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But Not Buried This Time

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And I'm getting tired
Of crawling all the way

— “Which Witch” – Florence + the Machine

 

As light seeps in under Ed’s eyelids and pries them upward a crack, the first thing he realizes is that there’s too much blood in his mouth for him to hiss out every last expletive he’s ever learned.  Which is fine.  Sort of.  Since none of them would be remotely fucking adequate.

He winches his eyes open a fraction further and watches stupidly for a second as the black and gold stars dance like fireflies.  He tries to focus on them hard.  He can’t pass out—if he passes out, he bleeds out, and he dies, and he’s fucked.  He can’t fucking die.  Miles to go, and promises, and…

And he thought this was going to be it, didn’t he?  But if it’s not, well—fuck that shit.  Fuck dying.  The Gate can’t have him yet.

He’s starting to be able to make out individual grains of dirt in front of his face.  There’s one particularly stubborn little fucker stuck on one of his eyelashes—glued to it with dried blood, probably; dying is a nasty-ass fucking business and no mistake.  He needs to be coherent to get this right—needs to have his shit together enough for a transmutation to knit up the bullet wounds and seal his guts inside his body where they belong.  Might be too late, but if he’s conscious, then… maybe.  And maybe’s a start.

His breathing sounds all wet and fucking ragged even to his own ears.  The pain’s too ambient and too fucking huge to categorize—he can’t tell if one of the bullets punctured a lung or what.  That’d be a bitch.  Will be a bitch.  Gotta think future tense.  Gotta think, for starters.

He tries to sift back through the rubble in his shaken-to-shit little brain—it takes a second, and then concrete images of events start surfacing from the mire of memories, and he remembers…

He remembers yanking on his dog tag until the chain snapped, and tossing it to Jon, and contorting his mouth into a grin and saying “If I don’t make it, tell Al it didn’t hurt.  And tell Mustang I’m sorry about the paperwork.  Actually, tell him ‘Tough shit, you’re not the one who’s dead, asshole’.”

He remembers Jon doing a real cute combination laugh-cry thing, which would’ve been sort of touching if there’d been time for that kind of shit.

He remembers running like his life depended on it, because it was more than that—their lives depended on it, and they’d never done anything to deserve this shit; they’d never even stood a chance, and it wasn’t right, and he was damn sure gonna go down fighting for them like they were his own flesh and blood, because they might as well have been; they were his responsibility, and if this was the last thing he could do for them, then—

He remembers the impact, like a fucking freight train right to the chest, and thinking—in a shock way, in stark black and white, as the breath burst out of him and disappeared—This almost counts to settle up the scales.

It’s all kind of fucked up and fragmented after that—scratched out badly, like somebody went at the whole sequence in his head with a blunt black pen.

Doesn’t matter; he’s got more important shit to worry about just now—how to get through this is a hell of a lot more pressing than how he got here.

Speaking of pressing, he’s figured out the source of the prickle underneath his cheek, and of the spiderwebby white winding through the dirt: it’s snow.  Which explains why there’s a distant ache mewling tirelessly beneath the howl of the hurricane pain.  And why his shoulder’s numb at the automail join; also explains why he hasn’t bled to death, probably.  Must’ve slowed it, or something.  Clotting.  Funny how ice burns deeper sometimes.  “Tundra” is such a weird-ass fucking word; he used to love it—he used to think it was fascinating and strange and evocative.  Now it sounds like earth packed too tight and frozen too solid to dig out graves, and corpses that frost over so fast they barely need them.

He’s lying on his right side, with the automail arm half-folded underneath him—probably his instinct was to wrap it around himself when the first bullet hit.  Does he remember…?  It’s all in bits and fucking pieces; moth wings at the edges of his understanding that keep flickering out of reach.  He thinks he remembers—sparks.  Maybe that was wishful thinking; maybe that was a last-ditch leap for sanctuary when he thought his time was up.  Maybe that was his final failing effort to feel warm again before the whole thing… stopped.

Or maybe the arm took one of the bullets meant for another part of him, and that’s why he’s still alive.

Pity Winry’s going to kill him even if he makes it, but at least that leases him a little bit of borrowed time.

His eyelids sink over and over, and again and again he forces them back open even though his head throbs like a motherfucking bitch.  He’s not stupid—hemorrhaging and concussion and the snow?  No fucking way is he going to sleep; no fucking way until he knows he’s somewhere he can wake back up again.  The tiny white crystals strewn among the grit swim in and out of focus as he lies as still as he can manage and tries to take stock.

The worst of the obliterative pain is emanating from a point on his right side not far above his hip.  Either the frostbite or the weight of his left leg has made the right completely numb, but he’s relatively confident it still exists, so that’s something.  He shifts the left just slightly, and the agony fucking radiates—and there it is; there’s the stiffness to his coat in the back, scraping on the screaming of his nerves.  He’s got an exit wound, and the blood froze in the fabric.

Over the din of the sheer fucking sensation he can make out a similar spread on the center of his chest, too, but it’s—different.  It stings like all fucking hell over there, but with none of the urgent enormity of the trajectory cut through his side.  Shrapnel?  Is that what happened?  The bullet hit the automail, and—what?  Maybe Winry’ll let him thank her before she murders him.

He needs to fix this fucker up.  It’s a pretty typical pile of bullshit that it was the right side—couldn’t’ve just carved a new trail right back through the old one; the vital organs on that side are practiced at this shit; they would’ve just sidestepped the fucking bullet and shrugged.  Nah, matching scars on both sides; more fucked up kidney and liver shit—that’s what he needs.

Not that that in any way compromises the fucking miracle that he’s alive.

He’ll have to summon up some manual dexterity for this, and a couple of brain cells if there are any of those still clinging to his battered skull.  He wouldn’t blame them if they’d jumped ship by now; he doesn’t take very good care of them.  Then again—is it really his fault he gets the everloving shit beaten out of him a lot?

Well.  Yes.  Sort of.  Mostly.  Depends on who you ask.

Al gives him these looks that settle just short of outright pity, ’cause he knows—he  knows it’s the universe, honestly; it’s not Ed, or at least not consciously, and even if it was, it’s what he deserves, so he’ll take his licks with his head down when he has to, as long as no one else’s safety is at stake.

Roy’s looks are unreadable, because Roy’s a shitty asshole bastard.  Roy holds his face like the polished marble of a monument and grazes his fingertips so light over the bruises that even though Ed’s blood beats faster, they don’t start to hurt.  Roy said once You should take better care of yourself, and then, slowly, like he was in a trance, like a dream, like he was reciting something written somewhere he could barely see—You’ve always lived like your life doesn’t matter, but it does—to many more people than I think you know.  And we’d like for you to be around for a long time.

It’s funny, the shit you think about when you’re lying on the tundra with a bullet hole through your fucking abs.  Your brain makes different connections while it wavers on the verge of winking out.

Connections like Maybe that bastard takes obsessive care of me ’cause he knows I’d never do it on my own, but he thinks I’m somehow worthy to be cared for.

Or like Maybe he talks about the future all the fucking time because he wants me to believe I have one.

Or like I think he’s in love with me.

Or Fuck my life, I think I love him, too.

Ed blinks at the little blots of snow for a few more seconds.  After accounting more or less mathematically for the expected tipping of his vision from the vertigo, the world does not seem to be tilting off its axis, and he hasn’t felt a single tremor that he’d call an earthquake.  There are exactly zero noticeable jets of fire or hailstorms slinging flaming stones.  So—apparently—all available evidence stands to indicate that the Apocalypse is not especially nigh.

Interesting.

He’ll chalk that up as one more reason to survive.  If only so he can give the great Roy Mustang some shit about falling for a dumbass, bullet-punctured cripple and whatever shit.

Well, that’s that, then.

He sets his jaw, grits his teeth for good measure, and rolls a quarter-turn—enough to summon spearheads of ferocious pain spiking outwards from the wound; and enough to jar a shimmer of fainter lightning down the length of his left arm that makes his brain shudder and his fingers twitch.

They can’t take that away.  No matter how much mud and pitch and fucking sickness they drag him through, no matter how many lives they make him ruin, no matter how much of the world gets fucked up in his name—he’s the Fullmetal Alchemist.  He’s the boy in the blood-red coat with a score to settle and a serpent’s cross hung from his shoulders; he’s the smallest, swiftest shadow flitting out of smoke and ozone, counting points towards a redemption that he knows that he won’t reach; he’s the only man in the military naïve enough to believe in peace and justice.  He’s snarled and tangled and fought and lied and contorted himself through every loophole he can find in this hellhole, and they haven’t crushed him yet.

They can’t take that away.

Fullmetal wouldn’t die here.  Fullmetal doesn’t understand defeat.

Fullmetal’s going to go out in a blaze of glory with a trail of fire, escorted by an entourage of flaming dragon skulls, howling his triumph to the spiteful fucking heavens—not in a pit of mud and blood and patchy snow, curled up and whimpering over his wounds.  Maybe there’s no such thing as destiny, but you get as good as you give, and he’s not finished yet.  Not by a longshot.

He raises his hand.  He’s a circle—a ring, a loop; he’s feedback; he’s energy; he is matter and material; he is raw possibility; he is parts and whole, deconstruction and creation; he is the embodiment of alchemy, and his soul is an untapped well of pulsing potential; it is photons shivering in place—

He pins the lines down in his mind and draws a ragged breath and presses the palm of his left hand to the limp steel weight of the right.

