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To Save A Life You Didn't Have

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Very few people were in possession of Roy’s home phone number, and of those, even fewer would ever dare use it. That was how he had always liked it, and he wasted the first four rings just glaring at the phone before he succumbed to the inevitable and answered.

“Hughes, I swear, if you’re already panicking about Elicia’s first day of school -”

“Um,” said a voice that was decidedly not Maes Hughes. “Colonel?”

Roy sat up so fast his head swam. At twenty-nine, he really should know better than to fall asleep half-slumped over on the sofa, and yet. Multiple times a week, he found himself startling awake just as he started to roll off the narrow seat. He’d only just managed to remember to kick away his boots this time.

“Alphonse?”

“Oh! Oh good, I wasn’t sure I’d remembered your number right, I tried the office first just in case since we know you end up working late and staying there sometimes but there was no answer, and it’s no good asking brother these things, he, hah, he hates any reminder that there are people he can ask for help, and, and we do need help Colonel, I’m sorry to call so late, or early I guess it is now, but-”

His voice, which had been steadily increasing in both pitch and volume, broke on a shuddered inhale. Roy made a conscious effort to unclench his hand from around the receiver. Alphonse sounded stressed but not like he was in pain, and he’d spoken about Ed like he was in a fit state to be answering questions. There was no need to start panicking just yet. There was no good reason to start rummaging through his rumpled pockets for his gloves either, and yet he found himself doing exactly that. It took a tremendous effort to still his hands in their search.

“Take a deep breath, Al,” he ordered gently, voice careful and even, and waited to continue until he heard the boy obey. “Good. Where are you? If you need help, I can be there as soon as possible with reinforcements.”

“We’re at Tucker’s house,” Al said, and didn’t give Roy a chance to voice his confusion before continuing, “but please, don’t bring anyone you wouldn’t trust with your – no, with brother’s life.”

“I can be there in twenty minutes,” Roy promised, mentally calculating how long it would usually take to make the trip across the city, and then cutting the time in half to allow for Hawkeye’s driving. “Will you be safe until then?”

“We aren’t in any danger now,” Al replied. There was a hollow edge to his voice, like he was deliberately tamping down any emotion that Roy could conceivably find in his words. There was a muffled sound in the background, but it was so heavily distorted over the crackling line that it could have been anything. Roy’s heart leapt to his throat and he paused to forcefully swallow it back down. They’re alright, he told himself. They’re safe for now.

“Hawkeye, Havoc and I will be there soon,” he said, and hoped that Al couldn’t hear the way he’d started shivering, teeth clattering together no matter how tightly he clenched his jaw. “You and Ed sit tight.”

It took three tries to successfully set the phone back on the hook, and Roy tripped over his feet twice as he started pulling on his half-discarded clothes before picking up the receiver again and dialling for Hawkeye. Everything seemed to be moving too slow, his mind racing ahead in poorly-contained panic. His hands felt like ice, too stiff and clumsy to snap his fingers. His house wasn’t cold, he told himself sternly.  He could hear the groans and creaks of the old radiators even now in the middle of summer, and his feet sank into soft carpet instead of sand that just barely held onto the last of the day’s unbearable heat. New recruits had always been shocked by how cold the desert was at night.

Don’t, he told himself sternly.

“Yes?” Hawkeye answered on the second ring, voice cracking down the phone like a whip. Despite the time, she sounded as perfectly alert as he’d ever heard her, though he knew she adhered to a strict routine when not actively pursuing missions. She struggled to sleep without some order to her life, she told him once, and she certainly didn’t get it working with him.

“The Elrics are in trouble, possibly danger,” he said, forgoing his usual mincing of words. On a good day, she found it reluctantly amusing.

This was not a good day.

“Where? I can be ready to go before you get here,” she replied, and there was the sound of drawers slamming shut. Hawkeye’s lodgings were small enough that she would be able to reach her clothes with the phone from her bedside table still in hand. And her ammunition, of course, but Roy assumed she arranged her entire life around making sure there was always ammunition in easy reach.

“Shou Tucker’s home, it’s on the other side of the city. We’ll take my car, call Havoc, tell him we’ll pick him up on the way. Make sure he knows this’ll likely be sensitive.”

“I’ll drive,” she said immediately; Roy laughed, though it sounded more like the sound had been punched from his chest.

