Actions

Work Header

The Phoney War

Chapter Text

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
         - T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

"Can't say that I see it, Henry." His guest squinted and turned to one side, as if looking from a different angle would make something appear in the empty air inside the jar.

"No?" Katzenklavier poured two good measures of gin into the tumblers of ice, and topped them up with tonic water from a syphon bottle. "It's a little shy."

He brought over the two glasses, and winked. "Do you see the little cloud inside the glass?"

"Ah. It's rather faint."

"As I said. Just shy." He touched his fingertips to the glass softly, and left them there. After a few moments the little cloud began to darken. They both watched for a full minute as it bloomed into visibility. Then a soft, translucent tendril unfurled from the cloud. Cautiously, it stretched itself out towards Katzenklavier's hand. The tip of it patted silently against the glass under his fingertip once; then again and again.

The sensation reminded him very much of holding his infant daughter in his arms for the first time: a fresh, sleepy little bundle of raw life, slowly awakening to itself, full of the future. And what could be better in the world than that?


***

They were out of hot water again. Ed tried to duck out of the freezing spray as he fiddled with the bath taps, and yeah, there definitely wasn't any left. Dammit.

"Al!" Ed shouted from the bathroom. There was no response, so he turned off the taps and tried again. "Hey, Al! You used up all the hot water again! I'm freezing my balls off!"

A muffled yell from the living room, through the thin walls. "So? Transmute it hot. It's just a change of state." A change which Ed had never been able to make precisely enough not to risk scalding himself. Al knew this well enough, the little shit. Ed growled to himself, and then sucked it up. "Al, heat up the hot water tank, could you?" Exactly what his little brother wanted him to say. Al had developed an aggravating habit of taking long, long showers soon after he got his body back - but this time, Ed was suspicious that he'd partly used the water up just to make Ed ask.

"Sure, Brother." A brief pause. "All done!" Even through the wall, Ed could hear the smugness in his tone. Definitely deliberate. Ed turned the hot tap back on, and was half-glad, half-irritated to find the water heat up deliciously after a moment. Remote transmutations, Xingese-style: the specialty that had won Al his shiny new silver watch. Months of trying, and Ed still couldn't do them to save his life - and didn't Al just love that?

"Hey! Stop shouting through the walls, you guys! What are you, twelve? I'm asleep!" Winry's train back to Rush Valley wasn't until later that morning, so of course she would be making the most of the rare opportunity to lie in on a Monday. Neither Ed nor Al replied to her. Morning was not her best time, and it was never a good idea to mess with a cranky, unexpectedly woken Winry. The wisest thing to do was to leave her and trust in her powers to almost immediately fall back asleep. Ed took a cautious glance into the living room on his way back from the shower. The pile of blankets on the sofa was breathing peacefully once more, a small pile of blonde hair poking out from it. Sweet, in a scary kind of way. Ed chuckled affectionately - but quietly - and moved on.

Back in his bedroom, Ed towelled his hair off, half-dried it with a clap and then shoved it into a ponytail. He pulled a pair of boxers from what he was fairly sure was the clean laundry pile, sniffed them to double-check, then pulled them on. Socks, black shirt, pants, boots. Then - dammit - he hooked on his cavalry skirt. Three months and this thing still didn't make any sense. Next was the jacket with a million annoying internal fastenings, the buttons, the aiguillette cords on the shoulder he had to check weren't tangled, and finally his silver watch on a lanyard in the front pocket.

Not long ago, in happier times, Ed had thought of aiguillettes and lanyards vaguely as 'those string things'. Nearly seven years in the military and he'd never had to put on a uniform, but then he'd just had to go and re-enlist. And then, a week later, he'd lost an argument with Riza Hawkeye on the subject of office dress code. There had been others since, the most notable being: if Ed could get away with not wearing the jacket ever, if the butt cape was compulsory, if the butt cape should in fact be referred to as a cavalry skirt, if Ed would be wearing a sidearm, and if he then had to be taught to use that sidearm. Ed had lost every single one, which was why he was now clipping a loaded revolver in a leather case to his belt, and why he was also reporting to the firing range at 1700 hours for target practice with Captain Catalina. Why the hell did he have to be taught to shoot by Havoc's crazy girlfriend instead of Havoc? Nuts to him for drinking beer with gangsters and calling it work.

Shit, 0800. Time to go to work. And oh yeah, he was calling it that now, instead of saying eight o'clock like a normal person.

