the desert wind that blew in across the dunes.

'What happened here?' he asked quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the boy. 'Is this what it looks like now?'

There was silence for a moment, thoughtful and deep, and when the child spoke it was in an ancient voice. 'Perhaps. I would not know. More than likely there is nothing left. The desert takes everything in the end.' The boy crouched down and picked up a handful of sand, watching it run through his fingers and swirl away on the wind. 'It was Babylon, once.' He shrugged. 'Now, it is probably nothing but a dusty grave for a thousand memories.'

'Babylon?' Ed murmured. 'I know that name.'

'Many in your time do, but that is all they know. It has become nothing more than a word that no one understands. Scraps of legend survived, speaking of gardens that grew from the sand, of life that stemmed from clutching death, but they do not remember what became of us. We were there at sunset. By dawn there was nothing.'

Ed felt something snake its way up his spine, a creeping chill of sensation, sharp after the numbness that coated his body. The thrill of horror spawned a shudder, and he felt his stiff lips move to frame another name; another place that had vanished in the space of a night. 'Xerxes?' he murmured, wondering if the boy would recognise the word.

Dark eyes gleamed for a moment, but the child shook his head. 'A great city that echoed our own. A beacon of civilisation in the desert, but Babylon had already lain in ruin for over one thousand years before Xerxes was anything more than a few buildings huddled around an oasis.'

The boy cocked his head to one side, large eyes narrowing thoughtfully as he took in the measure of Ed. It was an intense look that saw everything; skin and automail, flesh and bone, heart and soul. All seemed to be weighed in that one glance.

Abruptly he held out his hand, and the ageless sorrow on his young face stiffened into resolve. 'I can show you what became of us. Perhaps if you fight your way back to the living you'll remember more than just a name. Perhaps you’ll understand.'

It was an open choice, and Ed hesitated, tempted to linger in blissful ignorance. Was it the kind of truth he was meant to know? If the past of Babylon was as lost as the boy claimed, then it could be that way for a reason. Maybe it was something that should not be remembered.

Or maybe it was something they should never have forgotten.

He touched the boy's palm firmly, flesh fingers curling around the smaller hand as the world seemed to waver and twist. Sound blossomed around them as the cracks in the floor sealed themselves; flaws were wiped clean in the blink of an eye. The melody of the fountain mixed with talk and laughter as the people bustled around the market. Tanned faces smiled as merchants paraded their wares. Women were swathed in loose trails of fabric, covering bare flesh from the bite of the sun with gauzy cloth. The men were bare-chested, adorned by tattoos and jewellery that glimmered in the light.

The air was heavy with the smell of spice and the ever-present perfume of the jasmine. Glancing up, Ed could see the cascades of lush greenery, leaves and petals unfurled to the sun like worshippers before a god. Birds twittered in between the branches, eating bugs as butterflies danced from one flower to the next, wings flashing in a horde of gemstone colours as they went.

'It's beginning.'

The boy's words made him look around in confusion, but it was his ears that sensed the change. The birds were the first to fall silent: their bright voices mute as they took to the air. Debris rained down from the buildings as a throaty roar echoed along the street, and people began to cry out in alarm. Houses collapsed as the earth shook and bucked. Around the fountain the tiles cracked and the arrays died, choking off the water. Dust billowed up in the air, a smoke signal of distress, but there was no one to see it in the desert.

Slowly, the haze cleared. Blood was spilled like wine across the sandy stone, and many people lay dead beneath the rubble. Those that lived picked themselves up, clutching at wounds as they stared around. Like the aftermath of any disaster there was more shock than panic, more disbelief than action. A little girl was crying loudly, clutching at a rag doll as she wailed for her mother. Ed reached out, the need to comfort her automatic, but his fingers went straight through her flesh. She did not feel his presence, and he found himself wondering which one of them was a ghost in this place. Was he real and she an illusion, or was it the other way around?

'It was the first of many catastrophes,' the boy continued, tugging Ed along behind him as the scene changed like flowing water. 'Floods turned the sand to mud and unnatural fires scorched it to glass. The air became an animal, always howling and ripping into our city. It was as if the elements were out of control. Somewhere, some important balance had been tipped, and we were suffering the consequences. Men of great wisdom worked day and night for a solution, but there was little luck.'

Around them the narrow streets widened out, and a towering building spurred upwards into the sky. It was a cluster of square shapes, each built on top of the other. Finally, amidst a forest of terracotta roofs, Ed could make out a literal jungle of plants. Entire trees had rooted themselves into the stonework. They thrived, as if it were earth that nurtured them rather than this man-made place.

'The palace,' the boy said, leading him across a bridge. 'This is the day it ended. A man called Thaqir, a priest, felt he had the answer. We owed him everything. Throughout his life it was he and his knowledge that made the city great. Without him there would have been no plants and barely enough water for the people to survive. He gave this place life through the art that you now call alchemy, and so we trusted his word. Or at least, most of us did.'

The palace sped by, the towering doorway no more than a flickering shadow overhead as the twisting corridors unwound, snaking along faster than a man could run. Finally Ed was left standing in the doorway to what looked like the main chambers. A man in long black robes stood in the middle of the floor, listening with condescending patience to the woman before him.

'It's nothing but lies!' Carmine spat, her grey eyes bright with fury. 'You'll kill my son to save the people, and when he's gone you'll take his place on the throne! You don't need his blood for this. Anyone will do!'

The priest smiled calmly, slender fingers wrapping around Carmine's arm as he forced her towards the window. 'Look out there, Your Highness, and you'll see a city who knows what to expect of King Kaleo. It is his duty to sacrifice himself for them. It is his place as their god and their ruler.' The priest's face turned cold and bitter, dark eyes flat with disdain. 'After all, what else is the bastard child of a whoring princess good for?'

'How dare you!' Carmine wrenched herself away, straightening her spine as she glared at the man. 'He is your king!'

'He is my sacrifice,' the priest said coldly. 'The blood in his veins is royal, regardless of his father's origins, and with it I can construct a gateway to control the flow of energy into our world. The disasters will stop. The elements will calm and -'

'And you will rule us all. You and your witchcraft!' Carmine strode across the floor, her hand lashing out to strike at him. The slap rang around the room, and Ed watched the priest close his eyes as if praying for patience.

'The decision has been made. Prepare his majesty. The ceremony will take place at dusk.' He turned and stalked towards the door, his body showing no sign of his age. From here Ed could see what Carmine could not. The expression on the man's face was sickeningly triumphant. Unconsciously, Thaqir twisted a ring on his finger as he walked, his smile one of intense self-satisfaction.

‘Mother was right,’ the boy, Kaleo said. ‘Thaqir was the only man who understood and practiced alchemy. One array, one transmutation, these things would have little effect on the natural order of things, but a lifetime of it? A city constructed almost solely on the power of alchemy? It was Thaqir that tipped the balance – that brought all this down upon us. He was correct to say that the gate would stop the disasters. It would also be a source of fuel for his power. Many people already viewed him as a sage. If he succeeded in his plans he would become as great as any god we knew.’

Kaleo glanced up at Ed. 'We ran,' he stated flatly, as if daring Ed to judge a child for his cowardice. 'Within an hour we were fleeing the city, but Thaqir was prepared. He had my mother put in chains and branded a traitor. As for me-' He shrugged, and with a wave of his hand they were in a large square. It was filled with people, but the crowd parted in front of them like crops bowing before the wind. No one looked their way. Every eye was focussed on the dais at the front, and the man who stood talking in reverent tones.

'They killed you,' Ed said quietly, his gaze held by the sharp, silver knife in Thaqir's palm. It flashed and flickered in his hand as he gestured, emphasising his words. Yet his audience were not captivated. Ed could see their unease. Men shared glances, tangled in guilt and uncertainty as the women wept over the boy-king who lay so still on the dais, awaiting his doom.

At his side Carmine was in chains. She did not struggle or fight. Instead she stared at the priest, her face a masterpiece of unspeakable rage. A dark, burly man moved like a shadow behind her, bending near and murmuring something in her ear. He did something behind her back, but Ed couldn't see what it was.

'My father,' Kaleo murmured. 'He was chief of the guard. He knew he could never be king, but that did not stop him from loving the both of us. He was always there, even then. Even when he was helpless to stop what was happening to me.' Kaleo's face twisted in disgust, and his dark eyes grew bright with tears. For a moment he was a child again, drugged and afraid on that slab of stone. 'Thaqir was my voice, and his orders were clear. I was to die and mother would watch. All father could do was free her from her restraints.'

Thaqir had finally stopped speaking, putting his glorious words into action. His eyes were glazed with something, although whether it was a drug or just the adrenaline Ed didn't know. In one quick strike the king's throat was cut, and crimson blood splashed down the dais, pooling on the ground. Carmine leapt just a split-second too late, colliding with Thaqir after the deed had been done.

Ed expected her to wail or cry. Instead she screamed, a hoarse sound of bitter fury as she lunged for the knife. Her fingers closed around the blade as the array carved into the floor began to glow. Light seeped out, filling each line like the water this city cherished so much. It extended beyond the dais and into the crowd, unfurling under people's feet as the night air became heavy with the tang of alchemy.

With a hiss Carmine lashed out, snarling as the priest gave a scream of pain. The knife had sliced through his outstretched fingers, severing the digits like a hot blade slipping through butter. The ring that had been on his finger fell to the floor and rested against Carmine's bare foot.

She lunged again, blind to anything but the man in front of her and the need to destroy him as utterly as he had destroyed her. Ed doubted that she noticed when she trod on the ring. That minor discomfort was beyond her. Even as the alchemy reached its tortuous peak she saw nothing but rage.

The array flared, active at last, and Ed looked around as one gasp issued from thousands of mouths. As one being men, women and children fell to the floor, their lives snuffed out like candle flames. It was chilling to see, and Ed grimaced in horror as he realised that the guards were just the same. They were a crumpled pile of armour on the ground, lifeless.

Carmine held the priest's sagging body in her grasp, her fingers twisted in his robe as she shook him, shouting unintelligibly as the air around her tore itself to shreds, opening in a gaping mouth to another plane. The priest still lived, although barely. His face was parchment pale, and his eyes, bright with both horror and awe, were fixed on what was happening in that other place.

The roar of stone breaking away was a deafening thing as, all over the city, chunks of buildings pulled themselves apart and were dragged into the array. They crumbled to dust, sucked into the portal by the ravenous gale. Once on the other side they began to form new shapes. Tall, sturdy pillars appeared out of nowhere, building themselves up and spreading out to form a familiar square arch. Smooth stone rippled, taking on the twisted, sculpted appearance of the gate that Ed knew so well.

The huge lintel towered over everything, dwarfing them with its presence as Kaleo gently tugged at Ed's hand, pulling him closer to the threshold. 'Don't be afraid. You need to see or you will not understand.'

Ed opened his mouth to snap a retort, but the boy just looked at him, seeing every facet of his uncertainty as plainly as if it were written on his face. Walking past the oblivious Carmine they stepped into the other plane. It was a violent, vicious place: raw and untamed. Matter spun from nothing, materialising and vanishing again as the unharnessed energy seethed, earthing itself through invisible cracks on the uncertain horizons.

With an almighty bang the doors flew into being, the stone parting to make way for the hinges as the wooden panels fitted neatly into place. The massive eye appeared in a blaze of crackling power, and strange shapes in the grain of the wood began to shift and change. With a great creaking of stone and timber the thing settled, solidifying into a more certain shape. The rock stopped moving, fully formed now into the sculpted edifice that sent shivers down Ed's spine.

'This place connects so many worlds. Where the balance of energy has shifted, has become unstable, cracks form. The energy that built up here found its way out through those cracks and into those other realms.' Kaleo looked up at the door, stepping back as they slowly parted and the humming, jagged air gradually calmed. 'Thaqir's idea was sound, for a while. The gate was both a storage device and a conduit. Energy could be balanced between the worlds which suffered. It could be taken from one place and put in another.'

'But it went wrong.'

'It was built wrong,' Kaleo corrected him. ‘With this creation Thaqir made alchemy as you know it today possible. Several times the art has almost been lost, but someone, somewhere has always brought it back to life. Yet from the very beginning the gate has been failing, falling apart on a vicious foundation of human life.’

As Ed watched, a flare of light glimmered into being, hovering in the darkness of the gate's open maw. It floated there, nothing more than a speck of dust. Suddenly a gust of wind rushed inwards, sending Ed's hair flying around his face. On the edge of hearing were faint wails and whispers, curses and prayers that faded as they vanished into that darkness, swirling around the light until it flashed, a burning nova of brightness that spread outwards, filling every sense with its presence.

And in the very middle of that opalescent shine were a pair of dark eyes looking out: a child without its mother.

'My blood activated the array and began the process. Mine was the first life sacrificed to the gate, It used me as a core to build upon, a foundation to make it whole. Everyone else, the thousands of others that Thaqir gave to his alchemy, they were just power: the first jolt of energy to bring his creation into being.'

'What happened to them?' Ed asked.

'They passed through. Perhaps they went to other places, or their energy made new lives while their spirits were stored in some version of paradise.' Kaleo shook his head, unsure. 'None of them stayed with me. I felt them all go, even the priest. I felt my city die.'

The gate was gone. The silver plane vanished from sight as the air closed up around them, sealing itself away from the world. They stood on the dead array, the lines scoring deep gouges into the stone beneath their feet as the oppressive silence of the city closed in around them. Every window was dark and every street deserted. Not even bodies remained. The gate had taken everything. Thaqir had offered so much and, in the end, it had demanded the full price, even from him.

One figure remained in the empty square, her slim figure trembling with soundless sobs as she hid her face in her hands. Her hair fell in a thick, unruly swathe, blocking her from sight as her body slowly curled in on itself, collapsing weakly to the ground. Overhead the moon dipped towards the horizon and the stars wheeled slowly. Carmine's tears must have stopped at some point, leaving nothing but an empty shell of a being in this desolate place.

As the sun rose over the horizon she got to her feet, not bothering to shake the dust from her bloody gown as she staggered away. Something chimed against her foot, flashing gold as it skipped away. For a moment she hesitated, as though debating whether to simply walk on, but eventually she moved towards where the plain band rested, winking innocently in the light. She bent over, stiff and sore, to retrieve it from the dust, clutching it in her tightly clenched fist as though she wished she could crush it.

'It saved her, that ring,' Kaleo murmured, tugging on Ed's hand and leading him away through the streets. 'Thaqir made it for himself; something to tell the array that he was not to be taken. When she cut it from his hand he lost his anchor to this world, and she gained one.'

'She still wears it, doesn't she?' Ed asked, thinking of the gold ring that Carmine used to control her thugs. 'Something to remind her of why she is doing what she does.'

The pressure on his hand faded, and Ed frowned, realising that he was holding onto nothing but thin air. The streets had changed, morphing in that dream-like way until he stood back at the dead fountain, staring at this desolate place as if he had never moved. For the first time since he had opened his eyes here, panic clutched at him, making his chest feel tight and pained.

'Hey, where are you?' he shouted, listening to his voice echo back at him. 'Come back!'

There was no reply, and Ed swore viciously as he glared around, wondering if he should go and look for the boy. All he had seen was crowding in his mind, a plethora of images that was almost unbelievable. Questions seethed like lava, scorching his tongue with their need to be voiced. How was Carmine still alive after millennia? Had she really destroyed the gate, and if so would the same disasters that tore Babylon apart start affecting Amestris again? Why had the boy shown him all this? What was the point?

A fluttering shadow danced across the ground, and Ed looked up, staring at the sapphire butterfly that danced towards him. Its erratic path took it to a flower where it perched, wings spread, as around it the straggly plants grew more lush. A choked gurgle, dry and rasping, emanated from the fountain, and Ed turned to watch as cool water, crystal clear, spilled from its lip into the bowl beneath. The arrays on the floor were still cracked and useless, but water flowed. Life was returning in the face of all the odds.

'What's happening?' he asked, for the first time really feeling the chill in his skin. It ate at his bones with sharp, gnawing teeth, and he began to shiver fitfully, wrapping his arms around himself in a futile effort to find some warmth.

Kaleo’s voice was a soft whisper in Ed’s mind, no longer separate from him. 'You've made your choice.'


Cold. It was the sensation that overrode everything else. His whole body was twisted with it, as if he’d been dropped in ice water and left there. Heavy blankets were on top of him, their fabric warm and dense, but they did not stop the violent shivers that shook his breath from his lungs.

Something was moving gently up and down his back, and he dimly realised that there was a large source of heat next to him. Instinctively he shuffled closer, ignoring the grunt of surprise as he buried his nose in the curve of someone’s neck and pressed himself against their bare chest.

‘Ed, are you awake?’ Roy’s voice was little more than a whisper, and the hand stroking his back paused as he managed a very hoarse grunt of response. ‘Say something?’ he suggested, and even though Ed’s brain was sluggish he did not miss the faint edge of panic to Roy’s words.

‘I’m freezing,’ he growled through gritted teeth, wincing at the rough soreness in his throat and the lingering taste of blood.

‘You were hypothermic,’ Roy said quietly as he resumed the soft, gentle strokes, spreading little flickers of heat wherever he touched. ‘Something in the alchemy you did drained everything away. It almost killed you.’

It did kill you.

Ed groaned at the whispered words in his mind and shuffled deeper under the blankets, torn between pressing himself as close as possible to the body next to him and curling himself up into a ball. Eventually he settled for the former, letting his eyes drift shut again as Roy’s heartbeat thumped steadily beneath his palm.

His brain felt stupid and confused. Every thought was sluggish and lazy, with no sense of urgency at all. Memories moved through his mind like shattered ice, fragments that never seemed to form the whole picture. He tried to grasp at something from the mess, something important, but it evaded the clutches of his foggy concentration. Worry was a faint thing, a tickling touch that he could not bring himself to care about. The only thing of importance was Roy next to him, slowly tempting life back to his numb flesh.

Gradually, the chill began to seep away, loosening its hold on his bones. Muscles twisted with cramp as more blood left his core and flowed back to his limbs. The shivers accelerated and then abated entirely, doing their part to raise his temperature back towards normal. He still felt chilled, but the numbness had receded to leave the sharp sting of an abused body and a dull, hollow ache in his chest.

Slow, frosty thoughts gathered speed, coming together piece by piece. A fraction of memory kicked into life and Ed stiffly propped himself up on his elbows, looking blearily at Roy’s tired face. Stubble shadowed his jaw, and his eyes were bloodshot, half-closed with exhaustion. Ignoring the crawl of gooseflesh across his bare chest Ed glared down at the older man. ‘You all right?’ he croaked, frowning when Roy reached out and tugged him back down to the mattress.

‘Just tired and bruised.’ He twitched the blankets back up over their shoulders before brushing Ed’s hair from his face. It was a gentle caress; more one of a lover than a friend, and for a moment Ed let himself relax into that brief touch.

Feather light, Roy’s fingertips trailed across the ridge of the array, and Ed felt him tense as though he knew what was coming. A miniscule jolt of power flashed through Ed’s body, finitely controlled but still wild and dangerous. It was like pure heat, and the familiar, passionate flame of Roy’s alchemy sang along every nerve.

Ed jerked away, scowling fiercely as he realised what had been happening. ‘Stop it!’ he snarled, shuffling away as he saw the truth behind Mustang’s exhaustion. ‘How many times have you done that?’

Roy did not answer, swallowing painfully as he relaxed back into the pillow, too drained to even hold up his head. ‘You were controlling it, or something was. It doesn’t take more than it needs anymore.’

‘What it needs looks like more than you can fucking spare!’ Ed’s shout was almost mute, a cracked whisper from his abused throat when it should have been a yell. He was shaking again, but it wasn’t from the cold. His mind was absorbed with the horror of what could have happened - of how much he could have lost without even knowing it.

‘I had to.’ The words were quiet and fierce, half-spat. ‘You killed yourself, Edward, with that fucking alchemy. Whether Carmine had lashed out or not you would have still ended up dead, wouldn’t you?’

Silence stretched between them, long and uncomfortable. Ed’s mind had gone blank, too shocked to register the fact that Roy had cursed. The hurt in his words was stark and naked, bare for anyone to see. He was too exhausted for guile or manipulation. Stripped of everything but the painful truth, it was easy to see his confusion, and Ed felt almost embarrassed by the frank honesty in his glare.

Roy shut his eyes, hunching his shoulders in weary defeat as he drew his knees up towards his chest and muttered, ‘Forget it.’ His dark brows were drawn into a frown and anger pinched his face. Ed could see his jaw working, as though he had so much more he wanted to say but was holding it all back.

In the grate one of the logs crumbled, sending a belch of sparks up the chimney. The hungry crackle of the fire only served to define the peace, barely interrupted by their harsh, irregular breathing. Neither of them slept. Even though Roy’s eyes were shut tight against the world he was still awake, his body tense and distrustful.

The space between them felt immense, even though Ed knew he could reach out and brush Roy’s arm with his fingertips. It was not a physical distance but an emotional one, and Ed gritted his teeth against the urge to shift closer. His automail fist clenched, his fingers tangling in the pillowcase uselessly as he tried to think of something to say that wasn’t an apology.

‘It wasn’t like that,’ he muttered, picking absently at the blankets. Roy looked up. Ed heard him move his head, but he couldn’t bring himself to look into his face. ‘I didn’t think-’ He stumbled over his words as he tried to explain what had gone through his head. ‘I didn’t know that the alchemy would kill me. I just knew it wouldn’t kill anyone else.’

He had Roy’s full attention now. He could feel the cautious, judging weight of his gaze. Did he really think that Ed was so untrustworthy? Did he think he would lie about something like that? Ed felt a surge of anger and clenched his teeth against it, dragging his eyes up to look into Roy’s face.

Mustang stayed quiet, waiting for him to explain, and Ed found himself talking just to fill up the dead weight of the silence.

‘It’s hard not to be like her – like Carmine. When we got downstairs I walked away from you because I had to. I was so fucking tired, and all I could feel was you and Sal and the others.’ He swallowed uncomfortably, looking away from Roy so he wouldn’t have to see the disgust he knew would find its way onto his face. ‘Human energy is the strongest and the easiest to use. I think that’s why, before, I was draining people without even realising it. Maybe I didn’t kill anyone, but you were right, it makes me just as bad as Carmine. When she turned up here and I had nothing to fight with… .’

Ed trailed off, the memories of that sudden need making him feel sick. In that desperate second every life around him had been like a beacon, a flare of energy there for the taking. It was as if his body had been parched for that power, and he had come so very close to just reaching out and taking it.

But it would have killed them. Just like Carmine, he could have drawn out every last grain of life they had until there was nothing left; until they were just bodies, soulless and unresponsive on the ground. In all his time as an alchemist he had never thought of people as something to be used until that moment.

A hand touched his: a gentle tap to bring him back to the present. Without thinking he looked up into Roy’s face, and felt a faint thrill of relief when he saw nothing other than curiosity and concern. ‘What did you use instead?’ It was a cautious question, as though Roy didn’t want to frighten him back into silence.

‘The air, the ground, wherever else I could get it from.’

‘It went cold,’ Roy said, realisation dawning on his face. ‘You used the heat in the air.’

‘Better than killing people, but it’s harder,’ Ed muttered. ‘If you drain someone of energy and they die then they have no use for it. You don’t have to give it back later. Air doesn’t die, and neither does the earth. Whatever you take and use you have to return.’

He remembered the hollow, draining feeling before Carmine’s attack had hit him. Cool air had warmed while he had turned to ice at his core. ‘I took more than I was meant to – more than I could repay.’ He sighed, burying his nose in the blankets again so that his next words were muffled. ‘Just because the gate’s gone doesn’t mean I can ignore equivalent exchange.’

‘But she can. Carmine doesn’t seem to pay anything for the alchemy she uses,’ Roy pointed out, rubbing a hand over his face as he tried to get his head around what Ed was saying. ‘I don’t understand.’

Ed groaned quietly, wishing that his mind were sharper. In that moment of decision the theory had made perfect sense, but now it had returned to a tangled puzzle that he couldn’t understand. He was used to alchemy being a skill, something he could understand and control. Now it was this strange, ethereal thing, more about hope than ability.

‘The energy for alchemy used to come from the gate, but before it was built it was still possible. Now the gate’s gone everything’s working differently. You can use your own energy if you’ve got enough, or take it from somewhere else in the world of Amestris.’ He scowled unseeingly at the sheets, picking his way slowly through the tangle of ideas in his head. ‘Carmine kills people, taking everything they have until there’s nothing left. Because she’s human, because she’s compatible with the power she’s trying to use, then it’s easier to do. She kills the rightful owner of that energy and it doesn’t try and flow back to them. There’s nowhere for it to go but her.’ Ed closed his eyes again, knowing that his scrambled words made no sense.

‘If she didn’t kill, if she just took little bits of energy from people then she’d still have to pay it back, right?’ Roy asked hesitantly, like a student trying to understand a complex concept.

Ed nodded, closing his eyes as he let his tired mind drift. ‘Human energy isn’t something generic, like heat. Everyone’s is unique. If you just take part of it then it tries to flow back to them. If you use it then you owe it. That’s what was happening at the station, when everyone was feeling awake and then exhausted. It was me taking some of their energy and then it flowing back. I couldn’t do that here. There wasn’t enough. If I’d taken what I needed there would only be me and Carmine left now.’

Roy touched his chin, tipping Ed’s head back so he could look into his eyes. He hesitated, as if he was unsure of just how much he could ask. ‘The other day when I asked if something had found a place for itself in you the same way that something has in Carmine, you wouldn’t give me an answer. Can you tell me now?’ His thumb stroked softly along Ed’s jaw, hovering over the steady hammer of his pulse as if reassured by its rhythm.

It wasn’t an order or demand, and Ed hesitated, faced once again by simple, unadorned honesty. Roy was not trying to trick him or manipulate him. There was no raised shield of indifference or mask of apathy, and he faltered, suddenly less certain if he was doing the right thing.

His instinct was still to evade the question - to keep something away from this man who was steadily tearing down every one of his defences. Once he had loathed the arrogant soldier who stood behind that vast expanse of desk and kept pushing him to go further and try harder, but now?

Hate had nothing to do with it anymore.

Finally, Ed made up his mind, licking dry lips before he spoke. ‘When the gate fell apart most of what was inside was just shadows. It took Carmine, made her into something less than human and more like itself. All that was left after that was a fraction of light. One more life would have given her the power to kill it completely, but it hid in me at the last minute and pushed me back into Amestris.’

Roy closed his eyes for a moment, nodding as if things were slowly beginning to make sense. The blankets shifted, whispering soft secrets as he moved. A thoughtful frown curved his brow, and Ed knew that a thought he would rather ignore had just occurred to him. ‘You barely used any alchemy the day the station exploded. What were you using the energy for back then?’

A denial was ready on Ed’s tongue. He had used alchemy; he must have done! He wouldn’t take energy from people unless he needed it, but the sluggish mire of his memory stirred. They had been clearing rubble with shovels and brute force. Alchemy had not had a place amidst the ruins, but he’d still unconsciously been taking whatever he could find.

‘I don’t know,’ Ed replied, lifting his shoulders in a useless shrug. ‘I didn’t even realise I was doing it until you told me.’

Roy stretched out an arm, eyes lidded as he struggled to stay awake. Ed felt the anger begin to rise again as he watched the man force himself to ignore his needs. Roy had given him too much, and it didn’t matter that the energy would ebb back to him eventually. Right now he needed to sleep, and instead he was forcing himself to ask questions. Did he think he’d never get this opportunity again?

‘It’s not something benign, is it?’ Roy mumbled, almost too tired to speak properly. ‘If what you’re carrying is the other half of what’s taken over Carmine then it’s got a power of its own. It needs energy just as much as you do.’ He smothered a yawn, swiftly losing the battle of mind over matter as exhaustion pulled at him.

‘Go to sleep, bastard,’ Ed murmured softly, ‘before you get ill.’ He expected an argument or another litany of questions, and he felt a trickle of unease as all he got was peaceful obedience.

Roy shifted closer and nestled under the covers, the tension in his body fading away. His hand skimmed gently down Ed’s arm and settled at his waist, cupping his hip possessively over his leather trousers and pulling him nearer.

Ed’s pulse skipped as a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill swept through him. Roy’s thumb was sleepily tracing along his waistband, and Ed wondered if he even realised what he was doing to him. There was something artless and innocent about Roy when he was like this, and Ed hesitated a moment before slipping his flesh arm around his waist and relaxing against the warm sprawl of his body.

It was just another stolen moment; he knew that even as he hated the truth of it. The morning would bring reality with its light, and once again he’d be held at arm’s length - too much of a risk to take. He closed his eyes tight, burying his face in Roy’s neck and trying to silence the thoughts that swirled like snowflakes in his mind, shaken up by Roy’s touch. The questions could wait until tomorrow, until his mind was clear and alert again.

For now he had this moment and, even as he tried to tell himself that the present was all he needed, he knew that it would never be enough. He wanted a future, and that was one thing he didn’t have.

Chapter Text

Grey light crept through a gap in the drapes, tracing thin veins of silver across the floor. In the hearth the fire had died to a sullen glow, giving out only the meekest traces of heat. Dawn was blossoming on the horizon, and the frail day was beginning to fill the room, spreading its touch across the bed.

Ed groaned at the intrusion, screwing his eyes up tight and nestling against the warm body next to him. He felt safe in the soft cradle of the mattress. For the first time that he could remember, he was comfortably at peace, and he did not want to do anything to break it. The new day would rob him and press him back into a reality where every hour brought more questions and doubts. Thoughts about Carmine and Babylon, alchemy and energy all tangled in his mind like dingy cobwebs, and, try as he might, he could not cling to the darkness. Gradually slumber melted away, and his body began to voice a litany of need.

Bruises ached and twinged as his muscles whined, cramped with weariness. His stomach grumbled, and his throat felt tight and parched. At least the lingering ache of the chill had vanished, ebbing away like the wash of an ocean tide. His blood was still hot with the faint tingle of energy, and Ed felt a fresh flash of anger at what he had sacrificed. It could so easily have gone too far and taken all he had to offer. One healthy life for what? A few more days or weeks? That was not equivalent exchange.

Lifting his head, he looked at Roy, scrutinising his features carefully for any sign of illness or fatigue. His face, always pale, had lost the grey tinge of exhaustion. Now his cheeks were flushed with warmth beneath the black fan of his lashes. At some point he had thrown his leg over Ed’s, pinning him neatly in place and keeping him close. Their bare chests were pressed together, and Ed could feel the slow, steady thud of Roy’s heart against his ribs, pulsing a rhythm in sleepy harmony to his own as they breathed in unison.

He should have felt vulnerable or embarrassed, like an intruder, but instead it felt as if he belonged: as though the curve of Roy's body had been made for him and him alone. His awareness of the man next to him was growing. Tired nerves awakened, tingling as his heart began to beat faster.

A sigh escaped him, and he frowned into the pillow. There were people in the world that would view this attraction as wrong – as one of the deepest, darkest kinds of sin. They would claim he was ill or unbalanced, traumatised by his youth to the point where he could no longer function normally.

He knew that they were fucking bigots, too narrow-minded to accept that people could vary from their pre-fabricated idea of normality. Back then, sixteen, confused and horny as hell, he had felt like even more of a freak. Now? Now he did not give a shit what they thought of him. It was none of their business who he took to bed, and it never would be.

Silently he gritted his teeth, feeling irritation grow into anger. The thing that pissed him off the most was that, if they knew, people would blame Roy for perverting his innocence. They would leer and whisper behind their hands. The rumours would be unstoppable as people questioned when it had begun. Had Ed been sixteen, fourteen – had that been the whole reason Roy had taken him on in the first place?

He could take it. Whatever they said, or implied or suggested, he could take it. Yeah, maybe he would want to hurt them, want to open their minds with a fist if necessary, but the risk was worth it. Except that it was not just him the rumours would be about, and Roy had so much more to lose.

Was that why Roy always found a way to take a step back, to listen to logic and reason even if his body was screaming for release? Ed bit his lip, tipping his head down until his forehead rested on Roy's shoulder. Who was Roy protecting when he retreated and laughed it off as just some kind of game: himself, his ambitions, or the young man still under his command?

The last vestiges of peaceful sleep fading away. Ed knew the answer. There was more to all this than just living in the moment. For him there were probably a couple more weeks - hardly any time for consequences. For Roy there was the rest of his life, and Ed knew that, even years down the line, someone might dig up the past and use it against him. One quick fling with a subordinate and all of Roy's ambitions could be snatched away.

How could he expect Roy to risk that for one small moment? How could he ever think that he would be worth such a price to anyone? How could he be so fucking selfish? Ed swallowed back the tight feeling in his throat, wishing he could find what it took to pull away, to get out of bed and protect Roy from making what could end up being a huge mistake, but he could not move. His body hurt at the thought of leaving this warm, safe place at Roy's side.

Just a touch, he promised himself. Just one more minute and then he would go.

Cautiously, half-expecting a flinch of discomfort at the chill of his automail, he splayed both palms across Roy's torso, brushing against the smooth flesh. It was odd to think that he had known him for so long – wanted him for years, but Ed had never touched him as fully as this.

Idly, he trailed his fingertips over the older man's chest, feeling the hard muscles beneath his skin. It was like an array he had never seen and had to learn by touch, following the lines of Roy's design: a blind man seeing the light. Downwards, inch by inch, and over the curve of Roy's hip before stroking a thumb across his lower back, splaying his hand to drink in the sensation of warm skin. Sleep lax muscles tightened as Roy gave a quiet growl of pleasure and arched his spine, pressing himself closer until there was no space left between them.

Ed groaned, closing his eyes and biting his lip to hold back the sound as the cradle of Roy's hips rubbed against his. God, he was weak: too weak to resist this when they were so close.

Nervously, he licked his lips, feeling the sparks of heat in his belly pool and spread and grow. He was already painfully hard, his body throbbing as his need overtook everything else. With a shaky breath, Ed nuzzled into the curve of Roy's neck, pressing open-mouthed kisses to his skin as he trailed downward, his tongue darting out to taste as Roy's breathing stuttered, becoming quicker and less even.

He had to stop; Ed knew that. He told himself over and over again to just move, but he was a prisoner to his need. His hands shifted on their own, touching and charting their way down Roy's body, drawn south like metal to a magnet. As lightly as he could, Ed traced the line of the uniform waistband back around to the front, feeling goose-bumps rise under his touch. He did not need his hands to tell that Roy was just as aroused as he was. He was pressed, hot and hard, against Ed's thigh, and Ed ran one finger up the fabric-covered length. He hesitated, breathless and flushed. Just a touch – just one. He had to know what it felt like and then he would pull away.

Slowly, guiltily, he undid Roy's fly, dipping beneath the cloth and stroking over the warm, naked tip of his erection.

Roy stirred, his hand skimming up Ed's bare side as his eyes fluttered open. His breathing hitched, catching in his chest as Ed gently moved his hand up and down Roy's length, feeling every inch of smooth, hard skin as it pulsed in his palm.

The touch of Roy's fingers lit fires as they went, blazing a trail up his arm and shoulder, whispering up the exposed column of his neck to cup his chin before warm lips claimed his own. Slow and tender, the kiss fed the heat, carving life down to this one moment where nothing else could matter. Tilting his head to the side, he tempted Roy in deeper, tracing the line of his lips with his tongue as the dark-haired man groaned and shifted, pressing his body against Ed's from shoulder to hip, moving in a drugging rhythm that Ed's body matched instinctively

They both tried to touch each other everywhere at once, shaking and desperate as the kiss deepened further becoming something untamed. The coarse sound of a zip being undone rattled in Ed's ears as warm fingertips stroked underneath his trousers, wriggling for more space in the tight confines before curving around him.

Wildly he tore his lips away, panting unintelligible words as he writhed, unable to think or move or do anything except desperately try not to fall apart. Ed could feel the flutter of Roy's breath as he buried his face in his neck, kissing and licking the tender skin as he moved his hand back and forth, making Ed choke on air that suddenly felt too hot to breathe.

He pulled away, trying not to whimper at the sudden loss of Roy's hand on him, but he could not keep the distance. In a split second he had bent his head, greedily trailing wet, eager kisses down his chest and stomach, frantic for the taste of him. Stroking his palms down Roy's sides to hold his hips, he nudged the blue trousers lower, freeing him completely from their confines.

Hands caught in his hair, not quite pulling but holding him still, stopping him from bending to take that length in his mouth. A growl at the deprivation caught in his throat, ghosting his breath over Roy's erection, which twitched in longing response.