“Of course, you know my car better than I do at this point,” he agreed. “I’m leaving now – be a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll be ready,” she promised, and hung up.

The drive was a blur. By the time he reached Hawkeye’s she was stood outside, Black Hayate in one arm and a rifle case slung over the other. Roy just about managed to clamber out of the driver’s seat before she pressed the happily panting ball of fluff into his arms and pushing him around towards the passenger seat.

“He hasn’t been left alone overnight yet,” she said by way of explanation, peeling away from the pavement almost before he’d managed to shut the door. “And I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I’m not risking the furniture.” Roy nodded, and she politely pretended not to notice the way he clutched Hayate to his chest. Finally, the chill began to abate as Roy buried his hands in thick fur and bowed his head to accept a damp nose pressed against his cheek.

Twenty minutes was a long time in a dangerous situation, even for veteran soldiers. State alchemist he may be, Ed had never been put through basic training – while Roy didn’t doubt the resourcefulness of either brother, he knew that they wouldn’t have contacted him like this unless they were in a truly dire situation. Alphonse hadn’t seemed to think they were in immediate danger, but there was no guarantee that would last. From what little Roy had been told of their childhood, and the mountains of reports – complaints – piled on his desk about Fullmetal, they had more than a passing knowledge of close combat; he knew from experience that each of them had forgotten more about alchemy than most practitioners would ever know. And yet, his mind still fed him visions of them sprawled; blank-eyed, perfectly still for the first time in their lives, skin waxy and cold. Or huddled, curled around each other in a caricature of protectiveness, blackened and charred, the heat enough to melt what little childish fat still clung stubbornly to them, and -

“What’s the situation?” Havoc asked, and Roy jolted, suddenly aware of how much time had passed. Hawkeye took on the task of talking for him while he spent a moment blinking his aching eyes to banish the appallingly vivid images. He must have been giving her directions mechanically, but he'd be damned if he could remember doing so.

“The colonel received a call from the Elrics just before I contacted you,” she said tightly, taking a corner at a speed that tipped the car briefly onto two wheels. Havoc clutched the headrest of Roy’s seat like a lifeline but otherwise didn’t react; Roy could see his mouth was pressed into a tight line in the mirror. “They’ve been staying with the state alchemist Shou Tucker for the last three days; he specialises in chimeras, and the colonel thought they might be interested in studying his notes.” She caught Roy’s gaze for a long moment before turning her attention back to the road. It was lucky the streets were abandoned at this hour.

It shouldn’t be surprising that she knew as much as she did about him – no doubt she’d done her research once Roy had announced that he was sending Fullmetal away for a couple of days.

“They’ve… expressed an interest in biological alchemy before,” Roy admitted, choosing his words carefully so as not to betray their confidence. “Tucker’s title is ‘Sewing Life’ – he’s considered an expert in the field, and his library is extensive. Fullmetal jumped at the chance as soon as I mentioned chimeras.”

“I – alright,” Havoc said blankly. “And all that means what, exactly?”

“The Elrics don’t just ask me for help,” Roy said. It was a battle not to spit the words. “They don’t phone my personal number in the middle of the night asking me to come with people that I would trust their lives to.” Havoc sucked in a deep breath, considering that.

“Alright, sir,” he said softly, and flinched as Hawkeye threw the car down a side street that should not, by all accounts, have been wide enough to fit a vehicle down.

Roy was pretty sure she hadn’t even scratched the paint.

The final leg of the journey was spent alternately ruffling Hayate’s ears, and patting at his pockets to reassure himself that yes, he did have two pairs of gloves with him – just in case. Havoc grumbled to himself that he hadn’t managed to grab more than one cigarette on his way out, but his face was drawn and serious, eyes shadowed. Hawkeye’s grip on the wheel was tight enough to turn her knuckles white; Roy could see her arms bunch with tension under her black shirt.

Outside Tucker’s mansion, the car screeched to a stop with enough force that Roy was almost thrown from his seat. Hayate huffed indignantly against his throat but was quick to forgive, offering a quick lick to his cheek that Roy was too distracted to avoid.

The house was still standing, at least. With Fullmetal at the scene, it could easily go either way when things got bad. Hawkeye pulled her handgun from its holster but left the rifle on the seat, though Roy knew it went against all of her instincts. Havoc let out a low whistle as he stepped out of the backseat, but Roy didn’t miss the way he’d started scanning the street and the property.