The crackle of bright blue light and the tang of ozone feels like a balm; like a blessing; like coming home; like being complete, like being completed; and he drinks it fucking in.

He’s the Philosopher’s Stone.  That’s the part so many people fail to understand; a single human being’s absolute uniqueness in the universe has more power than a thousand-thousand churning mills—more than volcanoes, more than forest fires, more than storms that torment ships and dash them into shards of lumber on the shore.  Human beings are dynamos.  They’re irreplaceable.  They can’t be built; they can’t be bought; they can’t be measured.

But they can be harnessed.  They can be harvested.  They can be used.

And he’s got desperation left for this.

This is the first and oldest and greatest kind of power he’s ever had, ever known, ever understood to own, to use, to channel towards ideas; the only means he’s ever had to justify the ends hanging just out of reach—the only recourse; the only thing that’s ever made him whole—

Literally, sometimes.  Like now.

It’s the only thing that’s ever rescued him from meaninglessness.

He lies still, listening to the wet wheeze of his own fucking breath, letting the sheer sweet energy of it course through him—letting it cycle, letting it run; letting it sing down every nerve; he’s the circle; a human being is a soul and a heartbeat and the single most complex array—

It’s humming in his ears now, louder than the shiver of his blood; louder than any gunshot, louder than an avalanche; louder than the roaring silence in the white place where this really began—

He peels his left hand free from the right and slaps it to the center of his chest.

The rush—

The pressure—

The heat

Like drowning in the bright blue at the center of a flame—

And his veins are alive with it; lightning searing underneath each centimeter of his skin; his blood is starlight singing through the ether; he’s a concept; he’s unmade

The Gate can’t hold him; nothing can.

The light whips around and around and across the lines sketched out in his head; it slingshots off the angles and suffuses every sigil, melts them, swells

And the wave crests and crashes and smothers him, slamming down with breathtaking force, like a freight train, like a box truck, like the right kiss—

He blinks the constellations from his eyes, gasping like a beached fish; his body burns all over, with the strongest sear radiating from the newly-patched hole in the meat of his back.  Gradually the sky cinches into focus, and he successfully twitches his right foot.

Still here.  Still fucking kickin’.

He drags in the deepest breath he can manage; the cold air feels like a wad of knives down his throat and into his lungs, but he can practically taste the oxygen, and that—that never gets old.

He won’t either, if he keeps going at this fucking rate.

But that’s an existential crisis he can have another time, in front of a fireside under a blanket with a mug of cocoa in one hand and a book in the other.  The blanket’s gonna be red plaid.  There’ll be marshmallows bobbing on the surface of the hot chocolate—good ones; the big, fluffy kind.  And he’ll have his feet out towards the fireplace grate so that the heat seeps all the way up the metal, and that alone will make his current plight more than worth the fucking trouble.

He rolls over.  Holy fuck, that hurts.  Everything hurts.  Wow.

His right arm isn’t responding yet—Winry’s gonna lose her shit if there’s a bullet buried in it somewhere; dying at her hands would make this whole experience look like a walk in the fucking park—but he manages to leverage the left underneath himself and prop up his own weight a little.  His head, helpfully, spins like nobody’s goddamn business for a second, all flashes of light and pinwheeling colors like a fucking kaleidoscope.

He lifts himself a few inches higher and tries to raise his gaze enough to assess the damned environment—for all he knows, some Drachman sniper’s been waiting for him to finish that snazzy little alchemical display before putting a fucking hollowpoint through his forehead.  The tiny lights swarm him like—wasps?  Bees?  Definitely wasps; they’re obviously not friendly; they shudder in the air around him, winking like they’re in on some kind of cosmic joke.  Can’t pass out now, either.  Can’t afford it.

He breathes as deep as he can bear.  It hurts like a brand-new stabbing in his maybe-slightly-punctured now-rush-repaired lung on the left side, but the half-frozen oxygen seeps in all the same, and as it bolsters his blood, he can feel himself taking strength from it.  Fancy that.  He might just make it out of here alive.

When the constellations stop spinning around his face, he swallows, coughs something reddish and highly unappealing into his sleeve, swallows again, and tries to shift his feet underneath him to take some of his weight.  The left one responds without much of any trouble—maybe a little bit of a creak; maybe a twinge of unhappy nerve connections, but nothing like the outright sit-down protest that his arm’s started staging.  He better get through this so Winry can beat the shit out of him.  He owes her that much.  He owes her a lot more than that.

He takes it agonizingly fucking slow—people used to accuse him of recklessness; Roy still does, but he’s not stupid, is the thing.  If he tried to jump up onto his feet like a jack-in-the-box right now, he’d be faceplanting in the snow again faster than you could say “traumatic shock from major blood loss”, and that wouldn’t do jackshit for anyone.  Odds are he’d freeze to death, which is starting to sound progressively more nice and peaceful, which—

Yeah.  Getting the fuck out of here.

He maneuvers his knees under himself first, and then wraps his left arm around his thigh and starts hauling until he’s dragged it up and planted his foot in the snow.  That’s one.  The other’s a little easier, even though his skin’s prickling everywhere with the fucking cold.  That’s two feet on the ground; a man can do anything from here with enough stubborn fucking gumption.  And if there’s one thing Ed’s never been accused of, it’s an insufficient quantity of sheer pigheadedness.

Settles that.

He spreads his left hand in the snow for balance and cautiously starts shifting his weight onto his feet, extending his knees as he goes.  Easy fuckin’ does it; tilt the balance a little bit at a time—his head starts to swim, and he hesitates until the world stops teetering.  He’s halfway upright, which is the hard shit, actually; he has to lift up his hand and lose that stabilization before he can stand up the rest of the way; this is going to be a right bitch, but nobody ever got a medal for giving up halfway through—

Shitfuck—

The vertigo basically slaps him across the face, and he instinctively puts his left arm out for balance, but—

He’s up.

Reeling, so lightheaded it’s kind of impressive that his skull hasn’t floated off into the ice-blue Drachman sky, but—

Up.  Alive.  Moving on.

Ain’t that just the story of his fucking life?

He bares his teeth in a grin up at the weak pinprick glow of the sun sinking towards the mountainside.  That’s one more time it’s gone down before him—one more day that he’s outlasted; one more round he’s won.  They don’t give medals just for breathing, either, but some days they should.

Gravity drags his head down, and his gaze goes with it.  What the fuck happened here, again?  There was—they were the bait.  They were shark chum, as far as the brass was concerned; they were meat one way or another, might as well be dead, if they could distract the hordes of Drachman demons from the bulk of the troops and save the motherland.  Ed doesn’t blame them for the sacrifice—that’s how you play chess, unless you want to get your ass kicked and handed back to you bloody as hell.  What he blames them for is sticking a bunch of kids under his command—good kids, nice kids, kids who didn’t know that they’d signed up to be served up to the gory fangs of the war machine.

He wasn’t about to bring those kids here to die with him.  Not a chance.

The worst thing is, they probably knew it—Hakuro and Storch, in their shitty-ass tent with their rattling gas heaters and their serious expressions and their fucking lies.  They knew he’d send the others back and take this on alone.  They knew he could—knew he’d probably make it happen, even if he didn’t make it out alive.  They knew the worst-case scenario was being rid of their greatest asset and their biggest inconvenience—the mosquito-voiced machine gun who could’ve ended this shit a month ago, if he was rotted at the core like them.  They knew they’d either shut him up forever; or he’d scrape through, and they’d get what they wanted and keep him under their oily fucking thumbs.

He’s got to get through this—he’s got to live long enough to watch Roy thrash those motherfuckers at the polls, in the pit, twisting their own game around their heads until they can’t see anything but checkered board and fallen pawns.

Like the thousand pawns the Drachmans sent, who are lying in the wall of rock and snow that Ed brought down almost before they had him in their sights.

This was a valley before—had a name, too; Cezopek.  You’re supposed to do a funny thing where you curl your tongue.  Now it’s a… pile.  Of rock.  With corpses underneath.

Let nobody ever say he didn’t do his fucking duty to the state.

Let nobody ever say he wanted to.

He tries to roll his right shoulder, and he gets a little bit of a rotation out of it, but the rest of the arm still won’t listen to his brain.  What a little shit.  It’s probably doing it on purpose.

He starts out walking slow, towards the mess of death and rubble and nightmares that he made—it’d be best if he could find an officer, but the Drachmans tend to lead from the ba…

Well, hello.  Here’s one with the nice collar and the accented hat—or it looks like it; hard to tell with all the blood.  He didn’t get buried in the snow, which is a plus, although the head wound from the rolling boulders did a number on the fur that lines his coat.

Wouldn’t be the first time Ed’s had another person’s blood smeared on his face.  Probably won’t be the last.

Fighting a body out of a coat with one hand and reduced physical stamina is significantly harder than Ed thinks he’ll ever admit.  If somebody decides to ask, he’ll just… shrug.  With his one remaining shoulder, at this rate.

What the hell do they feed these guys, anyway?  Must be more than the Amestrian rations; fuck’s sake, the guy weighs a ton.  Ed has to haul with everything he’s got fuckin’ left on one sleeve to try to roll the body out—blood spills on the snow from the jagged-edged dent in the guy’s head, and it doesn’t even matter how many times you’ve seen that fucking shit; Ed’s stomach turns, and he can feel the bile climbing up his throat—

Don’t do it.  Don’t do it, Elric; don’t you fucking dare; you can’t afford to lose the calories, and you can’t stop now.