'Ed -' Roy's voice was low and rough, pleading for one thing and begging for another in one syllable. Ed could see the sinews in his arms pulled tight, fighting against the urge to push him down.

'Tell me to stop.' Ed husked, licking his dry lips and closing his eyes against a fresh tide of need as Roy groaned in response, his hips arching even as he tried to hold himself firmly away from Ed's mouth.

The loaded silence stretched between them, tortuously tight. Roy was shaking now, his splayed fingers locked as he fought between logic and need. Ed couldn't speak again; if he did then he would beg for Roy to let him do this, let him taste and have and take. He was selfish, yes, and he knew it, but he could not stop himself. Not when everything he wanted was right in front of him.

'Ed -' Roy's voice was almost a sob, choked and hoarse in his throat. 'Ed – I -'

A knock on the door made them both jump, shattering apart the world where only the two of them existed. Reality washed back in an icy tide, and Ed closed his eyes in disbelief, still so full of want and need that it was painful.

'Brigadier-General Mustang?' Sally's voice was soft through the blank screen of the door, obviously not wanting to break apart the dawn-light peace that had Rider's in its grasp. 'Your men have arrived. I think they were too worried to wait any longer. It certainly looks like they've spent a sleepless night.' A trace of amusement found itself into the older woman's voice. 'There's plenty of hot water if you need a shower, and I can keep them from barging upstairs for a few more minutes.'

Roy cleared his throat, slowly untangling his fingers from Ed's hair as he spoke. 'Thanks, Sally. Could you tell them I'll be there in ten minutes?'

'Of course.'

Her footsteps moved away down the corridor as Ed slowly sat back on his heels, doing up his fly before running his hands through dishevelled hair. He shifted his head, almost too embarrassed to meet Roy's gaze as the older man pulled himself shakily to his feet and rearranged his clothing.

'Ed, look at me?' Roy's gaze was still dark and hot, and Ed felt his whole body shiver in another mute whine of desire. He clenched his jaw, determined not to let it show on his face as Roy stumbled for something to say. Twice the man went to speak, but held it back, as though he could not find the right words to express that tangled knot of all they wanted and knew they could not have. Besides, their actions had spoken for them. Neither had pulled back. They'd both let themselves be swept away to a place where the consequences were meaningless.

Agitated Ed got up from the bed, searching around for his t-shirt and jacket. The blood-stained garments had been removed, and he found himself crossing his arms over his bare chest self-consciously before he turned around and met Roy's gaze head on. 'Would you have told me to stop?' he asked, unsure why it mattered so much to him.

Roy looked away, reaching out to pick up his shirt. It hung limp from his hand as he slowly shook his head. 'No.' Slowly he moved closer, reaching out to brush a piece of Ed's hair back behind his ear. 'I couldn't. I should have, but -' The unfinished sentence hung between them, heavy in the air that was laden with tension. Roy's thumb moved to trace over Ed's bottom lip, making the swollen flesh tingle. Finally his shoulders slumped, defeated, and his hand fell away as he stepped back.

When he spoke again it was the old Roy: the one in command of all his emotions and everything around him. 'I need to get downstairs. It took me ages to convince Hughes and Al not to come charging over last night.' He moved towards the door, and Ed knew he was trying to draw a line, to force some kind of demarcation between in here and out there where the real world was still waiting for them. 'And Ed?' His voice softened. 'Promise me you'll check in with the doctor here? I need to know you're going to be all right.' With that he was gone, probably heading for one of the many bathrooms Rider's had to offer.

It was as if the last soft folds of the fantasy had vanished, replaced with all the sharp edges of Ed’s life. He stood there, feeling lost and horribly vulnerable. The aches of his bruised body crept back in, dragging at his automail and making him feel twice his age. It was tempting to climb back into bed and try and reclaim those moments of peace, but he had a creeping feeling that it would not make any difference. It was not the warmth of the blankets and softness of the pillows that had swept all his concerns away.

Tearing his eyes away from the bed, Ed straightened his shoulders and marched towards the door, not bothering to close it behind him as he paced out into the corridor. He needed a shower and a shave. No doubt Al would be with Hughes and the others, and he could not face his brother like this: still half-aroused and aching in so many ways. There would be enough questions as it was, and he needed to find the strength to face them.

Guilt fluttered in his heart as he thought of his brother. It should have been the first thing he thought of when he had regained conciousness, but Roy had pushed everything from his mind. Briefly, Ed considered skipping the shower to reassure Al, but he dismissed the idea. The spicy scent of Roy clung to his skin and hair, mixing with the fainter, metallic tang of alchemy. He probably looked a complete wreck, and Al needed reassurance, not something else to worry about.

The corridors of Rider's were quiet and deserted at this time of day, filled with an austere, wealthy peace. Thick rugs muffled his footsteps as he walked past closed doors and windows covered by heavy drapes. He had been here several times, but he still had to wander aimlessly down several corridors before he found one of the bathrooms, all gleaming marble and gilt metalwork. Water cascaded from the shower when he flicked the taps, and he locked the door before stripping out of his torn trousers and stepping under the spray.

Tipping his head back, he untangled his braid and let the water splash over his face and into his mouth, surrounding him in heat and steam. Between his legs the heavy throb of his erection twitched for his attention, a solid weight against his stomach, and he barely hesitated before leaning back against the tiles.

He wrapped his left hand around the tender flesh and began to stroke, gritting his teeth against the pleasure that was almost painful. It was too easy to imagine Roy's larger palm there, teasing with a sure touch. They had been so very close to giving in. If it hadn't been for Sal... .

Ed's back arched at the thought, his gasp loud in the tiled bathroom as he quickened his rhythm, imagining Roy on him – in him, filling him with long, controlled strokes that would become faster and more ragged as they both lost control. He panted hard as the heat in him grew, flaring along every nerve as he came with a muffled groan, hips twitching as the too-brief moment of ecstasy ebbed away.

The ache of need faded, but it was still an ember, ready to be rekindled with just a touch. Turning around Ed cleaned himself off, still feeling far from satisfied. His legs were shaking, made weak-kneed by his release, and he leaned forward to press his forehead to the cold, clean tiles.

Suddenly he choked, pain stabbing into his chest as the steamy air clogged in his throat, unbreathable. For a few thundering heartbeats he couldn't even cough. Blood filled his mouth in a sharp flood as ice-cold fear swept every other emotion aside. His left hand slid on the slick tiles, and spots danced in front of his eyes as his lungs finally heaved, dragging in enough oxygen.

Miserably he spat, watching the crimson smatter his skin and swirl away down the drain. For a few days there had been no hacking coughs, no fight to breathe, no sudden, rattling moment where there wasn't enough air for his body to cope. Now it was worse and, for the first time, he felt that he could believe the doctor's dire prediction. After all he had been through and all that he had survived, this could be what killed him.

Before he had been able to control it, to push it aside and ignore it, but now it was beyond that. It was a predator waiting to pounce. Would everything just give up one day? Would he be carrying on one second and gone the next, killed because his heart finally gave up, or his lungs were just too shredded to take one more breath?

Hastily, he took a mouth of water, swilling away the copper tang that coated his tongue and spitting it out, wishing it was as easy to get rid of the creeping fear. Giving into that was the last straw, and he knew it. Perhaps he could not deny what was happening any more, but that did not mean he could just give up.

Grabbing the shampoo he lathered his hair, rinsing the suds away and soaping his body as his mind went in circles. With a frustrated sigh he stepped out of the shower and slung a towel around his waist. A large mirror was covered in a thick coating of steam, turning his reflection hazy. Wiping away the condensation he pulled a face at the dark shadows under his eyes. It looked like he had not slept properly in days, which, he realised, was about right. With a faint frown he grabbed a spare razor and some foam that someone had left out. He could go a few days without shaving, but if he left it too long then even he could not deny how much he looked like his father. That, at least, was something he could prevent.

He tried to ignore the tortuous rattle of his breathing as he worked, but every few seconds his breath caught and a cough hitched in his throat. The only colour in his face was the dazzling gold of his eyes and two flags of red on his cheekbones. Even his hair had been turned heavy bronze by the water, and with an irritated sigh he put the razor aside and clapped his hands together to dry it.

Stop!

Ed slumped to his knees, shutting his eyes tight as he clutched at the sink, white-knuckled and trembling. When he dared a peek through his lashes the room was spinning drunkenly, and he barely managed to stagger to the toilet before he retched. There was nothing but bloody saliva, and his stomach contracted painfully as the dry heaves continued.

He was not sure how long he stayed there, but the water had evaporated from his skin when he finally managed to open his eyes and lift his pounding head. His hair, dry at least, stuck to his sweaty forehead as the room steadied and fell still. Had the previous night really taken that much out of him? There had been times when his alchemy had been painful to use, but that was if the array was complex. This – this should have been simple! It was just a change of state!

Ed staggered upright, grimacing as he tried to pull himself together. Roy had said that he had almost died, that he had been hypothermic, and Ed knew that it was because he had used more energy than he could repay. He just had not realised how close to the brink he had been.

'What's going on?' Ed asked the empty bathroom, his voice cracked and sore. All around him the tiles shone, blank and uninformative. The silence stretched on, punctuated only by the awful rasp of his own breathing. Questions clamoured in his mind, blotting out everything with thick clouds of confusion. 'What's happening to me?'

Not enough energy. Kaleo's voice was a weary whisper in his mind, and he was reminded of the young king, a bleeding, broken doll on the dais. He may have been thousands of years older than Ed would ever become, but he was still just a child, and the pain and fear in those words was heartbreaking.

'Not enough for alchemy?' Ed asked through stiff lips, slumping against the sink, palms pressed against porcelain as he tried to understand.

There was a moment of hesitation. The tight silence unwound, filling his brain with its emptiness. Distantly, he was aware of the drip of the tap and the brush of the air against his skin, but forcefully he focused on the image of Kaleo's face, intent on summoning the voice back. Briefly, the air was perfumed with jasmine, beautifully sweet, and the words finally reached him.

Not enough to live.

A flash of light in the mirror caught his eye, and Ed stared as the array on his torso was picked out in a weak glow. Across his chest shadows appeared, dark clots of nothing over his lungs that crept up on his heart, rippling over his ribs and swelling with every breath. They surrounded the glimmering array on all sides, an ocean around a candle flame, poised to snuff it out.

Ed raised his hand, pressing numb fingers to the point of heat that fluttered, a caged bird under his skin. Like a pet it flared at his touch, too weak for anything but some strange recognition. He almost asked who Kaleo meant: Who was dying, him or the light? In the end it did not matter. Their existences were interlinked, relying wholly on one another for support. Whichever one of them died first, Ed had no doubt that the other would follow not long after.

Carmine had said that, without the light from the gate, he would have been gone by now. At the time he had not believed her. It was just another lie, another little mind game. Now he was not so sure. After he had brought Hughes back the cough had lessened, fading away as the strength of his alchemy and the light inside his grew and changed. Now, drained of almost everything, his symptoms were worse and the glow was almost gone.

Roy had asked why Ed had been using people's energy at the station when he had not been performing any alchemy. What if all that power had been going into keeping him alive?

It made a chilling kind of sense that the entity from the gate would expend energy on shoring up its weak, mortal host. Perhaps it had not cured him, but if it had been stopping the progression of whatever ate at his lungs then Carmine was right. He looked down at his own hands, staring unseeingly at cool steel and warm flesh. Whatever happened he had to find a source of energy before it was too late. Roy's trickle of power was already fading. He could feel it draining away like a fire dying out. When that was gone what would he have left?

Snatching up his leather trousers he pulled them on, ignoring their tattered appearance as they slid snugly over his hips. He'd find the rest of his clothes and then get something to eat. It didn't matter if the thought of food turned his stomach. This wasn't about alchemical power any more. It was about finding enough strength to keep himself going – to keep his heart beating and the light alive for as long as possible. It was about pushing the shadows back and buying himself a little more time.

A knock on the door made him look up, and he opened it to reveal Al standing pale-faced on the threshold. His darker hair was tousled into unruly spikes that stuck up all over the place, and his clothes were rumpled, as if he had caught a few hours of sleep in them when he could. Clutched and crumpled in his right hand was a clean, blue vest.

'I saw what was left of your other one and borrowed this off of one of Sally's boys. He said you could keep it.' Al murmured, holding it out. His grey eyes were intent on Ed's face, picking up all the little signs of stress and strain. Ed shrank back under his brother's scrutiny, taking the t-shirt and pulling it over his head so that he would not have to see the worry in Al's eyes. 'What happened? All the Brigadier-General would say is that you had followed a lead and found Carmine. He – he said it almost killed you.'

It was instinct that made him want to lie and brush Al off with a smile. For the first time in his life, he could understand why his mother had never told them the truth. He remembered her soft excuses and gentle reassurances. In the end they had been futile, and Ed had found himself almost hating her for those little lies. Now he could see that she had been protecting them.

Except Al was not a little kid any more, and the stubborn set of his jaw told Ed that he was not going to be satisfied with anything less than the truth. With a quick shake of his head he stepped around Al, motioning for his brother to follow him as he began to speak. 'Carmine attacked one of Sally's boys, Tom. He died yesterday because of what she did. We needed to know for sure that it was her - that we weren't running around Central chasing shadows. I took on Tom's pain just before he died. It gave him enough time to explain what had happened and tell us what we needed to know.'

'Using your alchemy?' Al asked quietly, trotting down the stairs at his brother's side, the crystal shards from the chandelier crunching under his feet. 'What were you thinking? How could you even know it would work?'

'The same way I know that the multi-circle arrays work. I just – do.' He waved his hand irritably, hating the foggy explanation as much as Al did. 'The knowledge is just there. ' Ed gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the faint sting of his pride as he was forced to admit, 'But it was harder than I thought it would be.' He shook his head, knowing that he deserved whatever scolding Al had in store. It had been a stupid thing to do, but at the time Tom had held the answers that they needed, and he had almost carried them to the grave. 'It exhausted me completely, and then Carmine showed up.'

Roy and Hughes stood in the hallway, deep in conversation. Roy was back in his uniform, looking as distant and unobtainable as ever. His jaw was clenched in anger as he spoke to Maes, as if he could not believe what he was being told, and Ed let his eyes linger on him for a second. Hawkeye and Havoc stood a short distance away, looking around with uneasy curiosity at the devastation. It was a war-zone in the most unlikely of places, and Ed barely spared the mess a glance before he turned away.

'Is there anything going on I should know about?' he asked quietly, ducking down the hallway towards the kitchen.

'Twelve bodies turned up this morning, none of them far from here.' Al's expressive face was twisted into a sad frown. 'Some of them were children and old people. They couldn't have defended themselves. None of them had a single mark on them. It was as if they had just -' He shrugged. '-died.'

Ed paused in the kitchen doorway, feeling sick as sticky guilt worked its way through him. If he had tried harder, if he had pushed a little further he would have been able to break the shadow's control over Carmine. Instead he had just forced her to drain her strength. It seemed pretty clear that, as soon as he had collapsed she had fled, her mind bent on restoring some of her power. Twelve people would not give her the same level of strength as the station massacre, but it would be enough to finish him and Kaleo off for good if she returned.

'Something happened, didn't it?' Al said quietly, breaking into his thoughts. 'When you ended up at the gate and brought Hughes back, something happened to you.' He must have seen the surprise on Ed's face because he shrugged. 'You're my brother. Do you really think I wouldn't notice that you're being weird? I mean - more weird than normal?'

Ed pulled a face, relieved to see a grin flicker on Al's face. There had been little enough to smile at over the past few days, and he hated being the cause of his younger brother's distress. With a muted sigh of relief, he sat his weary body in one of the chairs and gradually explained about the gate and the two halves that had chosen hosts in him and Carmine.

As he spoke Al grabbed a frying pan, listening intently as he fried eggs and bacon. Every time he glanced at Ed his expression was intense, and he knew that Al's sharp mind was coming up with the same questions that plagued him.

'So she had a head start?' he asked when Ed paused. 'If what she said was true and she's been strengthening the shadows for centuries then it sounds like the bit of the gate in her is a lot stronger than the fragment in you, right?'

Ed nodded hesitantly, realising his brother had a point. The darkness in the gate had been powerful enough to overwhelm Carmine, whereas the glimmer of light had only had the strength to hide. 'There's not a lot left of the woman she was. Last night I thought I could drown out that bit of the gate and push it out of her.' He remembered the flood of colour to her face, and the scream of rage that had come from nowhere and everywhere at once. 'I almost succeeded, but in the end it was stronger than me, and I'd used too much. If it wasn't for Roy -'

He trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. He still struggled to admit to himself how close to death he had been. To admit it to Al was impossible. Besides, from the look on his little brother's face he did not need to say a word. He already knew, and his broad shoulders slumped. Al did not say anything as he filled a plate with bacon and eggs, handing it to his brother and watching him eat.

'And now you're barely strong enough to walk,' he murmured, slumping into a chair. 'If you try to use alchemy...'

'I already did without thinking. I went to dry my hair and nearly passed out,' Ed confessed quietly, spearing some egg on his fork with a scowl. It sounded ridiculous. After all he and Al had done, after all the miracles they had somehow managed to pull, he had been rendered incapable of even the simplest tasks. At least non-alchemists did not know what they were missing. This – this felt like losing a limb; he should know.

'You've been pushing yourself too hard!' Al said, his voice fierce. ‘Ever since the doctor told you how ill you were you’ve acted as if nothing’s changed, as if you can still carry on as normal!’

‘Would you rather I just gave up?’ Ed asked quietly, hating the hurt that shone in Al’s eyes. ‘The gate did this to me, and now it’s not even there to bargain with. As far as I can tell the part that hid in me has been the only thing that’s kept me alive this long.’

Al clenched his fists on the tabletop, refusing to meet Ed’s eyes as he spoke. ‘Only because it needs you! It’s only doing it because, without you, it would have nowhere to hide.’ He got to his feet, pacing restlessly. He looked as confused as Ed felt. Every answer gave way to a dozen more questions, and still left them stuck in exactly the same place. ‘You’re talking like you understand it, but it’s just a parasite!'

Ed finished his breakfast, tapping his fork gently on the plate as he watched his brother. Sometimes he forgot that Al had ever lost his body. It was hard to remember when that expressive, youthful face and those eyes that could hide nothing from him had been gone. Once there had just been the impassive helmet; the only clue to Al’s feelings had been in the inflection of his tinny voice. Now everything was written across his face: doubt and fear over what was happening, pain over Ed’s obviously weakened state, and the tiniest glimmer of hope that, somewhere amidst the mire of questions there was the answer to a happy ending for everyone.

‘Does it matter why it’s keeping me alive?’ Ed asked, getting up and taking his plate to the sink. ‘I don’t think it can leave or it would have moved to a stronger host days ago.’ He turned around to face Al. ‘If it keeps me going a little bit longer then we should be grateful.’

‘And when it doesn’t need you anymore?’ Al whispered, staring blindly out of the window that overlooked a sheltered cloister garden. ‘What then? Will it just vanish one day, or will it be like what’s in Carmine and take you over until there’s nothing left? Until you’re just like she is, with no mind of your own?’

He glanced back at Ed who could only shrug in response. At first the light had just wanted a place to hide – somewhere to keep it safe from the shady clutches of its counterpart. Maybe that would never change. As it was there was barely anything left of it. Perhaps, before, it had tried to build up strength, but if it was looking for another puppet then it had made a bad choice. His body was too high maintenance for it – too drained by ill health and his automail to be a reliable marionette.

Not a puppet. You are the only one who can put the pieces together. The only one who can be made to understand.

It was not Kaleo’s voice. This was something soft and ancient heard and felt with every fibre of his being. It filled his head, pressing him down with an invisible hand. Once the words were spoken it was as if they had always been there, sure, firm foundations of knowledge in his mind.

Vaguely Ed heard Al’s cry of alarm as he slumped to the floor, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes as his head exploded with pain. Chaotic images, a tangle of lines and colour, scraped in front of his vision. Air hissed between his teeth as his lungs burned, suffused with the kind of heat that he couldn’t escape.

Slowly the pictures began to take on a theme, becoming more like memories that a knot of incomprehensible knowledge. He saw the gate throwing itself together and being pulled apart, millennia passing in seconds. Babylon, dusty ruins in the heart of the desert, towered in his conciousness as jasmine filled the air. Darkness ran like tar down its streets, flowing into hollows and collecting in corners, stifling everything. Plants withered under its touch. Insects and creatures that made the sand their home died, and with every life the blackness deepened.

The city changed. Sandstone became clean, painted houses and the streets widened. Central sprawled through his mind, silent and still, already a victim to the seeping tide of night. The sun was gone, even though he knew it should be shining, and nothing moved. It was not a ghost town, but a dead metropolis. There was no life here except for the churning malignancy of the shadows, and one lone woman walking the streets, an embodiment of the darkness.

All it wants is strength. Life is irrelevant. It is a hunger without satisfaction.

As he watched the city bucked, twisting and crumbling as the earth writhed. Lightning flickered, and the stagnant river rose to burst its banks, flowing unheeded through the empty alleyways. The air was thick with the tang of power. It filled every sense with its presence, sickeningly familiar. The plane of the gate had brimmed with the same energy, filled to bursting as it channelled it from one place to another. Now there was nowhere for it to go, and is saturated Amestris, tearing at the land and sea and sky without mercy.

Something exploded in the darkness, a flash of light like a firework that did not die. It burned brighter and brighter, chasing back the shadows, spearing it apart with a dazzling shaft of brilliant white. Something changed, and where there had been nothing but storm-ravaged air there was another place, and in it was the vague shape of a portal, unreal but there all the same.

The shadows faded as the light grew. They twisted around one another in a torrid battle until there was no supremacy. One fought the other in a constant war without victory or defeat, black and white merging to form something more pure than both. Silver, rich and molten, blossomed outward, a glorious monochrome sunrise as both darkness and light vanished within its clutches. In a second it was gone, trapped behind the doors of that other place. The ravaged world fell quiet, no longer torn at by an energy it could not control.

Balance. One must be equal to the other, or all will fall. One weakens and the other grows. Something must be done.

Images vanished, snuffed out to leave nothing but a hollow, empty ringing in Ed’s head and the oppressive blanket of darkness that seemed to smother him, turning him blind and deaf to everything else. Finally a faint sensation tickled his mind: a warm, low hum of power. Something, not his body but something else intrinsically tied to him, reached out, sensing energy like a flower turning towards the sun.

The air, the ground, even the water in the river was full of the same, ancient power he had used the night before, raw and unreliable. He could feel it uncoiling like smoke along his skin. It was tempting to reach out and clutch at it, to ride the wave until it crashed down around him, but he could never pay it back. Without the gate there was no source of energy for his alchemy; there was nothing except the meagre store his body already contained, fractionally fed by the glucose and protein of his breakfast.

His mind remained dark, filled only with the steady beat of the earth and air. Eventually a light flared, and Ed felt his body thrill with fear as the familiar wash of human energy flooded over him. Al was like the sun, a burning column of power, dazzling as he knelt over Ed’s half-conscious form, calling his name desperately. Other lights were moving closer as Al called out for help. He could sense the saw-edged touch of alchemy on some, while others were distant beacons of humanity. Even beyond the walls he could sense the pull of the first commuters as they hurried through the streets.

Something lunged from him, snatching at the energy with eager, grasping hands. Ed gasped, choking on nothing as he struggled to regain conciousness, to grab some kind of control, but the lights were already dimming. He heard Al’s faint gasp as if it came from the other end of a very long tunnel, nothing more than a suggestion of a whisper as something slumped on the floor nearby.

Distantly, he heard footsteps stumble as the presence reached out to take more and more, touching every glimmering source of power within the four walls of Rider’s. In a detached way, he could feel his body twisting on the floor, trying to escape the core of heat that grew with every passing second. He tried to wake up enough to clap his hands and put as stop to this, but his mind was covered in a thick haze that dragged him down, leaving him stranded on the brink of sleep, caught up in a nightmare he could not break apart.

All around him the beacons of power dwindled away, fading to nothing more than a suggestion of a glow where, seconds ago, lives had been ablaze.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself into wakefulness, ignoring the shrill squeal of pain in his body as he clapped his hands together and pressed them to the floor. Something flickered, but his eyes were closed tight as his body shook, buffeted by the sudden rush of energy that was forcing its way into his core, feeding the light until it gleamed.

Finally it stopped, cutting off as suddenly as it had started, and Ed dared to open his eyes. Al lay not far away, deathly pale. His eyes were closed, and Ed choked back a desperate sound as he crawled towards him, reaching out blindly to feel for a pulse. He looked too much like Carmine’s victims, too still and quiet, and Ed fought back panic as he groped uselessly for some sign of life.

His breath caught in his throat and he froze, his muscles locked tight as he focussed on the steady throb of a pulse beneath his fingertips. Al’s skin was still warm and soft, and his heartbeat was weary, but there. Shakily, Ed brushed Al’s hair back from his face, checking for injuries. When he found none he pressed his hands together, intent on pushing Al’s energy back to where it belonged. The array was fixed firmly in his mind, but when he tried to activate it the lines faded away, dead and useless.

With a curse Ed scrubbed his hands over his face, staring at his brother’s unconscious form. The burning in his chest was ebbing away, leaving a painful, blistered feeling in its path, and Ed grimaced as he realised the front of his t-shirt was stained dark with blood.

Hesitantly, he lifted the fabric aside and gazed at the new array blazed on his torso. It was not much bigger than the previous one, but where there had only been one circle there were now two side by side. The circumferences touched, creating a figure of eight lying on its side. In each circle was one triad, one pointing up while the other pointed down. It did not take much to understand the simple mark representing infinity, and Ed closed his eyes in disbelief.

The ancient presence in his mind had found a way to keep the stolen energy in him and stop it from flowing back to its originators. It was amplifying the power, echoing it back and forth to generate what was needed. It was a desperate compromise, giving him enough strength without costing any lives, but the array would not hold it back forever. How long would it last?

Long enough. They will all recover, and we have the strength we need.

Kaleo’s voice was strong and firm, restored by the glut of stolen energy. He no longer sounded like a lost child, but something older and wiser, more certain than ever before.

‘Thief,’ Ed spat, wishing he could lash out and physically punish something for what had happened, but the only person he could hurt was himself. Slumping back to the floor, he drew knees up to his chest, hunching his shoulders as he waited. ‘If it was easy then why not do it before? Why not take a little bit at a time and keep it? You didn’t have to hurt them!’

It can only be done once: a last resort. Just enough to do what needs to be done.

‘Which is?’ Ed demanded, his body tense as his anger seethed.

Rebuilding the gate.

Chapter Text

Roy stood in front of the sink, inspecting his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His hair was damp, clean and as neat as it was going to get. Stubble trailed along his jaw, but that would have to wait. Being unshaven was an acceptable slip-up for an officer who had spent a trying night dealing with an emergency.

His appearance, though it was less than perfect, was not the problem. He had tried repeatedly to school his features into the calm, knowledgeable mask that he normally wore. What people needed to see was a commanding officer who knew what he was doing, not a man with every vulnerable emotion written all over his face.

Roy sighed, knowing that Hughes would notice immediately. Perhaps the others would put it down to tiredness, but Maes would not be fooled for a moment. He would see that something had shifted in the teetering balance that existed between Roy and Ed. He might not be able to tell how much of a change had occurred, but he would see it all the same. There was too much doubt, confusion and, beyond that, guilty happiness for Roy to keep from view. It was as if Ed had taken his control and, with gentle care, broken it down to nothing.

Clumsily, Roy finished doing up his jacket buttons, pulling the uniform around him like shield as he berated himself for what had happened. He should have pulled away. As soon as he opened his eyes to Edward's touch he should have put some distance between them. It would have been for the best. But hindsight was the domain of logic, clear of all emotion. The reality was that he could not have stepped back. Every caress, kiss and taste had been the most perfect kind of bliss, hot and wild and his: the only sustenance he needed.

The memory of Ed's palms ghosted along his sides, tracing soft lines as if more would break him. The whisper of a sigh over his stomach and lower was a brand, marking him for good, burning him still. Roy's hands clenched into fists at the edge of the sink as he remembered tendrils of blonde hair tickling his stomach and hips, teasing him as he held those tresses in his fists, torn between pushing Ed away and pulling him close.

It had not been a fight with himself; it was all out war. Logic and reason yelled for him to stop while everything else begged for him to carry on. Even now his body, so recently relieved with a few quick strokes in the shower, was still humming with desire. Roy knew, without a doubt, that in a few more seconds he would have been beyond the point of no return. He would have taken Ed regardless of the consequences to either of them.

He glanced up at his reflection, hardly daring to meet his own eyes. There were so many reasons that it could go wrong, and so many ways that they could hurt each other without even trying, but that did not change a damn thing. Every piece of logic fell away unheeded, as if the threat to his future and to Ed's safety simply did not matter any more. Roy was left arguing with himself, and he never got any closer to a resolution.

‘What the hell am I going to do?’

His whispered words echoed back at him, low and wretched, and he scrubbed his hands across his face before straightening his shoulders and turning towards the door. He was not going to find any answers by skulking in the bathroom. He may not have the luxury to dwell on the tangle of his personal life, but perhaps he could begin to make headway where Carmine was concerned. At least in his professional life he still had some element of control.

Stepping out into the hallway, he quickly made his way downstairs, wincing at the devastation. In the light of day the aftermath was brutal. Someone had removed the haggard remains of Carmine’s henchmen, but the walls were dappled with burns and strange distortions. Serpentine cracks unwound up the plasterwork, and the crystal chandelier was in pieces underfoot. It looked as if something manic had torn through the place, hell-bent on taking down everything in its path.

Hughes was standing in the middle of the floor, one hand on his hip while the other was pressed to his forehead. When he caught sight of Roy his arms fell to his sides and he shrugged, speechless, lost in another maze of questions.

Maes had a sharp mind, and his understanding of alchemy was not as limited as most, but he had probably never seen anything like this. The air was still rank with power, tangy with a metallic taste and charged with oily static. The false philosopher’s stone Roy had used in the Ishbal war left a similar mark on the environment. It was the same kind of energy: raw and alien.

Havoc and Hawkeye stood nearby, tense and alert as they surveyed the wreckage. Next to them, Al shifted restlessly. He caught sight of Roy and stepped forward, his lips already parted to ask about his brother. The youngest Elric was pale with exhaustion, and Roy felt a stab of guilt at keeping him away the night before. He had promised to call if Ed took a turn for the worse, but it was obvious that Al had barely had a wink of sleep.

‘He’s all right, Al, or at least better than he was. I think he’s taking a shower upstairs,’ Roy said, hoping that his smile was more reassuring than weary.

Al’s shoulders slumped in relief and the tension fled his youthful face. ‘Thanks,’ he replied, a warm, genuine smile crossing his lips before he darted away, taking the stairs two at a time and vanishing from sight, so intent on finding Ed that nothing else mattered.

‘What happened, Roy?’ Hughes asked quietly. ‘I thought we were searching the streets. How the hell did you end up here?’

He hesitated, trying to martial the previous day’s chaos into some kind of cohesive flow. Now it seemed distant and hazy, a nightmarish time that had lost the sharp edges pain to become something unreal.

Haltingly he began to explain, choosing his words with care. The others paled when he mentioned Ed’s alchemy and the roaring, painful clash of power that had swept through and taken everything that the young man had to give. Roy’s flat, unemotional voice gave away nothing of the artic fear he had felt, nor the chilling creep of despair that was still trying to work its way into his core.

Roy swallowed, knowing that he had to tell them about the fraction of the gate that was hiding in Ed. Part of him wanted to keep it secret and hidden, in case anyone else in the army hear of it, but that was impossible. He needed his team to be fully aware of what was happening. If nothing else, he could not ask for their support unless they knew exactly what they were dealing with. He just hoped that Ed would see it as necessary, rather than a betrayal of his trust.

‘When Ed brought Hughes back from the broken gate, part of what belonged there hid in him. From what he’s told me it sounds like the opposite faction of what inhabits Carmine. Last night he was trying to drive the gate out of her body, but he didn’t have the strength.’

The quiet revelation was met with a long silence. Hawkeye’s pretty, no-nonsense face was crumpled into a frown, and Havoc absently reached for a cigarette, rolling its smooth length between his fingers as he thought. Only Hughes nodded, his glasses reflecting the sunlight that came through the windows.

‘Thought so,’ he said with a sigh, frowning down at the singed, tattered carpet. ‘It explains a lot.’

Havoc looked around at them, his expression one of disbelief. ‘Are you telling me that the Boss is like her? That he could be just as dangerous as she is?’

‘Ed would never do what Carmine’s done. He would never kill people while he still had a choice about it, and definitely not for his own gain,’ Hawkeye pointed out flatly, raising her chin as her brown eyes flickered to Roy, looking for some kind of reassurance.

He nodded, his lips set in a thin line as he tried to find a way to explain the difference between the two. ‘We keep thinking of Carmine as a person, as an out of control alchemist, but she’s not really human. I think she was once, but the part of the gate that she is sheltering consumed her completely.’ He shifted uncomfortably, glancing out of the window. ‘Still, there’s no guarantee that Ed won’t be overcome in the same way.’

The words tasted bitter and vile on his tongue, but they had to be said. Edward was not a threat, not now, but if the gate found a way to gain the upper hand then he did not think Ed would have the strength to withstand the onslaught. Whatever hid itself in the young alchemist’s body was like a storm that lingered on the horizon, full of dark potential. It only remained to be seen whether it could be kept at bay, or if the clouds would roll in and steal Ed away: a different kind of death.

‘If it did,’ Hughes began, his voice low and horrified, ‘if Ed became like Carmine then you know what we would have to do, don’t you?’

Roy ran his hands through his hair, knowing his mask was cracking as he tried to tear apart the tangle of problems in his mind. ‘I know,’ he murmured, closing his eyes for a moment as his shoulders slumped, ‘but Hawkeye’s right. While there is still a fraction of his own mind left Ed would never choose to kill. Besides, you’ve seen what Carmine can do. If Fullmetal was the same do you honestly think any one of us could stop him?’

Havoc put the cigarette in his mouth and patted his pockets idly, his eyes narrowed in thought as his body moved through the automatic motions of his habit. ‘How do you know that the Boss would turn out like that woman if the gate did take over?’ he asked, his voice honestly curious. ‘You said it sounded like the opposite, so what makes you think it will be bad?’

‘Nothing,’ Roy admitted, ‘but it would still need power.’ He watched as Havoc gave up his search for a light and tucked the cigarette behind his ear for later. ‘Ed said himself that human energy is the most compatible; it’s the easiest to use. Taking it from other sources almost killed him last night. It’s not something he could do again.’

‘And Carmine is already regaining her strength,’ Hawkeye said quietly, handing over a plain manila file. It was a stack of police reports, hastily compiled, all dated late last night or in the early hours of the morning. ‘Twelve people were found, all of them homeless. Most were elderly, but a couple of them were just children.’

Roy grimaced, barely needing to read the baffled description from the officers who had written up the paperwork. Uninjured and apparently untouched, it was as if every one of them had simply dropped dead. To anyone else it would have been an incredible mystery, but the motif was sickeningly familiar.

‘They didn’t even put up a fight,’ Hughes said quietly, his voice softening from official to something edged with pained concern. ‘Roy, this whole thing is getting out of hand. Under Bradley there would have been a state of emergency by now.’

Roy looked up sharply, surprised at the open criticism of the current Fuhrer. A quick glance told him that Hawkeye and Havoc had retreated to a tactful distance, out of earshot unless called for. The two lieutenants were murmuring to one another. Riza’s face was carefully impassive, as always, but Jean looked unsettled and confused. He stirred the mess with his boot, obviously disturbed.

‘What’s Hakuro saying?’ Roy asked, closing the file and tapping it against his hand. ‘Has he even seen this?’

‘He said the deaths were irrelevant. I believe his precise implication was that someone was doing the city a favour by cleaning up the streets.’ Hughes shifted uncomfortably, his shoulders rigid beneath his uniform jacket. ‘I don’t know how much longer he will behave like this, but until then we’re on our own.’

Something caught Maes’ eye, and Roy saw the worry on his friend’s face increase to painful proportions. Glancing over his shoulder he saw Ed and Al coming down the stairs, talking quietly. Al looked worried, hovering at his brother’s side as if expecting him to collapse. His hands were held out to steady Ed’s steps ready to catch him if he fell.

Roy quickly looked away, knowing that if he met Ed’s eyes then all of his desire, fear and worry would be utterly exposed. Ed was pale and weak, barely any better than when he had been unconscious on the floor. Every movement was heavy and sluggish, as if each step cost him more than he could afford. It was hard to believe he was the same man who had been so alive under Roy’s hands a bare hour ago.