“Stay,” Hawkeye commanded, turning to Black Hayate only long enough to watch him sit down on the front seat, tongue lolling. “Good boy.”

Roy’s breath caught more times than he was proud of as they made their way up to the front door – the gravel path sounded obscenely loud in the thick silence that had descended. In the dark, the house took on an oppressive air; it loomed above them, shadows clinging where the lights from the street fell short. The door, when he reached it, was unlocked.

Neither Elric was in the hallway, but neither was there any sign of a struggle – no blood, no overturned furniture, none of the tell-tale gouges in the walls that Roy had come to associate with Fullmetal’s style of fighting.

“Sure they’re here, boss?” Havoc muttered behind him, tension strung through the words. “Seems awful quiet for an Elric problem.”

“That’s what worries me,” Roy hissed back, edging forward as quickly as he dared. Between them, they cleared the dining room, kitchen and first sitting room, Roy taking point and Hawkeye covering from behind. Each room was as preternaturally still as the one before, and the ball in Roy’s chest twisted tighter.

Roy was on the verge of telling every one of his instincts to go fuck themselves and just shouting for the brothers when Hawkeye’s soft sir had him spinning on his heel, hand raised, scanning for a threat.

There was nothing immediately out of place, but he knew Hawkeye wouldn’t have drawn his attention without reason. He followed her gaze and shallow nod to a heavy wooden door towards the end of the corridor – a door which, now that he was looking for it, had a faint ring of light surrounding it, barely distinguishable even in the gloom. It wasn’t until he got closer that he realised the door was barely clinging to its hinges; that it had been thrown open hard enough to dent the wall before swinging as far shut as it could in the damaged frame.

Shit.

Roy’s feet moved before his mind had a moment to catch up; he careened down the stairs, Hawkeye and Havoc barely a step behind him, close enough to collide with his back when he froze at the foot of the stairs. To them, the scene must have looked horrifying enough – there were sprays of blood across the wall, and chips out of the brickwork that looked like they had nothing to do with transmutation, and everything to do with an automail fist. The cages holding Tucker’s experiments were overturned, and the creatures within cried softly, huddled and shaking, too terrified to howl.

All of that was enough to turn Roy’s stomach. The circle was enough to have him choking back bile.

Tucker’s notes had always been written in code, the particulars of the arrays kept completely confidential, but Roy had studied alchemical theory extensively under Betholdt; enough to recognise the basic meaning behind the shapes the man had chosen. The formula itself was written around the edges of the circle – either Tucker took extreme steps to guard against errors in his transmutations, or he wasn’t half as skilled as Roy had been led to believe. A talented alchemist could achieve the same result with a circle half the size, and a fraction of the words and details as long as all the base components were present.

An octagon for life, and twin octograms for the souls, parallel and connected by two arcs, chalked with painstaking precision onto a floor sanded smooth for this exact purpose. Likely, Roy thought with mounting horror, Tucker wouldn’t be able to compensate for even the slightest flaw in the circle.

The array itself wasn’t what stopped him in his tracks. It was the circle ringing it that left him rooted to the spot, barely able to force breath past his lips.

Carved centimetres deep into the floor, it pushed within Tucker’s circle, breaking apart some elements but extending and building on others. Had it been written in a textbook, Roy might have called it the final copy compared to the rough draft, but he knew the sheer power that must have been exerted to do this – to change the course of a transmutation already in progress.

It wasn’t something he’d ever considered possible outside of a thought exercise – once a reaction was taking place, there was no way for an alchemist to alter their circle anywhere near fast enough to do anything constructive. If they were lucky, the energy would disperse, rendering the transmutation useless but ultimately harmless. If they were unlucky, the energy would be turned back on them in a rebound of potentially catastrophic proportions.

But if it were possible to change a circle in a matter of seconds – say, for an alchemist that didn’t need to use physical arrays – then what would be the consequence of changing a circle, another alchemist’s reaction, when it was already taking place?

“Find them!” Roy barked, voice cracked and painful. “Shit, find them now!”

There was no more time for stealth – Roy’s panic was infectious, and it saturated the very air they breathed. They were as methodical as they could bear to be in their haste, but with every passing second, Roy’s vision narrowed further until he could barely see, and his blood roared in his ears, until –

“Sir?” Softly, from the next floor up. It had to be Alphonse; Ed had never called him sir in his life, and Roy didn’t expect him to start now. They’re fine, he told himself desperately, the bands around his chest loosening just slightly, just enough to gasp a decent breath and shake off the haziness in his periphery. They made it up two flights of stairs, Al doesn’t sound scared, they’re fine.