He stands as still as he can, tilting his head back and breathing slow and deep.  There’s a tiny cirrus cloud loitering around way up over head—there’s something reluctant about it.  Like it didn’t get the clear sky memo today and showed up anyway, and now it’s the only one here, but it was already dressed, so it can’t just leave, right, but maybe if it makes itself small enough in the corner, nobody’ll notice, and…

He swallows, laboriously, and looks down at the splattered snow again.  He’s okay.  He’s gonna be okay.  He doesn’t have a choice.  Dead men tell no tales, and they can’t fucking hurt you anymore.  So—really—corpses are the safest people to hang out with, if you think about it.  They’re the only ones who can’t fuck you up, one way or another, whether it’s intentional or not.  Whether or not it’s just the sheer potential skimming on your skin, so sharp it cuts you open, and the only thing that can stitch it up is finding out what might be there, but needles are so fucking freaky that it might be better not to know—to just keep bleeding quietly and never figure out what all that static electricity amounts to, right—?

Fuckin’ hell, this guy’s so heavy—heavy like all the shit that’s left unsaid, sitting like stone on the back of your tongue while the lightning darts around you.

Ed grits his teeth and yanks hard on the sleeve, pulling upward, and—

The lifeless arm slips out of the sleeve, and then the center of gravity of the whole corpse is shifting towards the chest that used to rise and fall and rise again not too many hours fucking previous, and isn’t that a bitch—?

The body pitches forward into a roll, and Ed keeps pulling back and up on the coat, and the other arm falls out of the other sleeve, and the whole wrong-angled pile of meat tumbles to the snow.  Blood seeps out of the head wound.  Ed swallows, swallows, and spits off to the side.  Nasty fucking habit, but sometimes you don’t have a choice; sometimes there’s no other way to get the sick-taste out of your mouth before it chases back down your throat and hits your stomach and—

It’s a pain in the ass getting his own coat off with his right arm just hanging like that, but he’s got some practice maneuvering clothes off with only one hand, and…

Clothes off.  Funny little wisp of a thought; funny little fragment.  Funny little botched stitch sticking up in the fabric of the ordered internal monologue that was just flicking by, and it catches, and…

Roy’d been touching him so fucking much in the weeks before… before.  Just little stuff—just brushes of the shoulder and grazes with elbows and… stuff.  Stuff that could be accidental, and maybe that’s why he wrote it off; maybe that’s why he didn’t pay it any fuckin’ heed and didn’t keep a tally, but he should have.  He should have remembered that Roy fucking Mustang doesn’t do a damn thing by accident.  Roy fucking Mustang is always in control.

He almost registered the other one—the clothes thing.  Roy used to coax him over to the Bastard Den all the time for a drink and a research argument (he usually said “discussions”, but he doesn’t call himself a diplomat for nothing), and he’d always… take Ed’s coat and his scarf and—whatever.  Just—shoulder-touching.  Real light, like it doesn’t count if you barely feel it.

How did Ed fail to notice a behavioral pattern changing like that?

Nah.  He knows the answer to that.  The brain is fucking powerful—and susceptible to its own fucking power.  Even an iron-skulledly logical intellect like his—even a mind stuffed with all the education that all the endless teeming texts can offer (and all the scraps and wisps and shadows and the sick and ragged edges that the leering white face crammed between the lines)—can convince itself of all kinds of small untruths.

He talked himself into believing that it was only him.

He talked himself into believing that Roy couldn’t possibly have an ulterior motive, because the only explanation was—unthinkable.  Not just implausible; unimaginable.  To be wanted—to exist in the capacity of another man’s temptation—

No.  Not him.

He’s never gotten anything he wanted—or not the way he wanted it—except for Al.  He burned up a lifetime of the exchange for Al, seared the scales and dragged them down and thrashed their makings, and he won, but he used it up.  Not again.  Never again.  That’s all right; that’s fine, but—

It rules out Roy.

Or he thought it did.

But it’s flipped, now, in the brisk frigid cold of this stretch of unmourned graves.  Logic is—the logical thing is—

Roy’s fingertips on the nape of his neck, so fucking gentle, Let me get that—please, come in—I bought a new mix for cocoa; won’t you try it?

The bastard.  The fucking bastard.  How could he make it so fucking unequivocal—unarguable—and still so fucking obfuscated that Ed went all this time—?

What if he’d fucking died?  What if he’d died and never—?

Roy should’ve—

Said something, should’ve…

What?

Gotten him to stay?  Saved him from this whole wreck of misery—this unending agony of spilled blood and spread guts and sleepless fucking fear?

‘Saved’ him.  As if he can be saved.

…but it’s a nice thought, isn’t it?  A nice, warm thought in a place like this.  A nice, warm little fantasy where maybe somebody gives a goddamn shit when he wakes up sweating, choking back the echoes of the unvoiced scream.  A nice, warm little shred of a hope of a dream where maybe the gentle pressure of someone’s hands can draw some of the fucking poison out, and maybe—maybe somefuckingday

Well.

He can indulge the stupid, childish little daydreams later.  Right now he’s got a corpse to loot.

He peels his coat off the rest of the way and piles it, semi-waterproofed outside down on the snow; and holy fucking hell it’s cold.  Fucking—frostbite-level shit; all the time; gloves on, half a billion shirts, and it’s still so cold it stings all over.

He threads his limp-ass automail into the dead man’s empty sleeve and shoulders the whole thing on; it’s still… warm.  A little.  Warmer than the snow.

His gloved hand is clumsy as shit, but he’s more used to fabric-swathed fingers than most, and he rummages in the corpse’s pockets, then through the little snapped-down compartments on the belt.  Coins; a few crumbs of rations; half a dozen bullets; and a scrap of paper.  Gloved fucking fingertips slipping helplessly, he forces it to unfold—

Oh.  Oh.  This whole God thing is way overwrought, but—

Sometimes—

Sometimes the exchange just—

Sometimes coincidences aren’t cruel; sometimes—

Sometimes the paper you turn up is the map of outpost safehouses that you’d have been praying for if you’d thought it would’ve mattered in the least.

He sends a mental word in an existential direction, though it’s less a prayer of thanks than a Yeah, fuck you, too lobbed vaguely towards the Gate.

He memorizes the layout to the best of his ability before he folds it again and shoves it into the inner breast pocket of his uniform.  It’s all a bit wishy-washy regardless—just fucking Xs dotted around the abstract shapes of the important pieces of topography—but it’s a hell of a fucking lot better than nothing, which is what he had before.

A glance back at the horizon confirms that there’s no time for amateur theology hour anyway—if he doesn’t drag his sorry ass to one of these places before the sun goes down, his sorry ass is also going to be a dead ass.  Which would be a pain in the ass.  Although not for him specifically, since he’d be dead, but—still.  No point provoking a bunch of headaches and a pile of paperwork.  Besides, flowers are expensive, and Al’s got tuition and shit to pay for.  Better to just—make it.  Better all around.

There’s another soldier with his torso protruding from the snow, so Ed checks his belt, too, and the small leather pack strapped to him.  Fucking bingo—two kinds of jerky and some hard tack, and it’s too cold for maggots here, so the stuff lasts forever; this’ll sustain him for days if the hunting’s bad, which it probably is this far from anything.  It’d be great if it didn’t come to the brink of starvation and all that, but given the general the worst thing that can happen is pretty much a guaranfuckingtee trajectory of his entire life…

Right.  Getting the fuck out of here.

He crams his own coat into the bag as best as he can and buckles the pack’s straps through the shoulder bars to hold it off the ground, so that at least it won’t drag in the snow too bad.  It probably looks like a really confused sort of cape in the way it’s hanging down, but—well, first of all, who fucking cares when survival’s on the line; and second, there’s no one to see it anyway, so there’s nobody to give a shit.

Funny how quiet it is—funny how quiet it can be.  There’s always a special sort of silence with snowfall, like it’s buried the fucking soundwaves with the rest of the world—and then there’s always a special sort of silence with the dead.  So in that way, it sort of makes sense.  Absolute fucking emptiness.  A void.  Voiceless, soundless, white.

…better not to keep thinking that way.

He threads his useless right arm through one of the straps of the pack and fits the other one over his left shoulder, hauling on the slack until he pulls it tight.  When it’s settled against his shoulder-blades, he takes one more look at the silhouetted peaks drowning the sun—no time.  No time, no second chances.  Not out here.

He turns his back to the sunset—facing due east—and starts walking.

As long as he’s moving, he’s alive.

As long as he’s alive, there’s hope.

Seems awful simple when you lay it out like that.

The uniformity of the darkening snow starts to wear on him after—what?  An hour?  Half of that?  He’s clutching his compass in his operable hand; he’s not completely sure he could unclench his fingers long enough to check his watch.  Besides, the time doesn’t fucking matter; time is meaningless out here.  All he’s got is the wind and the white and the feeble little candle flame of forcing himself to believe that there’s an outpost here somewhere—somewhere down the valley, somewhere between him and the midnight cold that’ll freeze his blood and fell him where he stands.