‘You said it was bad, but I – I didn’t realise,’ Maes murmured, green eyes deep with sadness. ‘I’d been starting to hope the doctor was wrong, but he’s not, is he?’

Roy shook his head, his fingers white-knuckled around the file as Ed and Al vanished down the hallway, making their way into the depths of Rider’s. ‘The cough’s getting worse, and you know Ed. He won’t take care of himself, and he won’t let anyone else help him, either.’ Helpless anger made Roy’s quiet words sharp, and his head was beginning to ache with a dull, steady throb that spoke of too much stress and too little sleep.

The hand on his shoulder was a lifeline, warm and firm in a black sea of emotion. ‘Roy, you need rest. Ed’s not the only one incapable of looking after himself. You’re making yourself ill.’

‘I don’t have time, Hughes. Carmine’s out of control, and no one gives a damn except us.’ He shrugged, hesitating before he added, ‘Besides, I feel like something big is about to happen.’

‘The calm before the storm?’ Maes asked quietly. ‘I know what you mean. Last night Al and I stayed in the office. There was no way he was going to get any sleep, and I didn’t want to leave him on his own. He was telling me about the gate, about how it’s thought to be the energy supply for all alchemy in Amestris.’ Hughes pushed his glasses up his nose, squinting at the ceiling before he continued. ‘You would think that, with it in pieces, alchemy would be impossible, but it’s not. You can still burn things to a crisp, Al can still transmute and, well, God knows what Ed’s limits are.’ He waved an absent hand at the destruction around them. ‘Thing is, if alchemy is still working then where’s the energy for it coming from, and how long have we got before it runs out?’

A frown creased Roy’s brow as he considered that possibility. His alchemy was like a holstered gun, rarely used but always to hand. It was a safety net: something to fall back on when all other avenues of possibility were closed. Alchemy had become a way of life for so many people. Even those who could not perform transmutations relied on it in some way or other. ‘It would be disastrous,’ he said, looking up to see Hughes nod glumly. ‘Amestris was made into what it is today by alchemy. Without it the whole country will fall apart.’

‘Don’t forget Drachma and Xing. They may have different cultures, but alchemy is as much a part of their existence as it is ours.’ Maes dropped his hand to his side with a sigh. ‘Still, it’s just a theory, right? Perhaps the energy for alchemy comes from somewhere else, or the alchemists themselves. Let someone else worry about that, at least for today.’ He dug his elbow into Roy’s side gently, dragging him away from his thoughts. ‘Trust me, Roy; you can’t keep stretching yourself out this thin. Concentrate on what’s right in front of you: the good things,’ he added meaningfully, ‘as well as the bad.’

Roy glanced sideways at his friend, seeing the knowing smile on Maes’s face. He made it sound so simple, as if tomorrow’s problems could just be forgotten. He wished he could believe him. He knew that Hughes was trying to say that some things went beyond reason, and sometimes you just had to act without thinking it through first, but could it really ever be that easy?

Maes sighed, shaking his head. ‘Look, Roy, all I’m saying is that one day soon there won’t be a choice anymore. If I were you, I’d take what you want before it’s stolen away from you forever.’

Roy swallowed tightly, closing his eyes against the morbid train of his friend’s reasoning. Tapping the file against his hand he gave a small nod of acknowledgement. In one thing, at least, Hughes was right. He needed rest. He could not deal with anything in his current state.

‘Lieutenant?’ he called out, holding out the file for Hawkeye to take. ‘Go back to the office and see if there’s any pattern in these deaths. It’s a long shot, but Carmine might have been snatching at anything that crossed her path between here and wherever she is hiding. Finding her base of operations is our top priority. Take Havoc with you.’

‘You’ll be getting some rest, sir?’ Hawkeye asked, her tone indicating that any answer other than a positive one would not be beneficial to his immediate health.

Roy resisted the urge to sigh. ‘Yes, and I’ll take Ed and Al back with me. They need sleep just as much as I do.’

With a quick nod of understanding, Riza strode away, stepping neatly over the rubble as she headed off to carry out her orders. Havoc followed with a little less care, slipping out of the front door and closing it behind him.

Roy and Hughes were left alone, standing side by side in thoughtful silence among the wreckage. Something caught Maes’ eye and he bent down, picking up a piece of crystal and turning it over in his hands. The early morning sun shattered apart on its surface, sending tranquil rainbows dancing across the walls and floor. Roy watched them ghost past, touching everything with stripes of dazzling colour. There was something childish and gleeful about them; stains of innocence among so much darkness.

A gasp of pain made Roy spin around, eyes wide in alarm. Hughes had turned a ghostly white, and his face was glossed with a sheen of sweat. His fingers slipped clumsily on the crystal, and colours pin wheeled as it tumbled before shattering apart on the floor. Roy reached out, grunting as Maes collapsed against him, his head lolling back as his body became dead weight.

A distant cry of alarm rang out along the hallway, and Roy’s stomach rolled as a familiar draining sensation filled him through and through. He swore as Maes sagged from his grasp, slipping from his fingers and hitting the floor with a solid thud. Roy’s breath laboured in his lungs as his legs gave out, forcing him to his knees as all of the heat in his body ebbed away.

His mind scrambled in panic as he pressed his face to the carpet, feeling the slice of crystal shards against his skin. The pain was something sharp in an oily world of lethargy, and he concentrated on the sensation as he struggled to understand. He knew this feeling too well to doubt that it was Ed, but it was wild and hungry. Before, even that very first time, there had been something measured and calculated about the drain of energy. This – this was desperate. It was not about power or strength. It was about life.

Blackness closed in, an encroaching shroud that veiled his vision even as he tried to push himself up to his hands and knees. Glassy chimes echoed in his ears as he groped blindly across the floor, trying to drag himself just that bit closer, but it was hopeless. Breath ‘whuffed’ from his chest as he gave in, slumping back down. Everything felt distant, as though it were too far away to have any impact on his existence. He fought as hard as he could to hang onto reality, to push back the darkness, but it was useless.

The world slid out of focus and time lost all meaning, but there was still some faint level of awareness. Whispers of reassurance, calm and soft, curled in his ear, trailing through his mind. The words were quiet, but their meaning was clear. He was safe, caught from an endless fall into the night by something too strong to be questioned. He was important and would not be allowed to slip away completely.

There was warmth here, and the soft zephyr of life’s breath drifted over his skin. It was a sanctuary from the harsh corners of the real world, and Roy could not bring himself to move. Daylight was a distant glimmer far above his head, but he could not even lift a hand towards it. He knew that there was something he should be doing, but the nagging sense of urgency was too weak to stir him.

Something touched the side of his face, and the world went nova. Sensation flooded back into Roy’s body, carrying him along in its tide. He could not help but wince as his muscles throbbed in dull time to his heart. The cut on his cheek stung sharply, and pain was a hot lance through his head.

Gently someone rolled him over, brushing hair away from his forehead and placing a warm, dry palm to his brow before trailing down to the pulse in the hollow of his jaw. He wanted to say that he was all right, or at least that he was still alive, but it was as if his body was made of lead. He could neither lift a finger nor part his lips.

‘Is he –?’

It was Al’s voice, weaker than Roy had ever heard it before. Even when he was new in his body his words had been determined and full of joy. Now he sounded like a shadow of himself.

There was no answer but a soft sigh of relief, and the fingers over Roy’s jugular softened their touch to something more like a caress. ‘He’s no worse than you are. It just took everything anyone had to spare.’ Ed’s voice was flat and tainted with anger, but Roy doubted it was directed at Al. It was far more likely that he was furious with himself.

When Alphonse spoke again it was very quiet, as though he were afraid of the response he might get. ‘You would have stopped it if you could.’ The fear in his voice turned the statement into a question, and Roy felt the hand at his neck tremble with suppressed emotion.

‘I wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place,’ Ed whispered. ‘Carmine kills strangers. I just end up hurting the people I know.’

With great difficulty Roy opened his eyes a fraction. Bright sunlight streamed through the window, casting itself about him in an amber pool. Hughes lay to his left while Al sat not far away, grey-faced and propped against the wall. Ed was kneeling next to Roy, his face turned away as he stared unseeingly into the distance.

His appearance was so different from a few minutes ago that Roy frowned in confusion. Logically he knew that people did not glow, but the pallor of Ed’s skin had given way to something more golden. It was as if life had flooded back into him, sweeping away every trace of weakness in its flow. Where there had been a sense of frailty and pain there was now a raw, volatile strength, barely harnessed.

‘It wasn’t you that did it, not really. Besides, you can’t end up like Carmine,’ Al whispered, his voice tight and pained. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if you turned into something like that.’

A shrug and a grimace was all Ed had to offer in reply. Roy watched, longing for him to deny that possibility. If Ed said that it would never happen then he would believe it. Even if it went against Roy’s better judgement he would put his faith in that reassurance, because the alternative was a treacherous road. Trust was never something that came easy, but doubt would be fatal to them all. If they all started questioning Ed now, if they turned against him and treated him like the enemy, then it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

‘You would do whatever you had to, Al,’ Ed murmured eventually. ‘I wouldn’t be your brother anymore.’

Wretchedly, Roy wondered if Ed was as unafraid as he seemed. His words were strong and matter-of-fact, unshaken by the prospect of what they could all be facing, but he knew just how strong Ed could be for Al. The past two weeks were proof of that.

‘It won’t happen.’ His voice was hoarse and painful in his throat, but at least he could still speak. Ed looked down, relief softening the darker emotions on his face as Roy blinked blearily, trying to get his bearings. ‘We’re all here to keep an eye on you.’

‘Are you all right?’ It was a soft question, almost tender, and Roy felt a faint tickle of pleased surprise at the open concern in Ed’s voice.

‘Tired,’ he replied, ‘but still here.’ Fighting to keep a grimace off of his face, he struggled to sit up, cursing as the room wavered in front of his vision. His whole body felt like one thudding bruise, and it was an effort not to just slump back down to the carpet. Nearby Hughes groaned theatrically, and Roy cut him an irritated glance. He knew Maes too well to assume his friend was only just waking up. He would have been listening for at least five minutes, gathering all the information he could without asking a single question.

Green eyes fluttered open behind his glasses, which had been knocked askew when he collapsed. Squinting through the lopsided lenses he glanced from Ed to Al before blinking blearily at Roy. ‘You look how I feel,’ Hughes said quietly, a faint smile tilting his lips for a moment before it faded away. ‘God, I’m tired.’

‘Sorry,’ Ed whispered, his shoulders hunched and his face fixed into a scowl. He looked as if he was struggling with himself, fighting with the need to make sure they were okay and the urge to run, to take himself as far away as possible so that they would be safe from his unpredictability.

‘I know,’ Hughes said firmly, pressing his palms to the carpet and propping himself up shakily. ‘You would have stopped it if you could. I don’t doubt that for a second. Besides, it looks like it was worth it.’ When Ed looked confused he carried on, his words slow and careful, as though it was a struggle to think clearly. ‘An hour ago you looked almost dead. Now… .’

He trailed off, but Roy knew what he was trying to say. Ed had always hung onto his fight and his fire, but before he was permanently shrouded by the encroaching darkness of his illness. Now it was as if he had stepped back out into the sunlight and reclaimed all that had faded from him.

‘You look well again,’ Al finished, his grey eyes bright and sure despite his tiredness.

'It’s only temporary,’ Ed said quietly, his automail hand clenching unconsciously into a fist. ‘This won’t last forever, just long enough.’

‘Long enough for what?’ Roy asked, his voice instinctively pitched at something softer than that of a commanding officer.

Ed shifted uncomfortably, and he raised his shoulders in a restless shrug before blowing out a sigh. ‘It wants me to rebuild the gate.’ He shook his head as if he didn’t believe his own words. ‘As if it’s that fucking simple.’

‘But the gate’s not even man-made, is it?’ Al asked, pushing himself away from the wall and struggling to his feet. He swayed precariously, stumbling as his legs struggled to hold up his weight. In a flash Ed was at his side. ‘Is it, brother?’

Ed bit his lip, and Roy saw his gaze become distant. It was not the first time Edward had given the impression that he was listening to a voice only he could hear. When he spoke again it was in a careful, measured tone, like an actor reading from a script. ‘It was an alchemist who built it, but it was flawed from the beginning, broken before it was even complete.’ His face snapped into a frown, and the glazed expression faded from his eyes. ‘Even if it could be done I wouldn’t. Why the hell should I put that thing back together after all it did to us?’

Very carefully, like a newborn foal trying to find its feet, Roy managed to stand up. His knees were shaking so hard that he had to slump against the wall, clinging to the scorched wallpaper and breathing hard. Even the air in his lungs felt heavy, and he dragged a hand through his hair, trying to put mind over matter.

The tension in Ed’s body was obvious as anger and uncertainty collided with lingering guilt. After all he had been through with the gate his reluctance was easy to understand, but something told Roy that, in the end, he would not have a choice.

Gently, Roy reached out, curling his fingers around Ed’s shoulder. It was a firm touch, solid and sure, and he felt the knots beneath Ed’s skin relax, as if one small fragment of human contact was enough to banish every negative emotion. The idea of being entirely without control was frightening to most people, but for someone as independent as Ed it would be impossible to bear. Even worse there was nothing physical he could lash out at. There was no target for his anger except a nebulous entity hidden within his own flesh, and the strain of that was starting to show.

‘Do you think Carmine knows?’ Hughes asked from where he still sat on the floor. ‘If she suspects that what’s inside you might try and rebuild what she spent so long tearing apart then it would definitely make her more desperate.’

Ed shrugged, dropping his hands to his side and letting Al stand unaided. ‘I don’t know if it’s even occurred to her, or if the darkness is just trying to destroy whatever could stand in its way. As soon as she has the strength she’ll be back to finish what she started last night.’ He frowned to himself, eyes narrowed at the doorway in thought. ‘I need to talk to Sally. We can’t stay here, but I can’t leave them undefended either. Last night Carmine was distracted, but if she comes here looking for me….’

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Sally and the young men and women who made Rider’s their home would be defenceless against Carmine’s power. Last night Ed had prevented her from causing anyone serious harm, but if she came looking for him then there would be nothing to defend them from her clutches.

‘Still as thoughtful as ever, Ed,’ a weary voice said from the hallway, making them look up. Sally was walking slowly towards them, her right hand pressed against the wall as she concentrated on each step. Steel coloured hair tumbled from the knot at the nape of her neck, and there was a tired frailty in her expression.

Ed moved forward, murmuring an apology as he helped her to sit on the stairs. With a smile she waved him off, saying, ‘Don’t be silly. From what I have heard it was not your fault.’ Her eyes met Roy’s, carrying a hint of an apology in her gaze. ‘Unfortunately a woman in my position learns to listen at every opportunity, and it’s a hard habit to break.’ She smoothed a hand down her skirt as if trying to ground herself in the familiar, and when she spoke again her voice was utterly serious. ‘You have my word, Brigadier-General Roy, that I won’t tell anyone about what happened here last night, or about what I just heard. I understand that it is far more than idle gossip.’

Roy nodded his thanks, angry at himself that he had not even thought about their privacy. ‘Even if you did tell anyone else in the military I doubt you would be believed. Most of them are blind to anything they don’t want to see.’

‘I know that well enough.’ Sally gave a wry grin before turning to Ed, taking his hand as she spoke. ‘If you can do anything to keep that woman out of this house then I would be grateful. We don’t lack courage, but we are not alchemists.’ She breathed a soft sigh of relief as Ed nodded in agreement, and Roy watched as she straightened her shoulders, forcing herself to her feet. ‘Thank you. Since George was outside, he was unaffected by what happened. I will get him to drive you all home.’ She held up a hand as Roy opened his mouth to protest, silencing him with a particularly knowing look. ‘Please, it will be no trouble. Besides, I could not let you back out on the streets knowing that she could be waiting for the opportunity to strike again. In a few minutes you’ll be on your way.’

Eventually he nodded in agreement, feeling like a scolded schoolboy as he murmured his thanks once again. Weakly, Roy leaned back against the wall, watching through half-closed eyes as Ed moved towards the front door. It was made of sturdy oak, stained and polished to a shine. It was another piece of opulence among so much wealth, but it would not be enough to keep Carmine at bay.

After a few seconds Ed’s thoughtful frown cleared, and he clapped his hands together before pressing them to the wood. The air shuddered, pulsing with power as the alchemy roared across the door and crawled over the walls, curling around every window frame. Sally gasped, removing her hand from the banister as bolts of energy wound up the stairs and vanished into the upper levels of the house. The static tang of the power was a vivid taste on Roy’s tongue, and he shared an amazed glance with Al, knowing that the other alchemist would be feeling the same thing.

Looking at the window closest to him, Roy saw a chain of five discreet arrays picked themselves out in the frame, glowing crimson before fading to nothing more than a suggestion of a pattern in the wood. Unless someone was looking for them they would probably never be noticed.

Hesitantly, he reached out a hand and traced his fingertip over the small designs. He had expected some kind of jolt of retribution, but instead there was just a soft feeling, like a feather floating through him from head to toe. Exhaustion, a bone-deep ache, faded, driven back to something more bearable by the latent energy still present in the design.

Ed was still locked in concentration, but it was not the paralysis of someone at the whim of the power that crackled through the air. This was calm, placid focus: a pool of tranquillity in the middle of wild, jagged alchemy. Ed was the master of this, not its slave.

With a last, whispering gasp the air fell still and the power dissipated, leaving the room breathless. Instinctively Roy moved to Ed’s side, ready to catch him if it had been too much, but he wasn’t needed. When Ed opened his eyes they were clear and alert, and he moved with the same strong, steady grace that he had possessed before the gate had robbed him of so much.

‘Sally, have you got one of those pendants handy?’ he asked, waiting as the woman slipped her fingers into the pocket of her gown. The silver star she pulled from the folds shone brightly, pivoting in its circle of crystals.

Ed pressed his palms together over it, blocking out everything else as he focussed on what he was doing. A second later he took the necklace from Sally and hung the chain around his neck, tucking the pendant out of sight under his t-shirt.

‘It won’t keep her out forever, but that should be enough to hold Carmine off for a while. As soon as she tries to break through the arrays I’ll know about it. All you need to do is keep out of her way, okay, Sally?’

‘Thank you, both of you,’ she murmured, twisting her hands together in an anxious knot. ‘I know you did everything you could for Thomas, and if you had not been here then I dread to think what would have happened to us. I doubt any of us would have lived to see today.’ The grim thought seemed to galvanise her, and she squared her shoulders, a leader once more. ‘I will look after everyone at Rider’s, Edward. You just need to watch out for yourself. That woman will not stop until she has what she wants. Mercy and surrender are not words she can comprehend. I know a monster when I see it, no matter what skin it is wearing.’

The nearby rumble of a car engine made her turn to look out of the window, and Roy followed her gaze to see a shining black limousine pull into the square. George sat behind the wheel, steering the beast of a car with ease.

Stiffly, he held out his hand, helping Hughes struggle to his feet as Ed led Al towards the door. Sally stood on the top step, leaning against the doorframe wearily as she watched them depart her domain.

Maes took the front seat, collapsing into the comfortable upholstery with a weary sigh as Al, Roy and Ed got into the back. The spacious car could easily accommodate them, and Roy leaned against the window, watching the magnificent frontage of Rider’s swing out of view. He paid little attention to Central’s streets as the car glided towards home. It all seemed like another world, naïve in its innocence of what had happened the night before.

Gradually, the busy roads gave way to quieter, leafier suburbs, and he barely even noticed when they reached Hughes’ neighbourhood. Neat houses stood in rows with their pristine gardens drenched in sunlight. It was a fragile kind of peace, and Roy shuddered to think of how defenceless the families were. Carmine really had landed on her feet when she had returned to this city. There was so much life, and it was all right there for the taking.

‘Remember what I said earlier, Roy,’ Maes said, shooting a sharp, meaningful glance in Ed’s direction. ‘Look at what’s in front of you. Everything else can wait.’ He climbed out of the car, supporting his weight against the door for a moment. ‘And as soon as I get inside I’m calling Hawkeye. She’ll be under strict instructions to shoot you if you show up at the office before tomorrow. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Roy sighed, nodding in agreement as Hughes slammed the door and walked wearily towards his house, stepping out of sight with a tired wave as George pulled away and continued on through the city.

Ed shifted uncomfortably, the cool length of his automail arm pressing reassuringly against Roy’s side. He had ended up in the middle seat, and Al was propped on Ed’s left shoulder, already asleep and snoring softly. he seemed to sense Roy’s gaze and glanced in his direction, noticing the amused expression on Roy’s face at Al’s peaceful slumber. ‘He was standing closer to me than you and Hughes,’ he said defensively. ‘I think it took more from him.’

‘He’ll probably be fine by tomorrow, and so will Maes. They just need sleep.’

‘So do you,’ Ed pointed out. ‘You’re no better off than they are.’

Roy sighed, leaning his head against the window again and closing his eyes. ‘I’m fine. I don’t need sleep, just-’ He shrugged, shaking his head in wordless surrender. He couldn’t even decide what he needed. His mind felt starved for answers while his body was heavy and unresponsive. Even if he curled up in bed he doubted that he would rest. The whirl of his thoughts was too chaotic for that. If left to his own devices he would only stare at the ceiling as the day crawled away, trying to find the answers when he couldn’t even work out what the questions were. ‘It feels like we’re going nowhere, and every day Carmine kills more people. Eventually there won’t be anyone left.’

He had not felt this useless in a long time, not since Ishbal and the orders he had no choice but to follow. At least then there had been a direction, even if it had been straight to hell. Now he was the one giving the orders, and there was no command he could think of that would bring the world back to the way it had been.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ he whispered, hating to admit it, even here. He could feel the tension in Ed’s body next to him and knew that the younger man was surprised. Roy strove to always appear utterly in control. He made choices, and even if they weren’t always the right decisions they were made with care. Now there was no clear path to a resolution.

There was only one other time when he had felt so lost and confused: two years ago, when Ed had gone off alone to bring Al’s body back. They had all been so entangled in Bradley’s plot that it had been like getting caught in a spider’s web. Every struggle made it harder to escape and then, when they were finally free of it, there had been nothing but the long, silent wait for any kind of news about Fullmetal.

‘Here we are, sir.’ George’s gentle words broke into his thoughts, and he looked up in surprise to see that they were parked at the kerb outside his house. Of course, he did not live far from Hughes, but he had not realised how quickly the huge car would get them home.

George bid them a gentle farewell as Ed woke Al and helped his brother out of the car, waiting impatiently for Roy to catch up. The keys jangled in Roy’s clumsy fingers, rattling loudly in the lock. At last the front door swung open, and he stood aside to let the Elrics pass before following them inside.

Ed headed straight for the stairs, guiding Al carefully upwards towards his room as the young man struggled to keep his eyes open.

Roy watched them go for a moment, wondering if he should follow, but bed still did not seem like the best idea. Instead he walked towards the kitchen, feeling the tranquillity wrap around him like cool sheets on a summer night. Here there were familiar, normal things. Beyond the doors and windows the world may be falling apart, but within his home he felt safe and at peace.

Shrugging out of his jacket and undoing the top button of his shirt, he began making coffee, his body automatically going through the motions. The familiar paths of routine were comforting, as though his troubled mind craved the mundane. Within minutes a hot mug was cradled between his palms and leftovers were warming on the stove, filling the air with a thick, hearty scent as he stirred the contents of the pan.

‘You should at least sit down.’ The touch of Ed’s hand on his shoulder startled him, and he looked up in surprise as the younger man pushed him gently towards a chair. He wanted to protest, to say that he did not need any help, but Ed had already taken the spoon from his hand and was stirring the food so that it didn’t burn.

‘Is Al okay?’ Roy asked, his stomach roaring fiercely as Ed ladled to stew into a bowl and placed it in front of him. Hunger was a startling ache in his belly, and he almost didn’t hear Ed’s response as he tucked in.

‘He was asleep in seconds. A day should be enough to get him back on his feet, but I’m not so sure.’

Ed wandered over to the sink, not bothering with any food for himself as he stared out of the window, arms crossed over the bloodstained t-shirt. His jaw was clenched, stubborn and strong, and Roy doubted that he was seeing the street beyond the glass pane. Whatever he was looking at probably had little to do with this world and everything to do with the gate.

For a few minutes Roy ate in silence, and with each mouthful he felt a fraction closer to his usual self - still tired, but undoubtedly stronger. By the time he had finished the coffee had cooled to lukewarm, but he gulped it down anyway.

He leaned back in the chair, looking over at Ed as he tried to think. Questions floated in his mind, a threatening armada on his mental seas, yet they all died in his mouth, too convoluted to ask.

Ed still stood silently on the other side of the room, and it felt like there were more than a few feet of physical space between them. Even if Roy reached out and touched Ed’s arm, he doubted that he would be able to bridge the gap.

That morning seemed like a lifetime ago, and the intimacy they had shared was nothing but a distant memory. Roy sighed, wishing that he could reclaim that personal closeness. For a brief moment in time Ed had been completely open with him, as if there was nothing he would ever hide. Now, that was gone, and Ed was like a spring coiled too tight. Sooner, rather than later, something would break. Either he would find a way to cast the light out, or he would give in to its wishes and rebuild the physical body of the gate.

A chill ran through him, making the mug shake in Roy’s hands. Carmine’s words still haunted him, lingering like stale smoke. She had been so gloatingly certain that the light was the only thing keeping Ed alive, and Roy had seen enough to believe her. If Ed found a way to separate himself from it then the weakness would return, and the disease would sweep back in with death at its side.

Roy looked up to see Ed watching him in the reflection in the window. Gold eyes were completely blank, neither angry nor happy. Yet his body was curled up defensively, as if he was under attack. In a way Roy supposed that he was, but it was not the kind of assault that could be turned aside. Instead it had to be braved like a storm in the hopes that, one day, there would be blue sky rather than darkness.

Getting to his feet, he set the mug aside, approaching the young man carefully. It was not that he thought Ed might lash out at him, but it would be far too easy to make him withdraw. The shaky trust between them was a precious thing, and it could be lost with something as simple as the wrong word at the wrong moment.

Roy hesitated, wanting to reach out and touch him, to try and recapture that openness that they had found in the early hours, but something about Ed’s body language warned him off. It was not openly hostile, but there was something raw and edgy about the way he stood, as if he were ready to run.

‘What will happen to you if you don’t do what it wants?’ Roy asked eventually, watching Ed unflinchingly. ‘What will happen if you don’t rebuild the gate?’

He looked away from the window, a frown creasing his brow as he shrugged and shook his head hopelessly. ‘I don’t know. It’s been showing me things, trying to make me understand but -’ Ed ran a hand through his dishevelled braid, pulling a few more tresses loose. ‘But then it does something like this.’ He gestured to Roy with one hand, his voice tight in his throat. ‘A few more seconds and you would have all been dead. Everyone at Rider’s would have just been gone.’

Roy reached out, wrapping his fingers gently around Ed’s upper arms and tugging until he turned away from the window and faced him fully. ‘Stop blaming yourself.’ Absently he rubbed his thumb over warm, bare skin, feeling a moment of tense hesitation before Ed relaxed into the idle comfort. ‘Whatever you say, you needed what the gate gave you. Everyone can see that.’ He glanced down at the bloom of blood across the blue t-shirt, frowning at the vivid mark of a wound he could not see. ‘Besides, the only person it hurt was you.’

Reaching out cautiously, Roy brushed his fingertips across the stain. The fabric was stiff to the touch, but beneath that there was the solid warmth of Ed’s chest and his steady, strong heartbeat, measuring out its reassuring rhythm of life without pause.

Abruptly something white hot shot across Roy’s skin, scorching up his arm and into his chest. The perfume of flowers and sand assailed him, a memory of fragrance that had nothing to do with Ishbal. Water splashed, a cool, thirst-quenching sound beneath the summer sun. It was only an image, a glimmer of understanding, but behind it all was a sharp intelligence, age-old and wise but innocent and curious.

The alien sensation coiled through his mind, unwinding with gentle care through thoughts and memories until it found what it was looking for.

In a flash, he was back at Rider’s: Ed’s lips and hands trailed hot caresses across his skin, and hungry breaths fluttered across his erection, parted lips held only a few inches away.

The strange presence vanished, leaving Roy flushed and painfully aroused as he stared at Ed. Licking his lips he tried to understand what had just happened. All day he had been pushing those few precious moments to the back of his mind and forcing himself to concentrate on the issues at hand. Now they filled his thoughts from edge to edge, freed from their cage: hot and wanton.

Ed had pulled away, his hands held out to ward Roy off as he put more distance between them, only stopping when he bumped into the kitchen counter. ‘Don’t! It might hurt you!’ Fear made the words angry, but it did not hide the fact that Edward’s chest rose and fell with quick pants, and a dark flush of desire and embarrassment flared across his cheekbones.

‘What was that?’ Roy asked, his voice a hungry growl in his chest. His reasons to hold back, to keep his distance from Ed, had never been strong to begin with. Now they were failing utterly as the recollections streamed through his mind, strengthening the smothered want to something he could not hold back.

Ed said nothing, clenching his hands hard around the edge of the counter as he kept his head turned away, hiding behind the fall of his hair. At length he murmured, ‘It’s the gate. It’s trying to understand… .’ He trailed off, shifting uncomfortably as he bit his lip.

‘Trying to understand what?’ Roy moved closer, narrowing the distance step by step until he could reach out and splay his hand across Ed’s chest again. This time there was no coil of memory, just air too thick with want to breathe.

Reaching up, Ed circled Roy’s wrist with his fingers, holding his hand in place. A frisson of hungry thrill twisted through Roy, shooting straight down between his legs as he swallowed tightly, trying to think hot, hard desire clouded his mind.

Ed paused, looking away for a moment before glancing back from beneath the shield of his lashes. A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face and then it was gone, replaced by the kind of determination usually reserved for a complex array.

‘This.’

Roy groaned desperately as Ed’s lips covered his own, the last faint reservations slipping away into oblivion. His hand curled into a clutching fist, tangling the fabric of the t-shirt between his fingers as Ed’s teeth scraped along his bottom lip softly, a rough edge of sensation. The stroke of his tongue followed, taking and tasting as if there was nothing else in the world but the two of them.

Thought fled, chased away by a steady surge of desire that pushed its way through Roy’s body, making him shake. Any lingering tiredness was burned away like shadows before the sun, and he slid his other hand up Ed’s spine, feeling muscles coil and tremble beneath his palm.

Ed arched his back, pressing shoulders and chest, hips and legs against Roy as though he were starved for the contact. A feral sound was dragged from his chest as he rubbed himself against the straining bulge in Roy’s trousers. Pleasure was a hot knife, painfully intense, and Roy broke away from the kiss, drawing in a shuddering breath as he tried desperately to clutch at his control.

Every touch drove his need higher. It was nothing but fingertips and lips: fractured, starving kisses that took Roy’s breath away and made him helpless to do anything but return them taste for taste. Sex was meant to be something familiar to him, an arena in which he knew the sleights of hand and soft caresses to drive anyone to the brink long before he lost control, but not this time. This was not a carefully re-enacted routine, the tender sharing of pleasure. It was a rough, savage thrill that pushed him on, making him groan as Ed tipped his head back helplessly, flushed and hot to the touch as Roy nuzzled against his hammering pulse, licking and biting and losing himself in the molten steel scent of him.

‘You – you said – said we shouldn’t,’ Edward choked out. He sounded like it was the last thing he wanted to say, and Roy looked up, leaning his forehead to Ed’s as he struggled to find his voice. Hughes was right: some things were beyond logic, but how could he get Ed to see that all his past excuses were meaningless now?

‘I don’t care,’ he whispered desperately. ‘I don’t give a damn about what might happen. I’ve tried, but I don’t want to fight this. I want you.’ Slowly he stepped back, sliding his hand down Ed’s arm and twisting his fingers through the younger man’s grasp before tugging gently. ‘Please?’

The doubt was there in Ed’s eyes, a split second of uncertainty that drowned beneath an ocean of need. Wordlessly he nodded, swollen lips parted and eyes burnished by desire as he followed Roy’s lead.

It felt like a great weight had been lifted from Roy’s shoulders: as if, with the choice made, the shackles of consequence had fallen away. There was no sense of guilt or uncertainty, and no space for second thoughts. This was what he wanted, needed, had to have, and he was not about to push that away for the sake of a future that might never be.

Kissing Ed hungrily, he stepped back, leading him clumsily towards the stairs that he didn’t remember being so far away, stumbling against the wall and groaning as Ed’s fingers found their way under his fly and wrapped around him, making him jerk helplessly. ‘Fuck, Ed,’ he hissed between clenched teeth, arching into the touch and trying to twist away all at once. ‘Bed,’ he managed to gasp, torn between getting up the stairs and just taking right here. His voice was a tight, desperate hush, not sure what he was asking for anymore. ‘Please, Ed. Please.’

A restless growl rumbled in Ed’s throat, and the sound shot along Roy’s nerves like lightning, powerful and tempting. Ed pulled back a fraction, still touching and tasting and pressing against him as they staggered up the stairs. The door banged against the wall as they pushed their way into the bedroom, and slammed again as Roy kicked it closed, too far gone to think of Al sleeping down the corridor. All he could hear was the snarling, possessive thing in his head demanding that he get into his bed and claim Ed as his own.

Ed fumbled clumsily with the buttons on Roy’s shirt, growling in frustration as one got caught. With a quick jerk of the fabric he sent the last button flying, pinging off of the far wall as the shirt was finally shoved aside.

‘Fuck,’ he whispered, his voice hushed with the kind of awe that made Roy shake. Ed’s tongue darted out to wet his lips as he trailed his fingers over Roy’s chest and stomach, tracing lines and ridges as though he could not tear himself away. It was an intense study, and Ed lowered his head, worrying Roy’s nipple with lips and the faintest sharp edge of teeth.

Roy tipped his head back in blissful surrender. Every second wound him tighter, making his blood sing and throb in his veins as his body flushed with torrid heat. Unable to stay still any longer, he reached for Ed, cursing as he realised the shirt was still caught around his wrists: manacles of cloth. In one savage movement he ripped himself free, hearing the rustle of cotton as it drifted to the floor. Gripping the hem of the t-shirt he tugged it upwards, barely giving Ed a second to lift his head as he peeled it off the blonde’s body.

Throwing the t-shirt aside as if he could not bear it, he reached out, sweeping both hands up Ed’s sides, smirking at the breathless, sensitive whine that caught in the younger man’s throat. Metal and flesh, scars and all of it so perfect that Roy’s mind stuttered to a halt, incapable of understanding anything except the sensation of Ed beneath his fingertips and pressed against his own bare chest.

A hard tug on his waistband made him stagger, and his breath caught in his chest as Ed sat down on the mattress, kicking off his boots before reaching out again. This was really going to happen. He was really going to fuck a subordinate half his age. One he had wanted for so damn long.

The realisation should have shaken him or made him hesitate, but instead it twisted the knot of want tighter, coiling it painfully in the pit of his stomach. He was done trying to hold back, and nothing could make him stop now.

Tearing off his shoes and socks, Roy knelt on the bed, crawling across the white sheets as Ed’s eyes lidded to lustful slits. His legs were already spread, cocked at the knee as he rested his weight on his hands, arching his body up and gasping as Roy ran his tongue up his chest and neck, pressing him down into the pillows with trembling hands.

Ed bucked at the weight on top of him, curling his leg around the back of Roy’s knee and holding him in place. Roy fumbled with Ed’s fly, dragging the zip down against straining flesh. Leather shimmied down over slim hips and strong legs, boxers caught up in the folds, and Ed was finally, stunningly naked.

Roy sat back on his heels, his voice dry in his throat as he took in his lover’s bare physique for the first time, marvelling that this was his to stroke and taste and have.

Ed shifted under Roy’s hot gaze, flesh hand lifting instinctively to cover the join of skin and steel at his shoulder, but Roy caught his wrist, shaking his head. ‘Don’t. You’re – I – you’re beautiful. Don’t hide anything from me.’

Slowly, gently this time, he kissed Ed’s swollen lips, shivering in delight as cool automail wrapped around his waist and fingertips wove into his hair, stroking and tugging a little as Ed fought to deepen the kiss. Roy held back, teasing, loving every sound that Edward made.

He was so transparent in his need, as if he had hidden everything for so long and could not lock it away any more. Every movement, breath and moan gilded Roy’s desire, and he groaned helplessly as Ed’s hands wriggled between them, pushing his uniform trousers and underwear down his legs until he was free of them.