As though Roy hadn’t seen Ed try to pass off broken ribs and half-destroyed automail as ‘a bit of bruising, I’m fine, fuck off before I make you, I mean it’.

Hawkeye found him first – the little puff of air that hissed past her lips was the only indicator of her shock, but Roy knew her better than he knew himself most days – she was stunned beyond words.

“Alphonse?” Roy called as he followed her into the room, braced for whatever it was she had seen.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about it wasn’t the way Tucker’s eyes were swollen to narrow slits around a broken nose, or the bloodied mess of his mouth, but rather that the smears of blood across Al’s hand suggested it hadn’t been Ed that had inflicted the damage. Or at least not all of it, Roy amended, thinking back to the holes in the wall; just about the amount of force that an automail arm could generate when the human attached wasn’t trying to hold back.

Somehow, they’d managed to strap Tucker down to his own chair near the writing desk – on closer inspection, it looked like they’d repurposed the room’s curtains. Papers were strewn across the room, frenzied – Al sat in the eye of the storm, back pressed against the wood of the desk and knees drawn up to his chin. He’d never, in the year and a half that Roy had known him, looked so much like a child.

From the corner of his eye, Roy saw Hawkeye move forward, brisk and efficient as she drew out a pair of handcuffs and took on the task of securing Tucker – in her mind, there was no notion that the brothers could have made a mistake. Not about something of this magnitude; though at times reckless and impulsive, they were terrifyingly intelligent and shockingly mature, despite all the rumours to the contrary.

“Al?” Roy tried, kneeling in front of the boy and deliberately not focusing on Havoc and Hawkeye hauling Tucker to his feet. “I saw the circle downstairs – are you alright, are you hurt?”

The question seemed to shock Al from whatever daze he was in; he blinked rapidly and his posture loosened when he met Roy’s searching gaze. He glanced down at his hands, curling them into fists and then straightening them out again. There was no swelling, Roy noted with relief, no signs of any breaks.

Just Tucker’s blood.

“I – we, we’re fine,” Al said, still staring at his hands, like he couldn’t quite believe they were his. “I said I’d watch Tucker, Ed didn’t trust himself, but I shouldn’t’ve, he just, he kept talking, kept trying to tell me about his research, Ed took Nina away so she wouldn’t have to be near him but I didn’t think he’d talk so much.” He broke off; his hand shot out to grasp Roy’s sleeve, eyes suddenly panicked.

“Sir, please, you can’t let him talk to anyone you don’t trust, people can’t know, please Colonel Mustang, it isn’t safe.”

Roy rested a careful hand on Al’s heaving shoulder – the boy went completely still, his breathing so shallow Roy couldn’t even feel it.

“I won’t, Al – I’ll contact Hughes and Armstrong in Central, let them lead the investigation. They’re good people, and they’ll do whatever I say is necessary to keep you safe; you know Armstrong, and I know I’ve told you about Hughes before.” Al nodded.

“Ed’s in the library,” Al said. Of course, Roy thought, with wry, only slightly hysterical humour. “Him and Nina. I’ll show you, it’s, it’s just down the hall.”

“You can take your time, Al,” Roy said softly. “I’m sure I can find Ed – he isn’t so small that I can’t see him.” The joke came out a little flat, a little forced, but it surprised a brief burst of wet laughter from Al. He sniffed and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands; not the knuckles, the blood starting to crack and flake where it had dried.

Al stood, his jaw clenched and his shoulders back, and Roy was forced to remember that these boys had lived through hell, a hell he knew next to nothing about.

Shit, he thought, gesturing to Al to lead. What the fuck happened.

 


 

 

As was so often the case, Roy heard Ed before he saw him. The voice was surprisingly soft for Ed, but given that the only other sound was their muffled footsteps, it wasn’t hard to hear him.

“But never ever listen to a word that comes out of his stupid mouth, alright? Never knows what he’s talking about. Says he’s all tough, but I dare you to call him uncle or something before the first week is over, dumbass’ll melt I promise. But he’s not a bad guy, and he works real close to Teacher so you’ll get to see everyone a lot, and me and Al can call, if you want?”