Nothing’s touched the snow—it’s just one big smothering blanket from here to forever; from here to eternity, to the ends of the world, the ends of imagination.  The animals are too fucking smart to be out now; the ones that aren’t hibernating have learned better than to leave prints anywhere near this war.  Probably smart.  He’d pull an Izumi and take on a bear if the opportunity arose—he’s so fucking hungry, and wasn’t that what guns were meant for, at the start—?  Isn’t that the only thing—?

The cold is eating him alive.  It starts at your toes and your fingertips; it numbs your extremities so you can’t feel its teeth, and then it gnaws them down to nothing one by one.

On the sort-of-an-upside, it’s practically filling in for painkillers where his back’s concerned.  That’s what Al would say.  Al knows the bright side like the back of his hand.  Both hands.  Al has both hands.  Al has both hands, and that’s the only thing that matters; that’s the only thing he ever really wanted to do—the only thing he had to fix to set it right; the only thing he ever would’ve died for without looking back.  So if he does die here—if he stumbles, and the snow swallows him whole—it’s not the worst thing.  It’s not the end.  Al goes on; Al has both hands and a beating heart; Al has a smile he’ll show again.

That’s a nice thought.  It’s all right.  It’s all right if he doesn’t make it out.  Not that it wouldn’t be great to go on living, preferably with all five fingers and all his toes, but—if he doesn’t, he isn’t failing anyone.

Except—

Except.

How the fuck did he not know before now?

They’d threatened him with progressively direr fates until he let them jam him into a halfassedly-tailored uniform.  The whole gig was incredibly fucking stupid, in retrospect—nothing they could’ve done to him was worse than where he was going when he put that on.  Ooh, dis-fucking-honorable discharge—he’s watched a bayonet blade drive through the throat of a sixteen-year-old boy.  It stuck in the spine at first, and then there was this crack as the bone gave way.

He’d put the stupid fucking blues on, and he’d shifted around trying to tug the parts that didn’t fit, and he’d pulled a face and shit, but—he knew.  He knew the combat uniforms were jazzed-up burial shrouds.  They all did.

Roy put a hand on his left shoulder—one heavy hand, curled too tight—and looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m proud of you, Ed.”

Ed said, “Bullshit.”

Roy said, “True.”  Then he said, “Promise me that you’ll come back.”

The rustling was so faint that anybody less furiously mad and less fucking tense and less generally paranoid than Ed never would’ve heard it, which meant he was probably the only one in the room who knew that Riza had reacted with her equivalent of an outright gasp.

“All right,” Ed said.  “If you get some fucking work done while I’m gone.”

Admittedly—

Admittedly, the odds of Roy having actually finished any paperwork during Ed’s six-week stint in this icy hell are fairly low, because the odds of Roy accomplishing anything in a remotely efficient manner always are.

But—

Just in case—

Well, shit.

Ed tries to roll both shoulders and only earns a little motion from the left.  It’s getting fucking impossible to see with the blue-black dragging the shadows wider as the seconds pass.  He had a flashlight at some point, but the thing about stealth missions and inducing avalanches and getting shot and shit is that you tend to lose track of what objects are still on your person.

Besides—it’s probably not worth the two or three minutes of standing still and fumbling leaden-fingered through his thousand pockets, trying to turn up a tube of cold metal that may or may not currently function, whether or not it still exists.

Roy always used to talk about risk and reward for fucking hours every time Ed was indirectly-sort-of-kind-of responsible for a building getting demolished not-exactly-on-schedule, and Ed always used to tune him out in favor of balancing chemical equations in his head, but—

That’s just an exchange, too, isn’t it?

Funny.

Funny, all the shit that comes clear in the frozen dark.

Hell, if Ed had known that almost-dying again would spark his brain this much, he would’ve done it sooner.

But it’s the “almost” part that’s critical, right?  What’s the point in being a moribund genius if you don’t live long enough to share any of your revelations?  Intellect is a social thing.  It’s fucking meaningless to be brilliant if you can’t broadcast it somehow.

Damn it.  It all just circles back to the same old conclusion—Ed better figure out a way to live.

He’s been walking east for about forever by now, hasn’t he?  Maybe the map lied.  Maybe he misunderstood it.  Maybe the marks were old battlefields the Drachmans would know the features of, not safehouses at all.  Maybe they’re minefields.  Maybe he should start sizing up the snowbanks and dig himself a fucking hole and learn how to pray or some shit.

Maybe he should’ve dug some of the bodies out of the rubble and lit ’em on fire for warmth and just stayed there.  Maybe he should’ve headed back towards their old camp in case Jon or any of the others had hung around.  Maybe he should’ve let himself bleed out before any of this nonsense started to wind up and wind up, like a child’s toy pulling the wires taut, loading the spring; what the hell is he thinking, expecting something good to come of it when somebody turns the crank too far, and the whole thing just—?

Shitfuckhelldamn.  His snap decision-making is not at its finest when he’s recently rush-sealed a bullet wound, is it?

Too late now.  Isn’t that the summary of his whole damn existence?

Well—the alternative summary is the good old You won’t get anywhere if you don’t keep moving.  Better to die trying—better to drop from exhaustion than to lie down and wait.  He’s shit at waiting anyway.  Al inherited all the patience.  And all the people skills.  And all the good looks.  Although Ed fucked himself over on that one on his own more than Hohenheim’s genes ever did, so it’s hard to complain.

Except—

Holy fucking hell, it’s weird—the things that keep coming back; there’s a blizzard in his head to match the one hanging heavy in the clouds that have gathered overhead.  It was all just snowfall, before—single flakes pirouetting gently; he could catch them on his tongue or let them drift away; they couldn’t do him any harm, and the dampness of them melting barely registered.

But when you put enough of those together—

When you start to view them as a whole—

Every time he’d come out with something off-the-cuff and vaguely disparaging about himself, about the scars tracking every which way across his skin, or about the automail, or his father’s jaw, or how great it was that Al had gotten all of the pretty phenotypes between the two of them, because he just would’ve fucked ’em up anyway—

At every little comment, Roy would get this—look.  Just for a second, blink-and-you-miss-it brief—he’d get this rueful little smile, and his eyes would go tight, and he’d murmur I don’t think that’s true, Edward, and then it would be gone.

What a fucking bastard.

What a stupid, shitty, lousy, lying, piece of crap excuse for a man—

Why didn’t he ever just—say something?

Why did he have to go around implying so damn subtly that Ed had to rattle his thick-ass skull with the impact of a fucking gunshot before it would sink in?

Why did he have to waste the time they could’ve had until it came to this?

Motherfucker.  At least the anger’s going to help to keep Ed warm.

Maybe that was Roy Mustang’s dumbass fucking game all along.  Ed wouldn’t put it past him—nudge, and nudge, and never push, and wait until Ed had way too much time for thinking about shit, and let him figure it out, and let it fire him up so much that he’d refuse to die, and then—

And then—what?

What might he be coming back to?

What the fuck is he supposed to say?  Yo, Mustang, are you in love with me, or what?

…actually, that’d get the job done pretty well.

But—then what?  Are they gonna be—what?  Is Roy even going to—

He’s got so much to deal with—Roy does.  He’s got so much shit to do; so much to rebuild, so much to tear the bottom out of, so much to turn upside-down and shake and remake around a better frame.

Maybe that’s why—why he never brought it up, called it out, put it into words.  Roy’s so fucking good with words; he can twist them into silken ropes or iron chains or tongues of flame or ribbons in a thousand colors—it wasn’t that he couldn’t say it.  He didn’t want to.  Something held him back.

Maybe he just doesn’t have the time.

Maybe he thinks Ed’s into chicks, based off the girlfriend sample size of fucking zero and the noncommittal muttering every time Havoc elbows him in the ribs and says “She’s a looker, in’t she?”

Or maybe he knows (as much as Roy knows anything—maybe he suspects, believes, concludes, supposes), from his vast wealth of prior practical experience, that it’ll crash and fucking burn.

Maybe he just doesn’t think it’s worth it.

Roy has so damn much to lose, and he’s a strategist; what in the hell would he stand to gain from cramming Ed’s awkward-ass angles into the ordered arrangement of his life and knocking all the chess pieces to the board and—?

That’d explain it, wouldn’t it?  The radio silence from a man who loves nothing on the planet more than the sound of his own voice.  That’d explain why he’s holding it back—holding it all back, keeping all his cards face-down, in the hopes that the numbers will change while he’s not looking.

Well, fuck that.  Fuck him.  If they both got dealt this stupid hand, then Ed’s gonna make him look at it if it’s the last damn thing he does.

Except—

Fuck that fucking word, but—

It’s probably for the best, isn’t it?

Ed’d probably trip over every last damn convention of what it’s supposed to be, who he’s supposed to be, how it’s supposed to feel and work and all that shit.  He’d get tangled in it and try to right himself and drag them both down flailing with it knotted all around their feet.  That’s what he does—he fucks shit up.  Even the smoothest bastard ever to walk the streets of Central City can’t change that—or fix it, or fight it, or set it right.  Ed’s broken on the inside—at the core.  Too deep to touch without tearing his heart out first to clear the way.

And that’s fine—fine and fucking dandy.  It’s easier for everyone if they don’t even start; if they don’t start, Ed can’t screw it up.

Good.  Great.  Fucking fantastic.  He doesn’t want it anyway; he doesn’t want to know what it’d be like—he already knows; it’d be a fucking disaster; it’d be a house burning down in slow motion with your brother inside when you’re too far away to touch it, and the dreamscape keeps solidifying into a transparent solid around your feet, and you can’t move, you can’t run

Why the fuck would he willingly hurl himself on that pyre?