All barriers were gone now, and there was nothing but Ed under him. Every caress burned, but it was the kind of fire that Roy would gladly die to feel. Soft skin beneath his hands and hard cock pressed against his thigh, and Ed’s hands were everywhere, feeling every inch he had to give and driving him insane.

Blindly he reached out, grabbing condoms and lube from the bedside cabinet. Ed sat up, tugging the condom from his fingers. For one split second Roy thought he was going to stop, to say that this was a bad idea. Instead he undid the packet and sheathed Roy, stroking from cock-tip to balls in a motion that made him grit his teeth and arch his hips, pushing himself into Ed’s grip.

Ed’s legs were either side of his hips, muscles so taut that they jumped as Roy ran his left hand up Ed’s thigh and over his stomach. Gently he pressed him back down to the bed before warming the gel, forcing himself to concentrate as he stroked his right hand down.

Ed moaned at the brief contact of slick skin before Roy went back further, sliding around in tight, teasing circles, murmuring meaningless words of reassurance before pressing one finger in as gently as he could. A cry this time, but definitely not of pain, and Ed clapped his hand over his own mouth, smothering the sound. His automail palm was pressed to the headboard and he wriggled his body down, desperate to take in more.

‘Shhhh,’ Roy whispered, moving carefully inside Ed, concentrating on this because he would never, ever forgive himself if he caused any pain. ‘Ed, just let me -’ Another finger in and Roy groaned, relishing the smooth, tight warmth. Stroking his spare hand across Ed’s sweat slicked stomach, he brushed past the head of his dick but did not touch, coming close but never taking it in his grasp.

Ed’s hand fell back to the sheets, and he dragged his eyes open, molten dark and fierce. ‘Don’t stop – Don’t you fucking stop,’ he ground out, groaning when Roy nuzzled at his stomach, pressing kisses to hard muscles before finally pushing in a third finger. Ed’s hips pressed down, grinding and twitching as his hands clutched uselessly. ‘Roy – please – please.’

Fingers out and Ed moved closer, sitting up so that he was astride Roy’s lap, so close but not close enough. Carefully Roy grabbed his hips, changing the angle just enough, feeling Ed’s erection throbbing between them as, at last, he arched upwards and sank himself slowly, steadily in.

There was nothing but tight heat and pleasure like a fist clenched around his body, pressing in from all sides. It drowned him with every breath. Ed hung on to Roy’s sweat-damp shoulders, fighting to push and pull, take and give, groaning with every thrust. Roy let his head forward, burying his face in the crook of Ed’s neck, breathing in his scent as his grip tightened.

He shifted his right hand, moving unsteadily across the crest of Ed’s hip and down between their bodies, feeling hot, hard flesh already wet at the tip. He jerked as Roy wrapped his fist around the throbbing length, lifting his head to watch. Ed’s eyes were closed, his head thrown back and his body locked tight, trembling and glorious, perched on the brink and ready to fall.

‘Roy -’

The murmur of his name, a sinful kind of prayer, was enough to break him, and Roy felt a low, rough growl tear itself free of him, his voice catching on one word he could not hold back.

‘Mine!’

Ed came hard, dragging Roy over the edge in a crashing wave of pleasure that hammered into every part of his body. It surged through him as his muscles shook with incredible release, and Roy was left panting harshly against Ed’s skin, wondering how he could feel so broken and, at the same time, so utterly complete.

Chapter Text

Sunset approached, silhouetting Central against a canvas of amber hues. Dying rays of light swathed the bed, caressing skin and steel as they receded over the tousled sheets. Nothing disturbed the lazy sanctuary. Even the sounds of the city were muted, distant things.

Roy stirred, his arm curling around the lithe body next to him as he emerged slowly from a deep, sated sleep. No shrill ring of the alarm screamed at him that the day had begun, and no nagging worry disturbed his peace. There were only the natural noises of his home and, next to him, the strong warmth of another body.

Looking down through half-closed eyes, he examined Ed’s face, for once unmarked by stress or worry. His lashes were dark fans against his cheekbones, and his lips, still reddened by kiss after kiss, were parted slightly as he slept. The braid had come completely loose, and, as carefully as possible, Roy swept back the fall of gold, letting the soft tresses trail down Ed’s back instead.

Gently, he brushed his hand down over the muscled hardness of Ed’s arm, tracing the white line of a scar as he marvelled at the young man in his bed. Broad shoulders and chest tapered down into a slim waist, where, despite all the food Ed ate, there was nothing but muscle and taut, warm skin that fluttered at Roy’s touch.

Making sure to move quietly, he propped himself on his elbow and lifted the sheet, unable to hide the smirk that crossed his lips as he admired the rest of his lover’s body. He had traced every part of it with his hands, he was sure, but sometimes touch was not quite the same as taking in the whole picture.

The expression on Roy’s face fell as he noticed that, even asleep, Ed held his automail arm tightly against his chest as though he wanted to reject it from the intimate equation. Steel fingers were curled in a loose fist, and Mustang gently wrapped his own finger under one of the digits.

Ed obviously thought that the automail arm was not a part of him: useful, but still alien. Yet, to Roy, it was Ed’s palm pressed against his, and Ed’s fingers that were linked between his own. Flesh or steel, it made no difference. Both were beautiful and strong, no matter what other people thought. Miss Rockbell, for one, would probably place the grace of the automail above the primitive attraction of Ed’s flesh arm. Strangers, on the other hand, would think that he was somehow lacking or crippled. They never saw that they were the ones who were less. Yes, they may have all their limbs, but they could never be as perfectly human as Ed, or so utterly irresistible.

Roy sighed, feeling the cool slide of metal beneath his stroking thumb as he waited for nagging guilt to rear its ugly head. Minutes passed, but his warm contentment remained untainted by anything but the steady heat of attraction. There were good reasons that he and Ed should not have taken this last step, should not have got this close, but here, now, it was impossible to feel any remorse or uncertainty. This felt too right, too natural, to be anything wrong.

Next to him Ed stirred, muttering something unintelligible as he pressed himself closer, his flesh hand rubbing up and down Roy’s back in slow, steady motions. It was comforting, a gesture aimed to reassure rather than arouse, but nerves still thrilled at his touch, humming like violin strings beneath a master’s bow.

Roy brushed a kiss to Ed’s temple, then his cheek before capturing his lips, angling his head to get better access. A contented noise rumbled in his chest as the hand on his back moved to clench around the curve of his hip, holding him firmly in place. Ed tipped his chin up, his tongue skating along Roy’s bottom lip as sleepy lethargy became something hotter and more urgent.

God, he had forgotten this: the intoxicating addiction of a new lover. Roy’s body was hungry for every moment, craving Ed’s closeness and touch. His hips moved eagerly as Ed’s erection pressed into his thigh, hard and demanding against sensitive skin. Words were meaningless, unnecessary things, clumsy and inadequate in a world of sensation. To say anything would break the spell and plunge them both back into the coarse, chafing reality where this intimacy was something that they should not have.

Ed’s fingers curled gently at the nape of his neck, a tender touch at odds with the hungry movements of his body. He was shaking with want, quivering as he pressed himself against Roy, saying plenty without uttering a thing.

The world could wait.


‘This one?’ Ed was propped up on his elbow, his automail hand supporting his head as his flesh finger traced a faint trio of scars, no more than silvery lines against pale skin. Roy chuckled, twisting away from the ticklish sensation and catching Ed’s hand in his. Some people may have found the soft exploration of every flaw disturbing, but Roy could see it for what it was. Every marred point of flesh was a focal point for another part of his life: another piece of the puzzle and another story to be told. Ed carried enough scars of his own to know that.

Besides, every revelation brought a fresh emotion to Ed’s features, from laughter when he confessed that one scar was from walking into a lamppost when he was drunk, to fierce protectiveness at the mention of Ishbal and far too many close calls to count. Ed may have learnt a modicum of tact with what he said, but he had never been able to hide his true emotions from his face.

The openness was refreshing, so far removed from the usual games of guile and deceit lovers played. Ed had decided to trust him and, now the decision was made, it was complete, unreserved faith. Loving or hating, laughing or crying, Edward never did things by half. How had it taken him all these years to realise that?

‘I fell out of a tree when I was eight,’ Roy said, grinning at Ed’s snort of laughter. ‘I’ve never liked heights since.’

Ed glanced up, one eyebrow raised in faint surprise. ‘You climbed up on that roof in the warehouse district when I wanted to look at the array. I sort of noticed you kept back from the edge, but I thought you were just being weird.’

‘It’s not like I’m completely incapacitated by it. I’d just rather keep both feet on the ground.’ He ran a hand up Ed’s arm and across his shoulder, watching those gold eyes narrow in contentment.

The thin silver chain of Tom’s pendant hung around Ed's neck, and the star rested just above the array on his chest, a pentagram of lines trapped in a circle of crystals. Roy drew his finger down the chain, feeling the rough edge of the links before he took the pendant in his hand, pivoting the shape idly in its circumference of shining stone. One question, unimportant but nagging none-the-less, kept coming to the forefront of his mind, rising amidst the sea of confusion like flotsam after a storm.

‘When we got to Rider’s, Min asked if you had come to take Sally up on her offer,’ he began, still staring at the necklace in his grasp. ‘What exactly did Sal offer you?’

Ed shifted in an unconscious shimmy of embarrassment, and Roy looked up to see that a dark flush had blossomed across his cheeks. ‘Does it matter?’ he asked. ‘It was ages ago anyway.’

‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m just curious.’ It was not important, but the need to know was like a thorn, a prickling irritation that would not go away. There were bigger, more dangerous unknowns in Edward’s life, from the thing inside him to the depths of his past, but the idea of knowing something like this, something small and trivial, made the end goal of understanding Ed seem more achievable.

Maybe his expression wasn’t as guarded as he thought, because Ed gave a resigned sigh and muttered, ‘She offered me a job at Rider’s.’

Roy blinked, stunned for a moment as Ed’s words sank in. He had known Sally’s offer would have something to do with her business, but he’d thought it would be a – a discount or something, not a place in the select brothel. Surprise had him speechless, but it was obvious why the offer had been made. Sally was no fool. She might not have lust in her eyes when she looked at Ed, but when her business was selling sex she would be able to see clearly what attracted her patrons. Beauty wasn’t the key. Roy knew from first hand experience how good looks paled in no short order if there was nothing but shallow vanity beneath a pretty exterior.

Not only was Ed eye-catching, but there was also a uniqueness about him that gave him an extra element of appeal. He would be something different for a lover of either gender. None of Sal’s employees struck him as one-time whores. They had regulars and formed relationships of a sort with their clients. Sally knew a good business opportunity when she saw it, and the truth was that she and Ed would probably have made a fortune if he had agreed.

The idea of Ed working for Sally should not unsettle him. He had enough lovers littering his past to know that he certainly had no kind of moral high ground, but that did not stop the surge of possessiveness rearing its head. The silence in the room had thickened, going from easy and comfortable to something dense with unsaid words and unvoiced fears, as though Ed was expecting – what – him to be shocked, angry, disgusted?

He was no idiot. There was nothing virginal or shy about the way Edward made love, and he knew there had been at least one other person who had shared Ed's bed. Perhaps they had judged him for it, taking the sins of the profession and tarring Ed with the same, painful brush. Yet it was not as if Ed had taken Sally up on her offer, and even if he had made that decision then there were worse things than prostitution.

‘Did you ever think about it?’ he asked quietly, watching Ed’s expression intently for any clues as to what was going through his head.

Gold eyes flickered up to his, confused and nervous, before returning back to the bed, as though the soft surface were fascinating. Ed shrugged, a jerky, defensive motion. ‘It crossed my mind a coupla times.’ He laughed, but it was an edgy sound without any real mirth. ‘I think Granny Pinako would approve of that more than she does of me being a state alchemist. At least they don’t kill people.’

‘I’m glad you didn’t go and work for her.' He tugged gently on the necklace, relieved when Ed moved closer rather than maintaining his defensive distance. ‘If you had, what we did earlier would have cost me a fortune. Worth every cen, of course’ he added, noticing the faint twitch of a smile on Ed’s lips before he brushed a kiss across them.

‘It doesn’t bother you?’

There was more in that question than just the words, and Roy would have had to be blind not to be able to read what was behind Ed’s uncertainty. His guess was right. Some past lover had turned their back, casting judgement without any thought of what they were letting go. Still, their loss was his gain, and for that he was immensely grateful.

His curiosity niggled at him, demanding “who, when, where?” but for once he ignored it. Whoever Ed had shared his bed with was irrelevant, and knowing the details would do neither of them any good. Besides, if he asked then Ed had every right to expect Roy to reveal the truth about his encounters. That was a can of worms best left unopened.

Realising that Ed was still waiting for an answer he shook his head firmly, pulling him down until he was stretched out along the mattress, loose limbed and relaxed against Roy’s side. ‘People sell worse parts of themselves than their bodies everyday: their honour, their self-respect... . No, Ed, it doesn't bother me, and I don't think less of you for considering it.'

Ed looked up at him, lips parted a fraction. Eventually, he sighed, letting his head fall back to the pillow as he rubbed his nose along Roy’s jaw in silent gratitude. Admitting that he needed anything had never been Ed’s style, and acknowledging that he was reassured by Roy’s words would be, to him, a sign of his own weakness, rather than something that made him that little bit more human.

A loud tapping, rhythmic and enthusiastic, broke apart the fragile peace. The sound was a jarring, alien thing, and Roy stared towards the door in confusion as he tried to place it. A few thundering heartbeats later, he realised that the noise was not coming from the threshold to his room, but from just along the corridor, and he winced as Al’s voice reached his ears.

‘Brother, wake up, I’ve found it!’ The floorboards in the hallway creaked softly as Al shifted from foot to foot. Eventually he seemed to give up waiting for a reply and opened the door to the room Ed usually slept in, because the tone of his voice moved from excited to instantly concerned. ‘Brother?’

Ed swore softly, but it lacked vehemence. It seemed more of an obligatory curse at the inconvenience of younger siblings everywhere than an exclamation of concern. His eyes held a fragment of an apology, and he shrugged, shaking his head. ‘We couldn’t have kept this from Al, anyway. He’s not stupid,’ he pointed out. ‘He’ll guess where I am.’

Roy nodded, grateful that Al was no longer a seven-foot suit of armour. Not that the young man would ever lash out at another human being without reason, but if he thought Ed was being hurt, either physically or emotionally, there would be nothing but cold, punishing anger. Roy had only seen it once, and it had honestly terrified him more than Ed’s volatility ever could. One dead, hating look from the younger Elric was worse than any punch the older could throw.

A timid knock at the door made him smile despite himself, and he heard Al nervously clear his throat. ‘Brigadier-General, is Ed in there? I – um – it’s just that he’s not in his room or anywhere else in the house, and if he’s not with you then I need to go and look for him.’ The embarrassment in the young man’s voice was palpable, and it was Ed who took pity on him first.

‘Yeah, I’m in here. I’ll be out in a minute, okay?’

There was a moment of silence from the other side of the door before Al spoke again, the smile audible in his voice. ‘All right, I’ll be down stairs. I need to show you something, but it can wait.’

Roy raised his eyebrows, surprised by the smug happiness he could hear in those words. He was not sure what he had been expecting. Shock, perhaps, or an element of uncertainty, but instead Al sounded as though it was what he had hoped for all along. Perhaps it was. Ed’s happiness was all that mattered to Alphonse, and Roy suspected that he was one of the few souls who could accept almost anything without a trace of judgement.

'I should go and see what he's found out,' Ed murmured, making no move to leave as he wrapped his arm back around Roy's waist.

Roy nodded, knowing that they could not stay here forever, no matter how much they wanted to. Before there had been no need for words, but now there were too many. They choked in his throat, uncomfortable lumps to be swallowed back. He wanted to ask if they would still have this, out there, where the world was not a warm bed, but a cold, hard place waiting to tear them apart. Was this thing, so new and different from anything he had experienced, strong enough to stand against all the odds that were stacked against them?

A sigh whispered between them, feather-soft in the peace, and Roy dipped his head to brush a kiss over Ed's forehead. 'While you're staying in this house, will you sleep here, with me?' He waited uncomfortably, wanting to have that one little thing to hold on to, needing to know that this was something more than an oasis of bliss in the desert of his need.

Relief curled through him as Ed nodded, lazy gold eyes meeting his. 'Course. I can't fuck you in my room. It's too close to Al.'

Roy chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief as Ed kissed him one last time and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed before stretching like a cat. Muscles coiled and bunched under his skin, and Roy curled his hands in the sheets to stop himself from reaching out and tumbling him back onto the mattress. On anyone else that same, slow arch of the spine would have seemed posed, a non-vocal demand for attention and admiration. With Ed, though, it was something natural, full of powerful, unconscious grace.

Sitting up Roy crawled closer, kneeling behind Ed and running his hand up his sides, kissing the curve of his shoulder and revelling in the scent of sweat and sex. 'We need a shower,' he mumbled, his voice rough as Ed tipped his head back, exposing his neck to Roy's teeth and lips.

'Together, or -?'

God, how did he do it? How could one person turn him on so much without even trying? The image of Ed, water cascading over his body as he leant back against the cool tiles was vivid in Roy's mind, and he swallowed hard as his mouth went dry. 'Al's still waiting,' he pointed out, 'and if I get in the shower with you then I won't be in any hurry to get out again.'

Ed made a husky sound in his throat, bottom teeth worrying his lip as he tried to make up his mind between what he should do and what he wanted. Eventually he huffed out a breath, shoulders slumping in defeat as he glanced up at Roy. 'Next time?'

A nod. It was all he could manage. If he had to speak he knew that he would end up begging. Sex was supposed to ease this ache, this want, not make it stronger. Roy could hardly say he had been left wanting, but, having had a taste, it was as if nothing else would ever suffice.

The bathroom door closed behind his lover's back, and a moment later the gush of water reached his ears. There was no sound of the lock tumbling into place, and he closed his eyes as he realised that Ed had left it open in wordless invitation. He could walk in there and... .

Quickly he got out of bed, dragging himself from the clinging tangle of sheets and reaching for a robe. He couldn't stay here, not when all he wanted to do was step under the spray and run his hands across hot, slick skin. None of his intentions had anything to do with cleanliness, and he would not be rushed in showing just how much he appreciated Ed's body being his to touch and hold and have.

Firmly, telling himself that it was for the best, he walked to the bedroom door, slipping out into the hallway and making his way towards the other bathroom. His shower was perfunctory and bone-jarringly cold, a necessary discomfort if he was going to get through the rest of the day without embarrassing himself.

By the time he had shaved, towelled his hair dry and returned to the bedroom Ed was gone. It took Roy a few seconds to reassure himself that the encounter had not just been some kind of dream; a fantasy conjured up by his lust-addled brain in its exhaustion. No, it had been real enough. Imaginings could never be that intense or satisfying. Besides, the sheets were still rumpled in testament, and the pillows on both sides of the bed were dented. The air was thick with mist from Ed's shower and carried that faint, seductive tang of sex.

Walking over to the window he opened the casement, letting cool air sweep in, carrying with it the perfume of autumn: a cocktail of half-forgotten summer warmth and the sharp, biting promise of winter. Sunset was a distant memory now. Vivid hues had succumbed to true night, and the first stars were blinking through the darkness as he dressed in clean clothes, doing up the buttons of his shirt and staring out across the city.

A movement by the gate caught his eye, and his hands stilled as he peered into the darkness. Street lamps had guttered into life, and now they cast pools of light along the pavement. The thing on the gatepost turned, yellow eyes flashing, tail twitching as it settled on its perch. Just a cat. Roy sighed, hoping the wretched creature had not been crapping in his flowerbeds.

He shook his head, turning away and reaching for a comb. It was strange how the mind could play tricks. He had seen the creature’s silhouette in his peripheral vision, and, for a second, it had looked far more human than feline. Shaking off the ridiculous notion, Roy turned away, doing up the last of his shirt buttons and leaving his collar open as he switched of the bedroom light and made his way downstairs.

Peering into the kitchen, he smiled at the sight that awaited him. Ed and Al were poring over a book, blonde heads bent together as they stared intently at one page. Ed was statue still, his palms braced on the table as he examined what Al had found. The younger Elric was edgy. His earlier enthusiasm had faded, and his fingers twitched restlessly, measuring out the rapid pace of his thoughts. They were completely oblivious to his presence, and Roy leaned against the door frame, sinking into his thoughts.

Sleep had restored his energy and left him anxious for a course of action. There were so many problems to solve, and he had no idea whether Hawkeye had been successful in pinpointing Carmine’s location. He hoped, rather than believed she had managed to find something probative. Perhaps he should go back to the office. Within the four walls of his house he may feel safe, but he also felt detached. The urgency of Carmine's threats fell away, becoming irrelevant as he wrapped himself in the sanctuary of his own domain. For a few hours that was what he had needed, but now he itched to strike back, to lash out and put this whole situation to rest once and for all.

As if it would be that easy. It was almost impossible to recall that this had begun as a simple grave-robbing. Someone had violated his best friend's tomb, and he had given it over to Ed to deal with. From that second onwards, the entire thing had escalated out of control. It was no longer about one person or one crime. Somehow it had turned into a struggle between something far bigger than humanity, and at the heart of it all, like a cancer that poisoned everything it touched, was the gate of truth.

A decade ago he had thought it was just a myth: a symbol for the power at the core of alchemy and the principles of equivalent exchange. Then the Elrics had blundered into his life. They had been too caught up in their desperate whirlwind of a quest to stop and explain, yet there had always been something in Ed's eyes, a hatred that kissed the edges of fear. All he had to do was look at that boy, already so far from being a child, and Roy remembered that all myths had a basis in fact, and all symbols were derived for a reason.

His entire knowledge of the gate was compiled from rumour and cast away comments. At first he had only the faintest concept that it was something ruthless: a thing without empathy designed purely to keep alchemy in check. In the dark recesses of his heart he thought that this arrogant brat of a boy deserved what it had cost him. The price had been asked and taken. Why not accept his punishment and carry on?

It ashamed him that he had ever thought something so callous. As the years passed, it became more obvious that the gate had taken too much and given them nothing but empty promises. Every day, in some way or another, it reached out to touch them again, malicious and vile, like a child pulling the wings off of butterflies. Its presence tainted every aspect of their lives and never left them in blissful ignorance.

At last Al had, in the most part, been cleansed of it. In that, at least, Ed had succeeded, just as he had always planned. It did not matter how much his brother protested to the contrary, he still maintained that the idea to bring back their mother had been his, and was therefore his sin alone to bear.

And, to Roy, the gate was no longer just a myth or a symbol. It was no longer something ruthless but fair. He could see, with the eyes of an outsider, that it was fascinated with the child who had stumbled upon it. Ed's power intrigued it, and, time and again, it pushed itself upon him.

Back when Ed had first become obviously ill, Al had argued that the gate was nothing more than a portal; a thing without conscious thought, need or desires, but for something to be fascinated there had to be a mind and awareness. Ed said Carmine had been polluting the gate for centuries with the pain and sins of humanity, and from that had stemmed two halves of the original, each with some goal in mind and neither afraid to use their hosts in order to achieve them.

Then there was what happened in the kitchen earlier: the scent of sand and flowers and that clinical touch in his mind, rifling through precious memories as if they were nothing more important than tax returns. A shiver crawled up his spine and he twitched restlessly. Did Ed feel like that all the time, like a book to be read? Was it always there, watching him? Had it been there while they were together, a voyeur to their pleasure? He grimaced in distaste at the thought of their intimacy being observed by something else.

Ed had said it was trying to understand the feelings between them, to make sense of them, but how could something be so childishly innocent and cruel in the same moment? It was almost as if whatever was hiding inside Ed possessed two distinct sides. One seemed human, curious and intelligent. The other was far more machine-like, cold and indifferent.

'It's the same, isn't it?' Al asked, his voice interrupting Roy's train of thought as he addressed his brother. 'Those are the same kind of symbols I've seen in the arrays you use.'

Ed's only reply was a nod of agreement as he bit his lip, frowning in concentration at the open pages.

'That's what you've been looking for?' Roy asked, returning Al's warm smile of greeting.

'I thought if I could find out where I'd seen them before it would give us some idea of why brother's alchemy has changed so much.' Al shrugged. 'I'm not sure if it's any use, though.'

'Why not?' Padding across the tiled floor Roy glanced over Ed's shoulder. The array in the book was a series of concentric circles, very similar to what he had seen Ed use before. Around the circumferences were a series of marks, like hieroglyphs. Each was carefully placed and obviously relevant to the intended purpose of the design. In the past Roy had been able to see parallels between Ed's altered alchemy and the simpler, single circle layouts of modern arrays, but this looked completely alien.

'The book's about the origin of alchemy,' Al explained. 'There are a lot of references to older civilisations like Xerxes, but this is before that. Look.' He pulled the book out from under his brother's nose, ignoring the soft noise of complaint Ed made as he flicked through the pages before turning the tome around for Roy to see. 'This is the kind of thing they've found among the ruins of a place believed to be the main city of Xerxes.'

Bold lines drew single circles rather than chains or overlapping discs. Some of them contained one ring inside another, but they looked far more like modern alchemy than what Ed used. The one thing that caught his eye was the same symbols drawn over the lines, half obscured. 'The designs have changed, but the sigils are still there.'

'They're elemental symbols,' Ed said quietly, taking the book back and closing the covers. 'We don't need to use them any more because they've been incorporated into the arrays. When alchemy was first used every element of the transmutation had to be laid out. They didn't know how to combine them together.' He looked at the innocuous book as if it might jump up and bite him. 'That older array was one of the initial designs to build the gate.'

The kitchen was quiet, and Roy realised he was holding his breath, waiting for him to continue. Gradually, as the days and weeks passed, Ed had given them pieces of the puzzle and fragments of answers that only led to more questions. He was the only one with any idea of what the gate wanted or why any of this was happening in the first place. If anyone was going to be the key to finding a solution, it was Ed.

'Would it work?' Al asked, his voice careful. He had years of practice at getting his brother to talk about things Ed would rather keep quiet, but that did not mean he was always successful. 'Could you use the one in the book to rebuild the gate?'

'Even if I could, I wouldn't.' Ed's eyes were flat, and his jaw clenched in a stubborn line for a moment before he sighed. 'The array in that book would never even activate,' he muttered, closing his eyes as if the thought made him feel sick, 'not without ripping the world apart in the process. It would take every kind of energy imaginable to get it going. Even if an alchemist got it to work there'd be nothing left afterwards.'

Roy tipped his head to one side, paying careful attention to the tone of Ed's voice. He was not speaking as if he was working through a theory; he was stating fact. 'You know that because the gate told you?'

Ed nodded once, not offering any more agreement than that simple gesture. 'It's got the knowledge of everyone who has ever passed through it.' He looked at Roy, his sharp, defensive gaze softening a touch. 'At first there was nothing between me and all that. Now there's some kind of barrier. Only some ideas get through. It shows me what it thinks I need to know, nothing more.'

It was said so calmly, as if having the knowledge of the universe so close at hand was as normal as breathing, but Roy could see the lines of strain around Ed's eyes at the admission. Everything they were being told was in the strictest confidence – he knew that. It was not a case of Ed being difficult or stubborn, but the more he said the more Roy realised how much danger the young alchemist was in. If the military found out about this then Carmine would not be the only one hunting Ed down. Perhaps the army's researchers would not kill him, but they would not let anything as simple as a conscience stand in the way of extracting all the information possible from Ed's mind, regardless of the consequences to the gate's human host.

Roy's lips flattened into a grim, determined line as he silently promised that he would do everything in his power to protect Ed from that. There were some things better left unknown, and the thought of even a fraction of the gate's knowledge in Hakuro's hands was enough to chill him to the bone. The sooner they eliminated Carmine and restored Amestris to normal the better, not just for the sake of the city, but for Ed.

'Earlier you said it wanted you to put the gate back together. Did it tell you why?' Roy could feel Al shifting next to him, desperate for an answer, but he did not glance over. Instead he concentrated on Ed, watching as the young man rubbed his forehead, tracing his fingertips over the array that rested between his eyes.

'Sort of. It – I -' Ed shifted helplessly, the frown on his brow a mixture of anger and uncertainty. 'I need to start at the beginning. It barely makes sense as it is.' He sat down at the kitchen table, staring fixedly at wood as he crossed his arms and began to explain.

'The gate was built in a place called Babylon. It was a city that existed about a thousand years before Xerxes. When alchemy was first discovered there was no gate. Energy was taken from Amestris to power the transmutations. It worked for a while, a few decades at most, before things started to go wrong: storms, earthquakes... .' He shrugged, drumming his automail fingers on the table top. 'So the gate was built as a way to balance the use of energy - to make sure that, for all the power used, something equivalent was given back.'

'Babylon was saved?' Al asked, his voice muted as if he already knew the answer.

Ed shook his head. 'It took every life in the city to construct the gate, even the alchemist who came up with the idea. At first there was just one sacrifice. The king, or prince or something, Kaleo. His blood activated the array, and somehow he became part of the gate.'

Roy grimaced. He knew if you went back far enough alchemy became something ancient: dark and foul in its obscurity. Blood always seemed to have some kind of role, intrinsically linked with the array. Some people still believed that it was the best medium in which to draw an array, and the only thing that had kept Al's soul bonded to the armour for all those years was a seal sketched frantically in Ed's blood. Human life was a powerful resource. Both Ed and Carmine had demonstrated that in very different ways.

'Kaleo was just a kid, and he's been stuck there ever since.' Ed shifted uncomfortably, his eyes narrowed as though the effort to explain was painful. 'Normally it's him who's talking to me or trying to explain things, but sometimes there's something else – I don't even really know what it is. It doesn't seem human, but that's the part that wants me to rebuild the gate.'

It was tempting to reach out, to stroke his hands across Ed's shoulders and offer the reassurance that he obviously needed, but Roy clenched his fists in his pockets, contenting himself with moving closer so that he was at least within arm's reach. If he touched Ed now he was afraid that the flow of words would stop and that they would never get the answers they needed. Even if it was physically painful to maintain that distance he knew it had to be done. Besides, if he got into the habit of touching Ed whenever he felt like it then it would be all too easy to slip up in the public eye.

'Did it say why?' Al's question hung in the air like an axe waiting to fall. Outside, branches tapped on the window, beckoning fingers eager for the truth, but the noise had little impact on the tight, tense silence in the kitchen.

'I don't know. I think it tried but I didn't – I didn't really understand.' Getting to his feet Ed paced back and forth in a tight line, face pinched with concentration. 'It was something to do with balance. The reason it drained you of all your energy is because it wanted to make sure that Carmine was not more powerful than me.'

His voice slowed, taking on the steady, almost reverent tones of dawning realisation. 'Killing her won't work. Even if I can pull the darkness out of her there's nowhere for it to go. It would still have the strength to find another host and carry on. The only thing that can contain what's inside her, what she created, is the gate.'

It was fascinating to see Ed like this, to be there as the glittering shards of a broken image finally fell into place to create one smooth picture, even if it was like something out of a nightmare.

'I don't have a fucking choice, do I?' Ed whispered brokenly, the healthy glow of his skin fading as the blood drained from his face. 'If I don't rebuild the gate there'll be no way to stop her. She'll just carry on killing people until there's no one left.'

Roy would have given anything to be able to deny it, to say that Ed always had a choice, but it would be nothing except a shallow lie. It was a cruel twist of irony that Ed would be forced to put back together the one thing that had destroyed so much of his life. The gate had tainted his past and stolen his future, and now it was making him help recreate the one thing he would rather see gone for good.

'I'll help you.' Al lifted his chin stubbornly as Ed looked up, lips already parted to argue. 'You don't have to do it on your own. Why should you? It's the world that's in danger, so why should you be the only one to fix it?'

'No, Al! I only just got you back. How do I know it won't take you away from me again?' Ed's body language changed like the flick of a coin, switching from defensive to aggressive. His whole stance was determined, eyes flashing and shoulders squared to argue down his younger brother.

'So I should just sit back and watch it tear your apart?' Al demanded.

'You don't know that's what will happen.'

'And you don't know that the gate will try and take me again. I don't need your permission, Ed. I'll help whether you want it or not.' Al's eyes flickered over to Roy for a moment before sliding away, 'and I doubt you'll be able to stop anyone else from doing what they want, either.'

The shrill ring of the telephone cut through the house, cutting off whatever Ed's response would have been. The two Elrics glared at each other across the kitchen, neither one of them backing down, each waiting for the other to surrender. Roy left them to it, knowing better than to get caught in the middle of an argument. Excusing himself he strode quickly into the hall before grabbing the receiver and lifting it to his ear.

'Sir, there's a car on its way to you,' Hawkeye said, not bothering to greet him. Her voice, normally so calm and collected, was riddled with a faint tremor. In the background he could hear a woman sobbing hysterically, and the chattering confusion of people who were too sickened by what they saw to know where to begin.

'What is it? Did you find where Carmine's hiding?'

'We found something, but I don't think she did this.' Riza cleared her throat, and when she spoke again her words were carefully modulated to hide all trace of emotion. 'I don't think she's our only problem.'

Roy closed his eyes in mute despair, feeling more weight settle on his shoulders. Was it too much to ask that they only had to deal with one calamity at a time? How was it possible to go through months, sometimes years with nothing but peaceful, monotonous bureaucracy, only to face one disaster on top of another in the space of a few weeks?

'Does it look like something do with an alchemist?'

'There are arrays present.' Whatever the first lieutenant had found had shaken her; he could hear the uneven drag of her breath as if she was struggling to master her emotions. 'I'm sorry, sir, but I don't think what we're dealing with is an out of control alchemist. Nothing human could be this cruel.'

'Cruel?' he repeated in a hollow voice, looking up to see Ed and Al watching him from the kitchen doorway with puzzled expressions on their faces. 'Lieutenant, what exactly did you find?'

'I don't like to make a judgement without being in possession of all the facts, sir. The trail of bodies lead us towards the farmer's market and slaughter district. Once we got here it was hard to miss. My gut reaction, sir?' There was a pause, and Roy could picture her looking over her shoulder and analysing the scene, forcing herself to be objective. 'It's some kind of nest, and it's not been empty long.'

Chapter Text

Sleep did not treat Maes kindly. The dark oblivion of a dreamless night brought him no peace. There were no longer hours of unawareness where his whirling mind closed down. Now it was as if a part of his conciousness stood sentry, a lone guard on the grim border between wakefulness and slumber, ever watchful the darker veils of death to return.

It had all been stolen from him once. A few seconds marked by the bright blossom of pain, and life was gone. He was not about to let it slip away so easily again, but every time he closed his eyes it was there, waiting for him: a squat storm on his mental horizon, distant and threatening. With each passing moment the fear would grow, building to the point where he found himself torn from the clutches of sleep to sit, gasping and sweat drenched, in his familiar bed.

With a groan he rubbed his eyes, looking around blearily at the vivid sunset colours that splashed through the open window. Despite his terror, he had managed to sleep the afternoon away. Even if his mind felt drained, at least his body was rested. Besides, it was getting better. Every night he forced himself to close his eyes and face the breathless fear, and every morning he awoke to taste life in each lungful of air and feel it surging through his veins.

Reaching out, he picked up his glasses, pushing them onto his nose as he let his body take stock. Gracia had left the window open, making the most of the dwindling summer warmth, and the breeze played with the curtains and twisted invisible fingers through his hair. Birds were singing, trilling to one another as they defended their territory and fought over food, and behind that symphony was the ever-present drone of Central.

Grabbing the sheet, he wrapped it around his waist, walking to the window and looking out across the world. Green leaves had rusted, turning brown and gold and touching on a million hues in between. Summer lingered on in the sunlight, but he could tell from the thrill of age-old instinct that this was the last of it. Soon enough there would be frost on bare branches and snow falling from the heavy clouds.

He would be here; he was determined. He had already missed so much, and this blessing of returned life was not something he would ever forget Elysia , his little angel, was already growing up, taking steps to understand the world he and Gracia had brought her into. Pride was a constant torch in his heart, burning bright for both his daughter and his wife.

It was easy, preferable even, to make those shallow, empty promises that nothing would ever separate them. He had sworn to always be mindful of danger. The career he had chosen was by no means safe, and he made every decision with due consideration to the consequences, personal and greater. In the end it had made no difference, and both of his girls had borne the pain of losing him and carried on when others might have given up. He was not so sure he could be so strong if his Gracia left him to raise their daughter. He knew he would be helpless in despair if anything ever stole his baby girl away.