There was a noise that could be construed as agreement; a high, childlike voice, wordless. Nina – it had to be Nina – sounded on the edge of falling asleep, lulled by Ed’s voice. Not the usual reaction he got, Roy thought, but then, children had always seemed to quickly take to the brothers. Al reached the door first, and pushed it open – it made a soft swish against the carpet, announcing their arrival. A fearful little mutter struck Roy like a hammer, before Al stuck his head through the gap, and the sound changed to one of delight.

“You there too, Colonel?” Roy could hear Ed’s struggle, the way he bit off the beginning of the word ‘bastard’, like he was so used to using it as a full title. It was bizarrely sweet, to hear him take pains to censor himself over bastard when dumbass apparently didn’t register as a problem. “Nina, remember I told you about the colonel? How he’d be coming to help us?”

Another little murmur, dubious. Roy hesitated until Al waved him forward, face stony and eyes cautionary. Prepare yourself, his expression said, clear as day.

At first, Roy couldn’t see her at all. Ed had wrapped the girl up in his red coat, arms left bare and shirt torn across his chest in a pattern that looked too much like claw-marks for Roy’s peace of mind. He’d pulled the hood up, and rested his chin on top of her head, eyes narrowed defiantly until Roy could see only the barest sliver of gold. A flicker of movement drew his gaze down, to where his shirt was shifting like – oh.

Like Nina was tugging at it, to get his attention.

“S’okay,” Ed murmured; his face softened, the corner of his mouth pulled into a strained smile. For Roy, who sometimes forgot that Ed was capable of anything other than melodrama and occasional explosions, the change was startling. “Me and Al, we told him – told him to come. He’s got a car, see, and like, three safehouses at least. We can lay low for a couple days before we go south, yeah? Trust me, it’s gonna work out I promise, your brothers’ll take care of sh – uh, stuff.”

“Brothers,” Nina repeated slowly; the sound was laboured, rough, like she was speaking around a throat full of sand. “And – ‘nel?” Every word seemed to be an effort to her – shock? Exhaustion? There was no way for Roy to know for sure, but it was unlikely that Ed wouldn’t have checked her over.

“Yeah, and the colonel,” Ed agreed. He tucked the coat a little tighter around her and stood in stages – he had to keep pausing to readjust his hold when she whimpered or tightened her vice-grip on his shirt. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you. Swear he’s only, like, ten percent as scary as he smells.”

That got her to laugh, at least, so Roy kept his retort behind his teeth.

Eventually, Ed managed to balance her on his hip, arm wrapped tight around her back in support – Nina burrowed closer, her face pressed against his shoulder. Her feet were bare, Roy could now see, like she’d been in bed when everything started to go so wrong, and she was shivering, even bundled up and pressed close to Fullmetal’s chest. The hood of Ed’s coat slipped a couple of centimetres back from her face, and she wailed, clutching at it when Ed froze, tugging it forward again.

Roy had never seen Ed looked so panicked. It lasted a fraction of a second, racing across his features, before his mouth twisted into something that Roy couldn’t accurately call a scowl – it didn’t quite convey the absolute carnage that expression promised. His nostrils flared as he drew in a deep, unsteady breath; his jaw clenched so tight that Roy’s teeth ached sympathetically.

But then that, too, was smoothed carefully away.

“I’m here, Nina,” Ed murmured, doing an admirable job of keeping his voice even. “You can let him see if you want. We trust him. You don’t have to, but we trust him.” He caught Roy’s eyes for the briefest moment; he knew what it cost Ed to admit that. Neither brother had ever bothered to conceal their disdain for the military, and though Roy knew they considered him more tolerable than most, he had hardly dared hope that they would ever hold him in higher regard than that.

Nina’s face was pressed so hard against Ed’s shoulder that the word was almost smothered in his shirt, but Roy knew that he heard a muttered bad; he flinched minutely, and only Al’s shockingly steady presence at his back kept him in place.

“Aw, Nina, no, you aren’t bad,” Ed said, voice pained, and edge of resignation colouring the edges. Like they’d already discussed this. Like Ed was repeating himself. “Forget what he said, alright? Guy doesn’t get to decide sh – anything about you. Never again, got it?” A pause, before she nodded once, leaning back from Ed’s shoulder just far enough that he could meet her eyes.

She must’ve liked what she saw, because she leaned back further, twisting to look at Roy.

