The day was crisp and cool, the wind blowing through the streets of Central, tugging at the few leaves still remaining on the trees. Roy Mustang walked with his back to the wind, feeling as if it pushed him ahead of it, whipping his jacket around his legs. He could feel eyes on him as he walked and only hoped that they were friendly rather than the alternative. Giving Hawkeye and Havoc the task of keeping an eye on the Elrics and Miss Rockbell meant that he had to trust his back to others and while Maria Ross owed him her life, he had never actually seen her in action to know whether or not she was good at her job. He had to count on Maes Hughes’ commendations on the woman and her partner, Denny Broche, and that they’d watched over Edward and Alphonse in the past, despite the fact that the brothers had managed to slip out from under their collective noses. It was, after all, what boys did, and the Elric brothers were still boys, despite their fast approaching maturity.
Roy wished that there was a way to keep them from being involved in this episode with Kimbley. They deserved their freedom, which was why he’d so readily signed the paperwork to get Edward out of the military. He had no doubt that the Fullmetal Alchemist could easily get turned into a figurehead in the coming days and knew that Edward would hate it. While the boy was passionate about his desire to help people, he was far more hands on than would be needed in the upcoming years. Roy thought it would be better if the brothers took a chance to breathe and actually grow up before they were brought into the political arena that seemed so interested in them.
He had no doubt that Olivia Armstrong would use the brothers and their friend to further her cause with the newly forming government, which made keeping the kids safe difficult. Roy did not want anything to happen to the kids; they’d certainly had enough grief in their young lives. Should something go amiss and Miss Rockbell be harmed, well, Roy didn’t want to even think about the possibilities. The brothers’ concern for her was just as great as their concern for each other and Edward, particularly, had been vocal enough about using Miss Rockbell as bait for Kimbley.
“She’s already done that once, isn’t that enough?” he’d raged in Roy’s office, the day following the ball. “Kimbley could’ve killed her then.”
“It’s not your decision, Ed,” Miss Rockbell had told him sourly from where she sat in one of the leather chairs, a cup of tea in her hand. “I made up my mind. I want to help.”
“Kimbley’s dangerous, Winry. We’re just worried about you,” Alphonse had said over the sound of Edward’s disgruntled snort.
“We’ll do everything in our power to keep you safe, Miss Rockbell,” Roy had assured her and she’d smiled bravely in response.
It was Edward who’d turned to face him, his expression careworn and frustrated, saying, “You’d better.”
Now, Roy made his way toward one of the parks in Central. He had chosen the meeting place for the simple reasons of being easily reached, that, in the cooler weather, it would not be crowded and that it would be difficult for anyone to sneak up on them. Edward had reluctantly agreed, not wanting to put Miss Rockbell at risk but understanding meeting in the office might actually be counterproductive. Roy only hoped Edward understood how counterproductive the meeting might be. He didn’t exactly trust Olivia Armstrong not to use Miss Rockbell to further her own means. The main problem with that plan, Roy thought, was if anything actually happened to the girl, Olivia Armstrong would find out just how bad an idea it would be to cross the Elric brothers.
Edward waited for him at the edge of the lake, hands shoved deep in his pockets, head lowered and legs spread apart. Alphonse and Miss Rockbell stood together on a small bridge, peering at the gathering ducks, throwing scraps of bread down on the birds. Roy couldn’t see Hawkeye or Havoc though the prickle in his shoulder blades, so reminiscent of his time in Ishbal, warned him someone watched over this gathering. He made his way down to the lake, joining Fullmetal.
“I really hate this,” Edward said without preamble.
“I do, too.” Roy smiled faintly when the boy’s head jerked up. “It isn’t right to put a civilian in such danger, particularly when she’s your friend.” He gestured at Alphonse and Miss Rockbell, barely able to catch the sound of their voices from where he stood.
Grumbling his agreement, or at least Roy had to assume agreement in those low pitched noises, Edward turned his attention to the bridge, watching the couple on it with worried eyes. “I have no way to protect her unless I’m right there,” he muttered and Roy could hear the whine of Edward’s automail hand clenching and unclenching. “All Kimbley has to do is put his hands together and,” his voice trailed off.
Roy nodded. “She’s very brave, Edward.”
His huff made an exhalation cloud the breeze shredded instantly. “She always has been.” Edward’s mobile face was downcast. “Brave and strong.” He glanced up then. “How do you do it?”