There had been help, of course. Gracia had told him that they had never been alone. If she ever needed anything she need only call the office and someone would be there. She laughingly mentioned the time one winter when the entire staff had turned up to fix a burst pipe in the roof, or when Alex Armstrong had cut down and removed the massive cherry tree in the garden after a storm had snapped the trunk. 'Sometimes,' she confessed, 'I would make more problems for them to help me with. I think it made them feel better, because, in a way, it meant they weren't forgetting you. Besides, they're all so good to Elysia.'

Maes shifted, smiling sadly to himself. It was humbling to know how much of an impact he'd had, not just on the life of his family but his friends. It should have been difficult after Ed brought him back. It should have been a mad rushing world with no place for him, but instead it was like slipping into water. They had all kept his place, either deliberately or unconsciously, and the true miracle of what had been done faded away, forgotten in the blink of an eye. It was easier to pretend that he had never been gone, or that he had just been sent away on assignment - easier not to think about the truth. Until a short time ago he had been nothing but an almost-gone corpse and a slowly fading memory.

When he stopped to think about it, the surreality of his situation was almost laughable. He was probably the only person in the world to have come back from the dead. So many people wasted the one life they had looking for a way to live forever, and perhaps he did not have eternity, but, thanks to Carmine's twisted plot and Ed's determination, he had a second chance.

Being in investigations always stretched the limits of the imagination. There was very little that he would not believe if given enough proof, but he would be lying if he said that this had been easy. To him it was as if no time had passed from the moment he had been shot. His body had just switched off, ceasing to connect with reality in any way. It was like blinking, only to open your eyes and find that years had passed. Supposedly people who woke up from comas felt the same. It had taken him days to convince himself that what was happening to him was real, and even now he still found himself breathless with the amazement of it.

People went through their lives somehow ignoring the multitude of changes that occurred every day, not just in those around them but in the places they lived. This Central was not the same city he had left behind. It was somehow edgier, pushed forward by the constant acceleration of industry. It was certainly busier. He did not remember it being this crowded when he had passed away.

The army too, had changed. Back under Bradley it had been a fat, lazy organisation, content with its leader and the knowledge that the way forward was clear. Now there were divisions and pockets of discontent. A lot of generals knew that Hakuro was being a fool, and the man himself seemed content to enjoy the wealth of his position and ignore his responsibilities. Roy could definitely use that to his advantage. Maes quirked an eyebrow. Perhaps he should do some digging – all it would take is the right rumour in the right ear to undermine any remaining confidence in the Fuhrer.

With a sigh, he crossed his arms, scowling at the horizon . That could wait. There were bigger issues at hand, and besides, it may not be necessary. Within a few days of his return he had asked a few delicate questions, and it came as no surprise to him that several of the older generals were in quiet, steady support of Mustang. Somewhen during Maes' absence his friend had gone from being seen as an upstart young Colonel to someone eminently more suitable for the position of Fuhrer. Perhaps not this year, or the next, but one day. Of course, he would get there regardless of any back-stabbing peers in his way, but it was easier if those with influence were approving, rather than threatening.

It seemed that Roy had done all right without him, after all. He had not been demoted or downtrodden, and he had controlled his tendency to find comfort at the bottom of a bottle. The guilt was still there, hidden from everyone except those who knew him best, but it was a tempered, solid core to his ambitions, rather than an dead weight. There were times, too many times, when Maes had expected to find him dead one morning, finally defeated by the burden he carried around and refused to let go. It was good to be wrong.

'You'll get cold.' His wife's gentle voice made him look over his shoulder. She stood in the doorway, watching him with the most blissful smile on her lips. She moved with steady, practical grace across the room, placing the laundry she carried on the bed before wrapping her arms around him.

'You'll just have to warm me up, then,' he said, voice dropping to a husky growl as he pulled her close to his chest, relishing the perfect fit of her body against his. The top of her head came to just under his chin, and he buried his nose in her hair as she chuckled, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder. He dipped a hand under her shirt, feeling smooth skin and the perfectly tempting curves and dips of her body. This was what he had missed the most. Not just the sex, but the partnership. Perhaps he had not been aware of the passage of time, but he had been without his Gracia's love and understanding for far too long. She knew him better than he knew himself and could read any nuance of his emotions. Without her to come back to, adjusting to life again would have been nothing short of impossible.

A low, breathless moan caught in her throat as he pressed her closer, letting her feel just what she was doing to him. 'Bed?' he asked, nuzzling the soft, tender skin above her pulse, blood surging in his veins as she arched her back.

'Elysia's home from school,' she whispered, 'and you know as soon as we get to the best bit she'll have something to tell you that just cannot wait. I should have woken you up earlier.' The regret in her voice was genuine and gratifying, and Maes stifled a gasp as she scratched her fingernails gently across the taut, sensitive skin of his stomach. 'Tonight?' she asked quietly.

As if he would say no to that.

Gracia stretched up on tiptoes to kiss him before stepping back, straightening her blouse and running her fingers through her dishevelled hair. Her face was flushed and her dark eyes glowed appreciatively as she trailed her eyes down his body, lingering over the rather obvious bulge that the bedsheet was failing to hide from view. With a quick shake of her head she glanced back up to his face, giving a hot, secretive smile that was all his before she slipped out of the room.

Blowing out a sigh, he headed for the bathroom. He would not trade having a wonderful daughter like Elysia for the world, but Gracia's statement was right on the money. His little angel seemed to have some kind of sixth sense for when her parents were trying to spend some quality time together and invariably interrupted. Gone were the days of spontaneous sex. Every encounter took careful planning and a surprising amount of ingenuity. Still, he thought with a smile, it was always worth the extra trouble.

After a quick shower he got dressed, grimacing as he dithered between civilian clothes and his uniform. In the end he compromised, wearing his shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the familiar blue trousers. He just knew that if he opted for his normal clothes there would be an urgent call from the office. At least this way he could still be comfortable, and if trouble cropped up he could be ready in minutes.

It was a harsh way of life, one that Gracia understood and accepted without question. For Elysia, though, things were more difficult. Even now, when she was far beyond toddler-hood, she would still frown and pout if her daddy was called away. Perhaps it was even worse than it had been before. After all, how could he explain to her just how miraculous his presence was? When he had died she had been told he was never coming back, but she had been so little that she had not understood. Even now he was not sure she grasped what death meant. Foolishly he hoped that she never would. He did not want his daughter to have to go through that kind of pain ever again.

A smile crossed his lips as he stepped out onto the landing. He could hear her piping voice from here, talking away without pause as she informed her mother of her day. Gracia was answering as best she could, but it seemed whatever Elysia had to say didn't actually need a response. She must have heard him going down the stairs because, with a clatter of bright, shiny shoes on the kitchen floor, she trotted out to meet him.

Elysia squealed in delight as he swept her up into his arms, tickling her gently with the stubble on his chin as he planted a loud kiss on her cheek. Her laughter rang out through the house, so good and pure that his heart swelled with joy all over again. ‘How’s my girl?’ he asked, grinning as she stole his glasses and balanced them on her own nose. ‘Did you have a good day at school?’

‘We learnt about fish and how they breathe water instead of air!’ she said, proclaiming the fact as if it was gospel, rather than only a half-truth. ‘Miss Knight says that if we’re very, very good for the rest of the week we can get a pet goldfish in class!’

His daughter carried on, gratified by his exclamations of amazement and interest, barely pausing for breath as she wriggled out of his arms and put his glasses on the table before wandering off to get her latest painting for his approval. It was the work of a few seconds to wipe her greasy little fingerprints off his spectacles and put them back on. No doubt she’d take them again sooner or later. For some reason they fascinated her.

Gracia smiled, handing him a cup of coffee. ‘She’s missed you so much. I know it’s hard to believe, but when you were –’ She hesitated, obviously hating to remember the time he had been dead. ‘– gone, she barely spoke at all. The only person who could get her to talk about her day was Ed.’ She stood on tiptoe, pecking him on the cheek before leaving him to Elysia’s tender mercies.

With a quiet sigh, he sat at the kitchen table, trying to ignore the heavy, aching clench of his heart. As happy as he was to be back here, in his house and with his family, he couldn’t help but blame himself for causing them so much pain. If he had been more careful and taken fewer risks then maybe … . He rolled his eyes to himself. The outcome would probably have been the same. What good were recriminations and regrets now?

Stretching his legs out in front of him, he took a fortifying gulp of coffee. He knew that, as a father, he was intolerably doting. Elysia was everything to him, and he never made any secret of the fact. Still, the fact that she had spoken to Ed after his death was surprising. Al, yes, he could see that as plain as day. Even as a suit of armour Al had been easy to trust and confide in, but Ed was prickly and defensive. Even at the best of times Maes would not exactly call him approachable. Still, that was his little girl, always seeing the best in everybody.

Elysia pattered back into the room, a sheet of paper daubed in bright colours and a thin book clutched in her hands. He watched her approach, automatically noticing all the little differences in her appearance. The chubbiness of infancy was ebbing away, hinting at the potential for sculpted cheekbones and a strong, determined jaw. She had her mother's soulful eyes and petite nose, but she was already tall for her age. He really should take more photos, now more than ever. He could almost imagine the woman she would become. God, he would do everything in his power to make sure he was around to see her potential become reality.

'Miss Knight says we have to read aloud,' Elysia informed him, something in her voice hinting that she thought this was a waste of time. 'Will you listen?' She waved the thin book, depicting a rather boisterous and boggle-eyed kitten on the front.

Before he could reply, the ring of the phone cut through the house. The shrill, demanding noise made his heart sink, and he glanced at the clock. Evening was drawing in, and no one from the office would be calling unless it was an emergency. He heard Gracia pick up the receiver, her soft voice turning warm as she recognised the speaker on the other end. Still, from her quick and competent answers he knew the call was for him.

A few seconds later, she put her head around the door, a wistful smile on her lips as she sighed. 'It's Lieutenant Hawkeye for you. She says it's urgent.'

With a rueful nod of understanding he got to his feet, pausing to ruffle Elysia's hair. 'I'll be right back, darling,' he promised, not missing the doubtful look in her eyes or the pout on her lips. For half a second he was tempted to ignore the call and grab his daughter close, to pretend there was nothing else in the world but his family, yet he knew too well that Hawkeye did not exaggerate, and she would never call him unless his presence was truly required.

His gruff greeting was met with a curt apology for disturbing him, but he did not miss the sharp edge in her voice. Mustang trusted this woman with his life, and Maes had always thought that she was the perfect choice to keep Roy in line. She did not get her reputation by being easily frightened, and yet there was something, some faint tremor she was trying hard to hide that kept coming through in her words.

'I've already contacted the Brigadier-General, but I don't expect it's long before your department gets involved, sir. Besides, this might be linked to the issue with Carmine.' Quickly she described what they had found, her lack of detail telling him far more than her words ever could. The presence of alchemical arrays and human remains was enough to cause anyone in the army concern. Public panic had to be avoided at all costs, and there was always the chance that it was the result of one of their own, state-certified alchemists going astray. 'I know that Brigadier-General Mustang would appreciate your presence.'

Maes nodded absently before realising that she couldn't see his gesture. 'Of course. I'll need to be there anyway if I'm going to run the right kind of interference between Roy and Hakuro. I imagine the Fuhrer has been informed?'

'Yes, sir.' The words were simple enough, but he could hear the hidden thought in her tone of voice. She knew as well as he would that Hakuro would not care until the corpses were piled up on his front doorstep. 'There's a car on its way to collect you. It should be at your door within the next twenty minutes.'

Maes looked over his shoulder and hesitated, seeing Elysia standing in the kitchen doorway. She was watching him carefully, looking far older than her actual age as she gave a small, sad smile. Taking a deep breath he turned back to the phone. 'Thank you, Lieutenant. I'll be there within the hour. I'm afraid there are a couple of other matters I need to attend to first.'

He could almost feel Hawkeye's understanding radiating down the line. The woman never missed a trick. 'Very well, sir. I expect we can control the situation until then.' The line clicked on her farewell, buzzing angrily in his ear before he replaced the receiver and turned back towards his daughter.

'Do you have to go to work,' she asked, her pretty little brow knotted in a frown, 'even though it's night-time?'

'I'm afraid so, angel, but I have enough time to hear you read if you want.'

He grinned as her face lit up and she grabbed his hand, dragging him back towards the kitchen. If he had learned nothing else it was that little moments like these were precious. For once, the army could wait.

******

The car pulled to a halt, the driver obeying the instructions of a grim-faced private. It was not a soldier Maes recognised, but that meant nothing these days. He smiled to himself, promising that he would get to grips with the changes in staff at Central Command in the coming weeks. Rank was meaningless; a private could come in just as useful as a general, one day. It was all about who you knew and who owed you a favour or two.

He waved off a mumbled apology from the driver and exited the car, smiling warmly as the private saluted in deference to his rank. There were soldiers everywhere, each wearing the stony expression of men paid not to ask questions or think for themselves. They were keeping the public at bay, and weren’t there always the curious few attracted to disaster? He glanced over the modest crowd, looking for signs of trouble but seeing none. They were simply waiting to see what would happen next.

The slaughterhouse stood on an incline at one end of the square, a grim, brooding building that overlooked everything else. There were tunnels that lead into the sewers beneath, down into the heart of Central’s underworld, and it was one of these that had been cordoned off.

‘Report?’ he asked kindly, feeling a pang of sympathy as the young man looked awkward.

‘Sorry, sir, but I’ve just been informed to maintain the periphery and keep my eyes looking out, rather than in.’ The lad didn’t look much older than Ed, and he licked his parched lips before leaning forward with a conspiratorial air. ‘It’s bad though, sir, whatever it is. It's got everyone on edge - makes them angry or sick or both.'

Maes nodded, knowing that the sound of someone retching would carry across the paved area far more clearly than any words. Beyond the periphery of soldiers he could see Roy’s staff. They were huddled together, standing with the familiar unease of people unsure what to do for the best. He caught Havoc’s eye and waited patiently as the young man trotted over, reassuring the private before leading the way.

Cigarette smoke trailed out behind them, emanating from the battered dog end clenched between Jean’s teeth. He sucked on it as if it was the only thing keeping him sane, and he didn’t even flinch as some more ash drifted away from the tip. ‘Stinks to hell, and that’s just the slaughterhouse,’ he muttered by way of explanation, flicking the butt away and reaching for another immediately.

‘Have you seen what this is all about?’ Maes asked cautiously, reading between the lines of the younger man’s expression.

Havoc just shook his head, and then shrugged. ‘I’ve got an idea -’ He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of one of the large drainage culverts that led under the slaughterhouse. ‘Bones and things.’

‘Animal?’

Havoc just looked at him, and Maes knew it was a futile hope. Animal bones wouldn’t cause this kind of upset. Besides, Hawkeye had mentioned human remains over the phone. ‘Some of them were,’ Jean said at length. ‘There were other bits, skin and – and things.’ He swallowed, and when his eyes met Maes' they were dark with sorrow and horror. ‘Not big bones, though – kids, teenagers – nothing full grown.’

‘Kids?’ His echoed question was dry and rasping, and his confusion and curiosity gave way to the plummeting chill of nausea. ‘How? Bones means that they’ve been dead a while. Their parents…’ The nausea solidified into something greasy and vile as his mind worked out what wasn’t being said. ‘They’re not old bones, are they?’

‘No,’ Hawkeye’s voice was steady and her face utterly expressionless as she answered his horrified question. Maes looked at her in surprise. He had been so engrossed in getting the truth from Havoc that he hadn’t heard her approach. She was holding out something small and innocently white in her right hand, and it was only as he took it that he saw that her hands were shaking.

It was a bone of some kind, but the surface was pitted with dents and scrapes: teeth marks. ‘They’re all like that, sir. These children weren’t murder victims or runaways. They were prey.’

It was like the words were the key to the door that blocked off the most macabre part of the imagination. It was easy, too easy, to picture some nameless monster down there in the blood and the dark; too simple to feel the children’s terror, however short-lived. A knife-edge of pain twisted in his gut. God, out there were parents whose children were nothing but bones. Had they even missed them yet, or were they innocent of that terrible fear? His stomach had gone cold and dead, and the remnants of his coffee were a slick weight. The very thought made him want to run straight home, to scoop his daughter into his arms and never, ever let her go.

‘A few minutes ago I went in a short way,’ Hawkeye said quietly, and there was a trace of an apology in her voice. ‘There were signs of blood and a struggle. It’s possible that there are still some children alive in there somewhere.’ She held out a hand, slapping her palm against his uniformed chest as he moved automatically towards the maw of the culvert. ‘Wait!'

‘If there’s a chance that there are survivors then we have to do something!’ he said, enunciating each word clearly and not caring if his voice carried to the crowd. She wasn’t a parent, so how could she possibly understand? Could she not see that human life was one thing, but the life of a child or a teenager, hardly even begun, was infinitely more valuable that that of a few soldiers?

‘I know, but there are arrays all over the walls. I don’t want to lead anyone down there without some idea of what we are walking into. Perhaps they’re meaningless, but it could be some kind of a trap. Just because it’s only attacked children so far, sir, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t eat an adult if you crossed its path. We need to wait for an alchemist.’

Maes gritted his teeth in frustration. He used to think alchemists were just flashy show-offs, being around Roy tended to give credibility to that impression, but over the years he had realised it was a whole sphere far beyond his understanding. He had picked up a thing or two, but not enough to make even an educated guess on the purpose of most arrays. Of course, no alchemist used the same designs anyway. There were subtle variations in every transmutation, even if their purpose was the same. Hawkeye was right; they needed someone who knew what they were looking at, who could warn them of the dangers rather than just letting them stumble blindly through the dark, but what the hell was taking them so long?

Hawkeye seemed to be wondering the same thing. Her brown eyes repeatedly drifted to the face of a nearby clock tower, and she drummed her fingers on her hip. It was another ten minutes before the sleek black car pulled up the border of the soldiers and Mustang got out, looking furious. He stopped to say something to one of the soldiers, barely blinking at the fumbled salute of surprise he received.

The Elrics were with him, both looking pale and tense. Al was staring at the crowd of people, scanning their faces as if he couldn’t understand why they were here. Maes could guess how the young man felt. There were always people who would stop to gawp, and the morbid fascination was sickening. It would be far easier if they just went home, but forcing them to leave could bring a confrontation between the army and the people. For now it was just a storm cloud brewing with potential, and hopefully the tempest would not break today.

Ed ignored them completely, as if the mass of people were no more substantial than ghosts. Gold eyes were focussed solely on the culvert, as if the young alchemist could see all the secrets contained in its shadows. It was the expression on his face that made Maes uneasy. There was dread there, and plenty of it, but that was not as chilling as the faint trace of weary recognition, as if he were looking on a distant memory brought back to life.

Roy stopped at Ed's shoulder, speaking in a voice too low for Maes to hear. In a second the haunted expression left Ed's face, and a faint, reassuring smile took its place. To an outsider the exchange looked innocent enough. There was no physical contact, nothing to suggest any level of intimacy beyond superior officer and subordinate except a very faint softness around the edge of Ed's smile and the brief flicker of protective concern across Roy's face.

Ever since Ed had brought him back from the gate the attraction between the two had been blindingly obvious. Years of knowing them both had left him in absolutely no doubt. Even before he had been shot there had been something there, some faint spark of something that Ed didn't understand and Roy tried desperately to ignore. The years had changed that, and now all of that tension had shifted, becoming something more gentle but no less powerful and passionate.

He sent a silent prayer of thanks that Roy had taken his advice. There were some things that he simply could not emphasise enough. He knew how precious and short the time any of them had could be. Roy's fears may be valid, to some extent. If the relationship became known there were far more people who would condemn them for their behaviour than praise them for their courage, but as far as Maes could see there was nothing more worth the risk than the chance of love. This wasn't one of Roy's conquests; it was something deeper than that, even if the two of them weren't quite sure what to call it yet. He just hoped that they had the time to find out for themselves.

‘Took you long enough,’ Maes murmured, smiling faintly as they approached. ‘Hawkeye said she called you before me. What happened?'

Roy's dark eyes flickered with anger and annoyance, but it wasn’t directed at anyone present. When he spoke the words were chosen with great care. Just as well, considering any one could be listening. ‘It seems the Fuhrer has decided that he is at personal risk from the events of the past few days. Most of the roads around Central command and his home have been closed and guards posted. The city’s gridlocked. It would have been quicker to walk.’

Maes raised an eyebrow in disbelief, noticing that Havoc and Breda had both rolled their eyes and Hawkeye had let out one pent-up, irritated sigh at that latest piece of news. They were all used to being discreet and keeping their opinions to themselves, but it seemed that Hakuro was straining everyone’s patience.

Taking a deep breath, Hawkeye began to repeat the report she had given him, outlining her suspicions as Roy listened. Maes turned away, not wanting to hear the details a second time. Once had been enough. Instead he approached the dark hole of the culvert, his eyes picking out scattered bones. True night had drawn in, stretching the sinister shadows out into something far more ominous than just shade. At first the remains seemed nondescript. Bits of bovine and sheep skeletons were thrown around, and he stirred a skull with his toe, noting that the teeth marks were smaller. Perhaps whatever they were dealing with was still growing. Either that or it had young to feed.

Hawkeye had said the bones formed some kind of nest, and he could see a mound looming in the dusk. The pile was taller than him and about fifteen feet across, clogging the tunnel. The foundations appeared to be made of animal bone, but here and there a human skull caught his eyes, gleaming like polished ivory. The ground underneath his feet was dry, but he could hear the steady drip and trickle of stagnant water. Rotten meat and old blood, no doubt seeping down from the slaughterhouse, made the air thick with its stench, adding to the horror of the place.

There were occasional arrays picked out on the floor. He stared at them blankly, not really seeing the designs as his thoughts kept turning to the underground night that lay beyond the nest. Were there children down there somewhere, alone and frightened, perhaps running for their lives or otherwise trapped by a nameless monster? His impatience was growing with every passing heartbeat, and he struggled to maintain his composure. As a soldier he knew the logical course of action was to err on the side of caution, to devise a strategy which would allow them to eliminate that threat.

As a parent the only thing that mattered was those children's lives.

'They look like they've been burned in.' Roy's voice, calm and controlled as always, broke into his thoughts, making him blink. Mustang was crouched by an array, inspecting the lines carefully in the faltering light of the flame he had brought into existence. 'It's not drawn or even carved.'

'What do they mean?' Maes watched as Roy looked around the immediate area, putting his gloved fingertips to one design after another. He never quite touched the periphery of each circle, lingering a hair's breadth from the geometric shapes as he frowned in confusion.

There was no immediate answer, and Maes found himself searching his old friend's face with care. When Ed was around people had a habit of forgetting how quietly spectacular other alchemists could be. Ed may be remarkable, but in some areas Roy had far more experience. Until the Elrics had swept into their lives like a thunderstorm the Flame Alchemist had been one of the best: calm and controlled with the wildness of his alchemy all around him.

Even now, Maes would rather ask his opinion before turning to Ed and Al for help. Somehow he felt that if Mustang could provide the answer then the problem itself became less, and a solution would be just around the corner. That was the level of confidence the man could inspire; no one under Roy's command ever truly believed that they would fail any mission.

This time, though, it seemed he was out of luck. Roy sighed, his blue-clad shoulders lifting and falling in a shrug. 'They're just random arrays. There's no kind of pattern or relationship between them. This one's for transmuting stone, but the one next to it is a change of state for water. It's like an alchemist just drew every array they knew.'

'So it's safe?'

Dark eyes, black in the gloom, met his, and Roy's lips narrowed into a thin line. 'Probably not. Even if the arrays are meaningless, there's still a predator in here somewhere.' He glanced over towards the nest of bones, and Maes could practically hear the thoughts and strategies churning in his friend's mind. Some people were born soldiers, destined to follow. Others were commanders, fated to lead. Despite his friend's protests that he only joined up because he looked good in uniform, there was no denying that Roy was one of the talented few.

He had never been comfortable with authority - had always thought too long and hard about the consequences to stay low in the ranks. Before, those skills had been rough around the edges, almost perfect, but not quite. In the time he had been gone it seemed that Roy had honed those talents to something remarkable. His only weakness was his care for his men, and it could only be considered a flaw by the heartless people looking to put Mustang down.

'We have to do something,' Maes said quietly, staring into the heartless black of the tunnel. 'Even if those kids aren't -' He swallowed, feeling sick. 'Even if we're too late for them, we can't leave this thing alive to take anyone else.'

'Of course not. I'd just feel better if we knew what we were dealing with. Is it an animal or...?'

'You think it could be human?' Maes knew he sounded appalled, knew that his emotions were riding far too close to the surface to be professional, but he didn't give a shit. This was above and beyond the call of duty. He knew that alchemists dealt with things; the experimental results of men who had dabbled in playing god. They always spoke of them in dead, flat tones, like it was no more terrifying than going shopping, but it was simple for the trained ear to hear what wasn't being said. Men brought the creatures from their nightmares to life, made monsters of flesh and fur and soul and intelligence and then set them free on the world.

A sound of disgust from Havoc rang out in the tunnel, cutting off Roy's response. The lieutenant had picked his way cautiously up the sides of the nest and stood in the hollow at its summit. 'Sir, I think you need to see this.'

'What is it?'

There was a moment's pause, punctuated by the hollow clatter of Jean picking his way carefully towards the high edge. In his hands was a large shred of something, about the same size as a grown man's torso. It shimmered slightly in the gloom, etched with lines and patches. 'Looks like some kind of skin, like something's shedding. This is one of the smaller pieces.' Havoc looked over his shoulder and back again. 'Whatever it is, it's huge, and probably getting bigger.'

Roy nodded, making no comment at the dread in the younger man's voice. Instead he looked back out at the world, scanning the gathered crowd and the restless soldiers guarding the periphery. 'Falman, Fuery, stay outside. Don't let anyone in. It's not going to be long before the rumours spread. I don't care who wants access: distraught parents, police, even the Fuhrer. No one is to come anywhere near this place. The rest of us will search for any survivors and see if we can find out what we're dealing with. If we need re-enforcements we'll come back here to regroup. Do I make myself clear?'

There were nods all around; Falman and Fuery hurried towards the exit as the others turned towards the darkness. The only way around the nest was over it, and Maes grimaced as bones cracked and clattered underfoot. Everyone trod carefully, as though it were eggshells strewn beneath their feet. Skulls fractured and smaller bones skittered down, rattling like dice as they hit the tunnel floor.

By the time he reached Havoc's side, Maes' skin was crawling. Everything about this place was repulsive, from the stench to the lank, heavy feeling in the air. Jean was smoking a cigarette ferociously, wreathing himself in sweet smelling smoke. He was still turning the piece of skin over and over in his hands, frowning at the mottled patterns. There were other, bigger husks curled and caught on shattered bone edges.

Tugging one fragment free, Maes frowned, running his fingertips over the surface. He'd seen something like this before, and when his memory stirred he felt the last of his warmth leave him. 'This is snake skin,' he said quietly. 'Jean was right, it's growing if it's shedding skin like this.'

'That's a fucking big snake,' Breda muttered, his face glossed with nervous sweat as he stirred the bones with his foot. 'If it's been eating all this... .'

'A normal snake wouldn't eat this much. Even man-eaters only feed once a month or so,' Maes replied, letting the piece of skin fall to the floor. It drifted down, no heavier than a feather. 'This is something else. It can't have been around for more than about a week. Surely someone would have noticed something?'

'Only if they were paying attention,' Roy pointed out quietly. 'From the look of it this thing started off by eating animals. Who's going to notice a couple of missing sheep or cows?' His expression was grim, almost identical to the one on Riza's face. If either of them were horrified by this they were hiding it well, although there were still faint signs. Hawkeye's gun was in her hand, a steady weight in her palm. Roy's fingers were rubbing together as if he longed to click and let the whole place burn.

Havoc threw his cigarette over the edge and into the waiting darkness. Its tip glowed like a falling star, flaring briefly before it dashed apart on the ground. He ran a hand through his hair and reached for another before thinking again and resting his hand on his revolver instead. Breda was just as edgy, fists clenched as he stared into the featureless tunnel.

Finally, Maes looked at Ed and Al. The younger brother was pale, his grey eyes huge and intense, and his gloved hands were flexing at his sides, ready to clap at a moment's notice. He was doing his best to ignore the vile evidence around him, but his gaze kept skittering back down to the bones at his feet, and Maes could see him swallowing back nausea.

Ed stood at his brother's side, staring out into the tunnel. Once in a while he would glance at the arrays which continued on into the darkness, etched at odd intervals into the walls. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his lips were wrenched into a disgusted grimace. Abruptly he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, the drum of his flesh fingers on his automail arm pausing as he struggled to listen.

'Did you hear that?' he asked, looking around as the others froze, straining their ears to catch any sound other than the steady drip and trickle of water and the crunch of shifting bones underfoot.

'Daddy!' The little girl's scream was desperate, shrill and high with terror. Splashing footsteps rang out through the tunnel, but there was no telling where they came from. Beyond where they stood was a maze of drains and sewers, and the echoes bounced back and forth, impossible to pinpoint. 'Daddy, help me!'

Maes' chest went tight, muscles locking and making his breath wheeze between his lips. His heart turning dead in his chest as his veins filled with ice water, and repulsion became bottomless fear. He knew that voice. He heard it every day, and, until now, it had always music to his ears.

Elysia.

Chapter Text

'Daddy, help me!'

The shrill scream echoed back and forth, amplified and distorted by the curved walls of the tunnel. Ed's breath locked in his throat. Elysia's voice was unmistakable, and he looked over at Hughes, seeing the man's confusion give way to terror. His face was ghostly white, and his lips were parted around words he did not have the voice to speak. Green eyes searched the darkness in vain, and Ed swallowed tightly before turning away, unable to face the man's disbelief and despair.

Clumsy, staggering footsteps, barely audible, were already getting fainter, sprinting deeper into the labyrinth of sewers under Central while the adults could only stand there, paralysed by fear. This was no longer just a gruesome mission; this was personal. Now there were not just nameless, faceless victims. A little girl they all knew, had all watched grow day-by-day and year-by-year, was running for her life. She was lost and alone in the dark where every shadow could hide a monster, and Ed knew in the pit of his stomach that she didn't stand a chance.

Bones clattered as Hughes tore himself free of his shock, lunging forward and slithering down the side of the nest to land with a splash in one of the foetid puddles beyond. It was the trigger for the others to shake themselves into action.

The click of Roy's fingers was like a gunshot. Light bloomed instantly, trailing in ribbons along the slimy walls and unwinding into the darkness. Flames leant heat to the air, but they did nothing to drive away the prickling ice that worked its way up and down Ed's spine. Shadows jumped and twitched, skittering back and forth like formless black ghosts as Hughes broke into a sprint. He dashed through water and slipped in the muck as he ran blindly further into the sewers, leaving the others to follow as best they could.

'Elysia!' It was a frantic cry, raw and cracked around the edges, but it went unheeded. 'Elysia, where are you?!'

Ed strained to hear any kind of reply, but there was only the tattoo of their boot steps and the splash of water around them. Strange patterns of light and dark twisted along the wall, and Ed noticed more arrays etched into the stonework. Some were no bigger than his thumbnail, but others spanned the tunnel from floor to ceiling, etching eerie designs in the bricks.

Ever since he had set eyes on this place – had seen the sad heap of bones and the scraps of skin – something had been stirring in his mind. His dread was compounded by a weary sense of recognition. Something in his head had seen this before; it knew a creature that shed dappled skin and left nothing but the bones of its prey behind, yet the knowledge stayed tantalisingly out of his reach, leaving him with nothing more certain than a lingering fear that tainted everything with its touch.

What the hell was this thing?

Lamia.

Kaleo's whisper of terror was an unexpected answer in his mind. Ed stumbled, reeling as the memories flooded his vision, blocking out everything else and robbing him of his senses. Blindly he reached for the wall, looking for something to anchor him to reality as he was swept away, dragged by the inescapable rip tide of the gate's conciousness into the heart of its recollections.

He stood in the arch of the threshold, dwarfed by the vaulted pillars of stone. The doors were whole, thrown wide like the wings of a bird, but they already bore signs of Carmine's assault. There were shallow scratches in the wood and darker stains mottled the grain like cancer. This was the past, he was certain, but how far back from the present day was it? A year, a decade, a century?

'More.' Kaleo's voice was tainted with something older and wiser, and Ed knew that it was both the boy and the gate speaking. 'It was four hundred and thirty-seven years after the fall of Babylon, but this is an entirely different part of the world.'

Ed opened his mouth to ask questions, but invisible fingers touched his lips, firmly demanding his silence. A snarl of annoyance growled in his throat, and he bit back heated words. Just because he hosted part of the damn gate didn't mean it could order him around.

He was about to argue when the misty, golden veils of the plane parted. Power crackled through the air, and a thin seam opened in the blank haze, revealing a cerulean sky and a sea dappled grey and green. Ed could see a marina, where the masts of boats moved in lazy harmony with the swell of the ocean. The wind reached his nose, scented with salt and sun-baked sand. It made him think of siestas and cool beer in the evening, when the heat of the day finally waned enough to be bearable.

As he watched, a butterfly fluttered through, wings flashing with blues and purples as it danced erratically towards the gate. One wing brushed his cheek, as light and hesitant as a kiss, before the shadows reached out, cupping the creature in its grip and whisking it from sight.

Abruptly the scene in the rift changed, racing along cobbled streets before it settled on a house. Sandstone was warm and mellow in the afternoon sunlight, and Morning Glories unfurled blue petals over the brickwork. The door, old wood bleached almost white by the sun, stood open a crack, revealing a glimpse of darkness in the midst of the summer's day.

Sobbing reached his ears: heart broken, fractured gasps. A woman was speaking, her words choking and tight as she wept. It wasn't Amestrian, but he could still understand what she was saying. It was a simple question, asked again and again.

'Why? Why? Why?'

The air around the gate stirred, sending the gold fog into whorls as three small figures emerged. Two boys and a girl approached, clinging to one another. There was blood on their clothes and fresh tear tracks marked their cheeks. Desperately Ed reached out, wishing he could stop them, could somehow make them turn around and go back, but they slipped through his fingers, stumbling hesitantly into the waiting maw of the gate and vanishing into the blackness at its heart.

'Her children,' Kaleo said quietly. 'Lamia was human once. Remember that.'

A hand, petite and warm, splayed across his back, shoving him hard. In three steps he was through, away from the gate and into the place beyond. It was so real that he struggled to believe it was just a memory. The sun touched his skin, making him long to sprawl in the sparse grass and soak up its rays. He could taste the salt on the air and hear the distant cries of gulls. Boats sailed through the impossibly bright sea, their sails full and their prows cutting a white swathe through the gently lapping waves.

The house had been built on the cliff top, and a dusty track wound its way towards the door. Cautiously, Ed walked up it, narrowing his eyes as the wind breathed dust into his face and stirred the flowers, filling the air with their perfume. There was no one about, but as he approached he could hear the woman's cries becoming tighter and more panicked. Her gasping breaths carried to his ears, and he heard the low growl of a man's voice.

Pushing the door open, he stared around the shady interior, ignoring everything but the three prone bodies on the floor. The children. Each had been killed quickly and efficiently. Some people might have said it was merciful, but all he could see was the blood; all he could think of was their fear. Who had done this?

'Perfect.'

The man's voice came from off to the left, and in a few steps Ed stood at a second doorway, staring at the array complex that had been drawn on the floor. It was one of the most complicated he had ever seen, but even without the gate in his head he would have recognised some of the elements of it. He had seen similar, single-circled designs in Tucker's notes. This was nothing to do with elemental transmutation and everything to do with biology. How many times had he touched on the same kind of thing when struggling to get Al's body back? He had spent too many late nights in the library, scanning pages of unspeakable, forbidden alchemy not to know what this was about.

In the middle of the design the woman sat, rocking back and forth as she sobbed brokenly. Her bloodstained hands were pressed to her face as grief filled the room with each of her short, hacking breaths. She had held the bodies, he realised, clung to the last remains of her children as if she could hang onto their lives through something as simple as touch. Isn't that what anyone would do? Isn't that what he'd done, clutching at his mother's unresponsive hand as Al cried himself sick? It was an automatic reaction, a futile attempt to stop the inevitable. It was hard for any sane person to believe that a corpse was nothing but meat.

Something moved inside the array, twitching sluggishly as it tried to find some warmth to heat its cold blood. The snake stared with chilling eyes, its tongue darting out to taste the air as it slowly moved over the woman's feet, curling around her ankles. As thick as her bare thighs and hideously long, the reptile could not have been light, but the woman ignored it, acting as if she was alone. It was like she could not see any of what was around her - as if she couldn't comprehend the danger she was in.