“Colo… nel,” she sounded out, the words thick and unwieldy around the mouthful of teeth that Roy couldn’t stop staring at. They were razor sharp, and if he hadn’t seen it, he never would have believed they’d all fit in a little girl’s head. Roy swallowed hard, forced himself to look up at her eyes – Ed had promised that she could trust him, had said that he trusted him, and Roy wasn’t about to stomp on that fragile peace. Her eyes were oddly shaped, set deep in her skull, and liquid brown from lid to lid; but bright, curious, and yes, afraid. Roy suddenly had a bad feeling that he knew exactly where the claw-marks on Ed’s shirt had come from.

“Hello, Nina,” Roy said softly, when he had regained his wits enough that he could something other than what the fuck, what the fuck? She regarded him a moment longer, before she tilted back her head and inhaled deeply.

“Smells like – you,” she said slowly, turning back to Ed in her confusion. “And – brother.”

“Well, he’s an alchemist like us,” Al said; reasonable, steady, nothing at all like the scared boy curled up against the desk. “And brother works with him, so we see him a lot.” Nina considered this for a moment before she seemed to accept it, humming faintly as she settled. Ed brushed a careful hand through her hair, pushing the hood completely away from her face – her jaw looked like it had been warped, patches of skin stretched and newly-healed. It was a conscious effort not to vomit.

Ed glanced up, past Roy and Al.

“Hawkeye outside?” It should be concerning that Ed knew him that well – particularly when he still didn’t feel like he knew much of anything in return. Roy nodded, not really trusting his voice. “Anyone else?”

He had to swallow a couple of times before he could manage a faint, “Havoc. And Black Hayate.”

Ed snorted incredulously. “Y’know, can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not. Havoc likes kids, though. I think.”

“Havoc is a kid,” Roy said, almost as a reflex.

“Ah, yeah, course. How could I forget.”

Al shuffled carefully past Roy as soon as Ed was within touching distance, and reached out with careful hands to take Nina from his brother. She settled easily against his side, blinking slowly in the low light of the oil lamps dotted through the library. Ed reached out with his left hand, and carefully brushed her hair away from her face.

“Al’s gonna take you downstairs now, okay? There’s a couple of people there that came with the colonel; they’re even better than him, so you don’t have anything to worry about. Al will look after you all the way, just like we promised.”

Ed waited until Nina nodded her head, just slightly, before he straightened up and met his brother’s eyes. There was a whole conversation that passed between them in a matter of seconds, before Al bumped gently against Ed’s side and left the room.

Roy opened his mouth to ask, saw the look on Ed’s face, and reconsidered. His head was tipped slightly to the side, like he was listening out for something. He waited long after the sound of footsteps had faded down the corridor before he spun on his heel, so fast that it made Roy’s head spin just to look at him. There was a heavy thunk quickly followed by a muted crash as the bookshelf he had kicked toppled over. Books spilled from the shelves, some so old that the binding fell apart from the fall alone – others survived the initial impact, only to immediately fall victim to Ed’s boot.

It was – it was antithetical to everything Roy knew about the brothers. He had seen them disgusted, seen them infuriated, but he had never seen either of them driven to a point that they actively destroyed knowledge, destroyed information. Their seemingly boundless drive to know, to learn had been about the constant through all of their missions, and Roy could only stare in mute fascination as Ed came to a stop, shoulders heaving with the force of his breaths.

“We knew somethin’ was wrong,” he said eventually, and Roy –

He’d never heard Ed sound so small.

“Soon as you started going on about a talking chimera, we knew somethin’ was wrong,” he muttered. He didn’t sound angry, exactly, or frustrated, but rather like he knew he should be feeling something else and this was the closest he could manage. “Seen enough of that shit before, thought we knew what was goin’ on. Thought it’d be a, a, a soldier or somethin’, and we’d be able to interfere in time, or that Tucker would be better at it, or, or, fuck!”

He turned again, apparently ready to start tearing his way through the rest of the room, and Roy couldn’t just stand there and watch.

“Fullmetal!” He snapped, and was more than a little surprised when it worked. Ed drew up short; his head snapped around to face Roy, gold eyes wide. Like he was not only shocked that Roy had spoken to him like that, but also that he had responded.

Roy pretended he didn’t notice how red and suspiciously damp those eyes were.