Edward cast around, searching for something. He gave up with a shrug. “Assign Hawkeye dangerous missions. How do you do it?”
The question cut a little closer than Roy liked but he kept his cool. “The same way you’re doing this, Edward. You hope for the best and pray the worst won’t destroy you.”
* * *
Ed, both Winry and Al noticed, was uncommonly grumpy as they made their way back to the hotel. He waved off any suggestions of stopping for food and ignored their attempts to talk to him. Al shrugged at Winry’s questioning look. It wasn’t like they all didn’t know this was dangerous, Winry thought. She wondered if Ed had been like this when she’d volunteered herself as bait, back in Briggs. There really hadn’t been time to think then, she just had to make the decision and do it. She had the feeling that this time, with the waiting and no real action going on, it was hitting Ed harder.
Al’s attempts to engage Ed in conversation over what Mr. Mustang had said fell on deaf ears and he finally gave up with an eye roll, dropping back to walk next to Winry. Ed stomped on ahead of them, his braid the single brightest thing on the street. Winry huddled deeper into her jacket, thinking it hadn’t felt nearly this cold in Briggs Mountains. She missed, she suddenly realized, Ed’s big red coat, the one he’d left behind since getting Al his body back. One more piece of Elric symbology, Winry thought, that she didn’t know the true meaning of.
While they walked, Winry tried to spot any of the people she knew were keeping an eye out for her. She thought she’d seen Second Lieutenant Havoc standing outside a little café, flirting with a waitress but they’d swept by him so fast, Ed leading the way at nearly a charge, Winry hadn’t gotten a good look at the man. She’d given up trying to find Ran Fan and Lin. They both had the knack of disappearing, despite their unusual clothing. Maybe, Winry thought, because people didn’t usually look up but that knowledge didn’t help her locate them.
“C’mon, Winry.” Ed’s impatient voice broke through her thoughts and Winry frowned in response. He rolled his eyes, beckoning at her to hurry it up. With a sigh, Winry complied, ducking into the hotel with Al close behind her. Ed turned on his heel, starting for the stairs.
“Wait a minute, Ed,” Winry said, folding her arms.
Hand on the stair rail, Edward slowly looked over his shoulder, his brows drawn down. “What is it?”
“I want to get something at the café. I’m cold and hungry.” Winry hoped she didn’t sound like a whiny kid.
“But Winry,” Ed protested.
“I think it’s a good idea, Brother,” Al said, backing her up. “I’ll go get us a table.” He gave them a sunny grin and hurried off, leaving Winry and Ed staring at each other, neither one wanting to back down.
“Come on, Ed,” Winry said quietly. “It’s just food.”
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck in irritation. “Winry,” her name was dragged out into a whine. “I just…” Ed heaved another sigh, flipping his hands in the air. “Whatever.”
Winry jammed her fists on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means what it means.” Ed glowered at her.
“You’re not making sense, Ed.” Winry knew this wasn’t when and where they should have it out; the lobby of the hotel was open and there were people scattered around it, some of them already turning toward them, sniffing out an argument the way dogs did scraps. Taking a few steps closer to him, Winry lowered her voice deliberately. “Can we not do this here?”
Ed nodded sullenly and jerked his head at her to follow him. Winry fumed quietly as she climbed the stairs, her ire building as they finally reached the appropriate floor. Ed unlocked the door to the room he shared with Al and gestured her inside. Any other time, Winry might’ve marveled at the idea that Edward Elric had grown manners but right now, she knew that he just wanted her out of the hall so they could continue their fight.
“What was all that about, Ed?” Winry folded her arms across her chest, not even bothering to shed her jacket. The room felt chilly. At least her breath didn’t show like it had on the streets outside and her anger could keep her warm.
Mouth drawn in a tight line, Ed said, “Do you have any clue how dangerous this all is?”
Before he could go on, Winry took a step closer, poking him in the chest with a forefinger. “Yes! Mr. Kimbley wants me dead to hurt you. I get that.” She swallowed, lowering her voice, making Ed sway slightly closer to hear. “I’m scared, too, Ed. But I didn’t see any other way to help you. You can’t send me away.” Winry’s lips twitched but couldn’t quite make a smile. “It doesn’t matter where I go; he’ll find me, don’t you see? I’m safer here with you and Al then I am anywhere else.”
Ed sighed, his head bowing. “Winry,” he whispered, and she couldn’t see through the thicket of his bangs to read his eyes, “you know why the Fuhrer picked you as my hostage, right?”