A man knelt at the far edge of the circle, watching her with passionate eyes. His handsome face was an emotionless mask for his insanity. Blood marked his clothes, and there was a crude knife at his side, still sticky with red fluid.

'They deserved to die. You know that, don't you? Those brats were the only things standing between us. Now we have forever.'

It happened so quickly that Ed barely had time to blink. One moment the woman was weeping, the next she had lunged towards the man, fingers knotted into claws and eyes wild and bloodshot. She screeched unintelligibly, struggling against the weight of the serpent that was still coiled around her legs as she tried to reach the bastard who had murdered her children.

The alchemist bent forward in the same instant, placing his hands to the array as the woman's nails sank into his scalp and face, gouging vicious cuts into his skin. If he felt pain he showed no sign of it. There was only the light of success in his eyes as the power built in the room, sending crackling energy through the lines of the design and activating it in a blaze of blinding, hoary light.

In a heartbeat, Ed was back at the threshold of the gate. The beautiful place that had formed the canvas for a nightmare became nothing but a blur of flashing colour before it vanished from sight, replaced by the familiar, jaundice colours of the gate's realm.

On either side of him, the massive timber doors were groaning as if in pain, and when he looked over his shoulder he saw the darkness bulge alarmingly, moving like a creature thrashing against a trap. Silver light lanced across it, giving the shadows a mottled look. He could feel the power rushing out from the portal, saturating the plane with its strength. Air, thick with the tang of alchemy, caught in his throat, filling his nose and mouth with its metallic edge.

Looking back at the slim window to that other place, he saw that the house had collapsed. The power of the alchemy within its walls had torn it apart, making it a grave for all those inside. The alchemist emerged from the nearby haze, his face hollow and emotionless. He walked like a soulless thing, utterly without feeling. There was no sign of apology on his face and no evidence of any guilt. Ed itched to lash out, to make this facsimile of the man feel as much pain as his victims, but it would be useless. You couldn't punish a ghost. Death had already deprived him of anything worth having.

As the alchemist brushed past him and stepped into the waiting night, the mist around the gate began to crackle and pop, seething until the air sang in high, frenzied notes. Ed winced, pressing his hands to his ears, but it made no difference. The sound crept in through his bones, making his head pound and his teeth ache.

Something flashed on the ground, scorching its way across the featureless earth in lines of brilliant light. The alchemist's array complex sketched itself out as energy arced from one line to the other, faster and faster, brighter and brighter, until Ed could not bear to look. Around him the dead, breathless air began to stir, picking up to a breeze before growing into a gale that whipped his hair around his face and pushed at his back, plucking at his t-shirt with determined claws.

One loud, explosive sound rang out, and something black and indistinguishable shot from behind him, lunging over his shoulder and wrapping itself around the faint, phantom-like shape in the middle of the array. It writhed and flowed like living ink, sucking at the light until the entire scene was saturated in splashes of tangled, tortuous monochrome.

Finally the storm abated, the sharp wind dying down to nothing but a breath before it faded completely. The array had gone, erased by the blankness of the world in which the gate stood, but its work was done. The alchemist's dream had been made reality, and Ed could only stare at the prone creature. He had killed chimeras before, forcing himself to believe that it was an act of mercy to put those strange things out of their misery, but he had not seen anything like this.

It was not the animal with a voice that Tucker had created from members of his family, nor a hybrid, perfectly human with special abilities, like Martha. It was something out of myth – the kind of thing that belonged between the pages of a fairytale, not in the real world. Bitterly he hoped it was dead. He wanted to pretend that there was no way such a thing could really exist, but he could see the rise and fall of its human shoulders with every breath it took.

Her dark hair spilled over her face but did nothing to hide what she had become. Her bare torso was covered with a faint sheen of translucent scales, clinging to her human shape like an expensive gown. Across her stomach the snakeskin darkened, becoming emerald green and black as it thickened and covered the coiled tail that was all that remained of her legs. The muscular length of flesh shifted, the scales rasping softly against one another as she began to stir.

Arrays glimmered among the patterns on her skin, shifting in and out of sight at random. Where each one bloomed and faded a red fluid welled up, glistening like blood as it oozed from between the scales. When it hit the ground it solidified, creating tiny fragments of glassy stone that shone like rubies.

'Those are red stones,' Ed murmured, stepping back as the woman groaned and rolled over, her eyelids fluttering open and her dark eyes darting around as she tried to understand her surroundings. 'How...?'

'They're weak – practically useless,' Kaleo replied. 'It's only when she feeds that they become something more potent. It was the way she was designed. The blood of her prey gives the stones power. The man who created her made sure that part of the array linked her intrinsically to the power of the gate. She was not an alchemist, but he gave her some small level of control over the power behind alchemy. It made her different, something above and beyond anything ever created.' The words were hushed with awe, as if he could not help but be impressed by what the alchemist had done.

'Why?' Ed asked, flinching despite himself as her crazed, bloodshot eyes swept over the gate, taking in the vast edifice. She snarled, fangs pricking her own lips and drawing blood, but she seemed not to notice. ‘Why would any one create something like her?'

'I do not know. The alchemist's motives were not those of a sane man. He wanted to make her powerful, a lover worthy of his status, but he could not resist the opportunity to put his own theories to the test. It was an obsession, but he gave her the strength to survive, to break away from here and return to your world. She terrorised the nations for centuries before she was trapped within the gate, locked away like the animal she is. When it was destroyed she was weak and formless, but she still had strength enough to escape through the channel Carmine left behind.'

Ed shook his head, watching the woman's attractive face twist and twitch with insane hunger. She hauled herself up, dragging her body along with her arms as the snake's tail writhed behind her, lacking the coordination to propel her away from the gate. Dark arms were already reaching out, trying to reclaim her into the shadows, but every time one of them touched her there was a snap of power, and they recoiled as if in pain.

'It's about more than just strength,' Kaleo continued. 'It's about ambition and will. It takes a massive form of passion to escape the clutches of the gate. Love, hate, they're both their own kind of hunger. She was not the only one to be set free.’

'What else?' Ed demanded, watching as Lamia clawed her way towards the rift that led to the warm, sunny world she had occupied as a human. 'What else did Carmine let back into Amestris?'

There was a pause, thick and heavy, before a voice replied. Kaleo's childish tones were gone, replaced with the calm words of the gate alone. 'A homunculus. The first; the strongest. We would expect nothing less from a transmutation by Hohenheim of Light.'

Reality surged back, hitting Ed's senses like a battering ram. His fingers curled against the water-slicked stone of the tunnel wall, and he almost slumped to his knees as the stench assailed his nose, making him gag and wretch. A dead, dull beat of pain thrummed in his head, making him feel as if his skull was splitting in two. Tendrils of hair stuck to the sweat on his forehead, and his muscles were shaking as if he had just run a marathon.

'Fuck,' he hissed, opening his eyes and blinking at the darkness. The others were gone, too intent on finding Elysia to notice that he had fallen behind. The array on his forehead was giving off a weak blue glow, but it was not enough to see by. Grimly he staggered forward, trying not to think about what he might be treading in. He didn't even dare reach out to the wall to guide himself along. It was sheer fluke that he had not touched an array when the gate had swept him away. The last thing he wanted to do was activate any one of them, large or small.

After a few agonisingly cautious paces he stopped, knowing he couldn't go on like this. He needed light. Without it he was defenceless and half-blind, and the gloom was only getting thicker as he inched further into the depths. He had never really tried fire alchemy, had never had the need, but if Roy could do it then how hard could it be?

The single array that sprang to mind changed before he had the chance to clap, twisting itself into three separate discs in his mind's eye. As soon as his palms came into contact with one another the darkness vanished, chased away by a flare of blue-white flame. Ed flinched away from the heat, shutting his eyes instinctively against its intensity as around him the arrays on the wall hummed in a discordant melody, reacting to the surge of power he had just unleashed.

Sweat ran down the bridge of his nose as, next to him, the fire continued to burn, consuming nothing but air. It spat every time a drop of water got caught in the heat, and puffs of steam drifted upwards. Roy always made it look so easy. He ignited the air as if it really took no more effort than the click of his fingers, but to keep even a small flame burning on gases alone required immense concentration. It was a constant expenditure of power; no wonder Roy only used his alchemy when he really needed it.

Cuffing the moisture from his face, Ed glanced around, seeing the tunnel in true light for the first time. The bricks were old and worn, pitted with age and erosion. They ran with pink, rotten water, seeping down from the ground where rain mixed with the blood from the slaughterhouse. He had always imagined the sewers to be crawling with rats and other pests, but this place was lifeless. Nothing disturbed the puddles, and there was no sound but the steady drip of water and, in the distance, the gush of the main flow as it worked it way down into the dark.

Ed swore again. How the hell was he meant to find the others to warn them? When he had first heard Elysia's cry for help his instincts had told him that something was not right, but he had ignored the creeping uncertainty, thrusting it aside. Now he knew what had bothered him so much.

Elysia had probably been at home with Gracia when Hughes had left. It was half an hour's drive from there to the slaughterhouse. It would take ages to walk, especially for a child. There was no way she could have got here alone in that time. Even if she had been snatched from her mother then there were too many guards for anyone to bring her into the culvert where the nest was, and there were miles of sewer under Central. How had she ended up close enough for them to sense her cry for help? How had she even known her father would be there to hear her? It was all too convenient and well-timed. Now it was like Ed's eyes had been opened; the whole thing looked like a trap, and the others were heading into it at a sprint.

If the gate was right, if Envy had slipped through at the same time as Lamia, then there were probably two monsters down here. At least the serpent woman kept the face she was given. With Envy around trust became impossible. Anyone could be the enemy, the snake in their midst, and there was no real way of telling until it was too late. With Lamia providing a constant source of red stones, increasing in potency every time she ate, it was entirely possible that the homunculus had gathered more strength than ever before.

With a quick shake of his head, Ed broke into a sprint, trying to concentrate on where he was putting his feet and keeping the flame alive all at once. The pounding in his skull increased, making his jaw ache and his vision blur as it intensified, but he had to ignore it. Every second he wasted could cost one of the others for their lives. If they had all stayed together it would have been more difficult for Envy to get close enough for an attack, but now all he had to do was take on Ed's appearance and the others wouldn't even question his presence. They had no reason to suspect anything was wrong, and Envy would have the opportunity he needed to hurt or kill whoever he pleased. Would they even realise, or would they think that Ed had betrayed them?

No. They knew him better than that. Al would never believe Ed capable of causing him pain, and surely Roy would never think that he could be his lover one minute and his enemy the next?

Ed swallowed hard, feeling sick at the thought. He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let that thing take his face and betray the people he cared about. Maybe the others had the faith in him to know immediately that something was wrong. Perhaps they would recognise Envy as an impostor despite his masks, but what if they didn't? What if their last thought as the homunculus lashed out was that Ed had turned against them?

Despite the pain in his head he sped up, finding a long, steady stride as his breath rasped between his lips. The air was vile, coating his tongue with a foul taste, but he ignored it as the puddles became more dense on the ground, and the still, stagnant water finally began to flow as the floor sloped downwards.

Walkways rose up, flanking the putrid channel. The paving was cracked and slick with the wet, but it was better than slogging through the rapidly deepening water. Ed continued to run, fighting to stay upright as his boots slithered and slipped. Beside him the flame had become edged with a pallid, sickly green, reflecting the panicky nausea that was making his stomach roll. Its wavering light spread out ahead of him, and he swore viciously, skidding to a halt as he stared at the branching tunnel. The right hand one was a steep downward slope, sending the water surging into the darkness. The left was flat and almost dry.

There was no sign of anyone else; no running footsteps echoed back to him, and no ribbons of flame flickered in the darkness ahead. Which way had they gone, and how far ahead could they have got? It felt as if the gate had held him in the clutches of its memory for hours, but was it really that long, or had it only been a few minutes? Groping in his pocket, Ed pulled out his watch, ignoring the flat gleam of the silver as he flipped open the lid and stared at the face.

After a moment he held it up to his ear, scowling as he heard no sign of life from the mechanism. It was more of a status symbol than a timepiece, flashed to bored officials to gain access to restricted areas or get his way in an argument, and he was always forgetting to wind it up. For all he knew he had been down here for days. Shoving the watch back in his pocket Ed ran his hands through his hair, scowling as he tried to find some kind of sign to tell him which way to go.

A flicker of orange in the corner of his eye made him look towards the left-hand passageway. The arrays that had been in the main tunnel were etched into the wall here too, and each one was burning, their lines licked with hot light and sparkling like jewels. The right tunnel was dark. There were no marks on the stone walls except the pitted erosion of water and time.

Edging closer he tried to peer into the left hand tunnel, but the flame could only cast so much light, and beyond that the darkness was like a barricade. No arrays glowed in the shadows; it was dead, breathless and still. Glancing over his shoulder he raised an eyebrow, staring at the clear trail of designs that glimmered in his wake like the tail of a comet. None of them were active, but nor were they dormant. It was as if they had awareness and were waiting for their moment to spring to life.

The scientist in him couldn't resist a simple experiment, and he took a few steps down the left tunnel, watching as more arrays began to glow. Were they responding to the light of the flame? No, that couldn't be right, or they would have reacted to Roy's alchemy and left a clear path for Ed to follow. Instead they seemed to sense his presence, and the lines ignited like flowers opening their petals to the sun. With every step he took more began to glow, and he could feel the air coiling with the thick power he had grown so used to over the past few weeks. It filled his lungs with every breath, making his nerves sing and his heart thud beneath his ribs. A prickle of heat spread across his chest, and the subtle warmth of the scar on his torso began to build.

When they had first seen the arrays back at the nest, everyone's immediate conclusion had been another mad alchemist, lost within the depths of his power, but Ed could not forget the shifting, changing designs he had seen blossoming over Lamia's scales. They had been eclectic and random, just like those all over the walls.

Kaleo had said that the serpent woman had been tied in to the power behind the gate, linked intrinsically by the array that had turned her into something out of nightmares. If the sigils on the walls were her doing then perhaps they were reacting to the fragment of the gate in him, sensing it like a dog picking up the scent.

Ed jerked his head up, staring into the uninformative shadows as a soft sound reached his ears. It was a gentle whispering, like the hush of sand blowing across the desert, or, he realised, the rasp of scales sliding along the ground. If the arrays could sense what hid inside him then Lamia would certainly detect its presence. The gate made a beacon of him: a bright light of power in the velvet blackness.

He swallowed tightly, taking a step back as he fought against the urge to turn and run back into the city above. Up there he could fight this thing, but down here he was disoriented, weak and crippled by the darkness and cramped by the endless curved walls.

Grimly, he lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders. He had never run away from things before, no matter how horrific. He was not about to start now. Forcing himself to stop and listen he realised that the sound was growing more distant, fading away until his ears buzzed with the strain of the silence all around him. Either she was running from him, or she had better prey to chase.

Hawkeye had mentioned something about possible survivors, and he wondered if Lamia was slithering after someone who had escaped. He had seen blood back at the culvert opening and had noticed some of the bones from the nest had been scattered across the ground. Someone must have thrashed and kicked, fighting desperately to escape the creature's clutches. Perhaps they had succeeded.

He would bet his next pay check that Lamia ate fresh meat. Snakes were not scavengers, and eating anything that was not freshly dead would revolt the human part of her. There had not been enough blood at the nest to suggest a recent kill, so even if the kid had not got away from her she had not eaten them straight away. Did she have a lair deeper in the sewers where she could store those she captured until she was ready to feed?

Either way he was not getting any closer to finding answers by standing around. Drawing in a determined breath, Ed walked forward, no longer sprinting recklessly ahead but taking his time and searching for any sign of friend or foe. Whether he was the hunter or the hunted he had to track down Lamia and stop her. It was his blood that Carmine had used to open a conduit back from the gate's plane to Amestris. If he had found it earlier – if he had taken the time to go back to the array and make sure that it was as inactive as he thought – neither Lamia nor Envy would have found their way back to Central. He had to put them both back where they belonged.

Here, away from the main flow of the sewers, the air smelled musty and disused. The drain was mostly dry; it would probably only fill during heavy storms or when the snow melted, and a long, dry summer meant that the mud in the bottom had turned to packed dust. Small billows curled around his boots with every step, settling over his footprints and obscuring them from view.

With no daylight or distinguishing features it was impossible to tell how far he walked, but it felt like miles. Once in a while he would hear something and freeze, only to realise that the noises were filtering down from the city far above his head. The sewers themselves were calm. There was nothing to keep him company except the slow, steady glow of arrays in his wake and the fire flickering at his side.

Rounding yet another corner, Ed saw something small lying in the dust. It looked like a scrap of fabric, and he gently stirred it with his toe before crouching down to pick it up. The green cloth was grubby and stained, but it didn't seem to have been here long. It formed a band like something that might fit around someone's head, and two strips, tattered and frayed by a struggle, hung down from the main part.

Touching one of the stains he realised it was wet and tacky, and his fingers came away smudged red with blood. It wasn't much, definitely not a fatal wound, and that meant that Hawkeye was right. Someone down here was still alive, or at least, they had been an hour ago.

A rough, gritty, sound made him look up, eyes wide as he stared at the twisting tunnel ahead. The corners obscured his view, making it impossible to see what was coming, but it was definitely getting closer. In a flash Ed lunged to his feet, pressing his back to the far wall before extinguishing the flame at his shoulder. Around him the arrays leant a hellish, ruddy glow to the shadows. They did nothing to light the sewer, but Ed could feel the power in them coiled tight, sending tendrils of warmth skittering across his skin.

Mutely, he pressed his palms together, transmuting his arm into a blade as his muscles tightened, ready to pounce. The designs on the walls flared, and he hissed a curse as the strange, haphazard sound stopped. Whoever or whatever it was must have seen the wax and wane of light ahead. They knew that there was something in the tunnel with them, and the silence pressed like a cloth over Ed's ears.

He shifted his weight, creeping along inch by inch as he stared into the darkness. The dim glow from the arrays played tricks with the shadows, serving only to define the darkness. To all intents and purposes he was blind, and he swallowed hard as he struggled to discern anything from his surroundings. His own heartbeat drummed in his ears, and there was nothing in the air but the dry, dusty smell of the disused drain and the faint taste of alchemy.

A glimmer of something made him jump, and he scowled as he realised it was the array on his forehead glowing with the familiar blue light. Perhaps it had been doing it all along. It was so normal to him that he often ignored it, but now it was a fragment of bright sapphire amidst crimson and black. With a mental curse he realised that it would give him away: a moving point of light in all this gloom.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind a shadow shifted in front of the arrays ahead. Before he could even draw breath the darkness stirred, and a heavy weight barrelled into him, knocking the air from his lungs. Stars exploded across his vision as his head was smashed forcefully against the brickwork. He grappled clumsily with his attacker, trying to block the frantic punches he couldn’t even see coming.

Anger took over, erasing everything with its red haze. There was no fucking way he'd come this far just to be killed by something in the sewer. With a snarl he wrenched himself away, twisting aside and kicking with all his strength. It connected with what felt like a leg, and there was the thud of someone collapsing to the floor with a cry of pain. A second later Ed's feet were knocked out from under him, sending the arrays on the wall wheeling like constellations as he fell. Before he could even blink there was a weight on top of him, and clutching fingers wrapped around his throat, pressing down on his windpipe as they shook him like a dog would a rat.

'Where's my brother? What did you do with him? What did you do?!'

Ed’s eyes widened. He may not have heard that voice for a couple of years, but he still knew it instantly. In a flash he whipped his arm up, forcing the hands away before he scrambled back, lifting the automail blade defensively so that he was ready to slash and hack if he had to. Hastily he clapped, and the flame jumped to life, filling the tunnel with burning light and casting the features of his attacker in a warm glow.

Russell Tringham knelt in the dust, his breath panting between parted lips. He was dusty and bloody, and Ed could see more than one bruise beginning to darken the younger man's pale skin. Grey eyes widened in recognition, but he didn't let his guard down. His whole body was painfully tense, as if he did not believe what he was seeing. He shifted his weight back, hands clenched into fists as he stared, waiting for Ed's next move.

'He is not a homunculus.'

Ed rolled his eyes at Kaleo's words. He could see that for himself. Russell's presence might be unexpected, but he knew he was real. Envy was a master of disguise, but there were some things he could not imitate. The homunculus did not understand fear, and Russell’s face was a picture of deep, dark panic that could never be faked.

'Ed?' Russell rasped, taking in everything from the automail to the glowing array between Ed's eyes. He frowned doubtfully, and Ed remembered that he hadn't seen the Tringhams since before he had retrieved Al's body.

'It's me, Russell,' Ed confirmed, slowly lowering his arm and transmuting the blade back into a hand. He could see the lingering disbelief on the younger man’s face, knowing he must have seen something to make him disbelieve the proof of his eyes.

Holding his palms out in surrender, Ed tried to think of something he could say to convince him. 'I met you in Xenotime. You were pretending to be me so you could carry on your father's research working for Mugear. Me and Al saved you and Fletcher.'

Russell narrowed his eyes suspiciously, still hunkered like a cornered animal wondering whether to fight its way out, yet there was something vulnerable about him. He took a deep, shuddering breath, swallowing tightly before he whispered, 'That doesn't prove anything. Anyone could know that.' He couldn't keep the hope out his voice, and Ed realised that Russell was probably desperate to believe it was really him, to think he had an ally in this dark labyrinth. 'Besides,' he added, 'you got it wrong. We saved you.'

'Like hell you did,' Ed muttered, scowling at the idea. 'Look, it's me, all right? We don't have time to fuck about. Where's Fletcher?'

It shouldn't have been possible, but Russell's face grew even paler. He looked sick and broken with despair. 'I – I don't know. I stopped for just a minute to look at some textbooks in a shop window. He -' Russell sighed miserably, looking away as he carried on. 'He was being a brat – wanted my attention about something. I told him to shut up, just for one minute. I didn't think anything of it when he went quiet, but when I looked around he wasn't there any more.'

'You lost him?' Ed asked incredulously.

'Shut the fuck up,' Russell snapped. 'It wasn't like that. The street was crowded and I -I thought he just wandered off. Then I saw him in the distance following someone. He wasn't being dragged or forced – just following. I ran after them, but I couldn't catch up. When they came down here I didn't now which way they went.’

Ed frowned, shaking his head as he got to his feet. 'Did you see who Fletcher was with? It must have been someone he thought he knew. Between the two of you he's the only one with brains; he's not dumb enough to just tag after some stranger.'

'It must be you,' Russell muttered miserably, getting unsteadily to his feet. 'No one else could possibly be so annoying.' He looked around, as if the walls, floor and endless darkness were all more manageable than meeting Ed's eyes. 'Look, it doesn't matter who I thought I saw. It's – It's not possible.'

Ed hesitated for a second before changing tack and asking, ‘Who else did you think I could be? You didn’t seem sure that you could trust what you were seeing.’ He paused, seeing the wariness in Russell’s expression as clear as day. ‘You still don’t.’

Russell crossed his arms, his lips pressed into a grim, tight line before he shrugged. 'It – it looked like our father. It looked like Fletcher was following our dad but, once they were off the street I thought – I thought I saw him change into someone else – different face, hair, clothes, just like that. He grabbed Fletcher and dragged him away. I heard screams... Heard him begging to be let go.' He ran both hands through his hair, clutching at his head as he hunched his shoulders. 'I've been looking for hours. I keep hearing things but – but I can never find anyone. This place is a fucking maze.'

A small, half-hysterical laugh escaped Russell’s throat, sounding almost like a sob. ‘For a minute I really believed it was him. I really thought that – I dunno. I thought dad had come back to us. I’m a fucking idiot.’

Ed winced inwardly, not knowing what to say. Hope was a painful thing, and it was almost impossible to kill completely. The Tringhams had been fending for themselves for years now, growing up as best they could, but it seemed that part of Russell still wanted to believe his dad was out there somewhere.

‘You need to concentrate on finding Fletcher,’ Ed said firmly. ‘What brought him down here used your father’s appearance to grab him without a fight.’ At his shoulder the flame got a little brighter, giving him the light he needed without any conscious demand from him. 'Come on. We might not have much time.’

‘What’s going on?’ Russell demanded, hurrying to keep up as Ed set off. ‘What are you even doing down here, and where’s Al?’

‘He’s here somewhere.’

‘You lost him?’ Russell asked mockingly, mimicking Ed’s earlier question. ‘Looks I’m not the only careless one.’

‘He’s with a load of soldiers, unlike Fletcher,’ Ed snapped. ‘We found some remains and arrays in one of the culverts. Not everyone in the army buries their head in the sand and hopes their problems will go away. We were investigating and I got separated from the others.’

‘Remains?’ Russell whispered, his expression stiff with fear. ‘What kind of remains?’

‘Human,’ Ed replied, knowing he couldn’t sugarcoat the truth. ‘Children’s bones, mostly. There’s a kind of chimera living down here. She feeds on them. The thing that looked like your father was probably catching prey for her.’

‘Wait. You’re saying there’s some kind of – of monster living under Central? Are you even listening to yourself? You sound completely insane. How do you even know? Have you seen it?’

‘Sort of.’ Ed looked over his shoulder, seeing the sick dread on Russell’s face. The younger man was in denial, desperate to do anything but acknowledge the possibility that his little brother might be some creature’s next meal. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the cloth he had found and handed it over. ‘Look, that’s Fletcher’s hat, isn’t it? I found it not long ago. He’s been here, and the bloodstain’s still warm. He’s probably still alive, but I don’t know how much longer we’ve got. I know it’s hard to believe, but you’re just going to have to trust me.’

Ed waited impatiently until, finally, Russell nodded in agreement, keeping close to his heels as they walked, following the serpentine path. Their footfalls were the only sound in the thick, still air, measuring out the precious minutes with each step.

Rounding another corner Ed swore viciously, ignoring the flame's hiss and spit at his side. The tunnel had widened out, and they stood at the junction like the hub of a wheel. Eight more drains, some broad and wide, others barely big enough for him to walk down, branched off like spokes leading away into the darkness.

Shreds of skin littered the floor, scales gleaming like emeralds in the light. Little human things – scraps of cloth, a doll, a school bag – had been thrown aside like rubbish, the only testament to the children who had already fallen victim to Lamia's appetite. How many had she eaten? A handful, a dozen, or more?

Arrays were everywhere, running in thick swathes across the floor. Every tunnel had designs on the walls and Ed closed his eyes in disbelief. Precious seconds were slipping away, and he had no clue which direction would get them closer to Fletcher. If Lamia was the one somehow creating these arrays then the passages where they were densest should be the one she used most often, but they were thick everywhere, creating a chaotic overlap of lines and circles until they lost all definition.

'You're lost, aren't you?' Russell demanded, his voice twitching with an edge of panicky hysteria. ‘My brother is in the hands of some – some thing, and you're lost!' He was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his hands clenching spasmodically into fists. 'I should have known following you was a mistake.'

'Shut up, Russell. You were going the wrong way entirely. If you hadn't run into me you'd be back on the street by now, and Fletcher wouldn't have a chance.' Ed snapped, turning towards one of the more likely looking tunnels, watching the walls ignite with a sullen, bitter crimson. The arrays were so dense that there were only pin pricks of blank stone amidst all of the trailing lines.

The floor sloped steeply downwards, and a shallow, sinuous gully had been swept in the dust. Glinting along the edges like blood were tiny fragments of red stone, and he reached down to pick one up. It was glassy sharp beneath his fingertips, drawing blood. In the blink of an eye the stone was gone, melting into his skin as the arrays in the bricks burned brighter.

Licking his lips he drew a shaky breath, pushing aside the tight thrill of trepidation that uncurled in his stomach. He could feel the presence of the gate inside him, hotter than ever before as it blazed in his chest, pulsing in tandem with the beat of his heart. How much stronger would it get? The deeper into the sewers he got the more he felt its presence in his mind. It was no longer a whisper of knowledge but a leaden weight, pressing down on the back of his neck. It was as if the presence of Lamia had stirred up a hornet's nest of its memories, and snatches of false recollections kept surfacing in Ed's mind.

'Hey, are we just going to stand here or what?' Russell asked, grabbing Ed's shoulder and shaking him out of his thoughts. 'What did you find?'

Ed blinked, frowning for a second before he motioned into the shadows. 'It’s this way. Lamia's been here recently. If we find her we'll probably find your brother.' He began to lead the way, looking back as Russell hesitated. The younger man was looking at him doubtfully, and Ed didn't miss the fact that Russell's gaze kept darting up to the array between his eyes. 'Are you coming?'

'Of course. If I leave you to rescue Fletcher you'll fuck it up.'

Ed idly flipped him the finger, trying to focus his mind on what was around him as he made his way down the uneven slope of the tunnel. Shouldn’t he have seen something of the others by now? There had been nothing: no sight, no sound, no trace that they had ever set foot down here, and all he could think was of them lost in the dense night, running right into Envy’s grasp.

'Do you hear that?' Russell whispered, making Ed jump. 'Listen!'

A constant gushing sound reached his ears, monotonous and unchanging. 'Water,' he muttered, glancing at the bricks to his right. Previously they had been dry, but now they were damp and glistening. Droplets magnified the lines of the arrays strangely, giving them a mottled look. Snakeskin, still supple and warm, lay on the floor in tatters, scratched off against the rough wall. Ed picked up a small piece, turning it over in his hands and tipping it to the light of the flame. ‘We’re getting closer.’

Before long the floor had turned to mud, and rivulets of water twisted ever downwards, hesitating in pools before carrying on into the dark. Finally the tunnel opened out into a large natural cavern. All around the walls other culverts gaped like mouths, spewing their contents into an underground river that flowed onwards and out of sight. Pinnacles of rock jutted like teeth from the surface of the water, and the roof overhead was lost in darkness.

The mouth of the tunnel in which they stood was one of the lowest, leading out onto the rocky shore of the river where slim white bones and dazzling arrays littered the ground. Someone had poured oil into hollows in the rock, setting it alight and leaving it to burn hellishly in the eerie cave. Red stones were everywhere, twinkling like jewels, and Ed pressed his hand to his chest, swallowing tightly against the pull and surge of power coiling beneath his ribs. His palms itched to clap, and he curled them into white-knuckled fists to resist the urge.

A small distance away, dangerously close to the river’s edge, a body lay on the stone. It looked like a doll that had been thrown aside, all sprawled arms and crooked legs. There was not movement, and, at this distance, Ed couldn’t even see if it was breathing.

'Fletcher!'

'Russell, wait!' Ed grabbed his arm, yanking him back before he could break free from the cover of the tunnel mouth. 'Look.' He pointed to a shape – a hulking shadow in the gloom, which stirred slowly. The flickering light of the oil lamps caught on the scales of her coiled tail, sending shimmying patterns along its massive length. After a few breathless seconds she fell still again, pale fingers tightening around the pathetic bones that she had piled up at her side.

'She's asleep,' Russell whispered, licking his lips as he glanced to where his brother lay, prone and silent on the floor. He hesitated for a moment before creeping forward, ignoring Ed's hissed words as he inched forward, creeping around bones and burning oil.

Huffing a breath of disbelief Ed followed, trying to watch where he was putting his feet and keep an eye on Lamia at the same time. More than once her face twitched, riddled with the same grief he had seen in what the gate had shown him. Now she looked almost sane, a victim, not a monster.

'He's still alive, but he won't wake up,' Russell hissed desperately, brushing his hands against Fletcher's face and hair, checking for broken bones even as he begged his little brother to open his eyes. 'What do we do?'

Ed knelt next to him, reaching out to feel the sluggish thud of Fletcher’s pulse. There were two puncture marks on his arm, red and swollen. ‘She bit him. The poison’s probably what’s keeping him unconscious. It stops him running away.’ He glanced back at Lamia, his mind whirling. 'You get him out of here. The glowing arrays should make a trail right back up to the street. There’ll be soldiers there. They’ll take care of you and Fletcher.’

'Wait, what about you?'

‘I’ve got to find Al and the others. If you meet anyone on their own on the way back through the tunnels then don’t trust them, no matter what they look like. Understand?’

The sharp bark of a gunshot cut off Russell’s reply, splitting the air in half. It bounced back and forth from wall to wall, shredding apart the peace. Stones skittered down from the invisible roof, landing in the river with splashes that sent spray flying into the air.

When the noise finally faded away the rushing of the river continued in its wake, but now there was an eerie harmony to its roar: a soft, seductive whisper of scales sliding across one another, lending the faintest rasp to the air. In the gloom a pair of dark eyes opened, reflecting the flickering fires in their depths as they met Ed’s gaze.

Lamia was awake, and she was hungry.

Chapter Text

Ed's voice choked in his throat, captured by the glacial touch of fear that crushed his body. Lamia's eyes were bright and intense with her hunger, and he was pinned, paralysed by her unblinking gaze. He could only watch as she rose up on her tail, eerily graceful as she arched her spine and stretched her arms above her head before relaxing and letting her palms skim down the lines of her torso to rest on her scale-sheathed hips. Whatever she had first thought of the body that alchemist had forced her into, it was obvious that now she revelled in the power of her form.

Her tail was thicker than a man was tall, and those parts of her that remained human had grown to match. There was nothing twisted or decrepit about her. She had moved on from the petite hybrid Ed had seen formed at the threshold of the gate. Now she truly was something out of nightmares. He could not even see where her tail ended amidst the coiled loops of scaly flesh that wove throughout the cavern.

'What have we here?’ she asked softly, her voice as hypnotic as her penetrating stare. ‘It looks like two little thieves who have bitten off more than they can chew.’ She smiled, her fangs just a suggestion of deadly points behind her pout. With a sigh she brushed her dark hair over her shoulder and looked at the pair of them disapprovingly, her voice riddled with the maternal disappointment of a woman who had caught her children doing something wrong. ‘I could be kind and let you go back the way you came,’ Her eyes flickered from Ed to Russell, and her pupils dilated, turning her dark eyes black, ‘but I hate to let a good meal go to waste.’

The tension snapped, a steel wire of sensation across exposed nerves. Fangs met automail with a grinding crunch as Ed lunged forward, blocking the monster from sinking her teeth into Russell’s flesh. Stones rattled like dice beneath his boots as he fought to stay on his feet, and his breath rasped between his lips as he struggled to keep her back.

She hissed and thrashed, her tail dislodging more rocks from the cavern roof and sending them raining down in a deadly cascade. Some splashed into the river, filling the air with icy spray. Others collided with the rocky ground, cracking into pieces and sending fragments of shrapnel in all directions. The fires spat and sparked as the oil rippled, spilling from the hollows and trickling in blazing lines across the floor, obliterating a few of the arrays beneath a blanket of flame.

Ed tore his eyes from Lamia’s unblinking gaze, risking a glance over his shoulder and cursing viciously when he saw Russell still at Fletcher’s side. The young man was like a mouse caught in a predator’s glare, slack-jawed and locked with terror. His face was pallid and slick with sweat, and he clutched Fletcher to him, protective even in the depths of fear.

‘Run!’ Ed yelled, not caring that his voice caught on a half-scream of desperation. ‘Get out of here!’

His command jolted Russell free, and, for once, there was no argument. He heaved Fletcher gracelessly from the floor before sprinting away, dodging between flames and ducking around the unwieldy length of Lamia’s tail before he raced into the culvert and vanished from sight. For a few heartbeats the staggering haste of his footsteps could still be heard above the roar of the river before they faded away entirely.

With a scream of rage Lamia yanked her fangs free from Ed’s automail, ignoring everything but the dark promise of the drain to her left. She darted after the Tringhams, her eyes crazed and mouth agape. The muscles in her torso stood out, sinew cording beneath pale skin as she half-slithered, half-clawed her way forward in an effort to give chase.

The clap of Ed’s hands made her flinch, and she howled in fury as the earth rose up, blocking her way and sealing Russell and Fletcher safely away in the dark length of the sewer. Her fist collided with the stone, sending a fine cobweb of cracks across the face of the hastily erected wall. Arrays scrawled around where she had touched, but she ignored them.

Ed swallowed as her head snapped around. Tendrils of hair clung to her face, obscuring everything but her narrowed eyes and the snarl on her lips. Her gaze pierced through the gloom to fix him in her sights. Her lips were reddened with blood and blisters from the poison that dripped from her fangs, but she showed no sign of pain. In fact, as he watched the small wounds healed and bloomed again, constantly wiped away by her link to the gate and recreated by the seep of toxin from her teeth. Like a homunculus it seemed she could heal herself, and Ed cursed bitterly as he realised how hard it would be to stop her.

Her scales whispered like hateful ghosts as she drew herself up, looming above him before she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. The air was filled with the sound of a desert wind as her body shushed against the shore of the river. Clawed fingers dragged her hair out of her way, and one eyebrow lifted critically as she stared at him, judging him with one sweep of her eyes.