It’s better if they just—don’t.  Don’t prod it through the bars; don’t ever dignify it with so much as a single word of speech.  It’s better if Ed never gets the chance to scramble up Roy’s stupid life, trash all his feelings, muddy his house, muck up his grand masterplan to save this place—just by being there, by being profoundly in the way.  For someone so… demographically normal-sized, he has an incredible fucking knack for being in the wrong place all the time, and he’d interfere somehow.  He’d ruin it.  He’d ruin all of it—Roy’s whole fucking life.  That’s what he does; he takes the lives of people who give a shit about him, and he throttles them when he tries to hold them tight.

It’s better if he never gets the chance.  It’s better if he never finds out how Roy’s fingertips feel on his left hand, on his cheek, his jaw, his throat, his collarbones, his—

Fuck.

Well, at least he’s—warmer—now.

It’s better if they don’t.  It’s better if he doesn’t even think about it; it’s better if he doesn’t imagine, ’cause if he does, he’ll crack—at the edges first, little fissures, tiny furrows, lines like gashes spreading open.  And then he’ll split down the fucking middle, and he can’t afford to; he doesn’t have time.  Roy can’t afford it either.  Ed’s an anvil on a chain, and if Roy puts that fucking manacle on his wrist and tries to drag Ed with him for five minutes, he’ll just never catch his breath, and then—

And then that’ll be arcing towards the top of the current Shit Ed Fucked Up list, and Ed’ll have to allocate a considerable portion of his guilty conscience towards it, and…

Just…

There isn’t time.  It isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth it.  And that’s fine.  He’s fine.  Who fucking cares?  One more missed connection—one more tiny, squandered opportunity; one more gasp of untapped potential—in a world of tragic misery.  Who gives a shit?

He doesn’t.  Roy won’t either, as soon as he comes to his senses and remembers there are people whose coats he can take who won’t fling their shitty-ass baggage all over his life the second their hands are free.

He doesn’t care.

He doesn’t care.

He doesn’t c—

Is that the outline of a structure on the blurry-dark horizon, or are his eyes playing asshole tricks?

Is it—

Please

He’s too fucking tired and too fucking anemic to run; he’d probably trip and fall on his face and die there, five hundred feet from either miraculous sanctuary or some kind of blizzard mirage.

Holy hell; is it—?  Is it really—?  Good shit doesn’t happen to him; he doesn’t know if he can trust… There’ll probably be, like, a bear inside.  Or an entire contingent of Drachman soldiers, bristling with armaments, and they’ll test his Drachman to see if he’s one of them, and he’ll stagger through most of a sentence and then give himself away with a wrong inflection, and they’ll gut him slow so he can see it

No smoke from the chimney; no light seeping out around the edges of the faint, faint outline of a door.

Oh, shit.  Oh, shit.  There’s no such thing as luck; there’s only the coincidence—the intersection of entwining lives, the mathematical probability of every outcome based on the precedent actions and reactions, but if—if this is—if he really—

Well, then he’ll be having a mathematically kickass day after all, won’t he, if he pulls out of this?

Not much for it except fervent fucking hope and one damn foot in front of the other.  Forget the fucking pain shooting upwards through his left thigh, spearing outward with every rhythmic pressure on the port; forget the fucking burn of the wound on his back, twinging when he takes a step; forget the chafing frozen bloodstains stiffening his uniform; forget the dead men’s faces he’ll envision every time his eyes close for the rest of his damn life—

He has to get out of this, because he has to get home—because he has to know that there’s a fucking home to go to.  He has to prove it to himself.  He owes it to the ones who won’t ever see theirs again.

His breath mists, fast and ragged, spark-hot against his cracked lips for just a second before it dissipates.

He inches closer to the shape solidifying in the dimness; this has to be real; the ache in every fucking muscle is deeper and sharper and fuller than he could imagine if he was hallucinating, so—

He just has to keep moving; he just has to drag his right leg and then the left; one goddamn fucking step at a goddamn fucking time, and eventually—it’s just physics; just laws of motion and shit; eventually

It’s just a matter of time.  Time and sheer fucking stubbornness.  Sounds like the story of his life again.

The cold is so deep when the sun goes down—so complete, so fucking penetrative; it digs through your skin and burrows in your bones and rattles through your every fucking capillary; all the marrow in your skeleton freezes crystal-cold, and then you breathe it back out, and the iciness burns your throat on the way up.

He can’t feel his toes, or his fingertips.  He can see them; they still exist—his boot stays full, keeps dragging through the thick white worse-than-mud clinging to him; his gloved hand looks like a falcon’s claw clutching at the compass, like some fucking rigor mortis shit.

Maybe that’s the trick.

Maybe he’s already dead; maybe it takes a while to notice, and your brain just goes on trying.

But death’s got to be light—got to be an ascension.  Not because of any of that heaven bullshit or whatever—but because that’s what almost dying is like.  Swanning back and forth from the Gate, swimming in and out of consciousness, more-than-blinding pain—those are light things.  You come unmoored from your body and start to float, start to separate, start to… rise.

He can’t be dying, because he’s never in his life felt fucking heavier than he does right now.

Every goddamn fucking step—

He’s forcing individual muscles to contract now; he’s thinking about what it takes to walk.  Your balance goes to shit when you start to do that—analyze the instinctual shit.  Kinda funny.  He’d laugh, but—the breathing thing.  Underneath the frigid scrape of it out of his lungs and along his esophagus, right before it slaps the roof of his mouth and stings his tongue, every breath makes his back throb three or four times as it jars the new and newly-repaired wound further down there.  Sometimes the body’s interconnectivity is really a pain in the ass.  Or a pain in the back, apparently.  Well.  A pain everywhere, right this second.

Fuck this shit; are parts of his brain matter freezing, now?

Just keep walking.  Just keep fucking walking; keep it together.

He’s just over a hundred feet away, and even the thick blanket of frost on the tiny windowpanes wouldn’t completely conceal a candle or some shit inside; it must be empty.

He is going to wear down this last fucking stretch of snow if he has to crawl it, centimeter by centimeter, with the compass in his hand and his breath freezing solid in front of his face.

He’s got less than a hundred feet left—probably.  Everything except the angry throb in his back is fucking numb; no more tingles, no more pins and goddamn needles; no more sensation anywhere.  Bad sign.  It’s all a bad sign.  His life’s one long-ass roadway of them; what does he expect?

Just means he has to get there, though—no doubt, no hesitation, no two damn ways about it.  He has to get in there before the dark deepens any further; he has to make it to sanctuary-salvation.  He doesn’t know if he could take it—losing more.  The other hand, the other foot.  He doesn’t know if he could fucking bear it; sure, he’d try; sure, he’d doggedly go on, but…

Other thing is—would he even make it back to Winry without them?

Doesn’t matter.  Because he’s not going to die.  Because he’s put Al through enough indescribable shit over the years.  And this last bit of it—the leaving; the waiting; the staticky phone calls; the letters full of fucking lies—and Al must know, because he’s Al, and because he’s not stupid, and Ed’s a shitty liar, and even an idiot wouldn’t believe Well it’s whatever, I barely see any combat, mostly more pushing paper around just like if I was at home, it just alternates between mind-numbingly boring and hand-numbingly boring, really, I guess they know I’d be shit at killing people so they just haven’t asked

And sure, his pension would probably keep Al afloat for ages; and Pinako could have some of it, and some could go into Winry’s down payments on the new workshop space; and his bank account is still overflowing a little bit from the good old days of fully-reimbursed missions and pretty much nothing to spend money on.  They’d be okay without him.

But to go and die—after all that—to leave Al with nothing but the shitty memory of a clumsy hug at the train station and his stupid fucking mutter of “I gotta go” and—

No.

No fucking way.

Fifty more feet.  He can see a gleam of the fucking doorknob in the dark.

Funny, isn’t it?  Same shit, different day—different year, at this point.  He’s gonna do this, and he’s gonna do it for Al.  Al should be crying over… girls, cats he can’t adopt, too much schoolwork—that kind of shit.  Not over his dumbass older brother dying in Drachma for somebody else’s war.  That’s the point.  That’s what Ed almost died for last time, every time—for Al’s life, his normal life, his one shot at regular old happiness after all the shit Ed brought down on their heads.

Like hell is he gonna give up on that now.

Twenty feet.  That’s—twenty fucking steps; he could crawl that far with one leg, with the other one hacked off, hanging, bleeding on the floor; if he had to—

Fifteen.

His heart’s too big for his ribcage, and isn’t that a fucking laugh?

The ache keeps—swelling, building, bludgeoning, fucking sledgehammer shit with every beat of—

The bulk of his expanding heart keeps squeezing at his lungs—fucking—breathe, it’s not fucking rocket science; people do it all the fucking time—

What the hell is this?  Some sort of delayed reaction crap?  Head wound?  Head wounds are fucked; you just never know.  Seems fair enough; heads are fucked in their own right.  People’s heads.  People.

His hand froze a thousand years ago, didn’t it?  Fuck that.  He needs it right now; needs the one that he’s got left.  The right arm’s dead, but that’s why he’s got two.