Monday mornings sucked.

***

Roy had been on good form at this morning's meeting, or so he was guessing from the taut defensiveness that had crept into Hakuro's usual attitude of barely-veiled hostility. He'd kept smiling and had handled it smoothly, made small talk about the roadworks on Jordan Boulevard to show he was a bit more human and all of that. Major General Savoyard had agreed warmly with his stance on railway budgets for the East; she was clearly warming to his faction these last few weeks.

As he walked the corridors of Headquarters with Riza by his side, Roy tested himself: what if it happened tomorrow? What if tomorrow was the day Hakuro broke their pact and started his war, the day the creature his alchemist was building emerged from its cocoon to do - whatever the hell it was capable of? Roy had the people's support, he was confident of that. Against Hakuro, he had Parliament's support too. Roy's alliance with the pro-democracy party currently dominating the House was shaky and not quite trustworthy; but at least they knew that Hakuro was no democrat. And the military? Briggs backed him. General Armstrong's legacy extended that far. He was controversial in the East, but Hakuro was actively unpopular. The South was Hakuro's heartland, the West was neutral for now, and the brass and officers of Central were increasingly falling into one faction or the other.

Rumours of a civil war were everywhere: these days, the fence was a hazardous place to sit.

He wanted to talk to Grumman about chess; he wanted to talk to Hughes about poker. He was lucky to still have Riza, but luck was a fragile, untrustworthy thing. He glanced at her. After a moment, she made eye contact and gave him a cautious smile. She looked like she'd spotted something in the meeting that he had missed.

He'd talk to her later. She'd give it to him straight.

***

Al spent most of his time out of uniform and deep in research, digging around in archives and libraries. His official research was the cover for his real research, which worked out very nicely for Al. The cover for Ed's real research, on the other hand, was being administrative assistant to the State Alchemist programme. He organised meetings, he took minutes, he monitored what people were up to and reported back about who was trustworthy and who was sketchy. It was the sort of thing that Al would have been really, really good at. Ed hated it, and had to consciously work at not fucking it up. He lived for his research days and the occasional missions, following leads out to the middle of nowhere in the hope of tracking down Katzenklavier. How had the man managed to vanish into smoke like that?

Right now, Ed was supposed to be typing an agenda for a meeting so dull that its purpose vanished from his brain after about five seconds every time he looked up from his scribbled notes about it. After he typed this, Ed would have to go copy it, which meant wrestling his arch-enemy, the department's malfunctioning mimeograph machine. So he was practicing one of his newer bad habits: he was procrastinating.

He flipped through his notebook, making as loud a rustling sound as possible to show how hard he was working. Meanwhile, he snuck glances around the room to see who else could be up for a little surreptitious slacking off. Hawkeye ran her own office next door these days. Sadly, Miles worked in Mustang's office. Happily, Miles was out at a meeting.

Ed continued looking. Havoc: on the phone. Havoc's secretary, Addison: nowhere to be seen. Breda: head down, apparently working. Catalina: out on the firing range training the men. Ed carried on looking and his eyes flicked past Mustang. He was practicing twirling a pencil in one hand, flipping it neatly between each finger. Ed ducked his head and watched. A fat dossier lay unopened on Mustang's desk. He had one elbow propped up on it, hand on his chin, as he concentrated on his pencil-twirling. He spun the pencil around his thumb - and it dropped to the table. He covered it with his hand quickly before it could clatter too much, picked it up again and resumed the spin. Slacker, thought Ed. How did the man manage to work his butt off and yet still be such a slacker? Wait up here, a little inner voice here, Ed was slacking himself, kind of. No, he was taking a break. Mustang's slacking was different, it was blatant and barely ashamed. Ed guessed that was one of the perks of being the boss -

The pencil stopped, suddenly gripped in a light fist in a flashy little move. Mustang was looking straight at him. "Fullmetal, what's up at the canteen today?"

"And what if I didn't check it out today?" Mustang just fixed him with the stare. Ed scowled, and stared right back. It was comforting to know that with all the nuttiness happening these days, some things didn't change. Ed finally sighed theatrically and closed his eyes, ending the staring match with some dignity by pretending he was too bored to keep it up. "Meatloaf. And those roast potatoes that are soft on the outside and crunchy on the inside. And mystery sauce."

Mustang blew his breath up into his bangs. "Too much to bear on a Monday. Sandwiches it is, then. Godfrey's?"