‘How noble of you,’ she spat as she moved back towards him, smiling cruelly when he stood his ground, ‘and how stupid. You should have sacrificed your friend and saved yourself. Your alchemy is nothing but parlour tricks to me.’

Ed glanced back towards the wall, gritting his teeth in frustration when he saw that she had looped her tail around him, pinning him neatly between the length of her body and the cold, dark depths of the river. Her movements had snuffed some of the fires out, but she seemed not to suffer any burns. The only light left was the faint flicker of the few remaining flames and the bitter, furious glow of the arrays all around him. He could feel them humming beneath his feet, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees as the red stones, hidden under shadow’s curtain, called to him with wordless promises.

‘You were beaten once,’ he said flatly as he began to move, forcing her to stay in constant motion as she followed him. He may be locked within a prison of scales, but there was no way that he was going to be a stationary target for her attack. ‘Someone had the strength to lock you behind the Gate of Truth.’

She laughed, a rich, warm sound that was at odds with the cold hunger pinching her features. ‘But there’s no gate now. No cage for something like me. Besides, that was when I was weak and half-starved. That wretched portal held back the power from me, allowed me only tastes of all that I craved. Now there is nothing controlling that energy.’ She gestured with one slim hand to the mass of her body. ‘As you can see, I’ve thrived.’

He saw the tense of her muscles a second before she pounced. Twisting away he dove to the floor, pulling himself into a roll and regaining his feet in one fluid motion. Yet as soon as he was upright the room began to pitch alarmingly, and a hot weight seemed to trap his legs in its grasp. At first he thought she must have caught him in her coils, but there was nothing touching him.

Blinking owlishly, Ed looked down at his arm, staring uncomprehendingly at the thin line of dribbling blood. The skin around the cut was already inflamed and furious red, poisoned. He shut his eyes tight the room twisted in a furious cartwheel. He did not even realise he’d fallen until his knees hit the unforgiving ground.

Smoke from the remaining oil pools filled his nose, thick and cloying, adding to the fire that raged in his chest. A solid core of pain had taken root in every bone, turning them as heavy as his automail. His heart thundered in his chest, thrumming tortuously fast as his mouth filled with a vile, acidic taste. Every breath was a struggle, and a choking cough caught in his throat, flecking the ground with a sultry smatter of blood.

Lamia was still there, but his vision was rapidly being smothered with shrouds of black until he could no longer tell if his eyelids were open or closed. He could not see her to duck any further attack, and he wasn’t even sure if he could make his tormented body move. Lamia’s bite had knocked Fletcher unconscious, keeping him in a sedated state for as long as the serpent woman wished, but had he been in this much pain? To Ed it felt as if something was writhing inside him, burning him with every flicker of movement.

A sound reached his ears, carrying over the roar of the river and the frantic stagger of his own heartbeat. Someone was retching, and sharp, squeaking gasps whistled through the air. Desperately he tried to hold his breath and concentrate on what he could hear. Lamia’s scales rattled like dead leaves in a gale, and he realised that her body was shaking. She was spitting as if she was trying to rid herself of a foul taste, and he heard her draw in a trembling breath before falling quiet.

‘You,’ she growled, her voice rumbling, low and dangerous, throughout the cavern. ‘The woman warned me you would come.’ A hand snaked under his chin, digging sharp nails into his jaw as his head was yanked upwards. He could feel her breath fluttering across his face, cooling the sweat that was trickling down his cheek. ‘You’re weaker. I could smell the filth of the gate on her. It saturated her skin with its stench, but you – you keep it hidden. The gate’s presence covered her like a shroud, but with you -’ Something sharp cut down his cheek, and her grasp tightened as he tried to pull away. ‘It’s in your blood, your soul, your core…. What a waste of good meat.’

She threw him forcefully aside, sending him sprawling painfully. Sharp pieces of stone cut his bare hand and arm, and he could feel the spray from the turbulent river caressing his face. He tried to move, but every limb felt like it was made of lead. His automail was dead and unresponsive, and every twitch of his flesh arm sent pain shooting through his body. He couldn’t even turn his head, and his stomach clenched tight with greasy nausea.

‘It will kill you eventually,’ Lamia murmured, her voice indifferent and uncaring now that she realised he was inedible. ‘Slowly, of course, but I am sure you’ll be grateful when you finally slip away. In the meantime there is other prey for me to hunt.’ There was laughter in her voice as she asked, ‘Friends of yours, perhaps?’

His thoughts roared in desperate fury, but his body was a puppet with its strings cut. He could not even curse aloud as her scales hissed like waves breaking on the shore. A throaty chuckle echoed back to him, distorted as she rippled away down one of the many culverts in search of more meat. In the end there was nothing to be heard but the bluster of the churning river and the crackle of the oil fires. The air was cool and still, and he did not need his eyes to know that he was alone.

Every vein felt like hot ash beneath his skin, polluted by the toxin’s rush. He could feel it sweeping through him, dulling every sense and turning them inwards until he could hear nothing but his own heartbeat and feel nothing but the screech of every nerve. He should have been more careful, should have known that just because Lamia was big it didn’t make her slow, but she’d taken him out with barely a touch. One tiny scratch, no bigger than a finger was long, and now… .

Ed shoved the thought away before it had even begun. He didn’t have the fucking time to wallow in this. She was after Al, after Roy. He had to do something! How many times had he been injured on assignment, bleeding and bruised and half-broken, and he’d always found the strength to carry on. He would beat this; he had to. The alternative was unthinkable.

Forcefully, Ed willed his body to move, fighting desperately to shrug off the dead weight of paralysis that had seized him in its bonds, but there was no response to the orders from his mind. He could feel nothing along his left arm, and his leg was prickling with phantom stabs of pins and needles. With every second it was getting harder to breathe. He found himself taking shallow, panting breaths, desperate to haul air into his lungs but trapped by the insidious creep of the poison. How much longer would it take for it to paralyse the muscles in his chest? Once he could no longer expand his ribs it would be over. He would suffocate in minutes, drowning with air all around him.

He blinked, feeling the flutter of his lashes against his cheek as he stared at the unwavering shadow that covered his sight. Why wasn’t the gate doing something? Back in the hospital it had erased every scratch and bruise as it shored up the frail host it had chosen. Now there was nothing but the steady sink of despair

 

Help me! His own voice was a scream inside his skull, fierce and desperate. Help me, or I’m taking you with me, you shit!

At first there was nothing. Neither Kaleo nor the gate acknowledged his request, and he took another pant of air, tasting the water from the river’s spray on his lips. Had it already gone? Had the light from the gate fled to take its chances with someone else? Did it even have the strength for that?

The pain hit him like a brick wall, slamming into every nerve and shaking every bone. His back arched from the floor, locked in a spasm as the scream boiled in his chest. It flooded his limbs, and at the same time he could feel something pulling his conciousness back in his mind, distancing him from the warmth of his flesh and the cool weight of his automail. The array on his chest burnt into his flesh anew, bright and bold. Tinges of sapphire light broke through the clouds of blindness across his eyes, but it was like watching the world from a great distance.

With a jolt he realised what was happening. From the beginning Carmine had been a human skin for the dark face of the gate. Now the light inside him was making its move, using him while he was too weak to fight back. It was trying to push him away and take his place. There was no fucking was he was letting that happen. He thrust hard with his mind, grappling with the intangible fog of its presence.

Trust me.

The voice was a distant whisper, almost inaudible over the throb and thrum of his pulse. Was it inside his head, or somewhere in the sewers? Agony blurred the boundaries of reality and imagination, and Ed could only swallow back the clawing ache of another scream he would never voice. The touch of the gate coated everything, pushing him away until he was somehow disconnected from it all. He was still there, still within his skin, still feeling everything, but it was as if his free will had vanished, snuffed out like a candle flame

Unbidden his spine relaxed, laying him gently back on the floor. The fingers of his left hand shifted, moving stiffly as though the thing that controlled them was not used to the complicated biological mechanisms. Barbs of pain stabbed along his nerves again, and a helpless moan escaped his lips. Whatever the gate had done it did not take away the agony. Fuck, it hurt. Winry had always told him with the utmost confidence that automail surgery was the most painful thing he would ever experience, but she had been wrong. This – the clawing bite and wrench on every nerve in his being – was worse than that. At least there had been a point to the discomfort from the surgery. This was just torture. Lamia was right: death would be a blessing if he were weak enough to wish for it.

Ed choked, drawing in shallow, hissing breaths through his teeth as his hand inched across the ground. As desperate as he was for this to end, he knew that giving up was not an option. Whatever the gate had in mind he knew he couldn’t fight it. If he tried to pull back, to draw the line between it and him, then it would be over.

The smooth, glassy lines of the arrays drawn into the floor skimmed beneath his fingertips, but it wasn’t until something gritty and sharp brushed against his skin that his fist closed awkwardly, cradling the fragment of red stone until it had melted into his skin. It was as if someone had breathed air into his lungs or dripped liquid life between his lips. A sweet taste coated his tongue, and his chest heaved as he gasped in one breath after another, blinking at the gloom above his head as the dim light of the oil lamps winked in the shadows. Abruptly, control of his body returned to him, a massive burden that dragged at every joint. His flesh was slow and unresponsive, but at least his mind was still quick and alert.

An array complex flared across his imagination, burning with a bright, urgent light. He could feel the gate’s fear and desperation. There were no words to convey how important this alchemy was, but Ed could feel it echoing through his abused body. Every instinct trilled with it; this was survival. He had never seen the array before but, in that moment, it was as if he had known it all of his life. There was no time to stop and second-guess the gate’s plan. It had temporarily burned Lamia’s poison back, but he could already feel it flowing through his veins once more, regaining its hold on his muscles and dragging him down with its clammy caress.

The clap of his hands echoed like the crack of breaking bone, bouncing back and forth across the frothing waters of the river as he slammed his palms into the ground.

Light flared, sweeping in the smooth circles of the array that had sketched itself out on his mind. He could feel the power humming through him, draining out through his hands like blood seeping from a wound. With every second the earth grew warmer, sending waves of heat up to touch his face as the glow reached a searing intensity, burning away every trace of shadow with its stark brilliance.

The energy exploded outward like a bomb, racing along the lines of every array that had been burned into the floor by Lamia’s touch. Sultry red was eradicated by diamond white that spread out in a starburst all around him. He saw it race along the tunnels, hounding the darkness from every cranny. It was too bright to watch, but even with his eyes closed he could feel the power draining out of him, stretching away like strands of silk pulled too tight. The tension was immense, and he could feel strange knots in the strength of the alchemy, like droplets of dew on a spider’s web.

Red stones.

Suddenly the net of alchemy snapped, curling back in on him in a blazing comet of energy. All through the cavern the red stones vanished, absorbed into the roaring anarchy of power that Ed’s original array had created. The ground shook beneath his knees, and the air was split asunder with the scream of it. Instinct told him to duck or dodge, but it was as if his hands were fused to the floor. He could do nothing but brace himself for impact.

Ed expected unspeakable pain, was held stiff and taut in preparation, but instead warm waves broke over him, unfurling with feather-light touches as it spiralled inward like a collapsing galaxy. Its touch wiped away the heavy, lank feeling of Lamia’s poison and obliterated the soul-deep weariness that had trapped him in its clutches. It filled him from skin to soul with gentle heat, and he drew a deep breath of the cool, damp air as he tipped his head back in blissful surrender.

Slowly, the sensation crystallised into a warm core, stable and sure beneath his ribs. It was not the inconsistent energy stolen from others, dirty with a sin that was not his own. This was strong and steady, a bright, pure power that he could reach for without even trying. It made his nerves sing, and he rubbed the fingers of his left hand together curiously, frowning at the static that fizzed on his fingertips.

Looking around, Ed could see no remaining red stones, and Lamia’s arrays had been obliterated by whatever it was that he had done. Instead the stone had a glassy sheen to it, as if it had been subjected to astronomical temperatures. The oil fires burned with a diamond edge to their flame, and the air was filled with a thin veil of steam.

Getting to his feet, he stumbled a little, disorientated by the buzz of power that brimmed in him. It made his blood rush and whirl, gripping him in some kind of addictive high. For the first time in years Ed felt strong and whole. Even his automail, normally just a useful tool to him, felt somehow more in synch with the flesh of his body. It didn’t ache or twinge as it had before. If he was honest he probably had not felt this good physically since before he and Al had tried to bring back their mother.

‘What did you do?’ he murmured, not sure whether he was asking himself or the gate.

Nothing. We showed you how to find the strength to fight. You took it.

Kaleo’s voice was solid and real, and Ed glanced to his side, half-expecting to see the young boy there in the flesh. There was nothing but the empty cavern and the waiting drains, dark once more. He did not even need to concentrate on Kaleo’s presence anymore. It was just there, right in the forefront of his mind. Previously it had been a treacherous phantom, always half-smothered. Now he could sense not only the boy’s words, but the massive, looming sensation of the gate, vaguely threatening and icy with ambivalence.

Kaleo was a boy, human once and still clinging desperately to his innocence. Ed could sense that the prince saw him as a protector, as something to be respected and aided. The gate was a different matter. He was a tool, nothing more. He was the means to get what it wanted, and if it had to protect him, strengthen him or ward off death to achieve its goals then so be it. Ed got the distinct impression that he was held in the gate’s grasp: cradled in its strength for now, but easily crushed should the situation change.

Looking down at his arm, he turned it this way and that, looking for any sign of Lamia’s bite. The poisoned cut had been eradicated; it was as if it had never marred his flesh at all. However, a faint line of red caught his eye, making him scowl. It ran from his wrist up the pale underside of his arm, as if crimson dye filled his veins and glowed with eerie light through the haze of his skin. He traced it with his automail fingertip, but there was no pain in response to the pressure. Perhaps it was the last vestiges of the poison draining away? Either way he did not have time to worry about it now. He may have been saved from Lamia’s toxin, but she had Roy and Al set in her sights. He had to find her and put a stop to this before she made sure that there was nothing left to fight for.

Breaking into a sprint, he aimed for the nearest culvert, sending the oil lamps flickering in the breeze of his passing. The floor beneath his feet was slick and frictionless. It was like running on ice, but he did not have the time for care or caution. Every one of Lamia’s arrays had been wiped clean, and the dim light from the cavern faded quickly, replaced with true darkness as he hurried on.

A swift clap brought another flame to life at his shoulder, and he swore in surprise. He had lived with alchemy his whole life, but it had never been this easy. Only an hour ago he had been struggling to maintain the fire and keep moving at the same time. Now it was as natural as breathing, and he was torn. Part of him knew he should be afraid of what he could do, but there was a perfect, simple joy at no longer being the student of alchemy, but its master. He had always had a knack for arrays, a talent that stemmed from an initial level of skill and grew with every moment of study, but this – never in a hundred lifetimes had he thought it could feel like this: not a supernova flare, short-lived and brilliant, but a constant, steady sun, there to be tapped into and used at will.

It wasn’t only his strength that had changed. Before, the gate’s vast knowledge had been locked behind an unbreakable wall, holding back all but what was completely necessary. Now it was still kept from flooding his mind and obliterating him in a sea of understanding, but it was as if it was only contained by glass. Glimpses of ideas and knowledge kept flashing through his head, and he got the impression that the gate had lost some of its control over what he could and couldn’t see. It felt as if he could reach out and pluck what he needed from that massive intelligence. Perhaps the gate was not as in control as he thought. It had helped him find this strength, but had it unwittingly given him the power to fight it in the same act?

We are not your enemies.

Ed twisted his lips in disbelief. The boy might not be a threat, but he had first-hand experience of how vicious the gate could be. Just because it was fractured apart and torn down by Carmine’s rage, it did not make it any less dangerous. It was an ally with a knife hidden behind its back, and Ed knew that, if it could, it would just as soon stick the blade between his ribs as lend him a helping hand.

Still, the words helped focus his mind. He would deal with what had happened later; he would have his answers, but for now he had to focus. Finding Lamia was only half the battle. She had already proven just how lethal she could be. In the blink of an eye she had neutralised him, leaving him crumpled helplessly on the floor. How was he meant to fight her? She was too quick and too big to deal with in her current form, and, from what she had said, she had only grown stronger since the gate’s destruction.

Skidding around a corner, Ed ignored the bruising thump of the brick wall against his side, barely concentrating on his surroundings as his thoughts turned inward, theorising rapidly. He had seen how effortlessly she could heal herself from the wounds caused by her own poison. With a homunculus he at least knew that they had a weakness, but Lamia had no remains to use. Besides, a homunculus ate red stones; she made them. The man who created her had linked her to the energy of the gate, making her immortal and invulnerable in the process. Even if Ed tore her apart she would just put herself back together again.

His only choice was to break the connection between her and the intrinsic power of alchemy, but how was he supposed to do that? She had been tied to the light and dark that had been contained beyond the threshold. Now it wasn’t there anymore. Hell, it wasn’t as if the two halves were even in the same place. Maybe he could do something to shatter whatever connection she had to what was in him, but she would still be tied to whatever had made its home in Carmine.

You’re thinking about it wrong, Kaleo murmured, his voice patient and powerful. The two sides are not separate entities, not entirely. One is all; all is one. You cannot touch the light without affecting the dark. Nor can you influence the dark without changing the light. That remains true, even now. The connection between Lamia and the gate is like a chain – break one link and it is useless.

The rattle of gunshots broke into Ed’s thoughts, and he swore as they thundered back and forth along the tunnel. It was not the measured, confident shooting of Hawkeye, but frantic and desperate. It echoed chaotically, ringing in his ears before it was cut off. Ed desperately hoped that whoever was firing had stopped to reload. The alternative was that they had been rendered incapable of shooting. Either way it sounded as if Lamia had found who she was looking for, and the sudden flare of orange light that flickered up the tunnel confirmed his suspicion. At least Roy was still alive to fight, but how much longer did they have before Lamia decided to stop playing with her food and move in for the kill?

Abruptly the tunnel opened out, and he stumbled to a halt at the lip of its gaping mouth. It emerged halfway up the wall of another huge cavern, but this time there was no river surging through. In fact it looked as if this portion of the sewers had dried up long ago. Perhaps the underground torrent had been diverted by some natural disaster or something, but all that was left here was a dusty bowl of a chamber, the walls pocked with drain openings.

The air was old and stale, flat from years of seclusion, and calcium pillars stretched from floor to ceiling like the trunks of vast trees. Veins of minerals caught the light of the flame at Ed’s shoulder, sending sparkling stars across the ceiling, but he paid the beautiful sight no attention. Instead his eyes were fixed on the battle below.

Roy sent a bolt of flame in Lamia’s direction, not bothering to pause and see if it found its mark. Within a heartbeat he had dodged behind one of the columns, tucked out of sight as Al mounted an earth-shaking assault, desperate to divide her attention. It was a typical defensive tactic, and Ed looked around, trying to understand why they weren’t simply running back towards the surface. Did they still think it was Elysia down here?

Crimson was smattered across the floor, and he grimaced at the sight. Someone was bleeding, and not just from a snakebite. Narrowing his eyes he saw Havoc. The younger man was holding his gun in his left hand, aiming it shakily towards Lamia. His right hung at his side, the uniform jacket stained dark with blood. His teeth were bared in a snarl as he let off several chattering shots. They missed their mark, but Lamia twisted towards the sound, her face animal and vile.

A bullet struck between her eyes, snapping her head back with the force of its impact. For a moment her body went rigid, locked in torpor as arrays scrawled across her skin, converging on the small circle of blood on her forehead. Her shoulders rose and fell in a deep, angry breath, and her dark eyes blinked slowly, focussing on the man who had managed to hit his target.

Hughes stood his ground, his face fierce and determined. He was standing over a prone body, and Ed realised that it was Hawkeye. Her skin was pale and ghostly, her eyes closed as if asleep. Breda crouched at her side, his fingers pressed to her pulse-point as he stared at Lamia, body poised to run if necessary.

Ed couldn’t make out if Riza was still breathing, but he knew why she had been targeted first by Lamia. Of all of them Hawkeye was best with a gun, and perhaps she could not stop Lamia, but she could cause her some fraction of inconvenience with her sharp shooting. The others did not have the skill that Riza possessed, and Roy and Al’s alchemy was nothing more than static to the serpent woman.

‘Wretches,’ the woman spat, rising up on her tail. ‘Stay still! Why can’t you just give up like the other one?’

‘What other one?’ Roy’s question was heavy with fury and sick with dread. It echoed around the cavern, and Ed closed his eyes, praying that Roy didn’t let Lamia’s words distract him.

The hybrid shrugged her shoulders, her eyes flickering back and forth as she tried to find where Roy was taking shelter amidst the forest of natural pillars. ‘An alchemist. A fine meal, or he would have been if he did not taste of the gate. Blonde, short,’ She paused, and the laughter was back beneath her words, ‘although you all look short to me.’

Ed gritted his teeth in anger at the comment about his height, glancing around hastily for a way down to the cavern floor. The sides of the cavern were worn smooth by years of erosion, and he couldn’t see any natural handholds that would help his descent. Pressing his palms together silently, he watched as the stone whispered beneath his touch. A crude ladder formed down to the floor, melting into existence without a sound. He wanted to reassure them that he was all right, at least for now, but if he did that then he would lose the element of surprise. It might only be a split second of advantage over Lamia, but it could make all the difference.

A gout of flame scorched the air at the same time as the cavern shook, harried by Al’s assault. Pinnacles of stone jutted through the ground like the jaws of a gargantuan beast, but Lamia shattered them apart with one brutal swipe of her tail. She writhed around, losing her logic as her animal instincts took over. It stopped her taking the time to think and choose a target. As a result she weaved around, unsure which person to bite first. All the noise gave Ed the perfect opportunity to turn his back and scramble down the ladder. He just hoped that Lamia’s heightened senses would be clouded by smoke and sulphur. If she saw him now she would strike without thought, and he had no idea what would happen. Perhaps the newfound strength would make him immune to her poison, but it was not a chance he wanted to take.

Ideas and arrays were forming and dissolving in his head, conceived and dismissed in the blink of an eye as he dropped the last few feet and landed softly on the floor, crouching to absorb the impact as he stared at Lamia, his mind racing. He had to know what array the alchemist used to create her. A brief glimpse of a memory was all he had to go on, and it would never be enough.

Pulling back into the scant shelter the cavern walls had to offer, he closed his eyes, trying to block out the sounds that clawed at the air. Without knowing this he could not help the others, and if he did not do something then it would only be so long before one of them made a mistake and fell victim to Lamia’s fangs.

The knowledge of the gate was there, a heavy weight in his mind, and he concentrated on what he needed to find out. The alchemist had passed into the shadows all those years ago, taking his theories and discoveries with him. Somewhere amidst the torrent of memories and experiences that had been harboured behind those vast doors there would be the grain of truth Ed needed to take Lamia down for good.

He wasn’t aiming to imprison her. Capture was not a solution; it was simply delaying the inevitable. If he found some way to trap her in another plane she would only bide her time and return once more. The only way to stop her was to destroy her, and Ed had to ignore the flickering shades of guilt that were already working through him. It was a matter of necessity. The grieving mother she had once been was long gone, and the thing that wore her face could not be reasoned with. He had no excuses that could soothe his conscience. Ed had made his choice, and he knew that he would have to live with it.

Scents and sounds baffled his senses, tugging at him with questing hands as they tried to take him away from the reality of the sewers and the fight right in front of him. Ocean salt and city smog filled his nose, banished by a brief kiss of icy alpine wind. Sobs and laughter, whispers and screams echoed in his ears. A punch jabbed into his stomach as a soft palm caressed his cheek, recalled touches of times long gone.

Ed ignored it all, resisting the tempting call of every secret. If he faltered, if he hesitated, even for a second, then he would be lost, and he would not put it past the gate to settle into his own skin while his conciousness was trapped in its endless recollections. The core of power within him seemed to burn brighter, stoked by this immersion in the all that the gate knew. It thrummed in him, a racing beat dancing in counterpoint to his heart. His muscles ached with the need to clap, and he held himself taut, trying to find some measure of control over himself.

Finally he found what he was looking for, and understanding was like a bright flower in a barren land. There were three circles in all: one for each biological input, human and serpent, and the third created the link to the power behind the gate. It could have been used as a separate entity, and addendum to whatever workings the alchemist decided to attempt. The lines were a fury of complexity, and Ed swallowed hard, mentally reversing every aspect. He did not know what would happen if he got it wrong, and he didn’t want to find out.

His palm was sweating, and he took a deep, calming breath before opening his eyes and focussing intently on Lamia, making no effort to disguise the sharp report of his hands clapping together. It echoed back and forth, adding to the din that already shook the air.

The air caught in his throat, bitterly cold and burning inside his lungs. It felt like a hook was caught beneath his ribs, and the sharp tug at his bones and flesh was a physical thing, even though there was nothing there. Distantly he heard Lamia’s scream, but he was lost to it. His body might be down in the sewers, but some part of him was liberated from those shadows and lifted upwards into Central’s broad, familiar streets.

Light from the streetlamps mixed with the night, blurring into dusky greys and blues as buildings sped by, the warm glow from their windows creating flashes of colour in the gloom. Ed could not feel the cobbles beneath his feet or the air on his face. There was no sensation of movement, and part of him knew that he was still in the sewer. A fraction of him was thinking of the next clap, the next array, the next moment, but most of him was a prisoner to this – whatever this was.

Suddenly, the racing shadows stopped, leaving him standing in the middle of an almost empty street. His eyes were seeing the city, but every other sense was still underground. He could feel his automail against his palm and smell the dankness of the drains, but no matter how many times he blinked he could not see the cavern.

The street ran over one of the bridges that spanned the river, and he stood at its meagre peak over the flowing waters. It was old, a mess of gothic stonework and balustrades. The paving was uneven, and he could see rain drumming in the puddles, running between the gaps as each drop shattered itself into fragments of diamond brilliance.

A woman stood to his left looking downstream. Water ran around her boots and drenched the long military coat she was wearing. The fabric flapped around her as a haggard wind that he could neither hear nor feel tore across the city. She had the lapels clenched closed in a bloodless fist, and her grey hair was turned black by the torrential downpour all around her. Carmine’s dispassionate eyes stared down at the river’s waters, and Ed caught a brief glance of raging, white tipped waves gushing from between the bridge’s arches, slamming into the pillars that had withstood the centuries.

She turned to face him, her eyes flat and distant as if her thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly Carmine doubled over, her palms going to a point at the bottom of her ribcage as her lips parted around a silent gasp of pain. For a split-second her face was human, but when she looked up the eyes that stared through the curtains of her hair were feral. Her teeth were showing as she snarled, anger rising to the surface of her countenance.

She stared right at him, and he felt his stomach sink. She knew where he was. Just as he could see exactly where she stood, she could see the sewer, the Lamia and the others. The focus of her eyes changed, and icy fingers of sensation raked through him, touching at the power that glowed within him. It sparked at her touch, snapping like a dog at her unwelcome presence. Smooth heat became raw thorns of energy, bristling with fury, but she did not seem afraid. In fact her lips curved into a secretive smile, as if she had weighed up the competition and found it wanting. Ed could see the certainty in her eyes and longed to wipe the smug expression from her face. Carmine was acting as if she had already won. He could see the confidence in her body as she straightened up, squaring her shoulders and striding towards him. There was no sound, but he didn’t need to hear her voice to know what she said.

“It’s as good as over.”

She walked straight into him - through him, and the scene shifted, fluttering as the mind’s eye blinked and the sewers came back into sharp focus.

Lamia’s body crashed into one of the pillars, blasting it apart in her desperate effort to get to him. Her fingernails scored deep lines in the floor as she scrambled forwards, all grace and elegance lost in her fury. Her face was contorted with hate, and the words that spilled from her mouth were an incomprehensible mix of her own language and Amestrian. Rubble scattered across the floor, its sharp points slicing through her scales and flesh, raising blood from wounds that did not heal. A bullet from Havoc’s gun struck her side, punching through her ribs, but she ignored it, still too strong and big to be stopped by mundane means. Roy’s frantic clicks sent flaming missiles searing through the air. They raised painful wheals of burns, but Lamia’s attentions were focussed solely on Ed.

There wasn’t time to stop and think. Doubts had no place in the heat of battle, and Ed did not hesitate as he brought his hands together again, pressing them to the floor and watching the lines of the array sweep out to encompass her. It was a precise inversion of what the man who had created Lamia used. She recognised it; he could see that in the way her eyes widened and in the fractional hesitation before she threw herself forward, one last attempt to survive, or perhaps just to take him with her into death.

Ed had split chimeras before, often in a desperate attempt to save some fragment of life from the gruesome tapestry of flesh someone had created. He knew it was messy, knew just how wrong it could go, knew how it daubed his already soul destroying nightmares with an extra dimension of horror, but this time it was different.

A soft sound, no louder than an inhaled breath, hushed through the air. For a moment, Lamia’s body was locked tight in a cage of power, soul, skin and scale all caught up in the eye of an alchemical storm. The insanity fled her, and Lamia closed her eyes. Perhaps she was resigned to her fate, but Ed thought he saw a small smile curve her lips, not of gratitude, but of relief.

The explosion shook the cavern, almost knocking Ed off of his feet. He stumbled, steadying himself against the wall but never taking his eyes off of what was happening in the middle of the array. The power was dazzling, shooting through every colour from indigo to white. There were no shadows, and no screams or pleas for mercy or release. There was just the tense, cold silence as everyone watched, bracing themselves for failure.

Like a star gone dead the light winked out, revealing nothing but ash. It rained down softly inside the array like snow, mixing with the grit on the cavern floor: dust to dust.

There was nothing but silence in the wake of the alchemy’s roar. Everyone stood, stunned with relief, barely daring to believe it was over. Ed caught Roy’s eye, giving him a half-smile of reassurance as the man let his hand drop to his side, allowing a few residual sparks to dim and die. Havoc slumped back against one of the pillars, pale and shaking as Hughes began to lower his gun, analysing Ed’s appearance as though searching for any trace of a flaw.

A sound made them jump, putting every one of them back on edge. It was slow and steady – clapping, Ed realised, but it was not a proud ovation. It was mocking, and he narrowed his eyes as an all too familiar shape stepped out of the shadows of one of the culverts.

Envy.

Chapter Text

Alchemy burned the air, a vivid, living thing as it tangled around the serpent chimera, moving in harmony to her furiously writhing body. One moment she was there, the next she was less than nothing: ash and dust and no hint of the monster she had been. The power continued for a few heartbeats longer, filling the cavern with a mimicry of her tangled coils, invisible but crushing. It pressed against Roy, unravelling questing threads that caught in the tapestry of his power, sending a thrill of promise across his skin.

He let his hand fall to his side, barely paying attention to the sparks that flared and fell to the ground as he drank in the sight of Ed. The snake-woman had said that he had given up, and she had obviously believed it, but Ed looked whole and bright and impossibly alive. It took all of Roy’s will not to cross the intervening space and drag him into his arms. He longed to touch him and check that he was real and not a trick of the mind, but Roy held himself back, answering the reassuring quirk of Ed’s lips with a smile of his own.

Steadily, he began to relax, letting the fight drain from his muscles and flexing his hand to ease the tension in his knuckles. It was over. It was done, and all thanks to Ed. Power radiated off of the blonde alchemist, and Roy felt his stomach lurch, caught in a collision of relief and concern. Something had happened. Roy had watched Ed’s alchemy grow and gather momentum seemingly every hour. It started and stalled, dragging the younger man to dizzying heights and sending him crashing down again. Surely there was a limit to how much more his body could hold? He already looked sharp, somehow, as if he had been honed by the touch of something no man was ever meant to understand. Now Ed’s body was singing with the strength of it, and Roy was not sure that was a good thing. Ed was not so stupid that he would rely on anything the gate gave him, but there was something – a kind of guilty pleasure lurking on his features - that suggested his will to resist was beginning to fade.

A slow, steady sound filled the air, echoing among the forest of columns that grew throughout the cavern. Someone was clapping mockingly, applauding them for their actions while deriding them from their stupidity. The noise made Roy twitch, the tension flooding back in a hot, dark tide. Muscles tensed and his fingers rasped together, a hair's breadth from igniting sparks as he swept the area with his gaze, treating every shadow to a visual interrogation.

Of course, in the short-lived relief of the chimera woman’s death they had all forgotten the other thing that lurked in the darkness of the sewer, less impressive but far more deadly.

To his left Hughes was still holding the gun, and the muzzle snapped up once more, pointing into the gloom. It was rock-steady, and Roy could see the flicker of emotions across his friend’s face. Everyone felt the same way. Fear was tempered with determination and exhaustion underscored by anger. They might be tired, but there was fight left in them yet.

Havoc shifted uneasily, pale-faced and clammy with the pain from the wound on his arm, but still prepared to attack. Breda’s fists were already clenched as he stood over Riza, a hulking sentry to her unconscious form. Al instinctively brought his hands together, palm to palm in preparation to attack or defend, although the expression on his face told its own story. He doubted he’d be any help.

A shade detached itself from one of the culverts, stepping forward into the light. The body was androgynous, neither overtly male or female, but Roy could see it for what it was: a blank canvas. Al’s stumbling explanation had filled them in earlier, after Envy had sauntered into their midst wearing Ed’s face.

They had not even realised that Ed had become separated from them in their desperate chase after Elysia’s voice. It was only when they stopped at a fork in the tunnel that they realised their numbers were depleted by one. Visions of Ed being snatched by the monster in the shadows had paraded themselves in front of Roy’s eyes, and when something that looked like the young alchemist had caught up to them he had breathed a sigh of relief.

Except that, after that initial moment of returning ease, he had noticed the flaws. The arrays were there, the hair was right, but gold eyes that were normally so warm were flat and hard. They screamed their loathing even as those familiar lips - lips he had kissed - curved into a smile. Al knew it too. He had lashed out, pushing the false Ed back and hissing just one word: “Homunculus.”

The reaction had been instantaneous. That mask had twisted into a snarl that would never pollute the real Ed’s face, and the calculated viciousness had leapt to the surface as the creature’s arm formed into a blade, slashing savagely. If Al had not dodged it would have been a fatal cut. As it was Havoc had been the one who caught the blow, a painful cut to his arm, before Hawkeye’s swift bullet had forced Envy to rethink the situation.

It had given them enough time to run. After all, without the Homunculus’ remains or the time to draw a decent array there was nothing else they could do. The twists and turns of the sewer had been painfully disorientating, and they had skidded into one dead-end after another. Finally, they ended up here, where the chimera had trapped them, attacking with a cold, human logic that did not match her wild hunger. Now it seemed as though they had defeated one enemy, run themselves to a ragged, bloody mess, only to find that this battle wasn’t over.

‘Perfect,’ Envy purred, dropping his hands to rest on his hips as he surveyed them all with a cool, clinical eye, taking note of every wound and weakness in one fell swoop. ‘Who would have thought that my little brother could grow so much?’

Brother? Roy’s eyes flickered to Ed, a frown forming as he tried to understand. After Ed had retrieved Al’s body from the gate two years ago, he had been incredibly uninformative. Since he was not officially part of the military at that point a report had never been made, and Ed had glossed over the events with his usual ease. Roy knew that Envy had played some part in Bradley’s intricate plot and had crossed Ed’s path as a result, but there had never been anything to suggest more.

To his right Al shifted his weight, bracing his feet just that little bit further apart as he prepared for a fight. The younger Elric’s face was pinched with – what? Fear? Concern? Roy scowled as he tried to pinpoint Al’s emotion. Was Envy telling the truth, or was it just another lie – a guise to lower their guard?

Al’s jaw was clenched tight, and he only took his eyes off of Envy to shoot a look at his brother. It lasted for a split-second, but there was a wealth of meaning in it, and Roy saw Ed tilt his head the tiniest fraction, as though acknowledging something. At last he realised that Al’s face was a picture of unadulterated dread, as if he had seen a confrontation between the two before and knew how bad the consequences of a repeat performance would be.

‘Fuck off and die,’ Ed hissed, both hands curling into fists as he glared at the homunculus with undisguised loathing. Except that, behind the emotion, there was a level of deep thought. It was as if a part of him was standing back and analysing the situation, calculating risk and reward. Had Ed ever done that before? Roy had rarely seen him in action, but he had always assumed that Ed’s normal methods included a “punch now, ask questions later” attitude. Now things had changed, and it made him seem infinitely more dangerous.