It felt like her heart exploded at that question. The inane words, ‘Because we’re friends,’ nearly spilled out of her mouth but Winry held them back. Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she settled for saying, “Yeah, I do,” just as softly as Ed.
She caught the corner of Ed’s mouth tilting up. “Yeah.” He looked at her through his bangs, amber eyes warm, and worried, and full of emotions that Winry knew it would take forever to sort through, if Ed would just let her hold his gaze. But he didn’t, turning his head slightly. Instead, his hand rose to touch the crown of her head, lingering there. And Winry moved closer, as she had in Briggs Mountains after speaking to Scar for the second time, sliding both arms around Ed and leaning her cheek against his shoulder.
Another sigh and Ed cradled her head, his other arm folding around her back. His breath stirred the fine hair at Winry’s temple, his jaw pressed lightly against her cheekbone. Winry reluctantly pulled away, smiling slightly at Ed. His expression softened and his hand slid down to rest against her cheek. “Kimbley’s dangerous,” he murmured.
Letting his hands fall away from her, Ed took a step back. “He’d destroy a whole building just to get to you. He wouldn’t care how many other people were inside.” Winry wasn’t sure if Ed was talking to himself or to her. “You’re right, you aren’t really safe anywhere.”
She shook her head slowly. “I trust you, Ed.”
“Winry.” Her name came slow and soft off his lips and she thought for a second that Ed was going to kiss her.
“And us!” The cheerful exclamation sent Ed lunging away, making Winry jump.
“Damn it, Lin,” Ed snarled at the Xingese prince as he climbed through the window, Ran Fan right behind him.
“I am not interrupting, am I?” Lin’s smile was bright with mischief. “You weren’t expecting to kiss my future bride, Ed?”
“Your future bride?” Ed’s voice rose like a tea kettle whistle. “Where in hell did you get that idea? Winry’s not marrying you.”
“Surely,” Lin said, sounding surprised, “you don’t mean she has another suitor?”
“You’re not her suitor!” Ed poked Lin in the chest.
Lin ignored him to clasp Winry’s hands in his own. “Miss Winry, please tell me there is no one else.”
Winry jerked her hands free, exasperated. “Lin, I told you before, I’m not marrying you!”
“But it would be good for relations between your country and mine!” Lin spread his arms open wide. “You could bring your mechanical skills to my country and I, I could bring fashion,” he eyed Ed as he said that, “to yours.”
Before Winry could respond to Lin’s proposal, Ed shoved between them. “Winry’s not getting married to you,” he snapped, thumping his automail forefinger into Lin’s chest.
“Really?” Lin arced his eyebrows, peering at Winry. He made a face, pushing Ed out of the way. “I liked it better when you were shorter than me,” he told Ed. “Miss Winry, won’t you marry me? You’d be married to a prince.” He flashed a brilliant smile. “You’d have servants. I’d let you bring the Elric brothers with you.” Lin laid his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Everyone needs pets.”
“Pets!” Ed howled, teeth bared and fists clenched.
Winry wrinkled her nose. “Ed wouldn’t make a good pet, Lin. He’s too aggressive.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Maybe he belongs in a zoo.”
“Winry!” Ed’s indignation turned on her and Winry couldn’t help but chuckle at the furious expression on his face. “It isn’t funny!”
“Perhaps you do not find it so,” Lin joined Winry in her laughter, “but I agree. We shall keep Ed behind bars.”
“Like hell you will.” Ed showed all of his teeth.
“I don’t know, Ed, it might do you some good,” Winry said dubiously, “at least keep you in one place for a little while, so I’d know where you are.”
He gave her a withering look that made her laugh again. “I am not some sort of animal,” he told her loftily, “and I don’t need to be in a cage.”
Lin shrugged easily. “All right, leashed. Leashed is good, yes?”
Winry was sure Ed’s answering howl could be heard all through the hotel.
* * *
Kimbley didn’t bother to even glance at Envy. “Patience.”
Envy rose to his feet, stretching his arms over his head. “Why don’t you do something? Shake things up a little?”
Making a show of taking his eyes away from the hotel wherein Fullmetal was lodging, Kimbley met. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Well,” a wicked smile came to settle on Envy’s face, “we could stir up some trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?” This could prove interesting, after all.
“I was thinking,” Envy said, “they all want Wrath’s place. They’ll do whatever they can to get it. You’ve made the girl an important piece in the game. Before, she was just something we could throw away. Now, the military is watching her.” Envy smiled lazily. “If she’s seen doing something illegal, they may not want to help her any more.”