The compass clacks against the doorknob; he’d forgotten that he had his fingers fixed around it.  Fuck.  Is it on a chain, or something?  He can’t remember, and he sure as hell can’t see; starlight’s so fucking unreliable, for all that it’s mesmerizing.  He doesn’t want to drop the damn thing, but—

Is there any goddamn movement in his right hand?  Anything?  Winry made this thing better than that; he must’ve fucked it over good if it won’t respond to him at all.

He wedges the ball of his curled left hand under the forearm of his right arm, all puffed-up by the insulation of the dead guy’s coat, limp like beached fish right when they stop thrashing.  Maybe there’s life left in it, maybe—maybe just a touch—

He levers it up and stumbles one more step and drops his right-hand fingers on the knob.

One sharp spark of pain spears up through the port into his shoulder, darting towards his spine.

Nerves.  He’s got some fuckin’ nerve.  He’s heard that before.

Closing his eyes is dangerous—in the cold like this, and the dark, when he’s teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, and it’s pretty much just willpower keeping him safe—but the only way to do this shit is trust.  Automail’s a tricky fucking thing—nerves and wires are close, sure, but they’re not quite the same.  You can’t motivate a wire; you can’t talk it into anything.  You just have to send it the signal and let it do its job.

He thinks about fingertips—about contracting his, about gripping shit, about holding the stupid bright blue rubber motor skills therapy ball in the center of his palm.  He thinks about turning the doorknob, and he—

Hears—

the—

click.

He’s so fucking happy he could cry, except his tears would probably freeze, which would be a pain in the ass, and besides—

He’s—

Got better shit to do, like staggering over the threshold in one clumsy-ass tangle of numb, battered limbs and actually tumbling to the fucking floor hard enough to knock the frigid breath out of his tortured lungs.

He lies there half-wheezing, feebly fighting off the stabs of panic, forcing himself to think—this shit’s temporary; getting the wind jarred right the fuck out of your chest barely even registers on the pain scale as far as he’s concerned, and it’ll pass in a second; he’s just got to stop freaking out, is all, because that makes it worse—

He wriggles around just enough to kick the door shut.

Maybe he’ll just… lie here.  For a second.  Just… rest.  He deserves a rest, doesn’t he?  Fuckin’… sleep… sounds amazing.  Maybe he’ll just separate slowly from this crap-ass, fucking broken corporeal form and drift around as a little cloud of consciousness for a while.

Well.  A big, huge, intimidating cloud of consciousness.  Obviously.

Except—

It’s fractionally warmer in here—or maybe that’s just a trick of the floorboards he buried his face in like they were a down pillow just now—but it’s still cold enough to freeze to death.

He can’t abandon this piece of shit body just yet.  He still needs it for later—to hug Al, over and over.  To kick Roy’s ass.  And maybe—well.  Other shit.  Which may or may not involve Roy’s ass.  He hasn’t even seen enough signage to know if that bridge really exists, let alone whether it’s structurally sound enough for crossing, so he’s planning to worry about that later, if Roy’s ass is still in this country once he’s done kicking it in the first place.

He wants to count out thirty seconds for himself, but that’s too long—dangerous.  He’s already been collapsed here for the better part of a minute anyway; that oughta count.  He’ll give himself five more seconds.  Just five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

Go time.

Slinging his compass-clutching left arm out and rolling his weight onto it hurts more than getting kneed in the guts, but less than reconnecting automail.  It also hurts less than dying from a gunshot wound, which is sort of the point of this whole endeavor, so who the fuck is he to complain?

His left thigh is sharp-tingling where the metal of the port contracted—superior alloy or no—and started to dig into the flesh, and his right knee’s doing an interesting burn-ache thing where it meets the floor.  But he’s up onto his hand and knees.  He’s up, and the rest is details.

Standing sounds like a proper pain in the ass right now, and he suspects it might make the hazy tides of vertigo washing back and forth across his brain solidify into a single wave.  But that’s fine.  That’s cool.  He knows this part.

After a few seconds of staring at it as angrily as possible, he convinces his left hand to open, and the compass clatters to the floor.  Done.  He plants his palm on the boards and starts the crawl.

The right arm shudders with some kind of—fucking feedback or something; he doesn’t know; something in the depth of the forearm straight-up rebels, and electricity jolts back into his shoulder in a single spear like lightning—flame-edged plasma, starkly too-bright—

Fuck that.  He can take it.  He can take a lot more.

One advantage of the whole little hovel-cottage model of safehouses like this one is that this place is tiny—which means he doesn’t have to drag his stupid body too far to get it to the fireplace, where he lets it collapse again.

They’ve got to have matches here.  The Drachmans aren’t into alchemy—they’re not opposed, like so many of the cultures between here and Xing, who hate it semi-instinctively like there’s a shade of Xerxes draped across their memories—but it’s more of a myth than anything up here, so they would never count on it for starting a fire or whatever shit.  They must have some kind of backup plan.

With his luck, the matches’ll be on the top shelf of the cabinet over there.  Or way up on the fucking mantel, which might as well be a mountain peak right now.

Motherfucking motherfucker.

One of the uncomfortable solid objects he’s lying on might be his flashlight.  Or it might be a stretch of large intestine that he displaced repairing all the other shit.

Fuck.  Okay.  The thing is—everybody thinks he’s famous for the steel arm and the fat mouth and the less-than-average stature, right?  Everybody thinks it’s the red coat and the freaky-ass too-yellow Hohenheim hair; everybody thinks it’s the trappings and the actions that kept him alive through all of the improbable shit; they think it’s what he did that got him here.

But it’s not.  It’s the cleverness.

Sure, it’s what dragged him to the depths of the pit in the first place—an overabundance of it, and too much confidence in it, and the consequent arrogant fucking belief that he could rewrite both the rules and the fabric of the universe as a kid and get away with it—but it’s also what he built his ladder from, rung by fucking rung.  It’s what allowed to survive time and time again when other people didn’t, or wouldn’t have.  Sometimes it’s the only thing he’s got.

He’s smart.  Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t do stupid shit, like, all the time.  Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive in the least.  But the bottom line is that his brain makes better, faster connections than the average human being’s, and that puts him at an advantage, and that’s the most important thing about him, really.

So he just has to use that.  One more time.

He rolls onto his right side again, gritting his teeth against the slivers of nerve pain searing through his chest.  Feels like he’s gonna have char marks on his collarbones—black ash outlines around all of his ribs.

It’s so fucking dark in here he can barely tell that he’s raised his left hand, but he’s pretty sure.  He’s just gonna have to trust in the one thing that’s only let him down the once.

He drags his fingertip through the thick coating of dust and dirt and grit on the floor.  Convenient, kinda.  Something.

It’s actually sort of a stupid array—an old one, too; maybe the first he ever… The point isn’t what it was, though; the point is that it’s slow, because it has to gather a crap-ton of the miscellaneous detritus on the floor up and then warp it in amongst the floorboards and rework the whole mishmash of material into a little figure of a horse.  And the array itself is simple enough that when he smacks his hand down on it, the process of the reconstruction takes time.

Time Ed spends rolling onto his back, gasping at the renewed ferocity of the pain, grinding his teeth so hard there’s a shudder of an ache in his jaw, and reaching down with his left hand to fumble the knife out of his boot.  Damn thing’s filthy as hell and dull in places, but it doesn’t matter—any scrap of steel will do.

In the slowly-fading blue light of his solidifying toy, he scratches out the flame array, slaps his left palm down on it, focuses a slender stream of purified oxygen to point towards the fireplace, and strikes the knife against his right hand.

Fuck, no dice, and definitely no—

He brings it down again, harder, right on the curve up over the back of his thumb—it’s nicked enough that Winry’ll probably have his head, but for once, that’s a fucking blessing, because the knife blade almost-sticks in one of the notches, and—

The flicker of yellow ignites the path of the oxygen, which bursts into a bed of orange when it hits the kindling in the hearth, and Ed doesn’t think he’s ever fucking seen something so beautiful before.

One of the bigger logs catches as the little flames lick at everything in reach, and the heat starts radiating outward, spilling like a fucking balm over his face and his outstretched arm.

He lets his own weight drag him back down, flat on his back on the floor—which makes the new wound send quivers of hurt up his side, but at least doesn’t cut him any new ones.  He takes a few deep breaths—slowly, testing the limits of his lungs, listening to the rasping of the air in and out of his mouth.  It’s possible he escaped any long-term pulmonary damage.  That’d be nice.

It’s funny.

So many things are funny when you’re so fucking wrecked that the world’s blurring to black at the edges, and every movement feels like tipping sickly on a tossing ship—like wading through molasses with gauze over your eyes.  In your eyes.  Scratchy and obstructive, and the bile just sort of settles halfway up your throat and stays there, sloshing with the angle of the deck.

But it’s funny just how fucking obvious…

He should’ve known.

The week before he was due to get shipped up here to the frozen fucking wastes, he and Roy had one of their little research talks—it was like this, kind of, almost.  It was in front of the fire.  Roy had—has, has, will still have when Ed gets back and knocks some sense into that fucking bastard with the metal fist—the kind of living room Ed used to dream about; and maybe that should’ve been a sign, too, come to think of it.  Just… cozy.  Welcoming.  Always full of books.  And there was almost always a fire burning low behind the grate, and sometimes Ed would surface from a page of text and see that Roy was—staring.  Half the time it was at the fire; half the time, it was at him.