Ed shrugged a yes.

Some things didn't change. But others ...

***

***

Ed unbuttoned his jacket, hung it over the back of his chair, and let the warm July sun onto his arm and the back of his neck. You weren't supposed to do that, half-wear your uniform when you were outside HQ, but Mustang wasn't going to tell on him.

They were talking about stupid shit while they waited for their food. Ed really wanted to ask him about controlling the temperature more finely when heating water - Mustang knew his elemental alchemy and his precision rocked - but he was weird about talking alchemy stuff in public, even the safe stuff.

He decided to try skirting the issue to see where it got him.

"You know," Ed said, "my teacher's always talking about alchemy in public. She's cool with it, she talks to random kids, people she meets on trains."

Mustang laughed. "I can see Mrs Curtis doing that. My teacher was - not like that." He'd been some kind of reclusive nutcase from what Ed had picked up. "By the way, you should probably tidy your apartment."

"Really?" asked Ed. Mustang was hinting. What he meant was, Teacher was coming up for a meeting. Afterwards, Ed expected that she'd collar him and Al unannounced. She'd fillet their research, chew Al out for joining up and Ed for staying on, then take them out for dinner and lecture them about the importance of eating enough protein. It was great to see her so well, it really was.

Mustang's hand rested loosely around his glass of soda. The guy had big hands for someone his height. Ed had no idea why he was staring at it. So he stopped. He tossed a peanut into his mouth. Mustang raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"They were already on the table."

"So?"

"You know 95% of all bar nuts have particles of shit on them? From customers who haven't washed their hands after they hit the bathroom."

"You made that up."

"I didn't actually, I read it in the Herald or somewhere. Someone did a study."

Ed tutted. "Smells like urban legend to me." He picked up a peanut. "How about I clap up an on-the-spot analysis?"

Mustang snorted. "It's on your head, you've only eaten about twenty."

Ed threw a peanut at him. Mustang brought his hand up and caught it right in front of his eyes.

Two plates of sandwiches and two glasses of water appeared between them. As the waitress put them down on the table, she smiled at them tolerantly. Mustang shifted and sat up in his seat, turning on an apologetic, charming smile that briefly made him look about sixteen. Ed put his hands in his lap and ducked his head.

Ed wasn't sure what the two of them were, these days. He had a sneaking suspicion they might be something close to friends.

"I'm gonna hit the books tomorrow, it's my early day." Not in the public library, but in Mustang's library, in his own flat, although Ed wasn't saying that in public. The enemy were about.

"Good idea," said Mustang, gesticulating with his sandwich. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow now. "I'm finishing at 1800, call me before then if you find something." Translation: put on a pot of coffee, and I'll be there on the dot of six to discuss your findings. It had seemed decent of him at the time to show Ed how to use his beloved vacuum coffeepot, but really he had done it so Ed would make coffee while he was working at Mustang's. Lazy, manipulative bastard. Like that was anything new.

***

Ed leant against the wall at the back of the office, phone receiver to his ear. Winry's voice crackled down the line. "Hey! I can't talk for long because my afternoon clinic starts in five, just calling in to let you know I was home safe."

"Thanks. Did you have an okay journey?"

"All right. I got a screaming baby opposite me, but he fell asleep in the end. Thanks for this weekend - tell Al too. I had really a good time with you guys."

"It's cool. I feel kind of bad you did so much work stuff."

"Don't be dumb! I needed to do a check-up on the new arm and brace. And of course I didn't mind going to see Warrant Officer Brosch. How he was - that's totally classic, by the way." Ed could hear that it was still bugging her. "Half the clients I see pre-amputation are like that. It's always just in case. I bet the surgeon said everything I did. A lot of patients get selective hearing about the stuff they can't handle yet."

Ed thought back to yesterday.

"We think you should consider elective amputation and automail surgery, they said. Like it was getting my teeth capped!" Brosch had shaken his head. The bad leg was mostly covered up. The top edges of an unpleasant-looking metal frame stuck out from under the bedclothes. When Brosch moved, he shifted around the leg, as if it was painful or immovable.

"Well. What they probably meant was there are different paths you could take now, and you should start considering the risks and benefits." Winry was using her diplomacy voice, the one she used to talk to upset patients, and to Ed when she wanted to show him she was controlling her temper. "Successful automail surgery and physical therapy could mean that in time, you could do most of the things you did before."