“I don’t need a report now,” he said, taking care to soften his voice. He’d never really thought to bother before, not for Ed who stood a head and shoulders shorter than him even in boot; not even for Al, whose soft smile and careful manners hit a wit as sharp as his brother’s. Somehow, they always seemed so much larger than life. But Ed looked lost – slumped, and confused. “I won’t even need a full report later – just give me the essential details, Hawkeye and I will arrange the rest. But Ed, I will need to know what happened here.”

“What, so you can lie better about it?” Ed asked, and there was a spark of his usual humour in his shaking voice. Roy offered a smile, as genuine as he could muster.

“Exactly, I’m so glad you’re finally catching on,” he said. “Now come on, we don’t want to leave the others waiting out in the car.” He had gleaned enough to be getting on with for now, knew enough about the situation to be glad he hadn’t eaten dinner that evening.

Ed swore, viciously, and Roy jerked back in surprise, before trying to cover it like he’d already been turning to head for the door.

“Piece of shit Tucker’s going to be in the fuckin’ car with her, damn it, damn it,” he snarled, and Roy held up his hands as peaceably as he could while wearing his gloves.

“If I know Hawkeye,” which he did, and he was so damned grateful every day, “he’ll be stuffed in the boot. You don’t have to worry, Fullmetal, he won’t be able to get to her.”

It took a moment for Ed to consider this before he seemed to decide it was an acceptable compromise.

“Okay,” he said at last. “Okay, that’ll work. But I hear one damn twitch from back there, and I’m transmuting your car into a coffin before you got time to say ‘excessive force’.”

“That’s… reasonable. Just make sure you transmute it with us on the outside, yes?”

Ed scoffed.

“Obviously, ’m not a fuckin’ amateur.”

You certainly aren’t at that, Roy thought, trying to herd Ed towards the door without making it too obvious that that’s what he was doing. For a second – a brief, beautiful second – he thought he’d succeeded.

Ed paused on his way to the door to look back at the mess he’d made of the library, an almost thoughtful expression twisting at his features, still with an edge of disdain. His eyes roamed across the room before they snagged on something.

Ed clapped, set his hand against the wall, and watched as the ripple he sent through the woodwork knocked an oil lamp loose. Roy, who had been turning to leave, spun back around in time to see the loose pages scattered near the wall catch, flames leaping higher and faster than should have been possible without alchemy. Red sparks flew, leaping from page to page, almost faster than he could watch.

“Fullmetal,” he snapped, exasperated, lifting a hand to activate the array on the back of his glove – oxygen manipulation on a fire already started was in some ways more complicated than nurturing a spark, but he wasn’t the only flame alchemist for nothing. Ed, however, had a different idea, gripping his raised wrist in automail fingers and dragging Roy down the corridor with surprising strength.

“The investigation will need evidence,” he protested, trying to dig in his heels. Ed waved his free hand carelessly – effortlessly! – before pulling a battered notebook from his trouser pocket. A part of Roy couldn’t help but think it was a good job he hadn’t left it in his shirt or jacket – it would have been shredded.

“Plenty in this,” he said shortly as they stumbled in awkward tandem down the stairs. Ed stopped at the door that had been carefully set back on its hinges, but didn’t go any further. His mouth curled, and the automail around Roy’s wrist flexed hard enough that he suspected it would leave bruises come morning. He didn’t say anything more, but he also didn’t move down towards the stair, didn’t make any attempt to destroy his circle. Only kicked at the frame, sending splinters and red sparks from the metal studs of his boot flying.

Roy didn’t protest further, and eventually Ed let go of him just before they reached the door.

“You know I’ll be blamed for this, now?” He asked, masking genuine anger with a dry humour. Ed didn’t need to see his fury tonight – there would be plenty of time for it another day. Ed shrugged, stuffing the hand with the book back in his pocket, and sending another piece of torn fabric fluttering away from his shoulder.

He didn’t ask about the very edges of the scar he could see spanning Ed’s chest – silver and ropy with age, and so deep that it must have hit bone. There would be plenty of time for that another day, too.

“Have to come up with a better lie for that too, huh?” Ed replied, stomping to the car where his brother sat waiting with Nina curled up on his lap. True to Roy's word, there was no sight of Tucker, and when he met Hawkeye’s gaze, she jerked her head towards the rear of the car. Havoc looked – well, he looked pale, but he managed a tired grin at Roy before swinging himself into the backseat next to Al. Roy scrubbed a hand over his face and headed to the car.

It was going to be a long night.