That last night, they planned it for a little earlier than usual—in a casual sort of way, fake-thoughtful, Oh, hey, you want me to swing by at six instead of seven tonight?, and Why don’t we make it five-thirty, if that works for you?, and nobody had to say We aren’t going to be able to do this for a while, because you’ll be getting your blood splattered out all over the snow.  If you die, we’ll never get to do it again.  So he turned up on Roy’s doorstep right on time, and Roy did the usual come-in-come-in-let-me-take-your-coat shit, and Ed’s shoulder-blades kind of—tingled.  Like a premonition kind of tingle; like a message.  Like a yearning.  Like goodbye.

And then they went in, and Roy was talking about an article he’d read, and he’d already changed from the uniform into slacks with his white shirt, and Ed noticed that it wasn’t tucked in, which was weird—not the state of it, but the fact that Ed noticed.  At the time he figured it was just sort of a fluke of his attention distribution because he was still kind of cold from outside, and also because the article Roy was talking about wasn’t really that interesting, and he already knew how he was going to debunk all of it, so his brain latched on to other things.

Roy crouched down and drew one of his gloves out of his pocket and slipped it on and lit the fire (and that was never going to get old, was it?  The elegance of it; the absolute finesse; the simple magnificence of that small array enhanced and perfected by such expert technique) and then went… silent.

Then he turned to Ed with his eyes too dark to flee from, and he said “Would you like to learn how this is done?”

And it wasn’t like Ed hadn’t figured out what the array meant, obviously, and how it was constructed, and why Hawkeye senior had chosen the components that he did—but there was a hell of a lot more to it, and Ed, with his life in his hands and knowledge before him, had always been in danger of letting go and reaching forward.

And after, when his head was spinning with the formulas and the little dots of flame, Roy said, so softly, “Perhaps it’s better if it dies with us, but I… trust you.”  He smiled, just a little, wistful and almost bitter, eyes fixed on the firelight, and Ed’s heart—seized up, stuttered, wobbled like a top.  “I trust you with it.  I trust you not to use it—or, I should say, to understand when using it is anything other than a crime.”  He glanced up from the fire at Ed—just for a fraction of a second before he looked back.  “If it saves you out there, that will justify my living long enough to share it.”

And Ed had been about to tear the fuck right into him—what the hell was that about?  Mustang wasn’t like that, or he wasn’t supposed to be; none of that too-personal, totally defeatist shit—except that Roy had stood up and brushed imaginary wrinkles out of his slacks and said “Can I interest you in something to eat?”

And Ed was nothing if not a stupid fucking sucker, right?

The ceiling of this crappy little safehouse cabin keeps fading in and out of the darkness as the firelight plays.

He should have known.  Somebody like Roy, somebody who holds his cards so close to the chest that you don’t even know he’s part of the game until he fans them out on the table, and they’re a handful of aces and a king—

He should have known that the word “trust” is almost harder for a man like that to say than the one he must have meant.

They’re probably the same thing.

Why couldn’t the bastard just—?

Damn it.

Ed could sleep now.  Couldn’t he?  How long would the wood in the hearth last?  Hours?  The night?  Hell.

One more deep breath dragged in and shudderingly released, and then he rolls back onto his right side long enough to fight the pack off of his back.  After a quantity of wriggling that leaves his whole body throbbing all over again, he manages to wrangle it loose of his automail and lay it to the side; this accomplishment deserves a few more seconds of lying there panting as a reward.  Patting himself on the back would hurt a hell of a lot more than it was worth, at any rate.

That done, he reaches over with his left hand and digs through the contents of the bag until his gloved hand recognizes something that feels about the same shape as the packets of jerky that he jammed into it.

He convinces his knuckles to bend and his fingers to grip and all that good shit—isn’t it fucking weird how much you take for granted when everything’s just sort of working, and none of the tiny tasks tied into existence have swelled up into a huge freaking pain?—and drags the jerky out of the bag.  If only he could stop right there or… something.  Sleep.  Sleep sounds like a miracle the likes of which he’s never had, hardly ever dreamed of, barely even brushed his fingertips against… Surely…

Nah.  His body needs calories to knit itself back up.  It needs all the help he can give it.  Sure, eating sounds like a fucking chore right this second—more than it has in a while, and that’s saying something; more than it has with the sickness hot in his throat and the visions sharp in his head; more than it has when he stares into a bowl of grayish lumps of flour and possibly a vegetable floating in a pool of maybe-snot and thinks This is sort of what crushed brain matter looks like when it’s spreading on the snow.  A lot of things start to look like that.  A lot of things start to look like death, like bleakness, like surrender.

But not him.

Not yet.

All he has to do is raise his hand and take a couple bites.  Then he can sleep.  That’s it.  On an ordinary day, he could do that while running to the library; wouldn’t even have to wait for a stoplight, wouldn’t even have to slow down.  It’s fucked up, how your memory changes after the fact.  So many of his recollections of Central are so—warm, now.  Split through with sunbeams; the colors are too bright.  Like it’s a fairy tale story about somebody else.  Like it was some sort of gift, but he knows—concretely, logically, he knows—

Then again, anything would be better than this.

All he has to do is contract his arm and… take a damn bite.  Simple.  His jaw still works, doesn’t it?  It fuckin’ better.  He’s sure as hell not drinking his food through a straw for the rest of his life after all this work to make it.

He gets the jerky to his mouth without incident, only then to discover—somewhat hazily; all sensations seem kind of dull against the buzzing backdrop of the pain and the slow defrosting of his miserable body—that it’s wrapped in some kind of wax paper.  That seems like a fucking waste.  Sure, maybe it’s marginally more bacterially sound or whatever, but—well, shit, who’s got time to care about germs around here?  Fucking Drachmans.  Foiling him with foil.  That’s just like them, isn’t it?

Sad thing is—he tries to get the end of the jerky stick-strip-frozen-thing between his teeth for leverage; gripping an edge of the paper is proving imfuckingpossible with these gloves on, but he can’t afford to take them off—you start out joking about that sort of thing.  Fucking Drachmans and their fucking wax paper, don’t they know there’s a war on?  But so many of these guys believe it.  They’ve internalized some kind of—concept—that Amestrians are better, or cleaner, or smarter, or nobler.  More deserving of life, of space, of territory.  All that shit.

The sad thing is he almost can’t blame them anymore.

It’s a coping mechanism.  It’s a disassociation thing—distancing.  Because if you have to kill one, two, ten, three-dozen, ten-thousand people—people like you, people with families and psyches, people with thoughts and lives and dreams, people who were going to start that novel next week, who forget to water their plants, whose handwriting is so calligraphic it could take your breath away—you’re gonna lose your shit.

But if you’re cutting down Drachmans—if you’ve convinced yourself that they’re not really people anymore—well, then who the hell actually cares?  The guilt runs off like water on feathers, and you shake your wings and call yourself an angel—not a vulture, not a killer, not a crow.  You can’t be a murderer if they’re not men.

Fuck the Drachmans and their wax paper.  Maybe that’s not standard at all—maybe these aren’t rations.  Maybe this is the last of the food that that soldier’s wife packed for him when he left.  Maybe she mailed it to the front.  Maybe he was saving it—as long as he could stand, because the hunger wasn’t quite as bad as missing her, because it was the last damn thing he had that made him different from the next rain-gray coat blending in with the shadows on the snow.  Maybe he’d take it out sometimes, imagine her fingers on it, imagine her whispering messages like it’d carry them to him, like he could touch his lips to where her fingertips had pressed it, and he’d hear.

Al’s gonna cry like a child if Ed doesn’t make it back before that telegram.

He bites right through the paper, works his tongue around it, turns his head, and spits it out.  The last owner of this thing died so he wouldn’t have to, in a cosmic sort of way.  Not because there’s anybody up there; not because there’s any grand damn plan.  Fuck’s sake, for all that he knows, this was the guy who fired the bullet that almost put him in the ground.  Quid pro fucking quo.  Equivalent exchange.  All’s one, and Ed’s still here.

He chokes down the whole thing and almost enjoys the salt on his lips towards the end.

He gives it a few seconds to settle—thirty, to be precise; he doesn’t trust himself to lie there any longer than that without passing out, and there just isn’t time yet.  Weird to think about—that there’s a limited amount of time in the entire universe, whether or not it’s a larger quantity than the human brain can really conceive of; that every single person’s allotment is laid out on a giant grid according to their arbitrary lifespan, stretching over chessboard squares and stopping short where coincidence just cuts them off.

He rolls carefully onto his left side, wedging his arm underneath him, gritting his teeth at the radiating shudders of pain all over as it quivers, wobbles, and then takes his weight.  He probably looks like a baby fucking deer trying to gather himself up and get off of the ground.  Better than a dead deer, though.  Which is what he would’ve looked like when they—if they—found his dumbass corpse lying in a frozen puddle of blood out there in the snow.

He’s up.  Somehow.  Doesn’t really matter how; he makes it; he’s upright; he’s dizzy but not collapsing just yet.  He staggers over to the door and raises his left hand, despite its numerous protests, to start feeling for the locks.  Amestrian outposts always have a deadbolt or three.  And that’s the thing, really.  All outposts do.  Because they’re all the goddamn same, really, at the base of things.  Hearts all look the same once you take them out of their cages.  Blood spills identically.

And door locks aren’t too different—they’ve got one slide-bolt and one deadbolt, and he slams both fuckers home.  That should help.  Won’t stop a bear; will slow down any one-man invasion that tries to take his sanctuary.