"I get it," said Brosch, "and thanks for coming over, but this doesn't apply to me right now. There's still a very good chance that I'll recover completely -"

"Ah," said Winry. "So what are the doctors saying right now?" Ed admired how she was keeping her cool, but he could read the undertone in her voice. He glanced towards the window. Nice day out. Sucked for Brosch that he was spending it in a hospital bed. It was weird and horrible to think about what one bullet could do. Ed thought briefly of his sidearm, back at home in a strongbox alchemised shut, waiting for Monday morning. On that gang raid two months ago, Brosch had taken one shot from a gun like that, and now here he was.

"That there's nearly a fifty percent chance I'll be able to walk on the leg," said Brosch. "Which is really good odds, actually. So I'll wait for now. Thanks."

"I think it might be a bit more complicated than that. Dr Phillips told me a bit about it. You've got quite a high risk of infection, which could be dangerous, and - "

"But still, there's a good chance I'll walk on it." Brosch was furrowing his brow now.

There was a substantial silence.

"So," said Brosch to Ed with a bright, nervous grin, "I hear automail surgery really hurts, huh?"

Ed scratched the back of his neck. "Yeah. Look - the surgery really sucks, and the PT's hard, but really - I can only speak for me, but for me, it was totally worth it. Like, a thousand times. And Winry does amazing work, they're just really nice pieces of design. Look." He toed off his boot and pulled up his pants leg past the knee. He got it up just far enough to expose the automail brace and the scarring where his thigh stump locked into it.

He didn't get the reaction he'd thought. Brosch was looking at Ed's leg in open fear, like it was something poisonous that was going to bite him or something. Ed felt suddenly, horribly self-conscious. He shoved his pants leg back down and pushed his foot back into the boot.

Winry put a friendly hand on Brosch's shoulder. "We'll leave you to think about it. This is completely your choice - only if you do decide to get automail, get straight in touch with us, right? I'm not denigrating the Bradley Centre's work" - Ed repressed the urge to roll his eyes - "but you're always going to do better with bespoke work than with standard military models, and Atelier Garfiel is one of the most trusted names in the business. Take care of yourself!"

Brosch had seemed somewhat sceptical.

"So," Ed said into the phone, "now you just have to wait for it to sink in, and then he calls you again when he's ready?"

"Well" - Winry's sigh crackled down the line. "It's a bit more -"

"Complicated than that?" Ed supplied.

Winry tutted. "It is! That is - sorry to say it - one screwed-up leg. The surgeon's good, and he says there's a hell of a lot of nerve damage. He's not going to run on that leg, he's probably not even going to walk on it again without a crutch. And he's running a lot of risks hanging onto it now. He's already had osteomyelitis - the bone infection, remember? He could get a blood clot or a bone marrow embolus - both of those could kill him, by the way. Or if he got another major infection, that could spread up, get his organs, that'd kill him too. I don't know what's wrong with people sometimes. If that was me, I'd say chop the leg off tomorrow."

Ed snorted. "Of course you would. You'd probably chop it off yourself, design a new one with thirty different gadgets, talk about it forever …"

"Because I haven't been listening to you and Al yammer on about alchemy all weekend and, I dunno - your entire lives?"

Ed chuckled and shrugged. "At least we're all geeks together?"

Winry said, "Don't worry. I'll make sure Warrant Officer Brosch gets the good stuff."

Ed shuffled his feet. His stomach was clenching itself up. He cupped the handset and lowered his voice. "Look, are you sure he wouldn't be okay with just the regular military automail? This is really nice of you and all, but -"

"Jeez, again! Look, I still remember when he and Captain Ross looked after you guys. They saved your life, I don't want him walking around with a crappy second-rate leg."

"It won't be, you have crazy standards. Listen up a second. You know how things are with the country right now. With me as a private patient, you'd probably be safe if - you know, things take a bad turn - but if you start treating other people from our faction, Hakuro's guys are going to see you as basically an arms dealer. Things are so bad I can freaking say that on a military line! Everyone knows! Please, Win, you don't need to paint a target on your forehead, so why -"

"Come on, Ed. Don't do this. If you carry on, we're going to have an argument. We've had this really nice weekend - I mean - the three of us -" There was a pause on her end of the line. Her voice had gone a little high and tense. Then it came back, softer. "I had a great time with you guys at the Vortex gig."

Ed took a few deep breaths and scuffed a foot on the floor. "Okay. They're awesome, aren't they? Let me know if you can't find their record in RV, I can pick it up for you here."