‘Or what?’ Envy asked, a mocking sneer twisting his face. ‘You’ll fight me again? It didn’t exactly go your way last time. If I hadn’t had better things to do I would have made sure you didn’t get up again, but I didn’t have time to play.’ The grin that flashed across his lips was ruthless, and Envy glanced around, weighing each person in the room. ‘Now I just don’t know which toy to choose.’

‘Leave them alone,’ Ed snarled. ‘You don’t give a shit about anyone here except me.’

A shudder unwound along Roy’s spine as Envy’s violet gaze rested on him, but he suppressed it. The homunculus thrived on the fear and pain of others, and he’d be damned if he gave the wretched thing the satisfaction of knowing how unsettling it was to be caught in his sights. Vivid eyes, pupils nothing more than slits, narrowed in consideration, and a cold smile caught the corners of Envy’s lips as his gaze flicked from Roy to Ed and back again.

To Envy everyone was weak and inferior – temporary amusements. If Ed had not been there then the homunculus would have already lashed out, picking them off one by one, playing with them like a cat with mice before moving in for the kill. Now, though, they had a different use. Roy didn’t need to read Envy’s mind to know that he was looking for ammunition to use against Ed. His focus had changed, and every one of them was a potential tool with which to torment his real target. Roy scowled, deliberately dropping his shoulders, inviting an attack. Just let him try. Perhaps he couldn’t kill the homunculus, but he could make him writhe.

Envy pouted coyly before he looked back at Ed, cocking his head to one side. ‘Why would I care about a pipsqueak alchemist like you? I do have another brother -’

He moved too quickly, going from stationary to a blur in the blink of an eye. Al’s brutal cry of pain echoed among the stone pillars, mingling with the sharp crack of clapping hands and the snap and spark of Roy’s alchemy. Envy dodged every assault with ease, pulling back the wicked point of his morphed arm as he reversed direction and leapt.

The air in Roy’s lungs choked, curtailed by the sharp, shrieking agony radiating from his side. Envy’s fingers were curled into claws, hanging onto his collar. The press of the homunculus’ body against him from hip to shoulder was a gruesome parody of seduction as the spar sank in further. He couldn’t even click his fingers and toast the bastard without burning himself.

At his helpless snarl of anger and pain, Envy grinned, and a flicker of gold began to infuse his irises, mimicking Ed’s eyes to perfection. ‘Don’t worry, love,’ he whispered in Ed’s voice. ‘Just a flesh wound.’ The grin widened as he twisted the spike up at a sharp angle, and he purred as Roy arched his back in a helpless effort to escape. ‘For now, anyway.’

An explosion of sound and heat made Envy jerk away, tearing the blade free in his effort to get out of range of Ed’s attack. Roy felt the damp air shrivel and scorch as the alchemy surged around him, leaving him untouched in its quest to strike down the homunculus. Shouts and snarls filled the air in a discord of confusion, and running footsteps forced him to drag together his shattered senses. He could not afford to be defenceless, not now. With four of them injured only Ed and Hughes were left unharmed. Where Envy was concerned, two against one were not good odds.

Pressure against his side made him pull back in panic, and it took him a moment to realise that it was Maes. His head felt thick and slow, and his body was shaking from the strain of staying on his feet. Lights danced in front of his eyes as he clutched at his side, just above his hip. Forcing himself to take deep, ragged breaths, he forced back the tide of panic that swamped him. Red stained his gloves, but it was a sluggish flow, dripping onto the parched ground like the first drops of summer rain.

Roy could hardly hear his friend over the howl of alchemy, and it took Hughes tugging desperately on his sleeve for him to realise what he was trying to communicate. They had to find some kind of shelter or risk being caught in the crossfire. Besides, they were being given a chance. All of Ed’s fire and fury was not as out of control as it appeared. It was a distraction at any cost - an opportunity for them to escape and get back to safety before Envy threw their lives away.

Numbly Roy followed Hughes’ gentle guidance, staggering towards one of the many pillars before slumping against the stone. He hissed in pain as Maes shoved aside the tatters of uniform and pressed his fingers to the wound, frowning in the dim light. Roy risked a look down and scowled at the jagged tear in his side. It was small but deep. At least it did not seem to have hit anything important. After all, he was still standing wasn't he? Besides he knew what Envy was like. Killing him outright would have been no fun. The homunculus wanted to make Ed beg for Roy and Al to be spared. He wanted to drag Fullmetal as low as possible before snuffing out that last hope for mercy.

‘What about Al?’ He gripped Hughes’ shoulder, trying to turn and get a better look at what was happening.

‘Stay still,’ Maes muttered, yanking Roy’s jacket and shirt off in uncoordinated jerks before taking the bloodstained white cotton and ripping it into strips for bandages. ‘He’s unconscious, but alive. He was hit on the temple before any of us could do anything. Envy only cares about luring Ed into a fight. Everyone else is just -' He shrugged. '-collateral damage.'

The crack of rock on rock echoed like cannon fire, making them both wince. One of the pillars slumped, tottering ponderously before it fell to floor in a cascade of stone. Shrapnel knifed through the air, sending up puffs of dust as it struck the ground. Whether it was Ed’s alchemy or Envy’s blade that caused it, Roy wasn’t sure. It wouldn’t matter who was to blame if the roof came down; they would all be dead.

Pressing his palm to the towering column, Roy glanced around its broad trunk, trying to push his fear aside and think professionally as he took in the situation. The air seethed unnaturally, reminding him of the power Ed had shown in Rider's when facing off against Carmine. It did not feel like a source of energy waiting to be channelled, but like a brooding storm ready to unleash its fury. Whenever Ed clapped light would flare and crawl throughout the cavern, tempestuous and livid.

The two were focussed solely on each other, and it was obvious that Envy thought he had the upper hand. He lunged time and again, snarling in frustration as Ed dodged and ducked away smoothly, never stumbling or tripping, never getting within range. He was biding his time, but never daring to look away. A break in concentration, even for a second, would give Envy the chance he needed to move in for a fatal blow. This was not a quick and messy fight; it was a test of endurance to see which one would break first, and patience had never been Ed's forte.

Whenever he got the chance, Ed would clap, surrounding the homunculus in a sweeping series of arrays. They lasted for only a second, but the effect was dramatic. Envy would stumble and pale, forced into rigor as every muscle was paralysed. His skin would flinch and shudder as if touched by searing hot wire, and bloody marks lined the bare flesh of his arms. Then the designs would vanish, abruptly obliterated as if something had doused the energy from them and drained them of their strength. The homunculus would break free and surge again, rage forcing him on as his lips moved in hateful words that Roy could not make out.

Hughes shoved a pad of material against the wound, ignoring the hiss of Roy's indrawn breath as he bound it tight, his fingers clumsy with haste and slipping in the gloss of blood that covered Roy's skin. Soon enough the injury was hidden between a swathe of white, and Roy crouched gingerly, grabbing his jacket from the floor and putting it on over his bare chest.

'We have to get out of here. Too many of us need medical attention!' Maes shouted over the noise. 'I don't know what the hell Ed's doing, but it's working. Envy's forgotten about the rest of us.'

'I'm not leaving him down here on his own,' Roy said flatly, bracing himself against the pillar as he straightened up, smothering a flinch at the pull and bite of pain in his side. 'Get the others and get out of here. Ed and I will follow.'

Maes was shaking his head before he had even finished, his normally placid features fierce and disbelieving. 'Damn it, Roy! What kind of good do you think you can do like this? Ed needs to know you're safe. He doesn't need to be worrying about protecting you or getting you to help before you die of blood loss.'

'I can't be up there knowing that he's fighting a battle that he can't possibly win on his own!' Roy glared at his old friend. 'I'm fine. It looks worse than it is. Get the others and go. That's an order.'

Hughes narrowed his eyes, and Roy let out a shuddering breath as he turned and moved away, ducked into a half crouch to avoid being noticed. Of course, that should not have worked, and Roy suspected that Maes had a plan of his own. He might outrank Hughes, but the man had never been under his command and rank didn't hold much weight.

Still, he had to know that those under his command were safe. Ed was up to his neck in whatever was happening with the gate and, by association, so were they, but it did not mean that anyone had to die down here. He had to reduce the people Envy could target. He might be concentrating on Ed at the moment, but his strategy could change at any time. How long would it take the homunculus to realise that he was caught in a stalemate of attack and defence? Was he hoping to wear Ed out and then lunge in for the kill, or was he waiting for the inevitable mistake and thinking that it would be Ed who made it?

Crouching down in the dust, Roy marshalled his thoughts, trying to find some kind of advantage he could use. Killing a homunculus was far from easy. Bradley had been brought down by incinerating his remains until there was nothing left, but that was not an option here. Bradley had liked to keep his downfall close and protected, but Envy's arrogance told Roy all that he needed to know. Wherever the remnants of Envy's body were, they were not nearby.

Shaking his head in frustration, Roy blinked sweat and dust out of his eyes, wishing he knew more about the creatures that resulted from failed human transmutation. There had to be some other weakness, some kind of flaw that they could use. If not then the only choice was escape. If they took that option, if they ran, then they would all spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders. Besides, even if they could get away, Roy got the impression that Envy would not let them live for long. It would give the homunculus time to regroup, and no doubt he would fall back on his tortuous mind games.

'Any ideas?'

Roy glanced over at Hughes as the other man crouched in the dust at his side, shoulder to shoulder. 'I ordered you to get out of here.'

'So court-martial me if it makes you feel better,' Maes replied, green eyes unflinching as he looked at Roy. 'The others are already getting out of range. I told them to get to the surface if they could, but with Havoc injured and Al and Hawkeye unconscious there's only Breda who can carry someone. He'll have to leave one of them with Havoc and go back for them later. They'll find somewhere safe to hide and go from there.'

'If you went with them you could all be back on the streets in half an hour,' Roy snapped, tension and discomfort stoking the fire of his anger. He knew Hughes was a strong soldier, but didn't he see that he was just another liability in a fight like this? Besides, everyone Maes had to live for was in the city above their heads, safe and sound. Why the hell couldn't he just do what he was told for once? 'Envy won't think twice about killing you.'

'I know that, Roy. Who do you think put a bullet in my heart?'

Ice and fire coiled up Roy's spine, clashing in a wave of feeling where horror and fury warred for supremacy. They never had found out what had happened to Maes. He got too close to something, found out too much. They had always suspected that, but who had held the gun, who had pulled the trigger? Somehow, even though it changed nothing, it was one thing Roy longed to know. Back then his hate had been without aim, and now he stared at Envy, feeling it surge as fresh and strong as it had been when he was standing at Maes' graveside.

'Envy was wearing Gracia's face when he fired the gun,’ Hughes murmured, his voice pained, ‘but I'd seen him change shape. He was Ross, at first. He killed me, but it didn't matter to him. You could see it in his face; he was just along for the ride. It all came down to the Elrics in the end.' Hughes drew in a sharp breath as Ed stumbled, and Roy felt the muscles clench in his friend's shoulder as the young alchemist barely avoided Envy's blade. 'It looks like it always will.'

'We can't kill him,' Roy stated flatly, loathing tarnishing his voice. 'The only way I know that works isn't possible here. Ed knows the most about them. If anyone can think of a way to stop Envy for good then it's him, but we need to give him a chance. At the moment all he can do is snipe; we have to make sure Ed has the advantage he needs before he makes a mistake.'

'Like what?' Hughes asked, scanning the cavern for inspiration. 'Anything we do will just make us a target.'

'We have to take that risk. Have you still got the gun?' He watched Hughes pull it free from his waistband. It was one of Hawkeye's revolvers. Where it looked graceful in the woman's hands it looked awkward in Maes' grasp. Of course, the man preferred knives to firearms, but he was a relatively good shot. Very few people got through the army without spending a decent proportion of time at the firing range.

'Four bullets left, but what good will they do? Hawkeye shot him in the head and he's still alive.'

'It's enough to slow him down,' Roy replied. 'Shoot him whenever you get a clear aim. It takes a few seconds to regenerate, and he's more vulnerable while he's healing. Hide in the shadows and don't stay in the same place. Don't give him a chance to find you.'

'What are you going to do?'

Roy looked down, checking that the bloodstains on his gloves hadn’t compromised the arrays. 'Heat things up a bit and hope that Ed can capitalise on any time we give him.' He swallowed tightly, seeing the doubtful expression on Maes' face. The plan was patchy and full of holes. There were too many suppositions and variables, too many things to go wrong. They were putting all their faith in Ed having some kind of answer to this problem. If he didn't then the situation could only go from bad to worse. 'Look, I know it's not perfect, but it's the only choice we've got. I know you don't want to explain to Al when he wakes up that you left Ed down here to fend for himself.'

With a sigh Maes gave one nod of agreement before he crept away, his eyes always on the fight as he slunk off into the shadows. Only when he was out of sight did Roy begin to inch away in the opposite direction. His movements were stiff and ungainly, but he was far from helpless. He could still run if he really had to, but it wouldn't be pleasant.

Dust whispered beneath his feet as he moved, feeling his way along as he kept his eyes locked on Ed and Envy. The homunculus' attacks were getting more vicious and desperate, pushing Ed harder and harder. Blonde hair stuck to Ed’s forehead, and sweat and grime were streaked across his pale cheeks. He still moved with a grace that Roy envied, but there were tiny signs that he was tiring. Smooth steps faltered a little, and his reactions were slowing down. It had also been a while since he had cast the harmful array around Envy. Was he genuinely exhausted, or was it all a trick to lure the homunculus into a false sense of security?

A flurry of movement and Ed hissed in pain, twitching away as Envy's blade scored a line across his cheek. His eyes, already hard with hate, burned bright with anger as he twisted away from the haphazard slash and hack of the homunculus' arm. They were both losing patience, and it showed. It wouldn't be long now before something gave in the creaking stalemate, breaking it apart. Ed was getting tired of being on the defensive. Roy could see the urge to attack written in every tense line of his face, but he was still holding himself back. It was as if he were waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

'They've left you,' Envy spat, the point of his blade weaving hypnotically. 'Just like that bastard left your stupid mother. Like he left you. Seems like you're just too much trouble to look after.'

'At least I had one good parent. Neither of yours gave a shit about you,' Ed growled, refusing to be distracted by Envy's tactics as he circled around. 'Besides, I can look after myself.'

Envy's laughter was chilling and pitched to provoke Ed into action. 'You've been failing that ever since that bitch gave birth to you.'

Roy twitched, a flutter of movement behind Envy's back, and he held his breath as Ed's focus shifted, meeting his eyes for a split second of clarity. He raised his hand, fingers pinched together in preparation to snap, and hoped that Ed would understand and be ready. He had to wait for Hughes' shot; there was no way he was going to send a fireball Envy's way and have Ed dodge into the path of a bullet. He could control the flame, but once the gun had been fired Maes could do nothing to affect where the ammunition struck.

A few seconds later the air was split by the crack of a shot. Envy stumbled and Ed dove for the floor, rolling clear as Roy clicked his fingers, putting all his fury and loathing into a white-hot blossom of flame. It chased the darkness away, stripping the shadows and throwing the cavern into light. The black holes of the culverts stared, spectators to the struggle below, and passionate heat kissed every surface.

The smell of singed hair and flesh filled the air, but it would not be enough. At the heart of that inferno Envy was still alive, a being of ash and agony that would pull itself together once more as soon as the flames died away. There was not enough oxygen down here to keep the fire going for long. Roy could already feel the breathy rush of air being drawn in from the other drains to feed it and, even as he watched, it began to dwindle.

Ed clapped and pressed his hand to the dusty ground, and Roy felt the surface shudder beneath his feet. Lines unwound, serpentine and curved, arcing their way around and linking like the hoops of a chain. They seemed to draw light down from the fire, making it a part of their design until they burned star-bright. It was similar to what Ed had been using on Envy earlier, but more complex. There were more balancing symbols, and Roy could make out some sigils for binding. It was a cage of sorts, but one far more powerful than mere iron bars.

With a sigh the fire died away, leaving the arrays turning steadily on the floor like the clockwork of some massive timepiece. It would have been enthralling to watch, after all, normal arrays remained static and silent, but the gruesome thing in the designs centre held Roy locked in sick fascination. Charred flesh was already wiping itself clean, blemishes fading from sight as Envy go unsteadily to his feet. Clothing materialised from nowhere as hair grew and burns healed. In a matter of seconds he was as good as human again, his face riddled with disgust as he pressed one palm out towards the boundary of the array that held him captive.

Retribution was swift and unerring, making Envy double over with the abrupt pain. Alchemy snarled like an angry dog, all teeth and tyranny as it filled the circles with its fury. More lines were adding themselves to the design, and Roy looked over at Ed, realising his hands were still pressed to the floor and his eyes were unfocussed, concentrating on something far away from this place.

Cautiously, like a hunter approaching a trapped animal, Roy stepped forward, trying to get a better look at what held Envy in place. On the other side of the circles Hughes was doing the same, his gun still cocked and ready to fire should the need arise. Envy lifted his head, his eyes narrowing as he saw them both. Around him the lines stopped moving, turning pink, then red as they touched his flesh. It was light, rather than blood, that seeped away towards the array's periphery, and Roy flinched in surprise as Envy threw himself at the boundary again, clawing at an invisible barrier as he snarled unintelligibly at Ed.

'Feeling weak?' Ed murmured, no trace of compassion lightening his grim features. 'It's draining all the power of the red stones you got from Lamia.'

Envy snorted, smashing his fist into the air and sending a fine web of alchemical strands dancing up towards the ceiling. 'You'll be dead long before you've taken everything I've got. Give up. You're useless. You can't do anything to stop me.'

'Looks like he's doing a good job to me,' Hughes murmured, moving closer to Ed's side but never taking his eyes from where the homunculus stood. If Envy was still in pain he showed no sign of it. Instead he shook his head in disbelief, looking Maes up and down in disgust.

'What do you know? You've fallen for my tricks more than once. Did it hurt, when your wife shot you? Did it tear you up inside?' He chuckled, narrowing his eyes. 'You couldn't defend yourself against her, could you? Just like you didn't stop to think before leading everyone into my trap.' His voice changed, taking on a lighter, childish pitch. 'Daddy, help me!'

The gun in Hughes' hand twitched as Elysia's sobbing, frightened voice filled the cavern, emanating from Envy's lips. Tears filled the violet eyes as the homunculus began to change, becoming a fluid, shifting shape before stabilising into Elysia's petite form. It was a perfect replica down to the very last detail. Even her school uniform was right. Her voice rose and fell in hysterical cries, punctuated by gasps of pain and fear as the array continued to do its work.

'Stop it,' Ed growled, glaring angrily at the little girl who lay curled up in the dust, one hand outstretched imploringly towards Maes. 'No one's buying your shit, Envy.'

Maes was pale, his expression sick and horrified as he watched, unable to look away, but he did not falter. Roy knew that he was reminding himself again and again that his daughter was safe and far away from this nightmarish scene, but it was hard to dispute what they were seeing. The mind played tricks of recognition, losing track of what was real as Envy continued to manipulate them, begging and pleading in a child's voice, a picture of helplessness.

Finally the cries died away, and a petulant pout settled on Elysia's lips. She cast her father a cruel, hateful look before crossing her arms and tipping her head to one side as though carefully considering her options. There was no form that Envy could take on that would make Roy want to break open the circles that held the homunculus prisoner. Everyone he cared about was here, on his side of the circumference.

'I'm so disappointed in you, Edward.' The voice was soft and gentle, gilded with an edge of hurt. Elysia's face began to change, her features sharpening with age as her body blossomed. Finally a woman knelt in the centre of the array. Brown hair was caught in a ponytail that trailed over her slim shoulders, and dark eyes looked neither left nor right, locking instead on Ed's crouched figure. 'How could you do this to your own mother?'

Roy's teeth were clenched so tight that his jaw ached, and he shifted closer to Ed's side, silently willing him to ignore Envy's taunts and jibes. The homunculus knew enough to play to every one of Ed's weaknesses and insecurities. For the most part Ed was immune, but this? It was going too far. There was too much self-blame in Ed's life already without Envy giving those doubts and recriminations Trisha Elric's voice.

'After what you did to me and to your brother, did you really think I could ever be proud of you?' Her voice took on a sharp tone, tinted with a trace of hate that did not belong in a mother's voice. 'You turned out even more like your father than I thought you would, Edward. You have no idea how much that hurts me.'

Ed's fingers curled into claws in the dust, making the array flare and spit. Lightning seethed, scuttling like thousands of insects across the design as Envy screamed in real pain. Trisha's voice deepened and the illusion fell away, leaving the homunculus gasping and cursing with every breath. Envy's eyes were wild in his sallow face, and sweat trailed down his cheek. The tendons in his neck stood out, straining in torment as he fought to claw himself free, writhing and twisting, agonised but immune to the sensation as he hurled himself time and again against the boundary in an effort to escape.

With a crash like breaking glass the alchemy shattered, the design ebbing from sight and fading back into dust. Ed leapt to his feet, tensed for an attack as Envy tore himself free, mouth wide in a scream of rage as he hurled himself across the intervening space. The two collided, strategy forgotten as they grappled with one another, fighting for an advantage.

Roy shouted a warning, but it was too late as, with a cry of glee, Envy found his mark, plunging his blade deep into Ed's shoulder and twisting it, tangling metal and bone so it would not slide free. Suffering shuddered over Ed's face, but the rage was stronger, and he wrapped his fingers around Envy's throat, pressing with all his might.

Where his fingertips touched the homunculus, skin on skin, Roy could see grey marks spreading over the pale canvas of Envy's flesh. Veins picked themselves out in black lines across his cheeks, and Envy's breath rattled fiercely in his chest. Suddenly the tide of the fight reversed itself, and it was the homunculus who was trying to escape and pull away, attempting to put some distance between himself and Ed's malignant touch.

Ed's eyes were focussed, but a sharp, alien presence lit their depths. His face was blank and emotionless as he watched Envy’s struggle, and Roy shuddered at the lack of humanity in his lover’s expression. When he spoke the voice that formed the words was ageless, full of an apathy that bordered on malicious indifference.

'You are nothing but fuel to me.'

The air stirred, ruffling Roy's hair and cooling the sweat on his skin. The dust on the floor whirled, whipped up into a vortex until the cavern was filled with a thick, gritty haze. It was like a desert sandstorm, stinging and sharp as it rasped against Roy's face, but there was something else, a presence hiding within the haggard gale.

Alchemy fizzed, neither channelled nor contained, filling every breath with its tang. One by one the pillars vanished from sight, obscured by the yellow mist that whirled around him, buffeting his body like an attacking army. His tongue was parched, thick and clumsy in his mouth as he tried to call out, but no words escaped him. The wind pressed down on him from all sides, choking him, clawing at his uniform as it forced him to submit to its will.

Suddenly the vortex changed direction, no longer circling but streaming backward, blowing his hair off of his face and making his eyes sting. The air cleared of dust, revealing a flat, featureless vista of grey that stretched out in all directions. Ahead of him a vertical tear ran through the featureless canvas of this place. It stretched from the floor up into the air high above his head, a threatening wound in this uncertain reality.

The gale seethed past him, a torrent that spiralled into the massive hole of living night. Sounds that he could not quite hear filled the air - words on words, threats and promises. Over it all was a faint refrain, a haunting, beguiling sound the seemed to try and pull him closer, calling to him. He took a step forward before he came to his senses, shaking his head to clear his mind. They weren’t meant to be here. Somewhere there had to be a way out, and every instinct screamed for him to find it before it was too late.

Scraps of shadow moved through the grey haze, churning outwards from the hole. They drifted like ghosts, aimless and meandering, flinching away from the tangled sparks of power that saturated the atmosphere, thick, heavy and oppressive. It was like a leak, Roy realised, a gap that was letting in a massive tide of energy and power that would normally be contained.

Every few seconds, the plane around them would flicker with white and sullen red, as though it were straining at the seams. If all of that energy broke through where would it go? Would the world be able to withstand the assault, or would it succumb, inundated by more power than man had ever known?

A hiss of fury drew Roy’s attention back to the fight, and he watched Envy pulled his blade free of Ed’s shoulder, stumbling back as he tried to put as much space between himself and the massive lesion in the air as possible. His movements were crippled and uncoordinated, compromised by the effect of Ed’s touch, but he did not seem to care as he lunged in again, only to be floored by a single hard punch.

As soon as Envy touched the ground an array sprang into life. Ed had not clapped, had not done anything to call it into being, but he did not look surprised to see the design pick itself out, the only colour in a monochrome world. Lines, as fine as silk, looped over Envy’s limbs, trapping him neatly in a web of alchemy. He writhed and screamed, spitting unintelligible insults as he fought to break free, but the power flexed with him, keeping him contained.

Ed looked pale and drained, and he twitched in surprise as Roy reached out and touched his shoulder, brushing his fingertips at where the wound should have been. There was blood on his t-shirt, but the flesh beneath it was whole and unharmed. It was as if Envy’s blade had never found its mark. There was not even a scar.

‘I didn’t mean for this to happen,’ Ed whispered, defeated. His words cut off any questions before Roy could voice them. ‘You should have stayed behind. It shouldn’t have brought you here.’ He looked over at where Maes stood. ‘Either of you.’

‘Where are we?’ Roy asked, flinching as the wind’s ferocity increased, and the faint whispers turned to shrieks and snarls.

Ed looked around the wasteland before his eyes settled on the yawning maw of darkness ahead of them. Something close to fear branded his features as he squared his shoulders as though bracing himself for another attack.

‘This is where the gate used to be.’

Chapter Text

Roy's breath froze in his lungs at Ed's words. A bubble of fear lodged in his chest, making his ribs ache and his heart thunder. For a moment his mind was blank, a slate wiped clean by shock. His gaze swept the area, reassessing it for both threat and promise as he tried to grasp the enormity of what Ed was saying.

So much about the Gate of Truth was unknown. Before he had come across Ed and Al, he had always thought it was a metaphor, an easy visualisation for the source of energy from which alchemy was derived. There were references to it of course, vague and indistinct, full of a noire mix of awe and dread. He had dismissed those whispered rumours that he came across in his studies as nothing but fanciful notions cooked up by alchemists who did not get enough fresh air.

Now, with all that was happening to Ed, it was easy to see that those rumours had been grains of truth amongst the dross of ignorance. There had been a gate, and it was a conciousness of sorts. There were times it spoke through Ed's lips and looked through his eyes, ancient and malicious. Yet, back in Central, Roy had found some element of comfort. After all, the gate was in his world, his country, his city. He had the advantage, and it could be beaten. It would be overcome.

Never in his life had he thought that he would find himself here, the unwilling visitor to a place that had once been the gate's stronghold.

Of course, Carmine had put an end to that. There was no portal, no doors to bar the way or open wide. Perhaps this place had looked different once, but now it was a nightmarish scene, chilling in its blandness. The air was filled with faint threat, as if there were things dwelling here that wanted them gone. Fog drifted by, thickening to seething dark clouds that stretched from sky to earth in a wall of gloom.

No, this was not the gate's place any more; it had found another sanctuary in Ed. He and Carmine were two halves of a mysterious whole - something that many had struggled and failed to understand. Yet now Ed was here, returning to this wasteland like a compass finding north, and every one of Roy's thoughts was filled with a tense dread.

What if, back in Central, the gate had lacked that last bit of strength to overwhelm its host? Here, there was energy to spare. The air was lank with it, making his skin crawl and tingle and his body ache as if stretched to capacity. The last time he had felt this way was with a false philosopher's stone on his finger in Ishbal, and that had been just a fraction of the awesome might that filled this plane from one edge to the other.

Yet Ed's expression was one of repulsion, as though he could barely stand the touch of the atmosphere against his skin. His features were pinched as if every breath left a foul taste in his mouth, and Roy frowned as he realised that the array on Ed's forehead was glowing a sick, vivid violet, bruise dark against his skin.

'It's wrong,' Ed mumbled, shaking his head and closing his eyes for a second, screwing them up tight like a soldier trying to escape the horrific sights of war. 'It's like the whole fucking place is poisoned.'

'What did it used to be like?' Roy asked, unable to stop the surge of his morbid curiosity. He knew well enough by now that every fact and snippet of information in a battle could mean the difference between victory and defeat. The more he knew about what was hidden away in Ed the better. He had no wish to be caught unprepared, pushed into a devastating course of action simply because he did not know enough to think of an alternative.

Ed looked up at him, a trace of vulnerability flickering across his face before he crushed it, swallowing hard. 'When we tried to bring back mum I was too scared to notice. I only saw the gate and what was in it. This -' He gestured vaguely around them. 'This used to be bright and misty, the only bad thing was the gate, the rest of it was – it was nothing. Like an endless empty room. Even last time I was here it was nothing like this.'

Something keened. The cold, alien sound reverberated through the air, making it ring with despair. The mist stirred, a swirling curtain that never parted, and Roy felt Ed tense at his side, his body poised to defend against an attack. Hughes had shifted closer and was eyeing the surrounding area with a distrust that mimicked Roy's feelings perfectly. They were not alone, and whatever lurked beyond the veil of fog was stalking them.

'What's out there?'

Envy's laughter made Roy jump, and he scowled at the homunculus. The sin still lay on the floor, pinned by the web of power that ensnared him in its strands. He did not struggle, instead lounging in the dust as if he were reclining on a bed. Pain and anger had been wiped from his face, and the sultry smirk was back, curving his lips as he watched the three of them with hungry eyes. 'You really don't know?' His eyes glinted wickedly as he continued. 'That alchemist woman has been feeding so much pain and hurt into the gate that it began to manifest. Maybe what went through doesn't have a body or a mind any more, but they've got spirit, and they hate nothing more than people who have what they want.' He shifted position, putting his hands behind his head as he relaxed. 'They'll tear you apart - literally.'

'Ignore him,' Ed snarled. 'He's probably lying.'

'Why would I bother?' Envy purred. 'Your fear is delicious. Besides, you know it's true.' His eyes swept up Ed's body, and there was no mistaking the disgust on the homunculus' face. 'What's hiding in you is part of the guard that trapped them and used them to feed its own hunger, keeping them from where they deserved to be. I'm going to enjoy watching how they give their thanks for centuries of neglect and denial. After all, I've got the best seat in the house. The three of you against who knows how many angry souls.' Envy laughed again. 'No chance.'

Sulking red lit the fog, flickering like lightning in an otherworldly storm. Gruesome shadows danced across the ground as the gale around them began to switch and twist. Subtle movements within the mist became more vicious and purposeful, making it boil and seethe as if called up by Envy's words. It towered upwards, surrounding them on all sides but keeping its distance, leaving a small circle of clear ground in which they stood as it built itself up to a frothing, thunderous pinnacle.

Slowly it began to seep forward, moving with the inexorable flow of an incoming tide. Clots fell from its peak, dissipating in twists of spun out murk as they plummeted towards the ground, intangible missiles. The leading edge curled around their boots, obscuring the dusty floor from view. Roy could feel the cold damp radiating from the shifting surface. It smelled of old death, like the moist earth of a grave, and there was no denying the breathy moans and whimpers that murmured in his ear, hissing their dire accusations.

Slowly, inch by inch, the mist rose and the cloud advanced. Roy cursed in surprised pain as the cold bit into his legs like a steel trap, sinking through flesh and snagging in his bones. Hastily he tried to retreat, backing away from the clinging touch, but the walls of dense haze were pressing in, matching him stride for stride.

Like a cresting wave the cloud began to topple, billowing out as it rolled through the air, consuming everything in its path. It was like falling through thin ice into freezing water, and Roy shuddered as his breath came in stuttering gasps. Tendrils filled his mouth and nose, pressing down on him and robbing him of his senses as he stumbled blindly, trying to find Maes and Ed in the oppressive blanket. The whispers once again grew in volume, becoming shouts and curses as invisible fingers clawed at his jacket, snagging the fabric and trying to drag him deeper.

The wound in his side burned tortuously, turned deadly cold by the mist that brushed itself against the bare flesh between his lapels. Droplets of moisture condensed against his skin, trickling like tears down his torso as he tried feverishly to pull away from the presence all around him. A massive weight pressed across his shoulders, making his knees buckle as he slumped to the floor, a supplicant before a tyrannical ruler. His breath stuttered in icy gusts in front of him, pure, brilliant white against the black smog of this plane.

It would smother him. He knew it as questing fingers of shadow pried their way between his teeth and coiled down inside his throat, finding their way into his core and clutching at something. Whatever dwelt here in the gate's absence was a vicious thing, not hungry, but filled with a craving for physical form.

Opening his eyes he stared at the mist, lit as it was by the flickering of soundless crimson lightning. It swirled in front of his eyes, and he took another haggard breath, focussing all his strength on lifting his hand from the ground. He had to break free. He had to get away. These things were trying to steal something he could not afford to lose, and he was not going to give it up without a fight.

The snap of his fingers was a decisive, punctuating sound in the torrent of voices, and the flame leapt. He had only meant for it to be a warning flash of fire, but as soon as he clicked his fingers he realised his mistake. Saturated with energy as this place was, the effect was explosive. A column of flame howled upwards, dancing with every hue from crimson and azure to a white-hot heart. It speared through the fog, burning it away as it bloomed outward against an invisible ceiling, shredding the gloom into tatters.

Sweat pricked along his brow as the warmth beat down on his back, disentangling the icy grasp of the shadows as it chased them away. Yet they still lingered nearby, circling like wolves around prey, waiting for its fight to run out. Chitters and whimpers reached his ears, but they were not sounds of fear. It was the sound of starving things being deprived sustenance, laced with a feral fury that chilled him through and through. The flame had punched a hole through the vapour, but all around it was still an impenetrable wall that held Ed and Hughes in its imprisoning grasp.

In a moment the fire died, trailing away to a thread of light before vanishing entirely. There was a moment of breathless anticipation before the fog crashed back, shoving at Roy's back with an impossible weight, forcing him to sprawl on the floor. Grit bit his cheek and every breath was filled with a parched dust that was at odds with the dankness all around him. Shadows wound through his hair, brushing over his eyes and scratching at his pulse, trying to clutch at the life that still thrummed in his body.

He tried to move, but his limbs were dead weight. It felt as though someone was kneeling in the centre of his back, holding him there while invisible talons plucked at him, reaching through skin and bone to rip at something intangible deep within his body. The pain was not physical, but it tore at him none-the-less, making his breath sob as he writhed in an effort to escape.

A sound like tearing silk filled the air, and light scorched through the fog, carving a single, sweeping circumference through the dust beneath him. He could feel the charge of the alchemy imbued in the simple line, and he blinked stupidly at the periphery. The weight lifted from the middle of his back, thrown aside by an invisible force as the strange sensations that racked his frame fled.

Carefully, he lifted his head, trying to see what was happening. A small distance to his left Hughes lay on his back, blinking blearily up at the indistinct sky. His hair was tousled and his face drawn, as if he had fought a desperate battle and barely escaped as the victor. Another circle charted its way around him, a strong, solid band of gold that gleamed with promise in the dusk.

All around the darkness still swarmed, the bodiless voices raised into shouts of anger. The words were unintelligible, a mixture of every language Roy had ever heard and some he had never come across before. Even though he could not tell what was being said, the tone was unmistakable. They were furious at being deprived of two living souls to feast on and two bodies to inhabit. They shrieked and screamed, and vague outlines of furious faces boiled within the mist. Dark hands, emaciated and skeletal, lashed out towards the circles, but every time they touched the edge the light would bristle with thorns, driving them back.

Something changed in the way the mist moved, and it furled in on itself, dragging together into a thick, dark pillar of troubled night. The bland monochrome of the world returned, and the gaping hole yawned menacingly in the distance, a watchful eye on the scene.

Ed stood at the foot of the massive column, watching it without blinking. There was no circle to protect him from its wrath, and Roy staggered to his feet. He tried to shout a warning, but his voice was hoarse and dead, worn raw by screams he did not know he had unleashed. Without a thought he clicked his fingers, only to swear mutely as a few dead sparks fell to the ground. The circle was neutralising all the alchemy within its border, and he could do nothing to help Ed. Limping forward he reached out a hesitant hand, pressing his palm down to the invisible interface of power. He was relatively certain that the array was of Ed's creation, a way to protect him and Hughes from the ravages of the wraith-like shades, but even guard dogs could bite those they were meant to keep safe from harm.

A faint whisper of sensation flooded up his arm, as warm and soft as a lover's caress. It was an unexpected brush of tenderness in a world of ferocity, and he felt it melt away the last vestiges of lingering chill in his heart. Gently he pushed, but the pressure against his skin increased, a warning for him to stay back within the ring's safe confines.

The pillar of blackness drew itself upward, building into a churning tower of lethal rage. The blank horizons of the plane continued to flicker with blooms of crimson and vermilion, but the colour only s