He turns around, leaning heavily on the doorframe, and considers the fireplace.  His little kindling construction is already starting to dwindle; the fuel lying on the hearth must have been mostly spent when he arrived.  There are a couple good-sized split logs lying off to the side, though, and if those aren’t enough, he can always toss the chair in.  Burning shit you’re not supposed to is kind of satisfying anyway.

He just has to make sure his legs hold out for the trip back across the room—that’s the kicker, appropriately enough.  He’s acclimated to the well of agony in his left thigh so much now that it’s only vaguely distracting, but he can feel a distinctly unsteady twinge running through the right.  Well—fine.  If he falls on his face, he’ll get back up and try it again.  That’s all it is.  That’s all it ever is.

The possibly-future-kindling chair can serve another purpose in the meantime—he reaches out for the edge of the windowsill, testing its sturdiness by hauling down on it before he lets it support any significant portion of his weight.  So far, so good.  Leaning on it, he inches along to where he can just touch the corner of the low cabinet they stuck in—for booze or food or guns or whatever; the slight curiosity about its contents melts to nothing next to the heat of his desperately single-minded goal.  From the cabinet, he can brace himself on the back of the chair, and that he can slide.

Let nobody ever say being limbless doesn’t teach you any useful shit.

…if anybody’s ever said that, they’re an idiot, and he’s going to detach his arm and use it to smack them up the side of the head.

The chair creaks—either out of impotent rage at the indignity, or as a warning of imminent collapse, but either way, it’s not like he can change his course—as he skids it through the dust until he hits the far wall by the fireplace.  Fuckin’ bingo.  He should get a prize.

He sort of does, if firewood and a lifted likelihood of surviving the night counts.

He doesn’t figure his knees are going to be too amenable to crouching down—or if they are, sure as hell not for getting back up again—so he tries to do an awkward lean-bend thing from the waist to grab a couple of logs, but the flare of pain in his back stops that in its tracks.  Motherfucker.  He’s so fucking broken right now.  Sure, he’s had worse, here and there, but… hell.  Doesn’t make this shit any less colossally fucking inconvenient.

Cautiously, he tries lowering himself into the chair without attempting to bend his stupid fucking knees.  That works a little better, although sitting makes him consider giving up the project and going instantly to sleep.  From here, though, he can just get his fingers around the end of one of the butts of firewood, and that’s all he needs—this shit doesn’t have to be fancy, so he drags it across the floor and rolls it up into the hearth, grabbing his right wrist with his left and using his metal hand like a fire poker to give it a final shove, tipping it over the last lip of stone into the flame.

One or two more oughta do it, and then he can sleep.  Then he can sleep as long as he fucking wants; nobody’s gonna find him here.  And then when he’s slept as much as he could possibly fucking need, he’s going to get back out there, and he’s going to walk to some little village called Stevastipol that he saw on his stupid map.  There he’s going to figure out how to get back into Amestris, and then he’s going to call Al, call HQ, and raise hell—in that order.  They think he was a loud-mouthed punk when he was a kid—they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

He manhandles another chunk of wood into the fire—maybe he won’t mention to Winry where the smudges of ash on the automail came from, since he doesn’t figure she’ll smile on the idea that he used it as a crude maneuvering tool even after he’d busted the shit out of it.

On second thought, maybe he won’t say anything at all about the automail in general: the tank techs commandeered his machine oil on, like, day five.  Not that it matters, since everything’s so fucking frozen; he doesn’t think it would’ve worked for long anyway.  But—still.  It is her masterpiece.  He always wants to treat it with respect and stuff.  It’s saved his ass more times than he can number—it’s a debt he’ll never repay; the least he can do is strive not to forget.  Or strive not to beat the crap out of it.  Same difference.

But that can wait.  All of it can wait until he’s slept off the worst of this.  All of it can wait until he’s made it home, thrown however many working arms he’s got around Al’s shoulders, and chugged all of the decent coffee Central City can offer.  Maybe not all at once; spilling coffee on Al would be poor thanks for all the miracles he’s enacted over the years—chief among them, putting up with Ed’s shit.

Anyway, he can put the contemplation of his imminent death at Winry’s more-than-capable hands on hold for now.  He’s got other fish to fry and gut and pick clean down to the spindly little bones.  First, he needs to drag that crappy-ass cot against the wall over here, nearer to the fire, so he can drop facedown onto it without any risk of hypothermia.

The unpleasantness of levering his ass out of the chair to put his weight on his feet again defies description.  They need to invent a whole new language for this kind of shit—one that’s eighty percent composed of swear words alone.

Shaking right through all the merry damn fucking way, he staggers around to grip the chair back again.  The legs scrape the floor with a nails-on-chalkboard sound at the first shove, but the novelty of goosebumps caused by something other than the cold almost registers as interesting right about now.

He tries to force his hazy brain to focus on the logistics of the task ahead as he pushes his faithful chair inch by inch across the floorboards.  The cot must be sturdier than it looks, because the average Drachman soldier stands… marginally higher than Ed, perhaps a noticeable amount; and clearly this place has seen use before.  Speaking of which, if there are bugs in the bedding—

Well.  That is one advantage of this frozen shithole—he doesn’t think he’s seen a bug since they got past the wall.  Cockroaches hang out in the basement-level at Briggs especially—the mechanical rooms, the machine shops, the insulated spaces where friction builds up heat—but he doesn’t figure anything enterprising and thirsty for human fluids can survive out here.

Besides, it’s not like even the confirmed presence of flesh-eating whatnots would stop him from getting into that bed.  He can worry about mites at his fucking leisure when he gets back; right this minute, all he wants is for this impossible fucking day to end.

He pushes the chair right up to the edge of the cot, and there’s a satisfying clack of one wood frame on another when they collide.  Then it occurs to him that trying to push the cot and the chair at the same time would be stupid, and would probably end in a tangle of furniture legs tipping to the floor and taking him with it, so he needs to revise that plan in a damn jiffy.  He hesitates for a second, considering his options, and then moves around the back of the cot, supporting himself with his left hand planted on the edge of it.  The blankets dimple under his palm, and no stream of tiny bugs comes rushing out, so that’s promising, at least.

Once he’s made it to the far side of the stupid cot, he reaches over it to catch the back of the chair, trying to haul it sideways to fling it out of the way.  He should’ve done that first and then used the cot to hold himself up.  He’s an idiot.  This is the sort of shit they should revoke your State Alchemist certification for, just on the grounds that you’re a moron and shouldn’t have any institutional power to back you up.

Then again, if they started on that, they’d have kicked every last asshole out of the program inside of a week.  Including Roy.  Especially Roy.  Roy’s a dumbass.

Point is—with his arm strength failing, his knees quaking, his head spinning all lopsided like it’s weighted wrong—Ed drags himself back around the head of the cot and pulls the chair out of his intended path.  He doesn’t want to leave it too far away, though; damn thing came in seriously useful.

Then he sets his hip against the side of the bed, grips the edge with his one working hand, and shoves it step by step across this crappy little room, planning to grind to a halt a few feet in front of the fireplace.  Last thing he wants is for a spark to pop and catch the blankets and cocoon him in fucking flame so that he burns to death after all of this effort to keep himself alive.  That’d be some bullshit.

Funny, though, in the way all these fucking things are currently ‘funny’ in his fragmented brain—how easy it is to destroy the human body.  How many opportunities there are every day to ruin something—even just one system, just one organ, and the whole thing goes kaput.

The bed doesn’t seem to want to move any more than he does; maybe it was sleeping off some shit of its own.  It skids an inch, two inches, two and a half at a time—little jerking jumps, reluctantly, but at least it doesn’t screech on the floor like the chair did and almost stop his fucking heart all over again.

When he’s—hopefully—at the sweet spot just inside aura of radiating warmth but before reaching significant danger of combustion, he halts, righting himself against the cot.  One more thing.  One more fucking thing, and then he’s done; then he’ll let the darkness cradle him for twelve or thirteen or fuck knows how many hours; then he’ll give his tortured fucking body time to knit up and regroup.

He pries off the dripping, muddied, scratched and snow-splattered boots, then peels the Drachman’s coat off and lays it on top of the cot blankets.  He stumps around—one last time, one last time—and bends himself carefully over to fight his own uniform coat out of the straps of the bag so he can spread that on top of the other.

What else?

Gloves off.  The automail clings to the cold worse without them, but they’re soaked and filthy; his body heat will warm it up all right if he stays under this pile of layers.  He attempts the feat of motor skills that is his belt buckle twice before giving up, and then he draws his side-arm, checks the safety, and wedges it halfway underneath the mattress, adjusting it until the grip protrudes, but the barrel’s pointing down.

That’s enough.  Fuck’s sake, that’ll have to be enough; he’s too damn tired to figure out what else should come out of his pockets or off of his body.  He could probably sleep on a piece of plywood stuck with rusty nails right now and count himself lucky.

He pushes the mountain of fabric back, climbs up, draws the mountain back up over himself, and fucking finally lets his eyes slide shut.  Sleep’s almost never sounded so damn good.  Almost never seemed so fucking blissful, like a gift from the universe, wrapped up in ribbon with his name on a little silver tag, with…

Maybe he shouldn’t think about silver tags.

Maybe…

Shit.  Later.  So, so much later.  There’s time.