“That would make Fullmetal very unhappy,” Kimbley said, considering the idea, an answering grin spreading across his face.
“We can’t have him being happy, can we?” Envy straightened, flipping back strands of black hair that became pale yellow as it moved. Winry Rockbell now stood in front of Kimbley, blue eyes blinking innocently.
“Absolutely not. We want him upset and confused, all the better to lead him into making mistakes.” Kimbley reached out, touching the blond hair Envy currently wore. “Because if he’s making mistakes, he’s going to be that much easier to take advantage of.”
* * *
Alphonse glanced at his watch, liking the heft of it on his wrist. It didn’t really take a lot to please him, he knew; clothes were interesting, after not having any real sensation on his skin for ages. He couldn’t abide wool with its itchiness, not against his skin, but he appreciated the heavy wool jacket that Mrs. Hughes had taken him out to purchase after they’d arrived in Central. Socks and shoes were usually discarded as soon as he entered whatever room he and his brother were staying in at that particular time. When Ed complained that he’d catch cold, Alphonse would retort that he just wanted to feel the floor and the textures under his feet. Of course, it had taken a little while for his feet to toughen up – Xingese alchemy could restore flesh and muscle mass; heal bone and cartilage – but was no remedy for lack of calluses. Winry had already discovered rubbing his feet had an interesting reaction – one that had sent Al hurrying to the bathroom, blushing bright red, Winry tossing the lotion she’d been massaging into his feet at the back of his head. Al wished his brother’s reaction had been that prosaic; instead, when Al finally returned, Ed grinned wickedly and said, “Winry’s hands are really nice, aren’t they?” It had taken both Al and Winry to subdue his older brother and the room was full of flying feathers and overturned furniture by the time they were done. They’d just been lucky it was during the day rather than the evening, when more people might’ve been around. Another stroke of luck – alchemy took care of the worst of the damage, long before the manager could find out what had happened.
“Would’ve hated to see the bill for that.”
“I beg your pardon?” The waiter raised an eyebrow at Alphonse, who grinned in response.
“Oh, nothing.” He tapped the menu lightly. “Can I just order something warm to drink? A pot of hot chocolate,” Al decided enthusiastically, “please.”
“Certainly, sir.” The waiter bobbed his head at Al and made a note in his pad before walking to the kitchen area.
Leaning back in the chair, Al glanced out the windows. The blowing wind was visible in the way it tugged at the clothing of the few people unfortunate to be out in the weather. Al felt sorry for them. He felt like he was still frozen through himself. Looking toward the doorway, Al wondered what might be taking Brother and Winry so long. He’d heard their voices but decided not to get involved this time; Brother needed to learn to let Winry in rather than block her out and though it was a slow process and painful – look at the first secret Ed had finally told Winry – it seemed Brother was learning.
By the time the hot chocolate had arrived, Al was starting to get, well, not worried but certainly curious. Surely Brother and Winry had finished whatever it was they’d started by now. He poured the chocolate into his cup, stirring it a little and taking a hesitant sip, hoping not to burn his mouth. The liquid wasn’t hot enough to sting but plenty warm enough to take the chill off and Al almost purred at the luxury of the warm cup in his cold hands.
The beverage distracted him enough that he almost missed seeing Winry walking briskly down the street. Al blinked, taking another absent sip of his chocolate then, almost before he realized what he was doing, he was on his feet, tossing some change on the table and heading for the door.
“Winry?” Al pushed out the door, spotting her blond head already at the end of the block. He growled under his breath and jogged after her, deciding he really, really had to have a long talk with his brother, preferably after beating him into the ground. Whatever he’d said to Winry, it must’ve been bad. She wasn’t even wearing a coat, in this weather, and Winry was more sensible than that. “Winry!” Al picked up speed, trying to catch her before she got too far away. He saw her turn the corner and ran after her. “Winry, wait up!”
* * *
Envy heard the shouting behind him and knew he’d attracted someone’s attention. With a little smirk, he added a twitch to his hips, trying to decide exactly what he should do to make sure he kept that interest. If Kimbley thought this was a good beginning to the Fullmetal brat’s destruction, Envy would be more than happy to participate. That someone the brat cared about would be the one to take the blame made it just that much more delicious.
* * *
The police came for Winry just a few hours later.