"Thanks," said Winry quietly. "Look, I gotta go now, my clinic's starting."

"'Kay. Take care, Win. I had a good weekend too."

He'd get Al to talk to her about this instead. Al was sneaky, he could persuade her. And she was right, it really had been a good weekend. In a funny way, Ed was grateful for all the Brosch stuff, for how it gave them a nice piece of neutral ground to meet on, a topic of conversation that didn't lead them awkwardly right back to the way things had been between the two of them. He'd never dare put it like this to Winry, but in his head he thought of it as a transmutation. All the stuff they'd been through together, all that passion and craziness and hard work and love, Ed couldn't bear to think that it had just been lost when they broke up. No, it was raw material for something else, that was all. It was a mess right now, but if they drew out a new formula, and poured their wills into it, and took the time to work it out - they could really call themselves friends again. And a friendship with Winry Rockbell was a thing worth working for.

***

"You cooked," said Rebecca happily, for about the fourth time that evening. It was more of an event than it sounded. The Catalina-Havoc household did not cook, unless you counted cheese on toast or warming up yesterday's takeout. However, it seemed roasting a chicken was way easier than Havoc had thought. All right, there'd been the first few minutes of panic when he'd gotten it home and wondered what the hell he'd been thinking, and predicted it would still be sitting on the counter mocking him when Becky got in. Then he'd phoned his mother. Turned out you just rubbed a bit of butter on the skin, put a lemon up its ass, and stuck it in a roasting tin in the oven until it was done. And it was cooked, and they had salad, and crunchy bread. Why hadn't he been roasting chickens his whole life?

"Well, you know, we don't get to have dinner together every night. Oh, hey, I was going to say." Havoc gestured with a half-eaten chicken leg. "I think I might be able to get something out of Scholl after all."

"No shop talk," said Rebecca, raising a finger. She pulled a bit of chicken off her wing with her fingertips and dipped it in mustard. By this point of the meal they had both abandoned decorum.

Jean gave her a resigned sigh and a cheeky grin.

"Okay," said Rebecca, "I'll bite. But we really need not to do this the whole time. I've got a nice meal and a beer and my man here, it's time for a break from work."

"A couple more meetings and I reckon I can get him on side. Then we can hit the train freight angle."

"Nice," said Rebecca. When certain rare alchemic materials were delivered by freight or by post, they got marked with a hazard label. This meant that they stood out and people who'd handled them would remember - and that with a few sharp eyes in the right places, they could keep tabs on the addresses to which these goods were being delivered. They had the road angle covered: trains were proving to be the missing link, and this Scholl guy ran the country's biggest railway freight company.

"How about that chicken, huh?" Havoc fished.

Rebecca grinned goofily and bobbed up and down in her chair. "You cooked for me."

"I can show you how," said Havoc. "It's a pretty simple operation."

"Really?" said Rebecca. "Because you remember what happens when I enter the kitchen. Like when we were first dating and I tried to make Steak Diane and we just had to throw it away -"

The telephone rang. Rebecca had jogged out into the hall before Havoc had even put his fork down and pushed back from the table. He took a swig of his beer and listened.

"Hey, Maria! Can I call you back, we were just eating … " Rebecca went quiet. For a long few moments, there was just silence, interspersed with small, worryingly serious conversational noises from Becky. "Okay … when? Okay. Right. Well, take care. We'll catch up tomorrow morning."

The phone clicked back into its holder and Rebecca walked back in. "Brosch got wet gangrene. It moves really fast, apparently. He's in surgery right now. They're taking the leg off."

Havoc pulled out from the table, and without another word Becky hopped right into his lap and curled up, arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her, and they just sat like that for a moment.

"Not your fault, right," muttered Havoc into Rebecca's hair. Brosch had been injured on her mission, under her command.

He felt her nod. Brosch was going to wake up the next day with a head full of painkillers, and then he was going to work out what was up, and then he was going to think, okay, fuck, what now? Havoc squeezed his eyes shut. There was always more, wasn't there? And then - he thought about what was lurking in the future for them all, in the days and months ahead. War. More of this bullshit, more people he liked getting hurt. Becky was stroking her fingers through the back of his hair. He had his beautiful girl in his arms, and he wanted someone to give him a written, stamped guarantee that she was still going to be alive and okay this time tomorrow.

Onwards and upwards, the Chief was always saying. He trusted the man.

They better fucking get there.