* * *
Alphonse stood in the hotel foyer, the rush of the noise flowing over him. He felt like he was still sealed in that suit of armor, that no breath moved through him, that his heart didn’t beat. Everything seemed to come at him from a great distance, that he couldn’t actually react to what he saw in front of him – police officers with grim expressions on their faces, two of them guarding Winry, four more holding Ed back.
“She didn’t do anything, damn you! She was with me!” Ed howled.
“Then that will be proven, sir,” one of the officers said, “but until that time, she goes with us.” He shoved Ed, making him stumble back a few steps.
Ed’s teeth showed in an unholy smile, slamming his hands together. He dropped them to the floor, transmuting cages around the officers, leaving Winry free. “You’re not taking her,” he snarled, ignoring the men reaching through the bars to grab at him. Ed took Winry’s arm, gently guiding her out from the cages he’d made.
“Ed, no.” Winry stopped him when he was about to press his palms together. “You can’t do this. Let them go.” She jerked her chin at the men.
“But,” Ed’s mouth turned down, concern gleaming in his eyes. His voice dropped to a gravelly whisper. “You didn’t do anything.” His fingers closed around her wrists and the cuffs she wore.
Alphonse swallowed hard, wishing he could look away but it just seemed he couldn’t. One of the officers moved his hand, going for the pistol at his waist. “Ed!”
He whirled toward the threat almost instinctively, left foot slicing out, knocking the gun away so it spun across the hotel lobby, coming to a stop next to the concierge’s desk. “Don’t try that again,” he growled at the other officers. Before he could take another step, Winry’s hands caught at his hair, tugging him back.
“Stop it, Ed. You’re not helping.” Her stern voice seemed to ring through Al’s head, breaking him out of the trance he was in. “Let these men go so they can do their job.”
“But Winry.” Ed turned to her, his hands on her shoulders. “You didn’t do anything.” He cast a furious glance over his shoulder at the officers, who glared back, just as enraged.
“And that will be proven. Everything will be all right.” Winry smiled up at Ed, turning that warmth to Alphonse as he stumbled up to them. “Al, tell him.”
“I,” Alphonse touched Winry’s shoulder, his fingers brushing against his brother’s. He swallowed down what he wanted to say. “She’s right, Brother. Let the officers do their job.” He was surprised he managed to get the words out without choking. Alphonse had seen the damage, the blood. Winry, he knew, couldn’t have done it. But proving that, when so many people swore they’d watched her do these horrible things, would be difficult.
“Please, Ed. Don’t make it worse than it already is.” Winry’s smile faded for an instant then came back just as strong.
Through clenched teeth, Ed got out, “Al, call Mustang. Tell him what’s happened. Have him meet us at the police station.” Without waiting for any acknowledgement, he walked stiffly to the cages. “I’m going with you,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. When one of the officers protested, Ed turned a cold glower his way. “Either I go or she stays here.”
“Ed.” Winry’s protest didn’t even make him wince, which Alphonse thought was a bad thing. Usually, Winry could get through to Brother better than anyone but Ed wasn’t hearing her this time.
“Brother, Winry’s right,” Alphonse said cautiously. “We can follow them to the station.” He wasn’t sure his brother would tolerate it but he had to make the suggestion.
Hands fisting, Ed seemed to vibrate in place and Alphonse wondered if the officers knew just how little it would take to make his brother explode. Before he could take action, Winry moved, her hands touching Ed’s shoulder lightly, and some of the tension bled out of Ed’s stance. He lowered his head and Alphonse could hear his brother gritting his teeth before he touched palms together and transmuted the cages back into the floor and carpeting again. It was a testament to Ed’s distraction that the carpet remained in the same pattern it had originally and no artistic embellishments had been made to the wood. “All right,” he said roughly. “Let’s go.” Turning his head but not actually looking over his shoulder, Ed said, “Remember the phone call, Al,” before allowing the officers, disgruntled but not willing to fuss any more, to chivy Winry and him out the door of the lobby.
Alphonse swallowed hard, trying to keep his suddenly roiling stomach under control. Making his way to the desk, he asked the clerk behind it for the telephone to make a call. Reluctantly, the clerk obeyed, eyeing Alphonse as if unsure whether he might suddenly warp something the way his brother had. Smiling in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, Alphonse quickly dialed the number for Central headquarters, asking for Colonel Mustang. The urgency in his voice decided the operator to actually put the call through and Alphonse tightened his grip on the slippery receiver. “Colonel? We need your help,” he said, his voice cracking. “Something’s happened.”